The Criterion Channel is currently screening three collections of three very different filmmakers. Their careers take place in the (recent) past, present, and future of cinema, two of them still currently working. The success of Local Hero put Bill Forsyth on the map and breathed new life into the Scottish film industry. His films are still beloved among film fans to this day, their subtlety and irony making them feel even more contemporary than when he first released them. Claire Denis showed herself a master of controlled narratives and atmospheric enigma with a number of films culminating in the incredible acclaim of her masterpiece Beau Travail. Nadav Lapid is one of the sharpest voices in the Israeli film world, often taking himself out of conversations of right vs wrong and instead using his stories to probe the possibility that there is no morality, only will and motivation.
At turns soothing, intoxicating, and shocking, all three combined retrospectives should make for some good ways to pass the time as the pandemic drones on with no end in sight. Here is a look at the three auteurs celebrated on Criterion Channel.
It seems reductive to describe a director as being a purveyor of charm, but it’s hard to think of any other word when describing Forsyth’s most popular films. That this is not to say, though, that they lack substance or power. Forsyth is still with us but has reportedly given up filmmaking, disappointed with the critical beating he received for his Hollywood debut (Being Human with Robin Williams) and the underwhelming reception to his sequel to Gregory’s Girl. The trilogy available on Criterion’s collection covers the best aspects of what he has to offer, from a textbook example of how to do stories about teenagers to his ability to perfectly blend stories about harsh realities with touches of fantasy. The melancholy of a year of quarantine and social distancing can’t be appropriately compensated for by watching a really good movie, but it might help that Forsyth, in presenting stories about loners and misfits who find their place in the world, seems to understand your pain.
Gregory’s Girl (1980)
Forsyth’s international breakthrough is a coming of age tale of teen romance that still feels fresh and brims over with good-natured humour. Gregory is an awkward high schooler who is taken with the new member of the school football team, a highly skilled player named Dorothy whom the coach tries to keep from playing until he realizes that she’s the best they’ve ever had. Gregory starts working on his charms to win her affection, then has the courage to ask her out and it leads to a surprising and unexpected result. Forsyth captures the natural rhythms of his young cast with a great deal of affection and sympathy.
Local Hero (1983)
Still one of the most beloved films of the eighties and Forsyth’s signature work, perfectly encapsulating his ability to deliver a smart and complex theme while employing a gentle, seemingly simple tone. Oil executive Peter Riegert travels to a Scottish village to offer its residents the chance to sell the entire place to his company, which wants to build a refinery there. His associate (Peter Capaldi) falls in love with a marine biologist (Jenny Seagrove) with webbed feet and the spirit of a mermaid, while Riegert, at first corporate and cold, eventually falls in love with the local pace of life. A film that has been rewarding audiences with its charm since it first came out, this one is especially poignant for those looking to soothe the lockdown blues.
The success of Local Hero brought Forsyth to America, where he made his stateside debut with an adaptation of a novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson. Low key and stately in tone, it is set in the fifties and tells of sisters Ruthie and Lucille, abandoned by their mother as children and raised by their grandmother and great aunts until they are teenagers and their unconventional aunt Sylvie (Christine Lahti) takes over. Sylvie’s lack of responsibility isn’t always charming and her habit of stock-piling tin cans and newspapers in the house suggests that there’s more than just a kooky fun free spirit in the house, which Ruthie acclimates herself to while Lucile rejects her outright. Before long, Sylvie’s behaviour draws the concern of the town, but Forsyth isn’t interested in the usual examination of American post-war conformity. If you’re acclimated to his style by this point, you know that he will always come down on the side of the outsider even if they aren’t acting in their own best interests. Beautifully photographed and featuring textured, lived-in performances, this film has plenty of rewards to offer.
Following her remarkable feature debut Chocolat, Denis took over the film world with Beau Travail, one of the most acclaimed films of 1999 and one of the best reviewed works of the decade. Twenty years later, it’s odd that she isn’t discussed more, not in conversations about auteur cinema but also surprisingly little in articles that seek to focus on female filmmakers. Her sense of mystery isn’t for everyone. Some of us are enchanted by the enigmas she puts up on screen in a teasing, non-linear fashion; others are frustrated, but it’s impossible to imagine that someone could watch her films without feeling like they’ve never seen anything of its kind before. Her narratives have covered a great deal of diverse ground but the interiority with which explores them is distinctive and constant, while her repeated motif of imagery focusing on objects gives more than just her human subjects a magical quality. The Criterion Channel’s collection of her work is woefully incomplete even as a Best Of collection, Friday Night and I Can’t Sleep should be there, but it’s still a great list for anyone looking to either discover or revisit her magnificent oeuvre.
Claire Denis’ intoxicating first feature draws on her own memories of growing up a French colonist in Africa. An adult goes to Cameroon in the present and flashes back to her childhood when she lived with her French officer and tensely exasperated mother. Her relationship with house servant Isaach de Bankolé is free of any awareness of the racial and class divide that exists between them–and, thanks to Denis being a brilliant director, free of any clichéd tweeness too. Denis would get more daring with her resonant, ellipses-heavy observations in later films but this is still one of the finest debuts in cinema history.
No Fear, No Die (1990)
Frequent Denis collaborators Alex Descas and Isaach de Bankolé bring their roosters to Jean-Claude Brialy’s restaurant to compete in the illegal cockfights he conducts in the basement. Descas is the more devoted to the animals, preparing them with some Rocky-style warmups, while de Bankole is more interested in turning a buck, but they come to a head when Brialy tells them he wants to up the game by making the fights more violent, placing actual steel blades on their feet instead of the less-deadly weapons made of horn. The film doesn’t have the usual intoxicating atmosphere of enigma that the director’s fans love most about her, but she films this deservedly outlawed sport with a great deal of style and sympathy for its human participants.
Nenette and Boni (1996)
Denis’ films often have a tangible plot, but it’s not the mechanics of the story that matter as much as her ability to get inside the emotional reality of her characters. Grégoire Colin is a Marseilles pizza vendor whose little sister runs away from boarding school to find him and get help for the trouble she’s in. Their father, a merchant with underworld ties, is desperate to get back in touch with both of them, while Colin is fixated on the beautiful wife (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) of his local baker (Vincent Gallo). Moving mostly between the two homes of these characters, Denis looks for moments of vulnerability, tenderness and warmth in a world overwhelmed by darkness.
Beau Travail (1999)
Claire Denis’ finest and most highly praised film takes Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and sets it within the French Foreign Legion, a unit run by Denis Lavant in Djibouti. Emotionally sanguine, morally uncomplicated Grégoire Colin disturbs Lavant’s soul and becomes an object of fixation and frustration, their tension expressed through resonant images of drilling rituals overlaid with the sound of Benjamin Britten’s Budd opera. There is eroticism in the beauty of these athletic bodies against the cobalt blue sea, there are themes of masculine identity sewn into the fabric of examining French colonialism, but what makes it so good is how marvellously understated and subtle everything is. The film was recently treated to a vibrant, awe-inspiring restoration that makes cinematographer Agnès Godard’s images throb with colour and sweat. Neither cinema nor Denis would ever be the same.
35 Shots of Rum (2008)
Denis pays tribute to Yasujirô Ozu with this quasi-remake of Late Spring, about a metro driver (Alex Descas) and his daughter (Mati Diop) and the rhythms and affections of their life in their apartment. As she moves towards the end of her studies and the next stage in her life, he feels ambivalence about letting her go and facing the emptiness about approaching the end of his working years. Daring to go against the trend of showing the suburbs as hell on earth and instead depicting warm, loving life in the banlieu, Denis overlays this very real relationship with some potent, unforgettable images and a lush, romantic soundtrack featuring a score by the Tindersticks and the best-ever use of the Commodores in a movie.
White Material (2009)
Denis’ best film since Beau Travail returns her to Africa, where Isabelle Huppert runs a coffee plantation in a French-controlled state and refuses to acknowledge the reality of what is going on around her: rebels are violently driving their foreign overseers out and there’s a marked breakdown in social order. The opposite of the kind of plush prestige that Out of Africa delivered, this was criticized by some for being too uncomplicated, but Denis isn’t interested in arguing the details of history: she’s seeking to capture, in that atmospherically enchanting way of hers, the inevitable chaos that colonialism leaves in its wake.
Left-wing artists stoking the ire of their conservative government are not special anywhere, including in Israel, where filmmakers frequently annoy their diplomats by sending films critical of the regime to international festivals that then require the government to respond. Among the most provocative Israeli filmmakers working today, Nadav Lapid has a voice that can’t be pinned down to a clear political talking point and is all the richer and more intelligent for it. His films don’t lack sympathy for the situations his characters find themselves in, but he maintains a cool, god-like distance above them. The tension between ideology and personal self-indulgence is often the ground upon which his dramas play, none of them are comfortable experiences but all of them are rewarding.
Lapid spends half of this film with a cocky Tel Aviv elite-unit police officer who is feeling the pressure of his wife’s impending childbirth and his friend’s terminal illness, and the other half with a group of middle-class idealists who believe that turning terrorist will make an impression on a country they believe is ruined by greedy corruption. Languid scenes of erotic intensity give way to a third-act hostage situation that is as impressive for its calm precision as it is for the slight tone of ridicule that the director employs to describe all of his characters: whether you’re wearing a white or a black hat, your persona is a performance and your ideals aren’t as selfless as you think they are. Films about the intense energy in a country dealing with generations of conflict are not hard to find, but they’re rarely done with this one’s sophisticated intelligence.
The Kindergarten Teacher (2014)
Viewers will be more familiar with the Netflix remake starring Maggie Gyllenhaal made four years after Lapid’s 2014 original. The plot is almost exactly the same in both, a kindergarten teacher (Sarit Larry) is profoundly moved by a child named Yoav’s ability to spontaneously orate poetry with a kind of divine inspiration, and becomes obsessed with the idea that he will provide meaning to a meaningless world. So intent is she on this holy mission that she ignores both the practical considerations of his being someone else’s child, and even more disturbing, is unaware of the fact that she is using the kid to satisfy her own insecurities and not necessarily for his own good. Sara Colangelo’s version is more interested in exploring motivation (not surprising for an American film) and Gyllenhaal’s performance is much more emotionally expressive, Lapid focuses more on the impossibility of establishing morality when people are so focused on their own desires and draws a more enigmatic performance from his leading lady. (They’re both good films, by the way).
Lapid’s characters get in over the head by their own doing, and Yoav, the protagonist played in a shockingly fearless performance by newcomer Tom Mercier, is no exception. He has left Israel to come to Paris, refusing to speak Hebrew and dedicated to mastering the French language. His behaviour and erratic statements suggesting that his actions are inspired by some kind of trauma in the past. What he finds in place of the brutal macho culture he left behind is a nation whose dedication to secularism and “fraternité” is high on ideals but low on workable methods. Lapid leaps from scene to scene whimsically and his lack of narrative connections will deter some viewers. His lead character moves between being frustrating and captivating. However, applying energetic nouvelle vague techniques to a tale of modern-day culture clash makes for something quite stylish and memorable even if it isn’t, in its totality, your cup of tea.