Le Mépris (1963)
Where’s it on? BFI Player
Although you usually hear him being celebrated for his radical experimentation with narrative and style, the truth is that the films of French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard offer sheer sensual pleasure too. This was never more true than in his humid 1963 masterpiece Le Mépris, set during a film shoot on the island of Capri. The film in question is an epic adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey directed by Fritz Lang (who plays himself). Jack Palance is the craven American producer, while Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot play the compromised screenwriter and his wife, whose marriage begins to self-combust under the Mediterranean sun. Cinematographer Raoul Coutard captures the growing distance between them in a wide frame in which heat and animosity seem to emanate from the screen. A tortured reckoning with its own medium, this is Godard’s most seductive film, now added to BFI Player together with his earthquake of a debut, Breathless (1960).
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
Where’s it on? BBC2, Sunday, 12pm
Beginning Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s imperial phase of 1940s classics, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp famously ran afoul of Winston Churchill during the Second World War for its depiction of a pompous British military man’s life and loves during three wars. There was always something heretical in its notion that there’s something fundamentally stubborn and reactionary in our national character. Roger Livesey plays the man we see ageing yet unwavering through 40 years of British history, with Deborah Kerr turning up in three different roles as the woman he falls for and then spends a lifetime attempting to replicate. While you might expect cruel satire and caricature, Powell and Pressburger’s epic is also shot through with fondness and a melancholy about the redundancies that time slowly makes of us all. It’s one of Britain’s richest films, possibly our richest. BBC2 has it on Sunday afternoon.
Listen to Britain (1942)
Where’s it on? Talking Pictures TV, Sunday, 8.35pm
Here’s another essential film from Britain during the Second World War, though this one lasts just 19 minutes. Listen to Britain is a propaganda short commissioned by the Crown Film Unit and directed by Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister. It’s a stirring, poetic and deeply felt portrait of a nation during wartime – faces, places and, particularly, sounds. This isle is full of noises: the sounds of music and voices on the radio, in concerts and at the music hall; the sounds of factories, airplanes, workers and industry. Jennings is seen as one of the most important figures in British documentary film, with Listen to Britain a landmark, and you only need to sample a few of these 19 minutes to see why. It’s not just that it’s an indelible record of Britain during the Blitz but that it’s a uniquely cinematic and affecting one – far transcending its origins as a morale booster.
Straw Dogs (1971)
Where’s it on? Talking Pictures TV, Saturday, 12.05am
Now for a less complimentary picture of Britain. Hot from the epoch-making success of his violent western The Wild Bunch (1969) and its larkier follow-up The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), Sam Peckinpah decamped to Cornwall in company with Dustin Hoffmann and Susan George for this grim story of outsiders v locals. Hoffmann and George play a married couple who move to a Cornish village. He’s an academic with a grant to study the stars, setting the pair on the ultimate town-and-gown collision course with their confrontational neighbours. Notorious for its horrible scenes of rape, Straw Dogs retains its weapons-grade shock value. Peckinpah’s scuzzy, brown-hued film is one of those early 70s taboo-pushing titles that practically requires hazmat precautions by this point in the 21st century. But its influence continues to be felt everywhere from folk horror to Mark Jenkin’s recent tale of Cornish class conflict Bait (2019).
Eric Rohmer: Comedies and Proverbs (1981-87)
Where’s it on? Blu-ray/BFI Player
This series of six films finds French director Eric Rohmer at the peak of his powers. Like his earlier 1960s/70s series of Six Moral Tales, they’re stories of complicated romance: pursuit, disappointment, jealousy and entanglement. Beginning with The Aviator’s Wife (1981), peaking with The Green Ray (1986) and ending with My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend (1987), Rohmer introduces us to a succession of lonelyhearts whose intimate dramas play out against a summerscape of parks, beaches, cafés and discotheques. A Good Marriage (1982), Pauline at the Beach (1983) and Full Moon in Paris (1984) complete the set – each as pristinely plotted and entertaining as the next. The Arrow label has put out a very beautiful box set of Blu-rays this week, and the films can also be found on BFI Player.
Also out on Blu-ray/DVD
It’s a bumper week for new Blu-rays and DVDs, even if current delivery times may put these out of reach for this weekend. To add to the Rohmer set, Arrow has a box of four early Krzysztof Kieslowski films collected under the title Cinema of Conflict (including The Scar, Camera Buff, Blind Chance and No End). BFI is releasing the classic Nigel Kneale sci-fi The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968), the Peter Sellers office comedy The Battle of the Sexes (1960) and two collections – The Best of COI and British Transport Films Volume 14. Criterion offer a Blu-ray of Nicholas Ray’s poetic couple-on-the-run film They Live by Night (1948), while Eureka brings John Ford’s cavalry western Rio Grande (1950) to high definition – both monochrome masterpieces, looking immaculate.