Big budget sets, great acting and fantastic cinematography (thanks to Jack Cardiff), Powell & Pressburger were two of the most influential filmmakers of the 1940s. OK, so maybe their films have dated a bit, but there's still a dark, psychological intensity that few contemporary films are able to emulate.
Just ahead of The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus is certainly my favourite Powell & Pressburger flick with all its awkward charm. Five young nuns travel to a distant Himalayan mountain, converting a former concubine-filled pleasure palace of some dead general to the convent of Saint Faith Order and begin to teach children and tend to the sick. The isolation, the emptiness, the exoticism of the place all has an overwhelming intensity that slowly seeps into the emotional framework of the young sisters, stirring up passions in a place where austerity is held above all else (just look at how grey the nunnery is compared with the vivid landscape). The contrasts between each of the nuns from Sister Clodagh’s gentleness to Sister Ruth’s wildness is captured beautifully by the directors and not a moment passes where you’re not considering the everyday struggle of the nuns and the local villagers, as well as the greater overall struggles (both practical and spiritual) of having to live in such a place.
Ophül’s masterpiece, Le Plaisir – literally ‘the pleasure’ and there’s certainly a great deal of pleasure to be had from such a film. Taking three of Guy de Maupassant’s short stories as a the basis for three short films, Le Plaisir is striking in its assumed simplicity and love of life – the joie de vivre is captured exquisitely in a film which teases and tempts us, draws us into the bawdy world of 19th century France where the line between happiness and misery runs thin and the quick transition from pleasure to pain is found on every street corner.
From the swinging Palais de la Dance in the first story to the Madame Tellier’s brothel in the second, (closed for a night so the girls can travel to the countryside) and finally to the studio of a frustrated painter and his luscious model in the last, Ophüls demonstrates his appreciation of human weakness with a sensitivity that perfectly suits Maupassant’s naturalistic dénouements.
The first of the three tales opens with the narrator (Maupassant) announcing that, “I’m so happy to be talking in the dark as if I were beside you,” and with dry wit adds, “and maybe I am.” And straightaway, Ophüls launches us into the heart of the 19th century ball de magnificence where youth meets age in a continual game of pleasure and denial as the central figure dances with a young girl only to collapse with exhaustion and has to be carried home to his wife. The second story and longest of all three follows the travels of a brothel madame, who closes her establishment (a place we are denied entry into) and takes her girls to the country for her niece’s first communion – the beautiful church scene – where the profane meets with the sacred, lust turns to gaiety and innocent fun, and pleasure and love combine in the most touching narrative. And the third, a snapshot of an ambitious artist who falls in love with his model, marries and discovers that lust doesn’t automatically lead to love and happiness can be as short-lived as success.
War films are pretty difficult to make because of all the madness that surrounds war itself. Of course the easy way out would be to take a simple Hollywood angle, throw in a hero, have him overcome his own fear and save the day. Renoir neither romanticises nor belittles his characters, instead he provides them with complexity through careful observation (a skill no doubt picked up from his own father, the great Auguste Renoir) and a well-developed plot. Each individual remains focused on their own goals and ambitions to some extent, but outside of the obvious (escape for the PoWs and keeping guard for the Nazi prison officers) Renoir provides them with hazy intention.
La Grande Illusion is a film about struggle in a world which is quickly beginning to crumble, where old codes are disappearing and the future is uncertain, the present is unstable and the past is past. One of Renoir’s greatest achievements in this film (and to some extent also in La Règle du Jeu and Partie de Campagne) is his ability to capture this sense of change, illustrated beautifully between the two opposing aristocratic officers, the German Rosenthal and the French Boeldieu, both under no illusion that the rules of war have changed – it is no longer about a gentleman’s fight, but the fight of the common man.
The communication between the prisoners and the guards is minimal, and all the more striking for it when for example the German guard gives his harmonica to the imprisoned Maréchal. And Renoir as always has a great sympathy and sensitivity to the figures caught up in this fight, even the German guards who despite their apparent freedom are just as trapped within a regime where the individual is easily lost within the wider aims of the whole. They all want to be re-united with their families, return home to cooked meals and loving wives, not living as they do in isolation and emptiness. What Renoir questions with La Grande Illusion is the necessity of war and how the new rules that defined World War I completely changed the way war was fought.
Director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski had that special kind of love/hate relationship that gives all of the films they make together that special edge. They made several films together, and Aguirre is the most powerful of the bunch. The sheer intensity of Kinski's acting and onscreen descent into madness as he searches aimlessly for El Dorado is captured perfectly by Herzog. He really pushed his actors to their limits (still does as Rescue Dawn proves), and it really shows in Aguirre, Kinski is practically burning with a passionate rage.
Herzog’s films are always slow and heavy, this is no light offering of feel-good entertainment, this is a full-on dive into philosophical enquiries, continually questioning the nature of life, from the metaphorical spiritualism of Heart of Glass to the insane and obsessive journey of Fitzcarraldo through the Peruvian jungle to build an opera house. But Aguirre is probably his most realised vision – the brooding, dangerous Don Lope de Aguirre relentlessly searches at any cost, disregarding everything else through the Amazon, (home of the recently annihilated Incas) on journey to find gold and wealth – the legendary El Dorado.
From the outset, you quickly realise that this is going to be a powerful film – opening with a beautiful tracking shot of the mountains slowly revealing the band of men making their way steadily, dangerously, precariously through the impressive surroundings. With the power of God behind them, the Spanish soldiers (Don Fernando representing the royal house of Spain) along with Brother Gaspar de Carajal (on a mission to convert the remaining pagans) descend upon the Amazonian jungle with full armour, out of place, lost, overwhelmed, exhausted…
Even now cinema has the power to astonish. Watching the second part of Tropical Malady as a soldier crawls through the jungle haunted by dreams is one of the most magical sequences in film of recent years. Weerasethakul isn't afraid to experiment, sometimes with a playful sense of humour and sometimes with mystical edge.
Tropical Malady is a film split into two distinct parts about the life of a soldier under almost opposing circumstances – reality and fantasy. The film opens with the corpse as a group of soldiers, intrigued by the dead man, stand around and take photographs with carefree exuberance. Amongst them is Keng, a soldier who in the first sequence falls in love with a young country boy who dreams of becoming a soldier. Together with the same carefree nature of the soldiers in the earlier scene, they explore the local area, telling one another stories and gradually, tentatively grow closer together, though whether the local boy is actually in love with Keng or with the idea of being a soldier is difficult to decide.
The second part of a film takes place in darkness, in rain, in thick jungle foliage as Keng stalks through the vegetation in search of the thing, whatever it is that has been killing the local cows. This is a beautiful dreamlike episode, sensory cinema at its finest, following the fears and hallucinations of a single character in pursuit of an uncertain enemy. The parallels between the two segments aren’t immediately apparent, but they are certainly there. It is a film about desire and mystery, discovering something for the first time and searching for something sometimes in vein, but always with passion.