Cannes Film Festival: Classics line-up includes a tribute to Lina Wertmüller’s Oscar-nominated Seven Beauties
The Classics line-up also has films by Vittorio De Sica, Milos Forman, Jean Renoir, John Huston, Andrzej Wajda and Tao Jin, along with Mario Sesti’s documentary, Cinecittà – I mestieri del cinema Bernardo Bertolucci
The biggest ticket at Cannes Classics 2019 is undoubtedly the midnight screening of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, remastered in 4K and presented by Alfonso Cuarón. It’s the film you want to brag about, with a tweet like “Braved the mad rush and got a seat for The Shining. Can’t wait.” But there’s also the counterculture classic Easy Rider, which won the First Film Award (Prix de la première œuvre) at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival, and turns 50 this year. Luis Buñuel will be remembered with screenings of three films: Los Olvidados (1950), Nazarín (1958) and the legendary L’ ge d’or (1930). The latter’s power to shock may have dimmed over the decades, but the surrealism is still breathtaking. How many films, after all, open with what appears to be a science documentary about scorpions (“Its tail ends in a sixth joint, a barbed stinger which injects venom”) and close with the image of women’s scalps fluttering on a crucifix, like clothes on a line?
The Classics line-up also has films by Vittorio De Sica, Milos Forman, Jean Renoir, John Huston, Andrzej Wajda and Tao Jin, along with Mario Sesti’s documentary, Cinecittà – I mestieri del cinema Bernardo Bertolucci, which features the last interview of the director. (From Sesti’s notes, which I have paraphrased: “The last time I met him he was in a wheelchair for several years… The outstanding skill of his cinematic style has been to make the camera a very special character, exploring what it means to be human with excitement, fear, rebellion and passion... And now, it’s sorrow, pity, marginalisation and, of course, death - the greatest of all adventures of our life.”) Plus, Lina Wertmüller, the first woman to be nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards, in 1977, for Seven Beauties, will present the restored film with her lead actor, Giancarlo Giannini.
Seven Beauties, which was released in 1975, is a perfect illustration of what Wertmüller came to be known for. In a 2017 interview, in the Criterion web site, she said, “I love grotesque poetry, and I think my films have that style, which combines humor and drama, irony and cynicism, comedy and tragedy. It allows you to play with different narrative tones and rhythms. It’s more than a style—grotesque narrative reflects my own personality.” The grotesquery begins at the film’s beginning, a montage of documentary footage of World War II (exploding bombs, rousing orations from Hitler and Mussolini, Nazi parades) scored to a soothing blues-rock number. The dissonance between music and image is disorienting.
And then, there’s the voiceover, speaking in singsong, about... “The ones who should have been shot in the cradle. Pow! Oh, yeah.” “The ones who worship the corporate image, not knowing that they work for someone else. Oh, yeah.” “The ones who vote for the right because they’re fed up with strikes. Oh, yeah.” “The ones who keep going, just to see how it will end. Oh, yeah.” Which one of these “types” is the protagonist, Pasqualino? All, apparently — for the black-and-white archival footage segues to colour, and over the last stretch of the voiceover, we meet the man himself. He’s a deserter from Mussolini’s army and he’s wandering around in the woods in a very cold Germany. (“Here, where when you blow your nose you get a crystal chandelier, and when you shit you get icicles.”)
Pasqualino is a survivor. He even survives a stretch in a concentration camp. But it’s not because he is brave or optimistic or resourceful. Seven Beauties is a slap on the face of the traditional survival drama, because it gives no reason. Pasqualino survives for the same “reason” that cockroaches do. They’re everywhere, in multitudes, and stamping one out makes no difference because another one is just around the corner. This sentiment is echoed by the plus-sized female commandant Pasqualino tries to seduce for favours. “You disgust me. Your thirst for life disgusts me. Your love disgusts me. In Paris, there is a Greek who found strength to make love to a goose. He screwed for what it gave him, something to eat. It meant survival. And you, sub-human Italian, you found the strength for an erection. And because you were strong you’ll manage to live on, and eventually you’ll win -- miserable creature, lacking in ideals and ideas. And we who thought to create a master race are doomed to failure.”
For a change, we share the opinion of the oppressor, and not the oppressed. Pasqualino is disgusting. He kills a man and dismembers the body. In a dreadful scene in a mental institution (the film shows us his earlier life in flashbacks), he rapes an inmate. And when he sees one his seven sisters (who give this film its ironic title, since they are hardly “beauties”) cavorting around in a stage musical, he calls her an “ugly, miserable pig” and berates her because she “put [her] disgusting thighs on display”. (Like the commandant, she’s a large woman, too.) That such a man ends up unpunished by the universe is Wertmüller’s “message”, if you will. The world may end, but the cockroaches will survive.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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