One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic and quarantine, Part 14
By Laurence Lerman
As the summer crests, the economy sputters, the virus slithers and the 2020 political conventions unspool, nonfiction programming continues be this season’s essential viewing. Even as movie theaters cautiously begin to reopen with the most appealing of new and vintage fare (from 1985’s Back to the Future to Christopher Nolan’s long-anticipated new Tenet), it’s what’s playing in the den that’s commanding the most attention.
While we’re on the subject, this week’s Democratic National Convention’s presentation as a technologically dazzling Zoom gathering was filled with so many split-screen compositions (including a National Anthem singalong comprised of nearly 60 onscreen boxes) that I had to suppress my immediate urge to call up a pair of my favorite split-screen-friendly films, The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and The Longest Yard (1974), along with just about every title in Brian De Palma’s filmography.
That said, following my previous two Reel Streaming entries driven by the passing of a pair of notable film figures, a smaller, mixed bag of streams was the order of the past week—one new, one of considerable vintage, and an adored Eighties confection from France that its U.S. distributor tagged as “A New Kind of French New Wave.”
The 1982 thriller Diva by Jean-Jacques Beineix has been referred to as the first French film in the post-New Wave cinéma du look strain, a marginal French movement that briefly flourished in the Eighties and early Nineties. Represented by a dozen or so films that had a slick, highly stylized visual style and a loose focus on alienated younger characters, Diva is indeed the poster child of the trend, with its very cool tale of a young opera-loving mailman in possession of two in-demand tapes—one, a live bootleg of a popular opera star who refuses to make recordings, the other containing the testimony of a prostitute that would incriminate senior police officials. Enter a bunch of corrupt cops, a cabal of hired killers, a hooker with a heart of gold and a philosophical bohemian with an antique Citroën and one helluva tidal wave jigsaw puzzle.
Though Diva was not initially well-received in France, audiences there grew following the film’s release in the U.S., where it was a smash, playing New York’s famed Paris Theatre for more than a year.
Highlighted by a go-for-broke chase through the Paris Métro and a hypnotically heady mixture of opera and new-wave rhythms, the film is still a lot of fun—a candied pop concoction that runs on the colorful fumes provided by a very self-consciously composed concoction of lights, colors and music. It’s an arty style that also defines much of the work of cinéma du lookers Luc Besson (1985’s Subway, 1990’s La Femme Nikita) and Leos Carax (1986’s Bad Blood, 1991’s The Lovers on the Bridge).
It’s art, not artiness, that’s at the center of the recently released 2019 thriller The Burnt Orange Heresy, based on hardboiled fiction specialist Charles Willeford’s 1971 novel of the same name.
The setting has shifted from the book’s Florida Everglades to Italy’s stunning Lake Como region, where we meet a fine-looking twosome: a British art critic (Claes Bang, who portrayed an art curator in 2017’s The Square) and a Hitchcockian blonde American school teacher (the striking Elizabeth Debicki, first seen as Jordan Baker in Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 The Great Gatsby). The pair get involved with an insanely wealthy art dealer (Mick Jagger, in his first major film role in more than two decades) who’s looking to profit from the work of a famously reclusive artist (Donald Sutherland), who’s living in palatial estate. It’s a fine art thriller, so lots of duplicity, one-upmanship, chain smoking, pretentiousness and sensuality is inevitable from the start.
Though The Burnt Orange Heresy is not the knockout that its initial setup teases that it could be, the very appealing Bang and Debicki seem to be having a good time, and Mick is always a welcome sight, his reptilian art dealer setting out to prove that you can always get what you want.
Art is also at the heart of the noir-ish 1944 drama Address Unknown, directed by William Cameron Menzies, who remains best known for his work as a production designer (a job title he reportedly invented!) on such silent classics as Robin Hood (1922) and The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and, later, on 1939’s venerable Gone with the Wind, for which he was the director of the “Burning of Atlanta” sequence.
Adapted from the 1938 short epistolary novel Address Unknown, it concerns two German expatriate friends in early Thirties San Francisco, the Jewish Max (Morris Carnovsky) and the gentile Martin (Paul Lukas). When Martin and his wife return to Germany to find artwork, they get caught up in the country’s rise of Nazism, leading to Martin’s joining the party. Antisemitism and a blind belief in Nazi doctrines prompts the unraveling of Max and Martin’s friendship, while also endangering Max’s daughter, who has traveled to Vienna to pursue an acting career that, in a twist of fate, places her in Berlin.
Clocking in at a lean 72 minutes (the novel is only 68 pages), Menzies lets loose his design chops in Address Unknown with hard-angled settings, intimidating backdrops and stony architecture, all underscoring the uncompromising scenario unfolding in Germany. The great cinematographer Rudolph Maté tightens the vise with his shadowy, angular compositions, noir’s defining visual motif adding a deceitful unease to the proceedings that ultimately leads to one character’s downfall, signaled by a returned letter that’s marked, of course, “address unknown.”
In a defining sign of its time, the original novel was deemed “too strong to appear under the name of a woman,” so author Katherine Kressmann Taylor (Kressmann was her maiden name) dropped her first name and Address Unknown was published under the name Kressmann Taylor.
The reasoning for the name was ridiculous, yes, but the work on which it appeared certainly delivered—initially banned in German, Address Unknown was subsequently translated into 20 languages over the years, with a 50th Anniversary French reissue alone selling some 600,000 copies. Ooh la la.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.