film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Housemaid (1960)

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Roommate Russ was having a videocall in another room when I was watching this. When the film finished, my overwhelmed cry of “Holy rat-fork” was so loud it interrupted his call. (Also…er, “holy rat-fork” were not my exact words.)

I am afraid this was not a cry of admiration. It wasn’t terrible, mind you – there are some good performances and some fine camerawork, and the script ratchets up the tension in the developing plot at a fine and relentless pace. It also makes some comments about class differences that reminded me of Parasite (and it does not surprise me to learn that Bong Joon Ho was inspired by this film, or perhaps by its 2010 remake, when writing his own work). However, it’s not so much about class as it is a twisted love-triangle story, heavy on the melodrama, and director Kim Ki-Young throws in a coda at the end that cancels out nearly all of the film preceding it.

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Our main characters in this instance are the Kim family – father Dong-Sik (Kim Jin-kyu) is a musician and composer who has a “day job” giving music lessons at a nearby factory, while his wife (Ju Jeung-ryu) warks at home as a seamstress to help pay for their fancy new house and for medical bills for daughter Ae-soon (Lee Yoo-ri) and the various school expenses for son Chang-soon (Ahn Sung-ki). But Mrs. Kim is also pregnant, and the house is a little too big for her to manage in her condition, so Mr. Kim hires a live-in maid, Myung-sook (Lee Eun-shim).

But Myung-sook….well, to put it kindly, she might have some issues with impulse control – she picks on the kids by “joking” that the food she makes for the family has rat poison in it, she regularly pokes around everyone’s things, and she is attracted to Mr. Kim. A lot. …. A lot. And one night, after a steady campaign of seduction, Mr. Kim gives into her during a weak moment – and before long, Myung-sook is pregnant as well. But when the family tries to dismiss her, Myung-sook plays her trump card – she knows that another girl at the factory killed herself because of an unrequited crush on Mr. Kim, and the staff already has their eye on him. And if she were to go public about their affair, well, surely it would cost his job…Mrs. Kim decides that she can fight dirty as well, and talks Myung-sook into inducing a miscarriage by throwing herself down the stairs. But after the deed is done, Myung-sook doubles down on her erotomania and her blackmail threats, attacking the kids and even the family pets, and trapping the Kims in a domestic nightmare from which there is very little chance of any kind of escape.

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…Now, if that was all that would already be bat-crap crazy enough, but the performances are credible enough that I would cheerfully have gone along with it. Lee Eun-shim plays Myung-sook as an uncomplicated sort at first – the person referring her to the Kims describes her as “not very smart, but a hard worker”. On her first day at the Kims she raises eyebrows by chainsmoking (and stealing Mr. Kim’s cigarettes to do so) and by catching a rat with her bare hands and smacking it with her shoe. The crazy doesn’t come in until later, with her regularly popping up in doorways to glare menacingly at the kids or at Mrs. Kim, or to leer seductively at Mr. Kim. For his part, Mr. Kim is a mercurial sort who swings between being a loving father and a stern disciplinarian towards his kids (although he only lectures them, there’s no abuse here). One minute he is also gushing over his wife, and the other he is lecturing her about the bills. So it makes sense that his attitude towards Myung-sook could be carnal one moment and violently repulsed the next.

The staging of the “seduction scenes” also manages to stay squarely safe-for-work visually – we only see Myung-sook bare her shoulders instead of any other more salacious body part, and all we see of the “sex” is her slithering her hands around Mr. Kim’s clothed back in one scene, or a closeup of her feet twining around his as he sits in a chair in another. It’s a dodge, but somehow still manages to feel seductive.

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But the script also piles one or two other little details on that pushed things just over the line for me to the point I was rolling my eyes, like the fact that there’s yet another factory girl who has a crush on Mr. Kim and also tries to seduce him. Or the fact that three people all have the same kind of accident in the house, for wholly different reasons. Or how daughter Ae-soon is partially disabled, just enough to make her just slow enough so that she can’t escape one of Myung-soon’s attacks in time…or the very ending, which I will not spoil with details – I will only say that there’s a twist in the final scene which suggests that everything in the preceding movie might not have actually happened anyway. I don’t dislike melodrama – but even with melodrama there’s a point at which things are just too baroque for me to buy, and this film stepped just over that line. But then it made things worse by jumping back with a cheeky grin and a “never mind!” and I felt cheated.

Holy rat-fork indeed.

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The List Grows Again

So: in a month or so, we will be getting yet another edition of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book. Which means I will be adding another few films onto my list.

I was curious to see what they would add, considering just how weird the cinematic scene was last year, during the depth of the pandemic. Would they allow in any of the films that went straight to streaming? Would they accept any of the direct-to-video stuff? Or would they keep to the few films that went into theaters?

Advance forecasts say…a little of everything. Here’s the shortlist of possible new additions:

  • Vast of Night
  • The Assistant
  • Rocks
  • Saint Maud
  • Tenet
  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  • Soul
  • Never Rarely Sometimes Always
  • Lovers Rock!
  • Nomadland

I strangely feel like there was more to choose from last year, but – I just had a look at a couple “2020 in Film” lists online and there…kind of wasn’t? A couple of these options seem like odd choices, but they may have made it on the list simply because it was also a really odd year.

I won’t officially put them in the roster yet until we get a confirmation from someone who actually has the book in their hand.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

L’Avventura (1960)

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So this was not the right film to watch on a lazy, sit-around-the-house Sunday. Not because it was disturbing – at least, not on a gut level – and not because it was gory or got me fired up. On the contrary – it’s a slower-paced, meandering film, and if you’re already in a bit of a drowsy haze you run the risk of falling asleep midway through. I am embarrassed to admit that I did just that.

In my defense, nothing really “happens”, and the characters all seem kind of “meh….” about things as well. L’Avventura is a tale about a group of Italy’s nouveau-riche – Anna (Lea Massari), daughter of a politician and boyfriend to Sandro (Gabriele Ferzeti), an architect who’s just rubber-stamping a diplomat’s ideas these days. Anna and Sandro, along with Anna’s friend Claudia (Monica Vitti), are setting out on a cruise on a private yacht with two other couples, poking around the Aeolian Islands just off Sicily. They drop anchor near one when Anna wants to have a swim and then explore a bit; at some point she slips away with Sandro for a bit of a relationship-status chat, since she’s frustrated with his habit of long business trips. He brushes off her complaints and suggests they have a nap together on the beach. Anna agrees – but when Sandro wakes up a bit later, Anna is gone.

Nor is she anywhere else on the island.

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The party searches the island – Claudia and Sandro are concerned, but the others less so; one woman, Giulia (Dominique Blanchar), even seems more bothered by how her husband Corrado (James Addams) has been picking on her all day, and even interrupts Claudia’s sweep of a cave to ask her what she thinks about Corrado. After the friends come up empty, Sandro suggests that he and Corrado keep searching while the others sail back to get help. Claudia spontaneously says she will stay on the island as well. The police don’t show up until the next morning – and they strike out as well. Although, one officer lets slip that they caught a bunch of smugglers in another boat nearby the island the previous night; so Sandro insists on talking to them to see if they saw anything. Claudia insists that she will in turn search the neighboring islands as well.

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As for the others…they actually seem more interested in getting back to the mainland, and a planned weekend at Corrado’s mansion in Palermo. And before Sandro and Claudia part ways, he suddenly tries to kiss her. He tries again when they run into each other on the mainland; Claudia is heading for Palermo to rejoin the others, and Sandro is checking out another lead in the hunt for Anna. But after making out with Claudia a bit, he finds himself suggesting they both give up the search and their weekend plans and run off together themselves. Claudia is torn, to say the least, and pushes him away – only to relent and rejoin Sandro a couple days later. And the longer they look for Anna, and the more time they spend together, the more Claudia is ashamed to realize she doesn’t want to find Anna….

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So, it’s not a spoiler to say that we never find out what happens to Anna. Because the film isn’t really about that so much as it’s about everyone else’s reaction to her disappearance – or, in many cases, everyone else’s lack of reaction. Sandro and Claudia are alarmed at first, and committed to a search, but take up with each other pretty quickly, spending more time hooking up in various hotels where there’s been an “Anna sighting” than actually looking for her. The others act like the whole affair was just an inconvenience in their cruise and move on to the next party or the next reception or the next infidelity, and by the end of the movie, so have Sandro and Claudia, with Anna being almost completely forgotten by everyone.

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This kind of aimless slow fade was part of what lead to L’Avventura getting panned by crowds at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, where it was first screened. And I do mean panned – the audience started snickering, then moved on to outright laughter, and then on to boos and catcalls, prompting both Monica Vitti and director Michelangelo Antonioni to run out of the screening. Vitti was just embarrassed, but Antonioni was incensed – the audience’s major complaint was that he’d included a lot of lengthy sequences where “nothing really happened,” causing Antonioni to protest that number one, the characters being lazy passive schlubs was his whole point, and number two, there actually was a lot going on in those takes. This film was Antonioni’s first major picture in which he used this kind of style, with long takes and seemingly disconnected events instead of a more straightforward plot. It’s a fairly cerebral approach Antonioni used to play up the aimlessness and disconnectedness his characters felt, and the emptiness and pointlesness of their lives. Fortunately, a number of other established filmmakers figured out what he was doing, and sent Antonioni an open letter praising his work and urging the Cannes Jury to give L’Avventura a second chance. And while naysayers did still give the director the nickname “Antoni-ennui“, L’Avventura went on to win the Cannes Special Jury prize, for its innovative approach.

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The fact remains that I did doze off during the film – but I think this has more to do with my own frame of mind, rather than Antonioni’s approach. There are some films that you really shouldn’t watch on a lazy Sunday, it seems.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Le Trou (1960)

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Back when I reviewed A Man Escaped – a French prison escape film, much like Le Trou – I speculated that I might have enjoyed it more if the script had given me even just a tiny bit more character development alongside the lengthy MaGuyver-esque sequences showing what our hero was doing. Le Trou still has the nuts-and-bolts “how they do it” sequences – but it does give me the character development I was missing, and I’m pleased to report that yes, I did like it better.

The film is based on a real attempted escape from France’s La Santé prison, and even casts one of the original inmates involved – Jean Keraudy, who effectively plays himself (almost literally – “Jean Keraudy” is a stage name, and Keraudy’s character’s name of “Roland Darbant” is very similar to Keraudy’s real name of “Roland Barbat”). The film even opens with Keraudy giving a direct address to the camera, stating that “my friend Jacques Becker” has made this film based on his and his fellow inmates’ own story.

After that, Darbant/Keraudy/whoever takes a step back as the story follows another inmate, Claude Gaspard (Marc Michel). Gaspard has been in La Santé awaiting trial, and thus far his stint has been pretty uneventful – he’s polite to the guards and wardens, he gets regular care packages from a girlfriend, everything seems to be okay. He’s even apologizing to the warden when we first see him – the warden has caught him with a forbidden lighter, and he apologizes, stating that it’s not even working and he only had it for sentimental reasons. But he still surrenders it to the warden all the same. So when Gaspard’s cell needs repair work, the warden transfers him to another cell for his own comfort instead of forcing him to suffer through it.

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Gaspard’s new roommates are a little miffed when he first shows up, but Gaspard’s a decent enough guy who tries to make nice. In addition to the quiet “Roland Darbant”, there is the jovial Vossellin (Raymond Meunier), the wisecracking Geo (Michel Constantin), and brooding Manu (Phillippe Leroy). All hold Gaspard at arms’ length at first, but Gaspard breaks the ice by sharing the contents of a food parcel recently sent him by a girlfriend on the outside. After treating themselves to Gaspard’s foie gras, and learning he’s been charged with attempted murder, the others decide to trust him – and tell him that he’s caught them in the midst of planning a prison break, and since he’s facing a tough sentence, they’ll bring him in if he wants in.

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Much of the ensuing film shows their progress – Darbant hacking together various tools out of bed parts, Vossellin playing sick to steal some doo-dads to make an hourglass, Manu mapping out their path to the sewer system and thence to the outside world. And that kind of how-they-did-it stuff is indeed clever (I still want to try making the “periscope” Darbant fashions out of a shard of mirror and a toothbrush), but the real drama comes from the interpersonal stuff – Geo’s weird obsession with asking Gaspard about his sex life, Vossellin’s comic-relief instincts diffusing any tension in the ranks, and Gaspard’s growing hero-worship of Manu, cemented when the pair together discover the sewer tunnel that is guaranteed to bring the group to freedom. However, just as they’re about to make their escape, Gaspard learns that his charges have been dropped. So he no longer has anything to gain by escaping – but he could gain something by betraying his new chums…

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Le Trou depicts the exact logistics of the escape plan in very thorough detail, and that still occasionally felt a bit tedious; when the inmates move aside some floorboards to uncover the hole they’re digging out of their cell, I don’t need to see each and every board they move aside, much less seeing that each and every time. But at least here the floorboard-shuffle was occasionally offset by Vossellin making a Dad Joke before shimmying down into the hole, or the digging sequences were offset by Geo taking a break from the digging to confess that he was having second thoughts about joining the others on the outside. In short, we learn more about who these people are – and so in the final sequence, when we see the nasty surprise Darbant sees in his periscope, we’re not only viscerally surprised – we also know the subtext for it, and it’s got more of an impact.