55.Luis Bunuel’s career as a director, taken in all its surrealist glory, is in a way a microcosm of the history of cinema, because up until his final film in the late 70s, he was following right along with it, all the way from Un Chien Andalou back in the silent era. And somehow while remaining true to the instability of his cinema, he stills progressed through stage upon stage of development as a filmmaker before truly coming into his own, as world cinema was, during the 1960s. The trick he at last perfected was to sustain his surrealist fantasies through a feature film, and the marvel of it is that he pulls this off without straying from his typically simple and inventive, if rarely logical, premises. The gimmick holding up The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie sees a group of outdated aristocrats have their attempts to sit down to dinner continually thwarted. Amusing though it may sound, it’s the kind of concept that may seem more at home on a sketch comedy show. But of course, it works. In fact, it works so well that at times you forget there is a gimmick to it all because it’s so damn funny.
The film’s nature calls for an episodic format, but you could never get away with calling it disjointed. One scene seems to beget the next, and like our intrepid elites, we never grow discouraged at the relative lack of progress. We collect each incident in the film (I’d put no stock in any isolated analysis here) and cobble them together in the portrait of the upper class, aptly singled out in the title for their charm. Bunuel was the great class satirist of cinema and he hits his mark here with a subtle ferocity. He’s slandered the poor bourgeoisie in the worst possible way: they’re no scourge upon society, they’re merely frivolous.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a delirious little fairytale that would feel seriously morbid were it not for the feeling that you could snap back into consciousness at any time. It’s like a Czech Alice in Wonderland, but with vampires and evil priests, and also a man who turns into a bird. Filter that through a surrealist spyglass and set it in a gothic fantasy land and the scene has been set. Our heroine, Valerie as the title would indicate, embarks on a fantastic journey of sexual discovery as the hands of the monsters and madmen, and here’s where it ought to get morbid, except that the whole thing’s so impossibly beautiful that you can barely muster a cringe. It’s a wonderful hidden gem of a film, maybe not the best way to break into Czech cinema, but one whose macabre sense of whimsy is hard to shake.
Ask me my favorite actress and I won’t hesitate to bring up Juliette Binoche. Actor is bound to make me think a bit more, but if I narrow the list down to those still drawing breath, the easy choice is Daniel Day-Lewis. And what do you know, Phillip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being brings my two favorite living actors together, in one of the most sensual romantic epics ever made. But who emerges as the real star of the show here, (no, not Lena Olin, though she is wonderful, and even more wonderful to look at) none other than Sven-fucking-Nykvist, who incidentally can fight Sacha Vierny for the title of my favorite dead cinematographer. Nykvist’s camera captures each scene with elegant eroticism. It’s an unbridled approach to love that we don’t get much of in American cinema, and I’m assuming that’s the general aura of Milan Kundera’s novel as well, though I’ve not read it. Binoche’s performance taps the most interesting angle of this romance, as she exudes both a childlike innocence and the spirit of sexual adventure. Whereas Olin’s sexuality burrows into our minds from the start (times two! that mirror!), Binoche’s allure simmers at first only to explode upon her arrival in Prague. But it’s at the photo shoot that marks the midpoint of the film where she comes into full bloom, guided by Olin’s steady hand and Nykvist’s penetrating gaze.
As with just about every epic romance, this is set against one of those times that try humanity, here the USSR’s occupation of Czechoslovakia. It’s a conflict that defines the lives of the three principle characters as much as their relationships do, and like Day-Lewis’s Tomas, our initial apathetic outlook toward it becomes a matter of deep conviction. Not surprisingly, Tom Stoppard took at lot of inspiration from here (well, the novel at least), for his recent Rock ‘n’ Roll. But the politics are expertly balanced with the erotic, often with one nudging the other along. The three hours don’t go by quickly, not that you’d want them to. It’s the kind of beautiful dreamscape that, despite the ups and downs, you wish could stretch on forever. Alas, it appropriately comes to a very dreamlike ending that offers a sort of melancholy satisfaction.
The devastation wrought by In a Lonely Place has no equivalent among classic Hollywood fare. It’s filed under noir, a label I certainly wouldn’t deny it, but in fact it’s one of the most intense character studies ever put to film. It’s not really about murder, though that’s the act that sets the whole of it in motion, it’s about two people’s gradual destruction at each other’s hands. Headlining the cast is the icon of noir himself, Humphrey Bogart, a man whose presence is enough to carry just about any movie. But the real treat of it all is that he has honestly never delivered a performance of this caliber anywhere else (even The Treasure of Sierra Madre). Bogart reaches below his unshakably confident exterior and creates a character with secrets, fears and passions. It’s one of the great turns of all time, not merely his career. And it helps that working with him (and against him) is noir’s great distressed damsel, Gloria Grahame. Her performance is every bit as involved as Bogie’s, colored equally by shades of suspicion and devotion. They’re working off a knockout of a script, and Nicholas Ray’s intimate direction keeps the momentum building right up to the final gut-wrenching scene, but I can’t stress enough that with any two other actors, this film would not be the masterpiece that it is. Bogart gets a lot of credit, but rarely for his acting chops, and Grahame just doesn’t get much credit at all, but these are two of old school Hollywood’s finest, and to see them battling fears and passions like this is really a thing of wonder.
51.Werner Herzog’s notion that great documentary is rooted in fiction doesn’t gain much traction in the field where the pursuit of truth seems to be the ultimate end. Yet I put it to you that the greatest documentary ever made is one built around this examination of fact vs. fiction. I’m speaking of Orson Welles F For Fake, masquerading at first as an examination of the world of art forgers, but just as much an exposition of Welles’ own career as a “magician” and “charlatan.” The presence of the legendary director himself is holds limitless fascination. Of course we know he’s a gifted storyteller, and the tale he lays out of notorious art forger Elmyr de Hory and Howard Hugh’s faux-biographer Cliff Irving comes off sounding even more impressive, if that’s even possible. Throughout the film we’re tantalized by minor yarns from Welles own life, and being the master magician he is, he eventually succeeds in catching us off guard. But documentary or not, it’s still a movie, and what fun it is to be tricked like this! If only more documentaries dared to walk the murky line between fact and fiction that F For Fake does. Maybe that’s against the spirit of the genre, but considering how subjective the truth always is, it might paint a more complete picture. Certainly a more interesting one.
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