Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Ten Art House Films That Aren't Boring

By Ryan Clark

The stereotypical art house film has little or no plot.  More often than not it's a foreign film, and what little dialogue there is comes subtitled to frustrate the masses.  Most Americans couldn't be bothered with these films, which is why they typically do not play in multiplexes – hence the need for an art house.  I wish to dispel the conception that art house films are boring.  A few of these are not usually thought of as art house films, but for me, any film that stands outside the margins of the mainstream, and alienates even the niche audience, is an art film.  Also note that #5-1 are not foreign language films, but they might as well be.


10.  FAT GIRL (2001, DIR. CATHERINE BREILLAT)
It is imperative that you see this terrifying French drama without reading anything whatsoever about it.  I mean NOTHING.  So that's what I'm going to say.


9.  DAY FOR NIGHT (1973, DIR. FRANÇOIS TRUFFAUT)
Quite simply one of the greatest films about filmmaking ever made, Day for Night conveys all of the joy and heartache of the process.  Truffaut himself plays the director of the movie in the movie, and it's perfect casting.   Valentina Cortese is brilliant and hilarious in her Oscar-nominated performance as the alcoholic, veteran actress who can't hit her mark.


8. JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES (1975, DIR. CHANTAL AKERMAN)
"Whaaaaat?!" you exclaim.  "A three and a half hour movie about a housewife's daily routine, the highlights of which are preparing veal cutlets and making coffee, is not boring?!"  Hear me out.  On the surface, such a film could be perceived as mind-numbingly dull.  If you are not open to the pace of this particular film, you are never going to see its virtues.  But, for those of us who are, a strange thing happens while watching Jeanne Dielman.  We become familiar with Jeanne's habits and we notice when things are out of order – signaling her mental breakdown as she prostitutes herself while her son is at school – and the film becomes a microscopic story as fascinating as any other.


7.  MARTHA (1974, DIR. RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER)
Perhaps the closest Fassbinder ever came to making a horror film, Martha relates the story of a thirty year-old virgin (the always amazing Margit Carstensen) whose happiness unconsciously depends on being controlled by a man.  After her domineering father dies unexpectedly, Martha marries Helmut, an engineer played by Karlheinz Böhm (whom most of you will remember from Peeping Tom).  She becomes paranoid due to his sadistic treatment of her, which grows more and more twisted as the film goes on, and eventually she believes that he is trying to kill her.  This is pretty heavy stuff for a TV movie, but one should expect no less from Fassbinder.


6.  MADEMOISELLE (1966, DIR. TONY RICHARDSON)
Based on a Jean Genet story, Mademoiselle is about a well-respected French schoolteacher (Jeanne Moreau in a quietly chilling performance) who, for no apparent reason, wreaks havoc on her village by causing fires and floods, and killing animals, on a regular basis.  She falls in love with an Italian woodcutter who is suspected of the crimes because of the town's prejudice against outsiders, but his young son Bruno, a student in her class, knows the truth.  Several depictions of animal violence make this a very disturbing film, in particular a gruesome scene in which Bruno kills a rabbit out of anger by repeatedly bashing it against a woodpile.  If you are able to look past these moments, you will find an extremely beautiful, erotic, and obsessive work that is maddeningly oblique, yet says a great deal about mental illness and love.  The film contains one of the most arousing sequences I have ever seen, wherein lustful Mademoiselle spies on the woodcutter taking a nap in the woods.  Close-up shots of his sweaty underarms, stomach, and face as he snores, and Moreau hungrily licking her lips, suggest much more than a sex scene ever would.


5.  INTERIORS (1978, DIR. WOODY ALLEN)
Woody Allen's first drama is also his first film in which he does not appear.  Geraldine Page is the suicidal, neurotic mother of three neurotic women played by Diane Keaton, Mary Beth Hurt, and Kristin Griffith.  Creepshow's E.G. Marshall is their father, who leaves the family and remarries to the vibrant Maureen Stapleton.  Much drama ensues.  Interiors was nominated for five Oscars – Best Actress for Page, Best Supporting Actress for Stapleton, Best Art Direction, Best Director, and Best Writing – and yet it remains an overlooked, under-appreciated film in Woody's oeuvre.  Perhaps he tries too hard to emulate his hero, Ingmar Bergman, but his dramatic works have always been my favorite.


4.  THE HONEYMOON KILLERS (1970, DIR. LEONARD KASTLE)
Shirley Stoler is a force to be reckoned with in Leonard Kastle's one-off masterpiece.  She plays Martha Beck of the real life murder couple, the "Lonely Hearts Killers", and it's one of the greatest performances committed to film.  What a range!  One minute she is tender and beautiful, the next she is cold and cruel.  I must also praise Mary Jane Higby for her excellent portrayal of Janet Fay.  Her murder scene, while not gory, is one of the most disturbing things I have ever witnessed.  Someone once said watching this movie is like looking through a keyhole, and it's so true.  You feel rotten for watching such horrendous acts being committed, but everything about this film is so clever, and even humorous, that you can't look away.


3.  THE TENANT (1976, DIR. ROMAN POLANSKI)
Yes, that's Roman Polanski in drag.  He directs and stars in this nearly word-for-word adaptation of Roland Topor's novel.  It doesn't really make a lot of sense, but it sure is creepy.  Polanski is a young bachelor who moves into an apartment in France.  The previous tenant attempted suicide by throwing herself out the window.  He becomes obsessed with her and progressively more paranoid because the other tenants seem to be plotting against him.  This film ranks right up there with Rosemary's Baby and Repulsion.


2.  A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974, DIR. JOHN CASSAVETES)
Everyone thinks Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands) is crazy, except her husband, Peter Falk.  "Mabel's not crazy, she's unusual," he insists.  I believe him, even though witnessing her mental breakdown is like watching an exorcism.  John Cassavetes had such a loose, realistic directorial style that he fooled everybody into thinking his films were improvised when they were actually tightly scripted.  A Woman Under the Influence is without a doubt his greatest work (though Gloria is my personal favorite), and it is one of the most moving, harrowing, and draining movie experiences of my life.


1.  3 WOMEN (1977, DIR. ROBERT ALTMAN)
The enigmatic tagline for this film was "One woman became two.  Two women became three.  Three women became one."  You have to allow this film to overtake you.  You can't think about it too clearly, because the basic idea was derived from a dream and it was shot without a finished script.  When you know that, the depth of this film is very surprising.  Shelley Duvall as the superficial Millie Lammoreaux is such a true character – she's the kind of girl that exists everywhere and the kind of person you hope you aren't.  I don't watch this film that often because I'm afraid it will lose its mysterious aura.

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