Monday, October 31, 2016

#586: Possession

1981, TSPDT Rank #659

I've watched this film twice now. The first time I was mostly disgusted and annoyed with it (even as a long-time horror fan); partially because of the sick and twisted psycho-sexual gore on display throughout, but possibly even more so because of the almost unbearably aggressive histrionics displayed by its two principles (Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill). However, on my second viewing I went into it with a much less passive mindset, fully prepared to meet its delirious insanity head-on. And I have to say, it's quite something. You're unlikely to find anything else quite like it (which probably explains why its passionate followers are so faithful to its cause), and the performances given by Adjani and Neill are nothing short of awe-inspiring once you tap into their uniquely primal wavelength.

David Cronenberg's early films are probably the film's closest relatives (see Shivers and The Brood), but Andrzej Zulawski takes Cronenberg's detached Canadian body horror and endows it with a manic boost of frenzied emotional horror never seen in Cronenberg's work. The oft-cited hypothesis that sex and horror are inherently related is Zulawski's guiding principle here, and the net result is nothing if not convincing - at least until the inexplicable ending sequence. At this point, Zulawski flies head-first in a paranoid no-man's land which even the film's most devoted fans seem to be at a complete loss to explain. Nevertheless, while it is hardly coherent on the surface, the ending somehow comes off as a thoroughly haunting and unnerving nightmare - the perfect conclusion to the events which preceded it, despite its essentially illogical nature. It could also just be that the film drags you along into its own sea of madness, breaking down your defenses until the insane seems to make some sort of sublime sense. Whatever the case may be, Possession is quite possibly the ultimate dividing line between casual horror fans and those who are more seriously entrenched in the muck and mire of humanity's deepest fears.

#585: Kwaidan

1964, TSPDT Rank #898

For those who are familiar with Kobayashi's uncompromising and socially-conscious psychological dramas (The Human Condition, Harakiri), Kwaidan will probably come as a shock - even if you're somewhat prepared for it, as I was. Knowing that it was actually the follow-up to Harakiri makes it seem all the more out of left field, as this sweeping and richly colorful adaptation of four supernatural folk tales could not be more removed visually from the stark black-and-white agony portrayed in Harakiri. However, the first of the four tales presented in Kwaidan finds us in similar territory in terms of plot, as Kobayashi once again highlights the harsh realities experienced by many unemployed samurai during the peaceful reign of the Tokugawa shogunate, which gave them an exalted position in their social hierarchy but had little use for them otherwise. Still, even in this first tale, historical and social commentary quickly give way to a palpable supernatural undercurrent unlike anything previously seen from Kobayashi.

The second tale is perhaps the best of the four, featuring otherworldly set design work and a story which is firmly rooted in the tantalizing and inexplicable mysteries of the spirit world. The next two tales - one almost half the film's total length and the other barely twenty minutes - each have their moments, but ultimately throw the film off balance. As with many portmanteau/anthology films, the lack of a unifying thread to connect the individual parts leaves the viewer with a collection of cobbled-together impressions, rather than one distinct, cumulative experience. So while I enjoyed each part of the film to some degree (some more than others), the strangely unformed nature of the film detracted somewhat from the experience as a whole. Having seen his mammoth ten-hour trilogy The Human Condition, I know that Kobayashi was capable tying many narrative threads together to form a satisfying whole, but Kwaidan feels strangely unfinished in comparison. However, it's possible that the film might be better approached as a collection of short films - as each is unique and has something to offer, both aesthetically as well as supernaturally. It may also be that the film was intended to express the loose ends and uncertainties present in encounters between the living and the dead in its form as well as its content. In any case, there is still a lot to appreciate here, even if the film's uneven nature ultimately makes it feel like less than the sum of its parts.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

#584: 1900

1976, TSPDT Rank #320

With the release of Last Tango in Paris in 1972, Bernardo Bertolucci had become an infamous international sensation. However, 1900 has much more in common with Bertolucci's 1970 film The Conformist. It starts where that film left off - with the end of World War II and the liberation of Italy from Mussolini's fascist regime in 1945. Also, like The Conformist, 1900 deals with Italy's dark history of fascism and its roots; but instead of exploring this history through a pared-down, psychological character study, as he does in The Conformist, here Bertolucci explores it in the form of a grandiose, archetypal epic. Over the course of the film (which runs over five hours), Bertolucci expresses this history as a battle between the opposing forces of fascism and society - with the oppressive and complex relationship between wealthy landowners and the peasants who worked their land shown as the essential root of the conflict. Although it starts off with a brief introductory sequence set in 1945, the majority of the film plays out in flashback - beginning in 1901, as two children are born on an Italian estate on the same day. One is a fatherless peasant child, while the other is the grandson of the estate's owner. The two children grow up together, but end up on opposite sides as Italy descends into fascism, with more than a hint of Cain and Abel incorporated into the narrative as their lives progress. With such a broad, archetypal focus, the film has a tendency to be morally simplistic and heavy-handed, but Bertolucci uses these qualities to give the film an added level of power - with the qualities of good and evil amplified to dizzying extremes, and the story's potential for nostalgia fully utilized to express the range of emotions which accompany the passage of time. Bertolucci pulled out all the stops with this film - earning the accusations of self-indulgence which have been leveled at him in some respects (particularly in regards to the ridiculous final section), but pulling off something of a flawed masterpiece in the process. For all its flaws, the film is frequently engrossing and unexpectedly powerful, with the sublime cinematography from Vittorio Storaro helping to pull the viewer in as the film unfolds, while amplifying the intensity and potency of the film's moral extremes. Some may not have the patience for Bertolucci's overly grandiose statements, but for those who can overlook the flaws, there is a work of great beauty and audacity waiting to be found underneath them.