Thais (Ryszard Ber, Poland, 1984)

Filed in Reviews Leave a comment

The St. Thaïs of the title lived in the fourth century as a pampered courtesan, before converting to Christianity and retreating to an abbey in the desert. Pafnucy is the name given to the hermit sent to convert her only to find she was already a believer. According to the cynical version in the novel by Anatole France he then set about an uncompromisingly lecherous campaign to unconvert the woman whose beauty had bewitched him, not letting up even on her deathbed. Thus he was one of the first dirty old men in history; presumably he’s the same character Rafael Corkidi made Pafnucio Santo (1977) about.

It’s an odd choice of subject for a film from communist-era Poland. If there’s any moral appropriate to that particular society it’s hard to pick it out, and Caligula-style orgiastics, while fashionable in the West, were hardly encouraged. Maybe it’s an odd choice for me to watch as well, but I can clear that one up easily enough: I saw a picture of star Dorota Kwiatkowska bathing in asses’ milk, and I like watching beautiful women bathing in asses’ milk. So there.

The opening is stark, with the ascetic Pafnucy (Jerzy Kryszak) praying amongst dilapidated desert temples. Right away we have an unfortunate credibility problem: he looks like the It’s Man from Monty Python. In fact with his cadaverous features and golf-ball eyes he’s better than the It’s Man, but in point of fairness we’ll try to put that aside. In a series of decreasingly austere and grubby stages the action moves to Roman-occupied Alexandria, and our hero has his first bath. But in the interests of decency he politely asks the topless handmaidens to leave before he undresses – what a guy!

At an outdoor party amongst fragrant greenery Pafnucy first encounters the beautiful Thaïs, and never forgets her. The subsequent images contrast the poverty and martyrdom of life for the masses with the luxuriant lifestyle of the courtesan. One scene is particularly memorable; Thaïs leads a Dionysian orgy, sacrificing a lamb with a dagger as the women revellers frenziedly tear at each other’s clothes and bodies with blood-soaked hands. I’ve watched a lot of scenes in the same vein, but I don’t think I’ve seen a pagan revel done more intensely than this. Another long scene is of a Roman banquet, a sort of toned-down version of the one in D’Amato’s Caligula: The Untold Story, gladiators and all (though mercifully absent the horse).

Inevitably the film is a clash of styles. There’s just a hint of the filmed opera about it. Pafnucy is often shown in the shadows, looking on like we viewers, brooding, fantasising. Plenty of naked flesh is on show, though the treatment remains fairly tasteful. Dorota Kwiatkowska sometimes looks like she’s in a bubble-bath commercial, leaving more explicit views to the extras. Even here, when the camera has the chance to zoom in Franco-style on female pudenda, it “makes its excuses and leaves” as the News of the World used to say. Glimpses of nudity come across as a delightful bonus, rather than seeming like the intensive aversion therapy of a work by D’Amato and his ilk. Recommended as a not-too-shamefully indulgent piece of spicy entertainment.

Four clips from Thais starring Dorota Kwiatkowska

Dorota Kwiatkowska in Thais Dorota Kwiatkowska in Thais Dorota Kwiatkowska in Thais Dorota Kwiatkowska in Thais

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 3/5

Quick DVD search
links @ Amazon
“Thais” “Dorota Kwiatkowska” “Ryszard Ber” “Polish cinema”
(Links open in a new window)

, , , ,

The Valley (Obscured by Clouds) (Barbet Schroeder, France, 1972)

Filed in Reviews Leave a comment

Some imposingly desolate and rugged mountain scenery opens this story of a group of young people’s spiritual quest for a remote valley in Papua New Guinea. You think the location is being established impressively well. But then the mist clears a little, and it seems like maybe it’s the Scottish Highlands after all. Obscured by Clouds is literally what this “lost” valley is called on the map. (It reminds me of the time I spent weeks trying to get in to a website called 403 Forbidden – with a saucy name like that it’s no wonder they went to such lengths to protect it.) Here’s one of the problems already; the locations just don’t come across on screen as hostile and dangerous enough. I was going to call it a credibility gap, but how about “intrepidity gap”. Some of us have been on more perilous journeys and still been back in time for our teas.

Viviane (Bulle Ogier) is a bored diplomat’s wife left to fill her days browsing the bric-a-brac stalls for native arts and crafts. One day she bumps into Olivier (Michael Gothard) and he shows her some feathers from an exotic bird of paradise. She joins him and his band of hippie travellers in a search for the hidden valley where the bird is said to live. Will the feathers, and thus the quest itself, turn out to be a metaphor for a journey of self-discovery? Let’s hope not, I can never get my head around things like that.

Not much that is unpredicatble happens. Viviane may be a diplomat’s wife, but first and foremost she is a Frenchwoman. Thus she falls into bed with Olivier the very day they meet. Then off they head into the mountains, and they all take part in a tribal festival; rather coyly unfortunately – one of the girls takes her top off, but Viviane remains disappointingly clothed. Things look like they are about to take a turn for the better when she takes deep draughts of a native shaman’s potion. That stuff isn’t known for making people act more sensibly. Will she check her credit card statements, and wonder aloud whether she’s paying too much for home insurance? I don’t think so! But actually it just makes her act a little bit wet.

La vallée is amateurishly made. It neglects simple things like establishing the core characters, and tends to film in medium shot without interleaving close-ups. Scenes sometimes come to an end before they’ve barely even started, leaving what they were trying to establish something of a mystery. All this acts against any sort of involvement with the characters, who seem irredeemably dull anyway.

Of course this is not an attempt to tell a story of riproaring adventure with heart-stopping incidents along the way. It meditates on how the view of the tourist is literally a world apart from that of the native, who has to take the good with the bad parts of their way of life, and can’t leave it all behind once the fortnight is over. But I knew that already. Even people back in the ‘seventies knew that already.

The ending, again predictably, is open but downbeat (cf. The Holy Mountain (1973)). This film is one part of a nihilist cinematic journey that would end the decade with Cannibal Holocaust.

The Valley (Obscured by Clouds) clip with Bulle Ogier

Bulle Ogier in The Valley Bulle Ogier in The Valley

The Valley (Obscured by Clouds) clip with Valérie Lagrange

Valérie Lagrange in The Valley Valérie Lagrange in The Valley

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/5

Quick DVD search
links @ Amazon
“La vallée” “Barbet Schroeder” “Bulle Ogier” “Valérie Lagrange”
(Links open in a new window)

, , ,

The Ice House (Derek Lister, UK, 1978)

Filed in Reviews Leave a comment

This is the last of a distinguished line from the BBC: the Ghost Stories for Christmas series. It’s been revived in recent years; this short play may help to explain why it was abandoned.

One fine summer our hero Paul (John Stride), a slow-moving but amiable fellow of a little over forty, is staying at a health spa set in a splendid country house. He finds an incongruity; the young male staff have very cold hands, even the ones in the sauna – “a touch of the cools” they call it. Couple this with the ice house of the title (a Victorian era stone chilled storage house in the grounds) and we can make a fair stab at guessing the plot already. Probably the same device that was used in the chiller Shock Treatment (1973). But that French title boasted a Mediterranean climate and full frontal nudity (“Come on, lets have a seaweed sauna!”, “Hurrah!!” etc.) so I suspect this will struggle to compete.

I worry about giving away too much of the plot, but on reflection the plot doesn’t matter. The hotel is owned by a youngish brother and sister, very close. He reminds me of the guest who called Basil a “grotty little man” in Fawlty Towers, while she (Elizabeth Romilly) looks like a gypsy just down from Oxford. The cream of the English upper-middle class then. The rest of the guests are getting on in age, so Paul is singled out for a warm welcome; expect a lot of expositional dialogue from these two.

One more thing to mention: there’s a vine growing over the ice house, with just two flowers, one red one white, entangled unhealthily close together. That’s a real puzzler: where have I seen something so close in concept this could almost be a metaphor? Hmm.

Here’s the heart of the problem: not only does the script consist of the lowest kind of banalities, the characters don’t act out their parts, they just stand around quoting their lines into the air. I don’t know why the director chose a style of such empty pretension. Perhaps he hoped to create a gently otherworldly atmosphere, but the result seems like an under-rehearsed school play. We must “mull over” the concepts in our minds afterwards I expect.

Meanwhile Paul (our hero) like a typical Englishman is a little too eager to oblige his hosts. The enduring image is of a middle-aged man ambling in carpet slippers to his DOOM.

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/5

Quick DVD search
links @ Amazon
“The Ice House” “Ghost Story for Christmas” “British horror” “Elizabeth Romilly”
(Links open in a new window)

,

Dokter Vlimmen (Guido Pieters, Netherlands, 1977)

Filed in Reviews Leave a comment

A dog gets knocked down by a car in the opening of this Dutch period drama. Not just any kind of dog either, it was a St. Bernard that was left whimpering in the road. Back in the ‘seventies, when St. Bernards were massive! Crude, but effective as a way of pulling at the heartstrings. It made me wonder for a moment about the validity of how they measure TV ratings. Do you count towards the official viewing figures if your view of the programme was blocked by a haze of tears?

Enough of whimsical diversions, this is about a country vet in the pre-war Netherlands. It immediately makes you think of the much-loved English TV equivalent “All Creatures Great and Small”, but despite the hero suffering similar indignities in farmyard mishaps this is altogether darker stuff. Our easy-going vet is a frequenter of brothels for instance – I don’t remember notorious waster Tristan Farnon visiting a house of ill repute even at his lowest ebb. It doesn’t shy away from showing actual animal slaughter either – even when it is totally unnecessary. The photography is dark and rich too, portraying an authentically damp and grimy countryside and verging towards noirish in the towns.

Dokter Vlimmen has a rival in Dokter Treeborg. He is established as the bad guy straight away. By owning a more expensive car, cultivating a moustache, and generally looking menacingly like an upper-class Englishman. A villain through and through. The plot unfolds via the workmanlike device of a court case. At this point a cynical viewer can give up on the story. On every occasion the liberal doctor will be shown, despite the odd personal failing, as effortlessly more intelligent, caring, open-minded, and just plain better-all-round than his conservative churchgoing fascist-scum counterpart. Oh, and he’ll be better at fighting too.

If filmmakers want to argue for the superiority of a liberal outlook it’s a shame they choose such illiberal ways of doing it. Example: to show what a really cool guy he is Dr. Vlimmen rescues a piglet from drowning in a muck pit by throwing himself in after it. It’s just a shame they had to nearly kill a real piglet in slurry to film the scene.

Like many pre-war dramas I found the atmosphere heavy and oppressive; perhaps this isn’t intentional. The people always seem stuffy and unlikable, and it just doesn’t feel like a pleasant world in which to live. Mixed with a hackneyed agitprop storyline I didn’t enjoy this at all.

 

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/5

Quick DVD search
links @ Amazon
“Doctor Vlimmen” “Guido Pieters” “Dutch cinema”
(Links open in a new window)

,

Crazy – Um Dia Muito Louco (Victor Lima, Brazil, 1981)

Filed in Reviews Leave a comment

This is the kind of fluff I spend a lot of time watching but seldom seems worth the bother of reviewing. But this time why not? It’s an amiable bit of fluff if nothing else.

Our hero shoots his housemate dead (I don’t know why but the rat must have had it coming to him otherwise how are we going to identify with the protagonist?). He spends the rest of the film fending off a sequence of callers at the front door (tip for domestic murderers – always bury the body before you advertise his room in the paper).

The first knock on the door of any interest is from Belinda (Alba Valeria). She has what I call the Latin American Revolutionary look (at least until I can think of something more snappy (chic guevara maybe?)). She is soon stepping out of her “combat fatigues” and standing by the umbrella stand in her pants gabbling too fast to understand and making frantic hand gestures. I have a vain hope she is explaining herself.

Meanwhile next door there appears to have been a mix-up as two lads are photographing two naked young lovelies without any film in their cameras. Without even any cameras in fact! Oh dear, some girls are so naïve.

So that was sort of alright, who’s next at the door? We’re in luck, it’s Helena Ramos selling Bibles! And wearing glasses too – why can’t she always be so demure? Helena takes longer than the last one but eventually, after a certain amount of pantomiming with the corpse (sorry sick relative) from our hero, seems to have got the idea she can kip down in the hallway. So we have a shy striptease complete with old-fashioned girdle and suspenders. Nice but I wish she’d left her specs till last. And so it goes on.

This farce is fairly typical of the Brazilian sex comedy fare of the time, a shortlived genre called pornochanchada. Most were cheaply made using location filming and little if any support from original music, action sequences or special effects departments. Nevertheless at its best the results stand comparison with popular European cinema of a few years earlier. Jean Garret made sophisticated pastiche Euro-style psychodramas, while Ody Fraga developed an indigenous comic style of gentle absurdity. Crazy Crazy Day is cheaper and clumsier than the average, being essentially an old-fashioned farce set mostly in a domestic hallway, but has an innocent easy-going appeal.

Crazy – Um Dia Muito Louco clip with Helena Ramos

Helena Ramos in Crazy - Um Dia Muito Louco Helena Ramos in Crazy - Um Dia Muito Louco Helena Ramos in Crazy - Um Dia Muito Louco

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 2/5

Quick DVD search
links @ Amazon
“Crazy – Um Dia Muito Louco” “Helena Ramos” “Victor Lima” “pornochanchada”
(Links open in a new window)

, ,

TOP