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Posts tagged Cinematic Masterpiece

Starting as an odd Midnight Movie, David Lynch's debut feature film is now considered a work of cinematic art. Eraserhead David Lynch, 1977

Starting as an odd Midnight Movie, David Lynch’s debut feature film is now considered a work of cinematic art.
Eraserhead
David Lynch, 1977

It’s been building for almost 15 years now, but many of the cinematic treasures buried under the title of Cult Film are currently being re-examined and re-evaluated. There are still plenty of cinephiles who shudder as classics like Valley of the Dolls, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, One-Eyed Jacks and Carnival of Souls are taking their deserved seats within The Criterion Collection.

As my generation moves toward half century mark, the younger generations of movie lovers are feeling less self-conscious when it comes to fully owning their love of Cult Films that have never quite fit into the restrictively defined Cinematic Masterpiece.

I’ve never worried much about what people think of me. As a teenager I would often snare unsuspecting friends into watching a VHS copy of a movie I deemed as essential. I remember some of my pals squirming through a movie like John Waters’ Multiple Maniacs or Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls. I myself placed in a defensive position. I would attempt to list the cinematic virtues of a numerous cinematic oddities that had been relegated to midnight screenings and discarded as Odd, Smut and ultimately Cult Films. I began to formulate excuses for these movies I loved. These were offered up as self-defenses to shield my ego from the those harbingers of The Cinematic Elite.

  • This movie is so bad it comes around to exceptional
  • A movie we must love to hate
  • There is a certain level of artistry to create a film so entertainingly bad
  • It’s fun to watch
  • It is one of my guilty pleasures

The opinion regarding Cult Films has come a long way since I was in high school. I was the only one who had ever rented All Star Video’s VHS copy of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. In fact, I rented it a lot.

Filmed on a shoe string and with a desire to haunt vs. scare -- This strange B Movie is now a treasured member of The Criterion Collection. Carnival of Souls Herk Harvey, 1962

Filmed on a shoe string and with a desire to haunt vs. scare — This strange B Movie is now a treasured member of The Criterion Collection.
Carnival of Souls
Herk Harvey, 1962

There was a period of time when I would enter All Star and the lady behind the counter would say, “Look y’all! It’s that kid who rents Eraserhead!” Turns out they had acquired the tape by accident. Some of my friends enjoyed some of what they saw in David Lynch’s surreal movie, but more than a few were bored or disgusted. Some of my pals discovered that it was a great movie with which to get stoned. Gradually a few others began to rent All Star’s VHS copy. In less than a decade Eraserhead would finally begin to garnish the respect it deserved. It would take a whole lot longer for Carnival of Souls to gain appropriate recognition, but this year it was remastered and issued as a member of The Criterion Collection.

After I had finally begun to find a place within the ranks of a respected Film Festival my knowledge and love of French and Asian cinema would be put to some good use, but even as we entered the 21st Century there was still passive annoyance at films that dared to color outside the lines of societal ideas of Cinematic Art.

"Love really hurts... Koroshiya 1 / Ichi The Killer Takashi Miike, 2001

“Love really hurts…
Koroshiya 1 / Ichi The Killer
Takashi Miike, 2001

I first saw Takashi Miike’s Ichi The Killer at a limited screening not too long after the tragedies of 9/11. It took me several minutes to ground myself back into the real world as I stumbled out of the theatre. I found it difficult to articulate what it was that so strongly appealed regarding this sick and twisted movie. In many ways it was a cartoonish orgy of gore that never let up. The special effects were not so much realistic as they were insanely creative. The film was far more interested in following a sadistic and comically twisted thug following Ichi‘s bloody trail of violence than in Ichi himself. Each passing scene seemed to propel the audience into higher levels of audacity and shock. This was a needless exercise in the excesses of violence and aberrantly cruel behaviors. But all of it was presented in such silly and innovative ways, it was almost impossible not to watch.

Surveying the carnage Tadanobu Asano Ichi The Killer Takashi Miike, 2001 Cinematography | Hideo Yamamoto

Surveying the carnage
Tadanobu Asano
Ichi The Killer
Takashi Miike, 2001
Cinematography | Hideo Yamamoto

I was not new to the over-the-top genre of Japanese Shock Horror movies, but this was something a great deal different. I had already been caught in Miike’s web the year before. His 1999 Cult Film, Audition, was in many ways a far superior film. It had been a surrealist take on a widowed man’s sexual fears. The gore utilized in Audition was far more realistic in look and the film’s exploration into self-hate, human cruelty and misogyny was a bit more than the average viewer would ever be able to approve. It was a smart and exceptionally well crafted movie that would only ever have a limited audience. Ichi The Killer was not nearly so dire. Ichi took no prisoners, but it also allowed the audience a “pass” regarding its violent nature.

"Everything I'm about to tell you is a joke..." This young Yakuza soldier is having a strange day that quickly morphs into levels of strangeness too odd to be explained. There is genius here. Hideki Sone GOZU Takashi Miike, 2003 Cinematography | Kazunari Tanaka

“Everything I’m about to tell you is a joke…”
This young Yakuza soldier is having a strange day that quickly morphs into levels of strangeness too odd to be explained. There is genius here.
Hideki Sone
GOZU
Takashi Miike, 2003
Cinematography | Kazunari Tanaka

From my perspective, both Audition and Ichi The Killer were destined for consideration as films of note. But if I had to place my bet, I’d venture that it would be Ichi The Killer that would manage to achieve mutually agreed regard. Interestingly it would be Audition that was the first to be recognized as something more than simply Cult. But the time of Ichi The Killer will soon arrive. Let’s hope that Ichi is ready for the validation. He is kind of sensitive.

Two years after I saw Ichi The Killer in a cinema, I pitched the idea of having the film festival host a retrospective of Miike’s work. I had put out “feelers” and his camp was more than willing and the director was open to attending. He did not speak English, but he had someone who could join him as his translator. In addition, his 2003 film, GOZU had only enjoyed one US screening at this point. I had been lucky enough to receive a promotional copy of that film. GOZU is an experiment into Yakuza thriller gone the way of Lynchian fever dream. GOZU is artistic, comical, beyond strange and unforgettable. I was excited as I pitched the idea to the committee. Only one of the ten members shared in my enthusiasm. My idea was nixed. GOZU and Miike went to Chicago.

Wagner drugs and then literally saps Franz Liszt of his blood. Paul Nicholas and Roger Daltrey LISZTOMANIA Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Wagner drugs and then literally saps Franz Liszt of his blood.
Paul Nicholas and Roger Daltrey
LISZTOMANIA
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

My pleas for the committee to consider Ken Russell’s The Devils and Lisztomania fell prey to closed minds and snobbery. Appreciation for Ken Russell’s brilliant The Devils has existed since the film’s debut through to today. The problem is that many have never had the amazing opportunity to see this important film in Russell’s original cut. Warner Bros. continues to hold that film hostage thanks to the powers of The Vatican. It is the only reason that seems to explain Warner Bros. refusal to relinquish the movie. It continues to sit in exile within the confines of the Warner Bros. vault. Although not blessed with the masterful artistry of The Devils, Ken Russell’s surreal comic book take on Franz Liszt is also due for reconsideration. Rumors continue to fly about regarding the resurgence of both films. Back in my teen years I was constantly pimping Ken Russell to the unconverted. It is impossible to understand, but it has only been in the last decade that Ken Russell’s brilliance has begun to receive the recognition that so very many knew it and he was due. And the rally call for both of these films — most especially for The Devils — is growing stronger.

"Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights." Vanessa Redgrave The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin Production Design | Derek Jarman

“Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights.”
Vanessa Redgrave
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin
Production Design | Derek Jarman

A couple of years ago I got into a disagreement with someone of “standing” within the world of Film Restoration. A seminal film was at stake. Was this beloved and profoundly odd but brilliant film damned to be restored by a well-intentioned but tech limited distribution company? As it became clear that my opinion meant nothing to this individual who is actually a bigger Film Snob than me — and that is saying something — I took one more consideration regarding concerns of bombast, overly silly presentation, perverse articulation and Grindhouse residue. I ended the conversation with the following sentence:

I will watch Citizen Kane, The Bicycle Thief, The Godfather or Casablanca as often as I watch this film.

As it turned out, this almost forgotten cinematic gem was restored brilliantly by the great team at Vinegar Syndrome. One of my favorite movies, The Telephone Book, was restored and re-issued to an unsuspecting public. Sadly their efforts did not result in many sales.

Just because it is X-rated and full-on odd does not mean that it isn't a valid artistic experience. The Telephone Book Nelson Lyon, 1971

Just because it is X-rated and full-on odd does not mean that it isn’t a valid artistic experience. The Telephone Book Nelson Lyon, 1971

This type of discussion became a sort of staple of my Movie Lover’s Life. It was also a discussion I was nearly always bound to lose. But something is in the air. I’d like to think it partially thanks to my generation, but it is equally indebted to the generation that arrived just after mine. There are a number of people now in their mid-to-late 30’s who recognize the importance of many films that cause life threatening eye-rolling by most serious cinematic scholars born before 1972.

Before she became An Unmarried Woman and deservedly respected actor, Jill Clayburgh was a valuable featured player in an experimental movie mistakenly considered pornography. Jill Clayburgh The Telephone Book Nelson Lyon, 1971 Cinematography | Leon Perera

Before she became An Unmarried Woman and deservedly respected actor, Jill Clayburgh was a valuable featured player in an experimental movie mistakenly considered pornography.
Jill Clayburgh
The Telephone Book
Nelson Lyon, 1971
Cinematography | Leon Perera

Another highly valuable movie that had been thought long lost is Jean-Jacques Beineix’s The Moon in the Gutter. A neon-drenched world awaits the viewer who allows themselves to slip into this strange film. While it is most certainly flawed, it is equally most certainly fascinating. Cinema Libre Studio restored and reissued the film to DVD/Blu-Ray in 2011.

Largely panned when it debuted in cinemas,  Jean-Jacques Beineix's 1983 flop continues to be re-evaluated.  The Moon in the Gutter / La lune dans le caniveau Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1983

Largely panned when it debuted in cinemas, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1983 flop continues to be re-evaluated.
The Moon in the Gutter / La lune dans le caniveau
Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1983

They also did the same for Jean-Jacques Beineix’s infamous Betty Blue, but opted to issue only the theatrical version of that film. Sales for Betty Blue were strong, but The Moon in the Gutter is no longer in print. Seek it out.  Meanwhile the director’s cut of Betty Blue is out there and will most likely be re-issued soon. Which paves the way for a restoration of that director’s successful but largely forgotten art film, Diva. An unforgettable hybrid film that is experimental to say the least. We are likely to see this film receive an upgrade within the next year or so.

"Her voice was his calling." Diva Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1981

“Her voice was his calling.”
Diva
Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1981

It had been a fairly tight secret when The Criterion Collection decided to pursue the distribution rights for both The Valley of the Dolls and its dirty little sister, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. The announcement created a bit of grumbling, but many are thrilled to finally see these two cultural relics restored.

 

"This is my happening and it freaks me out!" Long maligned but deeply loved by a whole lot more -- Russ Meyer and Roger Eberts' 1970 X-Rated film has also joined the ranks of The Criterion Collection. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls Russ Meyer, 1970

“This is my happening and it freaks me out!”
Long maligned but deeply loved by a whole lot more — Russ Meyer and Roger Eberts’ 1970 X-Rated film has also joined the ranks of The Criterion Collection.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
Russ Meyer, 1970

Kino Lober and Olive Films have also been doing a great job of rescuing lost or forgotten cult films. This month KL released Otto Preminger’s all but forgotten Cult Film, Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon Junie Moon. Olive Films has just released three other treasured Cult Films, Wild In the Streets, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? and Modesty Blaise.

"You said she was going to eat us." Strange and surprisingly effective... Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? Curtis Harrington, 1972

“You said she was going to eat us.”
Strange and surprisingly effective…
Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?
Curtis Harrington , 1972

Get ready. Here are but a few other films up for reconsideration beyond the realm of The Cult Film

"Eventually stars burn out..." This 2014 was far too quickly dismissed and ignored. This is a Cult Film that is destined for later appreciation and re-evaluation. Map to the Stars David Cronenberg, 2014

“Eventually stars burn out…”
This 2014 was far too quickly dismissed and ignored. This is a Cult Film that is destined for later appreciation and re-evaluation.
Map to the Stars
David Cronenberg, 2014

 

"Why don't rapists eat at T.G.I. Friday's? Well, it's hard to rape with a stomachache." The jokes induce squirms vs. laughs as the comic's ego deconstructs. Gregg Turkington ENTERTAINMENT Rick Alverson, 2014 Cinematography | Lorenzo Hagerman

“Why don’t rapists eat at T.G.I. Friday’s? Well, it’s hard to rape with a stomachache.”
The jokes induce squirms vs. laughs as the comic’s ego deconstructs.
Gregg Turkington
ENTERTAINMENT
Rick Alverson, 2014
Cinematography | Lorenzo Hagerman

 

"Gilderoy, this is going to be a fantastic film. Brutal and honest. Nobody has seen this horror before." Berberian Sound Studio Peter Strickland, 2012 Cinematography | Nicholas D. Knowland

“Gilderoy, this is going to be a fantastic film. Brutal and honest. Nobody has seen this horror before.”
Berberian Sound Studio
Peter Strickland, 2012
Cinematography | Nicholas D. Knowland

 

" Everything is more complicated than you think..." Coming up close to a decade -- is the audience ready to revisit Charlie Kaufman's ever undulating surreal epic? Philip Seymour Hoffman Synecdoche, New York Charlie Kaufman, 2008 Cinematography | Frederick Elmes

” Everything is more complicated than you think…”
Coming up close to a decade — is the audience ready to revisit Charlie Kaufman’s ever undulating surreal epic?
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Synecdoche, New York
Charlie Kaufman, 2008
Cinematography | Frederick Elmes

The film I am most excited about is John Schlesinger’s strange and surreal forgotten bit of dark magic, The Day of the Locust. The Hollywood Dream is reduced to absolute metaphorical nightmare. It also features some of Conrad L. Hall’s best cinematography work.

"Good evening ladies and gentlemen in radioland. We're speaking to you from the forecourt of Grumman's Chinese Theater here in Hollywood, California..." John Schlesinger, 1975

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen in radioland. We’re speaking to you from the forecourt of Grumman’s Chinese Theater here in Hollywood, California…”
John Schlesinger, 1975

And, of course, Takashi Miike’s odd trip into Surrealism — GOZU.

"There's no need to hide something as fine and dandy as that!" GOZU Takashi Miike, 2003 Cinematography | Kazunari Tanaka

“There’s no need to hide something as fine and dandy as that!”
GOZU
Takashi Miike, 2003
Cinematography | Kazunari Tanaka

Matty Stanfield, 8.16.2016

Jazz has endured because it doesn’t have a beginning or an ending. It’s a moment.” — Robert Altman, 2004

"The game of life is hard to play" MASH Robert Altman, 1970 Cinematography | Harold E. Stine

“The game of life is hard to play”
MASH
Robert Altman, 1970
Cinematography | Harold E. Stine

A quote that not only offers perspective on the art of jazz, but also provides a key to why so many of Robert Altman’s films carry such power. When attempting to provide an over-all descriptor of this Cinematic Master’s work the word “satire” is the most often used. Other great words would be “psychology” and “humanity,” because I find it difficult to limit the scope of Altman’s filmography to the satirical. Even when he pulls us into soft satire there are equal measures of psychology and human nature that make a film like The Player resonate. I remember being surprised at how much I enjoyed The Player. A meta-film filled with late 1980’s Hollywood insider jokes and pokes that I had already decided that I would not get most of what Altman’s film pursued. I was wrong.

"So, what's the story? The Player Robert Altman, 1992 Cinematography | Jean Lépine

“So, what’s the story?
The Player
Robert Altman, 1992
Cinematography | Jean Lépine

At the time I didn’t fully appreciate many of the jokes/pokes, but Altman managed to pull me into his protagonist’s shoes. Tim Robbins’ Griffin is not an easy character to like. He is most certainly not the sort of character that you expect to root for, but I did. When this iconic movie is over the viewer is fully satisfied, but this was a movie that did not actually end. As I left the cinema that evening my mind drifted back to Griffin‘s situation. Just how far would he go in the next movie deal? The Player never really stops playing.

This sort of “ending” is the type Altman most often relied upon. In this case that ending was open-ended and threatened a whole new twist to a complex situation. Other times Altman simply cut the movie off or have his story forever floating off the screen as the credits began to roll. This often resulted in a sort of gut-punch or lingering melancholy. His first major critical and box office hit, MASH, was satirical as much as was potently human. By the time we come to that moment when the silly antics, raunchy pranks and comedy will conclude — it suddenly occurs to the audience that all of it has been a ruse. These characters have yucked it up not because it sums up who each of them are, but because they are all trying to delude themselves away from the realities of war. It is both innovative and startling to realize that Radar’s voice which has been booming out announcement over the military encampment is actually reading off the movie’s cast credits. Altman’s way of ending MASH is cleaver and hints that we are leaving the movie while the tragedies continue.

MASH Robert Altman, 1970

MASH
Robert Altman, 1970

Robert Altman had been working in the film industry for over sixteen years when he was finally able to make his narrative fiction feature film. He was 43 years old when he arrived in Canada to shoot That Cold Day in the Park. He was no neophyte. A viewer need not know that fact because this seemingly forgotten cinematic gem is handled with a confident elegance. Having managed to secure Academy Award winning actress, Sandy Dennis, to star was a crucial part of his plan. In any other filmmaker’s hands this profoundly odd character study would have been turned into a morbid horror film. Nothing about the way Altman handles Cold Day indicates the creepy place the film is headed.

Sandy Dennis plays her character like only Sandy Dennis can. She is a wealthy but lonely young woman. She lives a mundane, lonely life surrounded by wealthy extravagances limited by a social life structured around older people. It almost feels as if she has being forced into the role of an aging spinster when in reality she is far too young. It is never clearly articulated, but thanks both to Altman and Dennis’ performance we receive several clues that something is very wrong with “Miss. Frances Austen.” When she breaks convention and offers help to a homeless mute “boy” who is actually closer to her own age than others we meet in her life. We hope this is a sign of healthy rebellion and quest for human connection.

But how often does human motivation follow our better hopes? 

"I have to tell you something." Sandy Dennis That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | Laszlo Kovacs

“I have to tell you something.”
Sandy Dennis
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | Laszlo Kovacs

With Laszlo Kovacs’ brilliant cinematography bringing additional emotional levels, one could call this movie a psycho-sexual thriller. The challenge in limiting this surprisingly effective film to that genre is non-sensical. The film is far more concerned with human psychology to allow itself to fall into line with a cinematic trope. That Cold Day is far more focused on human loneliness, lack of connection and the tyranny of societally imposed isolation and alienation. The film is all of these things but Altman’s main pursuit is to slip into a woman’s damaged psyche.

The film is short and fast-paced. Filled with uncomfortable and realistic scenes between Miss. Frances Austen and The Boy, we see the woman open-up to the mute boy who she manages to keep mostly nude most of the time. Altman’s protagonist is dealing with a whole lot more than sexual repression and alienation. The movie’s “twist” arrives shortly after the one we expect. It is the way in which Altman brings about That Cold Day‘s non-ending that sparks this low-budget magic. The deliverance of the story’s true twist shifts the audience chuckle into an unexpected disturbance. What seems comical gradually takes on the perspectives of the sinister and disturbing. This little movie will never leave your mind. Film critics at the time failed to grasp the power and audiences failed to see it. Robert Altman’s true cinematic debut continues to be studied and re-evaluated.

"I want you to make love to me. Please." That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969

“I want you to make love to me. Please.”
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969

Another forgotten Robert Altman gem arrived to cinemas in 1978. A Wedding is structured and filmed in typical 1970’s casual Altman style. It is satire that manages to be both sharp and silly. A Wedding is also surprisingly sad. Filled with rambling sub-plots as two families come together for a lavish post-wedding reception, it is intentionally rambling but stumbles into deep-cutting cultural commentary. A Wedding is concerned with societal ideas around marriage, family, class and loneliness. A Wedding would later inspire a modern opera.

Carol Burnett A Wedding Robert Altman, 1978 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Carol Burnett
A Wedding
Robert Altman, 1978
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

As the wealthy and the middle class mingle and attempt to form a vague idea of familial bonds we see almost every sort of tragedy and mishap imaginable. Altman seems to constantly being throwing the audience off-guard. He seems determined to refuse any specific genre. Intellectual, slapstick, raunchy and introspective, A Wedding stretches use of familial dysfunction to its limits. The end credits arrive with an unforgettable mixture of crudeness and solemn regret. It is a very strange and often dark “comedy” of epic proportion. It failed to connect with mainstream audiences despite an amazing cast list. Part of the reason remains active today. A Wedding is framed and seems to have been set-up as a forgotten chapter of American Cultural Satire documented so brilliantly with Altman’s 1975 cinematic masterpiece, Nashville. A Wedding was never intended as such. It stands alone and has a very different sort of aim.

"You know weddings are the happiest events I could possibly dream of and yet some how when they're over it's always so sad." A Wedding Robert Altman, 1978

“You know weddings are the happiest events I could possibly dream of and yet some how when they’re over it’s always so sad.”
A Wedding
Robert Altman, 1978

The ill-fated ad campaign for A Wedding boasted that the movie contained a great many secrets, but there were no secrets about his earlier movie. Altman took a head-first plunge into the murky waters of dream logic with 1977’s 3 Women. Altman was specifically clear that this entire film was born of a personal nightmare. He was also very gracious in sharing a good deal of the credit with one of the film’s primary stars. 3 Woman is an incredible examination of identity and surrealism was largely formed by the participation of all three actors in the title roles. This is most particularly true of Shelley Duvall.

" I had the most wonderful dream..." Sissy Spacek / Shelley Duvall 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

” I had the most wonderful dream…”
Sissy Spacek / Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

This wildly experimental dark comedy morphs into one of the more disturbing films you are likely to see. It is full of female energy, but it never feels as if it is trying to make a statement about anything other than these three very specific female characters. Shelley Duvall’s Millie gleefully informs Sissy Spacek’s Pinky, “This is my parking space. It’s the best one!” Later Millie explains, “That’s Dirty Girtie! Pull her bow and she’ll say hello!”  Her delivery of those improvised lines creates an odd and varied response for viewers. Some giggle, some laugh, and many are not sure how to react. There is one reaction that is usually shared: Millie and this dream-inspired film is uncomfortable and induces squirms.

"My leg! My leg! My leg hurts..." 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

“My leg! My leg! My leg hurts…”
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

When 3 Women debuted nearly all major critics swooned. In what has inspired a number of debates, Pauline Kael truly disliked the movie. Her negative viewpoint of this film is of particular interest because up until this movie, Kael had been a consistently staunch Altman ally. Her odd dismissal of 3 Women seemed to curse this extraordinary surrealistic movie. When 20th Century Fox released it into cinemas, audiences were either entranced, confused or indifferent. The film flopped and was pulled out of cinemas just a couple of days beyond a week. Over the following two decades 3 Women has not only become a “Cult Classic” — it is now considered one of the most important American films of the 1970’s. Robert Altman’s surreal study of female identity, isolation, loneliness and sexuality is a cinematic masterpiece.

"The Home of Country Music..." NASHVILLE Robert Altman, 1975

“The Home of Country Music…”
NASHVILLE
Robert Altman, 1975

As The United States headed into its Bicentennial and a game-changing election year, Robert Altman’s Nashville provided a satirical assault. This movie is quite often called the quintessential Robert Altman film. I agree with this viewpoint. Everything we know to anticipate from the great filmmaker is present. Overlapping dialogue, lots of characters, rambling plot points, improvisational in feel but clearly mapped-out toward one clear moving image of mid-1970’s US. Country music was shifting into a more mainstream accessed pop sensibility. Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt were both about to take a place on the pop charts. Country Music stardom was no longer limited to The Grand Ole Opry. And as the country headed into a cultural values torn battle — celebrity and celebrities were as important as anything else. Music Row was selling out. Altman and his screenwriter, Joan Tewkesbury, focused on Nashville as the stage to provide a scathing satire of American culture.

Perhaps the most lost is the most knowledgeable.  Lily Tomlin  NASHVILLE Robert Altman, 1975 Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

Perhaps the most lost is the most knowledgeable.
Lily Tomlin
NASHVILLE
Robert Altman, 1975
Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

So much has been written about this exceptional film it seems silly to attempt to add anything worthy of it, but this epic film remains as powerful as it must have been in 1975. It is satire, but it is also realistically grounded within the limitations of its very human characters. It has continued to cause incorrect criticism for depicting the horrors of celebrity stalking. This film is not an inducement, it is a mirror reflection. Looking carefully in the mirror is never easy. An epic film.

In 1971 Altman set out to explore the concept of The American Western. Many have referred to McCabe & Mrs. Miller as a satire of The American Western. I do not agree with that assessment. This artfully shot and realistically acted film feels like it is attempting to more accurately be an American Western. It succeeds.

"...Oh I hope you run into them, you who've been travelling so long. Yes you who must leave everything that you cannot control..." McCabe & Mrs. Miller Robert Altman, 1971

“…Oh I hope you run into them, you who’ve been travelling so long.
Yes you who must leave everything that you cannot control…”
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Robert Altman, 1971

The timing of the story is a key element for McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The film takes place just as the 19th Century is about to progress into the 20th Century. The setting of the film is that place we know as The Old West. Filmed utilizing natural light as if he were painting on a canvas, Vilmos Zsigmond’s work is breath-stealing. I would doubt that Altman had ever worked so closely with his cinematographer to capture the exacting viewpoints so precisely with the film’s. It also had to be a major coup to manage to cast both Warren Beatty and Julie Christie (infamous lovers at that time) on one screen. He makes the most of both movie stars.

Warren Beatty’s sly ‘aw, chucks attitude is transformed into the one of the movie’s two main characters. McCabe may be tough and ambitious, but he is not very smart. I think it is safe to describe Beatty’s McCabe as a seemingly lucky idiot. Julie Christie’s luminously erotic beauty and intelligence bring Mrs. Miller to life. There is a surprisingly realistic love story here: A stunningly beautiful and intelligent woman begins to fall in love with the handsome man who appears to have all the power. The film’s straining question is how far can love grow when two people are so very different. McCabe‘s brainpower and opinions are so dull that it seems to degree a sad fate.

 

"...When you're not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you've sinned..." No. It's not Jesus.  Warren Beatty McCabe & Mrs. Miller Robert Altman, 1971 Cinematography | Vilmos Zsigmond

“…When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned…”
No. It’s not Jesus.
Warren Beatty
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Robert Altman, 1971
Cinematography | Vilmos Zsigmond

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a beautiful looking and sounding film. Leonard Cohen’s songs fill in as much of the movie’s soundtrack. This actually lends a very late 20th Century take on the film’s story. Cohen’s music also adds to the melancholy that pours out from Zsigmond’s photography. This masterful film is not satire. It is reality. Understated and even quiet, this film is truly brilliant. At long last the film has been newly restored and will be issued to DVD/Blu-Ray thanks to the folks at The Criterion Collection.

Going against the beginning of my post, McCabe & Mrs. Miller does offer a true end to the story. And this is a story that continues to speak in a meaningful way.

Julie Christie McCabe & Mrs. Miller Robert Altman, 1971 Cinematography | Vilmos Zsigmond

Julie Christie
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Robert Altman, 1971
Cinematography | Vilmos Zsigmond

Happy endings are absolutely ludicrous, they’re not true at all. We see the guy carry the girl across the threshold and everybody lives happily ever after — that’s bullshit. Three weeks later he’s beating her up and she’s suing for divorce and he’s got cancer.” — Robert Altman

We know that behind every image revealed there is another image more faithful to reality, and in the back of that image there is another, and yet another behind the last one, and so on, up to the true image of that absolute, mysterious reality that no one will ever see.” —  Michelangelo Antonioni

"Nothing like a little disaster for sorting things out." Blow-Up Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966 Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

“Nothing like a little disaster for sorting things out.”
Blow-Up
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966
Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

The most important films of Michelangelo Antonioni’s career came in the early 1960’s when he placed his muse, Monica Vitti, at the core of plots involving alienation within the spacial landscapes that furthered her character’s emotional turmoil. She was the perfect actor for these roles which required an odd intermixing of passion, panic, eroticism and almost overwhelming passive boredom. Writing this description it is hard to understand how she was able to do it.

There are very few film actresses that look anything like she did. In Antonioni’s films she seems like she might fall over at any moment and yet oppositional in that she also seems capable of knocking anyone down who might get in her way. In these films, Monica Vitti is both passive and aggressively demanding. She presented a sort of quiet introspection that threatens as much as it begs. Like Antonioni’s camera she is lost within the framework of her surroundings. As his films progressed her characters seemed to be simultaneously formed, informed and destroyed by every “thing” around her.

"A new adventure in filmmaking..." Monica Vitti contemplates. L'Avventura Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960 Cinematography | Aldo Scavarda

“A new adventure in filmmaking…”
Monica Vitti contemplates.
L’Avventura
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960
Cinematography | Aldo Scavarda

1960’s L’Aventura is entirely dependent upon Monica Vitti’s presence. Vitti has such a strongly unique erotic charisma, being and mystifying beauty and everything that happens in the film requires her to make it believable. It is impossible for the viewer to take their eyes off of her. Within only a few minutes of Claudia entering the camera’s frame, the audience is placed in a surprisingly uncomfortable position.

Is this young woman someone we can trust? Do her actions seem disconnected from her motivation?

It says a great deal that we contemplate these ideas so early on. As the film moves forward the viewer must decide if Claudia is actually concerned or simply curious. There seems to be a deception playing out within the geographical and interior spaces.

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L’Avventura Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960

 

Antonioni finds ways to casually push a suspicious and possibly tragic disappearance further way from his film’s plot. What at first seems like an essential motivation for Claudia and that of her vanished friend’s lover eventually becomes nothing more than a back story. By the time the film drifts to its midpoint, the audience becomes accomplices in Claudia‘s warped journey. Like her, we no longer care longer about this missing friend, daughter and fiancee. Our primary concern becomes the possibility of love between Claudia and the “worried” fiancee. There is an ever unsettling feeling that the two leading characters hope the respective friend and lover is never found. The real kick-spin is that both have different reasons for wishing this woman to stay vanished. It is an alarming shift of gears that doesn’t really hit you until the “Fine” title card emerges on the screen.

 

Gabriele Ferzetti and Monica Vitti L'Avventura Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960 Cinematography | Aldo Scavarda

Gabriele Ferzetti and Monica Vitti
L’Avventura
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960
Cinematography | Aldo Scavarda

 

Gabriele Ferzetti and Monica Vitti L'Avventura Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960 Cinematography | Aldo Scavarda

Gabriele Ferzetti and Monica Vitti
L’Avventura
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960
Cinematography | Aldo Scavarda

 

Is she thinking of her friend or obsessing about herself? Monica Vitti L'Avventura Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960 Cinematography | Aldo Scavarda

Is she thinking of her friend or obsessing about herself?
Monica Vitti
L’Avventura
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960
Cinematography | Aldo Scavarda

 

1961’s La Notte is less interested in telling a story than pulling the audience into a different world. The world in which we find ourselves alternates between cold and intimidating to abandoned and decaying. It seems to be in a state of change that threatens to push our characters even further into isolation. The film is an effective, textured and sensual exploration of a specific place during a specific moment in time. The time is 1961 and the place is Milan.

 

“I no longer have inspirations, only recollections.” La Notte Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961

 

La Notte Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961 Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

La Notte
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961
Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

The modern architecture is carefully photographed and it seems to reflect, deflect and motivate the film’s characters. The schism between the ultra-modern designs and the remainders of pre-WWII Italy the audience is allowed to see seems to play roles in the way characters relate or fail to relate to one another. The old and dilapidated appear to be falling away and replaced with sleek and modern youth. The same appears to be happening to a married couple. As we follow the two halves of a near middle-age couple roam through their day and evening ideas fill both the screen and the mind.

Jeanne Moreau's character is reduced in self-worth and hope as she wanders the streets of Milan. La Notte Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961 Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

Jeanne Moreau’s character is reduced in self-worth and hope as she wanders the streets of Milan.
La Notte
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961
Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

The ideas do not form a unified thought or purpose. Nor does the roaming lead to anywhere specific. This is the point.

Jeanne Moreau roams the mansion while Monica Vitti basks in her boredom... La Notte Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961 Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

Jeanne Moreau roams the mansion while Monica Vitti basks in her boredom…
La Notte
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961
Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

As the old falls away so do the walls that have protected generations from exposure are now given way to a certain transparency that forces the characters to see the truth of not only strangers but of each other. A brilliantly effective, evocative and sensual mood piece of European cinema. An ideal film for a viewer who likes to think and experience an art form.

Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni fail to connect. Monica Vitti listens in... La Notte Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961 Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni fail to connect. Monica Vitti listens in…
La Notte
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961
Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

It is unlikely that it will appeal to those who seek out movies for story and escapism, but it is hard to imagine a more human experience. Hearts are damaged and there seems to be no comfort found in a marriage that has failed to flourish alongside the urban civilization that is only beginning to sprawl. The ideas associated with architecture mirroring its inhabitants is again pursued by Antonioni’s next film, L’Eclisse.

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L’Eclisse Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962

Michelangelo Antonioni’s vision is perhaps most strongly applied with L’Eclisse. This movie has become better every time I see it. It is framed as a love story, but the actual focus takes on a deeper perspective regarding the mixed and differing feelings between two would-be-lovers. The architecture of La Notte often fights to be a leading character. L’eclipse embraces both Monica Vitti and Alain Delon as the primary characters, but the architecture seems to emerge as a third.

Alain Delon and Monica Vitti are actually fitting into their environment, but are their emotions? L'Eclisse Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962 Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

Alain Delon and Monica Vitti are actually fitting into their environment, but are their emotions?
L’Eclisse
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962
Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

Post WWII Rome’s architectural conflict is very much present, however it often feels like the two human characters are informing it rather than the other way around. Gianni Di Venxnzo’s cinematography fully utilizes the Rome land/inner-scapes, but our two characters are essential elements in their mutual and respective worlds. Minimal in the way of speech, Antonioni still expertly captures two young people and a city in the midst of adapting to post-war changes.

There is a great more between these two lovers than a structural support column. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962 Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

There is a great more between these two lovers than a structural support column.
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962
Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

Nearly every emotion or concern felt is reflected back to them from the buildings, walls and all surroundings within which they are attempting to live, grow and love. It as if this “love” is wanting to return to the old world comforts. The problem facing both characters is how can they use love in a modern world that refuses to go back? If there were to be a means of escape, would they lose more if they left?  An essential and magical film.

A poster seems to be offering an escape, but it could be a trap of another sort. L'Eclisse Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962 Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

A poster seems to be offering an escape, but it could be a trap of another sort.
L’Eclisse
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962
Cinematography | Gianni Di Venanzo

In 1964 Antonioni hired Carlo Di Palma as his cinematographer. He shot Red DesertIl deserto rosso in color. This film is deceptively beautiful because society’s landscape and territory are no longer simply imposing and reflecting emotions. In Red Desert the man-made structural landscapes and architecture is actually attacking the film’s leading character. Monica Vitti’s Giuliana is not merely trapped within the identity and isolation imposed by her environment — she is suffering as her environment is literally attacking her. The world in which Giuliana moves is toxic.

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In dying color… Red Desert Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964 Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

Unforgettable and operatic in her performance as a mentally unstable wife/mother, Monica Vitti becomes a walking analogy for the environment in which she must live. Surrounded by the bleakness of destructive industrial plants and the cold interiors which have been created in the surrounding suburbs. Red Desert marks a major turn in Antonioni’s vision regarding the human condition and surrounding environments.

Monica Vitti takes a walk in a post-industrial nightmare. Red Desert Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964 Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

Monica Vitti takes a walk in a post-industrial nightmare.
Red Desert
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964
Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

 

"I dreamed I was in bed and the bed was moving. I looked down and it was on quicksand. It was sinking deeper and deeper." Monica Vitti Red Desert Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964 Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

“I dreamed I was in bed and the bed was moving. I looked down and it was on quicksand. It was sinking deeper and deeper.”
Monica Vitti
Red Desert
Michelangelo
Antonioni, 1964
Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

The captured images are surprisingly lovely, but the meanings conveyed through them come close to post-industrial horror. In many ways this film is the most experimental the director had ever made. He is clearly in love with Vitti and renders her unique beauty in the most sensual of ways. And while this movie is obviously aimed to be societal commentary, it also features a fascinating performance. As Monica Vitti forms her character she lends the film a possibility of other meanings.

"She loved that spot. The colors of nature were so beautiful, and there was no noise. She'd leave only when the sun did too." Red Desert Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964 Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

“She loved that spot. The colors of nature were so beautiful, and there was no noise. She’d leave only when the sun did too.”
Red Desert
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964
Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

This is realism and one is never quite sure if perhaps her challenges might be more connected to mental illness than environmental. It is easy to imagine Todd Haynes taking notes. It is hard to imagine that Red Desert did not inform his brilliant 1990’s Safe. While Red Desert is most certainly a turn in a different direction for Antonioni, his next film really swerved off his expected cinematic path.

“What do you they call you in bed?” Blow-Up Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966

Blow-Up finds Antonioni in a different country and films the entire film in English. This infamous 1966 film offered more than just a language and location change. Gone is the angst-ridden female protagonist. Monica Vitti is no where in sight. The new protagonist is a young man enjoying, manipulating, exploiting and indulging in the expanding excesses of Swinging London. David Hemmings plays a sly, bored and seemingly hollow fashion photographer who pursues sex and human connection with the same amount of passive interest as a random purchase at an antique store.

For our protagonist, models are not people. They are objects that he arranges.  Blow-Up Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966 Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

For our protagonist, models are not people. They are objects that he arranges.
Blow-Up
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966
Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

Not without talent, Thomas is an emerging hot talent in the world of Fashion photography. He is clearly well paid, but not yet where he wants to be. Women are no longer people to this man, they are pretty little things he photographs and seduces. Actually, he doesn’t bother with seduction. The hot young women are as hungry for fame as he is for money. People do not seem to hold much value for Thomas. Surrounded by the excitement of his city and the era in which he moves, Antonioni establishes that his protagonist is not enjoying much of anything.

It's all in a day's work... Blow-Up Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966 Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

It’s all in a day’s work…
Blow-Up
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966
Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

It is isn’t until he makes the mistake of photographing a private moment between two lovers in a park that he is forced to actually re-evaluate his measure as a human being. Antonioni crafts a magical film. Make no mistake, he captures the ambiance of 1960’s Swinging London with the same carefully articulated method he applied to the re-emerging post-WWII Italy.

Is it just a pretty picture?  Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966 Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

Is it just a pretty picture?
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966
Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

The film is slowly paced as it begins to pull the audience into the photographer’s depressingly vacuous world. But then, just as the audience thinks Blow-Up is taking in a certain direction the gears shift. Antonioni offers something that he has never given the audience before: A Hitchcockian plot twist that would have served any other filmmaker in a dramatically different way.

Not your typical Swinging London Party Girl, Vanessa Redgrave assess the photographer, the situation and her options.  Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966 Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

Not your typical Swinging London Party Girl, Vanessa Redgrave assess the photographer, the situation and her options.
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966
Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

 

Vanessa Redgrave’s Jane rushes into the film like a breeze of erotic curiosity and panic. Her visit to the photographer’s home and studio should lead the film in a what seems the logical place — instead this scene serves as a catalyst for introspection. As Thomas rushes through his study to blow-up the negatives of Jane‘s seemingly romantic entanglement in the park, he shows an unexpected aspect of himself. Thomas is actually interested in understanding why Jane was so desperate to secure the film he had taken of she and a lover in the park.

For the first time in the film, David Hemmings shows some passion in his pursuit of understanding. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966 Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

For the first time in the film, David Hemmings shows some passion in his pursuit of understanding.
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966
Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

David Hemmings’ Thomas has no connection to Monica Vitti’s Antonioni’s characters. He is not alienated. He is neither riddled with insecurity, ennui or angst of any sort. He sees something he wants, he puts forward only the required energy or money to get it. But as an artist, Thomas is curious. Of course Blow-Up wants the viewer to think it is a thriller. Once the twist is revealed, Antonioni shifts cinematic gears once more. If one must call this movie a thriller, then that person most likely needs to Anti to the term. This is one thrill that turns against the protagonist inward toward self-introspection. In some ways the cost of the plot’s thrill is far more horrifying than the stalking of a killer. Thomas soon finds himself not so much in pursuit of the answer to a mystery — he is left to contemplate the empty shell of a person he has allowed himself to become.

"What did you see in that park?" Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966 Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

“What did you see in that park?”
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966
Cinematography | Carlo Di Palma

Less a mystery of human cruelty as it is a study humanity lost in decadence. In the end Thomas has more in common with the female protagonists of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Italian films. The only real difference is that he is male and has been allowed more access to freedom. That societally entitled power takes him no closer to fulfillment.

Matty Stanfield, 5.16.2016

 

How? Why? REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965

How? Why?
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965

It didn’t quite make him a household name, but Roman Polanski’s low-budget psychological thriller, Repulsion, would spark a fracture in cinema that inspired countless film artists. Three years later he would permanently place himself in both popular and high art culture with the release of Rosemary’s Baby. But it was in 1962 that Polanski made a very deep mark with his razor sharp psychological thriller, Knife in the Water.

Armed with a some basic handheld cameras, a very small budget, one sailboat and three actors — Polanski and his cinematographer, Jerzy Lipman, managed to create an unforgettable film. Capturing characters, space, eroticism, tension and suspense in some of the most elegantly simplistic ways, Knife in the Water sears into the mind’s eye.

Playing at The Beekman! Knife in the Water Roman Polanski, 1962

Playing at The Beekman!
Knife in the Water
Roman Polanski, 1962

 

*** These shots vary in quality as the newly remastered version has yet to be released to Blu-Ray, but it will be available in the near future.

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Knife in the Water

Roman Polanski, 1962

Cinematography, Jerzy Lipman

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“Give me back my knife.”

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” So, you do know how to swim.”

 

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“You’re just like him… only half his age, and twice as dumb.”

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” Sailors get mast-headed for that…”

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“You’ve drowned a boy.”

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Matty Stanfield, 5.3.2016

 

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Uh, oh. Trouble is coming from all sides as Ken Russell takes British Film into the 1970’s. Despite on-going demand, Time Warner still refuses to allow us to take a full-on second look back. Britain’s most infamous film actually belongs to a United States based corporation. The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

When one thinks of 1960’s Film Art, the mind does not immediately jump to thoughts of British cinema. Most of us think of France’s La Nouvelle Vague, Germany’s Neuer Deutsche Film, Italy’s NeoRealism film movement, The Japanese New Wave or The Polish New Wave from which Britain did snatch Roman Polanski. Certainly there were groundbreaking British films that caught the spirit of London’s Swinging 60’s Era, but many of these films have aged rather poorly. Just think of Petulia, Morgan!, Darling, Billy Liar or Georgy Girl.  If honest, what really still works about these films is related to a time capsule interest. Many of these British films are quite valid (think A Taste of Honey, This Sporting Life, Room At The Top, A Hard Day’s Night, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, Performance ) but the majority have not held up as well as one might hope.

This is not true across the board. Stanley Kubrick’s British work has only gotten better with time and Michelangelo Antonioni’s visit into Swinging London culture of the time, Blow Up, remains a vital work. However, are these truly British films? It would seem that both of these filmmakers were in a sort of transitionary position. Antonioni was visiting England. Kubrick was still fairly new to British culture.

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The great Julie Christie is The Ideal Woman of 1965’s British satire of Swinging London, but the film barely registers beyond nostalgia now. Darling John Schlesinger, 1965 Cinematography | Kenneth Higgins

Most of the iconic British films of the 1960’s are simply limited to nostalgia. Guy Hamilton, Andy Milligan, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Lindsay Shonteff are exceptions but much of what they were trying to convey would soon better estimated by the likes of Alan Parker and most especially Mike Leigh. Ken Loach would not truly find his voice until he entered his 50’s in the 1990’s. There was also a good share of attention to The Angry Young Man of the day. Tony Richardson had moments of brilliance but looking back he seemed to have been challenged by what style of film best suited his voice. Richard Lester certainly left a mark, but here again we are slipping into time capsule pop culture moments.

The British New Wave is also largely obscured by the mega-epics of David Lean’s heavily praised, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago are considered to be a cinematic masterpieces. I’ve never been particularly impressed. To be honest, I’ve never made it through Lawrence of Arabia without falling asleep. Carol Reed’s adaptation of the stage musical, Oliver! was another huge British hit of the 1960’s that pushed pass the more reflexive films of the day.

There were two particularly strong and solitary British Film Artists who were finding new methods of cinematic language. Nicolas Roeg would soon move from the cinematographer chair to that of director and change the face of film editing as it was known. Ken Russell’s work for the BBC and his adaptation of Larry Kramer’s adaptation of DH Lawrence’s Women In Love all stand alone and unique in offering new ways of using film to express ideas and to tell stories. And he really stole the anticipated reigns of the film biography when The Music Lovers slammed onto movie screens across the world in 1970.

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Ken Russell welcomes us to the 1970’s via way of 16h Century France as “the wife” of a Priest makes her way past the destruction of the Roman-Catholic Church… Gemma Jones The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

As British Film headed into the 1970’s some firm and potent voices formed. Certainly Stanley Kubrick’s A Clock Work Orange is a British Film. All American cultural ideas have fallen off his cinematic map. John Schlesinger pretty much left England for America. Ken Russell defied all expectations with his searing and important 1971 film, The Devils. As it turns out Ken Russell, Nicolas Roeg and Stanley Kubrick were not alone. The thing is some of the new British voices got somehow lost in the mix. Barney Platts-Mills’ may have only made one film in the 1960’s, but it is a powerful entry into British Film History. Three other filmmakers also created work not only ahead of the cultural curve — they challenged it and ran their work close to the edge of the rails.

As we stumble forward toward the third decade of the 21st Century, The British Film Institute has gone deep within the corners of their storage closets to re-release a couple of seldom seen motion pictures that capture 1960’s London in whole new ways. Most of these titles were dusted off, restored, re-released within the UK and issued to DVD/Blu-Ray between 2009 and 2011.

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The British Film Festival pulled several legendary but almost forgotten films and re-issued them to DVD/Blu-Ray in 2010 and 2011. These “lost” films of Jack Bond, Jane Arden, Joseph Despins and William Dumaresq teach us that Ken Russell and Stanley Kubrick were not alone in finding new ways to capture stories and ideas for the British Screen.

Two of these four filmmakers were actually Canadian born. Even still, these two ex-pats of Canada artists show no signs of unfamiliarity with the setting of their two crucial films that BFI re-issued several years back for the first time in over 40 years. The other two filmmakers are most certainly British and have cinematic voices which come close to that of Ken Russell and Nicolas Roeg. Like Russell / Roeg, these two British Film Artists were well-versed but often Anti-Intellectual in the way they approached their work. They were far more focused on the visual and the use of film editing. Rebels all, but each were reeling out their rebellion from different core identities. Unlike Ken Russell and Nicolas Roegs’ work of the 1960’s, all four of the other Film Artists will not appeal to a number of people, but it is hard to imagine anyone disputing their importance.

I’m currently exploring the work of a number of British filmmakers who are new to me. I plan on writing more on the art and collaborations of Jane Arden and Jack Bond. The work these two created almost defies terminology, but I’m going to give it my best shot!

But for this post, I want to touch on two films. The first of these two was born out of the mixed theatre and social service ideals of the great Joan Littlewood. “The Mother of Modern Theatre” devoted the second half of her life working with the young people of East London who were lost, without purpose or supervision. These young people were in constant threat of falling prey to all manner of trouble. Her idea was to create a space where these teenagers could be allowed to hang out and “act” out their issues, challenges and ideas. Firmly grounded in the arts but against what she viewed as Elitism of The National Theatre. Her Theatre Royal Stratford East was free of pretension and open to everyone. It was here that Barney Platts-Mills was inspired to scrap together a bit of money to make an amazing little film called Bronco Bullfrog.

Non-actors, Anne Gooding & Del Walker, "play" fictionalized versions of themselves and contemplate their futures. Bronco Bullfrog Barney Platts-Mills, 1969 Cinematography | Adam Barker-Mill

Non-actors, Anne Gooding & Del Walker, “play” fictionalized versions of themselves and contemplate their futures.
Bronco Bullfrog
Barney Platts-Mills, 1969
Cinematography | Adam Barker-Mill

Bronco Bullfrog stars non-actors who had been working with each other under the loose guidance of Joan Littlewood. While the plot is deceptively simple, a great deal of information about the grimness of urban decay, lack of parenting and dystopian boredom come through loud and clear. Glam and style-free, this is a study of teenagers floating along without purpose, direction or hope. Interestingly, it is not all gloom and doom. The characters of Bronco Bullfrog start to find their way as the film heads to conclusion. This is a gem of a film that has never received the praise or attention it deserved. As good as this movie is, it can hardly stand-up when positioned next to Joseph Despins and William Dumaresqs’ ultra-strange and unforgettable twisted little movie, Duffer.

duffer_banner

A good 6 years before anyone had seen the dark surrealism and humor of David Lynch, this low-budget experimental film serves as welcome warning that the art of filmmaking is about to take an innovative, creative and altogether new turn. Kit Gleave as Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Joseph Despins and William Dumaresq crafted this weird and entertaining movie on a budget so low it is probably best not to state it. The camera work is surprisingly solid. Actually the cinematography is far more than solid, it is artistically sound. Cinematographer, Jorge Guerra, may not have had the best equipment but he most certainly knew how to use it. The shots are often brilliant.

There is no sound. The narration and voices were recorded by a different cast. It only takes a few minutes before it is clear that the lack of sound was not going to be a deficit. In fact, the creative dubbing actually adds to this film in more ways than one. Comical and often horrifying, the dubbed dialogue serves exceptionally as an aide to the film’s surrealism, dark comedy, menace and horror.

"WoManAmal!!!" Duffer's junkie gay keeper heaps on the abuse and chronicles it all for underground porn.  William Dumaresq as "Louis-Jack" Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

“WoManAmal!!!” Duffer’s junkie gay keeper heaps on the abuse and chronicles it all for underground porn.
William Dumaresq as “Louis-Jack”
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

The dubbing actually heightens the discomfort as we watch a young man attempt to reconcile the emotional, physical and sexual abuse of his older junkie boyfriend by engaging in an affair with a female prostitute. Enduring the sort of sadistic torment one seldom sees addressed in film, Despins and Dumaresq were extremely clever in presenting it in very dark comical ways that disturb but never so much that one needs to run for cover. The kind but obviously more than a bit twisted herself, prossie called Your Gracie gives the lost teen some solace while fully utilizing him as a tool.

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Erna May as “Your Gracie” is using Kit Gleave’s “Duffer,” but he hopes she is saving his masculinity… Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

As the KINK/BDSM with his male keeper becomes more severe and his trysts with his female lover decrease — Duffer is pulled into his male lover’s Horse addiction and begins to suffer one of the most bizarre psychosomatic delusions I’ve ever seen. The poor kid’s delusions continue to morph into what appears to be a psychotic break. This twisted, funny, unsettling and fascinating experimental film deals with almost every aspect of human cruelty and horror imaginable. And just to amp up Duffer’s already potent cinematic stew, we gradually begin to suspect that our protagonist may not be the most reliable narrator.

Just a bi-sexual boy walking through 1970 Notting Hill either on his way from or toward abuse at the hands of older suitors.  Kit Gleave in his only film role... Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Just a bi-sexual boy walking through 1970 Notting Hill either on his way from or toward abuse at the hands of older suitors.
Kit Gleave in his only film role…
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

As the film unspools more perversities and jaw-drop moments at break-neck speed, we are constantly given an exceptional examination of 1970’s Notting Hill. You may think you’ve seen urban decay and dystopian-like settings, but Duffer presents an England few of us have seen. Filmed on location and on the very cheap, this is perplexing and truly extraordinary view of the state of things circa 1969-1970. I realize that some of you will be annoyed that I’m grouping this film into the 1960’s British New Wave, but Duffer is clearly set in the 1960’s. This is not the 1970’s.

The film begins with Duffer sitting alone by the water. A pretty young woman pauses as she crosses a bridge far above the handsome boy. As the film whirls to conclusion we find him once again in the same place. It is impossible to not ponder where the film’s reality begins or ends. In fact, there is a distinct possibility that none of it is real. However there are just as many clues that all of what see presented has happened in reality. I’m not dropping a spoiler here, the viewer begins to distrust poor Duffer almost immediately. This is a narrator we are unable to trust. But the most jarring aspect of this film is that it presents itself solidly within the Surrealist Context.

All alone in his thoughts... Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

All alone in his thoughts…
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

It is important to note that as much as I praise Duffer, it is not for all tastes. While never truly graphic, it is most definitely profane and very perverse. The humor is so dark that many will feel guilty laughing. This is one demented movie. It also features a deeply strange musical score from the composer who gave the world the 1960’s Broadway smash, Hair. Galt McDermot’s score plays like something you would hear in an alternate universe Tin Pan Alley. Just when you think you will only be hearing a piano — a quickly use of electronics starts to grind forward.

"Mind how you go..." No where in Notting Hill is safe! Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

“Mind how you go…” No where in Notting Hill is safe!
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Duffer screams out for repeated viewings to understand, to ensure that what you think you’ve just seen was actually shown and for the simple fact that this movie is endlessly entertaining. And trust me, this movie gets under your skin. Once it slips under, it stays there. In addition, something about Duffer seems to be signaling the audience to watch out for David Lynch. Were it not so very British, it could easily be mistaken for something a young David Lynch might have created. Unique, innovative, disturbing, haunting, funny and altogether original, Duffer is a must see lost British Cinematic Treasure.

Well there is nothing quite like watching your lover's home movies abusing you... Kit Gleave watches what we can only guess hurt a great deal. Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Well there is nothing quite like watching your lover’s home movies abusing you…
Kit Gleave watches what we can only guess hurt a great deal.
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

 

I honestly found no flaw in Duffer.

Just pulled back into darkness after being "fixed" for activities best kept there... Duffer Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971 Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

Just pulled back into darkness after being “fixed” for activities best kept there…
Duffer
Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq, 1971
Cinematography | Jorge Guerra

I loved this film, but the work of both Jane Arden and Jack Bond really blew me away. Blown out the window and lying on the pavement outside our San Francisco home, the collaborations of Arden and Bond require more than a little thought and meditation. I’m still letting their three films digest, but I’ll be writing about them soon.

Pushing Feminist Agenda, Drug Experimentation, Examination and Destruction of an identity born of societal and cultural domination, Jane Arden & Jack Bond pull us into the dangerous threat of absolute madness... The Other Side of the Underneath Jane Arden, 1972 Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

Pushing Feminist Agenda, Drug Experimentation, Examination and Destruction of an identity born of societal and cultural domination, Jane Arden & Jack Bond pull us into the dangerous threat of absolute madness…
The Other Side of the Underneath
Jane Arden, 1972
Cinematography | Jack Bond & Aubrey Dewar

Matty Stanfield, 12.23.2015

 

“I was wondering if you could do me a favor and write a think piece on Polanski’s Repulsion? Perhaps you could post it on your blog. I’d really appreciate it.”

"The nightmare world of a virgin's dreams becomes the screen's shocking reality!" REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965

“The nightmare world of a virgin’s dreams becomes the screen’s shocking reality!”
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965

This request brought me back to my college daze. An English Major, during my sophomore year a professor challenged me to form my semester thesis on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. The challenge was not the thesis, but the actual assignment:

Create a thesis “with something new” to offer about the Scarlet Letter.

An odd and somewhat cruel way to make or break my grade. I wanted to bang my then-stoner-head into a wall. I took a real leap into my deconstruction of Hawthorne’s novel. And, I pulled out all the stops.

On her way up to the flat she shares with her sister, Carol bites her nails. I was doing something similar as I tried to find something "new" in "The Scarlet Letter" Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

On her way up to the flat she shares with her sister, Carol bites her nails. I was doing something similar as I tried to find something “new” in “The Scarlet Letter”
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

My thesis argued that the book was an account of actual demonic possession. As I made my presentation to a class full of actual adults, I was met with snickering and eye-rolling. However, I had strange supporting information for every question designed to make me look the idiot. In the end, the professor gave me a “B.”

Not a horrible grade, but this was an advanced course in which I was the only student not yet working on their Masters. It was the lowest grade I ever received in a literature course. A year later I asked this professor why he gave me such a task. His answer? The conversation went something like this:

I wanted to take you down a peg or two. I didn’t feel a Sophomore should have been in that class.

So you wanted to humiliate me by having me read a book normally studied in Freshman year?

Yes and I wanted to give you an impossible assignment. I had no intention of failing you. My plan was to give you a “C” no matter what you presented.”

You gave me a ‘B.‘”

Yes. Your thesis was absurd, but you supported it well. I almost gave you an ‘A-‘ but your ridiculous rebellion against grammar would not allow me that opportunity.”

The following semester I discussed this with another professor who would become my university mentor and friend until her death in the mid-1990’s. She indicated that my experience was actually a surprising compliment from that professor.

So when an individual of some note asked me to write a piece about Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, I had to laugh. What can one possibly write about that infamous film that hasn’t been written about six million times before? I thought about it and politely declined. But as it turns out there is a strangely valid reason for this person’s request.

And so I now ask for your indulgence as I attempt to take another exploration into Repulsion.

Catching her reflection in a vase, Carol seems transfixed by the contour's warped perspective. Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Catching her reflection in a vase, Carol seems transfixed by the contour’s warped perspective.
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

It speaks volumes that 50 years after it first screened, Repulsion continues to not only entertain, but unnerve audiences. Roman Polanski’s first English-speaking film is at simultaneously experimental and resoundingly accessible. It also happens to be one of the most intimately disturbing films ever made. The intimacy of this film emanates not only from the style in which it is crafted but also from a universally shared fear of losing grasp with our own perception of reality. The film gradually pulls us into the protagonist’s hysteria leaving the viewer disoriented and distressed. I do not care for the term “hysteria” but I think it is perfectly suited here. By the time Polanski’s grim little movie comes to its ambiguous ending and circular cinematic “logic,” it is impossible to not relate to Catherine Deneuve’s character.

This resonation is the film’s most horrific element: deep down we all worry that sanity is just a few pegs away from leaving us alone, isolated and afraid beyond recognition.

Roman Polanski has always refused to answer direct questions about what we are seeing or how we are to interpret what is shown. While this is a smart move for any filmmaker, I suspect Polanski’s refusal is actually deeply valid. Certainly the movie is about a young woman going insane, but questions about “reality” vs. “hallucination” or simply “Surrealism” continue to form Repulsion‘s Film Theory discussion. However, the idea that Polanski himself was not entirely sure of what he was striving to present fails to hold water. Roman Polanski is far too intelligent a filmmaker and Repulsion is far too acutely acted, set-up and edited to have come from an unsure footing.

Moving closer is the vase's distortion somehow more aligned with Carol's perceptions? Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Moving closer is the vase’s distortion somehow more aligned with Carol’s perceptions?
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

I’ve read so many essays on this film. I would not know how to reference all of the different theories. These range from “Feminist Statement” to “It all really happens!” to “Childhood Rape Survivor / PTSD” all the way down to Cinematic Metaphor on a wide range of topics. One of the many metaphors tied to the film is the Counter-Cultural Impact of the 1960’s. Another ties the film to Sexual Revolutionary Reaction. Going even further beneath the surface of the film’s simple complexity have been theories about the actual meaning of the protagonist’s name. I must admit that even the most far-out theories interest me. The way we deconstruct artwork is always interesting and revealing.

Perhaps the most valid of the many theories is grounded in three Polanski films that are often referred to as The Apartment Horror Trilogy. One would have a hard time arguing against the connections between Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant. All three of these films play with senses of perception, claustrophobic induced fears, paranoia and insanity. Then of course there is the knee-jerk tendency to connect Polanski’s profoundly horrific childhood, the devastating tragedy he endured in the late 1960’s and his personal sexual transgressions of the 1970’s which led him into exile. Certainly an artist’s life experience will color his/her work, but unless the artist is willing to discuss the connection — it really feels inappropriate to read the personal into the work. And yet can we just dismiss the facts that two of the characters are immigrants, deal with sexual confusion, are put in the position of outsiders and all fall prey to paranoia.

But my personal concept of this strangely timeless film is tied to perception. A deeply warped and disassociated perception that has been manifesting within the mind that when faced dead-on with confrontation, loneliness and isolation triggers a spasm into the darkest corners of insanity. The most telling signals Polanski delivers, with a great deal of assistance from Gilbert Taylor’s cinematography, are the ways in which he starts and ends the film. The first thing we see on the screen is Carol’s eye in extreme close-up. As the camera pulls back we realize that we are seeing Deneuve’s “Carol” staring out into space. She is clearly not looking at anything, yet there is something “off” about her expression. It hints that she might be looking at something which is not visible to us. In reality, she has sort of spaced-out during application of a manicure in the beauty salon that employees her.

The opening shot... REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

The opening shot…
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Her client, her co-worker and her boss all seem to think she is caught in the dewy haze of love. The pretty manicurist is daydreaming of her Prince Charming. If only they knew. Carol is an immigrant and she lives with her sister, Helene, in a fairly spacious and charming apartment. It is important to note that Carol’s apartment is simple and it appears spacious. However, after we enter the apartment with Carol it is clear that it is not all that large. Upon entering this home which will soon morph into a sort of self-imposed prison of horrors, we note that the entry way is short. The living room is off to the immediate left, the kitchen off to the immediate right. The hallway leads to the modern bathroom. The bedrooms appear at first to be opposite each other at the end of the hall.

Carol's "safe place" quickly transforms into a living, breathing, shape-shifting space of horrors. REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Carol’s “safe place” quickly transforms into a living, breathing, shape-shifting space of horrors.
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

It is also interesting to note that the apartment is appointed with furniture that would have most likely been accumulated from various sources. Only Carol’s elder sister seems to have taken the time to actually fashion a look for her bedroom. Both young women still have remnants of childhood in their respective rooms. However, there is an important difference between Carol and Helenes’ rooms: Helen has a couple of stuffed animals, but a sexy feminine atmosphere. Carol’s room is oddly void of personality. Yet there a few things of note: a child’s night lamp and a sense of untidiness. The living room has a cluttered collection of items which we can safely assume have all been placed by Helene. LifeMarie-Claire and gossip magazines lay near a simple turntable/radio with some 45’s and a couple of record albums. Judging by the way we will later see Carol rummage through the items in the living room — none of these things are hers and none seem to interest her. Except for one item.

It is Polanski’s repeated return to this item that it is clear that is great meaning here. An old childhood family photograph which we will later learn was taken in Brussels. This photograph seems draw Carol’s attention. She clearly wants to look it, but it seems to hold a threat within the borders of the frame.

A childhood family portrait taken in Brussels... REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

A childhood family portrait taken in Brussels…
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Early in the film Helene points out that Carol needs to be more social. She needs to get out more and meet people. As Helene begins to prepare a meal with a freshly skinned rabbit as the core component, Carol seems to only be interested in two things: Helene’s boyfriend who has begun to leave his personal items in Carol’s bathroom glass and a crack springing out from what appears to be some sort of kitchen ventilation screen. Helene has little patience for Carol’s dislike of her boyfriend. An impatience which we later will understand comes from the fact that Helene is dating a married man.

When Carol studies the crack in the kitchen wall she mutters, “I must get this crack mended.” Helene only briefly appears to be concerned by the comment. It is only with hindsight that the viewer wonders if that initial crack was ever there in the first place.  Helene’s boyfriend is loud, jovial and more than a bit of a flirt. He clearly disgusts Carol. When he dismisses the idea of eating a rabbit dinner, he promises to take Helene out on the town for a grand meal. Helene quickly places the skinned and seasoned rabbit in the tiny kitchen refrigerator. Carol is clearly upset that Helene is leaving her alone in the apartment but refuses to admit it. As Helene and her man step into the elevator to leave for some fun he points out that “something” is wrong with Carol and she should see someone. It is the first time we see Helene become upset. Perhaps a little too upset. She seems furious that he would insinuate that anything is wrong with her little sister.

Auto-pilot at the salon... Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Auto-pilot at the salon…
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

We have already witnessed Carol’s strange manner of falling into her thoughts. She has drifted away while applying nail polish causing the client to ask if she is asleep. Despite this sort of behavior she is able to communicate well with her boss explaining that the salon is out of a particular shade of polish, she is polite and she never appears hostile. If anything, she appears shy but friendly. When we follow her on her lunch break it is clear she is on a sort of auto-pilot as she walks. The only things that cause her to snap out of her “daydreaming” are the sexual catcalls that greet her as she passes a street construction crew.

A quiet walk seems to be an open invitation to sexual advances... Catherine Deneuve faces the catcalls. REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

A quiet walk seems to be an open invitation to sexual advances…
Catherine Deneuve faces the catcalls.
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

The initial shot shows Carol’s back and working class construction men. But after the catcalling begins, Carol can’t help but glance. Suddenly the camera perspective on the loudest of the crew presents a somewhat distorted shot of the man. The camera’s perspective makes him appear slightly distorted and evil. Of course, anyone would feel uncomfortable in this situation. This male public assertion of sexuality and sexual intent displaces the identity of women. They become nothing more than an object for sex. It is threatening. However, there is something about that camera angle and the way in which Carol reacts that seems to be not quite right.

Cracks in the walls and the pavement. Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Cracks in the walls and the pavement.
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

The other thing that snaps Carol out of “daydreaming” or zombie-like walking are a couple of cracks in the pavement. These cracks upon the cement ground which Carol treads cause her to halt and study them. It is as if the cracks in the pavement have pulled Carol into another type of “daydream.” So intense is her interest in these cracks, she calmly takes a seat on a public bench and stares at them. This is far more than “daydreaming.” This is at the very least OCD behavior only without any level of energy. Once again with hindsight, one can’t help but wonder what Carol is actually seeing as she stares at the cracks.

What does Carol see in the cracks? Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

What does Carol see in the cracks?
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Perception and Gilbert Taylor’s cinematography is key to understanding Repulsion. Returning to the film’s opening shot, if one thinks about the way in which Polanski chose to displays the film’s credits — it is clear that was far more than a “creepy” method to indicate a genre. Initially the title and words appear to be coming out from behind the iris of the eyeball, but very quickly any logic to the way the words appear on the screen are not limited to the eye itself. The letters and names float about without any level of logical editing. The credits present themselves in a visually discordant manner. And as the words scroll about the screen, the eyeball and eye socket seem to be twitching, blinking and gaze out and around but not at all in coordination with the words. Actually, if a person only sees this film once there is a feeling that Polanski’s budget has caused the credits to be done in a ramshackle messy manner that might have been intended to be a harmoniously clever horror-genre opener that has failed and simply looks like a poor but ambitious choice. After viewing the film even only once, it clear that these credits and the way in which Deneuve’s eye is reacting is all intentional. There is no connection between the eye and the credits that roll about it.

Throughout the film’s first act, we see Carol’s limited interactions in only a few spaces. Actually, the spaces in which we see Carol interact are essentially limited to three places: The beauty salon, the streets on which she walks and her shared apartment. Polanski and Taylor are careful to pace the presentation of Carol’s perceptions of these spaces and interactions slow enough so that our awareness is initially limited. We visit the salon and the streets about three times. Each time a bit more is revealed. The reveals are not so much about the spaces or interactions as they are about the way in which Carol is perceiving them.

"Are you alright?" Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

“Are you alright?”
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

The busy beauty salon appears small and a bit cramped. The client, the beautician and Carol barely seem to fit into the room where facials, massages and manicures are performed. But when Carol loses her focus, drifts off and cuts the finger of her client — her tray falls to the ground. Suddenly it appears there is far more space in the room than we initially thought. As Carol stares at a spinning nail polish bottle we become disoriented by Gilbert Taylor’s camera. There is an odd expansion of space and shadow. Carol seems almost animalistic as she watches the spinning bottle. A tiny bottle which due to the placement of camera and use of lens looks bigger than it is.

When her boss inquires about what is wrong, we realize that she has missed three full days of work without having ever called the salon. When pushed for an explanation, Carol clumsily mutters that an “Aunt arrived for a visit unexpectedly.” The salon boss automatically assumes that Carol is telling her that she was ill due to menstruation, it is apparent that this was not the meaning Carol was attempting to imply. As a co-worker helps her into her street clothes she encages Carol in a conversation. She suggests that Carol take in a movie. She manages to bring Carol out of her “shell” and gets her to giggle as the girl describes a scene from a Charlie Chaplin movie she has just seen. Carol seems connected, but her laughter becomes to feel like a nervous reaction. As the girl goes to hand Carol her purse, she notices it is open. She looks inside and discovers the head of the rabbit waiting amongst a compact and lipstick.

Walking without focus and ever-increasing ticks. Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Walking without focus and ever-increasing ticks.
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

In the beginning of the film we meet a potential suitor for Carol. Played by John Fraser, this would-be suitor seems harmless enough. This is not to say that he isn’t persistent. He follows Carol on her lunch break. Sits himself down at her table and pushes to get a date. Carol is polite, but clearly not interested. Or is she? She never clearly brushes Colin off. As he follows her back to the salon he presses for a date. She seems shy, but not entirely dismissive. She smiles. The second time she encounters the ever-pushy Colin, she is clearly forcing a smile. Despite his humor and flirtation, she never gives a clear signal. However, most men would let it go. She clearly is not going to fully agree to a date, but Colin presses on.

The viewer’s first time in the sisters’ apartment, we discover that Carol can hear her sister having sex. As Helene reaches orgasm, Carol looks forward toward her sister’s room and covers her ears with her pillow. We know she dislikes Helene’s married boyfriend, but it is never clear why. However, she does not hesitate to toss out his things. When Helene asks Carol why she has thrown out his things, Carol gives a strong declaration that she simply does not like him. However she states this in a passive tone. We have already noticed that his straight razor has caught her eye and thoughts. The second time she notices it she picks it up and studies it. Her face and eyes dulled, she is physically mute of thought.

Studying a straight razor. Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Studying a straight razor.
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

When Helene and her boyfriend leave for a trip to Italy, Carol seems more than a little panicked. How long will they be gone? 10 or 15 days. Maybe. Carol’s need for more rigidly defined dates is not just for reassurance, it is as if despair and fear demand it. Helene refuses to cater to the silly insecurities of her grown sister. But as the two leave, Carol is clearly concerned. As much as she despises Helene’s boyfriend, she’d rather put up with him than be without her sister.

She is physically repulsed by Helene’s boyfriend. Even the scent of an undershirt makes her vomit. Yet when she pulls out the plate of uncooked rabbit, she stares at it in the same way she has stared at the cracks and the straight razor. There is no clear indication of what she might be thinking, but she is not repulsed. The scent of an undershirt makes her ill, but as the rabbit begins to rot in the living room it causes her no concern. The phone rings and we discover she has the straight razor which she sits on the rabbit’s plate. As we will soon learn, she uses that razor to cut off the rabbits head. A head which she stores in her purse.

Sister's uncooked rabbit does not seem to bother Carol, but something about the bunny's head is of particular interest. The first use of the straight razor. Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Sister’s uncooked rabbit does not seem to bother Carol, but something about the bunny’s head is of particular interest. The first use of the straight razor.
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Looking back earlier in the film after her sister leaves for Italy, Carol walks about the apartment. She looks at the family photograph. She glances through her sister’s record collection. She walks into her sister’s bedroom. She looks around. She approaches her sister’s wardrobe. She opens the door and examines one of Helene’s sexy dresses. Carol seems to study the dress. As she moves the wardrobe’s mirrored door, we catch a quick glimpse of a man’s reflection behind her. It is a jarring moment. Without any sort of musical cue, it is a scene that never fails to make me jump.

It is shortly after this that the audience is put in the position of not knowing if the steps Carol seems to hear in her apartment are actually in her apartment or in one above or below. No, they must be in her apartment. We notice that her wardrobe is blocking a thus far unknown door. A light goes on behind that door. It may not always become obvious to the viewer upon the first viewing of the film, but this door is suspect. Where does it lead? Carol’s bedroom is opposite from Helene’s. Isn’t it? Wait, are the two bedroom now next to each other? Later those steps behind that door will force the door open — pushing Carol’s wardrobe out of the way. The man who emerges rapes Carol.

Sometimes the hall's walls turn into a flesh-like surface. Other times aggressive male arms emerge to ravage and rape Carol. Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Sometimes the hall’s walls turn into a flesh-like surface. Other times aggressive male arms emerge to ravage and rape Carol.
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

There is no question that these are rapes. But there no confusing the fact that Carol has imagined them. There is a bit of confusion regarding her reactions to these sexual violations. She seems at once horrified and aroused. We know these rapes are rape fantasies. We know this because we have seen Carol rush from her sister’s bedroom into the hall. She touches the hall wall and it appears to be a soft porous surface in which her hands leave an impression. Wait. Is the hall suddenly a wall of flesh? Soon arms will emerge from the wall body and seemingly sexual violate Carol. Once again, her reaction is a mix of shock, horror and possibly sexual pleasure. Later she will walk down the hallway which fills with outreaching, grabbing male arms.

A walk down the hall becomes a sexual threat that offers no escape. Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

A walk down the hall becomes a sexual threat that offers no escape.
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

During one particularly brutal rape, the screen fades to black. When we return we find Carol laying nude on the floor of the hall. She does not look traumatized. It is actually the only time in the film that Carol looks relaxed. A jarring phone ring will snap her back into a state of frenzied paranoia and fear. The cracks are getting worse. They are no longer limited to just the two in the kitchen. At one point Carol cautiously approaches the childhood family photograph. As we see discomfort and fear grip her eyes and body, the wall behind the photograph cracks apart threatening to crumble to pieces. Carol flips on a light only to see the entire wall crack apart.

She had planned on getting the crack in the kitchen mended, but new cracks are emerging everywhere. Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

She had planned on getting the crack in the kitchen mended, but new cracks are emerging everywhere.
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

As Carol descends into insanity her perspective has taken over every aspect of the apartment’s space. After her desperate suitor has attempted to call her over and over again, he has a few drinks and works up the nerve to show up at her front door. The once pushy, but somehow nice guy suddenly takes on a threatening aspect. Carol looks through her front door peep hole and so does Gilbert Taylor’s camera. Distorted and furious, Colin demands that Carol open the door or he will bust it down.

Turns out this is not an idle threat. He lunges at the door. Carol backs away from the door. She reaches for a heavy metal candle stick. Her once kindly suitor breaks through the front door’s lock and busts into Carol’s warped space. Even though he tries to apologize for his behavior and expresses his love and desire for Carol, it is too late. He is a threat. He is danger. The small entry way no longer appears small. It seems very dark and long. The camera’s perspective reveals a nosy elderly neighbor looking in as Colin tries to defend his actions.

Does this potential suitor really have good intentions? If so, why did he break the door's lock to secure access to Carol's apartment? A nosy neighbor watches from the hall. John Fraser & Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Does this potential suitor really have good intentions? If so, why did he break the door’s lock to secure access to Carol’s apartment? A nosy neighbor watches from the hall.
John Fraser & Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Carol refuses to make eye contact. When Colin notices the old neighbor spying on them, he walks down the once short entry way, the elderly woman rushes into her apartment. As he attempts to close the door, Carol’s fear turns to rage.

He just wants to be "with her." Metal candlestick at the ready... John Fraser & Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

He just wants to be “with her.” Metal candlestick at the ready…
John Fraser & Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Carol is no longer passive. She brutally attacks her suitor. Putting all her force into it, Carol bludgeons Colin to death. Blood splatters all over the door. Carol does not seem to be concerned that she has just murdered someone, but she is very upset by the sight of blood coming out of his ear and staining the door. She drags Colin down the ever-expanding hallway and manages to get his body into the tub of water that she had drawn earlier and had allowed to overflow. Suddenly full of manic energy, Carol uses the candlestick to hammer a shelf she pulls from the kitchen to act as a barricade for the apartment entryway.

It isn’t long before the landlord shows up. Carol gives us a peep hole view of Patrick Wymark. Like Colin, the landlord must bust his way into the apartment. At first angry at the state of the apartment, he quickly changes his tune as he looks at Carol in her almost sheer night gown. Soon rage gives way to lechery.

Peephole perspective: the unwanted visit from the landlord. Patrick Wymark REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Peephole perspective: the unwanted visit from the landlord.
Patrick Wymark
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

As he brutishly attempts to mount Carol, she pulls out the straight razor and viciously begins slashing him. Filmed in black and white with Catherine Deneuve’s maniacal slashing, blood spurts everywhere. It only takes a few minutes before it is clear that Carol has hit some vital veins.

"You would not even have to worry about the rent..." Patrick Wymark propositions Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

“You would not even have to worry about the rent…”
Patrick Wymark propositions Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

She has committed her second murder. Once again, she seems more concerned with the mess than the murder. She pushes the sofa over on top of the dead landlord to hid him and his mess from her view.

Insanity has almost completely taken over. As we see Carol sitting in the once small and modern bathroom, we notice that the tub is no longer directly next to the bathroom door. The tiled walls are gone. The bathroom looks old, wet and moldy. It also appears to go deeper than possible. This is not the bathroom we have seen before. Welcome to Carol’s perspective.

Over the course of the film nearly every aspect of Carol’s apartment has been shifted, re-shaped, extended, shortened, architecturally re-arranged and bent to fit within Carol’s skewed perception. It isn’t until Helene and her boyfriend return from their holiday that the apartment’s spacial and visual aspects are fully formed back into the spaces to which we were first introduced. In other words, as Helen enters the wrecked blood stained apartment that “reality” returns to our perspective.

As our realistic perspective returns we discover that Carol has slipped far beneath insanity. Her eyes appear to be frozen open. She almost appears to be dead. But in the most horrifying way, our protagonist has slipped into something far worse than death. She is found under her bed in a catatonic state. While we are given no clear indicators, it feels as if this will be the state she will remain. Can there be anything more terrifying than be shut off from reality and stuck in the darkest and murky waters of a ill mind.

There are more than a few things wrong with this "picture." Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

There are more than a few things wrong with this “picture.”
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

As brilliant as Roman Polanski’s film and his use of Gilbert Taylor’s cinematography and Seamus Flannery’s art direction, there is another essential element to Repulsion that often is dismissed as “accidental” or “luck.” Catherine Deneuve gives a superb performance as Carol. At the time she was cast in Polanski’s film she was thought to be incredibly beautiful and might possibly have a strong career ahead of her in fashion modeling or light entertainment. Her appearance in the sensational French musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The film and she had garnished a great deal of well deserved attention, but once again — she was hardly more than a beautiful face. Jacques Demy had not required a great deal from her in the female leading role. Her own singing voice was not used. Essentially all she needed to do was look happy, mad and sad while lip synching to another’s voice. (Actually, she and all the actors were dubbed and they were required to sing along with the recordings.)

But her work in Repulsion is not just happy accident. Her presence and being fill the screen and linger in the mind. Her mannerisms, twitches, horror and cautious use of words is never doubted. It should be noted that Polanski and the two others who assisted him in adapting the screenplay knew very little about mental illness.

Catherine Deneuve proves her on-screen value as Carol REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Catherine Deneuve proves her on-screen value as Carol
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Deneuve’s stares and facial expressions are never over or under done. Somehow she captured the presence of a fractured mind. And she did so brilliantly. Barely a year would pass before Luis Buñuel pursued her to play the lead in the still controversial and highly regarded experimentation into the Surreal, Bell de jour. His decision to cast her laid not just in her angelic beauty, but in what he saw in Polanski’s film. This might be the other overly examined film from the 1960’s.

I cringe when I hear film scholars or critics dismiss her 1965 portrayal as a lucky use of “icy beauty.” …This is a memorable and valid on-screen performance. In fact there is very little of the “real” Catherine Deneuve present. If one is to fault any aspect of her performance it lies in the hands of the film’s stylist. The only thing about Repulsion that fails is Deneuve’s always flawless hair. Her face covered in sweat and smeared-on lipstick with eyes reflecting sheer terror, her hair is still brilliantly coiffed. Hair aside, I find it hard to believe that any other could have played this role better. And, of course, Deneuve has gone on to build one of the most enduring and important film careers in cinematic history. A year ago Pierre Salvadori managed to convince her to take the female lead in his little seen cinematic gem, In the Courtyard.

Oh no. Not another crack!?!? Catherine Deneuve at 72 plays Mathilde In the Courtyard Pierre Salvadori, 2014 Cinematography | Gilles Henry

Oh no. Not another crack!?!?
Catherine Deneuve at 72 plays Mathilde
In the Courtyard
Pierre Salvadori, 2014
Cinematography | Gilles Henry

This was the first time I’ve ever seen a filmmaker sneak in a nod to her Repulsion performance. In the 2014 French independent film she plays a retired elderly woman who is slipping into a state of depression. Her character becomes obsessed with a crack in her living room.

Returning back to the theory of Repulsion being an examination of insanity’s perspective, as Helene stands back in shock and her boyfriend lifts the now catatonic and mentally absent sister to carry her toward the ambulance and police who are on their way — Polanski has Gilbert Taylor expertly flow through and over the apartment’s wrecked state. As always, Taylor’s camera work is steady and intently focused to slowly capture the film’s closing image. As we move closer to Carol’s childhood picture, Polanski finally allows us to actually see Carol as a child. The whole family is encaged and posing happily. Save Carol. The little girl stands rigid and staring off at something. Many cinephiles like to say that we are meant to think that she is staring at the man (father? uncle?) to her left. The idea being that the child is looking at her victimizer.

This does not hold up. As the camera moves in it is clear that she is not looking at anyone in this photograph. And based on the film’s shared perspective, her gaze has never been focused on anything within the realm of perceived reality. Polanski drives this point even more precisely as the image has been edited slowly to black out the rest of the photo. We can only see a little girl with a disturbing look on her face. The camera never stops it’s slow zoom. Taylor’s camera is aiming directly into young Carol’s right eye. The same eye from which the film’s title slipped out at the beginning of the film. The zoom continues until little Carol’s eye becomes nothing but speaks blurred into darkness.

Repulsion attempts to pull us to a restricted place that has been growing since childhood: the warped psyche of insanity.

And we come back to the childhood photograph of Carol. Polanski chooses to slowly zoom into Carol's eye until it becomes a blur of particles. An isolated stare into horror. REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

And we come back to the childhood photograph of Carol. Polanski chooses to slowly zoom into Carol’s eye until it becomes a blur of particles. An isolated stare into horror.
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Matty Stanfield, 10.22.2015

Like being strapped into an amusement park ride, sitting in the darkness as a horror movie begins there is a mixture of giddy fun and an often embarrassing dread of what we are submitting ourselves to — will it be a fun rush of the senses or a stomach churning sort of emotional litmus test?

Is that a closet? Why was it blocked?  Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Is that a closet? Why was it blocked?
Rosemary’s Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Does the rollercoaster that tilts and sends on a loop turing us upside down at a high speed offer more fun than one limited to fast turns with slow accents followed by forced down hill trajectory offer more satisfaction?

The answer is subjective. There is no right or wrong.

But what is it about some horror films that not only frighten us, but linger long after the house lights come back up? Most horror films offer a quick intensity that leaves us fairly quickly. Sometimes, however, a horror film comes along that offers something a bit more jolting. The kind of jolt that leaves us entertained, afraid, shocked and unsettled. This is the sort of jolt that comes back to haunt us as we try to fall asleep or walk down a dark corridor.

"I don't like them there." Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

“I don’t like them there.”
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

In 1965 Roman Polanski delivered a new sort of horror film. Repulsion shocked audiences upon initial release. It still upsets many. Why? Catherine Deneuve plays Carol. A beautiful but seemingly perpetual daydreamer who discovers that she is to be left all alone in the large apartment she shares with her older sister. What happens to Carol and those who venture into this apartment while the sister is out on a brief holiday is more than unexpected, it is lethal. Carol is not a daydreamer, she is clearly suffering with some sort of emotional problem. Is this an issue related to some form of sexual trauma? Is this mental illness? Is this some form of depressive exhaustion? What is wrong with Carol? 

Carol contemplates the dangers of the washroom as perspective continues to warp... REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Carol contemplates the dangers of the washroom as perspective continues to warp…
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Repulsion wastes no time in establishing something clearly: the camera’s perspective is simply off. We are following Carol through her mundane life as a beautician, then walking through the streets of London and finally at the apartment she shares with her sister. Roman Polanski and Cinematographer, Gilbert Taylor, carefully set each shot from strange angles. As the film progresses, the camera’s perceptions become more odd. We are seeing reality through Carol’s perception of it. As Deneuve’s character slips into reality filled with threat and menace, we are not entirely sure if what we are seeing can be trusted.

Catherine Deneuve in a moment of iconic cinema... REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Catherine Deneuve in a moment of iconic cinema…
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Surely those are not arms slipping out of the walls to grab and molest Carol. Right? Or have we just entered some twisted sort of paranormal horror? Before long the audience comes to understand that we are witnessing a psychotic break. A break that slips so far into the darkest corner of human psyche that no one is safe. Repulsion stays with the viewer.

But the threat filled menace of human perception would take on a far more ambiguous stance in Polanski’s 1968 horror masterpiece, Rosemary’s Baby.

"Pray for Rosemary's Baby." Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

“Pray for Rosemary’s Baby.”
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

At first glance or after an audiences’ first viewing, this would appear to be a full-on exorcise in Satanic horror at it’s most dire. An innocent woman has been set up to procreate with The Devil and deliver The Anti-Christ. As Rosemary’s life in her new home begins she is faced with a creepy basement laundry room, the death of a new friend and an uncomfortable forced friendship with nosey and eccentric neighbors.

Polanski and Cinematographer, William A. Fraker, begin to establish an interesting camera perspective almost as soon as Rosemary and her husband move into their new apartment. The use of cinematography is not immediately noticeable, but it is there from the beginning.

A gift or a curse?  Mia Farrow Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

A gift or a curse?
Mia Farrow
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Halls and doorways take on a suspicious and curious perspective. As Rosemary’s paranoia and fears begin to mount, the audience becomes pulled into a literal sort of maze of unanswered perspective. The first of Fraker’s shots that really grabs our attention is the use of Rosemary’s front door peephole. Ruth Gordon’s Minnie Castevet is truly iconic movie character. At first comical, then slightly annoying — and slowly she shifts to something altogether horrifying. When Rosemary looks out her peephole, we gain a distorted perception of Minnie that is warped and unsettling. She no longer looks like the kooky old bat next door. She looks suspicious and vaguely reminiscent of a clown. Not the kind of clown at whom you might laugh, the sort that would make you pull your child back and avoid at all costs.

large_rosemarys_baby_cesar-zamora-5

Rosemary and the audience get a whole new perspective on the eccentric woman next door. Ruth Gordon Rosemary’s Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

A building suicide, nosy people and a dear friend’s creepy stories related to the old building which contains her new apartment — Rosemary is understandably more than a little shaken. But after the wacky Minnie creates two cups of chocolate “mouse” for Rosemary and her husband, she finds the taste feature an unpleasant aftertaste. Her husband almost becomes angry that she doesn’t want to eat it. She only eats a bit. Soon she is feeling drugged. Once again slightly tilting the perspective, Rosemary passes out.

Blame it on Minnie's "chocolate mouse" or is it a symptom of something else? Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Blame it on Minnie’s “chocolate mouse” or is it a symptom of something else?
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

We are then brought into Rosemary’s dreams. We have already been here briefly before when she dreams of a childhood incident with a Catholic Nun yet hears the annoying banter of her odd neighbors, Minnie and Roman. Their voices take the place of the Nun’s. But this time Rosemary’s dream is far more articulated and disturbing. She dreams of a sort of sexual ritual wherein all of the old neighbors of her building are standing around her bed.

"Perhaps you'd better have your legs tied down in case of convulsions." Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

“Perhaps you’d better have your legs tied down in case of convulsions.”
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

They are nude. Suddenly a demonic animal is running it’s claws across her body. Rosemary is in dream state. She observes and follows instructions without objection. But suddenly, she is alarmed and seems to have awoken.

“This is no dream! This is really happening!”

But then she does wakes up and it is the next morning. She is nude and she has long scratches across her back. She quickly realizes that her husband has ravished her in what is an inappropriate sexual encounter. Filmed in 1967, while her character feels her husband has raped her, she pushes this feeling down. But we can tell Rosemary almost hopes it was all just a bad dream rather than face the fact that her husband had her while she was passed out ill. Alas, this is not an option for Rosemary. Her husband has violated her. Trauma much?

A sluggish Rosemary says, "I dreamed someone was raping me. I think it was someone inhuman." And her husband responds, "Thanks a lot."  Mia Farrow Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

A sluggish Rosemary says, “I dreamed someone was raping me. I think it was someone inhuman.”
And her husband responds, “Thanks a lot.”
Mia Farrow
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

William A. Fraker’s masterful camerawork continues to pull us back. Perceptions are never quite right again. in one of the cinema’s best shot scenes, Ruth Gordon’s Minnie rushes to Rosemary’s bedroom to phone Manhattan’s top Obstetricians. From a filmmaking perspective, this entire scene is one elegant and fascinating manipulation of the medium. Faker’s camera only allows us to see a bit of Minnie as she makes this call. I dare a viewer of this film on a big screen to successfully fight the urge to tilt his/her head to see what is going on in Rosemary’s bedroom.

Minnie makes a phone call and we all try to see what's really going on as she speaks into the phone... Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Minnie makes a phone call and we all try to see what’s really going on as she speaks into the phone…
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Masterful and perplexing: we are now officially and fully immersed in Rosemary’s paranoia.

The truly magical aspect that has helped Rosemary’s Baby to not only remain valid but alarmingly disturbing is the fact that perception of reality is so skewed that we are never fully certain that Rosemary’s paranoia is valid. Upon the first viewing of Polanski’s film, one is likely to walk away with a bit of a chuckle that Rosemary was quite right: She has given birth to The Anti-Christ. All we saw was true.

All of them were witches united to trick Rosemary into being fucked by Satan. 

The true reality solved by Scrabble? Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

The true reality solved by Scrabble?
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

If one watches Rosemary’s Baby again, and watches it a bit closer — something odd emerges.

This creeping idea is one of the reasons this film is a true cinematic masterpiece that refuses to go away from our subconscious. At no point in this horror film is the validity of Rosemary’s paranoia and fear fully confirmed. As the movie pulls us into the final act of the story, the question of whether or not what we are seeing is “correct” or “real” is brought into question. This could all be a fever dream of exhausted and terrified human psyche. Rosemary’s world has been rocked enough to understand how her perceptions of reality might be pushed into subversion.

Adrift in mental and emotional confusion.  Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Adrift in mental and emotional confusion.
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Her husband has essentially raped her while sick, this results in a pregnancy. Hormones surging and her choices and opinions constantly challenged — she soon finds herself in a great deal of pain. Everything in Rosemary’s reality has derailed. Death and darkness seem to envelope her. Her husband is distracted by new career opportunities and possibly some guilt. Whatever the cause he is distant.

Rosemary feels trapped. She must escape. She runs away to her original first choice Obstetrician. A very pregnant woman carrying a heavy suitcase on a record-setting hot Manhattan day arrives to this younger and far more modern doctor’s office. She insists he “save” her and her baby. She spouts a rant about Satanic witches and elaborate plans to harm both her and her baby. She pulls out an old book on the supernatural. The doctor calms her down. She finally relaxes and her official Minnie-hired Obstetrician arrives with her frustrated husband to take her home.

But, she did seem to slip into a dream prior to the “betrayal” of the young doctor.

As we enter the final act of the movie, how reliable is Rosemary’s perception? Every single thing is from her perspective?

Is Rosemary’s reality real? Is this a perspective we can believe and trust? 

Rosemary alone with pain, loss, hurt, rape and her thoughts... Mia Farrow in that doorway Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Rosemary alone with pain, loss, hurt, rape and her thoughts…
Mia Farrow in that doorway
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

There is no clear answer to be found in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. We will never know for sure if she has delivered The Anti-Christ “To 1966! The year One.

This level of unresolved tension doesn’t even need to fully register for the viewer to pick-up on it at some level. The truth of what we see is questionable. Rosemary’s perception (as well as our own) has been altered and put into a state of limited and distorted vision.

What is scarier? The reveal that human fear and paranoia is fully validated or the understanding that we are simply unsure. The fear and paranoia remain unresolved.

Reality or Delusion? Mia Farrow looking into Hell Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Reality or Delusion?
Mia Farrow looking into Hell
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

For years I used to debate this opinion with friends. Everyone seemed split down the middle. Some felt I, myself, was reading too much into the movie. Others agreed.

Finally I was validated when Roman Polanski himself stated that his goal was to present a depiction of human perception skewed to leave the audience wondering if Rosemary was seeing the “truth” or imagining some grand conspiracy.

Warning: TO AVOID ANY SPOILERS RE: TO THE FILM, LYLE, DO NOT READ FURTHER.

Which brings me to Stewart Thorndike’s 2014 but newly-released film, Lyle. As much a tribute to Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby as it is a low-fi re-working of the same sort of diabolical idea, Thorndike and her Cinematographer, Grant Greenberg, have created an intense psychological horror film. Or so we might think…

Gaby Hoffmann LYLE Stewart Thorndike, 2014 Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Gaby Hoffmann
LYLE
Stewart Thorndike, 2014
Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Greenberg’s camerawork is simple, yet carefully articulated. Like William A. Franker, he has paid close attention to perception. Doorways, large open-spaces, halls and angles are all designed to make us look closely. Visual information is provided in a suspect manner. More than a few times in this tightly-edited film, we want to see beyond the boundaries established by Greenberg.

Also of great credit to both he and the film’s director/writer, Stewart Thorndike, Lyle features the best use of a Skype-like call I have ever seen. Limiting the audience view to the shared computers’ perceptions is a brilliant device.

Leah and Lyle are left alone to unpack and fill their day... LYLE Stewart Thorndike, 2014 Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Leah and Lyle are left alone to unpack and fill their day…
LYLE
Stewart Thorndike, 2014
Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

As any sensible film-buff would expect, Gaby Hoffmann is brilliant in the film’s leading role. As the mother, Leah, Hoffmann delivers a perfectly nuanced and powerful turn toward hope, grief, fear, paranoia, panic, sheer horror, desperation and ultimately rage. Unlike Mia Farrow’s passive Rosemary, there is nothing oppressed about Gabby Hoffman’s Leah. A devoted wife and mother, she fully embraces her role in the family. She also places correct value to her identity and worth.

Yet she senses something “removed” or “distant” regarding her wife. Played by Ingrid Jungermann, June is appears to be the family provider. One gets the feeling that June is either ambivalent about parenting or is deeply upset that the newly pregnant Leah is carrying a girl child. June was clearly hoping for a little boy, but her frustration is both uncomfortable and suspicious.

Gaby Hoffmann LYLE Stewart Thorndike, 2014 Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Gaby Hoffmann
LYLE
Stewart Thorndike, 2014
Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Moving into a swank new Brooklyn apartment, Leah loves their new home. She does not love the new landlord. Rebecca Street is the only other actor in this film who can rival Hoffmann’s skills. Street is cast in a role that is somewhat similar to Ruth Gordon’s Minnie. Excepting that Street’s Karen is quite a bit younger. Younger, but not young. Leah is immediately concerned to discover that her landlady who she suspects is entering her 60’s claims to be trying to get pregnant. In fact, before long Leah (and the audience) catch limited glimpses of Karen pregnant and then not but expressing milk through her top.

Like Rosemary, Leah is constantly having to re-evaluate her perception of reality. After suffering the loss of her firstborn child, she is aware that the loss of Lyle has caused an understandably confused and disoriented emotional chain of reactions. As the circumstances around Lyle’s accidental death grow more suspicious to her and as she discovers increasingly worrying information about her home and the people who live in and near it — Leah becomes more than a little paranoid. To Stewart Thorndike’s credit, this film packs a great deal of suspense and tension.

"Help me!" Gaby Hoffmann LYLE Stewart Thorndike, 2014 Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

“Help me!”
Gaby Hoffmann
LYLE
Stewart Thorndike, 2014
Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Running just a little over an hour in length, Lyle does not let the audience down. The film is encaging, disturbing, creepy and solidly entertaining. The only issue I noted with this sinister little movie is the director’s decision to fully resolve the paranoia and fears of the lead character. At the moment we discover the validity of the mother’s fears and the fact that she has not been paranoid, the horror of Lyle becomes mutedly blunt. All answers are resolved and Leah is left to do what she must in an attempt to save her child. While Lyle is a potent little film, it loses his grip by giving us too much.

To what point has Grant Greenberg’s cinematography served? Do we feel relieved or all the more dire that Leah’s darkest fears turn out to be true? Lyle leaves the audience with an uncertain future for Leah, but there is no articulated logic to the dark pact with Evil for career success. It isn’t clear.

The aspects of the paranoia that are not fully revealed or explained leave a sort of emotional hole where a cinematic “pay-off” should have been. The intention is unclear, but not the human perspective. In what felt like the shaping of horror reveals itself to be more aligned with a taught thriller minus logic.

Gaby Hoffmann LYLE Stewart Thorndike, 2014 Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Gaby Hoffmann
LYLE
Stewart Thorndike, 2014
Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Unlike Polanski and Frakers’ manipulation of paranoia and character perspective, Lyle has teased the audience. And the emotional result is one of frustration. Lyle is not likely to scare the audience. Instead it plunges us further into darkness without any room for ambiguity. Stewart Thorndike is a flimmaker with a a strong future ahead of her. She has a great deal of skill in telling her story. But the question for me remains, is it more effective to bring a story of paranoia and human fear to fully articulated explanation or better to limit the audiences’ ability to fully know? From my perspective, Lyle gives an unsatisfying ending.

David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is an example of a horror film that leaves the audience unsure. Alex R. Johnson’s Two Step fits more toward Thorndike’s Lyle. However, Alex R. Johnson’s film is not intended as a horror film as much as a modulated thriller that escalates far beyond audience anticipation. Within that mode of operation, a fully resolved ending makes sense.

Perhaps the best example of current cinema that illustrates the idea of ambiguity is Alex Ross Perry’s polarizing examination of identity and insanity, Queen of Earth.

Where does reality end and insanity begin? Welcome to Surrealism... Katherine Waterston & Elisabeth Moss Queen of Earth Alex Ross Perry, 2015 Cinematography | Sean Price Williams

Where does reality end and insanity begin? Welcome to Surrealism…
Katherine Waterston & Elisabeth Moss
Queen of Earth
Alex Ross Perry, 2015
Cinematography | Sean Price Williams

While this film may not be a straight-up horror film, it does depict the most horrific aspect of being human: Insanity. The idea of not knowing when what is perceived is “reality” or “delusion” is oddly effective. Much like Mia Farrow’s Rosemary, Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston will be forever stuck in a sort of nightmarish mire of rage, distrust and warped perspective.

We do not have all the pieces of their puzzles.

It fascinates.

It pulls us further into the ideas of the films.

Most of all, these stories of human frailty, fear and possibly insanity stick with us. The ambivalence sears into our shared subconscious. 

Mia Farrow Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Mia Farrow
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Life is a mystery and is forever full of “WTF” moments. It is in those moments where we are least sure and are forced to go into “full alert” that the uncertainty of our realities become the most worrying.

In a strange way, Roman Polanski’s Art Horror remind us of life.

At the ready to attack, but still unsure... Mia Farrow Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

At the ready to attack, but still unsure…
Mia Farrow
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

They jolt us into the present of our mind. And we are forever a bit unsure.

Matty Stanfield, 10.1.15

Cinematic Motivation is never more clear than when a film artist decides to create a personal adaptation of another’s work. Often the source material serves as a clearly stated guidebook for the film it inspires.

"Come on! Let's go." Isabelle Huppert / Sandrine Bonnaire La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

“Come on! Let’s go.”
Isabelle Huppert / Sandrine Bonnaire
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography |
Bernard Zitzermann

However, when one is dealing with an articulate and strong-willed film artist, an adaptation will serve as a point from which the filmmaker can jump into aspects of the source that is either hidden with the corners of plot or that is sometimes simply not there. This is most definitely true of two films based on well-established and respected source materials.

In 1996, Claude Chabrol opted to translate a highly respected crime novel for the Big Screen. Fourteen years later a younger South Korean filmmaker, Sang-soo Im, who had studied to become a Sociologist, would decide to “remake” a classic 1960 Korean horror film.

Domestic Horror Taken to a Whole New Level. This is a key classic Korean film. A warped horror film that remains shocking 55 years later. Kim Jin-kyu / Lee Eun-shim The Housemaid / Hanyeo Kim Ki-young, 1960 Cinematography | Kim Deok-jin

Domestic Horror Taken to a Whole New Level. This is a key classic Korean film. A warped horror film that remains shocking 55 years later.
Kim Jin-kyu / Lee Eun-shim
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Kim Ki-young, 1960
Cinematography | Kim Deok-jin

Both of these filmmakers chose particularly well-known works. While it is clear that they both respected the works from which they would create two important modern films — neither had a problem with subverting core ideas to their respective cinematic intentions.

The Iconic co-founder of La Nouvelle Vague, Chabrol was not a sociologist but he was an astutely politically aware artist. Chabrol refused to label his work as “political” but it was. A self-proclaimed Communist, he did not live the life of a Communist, but he was often concerned with the plight of the struggling classes within French society. As the economic gap between the wealthy and the impoverished, one can see his societal frustration emerge in most of his films.

Friends or Conspirators? Sandrine Bonnaire / Isabelle Huppert La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Friends or Conspirators?
Sandrine Bonnaire / Isabelle Huppert
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Chabrol was far less interested in plot as he was in the characters and their often odd choices and actions within the plot. This is not to say that plot was not important to Claude Chabrol. It was. But his plots are often pushed to the side of the screen so that the audience focuses on the ideas and the actions of the characters. Chabrol seemed to see very little use in explaining the nature of humanity. The actions and choices of his characters carry consequences and often push or pull the plots in various directions and shapes.

Sang-soo Im didn’t not pursue a life as a Sociologist, but he fully understands sociology and the rigid restrictions that exist between and among the ever-mounting class struggle of South Korea. Like Chabrol, he is normally focused on the way elitist concerns are forcing the working classes and impoverished further down the Korean societal ladder.

A the South Korean Economic Gap Between Wealth and Poverty Grows, a woman plunges to her death. The opening sequence of The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

A the South Korean Economic Gap Between Wealth and Poverty Grows, a woman plunges to her death. The opening sequence of
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

His films serve as often controversial commentary regarding his country’s leadership and the power that money play out in removing access to control personal choices and opportunities. Plot is more important to Im, but his characters’ motivations are often more required than chosen. For many of Sang-soo Im’s characters, there are no choices — only actions.

Ruth Rendell’s British crime novel, A Judgement in Stone, was published to great acclaim and success in 1977. This novel is best known for delivering the following blunt statement as it’s first sentence:

Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.

Wham! And Rendell’s novel begins. Chabrol loved the novel, but he was not willing to limit the main character’s motivation strictly to illiteracy. It most certainly seems to factor into her choice, but it never feels like the chief motivation. This should not surprise anyone familiar with Chabrol. Chabrol has never been interested in motivation of his characters. They are human. When it comes down to it, can we really ever fully understand why someone does something?

Pushed down by their class or pulled down by personal struggles that have been ignored? La Ceremonie Sandrine Bonnaire / Isabelle Huppert Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Pushed down by their class or pulled down by personal struggles that have been ignored?
La Ceremonie
Sandrine Bonnaire / Isabelle Huppert
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

A character he renamed, “Sophie Bonhomme” is played expertly by Sandrine Bonnaire. Unlike Rendell’s classic novel, we do not know that Sophie is illiterate immediately. We are also not ever completely sure why she is unable to read or write. We do pick up that she comes from a lower class background and that she spent a good deal of her young life caring for her ailing father. Perhaps education was not an option. Or, maybe, Sophie simply has learning limitations with which assistance was not available. Not being able to read or write is clearly a source of great anxiety and frustration, it never feels as if it is the most challenging aspect of her situation. There seems to be something far more worrying at Sophie’s core

Reflection of doubt, self-loathing, frustration or a sociopathic rage? Sandrine Bonnaire La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Reflection of doubt, self-loathing, frustration or a sociopathic rage?
Sandrine Bonnaire
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

In Kim Ki-young 1960’s The Housemaid, we follow the story of a composer and his pregnant wife who decide that they need to hire a maid to assist with the running of the household. What makes this old film so potent is it’s unhinged approach to horror. The newly hired housemaid is trouble. The film is surprisingly graphic and strange for it’s era. The Housemaid systematically engulfs the entire family into a state of domestic horror. Clearly insane, this maid spys, enjoys subversive behavior and prefers to catch/kill rodents with her own hands rather than rely on poison or traps. She thinks nothing of seducing the husband. But when she becomes pregnant she panics. The composer’s wife begs her to abort the baby by self-harm. She does, but then the crazy-bat-shit really hits the fan. The housemaid becomes a full blown menace who has no problem with evil tricks, torture and murder. Even children are not spared her cruelty.

Sang-soo Im basically throws this entire plot out of the window. His 2010’s The Housemaid is not a horror film as much as it is an erotic thriller. However, “thriller” is not an altogether correct label for this “remake.” Sang-soo Im has created an entirely different film. Essentially, it only shares the same title.

Caring for their little girl and cleaning house are not the only "chores" which quickly become more and more degrading... Welcome to Sang-soo Im's "Erotic Thriller" The Housemaid / Hanyeo Jeon Do-yeon / Lee Jung-jae Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Caring for their little girl and cleaning house are not the only “chores” which quickly become more and more degrading… Welcome to Sang-soo Im’s “Erotic Thriller”
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Jeon Do-yeon / Lee Jung-jae
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

This is the story of the poor soul hired by a cruel wealthy family. This family uses “politeness” with their servants as a device rather than a courtesy and any level of respect is nonexistant. The hired help are far below them. They exist only to serve and have little to no human value. And, in Im’s film the housemaid, Eun-yi, is not alone. She has an additional key duty and boss. She has been hired as both an Au Pair to the young couple’s daughter and as an assistant maid. Besides the husband and pregnant wife, she also reports to Miss Cho. Do-yeon Jeon plays Eun-yi and the great Yuh-jung Youn plays Miss Cho. Both performances are effortlessly realistic. When these two women are on the screen you almost forget you’re watching a movie.

The Head Maid understands that to survive in the world of servant to a wealthy family one has to transform into a cold stone or face whatever added humiliation their masters plan to deliver. Youn Yuh-jung The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

The Head Maid understands that to survive in the world of servant to a wealthy family one has to transform into a cold stone or face whatever added humiliation their masters plan to deliver.
Youn Yuh-jung
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Miss Cho knows the score, but is a strict boss. Nothing happens in this sleek minimalist home without her knowing. Constantly poking the newly hired Housemaid / Au Pair to do everything with perfection, it is hard for the audience to know if Miss Cho is friend or foe. It is not until the mid-point of the film, while she is attempting to relax in the servant’s bathtub she explains to Eun-yi why she is so hard on her:

You get up in the morning and think of what you have to endure. And, damn. It makes your gut hurt. But what can you do? Just breathe in deep and transform into a cold stone.

Daughter and Mother or Conspirators? The Mistresses of the house know no limit to their cruelty. Seo Woo / Park Ji-Young The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Daughter and Mother or Conspirators? The Mistresses of the house know no limit to their cruelty.
Seo Woo / Park Ji-Young
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

At this point we realize that Miss Cho has been trying to teach Eun-yi to be precise and hard so as not to become any more a victim of this family than she already has to be.

We already know what Sang-soo Im has in mind. He begins the film in the tourist area of Seoul where the lower classes sweat and struggle to serve and clean-up after the tourists and middle class Korean party animals. Eun-yi is one of the working slaves. She sees a young women recently tied to scandal and ruin toss herself from a building. The tourists are shocked, but this serves as more of a curiosity and nuisance to the workers. Eun-yi, however, is shaken to the core.

Cleaning to please and entice... Jeon Do-yeon The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Cleaning to please and entice…
Jeon Do-yeon
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Taking on a job as an Au Pair / Housemaid is a welcome change. She will be given her own room and will share her bathroom with only Miss Cho. At first it seems like a dream job. Her dream will quickly transform into a nightmare far harder than any cold stone.

Back in the lush but secluded mansion in Brittany, Sophie is struggling. While the family is polite and even kind, both the wife and husband seem to have an-ongoing debate whether or not they should “teach” the new maid how to do things exactly the way they like them done. The husband, Jean-Pierre Cassel, appears constantly unsatisfied about one thing or another. The wife, expertly played by Jacqueline Bissett, does not seem to disagree as much as she is hesitant to address what are most likely only minor issues that will work themselves out. Valentin Merlet plays their young teenage son who is seemingly amused by the situation. Their young adult daughter, Virginie Ledoyen, is the voice of concern for Sophie. She seems idealistic in her attitude toward the family’s “need” of a live-in maid, but there are numerous hints that this attitude is largely derived from a collegic life and is a passive-aggressive way to prod her father and step-mother.

Well-intentioned on the surface, but this wealthy family seems to struggle with their own level of self-entitlement. Their concerns and politeness seem to be more about "political correctness" than any ethical sense. Virginie Ledoyen / Valentin Merlet / Jacqueline Bisset / Jean-Pierre Cassel La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Well-intentioned on the surface, but this wealthy family seems to struggle with their own level of self-entitlement. Their concerns and politeness seem to be more about “political correctness” than any ethical sense.
Virginie Ledoyen / Valentin Merlet / Jacqueline Bisset / Jean-Pierre Cassel
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

The truth is the Lelievre family appears to be fairly normal in their attitude toward their maid. There is a strong element of wealth-guilt within the wife’s interactions, the husband seems over-worked and uses humor to tinge his issues. The son and daughter are both normal children of upper-class privilege. No one in this family is cruel. And most certainly, there is no clear intent to be cruel. This, of course, is Chabrol’s clever way of making the audience squirm. It is hard not to like this family, but as the film moves forward — it becomes challenging to not be annoyed by their unintended treatment of Sophie as inferior and casual disregard for her personal time.

The wife begins to leave notes and lists of tasks she needs Sophie to perform. It is here we know that Sophie is unable to read or write. She clutches the note and runs to her small room where she keeps a child text on phonetics. She struggles to fit the letters and words to the codes in the book. Bernard Zitzermann’s cinematography gradually shifts into warped close-ups which add further distortion to the faces of the characters as they grimace, worry or think. It is an effectively disorienting effect that is not immediately noticed.

No educational assistance, illiterate, misfit or insane. Sophie's frustration is beginning to form into rage. Sandrine Bonnaire La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

No educational assistance, illiterate, misfit or insane. Sophie’s frustration is beginning to form into rage.
Sandrine Bonnaire
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

As Sophie becomes frustrated, the camera moves in just a bit closer. Finally as she reaches her limit of frustration she begins to find clever but increasingly challenging ways to have the notes read to her so that no one will notice she is unable to read.

Eventually she turns to the one person outside of the family who she has met, Jeanne. Enter Claude Chabrol’s longtime favorite muse, Isabelle Huppert. As with all of her roles, Huppert doesn’t merely play her character — she seems to slip into Jeanne’s skin. Jeanne initially appears to be an eccentric and harmless townie who enjoys gossip and flops about as if she were a child. Jeanne and Sophie start to bond after she assists with one of the notes. It isn’t clear if Jeanne understands that her new friend is illiterate. What is clear is that she wouldn’t care either way. She appears happy to have made a friend. She is even more excited to have made a friend that gains her access to the Lelievre family home. Jeanne appears to have more than a few problems with the Lelievre family. She holds them in disdain. From Jeanne’s perspective, this is a family of fraudulent snobs.

The Scandalous Postal Employee: Child Killer or Mentally-Challenged Misfit? Isabelle Huppert takes a puff La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

The Scandalous Postal Employee: Child Killer or Mentally-Challenged Misfit?
Isabelle Huppert takes a puff
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

As a postal employee she enjoys peeping into other’s mail. A habit that rightly infuriated Mr. Lelievre. Much like we quickly come to understand about Mr. L he doesn’t care for dealing with issues in appropriate ways. He marches into the post office and accuses Jeanne. Playing innocent, Jeanne provokes his anger to higher level. She pushes every button she can find until Mr. L slaps her. Most likely a very bad choice of action. It isn’t long before The Lelievres decide to inform Sophie that they do not approve of her friendship. She is then advised that she is “free to be friends” with her (as if it is their choice) but she is “not allowed” to have Jeanne over for tea and watch TV in her private room — which seems like an antiquated sort of former servants’ room. This pronouncement seems to push Sophie to a whole new level of frustration. And yet, in a classic move by Chabrol, Sandrine Bonnaire holds back. We are never quite sure of what she thinks or feels.

A bit of fun or anarchy?Isabelle Huppert / Sandrine Bonnaire La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

A bit of fun or anarchy? Isabelle Huppert / Sandrine Bonnaire
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Later Zitzermann’s camera starts to move in to slowly distort Bisset’s face as she regains her composure to return to the small party the family is holding. This distortion serves as a sort of signal that Mrs. L is losing her patience with her maid.

Back in South Korea, the newly hired servant is having some issues of her own. On a short family “holiday” the family and Eun-yi Li take off for the summer cottage in the winter. While the husband, wife and daughter sit in the warm hot tub, the Au Pair/ Housemaid is left sitting just outside in the cold. When the cute little girl, Nami, decides she wants to jump into the cold pool — Eun-yi tosses off her towel and jumps into the cold pool with her. The child then returns to the warmth. Eun-yi remains wet and in the cold. Even still, she doesn’t seem to mind.

The family relaxes in the warmth while their housemaid sits patiently in the cold. Jeon Do-yeon as The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

The family relaxes in the warmth while their housemaid sits patiently in the cold.
Jeon Do-yeon as
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Later than evening after a disappointing attempt at sex with his very pregnant wife, the husband decides to pay his new housemaid a visit. As she hears footsteps, Eun-yi quickly puts her sweat shirt on. Before she has a chance to gather her thoughts the husband is making his moves. He insist that she have a sip of wine. Then he quietly says, “Let me have a look.” — he pulls the cover off the housemaid and proceeds to touch her body in a sensual tease. Clearly uncomfortable and confused, it is hard to tell if Eun-yi is upset or aroused. It doesn’t really matter. It is clear the husband isn’t going to take no for an answer even if she chose to demand it.

Would you like to suck your master's wine bottle? Does she really have a choice? Jeon Do-yeon / Lee Jung-jae The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Would you like to suck your master’s wine bottle? Does she really have a choice?
Jeon Do-yeon / Lee Jung-jae
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

She submits and seems to welcome his touch and sex. Sang-soo Im is not afraid of eroticism. The two actors encage in a highly erotic sex scene. Despite the eroticism, there is an ever-present uncomfortableness about the scene. This is not implied. It is there. Be it a good idea or a bad one, this servant is willing to indulge her master. As she kisses his nude body, the husband takes on the role of “Sex God.”

A Questionable Seduction as The Servant "services" The Master... Erotica pushed to the limits of an R-Rating Jeon Do-yeon / Lee Jung-jae The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

A Questionable Seduction as The Servant “services” The Master… Erotica pushed to the limits of an R-Rating
Jeon Do-yeon / Lee Jung-jae
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Clearly, he is more turned on by the adoration than by the woman. He flexes his muscles, drinks his wine and proceeds to have his way with “the help.” Their affair continues. The housemaid begins to fall in love with this self-absorbed man.

Master lost in his own fantasy. Master and Servant Lee Jung-jae The Housemaid Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-Deok

Master lost in his own fantasy. Master and Servant
Lee Jung-jae
The Housemaid
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-Deok

She also finds herself growing attached and devoted to the child, Nami.  Eun-yi reads a particularly disturbing fairy tale to Nami. Despite the gruesome story, the Au Pair expresses her feelings to the child:

“I love how you are such a good child. You’re not bad-tempered. You’re polite to me.”

Nami answers with the sort of honesty that only a child can provide, “Daddy taught me to be polite. It may seem like a sign of respect, but it’s really putting myself first.”

It is here we are once again reminded that Eun-yi’s experience of the world is limited. She does not think with duplicity, but there is a slight hesitation as she takes in the meaning of what this innocent child is telling her. Miss Cho understands this better than anyone: this family has no respect for anyone other than the people of wealth with whom they share the world’s glory.

Miss Cho continually attempts to both advise and warn Eun-yi that she is still young and desirable. She should leave this “Hell,” find a man and marry. Better to be poor with someone you love than to serve this “scary people.” In a moment of brutal honesty she informs the Au Pair/housemaid that “This job is R.U.N.S. Revolting, ugly, nauseating and shameless. I have wasted my whole life in this place.”

The servant hired to mother the wealthy child who offers politeness as a means of putting her own interests first. The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

The servant hired to mother the wealthy child who offers politeness as a means of putting her own interests first.
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

 

Unlike Miss Cho, Eun-yi is unable to transform into a cold stone. Eventually this family pushes the young woman to the point of no return. She is meaningless to them. To the man she thought she loved, she is simply flesh with three holes for his pleasure. She is the object of bullying, intimidation and suffers a far greater indignity that seems to drain her of all hope.

“I am going to get revenge. However small, I have to do something.”

One gets the feeling that Miss Cho sees no way for this young woman to seek out vengeance on such a powerful family. This is prominent family who are firmly placed within the class structure of South Korea. And this family’s world is built on corruption and cruelty that seems to fit easily in a culture and society that is increasingly limited to the “have nots.” But Miss Cho does have some power. The young wife has had her twins. The family needs assistance like never before. Miss Cho quits and tosses part of her uniform on the metallic floor. Outraged, the husband demands, “What do you think you are doing?!?!” Miss Cho looks at him and almost trembling in rage answers, “What the hell are doing? You really like living like this?!?”

The quiet daughter, Nami, looks on with a concerned face.

The husband dismiss Miss Cho’s actions, “This is what these people are like. Just ignore her.”

The powerful feel safe in their cocoon. No one can hurt them. Most especially the common servants. He is wrong. Eun-yi gets her vengeance. It is twisted and horrifying. Sang-soo Im turns the tables on the vile family and on his audience. Nothing quite compares the viewer for what comes next.

Look what you made me do. Jeon Do-yeon The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Look what you made me do.
Jeon Do-yeon
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

 

Back in France, Sophie and Jeanne finally fully bond over a lunch of freshly picked wild mushrooms and stale wine. As they eat and chat, Chabrol finally allows us some insight into this marginalized women. It is almost shocking when Sophie casually informs Jeanne that she has heard something about her. Jeanne pauses and indicates that she has learned something good. With a slight smile on her face, Sophie tells her that she knows Jeanne killed her own daughter. The response is equally odd. Unbothered, Jeanne calmly states:

“It’s not true. It was her own fault. Anyway, they couldn’t prove it. Want to see a picture?”

Besties! La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Besties!
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Within a few minutes we discover that Sophie murdered her ailing father and then set fire to their home which had just been taken from them to develop luxury condos. Realizing that they are both murderers, they start to giggle like two school girls. What makes this scene so chilling is it’s simplicity. Sophie had grown weary of caring for her father and the one thing she had was taken to make way for luxury living quarters that she would never be able to afford. So she killed her father and burned their humble home to the ground. Jeanne was a single mother unable to support a child. Whether or not the murder was intended is not clear, but there is no remorse. Life is easier without another mouth to feed and the demands of motherhood.

The family dismisses Sophie. She pushes them into a corner. They have no choice. She should be fired. But the head of the house terminates her like a angry man scolding a dog. Essentially, he will allow her some shelter and food for a short while until she finds new employment. Sophie is left to stew in what is clearly a sociopathic mind. As the family gathers to watch the live televised airing of an opera, there is a brief conversation. The family is relieved that they have done the right thing by firing their maid. The problem is that they have told her she can stay on for two weeks until she finds a place to live. Mr. L is cruel in his dismissal. The cruelty is completely understandable, but he has not thought about the anger that is seething just beneath the surface of Sophie’s calm exterior. This is their home. They are safe. No one could ever hurt them. Most certainly not some illiterate common maid. Everyone calm and secure, they settle down to watch the opera.

No time to worry about the help, it's time to enjoy the televised opera. Jacqueline Bisset / Virginie Ledoyen / Jean-Pierre Cassel La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

No time to worry about the help, it’s time to enjoy the televised opera.
Jacqueline Bisset / Virginie Ledoyen / Jean-Pierre Cassel
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Sadly, the peasants are outraged and demented. Sophie has secretly let Jeanne into the Lelievre home. The two angry women joke about the vile “bastards” siting in the library with all their fancy books, antiques, television and watching some bourgeoisie opera. And then, Jeanne discovers something in a small room just off from the kitchen: The Lelievre shotgun collection.

Before long Sophie and Jeanne are playing around in the kitchen with the guns. The family hears something. The son suspects that the “weirdo from the postal office” is in the kitchen. Mr. L gets up to send them both out but for good. Only the wife is hesitant. Maybe it’s better to leave it alone. But all three disagree. Mr. L makes his way to the kitchen.

Revolt! La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Revolt!
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

 

 

 

Like The Housemaid, these two marginalized and angry women have come to a tipping point. Their “vengeance” is really more of a “judgement.” From the warped perspectives of two people who have been pushed or pulled down all of their lives, they only know a few ways to deal with their anger at a society that rejects them. Typical of the great Chabrol, the carnage that follows is delivered realistically and without any of the normal cinematic tropes the filmmakers often use when filming this sort of horror. Zitzermann’s camera follows. There are no editing tricks. There is no foreboding musical score. Even though we know what is coming, nothing quite prepares us for it.

As these two masterful, entertaining and disturbing films come to their close the viewer is left with several realizations. Perhaps the most important is the reminder that revolt or revolution is never an actual solution, but when one or two take place the impact is devastating and cruel. Neither Chabrol or Im are particularly clear at the close of their films.

In Chabrol’s universe, Sophie and Jeanne have committed horrible acts.

The Servants' Revolt Sandrine Bonnaire / Isabelle Huppert La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

The Servants’ Revolt
Sandrine Bonnaire / Isabelle Huppert
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography |
Bernard Zitzermann

However, one cannot help but wonder if this all could have been avoided. Why didn’t this community do more to assist this once desperate and struggling mother? Why hasn’t her minister and church attempted to offer her guidance? Instead a judge simply dismisses her and her action. Her church and minister find her crude and childish. They no longer want her help in their charity work or even want her at their church. Sophie is clearly struggling with the solitary life in Brittany, yet the family continually alternates between “hot” and “cold” in their interactions with the maid. They do offer assistance, but it all seems to come with pressure and sideways logic. This is a good family, but they prefer to stay within the confines of this cocoon reserved for the wealthy. They fully realize that they are lucky, but they never think beyond that point. It is as if they have developed a false sense of safety.

In Sang-soo Im’s universe the societal structure of South Korea has become so fractured between the wealthy and impoverished that there is almost a complete disconnect. As he brings this class struggle down to a contained plot of a newly hired maid, we see the plight of the workers being exploited by those to whom they serve. This family is evil. Only their young daughter seems to offer any hope for their redemption. Nami seems to see her world realistically. Her Au Pair has also given her a traumatic experience that will no doubt take form in some way. Which way is not entirely clear.

Unlike Chabrol, Im prefers to leave his audience with a strange and disturbing bit of Surrealism. The family is gathered outside of the mansion in the cold. It is Nami’s birthday. As her drunken parents wish her a happy day and tell her that the world is hers, Nami simply watches them and then walks slowly toward us in an ever increasing sort of fishbowl lens. The Housemaid had told her she was sorry and that she should never forget her. While it is unclear about the future of the world in the hands of Nami, one thing is certain. Nami will not forget The Housemaid. Neither will we.

 

The future is hers. How will she form or play within it? The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

The future is hers. How will she form or play within it?
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

 

 I last I hope we don’t. As the economic gap shows no sign of diminishing, it is important we take the time to re-evaluate the way we interact with others. And as racism has not been this ugly in decades, we better take a long hard look at how we allow our politicians to move forward. We are living in extreme times. It is time to “re-think” motivations, intentions and the way we respond.

Matty Stanfield, 9.1.2015