Friday, November 27, 2015

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014)

"I'm happy to hear you're doing fine!"

These words are uttered several times in this wonderful film, by various individuals, to someone on the other end of a phone line; someone out of plain sight as far as the viewer is concerned. What exactly goes on on the other side, we do not know, but taking a closer look at Roy Andersson's characters who are, in the end, only human, we can somehow gather that these words probably have no real weight. They are just formal exchanges; empty, reassuring words, spoken by someone who's probably wallowing in misery, for all you know.

"A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence" (2014) is an existential dramedy that gives us a bird's-eye view of the crisis of modern man. It is a bittersweet examination of the middle class human condition with a hilariously absurdist, but visibly bleak flavour. Surreal, darkly funny vignettes revolving around multiple characters touching upon man's never-ending struggle for a meaningful life and an overall quest for love and fulfillment forms the core of Andersson's film, the final part of his "Living Trilogy".

Every human soul on this planet is struggling with something, small or big. No one is living, what you would call an epitome of a perfectly ideal existence. The pursuit of happiness is an endless one, a constant journey, that at some point of time, makes individuals reflect upon their being, ponder about the meaning of their lives; all the while keeping in mind a certain inherent futility associated with this struggle. For everyone has to eventually perish, a fact almost hammered across with three small vignettes cheekily titled, "Meeting with death".

One of these vignettes is a masterwork, a literal humorous take on how material wealth means nothing and once you die, you can't really take it with you. In another vignette, an insensitivity and triviality rendered to life in general is showcased in how a man offers to drink the beer of a person who couldn't live to consume it, dying only seconds after purchasing it. This casual, nonchalant acceptance of death comes as a sharp contrast to the otherwise portrayed struggle to live.

The two salesmen of novelty entertainment items serve as the only constant characters throughout the film and they are the funniest of them all. "We want to help people have fun", they proclaim in the most unenthusiastic manner as they go on to demonstrate their articles, mostly by manipulating their way to a potential customer. The only article they have most faith in, meets with great success for them in a way, but proves to be a losing prospect to one man it is demonstrated to.

Themes of nostalgia and the days of yore being associated with the good life are evoked wit the wonderful vignette of Limping Lotta's bar and its old world charm. A melancholic sentiment about the good ol' days is palpable with the decrepit old regular customer being the only one to have been in the golden days of the bar, now reduced to an almost deaf man, unable to hear much, aurally shielded from the wicked modern world!

The story of a uniformed army officer, Ove Bergius, who can't seem to make it to a venue for an important lecture, seems to dwell upon the theme of a sense of longing and unfulfillment about something that one eagerly desires but could not achieve. Bergius is shown checking the venue at least twice in different scenes, hoping to catch the lecture he missed, also thinking that perhaps he misinterpreted the day and time!

Later with the breaking of the fourth wall, it is revealed that he took great efforts, but the lecture was, in fact, cancelled, and he is perhaps stuck in some kind of psychological limbo, hoping for it to be held again! This same vignette is paralleled with the story of a Flamenco instructor's unrequited love for one of her younger students.

Bergius' story may not be as random as it seems. Towards the end comes a sequence about a person's confusion about the day of the week. "If you can't keep track, chaos will reign", warns a bystander. Could Bergius' suspicion of his misinterpretation of the day and time be in fact, a chaotic consequence of a disappointment over a missed opportunity, despite being very particular about the timing on that fateful occasion?

The temporal mix-up takes a literal turn in one of the most outrageous sequences; the bizarre episode of the appearance of King Charles XII and his army in a modern day bar. The explicit anachronism here directly mirrors the a loss of the track of time. Time folds upon itself; a form of chaos! Charles XII reappears, lost and wounded, after establishing his presence with a bang, reaffirming how ups and downs are part of life and there are phases in every existence. Even kings are brought to their knees and have to wait in line for their turn to use the toilet! In the vast scope of the universe, all human beings are, but just ordinary human beings.

Some very nuanced behavioural observations about people lead to tremendous conclusions and profound lessons in a satisfying existence. A girl takes a moment to remove a pebble in her shoe and it gives Jonathan (one of the salesmen) an awakening of sorts; if there is a pebble, remove it, and move on; don't endure it. A nightmare about his involvement in a rather terrible deed gives his thoughts an even more philosophical bent.

All the while, pigeons, not seen, but heard, look at all these sights from branches, watching, reflecting, musing; gazing upon the lives of these human beings; a race dying a slow death; a symbolic reverse of the opening scene of an old, pale man gazing at a dead, stuffed pigeon on a branch displayed in a glass chamber. Every once in a while there is the dreadful mocking laughter that is heard from one of the salesmen's novelty entertainment items. Whenever that laughter comes on screen, it almost seems like the laugh is on these hapless creatures.

"A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence" is a refreshingly original film by Roy Andersson; a masterpiece that balances pathos with wry humour, replete with repetitions and deadpan non sequitur tapped to a deliciously comic effect, inducing a constant smile and a nervous chuckle every once in a while. Its multiple short snippets will not only entertain you with the savagely funny writing, but also give you something deep to reflect upon.

Score: 10/10

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Kwaidan (1964)

A revisit of Masaki Kobayashi's masterpiece of atmospheric horror, "Kwaidan" (1964), an epic collection of four spine-chilling tales of the supernatural, effortlessly enthralled yet again, with its majestic flourish, this time in a brand new, fully restored, uncut Criterion transfer, the spectacular cinematography with its gorgeous colours enhanced, like you've never seen. 

All four stories now appear in their full, unabridged detail, previously unavailable even in the earlier Criterion edition. Of course, the cuts were in no way hampering the meaning or the flow of the stories, but what is the point if a film is not enjoyed in its complete form, in its original, intended glory?

What we get with the new release, is the complete 183 minutes version with a mesmerizing image transfer that will make your jaw drop. The richness of the beautiful colours is significantly highlighted in this stunning new transfer. The film's biggest asset is its chilling, slow-burning, otherworldly atmosphere, the likes of which are rarely matched, and this new edition with its sharper, fuller look, accentuates it like never before. 

Kobayashi takes us right into the realm of the spirits with a dense, enchanting environment replete with a bravura sound design and a dissonant score by the great Tôru Takemitsu, creating an unsettling, hypnotic atmosphere. The set design is magnificent; words are simply insufficient to describe how great the achieved look really is!

The supernatural realm comes frighteningly alive with Kobayashi's extraordinary vision. There are effects of the kind that would shame any modern horror. Forget all the mindless gore, fake CGI and those annoying, cliched jump scares of today; this is true horror that makes your hair stand on end, simply by placing you in spirit (pun not intended) in the ghostly otherworld created by the talent on board.

In order to enjoy a film like "Kwaidan", you really have to immerse yourself in the universe created by Kobayashi. Of course, he does more than half the job quite effortlessly, for once you witness those magnetic frames, you can't help but experience the mystical pull and be swept away, far within! With a strong command on storytelling already established with his prior masterworks like "Harakiri" (1962) and "The Human Condition" (1959-1961) films, the viewer cannot help but submit to Kobayashi's narrative prowess and watch the haunting poetry in motion unfold.

All of the tales are brilliant of course, but the one that stands tall is still "Hoichi the Earless" an old folk tale, often recreated in Japanese theatre as well. Akira Kurosawa regular, Takashi Shimura stars in this segment in an important role. There's a distinct tragic air to this ancient lore; a dirge-like quality that has to be seen and felt to be believed. The assembly of ghosts in a manor listening to the recital of a tragic tale of a lost battle is one of the greatest sequences ever seen in cinema, accomplishing the unique feat of being hair-raising and sorrowful at the same time!

"The Black Hair" tells the story of a wronged woman, whose husband, a samurai abandons her owing to poverty and returns many years later, full of regret, only to make a horrible discovery. The design of desolate ruins, and especially the makeup effects in this segment are nothing short of brilliant. It is unbelievable how authentic they are for the time the film was made.

"The Woman in the Snow", starring one of Japan's most famous stars, Tatsuya Nakadai, tells the tale of a ghostly woman who asks for a solemn oath from a young woodcutter in exchange for sparing his life. The woodcutter manages to keep the oath, except much later in his life. The consequences of breaking a promise are revealed in a terrifying twist. The use of colours in this segment is exemplary. Various vivid shades of blue and red are used to a striking effect. Special mention must be made of the colouring of the sky; the way it changes across times, and that nightmarish design of a giant eye looking down upon the earth is goose-bumpy as hell!

The final tale, "In a Cup of Tea" is the shortest and the most surrealistic of them all. It all begins when a middle-aged samurai begins to see the reflection of an unknown younger man in his cup of tea. The man in the reflection eventually shows up, causing havoc with the samurai's mental state.

This story ends with a fantastic meta twist, while maintaining in an initial disclaimer that it was an old folklore passed down across generations, but one that did not have a concrete ending! A clever little conclusion is provided here in the form of an epilogue of sorts, of course, and it is the kind of finale that will make you cheer in sheer admiration. 

"Kwaidan" is an essential classic of Japanese cinema. If you wish to witness a filmmaking marvel, grab it now!

Score: 10/10

Friday, November 6, 2015

La Piscine (1969)

The tranquility of an idyllic, romantic summer getaway to a plush French villa is disturbed for a handsome couple, when an old friend and his teenage daughter unexpectedly join the party. The fragility of multiple bonds lies exposed with the arrival of this strange pair of guests in this complex psychological drama surrounding mysterious relationships.

In "La Piscine" aka "The Swimming Pool" (1969), written and directed by Jacques Deray, Jean-Paul (Alain Delon), a failed writer with supposed emotional problems takes a vacation with his beautiful girlfriend from over two years, Marianne (Romy Schneider). Both of them spend most of their time either taking lazy sunbaths or canoodling by the large swimming pool in the property when they aren't taking a dip in it.

Enter old friend Harry (Maurice Ronet) and his attractive 18-year old daughter Penelope (Jane Birkin), and suddenly, there are ripples in an otherwise calm atmosphere, as seemingly healthy, strong bonds begin to show cracks following some startling revelations about all four involved.

"La Piscine" unfolds with a languorous pace, its lazy mood mirroring the leisurely sun-soaked holiday of Jean-Paul and Marianne. The plot and the narrative is mostly minimal, with almost nothing happening for most of the first half hour, but we do get to have a good glimpse of some gorgeous looking people spending their time around the luxurious property. During this time, we are given the chance to soak in in the relaxed environment and observe the body language of the four primary characters. Their interactions seem to hint at a lot more, a whole lot different than what initially meets the eye.

A slow-burning tension mounts gradually as we notice those furtive glances and some visible discomfort. In what seems to be a passionate romance between the lead couple, there suddenly appears to be a strange, uncomfortable distance of sort. The palpable emotional wall between the father, Harry and his daughter Penelope suggest that this is not your ordinary, healthy father-daughter pair, and there is something definitely out of place.

Certain character actions coerce you to form your own questions and formulate theories. For instance, why did Marianne initially refuse to tell Jean-Paul whose call it was when Harry phoned? Could there be something between Marianne and Harry or was she just teasing him? What is the meaning of Penelope's overall awkwardness around the others? Or is she just plain bored among all the older people? Why is Jean-Paul so interested in her age, unabashedly even asking it, despite her father being around?

The dialog is mostly restrained, and there are no explicit dramatic exchanges except in one vital scene. The nature of the complex relationships portrayed is revealed piece by piece, and with a strange, unexpected nonchalance, the kind of revelation that you may even miss if you blink. There is a dysfunction alright, but there is an air of ambiguity as well, even when exposing it to the viewer. Certain aspects of the past are divulged as subtle twists, making you rewind and think back to an interaction, trying to comprehend an exchange, while in other cases it seems to make sense and fall into place.

The tactful handling of these sequences and the steady control exercised here is remarkable indeed. Deray creates an unsettling atmosphere of understated suspense, and we realize that beneath all the glamour and the romance, something very sinister is brewing, only we are unsure where it is all headed. It almost seems like an unusual calm before a storm, like a dormant volcano waiting to erupt, but without a clear knowledge of how and when such an event may occur.

Of course, the third act springs a surprise of shocking proportions, and even this shock is brought upon rather gently, keeping in tune with the languid tone of the film. The film would've been just as effective as an elegantly mounted sensual psychological drama, even without the thriller element introduced in the third act, sans which it would've still retained all its tense, suspenseful qualities.

"La Piscine" is exquisitely filmed and most of the action is confined to the compound walls of the villa and around the swimming pool. This titular swimming pool, serves as the symbol of calm, pleasant waters turned into a deadly vortex that would change lives forever. With a setup and characters like those depicted, not surprisingly, comes the exploration of an existential ennui, a trope already mastered by the Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni.

With talents like Jean-Claude Carrière, Maurice Ronet, Alain Delon and the lovely Romy Schneider on board, Jacques Deray certainly delivers an engaging drama that goes far beyond being a mere showcase of two handsome men sipping scotch and two gorgeous ladies sunbathing.

Score: 9/10