Jeff Tremaine, Jackass 3D, 2010, HD video, color, sound, 95 minutes. Johnny Knoxville.


THE ACADEMIC Tom Gunning coined the phrase “the cinema of attractions” to refer to a strain of filmmaking that popped up in the first decade of the invention’s life, which would later serve as an inspiration for the avant-garde. These are films belonging to what is sometimes called “the Méliès tradition,” named for the magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Méliès, an “exhibitionist cinema” of “trick films,” in which narrative is of secondary importance to the realization of fabulous and impossible illusions. In Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011), Méliès, played by Ben Kingsley, is a forgotten man, running a toy shop in the Gare Montparnasse in 1930s Paris—as, indeed, he actually did. The film, as well as being the Goodfellas director’s first foray into the children’s movie, was his first shot in 3-D—a technique whose renascence was but one symbol of a latter-day return to the cinema of attractions.

The still-image stereopticon viewer was a craze in the latter half of the nineteenth century, while the idea of stereoscopic cinema goes back as far as Méliès’s day, and a variety of techniques involving dual-strip projection and anaglyph glasses (the kind with the red-and-green or red-and-blue lenses) were tinkered with before the original 3-D boom of 1952, which followed on the release of Arch Oboler’s Bwana Devil. (Oboler’s 1966 “comeback” film The Bubble, shot on single-strip “SpaceVision 3D,” enjoyed a weeklong run at the Museum of Modern Art in January and has since been issued on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber.)

Bwana Devil and the films that immediately followed it were part of a larger strategy on the part of movies to push back against upstart television, then eating into what had been a captive audience for moving images. This occurred along with the appearance of CinemaScope, Todd-AO, and various bits of outlandish hoopla with which 3-D was often grouped—the Ping-Pong-paddle ballyhoo man in House of Wax (1953) was an unwitting symbol for the fad itself. BAMcinématek’s new program “3D in the 21st Century” looks at another moment in cinema’s century-long history of perpetual crisis—the immediate past-present, in which competition has come from both Internet and cable drama, the latter raiding the market for character-based middlebrow narrative. BAM’s selection of films, appropriately, offers an overview of two strands of cinema more or less unreliant on storytelling: multiplex spectacle and avant-garde cinema. (In the case of multimedia artist Trisha Baga’s twenty-four-minute Other Gravity, released contemporaneously with Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 Gravity and playing on the same program at BAM, the short work seems to drolly address the megaproduction.)

While a variation of the single-strip “SpaceVision” technology predominated in the decades following The Bubble, lean years for stereoscopic cinema, there was a renewed interest in 3-D at the turn of the millennium, approximately coinciding with the digital changeover. James Cameron shot his 2003 Ghosts of the Abyss with a new “stereo” process that used two digital cameras, and he released it to IMAX theaters where, the following year, Robert Zemeckis’s motion-capture animated The Polar Express would have its own 3-D run. Neither Ghosts nor Polar Express is on BAMcinématek’s bill of fare, but Cameron and Zemeckis’s boutique 3-D forays were really only dress rehearsals. In 2007, Zemeckis’s second motion-capture film, Beowulf, opened in over one thousand theaters—the largest day-and-date 3-D release ever. In the years since Polar Express, Beverly Hills–based RealD, founded in 2003, had beat out Dolby Laboratories to practically corner the US market installing new polarized digital projection systems. (No more colored lenses required!) Theaters were anticipating a 3-D groundswell. What they were looking forward to was Avatar.

An immersive journey to Pandora, a bioluminescent faerieland out of Coleridge’s most fragrant imaginings, Cameron’s megaproduction combined “Colors of the Wind” eco-sentimentality, New Agey let’s-go-native holism, endless shamanic yodeling, and synthetic storytelling—a hemp tote carrying a hunk of Styrofoam. The darkly glittering, scream-lashed Beowulf is by any measure the greater artwork, but Avatar was the more successful piece of multiplex triangulation—unadjusted for inflation, the top-grossing film of all-time—and the land rush began.

The majority of the multiplex material here comes from 3-D’s post-Avatar boom years, a heyday that scarcely lasted longer than the idea of Sam Worthington as a viable top-shelf leading man. In part a commemoration of a cash-in frenzy, BAM’s series showcases some of the most flagrantly commercial art of recent memory, including tween lunch money grabs Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (2011) and Katy Perry: Part of Me (2012), the highlight of which is the image of consolation tweets popping up over the Los Angeles skyline in response to news of Perry’s split from her husband, the awful Russell Brand. Hugo and Steven Spielberg’s Adventures of Tintin (both late 2011) are here as the validity-conferring name-brand auteur experiments, while Alexandre Aja’s Piranha 3D (2010), which drops a severed male member right in the viewer’s lap, is certainly the greatest stereoscopic blockbuster exploitation film—though both My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009) and Drive Angry (2011) have their partisans, and it seems a grave oversight to have neither The Final Destination (2009) nor Final Destination 5 (2011) on the docket. (It is worth noting that Jean-Luc Godard, always the most promiscuous of borrowers, screened Piranha before setting out to shoot his own 3-D film, 2014’s Goodbye to Language.) There are also visits from the finest infinitely repeatable franchises of the young millennium, including Jackass 3D (2010), Step Up 3D (2010), and Resident Evil: Retribution (2012), a work of posthuman humanism that features one of the most awe-striking overtures in recent memory. (Resident Evil series architect Paul W. S. Anderson is, aside from Ken Jacobs, the only filmmaker with more than one work here, also represented by his 2011 The Three Musketeers.)

Only two years after Avatar, the technology that had been prescribed as a panacea for dipping profits was being diagnosed as the cause of poor box-office health. In September 2011, a piece on Slate asked “Who Killed 3-D?”, offering such explanations as price gouging by theater chains and studios’ flooding of cinemas with movies retroactively “upgraded” to stereoscopic visuals to cash in on the trend. (This continues today, although mostly overseas, where the industry can depend on a moviegoing public that hasn’t yet wised up to its chicanery.) A BBC News item appearing shortly afterward wondered, “Can Martin Scorsese’s Hugo save 3D?”

It didn’t—not at the box office, at least—though Gravity came close to doing the job, proving that audiences would still pay top dollar for a 3-D experience that had been customized to really utilize the technology, here placing bodies in relief against the void of deep space. Elsewhere, filmmakers seemed to be running out of novel uses for 3-D, with 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) director Noam Murro reduced to continually pelting his audience with floating particulates. At the same time, experimental filmmakers were using 3-D to further pursue the “cinema of attractions” that they’d never abandoned—this work is to be seen in BAM’s selection of short film aperitifs. Johann Lurf’s Twelve Tales Told (2014), preceding Hugo, intercuts and extends a dozen different pre-film studio logos while creating a glitch, twitchy kind of music from their interrupted fanfare. Kerry Laitala’s Chromatic Frenzy (2009) is a lapidary shower of kaleidoscope, Spirograph, and compound eye imagery, while Timothy Geraghty’s Coming Up Threes (2013) overlays images from the Times Square subway platform, the news tickers from the street above, and the vitrine of a consumer electronics store, creating a veritable mudslide of information. (Both Laitala and Geraghty’s pieces were made to be watched with ChromaDepth glasses, which, as the name implies, assign different fixed levels of depth to different colors, and work best with a doctored image.)

While most of the experimental shorts here are programmed with a feature, Jacobs commands his own program—only appropriate, as his work with the stereoscopic image stretches back to the late 1960s, and in the last decade he has been devoted to it entirely. I was able to view a projection of Jacobs’s Capitalism: Child Labor (2006), an aptly assaultive piece that marries a din of industrial noise to a twitchy stereograph view of a Victorian-era factory floor where bobbins of thread are manufactured by haunted-looking Dickensian waifs. (Idea for a sequel: a visit to see where RealD glasses are made?) For Jacobs, the only “novelty” in cinema is the flat image: “2-D is a remarkable invention, crazier than most anything that can happen in 3-D. Imagine the world flattened to a single insubstantial plane, a mere surface reflection! I must look into it. But can’t.”

Nick Pinkerton

“3D in the 21st Century” runs May 1–17 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.

Bertrand Bonello, On War, 2008, 35 mm, color, sound, 130 minutes.


THE CENTRAL FIGURE in the mesmerizing films of Bertrand Bonello is the voluptuary, who may be a seeker or supplier (whether professional or otherwise) of pleasure, and whose respective quest or obligation to satisfy sensual appetites can lead to enlightenment, madness, brutality, decline, or even death. Of the sybarites who have populated the writer-director-composer’s seven feature-length works to date, perhaps none is as towering as the title character in Saint Laurent, a thrilling biopic on the legendary couturier whose release on May 8 occasions the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s welcome Bonello retrospective.

Pleasure principles—and principals—are anatomized within the context of France’s political stasis in The Pornographer (2001). Jacques Laurent, the eponymous smut auteur, is played by Nouvelle Vague paradigm Jean-Pierre Léaud, as desiccated here as he was in Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep (1996), in which he starred as another moviemaker, if not the XXX kind. Jacques, whose past hits include Perverse Niçoise, Schoolgirl Hotel, and I’m Hard, I Come, I Sing, appears incapable of committing to anything or anyone—not to his latest hard-core production, The Animal; or his wife, Jeanne (Dominique Blanc), who financially supported him during several dormant years; or his university-age son, Joseph (Jérémie Renier), with whom he has established a fragile rapprochement that soon disintegrates. Now fifty, the adult-entertainment maestro mentions more than once that he made his first blue movies in May ’68, never more defensively than to a journalist whom he finally agrees to meet for an interview: “Making pornographic films was a political act.…I could have filmed naked women in front of a factory, but it wouldn’t have been very exciting.” His words are hollow, pitiful, full of quasi-revolutionary bravado that not even Jacques himself seems to believe anymore.

Another filmmaker nearing professional and personal crisis—this one quite tellingly named Bertrand (Mathieu Amalric)—serves as the protagonist of On War (2008). With the vaguest of notions about his next project (“It’s about someone who thinks a lot about death”) Bertrand, who yearns to emerge from his low-grade anhedonia “to be dazed be life,” takes up a two-week residence in a cult. More specifically, this manse in the French countryside is “a military order, but not a belligerent one,” per one acolyte, overseen by Asia Argento, who tells her newest charge: “Today, pleasure is something you have to win, like war.” In this Gallic Esalen/Burning Man/boot camp, Bertrand comes close to the sublime—particularly during a far-out rave sequence, in which each devotee forms not a writhing mass of bodies but resolutely remains a solitary gyrator—only to teeter too close to losing his mind. Though not all of On War seizes the viewer with the same force as that bizarre dance piece—a riff on Apocalypse Now is especially wearying—the film proves Bonello’s gifts at both satirizing and sympathizing with a character adrift, who may or may not be a version of himself.

Yet the director extends his greatest compassion to the employees—prisoners, really—of the Apollonide, the opulent Belle Epoque Parisian bordello of House of Pleasures (2011). Featuring some of France’s greatest millennial actresses (Adèle Haenel, Céline Sallette) among its doxy ensemble, the film sates the senses with its luxe decor and impeccably arranged, languid bodies. Although the mise-en-scène may be sumptuous, Bonello has no interest in glorifying the profession. To the applicant who says she wants to work in the flesh trade “to be independent,” the madam of the maison scoffs, “Freedom’s outside—not here.” The ladies of the Apollonide remain trapped within its walls; Bonello’s filmmaker characters Jacques and Bertrand can and do go anywhere, not advancing but retreating.

Melissa Anderson

“I Put a Spell on You: The Films of Bertrand Bonello” plays at the Film Society of Lincoln Center April 29–May 4.

Chienn Hsiang, Exit, 2014, color, sound, 94 minutes.


EXIT IS FIRST OF ALL an arresting and unbearable portrayal of loneliness, which is fast becoming one of the early twenty-first century’s chief motifs. The debut narrative feature of renowned Taiwanese cinematographer Chienn Hsiang, the film could be classified as a collaboration with its main actress and vehicle, Chen Shiang-Chyi, a veritable auteur’s actress, best known for her work with directors Tsai Ming-Liang and Edward Yang.

Ling, the character Chen portrays, is an abandoned person. Her husband has gone to Shanghai, leaving her behind in a stifling nameless second-tier Taiwanese city. She calls his mobile phone several times a day; he never picks up. Her twentysomething daughter spends most of her time with her boyfriend, barely communicating with Ling, and when she does she makes no effort to hide her bored contempt. Soon she is laid off from the garment factory where she has spent most of her life bent over a sewing machine. After she experiences hot flashes and misses her period she visits her doctor, who informs her she is menopausal—at the age of forty-five.

Ling is a prisoner of her own body: The exit the title refers to is that wished-for threshold her desperation prevents her from uncovering. Chienn deploys the wide-shot throughout; Ling is seen in frames within frames within frames: doorways, dilapidated walls, windows, rooms beyond rooms. There is a precision, even perfection to these shots that makes Chen’s performance all the more devastating. Much as Delphine Seyrig did with Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975), Chen has authored not just a believable character but also a definitive archetype of a heterosexual middle-aged woman at a particular place and time: a person that no one wants to talk to, whose “use-value” has long expired. Exit may be one of the most powerful feminist critiques to come out of East Asian cinema in a long while.

Showing very little in the way of blatant emotion, Chen’s Ling is on edge throughout the film, which takes place over several weeks. Her discomfort and angst are never absent, often manifesting in a clammy appearance. Indeed, the fragility we see on screen is real: Chen fell ill on the second day of filming and remained so throughout the shoot, likening her fevered state to the midlife despair Ling walks in every day. At one heartbreaking, understated moment, Ling hesitates in the middle of a busy street, unable to decide whether to finish crossing, before finally giving up and turning back around. There is no easy way out when you are entrapped by the world’s icy indifference to your plight; you have done all the right things and this is your nonreward.

Though no one cares much for her, Ling continues to carry out familial duties. (Were this a Lars von Trier film, this persistence would be depicted as pathetic; Chienn shows it as natural.) Once she is laid off, she visits her ailing mother-in-law in the hospital every day—the only person in her extended family to do so—and even here she receives little in the way of human contact, as the old woman is usually unconscious. Across from her mother-in-law’s bed, Ling is bothered by the cries and gasps of a middle-aged man with bandaged eyes. Like her, he has no family to speak of; he never receives a visitor.

The man has suffered some traumatic accident. We don’t know what. He is unable to talk; he can only cry and groan. The hospital’s nursing staff is borderline neglectful, and Ling begins to tend to the man. In fact it takes very little to quiet him: a cool rag on his neck, the feeling of her hand against his cheek. Ling discovers that she and the man are deprived of the same thing: touch. Why is it that the absolute easiest thing we might give is the very thing we are most loath to share?

The invalid’s journey to recovery parallels Ling’s arduous attempt to feel like a human being again. Hands lock in understanding, no stipulations are required. There are no obvious resolutions, no spoiler alert necessary. Neither of them will ever reattain what they once were. How they might go on, how they might crawl out of the existences they are trapped in, remains an open question. Truth is always shapeless, and the door is over there—if you manage to get it open.

Travis Jeppesen

Exit opens in cinemas throughout the UK on April 24.

Derek Jarman, Will You Dance with Me?, 1984, video, color, sound, 78 minutes. Philip Williamson.


THOUGH ONLY SIX YEARS separate Ron Peck’s Nighthawks (1978) and Derek Jarman’s Will You Dance with Me? (1984), two essential documents of gay London, they are chronicles of entirely different eras. Peck’s feature film debuted a year before Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministry began and three before the first known case of AIDS in the UK was reported; Jarman’s footage, which remained unseen until last year, was shot well into those dual catastrophes. While Peck’s film is more or less fiction, it mixes in vérité elements, recording, sometimes ambivalently, the codes and customs of gay nightlife that would be ebulliently celebrated in Jarman’s dance-floor reportage.

According to Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet, Peck and Paul Hallam, his cowriter and coproducer on Nighthawks, spent five years planning and raising funds for their film, which centers on the diurnal and nocturnal activities of Jim (Ken Robertson), an out—quietly yet sometimes defiantly so—geography teacher. This compact, exceedingly polite and patient Notting Hill resident spends his days instructing adolescents on the causes of overpopulation in India and showing around the new substitute teacher, Judy (Rachel Nicholas James), who seems to turn to her colleague for the emotional succor that her own husband cannot provide. After sunset, Jim hits the bars, where he cruises, dances, and keeps up his end of desultory conversations that often conclude in a strange—or his own—bed.

We are fully immersed in Jim’s nighttime rituals; the camera often assumes his point of view, his desirous looks either reciprocated or ignored. The thrill and the tedium of his evenings out are equally highlighted; the ecstasy of sleeping with someone new is followed by the dispiriting morning-after small talk, with Jim asking the bulk of the questions while kindly driving his tricks—most of whom are nonprofessional actors, as are the bars’ denizen—to the nearest Tube station. “Don’t you get anxious about whether or not you’re going to see these people again?” Judy asks Jim over drinks at a pub. In boldly addressing that question, Nighthawks gives us one of cinema’s first complex, fully realized gay protagonists.

Jarman, who appears as an extra in Nighthawks, was excitedly experimenting with his new Olympus VHS camcorder during the September 1984 evening that he shot the action at Benjy’s, a gay club in East London’s Mile End district that, this night at least, drew a coed, racially diverse crowd; this on-location assignment was part of the research the queer-cinema firebrand was doing for his friend Peck, who was then planning a neo-noir that would be released in 1987 as Empire State. Every single detail captured in Will You Dance with Me? abounds with ethnographic riches: the New Romantic cutie journaling while nestled in a corner booth, the woman with the T-shirt emblazoned with stenciled letters that read ÉCOLE DE DANSE, the DJ’s cheerful exhortations (“Let’s get it right, let’s get it right!”), the songs he spins (“Let the Music Play,” “Planet Rock,” “Relax,” which is heard at least twice).

As aleatory as this seventy-eight-minute-long record may at first appear, with Jarman flitting from bar to banquette to dance floor and back again, it soon becomes clear that he’s deeply in tune with, well, the rhythm of the night. While Benjy’s patrons get sweaty gyrating to another Frankie Goes to Hollywood set, Jarman—and his camera—grows ever more besotted with a slightly sullen, sporty stud, gracefully orbiting around this Doc Martens–shod twunk. That fit, buzz-cut clubgoer, Philip Williamson, would perform in front of Jarman’s camera once again—not to Hi-NRG hits but to Judi Dench’s voice-over recitation of Shakespeare’s sonnets in The Angelic Conversation (1985).

Melissa Anderson

Nighthawks and Will You Dance with Me? screen April 25 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of the series “Art of the Real,” which concludes April 26.

Vincente Minnelli, The Band Wagon, 1953, 35 mm, color, sound, 112 minutes. Tony Hunter and Gabrielle Gerard (Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse).


MGM’S BEST MUSICALS personified Show Business as bipolar cottage industry—miracles of scrambled, collaged, precision-tooled, toe-shoe equilibrium. Star-struck, self-aware, and ruthlessly efficient, these engines of chaste desire merged revels and reveries into the ever-present bottom line. Poised betwixt gee-whiz uncomplication and sophisticated manners, their escapades showcased hyperbolic performers, idealized characters, and dazzling shades of homogeneity. Yet the same storylines also incorporated a cheeky penchant for relaxed displacement and rib-poking irony into otherwise corny affirmations. These insanely orderly, happy-peppy-sappy vehicles were given an adventurous kick by dropping strategic hints of chaos and gloom into their midst.

Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) could have been a resilient, pick-yourself-up-by-the-corset-straps cousin to The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)—a tale of sublimated anxieties, fin de siècle dread, and familial upheaval averted in the nick of time. Singin’ in the Rain (1952) amounted to a chipper yet sardonic back-story to Sunset Boulevard (1950) (think of Jean Hagen’s silent star as the Before-image and Gloria Swanson’s mad recluse as the After). It’s Always Fair Weather (1955) had a salutary postwar/pre–Mad Men cynicism: The emotional messiness, tonal dead zones, and clashing sensibilities all contributed to its dyspeptic, strangely wistful energy.

And then there was Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (1953). Coming on the heels of backstage/backlot constructions like All About Eve (1950) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) (as well as the aforementioned blockbuster Singin’ in the Rain), its inside-Broadway satire was very much the flavor of the moment: Knowingness Parfait. There are enough layers in it to fuel a thousand postgrad theses; the wonder is that the Wooster Group hasn’t yet done a multimedia revamping. The Band Wagon was the Being John Malkovichcum-Birdman of MGM musicals. It can be described as the intersection of stifling high aspirations (“Shut up in our little sweatbox of the arts”) with beautifully disreputable commercial instincts (“That’s entertainment!”).

The film cast Fred Astaire as a has-been musical comedy star: In other words, essentially as himself again, only without the old dapper-playboy-hoofer façade. The movie opens on an auction of his personal memorabilia, where his fabled top hat and walking stick won’t even fetch fifty cents. Oh, the ignominy! He’s become as much of a magnificently obsolescent contraption as the seedy automatons he encounters in a Forty-Second Street arcade. (The regal theaters he once performed in have become carny-style tourist traps: Times Square is represented as a claustrophobic studio set that has the trappings of a stage musical and the alienation effect of The Lady from Shanghai’s hall of mirrors routine.) Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant play excitable versions of the movie’s authors, Betty Comden and Adolph Green—she as a wide-eyed bundle of irrational exuberance, he as a hypochondriacally inclined neurotic given to such classic Levantian laments as, “I can stand anything but pain.”

The duo have written a comeback musical called The Band Wagon for Astaire’s Tony Hunter, and they want Broadway’s biggest hotshot to direct. Rather old for a wunderkind, the British star Jack Buchanan nonetheless gives a grandly hammy recital as Jeffrey Cordova, an endearingly pretentious actor-director-impresario who wants to turn their fun, 1930s-style musical romp about a children’s author who churns out Spillane-type pulp fiction on the side into a heavy-breathing retelling of the Faust legend, replete with hellfire and flash-pot Brimstone. (You can see where this might be right in the Wooster Group’s wheelhouse.) Based on the then-celebrated Jose Ferrer (a discount-store Orson Welles probably best remembered now for his Cyrano), while incorporating a lot of Minnelli’s personal mannerisms (not to mention his furnishings), Cordova is a timeless archetype of artistic overreach and self-congratulatory hubris: “There’s nothing in the world as soothing as a smash hit.”

The human anchor of the film is, oddly, Cyd Charisse, in her first starring role at thirty-one: Imposing and impossibly lithe, she’s pop-Cubism in motion (“She came at me in sections” declares Astaire in the “Girl Hunt” production number) yet remarkably down-to-earth. Pauline Kael thought her acting wooden, but playing the ballerina protégé of a Balanchine/Jerome Robbins–type choreographer, her unpolished delivery seems right for a wary, diffident outsider who masks her vulnerabilities by presenting an aura of inscrutability. Charisse was the most abstract figure in musicals, but her movements mesh with Astaire’s conversational patter and dancing in a way that blurs artifice and naturalism. For them, maybe, artifice was second nature, as routine as a smoker gesticulating or a tennis player serving.

Technicolor’s palette never looked wilder or more robust than it does on this Blu-ray transfer, where Minnelli’s extras move through cagey spaces like drill teams dressed up as regular folks on display, herds of Hawaiian shirts, gabardine suits, khaki soldiers, poodle skirts, and yellow turtlenecks moving in casual background formations that would be the envy of General Rommel or Vince Lombardi. The package is skimpy on extras and while it has a perfunctory making-of short and an old PBS documentary on Minnelli, it doesn’t even include the “Two Faced Woman” outtake from the previous edition. And nothing new has been dug up, though sizable chunks were excised prior to the film’s premier to get the running time down under two hours (hence the last third of the movie is basically a string of foreshortened numbers culminating in the epic dance set-piece of “Girl Hunt”).

What it retains though is the commentary track with Liza Minnelli and her friend Michael Feinstein, which turns the movie into a jubilant family scrapbook. That is, if you grew up on movie sets, and Liza seems to have been present for much of The Band Wagon shoot and demonstrates considerable powers of recall for someone who was six at the time: “My dad thought up a lot of that [technical] stuff. My dad invented the crab dolly…. He said I want a camera to be able to move like a person who’s trying to see what’s happening.” (Okay, he didn’t actually invent it, but give the kid a break—and I wouldn’t be surprised if Minnelli refined or tinkered with its design.) I’ve never heard a more infectious commentary track—when she blurts, “I love a director directing a director,” she could be a character in the movie itself, and it’s touching to realize on how many levels this movie affected her.

The first time I heard this supplied a different sort of epiphany. My mother was on her deathbed and I was taking care of her at home; it was just the two of us, in hospice-mode. She had slipped into a coma a few days earlier and nothing more could be done but wait for the end. So to break the silence and maybe ease her passage, or my sorrow, I read to her a bit (Dave Hickey’s “The Little Church of Perry Mason” being apposite somehow) and then put on the DVD of The Band Wagon a friend had given us.

Watching it again, I remembered that at some point mom had worn her hair in the same style Charisse has in the film. Since the movie was in the player anyway, I decided to listen to Liza M.’s commentary. I was quickly hooked by each delighted memory or private joke the film triggered for her, as though her childhood itself had been directed by Vincente after the manner of Meet Me in St. Louis, fact and artistic fancy melding the way Astaire and Charisse did in “Dancing in the Dark.” That dance looked different now: I saw it through her eyes and then realized that Charisse incarnated the way my mother looked to me when I was six (and partly how she always appeared to my father in his vivid imagination). As the number eloquently winds down and the dancers return to their normal selves, the enraptured daughter waxes almost evangelical: “The way this number ends is pure Minnelli. Because music, which is in everybody’s life, and movement, which is in everybody’s life, just goes back—to life.”

My mother died that afternoon. It wasn’t like a movie or anything cinema had prepared me for. Except for an uncanny tranquility that came over me: A feeling that maybe everything that’s lost is simultaneously previewed/reincarnated in the movies. Or in our secret spiritual restorations of them.

Howard Hampton

Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Bros.

Chantal Akerman, La Captive, 2000, 35 mm, color, sound, 118 minutes. Ariana and Andrée (Sylvie Testud and Olivia Bonamy).


THE SINGULARITY OF Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)—the passe-partout to unlocking the mystery of cinema’s powers to derange—has never been more eloquently articulated than in Chris Marker’s paradigmatic cine-essay Sans Soleil (1983): “[O]nly one film had been capable of portraying impossible memory—insane memory,” says narrator Alexandra Stewart, whose hypnotic voice-over consists of passages of letters “sent” to her by Sandor Krasna, Marker’s fictional alter ego. This particular missive dilates on Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie, the protagonist of Hitchcock’s crowning masterpiece, who is consumed by the need to re-create the image of the soignée Madeleine (Kim Novak), the woman he loved and whose death he feels responsible for, through the coarse shopgirl Judy (Novak again). Krasna/Marker notes that he has seen Vertigo nineteen times; much like Scottie, he—and, by extension, all of those seized by cinephilia—finds himself in the grip of the compulsion to revisit, reimagine, relive.

Traces of Hitchcock’s film abound in multiple titles across several genres, most recently—and perversely—in Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, whose release later this summer occasions BAMcinématek’s brilliantly conceived series “The Vertigo Effect.” Set in Berlin in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Phoenix, which screens as a sneak preview on April 30, follows the bizarre reunion of Nelly (Nina Hoss), a concentration-camp survivor who has undergone reconstructive facial surgery, with her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Nelly, who gives her name as Esther, is unrecognizable to her spouse, who presumes she is dead and who has seemingly repressed his most unconscionable acts against her. That debasement continues when he despotically remolds the woman he knows as Esther into his wife. Fully compliant in this brutal masquerade, Nelly may appear to be the film’s most self-deluded character—until the film’s astonishing final scene, an ingenious indictment of Johnny’s, and a nation’s, pathologies.

It’s surely no coincidence that Madeleine, the woman with whom Scottie is so deliriously besotted in Vertigo, shares a name with the pastry that serves as the aide-mémoire for the narrator in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; in La Captive (2000), her sublime adaptation of the fifth volume of Proust’s magnum opus, Chantal Akerman makes the connection between that sprawling novel and Hitchcock’s movie even more explicit. Dispensing with the book’s belle-epoque time frame, Akerman’s film takes place in present-day Paris, where the mismatched lovers Ariane (Sylvie Testud) and Simon (Stanislas Merhar) live in his palatial apartment. Feverishly jealous, Simon is obsessed with the years he refers to as Ariane’s “other life,” when her romantic relationships were exclusively same-sex. Just as Scottie pursued Madeleine throughout San Francisco in Vertigo, Simon also becomes a possessed private detective, doggedly trailing his inscrutable beloved as she goes from spot to spot in the French capital. His relentless sleuthing eventually leads him to a dyke bar, where he interrogates two friends of Ariane’s. “I’m burning to know what goes on between two women that doesn’t between a man and a woman,” he implores—a query to which there is only one sensible answer: “It can’t be explained.”

As the BAM series’ lineup reveals, Vertigo serves as a crucial referent for several other great movies about sapphic desire. Jenni Olson’s Fog City essay film The Joy of Life (2005) devotes part of its psycho-geographical ruminations—“You fall in love with a girl. You fall in love with a lot of girls. You fall in love with a city”—to Scottie’s rescuing of Madeleine after she jumps into the San Francisco Bay. (Vertigo figures even more prominently in Olson’s latest nimble cine-meditation, The Royal Road, which closes the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Art of the Real” program on April 26.) Dressed in a gray suit that instantly recalls Edith Head’s costuming for Novak, actress hopeful Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) may or may not be the dreamed-of, ideal self of abject Diane Selwyn (also Watts), gutted by her breakup with Camilla (Laura Elena Harring). Which brings us back to insane memory: I will return to Lynch’s incomparable work, for easily my thirtieth viewing, when it screens on April 18. Will it unfold exactly as I remembered it, exactly as I want it to? Or will it once again remake me?

Melissa Anderson

“The Vertigo Effect” plays at BAMcinématek April 16–30.

Alain Cavalier, Le Paradis, 2014, color, sound, 70 minutes.


ALAIN CAVALIER’S LE PARADIS, making its US premiere Tuesday, April 14 at the second edition of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real festival, begins with an almost unbearably moving overture. The first images are of a brown, fleecy peacock chick, sticking close to the shadow of its mother. After a cut, the little bird is seen inside a cardboard box, swaddled in what appears to be bandages. Finally, it lies lifeless at the base of a spindly tree—“In the fresh blue watercress,” intones the director, an invisible presence throughout by way of voice-over and his first-person singular perspective, here quoting Rimbaud’s “Le dormeur du val” (The Sleeper in the Valley). After a suggestive shot of a black cat trundling up a stairwell, the camera returns to the peacock’s grave and finds it empty. Cavalier, reaching into the frame from behind the camera, marks the spot with a piece of flint, and has a young man—a grandson of the eighty-three-year old director, perhaps?—fasten the rude monument in place with nails. Through all of this, it is green summer; when Cavalier returns in winter, the trees are gone, but, clearing snow from one of the stumps, he discovers the monument intact. “Saved!” the director cries.

Cavalier completed his first feature in 1962; if he is familiar to American audiences at all, it is likely for this film, Le combat dans l’île, which enjoyed a limited rerelease in 2009, or perhaps for Thérèse, his austere 1986 biopic of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Since Le rencontre (1996), Cavalier has been working in the mode of film diary, and though the films he has subsequently produced in this vein—Vies (2000), Le filmeur (2005), and Irène (2009)—as well as his recent collaborations with the actor Vincent Lindon, in which he is also playing himself, have been hailed in his native France, they have scarcely been heard of in these United States.

Le Paradis, as its opening may suggest, finds Cavalier directly concerned with death, as he was concerned with aging and infirmity in Le filmeur. His proximity to death, however, brings him closer to youth here—not only in terms of his “co-stars,” playmates who with one noteworthy exception are of tender age, but to his own boyhood. “At the age of seven,” his voice-over intones, “they stick you in a boarding school, to learn Latin, to read the gospels. Then you learn Greek, to read Homer’s Odyssey. Then they let you go with your head stuffed full of crazy, crazy images.”

Now, seventy-five years later, the crazy, crazy images through which Cavalier first learned to understand the world continue to knock about in his head. The greater part of his sixty-seven-minute home movie finds him “reenacting” these foundational myths—Odysseus’s journey, the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, the myth of Job, the crucifixion and rebirth of Jesus—with the humblest of household materials. Windup toys—a tin robot and a plastic goose—become the hero of the Odyssey and the Prodigal Son; a ceramic owl plays Athena; a wooden knob on the “stern” of a hollowed fruit becomes Charon and his boat. If I am not mistaken, I believe Christ is played by a reflective lawn ornament of some sort. Each of these little scenarios is staged with the resourcefulness common to a lonely child left to his own devices. What Cavalier is interested in is expressing the eternal by way of the trivial—or rather in illustrating how they are one in the same. In a 1960s film by Jean-Luc Godard, to whose late work Cavalier’s own has often been compared, the universe was located in a coffee cup; in Le Paradis, you can find it in a junk drawer.

Like Godard’s Goodbye to Language (2014), Le Paradis is a home movie—the great majority of it seems to have been shot on Cavalier’s own property, and he locates the Eden referred to in the title in his own backyard. But where Godard’s film is typically gnomic, Cavalier’s is sweetly pellucid. His language, though delivered in a conspiratorial hush, is plain, his points of reference the lingua franca of Western culture. The usual dismissal that greets work made in the amateur mode—“My kid could do that”—would be off-target here, as always, though one doubts Cavalier would take it as an insult.

Nick Pinkerton

Alain Cavalier’s Le Paradis plays Tuesday, April 14 at 7 PM at the Francesca Beale Theater as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s series “Art of the Real.”

Simons Says

04.09.15

Frédéric Tcheng, Dior and I, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 90 minutes. Raf Simons.


FRÉDÉRIC TCHENG has been affiliated with two of the more high-profile fashion documentaries of the past decade, both portraits of exceptionally outsize personalities in a profession rife with them. He served as coeditor of Matt Tyrnauer’s Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008), a hagiographic chronicle of the final year of the Italian couturier’s reign, and codirected Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2012), a charming bauble on the peerless fashion editor and epigrammatist. For Dior and I, his first nonfiction project as sole creator, Tcheng focuses on a far less outlandish figure in haute couture: Raf Simons, the Belgian designer who was appointed head of the venerable Paris-based house of the title in 2012 and whose most outré behavior would seem to include downing too many cans of Coke Zero and wearing knee-length white shorts with black socks and black shoes in the atelier.

Tcheng includes no mention of the scandal that led to Simons’s anointment, namely the anti-Semitic barroom ravings of John Galliano, who oversaw Dior from 1996 to 2011. But he does structure his film around a dramatic crisis—the highly compressed eight weeks that Simons has to present his first haute-couture collection—whose outcome is a foregone conclusion: deferential chitchat with Anna Wintour, cheers, smiles, tears, backstage photos with Marion Cotillard. Yet Tcheng animates this countdown to inevitable triumph, too often the organizing principle of designer docs, by giving ample time to those who have frequently been overlooked in the genre: the white-smocked men and (mostly) women who cut, sew, and alter, unflagging artisans who can be found hand stitching thousands of bugles onto a gown at 3 AM.

Of these behind-the-scenes craftspeople, two—both middle-aged women—especially stand out: the premières Florence Chehet, adored by Simon’s chief adjutant, Pieter Mulier, for her unwavering cheerfulness, and Monique Bailly, who assuages her deadline anxiety with a container of Haribo Gummi candies. Their contrasting personalities point to a larger schism in high fashion, in which meeting the needs of private clients can sometimes conflict with those of the collection. (Another split, that between public and private life, is the central theme of Christian Dior and I, the New Look designer’s 1956 memoir, passages of which are read throughout the film.) Tcheng illustrates these clashing priorities with footage of Simons’s mildly indignant exchange, played out behind a halfway-closed door, with Catherine Rivière, the imposing directrice of Dior Haute Couture, who argues that Chehet had to be spared for a few crucial days to fit a customer in New York willing to spend 350,000 euros on bespoke garments. To Rivière’s assertion that one can’t say no to clients, Simons sniffs, “Well, you also can’t say no to me.”

His employees certainly never do, even—or especially—when they can’t understand him: Simons is fluent neither in French nor in the particular decorum of this rarefied world. (Prior to his appointment at Dior, Simons was the creative director for Jil Sander.) “In haute couture, we say Monsieur,” a veteran seamstress gently points out to her new boss, who isn’t especially keen on the honorific, during his meet-and-greet with the staff. Though the film is unquestionably a flattering portrait of Simons, it is also more broadly, and more fruitfully, a testament to a tradition and to those who have upheld it for decades—and who have as equal a claim on the first-person pronoun in the film’s title as Monsieur does.

Melissa Anderson

Dior and I opens April 10 in New York and Toronto and will expand to other cities on April 17.

Only Human

04.08.15

Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Rio, 40 graus (Rio, 100 Degrees), 1955, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 100 minutes.


THERE ARE FEW wider-sung songs than Brazilian composer Tom Jobim’s “The Girl from Ipanema,” myriad versions of which are performed in The Music According to Antonio Carlos Jobim (2012). The documentary, codirected by Nelson Pereira dos Santos and the late composer’s granddaughter Dora Jobim, almost entirely consists of archival concert and studio footage of musicians (among them Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Gal Costa, and Chico Buarque) rendering Jobim tunes like “Girl,” “Desafinado,” and “Waters of March” across a wide span of languages and decades. Occasionally performing is the Rio de Janeiro–raised Jobim himself who, in chronicling Brazilian culture through his work, acts as both artist and witness.

An April 9 screening of Music will open the Museum of Modern Art’s film series “Nelson Pereira dos Santos: Politics and Passion.” The still-active eighty-six-year-old Pereira—who will introduce screenings during the series’ first weekend and whose archive is providing its 35-mm prints—has devoted much of his life to finding ways to represent Brazil’s many faces onscreen. While MoMA’s eight-film tribute comprises less than a third of his output, it still offers a strong gathering of views.

Pereira was born into a cinephilic working-class family in São Paulo, studied law, and worked as a journalist before pursuing filmmaking. The Brazilian cinema of the late 1940s and early 1950s was dominated by studio films made in imitation of Hollywood models; Pereira, dissatisfied, instead drew inspiration from Italian Neorealism for his first feature, Rio, 100 Degrees (1955) (screening April 10 and 14). He shot on streets and enlisted a large cast of nonprofessional actors to portray a Sunday in modern Rio de Janeiro, evincing the class, race, and gender inequities that shape the lives of cariocas from all backgrounds. The film’s stories are linked by scenes of five impoverished young black peanut vendors traversing town in search of customers, and are resolved with the hope of Rio’s residents—like their city—outlasting their present-day struggles.

Rio, 100 Degrees and its like-minded follow-up, Rio, Northern Zone (1957) (screening April 11 and 15)—a tragic portrait of a black lower-class samba composer (Grande Otelo) striving to gain recognition for his work—are often considered catalyzing films in the Cinema Novo movement. They also indicate the career-long thrust of Pereira’s humanist art. His main characters, both in these films and in subsequent ones, are outwardly fragile human archetypes that endure through inner strength.

Pereira’s first film to gain international acclaim was Barren Lives (1963) (April 10 and 15), an outraged and compassionate adaptation of Graciliano Ramos’s novel about a nomadic family searching Brazil’s northeastern desert in the early ’40s for a place to settle. As they find shelter, lose it, and set out again, each member seems trapped by the need to rely upon others: The illiterate, uneducated patriarch is at the mercy of his employers; the matriarch and two children are unable to earn their own livings. The arid landscape in which the family moves beneath strong, clear light gradually turns into a blinding hell, one that the film suggests these people will survive for their descendants to continue to wander.

The military coup that occurred a few weeks before Barren Lives’s Cannes screenings led to a dictatorship whose rule over Brazil lasted until 1985. Pereira escaped censorship during these years partly by shifting further toward allegory. A Very Crazy Asylum (1970) (April 11 and 16), for instance, adapted Machado de Assis’s 1882 satirical novella The Alienist into a tale of townspeople who respond to being institutionalized at a scientifically minded priest’s behest by compelling their jailer to join their mad ranks. How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (1971) (April 12 and 16) satirically uses colonial explorers’ texts to show a sixteenth-century indigenous tribe that resolves to feed on Europeans and, in so doing, potentially dooms itself to extinction. In The Amulet of Ogum (1974) (April 12 and 17), a blind street troubadour sings of a young man combating gangsters through outlawed Afro-Brazilian religious rites, whose power the singer seems to knows firsthand.

As the dictatorship’s hold weakened, Pereira made the epic Memoirs of Prison (1984) (April 13 and 17), a docudrama based on Graciliano Ramos’s unfinished nonfiction book. The author was imprisoned in the 1930s during an earlier era of authoritarian governance in Brazil for having ostensible Communist sympathies. Despite a lack of formal charges, he chose to remain in prison without initially protesting his arrest, an experience from which his first-person narrative emerged. In Pereira’s self-reflexive film, the gaunt, hawklike Ramos (Carlos Vereza) appears as an ambivalent figure. Several scenes show him sitting apart from his cellmates and writing in faithful observation of them. He feels driven to expose their conditions, without laying claim to a political cause.

Aaron Cutler

Nelson Pereira dos Santos: Politics and Passion” runs April 9–17, 2015 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Missing Link

04.07.15

Asgar Farhadi, About Elly, 2009, 35 mm, color, sound, 119 minutes. Sepideh and Elly (Golshifteh Farahani and Taraneh Alidousti).


WITH THEIR WIVES and young children in tow, three old friends drive from Tehran to a weekend rental on the Caspian Sea. Almost from the vacation’s first moment, things go wrong, and tiny lies snowball into matters of life and death. Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly (2009) is finally being released six years after it won the Silver Bear in Berlin and Best Film at the Tribeca Film Festival. In the interim, Farhadi made two lauded movies, the foreign-language Oscar winner A Separation (2011) and The Past (2013). About Elly is looser, less self-serious, and more provocative morally and politically.

My reservations about A Separation have to do with a sense that beneath Farhadi’s putative even-handedness toward his male and female characters the film blames the wife more than the husband for their irreconcilable differences; her desire to get away from the systemic oppression of women in Iran comes across as selfish compared to the husband’s obligation to stay with his ailing father. A Separation exploits an ideology, not limited to conservative societies, that women’s value is predicated on self-sacrifice. The depiction of women in The Past only confirmed that gender bias. In About Elly, however, men and women are similarly careless, self-interested, deceptive, and quick to blame anyone other than themselves.

In addition to the three married couples, About Elly’s weekend party includes the titular Elly (Taraneh Alidousti), who teaches in the children’s primary school, and the recently divorced Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini). Elly has ostensibly been invited to help with the children, but Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) is trying to set up a romance between Elly and Ahmad. To defuse a potential problem with their landlady, who might object to having two single adults in her rental, Sepideh impulsively tells her that they are newlyweds. This white lie will come back to haunt everyone, as will their total disregard for Elly’s life history, needs, and desires. When she goes missing, they realize that no one even knows her surname.

Shot entirely with a handheld camera, About Elly opens with a burst of energy as the vacationing adults scream and wave out the windows of their car, like children on their way to summer camp. The pace slows as Farhadi sets up characters and relationships. About halfway through the film, we see Elly on the beach with the children flying a kite. In a stunning sequence, the camera moves closer and closer to her near ecstatic face. And then she’s gone. Two of the children run to the house to tell the adults that the third child is drowning. It’s not until after the child is rescued that anyone realizes that Elly is missing. Has she drowned or has she simply returned to Tehran without announcing her departure? From this point, the pace accelerates and the web of evasions and lies becomes as compelling as in any great suspense movie. We might not care about any of the characters—it’s doubtful that Farhadi wants us to—but it’s difficult to escape the implication that their situation reflects that of their entire society and, in many ways, our own.

Amy Taubin

About Elly runs Wednesday, April 8–Tuesday, April 21 at Film Forum in New York.

Walerian Borowczyk, A Private Collection, 1973, 35 mm, color, sound, 12 minutes.


THE FILMS OF WALERIAN BOROWCZYK, now receiving a weeklong retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, are among the purest instances of fetishist cinema that I know. Although “Boro”’s movies certainly abound with erotic fixations and substitute phalluses—the altar candlesticks and zucchinis in the “Thérése Philosophe” episode of Immoral Tales (1973), the bedpost in The Beast (1975), the catalogue of verboten vintage erotic paraphernalia in A Private Collection (1973)—I use this phrase not with a solely sexual connotation, but with the broader meaning of fetish: the imbuing of inanimate objects with human or extrahuman power and presence.

In Borowczyk’s live-action films, objects vie for attention with subjects to a degree which is unusual and disconcerting. It would be tempting to call this a failure, a case of production design rushing into the void left by absence of direction, were it not so clearly a part of Borowczyk’s undertaking to confound the division between people and things, portrait and landscape. I specify “live-action” films because Borowczyk’s first film work was in the field of animation, and it was as an animator that he gained notoriety outside of his native Poland. Like Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Brad Bird, and Frank Tashlin, Borowczyk belongs to the exclusive company of animators turned live-action filmmakers. While it is difficult to find any common linkage among such disparate company, in imagining how the transition might have influenced Borowczyk, we can point to a deliberate shallowness that marks both his animated and live-action works, in the latter instance best exemplified in the medieval-set Blanche (1971), which approximates the flatness of Western painting before the innovation of perspective. Another Borowczyk hallmark is an intimate and irreverent relationship with art history, particularly but not exclusively as it relates to sexual behavior. His 1964 Renaissance is one oblique example. It opens on a roomful of unidentifiable detritus which is then seen to spontaneously recompose itself through the use of ingenious and painstaking stop-motion photography, until finally forming a still-life scene, which then explodes and returns to the state of primordial chaos. In a recent piece for Film Comment magazine, the critic Kent Jones notes that “[Federico] Fellini and [Sam] Fuller both expressed a desire to make a film without people, just objects. Tellingly, neither of them ever did anything about it.” Well, Borowczyk did.

Borowczyk’s background offers some clues to his unique mise-en-scene. He was born in the village of Kwilcz in 1923. Unlike his rough contemporaries (Morgenstern, Munk, Wajda), he didn’t come to filmmaking through the newly formed Łódź Film School, but studied painting instead, at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. Upon graduation, he became a much in-demand designer of film posters, a crucial figure in the so-called Polish School of Poster—a dozen instances of his craftwork from this period are on display in the Frieda and Roy Furman Gallery, adjacent to the lobby of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. Borowczyk’s first animations began to play out around the time that he was thirty, and with 1958’s Dom (Home), codirected by Jan Lenica, he can be found exhibiting a mastery of the full range of techniques—stop-motion, integrated drawing and live-action, and decoupage, including an Eadweard Muybridge pastiche, in a style that would later greatly influence Gilliam—to approximate the fantasy life of an idle housewife (played by Borowczyk’s own wife and muse, Ligia Branice).

Dom, along with Renaissance, will play as part of a showcase of Borowczyk’s key short works included in “Obscure Pleasures: The Films of Walerian Borowczyk.” The retro follows a similar event last year at London’s BFI Southbank, occasioned by UK-based Arrow Films’ restorations of Borowczyk’s canonical works, all undertakings marked by the participation of Daniel Bird, an expert in Polish fantastic films and literature generally, and Borowczyk specifically. (The series’ title comes from a 2013 documentary on Borowczyk codirected by Bird, which screens in a program called, rather unimaginatively, “A Dazzling Imagination.”)

Walerian Borowczyk, Goto, Island of Love, 1968, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 93 minutes.


Dom was the work that announced Borowczyk to the rest of Europe. It won the Grand Prix at the Brussels Experimental Film Festival, running concurrent to the Expo 58 World’s Fair, and along with the awarding of countryman Roman Polanski’s short Two Men and a Wardrobe, its success signified the dawn of a new day for Polish cinema—soon to be Polish expatriate cinema. Borowczyk, emboldened, left the following year for Paris, where he would spend the vast majority of his working life. (Story of Sin [1975] is his lone feature made in his homeland.) It was there that he met producer Anatole Dauman, whose Argos Films underwrote the careers of the Left Bank contingent of New Wave filmmakers, including Alain Resnais and Chris Marker, with whom Borowczyk collaborated on The Astronauts (1959).

In fact Marker’s sole contribution was the loan of his pet owl, Anabase, and his established name, which it was hoped would help to launch Borowczyk in his new home. And launched he was—the 1960s were the period in which Borowczyk was held in the greatest critical esteem, producing praised works like Renaissance and the austere live-action short Rosalie (1966) before his perhaps inevitable leap into long-form filmmaking. Within the space of a year, Borowczyk released his first (and only) feature animation, Theatre of Mr. and Mrs. Kabal (1967), and his first live-action feature, Goto, Island of Love (1968). Set on an isolated, inescapable island nation where a natural disaster has retarded progress for nearly a century—the metaphor for life in Communist Poland, where the film was banned, was there for anyone who cared to pick it up—Goto focuses on a lowly subaltern (Guy Saint-John) who fixes his sights on the wife (Branice) of the island’s third-generation military dictator (Pierre Brasseur), and schemes his ways through the ranks to get to her while polishing her boots with unusual relish. (In Mr. and Mrs. Kabal, the mechanism of fascism is re-created on the smaller plane of the domestic sphere.)

Borowczyk’s basic conviction of the centrality of eroticism and fantasy in all human endeavor didn’t change greatly from Goto onward, though, beginning with the appearance of Immoral Tales, the response to his films did. Working in animation was a way for a generation of artists living in Communist countries to circumnavigate the censorious dictates of socialist realism, but now, in the West, Borowczyk had a new set of taboos to tackle, and he plunged into bestiality, blasphemy, and incest with gusto. For some, with Immoral Tales and the films that followed, the artist had reduced himself to the status of pornographer. And while it is difficult to deny that it is a significant step down from Dom and Goto to the likes of Emmanuelle 5 (1986) and highbrow soft-core for French television, the sort of thing that Borowczyk was doing at the end of his career, his output from the mid-1970s onward has been unfairly lassoed together and labeled as undifferentiated Eurosleaze, while in fact these films offer flashes of his original compositional eye, hypnotic contrapuntal editing rhythms, and disquieting tonal gifts.

In more than one respect, the opportunity to see the rarely screened work from Borowczyk’s “decline” is the highlight of Film Society’s series. In what is, unfortunately, an increasingly commonplace occurrence, the restorations afforded to Borowczyk’s best-known works (Goto, Blanche, Immoral Tales, The Beast) have not been accompanied by the striking of new 35-mm prints, and they will be shown on DCP. His latter-days filmography, however, will be shown on 35 mm, including The Streetwalker (1976), Behind Convent Walls (1977), his entry in 1978 omnibus film Private Collections, Immoral Women (1979), Lulu (1980), and Love Rites (1987). It is on account of the appearance of such rarities that “Obscure Pleasures” is among the most anticipated series of this year for cinephiles and perverts, two Venn diagram circles that have significant overlap.

Nick Pinkerton

“Obscure Pleasures: The Films of Walerian Borowczyk” runs April 2–9 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.