Monday, 31 January 2011

The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947)

A near-sublime early directorial work by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, The Ghost and Mrs Muir not only comments on the matters important to itself, but also jumps eras to ridicule a lot of today's notions of entertaining cinema. It resembles, in many ways, a modern “high concept” romantic comedy, in that it takes an unlikely gimmick, accounting as it does the banter and butting of heads between a woman and a spirit, and marries it to a slow-burning love affair. Except, of course, that it’s both more substantial as a meditation on humanity and transience, and infinitely less crass, than any modern equialent from Hollywood could be allowed to be. Mankiewicz’s fourth film, and his first great one, is one of many films of the mid and late ‘40s (Here Comes Mr Jordan, Heaven Can Wait, A Matter of Life and Death, Portrait of Jennie) that takes, for obvious reasons, the longing for an afterlife and the sustenance of the spirit very seriously, but with a flavour that rejects overt religiosity in favour of delicate spiritual links between the living and the dead. Working with a screenplay by Philip Dunne from a novel by R. A. Dick, Mankiewicz expands beyond the conventional to encompass a delicate and contemplative film that, like many of his works, is about the tug of war between strong-willed women and rugged but deceptively flexible, romantic men, played out with the sharpest of wit and a fair level of true wisdom.

Mrs Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) is a young widow with a small daughter, Ann (Natalie Wood), who, tired of being patronised by her deceased husband’s clinging mother (Isobel Elsom) and controlling sister (Victoria Horne), determines to establish herself in a seaside home and live on her husband’s investments. The cottage she sets her heart on has a peculiarity which, thus far, has hindered its agent Mr. Coombe (Robert Coote) from renting it out, and which soon enough makes itself apparent to Lucy too: it’s haunted by the ghost of its builder, former sea captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), whom it’s popularly believed still lurks around his home because of his death by suicide. When Lucy stands up to the spectre harassing her nights, however, he protests that his death was accidental, and his real reason for maintaining a spectral presence is because he wanted the house to become a home for retired seafarers like himself. He and Lucy strike up a bargain that sees her, Ann, and her lippy servant Martha (Edna Best) settling in nicely. But when Lucy’s portfolio turns worthless, she is faced with bankruptcy. Never fear, Gregg tells her, he’ll dictate to her the story of his life, titled “Blood and Swash”, to serve as a rip-roaring pulp money-spinner and save Lucy and household from having to move back in with her in-laws. Gregg’s gift to Lucy, the financial independence that his life story gives her, had freed her to pursue happiness ironically with less ethereal gentlemen, and she finds her choice in Miles Fairley, embodied inevitably by George Sanders, in a more realistic and empathetic variation of the sorts of glib-tongued rotters Sanders usually had to play. Lucy gives in to Fairley’s pursuit of her, but soon enough discovers his affectation of the arch literary playboy conceals only an arch literary playboy, whose wife (Anna Lee) lets slip her knowledge of many such situations with exasperation and apologia. But Gregg has already given Lucy up in spite of his evident ardour for her, disappearing after convincing her that he was indeed a mere device of her mind, a notion not dispelled until years later Lucy learns from the grown Ann (Vanessa Brown) that she too used to have conversations with the gruff sailor’s shade.

If The Ghost and Mrs Muir was made these days, Gregg would prove to be come kind of imaginary symbol of Lucy’s inner creative process, aspirations, and anarchic streak, a la Swimming Pool or Fight Club. Such would have made the satire on Lucy’s attempts to gain entry into the publishing world, facing the dubiety of a literary establishment that expect only clichés and boredom from women writers, sharper and more clearly consistent with the theme of her attempts to emancipate herself from conventions and repressions. That this aspect of the film has a dash of knowing humour to it in this regard isn’t so surprising considering that R. A. Dick was the pseudonym of one Josephine Leslie. And yet the film’s resonances are subtler and spread far more broadly for the refusal on Mankiewicz’s part to demystify it. Gregg stands as ethereal mediator between past and future, grit and vision, with Lucy as the person of now, whose attempt to live up to her potential and hopes after a foolish and doomed teenage romance and youthful marriage to an indifferent architect. The film possesses less a traditional narrative than a series of genuinely elegiac evocations, of the romantic yet grubby field of work Gregg dedicated his life to, in his rapturous soliloquy about his desire to give a final shelter to the men who risk their lives on the sea for the sake of trade, and of passing time and sometimes cruel experience as being a necessary aspect of human life. The little joys and betrayals that dog Lucy in her process of growth elucidate this notion. That Gregg stands in for a version of masculinity both idealised and earthy – he makes no apologies for his life, which seems, it’s constantly hinted, full of pleasures and shocks of the flesh – appals and enthrals Lucy to equal degree.

The Ghost and Mrs Muir could have been parlayed in a fashion that would have rendered it smug and sticky, like many such gimmicky gender-commentary rom-coms became in the ‘50s. And yet Mankiewicz’s touch, the excellence of Harrison and Tierney, and the way the satire and romanticism entwine, ensures that fate never descends. Definite auteurist underpinnings outlay themselves especially in the use of Harrison and Sanders as disparate types, for Mankiewicz would later use Harrison again in another such diptych of romantic choices for a rebellious femme in Cleopatra, and Sanders’ casting obviously prefigures his part as Addison De Witt in All About Eve, which would extend and mutate the already-present self-reflexive criticality of artistic endeavour and anxiety in this film. Tierney, often written off as a workaday starlet of the era, is nonetheless as splendid as Muir as she was in a diametrically opposite role, the valkyrie murderess of Leave Her to Heaven (1945). Mankiewicz was often later written off as a director obsessed with the verbal, and certainly The Ghost and Mrs Muir’s focus is on the elegance of the well-spoke word, with a lot of scenes exemplified by set-bound, complex dialogue pas-de-deux. And yet the film is also charged with a supply cinematic beauty: not quite as striking as the edge of neo-realism mixed with noir that he brought to House of Strangers (1949), Mankiewicz’s complete neglect of any artifice in presenting his apparition, except for a moment in which Gregg fades away in a lovely literalised vision of his temporal abandonment of Lucy, and his richly chiarascuro monochrome palette, nonetheless enrich this film's specific mystique.

Mankiewicz’s intimate staging is essayed through Charles Lang’s luminescent photography, bathing even the most humdrum and talky scenes with an edge of spiritual expansiveness, the rich lighting casting a burnishing glaze across the detailed sets. Some moments, like when an aged Lucy stands silhouetted against her curtained windows, the sources of light and figurations rendered ghostly, or when Gregg, farewelling Lucy in leaving her to her life, leans in close enough to be illicit if he wasn’t a shade, vibrate with a sense of the permeable boundaries of life, death, physique and memory. Different, yet linked, boundaries are prodded and probed in the byplay between widowed woman and bodiless man, circling around the edges of impropriety in life (Gregg casually insists that he and Lucy “share” his bedroom) and language (Lucy’s disquiet, which shades of course into secret glee, in typing out Gregg’s salty language) – it’s all vibrantly sexy. There’s an also interesting prefiguration in the way Mankiewicz introduces Gregg, revealed in a pool of shadow behind Lucy when she lights a lantern in her kitchen, with the way John Carpenter used similarly enveloping shadows to secrete his rather less delicate lurking emanation, in Halloween (1978). An old sea salt carves Ann’s name into the post of a beach groyne, and the process of that groyne being whittled down to broken kindling as Lucy journeys into a lonely, yet hardly pathetic, old age in a semi-contemporary world, provides a felicitous device that works in several fashions: as narrative yardstick and leitmotif, and emblem of physical decay and passage of time. Bernard Herrmann's music score is one of his least characteristic, and one of his finest. Whilst the humour and the heartstring-tugging are of a high calibre, the unique lustre of the film is in the way it carefully lays out the apposite detail and incongruent character relationships in such a way that always feels organic. It runs and ebbs as naturally as the sea itself, and the impact of the finale is truly earned.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Malpertuis (1971)

Belgian director Harry Kümel scored a hit with his Red Lips (aka Daughters of Darkness, 1971), and for a follow-up was given what was reportedly the highest budget ever afforded a Belgian film up until that time, in order to realise a long-cherished project. That project was an adaptation of a novel credited to Jean Ray, one pseudonym of the legendary fantasy and detective story writer Raymundus Joannes de Kremer, published in 1942. Ray was most famous in his time for his “Harry Dickson” stories, which Alan Resnais had once tried to adapt to the screen, and to which there’s a visual reference in Kümel’s film. The unique flavour of Belgium’s fantasy style, usually exported in comic books and animation, where the visionary and the grubbily homespun rub shoulders, is all-pervasive. The basic premises of Ray’s novel Malpertuis are almost unfairly brilliant, and Kümel set himself a challenging task to turn them into a coherent movie, a task he wasn’t quite up to. Somewhere in Ghent lies a large, voluminous, mystery-shrouded house owned by former sea captain Cassavius (Orson Welles) who is now a beached hulk, and populated by a bizarre menagerie of petit-bourgeois types who are in fact the remnants of the pantheon of Greek Gods. Discovered lying moribund and nearly dead from a lack of belief, they were stitched into human bodies by crazed genius taxidermist Philaris (Charles Janssens), and revived thanks to Cassavius’ alchemistic talents.

The Gods now live totally controlled by the old savant and forced to play out the lives of ordinary, highly repressed, money-grubbing and domestically toiling people. But now Cassavius is dying, and so he’s conspired to bring the remnants of his family, including his sailor nephew Jan (Mathieu Carriere) and niece Nancy (Susan Hampshire), into the confines of Malpertuis, and to tether them to the property, along with the Gods, with the promise of money and the full inheritance to whoever outlives the others. He seems to hope that eventually one or the other mortal descendent will have a child with a God, in order to create a new age for mankind. Nancy is in love with Mathias Crook (Daniel Pilon), actually Apollo, whilst Jan becomes besotted with Euryale (Hampshire again), the avatar of the Gorgon, goddess of love and death. Kümel commences with some atmospheric scenes in which Jan tries to locate his former family home in Ghent’s shaded, twisting, labyrinthine streets, and begins pursuing a blud-clad female mystery figure he thinks is Nancy, but which proves to instead be Bets (Sylvie Vartan), a chanteuse and courtesan, who labours in a brothel called the Venus Bar.

Kümel offers a gauche sequence in the colossal bordello-cum-music hall where he gets involved with Bets, and he’s pursued by two of Malpteruis’ denizens, Crook and Dideloo (Michel Bouquet), who have to make sure that Jan will come to the house, and start a fight between Jan and Bets’ pimp to help achieve this end. The badly post-synched, overly-contemporary-sounding song that Bets sings to a room full of randy sailors smells less of era-warping surrealism than of bad pop pastiche and theatre-restaurant bacchanalia. Kümel’s grasp on the movie that follows remains similarly inconsistent. Malpertuis itself, a shadowy, torturously multitudinous space riddled with scampering homunculi, constantly threatens to slip the familiar boundaries of time and space. The Griboins (Fanny Winkler and Robert Lussac) are actually Venus and Eros, now a pair of dumpy old servants, weighed down by flab and labour. Lampernist (Jean-Pierre Cassell) is Prometheus, grovelling pathetically in his home under the stairs, trying to keep all the lights in the house from going out, for when they do his old punishment of being chained down for the birds to eat kicks back into application. Dideloo, who is in fact Hermes, affects the character of a thrifty, smarmy haute-bourgeois, and does “the Gods’ dirty work.” Three repressed spinster ladies, including Alice (Hampshire again), are the Furies. Alice, really Alecto, who’s been satisfying her imposed corporeal urges with Dideloo, sets about seducing Jan as a better substitute, earning the wrath of her sisters, for whom the implied blasphemy is too much.

Welles, as Cassavius, is required to remain in a bed and mumble for the duration of his contribution to the film. Kümel interestingly seems to offer, in the early scenes, a more than accidental nod to Welles’ The Immortal Story (1968) in the similar way he introduces the beautiful blonde sailor lad as ensnared victim of Welles’ shut-in tyrant. Kümel’s storyline is considerably rearranged from Ray’s multi-layered, multi-voiced narrative. The singular cunning of Ray’s ideas does, however, shine through. The contrast between the flaccid lifestyle of the post-Victorian European bourgeoisie, with pathetic ambitions (Dideloo looks forward to retiring with his dirty postcard collection) and calcified emotions, and the iconic, universe-shaking brilliance of the unreconstructed pagan Gods and the human traits they stood in for, ought to be the gateway of a furious, deeply ironic, and questioning fantasia. Is the modern world an improvement on or a humiliation of the basic human character? One great trouble here is that Kümel insists on a frustrating shape for his narrative, delaying the revelation of the true identities of the Gods and making it the key riddle and end-point of his tale as the mystery that Jan has to solve. Kümel therefore can only explore the disparities tangentially, in intriguing but disconnected snatches, offering hints of the overall game but never quite putting them front and centre where they belong. Instead, the narrative is driven by the faintly Oedipally-tinged efforts of Jan, cast in the familiar role of the pure seeker after knowledge who courts both sex and death in the form of a woman, moving from his sister to Alice/Alecto and then on to the Gorgon in a progression of female archetypes. The multiple casting of Hampshire does more than the clarity of scripting to elucidate the essential idea here.

Otherwise the denizens could be just about any collection of malevolent, barely-contained supernatural beings, and Cassavius’s motivations and methods, as well the theological terror inherent in his actions, remain frustratingly opaque, treated as another aspect of the fantastical absurdity. Instead, Kümel is left playing the story out with some half-hearted and familiar gambits: the oddball collective stranded in the house with a murderer amongst them preventing members from leaving; the essentially familiar sexual triangle of innocent Jan, lusty Alice, and untouchable Euryale, which even Hampshire’s cheeky casting doesn’t quite enliven (although she’s quite good, offering several distinctive characterisations); the hurried and clichéd modern-day climax where everything seems to have proven a mere fever-dream, and then twists back again into closed-circuit nightmare. The opening and close, with quotes from Lewis Carroll, extend the “life is all a dream” jive, when the subject matter’s potential made me pine for something less shy of spectacle and consequence. The film’s mood and structure is similar to Mario Bava’s Lisa and the Devil (1972), which is superior in just about every regard except budget. Bava’s sense of how to conjure an air of fetid emotions, spiritual rot, and corporeal obscenity in a place where time and experience fold in upon themselves, stands in contrast to Kümel’s overly self-conscious, high-class stab at an occasionally disorientating, occasionally erotic threat.

Gerry Fisher’s terrifically lucid, beautiful photography is a double-edged sword, for the imagery seems too hard-edged, too literal, to ever feel genuinely surreal, and this compounds Kümel’s directorial limitations. Even the climactic moment of Prometheus’s dismemberment doesn’t quite crystallise the underlying savagery in the pagan pantheon. And yet it’s still a film offering much visual pleasure. Malpertuis becomes truly, remarkably flamboyant at occasional junctures, as when Lampernist desperately rushes up and down the house’s corridors, trying to keep the lanterns of sanity alight in a darkening world, or when Euryale answers Cassavius’s plead to give him a swift end by looking directly at him, the brisk edits lending force to the singularity of the Gorgon’s eyes as the nexus point of birth and annihilation, sex and death. The film’s best scene comes when Alice/Alecto, upbraided by her sisters, becomes hysterical in insisting she wants to be human, and unleashes the inner characters of her fellows, who then revolt. Vulcan incinerates the priest who watches over the house, whose brandished crucifix stirs only contemptuous laughter. Here the film finally comes close to tapping into the latent threat and delirium in the story. Amongst the performers, Bouquet delivers the best work, grasping the mix of all too earthly pettiness and underlying strangeness in his Dideloo. The film does seem to have had made waves, however, for the environs of Malpertuis the house, especially the locked blue room where Jan and Alice copulate, seem to have influenced the school in Dario Argento’s Suspiria, and the overall situation where bourgeois self-exile and cosmic desolation collide within a building unmistakeably anticipates Jeunet and Caro’s Delicatessen. But in spite of its strong moments, Malpertuis nonetheless deserves its initial reputation as a tantalising, diverting misfire.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Lake Mungo (2008)

“I runne to death / and all my pleasures are like yesterday”, as John Donne wrote, is the epigram to both Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim and Jesus Franco’s Venus in Furs, and it could well serve just as well for Joel Anderson’s 2008 debut film Lake Mungo. Another entry in the now almost ubiquitous style of the mockumentary, of which I needed to see another variation like I needed to cleave off one of my own opposable digits, Lake Mungo nonetheless proves how much life even an over-used storytelling gimmick can still offer. The film purports to be an account of the inexplicable phenomena that overtook the lives of the Palmer family, residents of the inland Victorian town of Ararat, after teenaged daughter Alice (Talia Zucker) drowned during a weekend sojourn to a waterhole in 2005. Mother June (Rosie Traynor), father Russell (David Pledger), son Mathew (Martin Sharpe), and various acquaintances and townsfolk are “interviewed”, explaining the unfolding events, as, in their grief-stricken state after the accident, they seem to be visited by Alice’s spirit. Strange sounds infest the Palmer house, Russell swore to seeing her in her bedroom, and Mathew’s photographs and the videotapes of townsfolk seem to capture her lurking shade around both the house and the lake where she drowned.

With the aid of a psychic, Ray Kemeny (Steve Jodrell), they attempted to gain solid evidence of the haunting, and film mysterious visages and figures passing through the house in the dead of night. When much of this evidence proved to have been faked by Mathew, the haunting seemed discredited, but then other, stranger discoveries reshaped the situation. The fact that Alice was engaged in a ménage a trois with a neighbouring couple, the Tooheys (Tamara Donnellan and Scott Terrill), had brought them sneaking into the house at night to search for a pilfered videotape of one of their escapades, and Ray’s own hidden connection to Alice proved a severing ruction between him and the Palmers. But the most disturbing revelations prove to be contained on Alice’s long-lost mobile phone, found buried on the banks of the titular lake, being not where she drowned but a far more distant, foreboding locale Alice visited on a school excursion. What did Alice encounter in the darkness at Lake Mungo, and why did it terrify her enough to make her bury her treasured possessions and seek out Ray in seeming to anticipate her own tragic end?

Technically excellent, with great photography by John Brawley, Lake Mungo, in spite of the theoretically dry style that employs a constant procession of interviews and voiceovers, constructs a richly eerie, even poetic evocation of grief, secrecy, and human need for deeper underpinnings to existence conspiring to construct a web of doubt and obscurity. The fakery is studiously achieved, from recreations of faintly stilted regional television news reports, to the effectively naturalistic performances in straightforward interviews. Anderson cunningly stretches the imitation-documentary format just a little, offering time-lapse and seasonally varying shots of the family home and the localities of Ararat, glittering in the sun and rendered ghostly in the rain, the stars rising and falling as if communicating in some unknown code. Such touches seem at first to be imitating the contextualising filler of many documentaries, but finally seem to plug into the swirl of cosmic mystery and the heedless rhythms of nature with an authentically digital-era version of spiritual questing. It would have been a steeper and possibly even more substantial task for Anderson to realise the story in more familiar dramatic terms, but the use of found footage and photography is cleverly concerned not merely with clobbering the audience with the awesome contrivances of the film crew, a la Rec/Quarantine, Cloverfield etc, but exploring the vagueness of technological imagery itself in a fashion more reminiscent of Blow-Up. The way such imagery can be manipulated, the way it can accidentally map truths beyond what even its controllers can’t muster, the way that even the seeming fact of the frame’s contents can offers pools of strangeness into which any fancy might be projected.

Anderson clearly understands the power in those ambiguities, and has obviously at some point familiarised himself with the visual language and creepy beauties of much of the “evidence” from modern supernatural investigations, his visions reminiscent of photographs like those from the Amityville haunting, and video footage clearly evoking the likes of the Patterson Bigfoot film. Yet his understanding is also apparent in simpler gimmicks, like the way Alice’s displays of nascent flirtatious wiles in home movie footage alters meaning as the story proceeds, and casually captured moments gain suddenly charged, reverberating import. The character of psychic Ray, a childhood immigrant from Hungary, intriguingly connects the story with old world traditions of dealing with death (he amusingly styles himself as “Australia’s wog psychic of choice”) and highlights the failures of the style of modern suburban life to encompass such primeval problems. Anderson cunningly, if perhaps a little archly, refuses to answer or even explore some of the clues he lets slip, but the use of the anecdotal structure is genuinely clever and layered, tracing the story forward chronologically but also delving back in a closed circuit of experiences that invert presumptions of past and future. What is the strange trait that June refers to that is shared by the women of her family? What does it mean that Alice was seduced by the Tooheys, and they then seem to have vanished themselves? Why do some of the anecdotes offered up by the Palmers seem to match fragments of Alice glimpsed on videotape and discovered in her diaries? Is this an example of the spiritual mirroring that seems to postulate Alice and June particularly as locked in communication between past and present, spirit and corporeal worlds? Or is it evidence of the Palmers’ continuing conspiracy to extend their hoaxing?

The intrusion of Australian immigrant culture into the always faintly unforgiving continental landscape is a subtext that vibrates, both with seriousness, and also wryness in paying some nods to the ür-text of Aussie spook-fests Picnic at Hanging Rock. One of the interview subjects, Alice’s former boyfriend, is interviewed in front of a rocky outcropping reminiscent of the Peter Weir’s titular stage, except it’s debased, covered in graffiti. Lake Mungo, however, is both the end and commencement of a journey here, nonetheless serves a similarly dread purpose as a place on the edge of civilisation where sojourning schoolgirls encounter the permeable edges of reality. Anderson certainly relishes trying to creep the audience out, and the story builds to a fittingly disquieting revelation of Alice’s recorded encounter with her own dead self, glimpsed lurching out of the dark with spectral threat. But Lake Mungo is similar in such respects to Conor McPherson’s quietly superb The Eclipse, in postulating the ghost story less as fright-fest than as a version of the emotional ephemera that congeals both before and after wrenching events, with ghostly shades appearing even before death, to warn of all transient things.

Fittingly, then, Mathew’s fakery is motivated not by mischief but a desire to synthesise a continuing place for Alice in the daily life of the family, a desire that proved to have contradictory and even retarding results, for he had stoked June’s belief Alice might still be alive to the point where he body was exhumed and tested just to make sure. Mathew theorises that Ray’s own secret-keeping might be an extension of his needing the family as much as they need him, and that argument could be linked to the texture of the film as a whole, characters possibly providing evidence of haunting purely to maintain a desperate link in the face of loss and alienation. Not all of Lake Mungo’s often cryptically parsed information adds up: I’m not sure if the sojourn detailing Alice’s romps with the Tooheys is really about more than a casual jolt of titillation, or if it’s key to a moralistic or criminal take on her fate. It does at least contribute to Anderson’s smart portrait of small-town life concealing hidden multiplicities of truth amongst the seemingly bland and familiar local teens and types. Lake Mungo is certainly evidence that Aussie genre cinema might at last be coming of age. The final shot of the film proper (notwithstanding a tacked-on revelation during the end credits that cheapens the experience a little) is a particularly beautiful distillation of the story’s emotional meaning: moving on from grief after the death of a loved one is hard, but what if the dead beloved is left behind, watching you leave?