The Wages of Fear

Format: Cinema

Release date: 25 June 2007

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

Original title: Le Salaire de la peur

Cast: Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Vera Clouzot

France 1953

144 minutes

One of the greatest French filmmakers if not one of the best known, Henri-Georges Clouzot made 11 films between 1942 and 1968. His two most famous works, Le Salaire de la Peur (The Wages of Fear), winner of the Grand Prize at Cannes, and Les Diaboliques (1955) established his reputation as the ‘French Hitchcock’, a comparison based on his mastery of suspense as well as their shared pessimistic world view. Tellingly, Hitchcock had attempted to buy the film rights to the source novels of both those films but the writers wanted them to be made in France. Just like Hitchcock, Clouzot is renowned for his tough, some would say sadistic, directing style, which, legend has it, included slapping actresses and even forcing Brigitte Bardot to drink whisky and take tranquilisers in order to look suitably out of it in La Verité (1960).

Although set in an unnamed Latin American country Le Salaire de la Peur was filmed in the south of France (convincingly transformed with a few palm trees and semi-naked or poncho-wearing extras). Divided into two distinct parts it is set in the town of Las Piedras for the first hour while the second part follows trucks full of nitro-glycerine driving through the jungle. Opening with a shot of local children torturing bugs – surely an influence for the similar scene in The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah 1969) – the film then introduces a town much like the one in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston 1948), in which a collection of down-on-their-luck types (from anywhere and everywhere) seek low-pay short-term work. As Mario (Yves Montand in a role that established him as one of France’s biggest stars) says, ‘it’s like prison here. Easy to get in but with no exit’. Sitting in a café with four other jobless, stony-broke compadres, sharing one lemonade between them in order to be allowed to stay there, Mario is desperate to find a way out. Work is scarce and when it is found it is of the type that ruins your health: Mario’s friend Luigi, who works at the cement factory, is told by the doctor to quit or die. This is no Erin Brockovich, though, and in this dog-eats-dog world a battle for compensation would be laughably out of the question.

This opening section is often criticised for being ‘over-long’ but it is there crucially that the characters are emotionally, socially and economically defined. It is because they have been fully developed that we care whether they are blown to oblivion in the white-knuckle ride that follows – a masterful grounding that often sorely lacks from today’s suspense thrillers. Through the extended set-up we see the rivalries and jealousies of the characters develop. Mario rejects his old friend and provider, Luigi, (as well as the ‘love interest’ Linda) for his new best friend, the flashy Jo. With this relationship we get an inverted version of the Hollywood buddy film. They start off loving each other and fall apart when the going gets tough. Jo’s bravado slips away when faced with real fear – he claims his sweats and shivers are a ‘touch of malaria’. However, his cowardice makes him all the more human while Mario, who he accuses of being too unimaginative to be afraid, is selfishly uncaring to the end. Shots of tires spinning in the mud and close-ups of the drivers’ sweaty faces rack up the tension, the sense of constant danger driving a wedge between them.

As always with Clouzot it is the negative characters that dominate the film. The loyal, generous Luigi almost becomes the antagonist whereas the ‘heroes’ Mario and Jo are both lacking in positive traits. The great journey through the jungle with a ton of nitro-glycerine is not motivated by some noble cause, but is a mercenary venture, done simply for money. However, in a film where good and bad are blurred almost beyond recognition, you easily find yourself rooting for such nasty characters as Mario and Jo as they balance at the edge of cliffs. Perhaps it is because, although they are thoroughly unpleasant, it is nothing compared to the cynicism of the oil company that employs them as expendable labour.

Although the film could be seen as an attack on imperialism and capitalism (‘anti-American’ scenes were cut from U.S. versions of the film – as were any scenes that hinted at homosexuality – a good 40 minutes in all) the film’s real concern is the human psyche (or even the soul). It is a cruel misanthropic film or rather, it is a film that depicts a cruel misanthropic world in which human beings are reduced to their basest, most selfish instincts by poverty, and most of all by fear. Clouzot emerges here as a master filmmaker, achieving edge-of-the-seat tension through his taut, economical direction and remarkably, without having recourse to incidental music to manipulate the emotions of his audience. His trademark mix of nastiness and suspense remains unmatched even by Hitchcock – although maybe with the exception of the 1972 Frenzy.

Paul Huckerby


Le Corbeau

Format: Cinema

Release date: 25 June 2007

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

Cast: Pierre Fresnay, Ginette Leclerc, Micheline Francey, Pierre Larquey

France 1943

92 minutes

Although it was beset by controversy, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau is one of the most fiercely brilliant works of French cinema. As noir as noir can get, it offers a vision of humanity as devastating as such masterpieces of misanthropic cinema as Erich von Stroheim’s Greed or Fritz Lang’s M. The film was made in 1943 during the occupation of France by the Germans, at a time when the French film industry, at least in the North, was under the control of the German company Continental. It was for Continental that Clouzot made Le Corbeau, which earned him the reputation of being a collaborator. Tellingly, Clouzot’s vitriolic attack on humanity managed to offend all sides, and while the French Left believed the film promoted a pro-Nazi view of a degenerate France, the Germans saw it as a direct criticism of their rule. At the end of the war Clouzot was tried by the newly reinstated French authorities and banned from making films until 1947.

The film was based on a real-life case of poison-pen letters that caused havoc in the sleepy town of Tulle in 1917. The script, written in 1937, took on a charged significance in the context of occupied France where thousands of anonymous letters denouncing acquaintances, relatives or neighbours for being Jews or Communists were sent to the authorities. In Clouzot’s film, set in an unidentified small town, the anonymous letters, signed ‘Le Corbeau’ (‘The Raven’), bring to the surface the vices simmering under the seemingly placid provincial life, revealing the greed, adultery and hypocrisy of its most respectable citizens. The morally rigid Dr Germain, newly arrived in town and harbouring a secret in his past, is the main victim of the letters, which bad-mouth his practice of medicine as well as his relationships with two women: Laura, the pretty, young wife of the jovial psychiatrist Dr Vorzet, and Denise, a vampy, crippled temptress. Laura’s sister, Marie Corbin, is a frustrated, embittered nurse, and soon it is on her that the suspicions fall.

Aside from Dr Germain, authority figures are the most obvious targets of the Raven’s vicious attacks. The letters reveal how the leaders of the town are weak, corrupt, petty and foolish. Preoccupied solely by their own positions, they are incapable of taking any decisive steps towards the capture of the Raven, much as the impotent, morally bankrupt Vichy Government could not ward off the Germans. As everything else in the film, the Raven’s letters are deeply ambiguous. On the one hand they are little more than cheap rumour mongering and unfounded defamation, upsetting the community and creating an atmosphere of hate and distrust. On the other hand they denounce the hypocrisy on which the town’s life is based, thereby subverting the authority of the town’s undeserving leaders.

But corruption is not restricted to the top and ordinary people are just as objectionable as their leaders. People spy on each other and read letters not addressed to them; a young girl devises an elaborate scam to obtain money from acquaintances; a woman uses the rumours about Dr Germain as a pretext to refuse to pay his bill; even a sweet-faced child steals a letter and lies about it. In Clouzot’s world no one is innocent. Worse still is what happens when these regular folks gather together: egged on by rumours, they suddenly turn into an angry mob ready to lynch one of their own – the nurse Marie Corbin. A sour, unpleasant woman, Marie Corbin is set up from the start to be the obvious fall guy. Clad in a black nurse’s uniform and veil she cuts a sinister, and very much raven-like figure. But as she flees down the deserted streets, pursued by the sounds of the baying mob, our sympathies are violently repositioned, and we now root for her pathetic, lonely, victimised figure. Just as in M‘s famous trial scene, the character targeted by the mob’s fury may be repulsive and even criminal, but the savagery of the mob, its frightening pack mentality and its Old Testament sense of justice, is what is shown to be truly disturbing.

The film’s preoccupation with good and evil is rendered visually by an elaborate play of light and shadows, even more markedly than in other film noirs. The characters’ shadows projected on the walls suggest unseen dark sides; shapes and patterns superimposed on their faces subtly modify their expressions, giving them an almost fantastic, sinister appearance. At the heart of the film is a particularly striking night-time scene in which the indulgent Dr Vorzet tries to demonstrate to the righteous Dr Germain that the boundaries between good and evil are not cast in stone by setting a light bulb in motion. As the light swings, painting grotesque shadows on the walls, with the faces of the two men alternately dark or lit, Dr Vorzet says to Dr Germain: ‘You think people are all good or bad. You think good is light and evil is dark. But where does each begin? Where’s the frontier? Do you know which side you’re on?’ And soon enough indeed we see Dr Germain trip every so slightly, as Dr Vorzet had predicted.

Although it is a very dark film, Le Corbeau is by no means dreary or dispiriting but exudes an extraordinary vitality. This is partly due to Dr Germain’s energetic, resolute efforts to stop the Raven; but it is even more strongly connected to Denise’s sensual love of life and to her total disregard for social rules and conventions. It is her free-spirited attitude and her strength of character, together with Dr Germain’s intransigence, that give the film its gutsiness. And while most of the characters remain beyond redemption, there is some progression for Dr Germain: having learnt to live with the past, there is hope for new love at the end of the film. This conclusion is, however, thoroughly unsentimental, and hope for the future is coupled with the acceptance of the brutality of life, the acceptance that for life to carry on, babies have to be born and mothers sometimes have to die.

On a personal level then, Le Corbeau ends on an almost positive note. But for mankind as a whole the prognostic is bleak. In an astonishing climax, someone is institutionalised, someone dies and a murderer walks free. There is no resolution here, as one crime ends with another. The last image of the film, the black, veiled, raven-like form of a widow walking down a sun-lit street as children play nearby, is a chilling reminder that there is simply no end to evil. Just like the dark figure of Marie Corbin earlier in the film, it tells us in no uncertain terms that every one of us could be the Raven – that every one of us has the capacity for evil. So while the venal authorities, the letters of denunciation, and the mob mentality clearly resonate with the malaise of occupied France, the film’s study of evil goes far beyond its historical context to paint a scathing portrait of a fundamentally corrupt humanity. Clouzot’s ferocious lucidity remains unequalled, and with its masterful technique, tight plotting and vigorous direction, Le Corbeau is not only Clouzot at his best, but also one of cinema’s greatest achievements.

Virginie Sélavy


Quai des orfevres

Format: Cinema

Release date: 25 June 2007

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

Cast: Suzy Delair, Bernard Blier, Jouis Jouvet, Simone Renant

France 1947

106 minutes

Quai des Orfí­Â¨vres opens strikingly with singer Jenny Lamour posing for saucy photos to give to her husband Maurice, who exchanged the conservatoire for the nightclub to be her accompanist. It closes with a snowy Christmas scene of reconciliation; after the sweaty anxiety of the intervening events, the sentimental resolution for once seems well earned. The film is a seemingly effortless evocation of the low life in 1940s Paris – a shadowed, intimate, but open world through which ugly and beautiful, young and old, victim, suspect, and pursuer move freely. No door ever seems to be locked. Unlike the city today it is a world of belonging – everyone seems connected with everyone else. Showgirl, concierge, policeman, cloakroom attendant, all the denizens of the nightclub and the alley are equal in the eye of Clouzot’s camera. Jenny and Maurice embroil themselves in a crime through emotions with which it is all too easy to sympathize – jealousy, and a desperate desire to escape from poverty. Apart stands the distant-eyed photographer Dora, a ray of glamour amid the seediness. ‘Une drôle de fille’, she calls herself; the nature of her emotional entanglement is recognized and saluted in the end by her counterpart, the film’s other clear-sighted loner. This is Antoine, the maimed Foreign Legionnaire turned police inspector; like the others he is a troubled, flawed soul redeemed through love, in his case for the son he has brought back from Africa. Frank but not lurid, grim but humane, Quai des Orfí­Â¨vres is a perfectly realized thriller of the mundane, never cynical enough to be noir, and all the better for it.

Peter Momtchiloff



Format: Cinema

Release date: 13 July 2007

Distributor: Tartan

Director: Gyí¶rgy Pí¡lfi

Cast: Csaba Czene, Gergely Trí­Â³csí¡nyi, Piroska Molní¡r, Adél Stanczel

Hungary 2006

91 minutes

Hukkle is available on DVD

Release date: 22 August 2005

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Director: Gyí¶rgy Pí¡lfi

Cast: Ferenc Bandi, Jozsefne Racz, Jozsef Forkas

Hungary 2002

75 minutes

Gyí¶rgy Pí¡lfi came to the attention of British movie-goers a few years ago with the charming-with-barbs Hukkle (2002). In this famously dialogue-free film, what appears at first glance to be a casual saunter round a Hungarian village turns by stealth into a murder mystery. You do probably have to watch a couple of times to get every detail, but it is all there if you follow the clues carefully. There are other little dramas going on, however, in the rhythm of filming, and the idea of a world implied in it. The Hukkle aesthetic appears to be that of a nature documentary or meditation on the gentle rhythms of timeless peasant life. Along the way, the camera lingers in loving close-up over various insects, follows fish underwater, and a mole underground. When it shifts its attention from animal to human, there is no obvious change of rhythm or focus. The same gaze applies to the weather-beaten face of a cheery old fellow with hiccups (‘hukkle’), screwing up his eyes into the light as he sits outside his ramshackle cottage, or a shepherd girl resting under a tree. The stress seems to be on organic connection and continuity. The camera tracks the effects on the surrounding fabric of things made by the tiny vibration of each hiccup, and a ladybird provides an inconsequential segue from the shepherd girl to a lonely water-carrier.

But this makes Hukkle sound too much like Mikrocosmos (1997) or, god help me, March of the Penguins (La Marche de l’empereur, 2005). The smooth surface of Hukkle is punctuated by lots of tiny hiccups, little blips in rhythm and expectation. The hiccupping old fellow and his ramshackle house could be from any time in the last 500 years until a couple of cars go by, then have to go into reverse to let a truck past. The shepherd girl is similarly ‘timeless’ and quaint until you notice the earphones, and the camera shifts to close-up on her mini-disc player as she turns up the volume. Rather more blatantly, a jet fighter plane thunders along a river and under a bridge, briefly suspended in stop motion over the broiling water sucked into its jet stream. Here, the pastoral is broken not just by the intrusion of a high-tech artefact, but by the pointed introduction of cinematic artifice. Likewise, a mysterious birds-eye view at another point suddenly zooms to become a frame on a film roll, one of many hanging down to form, bizarrely, the bead-curtained entrance to a shop. Some of these moments risk being a little too tricksy for their own good, as does, say, the video rewind sequence of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997). But they do work as parts of a serious attempt to intertwine folk idioms with the Modern, in such a way that one is not simply enslaved by the other. One could say this is a very Hungarian tradition from the folkloric researches of Bartí­Â³k and Kodí¡ly onwards.

One goal of Hukkle seems to be to do justice to a world where very different time-scales co-exist, and folk song has a small but important role. Towards the end, the dogged local policeman (cf. Frances McDormand in Fargo, 1996), whose mullet and ‘tache defy any periodisation, seems to have solved the mystery, but shows no sign of doing anything about it (yet). He sits at the edge of a wedding celebration where the bride is already up to something, listening to a female choir singing a traditional number. Then the choir parts and a peasant girl steps forward to sing a Sí¡rkí¶zi (I’m not making this up) song whose middle verse, ‘Ki az urí¡t nem szereti’, advises a young wife who does not love her husband to cook carrots with paprika. This isn’t exactly the key to the whole film, but it brings a great number of little details into focus.

This brings us to Taxidermia, which is also an ambitious film, with an interest in consumption, and in the odd dislocations of Hungarian history. Taken together, the two films certainly suggest a young director who is onto something, but for me Taxidermia has something of the difficult second album about it. In places it seems to be straining a little too hard for effect, yet in others it is strangely thin. In fact, this amounts to a structural problem with the film as a whole. There is an intriguing opening section featuring the hapless hare-lipped private soldier Morosgoví¡nyi, victimised in Wozzeck-style by the commanding officer of an obscure outpost, presumably at the end of WWII. This section is mainly interested in the baroque ways in which Morosgoví¡nyi deals with his sexual frustrations. I have to say it had never occurred to me I might ever see a man with flames leaping out of his erect penis, and this in itself is surely already reason enough to see Taxidermia. Another, by comparison more normal, orgy involves a pig’s carcass fantasised into the commanding officer’s wife. From this ambiguous union is born, or so it seems, a pig-tailed baby who will grow into Kí¡lmí¡n, the gluttonous protagonist of the film’s second section. Kí¡lmí¡n is a Hungarian speed-eating champion, and vies with his number two for the affections of the ladies’ champion. This section is, for me, the weak link: the satire is at once vague and heavy-handed, with too many ‘look, they’re really fat’ jokes, and it just goes on too long.

In the final section, the inexplicably scrawny offspring of the champion guzzlers is a taxidermist in contemporary, post-communist Hungary. He is a slave to his father, who has the girth of Jabba the Hut, the disposition of Pí­Â¨re Ubu, and is completely immobile. The final cuttings and stuffings, and the runt Lajoska’s ingenious machine, are well done as far as they go. But why does a film that invokes taxidermy in its title do so little to explore the idea after such an orgy of attention to the sub-M. Creosote antics of the Communist-era fatties? The juxtapositions of fat and thin, the different modes of ‘stuffing’, set against the division into starkly different historical epochs, seem to want to say something about difficulties in managing consumption, but only end up labouring the point in places to no great effect.

Overall, structurally, this is a Big Mac of a film: a bloated glutinous middle dwarves the two ends of an undercooked bun. I could go on, but I don’t want to give too much away. The film is certainly well worth seeing for the good bits. Pí¡lfi has lots of flair, but I hope he works out what is really important to him next time. Taxidermia has been lavishly praised elsewhere, but art-house directors with an eye to cinematic trickery are especially ill-served by an over-grateful, uncritical response that potentially allows them to slip into mannerism.

Stephen Thomson



Format: Cinema

Release date: 6 July 2007

Distributor Soda Pictures

Director: Bruno Dumont

Original title: Flandres

Cast: Samuel Boidin, Adelaí­Â¯de Leroux, Henri Cretel

France 2006

91 minutes

French film-maker Bruno Dumont has been hyped as a controversial, polarising director during a career that has seen two of his four films win the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. His latest, Flandres, walked away with the award at the 2006 festival to both applause and criticism.

The film is a bleak, minimalist vignette of the effects of de-humanization. Demester (played by Samuel Boidin) is a simple farmer in the barren, northern fields of Flanders. Called up to fight an unidentified, seemingly interminable war, he leaves behind the brutality of life on the frigid plains of Northern Europe for the barbarity of combat in the scorching desert, fighting an unknown Arab enemy. Also left behind is his childhood friend and casual play-thing, Barbe (Adelaí­Â¯de Leroux), who descends into a manic state, haunted by an intuitive knowledge of events in the war zone.

Dumont weaves Northern France and North Africa together, using the threads of sex and war to convey his dystopian vision of a ‘bestial humanity’ struggling with our baser instincts: desire, revenge, jealousy, brutality. Barbe’s life is devoid of any emotional warmth; she offers herself up to Demester, who screws her without compassion or sentiment, only a base, animal need. When he denies that they’re a couple, Barbe fucks the first man she can find – noisily and publicly, seeking revenge for Demester’s heartlessness. While Blondel (Henri Cretel), her latest lover, provides her with some warmth and compassion, he too has been called up to fight. With the men gone, Barbe continues to use her body for sex; receiving nothing in return, she becomes a broken, tragic little girl, eventually committed to an institution by her dispassionate father. The uncaring brutality with which she’s treated mirrors the savagery that Demester and Blondel find themselves mired in. When the group of soldiers take a female fighter captive, she is gang-raped and left to die, exposed and vulnerable. Her vicious treatment underscores Barbe’s own exploitation by the men in her life. Sex and war are dehumanizing tools of violence and desperation.

Yves Cape’s lingering cinematography, the hyper-realist sound recording and the muted, sombre acting cleave together to convey Dumont’s bleak vision. Every element of the film, from Demester’s brooding, craggy features and his detached, emotionless sex with Barbe, to the scorching desert where death is indiscriminate, paints a picture of a savage, primeval world. The squelching mud underneath Demester’s boots in Flanders evokes both the horrors of World War I and the filth and tedium of rural, peasant life; the sharp, staccatto gunfire in the desert, free from special effects, sounds hollow, empty, unglorified.

But Dumont’s emphasis on the brutal consequences of violence and sexual exploitation are hardly unexplored subjects, nor are they particularly controversial. The rustic farm-girl as ‘village whore’ is indeed little more than a tired cliché. Similarly, the scenes in the desert, which allude to both Iraq and the war in Algeria, hardly break new ground. Scores of movies have better conveyed the brutality and futility of war. The pacing is at times agonisingly slow, while the first half-hour of the film seems about as dull as the grey skies over Flanders. While not entirely unlikeable, there is certainly nothing shocking, groundbreaking or revolutionary in the film that seems to merit Bruno Dumont’s success at Cannes.

Sarah Cronin



Format: Cinema

Release date: 27 July 2007

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Director: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

Cast: Ali Barkai, Youssouff Djaoro, Aziza Hisseine

Chad 2006

91 minutes

Commissioned for the ‘New Crowned Hope’ festival celebrating the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, Daratt is a dry, considered African take on familiar themes of revenge and absolution. In the wake of Chad’s civil war, the perpetrators of the conflict are given amnesty by the government. Teenaged Atim is told by his grandfather to avenge his father’s death by tracking down and executing the man responsible, ex-general Nassara. But upon confronting Nassara, Atim is unable to do the deed. He instead goes to work in Nassara’s bakery, biding his time until he can find the inner strength to commit murder.

This basic revenge narrative is simple, direct and allegorical, familiar to modern audiences from countless Westerns, fables and noir thrillers. Writer-director Haroun brings almost nothing new to the story, but tells his tale with such precise conviction that it’s hard not to be sucked in. The world depicted is fascinating, alien but familiar, ruled equally by religion and the struggle for survival, conflicting pressures which impinge upon Atim’s quest for justice. This is a world of shifting moralities, where killers are pardoned but urinating against a wall can provoke a serious beating.

There are moments of real power in Daratt. The first confrontation between Atim and Nassara comes about following a moment of unexpected generosity – Nassara hands out bread to the local children, and Atim uses this as an opportunity to get close to his intended victim. The boy’s hatred remains unspoken, but his nervous intensity speaks volumes.

The middle sections tend to slump. There’s precious little characterisation, the dialogue sparse and functional, like the events onscreen. The characters’ emotional lives are suppressed, leading to moments of tension but giving us little to hold on to. These are archetypal figures playing out a very structured drama, and as such there’s little room for individuality or invention, in either narrative or character. And Haroun makes some strange choices, dropping his most likeable character, petty thief Moussa, far too early in the story, and giving the radiant Aziza Hisseine, as Nassara’s young wife, almost nothing to do.

But the main actors fill their roles brilliantly. A first-timer, Ali Barkai’s very nervousness and uncertainty before the camera suits troubled, taciturn Atim perfectly, drawing us in where a more confident performance might have alienated the audience. By contrast, Youssouff Djaoro’s Nassara feels like the work of an accomplished thespian, intentionally holding back but managing to convey a real sense of weariness and regret, and a gradually awakening hope.

Only in the final stages does the film truly fulfil its potential. The climax has been meticulously prepared, and a long time coming – even at this late stage we genuinely don’t know whether Atim will have the strength to kill Nassara. Even the previously rather functional photography gains new life, with a beautiful reverse shot from the back of a truck, pulling out of the city and into the desert.

Tom Huddleston


When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

Format: Cinema

Release date: 29 June 2007

Distributor BFI

Director: Mikio Naruse

Original title: Onna ga kaidan wo agaru toki

Cast: Hideko Takamine, Masayuki Mori, Reiko Dan

Japan 1960

111 minutes

Although Japanese filmmaker Mikio Naruse (1905-1969) was a contemporary of Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, he never received the same kind of international recognition. His subject matter, dramas about women, are perhaps not as flashy or as noble as the masterworks of Kurosawa; nor are they as stylistically pure as the work of Ozu; but When a Woman Ascends the Stairs clearly reveals just how great a humanist Naruse was. For Naruse the essential nature of cinema lay in its ability to illuminate the interior life of humankind, and Naruse’s prime candidates for this interior life (not unlike Pedro Almodí­Â³var) were those women forced, for one reason or another, to make fundamental ethical choices in life.

The film is set in Japan’s post-war Ginza district, where unmarried women had few choices: either work in a bar, getting paid to flirt with drunken men, or open a bar of their own. While the issue of outright prostitution is never overtly signaled it remains a potential undercurrent in what effectively is a complete and seemingly successful commodification of a particular kind of erotic femininity; a vision of womanhood where every gesture is studied, where the color of one kimono may affect a night’s turnover. Keiko (Hideko Takamine), a popular hostess at one bar, watches as her younger colleagues leave for other jobs, drawing all the customers away. Keiko is still beautiful, but the suggestion is that it’s time for her to open her own bar before she gets outmaneuvered by a younger, more giggly set of hostesses. The trouble is, to raise money, she has to suck up to her wealthy male patrons. As the film opens, she ascends the stairs to the bar, explaining in voiceover how much she loathes it. Naruse paints Keiko as the remnant of a traditional Japan in which honour and dignity carry their own erotic charge; the problem, the narrative seems to indicate, is that such ideals are rapidly vanishing in an increasingly modernized and commercialized Japan. Surrounded by booze, the lights of the red light district, and vacuous men – who seek to be flattered above all – Keiko remains sober and business-like in her dealings with both patrons and working girls.

While Naruse’s style is not dissimilar to that of Ozu – straight on, long shots – Naruse focuses more overtly on the visual dichotomy between the stifling decorum of the interiors and the hustle and bustle of exterior Japan. In one of the rare moments when Keiko is allowed outside the bar (in an attempt to solicit payment from overdue customers) we see her crossing a bridge, the promise of travel, modernity and perhaps even freedom lurking somewhere in an otherwise gray and industrialized distance. The psychological realism that Hideko Takamine brings to the role is done with such self-assurance that, paradoxically, the viewer tends to forget that she is acting. The paradox is that Keiko is ‘acting’, not only in cinematic but also in gender terms. Her faí§ade of subservient femininity is such that she cannot even admit to a vow of chastity made to her late husband; it has to be implied rather than spoken of. Femininity, Naruse seems to indicate, is always a carefully elicited performance for Japanese women and ultimately something which they must maintain a constant awareness of through emotional checks and balances. Keiko – we soon realize – is alone, with all odds stacked against her; but she keeps trying, she keeps retaking the scene, she keeps ascending the stairs.

In this sense, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs qualifies above all as a modest, graceful masterpiece. Considering it is from 1959 Hideko Takamine’s performance is remarkably fresh and modern. A veteran of 17 Naruse films, Takamine seems to perfectly capture the melancholy sense of a postwar Japan unsure about its path from imperialist traditionalist society to something ambiguously modern. The film follows this ambiguity through its overall design; the cool jazz music both roots the film in an arena of Americanized 1950s capitalism (as do the beehives and dresses of many of the working girls) and yet Keiko remains modestly dressed in kimonos. The black-and-white widescreen photography, with its slanting signs, screens, and the repeated motif of the steps that she has to ascend, fit Naruse’s appreciation for life’s quiet disappointments and hardships. In metaphorical terms, Naruse not only stresses the importance of taking one step at a time but the fact that the visualization of this process is crucial for an understanding of his characters’ psychology.

Similarly, although the film is shot in ‘Scope widescreen, Naruse’s compositions are far from luxurious; the extended horizontal framing emphasizes the congested interiors and enclosed spaces of the film and Keiko is rarely alone as she constantly attempts to placate both her male patrons and her female superiors and employees. The only singular element, in this respect, is the spare voiceover of Keiko, astonishingly in control whilst also wistful and evocative; it is – in other words – the voice of a woman who understands the inevitability of her situation even though it appears partly self-created.

It would appear obvious in this respect, to compare the roughly contemporaneous ‘women’s pictures’ directed by Douglas Sirk in America and Rainer W. Fassbinder later in Germany with Naruse’s work. Their similarities and differences are intriguing: both focus on social pressures and domestic disillusionment but Naruse’s focus is distinctly quiet vis-í­Â -vis Sirk’s melodrama, and internally painful where Fassbinder would probably externalize.

The plight of Keiko in Stairs dramatizes the fact that we are probably all to some extent stuck in the roles both given to and adopted by us, but such a statement belies the courage Naruse endows Keiko with. When asked if she’s lonely sometimes, she says, ‘Sure, but I have a brandy and go to sleep. That kind of fever soon passes.’ In public she glides as if on a conveyor of endless evenings and flattery, and yet she is also allowed to become painfully drunk in one sequence with disastrous and yet predictable results. A shot of Keiko (distraught and at her absolute lowest) vomiting blood at her club moves to a lazy tugboat pulling into a rural harbor, to Keiko seemingly safe and snug in her mother’s home, recovering. The stairs motif is similarly subtle and yet very obviously signals the painful attempt to ascend as a woman in postwar Japan. The final frames show a persevering Keiko. She may be slowly retracing the very steps that bind her to a life of misery, but in Naruse’s vision she is also the closest we have to an authentic heroine.



Ghosts of Cite Soleil

Format: Cinema

Release date: 20 July 2007

Distributor Revolver

Director: Asger Leth

Cast: Winson ‘2Pac’ Jean, James ‘Bily’ Petit Frí­Â¨re, Eléonore ‘Lele’ Senlis

Denmark/USA 2006

88 minutes

In February 2004, after months of violent conflict and large-scale political protests, Haiti’s president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown and forced into exile. When US and French troops entered the capital, Port-Au-Prince, as a UN peacekeeping force, they faced a state in which corruption, violence and desperate poverty had combined to completely undermine the rule of law.

Asger Leth’s documentary, Ghost Of Cité Soleil, follows these events, concentrating on their impact on 2Pac and Bily; brothers, rivals and gang-leaders in the Cité Soleil slum area of Port-Au-Prince. Their gangs, known as Chimí­Â¨res (or Ghosts) were originally armed by President Aristide and employed by him as bodyguards and to intimidate opposition groups. As the film begins the two gang leaders are reaping the benefits of this connection. They have cars and guns and effectively run Cité Soleil themselves, Aristide having brutally subverted the city’s police force.

These characters, 2Pac and Bily, are the main focus and strength of the film. 2Pac, in particular, senses how precarious his position is, even as he enjoys its privileges. Both are vividly aware that everyone in Cité Soleil has only a tenuous grip on life, irrespective of their status. ‘Whatever I do, I die’, says Bily. Their attitudes towards the more wasteful and murderous instincts of their gang members are contradictory, like their attitudes towards the possibility of peace in Haiti and the future in general. 2Pac dreams of leaving. Inspired by his idol, Tupac Shakur, he works on his rapping skills, embracing hip hop as a voice and as a possible escape route. He even phones Wyclef Jean, who has Haitian roots, and raps to him.

We also see the attempts of Lele, a French relief worker, to help the people of Cité Soleil and her involvement with 2Pac and Bily. She relies on their influence to let her operate safely in the slums (presumably like Leth himself) and she becomes 2Pac’s lover and also an intermediary for the gangs as the UN and the new regime seek to disarm the Chimí­Â¨res.

Leth shows us his three main characters and their ambiguities straight. A gallery of talking heads give political context but otherwise we are left to ourselves to judge 2Pac, Bily and Lele’s actions and speculate about motives and unseen events. At times this is frustrating as questions go as much unasked as unanswered. Lele’s decision to work in Haiti is undoubtedly courageous but her links to the gang leaders must have compromised her position and the implications are not explored. Nor is the involvement of Wyclef Jean fully explained. He provides the soundtrack to the film and is seen talking with 2Pac on the phone but the background to this remains obscure.

Leth doesn’t explain his own decisions either. His father made several films in Haiti but neither this nor the path that led him from his home country, Denmark, to the Cité Soleil is revealed. Nor do we get any sense of whether the director, like Lele, was compromised by his closeness to the Chimí­Â¨res. It feels like his approach is consciously meant to emphasise the actions of 2Pac and Bily, reducing those around them to witnesses rather than protagonists. The advantage is that we get a well-focused portrait of the two brothers but is this justification enough to reject potentially intriguing lines of enquiry? Perhaps Leth was uncomfortable probing moral niceties in the middle of a slum with no food, no water and no justice. Alternatively, with the situation in Haiti being described as a ‘silent emergency’ it is possible that Leth was reluctant to dilute or confuse his attempt to break that silence. Either way, Ghosts of Cité Soleil feels like a brave and dangerous undertaking rather than skilful film-making, its efforts to engage undone by the simplistic viewpoint and the perplexing omissions.

Nick Dutfield


Running Stumbled

Format: Cinema

Release date: 27 July 2007

Distributor Self Pictures

Director: John Maringouin

Cast: Johnny Roe, Virgie Marie Pennoui, Stanley Laviolette

USA 2006

85 minutes

Part twisted home-movie, part trash documentary, part screwed-up therapy, John Maringouin‘s Running Stumbled navigates the same muddy waters as Jonathan Caouette’s 2003 Tarnation. When Maringouin was just a baby, his father, the Cubist-influenced painter Johnny Roe, tried to kill both him and his mother. Twenty-nine years later, Maringouin, DV camera in hand, goes back to New Orleans and confronts his estranged father, recording the stupefying, constantly-on-the-brink-of-disaster and at times insanely hilarious existence he now leads with his death-obsessed, cancer-ridden partner Marie.

Clearly awed by the spectacular human bankruptcy he is witnessing, Maringouin is filming almost hypnotically, as if unable to stop himself from watching. In the unspeakable squalor of their one-storied New Orleans home, Johnny and Marie swap sardonic insults and death threats, trip over the litter-strewn floor or waddle unwashed around unmade beds, their physical and moral degradation fuelled by years of rancour and mammoth doses of prescription drugs. Completing the picture is next-door neighbour and Johnny’s best friend Stanley, a slightly deranged motormouth Johnny Cash lookalike who cares for his dying mother while dreaming of being a star in Hollywood. Speaking in a heavily-accented drawl, Johnny, Marie and Stanley alternate between shattering lucidity and nonsensical rant, their exchanges peppered with strikingly bizarre, almost poetic phrases – ‘running stumbled’, coined by Johnny to describe his post-hip-operation state, being a case in point. Johnny and Marie have moved so far beyond the conventions of polite society that there are no limits to what they will say or do and it all comes out as raw as hell.

With such a subject matter, a certain amount of self-obsessed angst might have been expected from Maringouin, but he is in fact almost entirely absent from his own film, adopting a very different approach to Caouette’s in Tarnation. Where the latter film was an overwhelmingly narcissistic, if compelling, exhibition of Caouette’s troubled self, Running Stumbled reveals very little of Maringouin’s character, the director making only two brief appearances that bookend the film. Maringouin is clearly reluctant to get involved, and it is almost as if filming his father’s nightmarish existence is a way for the director to distance himself from it, the camera acting as some kind of protective screen. While the lack of any self-pitying probing comes as a relief, Maringouin disengages himself so much from what he’s filming that it often feels like he’s somewhat skimming the surface of things, unwilling to dig too deep into horrors that he can’t quite face.

Adding to this is the fact that Maringouin is uninterested in charting the family’s charged history, preferring instead to concentrate on what he calls Johnny and Marie’s ‘real time performance’, a ‘stunt’ on a par with ‘jumping the Grand Canyon’, as he describes it in the director’s statement. But while eschewing all family narrative to concentrate on the here-and-now is a refreshing approach to the dysfunctional family biopic, again here Maringouin’s refusal to delve deeper than the daily life of the characters only contributes to the impression that he’s skirting some major issues, making it at times an unsatisfying experience. There is something not quite right in the fact that the director’s statement is at least as interesting as the film, and much more revealing. Calling Johnny and Marie’s desperate lives a ‘stunt’ for instance betrays more about Maringouin’s character than anything in the film: the fact that he sees his father and step-mother not as washed-out victims of drugs and personal demons but as existential seekers of the extreme says more about him than it does about them.

Although it was shot with a DV camera, Running Stumbled looks like a vintage Super8 home-movie. Just like Tarnation, the film may use the latest technology, but it is very much in the tradition of the home-movie-as-art of the sixties Underground filmmakers, as represented in particular by Stan Brakhage. Not only does Maringouin make use of techniques such as solarization, split screens and coloured frames, developed by his sixties predecessors, but he also clearly adheres to Brakhage’s conception of filming as a way of making sense of life. Brakhage compulsively recorded all aspects of his home life, including the birth of his first baby in Window Water Baby Moving, explaining that this was the only way he could cope with the sight of such a spectacle: ‘I’m not so constituted to be able to take on an experience like that, at least the first time, without camera in hand (…). In fact, there’s very little to me that’s understandable about life, or even bearable, except the seeing of it. I have managed my whole sight by making films.’ It is easy to imagine that Maringouin, filming his traumatic encounter with his father, would agree with the sentiment.

However, while it is interesting to see the life-as-art approach of the Underground Cinema being revived through digital technology, there are limits to the similarities. While Brakhage was as intensely concerned with developing his art as he was with exploring his life, the two being absolutely inseparable, Maringouin’s work is more about life than it is about art. But while Maringouin certainly can’t compare with Brakhage in terms of formal inventiveness, he does conjure up a mesmerising vision of domestic hell, grainy, fuzzy and tinged with murderous red. And although Running Stumbled feels at times frustratingly incomplete, we can’t help but watch as hypnotically as Maringouin films because, to borrow from the Brothers Quay, there is nothing more compelling than the surreal nightmare that we call human life.

Virginie Sélavy


The Cave of the Yellow Dog

Format: DVD

Release date: 25 September 2006

Distributor Tartan Video

Director: Byambasuren Davaa

Original title: Die Hí¶hle des gelben Hundes

Cast: Babbayar Batchuluun, Nansal Batchuluun, Nansalmaa Batchuluun

Mongolia/Germany 2005

93 minutes

In 2003 director and writer Byambasuren Davaa gave us The Story of the Weeping Camel,,a beautifully constructed documentary based around a Mongolian nomadic family’s newest camel colt. In The Cave of the Yellow Dog, the setting is the same minus the camels and with a different Mongolian family, and Dayaa delivers another slice of humble cinéma vérité. While taking a walk, six-year-old Nansaa finds a little black-and-white spotted dog in a cave along the cliffs. She names him ‘Zochor’ (‘Spot’ in English) and takes him home with her. Only her father tells her to get rid of him because wild dogs can attack the sheep. When her father goes on a long trip to the city to sell some sheepskins, Nansaa keeps the little dog, who becomes her trusted companion. One day she loses sight of him in the tundra and, whilst searching for him, encounters an old nomad woman who tells her the legend of the cave of the yellow dog.

The child actors really are the centrepiece in Davaa’s films, their naivety pulling you along in the narrative and making you see the world through their eyes. During Nansaa’s conversations with her newfound best friend Zochor the dog, you become completely immersed in the child’s mindset. One of the most endearing scenes in the film occurs between Nansaa’s siblings, Babbayar and Nansalmaa. When Nansaa doesn’t come home one evening her mother is forced to go looking for her, entrusting her second eldest daughter to look after the home and more importantly Babbayar while she is gone. It is a scene that is nothing short of adorable while also revealing of Nansalmaa’s striking maturity. It is fascinating to see how bold and fearless the children are in Davaa’s Mongolian families, their parents trusting them to wander off and almost encouraging their independence – a far cry from our over-protective Western world. But The Cave of the Yellow Dog is not simply about the children and it also puts you in the position of the parents at different intervals. When Babbayar is accidentally left behind during the family move and almost falls prey to some blood-hungry vultures, the father’s desperate efforts to rescue his youngest child provoke unqualified sympathy in the audience.

The role of the ‘Yurt’ plays as highly in all of Dayaa’s films as it does in reality. Turkic for í¢â‚¬Å“dwelling placeí¢â‚¬Â or í¢â‚¬Å“homelandí¢â‚¬Â, a Yurt is a portable structure consisting of a circular wooden frame carrying a felt cover, and for the Mongolian families it is home. The importance of the Yurt is suggested in the film when the time comes for the family to move on and they start to gently deconstruct it in thoughtful silence. Such scenes are enough to entice any nature lover to explore this nomadic living so far removed from the city suit ant armies and unreachable property ladders of urban life. I remember Ewan McGregor in his Long Way Round documentary, commenting on Mongolia as he passes through on his motorbike, recalling it as a ‘breathtaking’ place that makes you feel a million miles away from civilization. Or rather, the civilization us Westerners are familiar with.

All this makes you realise how remote and untouched nomadic Mongolia really is, which gives an exotic charm to the film. Dayaa’s films paint a remarkably detailed picture of her motherland, from its culture and ancient Buddhist beliefs down to the organic working ethic among the natives. Mongolia was seeped in communism for years, its inhabitants systematically conditioned to view the Buddha Dharma as mere superstition, the opposite to all ideals of progress and modernity. But since 1990 Mongolia has adopted a democratic government that has brought religious and personal freedom to the people. They have been able to rediscover and once more enjoy the ancient way of life that had long defined their culture, before communists had taken control. The Mongolians’ independent spirit and joyful embrace of life are more than apparent on screen and Davaa brilliantly captures the beauty of nomadic Mogolian life. She would have been approaching her twenties when Mongolia was becoming a freer and more socially equal environment so no wonder she celebrates her country with such pride, wearing her heart on her silk sleeve.

It is easy to forget that The Cave is a documentary film because of Davaa’s unobtrusive direction and the natural performances of the nomadic family involved. You become utterly consumed in the storyline, the characters and the surroundings, almost as if you were working the camera yourself. The Weeping Camel was an original and deeply affecting film and it seemed unlikely that Davaa could equal it, but The Cave is more of the same, and just as good. With her second feature she confirms that she has truly created her own genre of documentary filmmaking.

Jo Overfield