Archive for the ‘Foreign Films’ Category

moodFew filmmakers capture the beauty and heartbreak of unrequited love like Wong Kar-wai. His innovative, emotionally charged films feature themes of longing, love, loneliness, and the nature of time and memory. These themes figure prominently in one of his best films, In the Mood for Love.

Set in 1962 Hong Kong, the film opens with new tenants moving into a crowded and lively apartment building. Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) is a journalist and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) is a secretary at a shipping company. Both are married, but they are frequently left alone since their spouses work late or travel for business. Aside from their introduction when they moved into the building, their initial encounters are polite but fleeting.

While Chow and Su seem to have happy and stable marriages, they secretly suspect their spouses of infidelity. Eventually, Chow and Su determine that their spouses are having an affair with each other. Hurt and saddened by this discovery, they meet to discuss the affair. What begins as a clandestine meeting between betrayed spouses soon blossoms into friendship as Chow and Su discover a mutual love of martial arts serials. They begin collaborating on stories, but their friendship becomes the subject of gossip among their neighbors. Chow and Su do not want to be like their cheating spouses, so they keep their friendship strictly platonic; however, as time passes they slowly begin to realize their feelings run far deeper than friendship.

A lot of the action takes place off-screen, which shifts the narrative focus to the main characters’ reactions to the affair. Chow and Su’s spouses are only heard in a few brief scenes and have no scenes together, leaving Chow and Su to reconstruct the affair from a few scattered clues and how they imagined their spouses initiated the affair. These scenes are especially well-acted by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, whose performances capture the repressed longing under their characters’ desire to maintain propriety. Chow and Su rarely touch and maintain a discreet distance when they’re in public, but their connection is intensely romantic.

The film is visually stunning with a soundtrack that complements the movie’s themes and the relationship between Chow and Su. The colors pop with intensity, from the deep red of a curtain blowing in an empty room to the blues and greens of Su’s elegant cheongsams. The memorable soundtrack features classic songs from Nat King Cole and contributions from composers Michael Galasso and Shigeru Umebayashi.

Elegantly structured and beautifully filmed, In the Mood for Love is an emotionally resonant story of two lonely people discovering an unexpected connection.

In the Mood for Love is in Cantonese and Shanghainese with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for In the Mood for Love

Read Full Post »

bridesmaidA man discovers there’s more to his girlfriend than meets the eye in The Bridesmaid, Claude Chabrol’s adaptation of Ruth Rendell’s 1989 psychological thriller.

Philippe Tardieu (Benoît Magimel) lives in a small French city with his mother, Christine (Aurore Clément), and younger sisters, Sophie (Solène Bouton) and Patricia (Anna Mihalcea). He’s begun a promising career as a contractor and frequently offers support and advice to his family.

As the film opens, the family is in a period of transition: Sophie is engaged and Christine is dating Gérard Courtois (Bernard Le Coq), a recently divorced businessman. Eager to make a good impression, Christine invites her children to dinner at Gérard’s home and gives him an unusual present from the family’s garden – a bust of the Roman goddess Flora. The dinner goes well, but Gérard abruptly moves away, leaving behind the statue and a heartbroken Christine. Shortly after Gérard’s departure, Philippe, who never wanted to part with the statue, returns to his house to retrieve Flora.

At Sophie’s wedding, Philippe meets bridesmaid Stéphanie “Senta” Bellange (Laura Smet). Although they exchange little more than pleasantries during the ceremony, Senta follows Philippe home, where she declares her love for him and tells him that he’s her destiny. Beguiled by her intensity and her uncanny resemblance to Flora, Philippe begins an intense and passionate affair with the mysterious Senta.

In the days that follow, Philippe gets an intriguing, and occasionally unsettling, glimpse into his new girlfriend’s eccentric world. She claims to be a theatrically trained actress who’s worked in film, but Philippe is unable find a single play on her bookshelf. Her family owns an elegant mansion yet she prefers to live in the basement. She lavishes him with love and attention but she’s possessive and has a quick temper.

Senta also has a macabre fascination with death; as their relationship deepens, she suggests that they prove their love by killing a stranger. Philippe is initially horrified at the request and believes she would never actually kill someone to prove her love for him. Nevertheless, he brings her a newspaper article about an unsolved murder and tells her he’s the killer, hoping this will satisfy her. When Senta follows with a detailed account of a murder she’s committed, Philippe begins to wonder if his girlfriend is simply acting out a morbid fantasy or if she’s really a killer.

In The Bridesmaid, Phillipe and Senta’s desires and the compulsions that drive them are key elements of the plot and Chabrol teases them out slowly and methodically. The film moves at a deliberately unhurried pace, with much of the action taking place off-screen. This is a clever way of highlighting the ambiguous nature of Senta and her possible crimes; she’s eccentric and tells Philippe a number of outrageous stories, but is she a cold-blooded killer? The leads are well-cast. Benoît Magimel brings charm and sincerity to the role of Philippe while Laura Smet’s cool intensity hints at the darkness that lies underneath Senta’s declarations of love for Philippe.

The Bridesmaid was Chabrol’s second film version of a Rendell novel. In 1995, he released La Cérémonie, a chilling adaptation of her mystery A Judgment in Stone (1977). Although The Bridesmaid is a bit more understated than La Cérémonie, it is an equally effective adaptation of Rendell’s work.

The Bridesmaid is in French with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for The Bridesmaid

Read Full Post »

runA young woman has 20 minutes to save her boyfriend in Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (1998), an exciting German thriller that explores themes of time, fate, and love.

Lola (Franka Potente) receives a call from her boyfriend, Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu). He’s worried and scared. Lola was supposed to help Manni deliver a bag containing 100,000 Deutsche Marks to Ronnie (Heino Ferch), a mobster; however, she failed to meet him, leaving Manni no choice but to take the subway. During the ride, Manni panics when he sees a police officer. He gets off the subway, leaving behind the bag of money. He has 20 minutes to come up with 100,000 Deutsche Marks or else Ronnie will kill him. Lola tells him not to worry; she will meet him and they’ll figure out a way to get the money. Desperate, Manni tells her that he’s prepared to rob a nearby supermarket if Lola doesn’t show up. Lola urges Manni to wait for her, and then she thinks about possible sources of money. After considering several possible options, she decides to ask her father, a bank manager, for the money. With no time to waste, Lola sprints out of her apartment and spends the next 20 minutes running through the city in a frantic attempt to get the money in enough time to save Manni.

Will Lola find 100,000 Deutsche Marks and save Manni’s life? Anything can happen in the course of 20 minutes, and Run Lola Run presents three possible outcomes to this scenario. The same basic sequence of events unfolds with each iteration of Lola’s run, but subtle differences and twists of fate alter the resolution to Lola and Manni’s dilemma.

A fast-paced and entertaining exercise in style, Run Lola Run takes a simple and straightforward premise and embellishes it with surreal animation sequences, rapid-fire editing, and a surprisingly tender love story. The movie is only 81 minutes long and Tykwer keeps the story tightly focused; there’s not a wasted scene in the film. Although the scope of the film is limited to Lola’s run, brief interludes between the scenarios establish how deeply Lola and Manni care for each other. In these scenes, they discuss their love and their fears of what might happen should one of them die. As Lola and Manni, Franka Potente and Moritz Bleibtreu bring a wonderful intensity to their roles that makes their characters’ predicament all the more urgent.

Run Lola Run is an energetic thriller and a clever meditation on the vagaries of fate.

Run Lola Run is in German with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for Run Lola Run.

Read Full Post »

ELEVATORLouis Malle’s 1958 crime thriller Elevator to the Gallows opens with a deceptively ordinary telephone conversation.

Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) and Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) appear to be a pair of lovers innocently planning a passionate rendezvous. Their ardor is palpable and their sentiments are almost poetic. “I won’t leave you, Julien,” Florence tells him, her eyes brimming with tears. “Without your voice, I’d be lost in a sea of silence,” Julien replies. Then the conversation takes an ominous turn. They make plans to meet later that evening at a café once Julien removes the one obstacle standing in the way of their happiness—Florence’s husband and Julien’s boss, Simon Carala (Jean Wall), a wealthy arms dealer.

Julien carries out his plan with calm and calculating efficiency. A former Foreign Legion parachutist, he uses his military training to secretly enter Simon’s office. The men have a brief confrontation before Julien shoots Simon, staging the scene to look like a suicide. Julien slips out of the building the same way he entered and conceals the evidence before getting in his car. As he prepares to leave the office, he glances up and discovers he’s left behind a critical piece of evidence. Julien races back into the building to retrieve the incriminating item; however, as he’s riding up in the elevator, a maintenance worker turns the power off, trapping him between floors. Shortly after Julien goes back to the office, his car is spotted by a young couple, Louis (Georges Poujouly) and Véronique (Yori Bertin). Louis has a criminal record, but that doesn’t deter him from stealing Julien’s car, taking Véronique along for the ride. Later that evening, the couple drives past the café where Florence and Julien planned to meet. Florence sees the car speed past the café and believes that Julien has run off with another woman. While Julien struggles to find a way out of the elevator, a despondent Florence wanders the streets of Paris looking for him. Meanwhile, Louis and Véronique continue their crime spree in Julien’s car. They know Julien and his background, and in addition to stealing his car, they check into a hotel under the name Mr. and Mrs. Julien Tavernier. This scheme sets in motion a series of events that could separate Florence and Julien forever.

Elevator to the Gallows is a well-constructed thriller that moves at a brisk and tense pace. Instead of relying on surprise plot twists to generate suspense, Malle effectively uses the consequences of the characters’ actions to heighten the tension. It is also a rather stylish and atmospheric film. Henri Decaë’s glorious black and white cinematography and Miles Davis’s distinctive and moody score bathe the action in an air of melancholy.

The mood of the film is also reflected in the performances. As the desperate Florence, Jeanne Moreau brings a heartbreaking vulnerability that’s echoed by Maurice Ronet as Julien, her equally besotted lover. Although their phone conversation sets the murder plot in motion, Moreau and Ronet do not share any scenes together; however, they are convincing as a couple willing to do whatever it takes to be together.

A classic example of French New Wave Cinema, Elevator to the Gallows is one of Louis Malle’s best films.

Elevator to the Gallows is in French with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for Elevator to the Gallows.

Read Full Post »

postinoApril is National Poetry Month, and today’s review centers on a film that celebrates the beauty of poetry—Il Postino: The Postman, a whimsical tale of the friendship between a postman and a famous poet.

Based on Antonio Skármeta’s novel Ardiente Paciencia, the film is set in the early ‘50s in a remote Italian village. Lifelong resident Mario Ruoppolo (Massimo Troisi) lives with his father, a fisherman. One of the few literate people in the community, Mario’s a simple man whose knowledge of life outside the village comes from newsreels at the cinema and the occasional postcard from relatives in America.

Life passes uneventfully in the village until the day Mario sees a newsreel announcing the arrival of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret). Neruda has been exiled from his native country for political reasons and he plans to stay in the village until he can safely return to Chile. Mario’s unfamiliar with Neruda’s poetry, but he’s impressed by his celebrity status, especially his adoring female fans.

Neruda’s arrival provides Mario with an unexpected job opportunity. The local postmaster needs a temporary postman to deliver mail to Neruda. Eager to learn how he can impress women, Mario accepts the job and begins an awkward, but persistent, campaign to become friends with Neruda. Charmed by Mario’s earnest attempts to understand poetic conventions, Neruda becomes a friend and mentor to the shy postman. When Mario falls in love with Beatrice Russo (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), the niece of the village’s café owner, he uses Neruda’s advice—and his poetry—to win her heart.

Il Postino is a charming film that gently and eloquently explores the transformative power of friendship and poetry. Mario has a great enthusiasm for life, but a limited frame of reference until he meets Neruda. He’s eager to understand Neruda’s work and his discussions with the poet introduce him to new ways of expressing his thoughts and feelings. As his friendship with Neruda blossoms, he demonstrates a newfound level of confidence in the way he speaks and carries himself. It’s a subtle change beautifully captured by Massimo Troisi’s elegant and understated performance. Philippe Noiret is delightful as Neruda, and under Michael Radford’s deft direction the friendship between Mario and Neruda never feels forced or gimmicky. Neruda’s poetry is an integral part of the plot, and the poems used in the film are a perfect fit for the central themes and storyline.

Il Postino was the final film of Massimo Troisi, who also co-wrote the screenplay. A case of rheumatic fever as a child left him with a serious heart condition and he needed a heart transplant. He postponed the surgery so he could finish the film. In June 1994, he died of a heart attack hours after completing the project. He received posthumous Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay; the film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director and Luis Bacalov won for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score.

The film received a new round of publicity several years ago when opera composer and librettist Daniel Catán developed an operatic version. The opera, featuring tenor Plácido Domingo as Pablo Neruda, opened in 2010 to positive reviews.

Il Postino: The Postman is in Italian with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for Il Postino: The Postman

WRL has several collections of Neruda’s poetry, including The Poetry of Pablo Neruda

Read Full Post »

raise_the_red_lanternZhang Yimou’s masterpiece Raise the Red Lantern opens with a young woman preparing to make a fateful decision. In 1920 China, Songlian (Gong Li), a 19-year-old university student, is forced to abandon her studies after her father’s death left the family destitute. With few options available, Songlian tearfully tells her mother that she’s decided to marry a wealthy man. When her mother advises her that as the wife of a rich man she will be little more than a concubine, Songlian stoically replies, “Let me be a concubine. Isn’t that the fate of a woman?” It’s a powerful scene staged with stunning simplicity; Songlian is shown in close-up addressing her mother, who remains off-camera. At end of her speech, tears slowly roll down her cheeks belying sadness and resignation to her fate.

Songlian becomes the fourth wife (or, as she’s referred to throughout the film, the Fourth Mistress) of Master Chen (Ma Jingwu). He lives on a vast estate with three other Mistresses and a cadre of servants. Each Mistress has her own apartment in the compound; however, like birds in a gilded cage, their life of luxury comes at a steep price: their freedom.

At first, Songlian is treated well by the Mistresses and the servants. The first night in the estate, her apartment is festooned with red lanterns, she receives an elaborate foot massage, and Master Chen comes to visit. She soon learns, however, that this treatment is the exception rather than the rule. On a daily basis, the master decides which Mistress he will spend the night with, and the Mistress he selects will choose the menu for the evening, receive the red lanterns and the foot massage, and garner the most attention and respect from the servants. This ritual has fostered an environment of fierce competition, as the Mistresses vie daily for Master Chen’s affections.

As Songlian adjusts to life as Master Chen’s Fourth Mistress, she gets to know the other women on the estate: Yuru (Jin Shuyuan), the First Mistress and the mother of Chen’s son; Zhuoyan (Cao Cuifen), the Second Mistress, described as having the face of the Buddha but the heart of a scorpion; and Meishan (He Saifei), the Third Mistress, a former opera singer. There is also Yan’er (Kong Lin), a longtime servant who dreams of becoming a Mistress herself.

Songlian is savvy enough to understand the peculiar dynamics of the Chen household and implements a few schemes of her own to curry the Master’s favor. Despite her initial success, she soon finds herself double-crossed by one of the Mistresses. When Songlian eventually discovers that another Mistress is involved in an illicit affair, she unwittingly sets into motion a series of events that threaten the fragile structure of the Chen household.

Raise the Red Lantern is a visually stunning film that uses color and cinematography to great effect. The color red is a central motif that connects the key visuals. The red of the lanterns is reflected in the reds of the cheongsams worn by Songlian and the other mistresses. The impressive architecture of Master Chen’s estate is complemented by Yimou’s use of overhead shots. The setting’s beauty stands in stark contrast to the grim fates that await the mistresses. Gong Li, whose films with Yimou include To Live and Shanghai Triad, delivers one of her finest performances as Songlian.

Raise the Red Lantern was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and, in 2001, Yimou developed a ballet based on the film. In recent years, Yimou has directed a number of popular films, including Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Fans of Yimou’s later films may want to check out Raise the Red Lantern, one of the best films of the 1990s.

Raise the Red Lantern is in Mandarin with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for Raise the Red Lantern

Read Full Post »

diabolique2My final film review this week is Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, the French horror classic that influenced Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is the headmaster of a run-down boarding school for boys. He’s a mean-spirited and petty man whose cruelty extends to his long-suffering wife, Christina (Véra Clouzot), and his mistress, Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), both teachers at the school.

After Michel beats her the night before a school break, Nicole decides to take action. She enlists Christina’s help in a plan to drug then murder Michel. Although she is initially reluctant, Christina agrees to help Nicole. The two women leave the school and travel to Nicole’s apartment, where Nicole laces a bottle of wine with a powerful sedative. Christina then calls Michel and tells him she is making plans for a divorce. Enraged, Michel goes to Nicole’s apartment to confront his wife. During the course of the argument, he drinks some of the wine and passes out. With Christina’s help, Nicole drowns Michel in the bathtub. The two women take Michel’s body back to the school and dump it in the swimming pool. When his body rises to the surface, it will appear that his death was an accidental drowning.

Although the plan is seemingly foolproof, Christina becomes concerned the following day when Michel’s body does not surface. When the women finally have the pool drained, they make a shocking discovery: Michel’s corpse is not in the pool. Christina launches a search for her husband, following up on stories of unidentified bodies and hiring Alfred Fichet (Charles Vanel), a retired detective. At the same time, bizarre clues and sightings of the deceased Michel test Christina’s fragile health and her alliance with Nicole.

Les Diaboliques is a cunning thriller that relies on surprise twists and unusual clues to generate suspense. The pacing is particularly effective; Clouzot gradually builds the tension as Christina comes to realize she’s not sure if her husband is dead or alive. The acting is first-rate. Véra Clouzot and Simone Signoret give strong, nuanced performances. I also enjoyed Charles Vanel’s supporting performance as Fichet. On the surface, Fichet appears to be a good-natured, if occasionally bumbling, detective; however, he has a sharp mind and keen insight that helps further the investigation.

Equal parts murder mystery and ghost story, Les Diaboliques should appeal to fans of classic horror films and detective stories.

Les Diaboliques is in French with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for Les Diaboliques

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 34,431 other followers

%d bloggers like this: