Tuesday, September 19, 2017

1952 Winner, Forbidden Games

Forbidden Games

Director:        René Clément

Distributed by:  Times Films Corporation

Released:  December 1952 (in USA)

Country:  France

William Tecumseh Sherman, Union General in the American Civil War, is credited with the succinct but meaningful bon mot, “War is Hell.”  Perhaps less famous but only slightly less concise is the cryptic title of a song by the chanteuse Pat Benatar:  “Hell is For Children.”  Using the capability to construct a syllogism, as taught to me during my eight years of Jesuit education, I thus deduce the following:  War is for Children. 

Okay, that doesn’t really a lot of sense, but Forbidden Games, 1953’s Best Foreign Film, is a movie that shows that while the grown-ups may be the ones shooting and bombing each other, the kids certainly get mixed up in the unpleasant business that war is.

Paulette with her dead dog
We start with an air attack by the Nazis on the fleeing Parisians during the 1940 Battle of France.  A macabre parade of cars exits the city into unknown country, with desperate and frightened families taking what they can squeeze in, trying to escape the destruction of the France they once knew.  One dad picks a bad time to forget to fill the gas tank, and he, along his wife and young daughter, Paulette, appear to be stuck.  To add to the panic, Paulette’s dog runs away and the five-year-old cute-as-can-be blonde girl rushes after him.  Which of course means papa and mama have to rush after Paulette, which results in everyone but Paulette being casualties of the attack, including the dog.  Paulette is traumatized, seemingly thinking they are all sleeping and cannot be woken.  As the caravan moves on, Paulette is taken on, extremely reluctantly, by another family, only able to carry the dead pooch with her.  The mother on the car thinks that's one dead dog too many in their car and heaves him out into the fields.  Paulette jumps off the car to retrieve her pet and then makes her way on her own into the country.

Planning the pet cemetery
She soon happens upon a ten-year-old boy named Michel.  Michel lives on a farm along with his family, and though she is a bit on the young-side for him, they instantly bond, almost romantically.  Michel looks out for her and his family takes her in.  Becoming aware of the pet she is still toting around, Michel tells Paulette her pretty little pet has to be buried.  Paulette is upset—won’t he be all alone?  Good point, Michel responds.  The next step will be to find other dead animals to keep him company, and if they can’t find them dead, they can make them dead.

If all this sounds a bit comical, it isn’t really.  Paulette is clearly expressing her confused grief for her parents in her caring for the dog.  In essence, death is treated so casually by everyone, it is quite unsettling.  This is the product of war.  Paulette and Michel will bond over their shared experience of death, becoming more and more reliant on each other.  Their pet cemetery won’t be looked at with any fondness by Michel’s family or by the authorities, but to them, it is what has bound them together.

Paulette has Michel wrapped around her finger
Forbidden Games is really a touching film, sweet and sad with just a little bit of humor.  Paulette, played by Brigitte Fossey (who would appear as a character in the extended version of 1990’s Best Foreign Film Cinema Paradiso), is about a cute a kid as you are going to find, and it’s easy to see why Michel becomes so attached to her so quickly.  As disconcerting as it is to see how war affects the way the lower-class French folks see death, there is something beautiful in the innocence of the children as they have the hell of war thrust upon them.

The Title:  Jeux interdits.  An oddly titled film, if you ask me.  I believe it refers to the children’s attempt to understand and deal with death by creating their pet cemetery.  The adults don’t see the way they go about things as appropriate, but it is their innocence that is being stripped away by the adults who supposedly know better.

The culture:  The Battle of France, which resulted in the Nazi victory over and occupation of their
Brigitte Fossey in Cinema Paradiso, still crying
neighboring country, is one that hasn’t been the subject of much in film, at least in American cinema.  It must have been unimaginably horrific for the average peasantry in France, having lived through the hell of World War I only a quarter of a century earlier.  The opening scene of the families fleeing their home city to escape the Germans is very moving.

Agenda danger:  This isn’t quite the anti-war movie you might expect.  But certainly, the film’s main theme is how a culture of death caused by war can lead to the end of the innocence for the young folks just starting their lives.

Best Picture that year:  The Greatest Show on Earth.   Some consider this film to be the worst film to ever win Best Picture.

Rating:  A very moving story, fueled by great performances by the kids.  It’s a war film that shows the horrors of war without the blood and guts of it.  The horror is less in the tragedy of death during war than it is in the matter-of-fact acceptance of death necessitated by the culture that war brings.  

Note:  There was no Best Foreign Film awarded in 1953.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

1954 Winner, Gate of Hell

Gate of Hell

Director:  Teinosuke Kinugasa

Distributed by:  Daiei Film

Released:  October 1953

Country:  Japan

“He soon felt that the fulfillment of his desires gave him only one grain of the mountain of happiness he had expected. This fulfillment showed him the eternal error men make in imagining that their happiness depends on the realization of their desires.”
― Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Gate of Hell is a title that sounds like a horror movie, but it isn’t, unless you consider Man’s quick willingness to abandon his morality to be horrific.  Gate of Hell is about love, or rather, about one thinks love is rather than what it actually is.

Two stories came to mind when I watched this film.  One is of Salome in the New Testament, who after doing a strip tease of some sort, was promised by her creepy stepfather Herod anything up to half the kingdom.  He was so heated up by her gyrations that just stuffing a few shekels down her skivvies wouldn’t do, and it cost John the Baptist his head.  The other story I thought of was Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, a tale about a married woman who falls in love at a ball with a military man named Count Vronsky.  They are so into each other that they abandon all they care for just to be with each other, thinking love will conquer all.  Spoiler alert:  It doesn’t.

Kazuo Hasegawa as Morito
In 1954’s Best Foreign Film, Gate of Hell, centers around a Japanese samurai named Morito, who at first appears to be the embodiment of loyalty.  His brother is a leader of an uprising against a 13th century Japanese emperor.  Morito refuses to join the rebellion and is aghast at his brother’s behavior.  While the fighting rages, Morito is assigned to protect and move a lovely royal miss named Lady Kesa.  Morito sees her and reacts like Herod and Vronsky did to their respective lust-at-first-sights.

The battle ends and the royal family’s forces come out on top.  For his loyalty and bravery, especially for siding against his own brother, the emperor tells Morito he can ask for anything he wants and his wish will be granted.  Morito ponders this offer for about three seconds and says the prize he wants is none other than Lady Kesa.  The ruler confers with his pals and chucklingly says to Morito, “Well, you are a little late to the party—didn’t you see the rock on her finger?  She’s married.”  Morito’s response is pretty simple:  “So?” 

Lady Kesa, the object of Morito's desires
Morito makes a pest of himself and eventually he is given permission by the ruler to discuss the issue with Lady Kesa, but if she is not interested in leaving her man, a nice enough guy named Waturu, he has to take a cold shower or find a more available lady to exact his urges upon.  Morito doesn’t really seem to care what Lady Keso thinks; all he knows is she will be his—oh, yes—she will be his.  The problem is, Lady Keso kind of likes her husband.  Morito meets him and frankly he seems like a pretty good guy, but he is in the way and so he decides something has to be done about the "Waturu Problem."

Gate of Hell is a pretty film, full of color and movement.  It’s a fairly short film, clocking in at 86 minutes, but that underscores the tightness of the story—there is no time wasted on subplots or characters that don’t mean much.  Both main players do their jobs well-- Kazuo Hasegawa as Morito certainly isn’t a good-looking fellow, and you get the feeling it would indeed take the granting of a wish by an emperor for him to get a lovely woman for a wife.  Machiko Kyō, who also plays an important role in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (winner of the 1952 Best Foreign Film award), plays Lady Keso, a woman who didn’t ask for this attention.  The movie is a simple tale of a man allowing his weaknesses to get the best of him—his personal quality of loyalty gets chucked in a hurry the second he sees a pretty face.  Morito isn’t the first to make that choice and he certainly will not be the last.

Asking the Emperor for Lady Keso
The Title:  地獄門, also called Jigokumon.  It’s a physical place in the film to be protected, but Morito’s letting his passions dictate his behavior is what will lead him to be willing to go through the proverbial gate into the dark side.

The culture:  This is Japan’s first color film export and it’s a treat to look at.  With Rashomon winning Best Foreign Film a few years earlier and Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto winning the following year, this truly was a golden age of Japanese cinema.  Also important during this period are directors Kenji Mizoguchi (who directed the classics Ugetsu [1953] and Sansho the Bailiff [1954]) and Yasujirō Ozu (1953’s Tokyo Story).

Agenda danger:  Certainly there is a message here, and unfortunately and tragically, Morito doesn’t learn it until the end of the film.

Best Picture that year:  On the Waterfront.

Rating:  The aforementioned films by Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu certainly are more noteworthy and important when it comes to Japanese cinema.  But Gate of Hell is well-directed, with great performances and a succinct story.  It’s a cautionary tale about subject matter that will apply to any culture and time, as long as there are people who confuse love and lust.  And there always will be.