Capsules: April 2019 (Nine Palmes Edition)

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Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the first time or revisited after many years. This month, in honor of forthcoming Cannes Film Festival hype, goes to nine winners of the top prize.

The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)

Forever in the arthouse starter kit, does Clouzot’s international hit of misanthropy and nitroglycerin hold up? It takes far too long and that ending is fatalism at its most unnecessary, but his toxic sense of character still stings. “Pure suspense” nothing—this is a bitter, textured fuck-you to the world of 1953. Its setting isn’t South America so much as a post-WWII purgatory, as different languages and accents mingle in a corporate-controlled desert where everyone wants to escape. Key exchange: “What’s beyond it?” “Nothing.”

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Friendly Persuasion (William Wyler, 1956)

A slice of pacifism during the Cold War blacklist, and interesting only in how it slips that into America’s rosy self-image. It’s also mostly boring, and at first I worried that’s because peace itself is boring before I realized that Wyler and company just do shockingly little with the film’s ideas and characters for a two-plus hour film. Comedy was never Wyler’s strong suit, nor Cooper’s. But moments of fraught emotion and rolling charm lie within.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

The Knack …and How to Get It (Richard Lester, 1965)

Whether you find Richard Lester’s Swinging London sex comedy deceptively smart or utterly reprehensible will come down to how you interpret its last twenty minutes. To that end, I’d note that a heretofore timid and sheltered heroine asserts control over her own body; that the hero doesn’t get “the knack” for casual hook-ups, but a proper girlfriend instead; that the film’s actual playboy is discarded into the corner with the reactionaries; and that the most erotic contact the hero and heroine make on screen is a final, tender kiss on the cheek as they hold hands. The mania is fine, sure. But I remember the afterglow.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

If…. (Lindsay Anderson, 1968)

One year after the spirit of ’68 shut down the festival, Lindsay Anderson showed up with a film that both embodied and examined it. There’s Malcolm McDowell, yes—this is the film that unleashed him into a world of stifling hierarchies and traditions, thus making his screen persona feel like an inevitability. But don’t shortchange the nuances, the hurt, and the tenderness around the entire ensemble. That Anderson sees their violence as somehow both understandable and chillingly psychotic is one reason this “of its time” movie transcends the sixties. That their sense of anarchy methodically infects the storytelling itself is another.

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979)

Bob Fosse remakes 8 1/2, reclaiming rich-and-famous visually grandiose celebrity navel-gazing in the name of America, where it belongs. The film’s triumph, aside from the style of every shot, is how it can portray show business as so rough and unsentimental yet so seductive at the same time. It’s always a bad sign when the songs in a musical get in the way, but Jessica Lange can be my angel of death.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

The Ballad of Narayama (Shohei Imamura, 1983)

The promise of spirituality to transcend the violence and the filth. This was also a great subject of Kenji Mizoguchi’s classics in the 1950s, but Imamura approaches it from a much more godless angle. This is a stunning vision of the world, spasming with brutality and animal urges, certainly dark but ultimately not cheap or hopeless. The combination of beauty and ugliness in the final half hour is masterful—and indeed, transcendent.

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 1990)

At its core, Wild at Heart smashes different kinds of pop culture iconography together to tell the story of what happens to euphoric puppy love when it runs into the sour, fucked up adult world. On that level, it’s some kind of brilliant. But it’s also Lynch’s most tasteless film, practically offensive or at least tone deaf in what it tries to play or shrug off as camp. Hip newcomers to Lynch can enjoy the source of Nicolas Cage memes—but one thing hip newcomers should learn about Lynch is just how little of his film’s shameless hokum is ironic.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)

Three hours offers a lot of time to succeed or fail, so it’s fair enough that this cause celebre (still attended?) does a bit of both. It has two great leads and moments of mesmerizing beauty. But the second half can’t make its cliches come alive, and while controversies should usually be ignored, it’s impossible to look at the sex scenes and shake the idea that this is a vision of lesbianism made by a straight man to be palatable for straight audiences.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

Dheepan (Jacques Audiard, 2015)

I still remember the mixture of confusion and annoyance from critics when Dheepan won a surprise Palme d’Or from the Coen brothers’ jury. And while it’s a functional film, it’s most certainly an ordinary one. Jacques Audiard knows how to point the camera, but Dheepan shows how easy it is for a director (or a festival—any festival) to give in to the most irksome trend of what passes for serious social realism these days: movies that scream “I’m the stuff of life!” but feel like the stuff of fiction.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

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