The movies suffered an approximately 15 year case of elephantiasis starting in the early 1950s, when television began to seriously impact box-office returns. Hollywood’s idea was to give audiences more of what they couldn’t get on their—then-tiny—home screens: Bigness. Cast-of-thousands epics in widescreen formats, plus Technicolor and (for the year or two of the trend’s initial run) 3-D.
Of course, not everyone had the money to imitate this level of spectacle. It took the comparatively cash-strapped Soviets about a decade to catch up. But when they did, they more or less won the contest. Arriving a decade after Hollywood’s drastically simplified 3 1/2 hour version (with Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn as Pierre and Natasha), Sergey Bondarchuk’s 1966 War and Peace was purportedly the most expensive motion picture ever made. It was certainly the longest (excluding anomalies like Andy Warhol’s Empire), at over eight hours. Among the publicity claims were that battle scenes had required up to 100,000 real USSR military personnel—which, if true, would have actually compromised Russia’s combat readiness at the height of the Cold War. In fact about one-tenth that number were used, just as the real budget was said to be about one-tenth the alleged $100 million.
Still, ten thousand is a lot of extras, and $10 million bought a lot of spectacle given that the film’s resources were undoubtedly greatly enhanced by full governmental cooperation. This celebration of Russian culture (with a slight edge of modern propaganda, though Tolstoy had already been judged ideologically sound by the Communists) was duly received as a big event around the globe. While not a massive export success in commercial terms (and criticized here for intrusive English dubbing), it did get around, winning the Best Foreign Film Oscar amongst numerous other kudos. Then it more or less disappeared.
For years, the only way you could see Bondarchuk’s grandiose epic was in home-video versions of frequently appalling, third-generation-TV-dupe quality. Even a 1999 DVD restoration was unable to find workable materials in the original 70mm format, forcing a reduced aspect ratio. However, a new restoration being shown at the Castro this Saturday in a single marathon screening (starting at 1 pm, with breaks between the four sections) somehow overcame those obstacles, so all 422 minutes will be in gloriously wide ’Scope. (If you can’t handle that long a sit, Criterion Collection will be releasing it in Blu-ray and DVD box sets next month.)
This movie probably hasn’t been seen in any comparable form hereabouts in half a century. What is it like now? Well, over its lengthy span, War and Peace has time to be a lot of things. (Except dull, surprisingly, except perhaps in bits of the final and weakest section.) At times it’s clunky, theatrical, a jumble of strategies that feels like a semi-random compendium of four decades’ Soviet filmmaking techniques. The performances are highly variable, with too-old Bondarchuk’s own Pierre a bore, then-highly-praised Lyudmila Saveleva now hard to take as a wide-eyed ninny of a Natasha, while Vyacheslav Tikhonov is perfect as Prince Andrei.
Yet despite all uneven aspects, the whole is an overwhelming achievement. There are passages of startling grandeur—not just the exciting spectacle of huge choreographed balls or colossal, chaotic battle sequences, but some abstractions such as Andrei’s visions at death’s door. Though at times Bondarchuk barely seems in control of his own vision, the gigantic enterprise’s combination of sheer scale, relentless cinematic virtuosity (the tracking/crane shots remain extraordinary) and thematic breadth do manage to convey a real grasp of Tolstoy’s titanic work, not excluding its philosophical dimensions.
Like Berlin Alexanderplatz, Our Hitler, Out: 1, Satantango or whatever other cinematic totem to excess you’d care to name, War and Peace is an experience whose sheer ambition ultimately transcends individual flaws, datedness, even your gradually numbing posterior. A la Mount Everest, it compels climbing simply because it is there. Sat/25 only at Castro Theatre. Tickets and more info here.
By contrast, this week’s commercial openings inevitably end up looking pretty trivial. There’s Disney’s latest live-action reboot, Aladdin, with Will Smith stepping into Robin Williams’ harem pants; a horror movie, Brightburn, which at least has the plus of being the first movie in several years starring Elizabeth Banks; and two comedies, one of which I walked out on (but I’m not saying which). Another actress-turned-director, Olivia Wilde, has gotten some high praise for her feature debut behind the camera Booksmart, which is more or less Superbad for 18-year-old girls. There’s also been advance praise for Michael J. Gallagher’s Funny Story (at the 4-Star), about a self-absorbed actor’s none-too-successful attempts to repair relations with his daughter on her wedding day.
New documentaries this week are led by Nureyev (at the Roxie), a hagiographic look at perhaps the greatest dancer of the 20th century. Can you go wrong with that subject? This often maddeningly pretentious film comes close, yet there’s enough buoyant performance footage here to bail out an even leakier ship. There’s also (at Opera Plaza) Walking on Water, about the latest site-specific sculptural mega-project by Christo—the visual artist who’s probably had his work more extensively documented by filmmakers than any contemporary. It is not to be confused with Once Was Water, the new environmental documentary by Christopher Beaver and Diana Fuller that’s being screened as a sneak preview at the Roxie (Wed/29) in a benefit for the SF Green Film Festival.
Elsewhere (all opening this Friday):
Olivier Assayas emerged in the late 80s and early 90s as an unpinnably independent new French talent, and he’s retained that unpredictable edge despite being accepted into the relative mainstream. There’s something to be said for a director in his mid-60s still capable of creating films as sharply divisive as Personal Shopper, while making others that are almost universally liked—a turbulent non-pattern that hasn’t smoothed out in over three decades.
His latest is one of those that is hard to dislike, and in fact I’d probably dislike anyone who disliked it. Guillaume Canet plays Alain, the chief editor at a fabled Paris publishing house that is struggling like every “old-school” cultural institution in an era of digitalization and free “content.” His wife Selena (Juliette Binoche), a successful if dissatisfied actress, is even more of a Luddite; ditto Leonard (Vincent Macaigne), an author whose novels are very thinly disguised exploitations of his own rather messy private life. (His character may be partly a satire of confessional literary celebrity Karl Ove Knausgard, whose art so often consists of bemoaning the loss of privacy he continues to bring upon himself and his loved ones.)
These bright, prickly, demanding people are all cheating on each other, of course. And when they’re not, they’re having erudite conversations about blogs, free speech, the eroding value of truth and expertise, print vs. e-readers, whether the internet is a democratizing utopia or simply a new way of selling ads for content without paying the content-providers … and other topics that should be dry as sawdust, yet here are terribly entertaining.
Non-Fiction is a “typical French movie” (arthouse division, that is), in that it revolves around a lot of interesting problematic, self-absorbed adults in variably discordant relationships, yakking it up. Unlike most such French films, however, it also has some surprising big laughs, which make it even more of a delight. Embarcadero, Shattuck Cinemas, Rafael Film Center. More info here.
This polished and colorful Kenyan drama debuted at Cannes but caused a bigger stir at home, where it was banned by censors for “promoting lesbianism … contrary to the law.” (Gay sex in Kenya can bring a prison sentence of 14 years.) Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) is butch enough to be accepted as “one of the boys” by the local lads in her Nairobi ‘hood, but not so much so as to invite the homophobia they freely direct at others. In truth, they simply don’t get who or “what” she is until she falls a little too conspicuously in mutual love with pink-cornrowed Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), a rich girl.
Both these young women are the daughters of politicians—Kena’s shopkeeper dad is in fact running against Ziki’s fat-cat office holder—which adds yet more conflict to a relationship doomed to condemnation from nearly everyone around them once it’s found out. Wanuri Kahiu’s feature does not shrink from depicting the darker consequences that await them, but it stops short of tragedy, preferring to let love win. Given the odds against such happy endings for LGBTQ people in Kenya, that seems less a cop-out than a hard-won demonstration of hope. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.
Not long ago a friend learned that a sibling had a big secret: He’d had another spouse and child for years, entirely hidden from his even longer-term wife and children, whom he unceremoniously abandoned as soon as the jig was up. This wasn’t “having an affair” or some such, but a whole, separate, “double life.” Apparently this is a more common phenomenon than you’d expect. The new film by Joanna Hogg also revolves around a character with a (different) big secret, one I won’t spoil here—but be warned, probably every other review you read will give away that big reveal, which doesn’t arrive until well into the movie.
Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda) is a child of privilege in Britain circa 1980. She wants to be a filmmaker less for reasons of evident talent or passion than because she seeks authenticity—her ideas all feel like ones arrived at because she thinks they’re what people want to hear. She’s the sort others are attracted to, if only because she’s generous with the perks of privilege they lack. (Schoolmates end up sharing her spacious flat, and she’s “too nice” to insist they pay rent.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, she seeks a sort of ballast for her hidden insecurities in Anthony (Tom Burke), a much less apologetic toff who might as easily inhabit the era of Downton Abbey. Instead, he’s soon inhabiting Julie’s bed, requiring one “loan” after another, and so forth. If he weren’t so self-confident and privileged himself, one might think he was using her. Then at a dinner party one night when he’s out of the room, an observant guest makes an educated guess about him. It’s shockingly inflammatory—and, Julie soon realizes, quite accurate.
The Souvenir is about the kind of catastrophic abuser-and-enabler relationship that normally would be played for suspense or high melodrama. Yet Hogg’s approach is as neutral as Julie’s personality (or lack thereof), while her film’s aesthetic is grainy and basic in a way you might expect from a working-class Ken Loach drama. It’s a curious but interesting movie I’m not sure I liked. Nor am I sure Hogg views her alter-ego heroine as critically as she’s described above.
But very much in a “write what you know” vein of artistic inspiration (the story is drawn from the writer-director’s own collegiate experiences), The Souvenir does have its own particular integrity. On the other hand, like the three features Hogg has made previously, this first U.S.-released one is an exercise in navel-gazing “rich people’s problems” she observes from the very limited perspective of the bird inside that gilded cage. Embarcadero. More info here.