The Terence Davies Trilogy (1976-1983)

terence davies trilogy film review

Three short films by one of England’s and cinema’s most highly renowned directors. I decided to explore his first three films based on the strength of the superb The House of Mirth (2000), the only other Davies film I’ve seen. All three films, Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980), and Death and Transfiguration (1983) are autobiographical depictions of his ordeals growing up poor, Catholic, and gay in Liverpool. Davies originally wanted to act and write. Unsuccessful in his attempts to sell the screenplay for Children, he eventually received an offer from the British Film Institute to direct the film himself despite the fact that he had absolutely no experience directing. Based on that film he managed to get accepted at the National Film School where he created the second film as his graduation project. The final film, made on a minuscule budget, demonstrates his maturation as a filmmaker and establishes his signature cinematic style which has been described as poetic. His first two feature films, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) are also autobiographical. On the commentary track Davies claims that being gay and Catholic ruined his life. “I am celibate, although I think I would have been celibate even if I was straight because I’m not good-looking; why would anyone be interested in me? And nobody has been. Work was my substitute.” Even though he renounced Catholicism and became an atheist at age 22 he says he cannot lose the sense of guilt instilled in him by what he calls “that pernicious religion”. The films and commentary may strike some as being full of self-pity though Davies would probably say he was just being brutally honest, trying to convey his frame of mind in the period of his life depicted in the films. The films are bleak and challenging and as one American critic put it, “make Ingmar Bergman look like Jerry Lewis”. Considering how many of the world’s greatest artists led miserable lives, it almost seems as though a tortured soul is a prerequisite for great art. Though making films about his past may not have had a cathartic effect for Davies, it has led to the creation of some great cinema.

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ (6/10)

The Terence Davies Trilogy at imdb.com

As of September, 2016 The Terence Davies Trilogy is available to buy on a Region 2 DVD from Amazon.com.

I Sent a Letter to My Love (1980)

i sent a letter to my love film review

I Sent a Letter to My Love (Chère inconnue) is a showcase for three talented actors. Simone Signoret (Diabolique, Room at the Top, The Army of Shadows) and Jean Rochefort (The Hairdresser’s Husband, Ridicule, Man on the Train) play a brother and sister living out their lives together in their deceased parent’s home that overlooks the beach on the coast of Brittany. Gilles, the brother, has been confined to a wheelchair since childhood and Louise, his sister, has grown old looking after him. Gilles is a bit of a slob and Louise resents having to clean up after him all the time which leads to continuous bickering. They are visited every day by their only friend, Yvette (Delphine Seyrig – Last Year at Marienbad, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), though at times she is the victim of their irascibility. Like Louise, she seems destined to remain a spinster. When Gilles has a brief but serious bout of ill health, Louise realizes that she’ll be left alone if Gilles should pass away. She puts a notice in the local personals column seeking a pen pal in hopes of finding a husband. When she receives a letter, which turns out to be from her brother and in which he pours his heart out, Louise starts being more compassionate towards her brother. Things get complicated, however, as they begin corresponding regularly and Gille insists on meeting in person with the intention of entering a physical relationship. The plot device may be overly familiar but the situation makes the outcome unpredictable and intriguing.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆ (7/10)

I Sent a Letter to My Love at imdb.com

As of June, 2016, I Sent a Letter to My Love is available on a Region 2 DVD from Amazon.fr though at the moment it appears that the only way to see it with English subtitles is at rarefilmm.com.

Death Watch (1980)

death watch film review

Original title La mort en direct. This French/German production wasn’t released in America until 1982 in an edited version that made significant changes to the story. It was digitally restored and released on DVD in 2012 with director Bertrand Tavernier’s original cut. It is based on a novel by British science fiction writer David Compton called The Unsleeping Eye which takes place in the near future when science has all but eliminated illnesses. Harry Dean Stanton plays an unscrupulous T.V. show producer, Vincent Ferriman, who tricks a popular romance novelist, Katherine Mortenhoe (Romy Schneider), into believing that she has contracted a rare illness for which there is no cure and offers to buy the rights to film her demise for his reality T.V. show called Death Watch. After initially refusing the offer she changes her mind but then disguises herself and goes on the run in order to die in private. Ferriman hires Roddy (Harvey Keitel), an insomniac who has had a camera surgically implanted in his eye, to befriend Katherine and film her without her knowledge. Max von Sydow has a small role at the end of the film as Katherine’s ex-husband Gerald Mortenhoe, a musicologist who muses philosophically about the human tendency to dramatize our lives which are in reality insignificant and meaningless. Despite the presence of Stanton and Keitel and the fact that the dialogue is in English, the film has a European art film flavor evident in its pacing and emphasis on characters and ideas rather than action and props. No real attempt was made to create a futuristic setting. In that respect the film is more along the lines of Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) or Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979).

Beautifully shot on locations in and around Glasgow, the gray skies and gritty settings gradually give way to sunnier hues as Katherine and Roddy make their way to Gerald’s home near Land’s End. Antoine Duhamel’s beautiful score accentuates the story’s tragic aspects. He created a motet by a fictional Renaissance amateur composer which was discovered by the character of Gerald in the film which caused some moviegoers to seek recordings of the fictional composer’s work in record shops.

Today, when reality television shows like the television show in this film have become prevalent and in a society where documenting one’s experiences has become more important than the experience itself, Death Watch provides an accurate mirror of a culture debased by its own vulturous media.

★★★★★★★★☆☆ (8/10)

Death Watch at imdb.com

As of January, 2016 Death Watch is available on DVD/BluRay from Amazon.com.

Lady of the Camelias (1981)

lady of the camellias film review

Marie Duplessis (1824-1847) was a French courtesan and mistress to several wealthy and famous men including Alexandre Dumas, fils, for whom she was the inspiration for his novel, La Dame aux camélia, which he adapted into a play which in turn became the inspiration for Verdi’s opera La traviata and numerous films including Camille (1936) with Greta Garbo. Italian director Mauro Bolognini’s 1981 film is intended as a biopic though little is known about Duplessis other than contemporary legend and what can be derived from her literary persona. Apparently she was extremely beautiful, of humble birth, and, if the film can be believed, pimped by her own father when she was still a girl. She also had TB to which she succumbed at the age of 23. She is played here by Isabelle Huppert, who in my opinion is rather ordinary looking. She is portrayed as morose and forthright with a tendency to frequently bring up the fact that she’s dying. It was a stretch to imagine that so many men found her desirable. Otherwise it’s a lush production with an emphasis on costumes and opulent settings.  The score by Ennio Morricone includes selections from La traviata and other classical pieces which were for me solely responsible for the one or two moments I felt moved during the film.

★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ (5/10)

Lady of the Camelias at imdb.

As of November, 2015 Lady of the Camelias is available on DVD from MovieDetective.net.

Aszparuh (1981)

aszparuh film review

Released in 1981 to commemorate the 1,300th anniversary of the founding of Bulgaria, this 4½ hour epic is told from the point of view of Velisarius, a Roman, whose father, a diplomat for the Byzantine Empire, left him with the Bulgars as a kind of insurance for a treaty with the Bulgars. After his return to Constantinople twenty years later, Emperor Constantine IV, who had just suffered a defeat at the hands of the Bulgars,  orders him to write an account of the battle but with a pro-Byzantium slant saying “History is not the past itself, but what we know of the past.  Words! The whole knowledge of mankind is someone’s words!”  The film is divided into three parts, the first of which takes place in Old Great Bulgaria, a region which is now modern day Ukraine. Khan Kubrat managed to unite the semi-nomadic warrior tribes during his lifetime. He treats Velisarius as one of his own sons. Velisarius becomes very close with one of Kubrat’s five sons, Aszparuh, whom he teaches how to read and write Greek but is not allowed to speak of Christianity. Aszparuh teaches Velisarius how to ride a horse and about their religion which includes a sky deity they call Tangra. After the death of Kubrat the Bulgars split into five groups to find new land to settle in due to pressure from the Khazars, another semi-nomadic warrior tribe. Part two follows the westward migration of the faction led by Aszparuh, now Khan, and part three covers their settlement in the land that is now modern day Bulgaria, their union with the Slavs already living in the area, and the battle with Constantine’s army of 60,000. For Constantine this was not only a war to preserve and expand the empire’s territory but also a religious war, for both the Bulgars and Slavs were pagans. Even though Bulgaria eventually became a Christian nation, the film definitely takes a stance against Constantine’s crusades as evidenced by an early scene in which a member of the clergy warns the emperor that “Christ will punish you for the violence in His name!” Production values for the film are uniformly high though the sound design for the big battle scenes is a bit cheesy but perhaps the technology for recording a cast of tens of thousands on location wasn’t all that advanced in 1981. The score is well done and the acting, especially the actors playing Aszparuh and Velisarius, is very good. I felt that the third part could’ve been whittled down a bit, particularly the battle scenes which weren’t all that suspenseful and even repeated some of the same footage. There are scenes of animal cruelty which were hopefully simulated but may be disturbing to some. Overall, I feel the film is worth the time investment and would recommend it especially to those who enjoy epics, war films, and ancient history.

★★★★★★★★☆☆ (8/10)

Aszparuh at imdb

As of MArch, 2018 Aszparuh is available on YouTube overdubbed in English.

https://youtu.be/jdgmUHnaSeQ