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)
Sandra Bullock is serious business at my guest post at The Film Experience.
TIFF just announced their Gala and Special Presentations line-up which had many lovers and some doubters, but over at Anomalous Material I chose around ten of the fifty films that they announced. I suppose I could have written about more films that I was excited for, but I believed that it wads better to write about the why as much as the what. Although I’m ambivalent about not including Eye of the Storm, the image of Chloë Sevigny‘s friend Charlotte Rampling is captivating enough as her character, Elizabeth, chooses everything about her life including her ‘society’ and her own death. I then hesitated because of that synopsis but a cast that includes Judy Davis and Geoffrey Rush are good enough for me.
I’m equally ambivalent about Hick, a coming of age story where a young Chloë Moretz finally plays a real person in a movie and Blake Lively might become a great talent, as potential and hype about her was around for a TIFF release two years ago, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.
- TIFF 2011: U2, George Clooney, Brad Pitt and more (thestar.com)
Francesca (Doris Dowling) and Silvana (Silvana Mangano, Dino de Laurentis’ then wife) are rivals. The former is an illegal and the latter is more conventionally beautiful, supposedly naive and has a union contract. Silvana, in working an Italian convent’s rice fields – What? Those exist? – will face moral ambiguities and questions, mostly about a rival that becomes her friend once in a while.
Silvana asks Francesca about working for a rich family and for hotels. See, they’re two of a handful of woman Nonetheless, she gets fired for stealing jewellery that she provides for her sleaze of a boyfriend Walter (Vittorio Gassmann) and now she’s in this dump. Silvana is jealous that Francesca actually experienced what it’s like to serve and see riches, Francesca disagrees and is jealous of Silvana’s innocence. There are no flashbacks in this section of the film.
How very Neorealist, I suppose, of the film, to show the bitter realities of its present and not dwell on the fantasies of its glorious past. The film doesn’t idealize Italy, Silvana’s boyfriend Marco (Raf Vallone) thinking about moving to South America, even if Silvana mentions North America as a suitable place to move as well. Later on, Walter talks about jail and house crises, the most obvious political commentary in the film. Otherwise, it’s all about these four characters, trying to survive either legitimately or otherwise.
The only evidence of glamour and richness in the film is the said heavy diamond necklace that Francesca supposedly steals, causing a public scandal. It goes through a change of hands from Francesca to Silvana,the latter showing it off to remind the former of her crime. The revelation that the necklace is a fake is a metaphor but not a heavy-handed one.
I’m not sure if I can call these women tough or overdependent, I suppose they’re a bit of both. They’ll work even if it’s raining. It’s not like they’re secluded from the world by working inside a convent neither, receiving love letters from their men who for some reason know where they are. They sometimes escape from the convent and dance. Some mention finding bushes to be alone on.
The film ends, and tell one of my friends that it wasn’t so bad. He disagrees and tells me it’s a lesser Neorealist film, and the fact that it mixes the gangster and the melodrama within the style makes it a less pure example of the genre, even if it did popularize it outside Italian markets. And don’t worry about me, I have a litany of complaints about this movie as well. Like why does the poor Silvana, and sometimes Francesca, have nice, form-fitting clean clothes and hair, everyone else looking crappier and frizzier? Why are these women leaning over so beautifully as they’re supposedly working hard to plant rice in these fields? Why does everyone’s singing voices sound the same? Why is sexy jazz music playing in sad or rapey moments? Why do guys force their mouths on the women’s mouths? Why do the bad guys always have to dress like pre-Godard antiheroes?
There are great moments of filmmaking here like the dance scene, always cutting back and forth from wide shots of the dance and close-ups of the necklace, keeping it as tense as possible. Or shot contershots when Walter looks a bigger man than he should be.
The acting’s not perfect neither, but there’s something commendable about the four leads. Dowling, despite telling the sexiest abortion story in this history of cinema, has moments in a more psychologically complex character than she normally would have gotten in her Hollywood years. Or more complex than Blue Dahlia, anyway. Vallone can make a clichéd move like wipe-clapping his wrists after knocking a man out seem like an instinct. And Gassman’s campy, an adjective I refuse to give as a compliment.
The best actor here is Mangano. There has always been something vulnerable about Silvana, going after Francesca and turning the workers against her like David fighting a giant. Or going insane after finding out about a coworker’s miscarriage. Finding out that she’s been lied to, that all her fantasies about getting out rich have been squashed. She realizes so many things in the last few scenes of the film that she turns catatonic. It’s probably one of the greatest cries I’ve seen an actress do, Mangano shaking to the bone. She’s the reason the dated film stands out.
The last three movies I’ve seen of director Martin Scorsese have been male-centric and gun crazy that it’s a relief to see his earlier woman’s picture Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore on TV. Housewife Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn), with her son Tommy (Alfred Lutter) at her side, drives towards Monterey after her husband’s death. Again, I didn’t see it all in the beginning, but I think I tuned in at the right time.
Alice has a conversation with Tommy during a meal, goes to work as a singer on a piano bar and is courted by Ben (Harvey Keitel) a guy with a ridiculous white cowboy costume. Their conversation pretty much was a marker for me in the film, with its energetic humour. In the rest of the film, we see and hear Alice – smart, jaded yet funny – talk to the other characters. Along with Ben there are other characters as we meet them. Her outgoing nature towards the other characters make for the appearance of good writing. Or good writing, complemented by Scorsese’s vision for characters. The film adds Scorsesean characteristic on women, who repress their actions but not while speaking their minds.
Alice imagines her son being ‘bored out of his mind,’ and there he is, watching an old colour movie where a man makes a woman’s costume more scandalous, makes her sing, but she sings gladly. Eventually he’ll get bad friends (Jodie Foster) and get into trouble. Two possible readings of the scene and Tommy’s story line. First and the most obvious one, he’s imagining his mother going through the same thing, as the movie he’s watching is cheapening both women’s common ordeal. Alice would later tell her next boyfriend David (Kris Kristofferson) about Lana Turner, showing how movies influence these characters’ perceptions. The second, this scene is the manifestation of familial conditions of the time. Not just with single moms but with the looming recession two years after this film is released, mothers both single and married have to go back in the workplace and children are left alone in their homes. Scorsese, however, is mature enough not to blame neither mother nor child for this.
The only reason why I hesitated to call on the film’s excellent writing is because of how one of the next scenes play out. Surprisingly, Ben’s wife comes knocking at Alice’s door. There’s an emotional scene found in most melodramas, mixed not so distractingly with Scorsese using handheld, only to be sandbagged by Ben banging on Alice’s motel room door. I really thought Keitel would stay against type in the film, and I expected the same with Scorsese as well. It ended up becoming like a milder version of that scene in Raging Bull. However, I accept what happens in the story, especially since we’re observing Alice’s reaction to Ben showing his evil side. She looks like she’s been there before, but she’s shell shocked and defeated, unable to defy Ben. Nonetheless, she knows what to do.
Her pit stop at Tucson – hopefully not as backwoods-y as Scorsese portrays it – takes up half of the film’s running time, escalating the tension between her and Tommy. A main reason I like this film is her rapport with him, possibly echoed within the passive aggressive banter of Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment almost a decade later. Plus Alice knows how to play with her child, sometimes gets too mean and shortsighted towards him, yet she never seems childlike with him. They’re each other’s best friends, they share each other’s dreams and allow each other’s indulgences. With their runaway budget, she gets to buy dresses, he gets to have guitar lessons.
This film also breaks the cardinal rule of ‘All child actors before Haley Joel Osment are terrible.’ There are exceptions to this rule, but we’ll talk about that later, as well as showing how well Scorsese works with younger actors. Lutter puts flesh, blood and preteen intelligence to Tommy, questioning his mother’s decisions as per situations when families become ‘unconventional.’ He’s also a test to both her mother and to David. David, despite the nice working farmer’s smile, has hit him unlike Ben but Alice never gets comfortable with Ben enough for him to get to know the previous boyfriend. David fails a test but is right on a few things about a Tommy and Alice.
Alice in Tucson also exposes a duality within her, cowering slightly when Tommy swears in front of David or when Flo (Diane Ladd) uses her in the latter’s routine. She’s a woman with one foot off the edge of respectability, in a way denying that she’s in denial about her ‘maniac’ boyfriends, low paying jobs, serving locals better food than what she’s recently cooked for her own son. Unlike say, a Blanche duBois who relates being ladylike with fragility, and choosing that over truth, Alice is tougher. She’ll shed her exterior if that means having to survive and having to keep her relationships together. Yes, I know that Gena Rowlands must have had a better performance than this on A Woman Under the Influence – I haven’t seen it yet – but Burstyn as Alice is a work of being and balance, a performance about decisions on a mental level instead of a physical one.
What follows, as Chuck Klosterman would say, in the consummation of a relationship – offscreen – but that presents problems of its own. Alice has already made sacrifices on her first marriage and worry about the compromises she’ll make on this relationship. Nonetheless, she’s happy. Tommy’s happy. They understand each other and are more mature in the end.
Oh, Joan Fontaine. She tells a character’s story like it’s her own. For less than a decade in her career she’s been playing little girls who grow up. Her performance is Max Ophuls’ “Letter from an Unknown Woman” made me remember “Rebecca” and start my ‘Best Female Performances’ list, but that’s still too big a task for me. She’s like the precursor to actresses like Kirsten Dunst, the latter having played teenagers for 15 years in her career.
Lisa Berndle (Fontaine) experiences an unrequited love with an egotistic pianist, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan). Her earlier mannerisms are waif-y and awkward but she grows into a poised but nonetheless oblivious and idealist of a woman. Her voice is more full and thus distracting this time around. That also means she puts just as much sympathy and maturity to her character the same way that Jourdan does with Stefan.
The characters are still placed within the constraints of a melodrama. I love melodramas but I can’t find a place in my heart for this one. Lisa’s still a stalker. She must have known how Stefan would treat her knowing that he goes through women. She feels no anger for him despite his forgetfulness and how he has not supported their child. Also, despite of how bad his actions look on paper, the film doesn’t blatantly show a streak of meanness on Stefan. However, if the audience had a bigger hint of that, they might have walked out in droves.
What I also appreciate in “Letter” is Ophuls’ auteur-like touch on the film. There’s the long take camerawork that follows its subjects like a carousel. There’s diamonds and glitz and trumpets and music. There’s also the little freedom that the he allows female characters, like he does in parts of “The Earrings of Madame de…”. I’m not an expert on classic melodrama, but I can’t imagine any early female characters allowed to have a second marriage or a marriage after a second child, or the social mobility involving with a 19th century model marrying a general. With Ophuls’ worldview and Fontaine’s performance, it also seems like the movie is more about the fun Lisa had along the way instead of the tragedy that befalls her, and both feel refreshing.
Is it just me, or is everyone in “Far From Heaven” just a little creepy? Grown up version of a boy from “Children of the Corn” randomly showing up in Frank Whitaker’s (Dennis Quaid) hotel room door. Actual children of the corn chasing black girls and throwing stones in their heads. Frank’s wife Cathy (Julianne Moore) randomly showing up at Raymond’s (Dennis Haysbert) trailer-y looking home, with good intentions of course. Flash bulbs. Gossip. Mona Lotter (Celia Weston) spying. Spying! Spying! Spying! If I could give an advice to any civilization, I would tell them not to have too many social constraints, because everyone just ends up being creepy.
“Far From Heaven,” like many melodramas I’ve seen, is almost a masterpiece. The one thing I respect about the movie is that it’s a 2002 movie stuck in 1957 Connecticut, where everything is everyone’s business. The movie can therefore never be judged by any standard other than the latter.
Because it’s stuck in 1957 I’d understand if some people found this a little pessimistic, but that pessimism comes through the movie’s ending. It could have ended with Cathy’s phone call to the NAACP or another call between Cathy and Frank arranging a meeting. Instead it ends with Cathy and Raymond in the train station (Did he expect her to be there?), putting the other two actions or events on hold. We’ll never know if Cathy ends up volunteering for the NAACP or what’s gonna happen between Cathy and Frank.
Also, I saw this movie in entirety in some shitty pan and scan TV airing, and the lighting’s a bit dark. Again, noir elements in a romance-themed film, using colour filters more than neon lighting. I just hope the lighting and the colours are greater in a better quality version.
Another reason why I can’t fully dislike the movie is the cast, especially Julianne Moore, who deliver dated conversation with such straight faces. Dennis Quaid depicts Frank as a loose cannon, but that’s not too distracting.
p.s. Lars’s essay on the same movie compared to an actual Sirk.