Tag Archives: miserable marriages

Happy Happy (2010)

Ok, so the Norwegian film Happy Happy (Sykt Lykkelig) from director Anne Sewistsky may not change your world, but it is an entertaining way to spend 85 minutes–especially if you’re interested to see how climate impacts personal lives.

Happy Happy begins with the arrival of a small family to a freshly rented house–Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens), her husband Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen), and their adopted black son, Noa (Ram Shihab Ebedy). They’re new to the remote rural area and are renting the house right next to their landlords, another young family composed of Kaja (Agnes Kittleson), husband Eirik (Joachim Rafaelson) and son Theodor (Oskar Hernaes Brandso). Kaja, a happy go-lucky German teacher at the local junior high, can’t wait for the new family to move in. She’s hoping that they’ll become friends, and after an initial introduction, it’s clear that Kaja’s optimism and desperate need for friendship mask a lifeless marriage fraught with problems. Kaja’s neediness and obvious admiration for the other couple (she sees them as being sophisticated and glamorous) spell trouble, and Elisabeth sniffs that Kaja, although pleasant enough, is a shade too desperate. And when there are no other neighbours for miles around, who wants the woman next door to be so needy for any sign of human companionship?

As it turns out, proximity and social isolation can be a dangerous thing, and since there seems to be little to do on those long, Norwegian winter nights, after a  few awkward dinners, the 2 couples get together in the evenings to play games. Kaja and Sigve welcome the social interaction, but Elisabeth finds the evenings tedious, and taciturn Eirik would obviously rather be off on one of his mysterious moose hunting expeditions. After games of Charades falls flat, Sigve, much to Elisabeth’s annoyance,  invests in the board game Couples. An evening’s entertainment  which includes some pointed personal questions, reveals fractured relationships along with the rather embarrassing information that Eirik claims to no longer has sex with Kaja due to her perennial yeast infection–a condition she adamantly denies.

The film’s subplot concerns the relationship between the children, and while the adults play Charades and board games, Theodur decides to make Noa play ‘slave.’ So we see several games afoot–all of which have serious consequences. Sigve, Elisabeth, Kaja and Eirik all try to play at being happily married, duplicitous facades which slip as the film wears on, but even as the couples try to fool each other, honesty between the respective partners isn’t exactly on the table either, and a crisis must occur before some painful truths finally make it to the surface.

Nothing too earth shattering happens here, and the film takes a light, comedic approach to some serious issues. While I didn’t quite buy the ending, for this viewer, the culture and lifestyle adjustments made for climate made this well-acted film entertaining and worth catching.

Happy Happy is an entry into Caroline and Richard’s foreign film festival.

1 Comment

Filed under Norway

Under Capricorn (1949)

“You took part in an unsavoury debauch.”

Whenever I watch a film that deals with the old convict days of Australia, I wonder how modern-day Australians feel about this part of their history, so that thought cropped up as I watched the lesser-known Hitchcock film, Under Capricorn. Based on the novel by Helen Simpson, this should be a torrid tale of passion–the classic love triangle–or quadrangle– that takes place in the heat of 1831 Australia amidst the snobbery and hypocrisy of British rule. The film isn’t entirely successful as it never seems to go quite far enough into the dark corners of human nature, but it’s still well-worth catching.

Appropriately the film begins with the arrival of the new governor played with a perfect touch by Cecil Parker– a man who’s quietly appalled by the conditions he’d rather not see. The Governor has a poor relation in tow, second cousin Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), and there’s the unspoken idea that while the penniless Adare is supposed to somehow or another make his fortune in Australia, he’s also been sent there as some sort of last-ditch effort in recuperation. Adare, who’s Irish, is very open to the notion of making new acquaintances, and his merry countenance indicates an openness that’s lacking in the prim-and-proper Governor and his staff.

Adare almost immediately strikes up an acquaintance with Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten)–a so-called “emancipationist” which is a delicate term for ex-convict. Although Flusky has served his 5-year sentence for murder and is now a wealthy landowner, he’s ostracised from the upper echelons of Australian society. Flusky invites Adare to his home for dinner, and the Governor warns Adare that under no circumstances must he ever dine at the home of an ’emancipationist.‘ This is a country in which newcomers are advised not to talk about the past, and while that may indicate that the past is supposedly forgiven and forgotten, that’s not true. An intense snobbery reigns about origins–it’s just not discussed. This lack of discussion is mirrored throughout life in 1830s Australian society, and consequently we see no small amount of neurotic and sadistic behavior that takes place behind closed doors. Flusky chafes at the fact he’s not good enough for the ball at the Governor’s Mansion, and yet he treats his convict servants like a pack of wild animals. Several times throughout the film, he threatens his staff with their “pink slips.”

Adare, intrigued by Flusky, and in direct defiance of his cousin, arrives at the Flusky estate at dusk. The coachman who delivers Adare to the gates, refuses to go inside the mansion “Minyago Yugilla” which is translated to mean: “why weepest thou.” The coachman’s reluctance to enter the estate seems to be a wise move, for Adare, unable to gain entry to the mansion peers through to the kitchen where he spies one servant being held down while she’s whipped by another.

Things inside the Flusky household don’t get any better. The dinner party turns out to be a bizarre event, and while various local men of substance attend, all of their wives beg off with various excuses of ill health. It’s an “epidemic” Adare notes as he grasps the social consequences.  Even Flusky’s wife Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman)  is absent–ill supposedly–until she makes a dramatic appearance barefoot and drunk.

As fate would have it, Adare remembers Henrietta as a glamorous figure from his youth, but the Lady Henrietta he once knew no longer exists–Henrietta Flusky is now an alcoholic who hoards bottles of booze in her bedroom, and while she’s largely confined to her room, the treacherous viper of a housekeeper, Milly (Margaret Leighton) rules the roost with delectable sadism and religious hypocrisy. It’s obvious that there’s an unhealthy undercurrent to the Flusky household , but what went wrong? A young vibrant and defiant Henrietta eloped with Flusky who was her family’s groom, and while this may explain the giant chip on his shoulder, there’s obviously something unhealthy simmering beneath the surface.

Under Capricorn has gothic elements which are never fully realized–there’s the build-up around Adare’s arrival, for example, the business with the shrunken heads, and then there’s Henrietta’s madness… she’s unhinged at the beginning of the film but then seems to undergo repair under Adare’s encouragement. The plot also hints at some darker elements which are never explored. At one point, for example, Adare asks Henrietta how she survived financially in Australia during the 5 years she waited for Flusky. This question seems to cause some mental anguish, so we are left to guess the answer to that one.

Hitchcock first became interested in Under Capricorn when he was sent a copy of the novel. He claimed that he made the film for Ingrid Bergman, yet ironically the filming placed some strain on the relationship between Hitchcock and his leading lady. Before shooting finished, scandal swamped Ingrid Bergman due to her much publicised affair with Italian director Robert Rossellini. Bergman and Rossellini subsequently left their spouses in order to live together–a relationship that led to Bergman’s ostracism from Hollywood for several years, and the bad publicity at the time did little to help Under Capricorn at the box office.

Leave a comment

Filed under Hitchcock, Period Piece

Thérèse Desqueyroux (1962)

“I only remember loathing my husband even more than usual.”

Thérèse Desqueyroux, a 1962 black & white film from director Georges Franju, is based on the book by Francois Mauriac. The film begins with the acquittal of Thérèse Desqueyroux who’s been charged with the attempted murder of her husband, Bernard. We are not privy to the trial–instead the story picks up as Thérèse leaves the deserted Palais de Justice in the company of her lawyer. Thérèse’s father waits for them in the distance, and while an acquittal should be good news, Thérèse’s father doesn’t greet his daughter. Instead he shuffles her off in a chauffeur driven car admonishing her that she’s already damaged the family enough.

On the drive back to her home, Thérèse (Emmanuelle Riva) recalls the events that led to the accusation of attempted murder, and it’s a stroke of irony that the evidence of the intended victim, Bernard (Philippe Noiret), is the one thing that saves Thérèse from imprisonment. The film segues to Thérèse’s moody youth and idyllic days spent with her companion, Anne (Edith Scob). Anne is convent-educated, and Thérèse notes that Anne’s purity is “still largely down to ignorance. The Ladies at the Sacre Coeur placed 1000 veils between reality and their daughters.”

Thérèse, the richest girl in the area, then marries the very stodgy Bernard. One of the reasons for the marriage, Thérèse claims is “to have the joy” of Anne as a sister-in-law. People marry for worse reasons, but Thérèse’s passivity in the acceptance of her fate appears to play a part in the marriage which is welcomed by both families. Naturally the marriage is a disaster, and Thérèse grasps all of its ramifications only after the honeymoon which includes her husband’s “nocturnal inventions.” Thérèse  seems doomed to accept the boring life demanded of her by Bernard and his family, but this all changes when she meets the young man Anne loves, Jean (Sami Frey), someone with whom she can discuss Chekhov.

There’s an unexplored tantalizing undercurrent of lesbianism between Anne and Thérèse which would appear to be endorsed by Thérèse’s repulsive sexual experiences with Bernard. The plot doesn’t pursue this early hint, and ultimately Thérèse remains an enigma–even to herself . Just as Thérèse isn’t exactly sure why she married Bernard–a man who bores her to tears, neither is she clear why she tried to poison him.

The film emphasises the idea of hypocrisy–Bernard and Thérèse’s families are more concerned with appearances than anything else, so Thérèse is ‘freed’ from the legal consequences of her act only to face even worse condemnation at home. One scene however struck a false note. Thérèse returns home after the case is dismissed and teases herself with the possibility that Bernard would open his arms to her and ask no questions. That seems either impossibly naive (which Thérèse isn’t) or deranged. After all, what husband is going to accept a wife back at his side, in his bed as before, or even worse–cooking his food–when you’ve tried to off him by overdoing the arsenic?

While the book was published in 1927,  the film is set in the 60s. And the updating begs the question: why is an independently wealthy young woman corralled into marriage with a man she finds loathsome? Still in spite of that flaw, the film has aged well and Thérèse, whose main problem according to her in-laws is her intelligence,  is seen as a feminist heroine who is given no options–or at least considers no options–except marriage to a complete bore.  While marriage is seen by Thérèse” as a “refuge,” ultimately, as she’s absorbed into Bernard’s family, she loses all sense of identity and individuality.

Director Claude Miller has a remake in progress of the film which will star Audrey Tautou as Thérèse.

Thanks to www.bookaroundthecorner.wordpress.com for bringing this book to my attention in the first place.

6 Comments

Filed under France

Someone I Loved (Je L’Aimais) 2009

“Dealing with a Frenchman in love is too dangerous.”

Someone I loved (Je L’Aimais) is based on the best-selling novel by Anna Gavalda. It’s the story of Pierre (Daniel Auteuil), who takes his daughter-in-law, Chloe (Florence Loiret Caille) and two small granddaughters to the family chalet to stay following a family crisis. Pierre’s son, Adrian, has abruptly dumped his wife and children, and Chloe who “never saw it coming” is so emotionally devastated, Pierre thinks it’s wise to take her away somewhere quiet for a few days until she stabilises.

When the film begins, we see a tear-stained Chloe as she and the children are hustled away by car to the remote chalet. She’s angry, she’s hurt and she’s confused. Once there, her children are glued to cartons while she tries to make sense of what happened. Pierre tries to engage her in several ways–at one point telling the story of his brother who went to Indochina after a broken love affair and then who later died of TB.  Then one night, Pierre is driven to tell the story of an affair he had years earlier….

Flashbacks via Pierre’s interrupted story-telling reveal just how 46-year-old Pierre, an affluent Paris businessmen, and director of his own company, met and fell in love with interpreter Mathilde (Marie-Josée Croze). Pierre admits that he was ambushed by his passion: “I didn’t know I was programmed to love like that,” he confides to Chloe.

Over the course of the affair, Pierre has to juggle family and career demands with the desire to be with Mathilde. Theirs is a long-term, passionate affair–potentially the most damaging variety. Scenes with Mathilde are juxtaposed with scenes of Pierre’s unhappy, argumentative family life. According to his status-conscious wife, Suzanne (Christiane Millet), Pierre is never “there” for the family. Interactions between Pierre and his  two teenage children rapidly devolve into shouting matches, while he’s nagged non-stop by his wife when he does put in an appearance. All the phases of the affair unfold: the ecstatic beginnings, the ‘what-about-us’ phase, and the final stage as the affair disintegrates. The film does a marvellous job of showing the heady sensation of the affair. Pierre’s time with Mathilde is an equivalent of being on holiday from his job and his responsibilities.

We know that Pierre didn’t leave his wife–that is evident in the film’s very first scene. But we don’t know the reasons behind his decision. While Pierre’s story of the affair consumes most of the film, there’s also Chloe’s reaction. As a woman on the losing end of an affair, will she have sympathy for Pierre? How will she feel about Pierre’s decision to remain with his family? As the wounded party in her marriage, she makes a unique audience for Pierre, and his story gives her incredible insight into the other half of adultery.

In some ways, Someone I Loved may sound like rather rote fare, but it isn’t. Like any marvellous French film, the sum total is greater than its parts. As Pierre tells his stories and reveals his regrets, he must confront some unpleasant truths about his character. At one point, he admits, painfully, that his choice was “atrocious,” yet at the same time, it’s fairly easy to draw the conclusion that there was no easy solution. Now in his 60s, would he have regretted making the ‘other’ choice?  Is his regret for staying with his wife simply because the unchosen path (“The Road Not Taken“) seems infinitely more desirable?

From director Zabou Breitman

3 Comments

Filed under Daniel Auteuil, France

Carry On Abroad (1972)

“I say, hold on old chap, we’re British.”

During the 1970s, British holidaymakers returning from abroad often had horror stories to tell of miserable holidays spent in half-finished hotels, so it’s no wonder that the Carry On team decided to take their unique brand of humour to a cheap package tour on the Spanish resort of Elsbels.

The film begins one evening in a pub owned by Vic (Sid James) and Cora (Joan Sims) Flange. Vic is scheduled to take his annual holiday, leaving the pub in the hands of his very capable Missus. While the married couple find separate holidays the most practical choice, Vic can’t wait for his holiday to begin because he’s planned to spend it with local dolly bird, Sadie Tompkins (Barbara Windsor). When Cora sniffs that Vic plans a romantic getaway with the petite, busty blonde, she decides to crash the party and makes Vic take her along on the package tour of four days and five nights to Elsbels. Vic and Cora are just part of a motley assortment of holiday makers led by tour guide Stuart Farquhar (Carry On favourite Kenneth Williams). There’s another married couple, Stanley and Evelyn Blunt (Kenneth Connor and June Whitfield), mummy’s boy Eustace Tuttle (Charles Hawtrey), swinging bachelor Bert Conway (Jimmy Logan) who’s on the lookout for loose crumpet, two young single girls Marge & Lily  (Carol Hawkins & Sally Geeson), two single men Robin & Nicholas (John Clive & David Kernan) who have a rather vague relationship, and a horde of monks (including Bernard Bresslaw) who are on the trip to visit the tomb of St Celicia.

Things begin to go wrong immediately, and the not-so-happy holidaymakers have a miserable time. Of course some of the holidaymakers are miserable to begin with, and staying in a hotel that’s only partly finished doesn’t thrill the guests. The hotel is run by the overworked and pathetically eager to please Pepe (Peter Butterworth), his ferocious wife Floella (Hatti Jacques) and their son Georgio (Ray Brooks). Obviously a hotel of this size needs more staff, but what the hotel lacks in staff, Pepe makes up for in ingenuity, serving beans for dinner accompanied by cheap wine, “Spanish-type Australian-French Burgundy, product of Hong Kong.”

A great deal of the humour comes from suggestive double entendre (“Have you got a large one?”) and there are some visual laughs too generated from the shabbily constructed hotel. But in addition to the laughs, there’s some interesting parallels right beneath the plot’s surface. The two married couples are about the same age and their marriages are both textbook cases of different sorts of misery. While lothario Vic would love to dump the wife and run off for a dirty weekend with Sadie, he doesn’t appreciate what he has in his long-suffering companion Cora. Circumstances force the Flanges into the company of the Blunts and their sexless marriage. There’s one scene when Cora struggles with a chair until Stanley comes to her rescue. He’s just settled his nagging, peevish, uptight wife down in the shade when he sees that Cora needs his help, and he’s happy, more than happy to offer his services.

Peter Butterworth’s role of Pepe adds a great deal of fun to the film. When he’s not running around trying to please the unhappy guests, he’s creating lots of laughs with his broken English. For one meal,  for example, the holiday makers are served Brown Bristols soup, and Pepe calls Farquhar, “Farqiarse.” Although he’s continually corrected, Pepe can never get it right. Barbara Windsor, an extremely popular Carry On regular seems walled off and minimized by her role in the film, and that’s a shame.

Carry On Abroad isn’t perfect, and it’s not my favourite in the series, but it’s still a wonderful return to the Carry On gang and the many, many laughs they gave their fans. For those who aren’t familiar with Carry On films, Carry On films were made over the course of two decades and featured Carry On regulars who formed the core team.

From director Gerald Thomas.

Quotes:

“Come on, we’re having a leak.”

“You filthy beast. Be off with you before I call the police.”

“Oh shove off. Go rescue somebody else.”

“I want to bloody well assert my manhood.”

“If you take that little strumpet to the party, I’ll take my ankle bracelet back.”

“Havings good times and lettings hairs down.”

“Better watch it. He’ll be pinching your bottom next.”

5 Comments

Filed under British, Carry On Films

Paid in Full (1950)

“You can build a career on being beautiful but not a marriage.”

If I watch a tearjerker, then I want a film that gives enough unabashed, glorious lurid melodrama that we can wallow in it. Douglas Sirk was the master at this sort of thing. Take Written on the Wind for example–an alcoholic playboy marries the woman who’s secretly loved by his best friend, and the best friend is the quarry of the playboy’s nympho sister. See what I mean? Tacky, tawdry, lurid and proud of it.

paid in fullGet out your hankies for the 1950 melodrama Paid in Full which stars the marvellous Lizabeth Scott. Paid in Full is, strangely enough, based on the true story of two sisters: Jane Langley (Lizabeth Scott) and her younger sister, Nancy (Diana Lynn). The original story appeared in the May 1946 edition of The Reader’s Digest and was written by the doctor who attended both women. When the film begins, Jane is a career girl who works closely with Bill Prentice (Bob Cummins), and Nancy is a floor model, modelling expensive gowns she can’t afford. Nancy is despised by her co-workers who nickname her “the Duchess” for her airs and graces and the fact that she thinks she’s better than everyone else.

While Jane is obviously in love with Bill, he’s in love with spoiled nasty Nancy. The two sisters are contrasts in personalities. Jane is saintly, sweet, loyal and self-sacrificing and Nancy is selfish, materialistic, bitchy and immature. Since Jane raised Nancy after the death of their parents, Jane is more of a mother figure to Nancy than a sister, and unfortunately, when it comes to Nancy, Jane overcompensates for the lack of parents. The result is total indulgence. The two sisters have an unwritten creed: What Nancy wants, Jane gets for her.

Bill is so oblivious to Jane’s feelings for him that he discusses his relationship with Nancy, and even shows her the ring he plans to present to Nancy. Meanwhile, Nancy, who finds Bill dull and boring, has her eyes on a relationship with a millionaire. After being dumped by her wealthy beau, Nancy turns to Bill’s proposal with relief. While Jane (who according to Nancy has read too many “marriage manuals’) waxes on ecstatically about the glories and sacrifices of marriage, it’s clear that to Nancy marriage is a relationship in which she can be spoiled, ‘made happy by her husband’, and when she can finally buy all those dresses she’s modelled for other people. Already things don’t look good for the Prentice marriage.

Jane stays in the wings as bitchy Nancy uses and abuses Bill, but he takes whatever she dishes out, until she demands a divorce. The best scene in the film occurs with Nancy sitting in front of her dressing table while Bill finally tells her what an abominable excuse for a woman she is.

But these are the melodramatic moments of Paid in Full. There are also the tearjerker points with the theme of motherhood as a redemptive state.

Lizabeth Scott glows in the role of Jane. When she looks at Bill, her entire face illuminates with love, but he’s such an idiot, he doesn’t recognise her feelings. Actually I think he does sense Jane’s adoration, but he chooses to ignore Jane’s feelings because part of him wants to be a doormat. Bill wants a woman he can put on a pedestal and worship–or at least he thinks he does. Several excellent scenes show just how Nancy plays Bill, and these scenes show their relationship at its best and at its bitter worst.

Bitchy nasty Nancy is played well, and I particularly loved the scenes of her modelling job and then her former employer’s revenge.

The film’s biggest problem is the insertion of male authority figures: Dr Winston (Stanley Ridges), a lawyer friend of Bill’s and a psychiatrist who appears towards the end of the film. While the two male doctors deliver sanctimonious lectures to the females in the film, the lawyer friend of Bill’s tells Bill that Nancy is seeking a divorce. What happened to confidentiality? These male authority figures dampen the melodrama and move the film away from its tawdry lurid depths. I prefer more drama and less lectures. Plus then there’s poor Bill–a man who’s used as a sperm donor by these two women while they play ping-pong with his heart. If Bill were in his right mind, he’s wish he’d never set eyes on these sisters in the first place.

For fans of Lizabeth Scott, Paid in Full is a must-see. While Scott’s best role (for me) is Too Late For Tears, she does an excellent job as Jane and the role as it is written. Personally, I would have loved to see the film with both sisters as evil, scheming bitches.

From director William Dieterle

3 Comments

Filed under Drama, Lizabeth Scott

Sidewalks of New York (2001)

“We’ll put that romantic crap to bed for once and for all.”

It’s impossible to watch Sidewalks of New York without realizing that the film is either a homage to, or derivative of, Woody Allen. But that doesn’t make Sidewalks of New York a bad film, and if you’re a Woody Allen fan, you may find yourself enjoying the film more than you thought.

sidewalks of new yorkSimilar to Woody Allen’s brilliantly funny Husbands and Wives, Sidewalks of New York also examines male-female relationships, infidelity, and marriage through a handful of characters. And as in Husbands and Wives, during Sidewalks of New York, from actor/writer/ director Edward Burns, scenes also segue to interviews in which the characters are asked key questions regrading their personal relationships and their attitudes towards sex, love and relationships.

Sidewalks of New York begins with Tommy (Edward Burns) engaged in an argument with his girlfriend. After being thrown out, he moves in temporarily with middle-aged Lothario, Uncle Carpo (Dennis Farina) and then tries to find a new apartment. He uses real estate agent Annie (Heather Graham) who’s married to cheating dentist Griffin (Stanley Tucci). Griffin’s self-confessed “European attitude to marriage” has him in an affair with scrappy waitress Ashley (Brittany Murphy). Ashley is doggedly pursued by doorman/future rockstar Ben (David Krumholtz). Ben was married to teacher, Maria (Rosario Dawson).

The interconnected relationships between these careening characters are explored with humour, but honestly Dennis Farina as Uncle Carpo steals the film, with Stanley Tucci coming in as a close second. The all-too brief scenes with Farina are hilarious. Carpo’s advice to the love-lorn Tommy: “Nothing heals a broken heart like a brand new piece of boodie”  is enough to screw up a man for the rest of his life, for while Carpo thinks he knows all about women, his approach to women might have worked in the 50s but it’s too out-of-style to work in the 21st century:

“I’m an animal. I’m twice as vital as any married man 1/2 my age. I’ve had sex with with over 500 women, and I’ve left them all baying at the moon.”

The weakest part of the film is Maria’s relationship (such as it is) with Tommy. She is the sketchiest drawn character of the lot. Heather Graham just doesn’t cut it as Griffin’s wife, and since she is a main character, this is unfortunate. Here as Annie, she delivers her lines to Griffin with a little smile that sometimes just seems out of place, but she seems much more at ease in her scenes with Burns.

Leave a comment

Filed under Drama

Husbands and Wives (1992)

“I’ve always had this penchant for what I call Kamikaze women….I call them Kamikaze because they crash their plane into you. You die with them.”

The film  Husbands and Wives, Woody Allen’s brilliantly funny examination of marriage, begins with married couple Professor Gabe Roth (Woody Allen) and his wife Judy (Mia Farrow) engaged in a low-level bicker right before their friends Sally (Judy Davis) and Jack (Sydney Pollack) arrive for the evening. The two couples plan a night out enjoying each other’s company over dinner, but before they leave for the restaurant, Sally has an “announcement.” With a sort of subdued excitement, Sally tells Gabe and Judy that she and Jack are going to separate.

Husbands and wivesSally’s announcement is delivered with the same sort of emotion you’d expect if this couple had made a decision to go on holiday in the Bahamas rather than their usual destination. While Judy is devastated by the news, which to her seems irrational and enitrely unexpected, Gabe is suprised but content to accept Jack’s statement that it’s “no big deal.” The news is so unsettling to Judy that the evening is entirely spoiled.

Sally and Jack’s announcement of a separation kick starts the rest of this very funny film. While the tightly-coiled Sally claims to look forward to being single, she becomes the date-from-hell when she discovers that Jack has had a woman on the side for some time, and that he’s now living with his bimbo aerobics instructor, Sam (Lysette Anthony).  Judy fixes up Sally with the lonely office bachelor Michael Gates (Liam Neeson), a man who’s just broken up with his long-term girlfriend. And added to the pot is Gabe’s young student, Rain (Juliette Lewis) whose short story “Oral Sex in the Age of Deconstruction” gets his attention.

The film follows Sally’s dating adventures, and Jack’s ‘relaxed’ new life with his aerobics instructor, while in the meantime Gabe and Judy’s marriage dives into the slow-burn of decay and disintegration. Gabe and Judy engage in night-long bickering that begins innocently enough with pointed questions tossed like javelins, and these sometimes esoteric questions devolve into accusations as the night wears on.

As the characters pursue each other in a sort of A Midsummer Night’s Dream compendium of unsuitability, shrewish, sour Sally dates the needy Michael, Jack watches inane comedies with airhead Sam, and Gabe wonders if Rain will be his next kamikaze woman.

Filmed in a semi-documentary style, the drama is intersected with interviews conducted with each of the subjects as they answer questions or render their version of events. Woody Allen’s savvy and often merciless approach to marriage captures all the subtle nuances–denial, avoidance, projection, and sex as a tool to dance around so many other issues. Judy’s ex-husband even makes a few appearances in interview slices as he recalls Judy’s passive-aggressive behaviour and while he argues that she “gets what she wants,” we see it happen through flashback encounters with Gabe and in a passionate argument with Michael.

Crimes and Misdemeanors is my favourite Woody Allen film, but Husbands and Wives comes a very close second. Marriages are impenetrable to outsiders, and each marriage has its own rules of play–often unspoken and barely understood by its participants, but in Husbands and Wives Woody Allen’s wit and intelligence effectively dissects the hellish dynamics of two very different relationships. From any other director, Husbands and Wives would be just another drama, but Woody Allen constructs two very believable marriages and then tears them apart with his usual inimitable style.

Leave a comment

Filed under Woody Allen

Nest of the Gentry (1969)

“Is it true that I’m home at last?”

The Soviet film,  A Nest of the Gentry (Dvoryanskoe Gnezdo) is based on the novel by Ivan Turgenev. It’s the story of the return home of disillusioned Lavretsky (Leonid Kulagin) after he separates from his wife, Varvara (Beata Tyszkiewicz) in Paris. While the beautiful, elegant Varvara is the toast of Paris, Lavretsky is sadly out-of-place in the salon society, and after learning of his wife’s affair with another man, Lavretsky decided to return to his country estate in Russia. During his long absence, the estate has fallen into a state of decay, and during the film’s first scenes, Lavretsky wanders through the house with a loyal serf by his side. Everywhere he looks, things are falling apart–from the broken frames of portraits to the cobwebs flung across unused rooms.

nest of the gentryLavretsky has returned to the refuge of his long-unappreciated estate to “plough the land” and he very soon reconnects with long-time acquaintances–the Kalitins. The oldest girl of the family, Liza (Irina Kupchenko), catches his eye, but she already has a suitor, the dilettante Panshin (Viktor Sergachyov), a government official who comes by to lay siege to Liza on a daily basis. Liza’s mother encourages the match, and it’s one of those situations where the mother is enamoured with the daughter’s beau and arranges the match through a sort of thwarted desire. Liza, who’s a deeply religious girl, is ambivalent about Panshin, but not rebellious enough to openly disobey her mother’s wish. So it seems as though the match will take place as Panshin’s courtship extends through the long summer days.

Lavretsky’s arrival upsets all these matchmaking plans, and as he continues to visits the Kalitins, he falls in love with Liza and his feelings are reciprocated. Lavretsky is tied in marriage, but then the news comes that his wife is dead….

The film includes flashbacks of Lavretsky’s life in Paris, although his wife is a screaming success in the salons of Paris, Lavretsky seems out-of-place, superfluous, and even in the way as Varvara glitters and glides through the elegant company. But somehow Lavretsky is equally out of place in his dilapidated country estate.

Nest of the Gentry is a difficult novel to translate to the screen as a large portion of the novel is spent explaining Lavretsky’s background and his hideous education at the hands of his “anglomaniac” father. While Turgenev’s novel explains the idea of the ‘superfluous man’–an upper class man divorced from Russian culture, these portions of the novel are mostly absent from the film, and that’s unfortunate as these sections underscore the Russian upper class divorcement from their own culture. Lavretsky’s background, and the fact that his mother was a serf is only briefly mention. Several scenes, however, underscore the idea of French decadence and artificiality in direct contrast to the gorgeous summer scenes in the Russian countryside. There’s one great scene of the idle rich lounge by the river’s edge while in the background serfs sing as they slave on the estate.

The film is also quite gentle in its treatment of Panshin, and while the novel spends pages on Panshin’s egoism, the film, apart from sticking Panshin in the clothes of a dandy, doesn’t address his character or his desire to ‘westernize” Russia.

The film also ends inconclusively, and somewhat unsatisfyingly with the characters’ fates still up in the air. Those complaints aside, Nest of the Gentry is a gorgeous adaptation that should please fans of Russian literature and/or Soviet cinema, but a mini series format would perhaps effectively capture the details of the novel that this film missed. From director Andrei Konchal

Leave a comment

Filed under Soviet

Coup de Torchon (1981)

“I’ve got no choice. First, I’m underpaid; second, my wife takes all my money;and third, fining you is practically a civic duty.”

In the French film Coup de Torchon (Clean Slate), Jim Thompson’s noir novel Pop. 1280 is transposed from the rural American South to French West Africa. And here the film becomes a blistering critique of the corrosive nature of colonialism. You can draw your own conclusions about the connection between the American South and colonialism, but the bottom line is that the film works.

It’s 1938, and the world is on the brink of WWII. While at first the spectre of war appears to be a daunting prospect for the French characters stuck in this West African outpost, as the plot spins out, it becomes clear that the prospect of imminent war is really a matter of slow bubbling excitement because it represents a shift in the doldrums and a heightened connection with the outside world. By the end of the film, war has been declared and within minutes blacks are rounded up at gunpoint as an almost carnival atmosphere is unleashed within the white power structure.

The protagonist of Coup De Torchon is the middle-aged, flabby, sweaty Chief of Police Lucien Cordier (Philippe Noiret). Stuck in some African town for eons, Cordier has gone to pot–physically and morally. Whereas in most regions of the planet, being the Chief of Police is a position of some importance, Cordier is regarded by the other displaced Westerners with scorn, and he’s treated just marginally better than the blacks. From the minute Cordier gets up, his days are an endless humiliation–beginning with his nasty wife Huguette Cordier (played with housewifely slovenliness by Stephane Audran) and her so-called ‘brother’ Nono (Eddy Mitchell). Blatantly cuckolded in his own home, things don’t get better when Cordier steps out the front door. Whether he’s treated like a janitor by the wealthy Vanderbrouck (Michel Beaune) who pisses in the public toilet right underneath the Chief of Police’s window, or whether Cordier is the butt of jokes made by the local pimps, he leads a miserable life. But in order to swallow these humiliations, Cordier pretends they aren’t happening. So when he sees his wife cuddling, kissing and fondling her ‘brother,’ Cordier resorts to petty acts, and he tries to pass off the pimps’ rudeness as friendly fun, but Cordier’s humiliations at the hands of the white population escalate until he finally asks for advice from a fellow policeman.

Cordier takes the advice to heart and begins eliminating his enemies, fabricating stories or circumstances about their deaths, and as the Chief of Police, he’s in a perfect position to exact revenge and cover up his crimes.

It’s difficult to identify with the lengths Cordier goes to swallow his pride and accept the humiliations shoved down his throat on a daily basis. Perhaps the most egregious of these humiliations are those he suffers from his wife, but then again Cordier has a mistress to console himself with, the spunky, married Rose Mercaillau (Isabelle Huppert). Cordier is basically a coward at heart and even allows his mistress to be beaten in public by her husband rather than openly challenge him. And as is typical with Cordier, he is comfortable only with sneakily attacking rather than challenging and confronting. Ultimately acts of brutality do not give Cordier courage.

The native blacks in the film wisely stay out of the way of the white people as much as possible, and the areas in which the whites and the blacks merge is often violent and explosive with the Africans on the receiving end of the erratic behaviour of the whites. A couple of scenes indicate that the social behaviour of the French offers a degree of entertainment for the native blacks–albeit if watched safely from a distance. While Cordier can hardly be described as a defender of the blacks by any means, his speeches indicate that too many years in the colonies have left him incapable of making a moral decision, and that colonialism has eroded away any standards of good and evil he possessed.

While the film from director Bertrand Tavernier gives no hint about Cordier’s standards of behaviour in his pre-Africa years, nonetheless statements dropped by Cordier indicate that his sense of morality has been scrambled by the things he’s seen in Africa:

“At first it is horrible. But then you start to think about starving kids, little girls sold into slavery, women whose sex is sewn up… God created murder out of pure kindness. Murder is nothing compared to those horrors. ”

Cordier latches on to the new, idealistic, female teacher who arrives in town to teach the natives to speak French, and while he observes that this is a noble mission, he sardonically notes that she will enable the black children “to read their daddy’s name on French war memorials.” While Cordier finds the teacher admirable, it’s not long before she too is disgusted with him for his lack of moral courage.

There is the sense that far from home, the French characters act in a fashion that would not be acceptable on their home turf and that Cordier is ultimately influenced by those around him. Vanderbrouck, for example, wouldn’t be pissing in a roofless toilet if he lived in Paris and Madame Cordier might be more mindful of her neighbours if she was stuck in a small French town. The pimps wouldn’t intimidate the Chief of Police, and they certainly wouldn’t take potshots at bodies if they saw them floating by in the Seine. These actions are all indications of the general breakdown of society and indeed Cordier indicates this at one point while acknowledging that his standards have slipped:

“Grammar gets rusty like everything else if you don’t use it. And in Africa the same goes for good and evil. What’s good? What’s evil? Nobody knows. It’s not much use here. So it gets rusty too. Must be the climate. ”

And with the general breakdown of society corrupted by colonialism, crimes become–as Cordier notes–collective and confused:

“I try to save the innocent but there aren’t any. All crimes are collective. We contribute to each other’s crimes. We all shot your brother. And maybe I did a bit more than my share. ”

Ultimately Coup de Torchon is an examination of the erosion of moral courage through the corrosive insidious presence of colonialism. Most of the film’s characters lack moral courage and no longer speak out against what is morally wrong. They all turn a blind eye to one egregious situation or another–with Cordier as an extreme example. He’s the low man on the totem pole while ironically he is the one who is supposed to be enforcing laws as they impact behavior in the French colony. Lacking moral courage, and unable to identify wrong from right, good from evil, Cordier begins his cowardly path of revenge but simply misses the point that revenge isn’t what’s needed: it’s moral courage that’s glaringly absent.

Leave a comment

Filed under France, Isabelle Huppert