Tuesday, February 10, 2009

That Cold Day in the Park (1969)

Sandy Dennis in a beautifully sad moment courtesy of
cinematographer László Kovács.

(Busy blogger Jeremy Richey has dedicated the month of February to films which have eluded the U.S. DVD market over at his excellent Moon in the Gutter blog. Check it out, I guarantee you'll come across a slew of movies that you must see now. This is my nomination for digital revival.)

“I want to tell you something. If you feel you want to make love to me...it's alright.” She instantly corrects herself: “I want you to make love to me.” Then whispers, “Please.” It's the films most touching dialogue, part of lengthy confession delivered in Sandy Dennis' trademark halting, uneasy manner. The scene's resolution---or lack thereof---is the greatest frisson in a film immersed in cold, damp loneliness. Frances Austen's human contacts are limited to her prying maid and nearly-embalmed set of friends (on of whom is in constant pursuit of her affection). An act of impulsive naivete, leads her to invite an apparently mute young man out of the torrential rain into her cloistered apartment. The two forge a grotesque relationship, she living out a childlike daydream of a domestic partner---chatting, preparing meals, shopping for his clothes. He, at first silently observing a woman out of touch, soon becomes imprisoned.

It's a horror film about being alone and about body repulsion (Frances' trip to a gynecologist is supremely creepy, as if filmed by a voyeur). Often compared to Repulsion (1965), That Cold Day in the Park presents a far more sympathetic monster than icy Catherine Deneuve. Sandy Dennis' Frances Austen is touching and cute (“I've never seen someone go about without socks before, it gave me such a peculiar feeling,” she delivers with sincerity), socially inept, and, probably, mentally ill. This is the darkest role Ms. Dennis ever played, and her idiosyncratic ticks are perfectly at place in this character who fumbles for words, and hides her shyness behind her deceased mother's sense of order. It's a performance that builds to a crescendo in the aforementioned plea for companionship, which is brilliantly cut off at the point of hysteria, denying the character (and viewer) any release.

Frances Austen procures a prostitute (the wonderful
Luana Anders) for her prisoner.

Occupying an important place in Robert Altman's filmography (right after Countdown, just before his critical breakthrough MASH), That Cold Day began a thread of female melancholia explored further in Images (1972) and 3 Women (1977). Though those later films are more refined (and far more hallucinogenic) That Cold Day in the Park, with its fluid László Kovács photography and haunting Johnny Mandel score beguiles in its awkward intimacy.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

L'Éternité pour nous (1963)

Jean Marc (Michel Lemoine) is a moody piano player in a desolate seaside hotel, pounding out simple tunes for simple tastes. His wife and chanteuse (Sylvia Sorrente), with an obscene body threatening to explode out of skin tight sweaters and hot pants, feels her raging youth being snuffed out by the quiet surroundings. In a room upstairs lays a man dying, the elderly husband of the hotel manager, Maria. Languishing in this off-season purgatory, the beautiful characters engage in various erotic trysts, in between staring out of windows and laying face down in sand. This is like an Antonioni film with more of an emphasis on large breasts. There is a murder (the old man gets extinguished with arsenic), and all the dramatic posturing and platitudes just fill in the time between several artfully shot, genuinely sexy sequences. Jose Bénazeraf carefully stages the actors movements, exploiting the erotic potential of the widescreen format.

Sorrente is an amazing presence, her body impossibly athletic and pneumatic. Her dance scene to a slinky Louiguy composition is a stunner, surely the highlight of the film.

Carefully avoiding nudity, L'Éternite pour nous still manages to smolder. It's Bénazeraf's most classically made film, downright humanistic compared to the films to follow.