The Seasoned Ticket #9

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

 

The new film by Claire Denis, Let the Sunshine In, opens locally this week, at SIFF Film Center. It stars Juliette Binoche as a divorced woman who passes through a series of encounters with men, and while it is elliptical and challenging in the manner of Denis’ other movies, it also glows with some sort of generosity and sneaky humor. And, of course, you get to watch Binoche, doing what looks like emotional improvisation as she navigates one curious episode after another.

The final sequence—it spoils nothing to say that Gerard Depardieu shows up at this point—is a wonderful dialogue that has at least a half-dozen things going on simultaneously. Even the deployment of the end credits here is amusing, as Depardieu just keeps blathering on after they begin rolling. It’s typical of Denis that she includes a sequence with Depardieu’s character just before his scene with Binoche, as though to suggest his human life outside the film’s storyline, and to perhaps remind us that every character in a story has his own motivations and history. To my eye Let the Sunshine In might be just a little thinner than much of Denis’ previous work, but it’s a fascinating project.

Speaking of her previous work, I don’t need to tell you that Scarecrow has a Claire Denis section. It includes her luscious first feature, Chocolat (1988), which bears no relation to the cutesy-wootsy Lasse Hallstrom film of that title starring Binoche.

I list a few others below, with links to my writing about them. And don’t forget about Trouble Every Day (2001), Denis’ shocking vampire picture, or Friday Night (2002), her oddly overlooked account of two people finding each other during a transit strike in Paris. Here’s an excerpt from my Herald review of that film:

Friday Night has little dialogue, no backstory, and only two main characters. We follow Laure on the night before she is set to move in with her boyfriend. She’s on her way to a dinner party, but Paris is in the grip of a crippling transportation strike.

Everyone is in a car, and the cars fill the streets. The movement of this massive traffic jam is glacial. The radio suggests that drivers should pick up passengers, since so many people are stranded without the subway and bus. So it doesn’t seem strange when a man asks for a ride and gets in her car. And there is something about the communication of glances and body language that makes these two people seem destined for a sexual encounter. Very soon.

In synopsis, it sounds like a parody of European art movie. A man, a woman, nonverbal hints, and very pleasant sex at a nearby hotel. But in the hands of Claire Denis it becomes something both realistic (Laure’s car is the kind of just-over-the-hill vehicle with switches that probably don’t work and a permanent cigarette smell) and unreal.

The actors are Valerie Lemercier, who’s known mostly as a comedic actress in France, and the reliable Everyman, Vincent Lindon. There is something just slightly humorous about them, which saves their encounter from being precious.

Movies can be big and complicated, but movies can also be daydreams. Isn’t that why we go to movies sometimes, to daydream about hitting the game-winning home run or running away on a pirate ship? Friday Night could be a daydream on the part of its main character—the kind of story you might idly fantasize about, stuck in a never-ending traffic jam.

Links to my thoughts on other essential Denis films:

Beau Travail

35 Shots of Rum

Bastards

 

Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

Recommendations from our Amazing Volunteers!

We’ve got some amazing volunteers here at Scarecrow! They are an invaluable part of what we do and we’re thankful for their hard work and dedication, and most especially for their love of movies! A couple of them were glad to share some of their recent recommendations.

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The Seasoned Ticket #8

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

 

Next Friday (June 29) the Grand Illusion brings back a “restored” version of Cold Water, a 1994 film by Olivier Assayas. If you feel passionate about film, if you feel passionate about French cinema—really, if you feel passionate about anything, you should see this movie. I first saw it at the 1994 New York Film Festival, and its portrait of disaffected youth hit me in my sweet spot. At first I wasn’t sure about it; some of the early sequences plays like fairly typical, if beautifully rendered, material from your standard European youth picture. But when the film shifts its focus halfway through to a massive, out-of-control party, it slips into the kind of zone where you realize you’re in a middle of something, not standing on the sidelines watching.

The reason the film was not given a proper US release at the time apparently had to do with clearing the expensive rights to its mixtape of vintage music. (The story is set in the early 1970s. The songs are fantastic.) The Northwest Film Forum brought it to Seattle in 2006, and the film still looked great then. The current re-release should help Cold Water gain a deserving visibility.

Assayas has been a vital filmmaker all along, with a great deal of variety in his work. I will name a few of my favorites here, all of which are carried by Scarecrow.

Personal Shopper (2016) is a languorous kind of ghost story that erupts into a Hitchcockian suspense exercise at a certain point. It stars Kristen Stewart, who easily carries the film. My full review is here: https://www.heraldnet.com/life/personal-shopper-is-an-intriguing-blend-of-somber-and-suspenseful/

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014). Juliette Binoche as an actress and Kristen Stewart as her personal assistant. It’s hard to describe what’s really going on in the film, as it has less to do with plot than with shifting relationships and the actress’s changeable sense of her place in the world. It is also, mysteriously, about the way things are today.

Something in the Air (2012). Something of a companion piece to Cold Water, as it’s also about young people in the early 70s—in this case, kids trying to navigate the aftermath of May 1968, and looking for something similarly galvanizing in their lives. I go on here: https://www.heraldnet.com/life/1970s-love-art-politics-mesh-well-in-something-in-the-air/

Late August, Early September (1998). This is Assayas in very much the ideal French-movie mode: love, sex, art, people talking in cafes. A superb cast, with Mathieu Amalric, Virginie Ledoyen (she’s in Cold Water, too), Francois Cluzet, Jeanne Balibar, and future director Mia Hansen-Love. I wrote about it for Film Comment magazine, here: https://roberthorton.wordpress.com/2011/09/18/late-august-early-september-the-cornfield-42/

One more link, to a Film Comment interview I did last year with Denis Lenoir, the cinematographer who helped Assayas develop a distinctive style, with some specific conversation about Cold Water.

There are other gems in Assayas’s filmography, including some that would be hard to find if it weren’t for Scarecrow. Get thee there now, and bonne chance.

 

Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

The Seasoned Ticket #7

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

 

This weekend sees the release of Mary Shelley, a look at the youthful years of the author of Frankenstein. The film has one admirable touch, which is that Elle Fanning, the actress who plays Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, was still a teenager when the movie was shot, which corresponds with the actual age of the preternaturally gifted writer. Director Haifaa Al-Mansour (whose Wadjda is well worth watching) otherwise takes a fervently female-first approach to the material, a perfectly appropriate choice that doesn’t generate a great deal of storytelling excitement.

The second half of the film revolves around the fabled summer of 1816, when Mary, her companion Percy Shelley, and her half-sister Claire Clairmont went to a villa on Lake Geneva and stayed with Lord Byron and John Polidori. The episode has been heavily mythologized already, and there are a few films we might mention that cover that very turf. To wit:

Gothic, 1986, directed by Ken Russell. I recall the guys at the Egyptian Theatre cranked the volume up really loud when they screened this, but then they always cranked the volume really loud. This tactic fit Russell’s head-splitting treatment of the material, an art-horror approach with lots of crashing thunder and heavy breathing. Natasha Richardson plays Mary, more thoughtfully than the movie seems to notice, and Gabriel Byrne and Julian Sands are Byron and Shelley; Timothy Spall goes full-on grotesque as Polidori. The music is by Thomas Dolby. It’s a crazy watch, and it supports my theory that Russell sometimes needed a little restraint to be at his best. But then he wouldn’t be Ken Russell.

Haunted Summer, 1988, directed by Ivan Passer. I liked this film at the time, although a more recent viewing was a disappointment. Passer creates a romantic, hippie-inflected treatment of the story, and he lucks out by getting the intelligent Alice Krige to play Mary. There’s something about the ensemble that reminds me of Passer’s friend Milos Forman’s approach to casting, which sometimes leaned toward plainness and simplicity; if Tom Hulce could play Mozart, why not Eric Stoltz as Shelley? And yet, maybe this particular group of historical characters needs more madness in its makeup. Laura Dern plays Claire, Alex Winter (yes, of Bill and Ted) is Polidori, and the interesting Philip Anglim is Byron. Anglim has an unusual story—he triumphed at the end of the 1970s in the original Elephant Man Broadway production, then seemed to flame out of an acting career.

Frankenstein Unbound, 1990, directed by Roger Corman. Corman’s latest film as director is a lively riff on a novel by Brian Aldiss. The story follows a time traveler (John Hurt) who drops in at the Villa Diodati in 1816, only to discover the actual Dr. Frankenstein (Raul Julia) on hand, along with Mary (Bridget Fonda), Byron (Jason Patric), and Shelley (Michael Hutchence, the INXS singer). I’m not sure the mish-mash entirely works, but it sure is fun to watch.

Bride of Frankenstein, 1935, directed by James Whale. Here, the opening five minutes give us Byron and Shelley (Gavin Gordon and Douglas Walton) teasing Mary about how such an innocent-looking woman could conjure up a monster. Elsa Lanchester plays—gloriously—both Mary and the bride, an inspired touch that, as Lanchester later reported, underlined Whale’s theory about the monster inside everyone, especially the superficially pretty.

There’s also a very obscure Spanish film, Rowing with the Wind (1988), with Hugh Grant as Byron and Elizabeth Hurley as Claire. I haven’t seen it, but despite its obscurity, Scarecrow has it. Completists, be advised.

 

Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.