PICKS OF THE WEEK
White Material (A)
France: Claire Denis, 2009, Criterion Collection
We are somewhere in West Africa. A slight, pretty Frenchwoman in a thin white sundress with a spray of freckles on her pale face scurries from place to place as her world shatters and falls apart around her. Government troops are massing or leaving; gangs of boy soldiers roam the woods, the local mayor (William Nadylam) has turned mean and opportunistic, a charismatic rebel leader named the Boxer (Isaac de Bankole) has been found dead. And then...
And then puzzlingly, we see that the woman's white dress has changed to a dark-and-light patterned blouse and skirt, the present to the past (or to the future?). Things keep changing. The local soldiers, as they depart in helicopters, tell her in utter exasperation to escape with them and save herself. (She refuses). The Boxer is suddenly alive, meeting the woman at her coffee farm, staying there. A complex, off-kilter network of flashbacks and flash-forwards and flashes-sideways-in-time, begin pushing the story on.
This endlessly energetic woman jogging, walking, running, driving through it all, in seemingly constant restless motion, propelled forward and back by the crises around her and by the nonlinear leaps of the story, jumping on buses packed with the frightened citizenry, or whizzing back and forth in a truck from her farm to the town, is Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) -- whose family owns a coffee plantation in that unnamed African country.
Her father-in-law, Henri (Michel Subor, who long ago was in Godard's Le Petit Soldat and Hitchcock's Topaz) is old, ill-looking. Her handsome beaten-looking husband, Andre (Christophe Lambert) has given up, and unbeknownst to Maria, is trying to sell their farm to the mayor. Her son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is an indolent, selfish, worthless pretty boy, with Oblomovian bed habits, whom fate will turn into a monster. Most of her servants and workers have left (in the past), and she pluckily recruits new bean-pickers.
Ominously, the soldiers, and a local jabbering disc jockey, keep repeating the phrase "white material," which refers to the trinkets and belongings and property of the settlers, and also to the settlers themselves, to her, Maria.
As this little world plunges toward chaos or rebirth or both, the "white material," like the coffee, is more and more at risk, ripe for the picking. What drives Maria on -- in this perilous, crumbling hell, where child soldiers sleep with stuffed toys, rebels swarm though the woods, soldiers flee in helicopters, a friendly pharmacist and his wife lie slaughtered on the floor of their store, and Maria's own son Marcel shaves his hair, stuffs it in a servant's mouth, and runs amok with a rifle, laughing -- is partly the inertia of the constant runner, partly some weird optimism and determination, partly a seemingly unshakable sense of entitlement, and maybe partly madness.
How can she believe, with such crazy awesome resolve, that she will be able to still function and thrive, even harvest a coffee bean crop, in this world gone crazier than she?
Inhabiting Maria, slipping inside her complex persona without artifice or strain, Huppert gives a performance sublimely real, memorable and riveting. Easily, un-self-consciously, immaculately, she pulls us headlong into Maria's reckless self-absorption, her mad run-around with revolution and death, her rapprochement with chaos -- creating a fascinating human being in extremis. She stuns us.
White Material deals, of course, with issues of race, and it's directed and co-written by Claire Denis, a white woman who lived in this type of environment (not necessarily in this kind of crisis) and who interacted with the Africans that her country and her class had robbed and pushed aside. The film, though, betrays no sign of racial bias, condescension or overcompensation. It treats the color differences without polemic or special pleading. This is what might happen, we feel, from both sides: the white (material) and the black.
Denis' co-scenarist here is a French woman of mixed French and African (Senegalese) descent: the Prix Goncourt-winning novelist Marie NDiaye. What the two writers have managed together is a portrait of a white woman, a French colonial (with whom they both obviously emphasize) and of a world of African people of color (with whom they also sympathize) that she thinks she knows, but doesn't.
And because the writers don't preach, but instead make their landscape and people come alive, the film ends by conveying an awful sense of alienation and despair. We feel for the Africans, the French, the helpless citizens and bystanders, even for the soldiers, rebels, officials, the children with guns, even perhaps for a fleeting second or two, for that bastard Marcel, all caught in a crucible of revolution. In French, with English subtitles. (Extras: interviews with Claire Denis, Isabelle Huppert and Isaach de Bankole; short documentary by Denis; deleted scene; trailer.)
U.K.: Mike Leigh, 1999, Criterion Collection
"Some movies delight you. Some stimulate and provoke. Some enlighten and inform. And some simply hand you a rousing good time.
"Mike Leigh's marvelous Topsy-Turvy -- which re-creates with amazing detail and depth the first 1885 performance of Gilbert & Sullivan's classic operetta, The Mikado -- does all of that and more."
So I said back in 1999, when I first reviewed Topsy-Turvy for the Chicago Tribune. And so I still feel today.
It was a surprising film project for Leigh, known then as one of the great British contemporary realists, the writer-director of Bleak Moments, Life Is Sweet, Naked and Secrets & Lies, and an artist whose works, which depended on mass actor improvisation during rehearsals, seemed to be almost at opposite poles from the dazzling artifice and consummate theatricality of the wildly popular and uncommonly brilliant operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. But Leigh loved those shows madly, especially The Mikado, and, like many fine artists, he had more than one string to his magical bow -- here, as it happens a musical string.
Topsy-Turvy, 12 years later, looks like an even greater film than it did then, a truly wondrous musical-dramatic-comic ensemble picture. (Extras: Leigh's short 1992 film A Sense of History, written by and starring Jim Broadbent; commentary on Topsy-Turvy by Leigh; conversation between Leigh and musical director Gary Yershon; deleted scenes; featurettes; trailer and TV spots; booklet with a fine essay by Amy Taubin.)
The Mikado (B)
U.K.: Victor Schertzinger, 1939, Criterion Collection
This somewhat misguided, but occasionally glorious, version of the classic celebrated in Topsy-Turvy, Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado, succeeds because of its source, which is staged attractively but statically, sung beautifully, and acted (sometimes) wittily, and remains as close to sure fire material as you get.
The 1939 Mikado was adapted, conducted and produced by the famed D'Oyly-Carte company's former music director, Geoffrey Toye, who has to take the blame for some unwise cutting (including the whole beginning and Koko's famous "I've Got a Little List") and some questionable casting. The film, lavishly produced without a single exterior shot, features members of the D'Oyly-Carte company and chorus, along with two notable D'Oyly-Carters, Martyn Green and Sydney Granville, as the skittish Lord High Executioner Koko and the pompous Lord High Everything Else Pooh-bah, plus John Barclay as the imperious Mikado, Gregory Stroud as the aptly named Pish-Tush, Constance Willis as the ferocious Katisha and Jack Benny's radio tenor Kenny Baker as the other romantic lead, and the Mikado's runaway son Nanki-Poo.
The plot is delightfully foolish, wittily spoken, sometimes unforgivably prejudiced, and stylish and artificial to the core. We never for a moment think the characters are Japanese, because, despite their head-tilting and bowing and shuffling, they talk and act so British. No, this is all make-believe, dress-up, mischievous fun -- which is why Green and Granville, with their conscious flamboyant theatricality, are so good.
The direction is by Victor Schertzinger, a sometime composer/musician, who also directed two of the best Bing Crosby-Bob Hope Road Pictures (Singapore and Zanzibar), both of which have more local color than this Mikado. In the end, it doesn't matter. It's a great show, and as long as you have some good or top-notch singers and actors, it will always entertain and amuse. (Extras: Koko's executioner's rap, "I've Got a Little List" -- complete with its contemporary Hitler joke and some shockingly racist original lines; interviews with Mike Leigh and some Mikado scholars; excerpts from two 1939 radio broadcasts of two alternative stage versions of The Mikado, The Swing Mikado and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in The Cool Mikado; silent 1926 promo film for a Doyly-Carte production of The Mikado; booklet with Geoffrey O'Brien essay.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
The Norman Conquests (A)
U.K.: Herbert Wise, 1977, Acorn Media
Playwright Alan Ayckbourn's 1975 play trilogy The Norman Conquests -- the cornerstone of his international reputation -- is a virtuoso piece of theatrical construction: three plays, often produced together, all of which record the same six characters on the same weekend, undergoing romantic crises in the same provincial English house, but with each play set in a different room of that house -- and therefore with each separate segment presenting for us things that were going on simultaneously or near the same time as the action of the other plays.
So, if we watch all three plays (they're called "Table Manners," "Round and Round the Garden" and "Living Together," and they're set, respectively, in the kitchen-dining area, the garden and the family room), we will see events running parallel to scenes we may have already witnessed, and that keep deepening our understanding of the characters and their always engaging, often dramatic, sometimes hilarious predicaments.
Ayckbourn's subject matter is the witty stuff of much British stage comedy and family drama as well: the foibles, delusions and weaknesses, often sexual, and here laid bare, of a group of typical Britishers -- in this case the three grownup children (Reg, Ruth and Annie) of an ailing bedridden old woman (whom we never see), their respective spouses (Sarah and Norman) and Annie's friend (Tom). All of them have gathered together, somewhat accidentally, one Saturday, and they will spend the rest of a nervous weekend conversing, confabbing, bickering, joking, losing their tempers, hearing disturbing or absurd revelations, and sometimes even seducing (ore trying to seduce) each other -- while occasionally sitting down en masse for several memorable and truly ridiculous meals.
The catalyst for most of the action is a clandestine affair which is secretly in progress between the husband of one of the siblings, the irrepressible Norman (Tom Conti) and his hitherto repressed sister-in-law Annie (Penelope Wilton), the unmarried daughter and homebody who lives with and takes care of their invalid mother. Annie and Norman are planning to sneak off for a weekend together. And, since Annie has asked for a sub to take care of Mum for the time she's gone, Annie's brother and his wife have volunteered.
Falsely jolly, henpecked Reg (Richard Briers) and his busybody wife Sarah (Penelope Keith) are the weekend caregivers.
It's only after Norman has made an impromptu, and amorous, appearance at the house Saturday afternoon, before Annie's carefully scheduled departure, and after Reg and Sarah show up, that Annie recklessly admits her affair with her randy brother-in-law to nosey Sarah, who's been teasing and goading Annie about her love life. Norman's chicanery is revealed, the tryst is canceled and the theatrical dominoes begin to fall.
Wandering around somewhat confusedly through all this is the one family outsider: Annie's constant but astonishingly ineffectual semi-suitor and local veterinarian Tom (David Troughton), an affable but maddeningly indecisive chap, who's been courting Annie (sort of) for three years, but claims he's just there to help care for a cat with a septic paw.
Norman is no gentleman at all. He's a devilish philanderer, bent on mischief with the ladies, even though his omni-smile fools the other men into thinking he's a good fellow. His conquests are the meat of the play. His lustful appetites keep the plot and the ladies spinning. Conti portrays him with impish eyes and an ingratiating let's-have-a-lark smile.
The Acorn Media three-disc collection of Conquests has a terrific cast, and they take real relish in playing with each other and savoring and diddling with Ayckbourn's smart subtexts and crisp, beautifully shaped lines. This is a superlative award-winning Thames TV production, brilliantly executed and immaculately played by them all, co-produced by David Susskind and brightly and elegantly directed by that British TV master, Herbert Wise.
One of the great qualities of The Norman Conquests as a play is precisely its Noel Coward-ish theatricality, our sense that the structure is partly proscenium-determined and its performances are "performances." We're often starved in our movies for good dialogue, let alone great writing, and here it is: Simmering, golden-hued, with every word in place and topped by the thoroughly enjoyable, demonic conniving and impertinent love-making of Tom Conti as Norman, conquering. (Extras: biography of Alan Ayckbourn; background info on The Norman Conquests.)