Capsule Reviews: May 16 – 18

Michael Kohlhaas (Volker Schlöndorff, 1969) – 3.5/5

English-language adaptation of the Heinrich von Kleist novella, set in Germany during the ferment of the Reformation (early 16th century). Horse-trader Kohlhaas (David Warner) runs afoul of a local aristocrat who swindles him out of two prize horses. Subsequent events lead to the death of his wife (Anna Karina) and the retaliatory burning of the aristocrat’s estate until, ultimately, Kohlhaas becomes the outlaw leader of a rebellious peasant army. Schlöndorff achieves a kind of grungy authenticity, akin to Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac (1974), by making the utmost of location shooting – medieval towns and hilltop ruins alike stand in conditions of neglect and disrepair – and employing hand-held cameras and wide-angle lenses to heighten the verisimilitude. The brutal ending amplifies on Kleist’s, teasing out the narrative’s contemporary implications (especially for the revolutionary and countercultural movement even then on the wane) with its imagery of Kohlhaas’ crucifixion on an upended wheel.

Around a Small Mountain (Jacques Rivette, 2009) – 3/5

Rivette’s latest embodies all his trademark themes: art and artifice, truth vs. illusion, existence as essentially performance. Two strangers (Jane Birkin, Sergio Castellitto) meet on a rural road when he stops to assist with her broken-down car – she’s returning to a family-owned circus after an absence of fifteen years (owing to the death of her lover), and he’s en route to Barcelona but becomes intrigued (perhaps smitten) with her. As they circle around each other – the circle (as in circus ring) being the operant metaphor here, a magical space of danger and possibility – and engage in deepening interactions with the others members of the troupe, until the man is drawn into performing an abstruse clown routine (with distinct shades of Beckett) referred to only as “the entrance.” While this heady brew ought to make for a compelling narrative, somehow it never all comes together, the shreds and patches of a more engrossing story remain frustratingly abstract and diffuse. Perhaps the repetitive, refractive nature of the film is best captured by its original French title, which translates as 36 Views from Pic Saint-Loup, a massif in the Languedoc region of southern France often seen in the distance.

Man Hunt (Fritz Lang, 1941) – 3.5/5

Anti-Nazi thriller opens with a bravura sequence: On a bluff overlooking Hitler’s Alpine retreat, big-game hunter Walter Pidgeon decides to take a potshot at der Führer before being captured and tortured by the Gestapo. After that, it’s something of a mixed bag. Following a (too) miraculous escape from certain death, Pidgeon travels back to England aboard a Danish fishing vessel. These scenes, involving a young Roddy McDowell, commence the patriotic cheerleading, which grows even more strident in the film’s militant coda. Many of the scenes involving gamine Joan Bennett (and her none-too-convincing Cockney accent) come across as adamantly chaste, even patronizing. (If I had a nickel for every time Pidgeon refers to her as “My sweet, sweet child” and chucks her under the chin…) Livening things up, however, are a handful of nighttime scenes (capturing the damp and fog of the London streets with striking low-key lighting), a rousing pursuit through the London Underground and a riveting final confrontation between Pidgeon and Nazi thug George Sanders.

Gervaise (René Clément, 1956) – 4.5/5

Adaptation of Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir, from the director of Forbidden Games (1952), is the antithesis of the staid “tradition of quality” films the Young Turks of the burgeoning New Wave railed against. Clubfooted laundress Maria Schell ping-pongs between three unworthy gents – the philandering father of her children, the boozing roofer she subsequently marries and the political criminal she eventually falls in love with. As with any historical film, the devil’s in the details, and this film is rife with them, grounding the melodrama in acutely observed behavior and illuminating the unsavory underbelly of urban existence that Zola sought to capture in every obscene particular.

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About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
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