Bunuel at Sandringham


It’s 1973. North Norfolk. My husband’s parents live in a little village near the Sandringham estate, country retreat of the royal family.  They’ve mentioned before how the old retainer ( ‘Keeper of the Drapes’) there, Bob, is a bit of a mate, and sporadically he is allowed to invite friends along to special film evenings. The Family apparently get to enjoy a pre-release film occasionally, it’s one of the perks of being royal, and they like to be joined by a few of the local village proletariat, to make it seem like a real cinema.  Poor things, this is the nearest they can get to going to the pictures. The previous year they’d been treated to The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins, a British offering starring Bruce Forsyth, Bernard Bresslaw, Joan Sims and Leslie Phillips.

As we arrive for a long weekend we’re greeted with good news – there’s to be another film at The Big House, and we’re all invited! But our horror at the thought of giving in to being graciously allowed to swell the ranks of the peasantry so as to provide a suitably convivial backdrop evaporates when we hear the name of the film –  ‘It’s The Discreet Charms of the Boudoir… or something,’ declares my father in law. My husband and I (to coin a phrase) exchange bemused, wildly hopeful glances…could it be?? We’ve read about it, we’ve lusted after seeing it, but so far it hasn’t been seen on British soil…

So, through the dark night we drive, arriving at the tradesman’s entrance of the great house. We’re welcomed by old Bob, who prefaces the night’s entertainment by showing us around some of the behind-stairs area and outhouses, culminating in the pièce, or rather siège, de résistance – the lavatory which King George V used to use when he’d been out doing a spot of shootin’. A few at a time we peer through the door, giving it as much wild surmize as we can muster, for Bob’s sake. In the kitchen, where sandwiches are set out for us, we question Bob on what film it is we are actually going to see, and again he repeats the mantra – The Discreet Charms of the Boudoir.  At this point many of the gents of the party give out lascivious looks… good old royals, eh, they know how to pick  ’em!

Now it’s time to assemble. We enter the Japanese Ballroom, a sizeable reception room, though hardly big enough for what you would expect of a royal ball. It does have, however, a powerful Japanese presence, being hung about the walls and ceilings with bits of dark and malign-looking oriental armour and weapons. Towards the back are two or three rows of dainty seats, with more commodious seating in front. As newcomers, we two are marshalled to sit at the back. My in-laws, having been twice before, are allowed onto the front rank of chairs, as the Queen likes to have a look round and recognise a few faces…  Enter the royal party onto the becushioned sofas. We stand. There’s HM herself, Prince Philip, full of bonhomie, the Queen Mum trotting gamely in, a duke and a duchess, various royal-ish hangers on. They’ve all got that after-dinner look. Good evening, good evening, oh, DO sit down. And we’re off.

And we really are off, because it’s what we hope, and what the royals don’t expect – Bunuel’s masterpiece, and we’re seeing it NOW, in this company, before anyone else in the world that we know. We can’t see their reactions, sadly, it’s too dark, and there’s not a sound, in fact there’s that kind of meta-sound of virtual question-marks boinging out of heads. Where’s the Boudoir? Where’s the Charm??  My god, subtitles!  The people around us relax into it gradually, but you can’t escape the fact that a great guffaw going up from that front row would lighten things up no end. Where’s Charles when you need him? I do my bit by quietly laughing down my nostrils, because that’s all I ever do, I’m not a laugher out loud in cinemas, in general.  Would I have dared to, if I were?

But what delicious pleasure – overlaying the joy of the film, there’s the wicked simultaneous awareness of where we are. Not being a proper cinema it’s not entirely dark, and you can never quite forget the menacing oriental shapes all above and around, and you see the light of Bunuel’s images reflecting off the screen and onto this oddest of odd set of people, in this stuffy bastion of the old order, somewhere near the sea in the flat lands of eastern England, and how you wish Bunuel could be there.

Then it’s over. There’s a palpable relief, and the royal party rises, so we do too. There’s a general  ‘Thank you and goodnight’ sort of turning towards us. Then Philip speaks.  ‘Well, I don’t know what you made of that! Hope you have pleasant dreams.’  Indeed we will.

Written September 2007 for Bunuel-a-thon (Flickhead)



Certain Women

Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Landscape and figures. And the landscape comes first. A long long train, one of those sleek American ones we Europeans find so very attractive and romantic, an ‘iron horse’, snakes its way along the plain while behind it rise mountains so majestic, snowy and misty they look like old paintings, images of the west where people came to start new lives. Romance and adventure leading down to the flat samey grind of daily life.

That romantic view of the place, the myth of the life of the great outdoors, is what motivates one of the ‘certain women’, Gina, played by Michelle Williams, a well-heeled townie who longs to build her new home out in the country. We catch glimpses of tourist-fodder Native American women decked out in a shopping mall – this isn’t the authenticity she wants , but maybe what she does long for is no more real. There’s a touch of Marie Antoinette’s Le Hameau (an ersatz farm where she played at being a peasant), as she sources real, used stone from an old barn, for her dream retreat. But gazing into the middle distance while her friends and family lounge under canvas watching telly and scoffing barbecued townsfolks’ idea of country fare, we see she’s a woman in a state of discontent who understands very well she won’t get what she wants.

Laura Dern’s hard working lawyer Laura will go the extra mile for her pathetic client who has expectations of the law she knows are doomed. She becomes a kind of prop, a substitute for a real friend, for him, and for that is put in some danger by the chummy police when a half-comic hostage situation occurs. All in a day’s work, and she’s still supporting him in prison. We see a life made up of this kind of thwarted intelligence and small kindnesses.

The third story is of two women. Lily Gladstone is a ranch hand who seems to work almost singlehandedly at the hard grind of looking after cows (no more cowboys in this new West). Unlike the rest she’s physically engaged with the landscape, which is never far away, the plain her working environment and those mountains seen in the distance behind her or framed in a Fordian way through barn windows. A chance stop-off at a community centre one evening confronts her with a student lawyer Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart), moonlighting as a night-school law teacher two hours away from home twice a week, whose relationship with the land is merely its roads and distances. She is exhaustion personified, and maybe it’s partly this vulnerability that attracts. It’s one of the most beautiful and credible and undemonstrative portraits of unrequited love I’ve seen on screen, Gladstone’s still, expressive face and mundane talk absolutely heartbreaking. The few moments when she’s happy, when the two share a horse-ride, she’s luminous. We’ll see more of this brilliant young actress.

The characters hardly intersect at all, other than a hurried passing on a staircase, but they make up a satisfying whole, and though all we see is one set of incidents out of their lives, it’s not a snapshot, more of a core section, a sample of everything they’re made of. Worthy additions to the gallery of troubled, awkward, normal, exhausted, quietly heroic individuals Reichardt’s minimalistic approach has brought to the screen over the years. And all against those landscapes, dwarfing them, sometimes overwhelming them, yet always making them stand out.

Seen at NFT2 London, March 2017

Classic of the Week: Rocco & His Brothers

After seeing some films from contemporary Italian directors last week, it’s worth a look at a classic. Visconti’s gorgeous, tragic meld of operatic melodrama and neo-realism Rocco and His Brothers was restored 2 years ago at L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna.

Four brothers and their mother arrive unexpectedly from the South with all their worldly goods, to stay with the eldest son, Vincenzo, who has made a life for himself in Milan. Their arrival, full of innocent optimism, coincides with Vincenzo’s visit-to-impress at his new prospective in-laws’, a delightful Visconti ‘signature dish’ of a warm, lively family gathering, in this case starting out polite and pleasurable but soon brought down to earth by discord. With a beautiful symmetry, towards the end of the film a similar scene teeming with life and pleasure is brought crashing down by the intrusion of reality. Three years later the aristocratic side of Visconti was to employ this wonderful choreographing again in the fading aristocratic world of The Leopard, but here the communist in Visconti brings us every detail of lower class life with equal verve.

It’s packed with truly great, charismatic performances. In its five sections the film looks at each brother in turn. Vincenzo is soon packed away into stable married life; Simone (Renato Salvatore), strong and dependable, is destroyed and brutalised by obsessive love, a real, visible, physical collapse; Rocco, played by a young and unbearably pure-looking Alain Delon, is thoughtful and always does the ‘right’ thing regardless of his own desires, a goodness which in fact brings disaster when his involvement with Nadia, a prostitute whom Simone loves, becomes the catalyst for the family’s tragedy. Nadia is played by a luminous Annie Girardot, a marvellous bittersweet, nouveau-vaguesque performance. Ciro, the fourth son, quiet and undemonstrative, keeps to the straight and narrow and eventually becomes a factory worker and makes a good marriage, while little Luca, only a small boy when the family arrives in Milan, is mostly an observer. There’s a glimpse of a young pre-fame Claudia Cardinale as Vincenzo’s mild-mannered wife, the epitome of quiet decency and a world away from the sensual roles she later became known for. And although Katrina Paxinou’s overblown style as the mother Rosaria irritates at first, magically, the film seamlessly unites gritty neo-realism of the life of the despised southern immigrant with the high melodrama of family strife and desperate, corroding love.

There are scenes almost too grim to watch. Ironically parts of the film were condemned by the Church at the time and the makers were forced to literally ‘darken’ some scenes to make them less graphic, including a rape scene which is in fact made even more disturbingly brutal by its brooding darkness. But it’s the last scene which is most powerful, putting it up there with the end of The Third Man as one of the most memorable closing scenes ever. Luca, now a teenager, visits his sober brother Ciro at work. Ciro is almost indistinguishable from his workmates in his overall uniform, midgets outside the huge car factory. As Luca leaves he declares he will not stay in the north but will, sometime, return to their old, retrospectively idyllic, pastoral life in the south. As he skips away past the featureless urban landscape that is the new Italy you feel no comfort for him. Such innocence, along with his childhood has gone, the world has changed.

This is a great film, but perhaps there’s also the pleasure too, for some of us watching, of how things used to be in the old fleapits, the crashing, inappropriate music, the innocence of the full-on emotion, the slightly damaged celluloid images, well-worn with so much watching, and it’s a kind of shock to go out into the sleek, plastic world of West End commercial cinema in 2015, like Luca into the brave, dull new world. But you go out like someone holding a very full glass of something precious that you don’t want to spill, even though you know you will.

Seen London Film Festival, Vue Leicester Square, October 2015

Cinema Made in Italy 2017

In guerra per amore: Pericle il nero; Le Confessioni: Le ultime cose: Il piu grande sogno

Here at this mini festival of new Italian films at the Cine Lumière in South Kensington, in two films the Mafia loomed as large as ever. Pierfrancesco Filiberto (‘Pif’), follows up his excellent La Mafia uccide solo d’estate, a favourite here 2 years ago, with In guerra per amore (At War for Love). Beginning in playful romantic comedy mode, it moves seamlessly into the darker tale of US promotion and protection of the Mafia in Sicily after the defeat of the Fascists, born out of their fear of Communism taking hold, and resulting in subsequent generations of violence and repression. Pif, also a writer and television satirist, is a great comic actor too. He plays the leading role of Arturo, a hapless American Italian who joins the army in order to get over to Sicily and gain permission to marry the girl he loves from her father there. As in his first film, he has a sharp eye for the knockabout comedy of Sicilian life, and the knack of making us instantly fond of his characters, with only the merest soupçon of sentimentality. He can switch moods, from the farce of old grandpa carting his life-sized statue of Mussolini down into the bomb shelter with him, to the physical terror of a raid, and from the daft pomposity of a plump Mafioso padrone to his ruthless power game. And cleverly he succeeds in ending on bitter sweet note that concludes both the romantic and the serious theme.

The other mafia-based film of the festival was Stefano Mordini’s Pericle il nero (Pericle the Black). Set among second and third generation Italians in Belgium, it brings a depressed northern note to its setting of intimidation and extortion among the pizza shops of Liege. Pericle works for one of the two crime families of the area. He’s a mulish and unlikeable young man, whose tools of trade are his cosh and his cock, putting the frighteners on owners of businesses his capo wants to move in on, usually middle-aged men, whom intimidates by sexual assault. His readiness for action also comes in handy for his sideline in cheap porn films. He’s treated as a useful but dangerous pet/servant by his ‘family’, his actual relationship to which is at that point unclear. So far so unpleasant. But as subtly played by Riccardo Scamarcio, once a brooding heart-throb with his unsettling light blue eyes, it’s not long before we see beyond his violence into a troubled soul whose longing to truly belong soon becomes the driving force of the film. Escaping both family and a rival gang after his violence takes him too far, his inept attempts to start a relationship, among the housing estates and grey windy roads of Calais, turn the picture into something else, and the downbeat palette and texture of everyday life reminds one that the Dardennes brothers produced the film. While the relationship he embarks on never quite seems credible, his loneliness does, and is more striking than the twists and turns of the rather muddled uncovering of his background. There’s a bravura turn by the positively Felliniesque Maria Luisa Santella as rival gang leader Signorinella, and in particular one beautiful cinematic moment of night-time violence against the yearning soundtrack of Nina Simone’s Wild is the wind that perfectly conveys Pericle’s anguish.

The big disappointment was Le confessioni (The Confessions) by Robert Andò. The presence of Tony Servillo and Daniel Auteuil cannot save this well-intentioned but self-important plod that aims at combining whodunit with thumpingly simplistic spiritual/political comment. The scene is a G8- type meeting in a swanky hotel on a lake (a place actually used, apparently, for one such real life gathering). In addition to the ministers there have been invited a children’s novelist (Connie Nielson), a rock musician (Johan Heldenberg) and Salus, an enigmatic monk from a silent order (Toni Servillo), who has temporarily renounced his silence, so important is the summons. The night he arrives he hears the confession of Head of IMF Daniel (Daniel Auteuil), who it seems is about to announce some spectacular new plan which will bring disaster to the world. In the morning he is found dead. The whodunit is really a non-starter, and thereafter the film tracks through the anonymous corridors attempting to build up some dubious suspense as to what the dreadful plans might have been. The other participants are as baffled as us as the monk glides around with soulful knowing gaze. The ministers are ciphers – alpha males, besuited, suave yet crafty looking types without any nuance, merely confirming all the easy stereotypes, with one obligatory, more sympathetic female, (Jeanne Marie Croze), to provide a gratuitous sexual dimension. Meanwhile the other female present, the author, made of sterner stuff, resists the blandishments of the rock musician, whose presence seems to be solely to sing a bit and encourage others to shout  ‘Yeeh- Haa!!’ occasionally – the token free spirit. At one stage protesters are bundled out of the hotel gardens. Scenes move slowly and at times with an almost embarrassing lack of credibility. As for the huge secret, don’t hold your breath. Never was a McGuffin more blatant than the incomprehensible mathematical formula finally revealed, which seems to baffle everyone. If Salus understands it, he doesn’t let on, and nothing shakes his sad composure. It’s beautifully made, and Daniel Auteuil at least brings a touch of credibility, but the rest of the cast has little to work on. Toni Servillo is extremely good at this kind of thing and could probably do it in his sleep – in fact that’s probably what he is doing.

The two remaining films I saw were at a far remove from the luxuries of power, and while less polished brought more insight into the inequality of the world. Le ultime cose (Pawn Street) is a promising first feature by Irene Dionisio, who up to now has made documentaries. She used that approach to prepare material for this film, about a pawn shop in Turin, spending time with customers, employees and the hangers on outside alike, and several appear on screen in their own personas. Many ‘characters’ crowd the steps outside for opening time to redeem or pawn more of their precious belongings. In essence it hasn’t much changed since the bedsheets were handed over in Bicycle Thieves, even though the goods may be less basic. We go over the other side of the counter too, where a rather more polished clientele attend auctions of unredeemed goods. The stories of three characters intertwine: a transgender client, alone and adrift in the home city she has returned to, an elderly man caught up in the business’s seedy and criminal side, and a keen and idealistic young recruit to the business whose enthusiasm for the world of auctions is soon tarnished as he realises his smooth-talking boss isn’t all he seems. All three are broken by the business. Though it has its longueurs, this is a promising first feature.

The same goes for the lively Il piu grande sogno (I was a Dreamer), set in those peripheral Roman suburbs beloved of Pasolini. Director Michele Vannucci spent 3 years with ex-prisoner Mirko Frezza after he met him at an audition for his graduation short film. He subsequently made Una vita normale with him, which was evolved and expanded into this, a fictionalised version of Mirko’s situation. It’s the story of how he returned home to his wife and two girls after 8 years in prison, dreaming of but not believing in the possibility of a fresh start. The presence of his small-time criminal father round the corner longing for the good old days doesn’t help, but his unexpected election to Chair of his local Community Asssociation galvanises him into action and he’s soon spurring on his neighbours into making the place a true community again. Mirko, a huge Viking of a man, is one of those larger than life characters of whom a little can go a long way, and again sections are protracted occasionally to ram home a point, but the very real difficulties put in his way and the refusal to be sentimental about the place make this a very telling portrait of a man and a community that found they after all could live their own productive, exuberant life while the rest of the world sped past along the raised motorway that keeps them separate. It’s also admirable for a subtle vision of the particular stresses on the children of imprisoned fathers, a state which Mirko himself has imposed on his daughters, and is himself a long-term victim of. Great ensemble playing, though those tomato plants looked doomed from the beginning.