Thankful for World Cinema: The Red Balloon and White Mane

The Criterion Collection packaged two of the most influential short films of all time on one great, yet stripped-down DVD package. They are both written and directed by the same man, Albert Lamorisse. Both are the recipients of many awards and have quite a few narrative similarities and as such they make great companion pieces.

White Mane, which is shot in stunning black and white with magnificent vistas of the French countryside, Camargue, is a modified tale of a boy and his horse. In this scenario, however, the horse is wild and the boy, whose intentions are pure, wants to keep the horse, whereas the Ranchers seek to only do it harm. It ends in a similar fashion to The Red Balloon except in a somewhat more bittersweet fashion as opposed to the whimsy of the other.

There are some brilliant dissolves in the film and while there is occasional dialogue it is for all intents and purposes a silent film as is The Red Balloon.

The second film in this collection is without a doubt the more well known. As a short it won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay in open competition against Hollywood features in 1956. This was a film that conquered the world both literally and figuratively. Yet it drew sharp criticism from one of cinema’s finest critics at the time and later one of its great filmmakers, Francois Truffaut.

Writing for Les Cahiers du Cinema at the time Truffaut literally tore the film to shreds. Rather than regurgitating his entire article point for point let us summarize: Truffaut found the personification of the balloon to be its unpardonable sin. Where Truffaut was coming from was being one who preferred the fables of La Fontaine as opposed to the films of Disney. La Fontaine told the tales about animals without making them speak, without humanizing them in any way and what he felt Lamorisse had done was fall into the schmaltz of Disney.

It is certainly conceivable how one can see this as a problem; however, the opposite view is the one I take. It takes little to fascinate and delight a child and considering that this child is alone most of the time there is the possibility of skewed perspective. It is a simple tale about a child’s delight and is told simply such that we connect. Had it been something other than a balloon it might not have worked but it does. There’s just something primal about it and many do connect with the Disney style, just as the man himself once said: “All right. I’m corny. But I think there’s just about a-hundred-and-forty-million people in this country that are just as corny as I am.”

While each one of these has a very small moment that makes you scratch your head somewhat, a moment which will not be revealed here, both are well worth your while – especially The Red Balloon. They are both fascinating and despite similarities they are their own works with their own distinct approaches to shooting and the edit aside from the obvious fact that one is sleekly shot in black and white and the other in shot in the unparalleled lusciousness of three-strip Technicolor.

White Mane 8/10

The Red Balloon 9/10

Thankful for World Cinema

Class Enemy (2013, Courtesy of Triglav Film)

In the first year I did this theme I tried to limit it to the so-called Old World, but that was on the site that must not be named. However, that proved too limiting and I expanded it to included any non-US productions in the years since. Almost always they are films with all or a majority of the dialogue in something other than English. This theme runs annually from November 1st until the date upon which Thanksgiving happens to fall. Below you will find links to previously featured films.

2013 (19 Movies; one introduction; one analytical post)

Paradise: Faith
Mother, I Love You
Blind Spot
In Bloom
The Green Wave
Once Upon a Time Veronica
It’s All So Quiet
(Mini-Review)
It’s All So Quiet (Reading)
La Playa DC
Watchtower
The Notebook
(Le Grand Cahier)
Class Enemy
Two Lives
The Old Man
The Fifth Season
In the Fog
You and the Night
The Golden Dream
(La Jaula de Oro)
Child’s Pose
The Color of the Chameleon
Introduction

2012 (12 Movies; one introductory post)

Black Peter
Simon and the Oaks
The Complete Metropolis
Bergman Island
Summer Hours
The Girl on the Train
The White Ribbon
Sin Nombre
Les Vampires
Before Tomorrow
North Sea Texas
The Witman Boys
Introduction

2011 (12 Movies)

La Cage aux Folles
The Vanishing
Bicycle Thieves
The Green Room
The Annunciation
Son Frère
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Last Year at Marienbad
A Man and a Woman
The Sea
Night and Fog
Le Petit Nicolas

Thankful for World Cinema: The Color of the Chameleon (2012)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of Thankful for World Cinema please go here.

The Color of the Chameleon (2012)

At the crossroads of science and alchemy is cinema, amongst other things. What I mean by that is that as much as we may try to define rules there are always exceptions and things that challenge our notions. The particular reason this comes to mind when discussing The Color of the Chameleon is because of the way, much like the animal its title is inspired by, changes its complexion at varied points in the narrative.

The film begins with a scene establishing some of the basics wherein a Mother (Svetlana Yancheva) is talking to a headmaster concerned about her son Batko (played in his younger incarnation by Dennis Andreev) specifically about his obsession with onanism. This is a theme that ties much of the seemingly disconnected pastiche together, as foreshadowing and inference indicate this habit may have had something to do with his being unfit for military service. Following that we meet with him in college and see him recruited to the secret police by an agent (Roussy Chanev) and the thrust of the film, such as it is, is introduced.

About midway through is when the film makes an interesting structural and tonal change. There comes a turning point wherein you see a now-mature Batko (Ruscen Vidinliev) in a series of interrogations that are very funny but don’t seemingly connect. The closest kin to such a sequence I thought of is a “Bad audition montage.” However, this is more extended, and while you do have to wait for it, there is later follow-through and narrative impact from this sequence.

The structural oddities are always introduced with flair and style such that even if you’re not quite on board with the new direction the film has taken you will be entertained along the way. However, I would suggest your bearing with it and keeping everything in mind as seemingly small elements influence later jokes and stylistic choices. There is a visual transformation late in the tale that’s making commentary more so than any dialogue in the film. However, when thought of in conjunction with lines previously uttered underscores the absurdist, farcical critiques of communism, secret police, transition to democracy and politics in general. Criticisms that while being very specific to the Bulgarian experience can also be ascribed and understood by those in other nations.

The Color of the Chameleon 2

When Batko’s seemingly convoluted plan comes to fruition the film, despite its jumps in style and time, which are brave and commended; really does click in the end. Anything seemingly out of place is well incorporated including the aforementioned late-film stylistic departure. Aside from visuals there are also genre conventions that are familiar to many viewers borrowed and incorporated here in unique and quirky ways that add to the beauteous, hilarious chaos.

Perhaps the best part of this film is that it doesn’t just come up with a way of making some very scary mechanisms like totalitarian communism and secret police bodies farcically inept, but also uses the personality of the protagonist to help subvert these entities which is humorously adding salt to the wound. In this regard a lot of the first half of the story in essence functions like a heist film in hindsight as the mechanics and tactics of surveillance are learned and we later on see them implemented in a twisted way.

There needs to be grounding and a center to a film attempting things as zany such as these. The interviewees and peripheral characters aside from delivering laughs also lend an air of believability to the tale based on how they react to given situations. However, the tone of the film with regards to the actors’ interpretation all starts with the lead. Ruscen Vindiliev may have differing overtones but his motivations and convictions always remain the same. For as manic as in his need for acceptance, individuation and revenge as he becomes there is always a quite, intense diligence of seeking to accomplish the task before him and find some cursory acceptance and peace. Even when playing all ends to the middle there is a cool veneer that helps make the outlandish plausible and he helps communicate a clarity of motivations that makes the tones make sense, and make him an identifiable lead even if his methods may get Machiavellian.

Out of all the films I’ve viewed this month to fit in this theme, quite a few have been different than what the average viewer may be used to. However, the biggest break from the humdrum I found was The Color of the Chameleon. It’s a film you should be on the look out for and view if you should have the chance.

7/10

Thankful for World Cinema: Child’s Pose (2013)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of Thankful for World Cinema please go here.

Child’s Pose (2013)

As Thankful for World Cinema comes to a close I must say it had a bit of a different focus than I initially anticipated it to have. I say that as a very good thing indeed. I had a bunch of posts lined up that have not yet debuted on this site though they had previously appeared on The Site That Must Not Be Named. They have now shuffled off to further down the line and maybe they will appear next year. The reason for this is that I was able to track down and view not only many contemporary foreign films I wanted to see, but many that are Oscar contenders for their respective nations.

Aside from that honor for Romania Child’s Pose also boasts the Golden Bear from the 2013 Berlinale making it a top-prize winner from one of the small handful of the most influential film festivals in the world. When pairing that with some reviews I’d seen that makes it perhaps one of the more anticipated viewings I had in this block.

Child’s Pose takes a few minutes at the start to introduce Cornelia (Luminita Gheorghiu) talking to her sister (Natasa Raab) , lamenting the way her son, Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache), has been treating her and indicating some of her overbearing nature. The inciting incident is when she learns her son has been involved in an car accident where he has killed a child crossing a street. Prior to having met Barbu there’s an indicator and we then proceed to see how she interacts with him, her husband, the police and the victim’s family.

What’s impressive throughout the course of the film is that aside from the beginning where she is being established and getting some reasonable advice from her sister, there really isn’t vocalized judgment of Cornelia, but rather an understanding both of her and all characters involved that allows the drama to unfold in a very palpable way throughout ever ascending to the film’s finale.

In my Twitter reaction, which is admittedly usually more of a knee-jerk, I advised perspective viewers of this film to hold on. It’s not that the film is ever slow or disengaging but the dramatic engine does take a bit of time revving up, but when it does in three consecutive dialogue-driven setpieces with a witness to the crime, Barbu’s wife, Carmen (Ilinca Goia), and lastly with the victim’s family the full gamut of the situation is examined; as well as the multiple facets of her character with nearly Bergmanesque precision. It also bears mentioning going in that you’re in for a character study and not a procedural thriller and thus you’ll be far less ambivalent about how things play out.

Luminita Gheorghiu in this film delivers one of the powerhouse performances of the year, which perhaps more than anything underscores my lament of not yet having caught up with the Romanian New Wave going on at current, as she features in many of the notable titles in the past few years.

Another joy to discover in this film is when a strong supporting performance comes to the fore later in the game and makes a strong statement, and Ilinca Goia in her extended scene does just that.

Child’s Pose is a morality play unconcerned about legalistic outcomes but rather about how different people with disparate agendas behave to escape culpability or deal with the gravity of what they’ve done. It’s about Cornelia, yes, as she is insistent most everything concerns her in one way or another, but in their struggles to state their case and separate themselves it does manage to be about the other characters and the situation as well.

8/10

Thankful for World Cinema: The Golden Dream (La Jaula de Oro) (2013)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of Thankful for World Cinema please go here.

The Golden Dream (2013)

La Jaula de Oro is a film that I was completely unaware of until one of my more dedicated readers saw an article written about it in light of the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes and sent it my way. The film then ended up on My Radar and one I wanted to see not only based on the story but based on the director’s work with non-professional young actors in this film.

La Jaula de Oro follows three Guatemalan teenagers Juan (Brandon López) , Sarah (Karen Martínez) and Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez) as they try to get through Mexico and ultimately across the US border.

This is a film that has very little reliance on dialogue and few conversations of any consequence. It’s a story that’s told with visuals at the forefront, focusing on the landscapes around the characters and how they interact with them and each other non-verbally.

The film sets this tone early on as we watch Juan and Sarah each make their own preparation for their first attempt to leave. Some of the maneuvers made may seem curious but as events play out they will become clear. Other occurrences that are wordless are the way the characters change in the way they look at each other. This quietude is almost by necessity inasmuch as Chauk is a Guatemalan native and does not speak Spanish; therefore nonverbal cues are key.

López, Martínez and Domínguez all perform admirably in this film and based on the direction, and the work they all put in together, you’d never guess that this was their first venture. López has perhaps the most challenging role before him not just being the lead, but also taking a seemingly simple arch through several one-note iterations and slowly progressing. However, the progression does come through. Martínez has a persistent duality to her role as the has to have a gentle nature but also be tough enough to be believable as a boy, as she is traveling as such. She achieves both these tasks with ease. Lastly, Domínguez through all his close-mouthed stolid persona has to emote wordlessly with few single reaction shots and manages to.

In an interesting decision that I’ve seen a few times, but never as persistently as in this film, when Chauk does speak his native tongue it is not subtitled. His companions don’t understand exactly what he said so neither do we, but in most cases we get the gist.

The film does illuminate many situations and facts about the northward migration that most either don’t know or never considered. Firstly, that it’s not just Mexican citizens trying to cross the border but also some of the realities on the road, which is really the focus. For the film eschews the MacGuffin of illuminating what is exactly that’s prompting these teenagers to make their attempts solo. It cares about the journey instead.

La Jaula de Oro puts its characters before any overarching messages. Sure, they are there if you look for them based on how certain situations play out but they are never vocalized. It’s a depiction rather than soap-boxing and it’s one of the more compelling dramatizations of this journey that’s been rendered in the past several years.

8/10

Thankful for World Cinema: You and the Night (2013)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of Thankful for World Cinema please go here.

You and the Night (2013)

I have a theory about this film. I put that forward from the start to immediately plant the seed that it’s the kind of film that one might develop theories about. Now, the cynical view would be that any film that requires theories about it is being far too abstruse for its own good. However, there are a number of affectations within this film that I believe make theorizing not only necessary but welcome.

The set-up, on the surface, is a simple one. Round about midnight a couple and their live-in transvestite maid are in preparations for an orgy. The guests at said orgy are all “labeled.” And I mean labeled such that they are hardly if ever referred to by name but rather as a label: The Slut, The Star, The Stud and The Teen. Even the maid, who can be argued to be one of the more central figures in the narrative, is usually referred to as just that, The Maid.

That’s just one thing that lends some credence to theory-bearing. The hints flow into the story slowly. There is a deftly not-much-commented on futuristic music player, there are sudden theatrical infiltrations of negative fill in the apartment during story telling by many of the players. When there are intrusions of seeming reality (such as the police in search of a missing person) the interaction is odd, stylized and over-the-top, but decidedly so and not accidentally. All this and more contribute to a notion that the film is fact an utter fantasy fashioned as such to examine as many sexual quirks and avenues in singular psyches as possible.

The lack of convention can be plainly seen in the third act as fantasies dissolve back into a reality that more closely borders the surreal than ever before in the film. These are the more secondary intimations that have less bearing on the plot, the more obvious hints that I interpreted this way cannot be discussed lest they give away too much of the film’s action.

There are many subgenres and approaches to film that require more out of actors and this film certainly gets plenty from its ensemble. The central triad is played by Kate Moran, Niels Schneider, whom I recognized from Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats, here he is equally as evocative if not more so; and lastly Daniel Maury as the maid. For as absurd as the interactions of this trio may be they pull it off, and more importantly, behave as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Flanking them are footballer-turned-actor Eric Cantona who has a similarly unenviable task of not only saying his monologues straight-faced but selling them and succeeds. Fabienne Babe astutely plays the star-in-hiding with skeletons in her closet. Alain Fabien Delon, son of legendary French leading man Alain Delon, brings a perfect ingenue-like quality to this film and effectively plays a fought-over prize. Perhaps the most enigmatic, and in some ways most lacking character is that of The Slut, however, this is no fault of Julie Bremond’s. There is an attempt to plumb a profundity beneath a pornographic façade of all of these characters. The results with her character just don’t prove as conclusive as they do with the others.

There is an odd kind of mysterious magic that keeps You and the Night engaging throughout. It’s tale is a curve rather than a straight line and thus the end is a bit of an ellipsis. However, ultimately the journey is an intriguing one which plays out a bit like Pirandello writing an exploration of human sexuality for a different medium in a different century.

6/10

Thankful for World Cinema: In the Fog (2012)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of Thankful for World Cinema please go here.

In the Fog (2012)

In the Fog goes about its narrative in a few ways that are a bit outside the norm. By norm I mean standard three-act formatting and forward-moving chronological narrative. What this film does is persistently but languidly pushes its narrative forward about twenty to thirty minutes at a time then at a necessary crossroads backtracks to fill-in any blanks that may have been left by the previous passage. However, the reason this method works for the most part is that you get a bare minimum of information as you need to be able to follow the plot. What the backtracks do is illuminate the shock, but what had occurred prior is engaging because of the basic drama, and in part some of the disorientation being felt.

Another aspect that makes this structural decision adept is as you follow the tale of this man who has been wrongly accused of collaborating with the Nazis who are occupying Belarus at this time is that the end of his, and the film’s, story are not that difficult to figure out. However, the structuring of the tale is such that impact of most plot points and twists is heightened and made more profound by information you glean after the fact.

Nearly all the drama in this story centers around three soldiers: Sushenya, the accused (Vladimir Svisky), Burov, sent to capture him (Vladislav Abashin) and his partner Voitik (Sergei Kolesov). It is largely thanks to these three performers that you stay as engaged in this tale as you do. Much of the time these three are interacting, either recounting what has occurred or engaging when only stakes and not details are yet understood and its their commitment and clarity that is communicating what the details omit.

Another aspect of this film that is worth noting is that the framing is usually rather loose and withdrawn, leaning toward wide shots that are fairly static. It plays into the more storytelling nature rather than a battle tale. The film is a human tale amidst a war not a war film amidst humanity.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this film is the psychological. Both the psychology of the characters that is examined throughout, but also the psychology of the Nazi nemesis in this film, which is very accurately portrayed and seemingly well-adapted from the source material.

The only things that really holds this film back are that slight bit of lag, and the fairly clear endgame in sight. However, those are not the be and all and end all of this film, thus, those facts are not ruinous to this film and it does manage to engage well enough.

7/10

Thankful for World Cinema: The Fifth Season (2012)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of Thankful for World Cinema please go here.

The Fifth Season (2012)

The Fifth Season is a film that tells the story of a small town in the Ardennes region of Belgium that starts to suffer greatly when winter doesn’t end as its supposed to. This is a film that starts out with a more community-oriented view and starts to narrow its focus to a few central figures and storylines, as the climate begins to take its toll on the agrarian community more and more as things deteriorate.

These problems get their first indicator at a bonfire celebration. In a scene that could be plucked out of a low-key horror film you get a sense that some very weird things are afoot. As with many stories about unusual occurrences, there is naught found in the way of explanation. In lieu of that we examine people under duress and see what they do when bereft of  basic necessities. It’s a harsh illustration not only of the affects of climate change but also mob mentality which assumes that it can’t be everyone’s fault, which is the more likely explanation, but rather seeks to find a single person to scapegoat.

However, on smaller levels you also witnesses relationships deteriorate: such as the young couple like that of Alice (Aurélia Poirer) and Thomas (Django Schrevens) and even between man and beast. There are also small wondrous scenes that turn bittersweet in light of later events like the wonderful scene where Pol (Sam Louwyck) and his son Octave (Gill Vancompernolle) sing one of Papageno’s arias together.

There in this film a precision of framing as well as a tonally brilliant approach to the edit that communicates far more than any piece of dialogue in the film can. Thus this way the utter malaise that the town is thrown into, the depth of despair is exactly communicated, whilst how they react to it is guarded such that those moments where there is a lashing out still come as a surprise.

In The Fifth Season nature and the environment are not merely part of the atmosphere, but are turned into an active player, much as it is in reality. The task of making it a palpable entity in a two-dimensional plain is never easy and this film succeeds at that and having its impact on the characters rendered quite dramatic; more dramatic, in fact, than if anything supernatural had occurred, because few things are actually more palpably frightening than a cessation of any kind of order to something we as a species had become reliant upon – this is especially true when we’re most to blame for such erratic shifts.

8/10

Thankful for World Cinema: The Old Man (2012)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of Thankful for World Cinema please go here.

The Old Man (2012)

In a day and age when it seems that remakes are more endemic than ever before, though that may not be the truth; hearing that The Old Man and the Sea has not only been re-adapted but also transplanted might send up red flags. My reaction was the opposite, I was intrigued not only by the fact there was a new version, but also the fact that the locale had be moved to Kazakhstan. Knowing the bones of the tale, even if not having the fondest memories of it, and that some things would invariably change, and that it’s a good canvas for cultural representation and philosophy; I was quite intrigued.

Even knowing a few things going into the film I was very pleasantly surprised in a few ways. Firstly, the venue of the tale changes in more than a few ways. This film is called Shal, when transliterated from its native language. In English it’s just referred to as The Old Man. In short, the sea does not apply to this tale instead the film is landlocked and tells the tale of an old shepherd. The wilderness he battles is the eurasian steppe rather than the sea, which brings wolves into play. Thus, aside from the source material it brought to mind the recent film The Grey. However, I feel this film excels far more than that one did in its man versus nature elements because it’s defenestrated to a greater degree. There are fewer affectations of traditional action films and more human drama, more philosophy, more searingly gorgeous imagery and even further respect for the beasts of prey as there is the added element of the old man protecting his herd.

This is also a generational tale wherein quietly the Old Man’s grandson who he tongue-in-cheekily calls Sheitan-bek, translated as “dickens,” comes to a newfound maturity and shows his respect for his grandfather, and thus his elders. The setup of the generational divide is well-executed and though very steeped in indigenous culture and religious mores does have a universal quality to it. One example of it would be that though in rural Kazakhstan the grandfather’s passion for football knows no borders and he struggles with poor television reception to watch Barça and names all his sheep after members of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup team.

Shal (2012, Kazakhfilm)

The film’s scoring is as evocative as its imagery and always finds a way to beautifully underscore the tension and other emotions the film seeks to elicit. Similarly the acting runs the gamut far more than one might anticipate, and is filled with great moments both large and small. Yerbolat Toguzakov plays the eponymous role marvelously being curmudgeonly when needing to be but also showing flashes of wistful humor, soul-searching introspection and fate-cursing. Not to be overlooked though is Orynbek Moldakhan, who has to convincingly play the role of a seemingly typical gaming-addicted youth who is also believably perceptive and valiant when serious events occur.

One thing that struck me while watching this film was how much more captivating it would be if experienced on a big screen. That as much as its overwhelming quality and universally truthful themes that fold in gently to the narrative, and don’t overwhelm it; are reasons that this film should see wider distribution in North America and beyond.

9/10

Thankful for World Cinema: Two Lives (2012)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of Thankful for World Cinema please go here.

Two Lives

Sometimes it takes a bit of distance temporally in order to discuss things in cinematic terms. About a generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall it seems more tales about the days of a divided Germany, as told in a unified one, are becoming more frequent. In this tale a simple request from a lawyer for statements in a proceeding about the Lebensborn children sets of a domino effect leading many family secrets to come to the fore.

In another trend that’s becoming more and more prevalent in a globalized world, it is a multicultural tale as the lead, Katrine (Juliane Köhler) and her family live in Norway. The legal proceedings being in a European court are held in English.

The film begins with a frame that quickly is closed up and establishes character and intrigue and there are plenty of both to follow. Throughout the film the use of flashbacks are significant while not being excessive. Images that don’t quite register at first are revisited with more context or footage later at the right moment for blanks to be properly filled in.

Due to the nature of the tale as there are a few different timeframes represented there good use of makeup. There are also interesting visual techniques such as different “film stock” photographic effects for older footage to add to the visual intrigue; aside from the great lighting and framing of shots throughout.

Köhler’s performance is of course key, but it is through the supporting cast that the power of this film really comes through. Most notably appearing in this film is living legend Liv Ullmann. This may be the first time I’ve witnessed her working in her native tongue (Norwegian), and, she is as captivating and as spot-on as she’s ever been. Sven Nordin as Katrine’s husband Bjarte plays a deceptively sensitive man quite astutely. Admirers of The White Ribbon may also recognize Rainer Bock.

As secrets unravel in this film, there are two kinds of suspense being employed in equal measure for double the effect that many films would have. Thus, tropes and relationships from two disparate kinds of films are brought together here in perfect unison with great aplomb.

Two Lives is the kind of film that gets some of its bigger surprises out of the way (at least hinted at) fairly soon but has quite a few of them throughout. Even if you are the type adept at, or who enjoys, guessing what will happen next; the drama in the film will still keep you glued to the edge of your seat. The execution of this film from all production departments is great.

8/10