Titane (2021) *****

Perhaps the most unforeseen development of this startling picture is that ruthless serial killer Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) develops a caring relationship with an anguished fire chief father (Vincent Lindon) when masquerading as his long-lost son.  Even when it becomes increasingly clear he is harbouring an imposter his naked need for familial intimacy forces continued acceptance. Of course, given Alexia has been impregnated by an automobile, the cinematic wild ride is hardly over. Not just that the father is inclined to pump himself full of steroids to maintain his failing virility and the firemen let off steam by dancing, with no homoerotic overtones, of dancing among themselves.

But tension never slackens due to the off-the-wall off-the-scale opener that saw her enter the realms of the serial killer and the fact that her nipples start leaking oil. A relationship that could have been creepy and/or unbelievable becomes incredibly tender especially when the so-called boy, as teenagers will, causes his father major embarrassment only this time by revealing a more feminine side to his dancing.

While exploring similar territory to David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), this shifts into a completely league. With the exception of what she undertakes to create the transformation into a boy, binding her breasts and breaking her nose, the violence is less about self-harm  than straight-out murder, weapon of choice being a handy hatpin. The most bizarre aspect about the enterprise is not the victims mounting up, but the hilarity the film engenders. When Alexis discovers that she has chosen the wrong locale for one of her killings and with a shrug of frustration has to embark on hunting down an entire household you can’t help but laugh. And the meet-cute with a female model is one of the funniest ever put on the screen.

We never find out what has turned her into a murderer especially as she is not gender-specific in this department. A car accident as a child that resulted in her being fitted with some metal has clearly created some affinity with vehicles and she earns a living as a bikini model who drapes herself over motors at car shows to the delight of leering men. Automobiles are more generally seen as expressions of male eroticism so it’s something of a twist that Alexia takes such love to the ultimate extreme.

Outside of superhero and fantasy movies, it’s rare to find a picture that creates its own world and maintains it in consistent fashion. What we learn about this vicious killer is that she needs care as much as anybody else. As the movie shifts from her selfish enjoyment to filling a gap in the fireman’s life it takes us on quite a different journey to that initially suggested.

Director Julia Ducournau (Raw, 2016) presents an unflinching vision that may be too brutal for most tastes. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes but looks like being ignored by the Oscar fraternity. But the surface is deceptive. If the ending comes as a shocker then you haven’t been paying attention because enough hints are provided as to the potential outcome. And it also means you’ve been ignoring the film’s development which is heading in the direction of togetherness and paternal understanding rather than individual insanity.

In her movie debut Agathe Rousselle is quite astonishing, giving herself up to the needs of a picture that forces tremendous physical demands. It’s a tour de force in what it means to be a committed actor, action driven by character. Oscars have been handed out for a lot less and what makes her characterisation stand out is the transition from woman trapped by a fetish whose only emotional outlet is murder to someone accepting love without question or vicious rejection.

Vincent Lindon (Rodin,2017)  is at the other end of the career scale, with nearly three decades in the business, highlighted by a previous Cannes and Cesar win for The Measure of a Man/ La Loi du Marche (2015). His is a thankless role, at the very least a willing dupe, as much a self-harmer judging from the bruises on his exterior, as likely to be lost and flailing in his jab – a sequence of a forest fire is outstanding – as in his empty emotional life. Hats off also to Lindon, as one of France’s biggest stars, for supporting this project. Without his involvement, funding would have been more difficult.

Titane is a true original with surprising emotional depth.

Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness (1969) **

One of the biggest-ever movie follies, an overblown vanity project with Fellini-esque overtones – written, directed, produced and starring British crooner Anthony Newley (Doctor Dolittle, 1967) – that turned into the first X-rated musical. Bob Fosse mined a similar, almost as seedy, sex-obsessed autobiographical vein in All That Jazz (1979) to critical acclaim whereas the Newley effort met with critical coruscation.

Although primary known as a Broadway star (Stop the World, I Want to Get Off), he had a small but reasonable movie portfolio, star of The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963) and male lead to Sandy Dennis in Sweet November (1968), so in a sense he was ready for the leap into movie stardom, though perhaps not in such grandiose fashion. Had the movie shown the slightest touch of irony, that might have been its saving grace, but the main theme is that women queue up to bed a star who is fed up with bedding women yet appears to revel in his own moral decadence.

The story is so slim it defies belief or arrogance. Hieronymous Merkin (Newley) is preparing to make a film about his own life though he feels he has been controlled from the outset, his child view is that of a marionette with someone else pulling the strings. Once Goodtime Eddie Filth (Milton Berle) sets him on a stage career beauties flock to his side. Although married to Polly Poontang (Joan Collins) he longs to be reunited with earlier lover Mercy Humpe (Connie Kreski). Basically, he keeps asking the universal question besetting all men – if I can have all the sex in the world, why am I not happy?

On the plus side it is certainly audacious, surreal, pretentious, unconventional and gives a good idea of what would happen if a director turned up on a beach in Malta with $1.25 million to spend on whoever happened to be available plus assorted nudes and rolled the camera to see what would happen and then argued with his crew or critics about what was taking place. One big minus is the songs. Newley was a talented lyricist (Goldfinger) and composer as well as performer. But the material here is poor and Newley, despite his Broadway experience, has no idea how to stage a musical.

Cameos abound. You can spot famed comedian George Jessel, singer Stubby Kaye, British entertainer Bruce Forsyth, Tom Stern (The Devil’s Brigade, 1968), and British character actors Patricia Hayes, Victor Spinetti and Judy Cornwell. You may be surprised to learn that the script written in tandem with Herman Raucher (Sweet November) was named Best British Original Screenplay by the Writers Guild of Great Britain.

Theoretically, this is now regarded as a cult classic but I’ve yet to come across a review that treats it as anything other than a self-indulgent curiosity rather than a must-see.

Studio Universal was so embarrassed by the final outcome that it released it in the U.S. under its Regional Film unit “which handles product Universal doesn’t care to go out under its own banner.” The picture was not quite the box office disaster many anticipated after poor runs in New York and Los Angeles. Helped along by a 10-page spread in Playboy it scored substantial business in cities as diverse as Detroit, Louisville and Minneapolis, though not enough, ultimately, to break even.

Given Newley did not make another picture for six years, you might have imagined Hieronymous Merkin spelled the death-knell for his career. But that was not so. After the film opened, he signed a $1 million four-year deal at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, was lining up a Broadway musical about Napoleon and Josephine with Barbra Streisand and was in talks to star in a movie adaptation of his hit musical The Roar of the Crowd.

Afraid you’ll have to dig around on Ebay to find this.

SOURCES: “Newley Making Vegas Bow Aug 7 at Caesar’s Palace,” Variety, June 11, 1969, p76; “Newley-Streisand for B’way Tuner on Nappy-Josie,” Variety, July 2, 1969, p1; “Merkin Dates Overcome Jinx,” Variety, July 9, 1969, p3; “Jack Haley Jr. Setup To Produce, Direct,” Variety, December 24, 1969, p6.

Witness (1985) *****

The Casablanca of the crime thriller, a stone cold classic in which impossible love takes precedence over unusual situation. In the Bogart-Bergman picture it is expatriates in war-torn North Africa, here a cop protecting an innocent boy hides out among the Amish. Like The Rock, this is so good the director makes the audience wait for a first sighting of the star while exploring the other main characters and the unique backdrop, in this case the customs and dress code of a religious cult that shuns the modern.

Adding to the paranoia rampant in American cinema in the 1970s/1980s is a further element – the hunted man or, in this case, boy. There’s no mystery in this thriller, 20 minutes in we know the culprit, involved in a criminal conspiracy so powerful it cannot be fought. And unlike the bulk of cop movies it’s not set in a city but in the country.

Just-widowed Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) and eight-year-old son Jacob (Lukas Haas) set out by train to Philadelphia where the boy witnesses a brutal murder. Questioned by  Detective John Book (Harrison Ford), we discover by accident the killer is cop Lt McFee (Danny Glover). Reaching out to trusted mentor Police Chief Paul Schaeffer (Josef Sommer) only to discover he is implicated, Book flees back to Amish country, where a gunshot wound prolongs his stay.  

Distrusted as an uncouth “English,” liable to violence the Amish abhor, Book, with a range of carpentry skills, soon finds himself at home. Drawn to Rachel, passions simmer, but in this collision of cultures she cannot leave and he cannot stay. Without the cop background this would be a beautifully rendered love story, but the daily danger of the hidden being located  heightens already tense emotions.

The examination of the Amish lifestyle is faultless. Transport is horse and cart, though sometimes that is with almost balletic assurance, there is no electricity, the community works together but threatens exclusion for disobeying strict rules. In compliance, Book dons the typical Amish outfit of plain black jacket and straw hat, buttons forbidden. And it is only when he breaks out of such strictures that his charges are threatened.

While the violence is powerful and when the time comes Book has a ruse or two up his sleeve, the most memorable scenes are as far removed from the crime thriller genre as  possible. First is when Rachel enjoys a tentative forbidden dance with Book. Then there is the love scene where he watches her wash her naked torso, desire written over each face. Finally is building the barn where in quiet but obvious ways Rachel reveals her growing feelings for Book while with hammer and saw he helps put together the structure to the soaring strains of Maurice Jarre’s most magnificent composition.

Director Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society, 1989) excels in observation, a scene between Rachel and wooing farmer (Alexander Gudonov) takes place in silence, women whispering declaim attitudes to Rachel, her father Eli (Jan Rubes) waking Book before dawn, and several scenes of meals. Since restraint is the watchword, Weir draws exceptional performances from both principles, Harrison Ford (Blade Runner, 1982) receiving his only Oscar nomination, McGillis (Top Gun, 1986) nominated for a Bafta, likewise her only recognition at this rarified strata. Josef Sommer (Silkwood, 1983) is good as the ruthless but tormented corrupt cop, and both ballet dancer Alexander Gudonov and Viggo Mortensen (Green Book, 2018) make Hollywood debuts. Lukas Haas is as wide-eyed as they come.

Although nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Director and Music, it only picked up two, for editing and for an outstanding screenplay by William Kelley and Earl W. Wallace, both known almost exclusively as television writers.

An authentic, heartbreaking, multi-layered, adult picture like this is very hard to come by.

Texas Across the River (1966) ****

Excellent comedy western mixing dry wit and occasional slapstick to joyous effect. The wedding between Spanish duke Don Aldrea (Alain Delon) and Louisiana belle Phoebe (Rosemary Forsyth) is interrupted by her previous suitor Yancy (Stuart Cottle) who is killed in the resulting melee. Escaping to Texas, Don Aldrea’s marksmanship leads settler Sam (Dean Martin) to recruit him to help fight raiding Commanches. Romantic entanglement ensues when the Don rescues Native American Lonetta (Tina Marquand) and Sam has more than a passing interest in Phoebe.

It is so tightly structured that nothing occurs that doesn’t have a pay-off further down the line. Bursting with terrific lines – including a stinger of a final quip – and set pieces, it pokes fun at every western cliché from the gunfight, the cavalry in hot pursuit, and fearsome Native Americans to the snake bite and the naked bathing scene. Incompetence is the order of the day – cavalry captain Stimpson (Peter Graves) issues incomprehensible orders, chief’s son Yellow Knife (Linden Chiles) cannot obey any.

The Don, with his obsession with honor and his tendency to kiss men on the cheeks, is a comedy gift. Despite his terrific head of hair, he is stuck with the moniker “Baldy” and every time he is about to save the day he manages to ruin it. Sam is the kind of guy who thinks he is showing class by removing his spurs in bed while retaining his boots. His sidekick Kronk (Joey Bishop), a mickey-take on Tonto, mostly is just that, a guy who stands at the side doing nothing but delivering dry observations.

Lonetta is full of Native American lore and has enough sass to keep the Don in his place. “What is life with honor,” he cries to which she delivers the perfect riposte, “What is honor without life?” Phoebe is a hot ticket with not much in the way of loyalty.

Two sequences stand out – the slapping scene (whaat?) and a piece of exquisite comedy timing when Sam, Phoebe and the Don try an iron out a complicated situation.

Good as Dean Martin (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967) is the picture belongs to Alain Delon (Once a Thief, 1965) and I would argue it is possibly his best performance. Never has an actor so played against type or exploded his screen persona. Delon was known for moody, sullen roles, cameras fixated on his eyes. But here he is a delight, totally immersed in a role, not of an idiot, but a man of high ideals suddenly caught up in a country that is less impressed with ideals. If he had played the part with a knowing wink it would never have worked.

Martin exudes such screen charm you are almost convinced he’s not acting at all, but when you compare this to Rough Night in Jericho it’s easy to see why he was so under-rated. Joey Bishop (Ocean’s 11) is a prize turn, with some of the best quips. Rosemary Forsyth (Shenandoah, 1965) is surprisingly good, having made her bones in more dramatic roles, and Tina Marquand (Modesty Blaise, 1966) more than holds her own. Michael Ansara (Sol Madrid, 1968) played Cochise in the Broken Arrow (1956-1958) television series. Under all the Medicine Man get-up you might spot Richard Farnsworth. Peter Graves of Mission Impossible fame is the hapless cavalry leader.

Director Michael Gordon (Move Over, Darling, 1964) hits the mother lode, the story zipping along, every time it seems to be taking a side-step actually nudging the narrative forward. He draws splendid performances from the entire cast, knowing when to play it straight, when to lob in a piece of slapstick, and when to cut away for a humorous reaction, and especially keeping in check the self-indulgence which marred many Rat Pack pictures – two of the gang are here, Martin and Bishop. There’s even a sly nod to Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns when the electric guitar strikes up any time Native Americans appear. Frank De Vol (Cat Ballou, 1965) did the score.

Night, After Night, After Night (1969) ***

British giallo sets tough London cop Bill Rowan (Gilbert Wynne) hunting a Jack-the-Ripper type serial killer who has slaughtered his wife (Linda Marlowe). Chief suspect is leering cocky jack-the-lad Pete (Donald Sumpter) of the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am school of seduction. In an era when pornography and “perversion” were beginning to shake off the shackles of comformity and strippers, prostitutes, voyeurs and transvestites condemned as evils to be stamped out, this skirts the boundaries between sexploitation and heavy moralising.

Chief among those embarking on a moral crusade is hypocritical puritan Judge Lomax (Jack May) who spurns his attractive wife (Justine Lord) while indulging in cross-dressing. Needless to say, his clerk, ostensibly another upholder of the moral fabric, is a porn addict. As the body count grows, Pete manages to needle Rowan sufficiently for the cop to consider any nefarious means to put him behind bars.

Knives flash in the dark, the killer wears black leather, victims writhe on the ground as they are slashed to pieces, and coupled with the unusually high nudity quotient it is surprising that this picture passed the British censor. The movie never drags and there is enough incidental sleaze to keep the viewer interested. As a historical document, it details the point at which the country hovered between reined-in respectability and full-on sexual freedom.

Operating here under the pseudonym Lewis J. Force, Canadian director Lindsay Shonteff (The Million Eyes of Sumuru, 1967) conjures up a darker vision of a London so often presented in glorious tourist tones with nastiness seeping into every corner of society. Veteran Jack Lord (A Twist of Sand, 1968) captures well the double life of a decent man undone by what is perceived to be indecency and his later scenes are quite moving. Donald Sumpter (The Black Panther, 1977) is excellent as the taunting petty criminal while Gilbert Wynne makes a decent debut as a leading man. In small roles are Justine Lord (Deadlier than the Male, 1967) and Linda Marlowe (Big Zapper,1973 – directed by Shonteff).

Jack the Ripper was such an ingrained element of British culture that any movie featuring a similar villain gave audiences the creeps. British television cops were beginning to move out of the shadow of Dixon of Dock Green and into the new age of The Sweeney and while giallo did not catch on  among home-grown filmmakers there was considerably more focus on hardened criminals such as Get Carter (1971) and Villain (1971).

While the British B-film was moving increasingly towards sex comedy, this fits more succinctly into the Pete Walker sex’n’violence pictures of the 1970s which have attracted retrospective critical interest and for all its flaws, which can mostly be attributed to a low-budget, this is surprisingly impressive in places.

House of Gucci (2021) ***** – Seen at the Cinema

Beautifully constructed, stylish, compelling narrative about passion, betrayal and the death of a dynasty. Just as The Godfather is not just about the Mafia, this is not just about fashion; rather, both fit into the niche of movies about family. In each, there are principled fathers and both weak and strong sons. While decisions are driven by character, ambition clogs the mind and ultimately it is the clear-sighted who win.

In a beautifully-played love story outsider Patrizia (Lady Gaga) manages to snag Gucci heir Maurizio (Adam Driver), her lowly status driving a wedge between him and ill patriarch Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons), who shares control of the company with his brother Aldo (Al Pacino). Almost a geek poster-boy, Maurizio nonetheless fits easily into her world. But when Aldo draws Maurizio into the family business, it triggers conspiracy and betrayal.

Aldo and Rodolfo are polar opposites, the former willing to dilute the brand in the race for profit, the latter seeing himself as the curator of a more sedate way of doing business. While Rodolfo pines for his dead wife in his palatial Italian sanctuary, Aldo has an eye for the ladies in New York. The weak link in the family chain is Aldo’s “idiot” son Paolo (Jared Leto) who considers himself a fashion genius. But, in reality, they are all weak, seduced by wealth and power, believing themselves untouchable despite wholesale fraud, business folly and self-delusion on a colossal scale.

The quest for power is ostensibly driven by Patrizia, but she proves no match for a flinty-eyed Maurizio. And for his all self-aggrandisement, Maurizio proves no match for the circling predators, his rampant self-indulgence a death wish in a boardroom.

Over-acting could have sent this picture off the rails but everyone is terrific and the soap-opera tag is unfair. In the best Shakespearian style, hubris accounts for tragedy.  Few characters escape humiliation. Paulo may be a figure of fun, but his mortification at the hands of Rodolfo renders him extremely human. Aldo may exalt in his business skill but in the face of betrayal is destroyed. Patrizia receives a massive put-down by Maurizio in front of his high-class friends.

Lady Gaga, who demonstrates the onscreen radiance and incandescence of a latter-day Elizabeth Taylor, is superb as the woman whose prize is snatched away. Adam Driver puts in his best performance yet, so natural, and his scenes with Gaga are electrifying. Al Pacino encompasses a massive range, man in his pomp, loving father, and in the depth of agony at betrayal. Jared Leto is a revelation, and an early Oscar favourite, as the ridiculous and ridiculed son. Jeremy Irons and Jack Huston as the conniving lawyer are excellent

There are so many brilliantly-wrought scenes – seduction on a rowing boat, a rugby match that gets out of hand, a snake-pit of a boardroom, Aldo lavishing attention on his cows, Patrizia indulging a psychic (Salma Hayek), Maurizio leaping around a room for a Vogue photo shoot. A weighty look at the corruption of power but also a fabulously entertaining picture. Better known for visual tropes, here Scott displays his mastery of narrative as we sweep in and out of unbridled egos hell bent on triumph at any cost. And it is the best film about business since Wall St (1987).

When I first watched this, I was inclined to give it a four-star rating but after seeing it a second time on the big screen that appeared niggardly for a work of such awesome majesty. (Now that I’ve seen it a third time, the five-star ranking still stands). Just like American Gangster (2005) and Thelma and Louise (1992), when Scott moves outside his self-appointed sci-fi and historical treasure trove, he does so with effortless style. This just zipped along. I hardly noticed the time at all. Second time around, I just did not want it to finish, I was so immersed. I even found myself laughing at the same jokes and situations.

What a banner year for the 83-year-old British director. The Last Duel could have bookended this piece – wronged woman proved innocent compared to wronged woman found guilty. Given Scott is synonymous more with the historic than anything approaching the contemporary, I thought I would have preferred The Last Duel, but I now consider House of Gucci the greater film.

Seconds (1966) *****

John Frankenheimer’s censor-baiting and game-changing paranoia drama was decades ahead of its time – it created the template for Blade Runner (1982), The Swimmer (1968), The Stepford Wives (1975), The Parallax View (1974) and The Truman Show (1998) to mention just a few –  and underneath the sci-fi surface asked deeper questions about identity, reality and depression. And it might well qualify as reaching for the impossible dream. Kafkaesque aspects intrude. It’s as much an essay on hopelessness as it is on hope, a scorching portrayal of the human condition. Unusual camera angles and depth of field make this a visual, if occasionally challenging, delight.

Disillusioned banker Arthur (John Randolph), marriage off-kilter, reacting to a call from someone he believes is dead, gets hooked into a deal which promises rebirth. After plastic surgery and a faked death, he is reborn as a much more handsome figure (Rock Hudson), pursues a new career as an artist, is sexually re-born during an orgy, but finds memories of his old life resurfacing at  inopportune moments and takes against the notion that he has to recruit friends or colleagues to go through the same process.

Although audiences had been treated to some paranoid impulses like The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and films dealing with mental health such as Lilith (1964), this was the first film to touch on paranoia about big business, the unseen conglomerates controlling lives in unseen ways that directors in the 1970s pounced upon. Although a piece of breakthrough technology, the rebirth business is now just that, a business, wherein an anonymous  corporation, known here only as The Company, seeks to maximize profit from human misery.  

You could almost view the men who had more successfully undergone the experiment than Arthur as Stepford Husbands, guys who had created an ideal version of themselves. They could be body snatchers who have stolen a more convenient body. In another respect, the conventional Arthur turns into the rebel in society, refusing to accept this new creed. And he is gullible enough to believe his employers will accommodate his demands.   

On the one hand it is a self-destructive horror story. Arthur willingly gives in to his desire for a better life regardless of the emotional cost and is somewhat surprised to find that the community in which he lives is a construct, almost as fictional as any computer game.

It is an amazing mixture of sci-fi and horror. But the sci-fi has the bleakness of Blade Runner,  the hospital and offices where the future unfolds are drab, while the beach locations have an uncanny unreality. The horror is for the most part confined to two scenes – the new Arthur waking up swathed in bandages and later, strapped to a gurney, realizing too late his destiny.

But mostly what I found resonating was the examination of male psyche and its inability to deal with adversity and depression. Arthur isn’t so much desperate to wake up as a handsome hunk as to enter a new existence where he does not feel so lonely and displaced, where he can discover the humanity he has lost. It is not that he wants to be absolved of all responsibilities but wishes to be free of his current joyless life. While he becomes an improved physical specimen, he finds to his consternation that he has not shaken off the gloominess lurking in his brain.

The futuristic aspects are compounded by brilliant down-to-earth scenes. Company executive Ruby (Jeff Corey) goes into all the details of their contract while eating a chicken dinner, an old friend Charlie (Murray Hamilton) is deskbound, when Arthur arranges in his new skin to meet wife Emily (Frances Reid) he discovers his old true self had been only too apparent, cursed with unspoken longing and divorced from reality. Even romance with the outgoing Nora (Salome Jens) only offers brief reinvigoration after he partakes in an orgiastic grape-stomping event.

This is Frankenheimer’s masterpiece, and given he also directed The Manchurian Candidate, that is some accomplishment. He exercises total control in a film about total control but he is indebted to cinematographer James Wong Howe for developing new techniques to achieve a quite different, often austere, look.

It incurred the wrath of the Production Code – the U.S. censor – with scenes of full-frontal female nudity. These were all cut (though you will find them on the DVD). Whether their inclusion would have turned the film into a hit – rather than being booed at the Cannes Film Festival and a big flop at the American box office – is a moot point since, at that time, films as obscure as Blow Up (1966) had attracted big audiences due their more permissive approach. This should have been a late career transition for Rock Hudson (Strange Bedfellows, 1965) into more mature work but his excellent and brave performance was dismissed by the critics.

Sisters (1969) ****

Erotically-charged, symbolically-heavy French drama of siblings trying to re-establish the intense relationship they enjoyed as teenagers. After a nervous breakdown and on the point of divorce, blonde translator Diana (Nathalie Delon) seeks respite at the home of younger sister Martha (Susan Strasberg), a brunette happily married to the wealthy and indulgent Alex (Massimo Girotti).

Initially, the more worldly Diana, the more flamboyant dresser, appears the superior but it soon transpires she is the more fragile. The apparently timid Martha allows her husband to control her life to the point of buying all her clothes and she confesses to feeling as if she is on “a perpetual cruise.” While on the surface, it seems as if she has given up too much, in reality she disapproves of disorder and seeks perfection. She comes across as needing protection, and believes the woman’s role is to sacrifice, but in fact has managed to arrange her life to her own satisfaction.

Their competitive streaks emerge in different ways, Diana in obvious fashion, seeking to beat her sister while out horse-riding, Martha in more subtle and sensual manner, flaunting her sexual relations with her husband, almost offering her sister to her husband, and having a lover (Lars Bloch) on the side. There is a sense of each attempting to impose their world view on the other. Diana gives her sister a make-over, a new look which Alex adores, Martha hates it. There’s a sense of a chess game, males the obvious pawns.

Sensuality is never far away. Diana nuzzles her sister’s neck to smell her perfume. Alex is photographed, encouraged by Martha, in almost intimate mode with Diana. Dario (Giancarlo Giannini) is brought in to tempt Diana. And a scene where the girls experiment with colorful scarves suggests libertarianism. 

But it is clear that both sisters live empty lives devoid of true love and equally obvious as the picture progresses that both have arrived at the conclusion that they were at their most happiest when together. There are subtle hints of incest, comforting each other in bed, the sensuality electric and the film begins to examine whether this taboo can be crossed and, if so, will it provide the necessary escape.

Despite Martha’s apparent subjugation, there is more than an inkling of feminism, the girls involved in a complicated scenario in which males are either rejected or made to look fools. While not fulfilled, Martha has turned as much as possible to her own advantage and Diana seems perfectly capable of taking what she wants.

Alex provides the symbolism. He cultivates rare plants in a greenhouse that need to hide from the sun, lengthy exposure to whose atmosphere would be fatal to humans. He endlessly photographs them because they won’t last long. And in similar fashion provides a haven for the apparently vulnerable Martha.

Nathalie Delon (When Eight Bells Toll, 1970), married at this point to Alain Delon, shows a subtlety of expression that is rare for someone appearing in just her third film, and effects a gradual character transition throughout. Susan Strasberg, daughter of famed acting coach, Lee Strasberg, inventor of the Method Style of Acting, was one of the boldest actors of her generation, appearing in drug pictures The Trip (1967) and Psych Out (1968). She delivers an excellent portrait of a woman who manages to keep her true personality hidden, and for whom sexuality has few barriers.

This is the puppy-fat version of Giancarlo Giannini (Swept Away, 1974), barely recognizable as the future arthouse superstar whose physical appearance relied on gaunt, angst-riddles features.  Massimo Girotti (Theorem, 1968) is good as the husband who thinks he has everything, not realising how little he has.  

Although this was an accomplished directorial debut from Roberto Malenotti, he only made one more movie. Perhaps he made enough from directing the famous Coke commercial I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing (1971).

Always intriguing, revelations continually undercutting what we think we know of the characters, but delivered in subtle European tones rather than employing Hollywood shock, each of the four main people involved changing considerably due to their interaction with the others. While certainly skirting close to the borders of what was permissible at the end of the 1960s, it does so without exploiting the actresses.

Not an easy one to find, your best bet is a secondhand copy on Ebay.

Mayerling (1968) ****

Sumptuous historical romantic drama set in a fading European empire awash with political intrigue and incipient revolution. Archduke Rudolf (Omar Sharif), married heir to the throne and constantly at odds with rigid father Emperor Franz-Josef (James Mason), sympathizes so strongly with Hungarian dissidents that he threatens to tear apart the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, when he falls in love with Maria (Catherine Deneuve) and wants to marry her instead that, too, threatens to throw the empire into disarray.

Although dissolute, a mistress (or two) on the side, and addicted to morphine, that is not the way Rudolf is introduced to the audience. Instead, he is one of a string of bloodied men arrested after a demonstration giving his name to an officer in a police station who, once he is recognized, orders all other prisoners be released. He is the poster boy for good royalty. The Hungarians, agitating for independence, want him to become their king.

Beautifully mounted with lavish sets and enough in the way of balls, ballet, processions,  horse riding and sleighs to keep up a steady parade of visually interesting distractions, the films steadily builds up an undercurrent of tension, both between father and son and between rebels and ruler. The emperor is a political genius, not just spying on his son, but full of devious devices to hold together whatever threatens to break up the empire.

The romance develops slowly and with true historical perspective, the first kiss they share is not on the lips, Rudolf kisses both her cheeks, she kisses his palm. Yet, there is a real sense that, no matter his power, they can still both be trapped in roles they despise, separated at the whim of parents. Rudolf, as he understands true love for the first time, finds the self-belief to challenge political certainties.

The regal aspects are well done, arguments about the rule of monarchy come over as heated conversation rather than boring debate, the political realities unavoidable. Rudolf, desperate to avoid a future where someone has to die before he has a reason to live. Escape is not an option.

There is a wonderful bitchy atmosphere in the court, where ladies-in-waiting disparage each other behind their backs, one dress described as “wallpaper,” and are forever seeking advancement. Countess Larish (Genevieve Page) is a self-appointed procurer-in-chief for Rudolf, not caring what chaos she causes.

I should add, if you are as ignorant of your European history as myself, that Mayerling is a place not a person. I tell you this so that you don’t make my mistake of waiting for a Mayerling character to appear. The film pointedly avoids a history lesson but it could have spared a minute to explain that the events depicted take place just 20 years after the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the second largest land-mass in Europe, and among the top two or three nations. That would have helped clarify why Franz-Josef was in such a constant state,  worried about forces that could break up the empire, and as concerned that his son, living such a debauched life, lacked the personal skills to hold it together after his father’s death.

It is ironic that Rudolf does prove his worth as a result of being briefly separated from Maria, taking the army to task for its incompetent officers and poor maintenance of everything from weaponry to horses.

To his credit director Terence Young (Dr No, 1962) does not rely on Omar Sharif’s soulful brown eyes and instead allows action to convey character and looks and touch the meaning of his love. This is probably Omar Sharif’s best role, one where he clearly made all the acting decisions rather than being over-directed by David Lean as in Doctor Zhivago (1965). Catherine Deneuve is equally impressive as a far-from-docile innocent, especially given the wide range of more sexually aware characters she has created for Repulsion (1965) and Belle de Jour (1967).

James Mason (Age of Consent, 1969) is superb as the conniving emperor, so rigid he will not approve a change of buttons for the army, so cunning that an apparent rapprochement with his son has unseen strings attached. Ava Gardner (55 Days at Peking, 1963) sweeps in briefly as an empress protective of her son and making the best of life in a gilded cage. Also impressive are Genevieve Page (Grand Prix, 1966) and James Robertson Justice (Doctor in Distress, 1963) as the high-living British heir nonetheless under the thumb of his mother Queen Victoria.

Terence Young also wrote the literate, often amusing script, although Denis Cannan (A High Wind in Jamaica, 1965) and Joseph Kessel (Night of the Generals, 1967) are credited with additional dialogue. While Francis Lai (The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl, 1968) wrote the score he relies heavily on classical music from Aram Khachaturian’s Spartacus.

If you come at this not expecting a David Lean style affair full of striking compositions, but an old-fashioned drama advancing at leisurely pace, you will not be disappointed.

The French Dispatch (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

It can only be ironical that Wes Anderson’s wonderfully idiosyncratic, evocative, often hilarious, picture – featuring ex-pats writing for an American magazine in the style of the New Yorker – is located in the French town of Ennui (translation: “boredom”) because it is anything but, a continuous stream of imaginative and inventive scenes, settings and characters. Where other directors make aspects of history their own (Ridley Scott, David Lean) and others lay claim to greatness by inverting genres (Quentin Tarantino), Anderson’s genius lies in creating worlds nobody else could lay claim to. Although this particular film covers just a triptych of tales, you can easily imagine Anderson has another hundred or so stories at his fingertips, all contained in his own unique universe.

You can see why actors queue up to work with him for he allows them to develop highly-individual characters far removed from their denoted screen personas.  Some like Timothy Chamalet, Benicio del Toro, Jeffrey Wright and Lea Seydoux take advantage of this freedom to conjure deliciously realised human beings, while others such as Owen Wilson and Tilda Swinton let the opportunity slip or appear  in the picture so briefly (Elisabeth Moss, Henry Winkler, Bob Balaban) as to make little impact. Even headliner Bill Murray, who bookends the show, is given to more inventiveness than usual, breaking up his usual deadpan  delivery to make an occasional emphatic point.

While mostly this zips along, when Anderson occasionally stops for breath the effect is electric, for example a static camera taking in the back of a tenement through which we see by virtue of various windows a waitperson’s exhausted ascent. Mostly, the tales follow their own internal logic, but when forced into a genre corner, such as a shoot-out, Anderson resorts to pure zest. And while the narrative is mostly driven by voice-over, this takes on different aspects, from a loquacious raconteur (Jeffrey Wright) to a droning lecturer (Tilda Swinton).

Clearly planning to keep one step ahead of critics who claim his movies run out of steam, Anderson heads off that issue by filming three short unconnected stories. Del Toro and Seydoux head up the best item which sees a psychotic murderer embark on an artistic career that hooks art dealer (Adrien Brody).  Those who expect Anderson to spring surprises might still be taken aback when it transpires that the nude model (Seydoux) of the prisoner (Del Toro) is in fact his gaoler. Having opened a box of twists, Anderson continues in this wild vein. Narrators attempting to impose a semblance of normality generally find themselves at odds with their subject matter. In the second tale, as off-beat a student revolutionary as you could find, Chamalet breathes as much life into the character as he appeared stultified in trying to create a real person in the misfiring Dune (2021). Crime is not usually best served best by asides and droll self-importance but Wright, in the final story, manages to tie up in knots what should a taut kidnapping tale.   

If you come looking for star turns by Bill Murray and Oscar-winner Frances McDormand, you will be sorely disappointed but if you willing to settle for an energetic, fresh, nostalgic take on an imaginary France, with plenty laugh out loud moments, you should come away well satisfied. Of course whether the French will feel as insulted as by television show Emily in Paris remains to be seen but I’m sure the Hungarians did not take The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) too literally.

I notice that this received a platform release in the States and broke per-cinema box office records in the process and I wonder what might have been the fate of The Last Duel (2021), regardless of its budget, had it opted for a similar launch approach.

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