Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Mother Joan of the Angels (Kawalerowicz, 1961)

The metaphysical malady that plagues Jerzy Kawalerowicz's 1961 Cannes-winning feature is a familiar one, begging for comparisons with the more widely-seen exorcism pictures that followed in its wake. But even as the possessed antagonist of its title feverishly courts Satan in a manner that's wholly reminiscent of a certain William Friedkin film, it's clear that Mother Joan of the Angels is cut from a different, unique cinematic cloth.

Kawalerowicz's mélange of unbridled eroticism, anti-dogmatic rage, and ecclesiastical chaos is disconcertingly repressed by the devotional austerity that overwhelms his mise-en-scène. The film consequently teeters on the brink - its delirious psychology threatening to explode into some sort of expressionistic cornucopia, but ultimately settling for a visual vacuum that harbours only claustrophobic desolation and confrontation (characters frequently stare into the camera, initiating a jarring intimacy with the viewer). A symbolically-charred stake amidst a barren field is the ominous result of this discrepancy between form and content: those who wish to traverse the distance between the corporeal and ethereal face a date with a form of social barbarism that masquerades as justice or destiny. Against this context of spiritual subjugation, the blasphemous hysteria of Mother Joan and her Sisters borders on the rational - an understandable result of their stifled passions. Human needs are disfigured into satanic desires, exacerbated by an institutional framework that values condemnation over empathy.

When the pious Father Jozef enters into this hermetic netherworld, he does so with the intent of saving Mother Joan's damned soul. In actuality, it's his devout veneer that comes undone, unleashing a torrent of doubts and uncertainties that culminates with a provocative dream sequence featuring an angry rabbi (the two individuals, it turns out, are not dissimilar). What transpires alongside this scenario is a wholly unorthodox romance that finds mutual longing displaced into medieval Catholicism's more ritualistic domains. Thus, Jozef and Joan's answer to the sex scene is to self-flagellate their naked torsos at opposite ends of a room, before staring awkwardly at one another after their suffering is complete. Remove the doctrines that they adhere to, and these individuals seem woefully ill-equipped to deal with the pressures of reality.

Tellingly, an image of a downward-facing human cross (Jozef) opens the film, promising an inverted transcendence that's actualized by the conclusion's final, unsettling act of kindness. Following the discovery of moral destitution in a fundamentalist society then, Mother Joan exalts only one solution: compassion. But Kawalerowicz's critical view of static religious ideals lends vigour to the delivery of his material, and in its unnervingly subdued soundscapes he finds only the figurative howls of internal torment. How can compassion survive in a world of such disarray? Mother Joan of the Angels casts its glare upon the increasing divergence between man and institution, and suggests that the former holds the true key to enlightenment. Even then however, we may not find the answers that we're looking for.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Street of Shame (Mizoguchi, 1956)

Street of Shame is about prostitutes. Working with perhaps the most complex narrative of his career, Kenji Mizoguchi observes the interconnected lives of five such women from a sympathetically detached viewpoint. The differing ideals, motives and social backgrounds that colour their respective experiences are woven into a multifaceted tapestry of totality, providing an expansive image of their profession that's as broad as it is deep. In an early scene, a cleaner (presumably a former prostitute herself) recalls an era when their livelihood was looked upon more favourably: "...we were seen as courtesans, trained in the arts... and we were treated just like noble women." Past glories have little effect upon the present reality however, and in the film's opening minutes Mizoguchi is quick to place the ideal of the courtesan in her 1950s context. An Anti-Prostitution Bill going through the national Diet is discussed almost immediately, and its developments are mentioned with a regularity that lends a quiet urgency to the ensuing drama. Meanwhile, the desperate straits of the era become painfully discernible when the female leads resort to harrassing their potential clients for business - which, unsurprisingly, is a method that repels more than it attracts. It soon becomes clear that the position occupied by these women is a precarious one, miles removed from any outdated allusions towards "nobility".

Street of Shame is about sex. A risqué shot of Machiko Kyô's derrière threatens to endow the film with amatory undercurrents that live up to its sordid Anglicized title. However, the director refrains from eroticizing his subjects, with the female body being viewed less as a figure of desire and more as a social commodity. Thus, although the characters discuss copulation with a bluntness that may surprise the audience (particularly when touching upon taboo topics such as incest), their conversations are overwhelmed by more frequent references to their finances (or lack of) - which, of course, are inherently bound to their sex lives. Mizoguchi's discussion of transactional intercourse is founded upon a visible delineation between the respective worlds of the customers and their "purchases", revealed most acutely by the plight of the middle-aged Yumeko. Her forays from the artificial sets of the akasen district into the location shots of the outside world result in only alienation and condemnation. The director is unyielding in his assertions: sex and pleasure are far from interrelated - and in selling the former, Yumeko and her colleagues seemingly relinquish all rights to the latter.

Street of Shame is about men. The lack of significant male characters may temper the vigour of his arguments, but Mizoguchi nonetheless remains implacably critical of his own gender's influence in this cycle of exploitation. His recriminations are discreetly enmeshed within the narrative, minimizing the disruption to its female-centric dramatic flow, but it quickly becomes obvious that each woman's predicament is at least to some extent motivated by the male(s) in her life. Cruel fathers, inconsiderate partners and ungrateful sons inhabit the background of the film, engendering a feminine need to abnegate. Moreover, the brothel's Madame is superseded in power by her husband, who twice rounds up his workers to give resoundingly hollow pep talks designed to extol the benefits of their vocation. Even men who are extraneous to the womens' everyday lives manage to exert their influence: note the aforementioned Anti-Prostitution Bill, whose merits are debated by a male-dominated parliament. Mizoguchi is astute enough to shine his empathetic light upon all of his flawed individuals, but the impression of female subjugation at the hands of a still-patriarchal society is one that's hard to dispel - this, despite the irony of the male characters' dependence upon the oppressed parties.

Street of Shame is about modernity. As the shrill, frenzied sounds of Toshirô Mayuzumi's avant-garde score accompany an establishing vista of 1950s Tokyo during the opening credits, it becomes immediately apparent that this is a very different beast in its director's oeuvre. It is demarcated as a film attuned to contemporary concerns in a manner heretofore unseen within Mizoguchi's work: gone is the classicism and lyricism that both opens and defines his renowned jidai-geki pieces. In its place, there exists a meticulously-crafted melodramatic realism that allows him to discard the sentimental disposition of his most popular films and go straight for the jugular. The socio-political perspective that's present in so much of Mizoguchi's work now assumes the foremost prominence as he turns his attention to the breakdown of traditional family structures. There is little serenity in his examination, which is willing to plumb harrowing depths to illustrate the despondent underbelly of Japan's post-war economic miracle: the image of the über-maternal Hanae confessing to her husband ("I'm glad we decided not to commit suicide.") whilst cradling her malnourished baby in her arms is the sort of tangible human atrocity that only Mizoguchi could construct. And in his eyes, it is indeed a human atrocity for he points the finger of blame directly at a government that's failed its female citizens, and consequently its families. Newsbites from the Diet blare out from numerous radios, creating a politicized soundtrack against which the audience witnesses the limited employment opportunities available to the Japanese woman of the '50s. Almost all of the film's female leads dream of escaping their neon bordello (another irony: it's named Dreamland) but their limited earning potential as women is further hindered by the permanent stigma of a profession that none of them entered entirely through free will.

Street of Shame is about resilience. This is a film that confronts the issue of a prostitute's ignominy head-on and dares to question society's right to authorize that humiliation. Only one member of the original quintet, Yasumi, manages to leave Dreamland for good - but she does so through a deception that effectively exterminates her conscience and morality. Mizoguchi notes the heavy emphasis placed upon performance in this environment, and when Yasumi continues the charade in her next line of work, the blurred distinction between her role and her reality implies that her physical prostitution has been supplanted by spiritual prostitution. Her apparent "escape" accordingly raises further questions about the viability of women in the commercial marketplace, and in doing so alludes to an entire history of female suffering that continues to weigh down most visibly upon her former co-workers. Like Yasumi, none of these women intrinsically require the audience's sympathies, but Mizoguchi's humanistic treatment of femininity-in-crisis elicits more than distanced admiration. His women are more likely to be seen fighting against one another than the powers-that-be, but with each of their personal conflicts they contribute to a cumulative vision of outdated-yet-neverending self-sacrifice that demands the viewer's active engagement with matters of gender equality. The film is a paean to their vulnerabilities as well as their strengths, but most of all it's a tribute to the women themselves.

Street of Shame is about style. His ninety-first film of a métier spanning three decades finds Mizoguchi doing everything except resting on his laurels. Indeed, one could argue that his filmic prose has never been so concise in its articulation. The director rises to the challenge of a dangerously convoluted narrative by refining the renowned aesthetic flourishes of Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu down to their threadbare essentials. What the later film lacks in pictorial beauty, it makes up for with stylistic complexity. The director uses depth of field and fluid long-takes to toy with the audience's spatial awareness: a simple track or zoom can expand or contract the planes of action within the frame, and in any one shot he can be using middleground and/or background to bring nuance to the foreground. Take, for example, the scene in which Yasumi visits a café to borrow more money from her benefactor: during their discussion they both dominate the frame, but Mizoguchi uses its depth to interweave a casual commentary on the subject of career openings with the image of a subservient waitress slaving away in the distance. His subdued visuals have rarely been so gloriously unassertive in their intricacies. Additionally, his editing grammar reaches a new level of sophistication, cutting effortlessly across five plotlines that converge and diverge with alarming inconsistency. Somehow, the stories find a way to feed into one another - often via the overarching theme of familial breakdown - and the friction generated by each cut infuses the text with all the potency of a seismic polemic against the social order. It's to Mizoguchi's credit that this impeccably synchronized crescendo of emotional violence retains an organic intensity that grounds it within a wholly identifiable reality.

Finally, Street of Shame is about Kenji Mizoguchi himself. Throughout his adult life, he had been a frequent consumer of prostitutes - a fact that boggles the mind when one considers the pro-feminist/anti-prostitution readings applied to so many of his films, this one included. Street of Shame's final coda however, may well expose the true nature of his personal convictions. [Spoiler]The director brings down the curtain by going full circle and turning his attention to the next generation: the latest addition to Dreamland's roster, a teenage virgin named Shizuko, makes her public "debut" in an uncharacteristic Mizoguchi close-up. As he scrutinizes her innocent but terrified face, she uncomfortably whispers to the passers-by - "come inside... please..." - and so the cycle begins once again. With his choice of shot, the director's camera eradicates its gender-neutral viewpoint and reverts to a perspective that boldly recalls the male gaze. But the last shot of his incomparable career is surely also Mizoguchi's gaze - and with it, he acknowledges the destructive potential of the profession once and for all. In a courageous move, the closing moments of Street of Shame reveal their true colours as a filmmaker's desire for redemption.[/Spoiler] Thus, the director's final gift to the world of cinema is also his most intimate and personal - and it somehow seems fitting that this poignant diatribe should have been cited as one of the factors behind the eventual ratification of the Anti-Prostitution Bill in 1958. There could be no greater tribute to the everlasting eloquence - and relevance - of Mizoguchi's cinematic expression.

Yôkihi (Mizoguchi, 1955)

Mizoguchi's first of only two colour films is also one of the most obviously misread works in his oeuvre. The film's title, Yôkihi, can often be sighted masquerading under the guise of Princess Yang Kwei-fei or even The Empress Yang Kwei Fei. Alas, these monikers have little relation to the text at hand: the titular Kwei-fei is neither princess nor empress, but merely a servant girl who's pushed into the Emperor's court and, subsequently, his affections. (The UK Masters of Cinema DVD release reinterprets the title as the more appropriate Imperial Concubine Yang.)

Such pedantry may seem foolish: after all, what bearing can a poorly-translated title have on the content of the film? The answer is probably very little, but the failure of Western distributors to comprehend the relevance of Kwei-fei's role alludes to a more significant problem within the text itself. To return to the opening sentence, an informed viewer might expect Yôkihi to be misunderstood as a result of the camouflaged intricacies typically locked up inside Mizoguchi's visual style. This is not the case. Yôkihi's problems arise because it is perhaps the most misconceived and ill-judged effort from a director otherwise renowned for the precision of his craftsmanship.

The Chinese legend that birthed the film's premise seems ideally suited to Mizoguchi's favoured concerns. A tale of love and sacrifice that's centred upon female oppression at the hands of male political manoeuvring should, in theory, provide a home run for someone of his proto-feminist background. Consider also the privilege of witnessing a cinematic master direct in colour, not to mention the reteaming of Machiko Kyô and Masayuki Mori - two of the leads from Ugetsu, a film that resides amongst his most brilliant achievements. Surely with all this in mind, Yôkihi begins to scream "recipe for success".

Perhaps it is this misplaced faith in the sum of its exemplary parts that allows for the film's pitiful storytelling. Despite the acclaim of the source material and a screenplay penned by the director's regular collaborators, Yôkihi's narrative is riddled with flaws that sabotage the final product. The most glaring problem lies with the dialogue, which insists on vocalizing the subtext normally created by Mizoguchi's editing, framing and mise-en-scène - thus depriving his imagery of its trademark nuances. Thematic subtlety is surprisingly abandoned as the incessant talk of moral bankruptcy, political corruptness and, of course, oppression, browbeat the issues over the viewer's head.

Meanwhile, the three-act structure to which the narrative adheres causes further headaches with its careless execution. A detailed introduction does both too much and too little for the film as a whole, establishing characters and conflicts that the hurried later sections fail to address. Take the powerful Mother Abbess for example (deliciously played by Haruko Sugimura, Japan's answer to Thelma Ritter), who offers a tantalizing counterpoint to female abnegation in an early scene only to then be completely discarded as the film "progresses". Yôkihi simultaneously ignores characters that do merit further consideration - note how the Emperor's son, whose relevance to both prologue and epilogue cannot be underestimated, is absent for the entire duration of the film. Having spent so much time verbally articulating its themes, the director and his writers end up compromising on both the story's momentum and its character development to abysmal effect.

Moreover, the concept of plot has never been so visibly mechanical in a Mizoguchi effort, and the contrived transitions that propel it toward its conclusion are imbued with the exasperation of authors who, frankly, don't give a damn. At one point during the final act, Yôkihi reverts to describing the events of a temporal ellipsis with subtitles. There is no precedent for such laziness within either the film or its director's filmography, meaning that the decision comes across less as a stylistic tactic and more as a bizarre reproach to both the audience as well as the talents of its creators. Needless to say, these few minutes provide horrifying viewing for the Mizoguchi enthusiast, offering a culmination of the film's numerous troubles that's nigh-on unwatchable.

And yet bafflingly, when all is said and done, it's not Yôkihi's many mistakes that linger in the memory - it's the flashes of its director's unparalleled genius. Despite the hackneyed mess of a script that he does little to visibly tame, Mizoguchi manages to locate an opening that allows him to experiment. The film is bookended by sequences featuring the aged, now-former Emperor mourning his past - suggesting that the bulk of the content could be viewed through the filter of his memorializing perspective, thereby explaining some of the textual incoherencies whilst raising numerous questions about the male gaze. Familiar Mizoguchi territory? Of course, there is little within the narrative itself to imply that the writers are aware of these quasi-modernist inclinations, but the otherworldly atmosphere that Mizoguchi creates with his blend of languid camera movements, exquisite colour photography and ethereal musical accompaniments at least creates the possibility of an alternative reading.

Although Mizoguchi's visual style may be stripped of its nuances, its capacity for inspiring awe is conversely stronger than ever. One recalls the Lotus Pool scene, which marries the sensuality of Ugetsu's hot springs episode with the erotic frankness advocated by Naruse's Floating Clouds. Or how about the eerie beauty of the plum blossom sequence, whose beguling lyricism melds with the delicately opaque performances to create an indelible portrait of loneliness, as in The Life of Oharu? And then there's the climactic [Spoiler]self-sacrifice scene, which acknowledges the poignant model of dignity pioneered by Sansho the Bailiff's Anju, and remoulds it into an economical apex of melodramatic potency.[/Spoiler] In short: Yôkihi finds Mizoguchi the cinematic artist reverting to his old palettes to enliven the messiest canvas of his career. It's a testament to the director's mastery that the new decorations manage to equal, and perhaps even surpass the aesthetic majesty of earlier efforts.

As the camera searches for high angles amidst the polychromatic artifice, it is not unjustified to claim that the Emperor and Kwei-fei bear resemblances to lifeless figures in a painting. Factor in Mizoguchi's rigorous observation of social rituals (and, on a more basic level, a prologue that divulges the conclusion!) and the metaphorical noose around these characters necks seems tightened from the get-go. Gender politics and social obligations imprint themselves into the awkward diction and body language of the two leads, whose filmic "activity" functions as an extended metaphor for their actual captivity.

For a film that's so consumed by its characters restrictions then, it is perhaps appropriate that the most brilliant sequence in Yôkihi should be entirely concerned with the idea of movement. During a particularly artificial starry night, the prospective lovers adopt disguises to escape the regulations of their palatial abode. They arrive at a Festival of Lanterns where, after a trivial process of self-discovery on the Emperor's part as well as the random assistance of strangers that insist upon getting the pair drunk, the duo enact what is surely one of the most moving expressions of mutual desire in screen history. Kwei-fei dances, the Emperor plays guitar, and as their respective performances coalesce somewhere within a stratosphere of ecstasy, so the viewer understands the real value of personal freedom. These few, hypnotic minutes tell the story of the film as a whole. Despite resting upon a series of misguided clichés and contrivances, the end result here is the same as in any other Mizoguchi film from this period: his artistry prevails. Yôkihi might well be the most flawed work in his later canon, but its missteps allow the viewer to cherish its moments of bliss that much more.

Aleksandra (Sokurov, 2007)

Sokurov's latest film casts his titular heroine as a defiant Mother Russia figure who's as eccentric as characters get in his closed artistic universe. Aleksandra's visit to her grandson, stationed at a military barracks in Chechnya, offers the director a rare opportunity to comment on contemporary regional turmoils. Those familiar with films such as The Sun however, will soon realize that Sokurov has minimal interest in politicizing his threadbare narratives. Instead, he typically elevates his film unto a plane above everyday reality: characters don't talk so much as they mumble against the audible gasps of their desolate environment; deliberately poor dubbing gives the effect of dialogue emanating from the subconscious; and all the while, a plaintive symphony interpolates the soundscape, punctuating the most emotionally-charged moments with a heavy dose of appealing irony. Sokurov's imagery remains as beautifully stark as ever, appearing as if saturated by a celestial presence that leaves the natural looking artificial. It is against this backdrop that Aleksandra and her companions can be caught moralizing with jarring frankness - their strained confessions forming the discursive backbone of the director's poetic ruminations on the wayward Russian spirit. This rambling approach to so substantial a subject pays dividends: the national question, stifled by Sokurov's elegiac construction, both transcends and relapses into something more akin to intimate self-analysis. The very notion of Russian identity is deconstructed into an abstract conflict of spiritualism vs. realism. Aleksandra embodies the former, her grandson the latter, and in his tender examination of their familial bond Sokurov charts the ebbs and flows of this most peculiar conception of nationality. Even if his evaluations are lacking and somewhat misguided in their political foundations, his crisis of the Russian soul's moody allure strikes a chord that's as relevant as much as it is resonant. When Aleksandra's Chechen counterparts bid her farewell at film's end, their outpouring of affection may well have concluded the most crushing fantasy of the 21st century.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Stazione Termini (De Sica, 1953)

Jennifer Jones furrows her brow, Montgomery Clift flares his nostrils, and together they strive to breath life into the sterile romance that debilitates Vittorio De Sica's bizarre Stazione Termini (1953). Unfolding entirely inside Rome's titular train station, the accomplished director's English-language debut seems to draw clear inspiration from David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945), whilst anticipating his later Summertime (1955). De Sica embroiders an entirely different emotional fabric however: the romantic impulse is substituted for illicit carnality, and the tender, empathetic perspective that one associates with Lean's intimate dramas is noticeably absent. It remains unclear if this was De Sica's intention, or whether this is simply a byproduct of the execrable performances from his distinguished stars. Clift's brooding hyper-intensity is humorously undercut by his wavering attempts at an Italian accent, but all worst in show honours surely belong to Jones whose underwhelming "damsel in distress" schtick conveys as much human resonance as a brain-dead pig. With lipstick. And Dior.

Woefully misguided as the actors are, one must surely attribute some of the blame here to the film's creative team. A collaboration between screenwriters of such pedigree (Cesare Zavattini and Truman Capote are amongst the contributors) has no reason to feed the stars such laughably trite dialogue, nor should it facilitate such a conservative message (the maternal archetype is venerated beyond belief). And as for De Sica, Stazione Termini finds the filmmaker caught in perpetual limbo between the social documentarian of neorealism's heyday and the metteur en scène demands placed upon the Hollywood melodramatist. The ensuing awkwardness manifests itself in more than just the acting: the director lingers upon shots of ordinary people long after the stars have left the frame, evidently struggling to tailor his auteurial instincts to the conventions of continuity editing. His approach would seem refreshing if it refrained from painting its innocent bystanders as participants in an urban freakshow - what does one make of the vertically-challenged Kirk Douglas lookalike who drools over anything with a vagina and angrily clings to an orange? Or how about the gaggle of eccentric clergymen who overwhelm the screen at the most random intervals? And the crazed policeman-as-pervert who pulls "Fuck me!" faces at Jennifer Jones, of all women? De Sica may be attempting to represent the discomfort and shame felt by Jones's guilt-ridden adulteress, but he ends up creating a cross-section of Italian society that reveals a worrying sense of national self-loathing.

Like so many other entries in the genre of directorial missteps however, Stazione Termini has its merits. De Sica shows a mastery of visual style here that might surprise the viewer. The vibrant hubbub of the station is frequently wedded to expansive long-shots that revere the near-glacial beauty of its architecture. What ensues is an abiding feeling of disconnection from space and time (note the giant clocks that the director so often returns to) - and, given the iconic location, modernity. The director draws attention to this with the deftest of touches: shot/reverse-shots used during the lovers' conversations discreetly position each participant at opposite ends of the frame, highlighting the distance that separates them (and accentuating the moments of intimacy when they do share the frame). Moreover, at one point, Jones's face is filmed from a high-angle with toplighting, evoking memories of Dietrich, Garbo and the exoticized splendour of the fallen woman. The actress's ineptitude is advantageous here, drawing attention to both her characters' detachment as a clueless American in Italy, as well as her personal disconnect from the proponents of the shot's prototype.

De Sica's insinuations regarding the perils of modern life are admirable, going so far as to create an alternative narrative simply through the strength of his potent imagery. When the actual, contrived narrative - complete with its dour eroticism, simplistic orthodoxy and stultified emotional masochism - concludes with what is quite possibly the most elongated and laborious farewell in the history of forever, he might well have given the audience enough reason to wonder whether their feelings of nonchalance after ninety minutes of intensive "romantic melodrama" are intended.

But this is still a crock o'shit.

On Dangerous Ground (N. Ray, 1952)

The cineaste's inherent need to categorize is masterfully exposed by Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground (1952). With Bernard Herrmann's dynamically sinister score providing a serrated edge to the murky cityscapes of the opening credits, one could be forgiven for assuming that this is a film that will conform to the conventions of the urban noir. And indeed, for almost half an hour the director revels in the seedy underbelly of his dystopia, where perversity and profanity collide in a flurry of violence amidst the shadows. Credit the ominously restrained (for the most part) fervour of Robert Ryan's tortured police officer for grounding this segment with a psychological quandary that demands a resolution: how is it possible to survive in the gutters of society without losing one's humanity? In pursuit of those depths, Ray sends his cop on an ontological odyssey into the wilderness, via the morbid conceit of a manhunt for a murderer. Although the stylistic values of the noir appear to have evaporated, in the snow-covered desolation of the countryside the director locates the same crisis of morality that plagues the city. Accordingly, the film becomes a study of man in relation to his environment: in both locations, Ray follows his low-angle shots of the inhumanly tall Ryan with long-shots where the actor seems dwarfed by his ultimately empty surroundings. But all is not lost - without the neverending activity of urbania to shield him, Ryan's cop is at his most vulnerable. And then... he discovers Ida Lupino, blind yet resilient, and readily capable of empathising with his spiritual isolation. With a series of penetrating close-ups, Ray breaks down the defences that the pair have constructed against the world, and thereby emancipates their wounded souls. In mutual heartbreak and weariness, the duo enact a filmic ballad of loneliness that redefine the once unnerving snowy exteriors as a poetic source of revitalization. Ray has deceived the viewer: this is about the environment in relation to man, and the latter's potential to change it for the better. But this is no Hollywood ending: [Spoiler]it takes a death to enliven these hearts, and it requires the protection of blindness for them to thrive - the director is all too aware of his happy facade.[/Spoiler] No matter, in both reality and fantasy, the audacity of Nicholas Ray's filmmaking makes for nothing less than scintillating viewing.

Summer Interlude (Bergman, 1951)

Summer Interlude (1951) is often acclaimed as the best of Bergman's early features. And indeed, there are stretches here that suggest that the film does deserve to stand alongside the glories of later years. Not until Fanny and Alexander over three decades later would Bergman evoke the naivety of youth in quite so enchanting a manner. With Interlude, the director focuses his attention upon sexuality and, more specifically, the increasing sexual awareness that's integral to the adolescent experience. To romanticize his concerns, Bergman conjures up a noteworthy brand of visual lyricism, defined by its dependence upon the natural world. Benefited heavily by Gunnar Fischer's ability to capture so many resplendent moments on film, the director draws a scintillating - if somewhat simplistic - parallel between one's sexual awakening and nature in full bloom.

Bergman clearly has his finger on the pulse when it comes to imagery, but with the film's other elements he stumbles considerably. His frank, penetrating dialogue always has the potential to be read as overbearing and heavy-handed, and with the benefit of hindsight, Interlude verges dangerously close to self-parody. Its characters espouse lines that will sound familiar to anyone with Bergman's work - "Is there no meaning to life?", "Why has God forsaken me?" etc. - but the artistry of the director's later films often allow for such gloomy statements to be organically born from his mise-en-scène. After appearing so concerned with the natural, Bergman's dialogue here seems anything but. At one stage Marie, the film's lead, stares at her uncle's hands and randomly announces: "I stand here looking at your hands... they're beautiful, yet somehow ugly." The viewer can't help but laugh. Bergman in 1951 is a visibly accomplished director, but not one that can yet iron out the flaws and contrivances of his scripts with an assured hand. (Note the scene where he resorts to using a distinctly unterrifying owl's hoot to ratchet up the tension.) Without the assistance of the idyllic summer scenes, his film grinds to a tedium-inducing halt by the time of its finale.

But despite his own attempts to sabotage his work during its conclusion, Bergman struggles to dispel the memories of what preceded it. His captivating portrait of young love may seem a little excessive at stages, but it's somehow appropriate considering how so much of it is underscored by an intensely mournful perspective. Moreover, the director's ambition often makes for fascinating viewing: consider the sprightly morbidity of a bizarre animated sequence! Or revel in an early template for THAT scene, where an eccentric aunt plays a game of chess with a Priest who has the nerve to comment: "I feel as if I'm sitting next to Death himself!" For the Bergman enthusiast, it's a privilege to witness the master experimenting with such familiar ideas. The role of performance in this narrative, and the preoccupation with theatre and the internal worlds of its artists, surely plays into this. (As a sidenote, the film features a couple of absolutely ravishing ballet sequences that augment these concerns.) Meanwhile, his gentle allusions towards sex and desire assist the film in its refreshingly modern approach to matters of the heart (not to mention other organs). There's even the suggestion of Bergman's first gay coupling in a pair of old, gossiping theatre clerks. Summer Interlude may be too convoluted to join the ranks of his greatest achievements, but there's enough creativity here to ensure that it stands the test of time on its own merits.