Criterion Month: Andrea Arnold’s Short Films… From ‘Milk’ to ‘Wasp’

This piece is by our guest writer, Shaun Alexander.

As a part of the Criterion collection release of Andrea Arnold’s 2009 film, Fish Tank, you are treated to not only the Jury Prize winning film, but also three short films Arnold directed previously: Milk (1998), Dog (2001) and Wasp (2003). When you watch these shorts as a collective it is clear to see how they became stepping stones for Fish Tank and Arnold’s other future films, which tackle themes that can disturb viewers at times with intense depictions of sexuality, poverty and family relationships.

The reason for my own personal interest in Arnold’s work is due to the socio-economic setting. Set in and around East London / Essex, Fish Tank has a number of locations which are within walking distance from where I have lived the majority of my life. These are streets I have walked down, these are roads I have driven past and that level of familiarity is not just with the setting but with the characters we see. I am friends with, worked with and went to school with the people that Arnold often focuses on in her filmography – good-hearted people with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Having these personal investments in Arnold’s work has made it fascinating to rediscover these short films and the way in which their ideas are clear influences on her later work.

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What Transpires Within: Self-realisation and Trans Narratives in ‘Dead Ringers’

This essay is by our guest writer, Levin Tan.

You could say that David Cronenberg is something of a Freudian fanboy.

His body of work is frequently dissected by esteemed film critics and scholars using psychoanalytic approaches, particularly with his early career horror films that plunge you into the visceral and the venereal. This is no surprise – after all, psychoanalysis carries a heavy emphasis on images and metaphors relating to sex and the body. However, when considering psychoanalysis from a modern day perspective, it is clear that it has its issues. We currently live in a time where sexuality and gender allow for fluidity, making Freud’s rigid adherence to the male-female binary appear rather stale. For Freud, the “male” is always antecedent to the “female”; as if consulting the story of Eve being born from Adam’s rib, so, too, did Freud view the female as a derivative of the male.

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Criterion Month: The Erotically Delibrate Body in ‘In the Mood for Love’

This essay is by our guest writer, Amanda Walencewicz.

Selecting the most indelible images from In the Mood for Love is somewhat of a fool’s errand, as Nathan Rabin alludes to in his review of the film for The Dissolve: “A coffee-table book commemorating every unforgettable image in In the Mood for Love would run many thousands of pages long and include literally every frame of the film,” he writes. But I would venture that for most viewers it is the gently swiveling hips of Maggie Cheung as she walks in her qipao, with her placid face and perfect coif. Her partner in the film, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, conjures a similar image, of impeccably tailored suits, slicked-back hair, and a face that displays only the quietest renderings of emotion. From their impenetrable physical presences comes not a stilted or awkward romance, but one that is deeply seductive.

Romance would seem to stem from openness, from unburdening oneself from the superficiality of one’s surroundings, from releases of tension and admissions of attraction. In the Mood for Love, instead builds that tension and never releases it, creating an unbearable longing for the characters and the viewer, which is satisfied only through the decadent visuals of the body. It is not a cheap tease, however, that director Wong Kar-wai goes for. It is not the idea of finding great pleasure in the small concessions given out of deprivation, the glimpse of the ankle on a fully-covered woman as it were. The body is a constant presence, a surrounding in which the viewer is immersed, excessive and lingered upon. It is both a counterpoint to the restraint of the characters and a result of it – the unintended byproduct of their very conscious actions.

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Criterion Throwback Review: ‘The Great Dictator’

This essay is by our guest writer, Haden Cross.

The first time I watched The Great Dictator, it was four days after the inauguration of Donald Trump, and the only remark on that context in my Letterboxd review was that it had been a “hard day in the real world” that prompted the viewing. Eighteen months later – the timeline of political news long turned into a blur – I assumed that particular hard day was the start of the infamous travel ban. It wasn’t. That was to come three days later. The headlines from January 24th were not good by any means, but since then, the standards of what was considered notably bad had changed; the context in which I saw Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 anti-Nazi masterpiece had altered, and I was curious to see how it had held up in the meantime, and whether it would convey the specific sense of determined hope as it had in my first viewing. In the wake of the last year and a half, the way in which I related to the film shifted dramatically, from revering it as a valiant act of protest to seeing it more as a time capsule to a parallel moment in the past, an emblem of the cyclical nature of history.

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The Great Dictator does not shy away from who and what it is trying to skewer. Adenoid Hynkel’s regime in Tomainia, with its double-cross motif, assembles a visual parallel that is instantly understandable even in just a freeze-frame image. With that established, the film’s primary method of criticism is turning these stand-ins for Hitler and the Third Reich into the height of slapstick. As Hynkel, Chaplin tumbles down stairs, climbs catlike up a curtain, and throws temper tantrums that make him impossible to take seriously as an autocrat. The German language itself devolves into a world salad peppered with nonsensical sounds during the parodies of Hitler’s bombastic speeches. Much in the same way outlets like Saturday Night Live have taken potshots at the Trump administration, The Great Dictator sought to cut down power through humor, offering an image of a powerful international figure that cannot possibly earn one’s respect.

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Criterion Throwback Review: Powell and Pressburger’s ‘A Matter of Life and Death’

This review is by our guest writer, Laura Venning.

This month, A Matter of Life and Death is finally enshrined in the Criterion Collection, joining Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger favourites The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and The Tales of Hoffman.

While often eclipsed by the dark melodrama of The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death is an equally ravishing film that explores nothing less than war, peace, life, death, and love on a personal and cosmic scale. In this time of violent nationalism and bigotry, it’s a film that gives hope to the viewer and one that certain world leaders would do well to see.

It’s 1945 and Royal Air Force pilot Peter Carter (David Niven)’s time is up. His plane’s been hit and he’s hurtling towards his inevitable death. In his final moments, he quotes poetry to American radio operator June (Kim Hunter), but then, he miraculously washes up unharmed on the shore. The heavenly bureaucracy responsible for processing the deceased realises they’ve made their first mistake in a thousand years and dispatches Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) to retrieve him. Unfortunately for them, these extra hours on Earth have meant Peter and June have now met and fallen in love. In order to stay alive, Peter must appeal to the heavenly court and prove the depth of his love while kindly Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesey) fears his celestial hallucinations are a sign of brain damage.

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Criterion Month: How Love Is in the Look in ‘Before Sunrise’, ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’, and ‘Frances Ha’

This essay is by our guest writer, Marina Vuotto.

“It’s that thing when you’re with someone, and you love them and they know it, and they love you and you know it…but it’s a party, and you’re both talking to other people, and you’re laughing and shining…and you look across the room and catch each other’s eyes – but not because you’re possessive, or it’s precisely sexual, but because…that is your person in this life. And it’s funny and sad, but only because this life will end, and it’s this secret world that exists right there in public, unnoticed, that no one else knows about. It’s sort of like how they say that other dimensions exist all around us, but we don’t have the ability to perceive them.”

Frances Ha’s personal definition of love is so delicately observed, so personal yet universal, so accurate in its specificity, that it has a poetic quality to it; Greta Gerwig’s delivery, as she fumbles for the right words, gesticulates and looks around for validation, gives body to Frances’ attempt to explain something unexplainable, to articulate a feeling that’s powerful yet wordless. Her way of giving the speech has that tone of a friend trying to explain what they mean, only to realize that there’s no need to finish their sentence because you’ve understood it despite their inability to express it precisely; because you know them, because you’ve felt it.

And yet, where words fail, cinema steps in: when it’s truly great, not only does it substitute explaining with showing, but it’s able to recreate a feeling to immerse you in it and make you live it. And as difficult as recreating that particular feeling – that thing – is, three films get pretty close: Before Sunrise, The Royal Tenenbaums, and, of course, Frances Ha. In each one of them, the most powerful love scenes are played out through a quiet exchange of looks, which brings the secret world Frances talks about to life.

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Criterion Month: Françoise Dorléac in ‘The Soft Skin’ and ‘The Young Girls of Rochefort’

This essay is written by our guest writer, Carlos Valladares.

One of the most powerful images from the Truffaut adultery drama La Peau Douce (The Soft Skin, 1964) belongs to Françoise Dorléac, whose flight attendant, Nicole, is reduced to uncommon tears by the likes of Pierre, her flabby, academic drip of a lover (Jean Desailly). Pierre, the Balzac expert whose lectures weirdly manage to sell out theaters across France, has just spent the entire night publicly avoiding Nicole in a series of flakes more outrageous and humiliating than the last. When Pierre and Nicole reunite in their clandestine hotel room, the scene is heartbreaking: a two-shot (there are many two-shots in this patient, unjudging study of soured love) in which Raoul Coutard’s camera abandons its neutrality in order to highlight Dorléac’s emotions (anger, disgust, shame) over Desailly’s. Dorléac, who faces the camera and who never once returns Desailly’s gaze, struggles to talk squarely with him, without tears. But she cannot. She tells him she plans to stay in the hotel. “Tonight,” she says, with her sobs now coming in aching staccato bursts, “I realized you were ashamed of me.” It’s hard to watch, since tears do not come easily to the kinds of strong, sometimes zany women Dorléac excelled at playing.

Three years later in 1967, the year of her tragic death, we see peak Dorléac in the role of Solange, the effervescent composer whose music fills the air of Jacques Demy’s pastel-hued Rochefort. In Soft Skin, Dorléac nibbles within the noble edges of an unglamorous film, “an autopsy of adultery” (in Truffaut’s own words). In Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort)Dorléac bursts out in a fit of perfect, fab glamor. Her soft face is dotted with freckles. Her red bob weaves up and down as she takes commands of any space (café, music shop, street) around which she stalks or sulks, but never seems to simply step into. Basically, anyone can be made to look glamorous or beautiful or witty in the hands of a good director/cinematographer/hair-stylist. What’s unique about the glamor of Dorléac is the way in which it is so downplayed, so self-evident that it need not be flaunted. Demy’s Les Demoiselles is a perfect example of Dorléac’s democratic impulses in action: Though she and sister Catherine Deneuve are clearly the stars of the film, they never once seem to dominate or distract from the stories of the other Rochefort lovers (Michel Piccoli, Danielle Darrieux, Jacques Perrin, Gene Kelly) as they all struggle to find The One. This is the result of a stellar collaboration between an open-hearted, generous auteur (Demy was one of the cinema’s greatest directors of ensembles) and a just-as-generous actrice. Whether she’s at the center or near the edges of a scene, Dorléac glows with style, charm, poise. With her quick glances, husky voice, and subtle sashay, she’s always asking the people who pass her by: Why strain yourself, darlings?

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