Comoara [2015)

It’s such a joy to return to Romania.

Not that I’ve ever been there.

Except in films.

But so you understand, no national cinema has moved me quite so much as the Romanian.

[With exception to the French.]

Iran is close.

But oh so far.

Because we don’t see Iranian movies.

Not real ones.

And on Netflix, we don’t see the history of history.

Just a recent interpretation.

And that is so often fool’s gold.

Netflix, like its dire counterpart Hulu, is heavy on Holocaust films.

This would be appropriate.

If the films were any good.

Because the Holocaust is the most important event of the past hundred years.

But the films aren’t any good.

By and large.

However, fear not:  this film does not try to take on what cannot be documented.

[see Histoire(s) du cinéma for the only good Holocaust film ever made]

No, we are after buried treasure.

Indeed, this film is listed as The Treasure on Netflix.

And I commend that streaming service for its ostensible dedication to quality foreign films.

[even if the same company has no concept of history]

If you look at the “classics” section of Netflix, you will find a paucity of titles.

This is problematic.

Last I checked Hulu (before I quit it), their “classics” section was just as bad (if not worse).

But Hulu had, for awhile, a distinct competitive advantage over Netflix (while it lasted).

The Criterion Collection.

Sure, it was not the collection in its entirety, but it was a treasure (pardon the extended metaphor) of classic films…many from countries other than the U.S. and U.K..

As I have reported previously, Hulu began to surreptitiously phase out its lost licensing (apparently) of the Criterion catalog.

Once I realized what had really happened, the damage was done.

I was out of there.

Nothing, I imagined, could be worse than the current laughable joint venture (and anemic selection) of Hulu.

And I was right.

Netflix has been a breath of fresh air.

I had previously seen Netflix’ hopper.

Years ago.

It seemed very light on classic films.

And it still is.

But what Netflix lacks in historical perspective, it makes up for (marginally) with its plentiful “international” category.

And thus we come to this fine Romanian film: Comorara.

It may be incredibly naive for me to postulate thusly, but Romanian cinema is the future.

No national cinema rivals the French.

Yes, Germany has had its share of important films (especially in the silent era and soon thereafter).

But the French-language library of films which has been passed down through the “ages” is nonpareil.

Of that tradition, nothing comes even close (for me) to equaling Jean-Luc Godard’s output.

[though he was, and always will be, gloriously Swiss]

Thus, he stands head-and-shoulders above the rest.

But there are others.

Especially those with whom Godard would have been nothing.

Jacques Becker.  Robert Bresson!  Marcel Carné.  Henri-Georges Clouzot.  Jean Cocteau.  Jean-Pierre Melville.  Jean Renoir!  Jean Rouch.  Jacques Tati.

And then there are those foreigners who worked in French (to varying extents) such as Luis Buñuel and Max Ophüls.

But the French cinema has given us other visionaries contemporaneous to Godard.

Alain Resnais.  Eric Rohmer.  François Truffaut.  These are just a few that come to mind.

And until Netflix (and even the Criterion Collection itself) gets beyond to utter genius of Abbas Kiarostami, we will know little of the Iranian cinema beyond its undisputed master.

[Indeed, Netflix has not even broached the true cinema of Iran by featuring Kiarostami…as far as I know.  It is solely the Criterion Collection which is to thank for exposing people to films like Taste of Cherry and Close-Up.]

But I must give Netflix their due.

They have made available the very fine Romanian film under review.

Yet, before we delve into that…I would like to delineate exactly what makes Romania different as far as being “the future” of cinema (in relation to, say, Iran…for instance).

The simple answer is that there are multiple genius (genius!) directors working in Romania.

They may not (certainly not) get the budgets they deserve, but their output is of the highest, most sublime quality.

And, sadly, Abbas Kiarostami is no longer among the living.

But it bears mentioning the auteurs of Romanian “new wave” cinema.

Cristi Puiu. Cătălin Mitulescu.  Cristian Mungiu.

And the director of Comoara:  Corneliu Porumboiu.

The Treasure must not have been an easy film to make.

Indeed, the very end of the film evinces a directorial sigh of relief (if I am interpreting it correctly).

Let me just say this:  nothing much happens in this film.

Indeed, this might be the type of film which illustrates the different way in which film critics view films (as opposed to most moviegoers).

Not to mince words, my guess is that most people (98%?) would find The Treasure boring.

But I loved it!

The defining characteristic of this film is tension.

But it is not the type of tension which strings us along in a film such as Rear Window.

No.

The tension here is far more mundane in comparison.

And yet, there is real inspiration at work in Porumboiu’s mise-en-scène here.

Toma Cuzin is our brooding “star”.

And he is very, very good.

But his “foil” is the Dudley-Moore-lookalike Adrian Purcărescu.

Cuzin is calm.  And yet, the dreamer…

One might even think “gullible”.

Purcărescu is frazzled.  Cynical.  Either a conman of a saint.  Hard to tell…

But the fellow who pulls it all together is Corneliu Cozmei.

He’s the man with the metal detectors.

Yes, two…

[this is a treasure hunt, after all!]

Cozmei is caught between the personalities of Cuzin and Purcărescu.

And yet he’s not just an innocent bystander (so to speak).

He may be the independent party in this whole treasure hunt, but he’s smack dab in the middle of a very tense situation.

Bogart fans will not be far off if they faintly recall the Sturm und Drang of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

But most of all…it’s just good to be back in Romania.

To see a half-lit, grey day.

To see the funny looking cars.

To notice all the details of a culture I truly love.

-PD

Elèna et les hommes [1956)

Sometimes we are emptied of our emotions from exhaustion.

We can’t fail at love any more than we have.

Valentine’s Day is but a mockery.

And so why does Miss Lonelyhearts push on?

And Sgt. Pepper?

Some of us have immense reservoirs of confidence.

Some of us have a penchant for risk.

But not I.

If we treat love as an investment (bear with me),

then every risk has its flipside:  the potential for reward.

In love, we weigh the possibilities.

What will she say?  How will he respond?

But our world has degenerated into a soulless masquerade.

Do anything…but never show your true feelings.

If we are circumspect in our psychology, we realize that many times we don’t know our own minds.

I am not a meditating ninja.  I do not balance, poised to act with clarity.

No, I am clumsy.

In love, I am particularly clumsy.

To speak of such things in America…it just isn’t done.

Love is more taboo than sex.

Sex is ubiquitous, but love is vulnerability.

An American can never show vulnerability.

This is the great archetypal travesty of the film Patton.

And perhaps no greater dichotomy could exist than from that film to our film Elèna et les hommes.

It is Jean Renoir again.  It is Ingrid Bergman.  It is Jean Marais.

And to a very surprising extent, it is Juliette Gréco.

It must have been this film to which Godard fell in love.

More interested in Gréco than El Greco at this time.  More interested in Juliette than his schoolwork.

Those dreams which would be realized in Anna Karina.

But things fall apart.

How hard to know the soul of a man or woman.

Ingrid plays the role of a Polish princess.

On Bastille Day with Mel Ferrer there is a Rabelaisian warmth to the festivities.

From one Renoir to another, there are the pinks in the cheeks.  Red wine.  A weak drink.  Compared to Polish vodka.

And then there are the daisies.  A marguerite here and there.  Gounod’s Faust would have such as the leading soprano.

A grand opera in five acts is about what Elèna et les hommes feels like.  There are similarities in tone and mise-en-scène to Max Ophüls’ Lola Montès, but the best comparison is to Renoir’s own The Golden Coach.

What may not be evident (due to the visual disparity between the vibrant, saturated colors of Elèna et les hommes and the black and white of Renoir’s early films) is that our film is very similar to the Renoir classic La Règle du jeu.  Both share traits with the elusive Hollywood genre known as “screwball comedy”.  There is a general ruckus of celebration…a confusion of who loves whom…indeed, about who should love whom…mixed emotions…missed connections…conflicted hearts.

There are the base buffoons who live out our easiest desires.  They just chase.  So what if they lose?  Well, it makes a big difference…from the bathos of Schumacher to the stoogery of Eugène.

But these references aside, it is the others who make us believe.  The hesitating class of Ingrid Bergman and Nora Gregor…these parallel characters.  And the luckless chaps who may or may not prevail in the end…Mel Ferrer and, indeed, Jean Renoir himself as Octave in La Règle du jeu. 

It must have been a revelation for Godard to see this film.  It was the French film industry asserting itself.  And yet, it was the spectacle against which Debord would rail a mere 11 years later.

Even so, Elèna et les hommes is (at the very least) a beautiful echo of the French film tradition which preceded it.  In a sense, it was Jean Renoir retelling that old story of La Règle du jeu one more time.

Life is a strange party in which Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre is liable to be conjured from the ghostly ivories of a player piano at any moment.

 

-PD

The Golden Coach [1952)

My dear friends,

I wish not to trouble you,

but only tell you about this great film,

called Le Carrosse d’or in the French,

and La carrozza d’oro in the Italian,

because it is directed by the great Jean Renoir,

son of the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir,

and starring the quintessentially-gorgeous Anna Magnani,

God rest their souls.

It is as much an Italian film as a French film,

yet it is largely in English,

which means no subtitles for dumb Americans,

like myself.

Continuing,

this great epic is incomparable,

except maybe to the equally-vast Lola Montès of Max Ophüls,

which would appear a mere three years later (1955).

Imagine trying to tell the world a story in a foreign language,

not being able to use your native tongue,

because the natives don’t understand,

yet you crave that spotlight because of the exhilaration,

that double-edged sword of life vs. art.

But I have taken enough of your time today,

dear friends.

 

-PD

 

Lola Montès [1955)

Throughout human history, many strands of activity have intertwined.

Let us take but two and ponder them for a moment:  romance and war.

Ah, romance…

What is romance nowadays?  Is it a glossy paperback with dog-eared corners?  Is there a mane of red hair?  A swelling bosom?

Or is romance chivalry?

After you.  Je vous en prie.

No.

Romance has not survived.

Who are we kidding?

For romance to have survived, love would also have had to survive.

But wait…

I see…here and there.  Is that not love?

Ah…romantic love.  A different thing.

I assure you, dear reader, if you have made it this far into my ridiculous litany of theses that you shall be rewarded for your efforts.

What we have here is the final film by the great Max Ophüls.

I have heard this picture described as a flawed masterpiece.

Pay no mind to such estimations.

This is the product of a genius spilling his guts onto the celluloid canvas.

Film.  Celluloid.  When did it start?  When did it end?

Once upon a time, film was flammable.

And our film is certainly flammable.

Martine Carol, who plays Lola Montès, is one of a kind.

This particular performance…I must admit, this is one of my favorite films…such a powerful experience.

But Carol is not alone on the grand stage.  No…  This production would not be the breathtaking spectacle it is without the incomparable Peter Ustinov.

Ustinov is the ringmaster.  As in circus.

The important point to note is that Ophüls made a psychological metaphor of the circus…and created a film which is probably the longest extended metaphor ever captured by motion picture cameras.

But it is not a typical circus.

It is a nightmare circus.  A cusp-of-dream circus.

Every shot is effused with symbolism.

The little people…haunting Oompa Loompas…little firemen from a Fahrenheit 451 yet to be filmed.  Bradbury had published in 1953.  But it would necessitate Truffaut in 1966 to make the thing so eerie.  It is that specific vision…the firemen on their futuristic trucks…which Lola Montès prefigures.  The little people.  From Freaks by Tod Browning through Lola Montès to the cinematography of Nicolas Roeg.  And the tension of Bernard Herrmann.  From Psycho to Fahrenheit 451.  And even Oskar Werner (who plays a sizable role in Lola Montès).  From here to Truffaut.

But the nightmares are only horrible because her life was so vivid…Lola Montès.  First with Franz Liszt.  And then with mentions of Chopin and Wagner.  Even Mozart…

This was romance.  A different time.

What love would sustain a warrior in battle?

Simple love.  Honest love.

And yet, what love drives a man to the edge?

Romantic love.  The femme fatale.  Why is it that we never hear of the homme fatal?

All kidding aside, I want to make a very serious point about Lola Montès.  It is my belief that this film represents an admirably feminist perspective the intensity of which I have seen nowhere else than in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile).

For 1955, Lola Montès was a harrowing epic.  Because Max Ophüls was a true auteur, it has lost none of its wonder…even in our loveless, edgy world.

 

-PD

 

 

Madame de… [1953)

The last romantic.

Staggering into the 20th century.

We would like to think it was Brahms, but no…1897.

It is perhaps more like Rachmaninov.

You will get the better recordings with that spelling.

Deutsche Grammophon.

Staggering into the 20th century with a morose remembrance.

Born in 1873.  Died in 1943.

How disorienting.

To be 41 when WWI started.

We don’t know with which powers we are fooling.

And so the only way to watch Max Ophüls’ masterpiece Madame de… is to imagine.

It takes imagination to be unhappy.

The great generals are actually incapable of unhappiness.

Up early every morning.

Drinking raw eggs.

Running 10 miles.

And so the last romantic in this film is none other than the Italian director (but here an actor) Vittorio De Sica.

And the cynic who melts is Danielle Darrieux.

I will say quite plainly, sometimes boring films are the best.

It is counterintuitive, but I will provide one theory as to their efficacy.

The boring film takes a long time to “play out”.

It is an older style of filmmaking–an older style of storytelling.

They say Frederick the Great didn’t think much of Shakespeare.

In some ways I don’t blame him.

Freddie.

But don’t get me wrong:  much art of the past lacks the pizzazz we are used to as humans in the 21st century.

And so if you give this film a chance, you might just wind up as a resurrected being.

I’m being awfully cryptic.  As always.

I don’t want to spoil it.

This is merely a letter from the heart.  Tear it up and let it snow in the breeze.

Little pieces of paper from the train window.

Letter never sent.  R.E.M.

 

-PD