Raise the Red Lantern is my first Zhang Yimou and first Gong Li, the latter’s talent discussed with exclamation so much that it makes me feel like I missed out, although there are many beauties who have come to grace cinema after her. Nonetheless there can’t be a better first impression than watching her play Songlian, determined to dig her own grave despite her mother’s warnings. She behaves as stiffly and as nervous as a wall in one minute and trying to shout those same walls down during the next. I’m used to more Western narratives where a woman, whose only companion is her husband and perhaps a lover, becomes unhinged in isolation. But this movie complicates that dynamic by making Songlian one of four mistresses to an early 20th century Chinese aristocrat Master Chen (Ma Jingwu), whose attitudes to each other are less cooperative and more competitive, adding to her isolation, a crippling yet universal feeling for many of literature’s heroines. But while we’re sympathizing with her and want her to succeed and play her wifely role perfectly, we’re also frustrated by her introversion the growing viciousness that her servants (especially Lin Kong as her servant Yan’er) begin to notice.
I love how the mistresses are depicted, Songlian, the dowager one, the ‘nice’ one (Cao Cuifen) and Meishan (He Caifei), the holdout who still introduces herself as an opera singer. She always uses lipstick and light make up and her chamber reflects her former occupation, looking like a stage as Songlian remarks. It’s has the most personality compared to the golden warmth of the first two mistresses’ chambers. It’s one of the last times that the two women will be positioned as equals, both having the same stakes at the game, both deferring a chance to be in their Master’s company to the ‘nice’ mistress through one’s schemes and the other’s indulgence.
But I noticed that there’s more to Songlian’s off-white chamber when her frenemy the third mistress visits. Plastered on the walls are scrolls as large as Meishan’s masks, a reminder of her off-screen past as a university student – funnily enough that Meishan looks up to her because of the former’s unfinished education. I’m starting to grow into the shot above as my best because of the inadvertent double effect that these scrolls put attention to themselves as well as recede to walls of the same colour, as well as reflecting the restrained nature of both her studies and as a mistress-in-waiting. Even the red lanterns don’t even make the place look more colourful. Yimou’s camera prefers to push the camera back, making these women as secondary to the room as the room’s motifs. She finally lets Meishan into her chamber not as a competitor but as a confidante but there’s so much going on with the body language and blocking to reinforce the borders between them, as Meishan furthers herself into Songlian’s quarters there’s still some reluctance, with her arms crossed and the latter with a demure pose, not looking at her visitor directly.
The shots that came close to being the best are exteriors. Songlian is outside her quarters, giving her the freedom to navigate the palace in open air but she again recedes, making her insignificant compared to the palace’s grand scale as well as its many, conniving inhabitants. But this new knowledge has a price, giving her more access to the family’s ghosts. The ‘nice’ mistress tells her not to go to the locked chamber. Of course the household likes to keep their oppression from reach but she goes back when her friend Meishan is dragged there through her own drunken fault.
Because of an injustice the house seems as if it has its own spirit, or that Songlian makes it seem that way to keep her victim alive. In the household light means power and most of the time the Master and the men have this, the lanterns symbolizing the Master’s company and the favour tipping towards a certain mistress. But sometimes the women get this power like the shot below where the women can scare the men off, being unable to kill off or rid of a subversive mistress.
Her freedom is eventually negated in the end when she regresses into her childlike self with school girl outfit, walking back and forth in her own hallway like Minotaur, barred from the Master and the household’s company as they fear the destruction she might cause to the society that’s been equally cruel to her. It was kind of frustrating to get this shot, as Yimou kept cutting these static shots too fast and with slightly different angles. It had this effect where the lanterns criss crossed together. There’s probably something more to these shots that I can’t articulate but I eventually embraced its beauty.
- Coming Soon to “Hit Me…” (thefilmexperience.net)
From what seems like ages ago I reviewed Lech Majewski‘s The Mill and the Cross (click on link for longer review), the perfect movie for aficionados and retentive history buffs, watching people suffer through period correct beauty. Getting top billing are veteran actors like Rutger Hauer, Charlotte Rampling and Michael York, adding gravitas to an already intellectual subject. It’s no longer in theatres in Toronto, I hope it wheels itself into your city. I was a little too nice on my review but it’s still worth checking out.
To paraphrase the divisive film writer Scott Weinberg, I wrote review for ANOMALOUS MATERIAL between March and November. My reviews were atrocious.
- Film: Movie Review: The Mill And The Cross (avclub.com)
I mark every chapter of Max Ophuls‘ biopic of Lola Montes with the carnival routines. It’s probably not good to do so, since I conflate one part of the circus act with another. Some scenes, like the one involving horseback riding, even remind me of other carnival movies like the one with Charlton Heston.
It’s probably better to do this instead with what part of the heroine’s (Martine Carol) fascinating life that we’re seeing, like her mansion at the French Riviera or when she was Bavarian King’s (Anton Walbrook) courtesan. But there’s something less concrete about those episodes, as if they were a fantasy, because circumstances disallow permanence. Without the carnival the movie would be surprisingly boring, as if we’re watching her shuffling to different palaces. There’s beauty in those places but the circus’ surreal set pieces are to die for.
The movie’s transitions from wide-screen to lesser-wide screen seems more choreographed with repeat viewings. The ringmaster’s (Peter Ustinov) voice more commanding, the conversations between Lola and a German student (Oskar Werner) more intimate because the frame’s walls are closer. However, these black spaces also makes this feel like an incompletely restored movie. For a master, it feels like a gimmick to make these kinds of decisions or the refusal to make such a decision.
I want to know something deeper about the commonalities of Ophuls’ films, deeper than his opulent portrayal of the fragile status of the 19th century woman. Like fleeting glory that they can only touch but never hold. I envy women. Or maybe it’s the failed misogynist in the that does so, thinking that their ability to marry or consort into money isn’t self chatelling. I’m willfully confusing seduction with power. Social distinctions were more distinct back in Lola’s lifetime but she transcends her poor and suspiciously mysterious Irish provenance and be on stage for or to sit alongside Tsars and Grand Dukes and Kings.
But when students depose Kings they also get rid of her status. Her carnival life after Bavaria is as humiliating as, I imagine, it would have been for Cleopatra had she been found alive. A circus copyrights her life and she has to do it nightly for different towns. Thankfully she makes no pretenses, that she’s nothing but a performer. As a metaphor for her life, for the last act she climbs up different ladders and swings to the ceiling of the tent until she has to risk her life, taking a leap all the way down.
- “Cinema’s 50 greatest flops, follies, and failures” (gointothestory.com)
Mother, where do you live? In the sky, the clouds, the sea. Give me a sign.
We rise, we rise. I’m afraid of myself. A god he seems to me.
What else is life but being near you? Do they suspect? Oh, to be given to you into me.
I will be faithful to you. True. Two no more. One. One. I am. I am.
The ‘Seminal Television’ series will probably only be used for now until someone in “SNL” or on TV in general has sexy hair or a sexier hair piece. Or if any of my nice friends will watch “Mildred Pierce” with me in the comfort of their own home. I’ll bring alcohol!
In which I will use my armchair knowledge of film criticism and French history to write about The Affair of the Necklace.
I’m starting to blame Hollywood less for Americanizing any foreign narrative. If someone’s playing ‘let’s pretend’ in their backyard, they might as well play with the neighborhood kids. Hilary Swank, Adrien Brody, Brian Cox and Christopher freaking Walken are the last people the last people you’ll think about when you say ‘French costume drama,’ since they don’t make a lot of movies under that genre. But there it is, gnawing at the corner of their luck-filled and strangely eclectic CVs. She, playing protagonist Jeanne de la Motte de Valois, leads a cast of two Brits, an Australian and others who are mostly and blatantly too American for their roles, no matter how much they push their affectations to each other.
But I’m a nice, forgiving person and say that those affectations are a part of Hollywood tradition, another convention being the actors’ tight bodies which are a few sizes smaller than wealthy 18th century adult aristocrats. And the slow motion and soundtrack combination when something extremely devious or extremely violent is taking place. And stop trying to make the Illuminati happen, it will never happen!
The film Jeanne into a Scarlett O’Hara figure, she submits to the deceitful and decadent court life, getting herself into a plot to steal from Cardinal Rohan (Jonathan Pryce,as French as he has been before) who thinks is a loan for Marie Antoinette (Joely Richardson) to buy a diamond necklace the latter can’t publicly do so. But Jeanne will rationalize that plan, saying ‘I’ll finally get my home back,’ to her gigolo (Simon Baker) to remind us of it once every ten minutes that she’s a good person underneath. And I suppose we all are.
This film also exists to get Milena Canonero adequately employed, two of her three Oscar wins are from her work in movies set in the Rococo period. There’s one scene where de la Motte wears the same pink number that Kirsten Dunst’s Marie Antoinette wears. Canonero also works through fashions with de le Motte’s arc between a dour woman into the perfect yet classy seductress. I also remember mr e hats, veils and head-gear for de la Motte and the other female characters here than in Coppola’s film.
Which brings me to Joely Richardson‘s Marie Antoinette, my first time seeing her in a movie. Her brash force and dismissal reminds me of Cate Blanchett while her naiveté feels like 90’s Uma Thurman. I was wondering if the film considered Joely’s sister Natasha for the role but the latter doesn’t seem as gullible. She also looks slightly closer to the Vigee-Lebun paintings of Antoinette than Norma Shearer on Dunst ever does.
I also actually like how the film portrays Antoinette. I have a hazy recollection of Shearer’s Antoinette, but Coppola kept Dunst’s Antoinette away from the backroom, her most political decision is staying with her King despite the riots getting closer to Versailles. This Antoinette has her hand on the chess board, refuses the titular necklace because it was commissioned for her grandfather-in-law’s mistress Madame du Barry, overseeing the Petit Trianon’s construction, personally vindicates Rohan or decides a public trial about the necklace as if her husband the King isn’t in the same room. Joely’s Antoinette thus has a more active role in politics than the two more famous Hollywood depictions of her. But in compromises by showing the revolution against her and her beheading, just like the film shows everything we already expect in a movie about that era.
The film, choosing more conventional ways instead of going for an auteurial vision of the past, competent in telling its story. But after the credits roll, we can always go to wikipedia and find out that real de la Motte wasn’t a Valois, that she was probably killed by debt collectors instead of royalists and become severely disappointed that she looked less like Swank and more like Karla Homolka.
So that means yes, I’ve seen the film before in parts. I honestly thought that Glenda Jackson as Mary’s rival Queen Elizabeth I in this film, was the best in show. The way her head and hands move when she’s thinking up a plot to offer her own lover, Sir Robert Dudley, to Mary is fascinating. The first act of the film shows her driving the plot instead of being passive within it. When the rejected Dudley talks about how Mary has charmed him, Elizabeth also gets physically aggressive. Which is fun to watch.
Elizabeth almost steals the show because of the damage done when Mary repeatedly cries out ‘Francois,’ to her dead husband King Francis II. Mary sounds girly, lovesick, dependent. In a way, my fears about the character getting stuck like this has become true, Mary becoming a queen who’s repeatedly imprisoned by her enemies, never becoming a woman and person in her own right. Redgrave keeps pace with those plot points by giving her character a vitality – a woman in her mid-30’s convincingly portraying the youthful obliviousness of someone ten years younger or more. That, nonetheless, is a better portrayal than the saintly inhuman interpretation of Mary in an earlier John Ford film in 1936.
Of course, those two characters grow up. Elizabeth wants to survive and still holds grudges but won’t use her ruthlessness to even imprison and execute the woman who also happens to be her cousin. She feels sorry for having to send Mary to Forthingray. Mary repeats the same adulterous mistake with a Lord Bothwell that Elizabeth has made with Lord Dudley – Elizabeth suspected of murdering Dudley’s wife, Mary accused of murdering her own king consort for and with Bothwell. She isn’t convincing when she says that she has made peace with her God and pities Elizabeth. She nonetheless carries on to her beauty and dignity, fighting fer her crown till the end.
Mary’s story isn’t told in film with such frequency as Elizabeth’s, the latter being told in film or television every decade. It’s probably because Elizabeth, as an English Queen and one who has reigned for decades and made the kingdom into a superpower, whereas Mary’s seems like the story of an outsider, even if she is the matriarch of England’s future kings. Elizabeth’s is always shown as a victory, whereas Mary’s shows victory and defeat in both sides, which interests me more.