Oliver Reed

Oliver Reed played Lord Melton in Sword of Sherwood Forest (Fisher, 1960) it’s the first film that I remember seeing. It shot at Ardmore Studios, Bray, Ireland, the opening shot is of Powercourt waterfall, how appropriate for me an Irish lover of film. Aged only 21 at the time of the filming Reed’s stark presence and stern voice stood out by a mile. Despite is hard drinking lifestyle Reed managed to contribute 120 credits for film and television between 1955 and 2000. He died while on a break from filming Gladiator (Scott, 2000) in 1999 aged 61. He was buried in Churchtown, Co. Cork, Ireland; where he spent the last years of his life. Fittingly his grave is opposite his favourite pub O’Brien’s. His tombstone reads: Robert Oliver Reed 1938-1999. He made the air move.

Reed as Bill Sykes in Oliver! (Reed, 1968) directed by his uncle Carol Reed is best known role, for the younger generation it’s the role of Proximo in Gladiator. For me though Reed’s best work was with his friend director Ken Russell with whom he made eight films. Starting with The Debussy Film (Russell, 1965) and later Women in Love (Russell, 1969), a beautiful telling of D.H. Lawrence’s novel, filling with poetic interludes and brash intensity from Reed and Glenda Jackson. Reed’s role as Father Grandieur in The Devils (Russell, 1971) is easily in my view the greatest performance by an actor on film, such intensity even with Reed just standing in the shot.

The 60s were a great period for Reed starting with small roles in seven films listed from 1960. Reed worked with director Michael Winner six times. Their first collaboration The System (Winner, 1964) was a star maker for Reed. Just like The Damned (Losey, 1963) Reed was a hell of an entrance in the respective opening sequences. In The System he plays Stephen ‘Tinker’ Taylor a summer photographer at the beach resort of Brixham, Devon, England. The fascinating concept is of summer workers who work hard in the summer to survive the winter, as the title song by The Searchers, announces ‘you’re all alone’. Losey’s The Damned gives a similar feel to English life, set another seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset. But The System really gives an overall impression of life in a seaside town; the street corners, the people. Winner and Reed’s later collaboration I’ll Never Forget What’s‘isname (Winner, 1967) familiarises us with its London locations. Reed is given yet another stunning opening sequence; his character Andrew Quint is seen walking through central London carrying an axe once he reaches his corporate advertising office he destroys his desk! Reed went to make comedy/adventure films like The Jokers (Winner, 1967), Hannibal Brooks (Winner, 1969) The Assassination Bureau (Dearden, 1969) and The Three Musketeers films (Lester, 1973, 1974, 1989). He played romantic leads in Take a Girl Like You (Miller, 1969) and Castaway (Roeg, 1986).


Words on Screen by Michel Chion review

Words on Screen by Michel Chion (edited and translated by Claudia Gorbman)

Published by Columbia University Press (March, 2017)

Review by Peter Larkin

Note: I would like to thank Columbia University Press for sending me a copy of Words on Screen to review.

“I do not read so many fictions. But rather books on the theory of cinema. My favorite author is Michel Chion: as soon as one of his books is translated, I buy it. He does not write from an abstract point of view like most critics, who speak more of aesthetics than of the act of seeing a film. Chion is interested in all the ways of perceiving a film. He wrote a book about the history of the early years of sound in cinema. He takes tiny subjects and he really talks about it from the perspective of someone watching a movie and the effect it does. That’s what I like about him: it’s very smart and it’s never abstract.” Jim O’Rourke on Michel Chion (interview with Les Inrocks, 29th November 2001)

I think that Jim O’Rourke’s statement about Michel Chion sums him up perfectly as a critic and theoretician of cinema, ‘it’s very smart and it’s never abstract’. Mr. Chion began writing and teaching about film sound in 1978, a subject of which little attention was being paid at the time. From 1981-1988 he wrote for Cahiers du Cinema, during that time he wrote his first book on cinema, The Voice in Cinema (1982), an exploration on screenwriting Writing a Scenario (1985, revised and updated 2007) and a monograph on Jacques Tati (1987). Cahiers continued to publish some of his books after he left the magazine including monographs on Lynch (1992) Kubrick (2005) and Tarkovski (2008). Mr. Chion has written for Cahiers left wing rival Positif since 1996. His most famous book is Audio Vision (1990) about the relationship between image and sound. Mr. Chion’s latest book is Words on Screen (2017) expertly edited and translated by his friend and fellow film scholar Claudia Gorbman from the French original text L’Ècrit au Cinema (2013). Gorbman describes Chion as ‘a poet in theoretician’s clothes’. Mr. Chion’s writing invites the reader to access areas of cinema such as image, sound, speech and text which I for one knew very little about before reading.

Where to begin with Words on Screen? Chion illustrates many uses of text on screen through ten chapters featuring use of opening credits in many creative forms such as a hand on the screen writing out the credits in the Astaire-Rogers musical Carefree (Sandrich, 1938)  and Barbarella’s (Vadim, 1968)  use of jumbling text around Jane Fonda’s body. Also the act of hearing a foreign language and reading subtitles, the visuals of letters, books and signs on screen. Chion examines the psychological effects of these visuals for the films and their audiences. As often Chion invites you to take the journey of the book with him with his clear and concise prose. The best moments in the book are Chion’s fascination with newspapers (Eyes Wide Shut) signs (The Postman Always Rings Twice (Garnett, 1946)) computers (The Thing, Stand by Me) and how Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942) is written on screen in the credits as “Casablanca” a word to be spoken over and over again throughout the film rather than simply read.

Chion got a research grant to write the book from The Internationales Kolleg fur Kultur-technikforschung und Medienphilosophie (IKKM) in Weimar, Germany. Chion states that he watched over 900 films in preparation and uses 256 stills to illustrate examples of text in cinema. Chion insists that the cinema continues to re-invent itself in modern times and sees a positive side to 3-D for Avatar (Cameron, 2009) and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog, 2010). The book is useful for film scholars looking to learn about this unique subject, Chion’s devoted readers will continue to feel the warm invitation of his writing.

The Draughtsman’s Contract (Greenaway, 1982)

Peter Greenaway is as art-house as a British director can get with his use of mise-en-scene, set designs, stories about troubled artists etc. I have been avoiding his recent films. Many say that his strongest period was in the 80s. From the 1990s I enjoyed Eight and Half Women (1999) but I struggled with Prospero’s Books (1991) and The Pillow Book (1996) which I could only manage a few minutes of, I will no doubt return to those ones in the future. I re-watched his second feature The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) last night, it is set in Jacobean England in 1694. The film begins with aristocrat Mrs. Herbert (Janet Suzman) commissioning draughtsman Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins) to produce thirteen drawings of her estate on her behalf of her husband for £8 per drawing. The contract also states that Mrs. Herbert will fulfil Mr. Neville’s sexual requests. Mrs. Herbert’s daughter Mrs. Talmann (Anne-Louise Lambert) is married to a German (Hugh Fraser) who is somewhat irate with the presence of Mr. Neville.

Greenaway has referred to the film as a semi-autographical story about him challenging himself to produce drawings of a similar English estate. Born in Wales in 1942, Greenaway was raised in London and was educated at an arts school where he intended to be a painter. To this day he is heavily influenced by Dutch painting so much so that he left England for Amsterdam in about 1984. Neville’s drawing is Greenaway’s.

I felt more challenged to keep up with Greenaway’s dialogue which is witty and often dry to superb effect. An example being when Mr. Neville subtly berates Talmann for his support of William of Orange’s victory over Ireland (my home country) in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. It was a Protestant victory. Talmann goes as far as to adopt his nephew after his sister converts to Catholicism and move him from Germany to England. Talmann also has numerous reservations about England.

There’s a man painted as a statue hired possibly by Talmann who parades the grounds, he is a haunting presence, at one in close-up I thought it was Greenaway himself, what a thought! Michael Nyman’s score is based on some of Henry Purcell’s, some of the grounds for the drawings where given specific, like the now famous and extremely uplifting ‘Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds’. Nyman was a regular collaborator of Greenaway’s until 1991 when they had a falling out.

The film becomes a cunning murder mystery. Greenaway often frames ambiguous conversations in wide shot for we are to decide who to believe in the matter. I would guess that the film is shot entirely on location in Kent where Greenaway has great creative use with camera pans and lighting in the darker scenes. Mr. Neville’s treatment of Mrs. Hebert during the sex scenes are revolting bordering on rape. Mr. Neville’s purpose in the film seems to be to simply exist; delve in luxury, transcribe it to paper and pontificate on English life and counterpunch with Talmann’s often hilarious ramblings. The film’s finale echoes The Devils (Russell, 1971) with society’s clash with an unwanted outsider to their norms. Raymond Durgnat wasn’t too impressed with the film he briefly wrote about it on two occasions for the Monthly Film Bulletin.

“But it’s tainted by the same disease: a crudeness of polarity which the mainstream dramas continually nuance. Dramatic structure is dialectic. Greenaway must fill in with a nonsense plot and lots of pseudo-aristo insolence and wit.  (Durgnat: 1984)

I don’t agree that the plot is nonsense it simply lays ground for an outsider to be trampled about by an establishment which he cannot defeat in spite of his high intelligence and wit or lack thereof.

Durgnat continued in 1985 ‘Alas, its negative aspects—finicky formalism, dramatic grossness, political stereotyping, and boring agitprop—are the hallmarks of most BFI productions.’

I agree about Greenaway’s use of dramatic grossness (which lives on from first frame to last) as for the political stereotyping it is definitely part of the film’s charm and humour. Perhaps many think that Greenaway sits at home writing his dialogue whilst constantly sniggering to himself, it could well be true for his 80s features. Elvis Mitchell commented in 1997 that Greenaway makes films that alienate audiences. Greenaway himself has defended such remarks by saying ‘it’s wholly arrogant to assume you can film to please everyone, the best thing you can do is to make the film you want and hope like-minded people will like it.’ Greenaway insists he is a stickler for tight dramatic structure in his scripts. His film’s certainly have a uniqueness to them. And by the way, Peter Greenaway was inspired to be a film critic after reading Raymond Durgnat’s pieces in Films and Filming! Greenaway wrote some criticism which he decided was unreadable.


The Postman Always Rings Twice (Garnett, 1946)

James M. Cain’s 1934 crime novel The Postman Always Rings Twice has had numerous adaptations including Visconti’s Obsessione (1943) (recently adapted for the stage starring Jude Law) Tay Garnett’s 1946 version starring John Garfield and Lana Turner and Bob Rafelson’s 1981 version starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange with a script by the often intriguing David Mamet. I watched the 1946 version last night. John Garfield’s Frank Chambers falls to earth in this story a drifter in Southern California of whose past we know nothing. He is immediately offered a job at a rural diner by Nick (Cecil Kellaway) whereupon Frank meets Nick’s young wife Cora (Lana Turner). We immediately feel the sexual tension between Frank and Cora which only presence off-screen between Garfield and Turner. As Michel Chion noted in the recent English translation (by Claudia Gorbman) of his latest book Words on Screen Frank’s burning of the ‘man wanted’ in the outdoor fire is quite a literal signifier of his and Cora’s sexual charge.

The film is primarily set at the diner (a set on an MGM back lot) such claustrophobia makes understandable that it be suited for the stage. Within this space as often in noirs highly irrational decisions but not before the decent decision is reversed and practically stamped on as the aftermath shows us, just like another Cain novel adapted for the screen by Billy Wilder, Double Indemnity. Without irrationality these films would arguably have no place to go. Later a court case ensues led by Keats for the defence (Hume Cronyn) and Sackett (Leon Ames, who often played lawmen in films such as Meet Me in St. Louis and Angel Face). For our protagonists reality and their love for one each other are passing ships in the night.


I saw Sergio Leone’s The Man With No Name trilogy years ago, it was Alex Cox who got me interested to revisit them. He introduced Italian westerns on Moviedrome and wrote a book on the subject called 10,000 Ways to Die which written in 1978, but was not published until 2009 by which time Cox has revised some of his theoretical framework. My friend Matt loves westerns, he wrote his Bachelor’s thesis on The Man with No Name trilogy. It was he who really made me re-evaluate westerns. There’s that great sub-genre of the western, revisionist. Which I think means that it takes the conventions of a western and laces it with deep and dark themes with some charismatic humour thrown in. Italian westerns are a great example of this and so is Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo. From John Ford I’ve only seen The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; they weren’t charismatic enough for me. You notice that the last three films I mentioned star John Wayne who appeared in a whopping 88 westerns according to Letterboxd.

I’ll start with Clint Eastwood, Eastwood’s characters in westerns are often lone wolfs; the preacher in Pale Rider, Josey Wales, The man with no name. Then comes The Beguiled, Eastwood plays a wounded soldier during the civil war in 1800s; he is taken in by a group of women at a boarding school. He seduces each of them with tragic results. It is filled with desire, a sense of baroque and an editing style which brings to mind Nic Roeg. The boarding school is a hell on earth, Eastwood’s anguish is overplayed but that’s the point, his character cannot believe where the film takes us.

Eastwood’s Italian westerns with Leone; A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and The Ugly are often regarded as the best westerns ever made. A Fistful of Dollars is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yjimbo which is turn was remade as Django in 1966. For a Few Dollars More has a great robbery sequence and features Klaus Kinski as a villain. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the best of Leone’s westerns, mainly because of the depth of its script and Eli Wallach’s comic contribution. Ennio Morricone’s music blasts through the eardrum giving the films even more inventive texture.

Sergio Corbucci is often compared with Leone as a master of Italian westerns. Corbucci made Django in 1966 followed by The Big Silence, a western in the snow filled with lyrical poetry by Morricone’s music and featuring strong performances by Jean-Louis Trintignant (who has no dialogue) Klaus Kinski and Voletta McGee. The film’s ending shocked many; an alternative ending was shown in some countries. Another film which was considered shocking was Django Kill… (If You Live, Shoot!) with its violence and unusual editing style. The women in these films think for themselves, it’s one of the reasons why they are considered revisionist westerns, think of Johnny Guitar or The Homesman.

Neo westerns spring to mind four in particular; the first is Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, it was seen to be Peckinpah’s most personal film. It’s about a bar room pianist (Warren Oates) who is in fact the best gunman in the west. He goes to Mexico to dig up the corpse of his friend Alfredo Garcia to receive a reward from a local gangster whose daughter had been impregnated by Garcia. Alex Cox sees the film as a metaphor for Peckinpah as a burnt out director slaving for Hollywood, Peckinpah said that Garcia was the only the film there the final edit was exactly as he intended. I struggled with the film’s narrative but was fascinated by Oates’ lack of interest in the money, the question of his actions just sit there.

Lone Star (Sayles, 1996) like The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is about the class conflict between Mexicans and Americans. Lone Star goes further though to consider the African community in a Texas small town, both films contain buried secrets. As ever John Sayles’ motto ‘put lives on screen that have not been seen before’ doesn’t disappoint. It’s the individual scenes between his characters that make Sayles’ films so moving. Just now Sayles is in development for Django Lives! starring Franco Nero from the 1966 original. This time Django is a creative consultant/extra on the set of Birth of a Nation in 1915! We’ll have to wait and see…

A History of Violence is not commonly referred to a western but I think it is. It’s about a small town diner owner living a peaceful family life in Millbrook, Indiana who it turns out was previously a ruthless hit man for the mob in Philadelphia. He’s the gunslinger forced out of retirement, the oldest western story in the book but it has as open an ending as Lone Star and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, these films are filled with intrigue and texture over the smallest of details. One which I think is present in all three films, that of the protagonist reflecting whilst looking down at a river, their lives like ours are passing by faster than we care to mention.   


At look back at Alfie (Gilbert, 1966)

alfieI have always been fascinated how director Lewis Gilbert and writer Bill Naughton develop London Casanova Alfie Elkins‘(Michael Caine) relationships with women into segments. Like Naughton’s The Family Way (Boulting, 1966) where time is taken to criticise the protagonist’s sex life, criticisms of Alfie are fleeting up until a point, when the women leave him. Gilbert uses many locations around London, Sonny Rollins jazzy score and the slow motion effect give the film the fleeting blink of the eye moments of happiness for Alfie. Siddie (Millicent Martin, known for her role as Gertrude Moon in Frasier) is looking for time away from her husband; a Chelsea FC supporter with a keen interest in gardening, Alfie fills her void of boredom. Another woman Gilda (Julia Foster) is looking for a future with Alfie, they have a child together, Alfie’s self-centredness and unsurprising lack of commitment breaks their relationship. The pregnancy of his friend’s wife Lily (Vivien Merchant) is devastating; Jane Asher’s Annie is looking for a lover in Alfie after an unknown sad past about a lover named Tony. Shelley Winter’s Ruby is all flash, her rejection of Alfie has him pondering on Waterloo Bridge, ‘what it’s all about?’ in an ending so open, anything is possible, but knowing Alfie it’ll be more of the same.


Alfie’s breaking of the fourth wall wasn’t a common technique in 1966 (viewers of my generation found the technique used in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to be groundbreaking at the time, at least I thought so.) Rollins’ theme tune with its optimistic sax invites the protagonist to take chances; cheat and live life to what he believes to be the full. One wonders what kind of trouble Alfie was in before the film starts; it surely wasn’t all fun and games. I have not seen the 2004 remake with Jude Law, but I do believe that an Alfie-type can exist today in 2017, such a narcissistic personality with never die out it seems.  The interiors from Alfie’s cramped flat, the local pub, the garage where Alfie works at the beginning all suggest a working class which Alfie would rather not focus on as he sits in his chair suggesting that Gilda should rob the till of the cafe where she works just the people make money. Caine said in later interviews that Alfie’s fast talking speech rhythm with his big hand gestures were done so that the other characters would pay attention to a working class cockney. In Get Carter (Hodges, 1971) it’s the opposite as Caine’s gangster speaks slower because he knows he can be heard. It seems Ruby is only woman Alfie considers a future with; ironically she dumps him for a younger man just because he is younger. Alfie’s real loss is his son Malcolm who he had by Gilda, Alfie speaks poignantly about the child and the montage of Malcolm and Alfie in the park are Alfie at his most fulfilled, it’s his lost moment. The agony of what might been with the women is briefly pondered by Alfie as he reflects on being cheated on just he had done so many times. All he can do is walk away and ponder his lack of peace of mind.


60 Seconds from a De Palma Film


Brian De Palma is famous and rightly so for his set piece sequences, from the bucket of blood sequence in Carrie (De Palma, 1976) to the Grand Central Station chase in Carlito’s Way (De Palma, 1993) to the rope through the vault sequence in Mission: Impossible (De Palma, 1996). I would argue that whilst his scripts are often Hitchcockian, his film style is unique to him. I don’t recall Hitchcock using slow motion often if at all apart maybe in the shower scene from Psycho. The sequence I have chosen is the elevator scene from Dressed to Kill (De Palma, 1980). In his book Mise en Scene and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art Adrian Martin (2014) focuses on how De Palma pumps up Pino Donaggio’s score on the first part of the scene in which Angie Dickinson is brutally murdered. I have chosen 60 seconds in which Nancy Allen discovers Dickinson dying and slowly but surely she notices the murderer through a mirror. De Palma (2015) has stated that the set up and details of these sequences ‘go on forever’. De Palma takes 6 minutes to tell the sequence. These crucial 60 seconds I speak of are spellbinding on repeated views and definitely sum up De Palma’s style.


The sequence is done in slow motion in roughly 40 shots. Michel Chion has written that a film’s sound cannot studied without its image and film’s image cannot be studied without its sound. I believe it is a certain ambient sound like a helicopter on the soundtrack at the climax of the 60 seconds; this is what still stuns me after so many viewings. This sound bridged with De Palma’s rhythmic and artful images deliver a film style that pulls absolutely no punches. To begin with the first shot Allen sees Dickinson as she lies bleeding in the lift, Donaggio’s strings rise to the occasion of her shock. Dickinson starts to reach out her arm but before she can De Palma cuts to Allen in distress as the camera zooms in a manner that might have impressed Rainer Werner Fassbinder. De Palma is interested in the quick flash of detail as Allen’s forehead disappears from the frame to focus on her hands clenched to her face. I cannot but help be reminded of the way Nic Roeg films the eyes of the witches in his Roald Dahl adaptation from 1990 from the way De Palma sets up a reaction of a slow zoom into Dickinson’s blood pouring eyes. Donaggio’s score builds as the murderess in reaction gestures her hand forward moving the razor blade up, the audience holds its breath. Allen’s hands shake in reaction, Dickinson’s raised hand towards her murderer (who of course Allen cannot see) is almost biblical. Donaggio’s score and De Palma’s cuts align with the closing of the elevator door before Allen stops it, De Palma crucial cuts as Allen’s hand of goodwill gestures out to hold the door. De Palma then settles on Dickinson’s bracelet and the blade each reflecting light in turn. This is when De Palma really uses slow motion to full effect as the film almost stops for Allen to gesture her eyes and faces up towards the elevator mirror above, this is when De Palma’s stunning use of ambient sound kicks in and the sequence begins to unwind with rhythmic precision. Allen’s stunning facial numbness in the moment holds the scene in all of its crystal glory as one of greatest moments in cinema history.


Xavier Dolan: Beyond His Years

Dedicated to Matt Wager


Xavier Dolan was born eight months before me in 1989, his talent knows no bounds. A child actor by profession from Montreal, Quebec, Canada, he turned to writing and directing in 2009 with his astonishing debut I Killed My Mother (Dolan, 2009) This was followed by Heartbeats (Dolan, 2010), Laurence Anyways (Dolan, 2012), Tom at the Farm (Dolan, 2013) and Mommy (Dolan, 2014). This year It’s Only the End of the World (Dolan, 2016) won the Grand Prix at Cannes. His next film The Death and Life of John F. Donovan (Dolan, 2018) will be his first both in English and set outside of Quebec; it will be shot mostly in New York and is said to be released in 2018.


What struck me about Mommy (which shared the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes with Goodbye to Language (Godard, 2014) was Dolan’s profound interest in the mother and son arguing and how far the actors take it with incredible intensity. Of course the same can be said of I Killed My Mother which now brings to mind arguments in the films of Fassbinder, Almodovar and Cassavetes. I Killed My Mother stars the nervy and insecure Hubert played Dolan himself, a teenager at odds with his mother (Anne Dorval). Dolan mostly films interior scenes; a family home, a local school, a teacher’s home, a hamburger bar, the crammed apartment of Hubert’s friend, Hubert’s father home, a video store and a boarding school. Dolan’s exterior scenes have a visual and/or emotional charge, think of Hubert’s mother and her friend discussing Hubert’s homosexuality or Hubert alone in a Quebec street surrounded only by street lights.


I went to a packed screening of It’s Only the End of the World in Dublin, with his prizes at Cannes Dolan seems to be taking the film world by storm. The film concerns a family of five, a mother Martine (Nathalie Baye) her sons Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) and Antoine (Vincent Cassel), her daughter Suzanne (Lèa Seydoux) and Antoine’s wife Catherine (Marion Cotillard). Louis has AIDS; the film is a 90 minute struggle to reveal this to his family in a story of rage and turmoil. Cassel’s tall psyche and brash face embody the emotionally violent Antoine, a kind of older version of Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) from Mommy. Spending five minutes with either Antoine or Steve in reality would be nearly impossible yet they are incredibly captivating to watch on screen. The arguments in It’s Only the End of the World have Dolan’s melodramatic stamp, most of the audience I saw it with responded to it as a black comedy of manners. The film is based on a semi-autobiographical 1990 play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, Dolan’s second adaptation after Tom at the Farm. The Quebec neighbourhood in the film is bright and green, a glimmer of hope if it can exist in a world of such bleak characters. There is a stunning close-up of Cotillard early on in the film which I read in the moment to be a glaze of infatuation for Louis. Dolan’s hear for the music of his generation is clear (Blink 182) and surprising (Moby) and is a reminder of the rarity of a working director who is under 30.


Heartbeats concerns a love triangle between Nicolas (Niels Schneider), Marie (Monia Chokri) and Francis (Xavier Dolan) set in a Montreal of twenty-somethings’ (Generation Y) obsessive ramblings about their love lives or lack of them. I found this film to be a similar viewing experience to My Golden Days (Desplechin, 2015), both films contain performances and individual moments that I admire but the film overall lacks something more needed at the core, an engaging narrative. With Dolan this comes with more expectation as I have not seen any other of Arnaud Desplechin’s films. As my friend Matt informed me; other Dolan films such as I Killed My Mother, Laurence Anyways and Mommy take something on, something of substance or more accurately something of essence. The three central performances in Heartbeats are strong, Schneider for his pretentiousness, Chokri for her desperation and Dolan for his obsession which finally reaches a breaking point. Dolan’s choice of music such as Dalida’s ‘Bang, Bang’ as the film’s theme song, House of Pain’s catchy ‘Jump Around’ and Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘Cello suite No. 1 Prelude in C and G Major respectively give the film some emotion weight at times. Dolan’s use of camera placement and slow-motion technique absorb in some fine moments such as Nicolas’ birthday party sequence, Francis going to the store to buy marshmallows and eating one slowly as he fantasises about Nicolas and a walk in rain between Marie and Francis. Writing about this now I’m remembering the use of slow motion in Every Man for Himself (Godard, 1980) and In the Mood for Love (Wong, 2000). With Heartbeats Dolan draws a canvas, sets his stylistic tendency without a strong enough narrative motor, which sometimes relies on narcissistic discussion between strangers when more focus is needed for his protagonists.


Laurence Anyways features incredible performances from Melvil Poupaud as Laurence Alia, a Montreal a high school English teacher who is a transsexual and Suzanne Clement as Fred, his girlfriend who sticks by him, they love each other deeply. Dolan experiments more with slow motion techniques, he is deeply fascinated by profiles from front and back. Quebec as always in Dolan’s films is filled with colour from its characters, costumes (designed by Dolan himself) and set design. Dolan’s soundtrack sets the tone with some songs familiar, some all the better for being discovered in the context of his and his music supervisors’ selections. Strong scenes feature Dolan’s trademark, arguments; from a confrontation between Fred and an elderly waitress with no respect and Poupaud and Clement’s dynamic scenes together. It features strange sequences of water flowing through a ceiling on Fred and another of clothes falling from the sky as Laurence and Fred roam free through the mystical Isle of Black. The film simply floats.


Tom at the Farm has the feel of L’argent (Bresson, 1983), of a character being taken in by a farm woman with hardly any questions asked initially. It also has a strange echo of a one man version of The Big Chill (Kasdan, 1983), a man visiting a remote house for the funeral of a loved one. The film is based on a 2011 play by Michel-Marc Bouchard who co-wrote the screenplay with Dolan. Tom (Dolan) has come to pay his respects to the family of his deceased boyfriend Guillaume. Guillaume’s psychotic brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) is on par with Steve in Mommy and Antoine in It’s Only the End of the World. Guillaume’s mother Agathe (Lise Roy) is oblivious to Guillaume’s homosexuality and Francis’ sadistic nature. Tom becomes Francis’ victim for his sick and violent games which including beatings and bursting Tom’s tires leaving him trapped in a remote Quebec farm outback. Tom and Guillaume’s colleague Sarah (Evelyne Brochu) is believed by Agathe to have been Guillaume’s lover; Sarah’s appearance in the film’s narrative is a breath of fresh air. The film’s feeling of isolation is superbly photographed in stark colours of the Quebec night but I felt there was something missing at the film’s centre. Tom’s vague characterisation is intriguing however.


It’s nearly two years ago since I discovered Dolan’s films with Mommy which I consider to be his masterpiece. Diane (Anne Dorval) one of Dolan’s most regular collaborators is a single mother taking care of her fifteen year old son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) who has ADHD and psychotic tendencies. Enter Kyla, an outsider to their relationship, who is a nervous stuttering teacher on sabbatical played by the brilliant Suzanne Clement (completely different each time she works with Dolan from I Killed My Mother, Laurence Anyways to Mommy). The Quebec neighbourhood is as bright as ever with autumn leaves and sunshine coming through the street of such family tragedy like in All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, 1955) and Far from Heaven (Haynes, 2002). The character Steve plays his deceased father’s  mix-tape which includes White Flag by Dido, Blue (Da Ba Dee) by Eiffel 65 and Wonderwall by Oasis. White Flag sets the tone of the family life in the Quebec suburb for Kyla with her emotionally absent husband Patrick (Alexandre Goyette) and their daughter (Isabelle Nèlisse). Blue (Da Ba Dee) sets boundaries between Steve and Kyla, Pilon has an incredibly natural ability to embody his character through stark body language and shocking intensity. What can be said for Wonderwall, perhaps the most overused pop song of the 1990s? It is given new and eternal life in this film in an astonishing sequence of Steve breaking the fourth wall (changing the screen’s aspect ratio from 1:1 to 1.85:1) it has to seen to believed and a lesser film would have made this into a gimmick but this film’s heart and intensity earns such a bold and breathtaking move. Dorval’s Diane loves her son, her facial gestures are perfect, almost devilish at times. Clement’s Kyla’s hand gestures speak volumes of nerves and repression which she lets out unexpectedly in one scene. Maybe Pilon is the Jean-Pierre Leaud of now! The film climaxes with the heavenly sound of Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die, the visual settling is white, a white of endless entrapment which is about to be set free.


Dolan’s films are noted highly for their performances and their stylistic tendencies of montage and slow motion. His camera tracks sometimes feel like they are a character’s POV or a POV of a vehicle in which they are traveling in but sometimes the camera is just tracking the characters like road scenes in Laurence Anyways and Tom at the Farm. Dolan sometimes likes to build up a scene slowly by showing us two characters at a table when they are in fact three and the third person vibrates the scene with inappropriate comments, we can call this trait Dolanesque. His sound turns down when you do not expect it, like when Blue (Da Ba Dee) fades out and back in for dramatic effect at a crucial moment in Mommy. Then again all moments in Dolan’s cinema are in a sense crucial, its Quebec setting of brightness and possibly hopefulness intrigues the viewer. Diane’s fantasy of Steve’s future in Mommy is like an advert, a montage between the style of the Six Feet Under (Ball, 2001-2005) finale and Boyhood (Linklater, 2014). It is like all of the fantasy sequences in Dolan’s films, soon the Quebecoise melodramatic vision of reality sets in.


A Prowler Named Joseph Losey


Joseph Losey was blacklisted by Hollywood in the 1950s after making some films there. He resumed his career in Britain, making some films in Italy and France as well. He was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin, USA in 1909; he went to high school with Nicholas Ray. He studied at Dartmouth College and Harvard University before studying in Moscow where he met Sergei Eisenstein and Bertolt Brecht. Losey was a major figure in the New York political theatre movement in the 1930s. He worked with Brecht for preparation on Brecht’s Life of Galileo Los Angeles production in 1946 and 1947. One year later Losey’s debut feature film The Boy with Green Hair (Losey, 1948) was released starring 11 year old Dean Stockwell in his first film.


The Boy with Green Hair was seen a political allegory about a war orphan who wakes up one morning to find he has green hair. The green symbolising his difference in society as a war orphan. Some may find this ‘message’ film too preachy. Stockwell and his guardian played by Pat O’Brien have excellent chemistry and the film is an important social document of Truman’s America of 1947. The scene of Peter (Stockwell) being confronted outside of school over his differences reminded of a scene directed by Losey’s classmate Nick Ray in which James Dean is halted back after crossing the school crest in Rebel Without a Cause (Ray, 1955). Such abuse from the cushy insiders is too much for loner outsiders like Stockwell and Dean, Stockwell expresses his feelings through a speech about war orphans and Dean expresses himself by raging at his parents.


Losey made Stranger on the Prowl (Losey, 1952) in Italy before settling in Britain in 1953 where he made The Sleeping Tiger (Losey, 1954) starring arguably his favourite actor Dirk Bogarde with whom he worked with on five films. Bogarde plays a criminal taken into care by Alexander Knox, a psychiatrist. Alexis Smith plays the psychiatrist’s wife who develops feelings for Bogarde. The film is an excellent three hander by the actors about characters who can never be sure what they want. Raymond Durgnat (1966) rightly points out that the film could have made in the 1930s by Warner Bros. Starring Humphrey Bogart (James Mason would have been perfect), Bette Davis and Claude Rains. With Losey blacklisted the film was credited to its producer Victor Hanbury. Losey and cinematographer Harry Waxman use dark shadows to convey deep trauma and secrets. The house in The Sleeping Tiger marks for me Losey’s fascination with confined spaces; the houses in The Servant, Accident, Secret Ceremony, The Go-Between and The Romantic Englishwoman. The apartment in Blind Date, the cave in The Damned, the prison in The Criminal and the trenches in King and Country.


The Intimate Stranger (Losey, 1956) was once again credited to its producer, this time Alec C. Snowden. Losey does what he can with what feels like a BBC Play for the Day, but with less visual imagination than say one directed by Ken Loach or Mike Leigh or those scripted by Dennis Potter. The story concerns an American film producer who resides in England after a near scandal in Hollywood. He begins receiving love letters from a woman he does not remember. The actors Richard Basehart, Mary Murphy and the wonderful Roger Livesey are all on fine form. Perhaps the most visually striking element of the film is the use of film sound stage lights being repeatedly shone on a guilty culprit.


Blind Date (Losey, 1959) concerns a Dutch artist Jan (Hardy Kruger) who goes to the flat a French woman Jacqueline (Micheline Presle), he hears a knock on the door, police led by Inspector Morgan (Stanley Baker) enter and discover Jacqueline’s body. With this film and The Criminal Losey highlights the multicultural change which started in Britain around the 1950s. Jan as an outsider to England struggles at first to understand the police’s methods. The film also struggles in its flashbacks of Jan and Jacqueline but I suppose that’s the point. One was reminded of the domestic arguments in Contempt (Godard, 1963). Durgnat (1966) interestingly refers to the ending as having an air of ‘Godardian freedom’ in which Jan hasn’t learned much from the experience maybe this makes a second viewing more interesting.


In The Criminal (Losey, 1960) the prisoners are stick figures for labour. Johnny Bannion’s (Stanley Baker) release from prison is short lived he almost cannot bare to leave those stone walls. The film’s ending echoes Shoot the Piano Player (Truffaut, 1960). His woman Suzanne’s (Margit Saad) presence is like that of an angel, ‘a gift from the Gods’ as Durgnat (1966) argues. Freedom is too far away from any of these characters, they are always imprisoned in some way.


The Damned (Losey, 1963) opens with a rock ballad from the film’s composer James Bernard, entitled ‘Black Leather Rock’. It reaches its climax when a gang led by King (Oliver Reed) start whistling it, I marvel at this moment. The Damned starts out as a runaway story involving Joan (Shirley Anne Field) and Simon (Macdonald Carey) and turns into them stumbling upon a group of radioactive children whom Joan, Simon and King decide to rescue against the odds. The scenario and relationship between the head scientist Bernard (Alexander Knox) and his mistress Freya (Viveca Lindfors) echoes Doctor Génessier and his mistress Louise in Eyes Without a Face (Franju, 1960). The Damned is among the most ambitious produced by Hammer Films. Such subtleties are added to the texture of the film like the incestuous overtone in the relationship between Joan and King who are brother and sister. The film pulls no punches, it portrays an England spiralling over the edge with gang beatings, illegal scientific experiences, an England where freedom is once again denied.


It is so difficult to write about The Servant (Losey, 1963) which I consider to be Losey’s masterpiece along with The Go-Between. Losey’s direction in The Servant is heavily emphasised by noir shadows and sharp camera movement. Pinter’s dialogue is among his best. The Servant from its opening street image is very much a London film accompanied by Johnny Dankworth’s jazzy score. A figure, Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) immerges from the wilderness in this opening sequence, he has applied for a job as aristocrat Tony’s (James Fox) servant. Tony hires Barrett which begins a spinning wheel of dishonesty, cruelty and power shifting between the men and the women, Susan (Wendy Craig) and Vera (Sarah Miles). That is not to say that The Servant is about a battle of the sexes, it is more of a battle of the classes. The final shot and abrupt end credits stunned me.


King and Country (Losey, 1964) concerns wet and depressing trenches in the Battle of Passchendaele in World War One, 1917. When Private Hamp (Tom Courtenay) is accused of desertion Captain Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde) steps in to defend him. Losey shot the film cheaply, using a set at Shepperton Studios for the trenches and an almost deserted London street and home of Private Hamp to remind us of his life left behind. Bogarde is at his best as a no-nonsense humanitarian trapped in a bureaucratic authoritarian cesspool where the questions in the feeble heads of the chief officers are; ‘what’s best for England?’, ‘what’s the best example to the soldiers?’ etc. Keeping in mind that these questions are still relevant 100 years later is severely depressing. As Hamp lies drunk on the ground towards the end of the film, all that is still relevant in 2016 hits home (you’ll see what I mean). And Bogarde stepping up in the final scene in a reveal similar to a scene in Visconti’s The Damned (1969) is a testament to his incredible integrity as an actor in moments that are amoral and his characters know they are and bear them through emotional guilt.


Accident (Losey, 1967) is the weakest of Losey’s films that I’ve seen; I say this as a huge admirer of his work. I saw the film about five years ago on VHS and struggled with its narrative and characters, it was my first viewing of a Losey film. Revisiting it now knowing Losey’s films a lot better and that it was one of his three collaborations with Harold Pinter I still find myself more puzzled with the film, especially as Pinter also scripted The Servant and The Go-Between both of which I believe to be Losey’s best films. I get that Losey and Pinter are interested in the bland and empty lives of these people but it not enough to sustain its narrative. It is a vagueness that works well in films of that period like Charlie Bubbles (Finney, 1967). Accident needs at least one scene to grasp onto to make it accessible in someway, I did not find one but will gladly revisit the film in another few years.


Secret Ceremony (Losey, 1968) portrays an almost empty London like the London of The Satanic Rites of Dracula (Gibson, 1973). The huge Debenham House in Holland Park, West London is the main setting for this unsettling psychological drama which bares the tagline ‘no one admitted the last 12 minutes’. Mia Farrow lives all alone in the huge house which bares the past secret of likely incessant with her now dead family. The film at first intriguing strains its own narrative relying on slightly repetitive scenes involving Farrow. Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Mitchum give mildly interesting performances. Their encounter on the beach is the film’s best scene it breathes on its own and adds to the mystery of the incest theme. The house reminds me of Jeanne Dielman’s apartment you just cannot wait to leave.

le messager

The Go-Between (Losey, 1971) has a score by Michel Legrand that is absolutely mesmerising, up there with Michael Nyman’s great work for Peter Greenaway’s films. From the opening shot of raindrops on the window, I was captivated by the love of life that climaxes Legrand’s main theme. The story is; Alan Bates and Julie Christie use young Dominic Guard to act as a ‘go-between’ for their correspondence of love letters. The film won Losey the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971, his highest career honour. Gerry Fisher’s (a regular collaborator of Losey’s) stunning cinematography captures the beautiful English nature and the large country house filled with what I remember to be natural light leaving its mark of emotional intensity like Legrand’s music does particularly when Fisher’s zooms to a dramatic close-up.      


The Romantic Englishwoman (Losey, 1975) is an interesting film about power once again set mostly in the surroundings of an English house. Glenda Jackson and Michael Caine are perfectly cast as a married couple with Helmut Berger as their ‘go-between’ for business and pleasure. Losey and his screenwriters Tom Stoppard and Thomas Wiseman have made a comedy of manners, for example in one hilarious scene Caine and Jackson are ‘down and dirty’ in their front garden before an unannounced guest pulls up in their driveway. Dirk Bogarde who collaborated with Losey five times reportedly turned down Caine’s role. Caine’s rants are among his best, like in A Shock to the System (Egleson, 1990).


Mr. Klein (Losey, 1976) stars Alain Delon in a performance of subtle intensity which is maybe the best acting of any Losey film. It’s difficult to say more, Delon has encounter after encounter which builds towards an intimate experience about identity and bad timing, with an ironic final image. Losey worked until the end of his life in 1984, aged just 75. I cannot quite tell if Losey’s American identity merged with a English one after he had lived in London for 30 years.