Friday, January 13, 2012

Withnail, and with Umbrellas

Two unexpected movie experiences on a Friday night. The first was the British black comedy, Withnail and I. Directed by Bruce Robinson, who was recently recruited presumably out of retirement to film Johnny Depp’s The Rum Diary (2011) about the early life of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. You can see why. Withnail and I, I discovered, is a cult classic. And just like The Rum Diary portrays a down and out journalist at a down and soon-to-be-dead newspaper in Puerto Rico, so Withnail and I is about two losers who share a flat in 1969’s London Camden district. There’s also a connection between the movies in that cartoonist Ralph Steadman illustrated Hunt S. Thompson’s later articles for Rolling Stone magazine, and he designed the poster and opening credits for this film.....But to tell the truth it took awhile for this movie to get going and I was almost about to eject it. The film opens in a slummy, filthy flat shared by a couple of seemingly brain dead longhairs who have nothing going for them except alcohol consumption and in the case of Withnail (Richard E. Grant) lighter fluid. But slowly the picture gathers steam, when our heroes – who turn out to be two unemployed actors – get in to their beat up Jaguar and visit Uncle Mounty (Richard Griffiths). Mounty (love the name) is a flaming gay who allows the boys to use his Lake District stone cottage for a country getaway. Problem is, our lads are about as incompetent living in the country as they are the city. They have no food, not even any firewood to heat the damp house, and they run into a cast of bizarre characters most of whom are hardly friendly. When Uncle Mounty makes a surprise visit, it’s hardly what the boys expected, and Marwood (Paul McGann) fears Mounty’s ardour.....This film turned out to be an extraordinary hoot. No wonder it’s part of the Criterion Collection catalogue.

After Withnail and I, I channel surfaced until I hit upon TFO, the Ontario French public television network, where I saw actors in a mid-1960s film doing nothing but singing. How amazing, I thought, and just had to put down the remote and watch the thing through to the end.....And then it occurred to me, yes, this is that very famous film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, directed by Jacques Demy and starring a very young Catherine Deneuve. This movie, made in 1964, is widely regarded as a masterpiece. And it’s easy to see why. Unlike other musicals where there is spoken dialogue along with singing, every single word in this picture is sung, no matter how inconsequential. Even when Deneuve’s (Geneviève’s) lover Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) has an argument with his boss at the local gas station, their rising tempers are sung.....Many years ago I bought the CD soundtrack to this movie because it features an exquisite jazz score by Michel Legrand. And one of the most famous romantic songs of all time is the main theme, I Will Wait for You. Yes, the movie is about love and loss, set in the late 1950s when France was at war in Algeria. Absolutely hard to imagine a movie like that being made nowadays. But maybe I shouldn’t speak too soon. After all, look what director Michel Hazanavicius has done with recreating the silent era in a movie like The Artist.

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