Archival Highlight!

Cluny Brown (dir. Ernst Lubitsch, 1946)

Giddily brimming with perceptive wit, heartfelt charm and double entendres only a half-wink away from single entendres, Cluny Brown, Ernst Lubitsch’s last completed film before his fatal heart attack in 1947, is joyful screwball class critique at its finest. Jennifer Jones is cute as a button and daffy as peak-form Marilyn Monroe in the title role of Cluny Brown, an amateur plumber who simply can’t deny her love for, ahem, banging on pipes and “relieving the drain, relieving the strain.” It is 1938, and upon locating to an English countryside manor to be chambermaid, Cluny discovers a wealth of romantic potential and a generous heaping of status conflict to confuse her amorous feelings. Flanking Cluny as night-and-day suitors are Charles Boyer as rascally Czech refugee and political writer Adam Belinski, and the nasal, comically brilliant Richard Haydn (aurally recognizable as the hookah-smoking caterpillar in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland) as drippy, snippy pharmacist Jonathan Wilson. Cluny Brown ranks with the best films of the upstairs-downstairs sub-genre (Diary of a Chambermaid, Gosford Park) as it skillfully highlights a delightful, hilarious spread of relationships between the hierarchy and the help, never losing the light touch of well-played satire, the queasiness of looming war, the familiar strangeness of class differences or the naughty edge of sexual tension.

Short Film Highlight!

“Color of the Ground” (dir. Jerren Lauder, 2011)

A loquacious squatter and a lonely Mexican immigrant meet in the woods – margin encountering margin. The homeless man (played with twinkle-eyed, sanity-teetering energy by indie veteran Robert Longstreet) has fashioned a sort of personal trinket menagerie in his treed surroundings, with life souvenirs hanging from branches like broke-down Christmas ornaments and a makeshift sitting room in a clearing. The young Mexican man (promising newcomer Alexander Ordonez), who speaks no English and carries a large sack of possessions like burdensome dead weight, joins the rambling forest-dweller for a chat. Though the conversation involves a language barrier and a busted recording device with deaf mechanisms, the weary souls still relate to one another because certain things –  hardship, isolation, the past – are easy to understand. Writer-director Jerren Lauder nimbly interweaves wistfulness with humor to create a story of gravity but also of childlike, even whimsical, lightness, notably seen in the occasionally gleeful faces of the two Lost Boys and in the candy-colored, stop-motion animated sequence that illuminates the film’s final minutes.

Marwencol (dir. Jeff Malmberg, 2010)

In 2000, Mark Hogancamp was horrifically beaten by a posse of five young men upon leaving a bar, and suffered massive brain injuries and complete amnesia as a consequence. After the arduous physical process of regaining motor skills and the ability to take care of himself, Hogancamp – without realizing it as his purpose – began mentally and emotionally taking stock of the trauma he had survived: He dressed up an entire population of Ken dolls in World War II regalia (and Barbies in more whorish Mattel attire), built a small yet meticulously detailed city in his backyard for these frozen-faced toys, and staged and photographed endless, alarmingly gritty sagas starring the plastic beings. The 1/6 scale city, a fictional Belgian location named Marwencol, is not only the site of Hogancamp’s obsessive interior life, bizarre dance with control and sense of personal safety, but also documentarist Jeff Malmberg’s visual entry point into a uniquely fascinating, irrevocably damaged psychology.

The naturally lit and evocatively composed artistry of Hogancamp’s Marwencol photographs (which increasingly imitate the disturbing events of his own life), are captured in riveting close-up by Malmberg, and could easily be stills from a magnificently weird and deeply moving war film – The Thin Red Line meets Toys ‘R’ Us. As we learn, the art community has come calling with offers for Hogancamp, both in the form of an Esopus magazine feature and a trendy Greenwich Village gallery exhibition, and the self-taught artist must confront the possibility of exposing his heartbreaking, disturbing private world to the public – and of exposing another issue he’s dealt with since long before the 2000 attack. Part confessional and part personal museum, Marwencol is an exceptional documentary about a relentlessly intriguing individual on the brink of creative salvation.

Potiche (dir. François Ozon, 2010)

Catherine Deneuve is resplendent even when hairsprayed, powdered and swaddled up in pastel-hued matronly garb in François Ozon’s playful, marzipan-filled pastry of a film, Potiche. Based on the French feminist play of the same title, Deneuve plays Suzanne Pujol, the resolutely chirpy if beleaguered wife of a philandering cad (Fabrice Luchini, having nasty fun in a bird-brained role), who lets his ego run amok as he manages her late father’s umbrella company (a nod to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, n’est-ce pas?) and lets his hand run astray up the derriere of his wary secretary. The year is 1977, as is evident from Ozon’s trippy bourgeois color palette and exploitation-esque flourishes, and labor protests beset the Pujol umbrella company, sending M. Pujol into a tizzy of heart problems. With the advice of her ex-lover and local leftie mayor Maurice Babin (Gérard Depardieu, rotund and gallant), Suzanne takes the reins of the business with a sympathetic approach to management and a new-found passion for being an entrepreneur. But of course, as the narrative is quick to tell us in a harmlessly clunky way, the road to women’s equality in the arenas of business and politics is lined with jerks. Though Potiche‘s bubbliness makes it a slight film, it is nonetheless sweet and charming, and anchored by a winning performance from Deneuve, who reminds us – through sheer cinematic presence, lovely comic timing and even song – why she’s an icon.

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