Hidden Depths: Haruko Sugimura

Haruko Sugimura (Source)

If a viewer watches enough of Yasujirô Ozu’s work, many of the actors become as familiar as old friends. Perhaps it’s something in the nature of his films, in their largely low-key, down-to-earth, everyday quality, or perhaps it’s because the actors who appear in multiple Ozu movies often play similar characters. At any rate, there’s a definite pleasure in seeing certain faces pop up again and again. Along with the iconic Setsuko Hara and the ubiquitous Chishû Ryû, one of the most memorable of these performers is Haruko Sugimura — even if her characters aren’t always particularly pleasant people.

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Car Crazy: Le Départ (1967)

Marc DrivingMarc (Jean-Pierre Léaud), the car-obsessed protagonist of Jerzy Skolimowski’s 1967 film Le Départ, is eager to take part in his first motor rally in a few days, though there is one slight snag yet to be overcome: He doesn’t have a car. More to the point, he registered for the race as a Porsche driver, so unless he shows up in a Porsche, he won’t be allowed to participate. Lacking the funds necessary to rent one, he intends to “borrow” his boss’s vehicle (which entails hot-wiring it and sneaking it out of a garage in the dead of night), but upon discovering that his boss (Paul Roland) intends to go away for the weekend in said vehicle, he’s forced to come up with a new plan of action, legal or illegal — mostly the latter.

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Setting Sun: The Death of Louis XIV (2016)


“From the moment that Albert Serra asked me to act in this film, and that I was in a position where I was being filmed with three cameras in one particular location, I became trapped within an experience that almost simultaneously was the experience of my own death,” Jean-Pierre Léaud said of Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV (2016). “It illustrates the quote from Jean Cocteau: ‘Cinema is the only art that can capture death at work.'”

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Perpetually Unstable Equilibrium: Out 1 (1971)

Colin Blackboard

“I don’t want the viewer to ever be comfortably seated in front of the film with a story that engages them from the start in a very traditional way and which then sticks to a very exact path — apparently exact, anyway — for an hour and a half, two hours, three hours,” Jacques Rivette said in a 1972 interview. “I’d rather, on the contrary, create a sort of perpetually unstable equilibrium which is constantly being adjusted, first in one direction and then another, so that, rather than being comfortably seated in an armchair, the viewer is sitting on top of a pile of chairs balanced on top of one another, and they’re wondering whether the chairs will collapse.”

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Permanent Records: Adua and Her Friends (1960)


“We’re like everyone else now — we’re not registered. They’ve burned the records. We’re just ordinary women now.”

In 1958, Italy passed the Merlin Law, which shut down the country’s brothels. Two years later, Antonio Pietrangeli’s film Adua and Her Friends was released, offering a look at the effects of this legislation on four prostitutes. Although the characters and their story are fictional, the challenges they face as they try to start a new life are, no doubt, not unlike those experienced by many of their real world counterparts.

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Storytelling: The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963)


“My intent was to film not raw, unvarnished events but rather the account of them as given by one of the characters,” Éric Rohmer wrote in the companion book to his Six Moral Tales series. “The story, the selection and arrangement of the facts, as well as the way they were learned, happened to relate very clearly and specifically to the person relating them, independently of any pressures I might exert on that person. One of the reasons these tales are called ‘moral’ is that they are effectively stripped of physical action: everything takes place in the narrator’s mind. The same story, told by someone else, would be quite different, or might well not have been told at all.” His 1963 film The Bakery Girl of Monceau, the first entry in the series, exemplifies this approach in a compact twenty-three minutes.

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Poe by Way of Fellini: Toby Dammit (1968)

Toby Dammit

The 1968 anthology film Spirits of the Dead is based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe, but a viewer who neglects to read the on-screen text might be forgiven for failing to recognize the third and final segment as a Poe adaptation. Unlike the first two episodes — “Metzengerstein” (directed by Roger Vadim and starring Jane Fonda and Peter Fonda) and William Wilson” (directed by Louis Malle and starring Alain Delon and Brigitte Bardot), both period pieces — “Toby Dammit” is set firmly in the late 1960s. Moreover, the credits of at least one edition of the film describe it as “liberally adapted” from Poe’s 1841 short story “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” a rather obscure tale to begin with. While the Poe connection may not be obvious, another authorial hand is much more in evidence: “Toby Dammit” is unmistakably the work of director Federico Fellini.

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A Very Plantagenet Christmas: The Lion in Winter (1968)

Eleanor and Henry

“Well, what shall we hang: the holly, or each other?”

It’s a question that might arise at any dysfunctional family’s Christmas gathering, if not aloud then at least in the minds of the participants. But when that Christmas is in the year 1183 and that dysfunctional family happens to be royal, as is the case in Anthony Harvey’s 1968 film The Lion in Winter, it takes on a potentially literal meaning.

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Figures in a Landscape: Letter Never Sent (1959)


Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1959 film Letter Never Sent begins with the following text:

To those who, in any field of human endeavor — be it the settlement of wild and desolate lands or the daring rush into space — follow in the difficult path of the pioneers, and to the Soviet people, this film is dedicated.

In this particular story, those modern pioneers are the members of a geological expedition, and when they first appear onscreen, they’re waving goodbye to the helicopter that’s just dropped them off in the Siberian wilderness. Rather than showing their point of view, the camera is positioned in the helicopter itself, so that the four human figures on the ground appear increasingly minuscule, dwarfed by their surroundings — aptly foreshadowing what’s to come.

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A Woman’s Fate: Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

Red Lantern

Nineteen-year-old Songlian (Gong Li) is facing a personal crossroads at the start of Zhang Yimou’s 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern. A university student in 1920s China, she’s been forced to leave school as a result of her father’s recent death and her family’s subsequent financial difficulties. With precious few options available to her, she’s decided to get married, and as far as she’s concerned, she may as well marry for money. “Marry a rich man and you’ll only be his concubine,” her stepmother warns her, but Songlian’s mind is made up. “Let me be a concubine. Isn’t that a woman’s fate?” she asks stoically — just before a single teardrop runs down her cheek.

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