Ten important Arthouse Features
This is a red rag to a number of different bulls. Lovers of what are called arthouse movies resent the label for being derisive and philistine. And those who detest it bristle at the implication that there is no artistry or intelligence in mainstream entertainment. For many, the stereotypical arthouse film is Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal. Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin was a classic art film from the 1920s and Luis Buñuel investigated cinema's potential for surreality like no one before or since. The Italian neorealists applied the severity of art to a representation of society and the French New Wave iconoclastically brought a self-deconstructing critical awareness to film-making. Yasujiro Ozu conveyed a transcendental simplicity in his work. Andrei Tarkovsky and Michelangelo Antonioni achieved a meditative beauty, while David Lynch and John Cassavetes demonstrated an American reflex to the genre. Arthouse cinema is dismissed as the connoisseur's elite fetish; others find it, in the dumbed-down cinema jungle, to be an endangered species. 10. The Gospel According to Saint Matthew 'Austere and realistic': Enrique Irazoqui in The Gospel According to St Matthew. Photograph: Ronald Grant ArchiveA gay, Marxist Catholic: not the most likely candidate, you'd have thought, to make arguably the greatest of all religious films – and one of the very few based on the New Testament that doesn't lapse into hectoring, literal piety. Pasolini had already roused the wrath of the religious establishment with La Ricotta, a 35-minute comedy on the making of a biblical film; he actually received a four-month jail sentence as a result. But the Gospel According to St Matthew is altogether different: serious, spiritual and utterly clear-eyed about getting to the heart of the Christian gospel. And though Pasolini remained a non-believer, his film was dedicated to "the dear, happy, familiar memory of Pope John XXIII". Advertisement This was Pasolini's third full-length feature, and with it he began his experiments with anthropology that would mark much of his future output. An hour-long documentary, Location Hunting in Palestine, showed him looking for places to shoot his film; intriguingly, he rejected modern Israel and neighbouring Arab areas for having lost the ancient biblical spirit. He ended up doing what you suspect he wanted to do all along: filming in the rundown southern Italian city of Matera. Pasolini's Gospel is a long way away from the stolid interpretations we've become accustomed to from the Cecil B DeMille school. Everything is simplicity itself: the primitive backdrop, the sparsely sketched-in scenes, the minimal dialogue (practically all lifted from the biblical text itself). Pasolini's aim was to extract the ancient essence from the Jesus story; he does this not by exact recreation, but by inspecting faces, evoking Renaissance and medieval iconography, and mixing Bach, Mozart, spirituals and African masses on the soundtrack. If ever a film told a beautiful, brutal truth, this is it. Andrew Pulver 9. The White Ribbon Scene from Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon (2009). Photograph: PRAdvertisement What is it about Michael Haneke's 2009 Palme d'Or winner that makes it so immaculately disquieting? It's not just the plot: a series of crimes – some ascribable, most anonymous – rumple the surface of a small town in northern Germany on the eve of the first world war. A disciplinarian doctor tries and fails to instil a sense of responsibility and culpability into his children. A woman is left by her lover, then subjected to a torrent of abuse that makes Max von Sydow's dismissal of his girlfriend in Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light (a film whose warm monochrone this movie echoes) look compassionate in comparison. It's clearly – and this is, by and large, a strikingly foggy film – a fascist parable, an attempt at explaining the psychology of the people who came to power some 30 years later. It's also a mystery without resolution, a whodunnit with a hole at the centre – which is why it's one of those films more satisfying on second view, when you're primed for the withheld resolution. But all this is standard-issue for Haneke – not a huge leap on from Hidden or Funny Games. What makes The White Ribbon the finer – and the more sinister – film are the flickers of warmth and humour. The doctor's young son, traumatised by the death of his pet caged bird, and, most of all, the unimpeachably sweet romance between our schoolmaster narrator and a fresh-faced servant girl. The scene in which they go for a picnic and she tearfully requests that they don't go to a spot too remote, is unforgettable, less for the undertone of previous horrors, than the fiance's baffled acquiescence. When all around you have a heart of coal, kindness can be the more upsetting. Haneke's films always feel, once the credits have rolled, untoppable. This one surely is. Catherine Shoard 8. Fanny and Alexander Fanny and Alexander: Xan Brooks's dream Christmas viewing. Photograph: Ronald Grant ArchiveAdvertisement Ingmar Bergman's self-styled farewell to cinema is an opulent family saga, by turns bawdy, stark and strange. For novices who are put off by the director's reputation as a dour, difficult doom master, the film provides a good introduction. But it may also count as the ideal final destination: the picture in which Bergman took hold of his demons and forged a kind of truce. The plot, in a nutshell, goes like this: two wealthy siblings, Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and Alexander (Bertil Guve), grow up in the bosom of a lovingly dysfunctional home. Following their father's death, their mother marries the bishop (a superb performance from Jan Malmsjö) and an Oedipal struggle breaks out between Alexander and his icy new stepfather. Matters are resolved in a devastating final section inside an old curiosity shop in which Alexander is shown "the swift way that evil thoughts can go". Along the way we run across an androgynous madman, a bloated, bedridden aunt and a lecherous uncle who lights his own farts. Few films boast as many indelible supporting characters as Fanny and Alexander. Bergman diehards usually cite this as the director's most user-friendly film, as though that's somehow a bad thing. True, it contains more in the way of light and warmth than some of his more nakedly anguished masterworks. But light does not necessarily mean lite, and certain sections are as harrowing and profound as anything you find in Cries and Whispers or Through a Glass Darkly. In fact, by the time this film pitches towards that astonishing climax (bedsheets burning; magic working) one might even make a case for Fanny and Alexander as Bergman's most mature, clear-sighted and fully realised work. It strikes me that the director spent the bulk of his career tackling the notion of a world without God (how liberating this is; how terrifying, too), only to arrive at the conclusion that we are all God, and that man makes God in his own image, for better or worse. Significantly, the God who crops up in these final moments is represented by a cheap dummy, jiggled into life by an untrustworthy puppet-master. He is also embodied by an overimaginative child, still smarting from his father's death and sending malign thoughts out into the ether. And then he is, by implication, the director himself; a man who spent a lifetime conjuring entire worlds on a black-and-white screen and yet who never managed one as beguiling, as terrible and true as the one we see here. Xan Brooks 7. Days of Heaven Richard Gere (centre) in Terrence Malick's film Days of Heaven from 1978. Photograph: The Kobal Collection/www.kobal-collection.comAdvertisement Art for art's sake, and proud of it, Days of Heaven has no reason to exist beyond the fact that Terence Malick was determined to make it exist and, as with all Malick's movies, it finally came to exist entirely on his own terms. Using a story as wispy as a fable, Malick constructed one of the most mesmerisingly beautiful evocations of the past ever laid on celluloid. Set between 1916 and 1918, it follows three urban fugitives (Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Malick's wonderful discovery Linda Manz) as they flee smoky Chicago for the Texas panhandle and seasonal jobs as wheat harvesters. Days of Heaven takes time to linger on every exquisite image conjured up by Malick and his cinematographer, Néstor Almendros. A train loaded with harvest migrants sailing, it seems, over a high viaduct bridge; a locust storm that turns into a wheat-field inferno; the many harvest scenes shot at "the magic hour" after the sun has gone down and its last horizontal rays remain. Malick was determined to emulate the silent movies of the film's own historic setting, and therefore used many of the same methods, ordering his crew to turn off the lighting set-ups and allowing Almendros (and his replacement, Haskell Wexler) to use film stock that greedily drank up the meagre light available in the most gorgeously grainy ways. The interiors are not studio-shot, but take place inside the building whose exteriors one sees in the movie. Against such beauty the humans inevitably seem like small figures dwarfed by malign fate. But the performances are vividly real and Manz's narration is one of the universal benchmarks of the movie voiceover. John Patterson 6. A Clockwork Orange Stephen Woolley's first X-rated film … A Clockwork Orange. Photograph: Ronald Grant ArchiveAdvertisement Even though it was made in long-ago 1971, there is still something fetishistically futuristic about A Clockwork Orange. Perhaps that is owed to the exuberant and indelible production design, its characters' peculiar teenage argot ("nadsat") or its electrified, classical score by transsexual composer Walter (later Wendy) Carlos – or perhaps simply because the early 70s were crazier – in hyper-stylised design and fashion – than any period since. Either way, A Clockwork Orange endures, not so much for its philosophical musings on the nature of free will in the face of good and evil, but because it is simply a triumph of style from its opening sequence in the Korova Milk Bar through its cartoony violence and horrible retribution, all the way to its bizarre final shot of Alex (Malcolm McDowell in a role that has dogged him for 40 years) having wild sex before an audience of voyeurs clad in Louis XIV courtier finery as he crows: "I was cured all right!" Kubrick thought of every detail in the costuming (the droogs' white thug outfits, with their crotch-emphatic outer jockstraps and bowler hats, not to mention Alex's false eyelashes), furniture, decor and art (the giant plaster penis that Alex uses as a murder weapon) – giving them as much attention as he had to the dashboards of his bomber in Dr Strangelove, the spaceships in 2001, or the painterly compositions in Barry Lyndon. Within the universe he created, he let loose a cast of characters closer to grotesque gargoyle status than anything in the rest of Kubrick's body of work, and it is here that Kubrick first deploys his tactic of starting close-up on a face and pulling back drastically to show its environs (by the time of The Shining, most of his camera movements tracked maniacally forwards, not sombrely backwards). These days we have cause to wonder what all the fuss over the violence in the movie was about. It seems so tame now (and probably did even then, alongside, say, Straw Dogs). Evidently the copycat aspect of the audience response – certain violent crimes were rumoured to have been inspired by the film – was real enough for Kubrick, who made the movie unavailable in his adopted homeland for the rest of his life. More's the pity, because it's a crucial British film of its period, and a key to our larger understanding of Kubrick himself. JP 5. Citizen Kane Advertisement So many things about Citizen Kane were outrageous at the time: that this arrogant kid, Orson Welles, in his early 20s, had a deal to do what he liked; that he chose to make a thinly disguised lampoon of one of the most powerful men in the country, William Randolph Hearst; that it was a film ultimately about his own flawed glory ("There, but for the grace of God, goes God," people said); that he made the picture look and sound richer, denser and more beautiful than anyone had dared before; that he took the attitude, "Don't expect to understand this on one viewing"; that he cared more about being outrageous than he did about the money. If only a few of those ideas gained ground, Hollywood was in trouble. The secret might get out that film could be art! This astonishing, un-American notion took time to get established. The Hearst media did all they could to block the film. Citizen Kane was a hard film for audiences raised on the slick narrative arc of Hollywood pictures to understand, with its scheme of flashbacks. And Welles would prove not only self-destructive, but also his own worst enemy – why let anyone else fill that vital job? Yet it worked in the end. Ordinary film-makers knew that the work with lenses, darkness, sound and structure was unique. The film was full of wonderful new actors. The French critics seized upon it. By the late 50s, Citizen Kane was proverbial: it was cinema itself, a tribute to directors, as well as the power and opportunity of cinema. It breathed the unAmerican gospel: see what one man can do, see how films can be owned and authored not by the factory, but by brilliant minds bent on self-expression. And so a new orthodoxy set in, whereby Kane became the best film ever made, a position it has held for 60 years. That greatness now hangs over the history and the future of the medium. Still, if you have never seen it, prepare for one of the great experiences in your life and notice this – Kane has lasted not for innovation alone, but because it is so emotional and tragic. It's a great man asking himself whether anything matters. In Kane and Welles alike, there was the same rueful mixture of genius and lack of self-belief. David Thomson 4. Tokyo Story "Now I have only to look at the opening credits of Tokyo Story and I’m welling up" … Anne BillsonAdvertisement It's dangerous to start watching Japanese cinema, because the world is so extensive and dazzling you may quickly develop a taste for nothing but Japanese films. Is there a romance more mysterious than Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari? Is there action to surpass Kurosawa's Seven Samurai? And, in terms of family drama, has any film been more moving than Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story? Time and again, Ozu has made films about family, and the shifting structure we refer to as "time and again". Family is less a fixed entity than a kind of weather system that keeps coming back. So children need parents, and need to outlive them. But while the weather will go on, and your children will become parents, so your life will close, and you will not be there to see the way your own children look back as if to say they understand you, too late. Is this tragedy or comedy? Ozu is never quite sure. He seems to wonder whether any progression can amount to tragedy, or whether it is not simply as inevitable as passing time and changing light. This may not sound "entertaining" or active or even interesting, which only means the viewer needs to undergo the gentle process of being helped to see through Ozu's withdrawn but compassionate style. So he watches from the corner of a room at a low level (for Japanese domestic life is often conducted from a sitting position) and he declines to rush in with forgiving, approving, loving close-ups – because he believes people are beyond forgiveness or individual glamour. Family is a group in which everyone has his or her reason. In Tokyo Story, Shukishi and Tomi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) visit their grown children, full of hope and the wish to be recognised, but they find the children too busy, too preoccupied. This is not depicted as bad behaviour, or a sign of cultural breakdown; it is the way of the world. The acting is intimate, humane and reserved yet there are no stars, let alone heroes or heroines. There are no "happy endings" in the terms western culture requires. Instead, the riddle of happiness or its opposite runs through "time and again" like light on moving water. Does it sound dull, or too simple? Be warned – it can make other films seem unbearably crass. DT 3. L'Atalante L'Atalante Photograph: BFIAdvertisement At the age of 29, Jean Vigo died from rheumatic septicaemia, just a few days after the opening of his only feature film, L'Atalante. Those bare facts are a landmark not just in French cinema, but in the larger history of artistic film-making, and of the absolute commitment of film-makers. Moreover, the poetic lyricism of L'Atalante, far from dating, has been more appreciated over the years. L'Atalante is 75 years old, yet its beauty and its harshness are still hauntingly alive. Three men work a barge (it is named L'Atalante) on the waterways of northern France: Jean, the skipper is young and hopeful (Jean Dasté); le père Jules, a tattooed veteran of the world's oceans (Michel Simon) and a cabin boy. They stop at a small town. Jean meets a girl, Juliette (Dita Parlo), and they are married, while hardly knowing each other. So the barge moves on. It is not an easy transition for the married couple. In Paris they go ashore and the wife flirts with another man. There is a fight and she runs away, then the husband goes in search of her. Marriage is the film's subject and it is most moving in its cinematic grasp of a deeper bond than that permitted by the lovers' temporary misalliance. The simplicity of the story resembles silent cinema, but these people talk. The film is enhanced by one of the cinema's first great musical scores (by Maurice Jaubert), and Vigo's inspired compositions and images in which the spirit of romanticism seems threatened by the very light that reveals it. But it's Boris Kaufman's cinematography that is most impressive – it serves as an example of the way realism can be infected by the characteristics of poetry and dream. Not the least legacy left by Vigo – to Truffaut and Godard, for instance – was the essential artistic value of black-and-white photography and its curious but easily forgotten establishment of a new way of seeing. DT 2. Mulholland Drive Mulholland Dr Photograph: Ronald Grant ArchiveAdvertisement Not many films have managed to have their cake and eat it quite like Mulholland Drive (technically it's "Dr." not "Drive", which is important). It is a movie about the worst of Hollywood and the best; the dark, brutal undercurrents and the sparkly celebrity froth, the dream and the reality. But it's the way it twists the two into some unfathomable Moebius strip that makes Mulholland Drive such a work of art. The film's greatest feat is to give us all the thrills of a classic Hollywood movie within an avant-garde framework – and to get away with it. First-time viewers unfamiliar with Lynch's ways will be taken in by the initial set-up: an amnesiac car-crash victim (Laura Harring) staggers into the house of an aspiring actress recently arrived in town (Naomi Watts), but three-quarters of the way through, having been drawn into a glossy noir fantasy, the rug is pulled out from under us completely. The same actors now appear to be completely different characters. The glamour has all evaporated. The relationships have all changed. Nothing's nice and sunny any more. Who's dreaming who? What goes where? What does it all mean? Piecing Mulholland Drive together is half the film's appeal – and there's still no guarantee it all makes sense. Lynch even issued a set of clues shortly after the release to guide people through the mystery – "notice appearances of the red lampshade" – which only made the story more cryptic. But even after we think we've deciphered it, the film somehow loses none of its power. That sense of being taken in, only to realise we understood nothing, gives us some emotional connection to Watts's character. And even as he's tying our brains in knots, Lynch is showing us behind the curtain in Mulholland Drive – showing us this is all really just his dream. But the illusions remain intact even after they've been dismantled. Lynch can still create charged scenes out of nothing but a few skilled actors and our own subconscious. He knows how to push our buttons, and he shows us that he knows how to push our buttons. And we love it. Steve Rose 1. Andrei Rublev Andrei Rublev Photograph: Ronald Grant ArchiveAdvertisement Viewers and critics always have their personal favourites, but some films achieve a masterpiece status that becomes unanimously agreed upon – something that's undoubtedly true of Andrei Rublev, even though it's a film that people often feel they don't, or won't, get. It is 205 minutes long (in its fullest version), in Russian, and in black and white. Few characters are clearly identified, little actually happens, and what does happen isn't necessarily in chronological order. Its subject is a 15th-century icon painter and national hero, yet we never see him paint, nor does he do anything heroic. In many of the film's episodes, he is not present at all, and in the latter stages, he takes a vow of silence. But in a sense, there is nothing to "get" about Andrei Rublev. It is not a film that needs to be processed or even understood, only experienced and wondered at. From the first scene, following the flight of a rudimentary hot air balloon, we're whisked away by silken camera moves and stark compositions to a time and place where we're no less confused, amazed or terrified than Rublev himself. For the next three hours, we're down in the muck and chaos of medieval Russia, carried along on the tide of history through gruesome Tartar raids, bizarre pagan rituals, famine, torture and physical hardship. We experience life on every scale, from raindrops falling on a river to armies ransacking a town, often within the same, unbroken shot. With Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky was consciously crafting a language that owed nothing to literature, and it's a pity so few others followed him. In today's cinema, we're still served up linear, cause-and-effect biographies of artists as if, by doing so, we'll understand the person and be able to make sense of their art. Andrei Rublev operates according to a different understanding of time and history. It asks questions about the relationship between the artist, their society and their spiritual beliefs and doesn't seek to answer them. "In cinema it is necessary not to explain, but to act upon the viewer's feelings, and the emotion which is awoken is what provokes thought," wrote Tarkovsky in 1962. Despite its apparent formlessness, Andrei Rublev is precisely structured and entirely aesthetically coherent. Acts of creation are mirrored by acts of destruction, there are themes of flight, of vision, of presence and absence; the more you look, the more you see. And then there are the horses, Tarkovsky's perennial favourite: horses rolling over, horses charging into battle, swimming in the river, falling down stairs, dragging men out of churches. At times the screen resembles a vast Brueghel painting come to life, or a medieval tapestry unrolling. We're always conscious of life spilling out beyond the frame, and never conscious of the fact that this was made in 60s USSR. In Tarkovsky's own turbulent time, the film lit all manner of controversy. Its Christian spiritualism offended the Soviet authorities; its depiction of Russia's savage history upset nationalists like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and its challenging form led to various cuts. After opening in Moscow in 1966, it was suppressed until the 1969 Cannes film festival, and didn't reach Britain till 1973. Advertisement We don't necessarily know, or need to know, how Andrei Rublev works or what it's telling us, but by the end we're in no doubt it's succeeded. When in the final minutes, the film pulls off its most famous flourish: the screen bursts into colour and we're finally ready to see Rublev's paintings in extreme close-up – coming at the end of this epic journey, they can reduce a viewer to tears. As the camera pores over the details, the tiny jewels on the hem of a robe, the lines forming a pitiful expression on the face of an angel, the tarnished gilding of a halo, we feel like we understand everything that's gone into every brushstroke. We're reminded of what beauty is. It is as close to transcendence as cinema gets.