After the mostly international success of Deep Red, Dario Argento grew tired of making giallos. 1977’s Suspiria, the first part of the director’s unfinished Three Mothers trilogy, marked his first foray into the realm of the supernatural. Argento’s deliriously artificial horror film owes as much to Georges Méliès and German Expressionism (specifically The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) as it does to Jean Cocteau and Grimm fairy tales. Having traveled through many European capitals (including the geographical “magic” point where Switzerland, France, and Germany meet), Argento became entranced with the Austrian-born Rudolf Steiner, whose controversial Waldorf schools had been attacked for teaching occult practices in the guise of arts-based education. Less real-world influences came from Argento’s partner Daria Nicolodi, who had become attracted to various fairy tale sources, from Alice in Wonderland and Bluebeard to Pinocchio and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Argento’s visuals actively evoke a fairy tale fantastique, engaging and toying with the Technicolor glory of Disney’s cartoon version of Snow White, a film the director had been obsessed with since youth. Additional elements were filtered into the project from Suspiria de Profundis (Sighs from the Depths), a collection of essays written by Thomas De Quincey (Confessions of an Opium Eater), and Fritz Lang’s little-seen The Secret Beyond the Door, a Freudian interpretation of the Bluebeard story from which the Argento film borrows considerably more than the fabulous Joan Bennett.
The delirious Goblin composition that accompanies the film’s opening scene brings to mind the sounds of a little girl’s ballerina music box. A narrator’s voice is barely audible over the soundtrack, which plays atop the standard white-on-black credits: “Suzy Banyon decided to perfect her ballet studies in the most famous school of dance in Europe. She chose the celebrated Tanzakademie of Freiburg. One day at 9am, she left Kennedy airport, New York, and arrived in Germany at 10:40 local time.” While there are few signifiers here to suggest the tale takes place in Germany, Argento subtly focuses the spectator’s gaze on a poster of the Black Forest taped to one of the airport terminal’s walls. Suspiria may be Argento’s silliest work, but while its plot is scarcely sensible, the film rightfully earns its notoriety via Argento’s fabulous and detailed engagement and reworking of fairy tale motifs. The film’s opening “once upon a time” giddily anticipates the nasty folktale that follows.
Suzy (Jessica Harper) arrives at the German airport. Like a ballerina leaving the safety of her music box, she passes through the airport’s automatic doors and hails a taxi in the middle of a torrential rainstorm. The lights from the taxicab chillingly illuminate the crevices between the forest trees; a flash of lightning reveals a shadowy image (perhaps a scythe or a knife) reflected on a large tree stump. All the while, Suzy is innocently bathed in the warm blue tones of Luciano Tovoli’s glorious cinematography. Blink and you’ll miss a subliminal superimposition—reflected on the cab’s security divider is the still image of a screaming face (possibly that of Argento’s). Arriving at the Tanzakademie, a drenched Suzy witnesses a terrified Pat (Eva Axen) screaming up to someone inside the school. Pat runs off and Suzy is told to leave the school by a girl talking into an intercom. Suzy is too frazzled to pay much attention to Pat’s cries, purposefully muted by Argento so as to leave both Suzy and the spectator in the dark. By film’s end, Suzy comes to discover that her recollection of Pat’s exact words (she can only remember the words “secret” and “irises”) will lead to her salvation.
Riding back into the city, Suzy watches a frightened Pat running through the Black Forest. (Compare the jaw-dropping lighting and disorienting pacing of this scene to a similar moment from Secret Beyond the Door when Bennett’s character runs into a forest and believes she’s being chased by her husband, played by Michael Redgrave.) Pat stays the night with a friend, whose apartment building’s architecture is outrageously garish but nowhere near as unnerving as the wallpaper in Pat’s bedroom. Modeled after M.C. Escher’s “Sky and Water,” the walls evoke Argento’s signature obsession with sight and sightlessness. Birds and fish are the composite elements, uniting to form an ornate visual landscape. Separately, though, each animal forms a point of departure. The pictorial elements interlock at various points while becoming independent from each other as the wallpaper nears the room’s window. Paired concepts such as dark/light and mobility/immobility come to mind as the trapped Pat is seemingly lulled to the window. Pat is hung from a telephone wire and violently thrust through the stained glass ceiling of the apartment complex; the falling glass, in turn, slices Pat’s friend to death. The shattered glass, Pat’s dangling corpse and her dribbling blood become glorious elements of the apartment building’s already phenomenal artificiality.
An even more impressive manipulation of mise-en-scène lies in the film’s door handles, another possible shout-out to Secret Beyond the Door: In their higher than usual positions, the handles emphasize the youth and stature of the film’s characters in relation to their grotesquely imposing doll house. Suzy returns to the school, meeting the faculty and her fellow students. With the exception of Sara (Stefania Casini), all the girls are petty and cruel. The administrators—the miserly Madame Blanc (Bennett) and the firm Miss Tanner (Alida Valli)—are cold and suspiciously secretive. Just as Madame Blanc and Miss Tanner are the picture-perfect renditions of evil stepmothers, the school’s attendees bring to mind Cinderella’s bitchy stepsisters. Madame Blanc, like Snow White’s jealous stepmother, is instantly aware (and wary) of Suzy’s beauty: “You’re pretty, very pretty indeed.” More importantly, though, is the element of distance from family—Suzy’s journey is similar to that of Snow White’s in that both heroines left the comfort of home for the misleading solace of a dwelling in the woods. Suzy is forced to stay at the Academy after a mysterious fainting spell; like Snow White’s poisoned apple, wine has been used to keep Suzy close to the enemy. Argento wallows in all sorts of weird behavior when the gossipy Olga goes on about the snake-like nature of girls whose names begin with the letter “S” while another student poetically pontificates about school procedures: “Squawk, squawk, squawk. Mata Hari is gong to make her daily report.” Even the words in the film are like seductions.
The wallpaper in Pat’s bedroom is also Argento’s first allusion to flying in the film. Supernatural behavior in Suspiria is pervasive and inescapable, commanded by a coven of witches. Even a simple swim is seemingly chaperoned by a faceless evil. It is this otherworldly presence that perhaps explains why the rationale for death in the film remains so inexplicable: the school’s blind piano instructor, Daniel (Flavio Bucci), is mauled to death by his own guide dog; and earlier in the film, Daniel is unceremoniously fired from the school after his dog is accused of taking a bite out of Madame Blanc’s young, blond-haired nephew. Whether the dog intentionally attacked the child is beside the point, the animal is clearly commanded by a supernatural being when it lunges for his own master. In this, the film’s signature set piece, Tovoli’s camera takes on the point of view of a flying monster. Walking through a desolate Munich plaza, the helpless blind man senses evil. Shadowy figures hovering above the plaza’s main building become the sole means by which the spectator can gauge the shape of this evil. Later in the film, a bat attacks Suzy in her bathroom. The animal seems to function as bait, convincing Suzy to explore the cavernous hallways of the schoolhouse.
The safety of the Freiburg airport gives way to the psychedelic terror of the Academy, where Suzy has been propelled into Alice’s terrifyingly colorful rabbit hole. The film’s visual palette is suggestive of a hierarchical journey through the Academy. Hallways are bathed in reds, yellows, and blues, and, in effect, different rooms in the school begin to take on a meaning all their own. Suzy meets the administrators in the garish Blue Room, where a grandiose staircase comes with a handrail made of golden snakes; Miss Tanner conducts her classes in the Red Room, where Suzy defends her right to live outside the school; and in the Yellow Room, her fainting spell gives way to a ravishing nosebleed. Journeying through the school’s hallways, a poisoned Suzy seems frozen in time; she’s overwhelmed by air-born dust particles and blinded by the light reflected off a star-shaped object being cleaned off by the school’s kitchen woman. Every single image is ravishingly beautiful, like watching Secret Beyond the Door in Technicolor!
Traps have been set for those who should near or stumble upon the school’s hidden passages—a nosy Sara meets her Grimm demise inside a room inundated with barbed wire. After her friend’s demise, Suzy is forced to crack the code of the “secret/irises,” imprinted on the walls of Madame Blanc’s flowery chamber room and readily available to Suzy (not to mention the careful spectator) for deciphering. Once Suzy has destroyed the coven of witches, walls begin to crumble and crack. Indeed, the intricacies of Argento’s mise-en-scène are as beautiful to behold as they are devastating to see falling apart. Suzy fights for balance, walking through the jewel-toned hallways of the academy so carefree she resembles a skittish, liberated diva seeking refuge from the deep recesses of her own subconscious. Once skeptical, she is now the master of Argento’s magical domain. Snow White has left the building.
One can make the argument that Suspiria is the best-looking film of all time. Anchor Bay’s THX-certified video master of Argento’s masterpiece preserves the 2.35:1 aspect ratio while enhancing sights and sounds no doubt unseen and unheard for over 25 years. The details of Luciano Tovoli’s legendary cinematography are so pristinely preserved that long-sequestered facets of Argento’s original vision are ghoulishly revealed. Despite having seen Suspiria a good half dozen times on crummy VHS copies, I was surprised to discover the superimposition of a girl’s screaming face atop the taxicab’s security divider as Suzie rides through the Black Forest. Anchor Bay has made it entirely too easy for the spectator to assemble and digest Argento’s deadly artifice. The film’s soundtrack has been remixed, available here in Dolby Digital Surround EX and DTS-ES encoding. The sound is spectacularly crisp, preserving and heightening the details of the intricate Goblin soundtrack and sound design. Suspiria is louder than ever, every mutter of Helena Marcos’s name carrying a new kind of euphoric chill.
Those new to Argento will be fully satiated by Anchor Bay’s single-disc edition of Suspria. The most notable supplements on the disc are the film’s original theatrical trailers. From a cultural point of view, it’s fascinating to compare the different marketing campaigns taken on by the film’s international and US distributors. The International Trailer is considerably more abstract than the US one, using still images from Suspiria to convey the full terror of film’s visual palette while preserving its secrets via the dialogue-less soundtrack. The US Trailer is a delight if only because it accidentally celebrates and heightens the film’s camp-appeal by opening with a shot of a skeleton putting an iris into her wig. In essence, Norman Bates’s mother goes giallo. Three thirty-second audio spots and a poster and still gallery are also available. The second disc of this three-disc limited edition contains the essential Suspiria 25th Anniversary, an all-new 52-minute documentary that features Dario Argento, Daria Nicolodi, Luciano Tovoli, the members of Goblin and stars Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini and Udo Kier. Fans will relish the spilling of the films history and fascinating factoids (Harper gave up a part in Annie Hall to star in the Argento film) but Nicolodi is the one that delivers the goods. Argento’s ex-lover deconstructs the film, exposing its ties to fairy tale lore while bemoaning the unfinished state of the Three Mothers trilogy. According to Nicolodi, the third part (which follows Suspiria and Inferno) has been ready to be filmed for over a decade. The Goblin soundtrack accounts for Disc 3. An integral listening experience for any movie or music connoisseur, the synth-laden Goblin score plays like the retro-legendary precursor to all things techno. Aside from Franco/Hubler/Schwab’s Vampyros Lesbos music, Suspiria’s Goblin soundtrack is the most infamous of all underground movie scores. Revolutionary, kinetic and spine-tingling-just like the movie.
With the release of Anchor Bay’s three-disc Suspiria Limited Edition, Argento fans could finally breath a sigh of relief. It’s also a great starting point for the Argento novice as Suspiria showcases Argento’s signature narrative concerns and, most importantly, his deft attention for creating deadly artifice. Meaty without being intrusive, the supplements become handy travelling companions through what is perhaps the greatest horror film of all time. Regardless, this is the best DVD of 2001.
Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé, Barbara Magnolfi, Udo Kier, Joan Bennett, Aida Vallli Director: Dario Argento Screenwriter: Dario Argento, Daria Nicolodi Distributor: Anchor Bay Entertainment Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 1977 Release Date: September 11, 2001 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Blu-ray Review: Forty Guns
Samuel Fuller’s libido-fueled, feverishly stylized B western gets a lavish reincarnation on home video courtesy of Criterion.4.0
Though shot in a drum-tight 10 days, and on a low budget, writer-director Samuel Fuller’s raw, punchy noir-western Forty Guns isn’t a film of half-measures. As it acquaints us with Tombstone, Arizona, the parched Cochise County town where its action takes place, the 1957 film does so with an unbroken dolly shot that runs the entire length of main street, taking in something like 50-plus actors in choreographed motion and encompassing both an exposition dump and a startling zoom-and-pan reveal.
When Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), the territory’s domineering land baroness, conducts her daily business via horseback, she does so with all 40 of her grizzled hired hands in tow, a thunderous spectacle trotted out for matters both large and small. And when a tornado rips over the hills, realized by Fuller and his crew as a high-powered dust storm that renders the landscape a grainy, swirling abstraction, Stanwyck is right in the middle of the fray; the script called for Jessica to be dragged along with the hoof of a runaway horse, and Stanwyck insisted on performing the daredevil maneuver herself, much to the chagrin of producers.
Bold expressionism and brawny physicality were staples of Fuller’s filmmaking career—qualities surely indebted in some part to his experiences as an infantryman and cameraman during World War II—and in Forty Guns the entire cast is synchronized with that sensibility. The film is possessed of an earthy eroticism, evident in a number of scenes dedicated to watching Tombstone’s men bathe openly under the afternoon sun, as well as in an insistent streak of sexual innuendo in the dialogue, wherein any talk of a man’s gun is quite transparently an allusion to his cock.
Upon the arrival of pacifistic U.S. Marshal Griff Bonell (Barry Sullivan), carrying a warrant for the arrest of Jessica’s rotten brother, Brockie (John Ericson), in town with siblings Wes (Gene Barry) and Chico (Robert Dix), the townsfolk’s dormant sexual energies are expulsed, with Wes angling for local gunsmith Louvenia (Eve Brent) and Griff himself going after Jessica. In a place where gunfire is the prevailing expression of emotion, violence and sex thus become intimately entangled—a link visually represented when Wes and Louvenia’s mutual desire is consummated by an eccentric down-the-rifle-barrel POV shot that Jean-Luc Godard would crib for Breathless only three years later.
This suggestive visual punnery aside, the structure of Forty Guns ultimately accommodates a shift from lewd flirtation to emotional vulnerability, with the at-first caricatured threat of violence becoming a real and deadly threat indeed, as new bonds are sewn and prior allegiances are fissured. Griff, having vowed to retire his six-shooter, awakens Jessica’s sensitive side in the process of spending time with her, breaking down her desperado roughness with his nonviolent, levelheaded enforcement of the law.
The moment when Jessica seems to have fully emerged as a more complicated woman than she initially appeared is among the film’s most beautiful: When she and Griff find shelter from the aforementioned tornado in an abandoned barn, a lilting crane shot descends from the rafters to find the lovers entangled from head to toe in a pile of hay, the camera finally landing in an intimate two-shot to survey their nostalgic exchange without a single cut. It’s a scene of aching tenderness in the midst of bawdy farce and jolts of brutality, but such a commiseration of souls proves fleeting in a land of hardened alliances and quick triggers, and it’s this very union that acts as the catalyst for an accumulating body count.
The film’s tonal swing from goofiness to severity is best exemplified in the three Tombstone ambushes conducted by Brockie. The first, seemingly the result of a drunken whim, is a maniacal shooting spree played mostly for shock laughs (save for the mood-puncturing casualty of an innocent blind man), and concluded by Griff’s swift pistol-whipping of the terrified Brockie. Mirroring this is a more coordinated attack later in Forty Guns when a wedding is interrupted by a surprise bullet, immediately throttling the mood from revelry to tragedy—and leading to a hymnal-led funeral scene to rival those in John Ford westerns. Finally, the third ambush in Tombstone finds Griff again marching calculatedly toward a menacing scene, only this time unsure of the whereabouts of the aggressors. Fuller stages the scene as a high-wire standoff between three disparate points of threat, juicing the dramatic irony to a breaking point until Griff expertly diffuses the situation, but not without preventing another death.
Shot in black-and-white CinemaScope at a time when the format was largely reserved for color productions, Forty Guns‘s deep chiaroscuro anticipates the characters’ deadly impulses and the grave directions that the drama takes. It all leads to a climactic showdown of remarkable savagery that seems to confirm an irrepressible violence within the hearts of even the most upstanding among us—though it’s followed then by a studio-mandated corrective to it, a scene that partially aims to clear the dust churned up by such a bleak capper. Fuller includes a line of dialogue that complicates the uplift, but even if he hadn’t, Forty Guns‘s damning treatise on gun infatuation and the incapacity to transcend one’s nature had already landed its heaviest blows, leaving a bitter aftertaste that no smearing of schmaltz could quite undo.
Studio-shot interiors are granted a superb degree of contrast, with the deep, inky shadows doing full justice to the film’s celluloid origins, in addition to mirroring the bottled-up anxiety and rage in the characters. Meanwhile, location work in the foothills of Arizona is awesomely vivid. When Barbara Stanwyck or Barry Sullivan ride across the landscape on horseback, the subtle gradations and tones of the arid ground are as compelling as the action being depicted. And suitably for a film at least partly about the destructiveness of firearms, the howling gun blasts heard on the audio track are enough to get the attention of the neighbors, if not too loud to overwhelm the at-times hushed dialogue and gentle desert ambiance.
The meatiest supplement here is “A Fuller Life,” Samantha Fuller’s affectionate feature-length tribute to her father’s experiences as a journalist, infantryman, and filmmaker, unconventionally presented as a series of readings from his autobiography, A Third Face, by directors and actors who knew him. Not all these participants seem equally enthusiastic about the project, and the documentary consequently has some dry, overly wordy passages. But the access to Fuller’s treasure trove of personal material—clips from his old bylines, footage from WWII, and production files—makes it never less than a fascinating excavation for acolytes of the artist.
Similarly rewarding in this regard are the three other bits of deep-dive Fuller content: an entertainingly candid 1969 interview with the director that can be played as a commentary track, a printed excerpt from A Third Face that goes into some detail about Forty Guns‘s production, and a newly shot interview with Fuller’s second wife, Christa Lang Fuller, and daughter that plays like a heartfelt stroll down memory lane. Rounding out the package is an essay by film scholar Lisa Dombrowski and a new interview by critic Imogen Sara Smith, who, in a welcome pivot from all the attention lavished elsewhere on Fuller, conducts a fairly thorough examination of Barbara Stanwyck’s performance in Forty Guns, hailing it as an impassioned summation of a career that was on the decline by the late ’50s.
Samuel Fuller’s libido-fueled, feverishly stylized B western gets a lavish reincarnation on home video courtesy of Criterion.
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Dean Jagger, John Ericson, Gene Barry, Robert Dix, Jidge Carroll Director: Samuel Fuller Screenwriter: Samuel Fuller Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 1957 Release Date: December 11, 2018 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Let the Corpses Tan
The solid audiovisual transfer will allow home viewers to fully experience Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s unrelenting, expressionistic assault on the senses.3.5
Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan might rekindle a familiar debate regarding style and substance in art and whether the distinction matters in discussions of aesthetics. Riffing on 1970s-era Italian crime films, Cattet and Bruno Forzani get so lost in their catalogue of fetishes that they lose grasp of the snap and tension that drive even a mediocre heist narrative. That’s partially the intention here, as the married Franco-Belgian filmmakers are aiming for a wandering bloodbath that stews in their characters’ obsessions, which presumably parallel their own, but those obsessions often feel trivial, distracting from the abstract plot.
In Let the Corpses Tan, Cattet and Forzani announce their self-consciously derivative intentions with explosions of paint that suggest blood as well as the act of ejaculation. This link—between art, sex, and violence—is the thread purportedly uniting the film’s various shoot-outs, sexually and religiously inflected fantasy sequences, and odd camera angles, lurid color stocks, and splintered editing. Luce (Elina Löwensohn) is a painter living out among the jagged and sunbaked cliffs presumably somewhere along the Mediterranean, where she drinks, works, sunbathes, fucks, and keeps the company of a traditionally motley collection of misfits. Some of these misfits have just robbed a truck carrying hundreds of kilos of gold, brutally killing several guards and police officers in the process. These acts are played nearly for comedy, with explosions of blood that echo Luce’s splattering of paint against canvases. And the crimes bring the police upon Luce’s desert idyll, triggering a shoot-out that spans the majority of the film’s running time.
The film’s desert setting is memorably beautiful and punishing, and Cattet and Forzani milk it for quite a bit of its erotic potential, gazing at Luce’s often nude body as she sweats in the sun while the coterie of grizzled thugs ogle her. Pleasurable for their own sake, such scenes also affirm the notion of the gold heist as a re-channeling of unfulfilled sex. A little of this symbolism goes a long way, and amusingly so, though Cattet and Forzani keep indulging jokey metaphors, from a lamb roasting sensually on a spit to a martyr fantasy in which Luce is tied nude to a stake, her breasts lactating champagne.
The latter sequence offers a juxtaposition of cruelty and sadomasochistic sex that might’ve been startling in a film less grab-bag in nature—if, say, the scene had been allowed to serve as a narrative culmination, suggesting that the heist and hostage situation inspires in Luce a reckoning with forbidden desires. In this context, however, it feels as if Cattet and Forzani are merely adding another whimsy to their woodpile in order to certify their bona fides as cult rebels. There’s another violent and sexual fantasy sequence later in the film, which seems present just to give the audience a nude shot of another actress, and the images are festooned with leather, guns, insects, skulls, and seemingly endless close-ups of the bad-ass bank robbers’ faces.
Let the Corpses Tan is diverting when watched for 10 minutes—and which 10 minutes you choose doesn’t really matter, as the film runs in circles, re-digesting its conceits as characters stalk and kill each other. In the end, Cattet and Forzani’s pastiche is less reminiscent of Italian crime films than of Quentin Tarantino’s own brand of orgiastic cinephilia, and this contrast elucidates why Let the Corpses Tan feels so hollow. Though Tarantino is also a trickster enthralled with formalist gimmicks, his best films have emotional texture, expressing the longing that drove him to movies to begin with. Cattet and Forzani are too cool for such vulnerability.
On the whole, Kino Lorber’s transfer leans a bit on the dark side, leading to more muted reds, greens, and golds, especially throughout the film’s daytime sequences. Still, the graininess of Manuel Decosse’s 16mm cinematography is ably preserved; the acute textural details found in the film’s endless array of close-ups of sweaty, expressive faces and objects in motion are beautifully rendered. The nighttime sequences, often shot with a blue filter, still offer ample contrast between the deep black shadows and carefully lit bodies that move gracefully in and out of them. The 5.1 surround and stereo sound tracks are particularly impressive, offering an evocatively layered and full-bodied mix that highlights the film’s intricate sound design. The crackle of fire, creaking of leather, and bursts of gunfire sit forward in the mix, replicating the sensorial overload of the theatrical experience.
Film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Queensland Film Festival Director John Edmond, who have known each other for years, evince an amiable rapport on their engaging audio commentary, and while this frequently leads them into light-hearted digressions, they do manage to cover a large amount of ground regarding the cinematic influences that inform Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s aesthetics. Their discussions of ’70s Italian crime films, gialli, and spaghetti westerns are informative if a tad predictable. More fruitful and compelling are the stretches where their talk veers into the unexpected, such as the influence of Satoshi Kon on the filmmakers’ sense of narrative structure and the film’s playful warping of time through rapid-fire editing. Perhaps most enlightening is when Heller-Nicholas and Edmond link Let the Corpses Tan, for its plethora of associative metaphors and reliance on sexual and religious iconography, to George Bataille’s Story of the Eye and the work of Kenneth Anger. The only other extra included is a theatrical trailer.
Kino Lorber’s edition of Let the Corpses Tan is fairly slim on extras, but the solid audiovisual transfer will allow home viewers to fully experience Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s unrelenting, expressionistic assault on the senses.
Cast: Elina Löwensohn, Stéphane Ferrara, Bernie Bonvoisin, Michelangelo Marchese, Marc Barbé, Marine Sainsily, Pierre Nisse, Marilyn Jess Director: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani Screenwriter: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 2018 Release Date: January 8, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: A Dry White Season
This powerful apartheid drama still burns with outrage and conviction, and it receives an excellent A/V transfer from the Criterion Collection.4.0
The opening shot of A Dry White Season depicts two young South African boys, one black and one white, laughing and merrily playing ball with each other. This moment of harmony, a tacit reminder that racism is learned, is soon torn asunder by the viciousness of South Africa’s apartheid system. The forces of division at work in the country are charted after the tranquil opening, with the black child, Jonathan (Bekhithemba Mpofu), arrested and brutally caned for attending a peaceful student protest and the white boy, Johan (Rowen Elmes), seen playing rugby with schoolmates who are, of course, all white. Soon we learn that Jonathan’s father, Gordon (Winston Ntshona), works as a gardener for Johan’s father, Ben (Donald Sutherland). When Ben sees the bloody cane marks on Jonathan’s buttocks, he immediately begins rationalizing the actions of the police, unable to admit that they acted irrationally. Johan, upon glimpsing the same wounds, can only gape in horror.
Director Euzhan Palcy spends much of the film’s first act visually delineating the extent to which South Africa has been divided under apartheid. In the black townships of Soweto, for example, there’s scarcely any vegetation to be found in the drab, arid ground. Meanwhile, Ben’s home and other white communities are verdant with irrigated, perfectly manicured lawns. And while Ben has a friendly rapport with Gordon, he never forgets his assumed superiority to the man, who must address his boss as Mr. Ben in even their most informal moments. Ben’s initial inability to consider that the police crossed a line with Jonathan changes when the boy is killed and buried in an unmarked location. When Gordon attempts to find the whereabouts of his son’s body, he too is abducted, tortured, and murdered, leaving Ben so stunned that he’s shaken from his oblivious privilege.
The remainder of the film tracks Ben’s attempts to get answers for these shocking events and the fallout it brings to both Gordon’s family and his own. Seeking justice for Gordon, Ben takes his case to a human rights lawyer (Marlon Brando, giving perhaps his weariest and least showy performance), who can only solemnly urge the man to drop this case, as it will never be upheld by an apartheid judge and will only bring him misery. This grim prophecy soon proves true as Ben’s increasingly zealous quest to broadcast the atrocities of the government earns him the enmity of a brutish police captain (Jürgen Prochnow), alienates his wife (Janet Suzman) and daughter (Susannah Harker), and enrages Ben’s colleagues and friends. It even brings further horrors onto Gordon’s surviving family, who are systematically harassed and evicted from their home in retaliation for Ben’s behavior.
In maintaining her focus on both families rather than just Ben’s, Palcy traces the pervasiveness of apartheid’s methods of reinforcing the status quo using everything from social stigma to outright violence. That Ben, riddled with guilt and horror, tries to honor his dead friend and ultimately makes things worse for Gordon’s widow is held against the man, but the director nonetheless foregrounds the near-impossibility of an individual resisting a regime devoted to an ideology like racism. Palcy does occasionally confront Ben with his ignorance, as when he wistfully tells his black driver, Stanley (Zakes Mokae), how they’re both equally African as he reminisces about growing up on a farm, only for Stanley to sarcastically bring up other aspects of “real” African life, such as having to carry one’s ID papers everywhere or being thrown in prison. Ben, embarrassed, trails off and falls silent. Yet Ben is consistently presented with complexity and empathy as he slowly becomes politically aware, and if A Dry White Season ultimately illustrates the high cost of true allyship in a system of segregation, it nonetheless also respects the willingness to make that sacrifice in the face of injustice.
Sourced from a 4K restoration, Criterion’s transfer retains the thick grain of the film but marks a significant upgrade in color depth and texture from previous home-video editions. In particular, the bright shades of the white communities pop in comparison to the impoverished and infertile soil of drab Soweto townships, and the blood spilled by bullets and torture looks especially vivid. The lossless stereo track nicely balances the predominantly dialogue-driven soundtrack with the occasional bursts of chaotic violence in the police’s crackdowns on demonstrations, losing no fidelity at any point.
A half-hour interview between director and co-writer Euzhan Palcy and critic Scott Foundas digs into the former’s life, from her childhood cinephilia to her art studies in France and early support from François Truffaut. Palcy offers copious insights into her career and her approach to A Dry White Season, from building out the source novel’s black characters to her clandestine trips to Soweto to interview survivors of security force arrests and torture. Palcy also contributes an interview in which she breaks down five of the film’s scenes from the research went into them to her filming. Impressively, Criterion unearthed a long-sought interview that Palcy conducted with President Nelson Mandela on the first anniversary of his election in which she questions him on the future he envisions for South Africa. A 1989 interview with Donald Sutherland is also included, as is footage of a 2017 South African National Honors Awards ceremony in which Palcy was bestowed with the Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo for her work in illuminating the anti-apartheid struggle to the international community. Finally, a booklet contains an essay by film professor Jyoti Mistry, who explicates how Ben is developed as a genuinely moral agent and not simply a bystander to atrocity.
This powerful apartheid drama still burns with outrage and conviction, and it receives an excellent A/V transfer from the Criterion Collection.
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Janet Suzman, Jürgen Prochnow, Zakes Mokae, Susan Sarandon, Marlon Brando, Winston Ntshona, Thoko Ntshinga, John Kani, Susannah Harker, Rowen Elmes Director: Euzhan Palcy Screenwriter: Colin Welland, Euzhan Palcy Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 106 min Rating: R Year: 1989 Release Date: December 12, 2018 Buy: Video