Il Posto (Ermanno Olmi, 1961) – 5/5
Olmi, who worked extensively in documentary films throughout his career, carries that format’s impartial aesthetic over to his depiction of Milan’s corporate dehumanization and vapidity. Following a young man – clearly a semi-autobiographical character – from his bureaucratic entrance tests through temporary placement as a mail delivery boy to ultimate “success” via a place in an office, Olmi also manages to capture the frustrations and disappointment of first love. The ending, a pathetic scramble for “place” (moving up one in a line of desks after ten years’ service) inside one of the bureau’s offices, gives a haunting glimpse into the young man’s so-called future.
Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948) – 5/5
Widely considered synonymous with the Italian Neorealist movement (alongside Rossellini’s Rome, Open City ), De Sica’s portrait of a poor-but-noble movie poster hanger Ricci – whose bike, a necessary factor in his newfound employment, is stolen by a gang of thieves – still holds up as a social document, largely because in the main it avoids the blatant sentimentality that would lessen later films’ impact. The plural in the title, however, refers to the desperate lengths the man will go to in order to replace his precious possession – attempting to steal another man’s bicycle, Ricci is caught and humiliated in front of his young son.
Perfect Love (Catherine Breillat, 1996) – 4/5
Sex Is Comedy (Catherine Breillat, 2002) – 3/5
Anatomy of Hell (Catherine Breillat, 2004) – 4/5
Perfect Love – its French-language title ends with a heavily ironic exclamation point – opens with the aftermath of a gruesome sex murder, shot on cruddy video (apparently an anonymous crime scene technician), then doubles back to chronicle the course of a doomed May-December romance. Breillat examines, with nuance and unflinching honesty, the power struggles, petty grievances and, finally, humiliating betrayals that lead up to Love’s final, brutal events.
Comedy is a companion piece to Breillat’s earlier Fat Girl (2001), delving into self-reflexivity with a behind-the-scenes recreation of that film, rechristened Scènes Intimes, intended to explore not only the machinations (abuse, really) the director professes to find necessary on occasion in order to motivate her actors, as well as the knotty power dynamics associated with being a woman director in a predominantly masculine profession. The film’s centerpiece is an extended “making-of” the earlier film’s central seduction – the young man persuades the maiden that anal sex is the ideal way to prove her affection while maintaining her virginity – reconstituted through role reversal, the woman director (Anne Parillaud) “taking the part” of the boy, a canny subversion of gender stereotypes. Nevertheless, on the whole, the film wavers between self-criticism and self-promotion. In other words, the point here remains, as Breillat’s stand-in claims with regard to filming the lead actor’s massive prosthetic cock, “to show and not to show.”
In Anatomy, “not to show” isn’t an option. Following in the footsteps of Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976), Breillat delivers her most explicit film yet, an infernal fable whose setting is the confines of the fair sex’s flesh, as much as it is an isolated house by the sounding sea. Those troubled waters prove a clear metaphor for the varieties of feminine fluid this film is awash in. Make no mistake: The unsimulated sex scenes are far from prurient. As in Oshima’s film, the point here is that insatiable desire – to the extent that the phrase isn’t simply a tautology – leads inexorably to excess, blurring the boundary between sex and death. Breillat lends these events the disconcerting whiff of regret, sorrowful intimations of paradises lost.
Port of Shadows (Marcel Carné, 1938) – 5/5
Le Jour Se Lève (aka Daybreak, Marcel Carné, 1939) – 5/5
Carné’s contributions to the “Poetic Realism” sensibility of the late 30s are among its highpoints. Both films star Jean Gabin and both exude the movement’s distinctive air of doomed romanticism. In Port, Gabin plays a soldier gone AWOL, who winds up quite literally at the end of the line – the fog-shrouded port city of Le Havre – where he finds himself ensnared in a web of lust, desire and murder, caught between “human centipede” Michel Simon and sadistic crybaby Pierre Brasseur, two of the most compelling “heavies” to be found in prewar, proto-noir.
Jour opens with an unseen murder: the camera lingers outside an apartment door, while within we hear the sounds of an argument followed by the report of a gun. A man emerges and tumbles down the stairs. When the police turn out in force, they trap the perpetrator (Jean Gabin) in his room. Then the film flashes back to reveal the tangled love affairs that led to his act of frenzied jealousy. The film’s final images remain among the most potent finales in film history.