Category: Films about theatre

Funny Girl (1968)

Funny Girl (1968)

A star-turn is the main interest in this grand-scale but so-so musical

Director: William Wyler

Cast: Barbra Streisand (Fanny Brice), Omar Sharif (Nicky Arnstein), Kay Medford (Rose Brice), Anne Francis (Georgia James), Walter Pidgeon (Florenz Ziegfeld), Lee Allen (Eddie Ryan), Mae Questel (Mrs Strakosh), Gerald Mohr (Branca), Frank Faylen (Keeney)

Fanny Brice was the major pre-war star of Broadway, the leading lights of the Ziegfeld Follies, the sort of all-singing, all-dancing spectaculars they just don’t make any more. A fictionalised version of her life became a Broadway smash, produced by her son-in-law Ray Stark. Hollywood came knocking, leading to this film version. Shepherded to the screen by William Wyler (his first ever musical, a genre he’s avoided due to being deaf in one ear) it would tell of Brice’s early success, her relationship with Ziegfeld (Walter Pidgeon) and her marriage to dodgy gambler Nicky Arnstein (Omar Sharif). And to play Brice? It could only be the woman who created the role, a young sensation called Barbra Streisand.

Funny Girl begins, ends and is exclusively about Barbra Streisand. Making her film debut, Streisand is, not to put too fine a point on it, absolutely sensational. This is charismatic, star-making stuff from an actress who knew exactly how to tailor the part (already basically written for her) to her strengths. Streisand is funny, kooky, witty but also vulnerable, shy, preoccupied with her low-opinion on her looks. She totally convinces as a charismatic figure who can dominate the room with cheek, won’t think twice at bluffing she can roller-skate to land a role or pigeon-hole Zeigfeld and argue against being asked to do something in performance. But she equally easily embodies a vulnerable woman, worried she is an unlovable ugly duckling, so certain she is destined to be alone she zeroes in on the first man who shows interest in her.

That’s not even mentioning the magnetism of Streisand. A truly confident, unique performer you couldn’t imagine anyone else so brilliantly mixing power-ballad notes with this sort of quirky character comedy. She can belt out Don’t Rain on My Parade or I’m the Greatest Stars with an awe-inspiring voice. She can add layers of pathos and tragedy to songs like People and Funny Girl. But few other performers could be both a diva and a pratfall artist on roller-stakes or mix arch-wit with low-comedy by stuffing a pillow up her dress in performance to turn her bride character pregnant in His Love Makes Me Beautiful, the Ziegfeld number she desperately doesn’t want to perform (because she can’t see herself as a beautiful bride).

Streisand is so central to Funny Girl’s success that I’m not sure that so much as three minutes go by without her appearing. It’s not a surprise as, subtract her from the mix, and Funny Girl is a fairly bland, unoriginal and at times slightly flat musical that struggles to do or say anything interesting. It’s had millions poured into its elaborate sets, it’s grandiose costumes and its vintage, sepia-tinged photography. But it’s an overlong, overblown, poorly paced film blessed with a star turn.

Wyler’s main strength as a director on mega-budget spectaculars like this was his professionalism and control, the gifts a producer likes. Visually though, Funny Girl frequently looks lost in widescreen, sets shot in a way that magnifies their emptiness and lacking the sort of affinity for timing and musicality that something like Minnelli, Donen and Kelly made look so natural (Most of the larger musical numbers were worked on by Herbert Ross). There is the odd strong shot – a showy helicopter shot pans down to Fanny on a tug steaming past the Statue of Liberty during Don’t Rain on my Parade or a sunset that pops up between the faces of Sharif and Streisand during a dockside embrace. But too many shots favour getting the money on the screen or struggle to frame two people interestingly in widescreen.

Mind you the story is a bit of a struggle. Fanny’s ascent to success is fast-paced and untroubled by conflict. Every gamble she takes pays-off, every cheeky trick goes unpunished. She can’t roller-skate when hired to do so? She sabotages the closing number of Ziegfeld’s show with her pregnancy flourish? Doesn’t matter – everyone loves it. She teeters for a few minutes on being fired, then jumps to promotion and glory. Ziegfeld – the sort of elite, New England aristocratic role perfect for Walter Pidgeon – just sighs and acknowledges talent gonna talent.

There are a few more clashes in her personal life. Her marriage to Nicky is the core emotional plotline of the film, but Nicky’s rough edges (in real life he was a conman and a swindler) are shaved off. Instead, he is played as a charming rogue, a professional gambler who bamboozles Fanny’s manager into giving her a stonking payrise and plays with honour and grace at the card table. When his business dealings go south, it’s never really his fault and he’s so noble he works to save Fanny’s honour by taking the rap for a collapsed business and arguing she should divorce him forthwith.

It doesn’t help that Nicky is played by Omar Sharif. Sharif, while a striking screen presence, had an acting range pretty much restricted to playing Sherif Ali. He’s unable to give the role any depth or interest, he can’t sing (thankfully he only tries once) and he’s overly reliant on his expressive eyes. He’s no match for Streisand, with whom he has less chemistry than rumour suggests was the case.

Streisand though was one-in-a-million here. Rumours abound she was a difficult and demanding presence, who fought tooth-and-nail with Wyler. She requested endless retakes to get her performance just right and “contributed” to script cuts (Anne Francis, playing a blousy Ziegfeld singer, was furious that her role effectively ended on the cutting room floor). Her perfectionism made her a controversial figure in Hollywood – but it’s also the brilliant fine-tuning of her own skill that won her the Oscar she shared with Katherine Hepburn. On a side note, Streisand had been controversially invited to join the Academy before she made a film, meaning the vote I assume she cast for herself was the one that guaranteed her the Oscar.

Funny Girl is large, overlong, largely visually and narratively uninteresting film that has a bright, shining, tour-de-force superstar in the lead who is in absolute, total control of her talent. Without Streisand it would be a tedious turkey – with her, it’s a strange landmark.

Tár (2022)

Tár (2022)

Character flaws abound in this intriguing and challenging film, open to multiple interpretations

Director: Todd Field

Cast: Cate Blanchett (Lydia Tár), Nina Hoss (Sharon Goodnow), Noémie Merlant (Francesca Lentini), Sophie Kauer (Olga Metkina), Julian Glover (Andris Davis), Allan Corduner (Sebastian Brix), Mark Strong (Eliot Kaplan), Sylvia Flote (Krista Taylor), Mila Bogojevic (Petra)

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s a maxim humanity manages to prove true, time and time again. It doesn’t matter what the field is, when someone holds sway over the dreams and ambitions of others, there’s a decent chance that power can be enjoyed so much it starts being abused. It’s an idea key to Todd Field’s gloriously complex and challenging Tár, a film that defies easy explanations and characterisations, both frighteningly in the “here and now” but also terrifyingly universal.

Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is an internationally renowned conductor and composer. The first ever head of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, she lives a jet-setting life of international acclaim and fame, praised at every stop-off for her stunning reinventions of classical music. But dark shadows swirl around her. She plays favourites: and her favourites are always attractive young women, just starting their career, who see her as inspiration and mentor. And Tár? She sees advantages to this. It’s unspoken knowledge to all, from her partner first violin Sharon (Nina Hoss) to the other members of the Orchestra. But as the suffering of one of Tár’s spurned proteges threatens to leak out into the public domain, her empire topples just as she reaches the summit of her career.

Tár is a brilliantly insidious film, a quiet but compelling character study that borrows elements of Kubrickian unknowability. In particular, Field avoids making moral decisions for the audience, but trusts we are smart enough to come to our own conclusions. Effectively, we spend the film following a deeply flawed, Spacey-like figure, whose life falls apart without being invited to feel morally superior to her. It allows us to feel the pain of her meeting the consequences of her actions, but never lets us forget her own arrogance and cruelty caused them in the first place.

Tár is both an inspirational genius and a dyed-in-the-wool bully. She solves problems with the mindset of an aggressive alpha – her solution to her daughter being picked on by a classmate, is outbullying the bully (“I will get you” she tells her, assuring her no one will believe her because Tár “is a grown-up”). She treats her assistant (and possibly former lover) Francesca who tags behind her in the hope of a junior conductor role like a slave, brow-beats Orchestra members and fellow conductors with friendly pressure and views every relationship in terms of what she can get out of it.

As this deeply flawed human-being, Cate Blanchett is mesmeric. Tár is a firm reminder that she is, perhaps, the greatest actor in the world and all her range is on show here. Blanchett is imperious, assured and totally brilliant. She invests Tár with such – admittedly deeply flawed – humanity, we have to constantly pull ourselves up to remember she’s a dreadful person. Tár is arrogant, convinced of her own genius and sees no-one as her peer. She’s also inspirational, charismatic and oddly charming. Blanchett’s mixes tragedy, grief, denial, panic and bottomless bitterness as Tár’s carefully constructed life falls apart like a time-delay car crash that suddenly jumps back into normal time.

Carefully paced – it’s difficult not to reflect on Tár’s opening words at a career retrospective interview on the importance of timing to give each moment its precise impact – Tár never rushes, unless it needs to and slowly, but assuredly unfolds the final days of her empire. It’s like watching the Indian Summer of an Astro-Hungarian Emperor, barely aware that huge global forces are about to sweep everything away and rob her of her control of events. Field reflects this in the film’s assembly: earlier sequences are marked by their long takes – virtuso set-pieces for Blanchett – and tracking camera, that constantly centres Tár. Later sequences become shorter, choppier, narrative information becomes less clear – it’s like Tár has lost control of the film as much as she has her life.

Control is central, and Tár’s abuse of it her undoing. Her (unspoken but implied) predatory demands for sexual favours in return for career advancement are an open secret among colleagues. Field adds a threatening sense of Tár being watched – either recorded on a phone, or shots of the red-haired back of a mysterious woman at key moments. The woman is Krista, a former protégé, the exact nature of her fall-out with Tár unclear, but who Tár has black-balled in the classical music world. Even as the fallout from this threatens to consume her, Tár can’t help herself from attempting to groom a new cellist (Sophie Kauer), fixing a blind audition, favouring her in private workshops and bypassing the orchestra’s new cellist to land her a juicy lead.

It’s part of Field’s wonderful and searching analysis of the corruption of power – even as the house of cards totters, people can’t seem to see it. While being a universal parable, the film is also fiercely topical. Tár has clear parallels with figures like Spacey. Her ageing former mentor (a crisp Julian Glover) bemoans how the slightest mistaken word to someone can be misinterpreted as lecherous abuse. Attention has focused on the idea of this as a cancel culture movie. Tár, at a Juillard lecture, does strongly disagree with a young BIPOC composer, who can’t relate to cis-gender old white guys like Bach. Tár pushes the rather self-righteous young man to justify himself, which he attempts. But she also goes increasingly further and further, moving from persuasion to brow-beating (her natural resort as a bully) and thinly veiled mockery. She’s smart enough to deconstruct the contradictions in the young man’s views – but cruel enough to mock his bravery at standing up. But Field allows both sides legitimate points, something that you don’t nearly get enough of in our polarised world.

Field also tips Tár more and more into something unsettling and other worldly. Tár’s uniquely perceptive hearing means she is plagued with strange noises: a chiming echoing around her bolt-hole apartment (the reveal of what this is, is another reminder of her indifference to other people), a screaming heard while out running, a metronome that wakes her at night. Strange daydreams, with ghostly, vampiric presences fill her mind. Late, she enters a damp-soaked abandoned building which feels like the gateway to some Lynchian parallel universe, guarded by a Tarkovsky-like dog who might as well be the gatekeeper to her nightmares. Much of the final act of the film unspools like a wild, terrible dream, where key events may not even be real. Reality crumbles, just as Tár’s control over her personal and professional life disintegrates.

Through it all we are invited by Field to empathise, but not sympathise, with this demanding and domineering woman. To understand her, but not forgive her, to dislike her but not tar and feather her. A lesser film would have done the moral work for us. Nothing is explicit about Tár’s cruelty, but the tears of her assistant (a superbly fragile Noémie Merlant) and the tight-lipped frustration of Sharon (Nina Hoss is terrifically pained and long-suffering in a difficult role) speak volumes. But yet, it’s hard not to feel something for someone as their life falls apart, no matter how earned the fall might be. Blanchett uses all her skills to make Tár someone who is frequently awful but never a bogeyman, is categorically in the wrong, but still a figure of hubristic tragedy.

Blanchett is earth-shatteringly good in the lead role and Field’s direction is subtle, balanced and plays just enough with your perceptions. Perhaps some of what we see takes place in Tár’s nightmares, perhaps we only see certain characters from Tár’s biased perceptions. It could even be a fabulous ghost story with past misdeeds haunting the frame, a deconstruction of our willingness to pull down the flawed, a study of the abuse of power – or all three and more. The fact you will debate it for weeks to come, means it’s definitely a great film.

The Broadway Melody (1929)

The Broadway Melody (1929)

Forgettable Best Picture winner, the musical that helped bring sound to Hollywood looks simplistic today

Director: Harry Beaumont

Cast: Anita Page (Queenie Mahoney), Bessie Love (“Hank” Mahoney), Charles King (Eddie Kearns), Jed Prouty (Uncle Jed), Kenneth Thomson (Jacques Warriner), Eddie Kane (Zanefield), Edward Dillon (Stage Manager)

The early years of sound in Hollywood were difficult. Before sound, movies were often visual treats, crammed with inventive and imaginative camera moves. Watch some of the silent movie masters, and you’ll be blown away by the majesty and creativity of their vision. Then came sound. And to capture sound on movies, you held the camera as still as possible while the clunky sound recording equipment struggled to work. For years, all that visual invention was history and movies became flat, dull looking and clumsy.

But that didn’t affect the thrill audiences had at hearing synchronised sound. I mean wow! Could you imagine a painting talking to you? That would be incredible. Imagine it singing and dancing. You’d be blown away. It’s that context you need to bear in mind when watching The Broadway Melody. How did this fundamentally average, largely forgotten, flatly shot film win Best Picture? Because, quite simply, no one had seen anything like it before. This revolutionised cinema – and while that might look inexplicable now, it was like splitting the atom as far as Hollywood was concerned.

The plot, such as it is, is very minor. The Mahoney sisters, Queenie (Anita Page) and Hank (Bessie Love) arrive on Broadway to become stars with the support of Eddie Kearns (Charles King) who is engaged to Hank. But, don’t you know it, Eddie falls in love with Queenie and she with him. Who will end up with whom? And will the sister’s close relationship survive their love for the same man?

The Broadway Melody starts with an orgy of overlapping sound, music and speech all filling a Broadway office, as if trying to hammer home to the viewers how amazing all this is. And it probably was amazing. The filmmakers literally had to work out how to record sound as they went. Sets were rebuilt after takes to improve the sound conditions. Technology was tweaked and reworked. The actors performed their scenes over and over again to get the best recording. It must have been punishing to make.

Visually it’s hugely un-interesting. Shot almost entirely in mid-shot, the actors stand as still as possible so that the microphones can pick up every word (moving and talking was almost impossible). There are moments dialogue is less clear, in particular when actors turn away from camera. Storytelling is hugely influenced by silent cinema – there are even intertitle cards to announce different locations. The script is often just an excuse to move from one musical number to another. The film even stops to effectively stage a Broadway show, including shots of the programme introducing each act.

None of the songs comment on the actions and emotions of the characters. Instead, they are all established by the actor’s saying words to the effect of “I heard a great song – wanna hear it?”. Some of the songs are good and the singing of Kearns and Love in particular is fine. But they are snippable moments, not storytelling. It was to be a few years before film musicals did something more than filmed karaoke, and used songs to express character’s inner emotions.

There is a certain charm about The Broadway Melody though, for all its faults and it’s not the turkey you might have been led to believe. Sure, it’s primitive, but it has a certain bounce to it and the playing of the three leads is surprisingly committed. Its attitudes are surprisingly modern, reflecting its pre-code status. It doesn’t punish its characters for their ‘transgressions’ and is quite emotionally honest about the impact of a man falling in love with the beloved sister of his fiancée on all concerned. Other things have dated less well, in particular a camp costumier and Uncle Jed’s comic stammer, both played for dubious laughs.

But the romance plotline is surprisingly complex. There are moments of rawness in The Broadway Melody. Queenie (well played by Anita Page) is plunged into a self-loathing depression by her feelings for her sister’s fiancée, spiralling into the arms of a playboy – not the sort of reaction you expect from someone presented as “the sensible one”. Hank who reacts not with fury, but with a genuinely quite moving emotional desolation at realising her very existence is keeping the two people she loves most from being happy.

The real love story here might be between the two sisters, both desperate not to hurt each other. Bessie Love gives a very fine (Oscar-nominated) performance as Hank, torn up with guilt and surprisingly vulnerable, who eventually makes huge sacrifices. There is a very effective late breakdown scene for Love, after she deliberately burns her bridges with Eddie for her sister’s sake. The films finest moments are covered in the sad, regretful guilt between these two sisters, and a film focused more on this and less on the musical numbers would have more going for it today. As it is it manages at points to elevate its conventional love triangle.

The musical numbers are the real problem though: very much staged exactly as if the camera was filming an actual Broadway show from the middle of the stalls. In mid-shot, the camera is pointed at the numbers and the actors dance their way through them. You better like the title song by the way, because you are going to hear it performed three times in the first 40 minutes. It’s not really storytelling – and all of the dancing would be effortlessly bested by other films in the next few years. None of the numbers have zing or interest and end up bumping up the runtime.

It’s easy to be critical of The Broadway Melody. Sadly, time has dated it since the one thing that made it stand out was the sound. Now that we have literally heard-it-all-before and better in the decades since, the actual thing that now draws attention is its dull filming, middling story and repetitive musical numbers. Not a disaster as some claim, but a very forgettable film – one for completists.

See How They Run (2022)

See How They Run (2022)

Smug, semi-spoof murder mystery which can’t decide whether it loves or scorns the genre

Director: Tom George

Cast: Sam Rockwell (Inspector Stoppard), Saoirse Ronan (Constable Stalker), Adrien Brody (Leo Köpernick), Ruth Wilson (Petula Spencer), Reece Shearsmith (John Woolf), Harris Dickinson (Richard Attenborough), David Oyelowo (Mervyn Crocker-Harris), Charlie Cooper (Dennis), Shirley Henderson (Agatha Christie), Pippa Bennett-Warner (Ann Saville), Pearl Chandra (Selia Sim), Paul Chahidi (Fellowes), Sian Clifford (Edana Romney), Lucian Msamati (Max Mallowan), Tim Key (Commissioner Harrold Scott), Jacob Fortune-Lloyd (Gio)

It’s the 100th performance of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap (“how much longer can it run”, the characters ask. If only they knew…) and producers are in talks for a big movie adaptation. At the party, boorish American film director Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody) offends absolutely everyone – and promptly gets murdered. Not only are the cast (including Richard Attenborough – wittily impersonated by Harris Dickinson) suspect, but also the film producers which, contractually, can only go into production when the play closes. Investigating: dishevelled Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and his super enthusiastic sidekick Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan).

See How They Run desperately wants to be a witty commentary on Agatha Christie style locked-room mysteries. It even opens with a voiceover from Brody’s Köpernick, full of scorn for the medium and its cliches before revealing, as per form, that as the least sympathetic character he himself is about to be knocked off. To be fair, there are one or two decent jokes. But the presence of Reece Shearsmith just made me think: Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s anthology dramady Inside No. 9 would have pulled off the same idea, but with far more wit and better understanding of Christie, in half an hour. And certainly with better jokes.

Instead See How They Run feels like it has only the most superficial understanding of Christie, based more on watching a few scenes of Poirot rather than reading the books. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out made a wittier, smarter and more enlightening commentary on Christie in its updating of the form, than this comedy ever manages. It’s never quite clear whether the makers want this to be a genuine Christie-style mystery or an inversion. Stoppard and Stalker go about their investigation in a traditional manner. The suspects all have motives of a sort. There is a definite mystery.

But it’s all lightweight and uninformed. Christie tropes are nudged and then ignored, as if the writers don’t understand them. What better opportunity could you have for Christie’s love for one mysterious character in the story turning out to be an actor in the group in disguise (invariably summarised by Poirot as “the performance of his/her life!”). There actually is a mysterious character here – but it turns out to be another person. Christie tropes around red herrings, secondary crimes, poison – all of them go unexplored.

The film ends with a deliberately counter-intuitive action sequence: but it’s not clear to me why. It’s neither particularly funny, nor does it feel like it has anything to say about the form other than offering an ending we might not expect. There is a nudge on the fourth wall (it’s the ending Köpernick wants) but what point is being made here? Is the action ending endorsing Köpernick’s belief that Christie-style mysteries are formulaic or boring, or is the shoot-out meant to look excessive and ridiculous? Is it implying everything we are watching is Köpernick’s dying fantasy? Is it a gag? I have no idea at all, and that sums up this tonal mess.

It’s a film that wants to have its cake and eat it. It tries to present a genuine murder mystery – and to be fair, when it does this, it does make for a good guessing game – but also wants to take potshots at the genre. It ends up doing neither particularly successfully. And there’s something a bit unlikeable about a film that wants to feed off the audience’s love of a Golden Age detective mystery, but also kinda wants to tell you how the thing you like is actually a bit stupid – and by extension so are you.

Its humour all too often feels a little studenty and obvious – the naming of Rockwell’s character as Stoppard being a case in point (although it does make for one good gag when Pearl Chandra’s charming Shelia Sim denounces another character as “a real hound, inspector”). It eventually feels like a rather smug film, which just goes to show how hard it is to make a Christie-style mystery.

If there is a decent joke in the thing, it’s that it manages to build a film where the plot of The Mousetrap is vital to the outcome, without ever revealing anything about what happens in The Mousetrap. (Presumably, the Christie estate would have had their guts for garters if they did.) Any moment where it looks like we might learn a major event in the play, a character interrupts or someone says “I already know”. These narrative gymnastics are the most inventive thing about it.

The other thing it’s got going for it is a performance of immense charm and comic likeability from Saoirse Ronan, who has rarely been as sweet, bubbly and adorkable as she is here. Ronan’s comic timing is excellent, and Stalker’s mixture of dogged determination and chronic over-enthusiasm provides virtually all the film’s highlights. Rockwell ambles through a (perhaps deliberately) under-written role, but most of the rest of the excellent cast feel under-utilised. Who casts Shearsmith and gives him not a single joke? Sian Clifford to deliver about three lines? David Oyelowo and Ruth Wilson do a lot with very little, but it’s telling that the final act appearance of Lucian Msamati and Paul Chahidi as a master-and-servant double act provides almost as much humour as the rest of the cast put together.

See How They Run passes the time – but that’s really about that. It doesn’t really have anything smart or funny to say about murder mysteries and it never offers anything truly unique or striking to justify itself (other than Ronan’s lovely performance). It’s straining as hard as it possibly can to ape the Coens or (most of all) the quirk of Wes Anderson, but totally lacks the skill and finesse of either. It feels like a film commissioned off the back of Knives Out success: but to be honest if you want to see something that brilliantly riffs off Christie while also being a bloody good mystery, just watch that instead.

The Magician (1958)

The Magician (1958)

Illusion, faith and rationalism are all explored in Bergman’s fascinating musing on performance

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Cast: Max von Sydow (Albert Emanuel Vogler), Ingrid Thulin (Aman/Manda Vogler), Gunnar Björnstrand (Dr. Vergerus), Naima Wifstrand (Granny Vogler), Bengt Ekerot (Johan Spegel), Bibi Andersson (Sara), Birgitta Pettersson (Sanna), Gertrud Fridh (Ottilia Egerman), Lars Ekborg (Simson), Toivo Pawlo (Police Superintendent Starbeck), Erland Josephson (Consul Egerman), Åke Fridell (Tubal), Sif Ruud (Sofia Garp), Oscar Ljung (Antonsson), Ulla Sjöblom (Henrietta Starbeck), Axel Düberg (Rustan)

He who tells the truth may be the greatest liar. So thinks Mr Aman (Ingrid Thulin), in the carriage carrying him and the rest of Albert Emmanuel Volger’s Magnetic Health Theatre to a performance in a village in nineteenth-century Sweden. It’s fitting for Aman to thinking about it, since he’s actually Vogler’s wife Manda. The mute Vogler (Max von Sydow) claims powers of healing and mesmerism. But perhaps he’s making it up? If we peek behind the curtain, what is the truth?

Peeking behind the curtain is exactly what their clients want to do. The troupe is due to perform before a trio of rationalists, practically falling over themselves to debunk every step Vogler takes. Dr Vergerus (Gunnar Björnstrand) is a chilly health official who only believes what his own hands touch. Consul Egerman (Erland Josephson) wants to prove it’s rubbish to his wife Ottila (Gertrude Fridh), while Police Superintendent Starbeck (Tovio Pawlo) is a swaggering bully who just likes making people feel small. But can the imperious Vogler turn the tables on these would-be myth busters?

Bergman first struck upon the idea for The Magician after observing how much audiences at the theatre wanted to go backstage and meet the actors – and how they were invariably disappointed when they did at how everyday it was. Based on a GK Chesterton play, The Magician is a multi-layered musing on the relationship between performance and viewing, and the conflict between rationalism and faith. At heart it sympathises with the plight of the performer, presenting their work to an unsympathetic, uninterested, unengaged and unimpressed audience.

The theatre troupe look all sorts of glamourous, with the eccentric costumes and their intriguingly unknowable personae. They offer a carnival of the weird and wonderful that fascinates the rationalists, in spite of how much they want to debunk it. But, as they strip down the acts, they find plainer, simpler, less mysterious people below. Despite their eagerness to know how the trick is done, they are disappointed to find out. They barely watch the acts, or listen to the skill of the performers, because they are focused on unpicking the minutia and detail (Bergman having a pop at pretentious critical writing like the material here perhaps?).

Our rationalists are, to a man, an unpleasant, smug and often insufferable bunch. They have a clear world view and anything unscientific doesn’t fit in it: even God is “totally out of date”. Tovio Pawlo’s Starbeck is a crude, jumped-up bully, who feels barely more than a step or two higher up the social pyramid than Vogler. Egerman (a wonderfully nervy and insecure Erland Josephson) is so in awe of facts and statistics he can barely think for himself. Really controlling things is Dr Vergerus, a masterful performance of arrogance and self-satisfaction masquerading as open-minded scientific enquiry from Gunnar Björnstrand.

Far from inquiring, Vergeus’ mind is rigidly closed to anything outside of his world view. People are categorised and little more than objects of curiosity – he even speaks (ominously it turns out) of an eagerness to dissect Vogler. Flashes of the supernatural or inexplicable are met with blank terror which Vergeus swiftly covers with cold impassivity. He has made up his mind well before Vogler arrives. Like the rest of the rationalists, he preaches absolute truth but only on his own terms.

And perhaps he’s right to, in a way. The troupe are liars – but at least they are honest about it. They claim magical skills of healing and love potions (“what the bottle looks like and the colour” is far more important than the contents) which they merrily flog to the credulous. Their magic tricks are dressed up in elaborate costumes and quasi-mystical business. Their promoter Tubal (another impressive, bombastic performance for Bergman from Åke Fridell) shamelessly peddles exaggerated stories of their mastery. They may be a glamourous, but they are also cheap.

And then of course there is Vogler, who has practically dressed himself as a prop. Coated in pale make-up, Fu Manchu facial hair and a flowing black wig, von Sydow presents Vogler as an enigmatic showman. Bergman makes fabulous use of his riveting stare – surely he doesn’t need any flim-flam to hypnotise when he can glare at you like that. There is a sadness to Vogler though: his faith in himself has gone. Encountering a dying actor on the road (a neat cameo from Bengt Ekerot – and a nice call-back to his and von Sydow’s Seventh Seal team-up), Vogler’s face leans forward in fascination, curiosity and a strange longing as the actor faces death, as if he is longing to touch powers beyond once more. Manda is adamant his powers used to be real, but behind the contemptuous and defiant stare it’s unclear if Vogler knows where he is going.

Not that it matters. He’s still got the star quality to leave Mrs Egerman weak at the knees, desperate to seduce him to touch a part of his magic. And the powers are still there – even in their first meeting, Vegeus feels a flash of discomfort as Vogler’s fixed stare causes his mind to drift (a fear he dismisses in seconds). Its only as Bergman’s film strips down the performance qualities of Vogler – his costume, his make-up, his stage persona – and leaves an off-duty actor, that the dark fascination of his clients finally snaps all together into smug, rationalist contempt.

But that’s not before Vogler turns the table on Vergeus with an unsettling confrontation in a locked loft, after a performance seems to have gone disastrously wrong. It’s Vogler’s intimidating “real performance” to prove he and his troupe can still engross and deceive their audiences. This horror-tinged, mesmeric sequence of reflections, shadows, distant sounds and small movements is another reminder of what a master of the cinema of terror Bergman could have been (imagine he had joined von Sydow for The Exorcist!). It’s a superb sequence that almost shakes Vergeus’ faith in his certainty, before becoming another confirmation of how dismissive audiences are when they find out how the trick was done (no matter the impact it had on them at the time).

The Magician isn’t perfect. The middle of the film spends a little too long with the servants in the belly of the house (a Bergman trope of delight for the love of simple, everyday pleasures among the working classes). But its exploration of rationalism and artistry is fascinating. There are masterful performances (in addition to the earlier named, Ingrid Thulin is outstanding). But there is a lingering sense underneath that perhaps Bergman is gently accusing us of being little better than the rationalists, eager to know how cinema works but then talking it down when we find out. Which I suppose means a review of it rather makes his point.

The Blue Angel (1930)

The Blue Angel (1930)

Dietrich lights up the screen in von Sternberg’s first fliration with sound but not his last with obsession

Director: Josef von Sternberg

Cast: Emil Jannings (Professor Immanuel Rath), Marlene Dietrich (Lola Lola), Kurt Gerron (Kiepert), Rosa Valetti (Gueste), Hans Alberts (Mazeppa), Reinhold Bernt (Clown), Eduard von Winterstein (School director), Rolf Muller (Angst), Roland Verno (Lohmann), Carl Balhaus (Ertzum)

Love and lust can be dangerous, all-consuming forces. Just ask Josef von Sternberg. It’s a rare film on his CV that isn’t about the self-destructive nature of longing. The Blue Angel is about obsession and its deadly consequences: but it’s also the birthplace of an obsession that would define von Sternberg’s own career. It’s the film where he discovered Dietrich. Did von Sternberg guess that, in time, he might himself become a version of the lovestruck Rath? I’d guess not, but the stench of sadomasochist excitement from complete prostration comes out of every frame of this classic.

Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) is a professor at the local gymnasium, preparing his students for university. Problem is, they are more interested in the goings-on at the seedy nightclub The Blue Angel than with Rath’s pompous lessons about Hamlet. Specifically, they are obsessed with Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich), the erotic head-line singer. Rath tries to catch his students in the act – and instead finds himself smitten by Lola, leaving his career to marry her. Five years later, and Rath has lost every ounce of self-respect, regularly debased by the cabaret company and reduced to doing humiliating chores for his wife.

The Blue Angel was one of the first major sound movies made in Germany. Jannings – winner of the first Best Actor Oscar – was the biggest star in Germany and handpicked von Sternberg, who had directed him to that Oscar in Hollywood’s The Last Command, to make the film. Plans to make a film about Rasputin were ditched in favour of an adaptation of Heinrich Mann’s story about a professor who becomes infatuated with a cabaret singer. It’s a tragic tale of a man bought low by an unsuitable woman: however, von Sternberg (with Mann’s agreement) rewrote the plot into a parade of humiliation for the professor. Rather than a tragic figure, he would be a pompous man turned into a submissive, emasculated figure of mockery.

Is this what Jannings had in mind? Surely not. Von Sternberg was critical of the actor, believing his overly-expressive movements and facial expressions – so perfect for silent cinema – looked crude and ridiculous with sound. Jannings certainly seems more comfortable throughout The Blue Angel with reactions than dialogue: but even then, his wide eyes, double-takes and shocked mouth often seem too much. In art imitating life, he feels like the self-important “actor” being taken down a peg, marginalised in the frame and (by the end) smeared in clown make-up with the yolk of raw eggs running down his face.

Jannings was certainly unhappy with the focus of the film shifting powerfully to Dietrich. He was the star, but it’s Dietrich you remember. And no wonder, since von Sternberg’s camera can hardly take its eyes off her. Dietrich’s cabaret performances – recorded live – were a sensation. Just as much was her brooding sensuality, with Dietrich’s rawness as a performer guided by von Sternberg into an unforced naturalism. Where Jannings is large, she is small. Where he double takes, she raises a single arched eyebrow. Where he blusters, she quietly sits and cocks her head. Von Sternberg’s camera frequently centralises her in the frame as if trying to unwrap the enigma of this intriguing woman.

Who is Lola? You can watch in detail and never be sure. At times she’s a coquettish tease. At others a contemptuous dominatrix. But then she is also playful, sensitive and (at first) seems to find the idea of possible security and fatherly protection from Rath desirable and alluring. Dietrich’s performance constantly keeps us on our toes. Does she at expect to be protected by Rath, but finds his increasing submissiveness arousing (does Rath find the same?). Or was she – as she hints in her cold and manipulative second rendition of Falling in Love Again – always a manipulator of men? (I like to think the other clown in Act One is some sort of former lover of Lola, the sad eyes he uses when staring at Rath seeming to say “don’t make my mistakes”.)

Sex is central to The Blue Angel. Von Sternberg’s camera constantly catches Lola’s legs in frame – in one striking shot on a spiral staircase directly above Rath’s head. Dietrich swaggers and dips, her hips moving, her legs curled sensually. She’s lit like a mix of an angel and a Caravaggio-esque temptress. She takes a sort of twisted pleasure in demeaning Rath – reduced to cooling her curling iron and rolling her stockings on so she can head out to “entertain” more men. But, just as telling, Rath keeps coming back for me. Sure, he might shout and rage – but then he’ll humbly take his place on his knees in front of her.

The Blue Angel is strikingly decadent. While Rath’s classroom has a hide-bound Victorianism – with himself as a puffed-up Thomas Arnold – the nightclub is seedy, crammed with loutish clientele swigging beer. Lola’s dressing room is rundown, the pay is poor and the glamour almost non-existent. This is the underbelly of Weimar Germany, already feeling the pinch. Rath is reduced to selling dirty postcards of his wife – his dishevelled frame hawking these around the punters after her performances – and allowing her to entertain “private admirers”.

Humiliation becomes the heart of this beautifully made film. Shot by von Sternberg with his signature artistic richness – the unnamed town feels like a Dickensian blow back more than Germany of the time – with beautiful halos of light and a frame that constantly fills itself with dynamic movement, The Blue Angel culminates in high tragedy laced with farce. Rath, forced into performing a humiliating clown routine in his hometown, watches as his wife watches him while clasping her new lover to her lips. Is she seeing how far she can push her pet in his humiliation? Will nothing make him stand up to her? Is this always what she wanted or just what she finds she likes?

Either way, you can see here the formation of fascinations that von Sternberg would only let go further in future films (think of The Scarlet Empress which reimagines Catherine the Great as the ultimate dominatrix). It humiliates Jannings both textually and meta-textually – making him look like a hammy relic, next to the sensual naturalness of Dietrich. But it’s also one of the great films about the erotic desire to be belittled. It was von Sternberg’s calling card and it cemented his desire to work with Dietrich again and again. Make of that what you will.

Note: The Blue Angel was of course made in the shadow of the rise of the Third Reich. Dietrich narrowly beat out Leni Riefenstahl for her role. Goebbels later banned the film for being “Jewish”. Of its three stars: Dietrich was a passionate anti-Nazi campaigner. Emil Jannings became the most famous actor to support the Nazis (which ended his career after the war). And, tragically, Kurt Gerron and his wife were murdered in Auschwitz.

The Last Metro (1980)

The Last Metro (1980)

Passion, privacy, tension and terror all come to head in Truffaut’s stately theatrical occupation epic

Director: François Truffaut

Cast: Catherine Deneuve (Marion Steiner), Gérard Depardieu (Bernard Granger), Jean Poiret (Jean-Loup Cottins), Heinz Bennent (Lucas Steiner), Andréa Ferréol (Arlette Guillaume), Paulette Dubost (Germaine Fabre), Sabine Haudepin (Nadine Marsac), Jean-Louis Richard (Daxiat), Maurice Risch (Raymond Boursier)

The curtain parts and we are introduced to a magic world of imagination and drama play out before us on stage. But how can the actors immerse themselves in this, while such huge drama plays out in the real world? It’s the dilemma of the Montmatre theatrical troupe in Paris during the Occupation. With war raging with all its complex moral choices and dangers, how can you focus on the art within – or for the matter process the complex emotional entanglements in an already claustrophobic profession only made worse by the perils of Nazi occupied Paris and their pet collaborators.

Truffaut’s film is called The Last Metro as it recalls a period during the occupation when hundreds of thousands of people crowded into Parisian theatres to stay warm at night before rushing to catch the final train home before the curfew. The Montmatre Theatre is run by Marion Steiner (Catherine Deneuve), a film star turned stage actor struggling to keep the theatre going in the absence of her Jewish theatre-director husband Lucas (Heinz Bennett) – who, unknown to anyone else, is hiding in the theatre basement. Bernard Granger (Gérard Depardieu) is her new lead actor for their latest Ibsenesque production: but his presence will stir powerful feelings in the embattled Marion.

Truffaut’s film steers away from his other more famous work – the sort of vibrancy and romance of earlier films like Jules et Jim or The Four Hundred Blows or the inventive playfulness of Day for Night. Instead, The Last Metro is a more formal, classically shot, interior piece that revels in small moments and touches of emotional investment so subtle and glancing some viewers might not even notice them. It’s also – surprisingly for cinema’s leading cineaste – a film deeply in love with the mechanics and backstage drama of theatre, subtly contrasting the claustrophobia and intensity of such spaces with the oppressive world-shrinking and glance-over-your-shoulder anxiety of occupation.

It’s also a superb character study, with a quite brilliantly complex and compelling performance from Catherine Deneuve. A starlet with a double burden – not only keeping the theatre alive, but also her husband – Marion is a woman pulled so hard and so overwhelmingly in so many competing directions, it’s taking every ounce of her control to hold herself together. Facing financial pressures, censorship pressures and the constant fear that a single wrong word could see her theatre ripped away from her and her husband discovered and killed, she maintains a cold and professional veneer that rarely, if ever, slips.

So little does it, that Bernard – played with an effortlessly underplayed grace and charm by Gérard Depardieu that belies his Rugby-player bellicosity – is, for the most part, blissfully unaware of Marion’s growing, unspoken, attraction to him. A love she seems hardly able to acknowledge herself, not least because it feels like an even deeper betrayal now of her husband, hiding out in the basement and utterly dependent on her, than it would in peacetime.

Lucas – a wonderful Heinz Bennent – is himself teetering on the edge of falling apart from the sustained effects of acute cabin pressure. Never leaving the damp theatre basement – apart from surreptitious trips to the stage late at night – Lucas’ attitude to his enforced imprisonment moves from a larkish boys-own adventure into an increasingly bitter resentment. Directing the show from afar – a drain has been hooked up so he can listen in on rehearsals – he provides late night feedback to Marion to accompany the detailed handwritten notes he ‘left behind’. Mapping out future productions on his cell walls, Lucas avoids the suspicion that the constant pressure of concealing him has tipped their relationship from romance to one of anxiety-ridden responsibility.

It contrasts with the play the company is performing: where, in typical Ibsen style, the lead is a tragedy tinged woman, suffering memory loss, who falls into a deep but mutually painful love with her son’s tutor. Even from the rehearsals, Marion begins to feel some bleed of this dramatic relationship into her real world: she asks Bernard to not touch her during rehearsals, as if worried that this moment of physicality could lead to consequences she cannot control.

Touch is a key sensation in The Last Metro – as if moments of physical contact and intimacy carry even more weight in a world where no one can be trusted and every word must be carefully watched. Bernard uses a repeated routine of palm reading to try and seduce (with mixed results) a series of women (most notably lesbian production designer Arlette – strikingly played by Andréa Ferréol – who, in a lovely flourish, he describes as longing for “like a warm croissant”). Physical contact – the light caress of a face and hands – is crucial to the film. Truffaut’s camera zooms in on moments where hands take each other, either in longing, understanding or – in a sequence where Marion journeys to Gestapo headquarters – with the threat of imminent violence.

Closing distance is particularly important in a period where all contact must be carefully judged and measured. Collaborators, like powerful press chief Daxiat, will use the smallest slight or word out of place to justify pulling your world down. Played with a hissable vileness by Jean-Louis Richard, Daxiat is a pompous, self-important, two-faced and vindictive man parroting Nazi slogans and revelling in his power to destroy careers. But, small man though he is, the Occupation gives him power – when Bernard angrily confronts him for his rudeness about Marion in his review, its Bernard who Marion is furious at for his recklessness.

It’s because hanging over every moment – and constantly playing in Deneuve’s expressive eyes – is the dread of what will be found if her theatre is searched or how doomed her husband will be if it is closed. Finding a play that passes muster with the censors and pleases the masses is literally a matter of life and death.

Truffaut echoes the claustrophobia of occupied France in his shooting of the cramped backstage world – and he and Suzanne Schiffman in their screenplay add to this with their look at backstage politics and affections between actors, stagehands and crew. Even the outside is shot like an interior – and Truffaut never bothers to make the locations feel like anything other than sets, as if the whole world is a claustrophobic theatre – with extensive use of mid and close-up shots and subtle tracking shots that maintain the theatrical effect.

It does make for a film that can feel stately and a little too heritage – and its undeniable you miss some of the energy of Truffaut’s other films (you can’t imagine his idol Hitchcock ever shooting a frame of The Last Metro­ – or what he would have made of its luxurious pace). Its subtle energy is sometimes so easy-to-miss that it can be easy for parts of the film to pass you by. Plotlines – such as Bernard’s support of the resistance – sit awkwardly at times within the framework, and the film’s boiling down of Vichy France to (essentially) one bad apple told a story about Occupation that was very pleasing to the French self-image (no wonder if was a massive hit).

The Last Metro is at times a little too in-love with its cultural heritage and the quiet professional skill of its making. But, it counter-balances this with some involving and subtle work from all its principles and director: and in Denevue (especially) and Depardieu it had two of the greatest actors in French cinema at the top of their game. Multi-layered and demanding, it’s a film that makes you work from its newsreel opening to its fourth-wall, metatextual ending, riffing on romantic entanglements, art, burdens and the oppression of occupation. Perhaps too knowingly prestige to be great, but still an essential watch.

Twentieth Century (1934)

Twentieth Century (1934)

A producer and his muse bicker, feud and fall in love in the theatre in this funny proto-screwball

Director: Howard Hawks

Cast: John Barrymore (Oscar Jaffe), Carole Lombard (Lily Garland), Walter Connolly (Oliver Webb), Roscoe Karns (Owen O’Malley), Ralph Forbes (George Smith), Charles Lane (Max Jacobs), Etienne Girardot (Mathew J Clark), Dale Fuller (Sadie), Edgar Kennedy (Oscar McGonigle)

Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) is the biggest showman on Broadway. He can take the rawest stone and polish it into the brightest diamond. Lily Garland (Carole Lombard) is just such a stone, a lingerie model turned superstar of stage and screen. Trouble is, Jaffe is also a control freak who turns mentoring into manipulation. After three years Lily leaves – and Jaffe can’t get a hit without her. Smuggling his way onto the luxurious 20th Century Ltd express train from Chicago to New York, can Jaffe use the journey to win Lily back?

Hawks’ comedy is, along with It Happened One Night, one of the prototype screwball comedies. In some ways its even the best model. It has all the elements you expect: lightening fast dialogue, farcical set-ups, mistaken identities, ever more overblown rows, a dull second banana as the ‘new’ love interest, ludicrous misunderstandings and its heart a mismatched couple who get more of a thrill from fighting each other than they do from loving anyone else. You can see the roots for half the comedies that Hollywood produced over the next ten years here.

The film also captures the greatest screen performance by the leading actor of the American stage in the early years of the 20th century, John Barrymore. Barrymore’s performance is a delight –something near a self-parody – a larger-than-life role of bombast and wild-eyed eccentricity that should feel ridiculously over-blown, but actually really works. Jaffe is a force-of-nature, and that’s the performance Barrymore gives. He hurls himself into the fast-paced dialogue, delights in the physical comedy (from prat falls to swooning fits) and he gives the film most of its understanding of the mechanics of theatre (Hawks famously said he knew nothing about it). It’s a delightful, hilarious comic performance.

He’s well matched by a star-making turn from Carole Lombard, in one of her first roles. Initially overawed by working with Barrymore, Hawks coached Lombard to worry less about “acting” and to focus more on bringing her natural sharp-edged comedic instincts to the film. Something she does to huge success: you can feel the performance getting larger, wilder and more hysterically funny as the film goes on. By the time she’s half playfully, half furiously kicking at Barrymore’s stomach during one late argument in a train compartment, we’ve seen a brilliant comic actress find her stride. Lily goes from a talentless ingenue to a grand dame of stage and screen – but never loses (only conceals) her chippy rumbustiousness nature.

It’s all wrapped up in a neat parody of the artificial, overblown, performative nature of acting and theatrical types. These two are always putting on a show: either for themselves or for each other. Everything is filtered through their understanding of scripts and stories and their trade has made them artificial and unnatural people. If they feel larger-than-life, its because small intimacies don’t shift seats in the theatre. And the theatre is of course the real calling of an actor – not those shabby temptations of the big screen.

Not that the theatre is really that different. The film is book-ended by rehearsals for two almost identical Jaffe productions. Both of them are feeble Southern Belle dramas, with shock murders, deferential servants and stuffed with secrets and lies and plot reveals which could have been thrown together by chimps with typewriters. Between these, Jaffe stages a ghastly sounding Joan of Arc play and flirts with the most tasteless Life of Jesus play you could imagine (with an all-singing, all-dancing role for Lily as Mary). But then art seems to be less important than exhibitionism to these guys.

It’s not as if Jaffe’s style is designed to explore depth of character with his actors. For all his fine words in rehearsals, Jaffe is soon drawing chalk lines on the floor to tell Lily exactly where to stand on every line (the floor soon resembles a spider’s web of crossed lines and numbers) and finally gets the scream he wants from her in a scene by sticking a pin in her derriere. Lily is both infuriated and delighted by these methods – she keeps the pin as a treasured totem for years – but it’s clear acting is really an excuse for all the attention seeking screaming and shouting that they do anyway.

Twentieth Century makes for a neat little satire on the artificial nature of some acting, but at heart its mostly a very fast-paced, witty film that bottles two cracker-jack performers who engage in a game of one-up-manship to see who can deliver the wildest, hammiest and most entertaining line readings. Hawks directs with a confident assurance and the train-based finale (it does take nearly half the film to board the eponymous train) is a perfectly staged farcical comedy of entrances, exits and misunderstandings. The film itself is as theatrical as the personalities of its lead characters – and all the more delightful for it.

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

Sexual and romantic comeuppances abound in Bergman’s landmark comedy of manners

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Cast: Eva Dahlbeck (Desirée Armfeldt), Gunnar Björnstrand (Fredrik Egerman), Ulla Jacobsson (Anne Egerman), Björn Bjelfvenstam (Henrik Egerman), Harriet Andersson (Petra), Margit Carlqvist (Countess Charlotte Malcolm), Jarl Kulle (Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm), Åke Fridell (Frid), Naima Wifstrand (Mrs. Armfeldt), Jullan Kindahl (Beata), Gull Natorp (Malla), Gunnar Nielsen (Niklas), Birgitta Valberg (Actress), Bibi Andersson (Actress)

An Ingmar Bergman comedy? Surely a contradiction in terms, right? Like Da Vinci spraypainting graffiti or Austen writing a jingle. The Swedish master is near synonymous with glacial, Scandi-misery, not material that will be transformed into a Sondheim musical. But yet: Smiles of a Summer Night was the big smash-hit that guaranteed Bergman lifetime artistic independence (he followed it with the one-two punch of The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries that made him untouchable as Sweden’s premiere Artist). A Bergman comedy was never going to be a Ray Cooney farce, and while there are pratfalls and farce here, this film is an exploration of manners with more than hint of Shaw and Wilde, mixed with echoes of filmic greats like Ophüls and Renoir.

Set in turn-of-the-last-century Sweden, the film follows the romantic and sexual entanglements of a series of would-be couples. Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Björnstrand) is a respected middle-aged solicitor, who hasn’t consummated his two-year marriage with 19-year old Anne (Ulla Jacobssen). This is partly due to her anxiety about sex. But really both of them are in love with someone else. Fredrik with his old mistress, celebrated actress Desirée Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck). Anne with Fredrik’s young son Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam) who is also in love with her. Henrik is flirting with house maid Petra (Harriet Andersson), who doesn’t seem averse to a relationship with any member of the Egerman family. Desirée is having an affair with Count Malcolm (Jarl Kulle), whose wife Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist) is considering infidelities of her own just to get his attention.

All of these potential couples merge, swop and work out their feelings overnight at the country house of Desirée’s mother (Naima Wifstrand) during one of the longest days of the year, where the sun hardly sets and people traditionally stay up until dawn. There is more than a touch of the theatrical about all of this – particularly with Bergman’s arch, intelligent dialogue – with the country house as a setting beautifully formal and strangely other-wordly. You can sense the theatrical influences here – Bergman had just directed a production of The Merry Widow – with the characters riffing with Wildean wit and insight, in typically Shavian set-ups.

What we get is a high comedy of manners, that’s also coated in a rich, insightful poetry that gives it a great deal of meaning. There is farce here – including a room with a switch that drags a bed from a neighbouring room (with occupant!) into it. There are several funny lines – many from Jarl Kulle’s hilarious heartless count, who doesn’t care who flirts with his wife until someone actually takes him at his word. There are pratfalls – Henrik has a superbly bleak bit of pure farce near the end that tips into erotic joy (“If the world is full of sin, then I want to sin”). The pompous Fredrik is constantly humiliated, from falling in a puddle to being thrown out of Desirée’s apartment in nothing but a borrowed nightshirt and a pair of slippers. There is no end of sexual suggestiveness, from Harriet Andersson’s gorgeously flirtatious maid (“Hurrah for vice!”) to hints about Mrs Armfeldt’s past (“I was given this estate for promising not to write my memoirs”).

Being Bergman though, this is the sort of romantic comedy that ends with a duelling game of Russian roulette and where we learn as much about human nature as we enjoy the scripted bon mots. Namely, that people – especially men – never seem to know what they want. Fredrik spends a huge chunk of the film persuading himself he is deeply in lust with Anne – although its pretty clear that he’s barely interested. Marriage and relationships in this case are gilded cages that lock people into things they barely want. They don’t even lend themselves to communication – the Malcolm’s marriage doesn’t seem to be based on any communication at all.

So, no wonder it needs a bit of Midsummer Night’s Dream style madness to try and sort it all out. Before that short night, the characters all down a particularly intoxicating wine that they are warned will bring down all their restraining impulses (whether that’s true or not, it certainly does). It’s part of a plot by Desirée – a superb Eva Dahlbeck, serene and glamourous, but also a battle-axe force-of-nature who knows exactly what she wants and how to get it – to resolve all complications for the (her) best, carried out in partnership with Caroline, a woman she’s far to savvy to let something petty like sleeping with her husband get in the way of useful friendship.

Contrasted with all these slightly restrained middle-class people who struggle to understand or express their real feelings, or (like the Egermans) seem to feel a slight guilt at sex anyway, we have the more earthy and free Petra, radiantly played by Harriet Andersson. Andersson gives Petra a flirtatiousness that sees her go from unbuttoning her top to attempt to seduce Henrik, to rolling in a bed with Anna. While the upper classes engage in a formal dance, she seizes life and opportunities – and ends up well-matched with the equally down-to-earth chauffeur Frid (an exuberant Åke Fridell), who like her doesn’t muck around when there is a chance to grab a bit of joy.

Not like the Egermans. Fredrik – a beautifully reserved Gunnar Björnstrand – should want Anna, but all the starring at her photos in the world won’t stop him muttering Desirée’s name while he sleeps. Not that it will allow him to try and rekindle his past relationship with her. Anna (a luminous Ulla Jacobsson), nervous about sex or rather nervous about her feelings with Hendrik, channels her feelings into jealous criticisms of his clothing after catching him naively succumbing to Petra’s flirting. Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam, very funny in his bemused wetness) is so inept in his romance of either woman, he barely seems to know what he wants.

Perhaps Desirée recognises all this is a bit of prime, Theatrical nonsense and tries to solve it all accordingly. After all her whole life is the theatre – from treading the boards, to singing and dancing while walking late at night with Fredrik. And it was for Bergman – that and film, which is why perhaps the film has echoes of Jean Renoir’s Le Regle de Jue with its country house romantic intrigues and Max Ophüls partner swopping La Ronde. And Smiles of a Summer Night is a beautifully mounted film, shot with a luscious, poetic beauty by Gunnar Fischer.

The whole film is a complex dance – you can see why it was ripe for Sondheim – that also explores profoundly the romantic and gender clashes between men and women. Men who are in a position to take what they want, but have no idea what that is. Women who know far more, but must be smart about how to achieve their goal – or like Petra willing to embrace a wild abandon to live in the moment. It may be a theatrical, drawing-room, sex comedy of sorts: but it’s also a film about humanity and people’s fates, all under the eyes the suggestively supernatural power of a smiling summer night. Perhaps its not such a contradiction of Bergman terms after all.

Drive My Car (2021)

Drive My Car (2021)

Time struggles to heal wounds in Hamaguchi’s meditative, carefully paced and exquisite film

Director: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

Cast: Hidetoshi Nishijima (Yūsuke Kafuku), Tōko Miura (Misaki Watari), Masaki Okada (Kōji Takatsuki), Reika Kirishima (Oto Kafuku), Park Yoo-rim (Lee Yoo-na), Satoko Abe (Yuhara), Jin Dae-yeon (Gong Yoon-soo), Sonia Yuan (Janice Chang)

They say time heals all wounds: that’s not always the case. It’s certainly something you begin to appreciate in Hamaguchi’s beautiful elaboration of Ozu-style classicism, Drive My Car. Grief and loss do not adjust and correct themselves after the elapse of many months and years. Instead, they can allow pain to fester, ferment and bubble with further questions, regrets, resentments and sorrows. The world becomes a loop, we drive endlessly through, hoping to maintain some semblance of control over ourselves and our feelings.

That echoes the loops through Hiroshima the car of the title drives in this delicate, throught-provoking and mesmerising film, that expands a Murakami short story into three hours of meditative screentime. Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a celebrated theatre director, specialising in multi-lingual productions of classic Western plays. One day when his flight is delayed, he returns home unannounced to find his wife, screenwriter Oto (Reika Kirishima), making love to an unseen man. Unnoticed, Kafuku quietly leaves and says nothing. Their relationship seems to continue unchanged for a few weeks, with Oto clearly distressed and concerned when Kafuku is in an accident. But she seems to notice a new reticence in Kafuku and, one day, asks that they have a conversation when he returns home for work. When he does, he finds Oto has died from a sudden brain haemorrhage. What was she going to say to him?

Marking the leisurely pace of Hamaguchi’s film, this takes up the opening 40 minutes at which point the opening credits roll. It’s sprinkled with the details of an elaborate backstory: we discover the couple lost a child aged 5 several years ago and decided to not have another (though Kafuku may regret this). There is a suspicion her lover may have been young actor Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). Two years later, Kafuku agrees to direct a production of Uncle Vanya at a Hiroshima theatre festival. Events there will lead him to confront his conflicted feelings about the loss of his wife he both still adores and also, on some level, resents.

Kafuku has carefully constructed his life to maximise his control. He seems to have abandoned acting his signature role of Vanya. Later in the film Kafuku states that Chekhov’s words reveal our true selves – and its clear, from the snatch we see of his performance shortly after Oto’s death, that true self is one Kafuku is in no position to face. Vanya’s grief, resentment, pain at his lost love, anger at the chances in life he has missed – all of these bring to the surface Kafuku’s feelings about his own life. Hamaguchi’s choice of play is a masterstroke: as we listen to Chekhov’s words they shade and deepen the themes in the film: Chekhov’s autumnal sadness is a perfect reflection of the film.

We hear a lot of Uncle Vanya, as Kafuku’s last link to his wife is a cassette recording she made of the dialogue for Kafuku to play in the car (there are gaps for Vanya’s lines, which he fills with a monotonous flatness). He plays this constantly in his car, an aged Saab he has kept beautifully conditioned for fifteen years (meaning he purchased it at the time of his child’s death, adding to its emotional importance). A key part of his sense of control over his life, is the driving and reciting of these lines: hence his request for a hotel an hour’s drive from the theatre.

The isolation and control of driving the car is so important, that it’s a major shock for Kafuku to discover that, for insurance reasons, he has to have a driver for the duration of the production. This is a young woman, Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura), who prides herself on her driving skills (she states it is the only thing she can do well) and who Kafuku reluctantly agrees to hand the keys over to. She wins his eventual trust by her competence and skill – she cares for the car just as he does – and her willingness to sit in silence and let Kafuku continue his ritual of reciting the lines from Vanya.

The growing closeness of these two characters becomes the engine (if you can call it that for a film that luxuriates so much in taking its time) of this thought-provoking and eventually very affecting masterpiece. Both characters find similarities and contrasts in each other: both are dealing with processing the loss of a loved one and, most painfully of all, the questions about who they truly were and what they truly felt that can now never be answered. This plays out in almost the exact opposite of heartfelt conversations: instead long, patient scenes as trust grows not always through words but through mutual comfort, the sharing of a cigarette, discussion of other issues and the impact of time spent in each other’s company.

Time is vital to this. The barriers both these characters have built in themselves to process their feelings would never come down quickly. Hamaguchi’s patience is vital for us to understand how tightly they have wound up their emotions. Kafuku directs with a rigid control, his multi-lingual technique (with at least five languages in the company) demands clarity and long sessions of reading around a table so that actors absorb the flow of the play. It does not allow for flexibility and improvisation. Similarly, Misaki’s driving follows pre-ordained routes and a schedule, that seems to prevent her thinking about other things.

Throughout Hamaguchi avoids sign-posting. Kafuku’s feelings about his wife seem confused and conflicting from scene-to-scene – the Chekov dialogue reflects this, sometimes tinged with intense sorrow and regret, at others bitterness and fury. Kafuku recruits the man he thinks his wife’s lover for the play – casting him in his signature role of Vanya. But why? Does he even know? It could be to accuse him, to control him, to destroy him, to get closer to his wife – or it could be parts of all of them. Definitive answers are kept to a minimum – but then that reflects life.

The relationship between the two comes to a head (such as it is in a film where long conversations slowly reveal buried emotional truth) in a long, late-night car journey shot by Hamaguchi in a carefully controlled one-shot/two-shot that has a classic simplicity that lets the emotion and acting come to the fore. Drive My Car is as unflashy a film as you can get, but its restraint, beautiful but serene imagery and gentle pace add to its slow-burn effect. The moments of emotional catharsis, when they come, are all the more affecting for it – and truly carry a sense of life-changing impact.

The performances are beautiful. Nishijima is quiet, reserved but conveys oceans of conflicted emotion below the surface which he keeps patiently bottled-up. It’s a low-key, highly expressive and tenderly gentle performance. He plays exquisitely with Tōko Miura who at first makes Misaki seem like any number of slightly-surly hirelings, but in turn unveils emotional depths and pain that constantly surprise. Reika Kirishima is both radiant, tender and unknowable as Oto. Masaki Okada is perfect as the lost Takatsuki. Park Yoo-rim is a stand-out among the ensemble as a mute Korean actress communicating through sign language (her acting in the play-within-the-play is stunning).

Originally intended to be filmed in Korea, there is a beautiful serendipity about the pandemic forcing a location change to Hiroshima. No other city on Earth carries such an association with pain and the slow recovery over time. Drive My Car takes the time it needs to explore how grief seeps into us and is only addressed through great care and strength. It’s profoundly engrossing and moving for all of its length – you wouldn’t want to change a thing about it.