Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Madame de... (Ophuls, 1953)

Writer's Note: Do NOT under any circumstances read my thoughts if you haven't seen the film!

The filmography of Max Ophuls arguably lends itself better than most to the auteur theory. It's an oeuvre that mirrors its creator's national displacement - he made films in five different countries - but despite the personal upheavals, Ophuls nevertheless managed to spend almost a quarter of a century redefining and then refining the art of the cinematic romance. The language of his dialogue may be dependent upon location, but the director's film language is a constant that remains instantly recognizable: the glistening surfaces of his sets; the meticulously choreographed camerawork; the motifs of movement that support his enactments of desire in motion; the dominance of the dance and the duel; and the melodramatic yet evocative compositions that painfully underscore the naked heart of his cinema. The circular and cyclical structure of the director's biggest popular hit, La Ronde (1950), can well be applied to the entire output of a career that finds him reusing and remoulding themes, symbols and even entire scenes in order to augment the sense of predetermination that intrigues so many of his characters. Bearing his particular concern with European history in mind (a turn-of-the-20th-century backdrop informs many of his most acclaimed works), it is perhaps fitting that Ophuls's own cinematic past should so invariably inform his present.

His penultimate achievement, Madame de..., represents the culmination of this creative phenomena. Not only does it bear the auteurial stamps that were cited earlier, but it also draws from his preceding efforts in a manner that identifies the film as the pinnacle of his craftsmanship - eventually attaining a type of postmodern singularity by means of its plurality. Although not strictly necessary, a basic comprehension of the cinematic roundabout that is Ophuls's oeuvre deepens the subtleties of Madame de..., whilst concurrently accentuating the passions that enflame its core. Here lies the circularity of La Ronde, the masochism of Letter from an Unknown Woman, the stylistic excesses of Le Plaisir, the historical evocations of De Mayerling à Sarajevo. Note also: the pre-eminence of a single object; the obligatory train station scenes; the centrality of an opera house; the inescapable presence of the military. All of these traits persistently manifest themselves throughout the director's work, but nowhere do they coalesce within a single film as supremely as they do here. Appropriately, Madame de...'s inevitable conclusion operates on a dual front: through the strength of Ophuls’s storytelling; and via the weight of the director's past tales. The final, definitive action of the film and the events that lead up to it suggest that it is not simply Louise, the General and Donati who are entangled within these hands of fate. Their love triangle is the final and greatest entry in a star-crossed line that stretches back over two decades, encompassing: Lisa and Stefan from Letter; Sophie and Franz from Mayerling; and, most directly, Christine and Fritz from Liebelei. Each lover’s failure to transcend their physical milieu is glaringly exposed by this director’s ability to figuratively traverse space and time with such enviable ease.

Valid discussions of Ophuls’s career are of course impossible if one bypasses the role of women in his work. The director’s feminist credentials can well be debated (are women not merely the most accessible and arguably effective tools with which to examine the more pertinent matter of love and its relationship to the social order?), but his consistent alignment with female characters cannot. 1934's La Signora di tutti receives numerous citations as the film where the mobile, Ophulsian camera of the 1950s first rears its head. Yet it remains equally significant for the development of its female-driven narrative, whose deconstruction of celebrity provides early prep work for 1955's more renowned Lola Montès. Signora's muddled interspersion of gaiety and tragedy struggles to locate the harmonious equilibrium of later films, but the presence of the ultimately sympathetic female protagonist is crucial. In so many of Ophuls's narratives conflict emanates from a woman's heart, and Signora illustrates this at its earliest stage. Feminine desire is forever engaged in a battle against the social order, and the dramatic friction caused by two such powerful, vital forces spills over into the everyday - a woman's revolt against society becomes an urgent struggle against other individuals and the self. By 1953, Ophuls excels in the transmission of such concerns, and thus the fractured characterizations and overt sensationalism that undermine Signora's tragic undercurrents are replaced with the intricately-drawn participants of Madame de...'s ill-fated love triangle, here supplemented by a melodramatic framework that magnifies the tragedy by unearthing its nuances instead of encouraging its histrionics.

One can also find a unique sense of bliss in the director’s image-conjuring prowess. Madame de...'s entrancing presentation of the Parisian Belle Époque is emblematic of his later films' expertise in realizing success on a base, though nonetheless intoxicating plane where luxurious artifice equates to unabashed viewing pleasure. And yet for many casual observers, Ophuls's visual flair either belies the integrity of his sentimental scenarios, or predicates a taste for surface sheen over narrative substance. To side with such charges however, is to ignore the acumen with which the director executes his magisterial vision. In Madame de... every track, every pan, every prop and every ray of light contribute to a suave exercise in cinematic deception. To borrow a prominent example, the trademark fluidity of Ophuls's camerawork embodies an interfilmic binary opposition through its ability to impart both liberation (acting as a spiritual extension that provides temporary release from the corporeal), as well as incarceration (by defining the parameters of this escape), all the while veiling its intents behind a shroud of dignified hyperactivity. A camera that is as happy to waltz with its subjects as it is to magically glide through walls understandably poses a threat to a hardened aesthete's resistance - but the illusory experience on offer in Madame de... is just that: a mask that disguises the camera's active participation in content as well as style.

Concealed depths such as these are not just restricted to traditionally stylistic devices. A series of ironies and evasions perfuse the dialogue also, thus revealing the chasm between the characters' self-constructed exteriors and the realities of their internal yearning. Throughout their courtship, Louise insists to Donati: "I do not love you"; although neither lover nor audience believes this proclamation for a second, with the conspicuous lie betraying an antithetical truth. One of the heated encounters during the film's final act finds the General falsely accusing Donati of calling "the army, and consequently its generals... useless!" Donati says no such thing, but admits to the crime as a penance for his forbidden love - a topic that cannot enter the forum of public debate. And early on in the film, Louise and the General participate in a delicious tête à tête regarding the earrings' whereabouts. Their shared rapport is attractively transparent during verbal exchanges where the audience is privileged with the knowledge that both parties are deliberately suppressing their awareness of the truth to win greater gain from their significant other. Yet even in a comedic encounter that radiates as much warmth as this, narrative and visual style work in unison to intensify the film’s emotional canvas. Despite reinforcing the pair’s companionship with a sequence of shot/reverse-shots in close-up from their respective beds, the director employs an 180˚ pan to precede the sequence and two long-shots to conclude it, both sharing the same purpose: to divulge the startling distance between the sleeping quarters in question. Charm, vivacity and mutual affection may characterize the tone of this scene, but Ophuls typically ensures that it is a somewhat dispiriting lack of romance which the viewer is ultimately left to ponder.

Tellingly, marital vows in Madame de… are not far removed from those in other Ophuls pictures. Liebelei, La Ronde and Le Plaisir all to some degree depict the carefree attitudes with which certain partners treat their prescriptions of monogamy. Madame de…’s thorough exploration of frivolity’s limitations - which eventually unravel its characters’ pretences - allows it to differentiate itself from its predecessors with a triumph of depth. Late into the film, the General provides a remarkably bold and self-reflexive analysis of his predicament to Louise: “Our marriage is a reflection of ourselves. It seems superficial only superficially.” Both character and director effectively dare the viewer to better scrutinize story and frame, as the General’s startling recognition of his façade points towards intelligence undervalued. Moreover, the self-confessed undertones of role-playing allow us to presume that any shortfall in the romantic stakes has less to do with the couple themselves and more to do with the privileged positions that they enjoy within their social hierarchy. Their marriage may be a reflection of themselves, but they in turn are a reflection of society - at least, superficially.

To elucidate the weight of the social obligations placed upon the haute monde, Ophuls frequently returns to scenes that involve communal gatherings. Lavish balls and operas prove indicative of the trivialities that plague a patrician’s schedule, whilst more serious-minded endeavors such as diplomatic meetings or hunts and duels function primarily as platforms for destruction. The seemingly irreconcilable subjects of fun and death hereby converge to define the director’s near-decadent portrait of elite social structures. True romance’s inability to persevere in such a habitat should therefore come as little surprise. Although its members are readily capable of emotional gravity, Ophuls’s high society is built upon a foundation of hollow joviality that constrains the emergence of feelings as potent as that of love. Hence, its textual absence until the arrival of a relative outsider thirty minutes into the film.

If the suppression of love is an issue for the aristocracy, then it is a problem amplified in the case of its women. With its suggestive title and its creator’s experience, Madame de… flourishes in the arena of gender politics, and a true to form Ophuls commits himself to imbuing the film’s every frame with an underlying commentary on the veiled sexism of the era. His aims are complemented by a narrative that parallels Louise’s extramarital impulses with that of the General’s, before investigating the ensuing hypocrisy that the contrast generates. Whilst society sanctions the husband’s apparent right to pursue sexual relations with another partner (his mistress, Lola), it simultaneously curbs the desire of the wife, whose genuine love for Donati is denied the opportunity for consummation. This basic inconsistency is key to Madame de…’s development, for the early revelation of the General’s adultery casts a permanent shadow over Louise and Donati’s romance, acting as a perpetual reminder of the inequality inherent within the marital couple’s partnership.

Ophuls’s opulent mise-en-scène is never more alive than when expanding upon this theme. From the outset, the director instigates a dynamic cinematic correspondence with the viewer that deepens his plot with coded imagery. The lauded opening take of the film lasts for approximately two and a half minutes, and as Louise briskly mulls over her possessions (her debt as yet unknown to us), the camera effortlessly skims around the room with her. In a tantalizing move, Ophuls refuses us an unobstructed view of his heroine for over half of this take, instead opting to interrogate her ornate surroundings - dominated by innumerable jewels, furs and mirrors. When the mystery of Louise’s face is finally revealed to us, she appears not in front of the camera, but as a reflection in one of these dressing-table mirrors. Thus, she is promptly divulged as another constituent in the commodity-infested environment on-screen. Although Louise’s gaze stares back at the audience, her physical presence as the film’s subject is overwhelmed by the multitude of surrounding props, motivating her retreat into objectification. Our perception of the aforementioned commodities thereby undergoes a significant transition: no longer are they mere symbols of wealth and power, they now morph into instruments of covert patriarchal oppression - symptomatic of a “trophy wife” culture that’s adhered to all too fervently. In hindsight then, it is uncomfortably incongruous of Louise to state that “…I can do as I like with them,” when discussing her valuables this early on. Her chimera of independence is negated by the exact materials that furnish her fantasy.

As if to thwart any lingering doubts that the viewer might have about Ophuls’s thematics, the scenes that immediately follow his bravura introduction conspire to consolidate Louise’s commodification. Over breakfast, she is confronted by a looming portrait of the General that establishes his authority as the archetypal patriarch, not to mention her diminutive figure in relation to the social order, over five minutes before he makes his first physical appearance in the film. After leaving her home Louise visits a church, in which she visibly arouses the interest of a praying soldier, before reaching her intended destination at a jeweller’s (Monsieur Rémy’s), where she again causes titillation as both the tradesman and his son struggle to contain their own desires. At each of these stages Louise is able to either ignore or spurn the attention showered upon her, but never is she able to entirely reject her elemental status as a receptacle of the male gaze.
Curiously, for a notable portion of the film Louise actively revels in this socially-sanctioned role. During the film’s first act she cheerily absorbs male affection and cultivates a reputation as a sort of sophisticated coquette. It is a position that her husband both observes - “she is adept at making you die of hope” - and accepts: “A pretty wife is meant to be looked at.” In a context where gender equality is palpably absent, Louise’s simple concessions to her voyeurs enable her to manipulate the prevailing male attitudes of chivalry and lust to a limited extent, thereby granting her a minor but nonetheless important degree of control within her social circle. In spite of this victory, the budding relationship with Donati later in the film provokes Louise to relinquish her privileges in favour of an all-consuming romance: “I hate society. I want no one to look at me but you.” In actuality, the concept of self-objectification is so ingrained into her mindset that her defiance is rendered a delusion. Louise may attempt to reject collective demands, but by immersing herself so wholly into an individual’s gaze she finds herself entrapped within a different social norm bound by the same stipulation: an existence that is to be defined by her male admirer(s).

Louise is thus incapable of negotiating herself a status greater than that afforded to the possessions that she so cherishes. In essence, she remains another thread in the materialistic drape that blinds the nobility. It is therefore ironic that her life should come to depend so heavily upon the earrings referenced in the film’s (unfortunate) American title. If Louise is exemplary of the patriarchy’s propensity for objectifying its subjects, then the earrings conversely relay its ability to substantiate its objects. Their initial worth is minimal: relics of a marriage contract that each partner treats with merry nonchalance. When Donati miraculously returns them to Louise however, they assume the romantic significance that should arguably have always been assigned to them. It is the discord in personal value between the General’s original gift and Donati’s emotionally-repackaged version of it that triggers the former’s determination to remove them from Louise’s grasp, escalating their price towards even loftier heights. By the finale, they are so value-laden that they undergo a metamorphosis from recreational commodities to religious exhibits. In other words: they become priceless.

Although the narrative suggests that Louise’s original transaction occurs due to her debts (as well as an implicit need to protect her husband’s prestige), the film’s peculiarly nameless title and the cause-and-effect frameworks that link the earrings to Donati (and therefore, love) hint towards alternative reasoning: a subconscious longing on Louise’s part to escape the confines of her marriage. Standing against her is a patriarchal clasp on Madame de…’s theatre of exchange that is especially rigid, as demonstrated most clearly by Monsieur Rémy’s consultations with the General. The jeweller’s betrayals of Louise’s misplaced confidence stifle her inadvertent rebellion, administering her passivity in an economic sphere that restricts marketplace activity to men. Meanwhile, Rémy’s visitations to the General’s barracks additionally help to establish a visual association between the military and the return of the earrings, binding the latter to an ultra-masculine order that repeatedly lures them back from their misadventures. It is only her husband’s refusal to re-purchase the jewellery at a critical juncture that allows their escape from this system, meaning that Louise’s triumph over the rules of trade is a virtually empty one. Furthermore, she exchanges almost all of her valuables to regain the earrings, an act that violates the social codes that her possessions represent. By disregarding la règle du jeu, Louise sets into motion the chain of events that will drive both her and Donati to their ruin. This is the cost of forbidden love in Ophuls’s world.

A specific distaste for patriarchal regulations permeates much of the director’s work, and with the evidence thus far one could certainly argue that the trait is most pronounced in Madame de…. Fortunately, Ophuls is sagacious enough to prevent his art from descending into misandry. The film may condemn the status quo, but it sympathizes with everyone that it subjugates. Ophuls counterbalances Louise’s woes with the subsequent repression of the men around her, observing that both the General and Donati are suffocated by the very system that endows them with their primacy. That the latter should meet his end thanks to a duel with the former only compounds this issue. Throughout his career the director casts a critical eye upon this socially-acceptable contest of “honour”, though he lambasts the doctrines that permit it rather than the individuals that perform it. This conflict’s victim is perhaps the least interesting member of the film’s romantic triumvirate, but he is also its most important catalyst. It is Donati’s arrival that propels Madame de… to its giddy highs and its cataclysmic lows, and with his loss both Louise (whose fate becomes entwined with his own) and the film helplessly expire. If his need to look up “desire” in a dictionary and his willingness to terminate relations with the heroine invites the viewer’s suspicions, then his resigned fatalism during the final confrontation scenes emphatically dispels such doubts. When Louise questions him - “You do no longer love me…?” - Donati’s failure to respond implies that his decision to fight is a harrowingly necessary one: death is now more preferable than the burden of a broken heart.

Donati’s murder/suicide further tarnishes the filmic standing of the General, whose effective implementation of social protocols means that of the film’s leads, it is he who veers closest to reprehensibility. However, looks always deceive in an Ophuls picture, and the General is relieved of potential villainy by the director’s careful assertions of his vulnerability. Whilst his breakfast-room portrait that was noted earlier does indeed have a foreboding presence, it is the disparity between role and reality that strikes a chord with the viewer: the charming, urbane and surprisingly short man married to Louise is a far cry from the tall, imposing and authoritative figurehead of the painting. In a much later scene where the General attempts (and fails) to exert this authority by dissuading Louise from leaving Paris, he restlessly begins to shut all the windows in his house. Borrowing a technique from Le Plaisir, Ophuls shifts perspective by cutting to an external tracking shot to document this action. The camera’s placement outside the zone of activity allows it to assume the gaze of an extraneous influence at the precise moment when the General locks himself and Louise inside their home. Had the camera been placed behind him, one could have asserted that the General was in control of this decision to entrap; but by venturing beyond the initial line of vision, Ophuls implicates society for the filmic snare and indicates that this patriarch is as fundamentally enslaved by its conventions as his wife. As he himself poignantly conceded earlier in the film: “We are not our own masters… especially a general.”

This revelatory statement is spoken during the departure scene of his mistress, Lola, and is echoed later on by a near-identical episode with Louise. A comparison of the two incidents unearths the depth of the General’s feeling for his wife. His overall demeanor with Lola is a continuation of the playful ebullience with which he is initially synonymous: he seduces, bids his farewells and exits without once looking back. By contrast, Louise’s departure induces his first visible signs of melancholia, and as her train leaves he gazes forlornly at the mechanisms that pull his wife away from him. In another of the film’s many ironies, it is Lola who receives the farewell kiss on the lips, with Louise settling for an unnervingly formal peck on the hand. The General’s superficial lifestyle and his adherence to militaristic codes have paralyzed his confidence in genuine matters of the heart. Of all the characters in the film, it is he who suffers the greatest divergence between their public and personal identities.

Madame de…’s great tragedy then, is that all of its leads experience an epiphany during the course of the film. Take Ophuls’s euphorically informative visuals out of the equation and they begin, on paper at least, as shallow and careless individuals, content to wallow endlessly in their merry masquerades. As their character trajectories progress however, each of them undergoes a radical change. The introduction of passion into the narrative engenders a process of humanization that coincides with an increasing awareness of their desires. Unfortunately for them, these desires also unravel their orderly lives, heightening the need to restore the frivolous standard and imprisoning them within roles that they no longer wish to play. And with the comings and goings of the earrings constantly sculpting the film’s emotional panorama, one begins to comprehend just how irrevocable society’s materialism really is.

Materialist ethics go so far as to infiltrate the domain of the spiritual. “My cross?”, says Louise in the opening scene when evaluating her possessions, “Oh no, I adore it!” Her actions in the film affiliate religion with the prevalent world of transactions, but neither she nor Ophuls ever lose sight of its intensely personal value. Towards the end of the film, Louise visits a church and begs a saint to accept her treasured earrings as a suitable exchange for Donati’s safety. The saint’s apparent “refusal” to enter into this bargain says less about the absence of the divine than it does about the worth of life itself. Ophuls uses Louise’s act of desperation to delineate between the institution of the Church and the integrity of private faith: it is the former that accepts the gift and presents them in their most fetishized form at film’s end; it is the latter that reassigns the ethereal relevance entrusted to the earrings unto Donati’s existence. The celestial powers-that-be thus reveal themselves as the only abstract forces in the film that esteem the invaluable beauty of the human spirit over the metallic perfection of the earrings. In freeing Donati and consequently Louise from the shackles of society, it could be argued that the saint does, in actuality, grant her wish. The film’s seemingly tragic finale allows the couple to relocate their love to the only realm in which it can possibly survive: the afterlife.

There is a sequence in Madame de… whose reputation is nearly as great as the film’s own. It can be summarized as a dance between Donati and Louise, but to describe it as such seems a woeful miscarriage of justice. It is more akin to an elegant roundelay of passion, charged with all the urgency of repressed desire. As the two admirers waltz, the director’s camera seamlessly cuts and dissolves around them, layering emotional subtexts onto one another and completely disregarding time whilst remaining all too aware of the threat that it poses. The cumulative effect of all this is overwhelming, compelling the audience to surrender themselves to the impeccably crafted-insularity of the burgeoning love that saturates the frame.

It is this enchanting sequence that best encapsulates the spirit of Ophuls’s magnificent art. Supported by his camera’s graceful choreography, the director concisely articulates the importance of pure sentiment in environments where they are consistently marginalized. Moreover, he excels in charting the progression of such feelings: during a five-minute ballroom routine Ophuls can leap at will from formality to informality, from vacuity to cognizance, and most importantly from frivolity to love. For this artist, such oppositions work in symbiosis to enrich the texture of his films, and his penultimate effort exemplifies these contradictions at their finest. It enamours with its celebration of the superficial, only to take apart its own convivial artifice once the viewer is on side. When its masquerade is eventually unclothed, there lies a film that exalts love as the greatest emotion that one could ever know. In denying this joy to the characters with whom it is so acutely attuned, Madame de… proves itself to be the most cynical of all cinema’s great romances.

The Round-Up (Jancsó, 1965)

Welcome to The Round-Up.

This is a world of desolation. This is a world of containment and oppression. This is a world where physical and psychological torture are considered routine; where men commit suicide simply to escape the nightmare that is reality. Honestly, this is not a world at all: this is madness.

A detention camp provides the immediate setting of Miklos Jancsó's macabre experiment. It is the resounding sparseness of this prison that proves so unnerving. Tall, whitewashed walls and a series of compact sleeping cubicles are the only notable features in what is otherwise nothing more than a large empty space. The surrounding Hungarian plains that engulf this complex offer little solace - they seem to breed malevolence within every blade of grass. Jancsó has a particular interest in exploring psychology's potential for shaping space, and as the absence of humanity begins to unsettle the viewer, so the barren expanses become inversed to induce a stifling sense of claustrophobia.

Minimalistic rigour characterizes Jancsó's visual style. He favours long, observational takes that leisurely pan around his characters, encircling them further within their confines. Moreover, he deploys a number of crane shots to open up his widescreen format to its greatest capacity. Always, there is a detachment of camera from scenario that allows Jancsó to toy with characters as if they were miniature figurines. Indeed, this is exactly what they devolve into when the director is at full visual flight. There are times when the film unfolds as if in a militaristic ballet: humans move in and around the frame with geometrical precision, exposing a vital discord between the systematic modernism of Jancsó's framing and the harrowing primitivism of his narrative content.

The Round-Up deals with plot on only the very loosest of terms. There are army officials and there are prisoners. The former wish to identify a group of rebels amidst the latter, much larger group, and repress accordingly. Although physical might is wielded (as we witness on more than one occasion), the preferred method of persecution here is more covert. Ruthless verbal interrogations instigate a series of double-bluffs and betrayals amongst the defenceless detainees, fuelling an atmosphere of distrust. Most terrifying of all however, are the long stretches of film when the authorities do absolutely nothing. Jancsó's limited use of dialogue and the frequent absence of significant activity means that silences can overwhelm the compound, throwing its characters and audience into the uncomfortable territory of the unknown. Factor in the stifling emptiness of the aforementioned surroundings, and one finds oneself in a situation where the overarching intent is to numb the mental state, making it ripe for degradative manipulation.

This is a film that quietly consumes its audience, as opposed to vice-versa. After a short but wry prologue, it places us in a situation where we are as lost and disorientated as the prisoners on-screen. Jancsó's camera is far too impassive to examine any of the characters in real detail, and the refusal to question their behaviour effectively presents dehumanization as a fact of life. Additionally, this impassivity restricts the emergence of an identifiable protagonist - [Spoiler]the closest we get is with János, who is murdered well before the final act[/Spoiler]. The emotional substance that we so often demand from the cinema is on permanent vacation here, and in denying the potential sentimentalization of his prisoners' plights, the director confronts his audience with an unappealing proposition: to fill in that resonance themselves. Jancsó dares us to turn a blind eye, whilst holding up a mirror to our conscience.

Roughly fifty minutes into the film, there is a brief moment where it seems as if the prison might degenerate into mass chaos. Tellingly, these few seconds of violent commotion gift the viewer with a reprieve from the cold, military order that swiftly overwhelms the rebellion. It also spares us, however fleetingly, from our increasing awareness of the military's formidable grasp on the mechanisms of power, for it is this realization that unmasks the real horror story of The Round-Up. This is a film that was made over forty years ago, and it’s set almost another hundred years before that, but it never feels anything less than unerringly prescient. Jancsó's observations regarding the abuse of power eclipse time and retain contemporary significance. Do today's conditions of cruelty deviate notably from what is shown in the film? The director suggests that moral absence is an everlasting theme of history, and one finds it hard to resist his arguments. This may be madness, but this is above all a world that we recognize and shape – this is the tragedy of the human condition.

So yeah, welcome to The Round-Up. Did I mention that escape is futile?

Ivan's Childhood (Tarkovsky, 1962)

Anti-war films have traditionally struggled to traverse the narrative minefields generated by their thematic concerns. The nature of their idealism makes it difficult to navigate around material that can so easily lapse into a tedious sermon of maudlin sentiments, misguided politics and/or manipulative moralizing. These pitfalls tend to be best avoided by more original treatments, and Andrei Tarkovsky - a director who so frequently dispensed with traditional conceptions of narrative - would seem an ideal candidate for such a task. His stature as one of cinema's master craftsmen is not unfounded: an ability to encapsulate the depth of the human spirit within sensory feasts of fragmented time, ambiguous sounds and incomparable visual poetry endows him with a genuine claim to the "greatest of all time" moniker. If anyone can tackle the dangers of this emotional-ethical fabric and come out unscathed, it is surely this man.

Understandably, one turns to Ivan's Childhood with high expectations. This is, however, Tarkovsky’s debut feature - and it shows. The director has never flirted so closely with standard narrative etiquette; the "sculpting in time" aesthetic present in only its most primordial form thanks to a number of flashback/fantasy sequences. Although the film is named after him, the scrawny-yet-aggressive Ivan's thirst for vengeance surrenders screentime to both Galtsev (an idealistic and inexperienced lieutenant) and the momentum-sapping Masha (a vapid teenage nurse). The young Tarkovsky ambitiously attempts to paint a multifaceted portrait of wartime frailty, but the resulting fragmentation is swamped by the intensity of Ivan's subjective memorializations, hindering the broadness of his scope.
These reveries also display a worrying penchant for simplifying the complexity of war into the black of the terrifying present, and the white of the remembered past. Such bold delineations are uncharacteristic of Tarkovsky, who would spend the remainder of his career inhabiting much grayer textual areas. Nevertheless, they succeed in externalizing the internal conflicts of a troubled youth, whilst providing the director sufficient space to experiment with his imagery. And what imagery that is! Tarkovsky’s visual genius is apparent in even the earliest of his features, where he plays with the idea of stylistic dualism: the naïve lyricism of Ivan’s memories is set against the expressionistic horrors of the war, and piercing gunshots mark the tenuous borderline between the two. The ensuing antagonism triggers the film’s evolution into a mesmerizing cornucopia of wild kineticism and delirious angles that fight for supremacy over the sensual tranquility offered by the natural world and its maternal comforts - the quieter half of this duality anticipating the director’s later cinematic elegies with its deconstruction of the “Mother Nature” image.

Ivan’s Childhood provides a rare opportunity to witness a great artist threatening to stumble, as Tarkovsky very nearly does at the last hurdle with his problematic decision to intersperse newsreel footage into the text (these images of reality being outweighed in substance by the director's fiction, thereby undermining the integrity of his moral stance). But alas, he recovers, and the film regains its composure with a final sequence that stands as one of the great tributes to innocence lost. The very best anti-war films are those that can communicate their resonance without preaching it. With its poignant conclusion, Ivan's Childhood creates a tragic delusion that tells us everything that we could possibly wish to know about the grave, destructive costs of war by saying nothing direct about the subject in question. By refraining from the obvious, Tarkovsky transcends all genre constraints and lays the foundations for a future that would prove itself to be unrivalled.

Dead Ringers (Cronenberg, 1988)

Dead Ringers (1988) marks my fifth David Cronenberg experience - and with this provocative, fascinating film he solidifies his status as one of my favourite English-language directors of recent years. I appreciate how beneficial this viewing proved for my understanding of his filmography - only now have I grasped just how intensely psychological Cronenberg's work is. His films seem to be terrorized by the inner demons of his characters, and the themes of sex, technology and violence that he so favours assume a more emotionally potent dimension as a result.

In this particular film, Cronenberg chooses to personify the concepts of yin and yang with a pair of identical twins. Their intense fraternal bond reaches far beyond the platonic - when Beverly (the yin to his brother Eliot's yang, at least initially) angrily cries out: "Do you think I'm gay or something?" after the most minor of provocations, he alludes towards deeply repressed homosexual tendencies that manifest themselves most clearly with the perverse sexual co-dependency that he shares with his brother. By casually exchanging one another's women, the Mantle twins find a successful outlet for their mutual desires. Their professional status (as gynaecologists) intertwines with their subconsciousness: the objectivity with which they examine the vagina during the everyday allows them to eschew the remnants of their heterosexual attraction to it. The female genitalia's socially-sanctioned purpose is therefore displaced as the brothers reclassify it to the role of an illicit harbour for their most intimate physical connection. The Mantle twins don't fuck women at all, they simply use them to fuck each other.

When the sensual and ever-astute Claire begins to figure out their ruse, the brothers' tenuous harmony is understandably thrown into chaos. Her confrontations trigger a psychosexual rupture within Beverly's fragile state of mind, leading to an attempted fission of the unique Mantle union - which in turn provokes Elliot's own slide into mental disarray. Finally, the pair are forced to confront their sexual fears and urges - and, with Cronenberg's brilliantly grotesque visualizations in tow, so too is the audience. Beverly may be externally devoted to her, but he subconsciously continues to view Claire as an object or, more specifically, a "mutant". A lifetime of ignorance regarding their misuse has birthed a vagina that fights back with reason. Ironically, the doctors cannot reciprocate the intellectual war, and respond only with the undercurrents of violence that have lurked ominously since the film's opening credits. "The women's bodies are all wrong!", says Beverly, as he wields the newly-distorted blades and instruments that constitute his new arsenal for gynaecological warfare. In misplacing the blame for his predicament he merely ignores his own figurative mutations, and thus entrenches himself further within the claustrophobic psychosexuality that will destroy the Mantle entity.

Sex has always been the most intriguing vertebra in the backbone of Cronenberg's oeuvre. The director's films consistently deconstruct and then reconstruct the concepts of sexuality and desire. Dead Ringers continues in this vain, as it reconceptualizes our perceptions of bondage gear to include an absolutely bizarre (but incredibly hot) amalgam of medical tubes and scissors. And how easy is it to dismiss the inherently sexual instruments of "gynaecological warfare" cited in the previous paragraph? Their sharp, steely disfigurements endow them with the means to horrify, but the camera's decision to fetishize the objects draws attention to their penetrative potential. Sex and violence share an uneasy yet scintillating co-existence in Cronenberg's world of malevolent perversity where human survival exists in perpetual limbo.

Cronenberg films his subjects with clinical precision to conserve this sense of unease: cool, icy whites and blues dominate the colour palette, rendering the eventual bursts of red frighteningly inevitable. Yet in spite of this cold treatment, one never feels that he has anything less than the utmost sympathy for the damaged souls at the heart of his film. Dead Ringers may not be its director's finest effort (from what I've seen, Crash takes that title), and it may not even be the best 1980s flick about disturbed male twins (an honour that must surely be afforded to Peter Greenaway's visually resplendent diatribe against Thatcherite Britain, A Zed & Two Noughts), but this is nevertheless a work of surprisingly moving beauty. I'm finding that Cronenberg's most interesting films deal with a sort of reverse spritiualism, whereby scientific and technological forces are engaged in an everlasting battle to denigrate the human spirit. Sure, there's blood, there's gore and there's a helluva lotta sex, but the director's indulgences are the inevitable results of his explosive examinations. In their own way, films like Dead Ringers and Crash strike me as cinematic hymns for the lost souls of postmodern society - and that surely makes David Cronenberg one of the most justifiably humane directors working in the medium today?

Ballad of a Soldier (Chukhrai, 1959)

Ballad of a Soldier comes armed with a hefty reputation as one of cinema's great war movies. 8.2 on IMDb? Resounding raves with every review that one reads? A quick Google search should uncover words like "lyrical", "poignant", "understated", "poetic" and "humane". Criterion go so far as to describe it as "unconventional"!


The appeal of Chukhrai's "masterpiece" will lie solely with good-natured numbskulls who struggle to resist the simplistic trite that the director offers up for them. Ballad is a film that chooses to disregard the horrors of war in favour of a tentative romance between an ennobled young hero and a flawless young heroine. This is all very well and good (who are we to assume that such love stories cannot exist in times of turmoil?), and Chukhrai reveals wise judgment in situating a sizeable portion of his film within the enclosed space of a hay-filled train carriage, thereby extinguishing the necessity to comment on the external world. But Chukhrai cannot hide forever, and it is when finally obliged to leave his safety pen that he misfires so horribly. An early battle (the film's only one) prepares us for what is to follow: edited as if to resemble a chase sequece in a commercial monster movie, it typifies Chukhrai's audience-pandering aesthetics that cheapen the integrity of the war effort. As if this wasn't enough, the film's peculiar conception of Soviet life in this era is defined by the military's jovial camraderie and the everyman's ceaseless charitability. This presentation of World War II as a positive catalyst for community spirit and patriotic idealism smacks of propagandistic conceit, but its most bitter aftertaste is one of emotional manipulation. When destruction finally, inevitably enters the narrative, Chukhrai's blissful portrait is exposed as a detestable setup designed solely to extract greater dramatic weight for the viewer.

Late into the film, the protagonist (Alyosha) finally reunites with his beloved mother (lest we forget that Ballad is a vigorous proponent of traditional family values). Their tender embrace is perhaps the film's only genuinely poignant moment, but even here understated silence quickly regresses into melodramatic wailing. Thus, with partial redemption on offer the director insists upon maintaining the saccharine, insulting the intelligence of all innocent civilians unfortunate enough to experience his contemptible dirge in the process. For the 23 million Soviet citizens who lost their lives in the Great Patriotic War, Chukhrai and his superiors could not have crafted a better cinematic fuck you.

Well, fuck you too, Grigori Chukhrai. Tosser.