Tag Archives: Period piece

362. THE DEVILS (1971)

“There was no better director to learn from. He would always take the adventurous path even at the expense of coherence.”–Derek Jarman on Ken Russell

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Gemma Jones, Dudley Sutton, Michael Gothard, Murray Melvin

PLOT: Father Urbain Grandier is the charismatic spiritual and political leader of the independent city of Loudun; Cardinal Richelieu wants him replaced because he refuses to allow the city’s walls to be torn down. Sister Jeanne, Mother Superior of the town’s convent, is tormented by sexual dreams about Grandier. When Sister Jeanne confesses her fantasies to a priest, Richelieu’s men hatch a plot to frame Grandier as a warlock, and the entire convent is whipped into mass hysteria, becoming convinced they are possessed by devils.

Still from The Devils (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Father Grandier and Sister Jeanne, among many other characters in the film, were real people. Grandier was burnt at the stake in 1634 on accusations of practicing witchcraft.
  • The Devils was based on John Whiting’s play “The Devils of Loudun,” which itself was based on Aldous Huxley’s novel of the same title.
  • Ken Russell’s original theatrical cut ran 117 minutes, after the British censors removed an infamous 4-minute sequence known as “the rape of Christ.” The U.S. distributor cut an additional three to six minutes of sex and blasphemy out so that the film could be released with an “R” rating in the States, and that release became the standard version and the only one released on VHS. The longer director’s cut was not seen until 2004, thanks to a restoration effort led by . Russell’s director’s cut has never been issued on home video; the X-rated theatrical cut is the most complete version currently available. Portions of the “rape of Christ” scene are preserved in a BBC documentary called “Hell on Earth” (included on the BFI DVD).
  • A young designed the sets. This was his first feature credit.
  • The Devils is included in Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”
  • The contemporary arguments over the film became so heated that Russell himself attacked critic Alexander Walker on live television, hitting him on the head with a copy of his negative review.
  • Warner Brothers has steadfastly refused to release the movie on DVD, but they did eventually sublicense it to the British Film Institute for overseas release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Even with the “rape of Christ” scene excised, what sticks out in The Devils are the scenes of possessed nuns, some with shaved heads, whipping off their habits and cavorting in the nude, writhing, self-flagellating, jerking off votive candles, and waggling their tongues in an obscene performance. For a single, and singular, image that encapsulates the themes and shock level of The Devils, however, try the vision of Vanessa Redgrave seductively licking at the wound in Oliver Reed’s side when she imagines him as Christ descended from the cross to ravage her.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Crocodile parry; Christ licking; John Lennon, exorcist

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Nobody, but nobody, shoots a nun orgy like Ken Russell. Aside from a dream sequence or two, The Devils is a historically accurate account of a real-life medieval witch hunt—but Russell emphasizes only the oddest and most perverse details, so that the movie itself becomes as hysterical and overwrought as the frenzy it condemns. Truth, in this case, is at least as strange as fiction.


Original U.S. release trailer for The Devils

COMMENTS: Viewed from a great distance, The Devils is a classical Continue reading 362. THE DEVILS (1971)

320. A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013)

RecommendedWeirdest!

“I think I have worked out what God is punishing us for: everything.”—Friend, A Field in England

“So here’s to the mushroom family
A far-flung friendly clan
For food, for fun, for poison
They are a help to man.”

Gary Snider, “The Wild Mushroom”

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Reece Shearsmith, , Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope

PLOT: The English Civil War rages, and a group of deserters bands together. Through bribes, threats, and hallucinogens, an occultist’s agent induces a scholar, a soldier, and a simpleton to aid him in summoning his master, O’Neal. Once brought on to this plane, O’Neal forces the trio to seek and find a treasure of immeasurable value—under pain of annihilation.

Still from A Field in England (2013)

BACKGROUND:

  • A Field in England was the first major motion picture to be released simultaneously in cinemas, on DVD, video-on-demand, and broadcast television.
  • The film’s budget was a modest £300,000 ($420,000 US) and took only twelve days to shoot.
  • No females appear on screen throughout the film, though the eponymous “field” is voiced (in a manner of speaking) by a woman.
  • On the film’s release, a craft beer was made available to cinema-goers with the film’s informal tagline, “Open Up and Let the Devil In.”
  • A limited (400-count) special edition double-vinyl soundtrack album went on sale accompanying the film’s release. For the true fan, a handful of these soundtracks included a blade of grass purportedly plucked from the titular field.
  • The number “320” suggests a strong bond to the spiritual and occult world.
  • Giles EdwardsStaff Pick for the Certified Weird List.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Seeing as how the film begins with a warning about “flashing images and stroboscopic sequences”, there are any number of images that might qualify (though by their very stroboscopic nature, they may be more of a subconscious kind-of-thing). However, the film’s coupling of sinister madness and unlikely humor is perhaps best exemplified by the shot of five souls romping through the field while in search of the mysterious treasure. (Although an earlier scene with a “giddy” protagonist is impossible to erase from one’s mind.)

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Magic mushroom faerie ring; tableaux “frieze” frames; tent from Hell

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Much like the instrumental meal in the story, the movie’s ingredients all work together toward weird ends—individually they are weird, and together they are greater than the weird sum of their parts. The viewer is presented with a black-and-white period piece with amusing, earthy dialogue and hallucinogens in lieu of sweeping drama and battle scenes. Lightning-fast editing, nebulous exposition, and too many occult nods to count all crash together like an ill planet upon the unsuspecting viewer.


Original U.K. trailer for A Field in England

COMMENTS: We hear a man running breathlessly and see a wild Continue reading 320. A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013)

KEN RUSSELL’S VALENTINO (1977)

Of all the star-worshiping that went on during silent cinema, it is perhaps the obsession with Rudolph Valentino that is most mystifying today. When he died prematurely, at the age of 31, numerous fans were so distraught as to commit suicide. His funeral was besieged by thousands, and a legend was born when a mysterious lady in black began annually placing funeral wreaths on his tomb for decades to come. Valentino had such an impact on pop culture that everyone from to were influenced by him.

Yet today, there are relatively few Valentino film festivals or revivals, and when his films are seen (rarely), they will inevitably prove disappointments. Valentino never made a great film. In fact, most of them are dreadful. (In his defense, he didn’t make very many). Of course, someone will inevitably make the tiresome 21st century claim that this is true of most movies from the silent era, despite the fact that there are plenty of films from that period that have good writing, performances, direction and hold up even better than many films of the Fifties and later. We could attempt to produce examples of stellar acting in lesser films, however, this does not work with Valentino. Although his charisma scorches, his acting is extreme in its use of silent film cliches, mechanical and bizarrely exaggerated to the degree that it elicits amusement today as opposed to the near orgasmic reaction of his contemporaneous fans. Undeniably eroticized, his screen persona was also amoral; he was a rapist. Otherworldly, he doesn’t even seem human, which is perhaps why he is primarily known by name alone. It’s doubtful if many today would even recognize his image.

Rudloph Valentino
Rudloph Valentino as “The Sheik”

Sometimes, the reason for stardom is more for a colorful biography than an actual body of work (e.g. Tallulah Bankhead), but this isn’t necessarily the case with Valentino. His biographers contradict each other with bullet point details, which is to be expected since the star’s press kit was largely fiction. What we do know is that he was born in Italy and immigrated to the United States in 1913 looking for employment. Some reports have him working as a male prostitute, but that is widely disputed as well. He bussed tables and briefly found work as a taxi driver, which is how he met actor Norman Kerry, who convinced Valentino to try a career in the new cinema business. Valentino became an “overnight” star with 1921’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (although he had been doing small parts as exotic heavies in film for seven years), became a superstar with The Sheik later that same year, and became Continue reading KEN RUSSELL’S VALENTINO (1977)

LIST CANDIDATE: A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013)

A Field in England has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies of All Time. Please visit the official Certified Weird entry.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope, Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley

PLOT: During the English Civil War, a small band of deserters wanders into a large, empty field while searching for an ale-house. In that field, they unearth (oddly literally) a fifth companion, who turns out to be a domineering alchemist. He manipulates the four deserters into hunting for a buried treasure, leading them on a journey of dubious magic, self-discovery, and psychedelia.

Still from A Field in England (2013)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The last Ben Wheatley film I saw–Kill List–ended on a weird, brutally discordant note and it had its dark inexplicable moments, but I didn’t recommend it for the List because it felt too calculated and purposeful. A Field in England, on the other hand, is fully spontaneous, right up to the vaguely cyclical ending, and weirdness is its baseline. Those palatable touches of order and familiarity, like the vaguely heroic character arc and melodramatic villain, seem to spring wholesale out of the film’s twisted substrate; they serve, if anything, to orient and emphasize the weirdness, rather than undermining it. Because it is both random, and confident in its randomness, I submit A Field in England for consideration.

COMMENTS: A Field in England is a grimy, trippy gonzo costume adventure, one of the least heroic and most eccentric swashbuckler narratives I’ve been privy to. The story is so constrained, it’s almost cute: during the English Civil War, a small band of deserters wanders into a large, empty field where they are manipulated into hunting for a buried treasure. Matters of friendship, power, fear, life, and death ensue, and a loose, quirky hero’s story takes shape, though it’s driven more by suggestive leaps of happenstance than by fate or necessity.

Like Wheatley’s previous Kill List, A Field in England benefits from being a pastiche. It wears the heritage of historical adventure films on its sleeve, but it also has buddy-comedy and art-film elements, and it brings it disparate tones together admirably. One of its special accomplishments is to operate as an art-film while exhibiting a British comedy’s sense of humor. The dialogue and situational gags are dry and crass, and they serve to establish the five characters in a way that makes them genuinely endearing, even as we puzzle over what the hell is actually happening to them.

The five main characters have names, Wikipedia informs me, but I didn’t really pick up on them during the film. To me, they represented archetypes: the coward (Whitehead), the soldier (Jacob), the fool (Friend), the lackey (Cutler), and the evil mastermind (O’Neill). Of these five, Whitehead got all the most pivotal roles, and Field ends up being his story. His character arc provided a framework for all the other relationships and interactions, and though he didn’t have the funniest or most endearing moments, he drove all the key developments in the non sequiturish plot. Without Whitehead and his four boorish cohorts, the movie might have been almost unwatchable, but it actually went down pretty smooth.

As I said before, the reason this is an accomplishment is that the narrative logic of the film is genuinely random, driven by a sort of weird intuition with no respect for cause and effect. This can be attributed, at least in part, to the film’s hallucinogenic drug subtext, which led to some trippy, seizure-inducing sequences accompanying the major plot points. It only worked because the whole film had a foggy, disorienting quality, disconnected from its own reality, with an unstable relationship between dreamy detachment and visceral sensory amplification. The swing from one extreme to the other is epitomized in Whitehead’s psychedelic character climax, where he shifts from a sort of bleary, stupefied slow-motion degenerate into a potent force of nature, a raging hurricane-god rising up from the swaying of the wheat fields.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…unapologetically psychedelic in both tone and tempo… a film both Ingmar Bergman and Ken Russell could drool over.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BATHORY (2008)

AKA Bathory: Countess of Blood

DIRECTED BY:  Juraj Jakubisk

FEATURING, Karel Roden, Vincent Regan, Hans Matheson, Deana Horváthová, Franco Nero

PLOT:  Fictionalized chronicle of the life, loves, and political struggles of the infamous 17th century Hungarian countess.


WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Clashing cross-genre elements and facts interposed with fiction and fantasy create an oddball portrait of an already bizarre historical figure and her horrific crimes. If not tedious, the end effect is certainly weird.

COMMENTS: Bathory is a dreamy, odd mix of historical fact, fiction, speculation, and whimsy surrounding the life of notorious sexual serial murderess, Hungarian Countess Erzsébet Báthory de Ecsed (1560 – 1614).

At 141 minutes running time, this cut of the film is condensed from a three part TV miniseries. It’s a Slovakian film produced in the Czech Republic about Hungarian history, with British actors, and the mixed production values, uneven tone and ambiguous, confusing story make for an unusual, entertaining, but disjointed viewing experience. The sets and costumes are colorful and imaginative, yet in places smack of a television budget.

Relying heavily on speculation and fancy, Bathory‘s plot combines elements of mystery, thriller, historical drama, and Renaissance steampunk adventure. Part of the movie focuses on the Countess’s personal life, her youth, her marriage to a Hapsburg dynasty heir, and fictionalized romance with painter Merisi Caravaggio (who in real life, never traveled to Northern Hungary.) The story also surveys the politics of Bathory’s dynasty, the Hapsburg empire, their battles with the Turks, and the interplay of power posturings between Bathory and her Hapsburg in-laws. This comprehensive coverage is fine for a TV miniseries, but becomes tedious and complicated in a feature-length movie, especially given the film’s sojourn into fiction.

While some of the political and historical plot points in the film are accurate, others are not, and the remainder of the picture features a murky, often conflicted depiction of Countess Bathory which attempts alternate explanations for the gruesome legends about her. This aspect of the movie is deliberately ambiguous.

Bodies of mutilated teenage girls indeed pile up, girls are found captive in the dungeons of Csejte Castle, and Bathory is seen murdering a couple of servants. Conversely, it is indicated that conspirators drugged the Countess with hallucinogenic mushrooms, and her Gypsy mystic soothsayer, a secret Hapsburg confederate, had Elizabeth so brainwashed with suspicious medicinal potions and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that Bathory had no clear conception of reality. In other words, the filmmakers seem to be saying of her dreadful transgressions, “it wasn’t her fault.”

Bathory’s infamous bath of blood (drawn from her victims) turns out to be an innocent aquatic suspension of scarlet herbs. Or was the herb bath just a decoy to fool spies? The film hedges as if the producers are too timid to take a firm stance, yet they raise the question of whether long established historical facts are in actuality nothing more than trumped-up charges.

The Hapsburgs are depicted as doing their best to blame a string of mutilation killings on Bathory for political reasons, while fostering exaggerated Continue reading CAPSULE: BATHORY (2008)

CAPSULE: HOUSE OF PLEASURES (2011)

Souvenirs de la Maison Close; AKA L’Apollonide; House of Tolerance

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bertrand Bonello

FEATURING: Alice Barnole, , Iliana Zabeth, Noémie Lvovsky, Xavier Beauvois

PLOT: This drama follows the travails of a group of prostitutes in a belle epoque bordello.

Still from House of Pleasures (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: House of Pleasures sports a few stylistically odd and unreal scenes, including a stunner at the end that goes down as one of the strangest and saddest dream images ever committed to film. That single scene very nearly puts the movie into contention for the List, but despite its flirtations with surrealism Pleasures is ultimately more devoted to sorrow than weirdness. Still, it has enough strangeness and beauty in it to make it more than worth your while, if you can handle painfully pessimistic, slow-paced anti-erotic tragedies.

COMMENTS: House of Pleasures begins with a courtesan’s dream, a dream whose elements recur and form the boundaries of the story. The movie itself is dreamy, languid and unhurried, depicting a world where women in flowing gowns and elaborate underwear spend evening after evening lounging on chaises with gentleman callers, drinking champagne, smoking cigarettes, and eventually visiting the upstairs chambers for kinky lovemaking sessions. Sex buyers and sellers alike drift hazily through the curtained corridors of the maison like the smoke rising off an opium pipe. For these women every day is the same as every other: a never-ending party where they must always serve as the accommodating hostess. They dress in the finest silks and drink champagne from crystal goblets, but for them pleasure is a business, a daily grind. They can only be happy in the brief moments when they are together, away from the clients, eating meals, playing cards, sharing a Sunday picnic by a river. We learn the rules of the Parisian bordello game fairly quickly: the ladies make money seeing their clients, but the madame charges them outrageous fees for room and board so that they always owe the house money. Their only realistic hope of escape is that a client will fall in love with them and agree to pay off their debts and marry them; it happens very rarely, but often enough to give them the spark of hope they need to keep going. The wealthy clients have other interests besides matrimony: making the women pretend to be dolls or geishas, or tying them to their beds for rough play. The authorities tolerate the brothels, but they won’t intervene if a landlord decides to charge usurious rent, or if a john decides to take a knife to one of the girls. The women’s daily existences would be rough enough, but writer/director Bonello ruthlessly piles on the tragedies: violence, disease, disfigurement. He’s particularly cruel to Madeleine, the closest thing to a main character in this ensemble piece, who is known variously as “the Jewess” and, in a nod to an Expressionist classic, “The Woman Who Laughs.” She is made to suffer betrayals and humiliations almost beyond imaging. Bonello’s occasionally surreal stylistic choices—the black panther who regularly visits the establishment with his master, a libertine freak orgy, the way that Madeleine’s dreams and memories replay over and over throughout the film, destroying the continuity of time—alienate some viewers. But whether these flights of fancy always succeed or not (I could have done without the anachronistic music, particularly a scene set to the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin”), they provide a necessary counterbalance to the otherwise unbearable reality of these women’s lives—much like the opium pipe one of the prostitutes favors in her downtime. It’s a sad dream gilded in glamor, and the tears it elicits are strange indeed.

House of Pleasures could be seen as a feminist “anti-prostitution” movie, but it is more complicated than that. As the house is facing closure, the madame realizes that the fin de siècle has arrived and the age of the elegant, tolerated bordello is passing: “love is out on the street, no one can stop that.” A bitter modern coda suggests that, as tragic as their circumstances were, the women in House of Pleasure may have been better off than their contemporary counterparts. The only uplifting element in these enslaved women’s lives was the friendship and the support system that came from living together communally; today’s streetwalkers suffer the same indignities as their forebears, but without the camaraderie. While deeply sympathizing with the plight of these women, Bonello also recognizes the inevitability of prostitution, perhaps suggesting indirectly that the proper solution to the problem is neither criminalization nor see-no-evil “tolerance,” but actual humane working conditions.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Strictly for art-house fans impervious to things bizarre, offensive and indulgent.”–Doris Toumarkine, Film Journal International (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Max von Sydow, , Nils Poppe, Bengt Ekerot,

PLOT:  A disillusioned knight and his cynical squire return to a 14th century Sweden ravaged

Still from The Seventh Seal (1957)

by the Black Plague; Death comes for the knight, but he entices the Reaper to play a game of chess for his soul.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LISTThe Seventh Seal is undoubtedly a great movie, but its weirdness is in doubt.  In fact, trying to decide if this film is strange enough to make it on the List almost makes me feel like Antonius Block wondering if there’s a God out there.  As an existential allegory, the film has a significant amount of unreality in its corner; although much of the movie is a starkly realistic portrait of medieval life, Bergman often ignores logic in minor ways when necessary to make his larger metaphorical points.  He also incorporates the fantastic in one major way, by making Death a literal character in the film, a “living, breathing” character who not only plays chess but also poses as a priest and chops down a tree with his scythe.  That’s not much weirdness to go on, though, and the best external support I can find for considering the movie “weird” is the fact that it’s been (inaccurately) tagged with “surrealism” on IMDB.   I’m torn; the weird movie community will need to chime in on this one.

COMMENTS: The Seventh Seal has a big, imposing reputation as a masterpiece of world cinema, but if you haven’t seen it yet, you may be surprised to find that most of what you think you know about it is wrong.  In the first place, it’s not nearly as gloomy as you may have heard.  True, every frame of the film is suffused with the foreknowledge of death—Bergman is very in-your-face with his message that you are going to die, and it’s going to be horrible—but the grim scenes alternate with lighthearted, comic ones.  The entire dynamic between the drunken smith Plog, and his unfaithful wife Maria, and her unlucky paramour Scat, for example, has a tone of bawdy Shakespearean comedy.  The idyllic scenes where the knight enjoys a meal of milk and wild strawberries with the juggler Jof and his family have a warmth that temporarily drives away the chill—even though there is a skull peering over the Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957)