Atonement (2007)

Joe Wright | 2hr 3min

Perspective is a tricky, volatile thing in Atonement, fuelled by the whims of an individual’s fickle biases, yet wielding the power to manifest as reality and change the course of entire lives. Some are inherently more valuable than others too, especially given that the word of a young girl speaking to a subject as weighty as sexual assault is inherently treated with more gravity than the man she is accusing. Perhaps rightfully so, though it is hard to ignore how their disparate class backgrounds might have something to do with the ease with which the blame is pinned on him. Joe Wright studies the eyes of 13-year-old Briony Tallis in extreme close-up, catching the piercing blue of her irises and her sharp, perceptive squint, but these are also the vessel through which he interprets the apparent guilt of Robbie Turner, the son of her family’s housekeeper, thereby setting in motion a cascade of heartbreaking misfortunes.

Extreme close-ups on Saorise Ronan’s blue eyes – the perspective through which this story is filtered, and which ruins Robbie’s life.

Beyond Briony’s subjective experiences though, there is another story closer to the truth which clears up our confusion. Robbie’s interactions with her older sister, Cecilia, aren’t nearly as scandalous as they appear when we are given the full context of their romance, and throughout the first half of the film Wright delights in nimbly shifting between his and Briony’s points-of-view. Almost as if a reset button is being hit, multiple scenes play out twice over in succession, constantly challenging our own beliefs about whether Cecilia’s dip into the fountain was as erotic as it looked from a distance, or whether the shocking sight of her and Robbie splayed out across a bookshelf was actually rape. It is a stroke of formal genius from Wright to structure his narrative in this way, alternating between misunderstandings and reality, so that by the time Briony witnesses the brutal crime committed against her cousin, Lola, we can simultaneously understand how justified she feels in her accusation, and how completely wrong she is.

Beautiful form in the repetition of scenes from alternate perspectives.
Shock and confusion as Wright lands this shot, with Cecilia and Robbie’s limbs splayed out across the bookcase.

Saoirse Ronan is a revelation here at the young age of 12, delivering a performance that stands among the strongest any child has put to film, even while only taking up half the full screentime. It makes for an interesting comparison when we leap years into the future and see Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave take over the role, as even though we can see the mounting guilt on their faces, neither come close to capturing the heartbreak of Ronan’s bitter immaturity. As she faces up to the adults in the room and asserts her false conviction, we can see the wheels spinning fabrications in her mind, quickly turning “I know it was him” into “I saw him with my own eyes.”

Aside from being an innocent child and the daughter of wealthy parents, perhaps it is also Briony’s knack for storytelling which earns her the trust of others, allowing her to exert influence over their minds. As a child, she writes plays on her typewriter, and Dario Marianelli’s urgent rhythmic score of strings and piano skilfully works its percussive keys in like a constant reminder of her ability to produce destructive propaganda as easily as she can create imaginative fairy tales. Often paired with this persistent tapping is some surprisingly sharp editing too, breaking up Wright’s long, elegant takes with cuts that feel like abrupt disturbances inside Briony’s confused mind.

Wright has always been more engaged with his long takes and sweeping camerawork than his editing, but Atonement has a sharp rhythm that clicks along with the typewriter sound effects.

For the most part though, Atonement’s visuals are a brilliantly virtuosic display of the floating camerawork and lavish production design that Wright debuted two years earlier in Pride and Prejudice, crafting some delicate compositions out of pre-war British period décor. On sunny days before everything goes to hell, reflections gently ripple in ponds and pastel wallpapers form backdrops to Briony’s innocence, languishing in the excitement of her crush on Robbie. The four-year leap into the future does not dispense with this exquisite beauty, but the colours are just that little bit darker and more melancholy, situating us in the hospitals and battlegrounds of World War II. Robbie’s early release from prison comes with the caveat that he joins the British army, and although the two sisters have taken up nursing in London, there is a wedge driven between them which cannot be reconciled.

Joe Wright’s cinematography is the best it has ever been, creating delicate compositions from lavish interiors and dainty gardens.

Though the narrative urgency falls away a little at this point with dreams and flashbacks taking over, Wright’s visual style continues in vivid expressions of longing and regret, poured out most evocatively in the five-and-a-half minute long take navigating the beach of Dunkirk where Robbie finds himself stranded. As a symbol in European history, this famous event represents great hope, though as we run over a hill and the masses of soldiers come into view, all we can feel is the sort of despair one faces at the end of the world when all options are exhausted. Eventually, this shot detaches from Robbie and continues to explore the bleak setting on its own, watching men camp, sing hymns, put down horses, and play on rides left over from some nearby fair. A Ferris wheel looms far away against a golden sky at magic hour, but with smoke filling the air, there is no joy to be found here. The only film that captures this moment in history with as much sorrowful beauty is Dunkirk itself, but even that opts for an entirely different kind of artistic magnificence with its exacting montages and epic IMAX photography.

A five-and-a-half-minute long take traversing Dunkirk beach at magic hour. Like Robbie, we feel like we are at the end of the world, watching soldiers make the most of their last few days alive.

Meanwhile, the incriminating tapping of Briony’s typewriter continues to underscore her storyline in the harsh, sterile wards of St Thomas’ Hospital, where nurses walk down green hallways in symmetrical formations and tend to wounded soldiers. Reflecting on the shame of her false allegation, her flair for lying takes a more redemptive turn when one patient with a head injury mistakes her for his wife, and while on his deathbed, finds comfort in her presence. Even into her old age it remains her defining character trait, with Wright eventually pulling out a double twist – she has been the narrator of this story, and as a result, her trademark fabrications are riddled throughout it.

Green, sterile interiors at St Thomas’ Hospital where an older Briony works during the war.

In an ideal world, Robbie and Cecilia would be reunited after the war, and Briony would come forward with the truth to clear his name. They might still hold her in contempt and even go on to sever ties with her completely, but simply putting things right would be enough to set her mind at ease. Like all those who believed her the first time around, we are completely fooled into thinking that her version of events is the truth, without considering her ulterior motives – in this case, the desire to create her own fantasy redemption. Robbie’s death at Dunkirk on the last day of evacuation and Cecilia’s drowning in the London Blitz may still be on her conscience, but there is certainly at least some poetry in her using the same gift which denied them full, happy lives to immortalise them in history as committed lovers beating all odds. Whether that’s enough for genuine atonement is the provocative question that Briony may never find an answer for, and in Wright’s bold, ever-shifting structure, we too find it eerily winding its way all through this formal puzzle of lies, truths, and alternate perspectives.

Atonement is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

The Wonder (2022)

Sebastián Lelio | 1hr 43min

The false miracle which the impoverished O’Donnell family devote their entire lives to in The Wonder makes for a dangerous illusion. It would be comforting for many to imagine that God has blessed their young 11-year-old girl, Anna, with the ability to survive without food, especially given the recent trauma of the Great Famine which saw millions starve across Ireland. There are deeper wounds than that haunting the O’Donnells though, too troubling for them to address head-on without some religious justification. Belief is a prison for young Anna – or is it freedom, liberating her from the scars of abuse? Perspective is key to understanding the subjective nature of these delicate fantasies, suggests director Sebastián Lelio, whose direction takes a self-reflexive step back from this tale of desperate faith to examine it as an introspective metanarrative.

His Brechtian intentions are clear right too from the very first shot, where the film’s own soundstage stands with it sets all built, ready for shooting. As the camera pans across the scene, a narrator guides us in, encouraging a suspension of disbelief which itself will soon come under our own scrutiny.

“The people you are about to meet, the characters, believe in their stories with complete devotion. We are nothing without stories. And so we invite you to believe in this one.”

It’s a remarkably smooth tracking shot which joins these two settings, bridging the gap between reality and fiction as represented by the soundstage and the ship set.

It is a bold, postmodern swing from Lelio, and one that might rely a little too much on heavy-handed exposition in these opening lines. Very gradually, his camera drifts from the studio into a ship set where Florence Pugh’s English nurse, Lib, is en route to her station in rural Ireland, tasked with observing and reporting on young Anna’s miraculous fast. From this point on, Lelio weaves in his fourth wall breaks far more delicately, immersing us into his painstakingly accurate period detail so that we may forget the artifice that lies just outside the camera’s view.

The subsequent fourth wall breaks after the opening are subtler. The voiceover returns as Kitty is revealed to be the narrator, and later on Anna looks directly at the camera without speaking. All part of Lelio’s grand formal experiment.

Once we are fully absorbed into this historical setting, it quickly becomes apparent just how marvellous an achievement The Wonder is in its rusticated production design, with the green paint peeling off walls and rusticated décor speaking to the desperation of the era. Just as gorgeous are the beguiling tracking shots which roll through these candlelit interiors, and the Irish landscapes which consume the O’Donnell’s family cottage in a sea of rolling green hills and grey skies. It certainly helps having cinematographer Ari Wegner onboard too with her penchant for shooting natural light, which she only recently proved in The Power of the Dog. As much as this is a visually mesmerising experience though, The Wonder is also an eloquent deconstruction of its own fictitiousness, intermittently ripping us from the film’s verisimilitude to remind us of the fabricated psychodrama we have invested in.

Rusticated period decor with peeling green paint and firelit interiors – integral to our immersion in this world.
Ari Wegner’s camera movement through Irish landscapes amasses great beauty in these exteriors.

During Lib’s stay with the O’Donnells she encounters William, another sceptic who has been drawn to this miracle and is now looking to expose it in the media. The two find common ground, both having lost family in tragic circumstances and now believing they are witnessing Anna’s own death through the neglect of her own parents. It his gift to the young girl which has the greatest metaphorical significance in this tale though – an optical illusion toy which, when spun, blends a picture of a bird and a cage together to form a single image. So then, is the bird trapped or free? “That’s for you to decide. Inside. Outside,” William answers her.

Lelio smoothly ties this visual conceit into his long dissolves, superimposing Anna’s slumber over Lib’s journey across a field in one glorious composition, but even more powerfully we find Pugh’s own face trapped inside that cage as the toy continues to spin. She may not be confined to any faith in the same way as Anna or her family, but the way she ritualistically plays with the tiny boots of her deceased baby, it appears that she is enslaved to a fantasy of a different kind.

Pugh framed like the bird in the cage through this long dissolve – a great visual conceit and metaphor tied together.
A perfect graphic match cut, with the contours of Anna’s sleeping body lining up with the shape of the mountains.

And so too are we, Lelio reminds us, with the repeated mantra of “In. Out. In. Out,” reflecting our own cyclical shift in and out of this immersion. To simultaneously believe in a comforting lie and to understand its separation from reality is the balance that must be struck, and as Anna keeps growing sicker, the O’Donnells only dig deeper into their self-delusion, praying that she will at least be granted a sacred death.

Rebirth and baptism captured in this pair of nicely framed close-ups. This is a feather in the cap for Pugh after her magnificent breakthrough year in 2019.

The only way to find healing from the prison of old beliefs is to let them die and be reborn as new ones, and therein lies the only true salvation for those in The Wonder haunted by past traumas. These illusions need not be destructive, but as we see in Lib’s case, they can offer new opportunities for self-reflection and growth. Once again, Lelio turns that back on us with his bookended return to the film’s own soundstage. “In. Out. In. Out,” chants our narrator – quite curiously Anna’s own sister – asking us both to believe in and observe these events from afar. It is an unexpectedly provocative period drama he constructs here, purposefully dismantling its own form to examine the purpose it holds as a piece of metafiction, but it is through such profound introspection that he paradoxically draws us even deeper into its richly designed world of believers and sceptics.

The Wonder is currently streaming on Netflix.

The Black Cat (1934)

Edward G. Ulmer | 1hr 5min

Atop the ruins of Fort Marmorus in Hungary, where thousands of World War I soldiers died, an imposing manor has been built by Austrian architect, Hjalmar Poelzig. Within its basement, an evil Satanic cult gathers, preserving the bodies of dead women for its own nefarious purposes. It is also upon these dark grounds where Edgar G. Ulmer stages a showdown between two of Universal Pictures’ greatest stars, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, both chewing scenery with exaggerated accents and mannerisms that are wild by even their own standards. An “atmosphere of death” hangs over their decades-old rivalry, cast in stark shadows across lavish halls and secret dungeons, and Ulmer savours every demented moment of it, painting over The Black Cat’s uneven pacing with a pulpy, macabre expressionism.

Honeymooners and audience conduits Peter and Joan are the least interesting thing about this film of treachery, conspiracies, and mind games. Their encounter with Lugosi’s psychiatrist Dr. Vitus Werdegast is simply our introduction into a far more fascinating underworld run by Poelzig, Karloff’s enigmatic occultist. Rain pours down in the film’s exteriors, dousing the night in a pervasive gloom, while Ulmer’s interior architecture becomes a Gothic extension of Poelzig’s madness. Against bright backlights, silhouettes cut striking shapes out of his characters, while a pair of spiral staircases become central set pieces – one stretching wide across a gridded backdrop, and the other sharply dropping into the basement like a steep, rickety tower.

Like Dracula’s castle or Frankenstein’s laboratory, Poelzig’s manor stands in a lineage within Universal monster movies of creepy buildings standing atop lonely mountains.
Excellent use of chiaroscuro lighting for the introduction of Karloff’s creepy occultist, rising from his bed.
Ulmer returns to this set piece multiple times, each time finding new angles and shadows around it.

Most powerful of all Ulmer’s visual motifs though are the elongated shadows cast by Poelzig’s black cat, striking a fear deep into Dr. Vitus’ heart with its legs stretched out like fingers, and representing a “living embodiment of evil.” Karloff himself takes on characteristics of his feline companion too, prowling around the manor in long robes and scowling at his guests from beneath a heavy brow. When he invites Dr. Vitus to play a game of death, Ulmer even cuts away to an eerie montage of tracking shots down the building’s opulent hallways, hauntingly disembodying his voice like a lingering spectre. He is a force of malevolence on every level, certainly in the underworld of occultism, but also in his betrayal of his own nation to the Russians in World War I.

A commitment to the visual motif of the black cat, tying its shadows into the occult symbolism.
Ulmer using these angular beams to obstruct the shots of Poelzig’s Satanic cult.

The Satan worshippers who gather in Poelzig’s tabernacle are an unassuming lot, dressing in formalwear and looking more like wealthy aristocrats than social outcasts. Still, there is something unsettling about their glowering faces as we cut between them in close-ups, while Ulmer’s wide shots are obstructed by the obelisks and cross-like altar at the centre of the room. So too do the shadows and torture instruments of Poelzig’s dungeon construct some particularly oppressive frames around his final confrontation with Dr. Vitus, which gruesomely comes to an end with the Satanist’s execution on his own embalming rack. The Black Cat does not possess the same narrative strength as either Dracula or Frankenstein, and yet the morbid delight of seeing the stars of both clash across Ulmer’s expressionistic interiors makes for a darkly mesmerising occult horror.

A well-cut montage jumping around the faces of the cult members.
A huge influence from German expressionism in these shadows, angles, and designs – the foundation of this film’s profuse visual style.

The Black Cat is not currently streaming in Australia.

Copenhagen Cowboy (2023)

Nicolas Winding Refn | 6 episodes (47 – 56 minutes)

Nicolas Winding Refn’s enigmatic odyssey through Copenhagen’s criminal underworld of sex traffickers, drug lords, and vampires is not the sort of Netflix series that flies by with propulsive momentum. It demands patience, a stomach for the grotesque, and a certain willingness to fall under its violent, neon-soaked trance, effectively playing to the same niche portion of viewers who could abide the icy detachment of Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon. Copenhagen Cowboy feels much more epic in scope than either of those films though, marking Refn’s second foray into television following 2019’s Too Old to Die Young, and his first in his native Danish language since 2005’s Pusher 3. Elements of the supernatural have certainly crept into his slow-burn thrillers before, but by centring the mysteriously superpowered Miu in his nocturnal vision of Denmark’s capital city, this Gothic neo-noir western effectively marks his most surreal venture into the paranormal yet.

The full extent of Miu’s skillset only really comes through gradual revelations though. Of this six-episode series, episode 1 may be the weakest overall, taking its time to set her up as a ‘lucky charm’ hired out by wealthy clientele. The first person we meet seeking this good fortune is Rosella, the middle-aged matriarch of a peculiar crime family, who wishes to fall pregnant with Miu’s assistance. At a house party, the androgynous young woman is passed around, stroked, and has snippets of her hair cut off by guests, effectively being objectified in a similar manner as the undocumented immigrants being pimped out from Rosella’s basement. The escape of one of these women, Cimona, in the final minutes of this episode sets in motion one of the series’ main plot threads, which sends her into the murderous hands of the blond, baby-faced Nicklas.

Parts of the first episode feel reminiscent of The Neon Demon with scenes in neon-lit change rooms and beautiful, stoic women.
Miu’s first instance of payback ends episode 2 – a glorious, blazing set piece.

From here, Refn continues to develop Copenhagen Cowboy as a psychedelic battle between abusive patriarchal institutions and the women they exploit. In episode 2 we meet Mother Hulda, the owner of a Chinese restaurant who we later learn has had her daughter taken by local gangster Mr Chiang. Though Refn’s dialogue is impassive and his actors’ facial expressions are stoic to the point of being inhuman, the strongest connection between any two characters may be the one here between Hulda and Miu, who sets out on a mission to get her daughter back. Just as she can bless people, so too can she apparently bring bad luck to those who deserve it, and as a skilled martial artist and clairvoyant, she poses a threat formidable enough to take down one major villain in a ludicrously anticlimactic fight.

For all the slow pacing and long takes, Refn remains a very active editor, using long dissolves over Miu’s first direct interaction with Nicklas.

In essence, Miu is an avenging angel of sorts, even framed in one key shot preceding a significant showdown with a ring light around her head like a halo, and in another with eagle wings stretching out behind her. She keeps any strong emotions she might possess locked up under the blue tracksuit that she wears like armour, its stiff turtleneck reaching all the way up to her chin, and simply through her penetrating gaze she can bring Siberian gangsters crumbling to the floor, wracked with fear and regret.

“Why are you looking at me like that?”

“I’m just looking at you.”

Inspired framing of the eagle wings and halo behind Miu’s head, setting her up as an avenging angel.

With what feels like several seconds of pause between each line of dialogue, Refn tunes us into the constant, synthesised ambience that fills the silences, thrumming and reverberating to the distorted rhythms crafted by Cliff Martinez and his team of composers. As is often the case with his and Refn’s collaborations, their work is a perfect formal match, soaking us in the ambience of electronic drones and vibrant neon lights that illuminate virtually every shady establishment in Copenhagen. These vivid fluorescent hues are often shaped through practical light sources built into Refn’s sets and making for some striking visual clashes, with Mother Hulda’s Chinese restaurant of red lanterns precisely arranged along green and blue curtains being a standout. As we come to understand Miu’s transcendent nature in more detail via a dream sequence as well, it almost appears as though these lights are radiantly pouring off her own skin and clothing, bathing her in an otherworldly glow colour against an entirely black background.

For a television series, this is loaded with these dead gorgeous colour compositions, laying out these red lanterns in the Chinese restaurant.
Psychedelic dream sequences are everywhere, here emitting light from Miu’s body as her origins are revealed.
Like every Refn film since Drive, this is soaked in his characteristic neon lighting – dogged commitment to an aesthetic.

Refn’s introduction to episode 5 also uses these vibrant contrasts to set up its gang war conceit particularly well, as he horizontally splits the screen and tracks his camera in opposite directions to examine both sides of the conflict – the blue half arranged in a tableau depicting the Last Supper, and the red posing on motorcycles. It is in those moments where rich displays of mise-en-scene and glacial camera movements combine that we feel fully immersed in his eerie environments, whether we are pointedly inching forward on character close-ups or floating around the golden apartment office of Miu’s old associate, Miroslav. Easily the most formally robust choice here though are Refn’s camera pans, frequently positioning us as distant, passive observers of Denmark’s urban underbelly.

A superb opening to episode 5 which focuses on a gang war, with the split screen, camera pans, and conflicting colour palettes.
Manipulating the golden light in Miroslav’s apartment office to throw these shapes across the ceiling. The use of darkness and lamps is particularly reminiscent of Gordon Willis’ photography in The Godfather.

The other major motif weaved through Copenhagen Cowboy’s scenes of animalistic greed and brutality are the pigs. Rosella’s passive husband, Sven, barely utters a word besides the bestial snorts and squeals he emits when beaten by her brother, Andre. It is revealed in episode 3 that Mr Chiang disposes of bodies by having them fed to Mother Hulda’s swine. In a simple yet deft cut, Refn moves from this scene to Nicklas playing with his own pet pigs, which we also met in the series’ very first scene. These men are the lowest of humanity propping themselves up as the greatest through their wealth and influence, though in such direct comparisons Refn exposes them as creatures of thoughtless instinct, constantly seeking to fulfil their most base desires.

Refn’s world is unforgiving and twisted, and his pig motif is part of that, emphasising the worst of humanity as thoughtless animals.
Refn stages tableaux with stillness and absolute attention to detail, leaving his camera as the only moving part of the scene.

Of these three men, it is Nicklas who is the most purely bone-chilling as an antagonist, possessing vampiric qualities that drive his bloodlust and make an enemy out of Miu. It is often in his house where Refn detaches from his neon aesthetic and turns to brighter, natural light, even offering a pastel, floral wallpaper backdrop to a Norman Bates-like monologue. He keeps a coffin in his basement too, and though one might initially presume that he sleeps in it, beneath its lid lie darker secrets which rear their head in Copenhagen Cowboy’s last two episodes.

The camera zoom and floral wallpaper in this shot frames Nicklas as an eerie figure.

The forest set piece where Nicklas’ surprise finally emerges to face Miu makes for a mesmerisingly surreal finale, shedding a dreamy natural light over a field of mysterious, tracksuited allies and her own terrified face, now showing emotion for the very first time. As Refn winds the ending towards a pair of cliff-hangers though, it is hard to not feel like we are being cheated of a final punch, leaving us wishing that this series was its own self-contained project. Still, as far as television goes, Copenhagen Cowboy is an exceptional cinematic triumph, traversing the psychological terrain of its otherworldly protagonist with disquieting stoicism and formal intensity. If Refn has another season of ideas in him to continue building out this hallucinatory Danish underworld, then let it be done. There’s nothing else on TV quite like it.

Even Refn’s natural light looks otherworldly, shedding a purple hue over this finale.

Copenhagen Cowboy is currently streaming on Netflix.

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Victor Fleming | 3hr 58min

Before the late 1930s, there was nothing in the world of cinema that even came close to matching the dominant cultural force that was Gone with the Wind, which fended off every other film of 1939 to singlehandedly rule supreme as the highest-grossing movie of the year, the decade, and once adjusted for inflation, all-time. Studio moviemaking would never look the same again, strengthening powerhouse producers like David O. Selznick and asserting them as the most important players in a film’s success over the creatives working for them. It is hard to argue otherwise in this specific case too – Victor Fleming only claims director’s credit on Gone with the Wind since he took over from Sam Wood, who had previously replaced George Cukor, making this cinematic landmark very much the result of fruitful artistic collaboration from a huge array of great talents.

The other side of this sweeping historical epic’s cultural impact looms large in more recent years as a controversial, romanticised vision of the Old South, downplaying the horror of its white supremacy and slavery. Gone with the Wind is laden with historical inaccuracies and racial stereotypes which plant it firmly on the side of the Confederates in the American Civil War, making some scenes particularly difficult to stomach and consequently tainting its legacy in the eyes of the broad populace. Still, the truth of the matter isn’t so simple as that either – if Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara is meant to represent the qualities of that long-lost culture, then her character flaws paint a pricklier portrait than one might expect.

Jaw-dropping, romantic scenery of Southern landscapes, illuminated under burnt orange skies and visually composed to perfection.

Scarlett’s introduction at her beloved family plantation of Tara sets her up immediately as a magnetic figure, peeling back the two identical suitors on either side of her in a forward tracking shot to dramatically reveal the beautiful woman wedged between them. Fleming’s camera will often find itself drawn towards her in scenes like these where crowds of men lavish her with attention, and while she happily indulges in these innocent flirtations, there is only one man she has eyes for. It is almost comical how obsessed she is with Ashley Wilkes given how plain he is in comparison to Clark Gable’s moustachioed, debonair Rhett Butler, and yet it is just like her to keep pining after what she can’t have.

The nationwide search for find the right person to play Scarlett O’Hara is a significant piece of history in itself, and the choice of British actress Vivien Leigh too would go down as one of Hollywood’s most inspired pieces of casting. Here, she does not just fill in the archetype of the Southern belle – she is the exact image that is conjured when those words come to mind, possessing a charming, hospitable front that only barely obscures her vain entitlement. Her wardrobe of hoop skirts, corsets, and wide-brimmed straw hats mark that privilege with incredible sartorial elegance, designed with great authenticity by Walter Plunkett according to the trends of the era, while complementing her character arc with costumes moving through white, black, green, and red palettes. Not everything here feels entirely traditional though, as while Scarlett is a woman of the Old South, she also possesses the attitude of a 1930s heroine, toying with men in such a way that at times virtually belongs in a screwball comedy.

Simply some of the best costuming and production design put to film, notably authentic to the period.

As an actress, Leigh falls in line with the theatrical traditions of the day, and yet there is also remarkable subtlety in her expressions that frequently announce her displeasure and judgement with nothing but a slightly raised eyebrow. Opposite her, Gable offers a dangerously handsome challenge, frequently playing the devil’s advocate who is unafraid to call out others on their arrogance. The chemistry between the two is palpable, setting Scarlett and Rhett up as headstrong equals and potentially even soulmates were it not for her blind jealousy and wandering eyes.

One of the great cinema romances brought to life by Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, playing the roles they would always be remembered for.

If the character of Scarlett and the culture of the Old South make up two points of a three-pronged metaphor, then the third is represented by a physical location, Tara. Many of Gone with the Wind’s greatest motifs are attached to the O’Hara plantation, with the most notable among them being the blazing sunsets that silhouette Scarlett against matte paintings of burnt orange clouds, and frame her beneath a gnarled, twisted oak tree. Also evoking Tara’s warm homeliness is its instantly recognisable musical theme of soaring strings and dignified horns, composed by Max Steiner in what may very well be the greatest work of his distinguished career. Gone with the Wind is an artistic landmark in many ways, though certainly chief among them is its gorgeously sentimental score, rising and falling with each dramatic beat and running alongside us as we escape a burning Atlanta.

The formal repetition of Scarlett silhouetted against handsome matte paintings of Tara is a powerful choice, marking the beginning, middle, and end of this sprawling narrative.

From the vividly passionate Technicolor cinematography to the ravishing production design, every element of Gone with the Wind is designed as a fantasy conjured up by pure, 19th century nostalgia, making the eventual fall of the South towards the end of Act 1 all the more devastating in its apocalyptic destruction. Even while Confederate armies buckle under the assault of the Union, many men continue to claim that Atlanta will never be conquered, but as Scarlett navigates its crowded field hospitals, her own faith in these affirmations begins to crumble. If Victor Fleming is to take credit for any of the film’s artistic innovations, then it should be for the immaculate crane shot which starts close on Scarlett’s search for Dr Meade and then slowly lifts up into the air, where we bear witness to the city’s main road packed with wounded and dead soldiers. Extras stretch into the distance, and finally the full scope of the South’s huge losses hits home, punctuated at the end of the shot by a Confederate flag coming into view, flapping in the breeze yet irreparably damaged.

The scope of the American Civil War gradually revealing itself before our eyes in this masterful crane shot – one of the art form’s best right next to Intolerance and Singin’ in the Rain.

Just like the apparently unsinkable Titanic, Atlanta falls faster than anyone expected. There is no faking the sort of ambitious, cataclysmic set piece which Selznick orchestrated through the burning of old studio lots, exploding gunpowder and collapsing structures around Scarlett and Rhett who continue riding past fires blazing several storeys high. As fierce orange hues leap up into the sky, a formal comparison is drawn to those vibrant sunsets that so often illuminate the landscapes of Tara, and it is indeed exactly there where Scarlett chooses to return when Rhett finally decides to join the fight in its last days. “Maybe I have a thing for lost causes when they’re really lost, or maybe I’m ashamed of myself,” he admits, with a sly nod to his own love for Scarlett. Even after witnessing such destruction, she too finds renewed strength, though for her it is the survival of Tara through hellish conditions which inspires an invigorating resilience, as she stands out in its fields where a few crops still miraculously grow and delivers a firm resolution.

“As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”

A huge, dazzling set piece in the burning of Atlanta, cataclysmic in proportions.
An exquisite composition here with the framing of the horizon, the crosses scattered through the shot, and the wagon silhouetted against the sky – there is a deep mourning and loss expressed in this image.

And indeed, how could someone as cunning, resourceful, and privileged as Scarlett ever break an oath like this? Act 2 of Gone with the Wind trades in a great deal of its epic scale for more intimate melodrama, though this is not to say it dispenses with its astonishing visual style. Rhett’s eventual proposal to Scarlett carries the hope that she will one day return the affection, while her acceptance is almost driven entirely by the prosperity and security that he offers, once again leading her away from Tara and into a new home of opulent wealth. William Cameron Menzies’ production design continues to shine here in the clutter of ornaments, sculptures, and chandeliers around the set, often catching the golden light shed by his candelabras and oil lamps to make for some exquisitely delicate compositions. This aesthetic takes a dark turn when Scarlett and Rhett’s relationship plunges to terrifying new lows as well, emphasising the deep reds of the fine carpet and splendid costumes as he threatens her and forcefully carries her upstairs, leading to what is implied as a drunken rape.

A return to the opulence of the opening when Scarlett marries Rhett, though here defined by golden ornaments, soft lighting, and deep red textiles.

Indeed, much of Gone with the Wind’s second act continues to wallop us with one tragedy after another, revealing a deep depression in Scarlett’s life that persists even after securing the wealth she has promised herself. Eight years pass by over this period, and each one seems to poison their toxic marriage even more than the last, seeing Scarlett continue to flirt with Ashley and get caught up in scandals. In circumstances beyond her control, she suffers the death of her daughter, her unborn baby, and eventually her rival-turned-friend, Melanie. Where the film’s first act saw the decline of a civilisation, the second formally reflects that on a smaller scale, once again driving Scarlett to the pits of despair – and then, just as it seems as if the killing blow has landed, seeing her optimistically rise from the ashes with a reminder of where her true love lies.

Scarlett’s nightmare come to life, running through the mist searching for something important.

In the film’s final minutes, Scarlett finally finds herself living out a nightmare from an earlier scene involving searching for something important in the mist, though it is only now, years later, that she finally realises what that is – Rhett. Dressing her in all black and consuming her in a grey fog as she runs to confess her love to him, the dour colour palette virtually warns us of his famous, dismissive response, immortalised as one of cinema’s great lines.

“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

The scene may not be as broadly cataclysmic as the fall of Atlanta, but it stings all the same, turning Scarlett’s own obnoxious self-regard against her and leaving no one else to blame. Her obstinance may be her greatest fault, and yet as she recalls the hope and security that the “red earth of Tara” offers her in times of crisis, it also becomes the foundation of her survival.

“After all, tomorrow is another day.”

Such is the spirit of the Old South, according to Gone with the Wind, that no amount of defeat can keep it down. Crushed once in battle, and for a second time in a cold rejection, it lives on through this Southern belle, refusing to cave in. Few films have matched the majesty and grandeur of this colossal Hollywood epic, and an era-defining character as prideful, stubborn, and thorny as Scarlett O’Hara deserves nothing less.

A stinger of a break-up immortalised in one of cinema’s most famous lines.

Gone with the Wind is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Erle C. Kenton | 1hr 11min

Science-fiction was still a relatively young genre in the 1930s when Universal Pictures’ monster movies were flourishing, not quite distinct yet from the horror conventions it emerged from, but still carving out its own speculative concerns of man playing God. It makes sense then why the studio looked to H.G. Welles’ The Island of Dr. Moreau for inspiration in this field. The ‘father of science-fiction’ wrote novels that have now essentially become fables for an industrial, modern world, and in Erle C. Kenton’s despairingly grotesque Island of Lost Souls, his cautionary tale of interfering with nature is immortalised as one of the greatest film adaptations of his work. Dr. Moreau’s twisted biological experiments become a source of barbaric horror here, but perhaps even more terrifying than his creations is the egotistic scientist himself, played by an enormously pompous Charles Laughton whose crisp, white suit and stout figure projects an image of immense wealth, uninhibited by worldly human ethics.

A mere five years after working on F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, cinematographer Karl Struss carries visual cues from German expressionism over into his work on Island of Lost Souls, infusing Kenton’s jungle sets with an air of quiet dread. These are not like those which would feature in King Kong a year later, where the wilderness becomes a giant playground for apes and dinosaurs, but instead his dense foliage and imposing branches press in on his actors and obstruct gorgeously composed shots. Likewise, the interior of Moreau’s menacingly named “House of Pain” is designed like a Gothic nightmare, seeing Struss frequently shoot characters from behind the bars of the scientist’s steel cages.

Kenton returns to this frame a few times, shooting it almost like a portal between the outside world and Moreau’s island.
Bars all around Moreau’s compound, used to superbly expressionistic effect as visual obstructions and shadows.

It is from the thick, white fog surrounding Moreau’s island that a freighter ship emerges carrying our hero, Edward Parker, who has been reluctantly stranded with these men delivering animals to the secretive scientist. Silhouettes with unidentifiable features crowd the shot in the foreground, anxiously anticipating the arrival of outsiders, though it isn’t long before see them in full. What most people assume to be the strange-looking natives of this island, we recognise as Moreau’s mutated experiments, living under his cruel dominion which they call the “Law.” As they stare down the camera, Kenton reveals the fine detail of their makeup and prosthetics, covering bodies in coarse hair and squashing noses flat against faces. Bela Lugosi may not be instantly recognisable playing their leader, the Sayer of the Law, but his voice certainly is, heading their call-and-response mantra of “Are we not men?” as a sad reminder of their half-lives.

Kenton piles on the chilling terror with these daunting close-ups, revealing the fine details of the beasts’ make-up and prosthetics.

Edward’s arrival on the island is timely for Dr. Moreau, who is ready to progress his experiment to the next stage – testing the breeding capabilities of his hybrids with people. Lota’s mannerisms are primitive, but she is the most human-looking of the bunch, and as the only female, she is hand-picked to ingratiate herself with Edward. Like the rest of the scientist’s test subjects though, her existence is sad and pitiful, confused over her identity while longing to partner with this new, intriguing man.

Unfortunately for Moreau, the ability to complete the transformation of beast to human continues to elude him, and when his work is threatened by outsiders, he is eventually pushed to break his own Law – blood must be spilt for the good of his island’s future. It is ironically that malevolent act which exposes his hypocrisy to his creations, whose rebellion brings about the end of his judicious order. Once again, they crowd in on the camera, though this time in a frenzy which sees them revert to their primal, bestial selves, turning their master’s tools back on him in his House of Pain.

“You made us things! Not men! Not beasts! Part man! Part beast! Things!”

They aren’t close-ups, but Kenton still directs his actors to stare right down the camera in marvellously staged compositions like this.

Transcending the natural order is a dangerous game in H.G. Welles’ science-fiction, and Kenton extends this contemplative speculation to full-blown expressionistic horror with his translation of this powerful fable to screen. Mortal deities like Moreau may thrive on their artificial empires for a time, and yet within Island of Lost Souls, those who know what it’s like to be God are also doomed to crumble beneath the weight of their own selfish, conceited ambition.

Island of Lost Souls is not currently streaming in Australia.

1900 (1976)

Bernardo Bertolucci | 5hr 17min

Most of Bernardo Bertolucci’s grand historical epic 1900 is set over a huge expanse of roughly 44 years, and none of them are the one referenced in the title. The death of Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi in 1901 marks the date that Alfredo Berlinghieri is born to wealthy landowners, and that Olmo Dalcò is born to a poor labouring family working on their estate, signposting the melodrama with an operatic landmark right at the start. So too does a significant piece of Italian history mark the major turning point in their relationship as adults, with their nation being liberated from the fascists at the end of World War II, and Alfredo being ousted from his inherited position of padrone. The title 1900 does not refer to a year, but the cultural and political shift of a century, condensed into a gloriously vivid 5-hour epic by Bernardo Bertolucci and a line-up of America and Europe’s greatest cinematic forces.

Simply assembling a creative team consisting of composer Ennio Morricone and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro already points 1900 towards success, but with a cast led by Robert de Niro and Gérard Depardieu, and featuring Donald Sutherland, Burt Lancaster, Hayden Sterling, and Alida Valli, the sheer abundance of talent is tremendous. Outside the world of cinema, Bertolucci draws heavy inspiration from Italian painter Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo in his visual staging and composition of rural Italian country sides, even using his most famous work, ‘The Fourth Estate’, as a backdrop to the opening credits. As the camera slowly zooms out from the face of the man in its centre, we slowly grasp the extraordinary scope of the workers’ strike behind him, and Bertolucci immediately lays out the film’s socialist politics which will dominate every aspect of his characters’ lives.

Through the opening credits, Bertolucci slowly zooms out from the painting ‘The Fourth Estate’, depicting a labor strike led by three workers.

The effect that this radical movement has on the two friends on either side of the class divide becomes the primary point of tension in 1900, building brilliant form in the constant counterpoints of privilege and poverty. Both their grandfathers, Alfredo the Elder and Leo, lead their respective divisions of the estate, one being the kind padrone who owns the land and the other being the spokesman of the peasants. Like their descendants, there is a mutual respect between them only barely concealed by Leo’s show of disdain, though when their grandchildren end up sharing the same birthday, little can hide the shared joy they feel.

The game these friends play on the train tracks becomes a recurring motif of unity and courage, returning at key points in their lives.

Before de Niro and Depardieu take over the parts of Alfredo and Olmo, we spend a full hour and a half in their childhoods, observing how completely opposite circumstances drive them closer together. In the large hall where all the workers eat, the food is plain, the community is strong, and Olmo is condemned by his own father to always be a bastard, “son of peasants, doomed to hunger.” His lowly station in life is as ingrained his identity as Alfredo’s entitlement, whose patrician feast of cooked frogs in his family’s countryside manor stands in direct contrast. Storaro relishes using the murals of flowers and plants as stunning backdrops to the aristocratic drama, where Alfredo is disciplined by his parents and distanced from any warmth. The dynamic camera movements that float down from ceilings and through walls instil both scenes with equal liveliness though, and ultimately bring both boys to each other in search of companionship away from adults.

Excellence in production design from the workers’ hall to the lavish dining room, formally comparing both sides of the wealth divide.

The match cut which jumps forward in time to the end of World War I lands with immense power, as the interior of a train carrying boys with red flags is darkened by a tunnel, before emerging again in an almost identically blocked image – though this time with de Niro’s Alfredo at the centre, surrounded by black-uniformed soldiers. The visual impact is huge, immediately sapping Bertolucci’s costumes and scenery of the rich colours which defined the film’s cinematography up until now. The bright country landscapes of verdant grass, thriving livestock, and golden sunlight fall away to bleak war camps, grey fog, and withering trees reflected in the large, silver lake, accompanying the rise of Italy’s fascist paramilitary group, the Blackshirts.

A smooth match cut leaping several years into the future, even arranging the actors in a similarly staged arrangement.
The colour palette changes drastically too, sapping the scenery of its warmth until the stark, lifeless forests are virtually monochrome.

It is a very different world to the one Olmo and Alfredo grew up in. The patriarchs of both families have passed, leaving Alfredo’s cruel father, Giovanni, to take over the role of padrone, who in turn hires the psychopathic Attila to replace Olmo’s father as foreman. In place of the warmth that both Lancaster and Hayden brought to their roles, we instead find Donald Sutherland’s toothy snarl, projecting a purely evil sadism out into the world that compensates for the lack of character complexity with sheer, brutish terror. Over the course of 1900, we will see him brutally headbutt a cat to death, swing a boy around a small room until his head caves in, and kill an elderly woman to take her property, each time getting away with it due to his powerful influence. Like Giovanni, he is sympathetic to the fascists taking over Italy and their hostility towards workers, though perhaps the most chilling part of it all is how easily Alfredo gives in to his will when he finally ascends to the role of padrone.

“The new fascist movement doesn’t want vengeance. We want order first. We are the new Crusaders, and we must instil courage in our youth.”

Within the context of interwar Italy, Attila thus becomes representative of a huge cultural and political shift taking place, not just exploiting workers, but also those in positions of power who are too weak-willed to stand against the tide of fascism. Frequently implied in this anti-union sentiment is the rising trend of automation, taking jobs from horses and labourers, and giving them to machines that never grow tired or protest conditions. As such, it is just as much in the gradual technological developments as it is the historical landmarks that Bertolucci illustrates the passage of time in 1900, consistently raising the stakes for Olmo and his fellow workers across all five hours of the film’s colossal run time.

A daunting performance from Donald Sutherland as the tyrannical foreman Attila. A pure force of evil.

It is fortunate that Bertolucci’s craft is so dauntingly impressive in moments like these, as the second half of 1900 tends to falter at times, denying Olmo’s wife Anita a proper death scene, resurrecting her later in a very brief appearance, and featuring some poor dubbing. This is an undeniably ambitious film though, and while it is dotted with flaws which hold it back from reaching the heights of his greatest work, The Conformist, Bertolucci’s compelling narrative and sweeping scope is more than worthy of huge admiration.

Like so many socialist-minded films before it, 1900 is especially captivating to watch in those scenes where masses of common people unite in huge demonstrations of worker rights, as Bertolucci makes the most of his epic canvas to stage scenes of immense hope and pride. As the Blackshirts come riding down towards Alfredo’s farm in one scene, he tracks his camera along a wave of peasant women lying flat on the ground, guarded from behind by the men waving sticks to block the soldiers’ path. Later on, Olmo and Anita lead a protest in the town square calling out the names of the men murdered by fascists, and are soon joined by an entire procession of fellow workers adorning their dark mourning clothes with splashes of red tied around their necks, showing solidarity for a cause the Blackshirts just can’t seem to quell.

Marvellously staged scenes of worker protests against the Blackshirts, consumed in these dreary, washed out landscapes.

For every victory though, there is a crushing defeat, as Alfredo’s final decision to fire Attila for attempting to sell off Olmo is followed by a purely evil retaliation. Before he departs the estate, he rounds up peasants behind barbed wire fences in the pouring rain and shoots them, leaving them to lie in the muddy ground. This is perhaps the most dour, colourless scene of the entire film – a far cry from the bright palettes from the prologue, which we are incidentally on the verge of returning to in marvellous bookends four or so hours apart.

In 1945, where we open and end the film, rebellion surges like a flash flood from the moment Mussolini’s death is joyously proclaimed, seeing the peasants wield the tools of their own subordination against the ruling class, Alfredo included. Held at gun point by a farm boy, de Niro’s gentle repetition of the assailant’s mutinous catchcry is at once quietly hopeful for the peasants’ future, and despairing for his own.

“Long live Stalin.”

Almost as if in response to the preceding scene of Attila’s cold-hearted murder some years earlier, a rainbow shines in the sky, marking a new beginning for a nation that has long lived under the cloud of a fascist dictatorship. The barbed wire fences which doomed them to his brutal massacre are torn down, slogans are painted over in blissful victory, and from beneath a giant red flag, Bertolucci filters sunlight that wraps the liberated peasants up in the colours of their socialist movement.

A return to bright colours as Italy is liberated from its fascist dictatorship – yellow vegetation, clear skies, red flags.

Such bright-eyed optimism is short-lived though, as with the arrival of new authorities calling the peasants to turn in their arms comes a recognition that the class struggle may never die. Olmo only saves Alfredo’s life by convincing them that the role of padrone is dead, and therefore their fight is done. Alfredo, however, knows better.

“The padrone is alive.”

In the now-empty courtyard, a pair of boys clash, much like Olmo and Alfredo did decades before. Sometime in the future, the two men, looking significantly older, continue to play fight in vineyards and along train tracks. By the end of 1900, Bertolucci’s bold artistic statement comes full circle on the patterns echoed throughout the lives of friends from opposing sides of society, landing the full weight of their intrinsic connection as operatically as the decades of Italian history it represents.

A brilliant return to the train tracks to end 1900 – a formally astounding choice that brings everything back to this unconventional friendship.

1900 is not currently streaming in Australia.

See How They Run (2022)

Tom George | 1hr 38min

The closest that Wes Anderson has ever gotten to constructing a murder mystery in his pastel world of eccentric ensembles and dioramas would be The Grand Budapest Hotel, but director Tom George gives us the next best thing in the delightfully quirky See How They Run. It opens on the 100th performance of Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap on West End, and talks of adapting it into a Hollywood movie sees American director Leo Köpernick fly over to sign contracts, antagonise stakeholders, and ultimately die at the hands of a masked assailant. His post-mortem narration is keenly self-aware, criticising the trite conventions of whodunits as they play out before out before our eyes in flashbacks and character archetypes.

“You’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all.”

There’s just a single problem here – for all its playful twists and techniques, this statement rings too true in See How They Run’s extraordinarily familiar plotting, lacking the originality of Rian Johnson’s captivating Knives Out series or the narrative intricacy of Agatha Christie’s novels. The Mousetrap becomes a template of sorts for Mark Chappell’s screenplay, which directly references and splits the play’s double-twist into two separate reveals, one of which is hilariously undermined as a false lead, and the other leaving us somewhat underwhelmed. Even in this star-studded cast of suspects, few are developed well enough for us to engage with the implications of their potential guilt.

Instead, it is our two leading detectives played by Saoirse Ronan and Sam Rockwell who are the most compelling figures in See How They Run, forming a terrific comedic duo as the eager young constable and the jaded senior inspector. Their chemistry is impeccable, and their conflicting mannerisms are well-defined, leading them through misadventures which are often far more exciting than their actual investigation. With Ronan in a lead role and a smarmy Adrien Brody filling in the role of the doomed murder victim, Köpernick, George notably pulls in two of Wes Anderson’s regular collaborators to put their deadpan spin on the script’s witty dialogue, building a rhythm that pulses to the beat of the sharply-paced editing.

In fact, it is primarily in that self-conscious artifice of freeze frames, split screens, and neatly composed visuals that the film flourishes, seeing George borrow from Anderson’s stylistic repertoire. With symmetrical frames and the camera’s perpendicular angles frequently keeping us a distance from the actors, everything is set up perfectly for this meta-study of a classic genre, irreverently breaking it down into parts before assembling it again into a buddy cop mystery. There are whodunits out there which may be more sophisticated in their construction, but See How They Run still makes for a visually adventurous and hilariously fun entry into the canon.

See How They Run is currently streaming on Disney Plus, and is available to buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Summer Interlude (1951)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 36min

By the time the world Ingmar Bergman started manifesting his great artistic potential and the world started catching on, he was up to his tenth feature, Summer Interlude. In 1951, it was his brightest film yet, though such tender optimism only makes its inevitable heartbreak land with larger impact. The warm days that young ballerina Marie and college student Henrik spend basking in each other’s love on their tiny Swedish island drift by with idyllic grace, and even within his short 90-minute narrative, Bergman affords them what feels like all the time in the world, right up to the devastating end of their summer vacation.

The contrast between Marie’s sunny memories and the cool remoteness of her present is readily apparent. In place of light clothing and swimming costumes, she now wraps herself up in thick coats, putting up an armour against the cold Swedish winter and the pity of others. In the theatre where she is rehearsing for an upcoming production of Swan Lake though, her pale, austere makeup is what provides that impenetrable cover instead, as she refuses to cave into whatever tragedy we assume unfolded between her and the man whose diary has fallen back into her lap after thirteen years. Since then, she has grown proficient in her art, and much like the use of Beethoven’s music in Bergman’s previous film, To Joy, ballet becomes a creative outpouring of emotion in Summer Interlude where words will not suffice. The stage’s plain grey backdrop forces our attention entirely onto the dancers in front, where Bergman’s depth of field and camera angles keep finding new dimensions to their elegant movements, making for some exquisite displays of choreography.

Beautifully framed extreme close-ups revealing the cold austerity of Marie’s made-up face.
So too does Marie’s clothing in the present day tightly restrain her – very different from the flashbacks.
Like To Joy, Bergman spends a good while revelling in his characters’ artistic expressions. Here it is ballet, and he uses camera angles and depth of field to make it entirely cinematic.

Ultimately though, Marie finds her life thoroughly unfulfilling. Only when the arrival of Henrik’s diary motivates her to catch a ferry back to the island where they fell in love does she recognise what is missing, and romantic long dissolves accompany her as she returns to those old memories. A priest she hasn’t seen since her Confirmation is the first to make an appearance, as if summoned by fate to bridge the gap between the present and the past, and from there the extended flashback described in Summer Interlude’s title starts flowing in picturesque visuals and poetic voiceovers.

“Days like pearls, round and lustrous, thread on a golden string. Days filled with frolic and caresses. Nights of waking dreams. When did we sleep? We had no time for sleep.”

Bergman showing off the rocky shorelines and forests of Sweden in his scenery, setting it up like a woodland fairytale shared between lovers.

Not until this film had Bergman shot the rocky shorelines, towering woodlands, and grassy hills of Sweden with such scenic adoration, turning it into an Eden-like paradise where these Adam and Eve stand-ins swim, kiss, and eat wild berries. So too does his staging of their romance flourish in its tiny tensions and pleasures, creating the first instance of Bergman’s characteristic blocking of parallel faces lying down, with one slightly obscuring the other and creating a visual harmony. Marie’s Uncle Erland remains a slightly disturbing figure here too, as even in one scene where he does not appear onscreen, his presence ruptures a shot of the lovers’ faces nestled against each other, swiftly splitting them up on either side of a door that he is lurking behind.

The iconic parallel faces shot that both Bergman and Agnes Varda would keep returning to, studying the contours of the actors’ profiles.
A smooth camera transition from one romantic close-up into a slightly wider shot that splits them on either side of the door Uncle Erland lurks behind.

Even though Summer Interlude’s narrative remains firmly in the real world, Bergman’s writing hints at the lyrical, philosophical dramas that he was only a few short years away from making at the time, speaking directing to the intersection of spirituality and love in his characters.

“One night, after a scorching summer day of blazing sunlight, there was an immense silence that reached all the way up to the starless vault of heaven. The silence between us was immense as well.”

So too does he weave melancholy metaphors into his screenplay with astounding fluency, as this intimate dream draws to a close along with the warm weather, foreshadowing colder days on the horizon.

“Can you feel autumn on the air?”

It is not some tragic character flaw or adversary which destroys these lovers, but simply a moment of poor judgement and fortune. Henrik’s jump into shallow water leaves him badly injured, and after Bergman tilts his camera up to a cloud hanging above, a graphic match cut to his head lying on his deathbed touchingly makes him one with the heavens.

A tragic graphic match cut upon Henrik’s premature death.
It’s always about the blocking for Bergman, getting adventurous here with the use of mirrors to place Marie side by side with the Ballet Master.

Marie’s pilgrimage back to the island of her youth in the present day is merely the start of her journey back into the world as she used to know it – a happier, more welcoming place, brimming with opportunities. It is rather by engaging with the personal entries in Henrik’s diary that this is made possible, and by sharing those memories with her new boyfriend, David, she can finally open herself to the affections of others again. Her internal monologue as she wipes off her makeup in the dressing room mirror is a totally unnecessary addition to the scene, as Maj-Britt Nilsson’s expressive face tells us everything about this transformation, smiling and playfully pulling faces at her reflection. Marie and Henrik aren’t the first lovers in a Bergman film to be brutally torn apart, but they are first to be developed with such visual splendour and warmth, romantically calling back to those innocent summers of youth that seemed to go on forever.

Summer Interlude is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Goodfellas (1990)

Martin Scorsese | 2hr 26min

In one of Goodfellas’ most iconic scenes, Henry Hill sits with his fellow wise guys in the Copacabana night club, listening to his good friend Tommy DeVito send the group into fits of laughter. “You’re really funny,” Henry chuckles. “What do you mean I’m funny?” As the uproar fades into dead silence, it quickly becomes apparent that Tommy’s fragile ego has taken it as an insult. “Funny how? Funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you?” The tension is thick in the air for a full two minutes, before the joke is revealed and everyone bursts into laughter again. Perhaps Henry can brush off the emotional manipulation easily, but Tommy’s instability is noted, and it isn’t the last time we will see him come down hard on those who offend him. The only difference is that in most instances, he is not joking, and we bear witness to his full, brutal anger being unleashed in extreme acts of violence.

“Funny how?” A solid contender for the best scene of Joe Pesci’s career, drenched in the red lighting of the Copacabana.

Tommy may be the best encapsulation of the gangster lifestyle’s volatility, though the backstabbing and bloodshed that comes with it extends far beyond the reach of his revolver. Henry is fully aware of its dangers, but while he is riding its sweet highs through the golden era of the 60s and 70s, he is more than happy to keep doing the mob’s dirty work. In this way, Martin Scorsese seems to be holding up a mirror to The Godfather films from two decades earlier, and it is even a curious turn of fate that Goodfellas was released in the same year as The Godfather Part III. Where Francis Ford Coppola’s series is operatic in its classical, sprawling narrative though, Scorsese’s film races forward with all the momentum of a live rock concert, transplanting the ‘rise and fall’ gangster storyline from high-flying mafia bosses to a true story based in the world of their low-ranking, blue-collar subordinates. Unlike the members of the Corleone family, our antihero Henry Hill was not born into any sort of privilege or destiny, as his very first line of voiceover following the opening scene informs us.

“As far back as I remember I always wanted to be a gangster.”

A forward tracking shot, red lighting, freeze frame on a close-up, voiceover, needle drop – a brilliantly stylistic way to launch this narrative into action.

With a brisk tracking shot swooping in low, a freeze frame on his face, and the big band number ‘Rags to Riches’ punctuating the transition, we are energetically brought into Henry’s innocent childhood, looking up to the mobsters who populate his borough of New York City. The scene we just witnessed of him, Tommy, and the third member of their trio, Jimmy, finishing off the half-dead man they have in their car trunk will be returned to later, but for Goodfellas’ first act Scorsese is all about setting the scene, revelling in the thrill, freedom, and community that this Italian American crime ring has to offer. Henry’s voiceover is there with us every step of the way as well, coating his memories in layers of nostalgia that are powerfully backed up by the wall-to-wall soundtrack of jazz, pop, and rock hits from the 50s and 60s, which at times even seem to comment on the action.

The narrative flies by in the opening scenes of Henry’s childhood, ingratiating himself with the gangsters and floating by on brilliant soundtrack of 50s and 60s hits.

As if in control of a television remote, Henry’s narration holds absolute power over the pacing of his story, pausing the tape to add extra information and flashing through montages of his youth with all the energy of a fresh-faced gangster. At this point in Scorsese’s career, Goodfellas clearly marks his most playful work yet, matching Taxi Driver and Raging Bull in its grittiness, though carrying a transcendently suave charm in Thelma Schoonmaker’s kinetic editing and Michael Ballhaus’ energetic camera that so many subsequent films would emulate.

Freeze frames…
…slow motion…
…and dolly zooms. Goodfellas is a hugely energetic in its pacing, but Scorsese’s cinematography and editing propels it forward as well.

It is especially through the virtuosic cinematography that small moments are given even greater weight with tracking shots in and out of faces, and that larger scenes become some of Scorsese’s greatest displays of visual style in his filmography. The first time he floats us through the night club to meet minor characters like Freddie No Nose and Jimmy Two Times, we adopt Henry’s perspective as a well-respected man, though by the time his future wife Karen is in the picture, Scorsese turns the allure up higher with an even longer take. The couple’s descent from the street, through the depths of the Copacabana’s restricted areas, and into the main dining area hangs our perspective right on their tail for close to three minutes, where the entire world looks as if it is falling into place right in front of them. Conversely, the red décor and lighting that Scorsese integrates all through his mise-en-scène here carries slightly darker implications – this is a figurative journey into hell for Henry and Karen, though for now they might as well be King and Queen of this infernal realm.

A descent into the depths of hell (or Copacabana) through one of the truly great tracking shots of Scorsese’s career and film history.

Beyond the famous Copacabana scene though, Scorsese is formally laying these blazing, aggressive hues all through Goodfellas as a dominant visual motif, shining it through bars where Tommy loses his temper and splashing it across the scenes of Billy Batts’ murder. Red light pours from the car trunk where the rival mafioso lies gasping for breath, and so too is it diffused through fog as they later dig up his body, silhouetting them in a demonic haze. The emphasis of this colour palette also accompanies us as we return to the opening scene, where its context becomes fully apparently within the narrative – this is the point of no return for Henry, whose assistance in covering up Billy’s death kicks off the erosion of his own relationship with the mob at large.

A stunning, infernal shot silhouetting Henry and his friends as they exhume the body they buried in the opening scene.

Joe Pesci may walk away with the performance of the film as the violently mood-swinging Tommy, though as Goodfellas moves into its final act, it becomes clear that Ray Liotta surely isn’t that far behind. Pressure mounts when Jimmy begins turning on his own friends and Tommy is brutally whacked by those who promised to initiate him as a ‘made man’, and as Henry picks up drug-dealing a side business to support his lavish lifestyle, Liotta’s demeanour grows noticeably agitated. By now his bright eyes and charming smile have faded away, replaced by a permanently nervous expression etched across his pale, clammy face, and Schoonmaker’s editing only drives up the intensity with jump cuts and a frenzied, paranoid juggle of his competing priorities. Most of all, that helicopter following him overhead wears away at his sanity, and with few friends left in the mob, any hope that he might get off lightly for a second time is well and truly gone.

A downward slide for Henry and his friends in the final act of the film. Ray Liotta becomes jumpy, nervous, and sweaty – far more on edge than the cool, confident Henry from before.

The Henry who decides to rat out his associates when cornered is a very different person to the one who, as a young boy, was praised for keeping his mouth shut in court. He is not content with his life as a suburban “schnook” under witness protection, but as his voiceover finally catches up to the present in a direct address to the camera, we see that it is all he has left. Henry’s fall from grace couldn’t be more different from Michael Corleone’s, who keeps his wealth yet loses his family. The fate of mobsters here is not tragic, but wholly pathetic, stripping these selfish men of their superficial riches and sentencing them to a mediocre existence. Scorsese’s agile, vibrant filmmaking meets both ends of this lifestyle with a spirited energy, though in his construction of such a purely compelling narrative as well, Goodfellas stands boldly next to Coppola’s gangster epic as the finest of its genre.

Goodfellas is currently streaming on Stan, Binge, and Paramount Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.