RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Foreign Films

Spring in a Small Town (1948)

Spring in a Small Town

Xiao cheng zhi chun (1948)
Directed by Fei Mu
Wenhua Film Company

Like every good story about a love triangle, Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town is more about desperate longing and the subterranean passions that threaten social order than it is about the tawdry mechanics of infidelity.

Based on a short story by Li Tianji, Spring in a Small Town stars Wei Wei as Zhou Yuwen, a 26-year-old woman living in the ruins of post-war China. Her husband, Dai Liyan (Shi Yu), comes from a family that was once prosperous, but is now penniless. Parts of their home are uninhabitable following the ravages of war, and Liyan is stricken with a vague but consuming ailment. Their marriage is passionless. Yuwen performs her wifely duties — shopping for groceries, giving her husband his medicine — but they barely speak to each other and do not sleep in the same bed. They share their house with the elderly servant Lao Huang (Cui Chaoming) and Liyan’s teenaged sister, Dai Xiu (Zhang Hongmei).

One day, the couple’s childhood friend Zhang Zhichen (Li Wei) appears at their home in a brazen but friendly manner. He has been gone for the past 10 years, and is now a well-traveled doctor. He brings joy to all the members of the household, although Lao Huang, the servant, is mystified by his nontraditional habits (he doesn’t drink tea, and he doesn’t wash before going to bed; not even his face).

But before long, Liyan can’t help noticing that his wife is happier around Zhichen than she has been in years. And Yuwen herself is torn between loyalty to her husband and the happiness and passion that Zhichen could offer her.

Wei Wei

After the Chinese Communists declared victory in 1949, this film was rejected because of its apolitical story, but its reputation has grown since the China Film Archive struck a new print in the early 1980s. In 2002, Zhuangzhuang Tian produced a remake, called Springtime in a Small Town, and in 2005, the Hong Kong Film Awards Association named the original Spring in a Small Town the greatest Chinese-language film of all time.

It’s an intimate film without a lot of overt symbolism, but it’s hard not to notice that the members of the Dai household wear more traditional clothing than Zhang Zhichen, who wears a western suit and tie, as well as a wristwatch. He is modernity incarnate, and full of life and promise, while Yuwen’s husband is a moribund symbol of the past.

Spring in a Small Town is a simple but elegant and affecting film. I especially liked Wei Wei’s dreamlike voiceover narration.

Unfortunately, I felt as if I wasn’t able to completely appreciate the film because the print I watched was lousy. The only version of the film currently available in the United States on DVD is from Cinema Epoch, and it’s plagued with problems. (It appears to be the source for the complete version of the film uploaded to YouTube that I’ve linked to below). The picture is softly focused, there are missing frames, there’s a constant background hiss on the soundtrack, some of the cuts seem jumpy, and the subtitles are poorly timed. I was still able to enjoy the film, but when you compare this DVD with the presentation of films from the same period by the great Japanese director Yasujirô Ozu that the Criterion Collection has put out on DVD and Blu-ray, well … there’s no comparison. Spring in a Small Town is a great film, and it deserves a better presentation than this.

Drunken Angel (April 27, 1948)

Drunken Angel
Drunken Angel (1948)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Toho Company

Now seems as good a time as any to talk about how Akira Kurosawa changed my life.

When I was 11 or 12 years old, my mom took me to see Ran (1985) on the big screen. I always loved going to the movies, and since we didn’t have a television, we went to the movies a lot. Until I saw Kurosawa’s Ran, however, I don’t think I’d thought much about what actually went into making a movie.

Ran changed all that. Everything about it was vividly present onscreen — bold color choices, meticulously arranged visual compositions, music too quiet and gentle for the bloody violence it accompanies, the overly theatrical makeup for the actors — and I drank it all in.

I’ve read some critics talk about seeing Citizen Kane (1941) for the first time and becoming acutely aware of cinematography, music, camera movements, and so on. That was my experience with Ran, and it began my love affair with Kurosawa. It was a love affair that continued with Seven Samurai (1954) (which I also saw on the big screen in a revival house shortly after seeing Ran), Throne of Blood (1957), Yojimbo (1961), Dreams (1990), Rashômon (1950), Kagemusha (1980), Ikiru (1952), High and Low (1963), The Hidden Fortress (1958), and Stray Dog (1949).

I can’t claim to be a Kurosawa completist, though. He directed a lot of movies that I haven’t seen. I think I’m spacing them out, since in most cases I’m blown away all over again and if there’s a Kurosawa movie out there that I haven’t seen, it’s something to look forward to.

While I wasn’t exactly blown away by the last new-to-me Kurosawa film I watched and reviewed, No Regrets for Our Youth (Waga seishun ni kuinashi) (1946), I was blown away by Drunken Angel (Yoidore tenshi), which I’d also never seen before.

Drunken Angel was Kurosawa’s seventh film. “At last, my own style has come through in this film,” he once said of the film, and I tend to agree. While it seemed as if something was missing from No Regrets for Our Youth, all the elements I look for in a Kurosawa film were present in Drunken Angel. One of those elements is force-of-nature actor Toshirô Mifune, who plays a cocky young Yakuza. Another element is Takashi Shimura, who plays an alcoholic doctor with good intentions but a terrible bedside manner (the “drunken angel” of the title). (Shimura also appeared in No Regrets for Our Youth, but his role was less central than it is in Drunken Angel.) Shimura and Mifune would eventually appear together in 15 of Kurosawa’s films, but this was the first.*

It’s not just the actors that make Drunken Angel a great film. The ways the visuals help to tell the story, the three-dimensional characters, and the way the film’s themes are clear and straightforward without being heavy-handed … all of these are hallmarks of Kurosawa’s best films.

Dr. Sanada (Shimura) practices medicine in a ramshackle post-war community in which only the clubs, bars, and black market seem to be thriving. It’s an overcrowded warren surrounding an enormous cesspool filled with garbage and teeming with disease. (In a scene early in the film, Sanada angrily chases off a group of boys who are blithely playing in the filth.)

One day a young Yakuza thug named Matsunaga (Mifune) walks into Sanada’s office to have a hand wound treated, but the doctor suspects Matsunaga has a bigger problem — tuberculosis, which was rampant in post-war Japan. With the swagger typical of a young gangster, Matsunaga refuses to submit to treatment or to doctor’s orders, a problem compounded by Sanada’s angry and blunt way of talking to his reluctant patient.

Things are made even more complicated by the reappearance of Matsunaga’s gangster boss, Okada (Reisaburô Yamamoto), who returns from prison in a haunting and memorable scene.

I referred earlier to Mifune as a “force of nature.” Even here, as a young actor, he throws everything he has into the role. Mifune was an actor who used his entire body to tell a story — he could have been a great silent film actor.

The setting of the film is almost a character itself. The cramped, overcrowded little city was designed as a large open-air square by production designer Takashi Matsuyama, who originally built it for These Foolish Times (1947), a comedy about the post-war black market. It was expensive, so instead of demolishing it, the Toho Company wanted Kurosawa to use it for his next film. Kurosawa had about a third of the set torn down to create the enormous cesspool in its center.

During the American occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1952 there were multiple censorship boards that forbid things like the use of U.S. military uniforms in Japanese films, so Kurosawa had to find a way to depict the occupation without actually showing it. Images of westernization abound, even though no Americans actually appear in the film, and the visual symbolism of the cesspool is pretty easy to interpret, especially when the city is reflected in the darkness of its bubbling surface.

Drunken Angel wasn’t released in U.S. theaters until December 30, 1959. Kurosawa wasn’t well-known outside of Japan until Rashômon (1950), which was a big hit on the film festival circuit in 1951.

If you’ve never seen any of Kurosawa’s films, Drunken Angel is not a bad place to start. Seven Samurai might be his most exciting, iconic, and accessible picture, but it’s nearly three and a half hours long. If you’re unsure about Kurosawa and don’t want to invest more than two hours of your life finding out if his films are for you, Drunken Angel is about an hour and 40 minutes long, and it’s an excellent movie.

*Although Drunken Angel was the first time Mifune and Shimura acted together in one of Kurosawa’s films, it was not the first time they acted together. Their previous collaboration was in Senkichi Taniguchi’s Snow Trail (Ginrei no hate) (1947), which was written as well as edited by Kurosawa, and is about a trio of bank robbers hiding out in the mountains with a father and daughter who do not suspect that they are criminals.

Musik i mörker (Jan. 17, 1948)

After Ingmar Bergman’s last movie, Skepp till India land (A Ship to India) (1947), I was expecting more of the dismal same from this one.

Skepp till India land is a bleak, claustrophobic tale of a miserable family, so when I sat down to watch Musik i mörker (Music in Darkness), which is about a blind musician, I was prepared for something even glummer.

Surprisingly, Musik i mörker is a romantic and even sometimes whimsical film. Birger Malmsten, who played the bitter, hunchbacked son in Skepp till India land, here plays a sweeter, more likable character.

Musik i mörker is based on the novel by Dagmar Edqvist, and she and Bergman collaborated on the screenplay. Malmsten plays Bengt Vyldeke, a young musician who is blinded during his military training (when he attempts to save a little dog that runs out onto a firing range, of all things).

Bergman visually represents Bengt’s initial shock and the blindness that results from his accident in a bizarre dream sequence, shown in the still below:

That’s about as extravagant as Bergman gets in Musik i mörker, but the entire film is pleasingly shot. The lighting is especially good, and beautifully complements the fresh-faced beauty of Mai Zetterling.

Zetterling plays Ingrid, a lower-class servant girl who works for Bengt’s family. She cares for him after he loses his sight, but he is caught in a spiral of self-pity, and eventually he offends her deeply enough to drive her away.

In his second autobiography, Images: My Life in Film (1990), Bergman wrote of making Musik i mörker, “My only memory of the filming is that I kept thinking: Make sure there are no tedious parts. Keep it entertaining. That was my only ambition.”

I think he succeeded. The events of the film are small and intimate, but they move along at a nice clip. Bengt takes a job playing piano in a saloon, he’s cheated by someone he trusts, and he tries to make Ingrid a part of his life again. Meanwhile, Ingrid develops a relationship with a young intellectual named Ebbe (Bengt Eklund) and resists Bengt’s advances when he reenters her life.

Musik i mörker still shows Bergman developing as a director. It’s not a towering cinematic achievement like some of his later films, but it’s a satisfying picture full of gentle romance and bittersweet moments.

Monsieur Vincent (Nov. 5, 1947)

Last Easter, I attended services at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. The bishop who delivered the sermon told of how Jesus was resurrected after dying on the cross, and how he appeared to Mary Magdalene. At first she didn’t recognize him, and mistook him for a common laborer. Clearly there was no unearthly glow around his body or blindingly bright halo encircling his head. “Hollywood would not approve,” the bishop said.

I thought about the bishop’s joke when I watched Maurice Cloche’s Monsieur Vincent, a biography of the seventeenth century curé Saint Vincent de Paul.

It’s a great film, and not just because of Pierre Fresnay’s brilliant, totally convincing performance as Vincent de Paul. It’s a great film because it doesn’t engage in the flashy hokum that so many films about religious figures do. There are no heavenly choirs, light streaming through stained glass, or mist-shrouded appearances of Jesus.

Despite the fact that Monsieur Vincent is about a deeply religious man, it depicts his life as one might have observed it at the time. His commitment to caring for the poor isn’t idealized — the people who receive his charity are often filthy, miserable, and ungrateful — but the film is all the more powerful for its realism.

Monsieur Vincent was released in France on November 5, 1947, and in the United States on December 20, 1948. It was awarded the Oscar for best foreign language film in 1949 at the 21st Academy Awards.

Quai des Orfèvres (Oct. 3, 1947)

Nothing spices up a love triangle like murder.

And nothing elevates a routine police procedural like the sure hand of director Henri-Georges Clouzot, who is ultimately less interested in the mechanics of unraveling a murder mystery than he is in showing human life in all of its sordid glory.

Quai des Orfèvres is based on Stanislas-André Steeman’s 1942 novel Légitime défense, which Clouzot adapted from memory when he was unable to locate a copy.

The plot isn’t hard to summarize. What is hard to convey is the richness of its characters and its evocation of the messiness of real life.

Quai des Orfèvres is a film in which a woman complains about a nail in her shoe poking her foot, in which a tense police interview takes place next to a pair of cops inspecting and discussing a fishing pole, in which a police inspector who comes round asking questions ends up shuffling around on carpet slippers because the floors have just been waxed, and in which a man opens his veins in a jail cell on Christmas Eve while the prostitute in the cell next to him natters on about inconsequential matters, not realizing what’s going on right next to her.

The film demonstrates a sense of the movement of time that few films do. It begins in early December and marches on inexorably toward Christmas. At first, Paris looks cold and damp, but toward the end of the picture we see fat flakes of snow beginning to fall slowly outside the windows of the police station.

The aforementioned plot involves a bald, chubby pianist-accompanist named Maurice Martineau (Bernard Blier) and his coquettish wife, a music-hall singer whose stage name is Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair). The two couldn’t be less alike, and Maurice is constantly jealous of his wife. The two share a friendship with their neighbor, Dora Monier (Simone Renant), a photographer who is as perceptive and close-lipped as Maurice and Jenny are hot-tempered and argumentative.

Things come to a head when Jenny begins meeting with a dirty-old-man producer named Georges Brignon (Charles Dullin, a legend of the French stage, in his last film role). She wants a part in a movie. Maurice wants Brignon to stay far, far away from his wife.

On the night when Jenny is set to go to Brignon’s house for a romantic dinner, Maurice cooks up a half-baked scheme. He’ll go to the theater for a show and be seen by his friends in the business before and after the show, but during the show, he’ll quietly slip out with his revolver in his pocket and drive to Brignon’s house.

It’s never made clear whether he plans to kill both Brignon and his wife or just Brignon, and we never find out, because when he arrives at Brignon’s house, Brignon has already been killed.

And worse, when he flees the scene, he finds his car has been stolen, which means he barely gets back to the theater in time to shuffle out with the stragglers, which pokes a few holes in his alibi.

Meanwhile, Jenny admits to her friend Dora that she hit Brignon over the head with a bottle when he became too amorous, and Dora goes to Brignon’s house to clean up the scene.

Enter Inspector Antoine of the Paris police (Louis Jouvet).

Inspector Antoine is no Sherlock Holmes. He’s a detective for a homicide department that currently has a 48% clearance rate. But he is a dogged investigator, and as any Columbo fan knows, beware a hangdog police detective with a runny nose who never, ever gives up.

The character of Antoine — perfectly played by Jouvet — is a great example of how Clouzot injects little unexpected moments to make characters three-dimensional. For instance, Antoine is a single father raising a mixed-race son. When he learns that his son has failed one of his final exams — that pesky geometry — Antoine is upset, and mutters that he’ll just have to give his son the Meccano set he already bought him as a Christmas present instead.

Oh, and remember that love triangle I referred to in the lede? At first it seems that Dora has feelings for Maurice, but it very quickly becomes clear that her feelings are for Jenny. The fact that she is a lesbian is handled delicately, but is confirmed late in the film when Antoine tells her, “When it comes to women, we’ll never have a chance.”

Quai des Orfèvres is a remarkable film. It doesn’t have the heart-stopping suspense of some of Clouzot’s more famous later pictures, like Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear) (1953) and Diabolique (1955), but it’s an extraordinarily well-made, well-acted, richly textured, and involving movie that I couldn’t wait to see again as soon as it was over.

Skepp till India land (Sept. 22, 1947)

Ingmar Bergman’s third time in the director’s chair, Skepp till India land (A Ship to India), was released in Sweden in September 1947 and was shown at the 2nd Cannes Film Festival around the same time.

It was the first Bergman film to be shown in the United States, where it was released in 1949 as Frustration.

Frustration isn’t a bad title. It is a film about angry, trapped, and frustrated people, after all. But A Ship to India is such a beautifully understated title, and it has a touch of irony. It evokes exoticism and adventure, but for most of the film, the characters are stifled and miserable, and trapped in one dreary place.

The film, which is based on a play by Martin Söderhjelm, begins with a handsome young sea captain named Johannes Blom (Birger Malmsten) returning to Sweden after being away for eight years. He learns from an old friend, Sally (Gertrud Fridh), that his father died of pneumonia while he was away, but he seems strangely unmoved by the news. Sally has fallen on hard times, and seeing her upsets Johannes.

He walks down to the beach and falls asleep on the rocks, remembering his earlier life.

He was born with a hump on his back and his father beat him mercilessly when he was a child. His father, Alexander Blom (Holger Löwenadler), was the captain of a salvage vessel, and lived on it with his crew, as well as his son Johannes and his wife Alice (Anna Lindahl). Capt. Blom was an alcoholic who would disappear for days at a time, which threatened his salvage operation. With his crew doing nothing while he was away, the wreck they were working on was in danger of sinking forever.

The tensions simmering below the surface bubbled over when Capt. Blom brought his mistress, Sally, to live with him on the salvage ship.

Capt. Blom is one of the nastiest, most despicable film characters I’ve seen in a long time. The worst thing about him is that he never comes off as a monster. His cruelty to his wife and son is believable, and we see just enough of his internal life to understand him without ever sympathizing him. It helps that Löwenadler is a really fantastic actor.

Like Bergman’s first film, Kris (Crisis) (1946), Skepp till India land shows flashes of brilliance, but it’s not as masterful as a lot of his later work. Birger Malmsten, who plays Johannes, is easy to feel sorry for, but not always easy to understand.

But Bergman has a keen sense of why people do the things that they do, and the human drama in Skepp till India land is keenly observed, if rarely uplifting.

Gran Casino (June 12, 1947)

When the Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel made Gran Casino, his career was in a downswing. His 16-minute silent short Un chien andalou (1929), which he made with Salvador Dalí, had an impact on film and on the French surrealists that can’t be overstated.

His first feature, L’âge d’or (1930), was even more scandalous, and was widely seen as an attack on Catholicism.

He returned to his native Spain and made a semi-documentary, Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (1933), that depicted abysmal poverty in the mountainous region of Las Hurdes. The film was immediately banned in Spain.

In 1939, with the defeat of the Republican government and the end of the Spanish Civil War imminent, Buñuel moved to Hollywood with his family, hoping to make propaganda films about the war. This came to nothing, however. According to Buñuel, an order came from Washington D.C. forbidding Hollywood to make any films about the Spanish Civil War, no matter which side the film supported.

He worked for MoMA in New York, and was under contract with Warner Bros. from 1942 to 1946. What Buñuel wanted more than anything was to make his own films, but he was continually thwarted. It didn’t help that in 1942, Salvador Dalí had published his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, in which he accused Buñuel of Marxism and anti-Catholicism.

When Buñuel’s contract with Warner Bros. was up in 1946, he moved to Mexico. He had no interest in Latin America, and didn’t like living in Mexico, but he wanted to make films. Better to make them in Mexico than not to make them at all. (And it’s likely that Buñuel saw the handwriting on the wall in Hollywood, and realized that hard times were coming for leftists in the American film industry.)

Producer Óscar Dancigers, an old Communist colleague of Buñuel’s from Paris who had used his labor connections to enter the Mexican movie industry, helped Buñuel get the job of directing Gran Casino. It was the first feature Buñuel made in Mexico. Despite his reputation as a brilliant artist, Buñuel had never really made a linear film with a story, so despite its shortcomings, Gran Casino is an important film in Buñuel’s career.

According to film historian Philip Kemp, when Buñuel recalled being offered the chance to direct a star vehicle for Jorge Negrete, he said that he thought to himself, “This is a little adventure-romance. Is there anything in it that betrays my conscience? No? Well then, let’s get going.”

Is Gran Casino a must-see for aficionados of Buñuel? No. The only way it could ever be mistaken for a surreal film is if you smoked a fat joint beforehand and were wholly unfamiliar with the conventions of movie musicals. But just because it’s not a must-see doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing.

Jorge Negrete, the star of the film, started out as an opera singer, and his good looks and rich voice made him one of Mexico’s most popular leading men. (The only other actor who gave him a run for his money was Pedro Infante). Negrete starred in his first movie in 1937. He most often played a “charro,” or horseman, and just like the singing horsemen of Hollywood matinees, Negrete’s character usually rode into town, set things right, rode away with the girl, and sang a bunch of songs along the way.

Gran Casino follows this formula. Negrete plays a freewheeling charro named Gerardo Ramírez who escapes from jail and goes to work for José Enrique Irigoyen (Francisco Jambrina), the Argentinian owner of three oil wells in Tampico, on the Gulf of Mexico.

Señor Fabio (José Baviera), the owner of the casino of the film’s title, wants the oil wells for himself, and will stop at nothing to get them.

After José Enrique disappears, an apparent victim of foul play, his sister Mercedes arrives to take his place as patrona of the little oil field, but there’s a case of mistaken identity, and she’s able to go undercover in the casino as a singer named “Raquela Ortiz.” Mercedes is played by Libertad Lamarque, who was the “Queen of Tango” in her native Argentina, and her acting might be wooden, but her vocal performances are great.

Unfortunately, she and Negrete have no onscreen chemistry, and they don’t even sing any duets together.

If you’re a fan of Buñuel and you’re paying attention, there are a few surreal bits in Gran Casino, like the blurred reflection of the old Frenchwoman Nanette (Fernande Albany) in a champagne bucket that Negrete turns slowly in a way that seems to demonstrate his boredom at her long-winded story as the scene fades to black.

The best surreal bit comes toward the end, when Negrete approaches a bad guy hiding behind a curtain and smashes his head in with a statuette. There’s a brief, inexplicable shot of a mirror being smashed by the statuette in slow motion. Blink and you’ll miss it, but if you’re paying attention, it’s a jarring and memorably weird moment.

Gran Casino was a flop despite its popular stars, and it would be two years before Buñuel made another film. But as I said, it was an important film in his career. It allowed him to establish a foothold in the Mexican film industry, which led to him making the brilliant Los olvidados (1950), which is one of the best and most powerful films I have ever seen. If you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Paisà (Dec. 10, 1946)

Roberto Rossellini’s Paisà (Paisan) is the follow-up to his wildly successful 1945 film Roma, Città Aperta (Rome, Open City).

Roma, Città Aperta is one of the most famous examples of Italian neorealist cinema, and is better known than Paisà, but I think that Paisà stands head and shoulders above Roma, Città Aperta as an artistic achievement. It’s a sprawling, chaotic picture of life in Italy during the last days of World War II. The title of the film comes from the word that American soldiers called Italians — “paisan,” or “buddy” — and over the course of six vignettes the film explores a variety of Italian characters’ attempts to communicate with and understand their occupiers.

Rod Geiger, the American G.I. who carried Roma, Città Aperta back to the United States, worked closely with Rossellini on Paisà, and is listed in the credits as a producer. Most of the Americans in the film were played by off-Broadway actors cast by Geiger’s father, who ran a theater in New York. Depictions of foreigners and foreign cultures in movies are tricky to get right. Usually there are at least a few things that just don’t ring true, but there were times while I was watching Paisà that I forgot that I was watching a “foreign” film featuring American characters. The American actors play their parts in a naturalistic, unaffected fashion, and their dialogue often seem ad-libbed. There are even aspects of the film that ring more true than anything coming out of Hollywood at the time, like an extremely drunk African-American soldier (played by Dots Johnson) who is full of anger and resentment.

Many writers contributed to the film, including Klaus Mann (the son of Thomas Mann), who wrote a treatment. A few of the six episodes that comprise the film function as parables, and have endings that border on being trite, but the overall effect of Paisà is an overwhelming panorama of violence, yearning, friendship, misunderstanding, and horror.

The film is a journey from the south of Italy to the north, and the segments take place in Sicily, Naples, Rome, Florence, a monastery in the Apennine mountains, and in a partison hideout in Porto Tolle. Unlike the American characters, the Italians mostly play themselves. The Sicilians are all played by Sicilian non-actors. The partisans in Porto Tolle are played by real partisans. A street urchin in Naples named Pasquale is played by a real street urchin named Alfonsino Pasca. The monks in the Apennines were really monks, but they were dubbed by different actors, since their accents would have made it clear that they were from the south of Naples, not to the north.

Most of the segments of Paisà end tragically, with characters the audience has grown to care about killed in combat. The deaths are senseless and sudden, and the feeling that no one is safe makes Paisà one of the most affecting and least cliched war films I’ve ever seen.

No Regrets for Our Youth (Oct. 29, 1946)

No Regrets for Our Youth
No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Toho Company

No Regrets for Our Youth was the second film Akira Kurosawa directed after the end of World War II. (The first was Those Who Make Tomorrow, which was released on May 2, 1946. He was forced to direct it by Toho studio bosses. He disliked making the film and never included it in his list of official credits.) No Regrets for Our Youth is an interesting counterpart to two other films I watched this year, Italy’s Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City) and Germany’s Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Among Us). These three pictures are all early efforts by filmmakers in former Axis powers to come to terms with the enormity of World War II.

Roma, città aperta represents an almost total abnegation of responsibility, which is fair enough, considering the role most Italians played in the war compared with the litany of horrors perpetrated by Germany and Japan. No Regrets for Our Youth is more similar to Die Mörder sind unter uns. Both films are stridently anti-Fascist, but both sidestep the gruesome specifics of what actually went on during the war.

Setsuko Hara stars as Yukie, the daughter of a university professor with leftist leanings. (Hara would only work with Kurosawa once more, when she starred in his film The Idiot in 1951, but she was one of Yasujirô Ozu’s favorite actresses, and starred in six of his films from 1949 to 1961.) The film begins immediately after the 1933 University at Takikawa protests against the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Yukie is courted by two young men, Ryukichi Noge (Susumu Fujita) and Itokawa (Akitake Kôno). Itokawa is sensible and boring, while Noge is a political firebrand and hot-headed. Yukie is naturally drawn to Noge, but he is arrested after a demonstration and spends four years in prison.

When he is released, he seems to be a changed man; broken in some essential way. Yukie packs up and moves to Tokyo, where she lives for three years, toiling away in a variety of menial jobs. Itokawa and Noge both re-enter her life, and she ends up marrying Noge, who is now involved in espionage. Eventually he is arrested by Imperial forces, and Itokawa, who is now a lawyer, steps in to defend him.

No Regrets for Our Youth is a film with two distinct halves. The second half, in which Yukie goes to visit Noge’s parents, is visually and dramatically stronger than the first. Noge’s parents are both simple farmers living in a remote village. They are terrorized by the other villagers because their son was a spy, and they never go out during the day, only planting at night. Yukie decides to stay with them and fight against adversity, finding value in tilling the land.

It would be decades, of course, before most filmgoers in the West would see this film. The first Kurosawa film to make any impact outside of Japan was Drunken Angel (1948), and Kurosawa didn’t have a true breakout success until Rashomon (1950), which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951.

No Regrets for Our Youth is a good film, but it’s not a great one. The performances from the lead actors are excellent, especially from Hara. She ages and grows over the course of the film in a realistic way, which is important when a film covers a period of many years. The story is involving, but not exactly what I would call “gripping.” The scenes in the rural village have a distinctly Soviet flavor to them, and I believe that Kurosawa made this film in an atmosphere of heavy censorship and control by occupying forces.

This is the earliest Kurosawa film I’ve seen, so I don’t know what his pre-war films are like, but it seems to me that he really came into his own as an artist starting in the late ’40s, when he reworked American and European stories and film techniques for pictures like Stray Dog (1949) and High and Low (1963), two of the best police procedurals ever made; Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961), two samurai films that drew heavily from American westerns and were in turn copied over and over by directors making actual westerns; and his reimaginings of Shakespearean dramas set in feudal Japan, Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985).

La Belle et la Bête (Oct. 29, 1946)

Jean Cocteau began filming La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) almost immediately after the end of the Nazi occupation of France. It wasn’t a quick or an easy shoot. Cocteau had to contend with limited film stock of varying quality, cameras that jammed, aircraft flying overhead that ruined the sound, and the general disarray of post-war France.

The 56-year-old Cocteau was a well-known writer, poet, visual artist, and director of avant-garde films, but this was his first foray into mainstream filmmaking. It begins with an exhortation to audiences to remember what it is to be a child, and to experience magic without the jaundiced eyes of an adult.

This is probably a direct reaction to the critics (most notably Jean-Paul Sartre) who felt that Cocteau was not political enough. Cocteau’s only allegiance in life was to art, and it is appropriate that he made this film as a reaction to critics, since it’s one of the most beautiful and magical pieces of filmmaking I’ve ever seen. His plea to audiences that opens the film seems unnecessary. This is a film that speaks for itself.

In adapting the 18th-century fairy tale, Cocteau used a lot of the same techniques he used when he made his experimental 1930 film Le sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet); simple special effects, an obsession with mirrors, statues that come to life, and tricks of speed and perspective.

As in the original story (most famously written by Mme Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont in 1756, although she didn’t create the tale), Belle (played by Josette Day) lives with her merchant father (Marcel André) and her two nasty, selfish sisters, here named Félicie (Mila Parély) and Adélaïde (Nane Germon). Cocteau added two male characters, Belle’s brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair) and her handsome but shallow suitor, Avenant (Jean Marais).

The domestic scenes in the film are designed and lighted to look like paintings by Vermeer and Rembrandt. The characters all wear 17th-century costumes, and the interiors are beautiful to look at, even though the human drama is stifling and petty. Félicie and Adélaïde bicker and ridicule Belle, and are indifferent to their father’s rising debts. Meanwhile, Ludovic and Avenant avoid all responsibility and are only interested in the pursuit of leisure.

When Belle’s father rides off into the woods, the mood of the film dramatically shifts. Using a combination of real parks and woodlands with studio sets, Cocteau creates a magical fairy-tale world directly based on 19th-century engravings by Gustave Doré.

When Belle’s father first enters la Bête’s castle — revealed when a gate of tree branches magically parts — his shadow moves against the castle entrance even though he is standing still. Once inside, candelabras held by human arms mounted into the wall magically spring to light. It doesn’t matter that you can see wires holding the candelabras aloft; the simple but painstaking special effects are still breathtaking. When Belle’s father sits down in the banquet hall, sculptures of human faces on the mantel of the fireplace are actually the faces of human actors covered with soot, their bright eyes the only thing about them that looks alive as smoke pours out of their nostrils.

This delineation between fantasy and reality continues throughout the film. When Belle enters the castle to fulfill the punishment meted out to her father for picking one of la Bête’s white flowers, she floats through long corridors full of billowing white curtains in dreamy slow-motion. There are doors and mirrors that speak to her, and a bed with a white fur spread that slithers open. The special effects are simple, and a lot of them are done “in the can” by simply reversing the film.

It’s been awhile since I’ve seen Disney’s 1991 version of this fairy tale, but that film bears an enormous debt to Cocteau’s version. Everything from the look of the beast to the costumes, set design, and subplot about Belle’s jealous suitor are lifted directly from this film. While the Disney version is perfectly competent, it doesn’t have the otherworldly power of Cocteau’s vision. La Bête, in particular, is less cuddly and more uncanny here. He’s played by Jean Marais, who also plays Belle’s suitor, Avenant, which would be distracting if he wasn’t completely unrecognizable under the heavy makeup and mountains of hair. Marais plays la Bête as a noble, leonine creature with a deep nasal monotone. Unlike the lovable furball of the Disney film, there are a few moments in which he is truly frightening; appearing as if by magic when Belle’s father picks a flower, drinking from a brook on all fours like an animal, or standing over the carcass of a deer that he has mutilated.

Given that Cocteau was gay and Marais was his longtime lover, it’s tempting to read a lot into this film. For Freudian readings of heterosexual power dynamics and the vagaries of lust, the Beauty and the Beast myth is second perhaps only to the story of Bluebeard. Are all men beasts who must stifle bloodthirsty and rapacious urges in order to be with women? Did Cocteau, who had begun to suffer from painful eczema, feel like a beast himself?

All theories are welcome, but I prefer to heed Cocteau’s advice in the preface and take this magical film at face value.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 353 other followers