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Key Films #14

Excalibur [John Boorman, 1981]:

The forest - an exterior lit like an interior - becomes a character in its own right. By day, the trees and foliage shimmer in shades of emerald.  At dusk, an ochre-hued fog enshrouds the trees like slumbering giants, becoming the gatekeepers to another world.  At dawn, the violent flare of an artificial sun casts its crimson glow off the glistening armour of a pale and wounded knight.  The forest, like most of the locations used throughout the film, is a place of magic and miracle; an iridescent kingdom of shadows and light.  While the storytelling is somewhat straightforward in its reiteration of this fabled tale, Boorman's film is nonetheless successful in its grandeur and its decadence.  In its imagery - which is vivid and unforgettable in the pure spectacle of colour and movement - but also in its scale.  The Arthurian legend has been told countless times, both in film and other media, but no other filmmaker has successfully captured the magic and the wonder of these stories with the same vibrant and flamboyant approach that Boorman achieves here.  His Excalibur is, at its purest, an epic of theatrical design and Wagnerian excess. 

This spirited and poetic film captures the true power and majesty of the silent cinema, but with all the sound and fury of that post-70s indulgence. As an experience, the film strikes a continual chord whenever I see it, transporting me, to another time, another place; leaving me captivated by its plot and larger-than-life characterisations, or thrilled by its vision.  In terms of the filmmaking craft Excalibur is without a doubt a work of great passion and imagination, and a great testament to the unsung talent of John Boorman, a true visionary, and one of the cinema's most misjudged and maligned auteurs.

The Phantom Heart [Philippe Garrel, 1996]:

A scene we've seen before.  The two protagonists - a married couple - attempt reconciliation, but they know, as well as we, that the situation, for them, is hopeless.  The scene in question occurs quite early in the film and establishes something of a consistent tone; a feeling of desperation or distance; the sense of something reaching an untimely if no less inevitable end.  As ever, the dissolution of a relationship presents the end of something, but also a new beginning.  The chance to move on, to start afresh, to find similar expressions in the arms of another; to avoid the same failures and faults; to ask ourselves, without sarcasm or pity, 'where do we go from here?'  This is a question that Garrel has returned to in several of his films, from L'enfant secret (1979) and Liberté, la nuit (1983), to She Spent So Many Hours Under the Sun Lamps (1985) and The Birth of Love (1993).  In all these films, his characters are trying to reconcile the experiences of the past with the responsibilities of the present; to make sense of where their lives are heading; to learn from their mistakes. 

In The Phantom Heart, the question is once again suggested by the story of these characters - the husband and his wife - and their relationships with the various figures that drift, phantom-like, not just through the remnants of their past experiences, emotions or shared ideas, but through the traces of a dream.  The dichotomy presented here, between the tangible reality of divorce, middle-age, doubt, fragility and responsibility, and the hopes and desires reflected in the tortured affairs, the creative success and the financial security that comes with it, propels the film; gives context to that lingering feeling of emptiness and futility that punctuates every interaction, no matter how positive or genial it might seem.  Like all Garrel's films, there is something almost impossibly hermetic about its structure, its tone and the use of locations.  A personal quality that borders on the autobiographical, in which these characters, their actions and dilemmas, and the personal spaces that define them, seem to be as relevant and significant to our understanding of the material as the emotions depicted on-screen.
Love is Colder Than Death [Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1969]:

The title, Love is Colder than Death, plays beautifully to the violence of the film and also to the influence of film-noir as a facilitator for existential longing, brutality and despair.  As a piece of spoken text, it has the sound of something delivered by Robert Mitchum in Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947), or by Humphrey Bogart in Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place (1950).  A five word expression that resonates with a sense of longing for unfulfilled romantic desire, full of allusions or suggestions to scenes, situations, characters and dilemmas that would occur and reoccur throughout Fassbinder's later career.  Specifically, through films such as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), Fox and His Friends (1975) and In a Year with 13 Moons (1978); stories where the general brutality of relationships or the duplicitous nature of human beings when pushed into hopeless situations, make death, by comparison, seem like a relief. 

For the characters in Fassbinder's work, love is colder than death, and in this film the attitude is expressed through a fractured, languorous study of petty gangsters struggling to exist in a word rapidly closing in on them.  The sense of fatalism explicit in the title is therefore perfectly suited to the form of the film, which draws heavily on the second-hand references to American crime pictures of the 1940s and '50s, where the overwhelming cynicism of characters or the general loveless nature of the underworld environment breeds a particular kind of person.  One that lives each moment as if it were their last; where relationships burn hard and fast; and where the sense of place - as in 'a lonely place', or in 'a place to call home' - is forever out of reach.


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