The Criterion Shelf: Bad Vacations

The antidote to pandemic wanderlust

Conversations you have with people about the Covid-19 pandemic usually, and quickly, devolve into listing all the things that have become difficult or impossible during quarantine. If you’re among the (sadly few) fortunate who do not to have to worry about employment or rent, you just as quickly discover that we all have more or less the same items on our list in varying orders of importance:  large-crowd events like theatre and sports, dining in restaurants and—for me the most important—travelling. If you’re having this conversation with close friends you can probably throw casual sex in there, even though none of us have called it that since 1989.

As someone who is decidedly not a family man, travelling has become the one thing I prioritize more than watching movies. I spend my days working my job and my nights performing in theatre and am only happy doing those things when I know I have the next plane ticket in my pocket.  I covered my love of travel on an episode of my Criterion-themed podcast about the Katharine Hepburn-David Lean drama Summertime: I sympathize with spinsters on a deep level, though I have yet to land in Venice.

With the news that the pandemic would not be resolved quickly, I knew had a bad summer to look forward to. It would involve cancelling my trip to Germany to stay home and enjoy the bright sunshine from my workspace (yay), followed by afternoons in the backyard with my mother and her friends. Almost as if aware of my company-seeking misery, the Criterion Channel put together a list of films meant to remind me that going somewhere isn’t always a good thing. There are plenty of times when wanderlust is an instinct we should ignore because of the danger that awaits us. Why travel when the result could be sexual frustration on the Riviera, an entanglement with murderous Bermudan gangsters, the death of a friend over a cliff, or nature itself taking revenge on your wasteful human self? With each film, I found myself loving my backyard so much more (but that will pass).

Here they are, in preferential order:

La Cienaga (Lucrecia Martel, 2001)

Mecha (Graciela Borges), the matriarch of a well-to-do Argentinean family, takes to her bed after a personal injury, worsening her already sour mood. She calls her eldest son Jose (Juan Cruz Bordeu, Borges’ real-life son) home from Buenos Aires where he runs the family business with his father’s former mistress and with whom he is, unbeknownst to the family, having an affair. Mecha’s cousin Tali, played by the luminous Mercedes Morán, is also on hand, bringing her children around to keep Mecha’s younger kids company. She chatters sympathetically to her cousin in her sick bed while, at home, criticizing the woman she thinks isn’t any good at self-reflection. The conflicts and frustrations of these characters make up the narrative of this bewitching film. Set in an idyllic summer home located in the middle of an untameable natural environment, the place thrives with the natural rhythm of familial warmth as well as the threat of dangerous sexuality (as represented by Jose) and guilty denial (as represented by the much-abused indigenous maid). Lucrecia Martel’s debut feature is a marvel of potent camerawork and sound design, marking her an artist of note who has since made good on the promise with subsequent masterworks.


Unrelated (Joanna Hogg, 2007)

Anna (Kathryn Worth) joins her best friend Verena and her family in a villa in Tuscany, passing her summer days in sunny, heat-stifled idle. Anna has an awkward time trying to catch up with her old friend while being drawn more to Verena’s children and their cousin Oakley (Tom Hiddleston in his film debut). Confident and rascally, Oakley is far too young for Anna’s company but she can’t help but be pulled into his mysteriously confident orbit. As their mostly wordless exchanges progress and Anna’s phone calls home increase in their negative tone, it becomes clear that her partner Alex didn’t stay home because of work but because they needed some time apart. Oakley’s appeal is in part due to his reminding her of what life could have been. Joanna Hogg’s debut is an acutely observed character piece that has its element all exactly correct. The humorous, off-hand way that she treats the relationship between Anna and Oakley allows the main character to be both romantically taken and feel ridiculous at the same time. Hogg’s powerful command of ellipsis denies us a lot of exposition but there’s always just enough for the story to feel fully comprehensible, and the performances are all superb.


Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger, 1958)

Jean Seberg summers on the Riviera with her playboy father David Niven, but her memories of one particular summer haunt her as she enjoys the off-season nightlife in Paris (filmed in stark black and white). The endless, soulless nights of dancing at clubs with random men are increasing her spiritual void rather than feeding it, and she finds herself flashing back, in bright Technicolour, to the time when her late mother’s best friend (Deborah Kerr) showed up at their summer home and almost convinced her father to give up his Peter Pan existence to pursue a proper adult relationship. Unable to help herself, Seberg expresses her teen rebellion by interfering with the relationship and it leads to devastating consequences that she will be marked by forever. Preminger cleverly uses the trappings of plush and bright post-war Hollywood extravaganzas to explore the very convincing pain of adolescence and the ennui of a life lived without more meaning than self-gratification. A film that grows richer with time and provides the viewer more every time they watch it.


Long Weekend (Colin Eggleston, 1978)

Nature takes revenge when an urban couple try to heal the rift in their crumbling marriage by enjoying a vacation camping on the beach. Getting to their destination is fraught with setbacks, and then they find themselves on a beautiful but desolate shore haunted by the sounds of angry animals, mysterious figures in the water and more than a few strange, near fatal mishaps. Their imbalance with nature is compounded by their own disharmony with each other. Moments of affection are always undone by poor communication and a lack of empathy that seems to be as responsible for bringing about the trauma of their experience in the final third as anything else. This is a superb, thrilling chamber piece whose atmospheric cinematography is as riveting as the performances and director Eggleston’s perpetual sense of moody, chilling mystery.


La Collectionneuse (Eric Rohmer, 1967)

Eric Rohmer’s erotic adventures often rely on an ironic conflict between character and setting. The cold of My Night At Maud’s French winter is set against the warmth of intellectual repartee, while the hot and sensuous summer settings of Pauline At The Beach, The Green Ray and La Collectionneuse are at odds with the sexual frustration of the people trying to convince themselves that they are above such beastly, carnal nonsense. In the case of this fourth “Moral Tales” entry, the conflicted fellow is art collector Patrick Bauchau, who is sharing a friend’s villa with a young woman who spends the summer joyfully bedding one boy after another. Bauchau chooses not to have that kind of fun with her (not noticing that she’s not offering). Instead he focuses on the lofty ideals that he believes prove it’s a bad idea but, of course, all he’s doing is badly hiding his own insecurities. Beautiful bodies tanning by the shore in bright sunlight make for a visual treat that is also full of intelligently funny conversations.


Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997)

Only a sociopath would think of this as a vacation film, even if it does take place in a summer home. The first movie to really put the uncompromising Michael Haneke on the map sees a couple taken hostage by two soullessly violent youngsters who put them and their family through torture without seeming to want anything other than to cause them pain. The victims suffer while we as viewers are challenged, both thrilled and terrified as Haneke plays with our expectations of the eventual outcome. Haneke later remade the film shot for shot with Hollywood stars to prove that it would find a bigger audience with better known actors, but the experiment failed. The “U.S.” version isn’t as sharp and never managed to eclipse the popularity of the original.


The Green Ray (Eric Rohmer, 1986)

Marie Rivière needs a vacation from Paris in the summer but, since it’s Eric Rohmer and life is always charmingly bittersweet, all she finds is loneliness. Summering in Cherbourg with friends just emphasizes her solitude, so she goes home, regroups and then heads for the Alps. The sight of skiing families is so off-putting that she can barely stay a day before making her way to the Basque coast where she meets a delightful Swedish girl who is ready to party. Rivière is never able to shake her melancholy, either in company or alone, as she searches for a happiness as elusive as the scientific phenomenon of the title, which occurs at the magic hour of sunset. Delicate, sweet and beautifully photographed, this is Rohmer at his most continuously pensive, with dialogue that is mostly improvised. The effect is noticeable: the sharp conversations about sex, passion and literature that you know from My Night At Maud’s or Claire’s Knee are now lengthy conversations about being a vegetarian, but the colourful personalities that populate the film and Rivières’ own sweet presence make it lovely to behold.

The Deep (Peter Yates, 1977)

Peter Benchley regretted the bad reputation sharks gained due to his bestselling novel (and its subsequent film adaptation) Jaws, and refrained from framing them as villains in his subsequent marine adventures. Yates cheats a little in his adaptation of The Deep as they do show up a few times in Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset’s scuba-diving vacation in Bermuda. What starts innocently enough becomes a dangerous game of survival after they discover a sunken ship on a dive that contains priceless relics and very pricy morphine ampules. It’s not a particularly exciting film (the book moves at a better clip), but was a huge hit at the box office thanks to the opening scenes involving Bisset in a very wet t-shirt.


House (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977)

Obayashi deftly delivers a campy horror film that still manages to be disturbing. It follows a young woman who is so upset about her father’s upcoming marriage that she decides to join her girlfriends on their planned summer vacation at a teacher’s summer house. When their plans fall through, the delightfully-named Gorgeous invites her friends Fantasy, Kung Fu, Melody, Sweet, Prof and Mac (she likes to eat) to the home of her late mother’s sister instead. What she doesn’t realise is the house is inhabited by a sorceress who longs to devour unmarried girls in a myriad of clever and creative ways. A film beset by madness from its opening shots, Obayashi employs no end of expressive, hilariously gaudy camera techniques. He is equally free in the grisly techniques he uses for dispatching the young women, including a very hungry piano that sets fingers dancing in the air. That said, for anyone not won over by its unabashed indulgence in runaway aestheticism, it’s a shallow and grating experience.


The Comfort of Strangers (Paul Schrader, 1990)

Ian McEwan’s novel is yet another of his stories of obsession, this time focusing on a British couple (Rupert Everett, Natasha Richardson) vacationing in Venice as a way to rekindle the dying embers of their love affair. They get lost in the moonlit streets of the magical city and are offered directions and a drink by an ornately confident Venetian man (Christopher Walken), then dine at his home the next day with his shy and retiring Canadian wife (Helen Mirren). The couple are put off by the strange, intrusive questions that Mirren asks and are uncomfortable with Walken’s pushy generosity, but feeling obliged as guests to keep saying yes despite the fact that things get dicier every time they do. It all ends with a rather overdone conclusion that the film hasn’t earned. Whatever tension it means to create isn’t all that sexy thanks to their reticence in exploring the story’s homoerotic undertones (which, if you’ve seen Enduring Love, is typical of McEwan as well).  Harold Pinter contributes a shallow script, while Walken can’t seem to decide on his character’s intentions or, quite frankly, his accent. Director Paul Schrader seems solely interested in finding ways to film Venice that Lean, Roeg and Visconti never thought of, but it does feature Everett at the peak of his birdlike hotness. His causing such a stir everywhere he goes makes perfect sense.


The Sheltering Sky (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1990)

Paul Bowles wrote one of the most influential novels of the twentieth century, about a couple looking in North Africa for what they should be finding in themselves. Bertolucci, while still the master image maker, makes something out of it that is daring and unusual but also dry and insufferable. Debra Winger’s insistence on fearlessly playing a character’s more abrasive qualities is admirable in theory but makes it hard to go on this journey with her. That’s compounded by her lack of cohesion with John Malkovich, who is even more impenetrable, and the fact that neither of them are convincing in the period settings. It features some of the most beautiful images you’ve ever seen in a film, but getting through them is a chore.


Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat, 2001)

Breillat continues her assault on the limits of cinematic sexuality with this pretentious drama. At its core a beautifully observed, witty and intelligent dissection of the relationship between two young sisters—one a teen beauty and the other a spunky but insecure chubby adolescent. When the elder sister makes the acquaintance of a sexy Italian lover during a family vacation, the younger sister watches as her sibling gives away her innocence to the attraction of empty promises made in the heat of passion. It features terrific performances (especially Arsinee Khanjian as the girls’ mother), but the dialogue is stiff and the conclusion is beyond ridiculous