Beau Travail (1999)
Where’s it on? Blu-ray
Nobody who’s seen it will have much argument with Beau Travail’s status as a modern classic. It topped Little White Lies’ list of the best films of the 1990s, came close in our own and was one of the only films from that decade to place in the top 100 in the last Sight & Sound poll. But revisiting this now 21-year-old film, as the pristine new Criterion Blu-ray allows, there’s no getting away from the radioactive peculiarity of what Claire Denis achieved here. A loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s nautical yarn Billy Budd set down in modern-day Djibouti among a section of the French Foreign Legion, in the hands of Denis and her regular cinematographer Agnès Godard this tale of repression and domination becomes a breathtakingly physical and sensuous tone poem of heat, bodies and landscapes. The soundtrack ranges from Neil Young to Corona’s ‘The Rhythm of the Night’, with snatches of Benjamin Britten’s operatic Billy Budd accompanying those extraordinary scenes in which the soldiers’ exercises play out like the hieratic dance of a sun cult.
Varda by Agnès (2019)
Where’s it on? BFI Player
Clearing the path out ahead for Denis, and many other filmmakers besides, was Agnès Varda, the force of nature who started making films her own way back in 1955 and was rarely seen to stop until she died last year aged 90. Varda by Agnès, which finds its way onto BFI Player this week, was her final gift to us, premiering just a month before she died. As last films go, it could hardly be more poignant or more tender – straightforward in its proposition (it’s basically just Varda sitting on a stage talking through clips of her films), yet multitudinous as an autumnal work of autobiography. Her presentation moves freely between eras and media, offering anecdotes, insights and characteristically puckish humour as she skips lightly across features, shorts and installations, and between Europe and her time in Los Angeles. It’s the last testament of one of cinema’s great optimists, the final flow from a font of creativity that was running over right until the end.
Where’s it on? Blu-ray
Varda was also an enthusiastic adopter of new media and technology, and was right there at the beginning of cinema’s digital revolution, making one of the first digital masterpieces in The Gleaners and I (2000). Another keen scout of digital’s new possibilities was the British director Bernard Rose, best known for Candyman (1992). Rose used a Sony HDW-700A HD camera to film this corrosive Hollywood satire, starring Danny Huston as a coked-up agent and wheeler-dealer who discovers he’s dying of cancer. As with Beau Travail, the source for Rose’s story was late-19th-century literature, in this case Tolstoy’s story ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’, and Ivansxtc thrives on an intriguing tension between its grandiose romanticism, including repeated swathes of Wagner on the soundtrack, and the uniquely crappy-looking, wedding-video aesthetics of that era’s early digital cameras. Digital films from the early 2000s have their own retro-fetishistic appeal these days, the ugly-duckling canaries in the mine ahead of the landslide towards digital filmmaking that occurred the following decade. In the case of Ivansxtc, there’s a real beauty to the image’s retrograde sleaziness that fits the story perfectly. Hopefully, Arrow’s new Blu-ray, which retains the original 60i frame rate, will bring this forgotten film some new fans.
A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
Where’s it on? BBC2, Sunday, 00:20
Back at the time of Beatlemania, it was cinéma-vérité rather than digital that was the cutting-edge flavour of the era. Given the gig of making a movie with the Beatles to capitalise on their skyrocketing popularity, British-based American director Richard Lester created his own thunderclap pop-art moment, taking inspiration from silent comedy, Goon Show silliness and the formal free-and-easiness of the French New Wave to film the Fab Four playing themselves on a frenzied trip to London. The Beatles’ movies would sink through various levels of insufferability via Help! (1965) and their animated jaunt Yellow Submarine (1968), but there’s a lightning-in-a-bottle quality about A Hard Day’s Night that’s still electrifying. Lester’s decision to shoot quickly and cheaply, in black and white and with the vérité immediacy of hand-held cameras, got him right into the eye of the storm, and the results provided a model for just about every pop movie made ever since.
The Searchers (1956)
Where’s it on? BBC2, Sunday, 16:05
This most famous film from legendary Hollywood director John Ford has had its reputation dragged through the mud a bit of late, its study of racist mentality mistaken for racism itself. Unhelpfully, Ford made a film with ambiguity and nuance baked into it, and that’s partly why viewers have kept returning to it for so many years. The 1950s saw a darkening in the themes of many westerns, and none darker came along than The Searchers, a film that tested to breaking point its audience’s hero-worshipping of John Wayne. Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, an outsider newly returned from fighting in the civil war, who becomes derangedly intent on revenge after Comanche attack the home of his brother’s family and carry off his young niece. The Searchers was beloved of the Movie Brats, its basic plotline inspiring Taxi Driver (1976) and its burning homestead scenes lifted for Star Wars (1977). Few have come close, however, to the mythic resonance of that closing shot: Edwards framed in the doorway, left out in the desert as family life goes on without him.
Originally published: 2 October 2020