Louis Malle is rarely associated with the Nouvelle Vague; in fact, his stature as one of the great filmmakers is possibly ignored because of the auteur leanings of that French filmmaking movement. Ironically, his first narrative feature film, Elevator to the Gallows aka Lift to the Scaffold, demonstrates many of that movement’s trademarks – using actual Paris locations, repurposing a classic Hollywood genre (in this case film noir), toying with traditional editing and narrative techniques, and employing a revolutionary musical score, in this case inspiring Miles Davis to riff live to the pictures on screen to create one of the great movie soundtracks.
Apart from the score, Elevator to the Gallows is possibly best remembered for introducing actress Jeanne Moreau to international audiences. And she is the reason that this fine movie is receiving a rare opportunity to be seen on the big screen as part of Alliance Francais’ Classic Film Festival, which is reviving a handful of her movies as a celebration of this iconic figure of cinema. (Even though the festival will also travel to Perth in October, unfortunately this particular film will not screen there.)
In Elevator she plays a woman who has Julian (Maurice Ronet) murder her husband, wealthy arms industrialist Simon (Jean Wall). When everything goes pear-shaped, she scours the city looking for her lover, whilst a young delinquent couple go joy-riding in his car, which leads to tragedy. This simple, suspenseful narrative contains plenty of subtext too; commenting on France’s post-war relationship with Germany, and the lucrative arms industry benefitting from wars in Indochina and Algeria, and the innocents stuck in the day-to-day middle of it all. But these touchpoints are never laboured, as Malle was most interested in telling a great story, told in an invigorating cinematic style, filled with robust characters and relationships.
Jeanne Moreau is complex in this film, she is neither heroine nor femme fatale. We do not get much of a backstory to her character’s motivations, but are engrossed in her journey nonetheless. It’s a tribute to her screen magnetism and an acting style that transcends 1958 – compare her performance to some of the other cast and you can see why she is regarded as one of the great actors of all time.
Louis Malle is today best remembered for his work in the US such as Pretty Baby and Atlantic City, and the autobiographical Au Revoir les Enfants which he made late in his too-short life. Elevator to the Gallows shows a filmmaker tapped into the cultural zeitgeist of the time, excited about the possibilities of cinema, and it’s a treasure to find it on the big screen again.
“A geisha never lies. Sweet-talk is our trade. We just agree with everything. Didn’t you know that?”
Just as she’s inquiring about a position at The House of Miyoharu, a teenaged woman named Eiko (Ayako Wakao) overhears these statements uttered by an esteemed geisha named Miyoharu (legendary actor Michiyo Kogure) right as she is rejecting one of her formerly regular – now deadbeat – suitors. Eiko is hoping to follow in the footsteps of her mother who has recently passed away, and is now seeking an apprenticeship (“maiko”) with Miyoharu in order to extract herself from a difficult situation with her lascivious uncle.
“To become as good as your mother requires work,” she is warned by the older woman. We then see Eiko undergo rigorous training in tea ceremony, dance and musicianship as well as industriously completing menial daily tasks such as laundry, mending and cleaning.
After a full year of training, she proves bright and industrious and therefore worthy of presentation to society – an expensive prospect for her mentor, who banks on it ultimately paying off in dividends (her cut). Thereafter, our heroine’s fortunes depend on whether or not she can land a regular client. Without financial backing – for all the expensive accoutrements, including a good kimono – her prospects are limited. But without a good kimono, she won’t gain good contracts.
For the official presentation (to society and prospective clients), the teahouse proprietor Okimi (Chieko Naniwa) advances Y300,000, Y200,000 of which buys Eiko’s first kimono. During the fitting, the tailor warns Eiko that no matter how hard she works, she’ll never pay back even a third of its price. It’s the typically Japanese way of masking (or cautioning against) pride with pessimism, yet we expect her to exceed expectations. Little does she realise the obligations of the loan…
It’s at this stage that Eiko adopts her professional name Miyoei. It’s only after she’s advanced to geisha status that our sweet but independently-minded heroine begins to question the injustices of her society as it pertains to her gender as well as her profession. Eiko openly challenges the dearth of their constitutional rights even as the geisha’s role is becoming degraded and devalued in postwar Japan.
Born in 1898, celebrated director Kenji Mizoguchi began his film career in the silent era and became known for his women’s films in the 1930s. A common theme in his films is a sympathy for the exploited and marginalised members of society, whether they be women, traveling artists, feudal servants or slaves. Additionally, the 1950s was a golden age for Japanese cinema, thanks to the relaxation of WW2-related animosity towards Japan paired with the impact that Japanese films, especially those of Akira Kurosawa, enjoyed on the international world stage. The codes of this mysterious culture must have seemed so exotic to Western audiences.
Along with Mt Fuji, geisha historically have been considered premier symbols of Japan’s beauty; living works of art. Mizoguchi’s perceptive film scrupulously charts the politics and nuances not only of this celebrated profession, but of contemporary (meaning 1950s) Japanese society. Most people today understand that a geisha was not always a prostitute. Historically, their profession has been elevated to the revered artistic status of highly skilled entertainer.
For the film, Matsutarō Kawaguchi adapted his novel in collaboration with esteemed screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda. The dialogue is frank and unfussy yet vivid in its depictions of life for women in post-war Kyoto.
But the story’s themes are profound. Kawaguchi and Yoda’s sensitivity to the plight of women in society is shrewdly and compassionately observed, and beautifully complemented by Mizoguchi’s sympathetic storytelling style. The performances from Ayako Wakao and Michiyo Kogure are astonishing for their expressive subtlety. Portraying Eiko, Wakao is exquisitely beautiful even before she transforms into the ultra-stylish fashion plate, adorned with intricate hairstyle, immaculate makeup and elegant kimono. A living artwork indeed! The complicated yet compassionate relationship between the two women is astutely presented.
The doll-like women are gorgeous, but the environment, and the way it is filmed, is realistically plain. It proves a matter-of-fact, practical presentation of a closeted world as viewed through the lens of Japan’s finest DoP Kazuo Miyagawa.
For A Geisha, the filmmaking team crafts a candid portrait infused with forward-thinking feminist themes of defying oppression through loyalty and sisterhood. The resulting film is an unflinching account of the complications endured by geisha in upholding and balancing their dignity, livelihood, and personal rights.
Opening with alarming statistics of the drug cartel violence that has besieged Mexico (160,000 dead and over 50,000 missing), Tigers are not Afraid layers magic realism against a gut-churningly bleak landscape of the orphaned children of the dead, roaming the ruined streets of an unnamed city run by human traffickers and the assorted scum that exist on the periphery of the drug cartel’s battleground.
Young teenager Estrella (Paola Lara) is alone, her mother murdered. Having no family or means of getting food, she meets the wiley Shine (Juan Ramón López), a young boy who leads a small gang of children (in a very deliberate Peter Pan and the Lost Boys reference) that he protects as they evade kidnappers who hunt them, intent on selling them into child-sex rings.
The youngest child in the group, 4-year-old Morro (Nery Arredondo), doesn’t speak because of the horrors he’s witnessed. Estrella becomes something of a ‘Wendy’ to the group, looking after the younger ones, while lamenting the loss of her own mother whom she ‘wishes’ back to life and whose zombie-like visage haunts Estrella, who begins to believe that her wishes are corrupted, always manifesting in dark and unexpected ways.
When Estrella finds local criminal Caco (Ianis Guerrero) dead in his home, she tells the group she did it to gain their trust. This results in the group being targeted by Caco’s associates and the children find themselves running scared.
Throughout the film, there are moments of tenderness and subtle beauty, with flourishes of magical creatures, inanimate objects coming to life as well as communicating with the dead, whose spirits exist amongst the living. The unrelenting bleakness does shift the tone into horror territory on a few occasions though the young cast are all terrifically capable and engaging and its strange and terrible beauty never once compromises or yields to the safety of tropes or cliché.
Much like Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, in setting the fantasy world of these children’s imaginations against such a bitterly brutal reality, something else is created within the juxtaposition. It’s precisely the beauty this film finds in the unrelenting darkness of its subject matter that makes it so transcendent, so beautiful and so moving.