THE ROSTER LIVES UP TO ITS TITLE: “The Whole World Sings: International Musicals.” I wish I could spend a week at the Quad seeing all thirteen features in the series organized by the theater’s programmers in collaboration with Village Voice critic Bilge Ebiri. Whether bittersweet, semitragic, joyous, or somewhat deranged, almost every one of these films will lift your spirits as you enter a fall season that looks to be as depressing—I’m not referring only to culture—as this summer was.
Screening in a new digital restoration, Chantal Akerman’s 1986 Golden Eighties (aka Window Shopping) is a study in emotional surfeit within a minimalist pop aesthetic. The set is a tiny shopping mall that contains a dress shop, a bar, a hair salon, and the exterior of a movie theater. It’s not clothes, jus d’orange, or movies that are on display, but the people who work there and whose entanglements and desires are, with one exception, shared, celebrated, and mourned in song and dance. The film’s subject is romantic love—found, lost, and desired. Marc Hérouet’s score is bouncy although a bit repetitive, a necessary grounding for Akerman’s wildly associative lyrics, which make me simultaneously laugh and cry from first to last.
The ensemble cast is enchantingly human—better than being great singers or dancers—and Delphine Seyrig, in her last major role, is much more than that. Seyrig plays Mrs. Schwarz, the proprietor—with her husband—of the dress store. Like Jeanne Dielman, the other great character she and Akerman created together in the eponymous film, Mrs. Schwarz suffered in World War II: Specifically, like Akerman’s mother, she is a Holocaust survivor. But unlike Dielman, Mrs. Schwarz has a surpassingly brave, dazzling smile, all the more haunting because of the vulnerability just below the surface.
No one in the gossipy shopping mall knows that the American who rescued Mrs. Schwarz after the war has reappeared. They love each other still, but it’s impossible; their romance would mean the breakup of their marriages. Seyrig can’t really sing, but with her husky, cut-velvet voice she can talk her way through the song that introduces the soliloquy at the heart of Golden Eighties, offered as comfort to the young woman who was just jilted by the Schwarzes’ confused son and, of course, to herself. “Love never means nothing. Love is never lost / All the love and dreams that ever were live on somewhere / That’s the way it must be / If not there will be another horror and this time no one will be spared. But that won’t happen.”
Golden Eighties owes something to Jacques Demy’s 1964 The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, just as Umbrellas owes something to Jean Renoir’s 1955 French Cancan. Both are in “The Whole World Sings,” which is heavy on French films and also includes Marc Allegret’s Zouzou (1934), a vehicle for Josephine Baker at the height of her talents; René Clair’s Le Million (1931), made just a year or two after sound came to European cinema, and as comically inventive in its use of this new technology as only Clair, who made avant-garde films in the 1920s, could be; Alain Resnais’s farcical Same Old Song (1997), which opens with the Nazi high command hightailing it out of Paris to the sound of Édith Piaf; and Euzhan Palcy’s Siméon (1992), her follow-up to A Dry White Season (1989), long out of circulation in the US and screening in a new 4K restoration.
The eclectic inventory continues. Cross-dressing is the comedy springboard for Han Hsiang Li’s The Love Eternal (1963), produced in Hong Kong, and Reinhold Schünzel’s Victor and Victoria (1933). (The latter, a final defiant flourish of Weimar culture, was remade by Blake Edwards in 1982 as a vehicle for Julie Andrews.) A prime example of Egyptian melodrama, Youssef Chahine’s Destiny (1997) is a Palme d’Or winner and less lugubrious than most of the director’s nonmusical films, while Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957) is a foundational work of modern Indian cinema and necessary history for Bollywood fans. In a series not lacking in surrealist fantasy, Princess Raccoon (2005), the final film by the wild, shape-shifting Japanese B-movie director Seijun Suzuki, is the most liberatingly unhinged of them all.
The series’s political problem-child might be Marcel Camus’s much-celebrated Black Orpheus (1959). In 2009, a few months after Obama’s inauguration, Peter Bradshaw, a film critic at The Guardian, wrote a piece about Black Orpheus, in which he quotes at length from Obama’s autobiography Dreams from My Father (1995). Obama recalled that around 1980 he took his mother to a revival of Black Orpheus, which she had gone to when she was sixteen (her first foreign movie), and which she thought was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.
We took a cab to the revival theatre where the movie was playing. The film, a groundbreaker of sorts due to its mostly black, Brazilian cast, had been made in the fifties. The storyline was simple: the myth of the ill-fated lovers Orpheus and Eurydice set in the favelas of Rio during carnival, in Technicolor splendor. Set against scenic green hills, the black and brown Brazilians sang and danced and strummed guitars like carefree birds in colorful plumage. About halfway through the movie I decided I’d seen enough, and turned to my mother to see if she might be ready to go. But her face, lit by the blue glow of the screen, was set in a wistful gaze. At that moment I felt as if I were being given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth. I suddenly realized that the depiction of the childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white, middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different.
Bradshaw goes on to write that although he thought Obama was “too tough” on Black Orpheus,
This passage exposed, more dramatically than anything has in a very long while, the fact that critical perceptions are governed by class, by background and by race. I saw Black Orpheus as a white man, a white liberal. Of course I did. The assumption of progressive good faith on race, and the indulgence of potential condescension or even stereotyping in an old movie is something that a white liberal can afford, and as far as the arts and culture are concerned in the prosperous west, white liberals are in the ascendant. But Barack Obama responded to the film quite differently. He responded with impatience, with scepticism and with pain; he saw no reason for black men and women to be objectified—and now, as the president of the United States, he is the subject, the most important subject in the world.
I must add that when I saw first saw Black Orpheus in the early 1960s, I was thrilled by Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Latin dance-beat score, but I was totally creeped out by the exoticizing of people of color. I can’t imagine that my experience of the film will change when I see it this time around at the Quad.
“The Whole World Sings” plays through Thursday, September 21, at the Quad in New York.