As part of our focus on Polish director Andrzej Żuławski, we take an illustrated look at his dark and moody drama The Most Important Thing: Love. Based on the novel La Nuit américaine by Christopher Frank, the story revolves around the passionate love affair between struggling actress Nadine (Romy Schneider), who earns her money starring in cheap soft-core movies, and Servais Mont, a photographer (Fabio Testi) determined to help her get her career back.
Electric Sheep writers review the best DVD and Blu-ray releases in 2011.
The Colour of Pomegranates (Sergei Paradjanov, 1968, Second Sight)
Inspired by Armenian miniatures and icons, its tableaux slowly evoke - rather than tell - the life of the 18th-century poet and troubadour Sayat Nova. Laden with the poet’s suffering and biblical and folkloric symbolism, there is an epic, earnest solemnity to The Colour of Pomegranates; and while such gravity and careful construction could lead to austerity and artificiality, there is also a consuming warmth and sensuality. The extraordinarily striking actress Sofiko Chiaureli plays the part of both poet and muse, exploring male and female sexuality (Paradjanov was himself bisexual and first imprisoned for a homosexual act with a KGB officer) and the film is joyously abundant with melodic folk music and heightened sounds: the crinkling of books’ pages; the squelch of pomegranate seeds; the urgent chirping of bird song. The Colour of Pomegranates is an emotionally affecting film and is especially poignant given Paradjanov’s own suffering in prison and the loss of his first wife. Lost loves and issues of ethnicity, subjects raw to his heart, are treated with immense compassion. And yet, The Colour of Pomegranates is also a film that joyously arouses all the senses: a truly sensory experience without precedent or successor. Eleanor McKeown
La Piscine (Jacques Deray, 1969, Park Circus)
The pristine swimming pool of a glamorous couple’s private villa in the French Riviera is the focus of Jacques Deray’s 1969 tale of lust, co-dependency and revenge. Of ample size and stylish design, it’s where lovers Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) and Marianne (Romy Schneider) fool around during a long hot summer, far from the madding crowd of St Tropez. It’s also where Jean-Paul challenges Marianne’s ex-lover Harry (Maurice Ronet) to a symbolic swimming race, and where the film reaches its shocking and deadly climax. Deray does a deft job in capturing the hedonism and abandon of the period, where good looks and chic clothes conceal dark feelings that lurk beneath the surface, helped by a toe-tapping soundtrack by Michel Legrand. Legrand is a name often associated with the French New Wave, as is Maurice Ronet, who plays smooth-talking music producer Harry, but La piscine‘s connection with the movement ends there. Instead, with its smoulderingly attractive cast and focus on relationships, it owes more to American film noir and psychological thrillers of the previous two decades. Lisa Williams
Who Can Kill a Child? (Narciso Ibañez Serrador, 1976, Eureka)
Narciso Ibañez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? is arguably the best Spanish horror film ever made. It’s also a classic of 70s horror, but you’re unlikely to find it on many ‘best of’ lists, from either fans or critics. This is mainly due to its half-hearted distribution until Eureka finally released it on DVD in the UK this year. Like Village of the Damned (1960) and Children of the Corn (1984), Who Can Kill a Child? pits adults against children, this time working from the template established by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Unlike those films, Who Can Kill a Child? doesn’t dilute the horrific premise by making his children aliens or religious maniacs controlled or directed by a supernatural entity. Following Hitchcock in The Birds (1963) and Romero, Serrador provides no real information that might help to understand or explain the events taking place. Once the misjudged moralising prologue is over, Who Can Kill a Child? is a masterpiece of atmosphere and a deeply unsettling, original experience, and one that deserves to be seen by a much wider audience. Jim Harper
Akira (Katsuhiro Ôtomo, 1988, Manga Entertainment)
Based on Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s serialised comic, in which telekinesis and telepathy are imagined as evolutionary reactions to a dehumanised machine-driven world, Akira proved to be a ground-breaking film on its release in 1988, presenting concepts and imagery rarely seen on the big screen in animation. While some aspects have dated and the rushed ending - a soupí§on of Kubrickian post-human light show plus shafts of divine light in a ruined landscape - strives too hard to be sublime, this is a classic animated Japanese film that is well worth adding to any Blu-ray collection, in a HD transfer that finally does justice to the film’s colour palette and intricate line art. Alex Fitch
Alice (Jan Švankmajer, 1988, BFI Video)
Alice, technically a Swiss-British-German co-production although, in all creative respects, entirely Czech, was filmed in Prague with Švankmajer’s regular team. Significantly, the Czech title translates as ‘Something from Alice’, indicating that it should in no way be considered a straightforward adaptation of Carroll. While Alice is played by a real little girl, the world of her imagination or dream world is represented by puppets and animated figures. The characters have become much more explicitly threatening than in Carroll’s original. Švankmajer’s most nightmarish creations are his ‘animals’, who pursue Alice at the White Rabbit’s behest after she has escaped from his house. These skeletal monsters include a coach pulled by chickens with skull heads, a fish-like skeleton with legs, a skull dragging a bone body, and a skull head that snaps out of a jam pot. This array of visions is far from the antiseptic world of Disney or the reassuring middle-class images of Sir John Tenniel. Peter Hames
The Kingdom (Lars von Trier, 1994 + 1997, Second Sight)
Set in Denmark’s largest hospital, Lars von Trier’s 90s TV series The Kingdom is perhaps best described as the mutated offspring of a hospital-based reality TV show and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, but even that doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. The Kingdom‘s horror might seem tame to viewers of Saw and Hostel, but von Trier manages to establish - and increase - a surprising level of tension and atmosphere, something that suits the work much better than explicit violence and gore. The Kingdom is absolutely essential viewing for lovers of horror or fantasy, as well as anyone with a passion for the weird. Originally broadcast in two seasons of four episodes each, the first season was edited into a single movie for a British VHS release in 1998, but this is the first time that both seasons have been available in this country. Jim Harper
Deep End (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1970, BFI Video)
Deep End is a film driven by and dripping with discomfort, an effect that’s heightened by the 40-year interval between its original release and recent revamp by BFI’s Flipside imprint. The story of Mike, a London teenager working his first job as a public bath attendant, and his sexual obsession with his co-worker Susan, it is morally ambiguous in tone, pitched somewhere between psychosexual thriller and a dark coming-of-age comedy. In that sense it’s quite typical of the era in which it was made, but there is something more self-aware about Deep End. The uncomfortable mood is not just the by-product of its time and our latter-day perspective on it, but also, perhaps, of director Jerzy Skolimovski’s own slightly distanced perspective on his subject. Frances Morgan
Shôhei Imamura releases (Eureka’s Masters of Cinema)
Eureka continue to make the work of the great Japanese director Shôhei Imamura available to UK audiences. Following the release of Vengeance is Mine (1979) and Profound Desires of the Gods (1968) in previous years, 2011 brought a bounty crop: Pigs and Battleships (1961), A Man Vanishes (1967) and The Ballad of Narayama (1983).
Pigs and Battleships
A vivid indictment of a nation struggling with a serious identity crisis, Pigs and Battleships is a biting social satire by a truly brilliant filmmaker. John Berra
A Man Vanishes
Over 40 years ago, Shôhei Imamura created the quintessential mockumentary, A Man Vanishes, a film essay that reveals with cunning wit concerns of veracity and corruption and anticipates the traps reality will lay for filmmakers. John Bleasdale
The Ballad of Narayama
The cruelty of survival is the focus of Shôhei Imamura’s stunning film. His achievement here is in presenting a radically different society with values that clash directly with what we today consider universal and inalienable rights. John Bleasdale
The pristine swimming pool of a glamorous couple’s private villa in the French Riviera is the focus of Jacques Deray’s 1969 tale of lust, co-dependency and revenge. Of ample size and stylish design, it’s where lovers Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) and Marianne (Romy Schneider) fool around during a long hot summer, far from the madding crowd of St Tropez. It’s also where Jean-Paul challenges Marianne’s ex-lover Harry (Maurice Ronet) to a symbolic swimming race, and where the film reaches its shocking and deadly climax.
Even outside of the pool and sea, water – or lack of it – is a strong motif throughout the film. Jean-Paul is told he’s a ‘Pisces, with Aquarius rising, you were born to be loved’, while his decision to start drinking again after a teetotal patch will prove fatal. And when one character is killed, there is a noticeable lack of tears at their passing.
Harry’s nubile teenage daughter Penelope (Jane Birkin), whose arrival with her father brings Jean-Paul and Marianne’s peaceful holiday ‘à deux’ to an end, isn’t seduced by the chlorinated blue of the pool. She’d rather idle around in modish thigh-skimming dresses, ignoring her father, who she claims is only interested in her now she’s old enough to be mistaken for his girlfriend. Better still, she likes swimming in the sea. And when Jean-Paul - who is not indifferent to her doe eyes and sky-high legs – takes her there for a night-time swim, he crosses the unspoken line of decency forever.
Deray does a deft job in capturing the hedonism and abandon of the period, where good looks and chic clothes conceal dark feelings that lurk beneath the surface, helped by a toe-tapping soundtrack by Michel Legrand. Legrand is a name often associated with the French New Wave, as is Maurice Ronet, who plays smooth-talking music producer Harry, but La piscine‘s connection with the movement ends there. Instead, with its smoulderingly attractive cast and focus on relationships, it owes more to American film noir and psychological thrillers of the previous two decades, as is especially clear after the pivotal murder scene – which is sudden, clumsy and disturbing.
While it may seem stilted to some, the lackadaisical pace of the film has the dual advantage of both reflecting the holiday-makers’ idle summer and allowing the unspoken erotic tension to reach a Hitchcockian crisis point. When the pace is broken by a lively and impromptu shindig, held at the villa by Harry and his rent-a-crowd of hipsters and kohl-eyed beauties, it comes as a relief to the viewer but has devastating consequences for the characters, who use it as an excuse to turn feelings into actions.
The film’s real strength lies in its ending which, although implausible by today’s standards of law and order, comes as a genuine surprise and shows the price you might have to pay to get simple domesticity.