Dark Love (And Not-so Innocent Imitation) In A Gothic English Manor

1972/DIRECTED BY MICHAEL WINNER

STREET DATE: May 7th, 2019/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS

Boundary-pushing director Michael Winner (Death Wish [1974], The Sentinel [1977]) adapts playwright Michael Hastings’ literary source-inspired script for a British 1972 dark period thriller starring actor-auteur Marlon Brando. Based on characters from Henry James’s 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, and using its source material as a point of literal departure, Hastings reimagines the backstory of the ill-fated romance between a prim nanny, Miss Jessel, and the estate’s unkempt gardener, Peter Quint, and explores that backstory’s “corrupting” influence on the children left in their charge, Flora and Miles. Complicating that premise further, director Winner and lead actor Brando, as Quint, largely ignore the lead-in to an established literary property — famously realized on film as 1961’s The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton and starring Deborah Kerr — in favor of transgressive thematic material and a typically charismatic central performance. The Turn of the Screw becomes The Twist of the Rope in a Gothic fairytale romance expressed by the evocative cover graphic of two children in illustrated silhouette, creeping in front of a stately but spooky English manor under the watchful eye of a powerful yet captivating charmer.

Set at the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century, the mainly absent master (Harry Andrews) of a large estate in the English countryside leaves two recently orphaned children, Flora (Verna Harvey) and Miles (Christopher Ellis), under the supervision of housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Thora Hird), who employs the children’s onetime nanny Miss Jessel (Stephanie Beacham) as their governess. A less official but no less important influence on the children’s upbringing comes in the roguish form and Irish brogue of Quint (Brando), who had previously been the children’s late father’s valet but now holds the more ambiguous post of estate “gardener”.

Imparting life-lessons in earthy, physical terms of smoke-exploding toads, cliff-flying kites, and voodoo-fashioned dolls — supplementing Miss Jessel’s more sedate daily lessons in the library — the children receive further instruction from Miss Jessel’s and Peter Quint’s title assignations, which feature bondage and pain along with pleasure and affection. The children’s secret window voyeurism in turn inspires (at least initially) innocent imitation, their growing but not grownup attempts to understand adult love resulting in increasingly dangerous game-playing, which is precisely when Mrs. Grose puts a proper stop to these lurid goings-on with the dark romantic pair’s dismissal. The children having taken Peter Quint’s lesson of love’s eternal presence too much to heart, however, Flora and Miles take irrevocable steps to prevent Peter Quint’s and Miss Jessel’s imminent departure from their lives…

Which, for readers of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is by no means a spoiler as such, but it’s rather the nature of Quint’s and Jessel’s non-departure that may hold the most surprise for even prepared viewers, especially those who may also take a deep, dark, and somewhat twisted pleasure in the expressly Gothic fate of lovers who love not wisely, but too well. Similarly, the children’s possessive love of their idolized and over-idealized parent figures figure heavily into this strange, affecting, yet undeniably perverse scenario, made palatable and even mesmerizing by lush visuals of the English countryside — courtesy of former landscape cinematographer Robert Paynter — and an equally surprising degree of subtlety and directorial restraint from the storied Michael Winner.

The latter’s reminiscences of the film, recorded in 2007 to accompany an earlier DVD release, are also included on Kino Lorber’s May 2019 Blu-ray special edition of The Nightcomers, along with a short video introduction from the late director. Mainly, Winner recalls the pleasure and honor of working with Marlon Brando, spinning at raconteur’s length that always interesting (and never dull) film artist’s involvement with the production, and describes in equal detail Brando’s working technique in creating the character of Peter Quint. The “fun” and “child’s sense of play” that Winner frequently returns to in evoking Brando’s performance, extending to the Method actor’s creative method, certainly carries over to the filmed result, which somehow makes a drunkard lout’s negative influence on a pair of children seem only slightly less harmless — at least on a moment-by-moment and scene-by-scene basis — than if Mary Poppins were to suddenly switch sex (and social class) and reincarnate as a lowborn Irish gypsy. With Miss Jessel, as proper and properly-played Miss Jessel, the sexual dynamic is again certainly more troubling — with its complications of manners, social class, and overt depictions of abuse — but, as Winner recounts in Brando’s on-set romantic dealings with a real-life paramour, “sometimes it depends on how you smile.”

Also included on Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is a new commentary from Kat Ellinger, who deep-dives into the movie’s multi-layered sexual politics, illuminating at compelling lengths the darkened corners of childhood innocence, sadomasochism, and Gothic melodrama. These difficult themes play like shimmering chimera beneath the placid surface surrounding a lakebound island and boathouse — readers of The Turn of the Screw will recall this location’s significance in Peter Quint’s and Miss Jessel’s backstory — that do erupt violently, but not before returning to the haunting yet beautiful calm of its setting. That eerie yet calming quality is admirably served and wonderfully preserved in Kino Lorber’s presentation of a true cinematic oddity: showing The Turn of the Screw may follow The Twist of the Rope, but those creatures soon to come in the night have stories that hold up on their own.

While The Nightcomers may itself illuminate all manner of dark corners, particularly those of sexual transgression, another film which mistakenly but appropriately found its way to my viewing attention deserves further, appropriately “secret” mention, hopefully supplementing a full review found here.

LA PRISONNIÉRE (1968) – Blu-ray Review

A Secret Look At Secret-Looking

1968/DIRECTED BY HENRI-GEORGE CLOUZOT

STREET DATE: May 28th, 2019/KINO CLASSICS

Sharing commentaries between the intrepid Kat Ellinger as well as certain transgressive sexual themes, Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray releases of Michael Winner’s The Nightcomers (1972), from Kino Lorber Studio Classics, and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s La Prisonniére, from Kino Classics, finds an additional level of parallel in the former director’s characterization of his mass audience-intended, narratively and stylistically conventional (relatively speaking) period Gothic thriller as an “art film”. Qualifying this definition, The Nightcomers disc Kino Lorber commentator Kat Ellinger, who, again, also provides a commentary track on La Prisonniére, describes the complicated and complicating levels of sexual and psychosexual relations between the four main characters, making a strong case for the former film’s deeper level of appreciation. And while that Marlon Brando-starring film may illuminate some of those deeper levels, with its clever twists on a well-known story, French director Henri-Georges Clouzot, four years earlier, served to complicate them much further in his 1968 film La Prisonniére.

The director’s last completed film, La Prisonniére rose fom the ashes of an uncompleted film abandoned, for various reasons (and well-documented distasters), four years before that: 1964’s unfinished L’Enfer. Detaling the descent into madness of a jealous husband, L’Enfer was to have dramatized that pychological break stylistically with a barrage of visually arresting optics derived fom the disorienting, kaleidoscopic patterns of modern art. In La Prisonniére’s less stylistically ambitious but more thematically transgressive treatment, the three-cornered romance between modern artist Gilbert (Bernard Fresson), his documentary TV editor girlfriend José (Elisabeth Wiener), and gallery owner of “mass produced art” Stanislaus (Laurent Terzieff) shifts emphasis from “art” as a means of transmitting a disorienting sense-experience towards the psychologically damaging effect of transgressive art.

Gilbert fading from view in the film’s second third, the dramatic bulk of La Prisonniére — translated in English as the somewhat ill-fitting, exploitation-like title of Woman in Chains — details the mutually obsessive affair/artistic collaboration as it coldly and at times cruelly develops between José and Stan, with vaguely pornographic and decidedly voyeuristic photography both the medium and the message of their physically and at times emotionally disturbed relationship. Uncoiling like the couched springs of a cunningly constructed stopwatch, or, indeed, the very gears of a camera stripped-naked (a visually-mixed metaphor I’ll leave careful viewers to unpack), the legendary artistic control of director Henri-Georges Clouzot may reach filmed heights previously unexplored in this, his final film — where scenes of sadism and tenderness, art and banality disconcertingly coexist… but this reviewer may need additional viewings to more fully explicate.

What is apparent on a first (and in my case second viewing), however, is a beautiful transfer from a 4K-restored source that looks crisply detailed, visually ravishing, and others of the most highly commendable superlatives describing the picture quality of Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release. The climactic centerpiece of the film in particular — in which we are taken into the fractured mind of one of the characters — is showcased on this Blu-ray as a heretofore lost masterpiece of 1960’s psychedelia, and possibly here indicates the level of visual ambition that might have been realized more completely in the unrealized L’Enfer. The aforementioned Kat Ellinger track, along with a booklet essay by Elena Lazic, will undoubtedly help viewers more fully realize their own complicated feelings and responses to the subject matter, providing a wealth of historical context, production detail, and film (and artistic) influences on the material along with the depth of commentary.

Although characterized by female lead Elisabeth Wiener as “a not especially perverse film about perversion” — in an in-depth, 25-minute interview program with the former actress, included as an additional special feature on the Kino Lorber disc — one may have cause to disagree with that assessment of the artistic impact of La Prisonniére, if solely for the depth of emotion portrayed, but the secret of looking may not always be in what is strictly seen but more accurately in what is felt. From that vantage point, raging water swirling around fragile lovers, beads of sweat forming on swaying hips — or the tinge of excitement piqued by the English-title image suddenly appearing amongst a carousel-succession of benign travel slides — are undeniably conveyed with a mesmerizing level of cool fury by its disconcertingly detail-oriented director.

The images used in this review are credited to DVDBeaver and are taken directly from Kino Lorber’s Blu-rays of the films. Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing review copies.