If the sparks between Joan ‘mesmerizing eyes’ Crawford and Clark Gable had been materialized (along with a strong sexual tension that culminates in a leg massage scene), there would’ve been a spectacular light show in my living room last night. And what a visually climactic performance that final act is – like a juicy, fiery red cherry on top of the cake! Not to mention that it would’ve been virtually impossible to stage in a theatre; only cinema allows all the wonderful ‘magic’ on display.
One of the earliest pieces of American queer / feminist cinema and the last of Charles Bryant’s three features, Salomé is a deliberately hyper-theatrical adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play co-written by ex-lovers Natacha Rambova (also credited as art director and costume designer), and star Alla Nazimova (who employs highly expressive mannerisms to convey a character almost thrice as young as she was back then). Minimalist in set design that channels the spirit of Art Nouveau style, the film shines a spotlight on emotionally unrestrained performances of the entire cast adorned in fascinatingly extravagant creations that appear like a missing link between Triadisches Ballett and Jean Paul Gaultier’s outrageous work for The Fifth Element. Its quirky, decadent beauty is further amplified by 2018 version score composed by award-winning Serbian musician Aleksandra Verbalov who open-mindedly experiments with everything from Byzantine chants (sung by the Kovilj monastery monks) to intense bursts of cello energy and mystical musings of clarinet and piano.
It is with great subtlety, skill and insight that Robert Hossein approaches both the direction and his portrayal of real-life serial killer Peter Kürten (1883-1931) known as The Vampire of Düsseldorf (aka The Secret Killer) in a stylish, quietly impressive period piece which explores both the crimes and reclusiveness of a mentally disturbed individual against the backdrop of collective evil, revealing the hypocrisy and monstrosity of a fascist regime in 30’s Germany. Hossein’s modus operandi seems to be out of touch with the iconoclasm of La Nouvelle Vague movement, but also not quite like that of the classic filmmakers (one can sense the influence of Welles and Hitchcock), which results in an idiosyncratic blend of biopic/drama and thriller, in equal measures uncanny and melancholic, disturbing, yet strangely poetic. He avoids sensationalism by framing most of the murders from a distance or letting them happen off-screen, as if paying respects to the victims, and simultaneously emphasizing the coldness of Kürten’s acts. And through a romantic subplot that involves utterly magnetic Marie-France Pisier in the commanding role of cabaret singer Anna, he probes into his subject’s gentler side and makes the dance between Eros and Tanatos more hypnotic.
An eerie choral invocation heard during the striking opening sequence sets the uncanny tone for Bahman Farmanara’s mystery drama which was reportedly banned by both pre- and post-revolution regimes in Iran. Flirting with the subgenre of folk horror, the film plays out like a political allegory of power structures, as the fear of an idolized scarecrow grows among the superstitious villagers. Only a bus driver, Abdollah, who draws a face on the said object of worship seems to be immune to the anxiety-fueled hysteria that permeates the dense atmosphere of uneasiness. The overwhelming feeling of dread is intensified by Ahmad Pezhman’s doom-laden score, and Ali Reza Zarrindast’s beautifully morose cinematography dominated by earthy colors.
A fine example of early Mexican Gothic, The Phantom of the Convent blurs the boundaries between a ghost story and character study, creating a dense, immersive atmosphere of silent dread through a tight symbiosis of expressive, shadow-infested cinematography, sweeping orchestrations, and labyrinthine setting of dark secrets where the trio of protagonists is forced to spend the night.
Completely filmed in a white studio, with only a few colorful props and extravagant costumes breaking the illusion of infinite space, Ante Babaja’s feature debut is a singular piece of Croatian / ex-YU cinema. A witty adaptation of H.C. Andersen’s well-known fairy tale, it also takes cues from Orwellian fiction in its biting mockery of autocratic idiocy, marrying its experimental, deliberately cartoonish visuals to over-the-top histrionics.
As if possessed by the spirits of Tarkovsky and Parajanov, the former guiding the camera during admirable long takes, the latter ‘flattening’ numerous scenes into breathtakingly beautiful tableau vivants, Ukranian director Eva Neymann and her DoP Rimvydas Leipus paint an inspired, highly romanticized portrait of life in a shtetl at the beginning of the 20th century. Borrowing motifs from several stories by Yiddish author and playwright Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916), Neymann comes up with a poetically rambling / Sokurov-esque screenplay that – softly spoken or whispered by her reticent characters – transmutes into a hypnotizing aura of half-remembered dreams and memories shrouding the meticulously composed imagery. She knowingly captures the emotional naivety of her main protagonist Shimek’s childhood, as well as the lyrical power of his love for a girl next door, Buzya, initially expressed through fairy tale-like narratives, and later, by way of youthful yearning and hazy nostalgia. ‘Song of Songs’ is also another triumph for Leipus who has already proven to be a reliable visualist working on films such as The Corridor (1995) and The House (1997) by Šarūnas Bartas, and Khadak (2006) by Belgian duo of Brosens and Woodworth.
Quietly and leisurely told from the perspective of a single mother, Amina, and her 15-yo daughter, Maria, Lingui is an unobtrusively poignant, yet powerful drama that delivers poetic justice with a heavy blow, all the while employing dazzling, beautifully captured colors and patterns of women’s clothing to put you under its spell. Sensitive subjects of (unwanted) teen pregnancy and abortion in a society which condemns it both legally and morally are approached with utmost care by writer/director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun who proudly waves a feminist flag in his exploration of tight-knit solidarity in times of need, simultaneously warding off the stench of colonial breath.
An impressive calling card for Oh-seung Kwon, Midnight is a nail-biting, adrenaline-pumping, edge-of-the-seat thriller laced with sharp social commentary, and elevated by performances so convincing that you often want to smash Wi Ha-joon’s poster-boy face to a bloody pulp, as he channels pure, wolf-in-the-sheep-clothing evil in his role of a murderous psychopath. Equally praiseworthy is Ki-joo Jin in her portrayal of a sweet and vulnerable, yet resourceful deaf-mute heroine, Kyung-mi Kim, whose silent world the viewer is often plunged into through the clever sound design, making her plight quite palpable. And all the night-time tension and creepiness of suburban back alleys are beautifully captured by cinematographer Taek-gyun Cha.