A Strange Game: Two English Girls (1971)

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Early on in François Truffaut’s 1971 film Les deux Anglaises et le continent, or Two English Girls, sisters Anne (Kika Markham) and Muriel Brown (Stacey Tendeter), their mother (Sylvia Marriott) and their house guest, Claude Roc (Jean-Pierre Léaud), get caught in the rain. After the group takes shelter in a small cave, Mrs. Brown suggests that they play a game called citron pressé (“squeezed lemon”) in order to pass the time until the weather improves. Her daughters agree eagerly and sit down on either side of her, their backs against her arms while she faces forward, and begin to rock her to and fro, first one leaning backwards and then the other. Laughing and out of breath, Mrs. Brown soon invites Claude to take her place, which he does — but what was merely an innocent diversion for the Browns becomes something quite different for the young Frenchman. “Suddenly he was a pawn in a strange game. Squeezed between the girls, he didn’t dare breathe. He’d never even touched their hands. Now their supple backs thrust against him. It was like an indiscretion,” the narrator (Truffaut himself*) says as Claude is pushed from side to side, surprise, pleasure and uncertainty flickering across his face.

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Reflections: Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Cleo Mirrors

“Take another card,” a fortune teller (Loye Payen) instructs the tearful young woman (Corinne Marchand) sitting across the table from her at the start of Agnès Varda’s 1962 film Cléo from 5 to 7. Awaiting a potential cancer diagnosis, singer Cléo Victoire has come to Madame Irma in hopes of receiving some sort of comfort or reason for hope. So far, her tarot reading has been less than encouraging, and although Madame Irma has tried to remain positive throughout, even she jumps back in alarm when she turns over the next card and reveals a skeleton holding a scythe. “This card is not necessarily death’s. It means a complete transformation of your whole being,” the fortune teller says, still endeavoring to make the best of it, but Cléo doesn’t want to hear any more: “I’ve known for two days. I don’t need the results of the tests.” Nevertheless, she immediately asks Madame Irma to read her palm, as if that might reveal something that will cancel out the rest; Madame Irma gazes down at it for a few moments, looks up at Cléo’s face, and finally declares that she can’t read hands. “Is it so bad…?” Cléo asks, bursting into sobs. She leaves in a daze, and it’s not until she encounters a mirror downstairs that she begins to revive. “Ugliness is a kind of death,” she thinks while smiling at her reflection. “As long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive.”

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Holding Pattern: Wings (1966)

Larisa Shepitko’s 1966 film Wings opens on a crowded street, along which unending streams of people flow ceaselessly both left and right. From this crowd, it appears, one man suddenly turns toward the viewer; the camera then pulls back to reveal that he’s a tailor walking through his quiet, nearly empty shop, undisturbed by the mass of humanity outside his window. His focus is on a customer, a middle-aged woman (Maya Bulgakova) who’s waiting for him in a dressing room. With skillful hands, he takes her measurements for a jacket and skirt, noting the width of her shoulders, the circumference of her waist, and so on and so on, until at last he announces his verdict: “Standard size.” But while that may be true of her clothing, it soon becomes painfully clear that Nadezhda Petrukhina is not a woman built for a standard size life.

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Bad, Bad Bette Davis: In This Our Life (1942)

Stanley Driving

In a movie career that spanned six decades, Bette Davis played everything from a Cockney waitress (in Of Human Bondage) to a Bronx housewife (in The Catered Affair) to Queen Elizabeth I (twice, in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and The Virgin Queen). My first exposure to her was through the 1946 film A Stolen Life, in which she has a dual role as a pair of twins — one good, one bad. (This, of course, is not to be confused with 1964’s Dead Ringer, which has her portraying two bad twins.) As I delved into her filmography, I quickly realized that I much preferred Bad Bette to Good Bette. Admittedly, that’s an oversimplification, and many of her roles fall somewhere between the two extremes, but I never get tired of watching her misbehave, and 1942’s In This Our Life offers ample opportunity to do just that.

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Engineering a Train in the Night: Day for Night (1973)

day-for-night

“It’s often occurred to me that one might make a first-rate comedy on the making of a movie,” François Truffaut remarked during a 1962 conversation with Alfred Hitchcock, the basis for his book on the Master of Suspense. At that point, Truffaut was still a relative novice as a director, with only three feature films and a few shorts to his name. By the time his idea came to fruition in the form of 1973’s Day for Night, he had acquired ample experience, good and bad, from which he could draw material, and draw from it he did.

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The Drifter, the Desert and the Divine: Lilies of the Field (1963)

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To Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier), an overheated engine is just an overheated engine; to Mother Maria (Lilia Skala), it’s divine intervention.

Either way, it disrupts Homer’s drive through the Arizona desert at the beginning of the 1963 film Lilies of the Field and prompts him to seek water at the nearest building. This turns out to be a convent, home to Mother Maria and four other nuns (Lisa Mann, Isa Crino, Francesca Jarvis, Pamela Branch) who have come to the United States from East Germany. “God is good. He has sent me a big strong man,” Mother Maria declares upon seeing Homer, then informs him that she has work for him to do. Although he’s not interested at first and starts to drive away, the nuns’ sad faces bother him, and a glance into his wallet reminds him that he could use the money; he is, in fact, an itinerant laborer, and this job is probably no worse than any other he might encounter. As such, he agrees to fix their roof, intending to leave as soon as he’s finished — but Mother Maria has other plans for him.

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A Parable in Pixillation: Neighbours (1952)

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In 1949, Scottish-born Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren traveled to China in order to work on UNESCO’s Healthy Village Project. There, he taught local artists how to create a variety of audio-visual materials that could be used to educate the rural population; he also witnessed the end of the Chinese Civil War. “About three months after I went out there, communists took over our particular town, and for the rest of the year I was living under the new regime,” he said in an interview included in the documentary Creative Process: Norman McLaren. “And I was able to see what it was doing and talk with many people and heard the story of their lives, particularly people between the ages of twenty and thirty. I tended to identify myself with what was going on there because I thought what was happening was very good. So then when I left China, the Korean War broke out the same day, almost, as I left China, and I came back to North America, and I felt a great tension about war in general. The tension that was produced from my year’s experience in China, plus my return to here, and to an environment where the newspapers were saying something totally different from what I’d been used to — that tension produced the film Neighbours.”

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Secrecy and Lies: Charade (1963)

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“I’m getting a divorce,” Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) announces at the beginning of the 1963 film Charade. Although her friend Sylvie (Dominique Minot) thinks Regina would be foolish to leave her wealthy husband, Charles, and thereby give up her luxurious lifestyle, she’s too unhappy to remain married to him any longer. “I loathe the whole idea of divorce, Sylvie, but if only Charles had been honest with me. That’s all I ask of anybody: the simple truth,” she says. “But with Charles, everything is secrecy and lies. He’s hiding something from me, Sylvie, something terrible, and it frightens me.” She really knows nothing about him — including the fact that he’s just been thrown off of a moving train.

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On the Road: La Strada (1954)

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The Di Costanzo family is in dire straits. Abandoned by her husband, Mrs. Di Costanzo (Anna Primula) has so little money that she and her many children can’t even afford to eat every day. To make matters worse, a man named Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) shows up with some devastating news: One of the family’s daughters, Rosa, who had been working as Zampanò’s assistant in his traveling strongman act, has died. In the midst of her grief, Mrs. Di Costanzo offers him another daughter, Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) — an odd, childlike young woman — as a replacement. “I told you, she’s not like Rosa,” her mother says to Zampanò. “But she’s a good girl, poor thing. She’ll do what she’s told. She just came out a little strange.” Then she appeals to Gelsomina herself, pointing out that she’ll get to learn a trade and see the world, not to mention easing the family’s financial burden. Gelsomina seems uncertain at first and wanders away from her mother and siblings, but once her back is turned on them, she smiles. Thus, full of excitement, she sets out with Zampanò at the start of Federico Fellini’s 1954 film La Strada — Italian for “the road.”

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