Category: film diary

classic film film diary general discussion

The Mysterious Mrs. Danvers: Queer Subtext in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca

This post is part of the Queer Film Blogathon currently being hosted by Caroline at Garbo Laughs to celebrate gay pride month. The aim of the blogathon is to examine films that feature “lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or otherwise non-heterosexual, non-gender-binary depictions or personages in film.” For an overview of queer film theory, click here.

The film I’d like to focus on is David O. Selznick’s adaptation of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca (1940). Many scholars of queer film theory have written of the relationship between Manderley’s mysterious and frightening Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) and the ghostly but ever-present Rebecca. Rhona J. Berenstien notes that the horror genre is “a primary arena for sexualities and practices that fall outside the purview of patriarchal culture, and the subgeneric tropes of the unseen, the ghost and the haunted house…Portraying lesbians as ghosts in Hollywood movies is, then, directly linked to cultural attitudes and anxieties about homosexuality. The lesbian is a paradoxical figure; she is an invisible–yet representational–threat.”

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classic film film diary general discussion

Film Diary: Hiroshima Mon Amour

“Listen to me. I know something else. It will begin all over again. Two hundred thousand dead. Eighty thousand wounded. In nine seconds. These figures are official. It will begin all over again. It will be ten thousand degrees on the earth. Ten thousand suns, they will say. The asphalt will burn. Chaos will prevail. A whole city will be raised from the earth and fall back in ashes….”

When I found out Cinema Fanatic and Japan Cinema were collaborating on a blog-a-thon in effort to raise relief money for the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I knew I had to participate.

Admittedly, my expertise in Japanese cinema is lacking, and I can only think of a handful of titles that I’ve seen off the top of my head. You know, the standard Ozu, Kurosawa and Miyazaki films, along with a few other popular imports that could easily be seen in a film class or on the shelf at Blockbuster. So, I decided I would take a different route and re-visit a classic French-Japanese film set in Japan. Hiroshima Mon Amour is French auteur Alain Resnais’ exploration of memory and trauma in the second world war. In a way, it can be seen as a sort of companion piece to his pseudo-art-documentary about the Holocaust, Night and Fog, but more on the artsy side and less focused on documenting one specific event.

The story is told in a non-linear style and revolves around a 36 hour love affair between a French actress (Emmenuelle Riva) making a film in Hiroshima and a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) whose family was killed when the atomic bomb was dropped on the city in 1945, effectively ending the war. As the lovers (mostly She) discuss where they were (or where they think they were and are in the present) when the bomb fell and the terrible devastation it brought upon the city, the fictional narrative is inter-cut with brief clips of documentary footage showing mutilated bodies, women’s hair falling out due to radiation, and the physical scars (to say nothing of the mental ones) that the citizens of Hiroshima would carry for the rest of their lives. We later learn that She had suffered similar humiliation and degradation back in her hometown of Nevers, France, when she fell in love with a German soldier. As a punishment, her hair was cut off and she was forced to spend months living in the cellar at her parents’ home after her lover is assassinated and she is discovered with his body. Now in the present, She struggles to find meaning and longevity in her relationships with men, and both try to reconcile the anxieties and traumas of the past.

Kent Jones writes in his essay Hiroshima mon amour: Time Indefinite:

Perhaps it’s not so surprising that Hiroshima mon amour began not as a fiction, but as a documentary. [Anatole] Dauman had successfully pitched the idea of a project about the bomb and its impact to Daiei Studios, and it was to be the first Japanese-French co-production. The title would be Picadon, the “flash” of the A-bomb explosion. It was only after months of reflection that Resnais settled on the idea that Picadon should be a fiction, and that the impact of Hiroshima would be refracted through the viewpoint of a foreign woman. It was Resnais who brought Duras to the project, at the end of the decade when she had achieved literary stardom with Un barrage contre le Pacifique and Moderato Cantabile. It took Duras all of two months to turn out a finished script, all the while working closely with her director. Although Resnais’ links to Eisenstein seem obvious, Griffith’s Intolerance was the film he and Duras had in their heads. “Marguerite Duras and I had this idea of working in two tenses,” he told Parisian journalist Joan Dupont in a recent interview. “The present and the past coexist, but the past shouldn’t be in flashback…. You might even imagine that everything the Emmanuelle Riva character narrated was false; there’s no proof that the story she recites really happened. On a formal level, I found that ambiguity interesting.”

The first time I saw Hiroshima Mon Amour was for a film history class I took as an undergrad. It really is a compulsory title for anyone studying film, and at the time I thought it interesting but pretentious and all but dismissed it. Perhaps this was because I had found Night and Fog incredibly well done and effective, but Hiroshima left me cold. It was not until recently that I learned that Night in Fog was made as more than just a documentary, it was also an artistic experiment. Knowing more about Resnais’ style, I was much more appreciative of the poignancy of Hiroshima this time around.

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Film Diary: Madonna of the Seven Moons

This week in Brit. Cinema, we discussed escapism as an alternative to the “documentary-realist” films made during WWII. Most studios were making film upon film about the war to remind people of what war was really like, despite audiences experiencing such events with a much more heightened sense of reality than the film business could portray. But one British studio provided escapism in bulk. Gainsborough Pictures, the former sister company of British-Gaumont became famous for producing lavish, saucy costume dramas that were aimed at a female audience and were often adapted from recently published romantic novels. Founded by Ealing’s Michael Balcon, Gainsborough also employed some of the biggest stars of the 1940s, including Margaret Lockwood, James Mason, Stewart Granger, Phyllis Calvert and Patricia Roc.

The films produced at Gainsborough during and shortly after the war were some of the most financially successful of their time. They were also panned by critics who thought them the antithesis of everything they wanted British film to be. The main ingredients prevalent in these films that was missing from the realist films of the time were sex and heightened emotions. What Gainsborough melodramas lacked in “quality” traits like stoicism and restraint, The Wicked Lady, The Man in Grey, Fanny By Gaslight, Jassy and other similar titles more than made up for it in sex appeal, strong female characters, nostalgia and fantasy:

In short, the traditional British social rulebook had been torn up, and Gainsborough responded to these developments in two quite distinct ways – by making films exploring women’s lives both during wartime and afterwards, and by creating shamelessly escapist fantasies, usually set in the distant past, that offered powerful images of female independence and rebellion that resonated deeply with audiences of the time. (screenonline)

Arthur Crabtree’s 1944 film Madonna of the Seven Moons is a fanciful story of a pious young Italian woman named Maddalena (Phyllis Calvert) who, as a young maiden, is raped in the woods by a man who looks like he’d jumped straight out of an FBI’s Most Wanted poster. Maddalena is taken in by the nuns at a local convent where she becomes the picture of virtue before being handed over in marriage to the wealthy Guiseppe Labardi. Flash forward twenty years and Maddalena is still mentally scarred by the incident in the woods. The return of her daughter Angela (Patricia Roc) from school in London triggers a long-kept secret. Maddalena periodically develops amnesia and disappears to Florence where she lives a double life as Rosanna of the Seven Moons, a free-living gypsy who has a torrid love affair with a jewel thief named Nino (Stewart Granger). Maddalena/Rosanna is never aware of her alternate personality, and, when asked, can never produce an answer as to where she’s been. When Angela goes searching for her mother, she is assisted by Nino’s brother Sandro (Peter Glenville) whose intentions for Angela are sinister. Angela’s ignorance of the situation eventually leads her to her mother, but puts Maddalena/Rosanna’s life in danger. As is the custom in classic films–to a lesser extent in Britain compared to the Hollywood Production Code, but still true none the less–bad girls are ultimately punished for their misdeeds, no matter how virtuous they may have been otherwise.

While I didn’t think the film was as ridiculous or as unintentionally funny as The Wicked Lady, it was still very strange. However, there were some things that stuck out for me:

1) The fact that Stewart Granger never buttoned his shirt. It’s true that Granger was the male sex symbol of the moment, and my guess is that Arthur Crabtree wanted to showcase his chest to distract viewers from his silly court jester costumes. Or maybe not.

Stewart Granger. I couldn't find a screencap from the film in google search to accurately illustrate my point

2) Patricia Roc’s hair and her entire wardrobe.

Patricia Roc (not the same hair and wardrobe as seen in the film). Again, with the google search.

The BFI’s Monthly Film Bulletin said of the film:

Artistic settings beautifully photographed are a pleasing feature of this lavish production, but they cannot disguise the crude melodramatics of the story nor the fact that the film drags, despite its bursts of robust action. The players act well to a certain degree and yet they somehow fail to give convincing studies of the Italian characters they are meant to portray.

Actors failing to portray–in any way, shape, or form–the actual nationality of the character they are playing is the bane of many classic films. But perhaps there is an inherent suspension of disbelief when we watch a film like Madonna of the Seven Moons today. Not only is the story set far in the past, but the passage of time from when the film was initially released to today also aids in this. Maybe we have come to expect this sort of thing from older films? I can think of plenty examples of actors in classic films not even trying to put on a different accent as required by the character they were portraying (Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind, anyone?), but it usually doesn’t affect my overall enjoyment of a film.  Where Madonna really fails is in the plot. It’s about as bizarre as the theremin that periodically pops up in the soundtrack to signal Maddalena’s transformation into Rosanna…or aliens coming to inhabit 18th Century Italy.

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Film Diary: La Ronde (1950)

“I adore the past…It’s so much more restful than the present…So much more reliable than the future.”

I finally caved and signed up for LoveFilm, the UK equivalent of Netflix. I loved Netflix for their watch instantly selection, especially because they had most of the Criterion collection up streaming. LoveFilm isn’t as good in that respect, but it does have a lot of British films that aren’t available in region 1, and I discovered that I can play region 2 DVDs on my mac! Huzzah!

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Film Diary: The King’s Speech (2010)

This semester I’m taking a class called “Their finest hour and a half: British cinema in WWII” at University College London, and for our first screening today we saw a 1943 Ealing Studios film starring Ann Todd and Leslie Banks called Ships with Wings.  It dealt with the Fleet Air Arm fighting the Nazis in Greece, and wasn’t all-together very good.

As a sort of companion film, I went to the Odeon Leicester Square tonight with a friend to see Tom Hooper’s new film The King’s Speech starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham-Carter.  It concerned King George VI, otherwise known as Price Albert, the Duke of York, who ascended to the throne of England after his brother Edward VIII abdicated in order to marry Wallis Simpson.  Bertie was plagued with ill health and a speech impediment stemming from childhood traumas, and when he was older saw several doctors to try and cure his stammer before settling on the unconventional but effective treatment methods of Lionel Logue.  Lionel helped George to gain a public speaking voice, which he used to address England and the commonwealth in a famous speech about being at war with Germany.

This movie is pure heritage at its finest.  1930s England was recreated beautifully, and the costumes, hairstyles, and sets were gorgeous.  I also quite liked the message of the underdog gaining enough self-confidence to become a great leader.  Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush were excellent, as usual (Colin Firth needs to keep doing these 40s-50s period films, I’m loving them!  Especially A Single Man).  The cinematography and music were also brilliant.

Quite a few people had told me I needed to see this film because it was right up my ally, and they were correct, as always!  Thanks to everyone who recommended it; it was lovely!  Go see it!