Three pairs of films, from Japanese, French and Swedish cinema, that I sent to a friend recuperating from a major operation recently.
Tokyo Story was made in 1953 by the Japanese director Ozu. It figures on many lists of the greatest fims ever made. At first sight that's odd, because it's made in a very static style, completely at odds with western film making. Ozu uses his distinctiive tatami shot named for the reed mats used in traditional Japanese houses. The camera just sits there, at floor height, looking at the room people are in: seldom any close ups or reaction shots. He also used distinctive 'pillow shots' to punctuate the story when you see 2 or 3 minutes of a landscape completely unrelated, such as a steamer on a river, and when you come back to the story, often it becomes clear that something very important has happened meanwhile. Funny thing is, you quickly get used to the rules of his style.
Ozu was much preocuppied with family relationship, in this case, the weakening sense of duty of children to ageing parents. The exception here is the dutiful daughter in law played by Setsuko Hari. She had a sort of daughterly relationship with Ozu and retired completely when he died in 1963, living in total seclusion til 2015! Her role as the submissive and self sacrificing daughter is at odds with our thinking today, but so central to Japanese culture. My wife and I both fell slightly in love with her. She somehow makes every other actress you've ever seen seem slightly....tawdry.
The other film is Shoplifters, 2018, by Kore-eda. It's also about the idea of the family but in a completely different way! In fact the failure of traditional families is rather an obsession with him - another film is about the changes when two couples find their 6 year old sons were swapped at birth, another about a child abandonment case.
The two French films are both about a boy who is an outsider, whose family ties have failed, and who embraces a life of crime and transgression. Both have somewhat inconclusive, and in a conventional way, unsatisfactory endings. And both feature a boy actor who had acted little or not at all, before, and who gave the single compelling performance of his life, before he really knew anything of acting.
Truffaut’s Les Quatres cents coups (literally, ‘the 400 blows’ but untranslatable – in French, ‘faire les quatre cents coups’ means ‘to raise hell’), 1959, is about a young boy’s descent into a life outside the law. He was played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, aged 14, who’d appeared in one film already. His performance is extraordinary. The film launched the French New Wave. Truffaut became a father figure to Leaud and had him as lead actor in several later films in which he played the same character grown up, but as so often with child actors, the magic only worked once.
For me an insight of this film is the terrible material poverty of France in the late 50s. Compared to now, it’s third world. It’s not just that they lacked washing machines etc, it’s that life itself seemed thin, bare, primitive.
Malle’s Lacombe Lucien, 1974, is about a rootless peasant lad in SW France in 1944, seeking some sort of role in the war as played out in a small town. One could say it is about a boy with no insight, almost pathologically indifferent to what is going on - yet capable of some sort of tenderness towards the Jewish father and daughter he encounters. The dinner at with the Jewish father, already half looking forward to death, his beautiful daughter, the silent sick grandmother, reluctantly entertain the boy, by then a fascist gangster, is one of the most ambiguous in all cinema. I feel sure that none of the actors, nor Malle himself, really understood or controlled the strange currents of fear, desire, respect, contempt and tenderness that were criss crossing that scene.
The boy actor had never acted before: he’d been a forester before. Yet he made such an intuitive success of a very diffiuclt role, a character who lacks character, who is in some way, empty. A non-actor acting a non-character. It’s remarkable. Sadly, success did not last, after a couple more films he bought a big car with his new earnings, crashed and died in it.
The third and last pair of films is Swedish, by the great man of Swedish cinema, Ingmar Bergman and by his son Daniel.
Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1956) is about an old man coming to terms with a life not well lived, in which his status and accomplishments count for little weighed against his missed opportunities for love. He does so in the course of a long road trip from Stockholm to Lund across beautiful coast and countryside of Sweden (even though it’s in black and white). Along the way, reveries and the people he meets help him understand himself a little better. Maybe even begin to forgive himself. It’s in a superbly clean new print, for years we only had a scratch old version. Peace comes at last, as he revisits his childhood.
It’s one of my very favourite films.
At the end of his life his son Daniel directed Sunday’s Children (1992), which was written by his father Ingmar. It references the same kind of childhood in the Swedish countryside – clearly this is Ingmar’s own story – but It’s the reverse of Strawberries. Here, the moment of reconciliation existed in the past, in childhood, but is forgotten by father and son in old age. (Irony here, since Ingmar himself was a notoriously bad parent). What’s the opposite of ‘coming to terms’?
Here, in short, are two ideas of the meaning of life – as something one progresses slowly towards via experience and age; and as something that exists, if at all, in the moment lived, which is not somehow stored up or accumulated for the future.
The performance of Henrik Linnros, then aged 9, as the child is remarkable. I’ve often wondered how an earth you direct a child of that age. Or do you just left them be themselves? Like so many child actors, his career did not live up to its beginning.
Daniel Bergman eventual gave up directing – in which he was accused, inevitably, of benefiting from his father’s name – to become a paramedic, saying that he would do more good that way. It’s even possible that his medical work saved more lives than those driven to suicide by his father’s existentially tortured films.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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