Dedicato a una stella (Luigi Cozzi, Italy, 1976)

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Teenager Stella gets the results of her blood tests in a hospital on Mont Saint-Michel, the famous landmark on the Normandy coast. A picturesque though unlikely and impractical choice; you can only get to it at low tide for a start. Perhaps the place has been a well-known centre of healing since its origins as a leper colony in the Dark Ages or something and I’m just showing my ignorance.

In a mix-up, perhaps or perhaps not deliberately contrived by the mischievous young Belgian (at least that’s where she says she’s from), the doctor gives the unvarnished truth of the results to middle-aged Englishman Richard, in the mistaken belief that he is her father. And he doesn’t even look Belgian; he’s an unshaven figure in a heavy overcoat with the posture of a hungover consumptive, though the disappointing truth is that he’s merely there to get a cut hand seen to.

This pretty girl is a lively and talkative thing, and thus to a man who has reached the age of reason a whole bundle of grief. She tries to inveigle herself into Richard’s life with a variety of ruses. The man’s reaction is complicated by the fact that he knows the dire prognosis of her medical condition and she does not. She is suffering from leukaemia and has three months to live…

There seemed to be a lot of these love stories around in the ‘seventies, about middle-aged men being the objects of over-attention from pretty young girls. Transparent wish-fulfillment fantasies, perhaps they were the revenge of the generation that missed out on the decade of free love. Often they had a mawkish tint. Some were more gloomy than others; Moments (1974) for instance, with Keith Michell and Angharad Rees, positively wallowed in an atmosphere of abandoned hopes, emptiness, and death. This one is about in the middle. The photography, most notably of the wintry coasts of northern France, is attractive if unimaginative. But in an era when even the most humble Italian films could have fantastic soundtracks, this one by the normally gifted Stelvio Cipriani has a plonking theme orchestrated for what sounds like recorder and tambourine.

The Last Concert (to use the title chosen for the English-language edition reviewed here) frequently provokes unintended hilarity. Richard Johnson, something of an older Alan Bates-alike (cf. Story of a Love Story (1973)), is decently gruff and hangdog but in a role that is inherently ridiculous. Pamela Villoresi is clearly from the school of acting that says the best way to play the part of a sixteen-year-old is by simulating brain damage. (On second thoughts perhaps she was just trying too hard to pass herself off as a Belgian.) Her eccentric tones of speech (scratch that: gabbling) are not what I would confidently identify as an Italian imitating a Belgian girl’s English accent, but she’ll do. Best line: “I am a silly girl; I won’t talk any more.”. Well, most promising line anyway.

It’s surprising to note how few characters are in this film. I mean people who interact with the leads and develop the storyline, rather than doing something as humdrum and mechanical as delivering a piano. The only character of note is Richard’s plump and jolly landlady, a mellower version of the Claire Davenport type. Strangely enough she can’t wait to bundle the young couple into bed; not like an English seaside landlady at all. Her daughter appears once at the breakfast table, played by Lucia D’Elia whose only other role was in Beyond the Darkness (1979). This cameo is just as memorable. Watch half her career going by in one hearty appetite. Such a lovely girl. I wonder what happened to her?

Stella’s antics, refusing to take anything seriously, taunting and manipulating with childish tricks, begin to suggest there is method behind the imbecility, and this flibbertigibbet has hidden depths – and pain. She reveals that, now her mother is dead, she is on a quest to find her father, a wealthy man who abandoned her as a baby. Meanwhile, after one joke in poor taste too many Richard finally cracks and slaps her; though it’s closer to the truth to say he fells her with a right hook. He put the entire weight of his body behind the blow, not to mention forty years of rage. The impact would certainly have broken the girl’s jaw. But they are friends again almost at once.

The pair visit a vacant house belonging to Stella’s father, a grey coastal mansion in strawberry gothic. As she wanders through the empty rooms haunting music drifts through the house. Broken-down bar-room piano bum Richard has pulled back the dust sheets from a grand piano and is playing a slow movement from a classical concerto of his own composition. It’s a revelation as profound and deeply moving as Tom Fun’s down-and-out friend Derek turning out to be the drummer from Roxy Music.

The crisis comes one evening over dinner at a restaurant when Stella confronts the self-pitying musical maestro with some home truths; without her he’d be “bumming around in Brittany” apparently. In the days when that didn’t sound like the week’s cultural highlight on BBC3 he takes offence. Get out my life he orders her, loudly, and using coarse and unimaginative language. (It was a posh gaff as well.)

So will it be kiss-and-make-up, or goodbye forever? We’re only half way through the running time so we can guess the answer to that one. It’s all utterly ridiculous, but on a second viewing the story reveals more subtleties than the crude treatment allows a sane person to take in at first sight. The stuff that cults are made of.

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 3/5

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Netzwerk (Ralf Kirsten, East Germany, 1969)

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I think it might be a spy thriller. Usually you can get a pretty good idea of a storyline without understanding the dialogue, but in this case the language barrier was insurmountable for me. It’s an East German flick, starkly photographed in black & white.

It starts off at a petro-chemical works. As a brief aside, take a look at the Wartburg barely seen at the bottom of the title shot (it didn’t seem worth a separate picture). Its lines seem relatively modern and stylish by late ‘sixties standards, not the ugly rattlebox East European cars are supposed to be at all. Of course they then didn’t change the design for twenty years.

Anyway, our hero the very familiar Alfred Müller, is a bigwig at the plant. He usually plays authority types, but here he’s younger and more vigorous than I’m accustomed to seeing him. Take a look at him doing his best ‘my name is Michael Schumacher and you have just blown off in my lift’ face (try it, it breaks the ice at parties). The phrase ‘doesn’t suffer fools gladly’ springs to mind.

Elsewhere, in some kind of hospital, there’s a middle-aged guy of Middle Eastern appearance. His nurse is a young Ursula Werner. Yes, you read that right, his nurse is Ursula Werner! She’s one of those starchy but really pretty and if-she’s-not smiling-she’s-positively-beaming ones too. If it’s wish-fulfillment fantasy you’re after then you’ve found your film.

Talking of wish-fulfillment fantasy, over in the university lecture hall drawing equations on the blackboard, hiding behind thick-rimmed spectacles but with an unmistakable jawline, is none other than Jutta Wachowiak as a university lecturer. Mmm, imagine Jutta Wachowiak saying something so important you actually wrote it down! She seems to be married to protagonist Müller (both characters are in the credits as ‘Doctor’) so this appearance isn’t purely gratuitous.

The setting and characters remind me of Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966), which is the main reason I guessed it was a spy film. There are other hints too, such as people sitting around in fields at midnight presumably waiting to intercept possible parachute drops. I’ve become somewhat addicted to East German films in recent years, and enjoyed this one about as much as I can enjoy any film without any shootings, nudity or car chases, and without understanding a single word of the dialogue.

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 4/5

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Laughter in the Dark (Tony Richardson, UK, 1969)

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One of a number of cynical romances of the time, this one has a wealthy art expert falling in love with penniless young cinema usherette Margot (Anna Karina). This expert, Sir Edward More (Nicol Williamson), has a beautiful wife and bright young child, a house in the country in spacious grounds, even spots on the telly. Clearly he’s no fool, yet he falls for this scheming bint head-over-heels.

This is the first problem with the film. Williamson is an engaging actor, sometimes fragile and irrational, so very believable and easy to empathise with if not to like. Here you just want to give him a slap. The girl taunts him with greedy demands to be set up in a flat with everything to match while turning up at his house unasked and wrecking his marriage. And all before he’s even slept with her. Sometimes the less you get the more you want, but this is taking it too far.

No sooner is Margot shacked up with her sugar daddy than she takes up with an old flame, a French art forger and all-round chancer (Jean-Claude Drouot). Together they plot to fleece the older man, under the cover story of the virile lover being in fact a homosexual. Older men with nymphette lovers are renowned for raging jealousy, but that of Sir Edward is ridiculously easily dispelled. Later, when he has become entirely dependent on the girl, we the viewers are aware of things that he himself is not. But he clearly ought to be, so the necessary suspension of disbelief is not there.

Another weak point surprisingly enough is Anna Karina. She is a little too old for the part, and is an unenticing presence with an unpleasant (and unplaceable) European accent. Worse, the camera doesn’t really love her. Sometimes she doesn’t even look beautiful.

The story is adapted from a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, and here lies another common problem. Perhaps because they are too attached to the dialogue on the printed page the characters don’t come alive, and neither does the story. Something similar happened with another Nabokov adaptation, Jerzy Skolimowski’s King, Queen, Knave (1972). Visually the film is uninspired, though the photography is acceptable if a little limpid. Tony Richardson is one of those journeyman directors who made his name undeservedly by attaching it to the work of other rising stars of the time.

The film gets better as it nears the end, with the atmosphere becoming more dreamy and thus believability no longer a concern, but in the end the viewer is left with the realisation that’s he’s been promised a challenging arthouse drama and been served up nothing but a B-movie, and a slack one at that. People wonder why these films get neglected and forgotten.

Three clips with Anna Karina

scene from Laughter in the Dark scene from Laughter in the Dark scene from Laughter in the Dark

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 2/5

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