Two English Girls

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I was on a roll with Truffaut’s films till I got to Two English Girls, which based on a Henri-Pierre Roche novel. Again Jean-Pierre Léaud stars as Claude, a young man whose mother sends him to stay with her British friend, who’s the mother of two young women, Ann and Muriel. Ann decides that Claude and her sister Muriel, who’s possibly going blind, are perfect for each other. Claude is rather inexperienced with women and there aren’t any other young women

All the characters are solemn. Missing in Two English Girls is the humor that is found in most of Truffaut films like Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, Zazie dan le Metro, or even The 400 Blows. Since Jean-Pierre Léaud is never better than when he can be funny, so I’m not sure why that talent is wasted here. Probably the story is somber, but then why adapt this book? I just can’t figure out what compelled Truffaut to make this film.

Ann keeps pushing Claude into Muriel’s arms. She says it’s because Muriel is so smart and talented, but we just are told she is. There’s no demonstration of her talent or intelligence. Thus the film unintentionally demonstrates the poor results when you break the “show, don’t tell” rule of writing.

Claude does fall for Muriel, but I thought that’s because Ann and Muriel were the only women he saw. It’s almost like Claude is stuck on a low budget, Gilded Age version of The Bachelor. Eventually, Muriel pushes Claude away so the turns to Ann.

I bet you guess that some complications ensue, but they aren’t as explosive as you’d hope. These characters were more Zen than any I can remember. Very matter of fact and earnest. Very little joy. And when a character is heart-broken, he or she was something of a stoic zombie.

“Sometimes even Homer sleeps,” and in the case of Two English Girls, Truffaut seemed to be napping.

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Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths

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The landlady Osugi and the thief, Sutekichi

Kurosawa adapted Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths in 1957. The film shows viewers life in a tenement situated in a pit where people toss garbage without thinking. From the vantage point of the working class people who toss the garbage, there’s nothing down below. (The middle and upper class probably don’t even know the pit’s there.) When Kurosawa takes you into the tenement, you meet a little society consisting of a former samurai, a drunken actor, a thief named Sutekichi, a prostitute, a vagabond wiseman, a metalworker, whose wife is dying, a stingy landlord and his wife and sister-in-law. The crucial relationship is the “love” triangle between the Sutekichi, Osugi, the landlady and Okayo, the landlady’s younger, sister. Sutekichi and Osugi have been involved for some time, but it’s all about sex, not love. The thief becomes smitten and convinced that if Okayo would marry him, he’d magically be able to mend his ways. Of course, Osugi soon becomes jealous. She’s not going to let the thief run off with there sister.

The Lower Depths is a close up look at poverty in the Edo era (1603-1868). Dirt poor is an apt description. The characters’ clothing is ripped and tattered. They’re all disheveled. The tenement itself is squalid. You can bet the landlady isn’t going to spruce it up any time soon.

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Though the characters were intriguing, it took me a while to warm up to the story. To their credit neither Gorky nor Kurosawa romanticize the poor. We can see from their behavior, that their behavior is a major cause of their poverty. The film mixes the misery with their capacity for joy and insight. The vagabond wiseman is like a priest and not only offers wisdom to the dying wife, the prostitute and others, but is willing to debate his beliefs with Sutekichi, who’s not ready to buy this holy talk. There are scenes that borrow songs, dance and conventions from Kabuki theater, but Kurosawa is careful not to present the characters as stereotypical happy poor people.

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I came to find the characters engaging, though Osugi is clearly a villain and Okayo a saint; more morally gray tones than simple black and white could help, but I guess that such nuance not in Gorky’s play. The essay I read on Criterion.com, points out that the film seeks to indict society with regard to its relationship to the poor. We just see how absent other classes are and how the landlady mistreats her tenants. For a real indictment, I would have liked to have seen some examples of interactions across class lines.

The Criterion Collection DVD features a commentary track by Donald Richie, the Japanese film expert. Richie provides great insights. Since the film’s in Japanese, it was easy to read the subtitles while listening to the commentary.

The Awful Truth

Taking a break from drama on the level of Human Condition, I watched Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth. The Awful Truth is a 1930s romantic comedy about a married couple that races into divorce court after a misunderstanding. Each side has gotten the “wrong end of the stick.”

While they have 90 days between the court date and the divorce finalizing, Lucy, the wife, meets an Oklahoma tycoon who woos her, making Jerry, her soon-to-be ex-husband painfully jealous. Jerry no sooner gives up than Lucy realizes she wants him back.

In a nutshell: Lots of slapstick, lots of wit, lots of style and lots of fun.

Unfaithfully Yours

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In Unfaithfully Yours, Rex Harrison plays conductor Alfred de Carter, a pompous egotist. (Doesn’t Harrison play a lot of this sort?) De Carter’s clueless brother-in-law Augustus misunderstood his request to “look after my wife while I’m gone and as a result Augustus has Daphne, the wife, followed by a detective.

At first Alfred wants to give his wife the benefit of the doubt, but other people want to tell him that his wife was found leaving his secretary’s hotel room in a negligee in the middle of the night. Soon Alfred’s high minded ethos are out the window and while he’s conducting a symphony concert, he’s plague by different scenarios involving confronting Daphne about this affair.

Each variation is more comical than the last. Directed by Preston Sturges, Unfaithfully Yours is a madcap comedy with a perspicacious take on jealousy. I particularly liked how well music was worked into the story and how each piece fit Alfred’s mood to a T.

The psychology of jealousy is explored to the limit. Harrison offers a superb performance of slap stick humor in a scene towards the end when he tries to trick his wife. Unfaithfully Yours moves at a clip and in spite of a few corny jokes stands up to the test of time. In the 1980s, they did a remake of Unfaithfully Yours starring Dudley Moore. I doubt it could match this clever film.

The Criterion Collection version includes a bonus feature with Terry Jones of Monty Python fame describing how he discovered Preston Sturges and his thoughts on the film.

The Life of Émile Zola

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The film character doesn’t look like this

As I’ve recently finished Germinal, when I saw the film The Life of Émile Zola (1937) displayed with Oscar Best Picture winners, I had to watch it. Starring Paul Muni, The Life of Émile Zola begins with Zola sharing a cold garret apartment with Cezanne. Both are struggling to launch their creative careers, while trying not to freeze to death. Soon Zola meets a prostitute in a café, hears her life story, writes a novel based on it. When it’s published it’s criticized for its immorality and it flies off the bookstore shelves. Still poor, Zola goes to the book seller who published the book to beg for a small advance. Instead he gets a check for 30,000 francs. He’s rich!

Zola continues to write popular books and lives in comfort and luxury with his wife in Paris. One day his still struggling friend Cezanne drops by to announce that he’s off to the South of France to paint. Paris is no longer the place for him. Before leaving, he feels compelled to point out that Zola has become materialistic and complacent. He’s lost his ideals. This opens Zola’s eyes.

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The story shifts to the army office where treasonous letters are found and the innocent Captain Alfred Dreyfus is soon arrested and sent to prison. The Dreyfus Affair is a dark corner of French history, showing how quick the army leaders were to allow their Anti-Semitism to condemn an innocent man with out fair due process. The very odd aspect of this Warner Bros. film is that the anti-semitism is never mentioned. If you didn’t know about the history, you wouldn’t realize that Dreyfus was Jewish and that was a factor in his arrest and imprisonment. A 2013 New York Times article stated that studio head  Jack Warner, who was Jewish himself, insisted that any mention of Jewish heritage be removed from the film.

When Dreyfus’ wife pleads with the comfortable bourgeois Zola, she convinces him that the right thing to do is to take up Dreyfus’ cause. The famous article “J’accuse!” results and Zola’s soon arrested for libel. A fierce courtroom battle ensues where Zola is the David to the powerful government’s Goliath. (This time David loses though.)

While this chapter of history is worthy of a film, this production is outdated. To whitewash the events by editing out anti-semitism makes no sense. Muni’s Zola hops around the scenes and is so almost comical in his vibrancy, that it’s hard to take him seriously. Other characters like his wife, Cezanne and the military leaders are one dimensional. The film was the Best Picture of 1937 and won other awards, but it doesn’t stand up to the test of time.

Victoria, Season 2, Week 6

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Luxury of Conscience

This week’s Victoria we see the end of the Corn Laws that protected farmers’ income, but also artificially kept food prices high. Lord Peel fights for this change, but it cost him politically. It was the right thing to do.

Albert fusses a lot about Lehzen, Victoria’s governess who’s now caring for their children. Albert has a host of complaints including  that she leaves the windows open in the nursery, which a lot of nurses today will say is good practice. When Victoria sided with the Baroness, Albert is in a state and he announces that he’ll visit  Parliament to lend his support to Peel. Victoria wisely counsels him not to, but he’s obstinate. That’s a shame because his presence was a political blunder and Peel got taunted by his opponents for being weak and needing a royal to prop him up.

Uncle Leopold makes a surprise visit. He seems to have no sense of what’s appropriate. No one wants him there, but he’s hell bent on forcing himself upon Victoria and Albert. I’m not sure why they didn’t have someone tell him he had to leave.

Victoria’s oldest daughter Vicky gets a fever and is very sick. Lehzen was inclined to let time do its thing, while Albert insists the doctor should be called. The child gets worse and they do call the doctor. This conflict spurred Albert to issue an ultimatum: “choose me or Lehzen.” it’s an impossible choice and of course, as much as it hurts her, Victoria chooses her husband. Poor Lehzen is forced to return to Germany. She hasn’t lived there in a good twenty years and is heartbroken that her devotion to Victoria ends with this dismissal.

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Ernst’s doctor says his STD is in remission so Ernst decides to propose to Harriet. The couple has some tender moments together and he promises to talk to her one evening. In preparation, Ernst bathes and gets spruced up. However, his valet notices that the rash is back. So Ernst stands up poor Harriet.

After the Corn Laws are repealed, an angry farmer tries to shoot Lord Peel. Drummond, the young noble whose heart belongs to the blonde nobleman, but who’s engaged to some noblewoman is shot while shielding Peel. I was surprised that this character would die this season.

This was a sad episode with a lot of loss. It was a solid episode, but not as interesting as the potato famine episode. I was disappointed that Albert’s jealousy won out over Lehzen’s devotion. As adults they should have been able to reconcile, but that could be said of a lot of us.

Who will be the next governess? The next Prime Minister?