torsdag 23 oktober 2014

What to do with men

What a lovely couple.

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks had a great marriage - at least that's what it looked like. There is a short news reel on when they visit Sweden in 1924, and they do look happy. He is fun, all tanned and bouncing about. She is graceful and lovely and knows exactly where the cameras are. When they visit Filmstaden, Sweden's Hollywood in Råsunda, just outside Stockholm, Mary throws an elegant kiss to the kids clinging to the gates. When they are escorted to their hotel, in central Stockholm, the crowd is closing in but Doug never looks the least worried. It's impressive.

Still, marriage in Sweden has the worst reputation. It's all Ingmar Bergman's fault of course. I grew up with the tv-series Scenes from a marriage, and have never understood its charm, being from a broken home myself. 

This week end I happened to watch three films, very different, but they kind of answered the same question: What to do with difficult men? The stories were all a kind of Jane Eyre in reverse, but the crazy men didn't get locked up in the attic. They did get silenced and contained, though, all three of them. 

In one of the oldest Swedish films, The Father, by Anna Hofmann-Uddgren, the husband becomes mad and expires in an uncannily convenient way. The film is from 1912, and it is the only surviving film by Sweden's first female director. It is a version of the play by August Strindberg, and is quite strange to watch, not only because it's a silent film. The action is both slow and fast, depending on how you look at it: 

The wife casually tells her husband that he can't be sure he is the father of her daughter, a lovely girl in a velvet dress. The husband gets agitated and goes for a drive in a buggy, driving along muddy dirt roads. He comes home exhausted and soon finds himself in a straight jacket, which the wife conveniently has acquired from the nice doctor who seems to live in the same house (are they lovers?). There is a short comical scene when the straight jacket is produced and no one in the house wants to touch it. In the end, it's the old wet nurse, the only person who seems to be loving and caring, who helps the father into the straight jacket. Then he dies.
The father succumbing to his wife's wishes.
Almost ten years later, the second Swedish female director makes her film, Live life smiling (Lev livet leende). It's a short silent film, made as a series about a middle class family and their everyday life in Stockholm. The director is Pauline Brunius, who was a famous stage actress and later became head of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. 

In this film, the husband, advokat Vinner (played by charming actor Olof Winnerstrand), starts his day being grumpy and difficult. When the son, played by Paulines's own son Palle, jokingly puts a hard brush under his fathers hands, Mr Vinner goes mad and starts screaming at his family. The wife and kids quickly leave the bedroom and lock the head of the family inside the bedroom. On the other side of the door, the wife quietly picks up Douglas Fairbanks memoirs, which in Swedish bears the title "Live life smiling". Soon they can let the husband and father out, when he has calmed down. The rest of the film is about similar situations when the father learns the lesson of Douglas Fairbanks: it's much nicer to be nice to people, and smile.

Unfortunately there are no pictures available from the film by Pauline Brunius, but here is a picture of the lovely couple - they were both actors and married in real life too -: Frida and Olof Winnerstrand. 
Now, let's jump ahead almost a hundred years. What will David Fincher's new film Gone Girl add to the hardships of being married? What is there to learn and ponder about in this thriller about a man who one day, out of the blue, loses his wife - and then gets her back? (Sorry for the spoiler!)

The interesting thing is that the script is written by the same woman who wrote the book. Her name is Gillian Flynn, and she seems to be a very vindicative person. Or in any case she is very interested in the idea of getting back at the husband in this marriage, the rather dull and stupid person played by Ben Affleck. He has recently lost his job in the city, and moved back to his home town with his lovely wife. There, he owns a bar, but he doesn't seem to do much work. His twin sister works there though. The wife gets bored in the big house. What does she do all day? He doesn't know, and that is the first thing that makes the cop suspicious when the ovely wife disappears. 

He constantly wears the wrong smile.
The first question I must ask myself after the film is over is why do they stay together? The film digs deep into their differences: she is so bright and he is such a dick. This is being stressed all the time, and it's a very long movie! I keep wondering: why do they stay together? Why? Life is full of other people, other solutions. And they don't even have kids. They have nothing. Why? This is a story full of wholes. It's not even a story. It's just relationship torture. Just like Ingmar Bergman's films. 

My own husband actually produces the key to understanding this kind of movie: It is the US version of a Bergmanian marriage. Complete with the threat of the death penalty in Missouri. Why couldn't she just let him go?

Rosamund Pike in a new version of the female vampire.

söndag 3 augusti 2014

My summer with Ripley

Matt Damon as Ripley, arriving in Mongibello, aka Ischia.
One of my favorite films is The talented Mr Ripley, the film by Anthony Minghella from 1999. The film is so rich with beautiful things, like the scene when Tom Ripley, played by Matt Damon, arrives in the little village of Mongibello, just outside Naples, by the Mediterranean. The bus stops at a town square overlooking the sea - in reality we are looking at the port at the island of Ischia, since Mongibello doesn't exist. Ripley gets off the bus, with his one cheap suitcase and an uncomfortable jacket made for a cold day in New York, not for a sunny day in Italy. What we see is what he sees: people seem to be cleaning up after the daily market, a priest greets the driver of the bus with a song, the majestic sea looks on from behind. How wonderful life could be in such a place.

And then the music soars with a sad melody by music composer Gabriel Yared that throughout the film will remind us that this is the story of Thomas Ripley, a person who is not a real person. He is an impostor, maybe even a demon, who is playacting at being human. And all this wonderful life is simply not for him.

The setting, and the story, of a poor American boy meeting a rich American boy in an Italian paradise and then killing him and taking his identity is of course already there in Patricia Highsmith's novel, The talented Mr. Ripley, which was published in 1955. Highsmith created Ripley, a most fascinating character, and this summer I finally sat down and read the novel. I was very surprised at what I found. Usually, when the book and the film, the discussion is about how much has been chosen not to appear in the film, the novel turned into film is often seen as some kind of superficial layer of the much more substantial written work. 

Jude Law as Dickie, the object of desire.
This is not the case with Highsmith's novel. Her novel is the perfect pitch for a great film. What Minghella makes of Highsmith's Ripley story is nothing short of a master piece - together with a choice selection of actors, cinematographers, musicians, sound engineers, costume designers, art and set designers. 

Highsmith's Ripley is a very unsympathetic character. She describes how he always feels like an outsider, and how he almost from the start stalks rich kid Dickie Greenleaf, making the transition to the violence that Ripley's resentment leads to in a disturbingly smooth and easy way. 

In the book, there is no friendship with Marge, Dickie's equally spoilt girl friend in Mongibello, who is writing a book. In the film, she seems to be the only one of the three who is doing some kind of official work, as well as being the only one who figures out who Ripley is. But in the book, Marge is a marginal character who hates Ripley and is a mediocre writer. 

In the film, Dickie cheats on Marge with a girl in Mongibello, Silvana. She commits suicide on his account, and her body is washed ashore in a spectacular scene during a local festival to the Madonna. Ripley then proposes to take the blame, in an attempt to tie Dickie more closely to himself. 

In the film, Ripley meets a young American heiress on the boat to Europe, the innocent Meredith Logue. With her, he tries on his new identity of being Dickie Greenleaf, which suggests that Ripley already at this early point in the story, is planning to kill Dickie. Meeting Meredith also means a few crucial turning points later on in the film, for instance the opera sequence where Tom has to alternate between being both Dickie and Ripley.

Neither Silvana nor Meredith are in Highsmith's novel. And Ripley's relationship with Marge is also only sketched out in the novel. In the novel there is no summer lunch at Marge's house while Dickie is with Silvana, and when he turns up, awfully late, she says "We ate everything." And the novel doesn't have the scene on Dickie's boat, for instance, where Marge tries to sooth Ripley for not coming with them to the Cortina skiing trip. 

Marge is played in the film by Gwyneth Paltrow, Silvana by Stefania Rocca and Meredith by Cate Blanchett. All of them are given great moments to shine in the film - as when Silvana, meeting Dickie in the streets of Mongibello, and barely resisting his seduction, says with her Italian accent "I hate you!"
Or Meredith, at the end of the magical evening at the opera, when she understands that Ripley, whom she thinks is Dickie, will go back to Marge, and she leaves him, courageously keeping her chin up, waving her hand like a queen, in her gorgeous Barbie-doll dress. And Marge, the dull American girl in Highsmith's story, who Gwyneth Paltrow turns into a tragic heroine, the girl who knows the truth, but no one will listen to. When she meets Ripley again in Venice, together with Dickie's father and the American detective, she is just magnificent, suppressing both anger and fear, a woman on the verge of a nervous break down. 

Gwyneth Paltrow as Marge.
For a while I thought that this was Patricia Highsmith's alter ego: the young female writer being crushed to silence by men with power. I was asking myself: What makes you want to write a story about a man who is so good at stealing other people´s identities, and changing the facts in order to make anything she says, sound crazy. I thought creating the character of Ripley would be the perfect way to get back at these men with power, turning Marge into a sympathetic victim. But none of this is in Highsmith's novel - what she focuses on is the relationship between Ripley and Dickie, and how Tom learns to become Dickie. 

Her novel is a study in psychopathic behaviour, in many ways comparable to Bret Easton Ellis American Psycho. But unlike Ellis, she seemed to enjoy being Ripley, writing about him, being him. What seemed to interest her was to be that kind of cruel person, and she, the writer Patricia Highsmith, certainly didn't seem to be a nice person. Everything I've read about her suggests an evil, antisocial and deeply disturbed human being. 

What strikes me is what a deeply moving, and human film about deceit, romantic longing and dangerous resentfulness Minghella carved out of Patricia Highsmith's novel. And of course, what a stroke of genius to give the part of Tom Ripley to Matt Damon, such a likeable fellow, and what a marvellous actor! 

I love the way Matt Damon as Ripley prepares to meet Dickie, learning about jazz - when we know he prefers classical music.  And in the hotel in Mongibello, when he is practising his Italian, while spying on Dickie and Marge at the beach: "Ecce e mia facia!"

None of this is in Highsmith's dark and brooding novel, a rather depressing read actually. While Anthony Minghella's film belong to the kind of cinematic memories that never ever let me go.

She never saw Minghella's The talented Mr Ripley, of course, since she died in 1995. In an article in Sight and Sound from 1988, about the numerous film- and tv-adapations of her work, she said that she liked Alain Delon who played Ripley in the French version of the novel, Plein soleil, from 1960. And if she had the choice, she would have given the part of Ripley to Robert Walker - the actor who played Bruno Anthony in Hitchcock's Strangers on a train, in 1951.

That was the film I planned to write about originally, in keeping with my tradition from a few years back to write about "my summer with Hitchcock". This is what happened instead: I can't stop writing about this film that bares the mark of Hitchcock in many ways, recreating his legacy, so to speak, and turning a rather dull story into a great movie. But here is a picture of Hitchcock's film Strangers on a train where Robert Walker is captivating as the dangerously spoiled rich kid Bruno Anthony - creating the sketch for both Dickie and Ripley.

Guy Haines (Farley Granger) under the spell of Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker).

fredag 18 juli 2014

Fordian Women

Defying a male point of view? Michelle Williams in Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff.
This is a picture from a Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, a film from 2010 that was never shown in Swedish cinemas and went straight to dvd. I don't know why and it's a terrible shame because it's a most magical film. The story brings back both some of the most poignant histories from the wild west, and other memories of other wonderful films, such as the westerns of John Ford. My husband, who also loves westerns, picked up a dvd of Meek's Cutoff while standing in line at our local food store, which in a way makes it even more magical.

The picture above is from the end of the film. One of the three women in the wagon caravan trailing across the wilderness of Oregon in 1845 seems to be trapped inside the frame. But she keeps looking, defiantly, and then we see what she is looking at. There is an Indian walking up ahead and now he is the leader of the caravan. He came out of nowhere and the men wanted to kill him. She gave him food and mended his shoe, in a beautiful scene she also tells one of the other women that she wants him to owe her something. 

He talks in his own language, which is never translated or understood. He is referred to as the man with the scar. Although the men talk about killing him, he seems to want to stay with the immigrants, and at the end of the film he remains their only hope for finding water. They only have enough water left for one, maybe two days. 

During the film, we seem to share this woman's point of view. She is resourceful and brave and Michelle Williams plays her like a muted heroine, because women in those days could neither carry a vote nor aspire to be a leader on any kind. That is probably why Kelly Reichardt tells this film in the Academy ratio, with its strikingly narrow picture frame in a genre where we are used to the much wider screen. There are several things in this film that point to this censured vision of the world, a bit like experiencing the wild west through blinders, like a horse. When the woman first meets the Indian, she is gathering wood for the evening fire. She wanders slowly out of the camp where the wagons huddle together, and all we see, along with her, is what is just close by on the ground, in front of her. Her hat helps her in blocking any attempt at wide screen and I smile as I remember the similar way that Jane Campion used hats in The Piano. Suddenly, a pair of mockasins appear inside the frame, her frame and she sees him. Startled, she drops the bundle of dry wood and runs back to the camp. 

But there are also wide visions of the seemingly endless landscape of dry, barren plains. There are several shots from far away, maybe seen from the perspective of the Indian, where the caravan moving through the landscape is like something both alien and curious. One shot is especially wonderful, a most carefully done blending from one picture to another where you first think that the caravan of horses and wagons are walking in the sky, or coming out of the sky.  
The wagon trail descending from the sky. Cinematography by Cristopher Blauvelt. 
There are seven people in the caravan. Three women, four men and a boy. One of the women is pregnant and one of the men have fallen ill. Also, one of the wagons has been destroyed during a passage down from a steep hill. The caravan is lead by a trapper in buckskin and a wild beard who seems to be drunk or crazy, talking gibberish most of the time. His name is Meek and the three families decided to follow him because he said he knew a short cut. As the film slowly moves on, we understand that Meek doesn't have a clue. They are lost in the big wilderness. Will the Indian save them? The film ends in a big question mark, as illustrated by the gaze of the woman played by Michelle Williams.

So why should I like to compare this film with any film of John Ford, even though there are some references to play with, such as the theme of the search and the Indian with a scar? John Ford's films, and especially his westerns, have not attracted much attention from feminist film critics. Ford's westerns seem to sing the exclusive praise of the alpha male, as played by John Wayne and others, while the women in his films must simply be content with being either the kind of fiery redhead played by Maureen O'Hara, or the patient, motherly figure that waves the men goodbye.  

The inspiration for these thoughts comes actually from a book I've been reading: Women in the films of John Ford by David Meuel. On the cover is a lush and totally irresistible picture of Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner in Mogambo, the rather corny romantic adventure set in Africa that Ford made in 1953. It also happens to be the very first film by John Ford that I saw, during a time when I was young and hated westerns because they were not about women. But later on I was also mesmerized and today I am counting The Searchers (1956) and My darling Clementine (1946) to those films that I can see innumerable times and always see new things. And then I haven't even seen the films Ford made where there really are some interesting women's parts, like Jean Arthur in the comedy The whole town's talking (1934), Joanne Dru in Wagon Master (1951) or Anne Bancroft in Seven women (1966) - just to name a few.

Meuel writes with new insights and clarity about these films, and many others, and manages to enlighten the great variety of women in Fords films. Meuel's search for the women in Ford's films shows us how many women actually are depicted and vital to the stories he tells, like the classic The Searchers, for instance, and how he often avoided portraying women within the restraints of the innocent-lady-and-sexy-dame-stereotype. 

"Dare we call Ford a feminist?" Meuel asks towards the end of his book. And yes, we do. From loving films and getting to know John Ford's women, it is perhaps not surprising that a new take on the western film looks like Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff - a film that will be remembered for its Fordian women.
The women coping in a hostile world. Costumes by Victoria Farrell.