Joyû to shijin (1935)

29 10 2012

It’s hard to overstate Naruse’s productivity. For example, this was the second film he made in 1935 and it came out in March of that year. He would go on to make three more films that year,  including his most famous pre-war work, Wife! Be Like a Rose!  Both this and Wife! were adaptations from Minoru Nakano plays. This is definitely the lesser of the two films, never really shooting for anything beyond a domestic comedy. It gives Naruse a chance to spend time with some interesting enough characters, who could be seen as building blocks to some of his more powerful domestic portraits.

The title translates into English as The Actress and the Poet and the two are a couple. The actress is Chieko, played by Sachiko Chiba (who Naruse would marry two years later) is the main source of income. Her husband, the titular poet, feels emasculated by this situation. He spends his time gossiping with the neighbors when he’s not doing the house chores. The gossip leads to some amusing subplots, including one in which the poet, Geppu, gets intoxicated with a neighbor and his wife. It’s during this drunken back and forth that he the point of “a man should be the lord of his house” is introduced to him and it helps reinforce his dissatisfaction with the command of power in his own household.

The film’s final message does seem a little backwards, especially for Naruse. I guess, to his credit, he didn’t have much to do with the script itself but does seem kind of bizarre, at least as a first impression, but there could be something more impressive at work here. He still isn’t endorsing that every house needs a patriarchal figure as much as he is comically depicting how these male figures become so insecure in their positions as anything else but leader of the household, that they act out like spoiled children. The film’s finale has some implied physical violence against Geppu, and this comic portrait of female on male violence reoccurs much later in 1957’s Arakure.

The fight, although more of an argument is seen as something of a release. When Geppu and Chieko’s fight finally ends, she thanks the individual that sparked the argument, as it helped her understand how to be angry for a performance. There’s a lot of playing with fiction and reality throughout the film, and the involvement Naruse had with the film’s real actress, Sachiko Chiba only deepens this relationship. There’s a early sequence in which the couple seem to having a very violent altercation, but they turn to the camera and ask “how was that?” as the camera reveals another couple observing their rehearsal. It’s clever stuff permeating throughout the film, which mixed with Naruse’s trademark eye for domestic situations, is quite enjoyable.

One final thing worth noting would be that this is easily the most relaxed from Naruse at this point. It’s actually much more in line with his work from the 1950s, a closer representation of what many have attempted as characterizing as the “Naruse aesthetic.” Of course, much of the academic work around Naruse realizes that this is something of a fruitless discussion because he himself didn’t place as much emphasis on form as Ozu, with whom he is almost always unfairly compared. It’s pretty interesting though that just a year later, we’d see one of his most formally hyperactive works in Morning’s Tree-Lined Street. It seems he already knew how to accomplish the style that would be something of his trademark, but he still managed to play around formally.

A Woman of Paris (1923)

29 10 2012

You have to give Chaplin a lot of credit here. At the height of popularity as a comedian, he decided to make something more personal and dramatic. Weirdly, this movie does have a hint of comedy to it, but it’s not the kind one would expect from Chaplin. Considering the tragic conclusion, it isn’t really strictly a “comedy of manners” either because it be hard to consider such a narrative of being a relatively upbeat picture, but there’s something unique coded away within all the Important Drama that sets the film’s overall tone. The presence of Adolphe Menjou obviously helps, but even without him there’s definitely still a touch of Lubitsch in here, though the similarities are not exactly the most striking.

Marie St. Clair plans to run away with her lover, Jean, but the parents of both work against their plan. They both end up in Paris a year later, but Marie is an comfortable situation with the rich playboy, Pierre Revel and Jean is still a struggling artist. The two reunite but Jean’s mother once again steps in, which further complicates Mary’s decision. She can struggle for happiness with a man she truly loves in Jean or she can be mistreated but still financially “taken care of” by Pierre.

Yes, the “love or money” dilemma doesn’t sound all that original or compelling, but Chaplin does get a lot of mileage out of the two lovers reuniting. It’s also forced and contrived, but it doesn’t feel effectively wistful, even as Chaplin himself doesn’t stress too hard on the past, instead directing his focus to the drama that leads up to the relationship’s heartbreaking finale. I guess, it’s worth mentioning that this is a spoiler, but Jean eventually kills himself in front of a extravagant party that Marie attends with Pierre. Up to this point, I was actually comfortable calling the film great, but the final minutes following the death turn out to be the most problematic.

Jean’s mother, who denied him her blessing in marrying Marie speeds through the grieving stage of her son’s death and develops a bloodlust. The haunting portrait that her son painted of Marie stands in the background like a deliberate reminder to her that Marie is responsible for her son’s death. Her vantage point is understandable but obviously wrong: Marie was living the Paris lifestyle and her country origins obviously shuns such behavior. That’s the reason she forbids her son from asking Marie’s hand in marriage, but she doesn’t manage to see that this is what drove him to suicide. She shifts the blame to Marie, but her thirst for blood dies off when she sees grieving over her son’s corpse. The film would be fine if it ends here.

It doesn’t, however and instead we’re given a sequence that leaves such a terrible taste in one’s mouth, that it may or may not ruin the film. Marie and Jean’s mother have started a life in the country, raising orphans (?) and fully embracing the country life. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but the film’s final implication is that it was Marie’s lifestyle that ultimately hurt Jean. She came from the same background as him but her needs to be successful, even if it was by involving herself with a man she didn’t care for, were ultimately selfish. The film’s end celebrates the obedient life of a housewife and openly shuns the independence of the city life. Chaplin seems to have aligned himself with the politics of Jean’s mother, which seems so weird considering that she is something of a villain for most of the film. It’s a throwaway sequence and I wouldn’t be surprised if many forget the scene all together considering the emotional intensity of what comes right before, but it left a particularly bad feeling in my mind. It’s a very backwards message from someone who has been recognized as a progressive. It’s not a blatant statement, but it is upsetting one and it almost ruins what is otherwise a very impressive film.