Late Autumn, Late Ozu

Photograph

Throughout Yasujirô Ozu’s body of work, familiarity and change are ever-present. On one hand, there’s a certain comfortable sameness about them, especially on a superficial level. An Ozu movie — save, perhaps, something from the earliest years of his career — always looks unmistakably like an Ozu movie, so consistent and distinctive is his style: the low camera placement, the static shots, the way the actors face the viewer directly as they speak. The sense of familiarity goes beyond the purely visual as well. Again and again, one finds repeated themes and situations, taking place in similar milieus, involving similar characters played by many of the same performers. Still, for all of this familiarity, the world in which these characters live is fundamentally unstable. Things change, inevitably, in ways both dramatic and mundane: people die, children grow up and leave their parents, workers are transferred to faraway cities, friends drift apart. It’s sad, but that’s just the way things are. (“Isn’t life disappointing?” as a young woman in 1953’s Tokyo Story famously puts it.)

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Summer Under the Stars: Hour of the Wolf (1968)

Muse and Artist

Early on in Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 film Hour of the Wolf, painter Johan Borg (Max von Sydow) urges his pregnant wife, Alma (Liv Ullmann), to pose for him so that he can sketch her. He instructs her on how she should sit, how to arrange the robe she’s wearing, what to do with her hair. “If I patiently drew you, day after day…” he says as the scene fades to black. The artist and his muse — but their roles undergo something like a reversal once Johan vanishes and Alma is left to try to make sense of what happened, to share her perspective on the man with whom she lived for seven years. Perhaps she didn’t know him as well as she thought; perhaps, in a strange sense, she knew him too well.

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The Show Must Go On: The Entertainer (1960)

Archie Sign with Jean

Outside a theater in an English seaside town, an artist’s rendering of a grotesque face, massive in scale and positioned over the words “Archie Rice: The One and Only,” grins down at passersby. Scarcely anybody gives it even a moment’s glance, but one young woman, Jean (Joan Plowright), stops in the middle of the crowded sidewalk to gaze up at it. The expression on her face suggests a certain fondness for this strange figure, with perhaps the slightest touch of ambivalence. This ambivalence grows as she looks at the other promotional materials on display depicting the one and only Archie (Laurence Olivier) — no less grotesque in photographs than in drawings — posed with scantily-clad showgirls and proclaiming him “T.V. & Radio’s Sauciest Comic,” until she’s become downright glum. Obviously, Archie Rice is a public figure, but in private life he happens to be Jean’s father — and yet, different though they are in many ways, it’s not always easy to tell precisely where the public figure ends and the private man begins.

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The Dark Side of Brighton: Brighton Rock (1948)

Palace of Fun

Brighton today is a large, jolly, friendly seaside town in Sussex, exactly one hour’s journey from London.

But in the years between the two wars, behind the Regency terraces and crowded beaches, there was another Brighton of dark alleyways and festering slums. From here, the poison of crime and violence and gang warfare began to spread, until the challenge was taken up by the Police.

This is a story of that other Brighton — now happily no more.

The 1948 (or 1947, according to some sources) film Brighton Rock, directed by John Boulting and based on Graham Greene’s 1938 novel of the same name, follows its opening credits with this written statement, which scrolls over a shot of a multitude of happy holidaymakers relishing the sun, sand and surf. No doubt its primary purpose is to reassure potential tourists who might be put off by the film’s unsavory depiction of the city, yet it also establishes the theme of duality that will run throughout the story.

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Connections: Mr. Thank You (1936)

Bus

In many ways, Hiroshi Shimizu’s Mr. Thank You, released in 1936, is a little film. Only seventy-six minutes long, it restricts itself, physically speaking, almost entirely to the interior of a small bus and to the road along which that bus makes its regular journeys through the Japanese countryside. There’s not a great deal of action, unless one counts the vehicle’s oft-interrupted progression, nor is there much in the way of plot. Instead, the heart of the film is in its characters and the interactions among them. Some of their interactions are funny; others are poignant; many are brief, by necessity; and as these varied little moments accumulate, the film reveals itself as something grander in scope and in spirit than it might appear at first glance.

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Déesses Fatales: Duelle (1976)

Hotel

Jacques Rivette’s 1976 movie Duelle opens with a textbook film noir scenario: One night, a mysterious woman named Leni (Juliet Berto) — who’s even dressed in 1940s-style clothing, despite the fact that the film seemingly takes place in the era in which it was made — arrives at a Paris hotel and requests a specific room. She explains to Lucie (Hermine Karagheuz), the porter on duty, that it’s the room in which her former longtime lover Max Christie (or Lord Christie, as he’s often called) stayed a year ago. “I’ve lost his trail. I must find him again,” she insists. Lucie never met him, but she’s heard about him from another employee: that he left big tips, that he was often there with a girl by the name of Stern, that he only came to the hotel after visiting a nearby hostess club called the Rumba. Leni decides to seek further information there, and she also hires Lucie to investigate. To anyone familiar with noir conventions, it should come as no great surprise that Leni turns out to be a femme fatale — but the form that takes isn’t quite so conventional.

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Two Sisters: Peppermint Soda (1977)

Cafe

Diane Kurys’s 1977 film Peppermint Soda shares its name (Diabolo menthe in the original French) with the bright green beverage that Anne Weber (Éléonore Klarwein) and her friends order when they visit a cafe one day after school. It’s an exciting outing, novel, rather grown-up — a couple of boys several years their seniors even wink and smile at them, much to their amusement — but Anne’s pleasure is cut short when her sister Frédérique (Odile Michel) enters and recognizes her voice. “What are you doing here?” Frédérique addresses her angrily, for all to hear. “Are you out of your little head? Go home immediately. Since when do you hang around in cafes? Wearing stockings! Putting on airs! Mom will be delighted.” Anne, humiliated, walks out just as the waiter returns with a tray of peppermint soda. The adult world, or at least the world of older teenagers, remains elusive. She and her sister are only two years apart in age — Frédérique is fifteen, Anne thirteen — but sometimes that small gap seems like an abyss, an eternity.

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Traveling Through Time: Two for the Road (1967)

Opening

“They don’t look very happy.”
“Why should they? They just got married.”

As this cynical, even grim little exchange that opens the Stanley Donen-directed, Frederic Raphael-scripted 1967 film Two for the Road immediately makes clear, the relationship between Joanna and Mark Wallace (Audrey Hepburn, Albert Finney) isn’t exactly the picture of connubial bliss. When, while driving, they chance across a glum pair of newlyweds, prompting this conversation, the Wallaces are over a decade into their own marriage. In light of the coldness and tension between them, their frequent bickering and their open talk about the possibility of divorce, it appears that the end of their shared road through life may be within sight — a road comprising numerous literal journeys throughout France that, taken together, offer a multifaceted portrait of their marriage and how they reached this point.

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Director Series: François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard’s Une histoire d’eau (1958)

Boat

“It was obvious, once the film was finished, that it wasn’t his or mine and that it would be logical for both to sign and to make a present of it to the producer who never made a fortune out of it.” — François Truffaut

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The Unlikely Femme Fatale: Breathless (1960)

Patricia Michel

When Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) makes her first appearance in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film Breathless, she hardly seems the femme fatale type. An American in Paris, hawking the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs-Élysées, she looks rather boyish in her t-shirt, pants and tightly cropped pixie cut. In fact, she doesn’t behave like a femme fatale either; far from seducing Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the film’s antihero, she turns down his advances multiple times, uncertain about her feelings for him. Nevertheless, his infatuation with her brings about his own destruction — almost as if she can’t avoid destroying him.

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