Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Mario of the Desert

While watching the new Criterion Collection disc of Luís Buñuel's SIMON OF THE DESERT (1965), in preparation for reviewing it for next month's SIGHT AND SOUND, I saw a couple of things that struck me as worth noting here -- namely, a previously unnoted set of connections or coincidences linking the work of Buñuel and his contemporary Mario Bava.

There has been some debate on the subject of which came first: the little girl devil in Bava's KILL, BABY... KILL! or the one in Federico Fellini's TOBY DAMMIT. The answer to that brain-teaser, it turns out, is the one in Buñuel's SIMON OF THE DESERT, played with minxish aplomb by VIRIDIANA's Silvia Pinal. The Devil materializes to tempt the early Christian ascetic Simon (DR. TARR'S TORTURE DUNGEON's Claudio Brook) in various guises, the second of which is as a little girl rolling a hoop. When her innocence has no effect, she turns more womanly and coquettish, displaying a shapely pair of dark-nyloned legs and finally baring her breasts (a startling image which Criterion has boldly posited as the disc's inset), yet Simon remains inviolate.

The hoop accessory is interesting, being analogous to the white ball of Bava and Fellini's evil spectres, but also because it has a Freudian dimension of entrapment when contrasted with the phallic pillar of Simon's proud asceticism.

After the failure of her thwarted seduction, Pinal's Devil returns as a bearded, lamb-cradling Jesus Christ and, still later, as a bare-breasted goddess. The Buñuelian irony of all this, of course, is that Simon's prayers for godly intervention into his selfless life attract only the brickbats of a friendly Hell. Finally, abruptly, the Devil sweeps Simon off the top of his pillar by introducing a jet plane into this early Anno Domini fable.
The sudden assault of futurism anticipates the finale of Bava's LISA AND THE DEVIL (1973), in which Elke Sommer survives a harrowing night among ghosts in what appears to be another century, only to find herself aboard a 747 bound for Hell, piloted by Telly Savalas' Satan. Producer Alfredo Leone has taken credit for suggesting this finale, but it seems remarkably consistent with these and other Buñuelian tropes found in Bava's filmography. LISA AND THE DEVIL, of course, was also filmed in Toledo, Spain -- which Buñuel considered "a holy city." He filmed TRISTANA there in 1969.
Criterion has also issued Buñuel and Pinal's earlier masterpiece THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (1964), in which a severed hand briefly runs amok. The look of this deathly appendage is nearly identical to a sculpture of a disembodied hand that plays a prominent role in Bava's final feature, SHOCK aka BEYOND THE DOOR II (1978).

SIMON OF THE DESERT runs only 45 minutes and is perfect enough at this length. Buñuel always claimed that the money (supplied by Pinal's furniture magnate husband, who produced) ran out, preventing him from completing the picture. In a supplement on the SIMON disc, a 2008 interview with Pinal includes her surprise confession that she was responsible for pulling the plug, when Buñuel excused himself from another project she was planning, a vanity three-episode anthology inspired by the Mastroianni/Loren hit, YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW. The actress now regrets her fit of hubris and recognizes that only her work with Buñuel has entitled her to a place in the history of cinema.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

As Promised

Here's the reply card, provided with copies of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, that the late, great Lux Interior sent to us back in October 2007. Such a sweet thing to revisit after the sad events of last week. Wish we could have met...

Monday, February 09, 2009

Always Crashing Into Myriem Roussel

The talcum powder scene from Tristesse et Beauté.

My Myriem Roussel fever continues to run high. Thanks to eBay, I've been able to obtain ancient VHS PAL and SECAM pre-records of Joy Fleury's Tristesse et Beauté ("Sadness and Beauty," 1985) and Robert Van Ackeren's Die Venusfalle ("The Venus Trap," 1988), both featuring Roussel, neither of which was ever exported to America.

The former, which co-stars Charlotte Rampling and Andrzej Zulawski, casts Roussel as a sculptress. the younger woman in a lesbian relationship, who is sent by her partner to seduce and destroy a successful writer who broke her heart years before. The film was given a DVD release in Italy, which would certainly have yielded a much superior picture to the French SECAM crap I watched, but it would also have stuck me with Italian dubbed audio; at least on the tape, the original dialogue recording was intact. I found the movie compelling even without understanding all the dialogue; its images are gripping, its depictions of artistic process valid, and Roussel is absolutely lovely, acting with equal conviction in her love scenes with Rampling and Zulawski. It's an erotic film whose standout scenes spotlight personal hygiene, firstly as Roussel powders her body prior to an assignation with Zulawski, and secondly as Rampling uses a straight razor to shave her lover's underarms.

Die Venusfalle, from the director of A Woman in Flames, curiously downplays Roussel in its packaging, which toplines and pictures "Der Neue Erotik-Star" Sonja Kirchberger, though Roussel is given top-billing on the film itself. The movie is typical, pretentious, coked-up, '80s Eurotrash in many ways, with a soundtrack featuring various uncredited Bowie, Roxy Music and Iggy Pop tracks. Nevertheless, Roussel comes across as a real rock star here.

Her introduction, withheld until we're more than 20 minutes into the picture, must be one of the most outrageous ever dared. The unlikeable, arrogant, fashion-plate male protagonist, Max (Horst-Gunther Marx), struts into a pool hall, where he finds Marie (Roussel) playing billiards with a man. It's obvious they notice one another, but they're too cool to acknowledge the attraction, not even exchanging glances as she and her partner finish and leave. Cut to later that night, as both toss and turn in their respective beds with their respective lovers asleep beside them. They both awaken, silently dress, climb into their cars and roar off into the night. Moments later, their two cars independently arrive on opposite ends of the same street and accelerate toward one another in a game of Chicken, finally deflecting off one another in a scrape that sends both vehicles spinning out of control.

The two staggered drivers sit in their cars for a moment or two, eyeing each other like diagrammatically fated pawns. They recover their senses, exit their cars, start walking then running toward one another, collide in an embrace and proceed to make love right then and there, in the middle of the empty strasse.

Yes, the scene is ludicrous, even kitschy, yet it's more vividly staged and carries a stronger erotic charge than anything in Cronenberg's CRASH. And I ask you, does the cinema have a better reason to exist than to bring visions such as this within everyone's reach? (Well, everyone able to play PAL or SECAM tapes, anyway.)

There's another enjoyably preposterous scene where Max disrupts Marie's ballet recital; it's preposterous because Roussel, despite having a perfect swan-like neck and balletic grace, is much too tall to be part of a ballet chorus and looks awkward when raised. This doesn't alter the fact that she's an extraordinary creature and makes the film endurable, even irresistable, with her uncanny presence alone.

Throughout this alternately fascinating and annoying movie, I kept thinking that Georges Franju would have given his left arm to work with Roussel: she's Édith Scob and Francine Bergé rolled into one. Indeed, the final shot, in which she slips out a window wearing a fetching black danceskin, could easily pass for something Franju directed. Alas, though the very young Roussel was the protégé of Jean-Luc Godard, the Roussel of her late 20s and 30s appears never to have found the ideal interpreter of her particular brand of magic.

I understand that Die Venusfalle played in years past with English subtitles on the Australian superstation SBS. If anyone in my audience has a recording of that broadcast, or a copy of the Fleury film in English, please let me know how I might obtain a copy from you.