Show and tell

Seventh Seal

Even if there are no movies worth seeing nearby — The Hurt Locker isn’t in my area yet, and while Bruno sounds like nasty fun, it also sounds like the reason God invented Netflix — there are always movies worth talking about. In the past couple of days I’ve come across some excellent blog posts about movies that repay continued attention.

The Seventh Seal, the 1957 film that made Ingmar Bergman the god of the art house — and, in fact, probably did more than any other movie to establish the very idea of the art house as a commercial alternative — has a forbidding reputation for obscurity and difficulty. (One of my old English profs refused even to say Bergman’s name — he was simply “that fucking DeathSwede.”) Max von Sydow became the international embodiment of High Seriousness for his portrayal of Antonius Block, the Crusade knight whose chess game with Death buys enough time for a family of actors to get clear of an outbreak of the plague. That chess game, along with the concluding image of the dance of death (up top), provided ammo for an entire generation of parodists. But as Andrew O’Hehir notes, The Seventh Seal doesn’t really deserve its thorny halo: the film is light on its feet, moves surprisingly quickly, and is shot through with flashes of sometimes bracingly crude humor. Bengt Ekerot’s portrayal of Death (above) as a bored bureaucrat, happy to be distracted from his endless rounds, gave the medieval image of the Grim Reaper a modern, black-humored overtone that has influenced scores of subsequent stories and films. For anyone unfamiliar with Bergman’s work, The Seventh Seal and Smiles of a Summer Night offer a great introduction.

* * * * *

After decades of unheralded work behind the Iron Curtain, the Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski began to acquire an international reputation in the late Eighties and early Nineties. The Decalogue, a series of ten hour-long television films organized around the Ten Commandments, drew acclaim on the festival circuit, and the 1991 release of The Double Life of Veronique made him an art house celebrity. Shortly before his untimely death in 1996, Kieslowski finished a trilogy of films he called Three Colors, with each color drawn from the French flag and the ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood.

Characteristically, Kieslowski’s storylines touched on their themes in oblique, ironic ways. The first film, Three Colors: Blue, opens with a car crash that kills a woman’s husband and child — her “liberty” is the unwanted freedom from family ties. Wracked with grief, she suppresses memories of Colors Blueher previous life and withdraws from the world. Yet the world, and life, continue to intrude on her, and as this detailed analysis from Mystery Man on Film shows, Kieslowski shows it happening through a brilliant combination of images and music. Blue is an example of almost purely visual storytelling. It also has one of my favorite “Kieslowski moments,” in which the widow, sitting in a cafe, starts to dunk a sugar cube in her coffee just as a street musician starts playing a tune. The melody is almost identical to one of her dead husband’s compositions, and as she realizes this, the white sugar cube touches the surface of the coffee and flushes with dark color.

All three films are available separately, but you might want to take the plunge and buy the complete Three Colors DVD set, which has a ton of very useful additional features. Ditto the complete edition of The Decalogue, which also has an appreciation of Kieslowski’s work from Roger Ebert.

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