Connect with us


Review: The Wages of Fear

More than the mechanics of their plight, Henri-Georges Clouzot lavishes his attention on the always frangible equilibrium of the group dynamic.




The Wages of Fear
Photo: Janus Films

Less than 10 years after director Henri-Georges Clouzot had suffered state-sanctioned banishment from making films due to the public indignation provoked by his acrid wartime drama Le Corbeau, the taut 1953 action film The Wages of Fear established his place in world cinema, securing critical and economic clout sufficient for Clouzot to produce his Hitchcock-rivaling masterwork Diabolique. Like Hitch, Clouzot has often been judged a cold, technical director, and it’s certainly true that The Wages of Fear contains tension-fraught stretches of “pure cinema” that probably gave even the Master cold sweats, but darkly humorous political satire directed at incipient global capitalism and a ballsy existentialism also suffuse Clouzot’s film. “Man is nothing else,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre, arguing the necessity of political commitment, “than the sum of his actions.” Given the film’s bitterly ironic ending, it would seem that Clouzot, for his part, wasn’t so sure that the sum ever exceeds zero.

The film’s opening scenes depict children torturing insects recreationally and the local populace stewing in their own indolent juices, setting the wryly disillusioned tone and paving the way, among others, for Sam Peckinpah’s equally nihilistic The Wild Bunch. Parboiled by the South American sun, the godforsaken town of Las Piedras serves as a particularly hellish human cul-de-sac, where a motley band of multinational good-for-nothings has washed up like so much flotsam. The arrival of Jo (Charles Vanel), a fugitive from justice who blusters his way into a role as big spender at the local cantina, sets the story in motion when Mario (Yves Montand), a French Corsican ne’er-do-well, throws over his roommate Luigi (Folco Lulli) to spend all his free time with Jo.

The rivalry for Mario’s affection comes to a head when Luigi calls Jo to accounts in the midst of a rowdy evening at the cantina. Cinematographer Armand Thirard’s expressionist-inflected lighting scheme throws bold black bars across the crowded room and the camera indulges in proto-Leone macro close-ups of the two men’s faces as they attempt to stare each other down. Violence hovers at the edge of the frame, ready to burst forth at a moment’s notice. When Jo pulls a gun on Luigi, the latter claims Jo wouldn’t act as tough without it, so Jo hands it over. Luigi crumbles; jealous and possessive as he may be, he lacks that killer instinct. Disgraced and disconsolate, Luigi beats a hasty retreat like a spurned lover. Truth be told, Clouzot often suggests there’s more than a homosocial affinity among the trio, and it’s hardly surprising that these implications kicked up more fuss among various censorial bodies than the film’s alleged anti-American content.

Without doubt, women are ancillary to the film’s focus on macho self-determination in the face of insurmountable odds. The audience is introduced to the lone lady of note, servant girl Linda (played by Clouzot’s wife Vera), scrubbing the floor on her hands and knees while the camera leers down her wide-open blouse, showing off the goods for the delectation of the male audience. Clouzot reportedly did everything he could to make a star out of the Brazilian-born actress, granting her the put-upon, heartsick lead in Diabolique, but that doesn’t quite gloss her role here, in effect playing Mario’s lapdog, sidling up to him on all fours for a placatory pat on the head.

The only ones having any luck in Las Piedras are the aloof American representatives of SOC (Southern Oil Company, a conveniently generic nom de greed)—that is, until one of their distant oil rigs explodes. Needing to transport two tons of nitroglycerin 300 miles over shoddy unpaved roads and treacherous switchbacks, SOC takes their recruitment to the people, neatly bypassing the pesky constraints of union bylaws. “Dangerous work, high pay!” announces the want ad. Competition is stiff, as it were. Only real men, read drivers, need apply. Nerves and aptitude soon whittle the applicant pool down until only four remain. Divided into two teams by SOC rep Bill O’Brien (William Tubbs), Jo and Mario head out first, followed after a brief interval by Luigi and Dutch national Bimba (Peter van Eyck), an Aryan type whose father was hanged during the war by the Nazis. Scenes with O’Brien bear the brunt of the blame for the film’s reputed anti-Americanism. Gruff to the point of brusqueness, O’Brien betrays a callous, eminently businesslike attitude to death and injury, though, on the other hand, he stands up for the drivers, having known Jo since their “contraband days” back in the ‘30s. Less political than psychological, O’Brien is disenchanted, jaded. It’s not much to pin a full-scale, anti-imperialist indictment on.

Our ragtag quartet doesn’t hit the road until the film’s second hour, whereupon a series of breathtaking set pieces ensues, one more elaborate (and protracted) than the previous, as the trucks negotiate increasingly inhospitable terrain and Clouzot takes his time with every detail, tailgating at breakneck pace across uneven ground known as “the washboard,” navigating a partially constructed road extension that’s little more than rotten timber jutting out over a void, which quickly becomes a domino-fall of unintended consequences. Like the cantina confrontation, this sequence showcases Clouzot’s rapid-fire montage, breaking down a simple motion like Mario jumping from the platform onto the hillside into its constituent parts, a three-shot montage that ends with a knowing flourish as Mario kicks a spray of dirt into the camera lens.

More than the mechanics of their plight, Clouzot lavishes his attention on the always frangible equilibrium of the group dynamic, documenting with particularly pitiless clarity Jo’s devolution from swaggering man of the world to cringing coward, someone who hides behind a wall at a safe distance while Mario maneuvers the truck around the timber switchback. Jo’s breakdown continues when, overcoming the final obstacle, he must guide the truck with Mario behind the wheel across a widening pool of oil that resulted when Luigi and Bimba’s truck detonated. Jo’s exhortation “Whatever you do, don’t stop!” comes back to haunt him when he’s ensnared on submerged debris and then caught beneath the truck’s wheels, leaving his leg horribly mangled. The pain leaves him delirious. He fantasizes about his home in Paris, a locale Mario also knows well. “You remember that fence? What was on the other side?” Jo asks, to which Mario responds, “Nothing. A vacant lot.”

Already talk of boundaries and the beyond takes on loaded metaphorical weight. Rather than derive existential wisdom from actions that add up to something rational, Jo receives his terrible insight through subtraction, the elimination of everything that made him the man he once was. At the end, hallucinating outright, Jo sees his home again, the endless street, the fence, and the beyond. “There’s nothing!” he calls out as he dies, a singular refutation of one of humanity’s most abiding desires: that something of us survives this mortal coil.

Cast: Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Peter Van Eyck, William Tubbs, Vera Clouzot, Folco Lulli Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot Screenwriter: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jerome Geronimi Distributor: Janus Films Running Time: 147 min Rating: NR Year: 1953 Buy: Video



Review: The Load Offers an Oblique Portrait of the Toll of War

Ognjen Glavonic conveys the devastation and numbness that results from atrocity without resorting to exploitation.




The Load
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Were it not for a text crawl identifying the drab, undistinguished setting of Ognjen Glavonic’s The Load as Yugoslavia at the outset of NATO intervention in the Kosovo War, it would be difficult to know where we are. The war is glimpsed only in the margins, heard in the distant rattle of automatic gunfire or seen in flashes of missiles cutting through clouds like heat lightning. Indeed, even the plot is vague and amorphous, though the subject can be easily gleaned by those familiar with Depth Two, Glavonic’s documentary about bodies being transported across Yugoslavia to mass graves during the war.

The film centers on one of the drivers tasked with toting bodies across the country to a waiting grave in Belgrade. Of course, Vlada (Leon Lucev) has no idea what he’s carrying when hired by some suspicious men to drive from Kosovo to Belgrade with strict instructions to not look in the cargo bed. This doesn’t seem to stoke Vlada’s curiosity, though he’s scarcely unique in his aversion to courting trouble. When Vlada pulls over early in his journey to ask a group of men for directions, we see the general attitude of people living under wartime; other people are as circumspect as Vlada, and in general most of them tend to avoid direct eye contact. One gets the sense that this is a nation of people who’ve learned to mind their business at all costs, and even those who tell Vlada the way to Belgrade do so as if trying to say as little as possible.

Only Paja (Pavle Cemerikic), who asks for a ride to Belgrade is remotely personable, though Vlada initially turns him down before reconsidering and giving the young man a ride. Why Vlada does so is a mystery, as he clearly doesn’t desire much companionship, though the silence left between the two makes it all the more striking when the sound of something falling (or moving) can be heard from the truck bed, prompting both men to reflexively glance back at the cargo they cannot see, only to look forward again and drop the matter.

Glavonic favors these long stretches of uncomfortable silence as Vlada trudges across the countryside, only revealing the character’s depths in flashes. He keeps a decrepit, barely functioning lighter for sentimental value and showing his first emotion in the film when he freaks out after someone steals it after he stops his truck in order to call his sick wife. The handheld camera, relatively sedate up to this point in The Load except for the expected wobbles here and there, suddenly moves in animated fashion as it follows Vlada as he chases the thief, often circling around him to catch glimpses of the thief ducking detection.

It’s the film’s sole moment of true action, the one instance where Vlada shows enough emotional investment in something to drop his mask of dispassion. The brief foot chase is a stylistic outlier in a film that otherwise hews closely to the established art-house tropes of contemporary Eastern European cinema. People are ashen and drab, and buildings sport pale mold on dull concrete walls. Chromatically, The Load makes Saving Private Ryan look like The Band Wagon. Yet Glavonic still manages to convey the devastation and numbness that results from atrocity without resorting to exploitation. Trauma is approached obliquely, more a subliminal fact of life than a single psychological rupture to be confronted and mended.

Vlada tries in the end to give some voice to his disgust and horror, dispiritedly comparing this “video game war” to his father’s prouder service in WWII, but it’s Paja who most directly contends with the present-day conflict. Intent on reaching the West, Paja at one point gets a glimpse of the escalating war when he hears a battle in the distance and sees the aerial dancing of tracer rounds fired from anti-aircraft cannons. Though far removed from the action, the young man is overwhelmed by the hopelessness of it all and, confronted with a reminder of the omnipresent carnage rending his country apart, can only collapse into a swing in a children’s playground, immobile from the shock of being unable to outrun his despair.

Cast: Leon Lucev, Pavle Cemerikic, Tamara Krcunovic, Ivan Lucev, Igor Bencina Director: Ognjen Glavonic Screenwriter: Ognjen Glavonic Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

Continue Reading


Review: Buddy Is Hesitant to Look a Gift Dog in the Mouth

The film is only concerned with dog love, which is occasionally cordoned off by the filmmakers into a sentimental bubble.




Photo: Grasshopper Film

Heddy Honigmann’s Buddy is something like porn for dog lovers, following six specially trained canines as they help their owners live with various physical and mental traumas. The documentary’s great appeal and limitation are soon revealed to be one and the same. Honigmann and editor Jessica de Koning admirably refuse to shoehorn these people and animals, inhabitants of the Netherlands, into a contrived plotline. The filmmakers are devoted to capturing the everyday communion between dogs and humans, but to the point of filtering out other elements of life, including basic and pertinent details of the needs and experiences of said humans. Buddy is only concerned with dog love, which is occasionally cordoned off by the filmmakers into a sentimental bubble.

Watching a white dog named Kaiko as she helps her elderly and wheelchair-bound human, Erna, make coffee in the morning—opening and closing drawers and fetching objects with amazing acumen—one may wonder about the nature of Erna’s predicament, which is never disclosed. One may also wonder what breed Kaiko is. (Throughout the film, Honigmann takes the viewer’s knowledge of breeds for granted, telling us virtually nothing about any of the featured dogs.) Later in Buddy, when Kaiko helps Erna remove her socks, we see that one of Erna’s feet doesn’t have toes and is twisted at an odd angle. This is a joltingly privileged moment for Erna and Kaiko, and Honigmann films it with a sense of rapture and respect that’s quite moving, yet more context would’ve grounded such scenes in specific, tangible details. If we knew what ails Erna, our curiosity wouldn’t be encouraged to compete with our empathy. A similar vagueness clouds Trevor, the film’s most troubled subject, a soldier with PTSD who’s helped greatly by an adorable big brown fur ball named Mister.

If Buddy sometimes succumbs to generality, its love for dogs still yields aesthetic rewards. Honigmann doesn’t compromise the dogs’ inherent nature with cuteness; she doesn’t “humanize” them for us with music and pillow shots of animals smiling and yawning for the camera. The filmmaker is viscerally alive to the dogs’ movements, to how their body language expresses their emotions. The pride Kaiko takes in helping Erna in the kitchen is intensely poignant, as is the piercing way she regards Erna in an effort to read her human’s needs. Mister is similarly aware of Trevor’s torment. When Trevor’s wife leaves a park bench, Mister becomes more alert, or “on duty.” Mister understands that he and Trevor’s wife alternate “shifts” watching Trevor, and Honigmann brings this information to bracingly lucid visual life.

Honigmann films the other dogs with similar care and awe, particularly Makker, who helps Edith, an elderly woman who lost her sight to a German bomb as an adolescent. Edith is the most memorable of the documentary’s human subjects, because Honigmann allows her to offer the audience a significant amount of backstory. Edith strides the countryside with astonishing confidence, and continues to ride horses even as a blind person pushing 90. In one of the film’s most exhilarating sequences, Honigmann cuts to footage of Edith riding a horse as a younger woman while her first dog races around the track behind them.

In this moment, the devotion of the dog and the unity of Edith with her animals while in flight is nothing less than transcendent, and Honigmann rhymes such a sequence with the transcendence of everyday gestures, following Makker in a tracking shot as she catches up to Edith after relieving herself by a tree. Honigmann is alive to the beauty of a dog in motion, and of a woman who hasn’t allowed herself to be stymied by atrocity.

Buddy may follow special service dogs, but it’s implicitly concerned with the macroscopic miracle of the animals. Dogs are beloved for offering an ideal of tolerance, representing a democratization of friendship. Not all of us can be accepted by our fellow humans, but we can be loved by dogs if we’re willing to meet them even a quarter of the way. Do dogs allow the disenfranchised to give up on their own species? It would appear that some of Buddy’s humans have indeed written off their fellow people. Does this matter? Honigmann’s film doesn’t plumb this potentially resonant question, as it’s hesitant to look a gift dog in the mouth.

Director: Heddy Honigmann Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

Continue Reading


Review: Ramen Shop Is a Low-Calorie Take on a Rich Culinary Tradition

Its drawn-out descriptions of culinary traditions and practices are enticing enough, but the same can’t be said about the characterizations.




Ramen Shop
Photo: Strand Releasing

Eric Khoo’s Ramen Shop celebrates the culinary mecca that is multi-ethnic Singapore—once described by Anthony Bourdain as “the most food-centric place on Earth”—with a slight family drama that tries to bring to light the tensions underlying its history. The film begins with Masato (Takumi Saito) working in his cold, distant father Kazuo’s (Tsuyoshi Ihara) much-praised ramen shop in Japan, experimenting with Singaporean dishes in his spare time. When Kazuo dies suddenly, Masato finds himself in possession of the journal of his long-deceased Singaporean mother, Mei Lian, motivating him to head to Singapore and rediscover his past. There, as he walks in his parents’ footsteps—and flashbacks reveal their courtship over various dishes—Masato begins an immersive love affair with Singaporean cuisine.

Aided by a Japanese ex-pat food blogger, Miki (Seiko Matsuda), and his chef uncle, Wee (Mark Lee), Masato experiences local dishes like fragrant chicken rice and fish head curry. But the meal that comes to obsess his mind is the one that brought his parents together, and the one he wants to bring back to Japan in order to conserve their memory: bak kut teh, or pork rib soup. Like ramen, bak kut teh was originally a Chinese recipe that’s become emblematic of its adoptive country, and as such Masato sees something of himself in the dish.

Half-Japanese and half-Singaporean, Masato finds himself confronting the damage left by Japan’s brutal occupation during World War II on the city and his family. Mei Lian’s (Jeanette Aw) decision to marry Kazuo, a Japanese national, led to her exile from her family. Despite Mei Lian’s deepest wish, the grudge remained until she died and has been extended to Masato himself. To bridge this gap between him and his relatives, he prepares a novel blend of ramen and bak kut teh to placate his Singaporean family. How things will go is clear enough—this a film that has no qualms about gushily assuring us that food brings us together, in spite of our differences—but the gesture stands as the film’s final confidence in Singaporean cuisine’s dynamism and openness to all things, even reconciling the dark reaches of history.

Throughout Ramen Shop, each dish that Masato tastes appears on screen. In these moments, the narrative is momentarily suspended while ingredients, their source, the dish’s origins, and its preparation are explicated in full as mouthwateringly shallow-focused photography catches the glinting colors and textures of the food. The purpose is to titillate and to instruct. Indeed, some moments are so didactic as to explain the exact cooking time required for each step of the preparation process. And, inevitably, each of these displays ends with Masato’s first bite and his uttering some variation of “incredible” or “delicious.”

These drawn-out descriptions of the culinary traditions and practices of Singapore are enticing enough, but the same can’t be said about the characterizations. While Masato feels a lot of things—excitement at discovering his past, loss over his parents, wonder at his new environs—the thirtysomething’s journey through Singapore is depicted in the same ambling, emotionally listless fashion. Khoo, a native Singaporean, is an excellent ambassador for his homeland’s cuisine, using the film to extol its variety and singularity. Would that he had summoned the same exuberance in celebrating this cuisine on the low-calorie narrative filler that seems to exist only to tide us over until the next on-screen meal.

Cast: Tsuyoshi Ihara, Takumi Saitoh, Seiko Matsuda, Mark Lee, Jeanette Aw, Beatrice Chien Director: Eric Khoo Screenwriter: Tan Fong Chen, Wong Kim Hoh Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

Continue Reading


Slant is reaching more readers than ever, but as online advertising continues to evolve, independently operated publications like ours have struggled to adapt. We're committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a Slant patron:


You can also make a donation via PayPal.