Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Michael Cimino | 3hr 39min

The widespread adoration that Michael Cimino garnered from audiences and critics alike upon the release of The Deer Hunter in 1978 came about as suddenly as his fall from grace two years later. To this day, Heaven’s Gate stands for one of Hollywood’s most expensive financial failures, effectively sinking United Artists’ reputation as an independent studio and culturally bookmarking the end of the American New Wave. Mainstream cinema in the 1980s would soon look very different to the auteur-driven trends of the 1970s that Cimino rode a very brief high on, and which secured him the funding to direct such enormous epics in the first place.

Yet it is tough to pin these immense cultural shifts on a single film, and especially one that has been so under-appreciated. Cimino’s raw artistic ambition isn’t so different to that of more celebrated directors like Francis Ford Coppola, whose production on Apocalypse Now was plagued with similar issues of over-spending, schedule delays, and obsessive perfectionism. The evidence of that massive cinematic vision in Heaven’s Gate is right there on the screen, and should not be brushed off as merely a monument to one director’s ego. To go even further and claim that it is among the ugliest films in history as Roger Ebert did in his review cannot even be justified as mere hyperbole – this revisionist Western is quite frankly a work of immense visual beauty, possessing some of the finest camerawork and mise-en-scène of the 1980s.

Crane shots soaring above Harvard College as the class of 1870 graduates, sending two promising young men out into the world.
There is simply no argument to be made this film is ugly, as Roger Ebert puts forward. The widescreen aspect ratio is a beautiful canvas for Cimino’s grand visual style in jaw-dropping landscapes and atmospheric interiors.

None of this should be a surprise though given the credentials of Cimino’s cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who had previously collaborated with him on The Deer Hunter and achieved a similarly rustic aesthetic in Robert Altman’s Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Shane comes to mind as well in the use of Wyoming’s alpine mountains as daunting backdrops, towering over lush valleys and rural civilisations. So too are there traces of Sergio Leone in the majestic establishing shots of bustling industrial towns, the staging of massive ensembles across a widescreen canvas, and the grand movements of the camera atop cranes, and yet Cimino also instils this photographic marvel with his own gritty authenticity.

The Western influences here are diverse – Cimino even gets cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond onboard to recapture the rustic aesthetic he used in McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
Then we get a bit of George Stevens’ style in his shooting of Shane, using the Wyoming mountains as a backdrop to lush, green valleys.
Most of all though, we don’t get Heaven’s Gate without Sergio Leone’s influence. Establishing shots like these sweep us into the air on cranes, while the mise-en-scène is filled with extras and period detail.

Most notably, natural light fills his scenery with warm, almost sepia tones, beaming in through windows and illuminating the atmosphere’s dusty haze. Especially as we move into the final act where wagons and horses kick clouds of dirt up into the air during large-scale battles, Cimino delivers some of the Western genre’s most astonishing landscapes, and then contrasts that grainy spectacle with the soft, purple skies of Wyoming’s sunrises.

An incredible use of natural light in interiors as well as exteriors, shining the sun in through Venetian blinds to highlight the permanent haze in the air.
Cimino fills the air with dust, and then lets it settle to linger on these soft, purple sunrises.

This tension between gentle innocence and harsh conflict wholly transcends Cimino’s visual style and manifests as Heaven’s Gate’s central narrative concern, where a tenuous peace is slowly breaking down between the cattle barons of Johnson County and the European immigrants stealing their livestock. For those impoverished foreigners lying shoulder to shoulder in cramped bunkhouses, this is often the only way they can feed their families, though even those who work in rundown homesteads and brothels find themselves resorting to crime. The Wyoming Stock Growers Association reacts with disproportional violence against the theft of their property, sending mercenaries after the lawbreakers, and putting together a list of 125 settlers marked for death.

The landowners of Johnson County meet in this train yard at night, smoke filling the air. It is set up in very stark contrast to the bright, warm roller rink where the immigrants gather later.

Christopher Walken’s menacing entry as vigilante gunslinger Champion is not unlike Henry Fonda’s own villainous arrival in Once Upon a Time in the West, slaughtering a family of offending immigrants with cold-blooded professionalism. The hole that his bullet leaves in the hanging laundry opens a frame which his moustachioed face peers through, before he strides off into the distance to serve whatever orders he is given next. Within the moral greyness of this social landscape though, pure villainy is not so easily defined. Champion has committed some truly wicked deeds, and yet when forced to confront the incongruence between his duty and his love for Isabelle Huppert’s French prostitute Ella, he is driven to perform acts of great heroism against the powerful landowners.

Christopher Walken gets an excellent introduction as Champion. We first see him through the hole his bullet makes while shooting a family, and you would be forgiven for assuming he is the villain of the piece.

In compelling juxtaposition, John Hurt’s jovial cattle rancher Billy Irvine offers an inverse arc of cowardly passivity. The prologue set at Harvard College sees him give a rousing speech to a crowd of fellow graduates, and when we catch up with him twenty years later in Johnson County he is one of the few Association members to oppose the secretly planned massacre of immigrants. By every metric he appears to be a likeable, intellectual leader, and yet his actual impact is minimal. Billy is a man with little value beyond his charm, wearily resigning to sit among the landowners, quietly disapprove of their deeds, and drunkenly muse like a Shakespearean fool who observes but never acts.

“Armour made a man a knight, a crown a king. What are we?”

Instead, it is Billy’s college friend Jim Averill who takes the position of firm moral conviction in Heaven’s Gate, coming into Johnson County as its new marshal siding firmly with the immigrant settlers. In this role, Kris Kristofferson possesses the stoicism of a classical Western hero and the understated sensitivity of a modern man, reflecting a changing America that is reassessing its traditional values and diversifying its population.

As Jim Averill, Kris Kristofferson possesses the stoicism of a classical Western hero and the understated sensitivity of a modern man, reflecting a changing America that is reassessing its traditional values and diversifying its population.

Jim’s and Champion’s politics are as bitterly split as their mutual love for Ella is unifying, so it is through the latter that both men find personal stakes in the Association’s planned massacre. After all, she is one of the immigrants who has been trading sexual favours for stolen cattle, thus putting her name among the 124 others marked for murder. It is at the local skating rink where that list first goes public, as Jim stands in front of hundreds of settlers and reads it out with a tone of indignant shame at how low his nation has sunk. This is not the Old West which built its foundations on promises of the American Dream. It is a state-sanctioned Holocaust, enacted purely out of self-interest by authorities looking to preserve existing power structures.

The Heaven’s Gate roller rink is a masterstroke of minimalist production design, becoming a melting pot of cultures as the immigrants gather to dance and hold meetings.

The name of this rink where the foreign settlers gather is clearly important to Cimino, given that it is also the title given to his film. ‘Heaven’s Gate’ carries divine implications, suggesting a spiritual sanctuary for the meek who Christ assures will inherit the Earth. Just as it hosts their public meetings, so too does it offer them a space to drink, dance, and socialise, while Cimino’s dynamic camera twirls and waltzes with them across its wooden floors. With the frequent low angles catching the skeletal structure of the timber rafters and the sunlight’s warm tones filtering through the ceiling, this rugged set piece is both humble and magnificent in its visual impact. When it finally empties to leave Jim and Ella alone with the folk band, it is even easier to admire Cimino’s feat of production design, which covers walls with faded posters of a long-gone era. This is the last post of compassionate warmth in America, populated by those from Russian, French, German, and Slavic backgrounds finding uninhibited joy in a vibrant melting pot of cultures.

Faded posters of a long-gone era are pasted all over the walls of the Heaven’s Gate roller rink, and give us this gorgeous frame when Jim and Ella are finally left alone.

This camaraderie between immigrants is absolutely integral to the fortitude, resourcefulness, and resilience they show on the battlefield when they decide to take their fate into their own hands. Parallels are even drawn to the Romans as they cobble together makeshift weapons and execute ingenious strategies to surround, outnumber, and dominate their overconfident enemies.

These action sequences are skilfully edited, but even here Cimino never loses sight of his setting’s immense natural beauty, with his camera gazing in awe at the pine forests, peaceful lakes, and snowy mountains being obscured by white dust and smoke. Crane shots continue to shift our focus across the battlefields with thrilling invigoration, building this colossal epic to what looks like a grand victory for the immigrants – only for the US army to show up and arrest the mercenaries in the final minute, thus saving them from certain death. In effect, this is the wealthy landowners’ last-ditch effort to ensure that their defeat does not truly threaten their status in Johnson County’s existing hierarchy.

The final battle of Heaven’s Gate builds towards a win for the immigrants, and Cimino executes some masterful action scenes in this invigorating lead-up – only to cruelly snatch it away from them at the last minute. All part of his broader statement about America’s rigged institutions.

Even more crushing is the petty act of vengeance the leader of the Association enacts against Jim after the dust has settled. Resolving to leave town with Ella once and for all, he is ambushed by a small posse, who shoot one last bullet into his lover. The grief that forces him to his knees is one which continues to echo into the coda set ten years later, encasing him in a lonely recognition of everything that has been lost. Though he is clearly well-off as he relaxes aboard a private yacht with his college girlfriend, there is little warmth to be found.

This ending to Heaven’s Gate leaves more unresolved questions than it does fulfilling answers. If the America that Jim nostalgically swore to defend was already fading in the late nineteenth century, then it is completely gone by the time the twentieth century rolls around, with many of those lives which once shone so brightly now cut tragically short. In the end, this prosperous Western civilisation is defeated by its own shallow success, maintaining itself through corruption and implementing safeguards against those seeking to overturn its social order. It is only fitting that such a profound, melancholy lament of changing eras would similarly be reflected in a film so heavily associated with the end of the artistically fertile New Hollywood movement. Cimino’s ambitious creativity simply could not have flourished anywhere else.

Heaven’s Gate is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023)

James Gunn | 2hr 29min

There is a sharp irreverence baked into the Guardians of the Galaxy series which goes beyond tension-diffusing quips thrown together in a writer’s room, or facile jabs at a super villain’s ridiculous comic book name – though no doubt it has featured its own fair share of both in the past. James Gunn’s greatest strengths are as a director of weirdos and misfits, often allowing him an escape from the typical studio trappings of restricted artistic control. His great success with The Suicide Squad in 2021 has rocketed him right to the top of the DC Films hierarchy just as his time with Marvel Studios is coming to an end, though with a farewell as playfully spectacular as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, there may be some concerns as to whether this move into producing might hold him back from a more hands-on approach. He might not be the next Terry Gilliam or Steven Spielberg, but his cartoonish eccentricity and creative reign over blockbusters certainly puts him in the lineage of both, injecting mainstream movie culture with his own colourful sense of humour.

What one might not be so prepared for when entering the most recent instalment of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise is just how painfully brutal it is, introducing a new group of ragtag oddballs in tragic counterpoint to Peter Quill’s team. While they set off on a mission to save a wounded Rocket, his comatose mind is reliving his past as an animal experiment. Gunn, being a self-proclaimed fan of the 1932 horror film Island of Lost Souls, wears his influences very clearly on his sleeve. The High Evolutionary is the Doctor Moreau of this story, cruelly mutating lower life forms into bizarre humanoid figures, and essentially positioning himself as their God. Lylla, Teefs, and Floor are the disformed mutants produced in the rejected Batch 89 alongside Rocket, whose extraordinary intellect makes him a reluctant accomplice to the High Evolutionary in his mad experiments.

These flashback sequences mark some of the most visceral scenes of Volume 3, turning Rocket into as sympathetic a character as a CGI raccoon can get. If there was ever a song to underscore his own self-loathing and trauma, then Gunn does well in expressing it through Radiohead’s acoustic version of ‘Creep’, accompanying him through a series of tracking shots in the film’s opening as he saunters through the team’s headquarters.

On an even broader level, Gunn’s development of his entire ensemble also deserves recognition. With an alcoholic Quill grieving the loss of Gamora, Drax getting in touch with his paternal instincts, Nebula completing her redemption arc, and Mantis finding new companions in a trio of unseemly monstrosities, only Groot is really left with little growth of his own in this film. Still, where each are left by the end of Volume 3 is perfectly fitting, lining up with the most gratifying needle drop of the series since ‘Come and Get Your Love’ and earning the shift from late twentieth century music into the 2000s.

More than just a talented writer of quirky outsiders, Gunn backs up his characters with a peculiar cinematic style that has always been well established in the Guardians of the Galaxy series, yet still competes with fellow Marvel directors Ryan Coogler and Taika Waititi in terms of pure visual audacity. Perhaps the trademark slow-motion walk is a bit played out at this point, but the production design during the extended heist scene within the Orgosphere, the biotic headquarters of the High Evolutionary’s nefarious operations, is quite easily a stylistic highpoint of the film. As Quill and his gang descend in a technicolour assortment of spacesuits and explore its fleshy interiors, Gunn lets loose with a string of amusingly bizarre set pieces, turning everything from the staff uniforms to the vibrant architecture into warped, Cronenberg-adjacent visions of whimsical body horror. It is hard not to wonder what Gunn might be capable of should he craft an entire film around such daring aesthetics.

As it is, there is still a lot in Volume 3 which expands it to a bloated two-and-a-half hour run time, including the introduction of the largely functionless Adam Warlock. This has less to do with Will Poulter’s amusingly airheaded spin on the comic book character, and more to do with his relative disconnection from the narrative. That said, Gunn still finds ripe opportunities to centre him in visual gags, paying homage to Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam’ in one scene that clearly parallels Noah’s Ark, and later awkwardly hanging him on the edges of a group hug. For all its flaws, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 rarely lets its humour get in the way of its character drama, and vice versa. As far as storytelling in the Marvel Cinematic Universe goes, this fine tonal balance and stylistic playfulness makes it a terrific send-off to the franchise’s most colourfully eccentric series.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is currently playing in theatres.

All These Women (1964)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 20min

There is little wonder why All These Women has been so maligned over the years as one of Ingmar Bergman’s worst films. This brightly coloured pastiche is about the furthest thing one could imagine from the black-and-white meditations on faith and love which have defined his greatest artistic triumphs up to this point. Even his previous comedies such as Smiles of a Summer Night carry a more eloquent wit than the slapstick and buffoonery he happily indulges in here, and which one snobbish music critic awkwardly inflicts on the film’s country chateau setting while visiting famed cellist Felix. Cornelius hopes to write a biography on the reclusive musician and additionally get his own composition broadcast on the radio, but unfortunately his host has made himself scarce, leaving the writer in the hands of his seven female companions. Bergman is swinging wildly in all directions with his comedy, but the point of his derision is firm – this industry of artists and critics is a totally vacuous farce.

Quite significantly, All These Women also marks Bergman’s foray into colour filmmaking, imbuing Felix’s grand summer estate with a Baroque radiance that is ironically tempered in a largely monochrome production design. The towering candelabras, marble floors, and undecorated walls are pristine in their silvery whiteness, while costumes and the odd piece of furnishing imprint dark shapes on the mise-en-scène. As such, the small flourishes of colour that Bergman inserts truly stand out in his scenery. The flowing pink gown Cornelius wears while in disguise, the dusty orange sunrise shedding light across Felix’s bedroom, and the vivid red outfits at his final concert each become the centrepiece of multiple compositions, many of which carry the symmetrical precision of Peter Greenaway’s films.

Bergman’s first film shot in colour is a lush display of vibrant visual direction – clearly influences of Michael Powell and Jean-Luc Godard in the set and costume designs.

Of course, Greenaway was still sixteen years away from his cinema debut at this point though. Bergman’s actual influences here are incredibly diverse, appropriating the Technicolor vibrancy of Michael Powell’s mannered dramas, the heightened physical comedy of the Marx Brothers’ zany hijinks, and the formal self-reflexivity of Jean-Luc Godard’s genre deconstructions. Though a little subtler, the parody of Federico Fellini’s in All These Women is also notable. Both films share a dazzling Italian spa set and a postmodern critique of artistic egos, but Bergman’s strongest critique of the Italian filmmaker is directed at his relationship with women.

Despite the choice to shoot in colour, Bergman still often builds sets out of black-and-white, emphasising isolated splashes of vibrant hues – here, the red quill.

Much like Guido’s dream in , Felix is surrounded by a harem of adoring female fans in All These Women, played by many of Bergman’s frequent collaborators including Eva Dahlbeck, Harriet Andersson, and Bibi Andersson. There are seven in total, many bearing nicknames drawn from art history, Irish legend, and Christian theology. Bumblebee is his “official” mistress who takes an immediate liking to the foppish Cornelius, while Adelaide is his discontent wife, and Isolde is the flirty chambermaid. Filling out the rest of the female ensemble is Felix’s ageing patroness, his student protégé, his young cousin, and his piano accompanist, each serving their own clearly defined roles in his home, and collectively serving his outsized ego.

All These Women is closer to Peter Greenaway in its visual design than any other Ingmar Bergman. A rapid yet brief shift of gears that pays off in this instance, despite its formal flaws.

Though the imagery he crafts from his rigorous blocking of these women clearly indicates a director who has trained in the art of visual composition, it still possesses more of a still-life, painterly aesthetic than we have seen from Bergman before. Characters pose in tableaux of upper-class elegance around lounges, sculptures, and grand pianos, making for a brilliantly jarring contrast to his otherwise lowbrow humour. While the women gossip at the poolside surrounded by Greek-style columns and sculptures, Bergman ruptures a splendidly composed wide shot with Cornelius’ abrupt appearance in a swan-shaped pool float. The critic’s humiliation only intensifies when later pushed to dress in unconvincing drag, hoping that he might finally be granted audience if Felix believes there is a new woman on the estate. Even the musician’s graceful cello music has an incongruent counterpoint in the recurring instrumental motif of ‘Yes! We Have No Bananas’, amusingly shifting musical styles with each new variation.

Visual comedy played in wides like Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, even turning to drag as a source of laughs.

Still, for a director like Bergman with such powerful command over comedy and drama though, it is evident that he is not always playing to his strengths. Some of the film’s harshest critics will point to its sped-up chase scenes, overlong physical gags, and parts of Jarl Kulle’s exaggerated performance as evidence of the film’s messiness, and they aren’t entirely wrong. Even with the targets of Bergman’s satire in mind, much of this humour is far too clumsy.

When Bergman develops his comedy with a little more self-awareness though, he hits on something far more inspired. One could almost imagine Monty Python pulling off a similar trick when he cuts away from Bumblebee and Cornelius’ sex scene, flashes up title cards reading “To avoid censorship, the act of lovemaking is depicted as follows,” and segues into a tame, black-and-white ballroom dance. Similarly, when Cornelius accidentally sets off a box of seemingly unlimited pyrotechnics, Bergman is sure to inform us that “The fireworks should not be taken symbolically.”

These comedic formal interludes are extensions of Godard’s self-reflexive whimsy, and presage Monty Python by a few years.

There’s no doubt that this is among Bergman’s most formally experimental films to date, and by far his most playful. On a structural level he is often pulling his narrative in non-linear directions, and even chooses to open the film with the final scene of Felix’s funeral. His fate is thus sealed from the start and is seemingly confirmed when an assassination plot is revealed – ludicrously motivated, as it turns out, by Felix’s own desire to be executed for demeaning his art. When the time comes for his big radio concert where Adelaide will pull the trigger though, there is no need for murder. Felix anticlimactically dies of natural causes, leaving his women to mourn and Cornelius to conjecture the rest of his biography alone.

Always hiding Felix’s face through creative shot compositions, right up until his sudden demise. Bergman builds on his mystery even further when the women can’t even agree on a single description of him.

Even in death, this object of everyone’s worship is an obscure, mysterious figure. His face has been conveniently obscured the whole time, leaving a great deal to the imagination when each women sees his dead body and vaguely proclaims “He looks the same, and yet so different.” Perhaps each of them have conceived their own unique ideas of him, as when Cornelius begins reading his biography, none can agree on a single description.

Again, the symmetry and precision of Greenaway many years before his debut – Bergman’s painstaking direction is as rigorous as ever.

Not that it really matters at this point. The arrival of a new cellist in the house immediately soaks up all the love, affection, and attention once reserved for Felix, thereby relegating him to the pages of Cornelius’ history book. That we never really knew a whole lot about the famed musician makes this a particularly smooth transition. In the conceited world of All These Women, men are but faceless idols cycling in and out of fashion, hiding with infatuated fanatics behind facades of highbrow culture. Through Bergman’s irreverent pastiche and mischievous mockery, at least one truth becomes absolutely evident – art has no real relevance to the narcissistic pretensions of artists.

Fourth wall breaks everywhere, acknowledging the artifice of the satire.

All These Women is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

The Silence (1963)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 36min

By the time Ingmar Bergman had finished directing Winter Light, he claimed to have come to terms with his agnosticism and the unknowability of God’s existence. The third part of his unofficial Faith trilogy thus offers new dimensions to his long-running spiritual meditations, formally manifesting that existential fear which has run through so many of his films – the universe’s cold, unresponsive silence. It pervades Bergman’s screenplay and sound design with glacial repression, stifling the attempts of estranged sisters Ester and Anna to communicate with each other and their surrounding environment. Though God is not the focus here, His absence still lingers in occasional mentions of the deceased family patriarch.

“When Father died you said, ‘I don’t think want to go on living.’ So why are you still around?”

It is a brief, symbolic nod to a higher power, but a significant one when it comes to understanding the catalyst for The Silence’s modern malaise. Ester is severely ill both mentally and physically, and so when Anna directs this question towards her, it is virtually an attack on her weakened spirit that cannot embrace either life or death. Instead, she wastes away in the oppressive limbo of her hotel room, which resides in the fictional European city of Timoka. Meanwhile, Anna ventures outside in search of adventure, hoping that it might offer her some meaningful, reinvigorating connection with the world.

The Silence is Bergman’s most minimalist screenplay in his career, but this just leaves the door open for some wonderful visual storytelling as we see in the superb opening train scene.

The third member of this travelling party is Johan, Anna’s son, who quietly observes their unsettled relationship and wanders the hotel’s faded Baroque hallways. This architectural marvel is a decaying monument to another glorious era when it might have been populated with posh clientele, though now it is virtually empty to due to some encroaching war. One might almost think of The Shining in the way Bergman symmetrically lines his empty corridors with chandeliers, ornamentations, and embroidered carpets, creating an ornate maze for this young boy to lose himself within and encounter an odd assortment of characters. With little else to keep him entertained, he recklessly shoots off his toy pistol, and when he looks outside a window a military tank rolls aimlessly through quiet streets like a lost child. Maybe aimless violence is simply humanity’s most natural instinct when left to its own devices.

Surely the scenes of Johan wandering the hotel corridors inspired The Shining. The symmetrical framing, the random encounters, and the haunting atmosphere are very recognisable.
A tank wanders a street like a lost child – a portrait of aimless violence.

Well, violence and sex at least. There’s not really any doubt that The Silence is Bergman’s most explicit film when it comes to matters of carnal desire. Being far more comfortable in her skin than her sister, Anna is often shot in the nude while in her hotel room, and there is a touch of Freudian intrigue on Johan’s part as he spies her through a door. When she goes out to the theatre, she reacts with both fascination and disgust at the couple having sex a few seats down from her, which subsequently inspires her to invite a waiter she has had innocent flirtations with back to her room. Meanwhile, Ester’s only form of sexual expression is masturbation, though for her this is barely even a form of self-love. She is wholly disgusted by sex on a sensory level, unable to form a healthy physical connection with anyone else, let alone herself.

The arrangement of faces in Bergman’s frames is remarkably in tune with his characters as always, here crafting an image of Freudian tension.

These are but the symptoms of a contemporary society which has slowly eroded clear lines of communications between its citizens, and left in its place an apathetic void of emotion. Violence persists without purpose, and sex without love. How ironic it is too that Ester herself works as a translator, and yet she is as stumped as Anna and Johan when it comes to speaking with any of the locals. Like the city of Timoka, their foreign language is entirely invented by Bergman, offering a tinge of surrealism to this setting which pushes us and our main characters even further away from any firm reality.

Three layers to Bergman’s depth of field in this one, illustrating a disconnection between each character through the blocking and set obstruction.

This language barrier is partially why so many characters choose to remain silent, and yet even within our Swedish-speaking cast, that quiet tension continues to dominate. Bergman’s sound design flourishes in the absence of dialogue, building out rich aural textures which sensitise us to the tiny movements of each scene, and then break them up with unexpected intrusions – jet planes flying overhead for instance, or the recurring disturbance of a ticking pocket watch. When conversations do unfold, they are often filled with deliberate lies, miscommunications, and purposeful ignorance. Even between Ester and Johan, a simple discussion over how to spend time together cannot settle on a single direction.

“How about you read to me?”

“I’ll show you my Punch and Judy instead.”

The puppet show he subsequently improvises is childish in its cartoonish violence and garbled nonsense, creating a crude reflection of the film’s dysfunctional modern culture. Clear parallels are also well-drawn in the following exchange.

“What’s he saying?”

“I don’t know. He’s scared, so he speaks in a funny language.”

Beautiful detail in the relationship between Ester and Johan, left alone in the hotel together when Anna goes into town. The division between them is helpless, despite the longing to connect.

The disconnect between strangers, neighbours, and family members is thoroughly illustrated in Bergman’s world, but even as he continues to delve even deeper into Ester and Anna’s strained relationship, we even discover a detachment between the human body and mind. These women and their respective Jungian archetypes are thus set in opposition to each other – one sharply intelligent and discerning of the outside world, the other seeking excitement and caring tenderly for her child.

Perhaps this study of a psychological, feminine duality could be read as a precursor to Persona which would come out three years later, though Bergman is not so opaque here with the emergence of his characters’ darker ‘shadow’ selves. Anna is intellectually dishonest, carelessly throwing out lies to torment her sister, and when pushed to answer why she holds so much resentment, she doesn’t hold back in exposing Ester’s cold, arrogant judgementalism.  

“It’s just that you always harp on your principles, and drone on about how important everything is. But it’s all just hot air. You know why? I’ll tell you. Because everything centres around your ego. You can’t live without feeling superior. That’s the truth. Everything has to be desperately important and meaningful, and goodness knows what.”

The Silence marks staggering acting achievements for both Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom, especially in a year where both would also give excellent performances in Winter Light.

Bergman’s talents as a writer of cutting dialogue are evidently far from wasted in this film, and yet given the pervasive silence that hangs between characters, monologues like this are exceedingly rare. In fact, all the dialogue in the film’s first half hour might barely fill a single page, leaving Bergman to move this narrative forward and build out characters through rich visual direction. His camera’s deep focus is crucial to the magnificent blocking on display here, opening strong with a five-minute shot of our main trio shuffling in bored discomfort around a train carriage, and later arranging haunting compositions of the sisters’ faces like two parts of a whole.

Relationships illustrated in Bergman’s blocking – Ester lonely in the foreground, Anna and Johan caught together in the background in a wonderful composition.

The power that both Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom draw from Bergman’s shrewd framing in moments like these is considerable. Thulin carries herself with poise and control as Ester, and when her mental agony bursts forth he often catches her haunted expressions from high angles – at one point offering her gentle repose as the porter helps her back into bed, and later casting her in harsh light as she fearfully approaches death.

High angles often intensify the impact of Ester’s breakdowns, peering down at her face from above.

Lindblom too receives similar visual treatment when she probes Anna’s raw vulnerability. Her rendezvous with the waiter at the hotel is little more than an excuse to pour out her contempt on someone who cannot speak back (“How nice that we don’t understand each other”), but this is no substitute for real love. Raucous laughter quickly turns into sobbing as she hangs over the end of the bed, while Bergman shoots her contorted expression and posture from another high angle. Thulin’s acting may have beat out Lindblom’s in their other 1963 film Winter Light, but both are very much on equal footing here, desperately pushing past a mutual repression to uncover profound, existential terrors.

Similarly, Anna’s breakdown towards the end of The Silence hangs her on the end of the bed and diminishes her in the frame.

These noisy eruptions of honest emotion can never survive long in The Silence though. The next morning after Anna’s breakdown, that wordless impassivity she shares with her own family is back in place, even heavier with bitter sullenness. With Ester’s implied death and Anna’s abandonment of her in the hotel room, it appears that disintegration of humanity in an aimless modern society is inevitable. The train which brought these characters into Timoka now departs with one passenger less, and yet the atmosphere onboard sounds just as lifeless as it did at the start. In The Silence, civilisation will persist even in the absence of love and meaning – just as it did before Ester’s passing, and just as it will continue to do through a gradual, noiseless self-destruction of the human spirit.

The Silence is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

Infinity Pool (2023)

Brandon Cronenberg | 1hr 58min

When Brandon Cronenberg first lands us on the fictional Pacific Island of Li Tolqa in Infinity Pool, there is an eerily oppressive atmosphere running through its bright, luxurious settings. Much like Midsommar, we might assume that the horror of this location lies in some dark secret kept by the locals who wear grotesque masks and warn tourists not to leave the compound. Our introduction to the resort even comes through a series of upside-down tracking shots, tumbling us above pools, huts, and hotels with no sense of spatial orientation, and thereby evoking Gaspar Noé’s own dizzying camerawork. We are right to be unsettled about these vague suggestions of evil lurking on Li Tolqa, yet Cronenberg pulls off a chilling subversion of our expectations in his reveal of its true source – not the residents who are simply trying to live ordinary lives, but the tourists who exploit its laws and culture for their own destructive, hedonistic pleasure.

Among the most recent batch of visitors is James, an American writer who is on holiday with his wife Em, yet quickly grows attached to another guest claiming to be a fan of his work. Mia Goth continues her streak of brilliant horror collaborations here as the eyebrow-less, English-accent Gabi who sinisterly draws James deeper into a conspiracy that seeks to tear away his humanity, and who is gradually revealed to be a leader of sorts within a small cult of wealthy tourists.

Instrumental to her reign of terror on Li Tolqa is a local law protecting foreigners from capital punishment. If they are sentenced to death, then they can instead have a clone of themselves produced and let them be executed in their place. The first time James undergoes this process following an accidental hit-and-run, there is a spark of fascinated horror in his expression as he watches his double stabbed multiple times in the belly. From there, he finds his transition into Gabi’s inner circle an uneasy yet slippery slope, meeting a cabal of fellow vacationers who visit Li Tolqa every year to commit heinous crimes, and use the suffering of their own clones as a disturbing form of entertainment.

Cronenberg’s overarching metaphor may not be particularly subtle, but it is overwhelmingly visceral – the abuse of others inevitably leads to the dehumanisation of oneself, and once those self-preservation instincts are destroyed, a primal, deranged masochism takes over. Through its vacation setting, Infinity Pool even takes on a satirical edge in its depiction of Western tourists turning foreign destinations into their own personal playgrounds, holding reckless regard for local customs and citizens. In retrospect, perhaps those warnings to avoid leaving the heavily guarded compound aren’t there to protect the guests, but rather to contain them like wild animals.

Of course, with the science-fiction concept of cloning in Infinity Pool comes philosophical questions of identity, as several times we are led question whether it is actually the ‘originals’ being sacrificed rather than the artificial doubles who continue to live in their place. Cronenberg does not so much provide firm answers here than leave it as an uncomfortable possibility in the back of our minds. He especially uses this uncertainty to pull the rug out from under us in one scene when he leads us to believe the original versions of Gabi’s crew are being executed, only to reveal their actual selves in the audience cheering at their own demise – though even here, there are still doubts as to which characters are the ‘real’ ones.

On more formal level, the possibility that these tourists are copies of copies distance them even further from their humanity. At a certain point, the grotesque masks that they steal from locals and wear during their crime sprees become truer representations of their inner selves than their actual faces, transforming them into misshapen, demonic figures engaging in violent felonies, depraved orgies, and illegal drugs. Infinity Pool’s expressionistic visual style is fairly front-loaded with its vibrant neon lighting, but at the height of the hallucinogen-fuelled debauchery later in the film, Cronenberg lets loose on his nightmarish, mash-up montages, forcing us so deeply into James’ dazed mind that his and new friends’ contorted masks seem to come to life.

These frenzied nightmares of technicolour lens flares and surreal, unfocused imagery aren’t solely reserved for James’ drug-induced visions either, as the cloning procedure similarly warps his perceptions of reality through distorted visual sequences. In doing so, Cronenberg draws a formal connection between both dehumanising experiences, ripping James from his old life of stability and into a helpless, primal state. The appearance of one clone who has reverted to his most basic animal instincts supports this notion even further, and by the time James has completely submitted to Gabi’s Freudian mother figure, it is evident that he has hit the point of no return.

Much like Cronenberg’s previous film Possessor, there is a despairing cynicism which guides Infinity Pool through to its ambiguous end, dooming characters to meagre, joyless existences. Without the sweet release of death, this ongoing self-destruction becomes an endless loop of psychological corruption, as wretchedly consistent as the seasonal cycles that entice the same degenerate holidaymakers back to Li Tolqa every single year. For those who have already destroyed everything meaningful in their own lives, there is no such thing as home – just the invasion and obliteration of everyone else’s most sacred, personal spaces.

Infinity Pool is currently playing in theatres.

High and Low (1963)

Akira Kurosawa | 2hr 23min

At first glance, the executive meeting over a giant Japanese shoe company buyout might seem to have little to do with the kidnapping, mix-up, and deadly ultimatum directed at its most influential player. The nameless voice on the other end of the telephone sounds more motivated by resentment towards Kingo Gondo than any desire to specifically ruin his business plans. That it is the son of Gondo’s chauffeur who is abducted rather than his actual child is a complete mistake on the kidnapper’s part, though not one that deters him any less. If Gondo refuses to pay up the 30,000 yen he intends to use for his business deal and lets the boy die, then his reputation will be destroyed, and the operation could still be counted a success. For the wealthy businessman and Akira Kurosawa alike, this is only partially a dilemma of ethics. It soon becomes very apparent that concerns of class, privilege, and status are far more central to this agonising predicament.

That High and Low is so perfectly captivating throughout its two and a half hour run time should be no surprise to those who are familiar with Kurosawa’s ability to construct tight, gripping narratives with brilliant stylistic invention. That this procedural film holds up to the incredibly high standard set by Seven Samurai from nine years earlier is far more likely to catch even his most ardent admirers off-guard. This is a transcendent achievement of storytelling, constantly moving forward at a momentum which never wastes so much as a line of dialogue. Kurosawa’s inspired structure has a significant role to play in this too. For almost the entire first hour, we are trapped inside Gondo’s modernist mansion as he slowly unravels, before spinning out into the streets, alleys, and slums of Yokohama where detectives methodically hunt down the mysterious culprit. High and Low may start small, but by the end it feels as if we have touched every corner of this sprawling city wracked with severe social disparity.

High and Low is right next to Seven Samurai and Rashomon in terms of blocking. Kurosawa turns bodies at all angles across his mise-en-scène, but he also emphasises the height in the frame between characters.
Great location scouting for many scenes throughout High and Low once we leave the confinement of Gondo’s living room. Superb form drawn in this divide too.

Even with its relatively contained opening act though, Kurosawa is already laying out a microcosm of urban inequality. Along two sides of Gondo’s living room are giant windows which open onto expansive metropolitan views, situating his residence on a hill far above the squalor below. Clearly Bong Joon-ho was inspired by this use of elevation and architecture to illustrate the social standings of his characters in Parasite, though Kurosawa continues to draw it even further into his mise-en-scene by way of his ensemble blocking.

Vast windows looking down on the city below, and drawing rigid lines in the set design between characters.

Much like the work of his contemporaries Michelangelo Antonioni and Luchino Visconti, his camera’s deep focus is essential to these astonishing compositions of bodies staggered right into the background. Actors are turned at all angles throughout this clean, modern space, their connections slowly eroding and visually divided by the harsh lines of the mansion’s walls, doorways, and furniture. The only time we ever find some unity between them is in those shots of heads anxiously gathered around the telephone during the kidnapper’s calls, forcing Gondo into the centre as he oscillates between fury and trepidation.

Disconnection and unity drawn in a pair of images. You can read the room simply by the way Kurosawa arranges his actors – not unlike Visconti or Antonioni.

The fiery presence that Toshirô Mifune brought to Kurosawa’s earlier films is all but gone here as the tortured businessman, replaced with an intensive focus and excruciating indecision. Much like his elevated house, he towers over many of his fellow cast members with a powerful screen presence, dominating the foreground while the small, cowering chauffeur played by Yutaka Sada grovels at his feet. After all, it was his son that was kidnapped, though one wouldn’t guess it from the way he is constantly pushed to the edge of the frame, into the background, and outside of entire scenes. He may be suffering most than anyone else, but as a poor, working-class man, he also lacks the agency that makes Gondo such a fascinating character, and who in turn imbues this narrative with such riveting tension. For the first magnificent hour of High and Low, this decision ultimately comes down to his own willingness to give up his privilege for a young boy’s life.

Toshiro Mifune gives a performance very distant from his fiery persona in Seven Samurai or Rashomon. Gondo is a complicated figure, neither a hero like the press might paint him, nor a villain like the kidnapper believes. He is also front and centre of this film for the first hour, before disappearing and returning at the end.

Thankfully, he chooses the far more stomachable option. He may be ruined financially, and the big company buyout he was planning may not go ahead, but in the public eye he is a hero. Little do they know how thin of a knife’s edge he was sitting on. Conversely, his fellow business executives who oust him from the company for his financial losses are swiftly vilified by the media, and accused of punishing an honourable man for his righteous actions.

The reach and influence of the press proves to be particularly large in major incidents like these which can so easily be simplified down to good and bad people, but this is not a dichotomy Kurosawa has much interest in. Even these journalists who only seem driven to generate the most sensational headline end up serving a noble purpose, cooperating with the police to plant a false story in the hope of drawing out the kidnapper. This is a complex investigation with many moving parts, even if Gondo serves little purpose in it anymore. Now without wealth or power, his agency is effectively taken away like the chauffeur before him, sinking him into the distant background of a narrative that he can no longer affect in any meaningful way.

Radiating faces and bodies out like spokes from a centre, focusing everything inward on an intensive investigation.

With Mifune almost entirely out of the picture, it is time for the police officers to take the lead in this ensemble piece, leaving behind the spacious manor and descending to the streets below. If there is a slight drop in the film’s visual splendour at this point, it is only because virtually every shot up until now has been so perfectly rendered – by any other standard, the procedural section of this narrative features the sort of urban location shooting and staging that stands among the finest of cinema history.

About an hour into the film, Kurosawa exchanges Gondo’s small living room set for an entire city of location shooting. Slums, streets, clubs, and alleys become an urban jungle for these detectives to navigate.

Particularly notable is the enormous formal contrast between the clean sophistication of the room we have just spent most of our time in against Yokohama’s ragged shanty towns, where alley walls squeeze inwards and hanging laundry obstructs frames. From down here, Kurosawa catches sight of Gondo’s mansion through the kidnapper’s ramshackle home, almost like a reverse shot of the view from his living room. “That house gets on your nerves. As if it’s looking down at us,” one police officer gripes, and from this new perspective it is easy to sympathise. Class resentment runs thick in the city’s deepest pits.

The view from the kidnapper’s slum window is virtually a reverse shot of the view from Gondo’s living room. It’s hard not to think of Parasite now when we see this elevated mansion sitting on a hill – a symbol of status.

Much like these detectives, Kurosawa understands the need for patience and precision to catch a criminal, teasing out and paying off every single plot beat along the way. Early on, it is mentioned that a trap has been left in the kidnapper’s money bag which will let off pink smoke when burnt, and one might easily forget this was ever mentioned if it wasn’t for a giant reveal later on in the film’s most striking composition. Gathering in front of Gondo’s giant living room window, the heads of various police officers line the foreground, while a distant chimney spills out the sole trace of colour in this black-and-white film – a plume of pink, incriminating smoke.

A stand-out shot in a film full of them – pink, incriminating smoke rising from an industrial chimney, offering Kurosawa’s black-and-white a photography a sole touch of colour, and marking this as a crucial point in the narrative.

The puzzle pieces only come together faster from here. The kidnapped boy recalls landmarks from where he was kept, the ether used to knock him unconscious is traced to a local hospital, and a pair of dead bodies reveal the culprit’s betrayal of his own accomplices. The covert tailing of the prime suspect through an ambient jazz club makes for another superbly constructed sequence too, as Kurosawa hangs us in the grip of a largely wordless cat-and-mouse pursuit. For now, the target of their suspicion does not realise he is being watched, but neither can we read his cold, stoic face behind his giant pair of dark, reflective sunglasses. As we follow him into the rundown ‘Dope Alley’ outside, Kurosawa mutates High and Low into a zombie film for a brief time, crowding the cops with homeless drug addicts itching for their next hit. If Gondo’s mansion sits high in the clouds as a heavenly paradise, then these are the sordid pits of hell, co-existing in the same city.

The cat-and-mouse pursuit of the kidnapper through the jazz club and dope alley makes for brilliant visual storytelling, often leaving dialogue out altogether.

Such harsh depictions of class inequality are essential to our eventual understanding of the kidnapper’s motivations. Ginjirô is his name, a young medical student who claims that his hate of Gondo has been his sole reason for living. Even as he sits in prison after being caught, he taunts the broken, disenchanted businessman with a façade of easy indifference, claiming that he is neither regretful for his actions nor scared of his impending execution. It is plain to see the lie from his incontrollable shaking, and even more evident when he breaks down in complete mortal terror. In the glass that separates both men, the reflection of Gondo’s weary expression is faintly imprinted over Ginjirô’s manic face, composing an image of two halves – both ends of civilization, broken by its own social and economic disparity.

The law may have triumphed over corruption, and yet it is just like Kurosawa to find such soul-destroying cynicism in this result, recognising the impossibility of solving the greater issue at hand. The formal divisions that run through his mise-en-scene and gripping narrative structure in High and Low painstakingly reveal a civilisation that has eroded the connections between its citizens, forcing them into bitter games of twisted revenge, and only ever leaving behind miserable losers when the dust has finally settled.

A faint reflection of Gondo’s face in the glass between him and the kidnapper. A sad, cynical ending typical of Kurosawa’s nihilism.

High and Low is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Winter Light (1963)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 21min

In the 1950s, Ingmar Bergman directed three films with ‘Summer’ in their title, referring to the season of one’s life that blossoms with romance and vitality. Winter Light then clearly marks a drastic shift in the tone of his introspective meditations, isolating us in Father Thomas Ericsson’s lifeless, rural parish. His congregation at the Sunday noon mass is uninspiringly small, and as we sit through the last ten minutes of his service there is an overwhelming emptiness to the proceedings. The prayers, hymns, and liturgy of the Eucharist move by at a sluggish pace, while Bergman cuts between close-ups of the parishioners’ expressions ranging from deep in thought to downright bored. This church is not a sanctuary for Christians, as the minimalist beauty of its arched ceilings and rough stone walls rather mirrors the bleakness of the frozen landscapes outside, infusing Winter Light with a chilling severity that cuts right to the troubled hearts of its believers, sceptics, and doubters.

The first ten minutes of Winter Light is the most lifeless mass you have ever seen, and Bergman’s photography is at its bleakest.

The scope of this narrative is far narrower than many of Bergman’s previous films, taking place over the course of a few hours between two services on a frosty Sunday afternoon. Tomas’ spiritual crisis began a long time before we pick up on his story, and it will continue far beyond the point that we leave him, though this brief time frame applies an intensive focus to the point at which it cannot be contained any longer.

For the first time in his many collaborations with Bergman, Gunnar Björnstrand takes the leading role, bringing not just a brooding bitterness to Tomas’ ruminations, but also a common cold that plagued him throughout production. Rather than cutting around its interruptions, Bergman turns it into a part of his character, reflecting his spiritual sickness as a physical ailment. At one point after he echoes Christ’s words on the cross, “God, why have you forsaken me?”, a coughing fit even brings him to his knees in front of his altar, while Bergman shines a bright sun through the tall, arched window above him in a divine image of human frailty.

A divine composition from Bergman in Tomas’ church, his sickness bringing him to his knees at the altar.

In this moment, the only person there to hold him is his ex-mistress Märta, played by Ingrid Thulin with self-conscious modesty. She is deliberately dressed down here, drawing attention away from her natural looks and turning her into a figure who evokes pity, disdain, and occasionally affection from Tomas. She is a collection of contradictions that shouldn’t make sense from a strict religious perspective, being a firm atheist and yet believing more in the Christian virtue of compassion than any other character. Additionally, she is the most constant presence in Tomas’ masses besides his sexton and organist, driven to remain by his side out of a selfless love that he often pushes away.

To Björnstrand’s disillusioned priest though, she is a reminder of the material world he spurned to pursue a life of faith, which now seems to be worth little. Bergman offers both a pair of monologues which formally complement each other on either side of this ambivalent dynamic, holding a six-minute shot on Thulin as she laments a summer where Tomas reacted with disgust to her spreading rash, without once praying for her healing. Given Bergman’s usual talent for evocatively framed close-ups, this is far from his finest, though its breaking of the fourth wall does allow for a brutal honesty which only feeds Tomas’ insecurity.

“Your faith seems obscure and neurotic, somehow cruelly overwrought with emotion, primitive. One thing in particular I’ve never been able to fathom: your peculiar indifference to Jesus Christ.”

Ingrid Thulin gives one of her greatest performances as the atheistic Märta, offering immense warmth and compassion to Tomas’ doubting priest. The story of her rash even bears some resemblance to legends of stigmata affecting saints.

Throughout Winter Light he offers numerous reasons for his dwindling faith, including the horrors he witnessed during the Spanish Civil War, his wife’s premature death, and a recognition that he only took up this profession due to his father’s influence. And yet when it comes time for him to pour all of his disdain right back on her, he offers a far less sincere verbal assault, seeking to wound her for all his petty grievances.

“I’m tired of your loving care. Your fussing. Your good advice. Your candlesticks and table runners. I’m fed up with your short-sightedness. Your clumsy hands. Your anxiousness. Your timid displays of affection. You force me to occupy myself with your physical condition. Your poor digestion. Your rashes. Your periods. Your frostbitten cheeks. Once and for all I have to escape this junkyard of idiotic trivialities. I’m sick and tired of it all, of everything to do with you.”

Both Björnstrand and Thulin get a pair of monologues that feature some of Bergman’s best writing – one seeking truth, the other offering hate.

Björnstrand commands immense verbal power here, though it is Bergman’s savage pen which impresses most of all in this string of merciless barbs. Spouses have been tearing each other to pieces in his films ever since the 1940s, and while Tomas and Märta’s relationship is not the sole focus of Winter Light, this exchange goes toe to toe with Scenes from a Marriage as his quintessential depiction of undistilled resentment between lovers.

With the task of fostering his parish’s spiritual growth now seeming an impossible task, Tomas finds himself acting out in stubborn, angry protest. When one of his parishioners, Jonas Persson, confronts him after mass with concerns over an impending nuclear winter, Tomas cannot find the energy to offer the “benign answers and reassuring blessings” which his own “echo-god” keeps giving him. In an unsettling role reversal, it is the priest who starts confessing his lack of faith to the congregant, and all the while Bergman keeps underscoring the proximity between Tomas and the sculpture of a crucified Jesus hanging behind him on the wall. Christ’s tortured face looks down on his lost disciple with sorrow, and yet he remains as agonisingly silent as the God whose existence is being questioned.  

“If there is no God, would it really make any difference? Life would become understandable. What a relief. And thus death would be a snuffing out of life. The dissolution of body and soul. Cruelty, loneliness, and fear… All these things would be straightforward and transparent. Suffering is incomprehensible, so it needs no explanation. There is no creator. No sustainer of life. No design.”

Bergman is one of cinema’s great blockers of faces – but just note the detail in placing Christ’s tortured face above Tomas’ here. He looks down at the priest, who is in turn distracted and looking at Jonas, who is similarly refusing to look at the person trying to reach him.
A disconnection drawn between layers of the frame, fatefully distancing Tomas and Jonas.
Light starts to shine in the window behind Tomas in this close-up – Bergman is a master of these subtle lighting alterations to change our perception of a character’s expression.

Tomas does not have the awareness of how extreme Jonas’ concerns are to comprehend the danger of what he is saying, and yet the disconnection that Bergman captures between them through his depth of field is just as inconsolable as the priest’s separation from God. Jonas silently exits, and as Bergman shines fresh sunlight through the window behind Tomas’s head, he is also struck with the despairing recognition of what he has done. No more than a few minutes later does he receive the devastating news – Jonas has shot himself in the head with a rifle, leaving behind a mourning family.

Bergman again emphasises the freezing winter exteriors when Tomas comes across Jonas’ body – a severe landscape to match the souls of these characters.

Tomas has little time to process his guilt and console Jonas’ family before pressing forward onto his 3 o’clock service. It is here that Winter Light’s position in Bergman’s unofficial Faith trilogy becomes most evident. This is the second film in a row that sees him refer to God as a “spider”, but even more significantly we find Fredrik the organist mockingly quoting Through a Glass Darkly’s thesis that “Love proves the existence of God.” No longer does this seem like enough evidence for Bergman, who now finds himself wrestling with the part of Tomas, Jonas, and himself so lost in existential dread that even love cannot be found.

A second mass a mere few hours after the first to bookend the film, sending Tomas to preach to an even emptier church than before.

Then again, who can empathise with this fear of total abandonment more than Christ himself, hanging on the cross? This is the allegory that the sexton Algot unknowingly draws to Tomas’ own plight as they prepare for a mass that no one has turned up to, forsaken by men and God alike in their holy mission. Specifically, Algot questions the biblical focus on the physical pain Jesus suffered leading up to his death given its brevity, while the betrayals at the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, and in Peter’s denial were far more torturous.

“He believes everything he’d ever preached was a lie. In the moments before he died, Christ was seized by doubt. Surely that must have been his greatest hardship – God’s silence.”

A voice on Märta’s shoulder, forcing her own reckoning with her love for Tomas.

As such, the question of why one must then continue with an empty mass is equated to Jesus’ own following through with a sacrifice for which he is not guaranteed any real reward. This endurance is posed as the very crux of Christian faith, which even Märta is shown to possess in spite of her atheism. A thin sliver of light illuminates her profile as she kneels and prays, consumed in darkness yet nonetheless imploring some higher power for understanding between neighbours.

“If only we could feel safe and dare to show each other tenderness. If only we had some truth to believe in. If only we could believe.”

Immaculate, minimalist lighting as Märta prays – a thin sliver of lighting illuminating her profile as she kneels in reverence.

The answer to Märta’s prayer comes not in some grand gesture of goodwill, but simply the start of the 3 o’clock service, persisting in the absence of any real congregation. It is impossible to fully penetrate the mind of Björnstrand’s lonely pastor in this moment, but Winter Light’s formal bookending of a pair of church services at least suggests the tiniest shred of persevering faith in his soul, offering a link between people and God despite the mutual silence. Who else will keep this hope for salvation alive, if not him?

Much like Tomas, Bergman ends his film with open-ended questions, finding resolution only in the ongoing acceptance that answers may never be found. Perhaps it is ironic that this it was during this production that he later claimed to have lost his faith, and yet the incredible spiritual patience that emerges in both the Christians and atheists of Winter Light uncovers an inerasable, universal belief in human goodness, transcending the most rigid boundaries of organised religion.

Winter Light is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

Le Samouraï (1967)

Jean-Pierre Melville | 1hr 45min

It is no mistake that we find it so easy to confuse the police officers and gangsters of Le Samouraï at times. Men on both sides covertly meet in rooms hidden away from the outside world, wearing neatly pressed suits and icy, penetrating expressions. They move in packs, resorting to deception, brute force, and stealth tactics to accomplish remarkably similar objectives. Their latest target is dead-eyed hitman Jef Costello, who after being spotted at the scene of his most recent assassination, inadvertently makes enemies of both sides of the law and finds the tables drastically turning on him.

Perhaps the biggest difference that sets Jef apart from the two factions of equally hostile men coming after him is his crushing isolation, illustrated in the faded grey wallpaper, spartan furniture, and minimalist décor of his single-room Paris apartment. It might almost be the most depressing home one could imagine, if it weren’t for the tiny bullfinch which ceaselessly tweets inside its cage. The personal significance this bird holds for him is never clearly defined – maybe it is a companion of some sort, or a merely an alarm whose ruffled feathers helpfully indicate recent disturbances. Either way, it is the sole shred of life in the flat besides Jef himself, though given the static, 3-minute opening shot of him lying motionless in bed, we can accurately surmise that even he is barely hanging on.

Melville’s 3-minute opening shot sets the scene and tone – Jef lies motionless inside his drab Parisian apartment, adorned with nothing by a birdcage.
Dreary mise-en-scène on every level, from the threadbare mattress to the grey, stained walls.

By necessity of his dangerous profession, meaningful relationships are out of the question. Even more punishing still is the resulting disconnect from his own humanity. Jef’s entire identity seemingly consists of a single, unyielding code, likened to that of the titular Japanese warrior in the fictional quote which opens the film.

“There is no solitude greater than the samurai’s, unless perhaps it be that of a tiger in the jungle.”

Right from this introductory text, Jean-Pierre Melville’s character study promises to be one of exceptionally intensive focus, matching Jef’s pragmatic efficiency with an equivalently methodical narrative and austere visual style. Even outside his drab apartment, this vision of 1960s Paris persists in perpetual gloom, carving out rigid lines from its modernist architecture and lighting its urban scenery with a melancholy blue wash. Such incredible location shooting effectively continues the lineage of Italy’s neorealist cinema, turning the city’s dingy alleys and underground stations into extensions of Jef’s bare bones existence.

Melville’s location shooting puts Le Samouraí in the lineage of neorealism, moving the crime genre to the streets of Paris.

With such little dialogue guiding us through Le Samouraï‘s meticulously winding plot, Melville strips away the innuendos and poetic seductions of his American film noir influences, and frees himself up to advance his narrative through largely visual cues and action. In fact, there is not a single spoken word until about ten minutes into the film, by which time we have already witnessed Jef steal a car, change its number plates, and drive to his lover’s place to set up an alibi for the murder he is about to commit.

Atmospheric lighting and decor in these rooms where police officers and gangster meet – two sides of a coin.

As he continues to traverse these streets of muted colour palettes, he cuts a sharp profile in his beige trench coat and grey fedora, composing himself with stoicism behind rain-glazed windows that conceal any stray hint of emotion. Throughout these stretches of suspenseful silence, François de Roubaix electric organ riffs blend with the acoustic sounds of saxophones, strings, and piano, their propulsive rhythms perfectly complementing Melville’s long takes and riveting narrative pace.

Melville lays the neo-noir atmosphere on thick with the constant rain and muted colour palettes.
Jef wears his fedora and trench coat like a uniform, adhering to a strict set of rules and standards.

Once Jef enters the club which his target owns, his lethal intentions are evident. To get to Martey’s office he must first cross the luxurious lounge, which looks almost futuristic in its polished surfaces and swanky, monochrome designs. Here, wealthy patrons mingle to the sound of a jazz band led by Valérie, who is also the first to spot Jef suspiciously leaving the scene of the crime immediately after the hit. As it turns out, her role in this conspiracy runs much deeper than we suspect, instigating new mysteries when she flat-out denies that he is the culprit during a line-up and saves him from prison. When he later drops by her pristine, white apartment adorned with fine art and posh furniture, we are only left with more questions – how could a bar pianist afford such extravagant living?

Beyond the dirty apartments and streets of Paris, Melville’s sets of upper-class elegance are astonishingly designed, returning multiple times to the monochrome jazz lounge and Valerie’s pristine white apartment.

Many answers are delivered in due course, painstakingly drawn out through Jef’s investigative attempts to ascertain the identity of his boss who ordered the hit, yet even these solutions contain gaping holes within them. Melville’s rigorous focus and camera zooms do their best to pick out details which might bear some significance, but even those are frequently confined to Jef’s limited perspective. Though he notices some shady figures on his tail as he boards a metro train, it remains unclear as to whether they are undercover cops or gangsters looking to take him out. If he is panicking, Delon does not let it show in his calm and steely resolve, seeking to outsmart his foes in the subsequent cat-and-mouse chase which marks one of Le Samouraï‘s most thrilling set pieces.

A gripping set piece in Paris’ underground metro, using the urban terrain as the grounds Melville’s thrilling cat-and-mouse chase.

In fact, there is only one time that we witness a break in Delon’s cool, self-assured demeanour, and he times it for the perfect moment in the film’s final scene. After dispatching the man who originally gave the orders to kill Martey and discovering that he lives in the same apartment as Valérie, Jef approaches the club where she works one last time. He has orders for a new hit, and given the manner in which he puts on his white gloves as per his modus operandi, as well as his sorrowful eye contact with Valérie, his target is clear. This is a man who lives with the honour, pragmatism, and routine of a samurai, unwavering in his discipline, and yet not even that can hold back the mix of emotions that come through in this pained, mournful expression as he raises his gun.

A hint of sadness in Alain Delon’s eyes? The subtlety of his performance is astounding.

It is a shock then that the following gunshots come not from Jef, but rather from elsewhere in the bar, killing him on the spot. Even more surprising is the subsequent reveal of his empty gun barrel. Critics have had no shortage of theories over the decades considering the assassin’s motivations here. Did he realise that the police were closing in, and choose to commit an honourable suicide akin to a samurai’s seppuku? Could it be a romantic gesture, choosing to end his own life rather than go through with Valérie’s murder?

Melville’s ambiguity is purposeful and thought-provoking, but there are at least two certainties we can draw from it – that Jef had accepted that he was going to die, and that he was never going to carry out his final orders. Both mark huge shifts in this character who prides himself on stoic consistency, and yet at the same time the motivations which drive them remain cloaked in complex mystery. Jef may never find total redemption, nor is his death likely to leave much of an impact on the world around him. But in this modern Paris of Le Samouraï which strips its citizens of individuality and assigns them arbitrary loyalties to either side of the law, perhaps this shred of humanity he summons up from deep within his calloused soul is the closest he was ever going to get.

Pulling back into this dispassionate wide shot after Jef’s suicide by cop, leaving only questions behind.

Le Samouraï is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Beau is Afraid (2023)

Ari Aster | 2hr 59min

To what extent can the constant failures of Joaquin Phoenix’s guilt-ridden paranoiac in Beau is Afraid be blamed on him, and how much can be directly pinned on the surreal, irrational world he fearfully exists in? In this bizarro version of New York, a deranged, naked killer known as the Birthday Boy Stab Man haunts the streets outside Beau’s apartment building, along with masses of other violent lunatics trying to break in. Angry neighbours slide passive-aggressive notes under his door in the middle of the night demanding he turn down his music, despite there being no music to begin with. And just as he is just about to leave to visit his wealthy, successful mother, he discovers the keys to his front door have disappeared, thereby abruptly ending his plans, and disappointing her in the process.

Beau is Afraid may not be as straightforward a horror as Hereditary or Midsommar, but the nihilistic terror which Ari Aster crafts with acute formal detail rather manifests as a cosmic, existential dread, expanding far beyond the reaches of any cult. Whether the senseless world we are presented with is real or merely the filter through which Beau might justify his faults is irrelevant – it is sometimes both, and occasionally neither. Picking one apart from the other would be futile. This three-hour odyssey from Beau’s city apartment to his mother’s country mansion is absurdism at its purest, so hypnotically inscrutable that it is surprising Charlie Kaufman didn’t conceptualise it first.

The formal detail of this absurd alternate universe is incredibly well-drawn by Aster in the first scenes – corpses lie in the streets, violent men lurk outside Beau’s apartment, and even the elevator inside dangerously lets off sparks every time the doors move.

Even so, Aster’s fingerprints are all over this film, both in the way he frames his tableaux like stages and uses them to hint at sinister forces pulling strings behind the scenes. After Beau badly injures himself and is taken in by oddball nuclear family, hints that he is being closely studied begin to appear. Roger and Grace are uncomfortably accommodating to their guest, giving him their angsty teenage daughter’s bedroom and offering to drive him straight to his mother’s place. After they eventually pressure him to delay the trip by a day, Grace covertly slides him a napkin with a message.

“Stop incriminating yourself.”

It could very well be a scenario lifted from Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, accusing our protagonist of an unknown crime which nobody will tell him. Later when she slyly urges him to flick to channel 78, he discovers live surveillance footage recording his every move. Most unsettling of all, hitting the fast-forward button briefly reveals his own future – scenes from the film that not even we have reached yet. Is his entire life predetermined? If so, by who? Can he truly be blamed for anything if his path was laid out from the minute he was born?

Time disintegrates with the frequent intrusion of Beau’s childhood flashbacks, warping our comprehension of how they really unfolded.

Linear time continues to erode all through Beau is Afraid, frequently flashing back to childhood traumas and vanishing entire chunks of his life through swift, seamless transitions. At one point when he accidentally stumbles across a pastoral theatre troupe in the woods aptly named the ‘Orphans of the Forest’, reality also follows the disintegrating path that time has disappeared down, absorbing Beau into a colourful, partially animated dreamscape. This may be the most mesmerising, visually adventurous sequence of the film, as well as its most confounding. Like a character in a pop-up storybook, artificial environments rise and collapse all around him, blending live-action sets with ravishing hand-drawn animation to transport him into yet another universe even more distant from our own.

The tale we are presented with during this interlude is one of grief and perseverance, transforming Beau into an alternate version of himself who starts his own family, is separated from them in a flood, and spends his entire life searching for them again. Accompanying us through it all, a narrator speaks in second-person future tense – “You will” – prophetically offering him safe passage into an imagined life that might manifest should he break free of his mother’s paralysing grip. Though there is much heartache to be found here, there is also the notion that he once had something valuable to lose. In the film’s reality, he never even had that.

The partially animated play of Beau’s alternate life is an astounding piece of direction from Aster – a true cinematic highlight in an occasionally messy film.

This alternate Beau’s search for lost family certainly parallels the main Beau’s journey to see his mother, with the narrator accusing them equally of being “so lost in your selfishness no one could ever find you,” yet the happy ending of this play is not one we ever expect to see manifest at the film’s conclusion. The darkly comic repetition of Beau’s constant, ironic defeats is so rigidly woven into this narrative that only an interlude as artificially constructed as this could break from that pattern.

Instead, the more the film moves along, the more pitiful Beau becomes. Much like his role in You Were Never Really Here, Phoenix packs on a great deal of weight for this role, though the way he carries it is feebler and far more lethargic. This is an image of a man burdened by his own passivity, desperately desiring the approval of his mother yet constantly falling short. The plain grey pyjamas he wears on his mission to finally do something right make him stand out as a man not ready to engage with the outside world, and especially one so vibrantly complicated as that which Aster has assembled. He feels much safer inside his own guilt-ridden mind, and so that is exactly where he is doomed to linger in the film’s mind-bending final act.

Joaquin Phoenix is paunchy, jumpy ball of nerves as Beau, disappearing into the role as easily as he did with the Joker or Freddie Quell.

The rug that Aster pulls out from under our feet is not some elucidating, rational explanation of everything we have witnessed, but rather sucks us even deeper into Beau’s self-loathing subconscious, finally literalising his deepest, most humiliating fears. A sexual encounter with the only person he ever felt some attraction to before his mother came between them might almost be his first successful, independent rebellion against her authority, though even this is tainted with reminders of the past. Specifically, the realisation that the very bed they are making love on is his mother’s and the fact that his father died mid-orgasm at the exact moment he was conceived both turn him into a modern Oedipus of sorts. No wonder his life has borne so much guilt, given that the reason for its being is so tied to death.

The Freudian layers of these relationships are formally intricate, if not always tonally consistent, especially when a monstrous symbol of sexual repression arrives on the scene and aims for cheap laughs. Given the film’s tendency to draw out scenes a little longer than required, this isn’t a one-off flaw either, leading to a narrative which is somewhat bloated in parts. That said, the enormity of Aster’s psychological reckoning in Beau is Afraid absolutely necessitates its three-hour run time, and may have simply been better served with more succinctness across a greater number of settings.

Beau’s mother Mona is a constant presence throughout this film in Beau’s flashbacks, revealing the source of much humiliation and repression.

Even at its most imperfect, there is still little which can take away from the incredible formal invention and surreal string of symbols which hold Beau is Afraid together as an elusive, Kafkaesque allegory, almost certain to reveal deeper nuances on multiple viewings. The natural instinct to gain both approval and independence from one’s mother is the paradoxical objective that connects Beau to the rest of humanity, yet the guilt which comes from recognising the impossibility of this is magnified by a thousand in Aster’s surreal character study. For Beau, the chance that she perceives these exact thoughts running through his head is the most mortifying scenario of all, as only then would his last shred of perceived dignity be swallowed by his self-destructive shame. Beneath the absurd randomness of his psychological voyage, this primal horror offers an internal, guiding logic to Aster’s cinematic nightmare, carving out a delusional path to the original source of man’s self-destructive shame.

Beau is Afraid is currently in theatres.

John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023)

Chad Stahelski | 2hr 49min

Long before John Wick’s wife passed away, and even before his days as a professional hitman, death has been his most steadfast companion and cruellest enemy. It has bonded so close to his soul that oftentimes throughout this series he has become its literal personification, delivering swift ends to those who believe they can outmatch him. In this fourth chapter, Bill Skarsgård’s deranged villain, the Marquis Vincent de Gramont, even describes him as a ghost with nothing left to live, die, or kill for. He is only partially correct – the overwhelming desire for vengeance which motivates Wick to mow down waves of assassins often seems more a force of habit than anything else, though beneath that there is a much melancholier desire to meet his end with some humanity. Perhaps only then can he reacquaint himself with the peace he once knew during his short-lived marriage.

As a result, the purgatory-like settings that John Wick: Chapter 4 lands him in makes for a more darkly spiritual film than previous instalments, and instils the heightened stakes with an imposing formal majesty. This epic, globe-trotting narrative carries all the weight of his grand resolution to take down the High Table, which we have seen exert a divine authority all throughout the series, and which now fatefully draws him towards his final fight for freedom.

The scope of this narrative matches its enormous stakes and spectacle, spanning four separate continents and bringing magnificent visual style to each.

Just as significantly, director Chad Stahelski brings an astonishing creativity to each set piece along the way, delivering some of the finest action scenes in recent years. In one overhead tracking shot lasting several minutes, he slices the roof off a Parisian apartment complex and takes a gods-eye view of Wick’s violent conquest. Later as he fights his way through lanes of traffic around the Arc de Triomphe, a graphic dissolve smoothly transitions from a helicopter shot into a scaled-down model of Paris, above which the Marquis looms menacingly. From this dominant position, the High Table effectively becomes the omniscient, omnipotent god of Wick’s universe, seemingly manifesting new threats from the shadows.

Stahelski holds on this overhead tracking shot for several minutes as Wick mows his way through a Parisian apartment building, delivering a gods-eye view of his conquest.

Skarsgård’s wealthy narcissist clearly possesses his own violent streak, most of all evident in one scene involving a vicious hand stabbing, but he is also far less likely than those below him to carry out the dirty work. Where Keanu Reeves operates best as a dynamic physical presence and relatively minimal dialogue, Skarsgård commands entire scenes with an unnerving aristocratic charm, at home in the most opulent of Parisian settings. Eugene Delacroix’s painting ‘Liberty Leading the People’ forms a stunning backdrop inside the Louvre when the Marquis accepts Wick’s duel, drawing historical parallels to the lonely hitman’s revolution against the High Table, while the Palace of Versailles and the Palais Garner also lavishly host his nefarious operations.

This is more than great location scouting – the Palais Garnier already has immense architectural beauty, but Stahelski’s angles, lighting, and blocking makes it entirely cinematic.

Stahelski is not simply leaning on his location scouting for these incredible settings, but the way he lights and frames each with such vivid attention to detail makes for some tremendous scenic backdrops. The beauty of Barry Lyndon is specifically evoked in one Russian Orthodox cathedral which basks its ornate Renaissance architecture in the warm, golden glow of candles, and seems to expand its columns infinitely upwards towards the heavens. Within this holy sanctuary, Wick’s desperate prayers take the form of underground bargains, and personal atonement is found in the restoration of old relationships.

The cathedrals of John Wick are lit with warm, golden candles, and offer holy sanctuaries to Wick as he faces down his own mortality.

Historical tradition may run deep in this world, and yet in Stahlelski’s vivid lighting and futurist architecture he is also constantly reminding us of the modern culture which it must compete with. Here, the influence of Nicolas Winding Refn announces itself in a huge number of expressionistic set pieces, taking us from the neon-drenched Osaka Continental Hotel to a pulsating Berlin nightclub which cascades waterfalls down multiple storeys. If the success of other John Wick films can be narrowed down to a few superb sequences, then virtually every new scene in Chapter 4 is competing with the last in pure ambition and astounding visual style.

That Stahelski is capable of imagery and set pieces like this is only hinted at in previous John Wick films, and makes his future as a director beyond this series even more exciting.

Then there is the action choreography itself, transcending Stahelski’s passionate displays of mise-en-scène and infusing John Wick: Chapter 4 with a tactile, kinetic energy felt in every stunt and tracking shot. Nathan Orloff’s dextrous editing is certainly a highlight, but Stahelski is not afraid to sit with long takes during these fight scenes either. He and his entire cast commit to a level of practicality which is refreshing to see in an age of CGI spectacle, earning references to silent cinema genius Buster Keaton. Much like The General or Sherlock Jr, a film as brutally physical as this could have only ever been directed by an actual stunt performer who understands the incredible coordination of each set piece, creatively transcending mere back-and-forth blows between adversaries to incorporate fully interactive, constantly shifting terrains.

Clearly this is only the beginning of Stahelski’s love of cinema history though, with Chapter 4 going on to pay homage to noirs, westerns, martial arts movies, and even samurai films. These are more than just off-hand nods too, with the brand-new character of Caine playing on the trope of the blind, sword-wielding assassin, and refreshing it vibrant depth. That it is Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen in this part instils it with an even greater cultural authenticity as well, and further sets up an equal match for Reeves in physical combat.

There is real commitment to scenic backdrops all through John Wick, especially emphasising the dynamic lighting setups in virtually every set piece.

If the Marquis is God in Chapter 4, then Caine is often framed as a reluctant angel of sorts, fulfilling his obligations to take down Wick yet occasionally bending the rules to help him where he can. It is only fitting then that the Basilica of Sacré Coeur de Montmartre offers a heavenly location for the final showdown, and that Wick must first fight his way out of the underworld and up several flights of stairs to reach it. The imagery Stahelski brings to this painstaking endeavour goes beyond Christian theology, and continues to take on the hopelessness of Sisyphus’ eternal, uphill struggle from Ancient Greek mythology. Stahelski is more than just a crafter of visceral action sequences, proving himself in astounding sequences like these to be a storyteller firmly in touch with formal structure and symbolism.

Inspired symbolism blends with brilliant action in this Sisyphean struggle up the stairs towards the Sacré Coeur, ascending from the underworld towards the heavens.

Given the modern trends of franchise filmmaking tending towards a decrease in quality with each new sequel, it is unusual and exciting to see a series like John Wick invert that and end on such a cinematic high. Stahelski has a talented team behind him, with the most notable of all being Guillermo del Toro’s frequent cinematographer Dan Laustsen, but at this point there is no doubting his credentials as an auteur who is fully engaged with refining his artistic voice and talent. With its staggering set pieces and consequential narrative stakes, John Wick: Chapter 4 is simultaneously a model of franchise filmmaking at its most effective, and a confirmation of Stahelski’s well-earned position among our great modern action directors.

John Wick: Chapter 4 is currently in theatres.