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I first wrote about Johan Liedgren in November of last year. If you have not read that post, check it out here.

His most recent film continues to gain momentum and with recent shifts in the United States — it has gained even more importance.  I’m quite literally pasting an interview Kate Shifman conducted with Mr. Liedgren last year. I do so with Ms. Shifman’s permission. 

"Well, there's no story without evil." Bradley Goodwill, Andrew Tribolini, and Ed Stone The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi “Well, there’s no story without evil.” Bradley Goodwill, Andrew Tribolini, and Ed Stone The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

“Well, there’s no story without evil.”
Bradley Goodwill, Andrew Tribolini, and Ed Stone
The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016
Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

Johan Liedgren’s most recent feature film displays something very rare: a strong female protagonist who finds a very big voice in sexual controversy and moral complexity.

A witty, intense and unpredictable tale fusing rapid-fire chamber-drama with fearless acting and relentless cinematic appeal, “The Very Private Work of Sister K” starts with the story of a young nun accused of grave transgressions, who rises to battle the oldest of beliefs as the true nature of sexuality is put on trial. Award-winning director Johan Liedgren teams up with director of photography Zia Mohajerjasbi and actress Liza Curtiss as Sister K in “…a modern bar-fighting lovechild of Eyes Wide Shut and 12 Angry Men.”

I called Mr. Liedgren at his house in Seattle on a Wednesday afternoon in early December, curios about a male artist’s relationship to what Hollywood has been struggling with for such a long time: strong and complex female characters.

Kate Shifman: There is a scene where the female protagonist Sister K keeps telling the older male priests the sexual relationship she had was “…not just sex.”

Johan Liedgren: Sex is never just about sex.

KS: They say that it was simple. She says… it was complicated.

JL: She says it was complex. Human sexuality is complex. Not necessarily complicated. We all know how babies are made. Good sex is something very different.

KS: Complicated and complex – what is the difference?

JL: I feel like I am getting set-up to mansplain. (laughter)

KS: What’s the difference to you?

JL: One has many moving parts. The other can be simple but still mean many things on many levels. I should really look that up…

KS: It is rare to see truly strong female characters. Especially from a male director. Is this a feminist film?

Liza Curtiss The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

Liza Curtiss
The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016
Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

JL: I don’t know how much it matters that I am male. But yes, she is very strong. But for me it was never because she repeats some political line that fits an established feminist abstract narrative. Her strength is interesting because she finds her moral high ground in a very specific experience. And to make things more interesting, it’s fueled with religious context and a suitcase full of sexual taboos.

KS: But it’s different than “Spotlight” in many ways.

JL: The obvious ways, sure. And it’s more fun to watch. But even more so because it serves as allegory rather than dramatized documentary.

KS: What you describe could have happened.

JL: It did happen… I can’t find the details but I think a similar case 20 years ago in Denmark. A civil case of a nun who thought her patient needed sexual attention on a regular basis. And just as I was editing the Sister K, New York Times did an article on Anna Stubbenfelt – the therapist who fell in love with and slept with a much younger severely autistic boy. Fascinating. And complex.

“Kicking in already open doors. All film makers should stay away from that and aim higher. “

KS: Could this film have been done with a male nurse?

JL: Sure. But you would have to play against the cliche’s or you would be re-making Spotlight. And that’s not me. Too easy. It can’t be predictable.

KS: Could it be about something other than sex?

JL: Of course. But not for me, and not for this story. Sexuality has a absolutely singular place in our lives. It’s an everyday need and deeply mysterious at the same time. It’s giving and taking. It’s familiar and yet always new somehow. Unmatched complexity. That’s why sexuality will always resonate with divinity for me. Those hips don’t lie. (laugh) But hey, don’t forget what Sister K did to her patient.

Andrew Tribolini The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi Andrew Tribolini has a little story to share… The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

Andrew Tribolini
The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi
Andrew Tribolini has a little story to share…
The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016
Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

KS: And still we root for Sister K.

JL: I agree, most people do. But you have to work for it, and you are constantly challenged in that position as the story twists and turns. And I think that is why the film turned out so well. It was not an easy project.

KS: Too controversial?

JL: Never!

KS: Are you actively staying away from politics?

JL: Sexual politics is often part of my projects. But traditional politics – yes, anything with dull and predictable categories… we are living in a world stuck in lazy narratives, selling something predictable to the already converted. Kicking in already open doors. All film makers should stay away from that and aim higher.

KS: More complexity.

JL: Exactly! The Hollywood machine requires simplicity and predictability. Known categories they can market too. Stories that everyone likes. It is up to independent films to dramatize more complex issues. To take real risks. Commercial and artistic. Even smaller independent film seem more concerned with making something that Hollywood likes than taking risks and breaking new ground.

KS: You don’t see much feminist film come out of Hollywood.

JL: That’s an understatement.

KS: Did you set out to make a feminist film.

JL: No. But I did set out to make a film about a woman who finds a deep female power outside the obvious, and she does so without being perfect. Clearly.

“All of my work hints at a bigger and more interesting world luring in the shadows of everyday life.”

Johan Liedgren

Johan Liedgren

KS: You are an accidental feminist.

JL: Love that! (laughter) – Johan Liedgren… accidental feminist. In some ways I think we can describe Sister K just the same.

KS: What would you like people to take away from the film?

JL: I would love to see someone stand up for real sexuality the way Sister K does. Bring the message home – when sex is talked about at that dinner party, as “simple”, there will be those women around the world who will push their plate to the side, empty their glass of wine, stand up and deliver the same speech Sister K did. And end it with a passionate “…Good sex, that’s where God goes to church!” Bam! Mic-drop…

KS: I can see that happening at a stale dinner somewhere.

JL: But also… I think the film – and certainly actress Liza Curtiss – does a brilliant job of having us drift deep into the complexity of what is going on long before we know we are in it. She uses all our pre-conceived notions of gender and sex to take us somewhere very different. She’s that good. You are laughing, but then suddenly realizing you are caught rooting for some very questionable behavior. Good story is a beautiful trickster – leading us to places we otherwise would not see. Film can and should do the same. I think all of my work hints at a bigger and more interesting world luring in the shadows of everyday life.

KS: Your film starts out with a funny, almost childlike story within the story – a rabbit who decides to stop eating his vegetables.

JL: Right. It’s a good example of how story can be a trickster – it’s not long before we fully embrace the rabbit as a brutal nocturnal carnivore.

KS: Accidental Carnivore?

JL: Nice. (laughter). But yes, Sister K in similar fashion seems harmless and benign in the beginning only to reveal incredible potency. No one sees her coming.

KS: Is she deceiving them all from the very beginning?

JL: Well, if she is, it’s not to save herself. It’s to make sure the story that survives is told right.

KS: Several times she talks about what happened to her as a story, a story to be told – told over and over again. The film eludes to the work of Eve, and the story of Eden.

JL: The value and currency of her actions is the story that will be told about her. And that is also how the rabbit story ends, with that story living on, retold over and over again, from generation to generation. I love story. The rabbit story even survives one of my films and appears in the next. Lives on… and if you end the interview now, the story of the film through this interview will live on – and it would provide for almost perfect symmetry. (laughter)

KS: What a director! (laughter). Thank you, Johan – a wonderful film and a surprising and incredibly potent female protagonist where we least expect it.

JL: It was all my pleasure.

The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016

The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016

Kate Shifman is a NYC freelance writer, consultant and photographer traveling the world, currently based in Portugal. Johan Liedgren is an award-winning film-director, writer and story consultant. His work with large brands, design, media and technology companies is extending narrative thinking and storytelling to products and disciplines far outside traditional application. Johan lives a relatively balanced life with his two sons in Seattle. More info  here

The Very Private Work of Sister K can be rented/purchased here

I highly recommend it.

Matty Stanfield, 1.29.2017

 

 

 

Johan Liedgren’s latest film, The Very Private Work of Sister K, begins with a priest telling a story. He is doing so at the request of a young nun who sits at the end of a table. It’s the tale of a little rabbit who decides to take the opportunity to eat a bit of meat. The little rabbit discovers that being a vegetarian is too limiting. The tale’s ending is simple but disturbing. The little rabbit begins to hunt and consume meat. Soon it transforms into a bloodthirsty beast. His listeners are not only unsatisfied with this ending — they do not seem to understand the point. The priest is attempting to use his story as an ice-breaker, but he provided a revealing analogy.

His little fable is really more of a parable in which a meek creature has become a life-threatening menace. Sister K wants to hear his story once more before her hearing begins. The men in the room are far too polite and cautious to call the meeting by the appropriate term. Sister K, a young nun, has apparently committed several grave transgressions. Despite their initial protests, this is not a gathering to protect and assist Sister K. This gathering only appears informal and friendly. Four priests, a lawyer and a doctor have gathered to issue a judgement regarding the young nun. An older nun sits off the side. This young nun finds herself seated in front of the patriarchal order of Catholic Hierarchy.

A witness for persecution... Marty Mukhalian The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

A witness for persecution… “I speak loudly in German and pour cold water in the tub.”
Marty Mukhalian
The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016
Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

Johan Liedgren has effectively used a rabbit analogy before. The protagonist of his 2013 film, Mother Nature, is bullied, threatened and maligned as being the equivalent of a “little rabbit.” In that intense film, the father is gradually pushed to adapt the far more sinister powers to prove that he is far more than an innocuous creature. In both Mother Nature and The Very Private Work of Sister K, the idea of the respective protagonists as furry little creatures fit easily into one rabbit-like archetype. The only shared rabbit attribute is that they both manage to lead others down into deeply rooted holes.

Johan Liedgren’s Mother Nature came to my attention by accident. A friend had mentioned him as a potentially important emerging film artist. As it turns out he was not “emerging.” Liedgren was already firmly emerged and established. He is a respected and savvy storyteller who has been thinking out-of-the-box his entire career. And it is a career of note. Just press a few buttons to discover how successful he has been at creatively utilizing his skills in more than a few disciplines. Mother Nature is his first feature length film. It is a potent and unforgettable debut.  My friend had not seen the movie and I could find no reviews posted to iTunes when I took a chance and purchased a copy. It turned out to be a rewarding investment.

"I don't know why I feel like fucking with you. It's weird, but it was from the moment I saw you." Karina Deyko Mother Nature Johan Liedgren, 2013 Cinematography | Trevor Fife

“I don’t know why I feel like fucking with you. It’s weird, but it was from the moment I saw you.”
Karina Deyko
Mother Nature
Johan Liedgren, 2013
Cinematography | Trevor Fife

Mother Nature presents itself within the trappings of an Art Horror film, but it is actually a surrealistic journey to the core of male identity. Liedgren’s film masterfully pushes the main character to his primordial core. Phillip Roebuck’s performance is perfectly matched with the manner in which the movie unfolds. We first see him playing with the family dog. Within a couple of minutes we know that he is a father taking his son and their dog on a short camping trip. This appears to be an outing designed to foster bonding. Father is out of sorts. His marriage has failed and now he wants to connect with his son.

This is not a father who easily fits into the mode of a fun loving dad. The son is not looking forward to hanging out with his father and the audience can’t help but understand. It is difficult to articulate, but Father is somehow unlikeable. Roebuck is brilliant in the role. With each small gesture and glance, this character just feels like a frustrated mass of inertia and depression. In the first portion of the movie, Father is of no interest. A skilled film actor is always welcome in any movie, but here it is of particular note. Roebuck is playing a character who turns out to be something far more than anticipated. Liedgren has written a character who will soon inhabit The Jungian Archetype. We do not see that coming and the transformation is unhinged and believable.

A father's identity is challenged to the core. Will he be up for the challenge? Phillip Roebuck Mother Nature Johan Liedgren, 2013 Cinematography | Trevor Fife

A father’s identity is challenged to the core. Will he be up for the challenge?
Phillip Roebuck
Mother Nature
Johan Liedgren, 2013
Cinematography | Trevor Fife

At first, the “hero” of Mother Nature is not someone we can like. Roebuck rightfully plays the father as passively aggressive and slump shouldered. He is disagreeable and awkward. Karina Deyko’s character hates him upon first sight. His very existence annoys her. And she is more than eager to let him know. Thanks to exceptional directing, acting, writing, editing and cinematography — we can’t help but agree with her. This is a bold choice but effective. It is also in keeping with the film’s odd dark humor.

The surrounding nature is beautiful, but somehow sinister. It doesn’t take long for Father to piss off all of the neighboring campers. And all of these fellow campers seem to possess natural weirdness that lends itself to cruelty. The son rightfully wants to leave, but his father becomes determined to stand their ground. Passive anger begins to simmer to the boiling point. Father‘s inner animal instincts begin to take control. It never feels unbelievable. The father’s transformation to Warrior is warranted and, with hindsight, it is inevitable. Like a cunning animal waking from a deep sleep to defend his turf, Father no longer fears anything. External threats have provoked his realization of identity. This provocation leads him to primal instincts and it is  visceral. Father‘s strength was always there. It was just sleeping.

Thinking a snake has slithered under a fellow camper’s tent, he warns her and begins to poke beneath her enclosure to force the snake away. Instead of being appreciative — she seeks to humilate him. She refuses acknowledgment of his attempted kindness. Instead she incredulously accuses him of wanting her to like him. As if he has committed a crime by getting her attention she considers this snake to be of the Freudian variety. Frustrated and emasculated, he mutters that the snake is probably gone. Head bowed he admits he never actually saw it. His son claims to have seen it.

Well, not seeing it won’t make it go away.

"How do you want to play it? Mother Nature Johan Liedgren, 2013 Cinematography | Trevor Fife

“How do you want to play it?
Mother Nature
Johan Liedgren, 2013
Cinematography | Trevor Fife

Like the priest in The Very Private Work of Sister K, father has a story to share with his son. Before he can even begin to tell it the son attempts to stop him.

Whenever you tell me stories you want something from me.

Father does not attempt to argue with him. He merely points out that this time it is only a story.

The story tells of an Alaskan park ranger who, while conducting a bear population study, ends up becoming trapped with a sleeping bear. This bear is pure beast who will most definitely kill and eat the ranger. The ranger manages to use a small pair of clippers to slice deep within the bear’s neck to severe its main artery. The triumphant ranger falls asleep atop the bear who has died in a pool of its own blood. The son is impressed, but the point is not clear.

But Father is already thinking that they are now trapped in a situation that is equally dangerous. A sociopathic camper begins to threaten Father and taunts him as being no more than “a little rabbit.” Liedgren’s film takes an unexpected turn. Mother Nature presents one man’s fight for survival. A meek little man transforms to Warrior.

Mother Nature Johan Liedgren, 2013

Mother Nature
Johan Liedgren, 2013

Trevor Fife’s cinematography is simple but articulate and masterful. Ben Lukas Boysen’s musical score is pitch-perfect. The real star here is the ways in which Liedgren has collaborated with his crew of artists and then achieved a tightly edited story that is  as equally intense, unnerving and entertaining. It is of note that this film manages to register so deeply. Mr.Liedgren has not attempted to cash in on cheap effects. There is no sentimentality here, but we relate. We understand.

Mother Nature is one of those great movies that has never managed to secure the audience it deserves. It is available for rent or purchase on both Vimeo and iTunes. I highly recommend it. Watch the trailer for Mother Nature here.

The Very Private Work of Sister K is every bit as bold, provocative and surprising as Mother Nature, but the protagonist has a different sort of conflict. While it is far removed from the visceral world established in Mother Nature, the ideas of identity and the primordial inner battles of sexuality pulsing just beneath her habit is just as unrelenting.

Andrew Tribolini has a little story to share... The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

Andrew Tribolini has a little story to share…
The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016
Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

After she successfully nudges the priest to share his story, Sister K sits patiently awaiting the Catholic patriarchy attempt to lull her into believing that they have not gathered to judge her. Sister K’s gaze signals she knows better. Utilizing Catholic hierarchy to funnel age-old misogyny, sexually conflicted fears and hypocrisy, Liedgren has created a darkly comical and often sharp edged take on the parlor drama. This is a highly intellectual work that is fueled by words, but make no mistake — this is cinema.

Zia Mohajerjasbi’s camera is truly masterful and it reflects a majestic scope. Bryson Michael’s editing is decisive and elegant and smooth. Both of these of these crucial elements serve to elevate and add additional impact to Liedgren’s witty film. There is a simple complexity to both Mother Nature and The Very Private Work of Sister K that lead to almost quietly deafening resolutions. As I watched this film I could not help but think of Michael Haneke’s collaborations with Christian Berger and Monika Willi. While Haneke’s cinematic visions go to different places, Liedgren’s stylistic approach is similar. This is a film of ideas presented in a passionate but unsentimental language.

It should be noted that while the movie articulates dark comedy — it never sacrifices a thread of potency. It is refreshing to witness a filmmaker who can color outside the lines without surrendering to any level of uncertainty. This is a small film with big ideas — and all are pushed forward with style to match their substance. Essentially a chamber drama that takes place in one room, Liedgren never loses a cinematic hold. This is not a filmed play. This is cinema of ideas that flows easily and it never backs down from standing its ground.  Sister K and her judges are angry. But hunger trumps anger. Sister K is far to hungry to put with their repressive fear, stupidity and misogyny.

"Well, there's no story without evil." Bradley Goodwill, Andrew Tribolini, and Ed Stone The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

“Well, there’s no story without evil.”
Bradley Goodwill, Andrew Tribolini, and Ed Stone
The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016
Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

Thinking that they have safely hidden their true selves behind the fraudulent mask of fatherly concern, the judges are eager to punish their little rabbit. The priests appear to be ascetic, but they each have agendas that oppose this concept. Liza Curtiss plays Sister K with quiet resolve. She is no one’s martyr. It isn’t her future that seems to concern her. It is the hypocrisy and evil that thrives within the walls of her chosen faith. As the nature of her transgressions become clear so do the illogical viewpoints of the men who lead the Catholic Church. These men of God are all too eager to paint facts to match the color of their vileness. It is from this perspective that we understand that this young nun has become a bloodthirsty monster rabbit intend on defiling all they hold sacred. The story of that little rabbit transformed to bloodthirsty beast turns out to be more fable than parable. These holy men see unsuppressed women as menacing beasts.

Sister K is thirsty, but it is not for blood. She hungers for the knowledge, blessing and love of God. And from where Sister K sits — God has long left the Catholic Church. He has left the building and it is crumbling from the decay of corrupt power, repression and suppression. Sister K has found truth and salvation through the access that these so called men of God have refused her.  The priest most eager to deliver punishment is also the first to lick his lips and salivate as the detail of Sister K‘s transgressions are revealed. She sits accused of rape, but her judges are not concerned with the crime. Their worry is rooted in the fact that this young woman shows no remorse.

Did she take pleasure in her work? Liza Curtiss The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016 Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

Did she take pleasure in her work?
Liza Curtiss
The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016
Cinematography | Zia Mohajerjasbi

Sister K disagrees that she has done any wrong. She has followed a path that offered both she and her supposed victim a freedom not thought possible. She is grateful for what she has experienced. The “victim” that her judges refuse to name has brought her close to God. She has experienced true salvation. But her accusers disagree. When she tries to explain how the sweetness of sexuality delivered her lover to the light of knowledge and contentment, a priest attempts to shame her.

He filled a nature!”

He woke up.

With an apple shoved down his throat!

An adam’s apple we would deny no other man!

It was just sex!

It was just an apple!

Her refusal to retreat like a sweet little rabbit is not going to happen. And she leads these men to the source of their problem: a fairy tale of a garden in which a woman lures all mankind to the doom of knowledge.

Johan Liedgren has made a film almost as angry as Ken Russell’s The Devils, but he contains that anger into a fascinating exchange between the accused and her accusers. The Very Private Work of Sister K is a cinematic provocation that relies on the power of ideas to spark a light in a dark world. In many ways Sister K is far more dangerous than a deranged flesh eating rabbit — she is an intelligent woman who smells the fraud. Our protagonist will not to be hunted or victimized. Actually, her work has only just begun.

The trailer can be viewed and the film can be rented or purchased here

 

"Good sex. That is where God goes to church." The Very Private Work of Sister K Johan Liedgren, 2016

“Good sex. That is where God goes to church.”
The Very Private Work of Sister K
Johan Liedgren, 2016

Matty Stanfield, 11.9.2016

 

 

In 1982 Tangelos' synthesized music, narrator and ill-fitting ending attempt to tell the audience to feel happy as a seminal film classic comes to its original ending. Blade Runner Ridley Scott, 1982 Cinematography | Jordan Cronenweth

In 1982 Tangelos’ synthesized music, narrator and ill-fitting ending attempt to tell the audience to feel happy as a seminal film classic comes to its original ending.
Blade Runner
Ridley Scott, 1982
Cinematography | Jordan Cronenweth

A person has just lost their life partner and sits in a crowded room. A concerned friend approaches and sits next to the grieving individual. The friend awkward touches the friend on the arm.

I’m so sorry. I know just how you feel.

The friend should have stopped at “sorry.”

The absolute worst comment that can be made to a person who has just suffered a life-changing loss is “I know how you feel.” We might think we know, but the truth is we only have an empathetic idea of what another feels at such a time. It may sound trite, but human beings are like snowflakes. We are each slightly different in comparison to each other. A person has clue regarding the feelings of another human being who has just suffered a tragic loss.

The Narrator is unreliable, but Bob offers comfort. Edward Norton & Meat Loaf Fight Club David Fincher, 1999 Cinematography | Jeff Cronenweth

The Narrator is unreliable, but Bob offers comfort.
Edward Norton & Meat Loaf
Fight Club
David Fincher, 1999
Cinematography | Jeff Cronenweth

A driver sits in her/his car at a red light. The light turns green. The driver is in a hurry, he/she applies a bit more pressure to the gas peddle than normal. Her/his car slams into the back bumper of another car traveling the intersection. The driver of the car crossing the interaction is furious. Both of these drivers will normally have opposing views of this fender-bender. In fact it is quite probable that the other drivers and pedestrians who witness the accident will have differing views regarding who is at fault.

An aging parent espouses

Perception is a tricky thing when evaluated between two or more other people. Hardly any one wants to be told how to feel. Very few like to be told what to do. But absolutely no one wants to be made to feel like an idiot.

"I feel the words building inside me, I can't stop them, or tell you why I say them, but as I reach the top of the bridge these words come to me in a whisper. I say these words as a prayer, as regret, as praise, I say: 'Lowenstein, Lowenstein.'" Despite the dewy-glow of a silly subplot, the movie actually works save for a painful narration. Nick Nolte, Barbra Streisand and nails The Prince of Tides Barbra Streisand, 1991 Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

“I feel the words building inside me, I can’t stop them, or tell you why I say them, but as I reach the top of the bridge these words come to me in a whisper. I say these words as a prayer, as regret, as praise, I say: ‘Lowenstein, Lowenstein.'”
Despite the dewy-glow of a silly subplot, the movie actually works save for a painful narration.
Nick Nolte, Barbra Streisand and nails
The Prince of Tides
Barbra Streisand, 1991
Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

I began with reality examples to point out that the use of voice-over narration is most often a major mistake. Not all the time, but most of the time when I see a film utilizing voice-over narration my eyes want to roll up into my head. This is a knee-jerk response that I hold at bay to give any such film in question a chance to prove the use a wise one. Most of the time when a film features a narration it comes across as lazy filmmaking. The other problem is that this style of cinematic story telling has been over used for decades. It often feels less “old-school” and more simply “old” and completely outmoded.

But there are filmmakers who can use voice-over narration to benefit their films. A solid example of a good narration use — maybe even one of the best — is Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan. In Annie Hall Allen not only provides narration — he breaks the fourth wall. And it works! He is far from being the only film artist to successfully break that wall between the film and the audience. When Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner adapted Bret Easton Ellis notorious novel, American Psycho, for the big screen they took a major gamble for a lower budgeted independent film: They had Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman constantly breaking the fourth wall and act as not only a narrative device but an unreliable and darkly funny one.

"I gain no deeper knowledge of myself. No new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing." Christian Bale not only serves as a narrative device which breaks the fourth wall, he brings unreliable narration to a whole new level. Christian Bale American Psycho Mary Harron, 2000 Cinematography | Andrzej Sekula

“I gain no deeper knowledge of myself. No new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing.”
Christian Bale not only serves as a narrative device which breaks the fourth wall, he brings unreliable narration to a whole new level.
Christian Bale
American Psycho
Mary Harron, 2000
Cinematography | Andrzej Sekula

Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums smartly employees Alex Baldwin to provide a voice-over narration that not only serves the film — it totally enhances the film itself. But perhaps the three best examples of voice-over narration that not only works but makes their films even better are Sunset Blvd., Taxi Driver and A Clockwork Orange. Billy Wilder was way ahead of his time when he had a dead character narrate the sad, twisted, tragic and darkly comical tale of Norma Desmond in a sure-footed feat of detailed flashback. Wilder does not rob his film of suspense by revealing that William Holden’s Joe Gillis has been killed. The use of this device adds multiple perspectives to a surprisingly blunt slap at the film industry and the notion of aging celebrity.

"The poor dope. He always wanted a pool." Unique twist of narration assists a movie that a cinematic game-changer. William Holden is your dead narrator. Sunset Blvd. Billy Wilder, 1950 Cinematography | John F. Seitz

“The poor dope. He always wanted a pool.”
Unique twist of narration assists a movie that a cinematic game-changer.
William Holden is your dead narrator.
Sunset Blvd.
Billy Wilder, 1950
Cinematography | John F. Seitz

Martin Scorsese is a filmmaker who has always understood how to employee voice-over narration to work in his film’s favor. Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle‘s narration not only truly drives Taxi Driver forward, it offers the viewer insights into the horrifying motivations of the title character. The film rattled cages 40 years ago and continues to do so today because we are allowed to see inside the mind of a psychopath who is humanized in our minds. His anguish and anger accelerates to a crescendo of violence that luckily resolves a horrific problem. Scorsese does not let the audience off so easily. We certainly are unable to trust Travis anymore than we can buy into his insights. The film ends with a scene that may or may not have happened, but one thing is for certain — Travis has not changed. The jarring final editing and perspectives of the closing scene leaves the audience startled.

"Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up." A chilling voice-over narration that lingers forever... Robert De Niro Taxi Driver Martin Scorsese, 1976 Cinematography | Michael Chapman

“Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.”
A chilling voice-over narration that lingers forever…
Robert De Niro
Taxi Driver
Martin Scorsese, 1976
Cinematography | Michael Chapman

My personal favorite voice-over can be found in Stanley Kubrick’s amazing adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel, A Clockwork Orange. Meticulously designed and filmed, this iconic and controversial movie opens with an unforgettable shot. We appear to be entering an unknown world but are greeted by Malcolm Mcdowell’s unmistakable voice. It is his Alex who introduces us to Kubrick’s setting in which we find ourselves:

“There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie and Dim and we sat in the Korova milkbar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening. The Korova Milk Bar sold milkplus, milk plus vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom which is what we were drinking. This would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence. Our pockets were full of money so there was no need on that score, but, as they say, money isn’t everything.”

"Giddy well, little brother. viddy well." A Clockwork Orange Stanley Kubrick, 1971 Cinematography | John Alcott

“Giddy well, little brother. viddy well.”
A Clockwork Orange
Stanley Kubrick, 1971
Cinematography | John Alcott

And with that we are introduced into some future state of what must be England. And judging from Alex‘s Northern Lad Accent, our narrator is somewhere in the limited world of what we have come to know as council estate life. The use of this rebellious teenaged troublemaker as our narrator not only fits the film — it serves to offer us a voice to the illogical and shocking actions of our criminally insane protagonist. This mixed with Kubrick and John Alcotts’ camera perspectives delivers a disturbing evaluation of an attempt to control human cruelty by a brutality that might be even more horrid than our narrator’s psyche. Kubrick asks more questions than he answers and all he really needs is the voice-over of the film’s protagonist to deliver the gut-punches.

Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Herr had an exhausted Martin Sheen read a voice-over for Apocalypse Now as an attempt to provide structure to an epic film that wanted to spiral out of control.  Some will argue that it was valid, I am not among them. This oddly effective mess of a movie is not nearly as interesting as the complexities involved in the making of it.

 "Never get out of the boat." A rather bored and sleepy narration attempts to assign meaning to the meaningless... Martin Sheen Apocalypse Now Francis Ford Coppola, 1979 Cinematography | Vittorio Storaro

“Never get out of the boat.” A rather bored and sleepy narration attempts to assign meaning to the meaningless…
Martin Sheen
Apocalypse Now
Francis Ford Coppola, 1979
Cinematography | Vittorio Storaro

It has always seemed to me that Apocalypse Now would have been better served in under two hours. Marlon Brando’s rambling mixing with the horrifying ritual of animal slaughter would have helped to deliver a more satisfying film than the one (or ones) we have received. Despite itself, this is a film that cannot be dismissed.

Much like the use of sentimental orchestrated strings cue the audience that it is time to allow tears to well up or gather goosebumps as we watch the boy get the girl or the girl lose the boy — voice-over narration is usually an exercise in manipulation that most films really do not need. One of the most shameless uses of voice-over narration would have to be Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump. When this movie first came out I remember thinking that there was something wrong with me. So many people seemed to love a seemingly retarded Tom Hanks intermingling with iconic events with the offer of vomit inducing non-witicisms as narration just left me annoyed. As it soon turned out — I was not alone.

"Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." Tom Hanks Forrest Gump Robert Zemeckis, 1994 Cinematography | Don Burgess

“Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
Tom Hanks
Forrest Gump
Robert Zemeckis, 1994
Cinematography | Don Burgess

Even when an argument can be made in favor of the poorest voice-over narrations, a counter-argument nearly always defeats it. To roll back to the beginning of this post, when Barbra Streisand decided to star and film The Prince of Tides a viewer pretty much knew what to expect. However what she delivered was a bit more and also a bit less than anticipated. Streisand was able to secure Conroy to adapt his own novel with the assistance of Becky Johnston, but a film belongs to its director. The most problematic aspect of Conroy’s novel is the romantic situation that develops between the protagonist and his sister’s shrink. This challenge found in Conroy’s novel could have easily been pushed aside for what is really at the core of the novel’s beauty. Instead Streisand pushes adultery and reckless ethics to center stage without ever noting either issue of the soft-focused love affair. What is interesting is that this is not the film’s main issue.

"I don't know when my parents began their war against each other - but I do know the only prisoners they took were their children." Despite the cheesy narration Kate Nelligan delivers an amazing turn. The Prince of Tides Barbra Streisand, 1991 Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

“I don’t know when my parents began their war against each other – but I do know the only prisoners they took were their children.”
Despite the cheesy narration Kate Nelligan delivers an amazing turn.
The Prince of Tides
Barbra Streisand, 1991
Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

It is Streisand’s use of Nick Nolte’s voice-over narration that most harms The Prince of Tides. This is important to note. While we all might roll our eyes at the director’s need to center herself as both the protagonist’s object of Savior and Sexual Goddess, it is harder to blame her for wanting to lose the beauty of Pat Conroy’s writing. However it is crucial for a filmmaker to remember that The Book and The Movie it inspires are two very different animals. Pat Conroy’s writing often approached poetry, but to have even the most gifted actor read it as a narrative device will usually reduce it to mush. As we see three young children holding their breath under the water and race to the top to reveal the film’s title card is cinematic. But to have that scene accompanied by Nick Nolte narrating:

“We found a silent soothing world where there was no pain. A world without mothers or fathers. We would make a circle bound by flesh and blood and water and only when we felt our lungs betray us would we rise towards the light.”  It should work and for some it might, but for most of us these poetic remarks are borderline cringe-inducing. Cinema is already a language in and of itself. Narration like this is heavy-handed at best.

"It seems every day ends with a miracle here." Kevin Costner chose to provide the narrative voice-over for his 1990 epic. Dances With Wolves Kevin Costner, 1990 Cinematography | Dean Semler

“It seems every day ends with a miracle here.”
Kevin Costner chose to provide the narrative voice-over for his 1990 epic.
Dances With Wolves
Kevin Costner, 1990
Cinematography | Dean Semler

If you notice a stronger opinion against Streisand’s The Prince of Tides than Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves, the only reason is sexism. Like Streisand’s film that would come a year later, Kevin Costner’s directorial effort was equally invested with genuine importance. Michael Blake’s book inspired Costner to make a film that offers insight into the atrocities against Native Americans. The core message does survive within the once acclaimed film, but mostly this is a vanity project in which the director casts himself in the role of object.

Consistently back lit and in soft-focus, we even get to see Mr. Costner run about nude. And even with Mr. Blake writing the screenplay, Costner leans heavy into his character’s love for an oddly 1980’s coiffed Mary McDonnell. Even the dirt on her face seems to have been placed there by Max Factor. The two white characters become pretty much take center stage bathed in light and breezy soft-focus. However barely anyone noted this at the time. Unlike Streisand, he is a man and has the auto-right to showcase himself exactly the way he chooses. But it is when Costner recites the narration that the film really rides off the rails. While the film wants to shed light on the indignities suffered by Native Americans and demonstrate the beauty that the white men destroyed, it is up to the whitest man on the planet to save the day and take center screen.

“Nothing I have been told about these people is correct. They are not thieves or beggars. They are not the bogeymen they are made out to be. On the contrary, they are polite guests and I enjoy their humor.”

Part of the problem with the narration of Dances With Wolves is its earnest self-importance, but the underlying issue is the fact that Costner sounds like a weed-lovin’ surfer about to take a nap every time he speaks. Of course it does match his flawless hair and ill-suited swagger for the era in which the story takes place.

Luckily Bob Fosse didn’t lose his focus while shooting Cabaret or we might have a film musical featuring Michael York reading from Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories! And, yes, that would have been awful.

"A paranoid schizophrenic walks into a bar..." A brilliant actor goes for broke but a voice-over narration just about wrecks the whole thing. Tom Hardy & Tom Hardy Legend Brian Helgeland, 2015 Cinematography | Dick Pope

“A paranoid schizophrenic walks into a bar…”
A brilliant actor goes for broke but a voice-over narration just about wrecks the whole thing.
Tom Hardy & Tom Hardy
Legend
Brian Helgeland, 2015
Cinematography | Dick Pope

Last year it was rumored that Brian Helgeland had finally directed a film that would match if not exceed his artistry as the writer of 1997’s LA Confidential. Having penned the script himself from John Pearson’s book about the strange and horrific story of England’s infamous Kray Brothers with Tom Hardy cast to play both brothers — the rumor seemed like it might just be a safe bet. However my gamble of seeing Legend failed to fully reward the promise of the bet.

Uh, oh. Double trouble! Better give 'em some voice-over narration! Tom Hardy + Tom Hardy Brian Helgeland, 2015 Cinematography | Dick Pope

Uh, oh. Double trouble! Better give ’em some voice-over narration!
Tom Hardy + Tom Hardy
Brian Helgeland, 2015
Cinematography | Dick Pope

It is my opinion that Tom Hardy is one of if not the most important movie actor of his generation. The guy has it all. Blessed with talent, skill, on-screen presence, charisma and rugged incredible good looks — Tom Hardy is poised to become a screen legend himself.

As both Reggie and Ronald Kray he is clearly having fun. Equally invested in both characters, Hardy plunges into the two very different but complicated psyches. Walking a sort of tightrope, Hardy manages to be touching, scary and always without fail funny as hell. Shot crisply but relying a bit too much on the limited budget to create the actor on both sides of the screen, the special effects are not always on spot.

Even though the budget has severely restricted the digital effects -- These 3 are poised to creep you out and make you laugh... Tom Hardy, Christopher Eccleston & Tom Hardy Legend Brian Helgeland, 2015 Cinematography | Dick Pope

Even though the budget has severely restricted the digital effects — These 3 are poised to creep you out and make you laugh…
Tom Hardy, Christopher Eccleston & Tom Hardy
Legend
Brian Helgeland, 2015
Cinematography | Dick Pope

Christopher Eccleston approaches his role as the copper out to stop the two brothers as if he was speeding on cocaine. Mr. Eccleston is in over-drive and manages to make a predictable cliche of a character memorable. But this is Tom Hardy’s show and it would seem to be aiming for intentional darkly twisted comedy.

Or were my laughs intended by Mr. Helgeland? Sadly if they were, he must have had a change-of-heart in post-production.

Emily Browning is not the greatest actor working, but she is certainly a capable performer. It is poor Ms. Browning who has been assigned the task of providing Legend ‘s voice-over narration.

And, this narration is bad. Painfully bad. And to make it all the worse she has been cast as the fiancée who committed suicide prior to marrying Reggie Kray. Yes, this is a voice-over narration from the grave minus any snarky sense of humor. Helgeland appears to have pushed Browning for a deadly serious reading.

And it just about strangles his film of any life. To make it all the worse, Frances Shea ‘s commentary from the dead fails to actually connect with her living character. Frances certainly displays issues regarding her intended’s way of making a living but she seems game enough to look the other way. If anything, Frances seems a bit dim-witted or simplistic in her thinking and displays none of her dead self’s anger and intelligence.

"I'm a giver. Not a receiver. I am not a faggot!" Legend Brian Helgeland, 2015 Cinematography | Dick Pope

“I’m a giver. Not a receiver. I am not a faggot!”
Tom Hardy as The Kray Brothers Legend
Brian Helgeland, 2015
Cinematography | Dick Pope

But what is truly baffling about Helgeland’s use of voice-over narration is that the film needs none at all.

If a sound editor were to wipe away Browning’s narration — the film would still flow. In fact, it would flow better.

If only a few of Ms. Browning’s scenes were cut, the film would have succeeded as a demented comic take at something that really happened under the noses of England’s leadership and celebrity brass.

Legend most likely could never be a perfect film, but it could have been perfectly entertaining. As it is now, Legend nearly crumbles under the weight of a dead girl’s lofty narration.

Intentional or not, this film is often criminally comic. Tom Hardy x 2 Brian Helgeland, 2015 Cinematography | Dick Pope

Intentional or not, this film is often criminally comic.
Tom Hardy x 2
Brian Helgeland, 2015
Cinematography | Dick Pope

Sometimes the less said, the better.

Matty Stanfield, 3.8.16

 

 

 

 

 

There was once a time when Madonna presented ideas far deeper than that of “Pop Star.” While those days seem to have past, many of the ideas she presented and asserted remain.

Lucky for us a female film artist adapted Phoebe Gloeckner's insightful novel for the screen. Kristen Wiig / Bel Powley / Alexander Skarsgård The Diary of a Teenage Girl Marielle Heller, 2015 Photograph | Sam Emerson

Lucky for us a female film artist adapted Phoebe Gloeckner’s insightful novel for the screen.
Kristen Wiig / Bel Powley / Alexander Skarsgård
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Marielle Heller, 2015
Photograph | Sam Emerson

One of the last times I recall finding myself thinking about something she co-created was her 2000 single:

“Skin that shows in patches.
Strong inside but you don’t know it.

Good little girls they never show it.
When you open up your mouth to speak, could you be a little weak?

Do you know what it feels like for a girl?
Do you know what it feels like in this world…” — Madonna

Aside from being catchy, this pop song did elevate itself more than a little by what it had to say about the ever-mounting challenges and societal/cultural indifference and injustices perpetuated against and projected upon the idea of female identity. Sadly, the iconic superstar chose to have her then filmmaker husband create the song’s vid-clip. The video for this song was crass and violent for reasons of shock-value vs. offering any level of content truly relevant toward a song that seemed tied to a young woman attempting to indicate the cruel patriarchal views to a young male. A missed opportunity to say the least.

Marguerite Duras' novel about a young woman's sexual awakening received a very male-eroticized translation from Jean-Jacques Annard. Jane March / Tony Leung The Lover Jean-Jacques Annard, 1992 Cinematography | Robert Fraisse

Marguerite Duras’ novel about a young woman’s sexual awakening received a very male-eroticized translation from Jean-Jacques Annard.
Jane March / Tony Ka Fai Leung
The Lover
Jean-Jacques Annard, 1992
Cinematography | Robert Fraisse

It has taken a tragic and centuries long tyranny for women to finally make significant strides in the areas of filmmaking. Such recently formed groups like The Alliance for Women in Media have smartly utilized social media to promote, promote and organize female film artists. While the idea of the female filmmaker is not at all new, the voices of these film artists that have managed to gain attention are painfully few. Those voices that have managed to obtain success have largely been built on celebrity [think Nora Ephron, Julie Delpy, Barbra Streisand, Penny Marshall, Elaine May, Susan Sideman, Anne Fontaine, Diane Keaton or Kathryn Bigelow] or controversial films that were either too scandalous or provocative [think Claire Denis, Lina Wertmüller, Patty Jenkins, Liliana Cavani, Lynne Ramsay, Mary Harron, Mia Hansen-Løve, Doris Dörrie or Catherine Breillat] to be ignored.

Note: this statement and the listed artists is not intended toward the quality of work or respective importance. However significant gains have been made in just the last ten years.

One of the most important historic moments in US history is captured by a female director. Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King SELMA Ava DuVernay, 2014 Cinematography | Bradford Young

One of the most important historic moments in US history is captured by a female director.
Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King
SELMA
Ava DuVernay, 2014
Cinematography | Bradford Young

As Film Art moves forward we will be given more opportunities to see female characters written and presented by women. It is interesting to experience the “knee-jerk” reaction of fellow cinephiles when I bring this up. It seems that the majority of people seem to feel it is not all that important or different to have a female vs. male filmmaker. From a technical proficiency standpoint it really does not make a difference. However, good luck at convincing most Big Money producers or film studios that there isn’t. The shift in this perspective is resulting from peer and societal pressures. Sexism and Racism still run the show, but this might be changing. What interests me is seeing how a female filmmaker might be able to bring a more balanced depiction of female characters and their situations.

A great deal more than "a sex comedy" that the film's marketing team led us to believe. Juno Temple & Kathryn Hahn deliver potent performances in a vastly under-rated film. Afternoon Delight Jill Soloway, 2013 Cinematography | Jim Frohna

A great deal more than “a sex comedy” that the film’s marketing team led us to believe.
Juno Temple & Kathryn Hahn deliver potent performances in a vastly under-rated film.
Afternoon Delight
Jill Soloway, 2013
Cinematography | Jim Frohna

Would Ava DuVernay’s Selma have been different if it had been made by a man? A white woman? I suspect so, but Selma was crafted with such a steadfast and sure handed — it is hard to say. Would Jill Soloway’s under-appreciated Afternoon Delight have been different if it had been written/directed by a male filmmaker? I’d say most certainly so. Would Diary of a Teenage Girl have presented themes of sexuality and identity have been handled in a different manner by a male? Would Mia’s frustrations, anger and sexual awakening been explored differently if a man had directed Andrea Arnold’s screenplay for Fish Tank? I’d say most definitely. Or what if we stop and imagine what might have happened if Lynne Ramsay’s husband, Rory Stewart Kenner, had directed their screenplay adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin? Would Michelle Williams’ Margot had received a more typical level of exploration had Sarah Polley not written and directed Take This Waltz? Would a male director had handled Father of My Children in the same way that Mia Hansen-Løve so grimly caring as she was able?

Even brightly painted walls are unable to hide the challenges of a young woman coming of age within a council estate. Katie Jarvis Fish Tank Andrea Arnold, 2009 Cinematography | Robbie Ryan

Even brightly painted walls are unable to hide the challenges of a young woman coming of age within a council estate.
Katie Jarvis
Fish Tank
Andrea Arnold, 2009
Cinematography | Robbie Ryan

If we think back to some of the more controversial European films of the past 50 years it brings up an even stronger concern. Imagine if Pier Paolo Pasolini had directed Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter? …A film that still makes both female and male audiences squirm some 40+ years after it was originally released. Try to imagine if Jacques Audiard had directed Claire Denis’ White Material. Actually this might be the true exception to the rule. I do not think there are any filmmakers who think and film anywhere near to the manner in which Denis approaches her distinctive and intimate films.

An odd sort of buddy film morphs into something very different in the hands of this respected female film artist. And guess what? She secured one of the most interesting American cinematographers working -- who happens to be a woman. Joslyn Jensen / Kentucker Audley FUNNY BUNNY Alison Bagnall, 2015 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

An odd sort of buddy film morphs into something very different in the hands of this respected female film artist. And guess what? She secured one of the most interesting American cinematographers working — who happens to be a woman.
Joslyn Jensen / Kentucker Audley
FUNNY BUNNY
Alison Bagnall, 2015
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Even so, just think what might have happened. A similar exception might rule for both Catherine Breillat and Josephine Decker — both of whom seem to have a very unique and intimate connection to their work. Decker’s voice is still taking form and I think we are approaching an era where it will be allowed to do just that. The same did not happen for the likes of Claudia Weill and Elaine May. Two incredibly gifted artists who had the unluck of making a flop each. Male filmmakers can make a flop movie and move on, the same has not been true for women.

Sidney Pollack, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen and Gary Marshall would have simply shrugged and moved on to a new project. However all it took was one box office flop to bring Elaine May's directorial career to an abrupt end. Dustin Hoffman / Warren Beatty ISHTAR Elaine May, 1987 Cinematography | Vittorio Storaro

Sidney Pollack, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen and Gary Marshall would have simply shrugged and moved on to a new project. However all it took was one box office flop to bring Elaine May’s directorial career to an abrupt end.
Dustin Hoffman / Warren Beatty
ISHTAR
Elaine May, 1987
Cinematography |Vittorio Storaro

An even more vexing concern for female artists comes up when we do think of all the inaccuracies of treatment for male filmmakers vs. female directors. Men can misbehave. Does anyone out there think that a female artist would have been allowed to put a cast / crew through emotional tantrums thrown by David O. Russell during the making of I Heart Huckabees? You are living in a make believe reality if you do. You would also be in an equally confused reality if you think a male PEO could have gotten away with this behavior on a Hollywood set. Ironically, the artist who paid the price for Mr. Russell’s bizarre behavior ended up being an innocent bystander. Unlike her co-stars, Isabelle Huppert and Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin refused to sit quietly while Russell blasted them with unprofessional rage-fueled insults.

I guess she should have known she had no right to defend herself and the crew against and unprofessional male director.  Dustin Hoffman / Lily Tomlin I Heart Huckabees David O. Russell, 2004 Cinematography | Peter Deming

I guess she should have known she had no right to defend herself and the crew against and unprofessional male director.
Dustin Hoffman / Lily Tomlin
I Heart Huckabees
David O. Russell, 2004
Cinematography | Peter Deming

It was as if the highly respected and skilled actress had made a grave error against Hollywood’s Good ‘Ol Boy Club when she dared to respond to her director’s cruelty. Ms. Tomlin’s film career suffered a great deal due because she was unwilling to sit passively and suffer the indignity of O’Russell’s tyranny. This sad result of a YouTube leak has been little discussed. David O. Russell had already come to blows with George Clooney a few years earlier. Clooney seemed to earn “respect points” for standing up to the bullying. Tomlin did not fare as well. She was largely relegated to playing nightclub gigs. It would take more than a couple of years before she found worthy television / film prospects. Yet David O. Russell continued to excel up The Hollywood Food Chain despite not only his behavior but the box office fail of I Heart Huckabees.

An experimental, disturbing and fascinating independent film challenged all the rules of a male-dominated art form.  Robert Longstreet / Sophie Traub Thou Wast Mild and Lovely Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

An experimental, disturbing and fascinating independent film challenged all the rules of a male-dominated art form.
Robert Longstreet / Sophie Traub
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

However, I’ve gone way off point here. There are a slew of amazing films dealing with the psychology of women. Films that are rightly revered and studied. In no way would I want to discount these films, but it is interesting to think about them from the perspective that they were imagined, written and directed by men. Are these depictions any less valid because women were relegated to the role of “actor” vs. creator of these unforgettable cinematic masterpieces? It is an interesting talking point.

A woman plagued by a toxic world or muted oppression? A male director proves he can make films focused on women without error.  Julianne Moore SAFE Todd Haynes, 1995 Cinematography | Alex Nepomniaschy

A woman plagued by a toxic world or muted oppression? A male director proves he can make films focused on women without error.
Julianne Moore
SAFE
Todd Haynes, 1995
Cinematography | Alex Nepomniaschy

I was recently thinking of four films in particular. I don’t pretend to know the full answer to this hind-sighted reflection. For starters I am not a filmmaker, but most importantly I am a white male. These films were made by professional filmmakers — all of whom were white men.

Millie aims for perfection within a man's nightmare... Shelley Duvall  3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Millie aims for perfection within a man’s nightmare…
Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

The first film that crosses my mind regarding this line of questioning is one of my personal favorite movies: Robert Altman’s 3 Women. I’m not sure this is a good film to discuss in this vein as the entire film can be ascribed to dream-logic. Altman never made it a secret that the entire film was born of a personal nightmare. It is also no secret that this 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.

The battle for identity... Sissy Spacek / Shelley Duvall 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

The battle for identity…
Sissy Spacek / Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Almost all of the film’s trajectories emanate from Duvall’s Millie‘s actions. Another aspect of this film that more or less eliminates it from this topic is the fact that the entire film does feel like a manifestation of male-based fears about women. This is not to say that 3 Women is not a fully potent vision of identity horror, but it does not actually seem to present itself entirely based female psychology. 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 three female characters.

The second film I think of this respect is a more likely candidate for this type of analysis: John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence. Experiencing a John Cassavetes film often leads the viewer to the mistaken idea that every aspect of what is being seen is an improvised experimental film. This is never the case.

A Woman Under the Influence  John Cassavetes, 1974

A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974

Cassavetes was an articulate film writer as well as director. He had a very specific story to tell and he told it in his unique visionary way. Certainly not one to run from collaboration and open to ideas — he was nearly always set on how and what he wanted his films to say. He was blessed to share his life with one of the most important film actors to ever breathe, Gena Rowlands. However it is a major mistake to think that as Mabel, Rowlands was free-forming her dialog as she went along. It is both to her credit as an actor and her husband’s credit as a filmmaker that it feels that way. Even Rowlands’s Mabel odd and/or quirky hand gestures and ticks were already thought out in the filmmaker’s head. Do a Google and you will find images of Cassavetes acting out the hand movements and gestures for Rowlands to incorporate into her performance. It is also somewhat crucial to remember that Cassavetes main interest in his film storytelling was the pursuit of love. Yet it would seem difficult for even this great filmmaker to not note that there was something removed from that going on here.

Seeking intimacy and human warmth, but only finding guilt and confusion.  A One Night Stand and Gena Rowlands A Woman Under the Influence  John Cassavetes, 1974 Cinematography | Al Ruban

Seeking intimacy and human warmth, but only finding guilt and confusion.
A One Night Stand and Gena Rowlands
A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974
Cinematography | Al Ruban

A Woman Under the Influence works on all levels and remains a fascinating and deeply disturbing screen capture of a woman in full-tilt emotional breakdown. How or if she is full able to “heal” and return to life is more than a little ambiguous. What is clear in the film is that she is loved and loves, but this might not be enough for her to survive the life in which she has found herself. And this is one of the primary reasons this 1974 film continues to feel alive and real. The hair styles, the decor, the cars and clothing may all be dated — but the situations all feel profoundly current.

Mabel is not well. She is losing her grip on sanity. Something that the film never bluntly states but shows is that she is also deteriorating in imposed isolation, loneliness and suffocating within what begins to feel like a sort of familial pathology. The Longhetti Family is not well. The working-class husband / father is over-worked and seems more than a little under-educated. With the exception of a paycheck, he seems to leave all other responsibilities to his wife, Mabel. She is left alone with three children in a sort of lower-middle class hell.

"All of a sudden, I miss everyone..." Gena Rowlands A Woman Under the Influence  John Cassavetes, 1974 Cinematography | Al Ruban

“All of a sudden, I miss everyone…”
Gena Rowlands
A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974
Cinematography | Al Ruban

She loves and adores her children, but they are all she has in the way of connection to the world. She may or may not be a bit smarter than her husband, but it does not really matter. We can see that she is overwhelmed. We can also see that her husband hasn’t a clue as to why or how to help her. He takes to what can only be described as domestic abuse toward his wife. He ultimately pulls his children into emotionally-damaging situations and allows indulgences into inappropriate behavior as a father. Mabel may not be a reliable parent, but she seems to be trying harder to set a better example than her husband. The 21st Century reaction to Peter Falk’s Nick is to take offense and become angry. However his performance and the film itself is so stunningly human, it is almost impossible to dislike Nick. We know he cares and is simply lost. The resulting film is powerful, sad and oddly inspiring in that it offers us a bit of hope for this woman.

When film acting no longer feels like "fiction." Gena Rowlands A Woman Under the Influence John Cassavetes, 1974 Cinematography | Al Ruban

When film acting no longer feels like “fiction.”
Gena Rowlands
A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974
Cinematography | Al Ruban

There was and will only ever be one John Cassavetes. A Woman Under the Influence is cinematic masterwork from every angle.

But have you ever wondered what this movie might have been like if a woman had directed it?

Would we be given a bit more information regarding those gestures or movements to understand the pressures of both the inner and outer worlds of Mabel? Would Nick have had more room to understand or even less? Would he have become a savior or more of a victimizer? When it comes to A Woman Under the Influence, one thing that was discussed when it was first released has come much more clearly to the forefront with the passage of time: there is an idea presented which is far less ambiguous today as was back in the 1970s. As viewers we do not really know if it is Mabel who is having the real problem here. Mabel appears to be more a victim of circumstance than one of mental illness. Is The Woman ill or is she simply a experiencing the logical result of a life so severely limited and oppressed? Perhaps it is Nick who really needs help. Mabel just might need to demand more freedom or walk away. Would the entire situation of this family be illuminated in a different way had it been in the hands of female filmmaker? Honestly, I’m not sure I really want to know…

The female psyche deconstructed... PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966

The female psyche deconstructed…
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966

The third and final film is also one of the greatest films ever made. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is a milestone work of art for more reasons than I’d be comfortable attempting to articulate. This largely experimental film is less about the core of Human Identity as it is about the twisted manipulation of identity by one of the two female characters. Bibi Andersson plays Alma. A young and inexperienced Psych Nurse assigned the task of caring for a highly respected stage and film actress played with equal mastery by Liv Ullmann. This is a Surrealist take on human cruelty and ideas of identity. It is also female-centric. Yet as much as it is concerned with female psychology, it is equally concerned with experimenting against the normal conventions of cinematic storytelling. Ingmar Bergman and his legendary cinematographer, Sven Nyqvist are both concerned with conveying ideas through image and editing even more than what the two actors present through performance and dialogue.

Too fragile to handle the world, so maybe she wants to try and manipulate it?  Liv Ullmann PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Too fragile to handle the world, so maybe she wants to try and manipulate it?
Liv Ullmann
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

We see both women react to their respective worlds and situations. Soon enough we see them react to each other. In uncomfortable silence as her patient has withdrawn from speech and human contact, Alma begins to find herself in the unique position in having a person of note who serves as her private audience. She begins to share her deepest and most intimate secrets to her Elisbet. One doesn’t need a degree in psychology to realize that Liv Ullmann’s character is somehow using her nurse for her own perverse needs and pleasures. We might think that it is the patient who is falling apart, but viewers quickly realize that the character who truly comes to the end of her mental and emotional rope is the nurse.

Silent prey or captive audience?  Liv Ullmann / Bibi Andersson  PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Silent prey or captive audience?
Liv Ullmann / Bibi Andersson
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

One of the splinters the film that makes is truly jolting, but it is never fully clear as to why. Was this always going to happen or has Ullmann’s Elisabet pushing buttons and limits for her own sick gain? I suspect most of us would agree that this revolutionary bit of filmmaking is at least a partial off-spring from Freudian thought. In fact, it seems that Bergman was playing off Freud’s idea of both primary and normal narcissism. Persona almost seems to be constructing itself off Freud’s self-titled definitions of Demential Praecox and Paraphrenics (sp?) — Elisabet appears to an off-shoot example of Schizophrenia who is incapable of love or loving. Alma is the hysterical woman unable to escape the grasp of a sociopathic woman hellbent on ruining her. It would be irresponsible and lazy to dismiss Persona on sexist grounds as it comes from a very specific point in time and achieved a whole new sort of cinematic language. Persona is still a gut punch to the senses. In many ways, Ingmar Bergman’s film remains ahead of time. However it is firmly grounded in the world of Art Horror or Psychological Thriller. It is not and can’t be weakened by ideas that we now might deem as outmoded.

But it does beg a bit of examination regarding the ways in which Bergman crafted his two female characters? It is possibly unnecessary, but curious to wonder what a female film artist might have done with the ideas of female human beings in this situation. Would a female or a Feminist-perspective have changed this film for the different or better? Would Alma‘s memory of her sexual exploit be articulated differently? Would Elisabet‘s reactions and actions have been different? Would a sickly little boy reach out for the female faces or would he be replaced by a little girl? Would a female perspective lead us further than Bergman’s conclusion?

Sharing secrets turns into a mentally dangerous act... Liv Ullmann / Bibi Andersson PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Sharing secrets turns into a mentally dangerous act…
Liv Ullmann / Bibi Andersson
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Would it all still break the film strip?

Perhaps of all male filmmakers, Ingmar Bergman was the most interested in female-centric movies. He is not alone. Paul Mazursky, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Demy, Woody Allen and David Lynch are just a few of the white male filmmakers who pursue the stories and even the POV of female characters. Much of their work feels right, but how to know? Can a man really ever know what it feels like for a girl?

Or perhaps more on point: can a male film artist really ever know what it is like to be a woman? …much less even partially understand what it is like to be in her head?

Judging by many films, it would seem more than a little possible.

Intent to harm or heal? Bibi Andersson / Liv Ullmann PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Intent to harm or heal?
Bibi Andersson / Liv Ullmann
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

We have yet to have an equal opportunity to experience female film art perspective in equal measure. Let’s hope that we see and hear more from Female Film Artists and Women In Media as we move forward.  It has never been more important to support films made by women and people of color.

Aren’t we all pretty much bored with seeing the vast majority of movies limited to the white male perspective?

Matty Stanfiled, 1.19.2016

 

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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.

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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

 

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