A particular amount of money — twenty thousand yen, to be precise — shows up twice in Yasujirô Ozu’s 1962 film An Autumn Afternoon. In one instance, it’s a gift collected to help a struggling old man; in the other, it’s the price of a set of golf clubs coveted by a young man. Coincidence, or something more deliberate? The two episodes are connected only tenuously, through a third character — former student of the older man, father of the younger and benefactor to both. Taken together, however, these sums and the circumstances surrounding them encapsulate the issues, the uncertainties, the fears and the sorrows at the heart of Ozu’s swan song.
“We live in a squatter’s shack that’s overrun with rats. Every time it rains, the firemen must take us away by boat. Your dad was injured during the war. He can’t work any more than he does; otherwise, he’d be a hard worker … You must understand that our only hope is winning some money from that old lady.”
Upon arriving at Brandham Hall at the start of Joseph Losey’s 1971 film The Go-Between, Leo Colston (Dominic Guard as a child, Michael Redgrave as an adult) finds much to impress and even overwhelm him: the size and grandeur of the house itself, the paintings covering its walls, the shining silver arrayed in perfect neatness on its tables. He’s particularly struck, however, by two living things. The first is Marian Maudsley (Julie Christie), clad in white and half-hidden by a white parasol as she lounges in a hammock; the second is a deadly nightshade growing on the property. “Atropa belladonna,” Leo explains to his friend Marcus (Richard Gibson), Marian’s younger brother. “It’s poisonous. Every part of it is poisonous.” Beauty masking poison — a symbol, it will turn out, not simply of Marian herself, but of Brandham and upper-class English society as a whole.
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 2008 film Still Walking takes place in the space of about twenty-four hours, save for a brief epilogue set several years after the main action. Perhaps “action” isn’t quite the right word; after all, not much happens in the way of major events during that twenty-four-hour period. It’s a film of cooking and eating and bathing, of children at play, of conversations and reminiscences and disagreements — and yet, even in that brief window, through both the ordinary and the more extraordinary, it manages to paint a rich portrait of a family’s life in all its complexities.
Upon discovering that a David Lean movie spans twenty years, the word “epic” is apt to spring to mind. It’s only natural; after all, Lean was the director behind such grandiose films as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965). However, in actuality, 1944’s This Happy Breed is something entirely different from those later, better known works. There are no battle scenes with seas of extras, no larger than life figures. Instead, the film — based on Noël Coward’s play of the same name — not only focuses on an ordinary middle-class English family but emphasizes its very ordinariness.
“That Monday, December 21st, I suddenly knew, without a doubt, that Françoise would be my wife,” protagonist Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) declares in voiceover near the beginning of Éric Rohmer’s 1969 film My Night at Maud’s. Unlike the preceding entries in the director’s Six Moral Tales series, My Night at Maud’s — officially the third tale, though it was shot and released fourth due to scheduling conflicts — eschews narration almost entirely, rendering this statement all the more noteworthy. It’s also quite surprising, in that he doesn’t actually know Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault).
Is it possible to discuss Two English Girls without bringing up Jules and Jim? François Truffaut’s 1971 film seems to live in the shadow of its better-known predecessor, shot ten years earlier, and not without reason. Both movies are based on semi-autobiographical novels by Henri-Pierre Roché; both were made by several of the same people, including Truffaut, screenwriter Jean Gruault and composer Georges Delerue; both feature narration throughout; and both focus on complex love triangles that shift and evolve over the course of quite a few years. In fact, a quick glance at a written summary of Two English Girls might suggest little more than a gender-flipped version of Jules and Jim, with its triangle comprising two women and a man instead of two men and a woman. However, in watching the film, it becomes clear almost immediately that Truffaut’s aims were drastically different this time around.
Nowadays, actor Amedeo Nazzari may be best known among film fans for his appearance in Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957), playing a movie star who picks up the eponymous prostitute after a fight with his girlfriend. It’s no coincidence that the character’s name, Alberto Lazzari, is so similar to his own, because Nazzari himself was a bona fide movie star in Italy. Among his major box office successes were the melodramas that he made with director Raffaello Matarazzo and Greek-born actress Yvonne Sanson, beginning with 1949’s Chains — a film significant enough to be featured prominently in Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso some four decades later. In an essay written to accompany the release of four Matarazzo/Nazzari/Sanson collaborations as part of the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse line, Michael Koresky explains their appeal:
Though immensely popular, the films were dismissed by the critical establishment of the day: they were unabashedly soap-operatic entertainments, with plots convoluted to the point of near derangement, exaggerated Catholic symbolism, and a dedication to upholding the sacred family unit at any cost. Critics on the left deemed them reactionary; for Catholics, they were too overheated and sexual; and mainstream reviewers thought them frivolous and cheap—a poor man’s neorealist cinema.
That, however, is exactly what these rip-roaring, outrageously fun movies were designed to be: they followed the neorealist vogue for stories about earthy working-class people but were far from gritty and made mainly for suburban audiences, which gorged themselves on their sweeping, sentimental twists and turns. They were also emotionally rich and elegantly woven—captivating tales of crisis that spoke to postwar Italian audiences in need of catharsis. And today, after years of rehabilitation (by a group of French critics in the sixties and by Italian critics in the seventies), Matarazzo’s movies are admired for their gleefully overwrought stories and finely calibrated direction. These are treasures from the golden age of fifties melodrama, deserving mention in the same breath as the magnificent moonstruck movies of the likes of Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli, and Luchino Visconti.
“One’s first love is so intense,” the characters in Jacques Demy’s Lola declare again and again. The same might be said of first films — certainly of Lola itself, Demy’s 1961 debut feature. If the fledgling director had had his way, it might have looked a great deal like some of his later works, including The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), as he explained in an interview included in Agnès Varda’s 1995 documentary The World of Jacques Demy: “It would have cost 250 million francs, in color and Scope, with lots of dancing and singing and costumes. So [producer Georges] de Beauregard told me, ‘Look, it’s a sweet project, but [Jean-Luc Godard’s] Breathless cost 32 million. If you can do yours for 35, it’s a deal.'” Demy accepted. The resulting film — black and white, with only a single short song — may not resemble his subsequent musicals on a superficial level, but many of their major elements are already present: characters crossing paths, improbable coincidences and, above all, a pervasive air of romance. Perhaps Lola‘s smaller scale, with its relative modesty and lack of frills, actually gives these qualities an added strength and purity.