Tag Archives: 19th century

The Fable of the Beautiful Pigeon Fancier (1988)

“Your iciness flames my desire.”

In the late 1800s in Brazil, Don Orestes is the middle-aged heir with “a flawless lineage” from a wealthy rum producing family. He’s a dandy, and lives with his domineering mother in a vast mansion. Don Orestes is a creature of habit, and the inhabitants of the town can guess the day of the week according to his set routines. Don Orestes thinks rather highly of himself, but in reality the peasants and shopkeepers despise him. One day, Don Orestes spies a beautiful young girl, Fulvia, walking alone on a deserted beach. While he can’t get the girl out of his thoughts, his mother’s predictions don’t help, and Don Orestes soon becomes determined to have the girl–no matter the cost.

The title of this film, The Fable of the Beautiful Pigeon Fancier (Fabula de la Bella Palomera) gives the viewer a clue that the film in essence tells a story–a fable. The fable aspects of the film are accentuated by the notion of fate and the unexplainable power of dreams. The film is a beautiful creation with spectacular beach scenes, magnificent storm sequences and a heavy emphasis on blues. The beauty of the wild natural world seems in complete contrast to the stilted organization of the Orestes household where the vanity of Don Orestes is fed by subservient underlings and his fawning mother. Fulvia appears to be a rather wild creature–perhaps that’s why Orestes wants to possess her, for she seems to be part of the natural world while Orestes appears to be a foppish concoction of hairnets and hair oil.

Directed by Ruy Guerra (Erendira), The Fable of the Beautiful Pigeon Fancier is one of six films based on short stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Each one is complete, so it is not necessary to watch them in any particular sequence. This is a beautiful film, and like all fables it has a moral at its conclusion. Fans of the writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and fans of foreign cinema should enjoy the film. The film is in Portuguese with English subtitles.

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Monsieur N (2003)

“Some orders should be disobeyed.”

Monsieur N is the story of the final years of Napoleon Bonaparte’s life during his imprisonment on the bleak island of St. Helena. Napoleon (Philippe Torreton) lives with a small entourage of followers in Longworth House. In spite of the fact he’s a prisoner, Napoleon still has an extraordinary amount of privilege within his household. When the new ambitious commander, Hudson Lowe (Richard E. Grant), takes charge, he finds the privileges of rank extended to Napoleon absurd.

Monsieur N is told through the eyes of a young, idealistic aide de camp, Lieutenant Heathcote (Jay Rodan). Heathcote secretly admires Bonaparte, and so the story places Heathcote in a position of some dilemma. It’s his job to ensure Bonaparte stays put, but his superiors–Hudson Lowe, in particular–chafe at the privilege Bonaparte enjoys at incredible expense to the British government.

Monsieur N succeeds in many areas. As a depiction of the times, the film cannot be faulted. Director Antoine de Caunes re-creates the early nineteenth century adeptly as the film jumps back and forth in time and divides scenes on St. Helena with scenes in Paris after Bonaparte’s body is returned for a state funeral in 1840. Philippe Torreton’s complex portrayal of Napoleon is perfect. In one scene, Napoleon is the laconic, mordant observer, and in the next scene, he’s peevish and petty. He is surrounded by squabbling favourites who jealously guard his attention and any future inheritance. The power of Napoleon’s personality is seen at its strongest in the scenes when Napoleon faces Lowe. Napoleon, the prisoner–is commanding–dominating all the interaction as he thoroughly emasculates the venomous Lowe. The potency of Torreton and Grant’s performances establish Napoleon’s ability to inspire, incite and destroy men. In one scene, Lowe stresses how many men died the last time Bonaparte escaped. This simple statement underscores the danger Bonaparte–a caged tiger–represents. He has the power to create and destroy armies, and that power is chained and subdued–but for how long?

Monsieur N is less-than-successful when the film nosedives into an absurd, speculative mystery–with Lt. Heathcote (now Colonel Heathcote) shaking down various Parisians in an attempt to solve the mystery of Napoleon’s death. The intense mystery–which appears out of nowhere–dominants the final half an hour of the film. Thankfully, the ending redeems the film from absurdity, when Colonel Heathcote acknowledges that his desire for an answer to the mystery lies in his hero worship of Napoleon. And this ending allows us to contemplate that some larger-than-life figures are projected into our culture’s mythology for generations. Monsieur N is in English and French (with English subtitles), and the DVD includes a few extras including some information regarding the controversy surrounding Napoleon’s body. After watching the film, fans of this historical period will find themselves diving for the nearest Napoleon biography to slake their desire to know more.

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Passion in the Desert (1997)

 “Let the Jinn destroy him.”

In 1798, Napoleonic officer, Augustin Robert (Ben Daniels) heads a convey assigned to accompany an artist through the desert in Egypt. The artist, Jean-Michel Venture de Paradis (Michel Piccoli) is commissioned by Napoleon to sketch various historical ruins. Augustin and his men are attacked by Bedouins, and during a sandstorm, the artist and Augustin are separated from what’s left of the convey, and the pair wander lost in the desert sands.

Augustin eventually is forced to take refuge in some spectacular ruins. Here he stumbles into the lair of a beautiful female leopard. Over time, Augustin and the leopard engage in a bizarre relationship.

Passion in the Desert is not an art film version of Born Free–rather it’s an imaginative exercise in a surreal relationship. There are elements of love, jealousy, and passion between Augustin and the leopard, and the film is essentially an erotic fantasy. The film is based on a short story by Balzac, and the director, Lavinia Currier does a remarkable job of translating an impossible scenario to film. Balzac was a tremendous student of human nature, but he was also fascinated with the supernatural. Many of Balzac’s lesser-known works are bizarre–The Unknown Masterpiece, The Magic Skin and The Elixir of Life, for example. Passion in the Desert definitely falls into Balzac’s bizarre category. The film is not heavy on dialogue, and the strong reliance on visualization works due to the director’s skill. The lack of dialogue and the tiny cast serve to emphasize Augustin’s isolation, and the result is a bizarre yet strangely hypnotic film. From director Lavinia Currier.

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Vidocq (2001)

 “You’ll have to go to hell and back.”

vidocqIf you’re expecting a film based on the life of the fascinating Vidocq, then you may be disappointed. But if you’re ready for a thrilling historical detective story laced with fantasy & the supernatural, then Vidocq (Dark Portals: the Chronicles of Vidocq) is an obscure feast. Vidocq’s life would make a great subject for a film–he was a criminal and a master of disguise, and during his long checkered career and multiple arrests, he became an informer, was recruited as a police spy, and eventually ran a plainclothes police unit. Later in life, he resigned from the police and ran a small printing company and formed the world’s first detective agency.

Set in the 1830s, the film begins with a fantastic duel between Vidocq and a cloaked figure who wears a golden glass mask. In spite of Vidocq’s bulk and cunning, he is no match for the superhuman qualities of the masked man, and Vidocq is killed. A young journalist, Etienne Boisset (Guillaume Canet) who was writing Vidocq’s biography begins to backtrack through Vidocq’s last investigation. Etienne digs through Vidocq’s notes and uncovers clues about the detective’s final case.

Just prior to his death, Vidocq (Gerard Depardieu) was approached by government official, Lautrennes (Andre Dussolier) to solve the deaths of two men–arms dealer Belmont and chemist Veraldi. While their deaths appear to be due to natural causes (both men were simultaneously struck by lightening and burst into flames), Lautrennes suspects they were murdered for political reasons and employs Vidocq to investigate. Vidocq was on the trail of a vicious killer when he was killed, so Etienne decides to continue the case…

Director Pitof (a pseudonym for Jean-Christophe Comar) created the visual effects for The City of Lost Children, so if you’ve seen that film, you have an idea of the sort of visual effects that await you in Vidocq. The seamy side of Paris is the perfect laboratory for Pitof’s talent–stormy skies, and lightening storms above the filthy gutters of the slums, opium dens and brothels of the notoriously evil Temple District. Set against the political unrest of the 1830s, Pitof captures the mood of the times, and yet makes it uniquely his own. While the story here is pure fiction, the film also captures the essence of Vidocq–one of the strangest characters in the history of humankind–and a great deal of the film is spent in flashbacks which explore Vidocq’s fascination with the sordid side of life. Vidocq’s love of the science behind detective technique, however, is not neglected in this incredible tale. In French with English subtitles. For those interested in the life of Vidocq, I recommend The Memoirs of Vidocq: Master of Crime.

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Oblomov (1980)

“My life began by flickering out.”

Set in 19th Century Russia, the film Oblomov is based on the classic Russian novel by Ivan Goncharov. Bachelor Oblomov (Oleg Tabakov) is in his 30s and lives in a spacious apartment in St. Petersburg with grumpy old serf, Zakhar (Andrei Popov). After 10 years of government service, Oblomov is retired. He lives on an income generated by the country estate he inherited from his parents, and he also owns 350 serfs. He’s been brought up “gently”, and this means he doesn’t even dress himself. Hobbled by inertia and boredom, Oblomov spends his days and nights mostly on the sofa where he sleeps–lying down is his “normal state”, and from time to time, he snoozes, eats, drinks and rails against his fate. But there’s a storm gathering that threatens to disturb Oblomov’s existence–he’s received an eviction notice (his landlord needs the apartment), but in spite of constant nagging from Zakhar, Oblomov is incapable of making a decision about moving.

Oblomov’s childhood friend, the half German, half Russian Stoltz (Yuri Bogatyryov) arrives. He crashes into Oblomov’s life, and immediately tries to rehabilitate his friend. He drags Oblomov off to business meetings–only to catch Oblomov snoozing at the first opportunity. Sorties into polite society with Oblomov are equally unsuccessful and embarrassing. Stoltz believes in vigorous exercise and a healthy diet–he takes Oblomov off to a snowbound sauna and also forbids him to eat pies. The contrast between the two men couldn’t be greater–or more slyly comical–Oblomov’s bleak outlook has led to complete inertia, and Stoltz is a model of German efficiency. The friendship between Stoltz and Oblomov is really quite extraordinary: “how could two men be close whose every trait, whose very lives were a flagrant protest against the existence of the other?”

To solve Oblomov’s housing crisis, Stoltz drags him off to the country where he rents a house near another old friend, a young woman named Olga (Yelena Solovey). When Stoltz leaves for Paris, he admonishes Oblomov to leave the house and discuss books with Olga.

“Oblomovism” is examined through this marvelous film, and both Oblomov and Stoltz’s pasts are explored in flashbacks of the two men as little boys. In spite of Oblomov’s crippling flaws, the film treats him with great affection. He is seen as a rather hapless, harmless fellow who has the occasional tendency to become excited when his world is threatened. Oblomov’s quirky personality is best shown in the scenes that involve the serf Zakhar and his lifelong friend Stoltz. Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov (Burnt by the Sun), Oblomov is in Russian with English subtitles.

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Bluebeard (1944)

“I knew I couldn’t undo the wrongs I’d done.”

The film Bluebeard  from cult director Edgar G. Ulmer is set in 19th Century France and begins with the police fishing yet another body out of the Seine. It seems that the residents of Paris live in fear of a serial killer who strangles his young female victims and then tosses them into the Seine. The beginning scenes of the film stress the atmosphere of fear that reigns in Paris–residents hurry home at night rather than face death at the hands of the killer.

Puppeteer Gaston Morrell (John Carradine) holds his puppet shows in the park, and the murders haven’t been good for business. After meeting dressmaker Lucille (Jean Parker) and her friends, Morrell invites them to come and see his puppets. After the puppet show, it’s obvious that Morrell is attracted to Lucille. While it is revealed that Morrell is the killer, the film stresses his motives and the detective work involved in solving the crimes. Lucille likes the softly spoken Morrell–who’s also a portrait painter–so the plot becomes a tense race against time as Lucille becomes more involved with the deranged killer. There’s also an interesting complication in the form of art dealer/landlord Jean Lamatre (Ludwig Stossel)–a man who shares some moral responsibility for Morrell’s crimes.

Director Edgar G. Ulmer makes splendid use of light and shadows to highlight the sinister subject at hand. Some of the best scenes take place under the bridges around the Seine, and it’s in these dark corners that Morrell feels most comfortable, using the sewer system as a short cut when hiding his crimes. One of the biggest complaints about these old film transfers to DVD is that the film is often either too dark or bleached out–obscuring action. But in my Alpha DVD the film is certainly watchable–however, the sound quality is poor and muffled.

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The Life and Crimes of William Palmer (1998)

 “He has more bottles in his wine cellar than in his surgery.”

lifeThe Life and Crimes of William Palmer is based on a true story, and you can discover why this 19th century monstrous rural doctor became so infamous if you watch this British television costume drama.

When the film begins, William Palmer (Keith Allen) brings home his sweet young bride, Annie (Jayne Ashbourne). He buys her a lavish gift, but this is not a sign of devotion–but a sign of out-of-control spending. They live in the small town of Rugeley in a house that also serves as Dr. Palmer’s surgery. They should be able to anticipate a modest income and a degree of respect from the community, but Dr. Palmer’s expensive tastes include an impressive wine cellar and a penchant for racehorses. It takes very little time for Dr. Palmer to find himself horribly in debt. And this is where murder enters the picture ….

Soon the bodies are dropping like flies, but interestingly enough, questions aren’t asked about the high incidence of deaths in the Palmer household until outsiders enter the drama in the form of various insurance companies. The story conveys the notion that both William and Annie come from rather problematic families. William marries the illegitimate Annie believing her to be an heiress, and Annie’s potty gin-addicted mother (who carts her pet chicken with her wherever she goes) drove Annie’s father to suicide. William Palmer’s mother is also slightly deranged, but she indulges William–except when it comes to lending him money. Neither side of the family is perfectly respectable, but in the rural setting, while rumours abound, Dr. Palmer is still above reproach.

The film includes some extremely realistic horrendous poisoning scenes. There is vomiting galore, and ghoulish Victorian style postmortems abound. It isn’t a matter of whether or not Palmer is guilty, but more a question of how this monster will be stopped. Palmer is fastidious, cold, and arrogant, and he dispatches his victims mercilessly. At times this can be relentless (the poisoning scenes are gruesome)–nonetheless, for fans of British costume mysteries, this is a riveting story. The acting is superb, the costumes are marvelous, and the sets are perfect. 160 minutes long, this is the sort of quality drama that British television is famous for. From director Alan Dossor.

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Under the Greenwood Tree (2005)

 “Tap the cider, Mr. Penny, Sabbath or no.”

greenwood-treeThomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree is considered a slight novel when compared to the great tragedies–Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. Nonetheless it is a delightful tale, and this made-for-television film adaptation is an exquisite recreation of the novel. The main story is a pastoral romance set in the quaint village of Mellstock. The arrival of Miss Fancy Day (Keeley Hawes) sparks speculation amongst the gossipy villagers as to the identity of her future husband. Squire Shiner (Steve Pemberton) seems to be the likeliest candidate for Fancy’s hand. He’s the wealthiest man in the area, he’s obviously smitten by Fancy, and her father promotes the match. Parson Maybold (Ben Miles) emerges as another contender for Fancy’s heart, but Fancy is drawn to Dick Dewy (James Murray) in spite of the fact he’s not considered her social equal.

The courtship of Fancy Day is set against a sub-plot involving the Mellstock church choir. Parson Maybold wishes to replace the choir with a new organ, and he wants Fancy to usurp the choir’s traditional spot in church. Maybold considers this evidence of his progressive nature, but the villagers, who are bound to tradition, view Maybold’s behaviour unfavorably.

The film’s cinematography emphasizes the beauty of nature, and the relationships people have with the land. One of the film’s best scenes occurs when the local gentry attend a garden party–complete with musicians. The country folk stand outside the Squire’s mansion and watch the gentry arrive, but then they decide to have music of their own. The robust accordions and gay fiddles of the simple folk soon drown out the sedate ensemble playing anemically for the wealthy of Mellstock. The film’s playful, rustic spirit stays remarkably true to the novel, and while there’s nothing earth shattering here, Under the Greenwood Tree is a delightful adaptation of a gentle tale to be enjoyed by fans of British television costume drama.

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The Red and The Black (1997)

 “You hate where you come from and you detest where you’re going.”

red and the blackThis French made-for-television film is based on the Stendhal novel, The Red and The Black–a term which refers to the conflicting passions within the soul of the protagonist Julien Sorel. The story takes place in the early 19th Century–after the death of Napoleon and during the Bourbon Restoration. King Charles X is on the throne, and the Catholic Church is once more a power in French politics. Julien (Kim Rossi Stuart) is the son of a carpenter in the small town of Verrieres. Thanks to his Latin skills, he’s employed by the mayor, Monsieur de Renal (Bernard Verley) to tutor his son. Julien is a great admirer of Napoleon, but he’s forced to hide this fact from his employers. The local Catholic Abbe believes that Julien’s future is in the church, and he encourages Julien to enter the priesthood.

Julien, however, is not priest material, and his talent for Latin masks his rather superficial approach to a career in the church. While he longs to rise from his despised peasant background, he lacks the discipline and the ambition to succeed in the church. Julien is incorporated into the de Renal household, and although he enjoys his job with his young charge, he rapidly gets into trouble. Madame de Renal’s maid, Eliza, casts her eyes at Julien and sees him as a suitable husband. While the de Renals both think this is an excellent idea, Julien obviously considers the maid beneath his attention, and instead he’s drawn to Madame de Renal (Carole Bouquet).

Throughout the story, Julien is continually torn by conflicting desires and ambitions. His employment casts him in the much-hated role of a servant, but his ambitious soul longs to belong to the noble classes. While ostensibly he seems to reject class on numerous occasions, he doesn’t despise class. He wants all the worldly spoils that class and privilege can bring–simply put–he wants to be a gentleman. The Red and The Black explores the class system and the politics of this volatile era through the life of Julien as he rather cold-heartedly attempts to succeed in Parisian society–only to fail due to his emotions. The film includes some great characters–the effete Marquis de la Mole (Claude Rich), his spoiled capricious daughter, Mathilde (Judith Godreche) and the cynical Italian Count Altamira (Francesco Acquaroli). The film captures the hypocrisy of French society–the gossip, the snobbery and the intrigue. Directed by Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe (who has successfully brought a number of classic novels to the screen), this is not a perfect adaptation of the novel, but The Red and The Black should please French film fans and French history buffs alike. In French with English subtitles from director Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe.

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Cousin Bette (1971)

“Learn to profit from your miseries.”

Set in 19th century France, the BBC miniseries Cousin Bette is the tale of a bitter spinster, the poor relation of the wealthy and powerful Hulot family. Based on the novel by Balzac, the film follows the novel fairly faithfully, and the result is an intense study of corruption, deceit, revenge and human greed.

When the film begins, plain spinster, Cousin Bette (Margaret Tyzack) is dependent on the charity of her wealthy relations. Consequently, she makes herself ‘useful’ to them but secretly she despises them all. She particularly loathes her cousin, the elegant attractive Adeline Hulot (Ursula Howells). Bette and Adeline grew up together, but whereas Adeline made an important match and moves in the best parts of society, Betty is relegated to the questionable position of poor relation. She’s not quite a servant, but she’s certainly not an equal. Receiving handouts and cast-off clothing, the Hulots imagine that Bette is grateful, but in reality, she’s resentful.

Bette’s resentment of the Hulot family turns to hatred and a thirst for revenge through her relationship with impoverished Polish exile Count Wenceslas Steinbock (Colin Baker). Bette saves Steinbock from a suicide attempt, and furnishes him with the necessary money to fund his budding career as a sculptor. Although ostensibly there is no romantic relationship between Bette and Steinbock, she nurses some rather twisted feelings for him. Controlling and domineering, Bette doesn’t hesitate to remind Steinbock how much he owes her. There’s an irony to this. While Bette secretly desires more from the relationship, fundamentally, all she can express is the sum of Steinbock’s debt in francs and sous. And so that’s exactly how he treats her–as a debtor he wants off his back.

While Bette keeps Steinbock as a sort of pet, she can’t help bragging about her new friend to the Hulots. Suddenly her life is interesting and she has something to capture the interest of an audience. But unbeknownst to Bette, Hortense (Harriet Harper) Adeline’s daughter seeks out Steinbock, and falls in love. A marriage is arranged–all behind Bette’s back but with the full participation of the entire Hulot family.

It is this act–Steinbock’s engagement to Hortense–that turns Bette from simmering resentment of the Hulots to a full-fledged plan of revenge. To her, the Hulots have deprived her of the one thing she cared for, and now they must pay.

Exactly how Bette carries out her vicious revenge is the meat of this riveting mini-series. By understanding human nature and possessing a ready ability to exploit weaknesses, Bette creates a trap that the Hulot family falls into. A key element of the revenge is the Baron Hulot’s uncontrollable appetite for extravagant young mistresses. Bette exploits Baron Hulot’s vice in close partnership with the avaricious wife of a petty government official, Madame Marneffe (played by a young Helen Mirren).

The film is at its very best when portraying the symbiotic relationship between Madame Marneffe and Bette. These women each have their own separate ambitions, but when they team up to loot the Hulots, they form a powerful, malicious alliance. The camera catches each subtle nuance, each facial expression as this delicious drama ensues. This 2-disc DVD set is composed of five parts, and while the conclusion was a little disappointing, overall it did not detract from this fine adaptation. Margaret Tyzack delivers a fine performance as the plain spinster whose loveless existence covers a morass of vindictive hatred. Helen Mirren is also excellent as the perfectly amoral Madame Marneffe–a woman who juggles lovers quite superbly. This adaptation directed by Gareth Davies conveys the hypocrisy and corruption of the times, and while the Hulots and their upper class friends move in a society which hands out favours, titles, and commissions, the second tier of society–the Marneffes and the Cousin Bettes of this Balzacian world–attempt to manipulate a way in which to carve themselves a bigger piece of the pie. DVD extras: a bio of Balzac and cast filmographies. Excellent!

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