The latest viewing included 5 films, 3 from Germany and 2 from France. The directors were -- Werner Herzog (2 movies), Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Eric Rohmer & Claude Chabrol.
Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972, Herzog): Rating 9/10
I never saw a Herzog film until Grizzly Man came out in 2005/06. As it turned out, that was the wrong point to start watching his work. Not until I saw his first feature, the beautiful Signs of Life, did I understand the importance of Grizzly Man. And now having seen Herzog direct (a brave feat in itself) Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, do all the pieces start to fall in place. Now I can appreciate if there was anyone who had to make sense of Timothy Treadwell and his love of Grizzly bears, it had to be Herzog. A common thread in all these 3 Herzog films is that they are great character studies of men who are on the verge of insanity; these men who inhabited different time periods believe they are on the point of greatness, yet they often tip over the fine line that divides greatness from insanity. But Herzog also makes beautiful poetic films and all these movies have an easy going rhythm to them. He loves to let the camera discover magic by having long uninterrupted shots, and at times, leaving the camera running, just a little bit longer to discover that something extra.
The story of Aguirre is simple enough -- the Spanish head to Peru & Amazon to find the city of gold and riches -- "El Dorado". But the journey is packed with dangers -- the climate, unknown forest, native tribes lurking with their spears and poisonous darts. And when there is an internal mutiny among the group, well the outcome is obvious. Man vs Nature is not really a contest in non-Hollywood movies (Nature always wins) but (Man vs Man) vs Nature is even more of a bleak situation. But yet, Herzog has crafted a movie that is absorbing to watch. While the recent Apocalypto ends before the Spanish hit the New World shores, Aguirre.. gives us a closer look at Spanish attempts to penetrate the New World deeper. Aguirre (Kinski) wants to emulate the Spanish discovery of Mexico by carving out his own riches in the Amazon. He convinces his men and even a priest to drive further and further up the Amazon looking for gold. But when the men start dropping dead like flies, the remaining crew label Aguirre as a madman. But Aguirre does not care -- he is lost in his dreams even though in reality his raft is dominated by 400+ monkeys and all his men are dead. The final shots in the film are sheer beauty and as Herzog admits on the DVD commentary, those shots feel into his lap. He happened to come across 400 monkeys at the Peruvian airport, where they were about to be checked onto the plane. Herzog made a false health claim and managed to take away all 400 monkeys. He then placed them on the raft with Kinski and remained there only with his camera man, Thomas Mauch to film the drama. In the movie, when 50 or so monkeys jump from the raft and appear to be escaping in the river, they really are escaping. Herzog and Mauch just stood back and filmed the chaos unfold and what happens is something that scripted film can't ever do. Klaus Kinski is so emersed in his character that he improvises the scenes with the monkeys perfectly.
It is hard to believe that Herzog took all the actors and crew into the dangerous Amazon terrain back in the early 70's, with such a limited budget and managed to craft such a fine work. In that regard, this film is another example of a time when directors were strove to make movies not for commercial sake. Coppola was another director in the same decade who stuck past terrible weather and persevered to make Apocalypse Now.
The Enigma of Kasper Hauser (1974, Herzog): Rating 8/10
Kasper Hauser is in some ways similar to John Merrick (labeled Elephant Man in Lynch's film) -- both men are outcasts to a society which finds it amusing to watch and poke fun at the two men. Yet, both individuals could not be as physically different from each other. Kasper looks normal but since he was abandoned at birth and never raised in a proper family, he never learned the rules and words required to exist in a society. John Merrick was by birth considered a physical anomaly and not considered appropriate for society. As chance has it, both characters end up as circus attractions -- while Kasper is called a riddle, John is labeled as freak. But when both men are rescued and given proper education, the two turn out to be quite learned. As their minds are nourished with the arts, they start having vivid dreams -- Kasper's dreams involve far off places such as the Sahara and even the enchanting temples of Angkor War. However, just like in The Elephant Man, the men's past comes to haunt them and eventually leads to their demise. Like John Merrick, Kasper leaves the physical world in his sleep.
The opening credit sequence is a beautiful shot of the crop field swaying in the wind. There are a few other such picturesque shots found in the movie but in the end, the movie is about Kasper and society's rigid rules to mould every person in their shape.
Claire's Knee (1970, Rohmer): Rating 8.5/10
Oh the evil games men and women play! This story may have shades of Dangerous Liaisons all over it, but it is not as sinister. On a vacation, Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy) encounters Aurora, an old friend. Aurora is writing a novel and wants Jerome to play a guinea-pig for her story's sake -- she wants Jerome to seduce the innocent 16 year old Laura. Jerome is a month away from getting married but after years of being with women, he has lost all interest in women -- sex does not interest him. So he attempts to play the game, but young Laura is not as nieve as she seems. She understands the game and in turn tries to make up her own rules with Jerome. Jerome is quite bored by the whole thing but when Claire (Laura' step-sister) arrives, he is intrigued. Claire already has a boyfriend but Jerome wants Claire to break up with her oaf of a lover. The end result is a complicated match of desires and feelings. The title hints to the body part that Jerome identifies as a weakness in Claire, and something he can use to gain her trust. Overall, an interesting character study of men and women, and the numerous emotions and feelings that relationships contain -- trust, jealousy, possession, freedom, friendship, love and physical desire.
Les Bonnes Femmes (1960, Chabrol): Rating 7/10
Are all men predators? Chabrol's 4th feature starts out by introducing us to a quiet motorcyclist -- he seems to be lurking and waiting for the women to appear. And when the woman do come out of the theatre, two loud predators emerge as well (Marcel & Albert). It is clear that Marcel and Albert are after women -- Marcel is the vocal smooth talking guy, while Albert is the quiet yet equally lustful man. They get in their car and chase two women -- Jane and Jacqueline. After they manage to get the two women in the car, they go out for dinner and a cabaret. All the while, the motorcyclist quietly follows. During the cabaret, the true animal nature of Marcel and Albert comes out. Jacqueline eventually gets away but Jane is left behind and Marcel & Albert have their way with her (even though it is not shown, it is hinted). The movie then focuses on Jane and Jacqueline's day to day life -- job, trips to the zoo, theatre and restaurant. Every now and then, we do see the motorcyclist following Jacqueline quietly. In the film's final third, when Marcel and Albert land up a public swimming pool and start bothering Jacqueline and Jane, the motorcyclist ends up saving the day by chasing them away. The quiet motorcyclist is Andre and he has been in love with Jacqueline all along but was waiting for the perfect opportunity to talk to her. The two engage in a romantic affair, all the while one question keeps coming up -- is Andre a good man or a predator as well?
There are some moments of pure cinematic energy to be found in this film, like the chaos & elegance of the cabaret sequence. But there are a handful of needless scenes which add nothing to the film. Overall, a dark and chilling look at the predatory nature of men -- can anyone really be trusted?
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972, Fassbinder): Rating 6/10
If Claire's Knee was about the game between men and women, this Fassbinder film is about the games that women play with each other, in work, society and in love. Petra Von Kant is an aging fashion designer who falls for a young 23 year old model. However, as the title indicates, there is no happiness for Petra Von Kant. During all her bitter episodes, Petra's secretary, co-designer and slave maid, Marlene, quietly watches. Marlene's eyes sometimes hint at her disbelief at some of Petra's choices but she quietly obeys everything she is told to do. The entire film takes place inside Petra's bedroom and was adapted by Fassbinder from a play by the same name. Interesting for some of the ideas about love and society, but overall, not very gripping.