Well, at least this was more of a neo-Realist film than Europa ’51was. That’s….not a complete rave, however – but to be fair, I may have been projecting a teeny bit.
“Umberto D.” (Carlo Battisti) is a retired civil servant, struggling to make ends meet in post-war Italy. His pension is a pittance – in fact, we meet him first during a street demonstration of other pensioners, demanding a raise in their rates. To save his pennies, he’s living in a room rented out by an indifferent landlady who turns a blind eye to the crumbling wallpaper and the pests, and who secretly rents his room out by the hour to couples looking for a hookup. He eats at soup kitchens and is gradually selling off his meager possessions. The only place he doesn’t cut corners is in caring for his little dog, Flike.
That’s pretty much the story right there; Umberto struggles to get money to appease his landlady, care for Flike, and care for himself, in that order. Any little incident threatens to topple his little house of cards – he gets sick, and has to scramble for someone to look after Flike, but also plays sicker than he is so he can stay an extra couple days in the hospital and eat well. Flike runs away, and he has to head to the pound, praying that Flike is still there and that he has the money to pay the fine to spring him.
Umberto’s closest thing to a friend is his landlady’s maid, Maria (Maria-Pia Casallo). She’s similarly frustrated with the landlady’s lax standards, and she treats Umberto and Flike kindly – but she’s got her own problems, an unplanned pregnancy, which she’s keeping secret for now since she’s not sure which of the two soldiers she’s dating is the father. She confides in Umberto, and while he tuts a bit, he keeps her secret, earning her loyalty. But her loyalty doesn’t come with cash, unfortunately, and Umberto starts considering more and more drastic means to get by – or not.
So the thing that a lot of critics point to is how much Umberto struggles to maintain his dignity in the face of his problems. And that is affecting – he’s always dressed nattily in a suit and tie, as clean as he can keep them despite his circumstance. There’s a scene where Umberto briefly considers panhandling, standing on a streetcorner with his palm out. But as soon as someone first looks at him, Umberto gets embarrassed and pretends he was just checking to see if it’s raining. In another scene he meets an old colleague, and comes tantalizingly close to asking for a loan – but just can’t. It’s an impressive performance – or perhaps it comes naturally to Battisti, since he was not an actor. Battisti was actually a retired professor of linguistics, and this was his only acting role.
What bothered me a little, however, was that the ending somehow seems a bit too unfinished. The last few scenes see Umberto toying with a drastic solution to his dilemma, but when even those plans fail, Umberto simply walks off somewhere with Flike, and….the film just sort of ends. It was probably meant to be a kind of “they still have each other and they’re facing the world together” ending, but that follows a particularly dramatic few moments (yes, I’m being deliberately vague), and I wasn’t really satisfied. It’s a very, very neorealist kind of ending, still, and I’ve been pondering why it didn’t work for me this time; maybe the spectre of a retirement in poverty was making me long for some kind of happy ending reassurance that everything would be okay for him.
It’s been a bit of a week here at the Crash Course; I’m still working on the review for the latest film for the list, so in the meantime here’s a hot take on three more of this year’s Best Picture nominees. (The first take is here.)
I’m listening to Adam Savage’s podcast as I write this (I’ve said before, Adam is the unaware grandfather of the blog). In one episode they discussed Joker in passing; one of his guests said that they would have liked this film better if it hadn’t been tied to the comics character, and I think I agree. There’s very little “Batman” content anyway, save for some names and a bit of a gratuitous “hey let’s have a scene where the Waynes get shot in an alley” moment; the rest of the film is all about “society is grossly unfair to the disadvantaged and downtrodden”, and I think it would have been better if they’d just focused on that. And no, this isn’t a glorification of violence and a celebration of the downtrodden rioting and overthrowing their oppressors either – Joaquin Phoenix’s “Arthur Fleck” is clearly an anti-hero, or at least the film makes a hard turn into presenting him as such in the last act (we learn that the nature of one particular relationship he had with another person was ultimately all his fantasy, and that should make you question how much else we’ve seen from his perspective is real as well).
Joaquin Phoenix was fine; I’m not entirely sold on it winning the day for Best Actor.
I saw this during its original release, and…I mean, it’s fine, but I’m not certain why it’s gotten the Best Picture nomination. This is the second time that Quentin Tarantino has set up an alternate-history timeline that I’m aware (he killed Hitler with Inglorious Basterds, and here he saves Sharon Tate), and I’m not entirely clear why he did when the rest of the film was actually a strong enough tale of Old Hollywood learning how to give way to the new. A part of me almost wishes he cut out the plot thread with Sharon Tate (here played by Margot Robie) altogether, and focused just on Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Rick Dalton” and his long-suffering stunt double Cliff (Brad Pitt) – their tale is an interesting study of an aging actor coming to terms with aging out of his glory days, and how his own career is impacting Cliff’s much more tenuous career.
However, cutting out Sharon Tate would also mean you cut out this lovely sequence early on when Sharon Tate spontaneously stops into a movie theater to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew – she’s a new enough actress that she can see the show in relative anonymity, and gets to genuinely enjoy the audience reactions at her performance. It’s a sweetly endearing scene, and I think I might have missed it somehow if it weren’t there.
So Roommate Russ and I made for a really interesting audience for this – I’ve never read the original book, but have a bit of familiarity with the original story from other sources; I’ve seen parts of the 1994 version, and as a kid I owned a strange quasi-graphic-novel version, with another author retelling the story alongside a lot of single-panel illustrations. Roommate Russ was himself completely unfamiliar with the story other than it was “young women coming of age or something like that”. So we may have been a good test audience for seeing how Greta Gerwig’s playing around with the timeline affected the work.
I’m not sure if that’s a spoiler to state that. But that was a really interesting move that Gerwig made – instead of following the March sisters chronologically, as the book does, Gerwig’s film jumps between the sequences with Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy all grown up, and the sequences with them as younger girls. So, we start with Jo in New York and with Professor Bhaer hovering around, and jump back to Meg and Jo trying to get ready for a fancy ball with Beth and Amy looking on. Then forward to check in on Amy in Paris with Aunt March, and then back to the Christmas-without-father scene that opens the novel.
Plotwise, that did some really interesting things to the story. I filled Roommate Russ in on how the book is originally structured; we agreed that this take created more interesting tension. We see the adult Meg struggling to make ends meet with her husband John before we see the teenage Meg at a fancy ball in a borrowed dress; when a disapproving Laurie meets her and she pleads with him to “let me have my fun tonight,” it’s surprisingly poignant, since we have already seen where she will eventually end up.
Gerwig has also thankfully cut out a lot of Alcott’s original sermonizing. I remembered there was still some of this in the book I read, and I also remember a lot of it from the sequel, which I have read. There seems to have been a common structure to a lot of the chapters; one of the sisters would get into some kind of scrape, usually as a result of not listening to Marmee’s advice, chaos would ensue, and Marmee would gently chide them and they would quietly resolve to straighten up and fly right. But the reason why the March sisters have been such vivid characters for so long is that they are characters – imperfect, independent, and spirited, and Gerwig lets them stay imperfect.
However – a lot of the early scenes (early in the movie, that is) felt weirdly rushed and choppy. Gerwig’s March sisters have a habit of all talking over each other at the same time, which does feel natural but also made it feel like I was racing to keep up with them all. Also, more disappointingly, we miss out on a lot of the development of some of the relationships – we get only one or two scenes between Jo and Professor Bhaer, only one scene with Meg and John, and a scant few scenes with Jo and Laurie (and that’s counting the famous scene where she rejects his marriage proposal). By the time Jo is turning Laurie down, we should have a much better understanding of why that pair is so fond of each other; but we haven’t seen them becoming fond of each other. There’s that one dance scene that you see in the trailers, a couple quick scenes where they clown around in the background, and…that’s….kind of it. Laurie actually has as many scenes with Amy and Meg as he does with Jo, and yet somehow we’re just supposed to get that Jo is the one Laurie is most into.
Those who know me might be chuckling to themselves and thinking that I may simply be saying that because Laurie is played by Timothée Chalamet (I became an instant fan after seeing him in Call Me By Your Name, but more about that much later in the list), so I hasten to add that poor Professor Bhaer gets even less attention, and the film is structured in such a way that by the time he shows up to try to win Jo over, some audience members may have actually forgotten who he is. We similarly know little about Meg’s beloved John save for a scene or two.
On the other hand, there’s a lot that Gerwig has discovered in the novel about economics, and especially how women in the 1800s were kind of screwed over. There’s a killer scene when Amy – who’s presented as a pretty pretty princess in the novel – delivers a devastating smackdown to Laurie about the economic realities that women in society face.
Florence Pugh is nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar this year, and rightly so.
So this film is arguably the result of a fan letter.
In 1948, Ingrid Bergman was coming off a couple films with Alfred Hitchcock (Spellboundamong them) and a biopic about Joan of Arc. But the films she liked watching were Italian neo-Realist works like Rome, Open Cityand Paisan. She was so fond of these two films in particular that she wrote to director Roberto Rossellini, declaring her admiration and making a proposition: “If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French, and who in Italian knows only ti amo, I am ready to come and make a film with you.” Europa ’51 was the second of five films the pair ultimately made; the pair also fell in love while working together, a state of affairs which caused something of a scandal at the time. Bergman working in Rossellini’s film was already controversial enough – his whole approach was to use unknown actors and to semi-improvise the scenes, but Bergman was a Movie Star with a capital “M” and “S”, and some felt Rossellini was selling out.
Now – I’m all for creative people stretching their wings a bit and trying new things. Ingrid Bergman wanted to try neo-Realism, and she got to do that and that’s great. She met the man that would be the father of two of her daughters and that’s also great. So I speak strictly of the film itself when I say that maybe….maybe Ingrid Bergman should have reconsidered.
Not that she doesn’t give a fine performance, and not that the story isn’t an interesting idea. Rossellini was inspired by the hagiography of St. Francis of Assisi, particularly by the fact that Francis was born into a life of privilege and enjoyed a wealth and comfortable life before a sudden shock turned him towards a life of charity and love for his fellow man. Rossellini wanted to explore what would happen if someone like that lived in post-War Rome; how their actions would be perceived and how they would be treated. In this case, Bergman is our Francis stand-in, Irene Girard; she and her son Michel (Sandro Franchina) were on the run during the war, but are now living large after Irene’s marriage to George (Alexander Knox), a wealthy factory owner. Michel doesn’t miss the war, but does miss the devoted attention Irene gave him, and spends most of his time moping around the house and being miserable while Irene and George live a jet-setter’s life. In fact, Michel is so miserable that he throws himself down the stairs during one of his parents’ dinner parties, dying later that night.
A devastated Irene holes up for ten days, and George enlists Irene’s cousin Andrea (Ettore Giannini) to help snap her out of it. Andrea is a leftist and a Communist, and immediately decides that what would help Irene is to spend some time in service; he takes her to meet some of the poor families in Rome’s slums and ghettos, quietly hinting that “this family would be a lot happier if they had the money to afford a doctor visit for their son” or “this single mother just needs someone to put in a good word for her to get her a job”. Irene immediately jumps in to help in both cases, even offering herself to cover someone’s shift in a factory so they can care for an ailing son. Seeing how the poor in Rome live is opening her eyes to her own privilege, and helping them is giving her a sense of purpose.
However, when she abandons her house for ten days to be the live-in nurse to a prostitute with tuberculosis, George and Andrea start worrying that maybe she’s getting a little…obsessed. And George starts to look into whether there may be something mentally wrong with her, and what to do about it.
Again, Bergman is luminously lovely in this, and gives a fine performance. And the story is an interesting one (although the “what if this saint was alive today” trope isn’t that new). I’m just not sure whether Italian neo-Realism was the best way to tell that story, nor am I certain Bergman fits into an Italian neo-Realist film. You never really lose sight of the fact that it’s Ingrid Bergman – which detracts from the whole idea of neo-Realism in the first place; you’re supposed to feel like you’re watching something not that scripted and with people that seem more like regular-folks. And Ingrid Bergman never quite gets to the point of being regular-folks enough, just by virtue of her being Ingrid Bergman. Something about how she carries herself still says “Hollywood” as opposed to “Rome”. Her bearing does help a bit when she’s first mixing with the poor families; they treat her like a social superior, which comes across as their being a little star-struck. And she certainly inspires star-struck behavior. However, the end has a bit of a “Hollywood” touch that suits Ingrid Bergman’s “movie star” bearing, but feels all wrong for neo-Realism.
It felt like either Bergman should have worked with a different director, or Rossellini with a different actress.
So. You know how I grumbled and grumped about movie musicals in the past? You know how I said that the last film, An American In Paris, should have stuck to the dancing and left out the plot? You know how I said that I’ve accepted that I’m a major cynic about movie musicals? Especially jukebox musicals?
I….I think I found one that I like.
I think this time they went with a concept that kind of just works. This time the story is set in Hollywood in the late 1920s, and deals with the switchover from silent films to talkies. Gene Kelly is Don Lockwood, a silent film star with a vaudeville past (his old vaudeville buddy Cosmo, played by Donald O’Connor, is the music director for all his films and is an offscreen sidekick as well). He’s often playing the romantic lead in films with ditzy Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), and bristles at how the fan magazines suggest they’re a couple in real life. ….Lina actually believes the press, which makes it worse. But then Don meets a pretty chorus girl, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), who has loftier ambitions. Don tries to get acquainted, but Lina tries to interfere.
However, then their studio discovers talkies – and the studio discovers they have a problem with Lina. During a test screening for “The Dueling Cavalier”, Don and Lina’s first talkie, the audience laughs uproariously at Lina’s heavy Queens accent. On the other hand, Kathy’s just starting to make a name for herself with her own fine singing voice – and while Lina is caught up in some emergency elocution lessons, she and Don have been falling for each other. During one of their dates, Don has a brainstorm – they can team up with Cosmo to write some music numbers, and re-cut “The Dueling Cavalier” as a musical, using Kathy’s voice dubbed in under Lina’s image. Just this once. They won’t tell Lina, even! The studio head is all for it, and set immediately to work, preparing a huge publicity launch to introduce Kathy as “the voice behind the scenes” as well.
But then Lina finds out – and is not happy with the situation at all. And vows to stop them.
So, it’s profoundly silly. Maybe the fact that this is set in the never-never land of Hollywood makes the frothy ridiculousness of a musical somehow make sense. There’s more logic to someone on a stage set randomly bursting into song than there is on a Paris street, at least, and the big dance numbers that bring the whole show to a halt can spring more naturally from “hey let’s show the boss our new act” or “hey let’s work out the latest number”. Or even “hey let’s make fun of this voice coach by ad-libbing a riff on the tongue twisters he’s teaching us” or whatever.
Or maybe…this is just plain fun. Instead of being a “Jukebox” by one artist, where they try to come up with excuses to cram in as many of their greatest hits, this film is a collection of fun and silly songs from the 1920s and 1930s.
And it also has a couple of numbers that even I acknowledge are impressive. Donald O’Connor gets a big solo with “Make ’em Laugh”, an ode to comedy which sees him doing pratfalls and backflips and other acrobatic gallivanting around a soundstage.
And then of course….there is the title number. I’ve always kinda liked the song “Singin’ In The Rain” itself; it’s infectiously joyful, it’s easy to sing, and it’s nearly ubiquitous. And – I confess to having actually sung it to myself when caught in the rain on my way home from dates in the past. I’ve also seen the clip of Gene Kelly’s big solo dance to the song, and got caught up in his sheer exuberance and joy – Don Lockwood is having the time of his damn life, and Gene Kelly is also having the time of his life performing it. And even though I’ve seen it before – it is utterly infectious.
Seeing that made me dig up something I remembered from when I was a kid – Gene Kelly was actually the last guest on the old Muppet Show. There was a running gag on the show that the Muppets were trying to get Gene to perform, but he wanted to just sit and watch this time. And he seemed especially reluctant to sing “Singin’ In The Rain” for people – even when he sees that Kermit has gone to great lengths to recreate the set from that famous dance in hopes.
But the show ended with Gene singing a medley of some of his film hits for the gang backstage – and then finally relenting and singing a few lines of “Singin’ In The Rain”. Towards the end of the bit, he strolls out onto the old set, looks around at it with a fond smile, then smiles into the camera and walks off – and if you look close, you can see that even here, he can’t resist doing a little shuffle-step for a second.
As if the Crash Course wasn’t enough, I also try to make sure I see the Best Picture nominees each year by the time the Oscars are awarded. I’m about halfway through the full list of nominations by now, so here are some quick notes.
The performances are spot-on. Not mad about the fact that Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson have both received acting nominations for this. But it almost feels like the rest of the film didn’t trust them enough, and was trying to manipulate me into feeling a certain way. Particularly the score – usually I like Randy Newman, but his score felt all wrong. There were also a number of moments of on-the-nose symbolism that made me roll my eyes a little (someone should really have stopped Noah Baumbach from including a scene where Adam Driver’s character unironically sings the entirety of the song “Being Alive” at a karaoke bar). One of the best scenes is one where they have no score, and nothing but Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in a room arguing; the film finally got out of their way and let them do their thing, and it finally worked.
Also – Adam Driver is ostensibly an avant-garde director, and they show a couple rehearsal scenes of his latest staging of Electra. There is no way that a director presenting the kind of work they’re trying to produce would be making enough to own a Brooklyn apartment, nor would such a director have won a MacArthur Genius grant. That show would never have gotten beyond an off-Broadway run on East 4th Street and closed in two months.
Now this is more like it. Roommate Russ and I both cynically agreed that it would probably get the “Best International Film” consolation prize instead, as it’s been nominated for both, but it is a very, very strong contender for the top honor. It starts out with some moments of comedy, as the various members of the Kim family – a poor family living in the slums of a South Korean city – gradually insinuate themselves as employees to the wealth Park family, all of them faking their credentials and pretending they’re unrelated. The Parks are either too oblivious to notice or too wealthy to care, though, and soon the Kims are happily enjoying their newfound fortune, even throwing themselves a secret house party when the Parks go out of town. But the film very quickly brings in some scathing commentary about classism and capitalism, throwing in some intense twists and turns. I’m annoyed that Song Kang-ho, who plays the Kim family patriarch, was not nominated for his performance.
I was really uneasy about this film when I first saw the trailers; I may have even mumbled something like “Oh, Taika Waititi, what are you doing.” I was even more uneasy when I read the plot description of the book which inspired the film – it ends very, very differently. The book is about a teenage Nazi Youth member who discovers that his parents are sheltering a teenage Jewish girl; he keeps their secret and gradually starts to get off on the fact that there’s a teenage girl who’s a practical captive in his house, to the point that after the war ends, he lies to her and tells her that the Nazis won – and keeps here there for several more months.
In the film, instead, Jojo is a ten-year-old boy. His intentions towards the girl are conflicted, but ultimately a little more pure; instead of a dark sort of predation, he develops a puppydog crush. Nearly the whole film is from his perspective, so all of the goofy stuff you see in the trailer is his own innocent take on the situation. “You’re not a Nazi,” the Jewish girl tells him at one point, “you just want to belong to a club.” And she’s spot-on. His mother (another tour de force for Scarlett Johansson) also senses that the “real” Jojo, a sweet little doofus, is somewhere buried inside, and she’s determined to hang in there and try to draw it back out.
Okay, yes, there are plenty of scenes with the sweet-faced little Jojo interacting with Hitler as his imaginary friend. But Waititi actually pulls off the right note here – he’s not playing the actual Hitler, somehow it’s clear that he is paying Hitler the way a lonely ten-year-old boy would imagine him to be. If you’re familiar with the Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett book Good Omens – Jojo’s perspective is about the same as the kids in that book; they’ve heard of big scary concepts like war and torture, but are way too young to understand them, so when they play with some dark stuff it’s a sort of cargo-cult version where no one really gets hurt for keeps, and as soon as someone feels real pain they have second thoughts. There’s a sequence when Jojo is at a Hitler Youth camp weekend lead by a delightfully bats Sam Rockwell; as the kids are learning how to “crawl behind enemy lines” or “throw grenades”, the whole sequence is scored by Tom Waits’ song “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up“- a pairing I thought perfect (and not just because I love Tom Waits, either).
….I did see One Upon A Time In Hollywood, but I think I may need to rewatch it for a review first. All in good time.
So, parts of this film overcame my by-now-established cynicism about movie musicals. The key word there, though, is “parts” – for American in Paris had a number of elements I liked, but liked in isolation, and would have probably preferred if they’d been on their own, but mixing them together didn’t do it for me. It’s like that culinary puzzle where you try to find a set of three ingredients where any two of the three pair well with each other, but all three together don’t work.
Gene Kelly is Jerry Mulligan, a former GI turned aspiring painter (he implies he’d been stationed in Paris during the war and just decided to stay). He lives in an atelier somewhere on the Left Bank, down the hall from a self-described concert pianist, Adam Cook (Oscar Levant), who has a semi-regular gig at a night club backing up a French cabaret singer, Henri Baurel (Georges Guétary). Adam hasn’t been doing much for Henri lately, though; Henri has been caught up with a new girlfriend, whom he tells Jerry and Adam all about one morning over coffee in the bistro on the corner.
Jerry can’t stay long – he’s off to try to sell his paintings on the sidewalk up in Montmarte. As he’s setting them up, a wealthy heiress named Milo (Nina Foch) offers to buy two of them, and offers an eye-popping sum – if he’ll come with her to her hotel and hang them in her room. She also invites him to a “small dinner party” in her hotel that night. Jerry’s briefly swayed by the money, but when the “small dinner party” turns out to just be the two of them, a suspicious Jerry accuses her of trying to hire him as an escort. Milo insists she’s only interested in supporting his art, and agrees to move their date to a more public place. Over drinks, the pair agree that Milo will sponsor Jerry’s work and try to get him a gallery showing – but when Jerry’s head is turned by a pretty girl at the next table, Milo is still miffed.
But Jerry’s too caught up in winning over the girl to notice. Lise (Leslie Caron) is indifferent when he tries to dance with her, and annoyed when he calls her at work the next day. But when Jerry actually shows up where she works, he’s apparently charming enough for her to agree to a late date that night. She’s strangely uneasy about a drink out in public, suggesting she and Jerry take a romantic stroll along the Seine instead.
The next few weeks are a whirlwind for Jerry, with Milo piling on more and more support – buying him a studio space, booking him a gallery showing – and implying her support may come with strings attached. But at the same time he and Lise are falling more and more under each other’s sway. But when Jerry finally declares he’s in love with her, Lise balks – she’s also Henri’s girlfriend, and Henri has proposed. She tells Jerry she can’t see him any more, but still seems torn…
So it’s your basic musical comedy love story. You know that Lise and Jerry are going to end up together at the end, because that’s what always happens, so really this is just an excuse for Gene Kelly to sing and dance to a lot of Gershwin songs. The whole thing was inspired by a 1928 orchestral piece by George Gershwin, and expanded with a number of other Gershwin works – MGM studio had recently bought the rights to their catalog – and so this is effectively an early jukebox musical. It’s a bit better at coming up with a plot to string everything together, but there are a couple moments that feel shoehorned in; Jerry using the song “I Got Rhythm” to “teach English” to some of the local kids, for example.
Another utterly baffling scene features Adam daydreaming that he’s giving a concert of one of Gershwin’s concertos, supported by a full orchestra, but as the scene goes on, Adam also daydreams that he is the conductor, the entire string section, the percussionists, even one of the audience members applauding at the end. (Those who are familiar with the work of film reviewers Doug Walker – a.k.a. “The Nostalgia Critic” – and Lindsay Ellis will recognize their term “Big-Lipped Alligator Moment” to describe such a scene.)
The scene that everything in the film has been leading up to, though, is a seventeen-minute dance sequence to Gershwin’s original “An American In Paris” concerto. In the film it’s staged as a sort of daydream of Jerry’s, as he sits forlornly and muses about Lise. It is beautifully staged, with about five separate sequences that each draw visual inspiration from a different French painter – there’s a Renoir section, a Rousseau one, a Toulouse-Lautrec one….it was the most complicated bit of the film to stage, with an enormous budget and a whole passel of dancers backing up Gene Kelly and Leslie Carron – both of whom lead the dancing magnificently.
That’s the thing, though – the dancing itself and the Gershwin songs are ahead of the rest of the film. The plot which screenwriter Alan Jay Lerner has come up with isn’t bad, but could have been better – Milo is left as kind of a loose end at the end, Adam has little to do, and Lise seems to fall for Jerry pretty quickly. I almost wish that this had been a kind of revue instead – scrap the plot and just do a festival of dance and Gershwin.
Okay, I really, really didn’t get this one. Not that I didn’t understand what happened – what I mean is, I didn’t understand why I was being told this story, adapted from a 1936 French novel.
Newcomer Claude Leydu plays the unnamed country priest keeping the diary in question. He’s just been appointed head of the church at Ambricourt, a small town in northern France; he’s innocent and idealistic, but also meek and in poor health. Almost no one comes to his masses. The kids in his catechism classes pull pranks on him. He has ideas about starting community youth clubs, but no one is interested; and all he ever eats is stale bread soaked in wine (it’s all he says his stomach can handle) so he doesn’t have the energy to rally people anyway.
The one exception is when he meets with the town’s Countess (Rachel Bérendt), who has been in prolonged mourning for a son who died as a toddler. He’s come to see her about her daughter Chantal (Nicole Ladmiral), a pre-teen who’s starting to act up some. But their conversation soon turns to the Countess’ own lack of faith, and after a lengthy and tortured conversation, she seems to finally accept her son’s loss, and regain her faith. ….And then she dies that night, and Chantal starts spreading rumors about what the priest was actually doing with her mother. And then his health takes a turn for the worse…
I mean, I perfectly understand what people did. I have no questions about who talked to whom and when. However, I didn’t understand why anyone was behaving as they did. Not that the film didn’t try – the whole story is told via the priest’s journal entries, with Leydu in voiceover telling us what the young priest does and how he feels moment to moment. But it comes across as more self-absorbed than self-understanding; he feels sad, he feels isolated, he feels weak, he feels ill. We never know why. We never learn anything about the priest’s background, where he’s from, who his family was, whether he had friends – we never even learn his name. His self-absorption also keeps him removed from all the other characters, and since he’s our eyes and ears in Ambricourt, we never learn about any of them either. So we’re left just seeing things happen, and hearing how uneasy the priest feels about a lot of it, but never really find a way into the heart of any of the characters, or of the story. It’s possible the isolation is precisely the point, but….if you want me to sympathize with your character, I at least have to find a way into your character’s head, and I wasn’t given the chance.
There’s a theory about child psychology I’ve read that states that sometimes, when a child is trying to wrap their head around a concept that is blowing their mind a little, it starts to show up a lot in their play. I even can think of an example; I remember going through a phase when I was seven where I was obsessively play-pretending to be a pregnant lady giving birth. I wasn’t the only second-grader doing that at recess, either; and I think that’s because that same year there was a TV special dealing with pregnancy and childbirth that I and several other kids were encouraged to watch. While I don’t remember being frightened or traumatized by the show itself, I think that the way we were all behaving suggests that on some level, we were a little uneasy and were trying to process what we’d seen.
Along with childbirth, war and death can also be huge concepts for kids to wrap their brains around; the “forbidden games” in this film are one little girl’s efforts to sort through both, and the efforts of a young playmate to help her. Paulette (Brigitte Fossey, age five at the time of filming) is fleeing to the French countryside with her family during the outbreak of the Second World War, but get trapped on a bridge during an air raid, with both her parents and her beloved puppy Jock getting shot during the strafing. The dazed Paulette wanders away from the chaos, cuddling Jock’s corpse, and runs into Michel (George Poujouly), the youngest son of a nearby farmer. Michel’s family takes her in, entrusting Michel with most of the babysitting duty.
Michel isn’t the most nurturing of carers, but he must sense that Paulette’s going through some stuff – because the following day, when the pair go to bury Paulette’s puppy and she balks, Michel suggests finding another dead animal and burying it there too, making a little cemetery. “Good, my puppy won’t be lonely!” Paulette innocently agrees. For most of the film they busily work away on their “cemetery” – collecting the bodies of dead bugs and birds and rats and such from around the farm to bury, parroting the words from different prayers over the bodies as they do, and fashioning little crosses out of sticks.
Any of the adults who look in on them may think what they do is a bit odd, but at least it’s keeping the kids busy, so they leave them be, despite what is an obvious obsession; when Michel’s older brother dies, he and Paulette spend the whole funeral in a whispered conversation about the crosses marking all the other graves, speculating which animal each one would be best suited for. Then Michel has the idea to steal some of those crosses for their own cemetery, and the adults start to realize that maybe things are getting a little out of hand.
The way that the script deals with the kids’ little world is one of the two things that most impressed me. For most of the film we are looking at everything through their eyes – understanding things on their terms, seeing the things they care about, only hearing the conversations that capture their attention. The script seems to suggest that the reason Michel is so into the game is for Paulette’s sake; he’s drawn as a very protective big-brother figure, interceding with his family to take her in, rushing to comfort her when she cries in the middle of the night. But one scene suggests that Michel may be processing some stuff too – when the kids are making crosses and a cockroach crawls by, Michel flips it over and stabs it, saying that now they can bury it. “But you killed it!” Paulette protests.
“I didn’t kill it,” Michel says matter-of-factly. “A bomb did.” That line, so casually tossed off, rang so true; kids that are going through trauma aren’t crying or having tantrums round-the-clock, after all, and can be chillingly numb when they talk about the horrible things they’ve seen and experienced.
The performances are of course the other thing that impressed me. Brigitte Fossey was, again, only five when she was cast as Paulette, and gives an amazingly true-to-life performance. Director René Clément seems to have had an uncanny sense of how to direct children; Fossey is still alive, and in interviews has said that all she remembers of the direction she got is that Clément would occasionally tell her when she needed to cry a little more. It seems that Clément knew when to just stand back and let the kids at play be kids at play, rather than trying to get the kids to emote. What Clément ended up with is therefore hauntingly real.
I’m of two minds about this film – on the one hand I was a little put off by the melodrama, but on the other, I was intrigued by the story itself, and probably saw some of the same things that lead Charlie Chaplin to call this film “the greatest movie ever made about America.”
Chaplin was referring to the ambition and aspiration of the film’s hero, George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), the poor nephew of a successful bathing suit maker. George has turned up at his uncle Charles’ estate looking for work, and his uncle is all too happy to help, giving George a little cash to get a room in a boarding house and inviting him to come by the factory the following day. George is dazzled by his uncle’s estate, and by the fact that socialite Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor) is also a guest at uncle Charles’ place; Angela’s exploits are often covered by the press, and she’s George’s celebrity crush. But George’s job turns out to be unglamorous grunt work on the factory floor, keeping him out of Angela’s league. Instead, George starts keeping company with Alice (Shelley Winters), a mousy girl who sits next to him on the factory floor. Alice is just as dazzled by the Eastman lifestyle, and considers George near-nobility just because of the family connection – even though he’s a factory grunt and lives in a boarding house just like her.
A few months later, though, uncle Charles promotes George up to a management role and starts inviting him to the house more often – giving him a chance to meet Angela at last. And miraculously, she’s just as taken with him as Alice, inviting him along as her escort to the night clubs and house parties in high society. And right when Angela invites George to her parents’ lake house so he can meet her father, Alice shares some news – she’s pregnant. She’s also just discovered George is two-timing her with Angela, and is all too happy to spill the beans to the Vickers unless George marries her. A panicked George suddenly remembers a story Angela mentioned about the lake by her father’s house – some kind of tragic accident, where a couple staying at the cheap resort across the lake rented a rowboat that capsized, drowning them both. And hey, didn’t Alice tell him once that she couldn’t swim?
It sounds like the perfect way out, so George suggests to Alice that they take a little vacation at the lake resort to talk things over – maybe they can take a boat ride?…
…So, there are some really cool shots in this, that especially play up the culture and class divide between Alice and Angela or that point to George’s desire to cross from one to the other. The factory floor in the Eastman plant is filled with huge murals of models showing off the various Eastman swimsuits, and on George’s first day he frequently looks up at the carefree, toothy-smiling women in the ads, and then to the dull, frumpy women on the factory floor around him. A later shot uses sound in a chilling way – George is at the Vickers’ lake house, but has been strangely moody, so Angela rounds up her friends to drag George out on the speedboat. But as the boat roars away, the camera lingers on the dock, closing in on a radio that has just started to broadcast a news bulletin about the body of a young woman who’s just been discovered floating in the lake by a capsized boat. However, we only hear the report in bits and pieces, since it is periodically obscured by the roar of the speedboat and the whoops of Angela’s friends as they speed back and forth across the lake.
….Yeah, Alice does meet with an unfortunate end in this. It’s implied that George didn’t kill her outright, though – but whether he really tried as hard to save her as he could is a bit more vague. And that leads me to my biggest complaint – that a lot of the last act of the film consists of Montgomery Clift looking moody and brooding and tortured, torn between elation that Angela is all his now, and his own guilty conscience (he didn’t kill her, but is ashamed he considered it). Elizabeth Taylor is similarly reduced to embracing him again and again with pleas that George unburden himself, and promises that she’ll love him no matter what his secret happens to be. It does make sense for George’s character, as written, to feel guilty, but I felt it verged a little too much towards the melodramatic for my taste and wish they’d sustained the class commentary that was bubbling just under the surface throughout the rest of the film.
My first trip to Ireland was during college, when I stayed with a longtime friend (I swear this story will be relevant). My friend’s family all took turns showing me around; her father and brother Dónal, then aged fifteen, were the ones who brought me to Blarney Castle. Afterward we were having a browse in the gift shop, and I quickly noticed that the Muzak they had in the shop was an assortment of saccharine-sweet perky choral arrangements of “auld country” Irish songs, like “Danny Boy” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”; think, like, Lawrence Welk crossed with Burl Ives. With each new song, I would glance up at the speakers and grimace at the cheese. After several minutes, Dónal noticed my reaction and walked over. “I just want you to know,” he told me emphatically, “that this is the sort of music that embarrasses us.”
Dónal’s voice was in my head during the early stages of A Quiet Man, unfortunately. The first few scenes cover the arrival of Sean Thornton (John Wayne) to the town of Inisfree, a picturesque little country village. The locals hear his U.S. of A. accent when he asks directions, and fall all over themselves offering their services as tour guides. Is he hoping to catch trout, perhaps? Or golf? What has brought him to Ireland on his vacation? But Thornton baffles them all with the news that he’s not a tourist – he’s moving there. Or, rather, he’s moving back there – he was actually born right there in Inisfree, in the little cottage next door to the wealthy Squire Danaher (Victor McLaglen). The family had to emigrate when he was a baby, and he’d heard tales of the place at his mother’s knee as a lad – and had sworn that if he ever made his fortune, he’d move back and buy it. And, well, there he is.
His purchase attracts the ire of Squire Danaher – who’d planned to buy the spot himself – and the interest of Danaher’s sister Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara). He is similarly smitten, and the pair begin a courtship – a bumpy one, thanks to Thornton’s unfamiliarity with Irish customs. One particular bone of contention is Squire Danaher’s refusal to give his blessing to the union. If she and Thornton were to marry, the Squire warns, he will keep all of Mary Kate’s possessions, and pocket her cherished 350-shilling dowry. Thornton doesn’t care – he’s got all the money he needs and he’s in love – but Mary Kate wants her stuff. And when Thornton seems strangely unwilling to fight on her behalf, she gets mighty cheesed off.
Most of this is set against some lush and verdant green fields and in little quaint village streets, with supporting characters straight out of Volume 1 of the Handbook of Irish Stereotypes – the just-folks priest who occasionally takes a wee drop, the proper widow who’s scandalized by others’ misbehavior, the amiable tramp who’s perpetually drinking. The whole film ends with a ten-minute fistfight which the whole town “comically” turns out to watch, with the amiable town drunk taking bets on the outcome. It’s just what I was afraid of seeing – drenched in twee and the sort of thing that would embarrass Dónal.
And yet…it wasn’t all. I was surprised to see that there was actually some depth here (well, not much, but more than I was expecting anyway). We’re meant to initially think of Mary Kate’s insistence on her dowry as mercenary; but as the film goes on, you realize that she’s kind of got a point. Her stuff is hers, and it is ridiculous that the arcane rules of a patriarchal society are allowing her brother to keep hold of it. There’s also a moment when Mary Kate is consulting with the parish priest about Thornton, and for whatever reason is too embarrassed to speak the details aloud. I started out sighing at Mary Kate’s modesty – but then the priest asked her if she’d be more comfortable telling him in Irish, and suddenly, Maureen O’Hara was saying several lines in Irish Gaelic, a language I didn’t think that Hollywood even knew about, much less ever used.
Thornton’s very trip, too, is something of a telling exercise in wish fulfillment on a grand scale. The Quiet Man is a passion project of director John Ford’s, who was one such emigrant from Ireland (this is the film for which he had to make Rio Grandefirst), and no doubt had his own memories of Ireland, as did many emigrants or children of emigrants, most of them now gone rose-colored with time. The image he was presenting of Ireland was an older-fashioned, quainter, idealized one, with lush green fields surrounding picturesquely crumbling cottages and charmingly quaint people. It’s very likely the same idealism that made “Danny Boy” so popular on this side of the Atlantic.
….I realize this is coming across as more of a reflection on the origins of Irish-culture stereotypes than it is on the film itself. I hold Dónal partly responsible.