Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Two period films.

The Weeping Meadow (aka Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow).

This is the first film of a trilogy by Theodoros Angelopoulos. Reflecting on the death of his mother, whose life almost spanned the 20th century, he started a script based round the idea of a woman's experience of the century. It grew so long that he had to split it into a trilogy; even so, it's still nearly three hours. It's the first Angelopoulos film I've seen, and it looks unlike anything I've seen before. There's no fast, sharp storytelling; single takes can be long, long zooms and tracking shots. But the visual quality of what you see is so effortlessly breathtaking that the film dictates its own pace and time. I regretted seeing it on DVD and splitting it over two nights.

It was written by Angelopoulos with Tonino Guerra, the legendary 20th century scriptwriter who has written over 100 films, including most of Antonioni's, and many of Fellini's. Everybody's Fine, his most recent, will be released in December. Weeping Meadow is a fascinating script: much of the story is omitted, as if: 'Well, we could think of an extra bit of plot and a few more scenes here to explain this, but why bother? What happens is what matters'.

What happens? Elena is an orphan, rescued from the ruins of Odessa after the Russian revolution and brought back to Greece by a Greek refugee family. The refugee Greeks are given land in Thessalonika where they build a village. Years later, a teenager, she has given birth to twins after becoming pregnant by her teenage stepbrother: the children are hidden away in adoption. Her foster father is widowed and she is forced into marriage with him, but runs away after the ceremony to join her stepbrother, a talented accordion player. They are adopted by musicians, and ostrasised by their village. The father dies. After a storm, the village is flooded, an astonishing scene and totally natural: miles and miles of water, and not a trace of CGI or studio photography. He leaves to tour America in 1939. Unable to return to Greece and Elena, he joins the American Forces and is killed in action. The two children die fighting on opposite sides of the Greek civil war that followed WW2.

Tragedy must be part of the Greek imagination in the same way that Shakespeare is part of us: we like our tragedy with history, politics, comedy and romance mixed in. With Angelopoulos it's tragedy pure and simple, unreasonable, inexplicable, inevitable, overpowering. One example of his scripting: Elena stands on the quay, a piece of unfinished red knitting in her hands, as he is about to take the liner to the USA. 'I made this for you but didn't finish it'. A red thread of wool inadvertently gets caught in his clothing, and as he's rowed to the liner, all she has made unravels in her hands. It's visual, and incredibly expressive.

There are a number of other films by him, including Ulysses' Gaze. They are planned for DVD release, but it seems a sadly slow process.

La Reine Margot

I first saw this when it was released eight or nine years ago, and got swept along with it, so I was curious to see how well it has lasted, especially the first 30 minutes. The first 30 minutes survive as strong as ever. An edgy, vicious world, so close up you imagine you can smell it, the days leading up to the massacre of 30,000 protestants in France, sweaty with fear. (The French seem good at making films so close up you imagine you can smell them: the recent TV police/judiciary series Engrenages, 'Spiral' in English, is a bit like that.)

But although La Reine Margot looks good throughout, the plot machinations of the rest of the film look increasingly unrealistic. The Queen Mother has married her catholic daughter to the protestant Henry of Navarre in order to end inter-faith struggles in France, but the wedding becomes the occasion of the St Bartholemew's Day massacre at which the protestant wedding guests are massacred. Henry becomes a prisoner at the French court, and his mother-in-law and brothers-in-law spend the rest of the film trying to assassinate him. In the end, the king is accidentally killed by his own mother in another failed attempt to assassinate Henry. This is Dumas, not history or even common sense. In fact, the king died of TB, and Henry survived to become Henry IV, 'le bon roi Henri', tolerant in religion, and one of the most popular of French monarchs.


Anonymous said...

DVDs available. I've had them for a long time.

Tangocommuter said...

Many thanks, anon, and glad to hear you have it. But currently at Amazon the only available DVD is an imported NTSC version at £46, and the 2006 PAL DVD version is still unavailable. I get DVDs on rent from Lovefilm: they also say it is unavailable, but they will let me know when they get it.

Several other of his films are available as very expensive NTSC imports or on VHS. PAL DVD releases are planned, but the plans seem to be long-term. Sad for films that are so thoughtful, and so impressive to watch.

msHedgehog said...

I have La Reine Margot on DVD and I think I enjoyed it as much on a second viewing as I did in the cinema first time. It's completely Dumas, as you say; perfectly absurd; blood, sex, and taffeta; but I love the performances and the costumes and the hair and Virna Lisi and the fight of two 'dead' men (so French, so Asterix) and the lines .. j'ai appris la haine! / Maintenant tu vas apprendre l'hypocrisie. The whole thing is just so enjoyable.

And I always think of the 1066 and All That version of Henri IV's famous line Paris vaut une Messe - "Paris is Rather a Mess".

Tangocommuter said...

Love your description of the 'absurd' Dumas.

I enjoyed all that too, both times, and the film is wonderful to watch throughout. I just thought the opening is superb, and the rest doesn't quite match it. So much is crammed into the beginning, so much history, so much action, so much back story, and then the massacre erupts. After that, Catherine's identity changes: in the opening she's marrying her daughter to bring peace, but she spends the rest of the film trying to assassinate him. I thought they did a marvelous job in putting everything into it, but avoiding letting it look over the top: they got it just right.

There are three or four films I keep to rewatch on a really miserable winter afternoon: Flamenco (Sauras), All that Jazz (Bob Fosse), and a few others, but definitely La Reine Margot.