Wednesday, 30 May 2007

James Martin reviews his ten favourite films, Part 3

UK 1971
Director: Nicholas Roeg
Screenwriter: Edward Bond
Runtime: 100 mns
Certificate: 12
DVD distributor: The Criterion Collection

(contains plot spoilers)

John Barry composed the wonderfully haunting background music for Nicolas Roeg's moving film about two anonymous English schoolchildren. A fourteen year old girl (Jenny Agutter) and her seven year old brother (Lucien John) live in suburban Sydney and become lost in the infinite wilderness of the Australian bush, after their suicidal father torches the car at a family picnic. In the book, they are called Mary and Peter, and are abandoned in the arid Northern Territory, the sole survivors of a plane crash. However in the film their identity is irrelevant, since they are far away from civilisation in most scenes.

Nicolas Roeg did his own cinematography, which is strikingly beautiful. The camera slowly pans out from rugged cliffs of quartz across the endless, burnished sand and salt plains. An oasis they discover bears lush vegetation and ripe red fruits under a deep azure sky, and offers a stark contrast with the suffocating heat of the open bush. The wonderful uniqueness of this cult classic is its strained and often unfathomable moments of silence, when all the viewer can do is sit back and soak up the breathtaking scenery.

In this coming of age drama, Lucien John's role is somewhat swept under the carpet, in favour of an erotic atmosphere, which crackles with sexual tension between Agutter and the young Aboriginal man on "walkabout" (David Gulpiplil). He kills himself after she apparently spurns his advances and we are shown endless, sinister close ups of strange insects and dehydrated animals. There is a constant reminder of the harsh, unforgiving natural environment, in this unusual story of death and imperative human resilience.

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
USA/UK 1988
Director: Stephen Frears
Screenwriter: Christopher Hampton
Runtime: 119 mns
Certificate: 15
DVD distributor: Warner Home Video

John Malkovich is a hoot as the Vicomte de Valmont, a vile, manipulative cad who will stop at nothing until he has seduced his latest sexual conquest, forever having the upper hand. Glenn Close is perfectly cast as the scheming Marquise de Merteuil, whose ruthless endeavour is to publicly scandalise the sex lives of younger women who have stolen her former lovers, and utterly humiliate them. She works in liaison with Valmont to destroy nubile virgin Cécile (Uma Thurman) and former convent girl and paragon of chastity Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer).

The camerawork sumptuously portrays eighteenth century France and the romps and peccadilloes of its landed gentry, as depicted in Choderlos de Laclos' scandalous 1782 novel. Director Stephen Frears has produced a drama, which is as visually pleasurable as it is amusing, shocking and deliciously cruel. Lavish, decadent Versailles-style boudoirs and séjours dominate the screen, while Close typically fans herself as Malkovich, her one time lover, sensually whispers flattering profanities in her ear.

The skilled direction ensures that the two protagonists interact and move in flawless timing, when shot together as in some sort of elaborate dance from the period. He lowers his powdered, wigged head as she rises, she reaches for his hand and he rolls his eyes at her catty remarks. The intricate flashbacks to their past relationships portray Valmont and Merteuil as infallible connoisseurs of sexual emotion and its exploitation and are startlingly contrasted with her final humiliating exposure and demise.

By today's standards, Dangerous Liaisons cannot shock nearly as much as the novel intended to and succeeded in doing at the time of print. Nevertheless, it is intriguing to see just how far Laclos was prepared to push the boundaries of so-called social acceptability and how exquisitely Frears has dramatised it.

Read Part 4 tomorrow!

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