Black Girl (1966)

Ousmane Sembène | 1hr 5min

When Diouana is first picked out by ‘Madame’ as a nanny for her children back home in France, she can hardly believe her luck. Among a crowd of women desperately scrambling for a job on the streets of her Senegalese village, she is the only one not pushing her way to the front, trying to beat the others out. At first the decision to pick her, the quiet, patient one, seems gracious. Clearly Madame sees the virtues of a good worker in her, she believes, even if she does not have any experience. In hindsight, it is an obvious red flag – of course a bitter, domineering woman like Madame was going to choose whichever Black woman looks the most subservient. Confusion, regret, and loathing boil within Diouana over the course of her slavery-adjacent employment, and through her voiceover memoirs, Ousmane Sembène leads us into the heart of her suffering.

In its acute examinations of racial oppression, Black Girl stands proudly as a tentpole of both African cinema and Sembène’s directorial career, evoking the stylistic sensibilities of the French New Wave in its handheld camerawork and location shooting in Dakar and Antibes. Visually, Sembène defines both cities by their architecture, recognising their colonial parallels while drawing a sharp distinction between his camera’s immersion in either. Back home in Senegal, Diouana walks through streets as a free citizen, set against gorgeous backdrops of streetlamps and bridges. In France, the urban environment merely manifests as views from the windows of Madame and Monsieur’s home. As she looks out at the city drenched in darkness, she recalls the promise she was given for a better life.

“The mistress told me: ‘You’ll see, Diouana, there are lovely ships in France.’ Is France that black hole?”

It quickly becomes apparent that the French dream of liberty and equality is not reserved for people like her, as Sembène trades out Dakar’s streets for the closed-off interiors of the family home. He stages his scenes here with a constant sense of oppression, in one shot letting the family relax in the foreground with only Madame’s feet in the frame up on a table, while Diouana is wedged between walls in the background, shrunken and subjugated by the boxes drawn around her.

When it isn’t the physical infrastructure dominating the frame, it is the condescending, disapproving expressions of white people, caught through vulnerable point-of-view shots that land us in Diouana’s eyes. In a pair of extended flashbacks, she recalls the set of circumstances that led her servitude, and with her employers taking it upon themselves to respond to her family’s letters, she comes to feel even more cut off from her own past and identity. All that is left is that tiny prison, which quickly becomes her entire world.

“Back in Dakar they must be saying ‘Diouana is happy in France, she has a good life.’ For me France is the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom, and my bedroom.”

The only mark Diouana has on the space is a single African mask, standing out in Sembène’s black-and-white photography as a dark imprint against the blank wall it hangs upon. It is a gift she brought to her employers, though one which they accept as little more than a decorative museum piece, cheapening her very presence and contribution to the household. As her treatment grows worse, so too does her depression, and her contempt for Madame eventually erupts in a struggle to reclaim that mask she had so courteously offered them.

The foreshadowing Sembène lays out in Diouana’s anguish makes her suicide no less upsetting. It is at this point that her pervasive voiceovers that have accompanied every step of her journey cease, thus ending our primary vehicle of insight into her mind. Within the broader French society, her death manifests as a mere headline in a newspaper, read by people relaxing on beaches. For Madame and Monsieur, it is similarly nothing more than a disturbing disruption to their privileged lives. Not long after, the bathroom that Diouana slit her throat in is entirely spotless, all traces of her existence and demise completely erased from their home.

In depicting the ease with which the racial trauma of Black Girl is swept under the rug, the post-colonial allegory that Sembène puts forward fully comes to fruition in its final act. Monsieur’s voyage to Dakar to return Diouana’s belongings to her family and pay them out is a weak attempt at compensation, and one that they have no trouble seeing through. Much like the young boy who dons her old mask and stalks Monsieur through the streets, so too does the memory of Diouana and France’s colonial history at large haunt him with a lingering guilt. In this tensely edited sequence, there is no end to his running. It can be wiped from physical records, but memories of the atrocities committed against the African people do not fade.

Black Girl is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Playtime (1967)

Jacques Tati | 1hr 55min

Playtime opens with a chaotic jazz track of frenzied drums and an electric keyboard against a cloudy sky, though it won’t be until we reach the final act about ninety minutes in that we will come across anything close to this anarchic again. The Paris of Jacques Tati’s slightly futuristic France is a highly curated assortment of rigid lines and boxes, fastidiously fitting workers into cubicles, citizens into apartments, and tourists into buses. His regular silent buffoon, Monsieur Hulot, doesn’t mean to disrupt this tidy, bureaucratic order, but letting a force of innocent curiosity loose in a city of inefficient processes and absurd designs does not bode well for either party.

In real life, the sprawling city set was dubbed Tativille, and pushed Playtime’s budget so far that it claimed the record for the most expensive French film ever produced. This isn’t surprising either – anything less simply would not have satisfied Tati’s extravagant metropolitan vision, built out of large, meticulous set pieces as sharp in their visual design as they are in their social satire.

Tati’s magnificent use of architecture as character rivals Michelangelo Antonioni – the main difference being everything in Playtime is an artificial set, uniting under a singular comedic vision.

By breaking his film up into vignettes that wander from one set piece to the next, Tati keeps a lax approach to traditional plotting, allowing for an organic exploration of his bizarre, monochrome vision of Paris. This is a city of metal and glass, shiny and sleek in its smooth textures, but also completely soulless. The charm of old-fashioned French culture only exists in small glimpses – a street florist contributing a few pops of colour to an otherwise drab sidewalk, and an elusive reflection of the Eiffel Tower in a glass door as it swings open. Everywhere else in this environment of harsh angles and parallel lines, there is barely a curve to be found. For Tati, this is an absolute triumph of set design and architecture, relying on these purely visual elements to tell a story of innocent romance and mindless conformity that dialogue alone cannot convey.

Glimpses of old-fashioned Paris in the street florist and Eiffel Tower reflection, though both are swallowed up by the harsh metallic greys of the city.

It is just as much his immaculate framing of the city as it is his monumental production design which isolates his characters from each other, as there are so many vertical dividers between windows and walls that it is almost impossible for anyone to stand anywhere without being boxed in. His deep focus photography serves well in capturing the breadth and scale of these colossal sets, but it serves a comedic purpose too in the staging of his visual gags, making full use of the frame in all its layers and obstructions. As Hulot sits at the end of an extra-long hallway in an office building, the man he is waiting to meet appears down the other end and begins to make the long journey from the background to the foreground. And then, in awkward silence, we wait some more. Very gradually, the man gets larger, and yet the comically long corridor just keeps on stretching the scene into oblivion.

An impressive commitment to the staging of visual gags, using the full depth of the frame to send up the inefficient layout of the office building.
Wall-length windows become glass boxes, containing Hulot inside rigid, artificial structures and making for some superb displays of set design.

Elsewhere in this office building, Tati confuses a pair of identical doors that lead to very different locations, observes a call operator confuse himself with a switchboard of buttons and dials, and discovers a labyrinth of cubicles ergonomically designed to cut its workers off from all human contact. So much striving for progress has effectively neutered this society’s functionality, to the point that what should be an epicentre of human innovation has become an absurdly convoluted playground. Should one manage to escape from it, as Hulot eventually does, there is no guarantee they will make it back inside the same building – all across this city are identical structures one could easily end up in instead.

A room of grey office cubicles, trapping its workers in claustrophobic boxes and Hulot in a confusing labyrinth.

It is in one of those buildings where Hulot comes across a trade exhibition of various pointless inventions. A broom with headlights attracts a small crowd, and a door that can slam silently is on show too. Perhaps the greatest display though is ‘Thro-Out Greek Style’ which turns ancient Greek columns into flip-top bins, tastelessly commercialising history for cheap profit. If we were to theorise that it is perhaps just this corner of the world that has succumbed to modernity, we are proven wrong when Hulot comes across a series of travel posters advertising famous international destinations, amusingly representing each one with the same dreary city buildings we have already seen here in Paris.

The inventiveness of Tati’s gags are hilarious – ‘Thro-Out Greek Style’.
Travel posters to USA, Hawaii, Mexico, Stockholm, each one represented by the exact same drab building.

“Ultra-modern” is the word citizens proudly use to describe the impersonal style of their architecture and interior design, though there is nothing that looks particularly comfortable about it. Perhaps public buildings can get away with conforming to the same cookie-cutter moulds, but the stacking of identical apartments on top of each other like glass display cases saps the personal lives inside of anything that makes them remotely unique or intimate. Even as Monsieur Hulot enters one of these flats to visit his friend, Tati keeps his camera on the outside, observing the grid of windows from a distance where we can see neighbours going about their own ordinary, unexciting business. At times the camera is positioned in such a manner that we can’t even see the walls dividing the apartments, creating the illusion that their inhabitants are conversing with each other in a unified space. We know better than that though – such a connection between strangers is but a dream in this world of arbitrary barriers.

Apartments designed like display cases, each one as impersonal and generic as the next.
Tati hides the wall between these apartments, and you could swear it looks like these people share a single room. His indictment of modern society’s arbitrary divisions is scathing.

Our only hope that some quaint European charm might live on lies in the converging paths of Monsieur Hulot and Barbara, an American tourist desperately searching for the France of her dreams. As they find each other in a chic, modern restaurant, its geometric and architectural perfection falls to pieces around them, and Tati turns this ordered environment into one of unbridled chaos. It starts small with a floor tile that keeps getting stuck to shoes, revealing a small structural flaw in this room held together by glue, and then the glass door at the front smashes to pieces, forcing a staff member to hold the handle in place and mime opening it for guests. A spiral neon sign on the ceiling leads drunk customers around in circles, pretensions of restraint go out the door when the jazz musicians are replaced by an erratic, impromptu performance, and then, with one swift motion, Tati collapses a ceiling decoration, marking his infrastructure with a higgledy-piggledy arrangement of wooden planks and exposed wires. This uncontrolled mess is the perfect meet-cute for what appears to be the only two people in Paris who long for simpler, scruffier times.

Keeping up appearances after the glass door has shattered, holding the door knob in place for no real purpose.
Chaos erupts across Tati’s mise-en-scène in a tangled mess.

With his slapstick gags and production design carrying so much of the storytelling, Tati’s scripted dialogue remains notably minimal. Rather than functioning to convey detailed information, it simply melds into the sound design where every other aural cue is accentuated. The loud clacking of shoes on hard floors and the constant hum of fluorescent lights tell us just as much about these environments as the nasally drawl of American tourists or the slick sales pitch of a creatively bankrupt entrepreneur.

Of course, cinema is a visual medium though, and Tati recognises it as such in his exacting formal precision, never failing to put his rigorously designed mise-en-scène front and centre. That he can draw out such playful beauty from a society so void of individuality speaks to his craftsmanship as a comedian and filmmaker, especially in the closing minutes where he leads a balletic dance of cars along the city streets, circling roundabouts in never-ending loops and bouncing in time to carousel music. For all its light-hearted social satire, Playtime remains an intricately stacked construction of gags and set pieces, as monumentally ambitious as it is methodically delicate.

Vehicles move like amusement park rides in the final minutes, as Tati turns the city into a carnival set on top of carousel music.

Playtime is currently streaming on SBS On Demand and The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Franklin J. Schaffner | 1hr 52min

Before we see any of the creatures promised in the title Planet of the Apes, we spend a good thirty minutes wandering around a mysterious landscape of dunes, waterholes, and open fields inhabited by mute humans. Charles Heston leads the way as George Taylor, an astronaut from 1972 and captain of a space crew that has crash landed on an unknown world some two thousand and six years into the future. Its environments and civilisations are built slowly and thoroughly, and besides the use of some clumsy camera zooms that insist on pushing our attention in the most obvious directions, Franklin J. Schaffner’s majestic style of epic filmmaking is well-suited to the material. It is when we first see the rustling stalks of corn and an army of apes on horseback bursting through the vegetation that Planet of the Apes moves into truly exciting territory though, whisking us away to a city of prehistoric stone structures and non-human primates.

The introduction of the apes thirty minutes into the film, riding through the corn field on horse back while the humans scatter like animals.

This entire set is an impressive feat of production design for Schaffner, cleverly combining elements of caveman civilisations and modern technology to craft a world that can’t be placed in any familiar time. Rudimentary labs, courtrooms, churches, and streets carved from rock become a playground for his boisterous narrative of chases and escape attempts, though the apes themselves who are in control of it all possess a far greater intelligence than those that Taylor is familiar with. There is a similar integration of primitive and contemporary sounds in Jerry Goldsmith’s discordant score of exotic percussion and orchestral instruments, hauntingly underscoring the environment’s otherworldly qualities.

Tremendous design of Ape City, carved from stone like some advanced caveman civilisation.

The culture that has evolved here is also one that has been thoroughly tipped on its head. The re-invention of popular monkey-centred idioms that place humans in subservient positions can be somewhat glib at times (“Man see, Man do” is one notable offender), but otherwise this subversion of status is one that Schaffner cunningly incorporates all through the structure of this upside-down civilisation. Hunters take proud photos with their human game, theories abound that apes evolved from “dirty” men, and most fascinatingly, cultural conflicts between faith and science are a constant point of contention between different factions of the city’s inhabitants. In these parallels, Schaffner makes his point bluntly but powerfully – the advanced intelligence of any species does not make them inherently special, but rather exposes their ties to their primitive, evolutionary roots.

Schaffner uses his marvellous sets to create frames and dividers in his images, each one building on his characters’ relationships.

Then again, perhaps there is a single inherently human quality that separates one genus of primates from another. Schaffner paces his narrative well in his final act leading to this discovery, transforming Planet of the Apes into a western of sorts in which a band of allied apes and humans venture across a harsh desert to uncover the “Forbidden Zone”, where it is said one can find evidence of a pre-ape civilisation. The warnings of the apes’ religious leaders fall on deaf ears, describing man as a “harbinger of death” who makes “a desert of his home.”

As Taylor trudges along an empty beach towards what he believes is his freedom, Goldsmith’s eerie score continues to play beneath with a nervous anticipation. The discovery that they eventually reach at the other end is simply gut-wrenching, not just because of the anguish that reverberates through Heston’s voice, but Schaffner’s framing of the shot itself, slowly bringing those iconic spikes on the Statue of Liberty’s crown into view from behind, before we cut to a wide and realise the full, bleak context. There are no close-ups or frantic cutting to be found here at all. In a few stark, simple shots, humanity’s desire for ultimate dominance is uncovered as the trigger for its own destruction, the pieces of this mystery fall into place, and Schaffner effectively immortalises Planet of the Apes as an immortal touchstone of cinema history.

A gut punch of an ending, and an immortal image of humanity’s lost hope.

Planet of the Apes is currently available to stream on Disney Plus, and to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

My Night at Maud’s (1969)

Eric Rohmer | 1hr 51min

Jean-Louis’ night at Maud’s is a test of faith brought about by chance. Where his newest love interest, Françoise, is a blonde Christian who lives traditionally, Maud is a dark-haired, secular, modern woman, playfully pushing his rigid boundaries. It is important to Eric Rohmer’s philosophical drama that she is not some antagonistic seductress though, looking to ruin or corrupt his perfect moral standard. After all, his sympathies with his God-fearing protagonist aren’t so clear-cut either, with Jean-Louis being a man struggling to reconcile his conscious actions with his faith. It is rather Maud’s transgressive incitement which motivates him to seriously consider his own life as it pertains to his values, as well as the erratic universe which pushes his fate in whatever fickle directions it may choose.

Mirrors in Rohmer’s mise-en-scène as several paths collide by pure chance.

With the character of Vidal, a Marxist university lecturer more aligned with Maud’s worldly sensibilities than those of his theological friend, Rohmer rounds out this four-person chamber drama. It is a dense script of mathematical, social, and ethical quandaries which drives My Night at Maud’s, and not one that affords its audience any time to lag behind. Lengthy conversations take place inside apartments and cafes, as Rohmer stages different combinations of character interactions without ever bringing them all together in one location. Many of these discussions are not planned, but rather emerge organically from crossings of unlikely paths, thus immediately setting the stage for an in-depth debate over the mechanics of probability.

“Our ordinary paths never cross. Therefore, the point of intersection must be outside those ordinary paths. I’ve dabbling in mathematics in my spare time. It would be fun to calculate our chances of meeting in a two-month period.”

From there, conversations regarding Pascal’s wager open up, considering the risk that human’s take with their lives in deciding whether or not to believe that God exists. It is a gamble that both Jean-Louis and Vidal play safely, though within different contexts. The latter, being an academic, chooses to believe that history holds inherent meaning, as it is only then that his life’s work can hold value. For Jean-Louis though, moral choice is an imperative he wishes to keep putting off, and it is that “half-heartedness” which Maud skewers him for.

Excellent blocking in Maud’s small apartment – she remains confidently rooted in one position while the others move around her.

Such heavy philosophical dialogue rarely hampers Rohmer’s cinematic staging of this drama, particularly in Jean-Louis’ pivotal conversation with Maud that sees him uncomfortably move around her apartment, while she lies still in bed. As he oscillates back and forth in this scene, the temptation becomes real, eventually leading to his decision to sleep next to Maud – though categorically not sleep with her. Later, Rohmer blocks Françoise in a similar position and sets up a counterpoint between both characters, though one that strikes a different note when she offers him a different room.

Symmetry in Rohmer’s compositions, expressing the order and neatness of his characters’ mathematical and philosophical fascinations.
A stunner of a frame in the very first scene, and Rohmer returns to similar compositions a few times in isolating Jean-Louis behind glass windows and doors.

The clean order of Rohmer’s symmetrical compositions is consistent with the mathematical precision of the screenplay, but in his framing of characters behind glass windows and doors he also creates a cold distancing effect. In this environment where roads are slippery with ice and sidewalks are dusted with snow, such camerawork makes for a fitting choice, as if silently encouraging these characters to break down barriers and find warmth with each other amid the winter weather. This frigidity is also somewhat offset by the festive lights and decorations that smatter scenes with religious undertones, grounding these philosophical discussions in the Christmas season where Christians congregate in churches and meditate on their faith. With this in mind, Rohmer sets in motion the first tangential crossing of paths between Jean-Louis and Françoise at a mass, as he eyes her profile from across the congregation.

Snowy landscapes and festive decorations. Rohmer very purposefully timed this shoot to align with Christmas, and it is important for both the cold atmosphere and spiritual meditations.

It isn’t long after this that he becomes convinced he will one day marry her. When Maud comes in, she is not simply drawn up as a seductive obstacle to this goal manifesting, but Rohmer rather uses her openness to expose Jean-Louis’ hypocrisy. He is a man concerned with his own respectability, and is willing to forget about his own history that carries contradictions with his faith. So too does Françoise come to a similar conclusion, asking that neither of them speak of their pasts again when their shameful misbehaviours surface.

Confessions atop a mountain, overlooking this tremendous view of the city in the midst of winter.

Perhaps though it is this course of action which grants the greatest happiness, as we see Jean-Louis and his now-wife, Françoise, run into Maud five years later – by chance of course, the same way almost every other meeting in the film has taken place. At the moment that Jean-Louis realises that Françoise was in fact the woman who slept with Maud’s husband and thus set in motion their divorce, he once again chooses to bury the past in favour of a blissful marriage.

It is telling that Rohmer chooses to stage this scene against a sunny beach rather than the snowy urban landscapes that have dominated the rest of the film, revealing a fresh warmth in Jean-Louis’ life that has failed to manifest up until now. In true philosophical fashion, My Night at Maud’s isn’t ready to deliver firm answers to its academic quandaries, and yet in this narrative built on a series of formal happenstances Rohmer also crafts an absorbing examination of fate, free will, and history as they fall under theological and secular perspectives.

An extreme shift in setting for the last scene, moving from the dead of winter to a summery beach.

My Night at Maud’s is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Contempt (1963)

Jean-Luc Godard | 1hr 43min

During his peak of activity in the 1960’s, Jean-Luc Godard took a brief respite from sending up beloved Hollywood genres to aim his incisive wit towards the “gods” of storytelling themselves, be they Greek poets or contemporary filmmakers. The tension between the ancient and the modern is evident in Contempt as writers, directors, producers, and actors argue amongst themselves, trying to determine the motivation that drove Odysseus’ epic ten-year adventure across the eastern Mediterranean. It is indeed a curious thing that so many ancient myths take the emphasis off the internal journeys and onto the external, and yet this allows for some universality in which individuals can imprint themselves on these legendary figures. In the case of these artists making a film adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, it is the perfect story upon which they can map their own relationships and ambitious endeavours.

Playfully postmodern with ancient Greek art and mythology. These cutaways of coloured in sculptures against a blue sky set them like gods of storytelling.

Cutaways of Greek god statues with their eyes and lips coloured in with reds and blues run through the film, as Godard’s low angles powerfully frame them against the sky. In fact, Contempt’s mise-en-scène may be his most classical we have seen to date, even as Godard’s primary “French” colours keep bursting through in its set dressing and lighting. Back at the apartment of Brigitte Bardot’s actress, Camille, and Michel Piccoli’s playwright, Paul, the occasional bright blue chair or red towel worn like a toga pierces the beige, modern architecture, marking the breakdown of their relationship as a tale just as fresh as it is old, woven into the archetypes of human storytelling. Is it sexual jealousy that has driven them apart, or rather a loss of respect for Paul’s integrity as an artist? Was Odysseus’ journey driven by a faithless wife back home, an indifference to her growing contempt for him, or something else altogether?

Colours and staging in this mid-section of the film, breaking down a troubled relationship.

Unable to agree on the source of their own woes, Camille and Paul are driven to the extreme ends of Godard’s compositions, divided by huge amounts of negative space in the walls and door frames of their accommodation. Even when the two finally come face to face, it is as if they can’t stand to be captured in the same image together, as Godard’s camera instead shifts side-to-side in close-ups of their profiles. This ebb and flow between casual conversation and shouting takes up a full half hour of the film’s modest 100-minute run time, letting them attempt some sort of direct expression of their feelings before returning to the film set for the remaining third.

In the villa where the shoot is taking place, several of Contempt’s characters venture up a cascade of steps to a flat rooftop, overlooking the same Mediterranean Sea which played host to the hero of Homer’s epic poem. Godard knows what he has with this gorgeous set piece as he returns to it over and over, further isolating his characters in long shots as lonely, modern idols wandering a corner of the Earth so famous for its stories. The potential to contribute to the mythos of humanity is right there for the taking, but for those who degrade it with their visions of dishonest, crude entertainment, it ultimately holds nothing but contempt.

Arguably Godard’s greatest set piece, this villa rooftop looking out over the Mediterranean Sea like a platform to the heavens.

Contempt is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel.

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

Mario Bava | 1hr 24min

An artistic paradox like Blood and Black Lace is hard to reckon with – aside from the awful screenplay, performances, and dubbing, Mario Bava crafts a visually spectacular slasher film that places an eerily uncomfortable tone and atmosphere above all else. Fourteen years later, Dario Argento would take inspiration from Bava’s lighting, colours, and camerawork to create a flawed masterpiece plagued with similar issues in Suspiria. Although Blood and Black Lace does not reach the same transcendent heights, the audacious, bloody style of this early Italian giallo film remains a singularly jaw-dropping accomplishment of horror filmmaking, disturbing our senses as much as our sensibilities.

When a masked killer starts knocking off models in a Roman fashion house one by one, a mystery emerges around whose identity lies beneath that stretched piece of white fabric and fedora, as well as a diary that seems to hold dark secrets. Narratively, Blood and Black Lace falls in the Psycho lineage of slasher films, particularly in the dual identities that reside within a single, featureless figure. Visually though, Bava’s film has more in common with Michael Powell’s psychological thriller Peeping Tom, as vividly clashing colours wage wars across his expressionistic mise-en-scene.

Shocking jolts of red bursting through the mise-en-scène, especially in these unusually vivid mannequins – like humans drenched in blood and sex.

There may not be a more appropriate setting for such a transgressive display of stylistic bravado than the fashion house of creatively brutal murders which Bava presents us with here. Aggressively eye-catching aesthetics are just as important to him as it is to this ensemble of models and designers, with its green, pink, purple, and blue lighting setups turning dressing rooms and hallways into a Technicolor fever dream. Sometimes these lights pulse rhythmically along with the suspenseful pace of the scene, like a silent ticker counting down to the next murder, and in one shot Bava even backlights the silhouette of an outreached hand against a wall, turning the killer into a Nosferatu-like figure. The boldest visual choice here though is by far the prominent red palette bursting through in unusually vibrant mannequins, curtains, costumes, and set decorations. Its significance isn’t hard to pick out in a narrative that so blatantly features bloody murders and sexual perversities.

A Nosferatu-like hand reaching out across a wall – expressionism in its visuals and references.
Bava’s camera wanders from room to room, soaking in the lighting and production design with eerie anticipation.

Supplementing Bava’s outrageous production design is his rolling camera, tracking through his dangerously stunning sets with an air of anticipation about it, at times quietly swinging from side to side as if keeping an anxious lookout. It is even active in the masterfully creative opening credits right at the start, moving across frozen tableaux of the cast striking poses like the models they are playing in the film, or perhaps like the disposable figurines Bava himself is using them as in his violently murderous plot. It is evident that he didn’t cast them for their talent, after all.

Few films have opening credits this beautifully inventive, as Bava’s camera tracks across these actors striking poses.

Much like Hitchcock there is also a distinct objectification of the human body in the camerawork, not so much gazing with sexual intent than to give us the cold perspective of a killer. With equal fascination, Bava also lingers on ordinary items given extraordinary significance within the narrative. As several characters eye off and swirl around a handbag containing the scandalous diary like a slow seduction, his point-of-view shots come at the object from several angles at a time, uneasily anticipating one of them to snatch it away.

A Hitchcockian focus on objects of desire, and a particularly effective shot here keeping the fashion show in the background of it all.

In the hands of almost anyone else, Blood and Black Lace could have easily been an utter failure. There is little that is redeeming about this screenplay of absurd logic leaps, and yet the audacity and tension of Bava’s expressive cinematic style is impossible to argue with. This is a giallo director who loves his pulp and lifts it up on the highest artistic pedestal, and in this dramatic inconsistency we find a wholly unique vision of horror as a genre that, for better and for worse, can reach across the full spectrum of cultured and trashy tastes.

Blood and Black Lace is currently available to stream on Tubi.

Kes (1969)

Ken Loach | 1hr 52min

There is a quiet, simple dichotomy at the heart of Kes to which the complexities of life in its 1960s Yorkshire working-class community are boiled down. Ken Loach approaches this not with the intent to distort reality, but rather to filter it through a singular perspective – for fifteen-year-old Billy Casper, every force in his life is on one side of a tug-o-war between subjugation and freedom. Sometimes people surprise him and reveal nuances he doesn’t expect, but those instances aren’t so common as to majorly impact his worldview. For the most part, his teachers, employment officers, and family are boxing him into rigid structures he doesn’t quite fit. In his young falcon, Kes, he doesn’t just find a genuine passion. He finds a set of values he can aspire to.

“Hawks can’t be tamed. They’re manned. It’s wild and it’s fierce and it’s not bothered about anybody.”

Using children as tragic representations of innocence in unjust societies has been at the core of neorealism since the Italians took to it in the 40s, but with the additional symbol of Kes as a being of pure, fearless independence, Loach sets up magnificent stakes to Billy’s emotional arc. As he stands on the precipice of adulthood, being forced to consider manual labour and office jobs he has no interest in, we recognise the immense fragility of his innocence, and the significance of Kes in preserving that.

Wide open fields play host to this bonding between a boy and his animal companion, a very different look to the dirtied school yards and buildings.

The time we spend in open fields with the only sign of civilisation being the town shoved far in the background are the most freeing in the film. The image of Kes flying through the sky without confines makes for a striking contrast to the constant suggestions that Billy go into coal mining after school, submerging himself beneath the ground in confined spaces, though these offerings of escapism are only ever fleeting. Loach is at his strongest when depicting the gritty detail of this blue-collar South Yorkshire town, letting its smokestacks and industrial structures tower over Billy in some of the film’s strongest compositions, while he lingers in the foreground trying to find peace among secluded bushes and trees. The impoverished but narrow-minded community that fill in this harsh, rundown setting are just as vivid in their authenticity, the thick brogue of these mostly non-professional actors rendering some lines almost incomprehensible.

The industrial mining structures looming in backgrounds – a raw sense of setting in superb compositions.

Within the rigorous education system of 1960s England, Loach surrounds Billy with a staff of teachers as regressively strict as they are sadistic, furiously wondering why their disciplinary tactics are not motivating the students to succeed. Child actor David Bradley is a consistently strong force all through Kes, but it is especially in these interactions where we see the struggle of a boy disillusioned by the path they are trying to set him on. When adults lecture and reprimand him, there is a visible emotional detachment on his face, and when he is forced to speak, he can’t bring himself to make eye contact. He is not looking to cause trouble, but he is ready to defend himself against accusations of laziness, and like any other teenage boy he is easily distracted, climbing goal posts during P.E. and daydreaming in the middle of class.

The students around him also assert their independence in small, rebellious acts, selling cigarettes between themselves even as the headmaster rails against their misbehaviour and complains about their generation. For the P.E. teacher, disobedience is simply an excuse to enact brutal and degrading punishments on kids who make easy targets, turning on the cold water while Billy is in the shower after class and refusing to let him out.

Loach’s visual style doesn’t often hit you with jaw-dropping compositions, but it is minimalistic and practical – authenticity in the streaks and poor maintenance of worn-down buildings.

In the school’s English teacher though, there seems to be a rare glimpse of hope that Billy might just be understood by someone else the way he understands Kes. Mr Farthing is not a character we expect such genuine compassion from, and yet as he makes an effort outside of school hours to visit his student and learn about his interests, we also begin to see a brighter future for Billy. But such optimism is not destined to last long in this stifling environment. Loach is dedicated to cinematic realism, but he also recognises the power that his symbols hold, and in bringing the two together, the cruel unpredictability of life ultimately destroys any faith we place in the latter. In watching this boy’s youthful idealism seep away with each harsh blow, Kes becomes a heartbreakingly bitter drama, raw with the pain of realising that there is no great liberty in becoming an adult – just another few decades of soul-sucking, arbitrary social structures.

Kes is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel, and to rent or buy on iTunes and Amazon Prime Video.

A Woman is a Woman (1961)

Jean-Luc Godard | 1hr 25min

Perhaps the last time a major Hollywood genre had such a significant re-invention before 1961’s A Woman is a Woman was the year before, when Jean-Luc Godard deconstructed the gangster film with his self-reflexive, uniquely French sensibilities in Breathless. It isn’t surprising that he was so quick to move on given his improvisational style of filmmaking, challenging traditions of perfectionism with reckless abandon, and thus moving world cinema into a new age along with other French New Wave auteurs. Though Le Petit Soldat was shot directly after Breathless, it was this loving pastiche of Golden Age movie-musicals that was released first and became his follow-up effort, splashing a vibrant world of primary colours and nonsensical gags up on the screen to prove that the success of Breathless was no accident.

In relating this postmodern melange back to the movie-musical genre though, there is a biting dissonance at play – notably few songs can be found here at all. Instead, soaring strings, swinging pianos, and swaggering saxophones offer instrumental interludes between lines of dialogue, giving the impression that these characters are always on the verge of breaking out into a song. Or maybe their conversations of poetic banter are the songs, just as Godard’s jump cuts between frozen tableaux are equivalent to dances, translating conventional musical expressions into the ever-evolving language of cinema.

Godard finds the cinematic substitutes for theatrical expressions, here turning a dance into a montage of frozen poses in tableaux.

In bringing these creative choices directly to our attention, Godard puts forward a challenge in our ability to absorb ourselves completely into the lives of his characters, especially as they monologue, wink at the camera, bow to the audience, and verbalise their actions as stage directions. The highly-curated artificiality of classic musicals is also evoked in the production design of Angela and Emile’s apartment, bursting with flashes of scarlet in costumes, set dressing, props, and even a single red rose standing out in a bunch of white ones.

Bowing to the audience – self-aware on every level.
A deliberately artificial curation of production design in the reds, far removed from the location shooting of Breathless.

On one level we can read this lack of naturalism as a deliberate denial of entry into this world, but at the same time, this is Godard – he’s not going to take that away from us without at least turning it into a cheeky gag. In one scene, Angela flips an egg up past our line of sight, walks away to answer a phone, and then catches the egg when she returns, subverting all laws of logic with a throwaway non-sequitur. It is natural for a film flinging so many formal experiments out there to occasionally miss, and yet with its whimsically self-conscious attitude to its own structure, A Woman is a Woman remains remarkable for how seldom this happens.

A fair share of this creative genius must be credited to Anna Karina too though, who in her first released collaboration with Godard matches his magnetic and self-aware style filmmaking with a strikingly similar attitude to acting, playing the camera with her bright, expressive eyes and bold costuming. She also carries the few musical numbers of the film, singing acapella at the strip joint which her character, Angela, works at. As beautifully vivid neon colours shift across her face caught in close-up, she holds our gaze, the camera transfixed by the mesmerising performance she is delivering right into its lens.

Gorgeous neon colours flashing across Karina’s face as she sings to the camera in close-up. Nicolas Winding Refn would surely have to be at least somewhat influenced by this.

While Karina commits to each of Godard’s wildly creative tangents and farcical fourth wall breaks that seem to answer the questions milling around this screenplay about whether this film is a tragedy or a comedy, she also takes the time to reign herself in for quieter, more vulnerable moments. As Angela begins to consider a life beyond her image as a sex symbol, her insecurities around her womanhood begin to surface, and questions of maternity become more immediate. She yearns for a state of authenticity in which doesn’t feel the need to present herself as feminine, but also doesn’t feel the need to push back against that as some sort of statement.

“I think women who don’t cry are stupid. They’re modern women trying to be men.” 

Relationship troubles between Angela and Emile, though Godard keeps us at a distance.

But it is not a melancholy, contemplative tone Godard wishes to leave us with. There may be tragedy in Angela’s struggles, but she lives firmly within a world of comedy. Just as Breathless closes out on a piece of French wordplay that doesn’t translate so well to English, so too does A Woman is a Woman wrap up with a brief conversation playing on phonetics that could be easily missed by foreigners.

“Angela, tu es infâme.” (Angela, you are shameless)

“Non, je suis une femme.” (No, I am a woman)

As much as Godard adores American culture in all its extravagant, musical spectacle, it is his love of the French language which gives this playful, fourth-wall breaking screenplay its spark of inspiration. In its last seconds as the camera tilts up from the post-coital banter between Angela and Emile, the word “Fin” shines in neon lights through the window, this absurd, vibrant world getting in the final word on its own structure with a cheeky smile and a wink.

A quippy ending like so many great musicals, then a camera tilt up to reveal the final frame.

A Woman is a Woman is not currently available to stream in Australia.

Marnie (1964)

Alfred Hitchcock | 2hr 10min

Alfred Hitchcock was getting clumsy as he moved into the later stages of his illustrious career, or at least in the case of Marnie, inconsistent. One could also say the same for Tippi Hedren, though she never exactly reached the same great heights. The result of their collaboration here is a film that is certainly flawed, but which still successfully weaves a captivating mystery through Marnie Edgar’s traumatic triggers, all to discover why she compulsively steals, reacts viscerally to the colour red, and is shaken so deeply by thunderstorms.

She is first introduced to us as a sum of her actions and body parts – a stolen yellow handbag, a yellow key, hands ruffling through wads of cash, hair dye washing down a sink, the point of a heel, and of course, a gloriously dramatic face reveal as she whips her newly-dyed blonde hair back, shedding her old disguise. Hitchcock’s camera follows her around with a beguiled fascination, slyly tracking the back of her head through office spaces, lifting into magnificent crane shots as she loses control of her horse running across open fields, and in moments of panic, tracking in on her face as if to close the world in around her.

An excellent introduction to this character, tracking her from behind and remaining in close-ups of her action until the face reveal.
A fantastic crane shot as Marnie loses control of her horse on this open field, Hitchcock lifting his camera to dizzying heights.

The first time we see Marnie’s aversion to the colour red, it is when she catches sight of some gladiolas in a vase. Later, she faints when accidentally dripping some red ink onto her white outfit, and each time Hitchcock flashes red across his frame, enveloping her in a mindset where there is nothing else but that which causes her deep terror. Its manifestation rarely takes a single form, but simply in associating the colour with different objects and ideas, Hitchcock layers Marnie’s aversion to it with implications of romantic passion, blood, and later when she hallucinates a thunderstorm flashing red lightning through the room, the presence of physical danger.

The frame flashing red whenever Marnie’s triggers appear, a formally repeating motif tying her inextricably to the colour red.
The storm flashing red lightning, a hallucination that further builds out Marnie’s unstable psyche.

Perhaps this is why Hitchcock dresses her predominantly in cool colours, as she tries to maintain an icy distance from others. Serving a parallel purpose to this is her thieving, allowing her to indirectly interact with the world while keeping up a barrier. In an expertly composed wide shot within an office building, Hitchcock splits his frame down the middle with a wall that isolates Marnie through a doorway off to the right, trying to crack a safe. On the left-hand side, a janitor slowly advances towards the camera, leisurely mopping the floors, and with neither realising the other’s presence, the dramatic irony is thick in the air. Though she narrowly escapes in this incident, she isn’t so lucky when wealthy publisher Mark Rutland sees through the façade. In his intrigue, he decides to solve the mystery of her compulsive habits and bizarre triggers, becoming a bridge (though certainly a troublesome one) between her and the outside world that she has strived to avoid.

Hitchcock often rightly gets credit for his ability to create tension from camera movements and editing, but here the frame is completely static, and he lets his blocking of actors speak for itself.
A short, sharp cutaway of Marnie’s heel falling to the ground as she tries to make her silent escape, caught in an unexpected canted angle.

Mark is somewhat of our vessel down this winding path to discover the single, unifying explanation behind Marnie’s erratic behaviours, though Sean Connery also has no qualms about playing him as a bit of jerk. Despite this selfishness, Hitchcock frequently binds us to his observations of Marnie as a subject of fascination, and when she briefly goes missing on a cruise ship, his panicked run through its hallways and across its decks proves to be a great opportunity for Hitchcock to build out the intricate architecture of the space, shooting him against low ceilings and down narrow hallways that take on the appearance of a claustrophobic labyrinth.

Mark running through this labyrinth of corridors caught in low angles, closing in around him as he searches for a missing Marnie.

And indeed, we do eventually get answers, though unlike so many of Hitchcock’s greater films these revelations leave us hanging on an unfinished note, as if he is not sure what to do with this information. It certainly isn’t helped by Hedren’s overwrought handling of Marnie’s final breakdown immediately preceding this moment either. It is rather Hitchcock’s ability to make us lean forward in moments of unbearable intrigue and tension that turns this film into an enthralling study of compulsive behaviour, rotating through visual motifs that come to define the troubled mind at its centre. There may be a great deal more consistent psychological thrillers out there, but the dramatic unravelling of one of Hitchcock’s greatest characters gives it a power that so many others barely even touch.

Hitchcock returning to his famous dolly zoom to send us into this flashback, warping the proportions of the entire frame.

Marnie is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Jacques Demy | 2hr 5min

In the small French city of Rochefort, seven hours outside Paris, musicians, painters, dancers, and carnies idle around, longing after whimsical dreams they believe will manifest elsewhere. That anyone would want to leave this pastel-coloured paradise seems absurd – where else could one bump into Gene Kelly walking down a pristine street, or have their likeness randomly painted by a mysterious, dreamy stranger? It is telling that the departure of Delphine, a beautiful young dance teacher, also becomes a deadline for her to finally find the man she has been seeking this whole time, and the question of whether the two entwined paths will meet becomes a source of enchanting suspense. Little do these men and women realise how close their romantic ideals are, even as they remain just barely out of sight.

The central predicaments which plague this ensemble of characters seem to be the inverse of those which haunt Lola, the first in Jacques Demy’s Romantic Trilogy, where the ghosts of old lovers trap men and women in wistful, nostalgic memories. The Young Girls of Rochefort possesses some yearning for the past, but it is predominantly towards the bright, hopeful future that our characters direct their attention, as they hang onto pieces of art and music that evoke their creator’s essence. Lola and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg certainly both revel in the exuberance of expressive musical numbers, and yet there is no bittersweet edge present here. Instead, there is a wonderfully formal use of dramatic irony in the multitude of coincidences that keep bringing these sweethearts close enough to touch, only to let them finally collide in marvellously grandiose expressions of love.

The all-white music shop makes for a wonderful set piece several times, but especially in this swooning romantic finale between Gene Kelly and Catherine Deneuve.

The Young Girls of Rochefort opens with what might as well be a musical warm-up for both performers and director alike, as a caravan of carnival trucks arrive in town atop a cable ferry. This slow crossing of the river provides the perfect chance for the travellers to jump out and stretch in synchronicity to the overture, though the actual landing heralds the first major dance number of the film, and an introduction to Rochefort itself – a city where orange trucks, pink fire hydrants, and blue window shutters burst forth in bright urban landscapes, and where vibrantly dressed strangers accompany each other in leaps and twirls down sidewalks with joyous exuberance. Few other filmmakers have proven as thorough an understanding of colour theory as Demy, whose compositions move beyond photographic and into the realm of truly kinetic cinema through the interweaving of choreography and rich production design.

Demy is a perfectionist when it comes to compositions of colour and movement in stunningly choreographed musical numbers.

On top of that, Demy’s camera floats airily through this space, as we witness early on when it lifts up from the town square into the window of a dance and music studio, where our two main characters are finishing up a class. Delphine and Solange Garnier are a pair of twins “born in the sign of Gemini”,an auspicious omen that grounds their very existences in coincidences and good fortune. After observing the fair being set up outside, the two suddenly turn and snap to the camera, and with that sudden shift they launch into the opening musical number as a manner of introduction. The days of songs emerging organically from narratives are gone – like so many other auteurs of the French New Wave, Demy is reinvigorating his chosen genre by acknowledging its artifice, letting his actors directly address the camera as if to invite us into their vivid lives.

Symmetrical framing of the twins who can only be distinguished by their clothing and hair colours.
Simply gorgeous attention to detail in the colours of this city and its inhabitants.

Despite this blatant disregard for movie-musical convention, The Young Girls of Rochefort could not be a more jubilant expression of Demy’s love of the genre. These stylish, vivacious films certainly carry the potential to wrestle with deeper psychological quandaries, and there is even a nod to this sort of darkness here in a jarring subplot regarding a violent murder, but even such tragedies cannot exist without simply being brushed aside as the result of romantic passion gone astray. Heartbreaks only ever belong in the past for these men and women, and second chances are handed out to those who wait with patience. In theory, this hearty belief in the inevitability of destiny takes a good deal of power out of the hands of these characters. But as Demy envisions them onscreen, the lovers who inhabit this small, French town are simply caught up in some remarkable force of romance greater than themselves, inspiring in its artistic expressions of dance, music, and outrageously beautiful colours.

So perfectly curated, everything from the ties to the window shutters.

The Young Girls of Rochefort is available to stream on Stan, Binge, and Foxtel Now.