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Heart-Shaped World: “The Earrings of Madame de…

The Earrings of Madame de… has been called one of the perfect pictures of cinema. And it is amazing, a piece that is not just directed, not just choreographed, but sculpted in time and space, with actors and décor as the raw materials and the camera carving out the story. Charles Boyer gives what I believe is the most delicate and nuanced performance of his career as the General, the very picture of a cultured gentleman at ease with social convention and manners, the confident, smiling high society habitué. Vittorio De Sica, as the Italian diplomat, Baron Donati, is suave and serious, hiding a romantic passion, where the General is easy and joshing to hide a lack of feeling. When he falls for the Countess (Danielle Darrieux), the Madame de… of the title married to the General, the scene is played out at a dance that Andrew Sarris describes so much better than I could: “In a series of Strauss waltz sequences, the most dazzling courtship in film history is conducted before the probing eyes of the Parisian Belle Epoque aristocracy.” Her whole social life has been a series of flirtations and romantic play, but this scene is unabashedly romantic, a fairy tale of love at first sight. But it’s a fleeting moment, and for all the dreamy romance of the scenes, it’s hard to feel the heat between them because the passion simply doesn’t break through their carefully cultivated facades.

an affair in plain sight
Danielle Darrieux and Vittorio De Sica: an affair in plain sight

Like other of Ophuls’ films, there is a circularity to the story carried along by the journey of heart-shaped earrings of the title as they are sold, bought, given away as love tokens and farewell gifts, and ultimately make their way back to the Countess. The jewels are never more than tokens, and the heart-shaped diamonds are a cold, impersonal stand-in for affection, but by the time they come back to the Countess as a gift from Donati, she has invested them with a meaning far greater than they ever had when they were merely a present from her husband.

Darrieux, who here somewhat resembles Arletty (only more poised and less easygoing), plays the Countess as an actress who stages her own personal dramas for effect, fainting to force the sale of the earrings, or stop a confrontation at a dance. The camera’s relationship to the Countess is like a respectful dancer in an elaborately choreographed routine, one of those elaborate 19th Century group dances where you spend more time moving away from and dancing around your partner than you do actually touching them, always maintaining a respectful distance. Ophuls is sympathetic, but never really intimate, and treats the Countess like an actress who is always on stage, playing the part of the perfect socialite, until she sinks into depression at the end of the affair, her once buoyant charm now listless, her face tired and old before its time.

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‘Redbelt’ on DVD – A second round with Mamet’s magnificent martial arts drama

David Mamet’s Redbelt arrives on DVD this week. I take the occasion of reviewing the film to work through some of my thoughts on what I believe is the smartest, sharpest and most unashamedly pure melding of personal filmmaking and genre filmmaking since Walter Hill’s Undisputed, another magnificent fight film. I don’t know that the film was misunderstood and I haven’t sifted through the critical reception, but the film was a financial underachiever (it earned less than $3 million in ticket sales in he U.S.) with few champions. Here’s my shot at championing it.

Mamet's honorable warrior in a dishonorable world
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mike Terry: Mamet's honorable warrior in a dishonorable world

Mamet’s stage reputation is built on male dramas of wit and wills and one-upmanship, battles fought almost exclusively through his glorious dialogue, pushed far beyond any sense of realism into a verbal symphony of intertwining solos built on staccato bursts of profane words elevated to terse poetry. As a filmmaker, however, his most interesting films are his genre picture – heist films, murder mysteries, con movies, all generally male-centric narratives with a strong physical component (from subtle sleight-of-hand to bold showings of strength) that he reworks with his own brand of professional pride, machismo and male honor. It’s a man’s world and he revels in it.

In many ways, Redbelt is both a revival and a complete redefinition of the kind of film that Jean-Claude Van Damme cranked out in the eighties, the kind of thriller that pit fighters in matches in underground leagues and our honorable hero overcomes his disdain for such bloodsport to take revenge for the murder of a brother/friend in the ring. It’s a fight film, in Mamet’s own words, but in the distinctive martial arts world of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. And it’s a kind of samurai film, with Iraq vet and poor but proud Jiu-jitsu instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor, all quiet dignity and modesty) as his honorable warrior in a dishonorable world.

Mamet, of course, latches on to the philosophical grounding of martial arts that is always given lip service in such films, and then either ignored or bent to fit the revenge plots. But he also embraces the machismo of the genre in his own distinctive way: the confidence of strength, the courage of modesty, and the professional grace of a fighter who uses the least amount of effort and movement to achieve his goal. Mamet is a devotee to Jiu-jitsu and he gives it all his respect.

It’s glorious pulp fiction elevated to genre art, full of both Mamet’s cynicism about the corruption of big business (just substitute Hollywood for the martial arts league) and his romantic ideals of men in military service and men dedicated to a higher purpose. Mamet never manages to capture the fiery fury of a great martial arts battle; he’s no action director and shoots the choreography largely from the perspective of a TV spectator, direct and functional. But the screenplay is pure Mamet: characters trading questions that never get answered, lines repeated like a mantra, conversations like twin monologues in parallel dimensions that always manage to wind up back in the same universe.

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Cinematic Archeology on DVD – “Orson Welles’ Don Quixote”? Not Even Close

Don Quixote on DVD
Don Quixote on DVD - Finally?

Don Quixote is one “lost” Welles film that is surely doomed to remain that way: unfinished, fragmented, a puzzle with pieces that have been recut so many times they simply don’t fit together. Welles jokingly renamed the film “When Are You Going to Finish Don Quixote?” because he continued to rewrite and reconceptualize the film as he went along. It’s as if the act of creating in the moment was the point, not the finished production. Financed solely by himself, it perhaps became a project so personal that he couldn’t finish, and it remained in fragments when he died in 1985.

The DVD release of the 1992 “reconstruction” haphazardly cobbled together by legendary exploitation director turned indifferent B-movie hack Jesus Franco (he was an assistant to Welles during some of the principle photography) isn’t about to change that. Oja Kodar, Welles’ muse/partner/collaborator for the final decades of his life, sold the rights to the footage in her possession to Franco and producer Patxi Irigoyen (they also acquired the footage from Suzanne Cloutier), but was terribly disappointed at the resulting film. According to longtime Welles cameraman and friend Gary Graver, Franco and Irigoyen used practically every scrap of footage they had, including sequences he had shot for a Spanish TV documentary he made in the middle of production (another little project to get more production funds). Certainly it’s hard enough to guess at Welles’ intentions from the notes and partially-edited footage (in various stages of rough cut) left behind over the course of a decade of shooting on the run and dragging the footage around from country to country as he tinkered with the editing, but there is little evidence of any serious attempt at a legitimate reconstruction from the film on display, and it’s missing vital footage that remains in the possession of the film’s original editor, Mauro Bonanni, who was not invited to participate in the project.

From what I know about Welles and the history of the film, Franco’s version is not even an approximation, never mind a reconstruction. There’s no story here, simply a random succession of events and images and a whole lot of narrative detours. But even as a visual record of Welles’ raw footage it’s a travesty. It’s a given that much of the existing rough cut footage is in rough condition, showing the signs of wear and tear from years of tinkering on moviolas and dragging the reels from country to country. But Franco and company have, if anything, compounded the problems with hazy, blurry copies of the master footage and video noise introduced as a result of the project’s most egregious crimes against Welles: the video manipulation of footage to layer images one on another. At one point, the sails of a windmill are stretched across the screen (to suggest a windmill come to life and reach out to Quixote? was that in the notes, Franco, or was it all your inspiration?). The soundtrack is no better. Franco uses fragments of recorded dialogue (with Welles providing the voices of both Quixote and Sancho as well as the narration) and fills in the rest of the film with voices that barely resemble Welles’ work. You have to have to watch the mouths move just to pick out the speakers in this dissonant audio mess.

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