Channel Jean Renoir through Luis Buñuel—voilà!—Jean Vigo. This, his only feature, renders the mundane magical, the sad humorous, and the flesh transcendent as it portrays young newlyweds and their life on a river barge. “All day long it’s either smooching or squabbling,” laments a companion. And so it is in this poignant, poetic paean to the beauty and tribulations of married love.
Terrence Malick is the preeminent practicing metaphysician of the cinema. In his brilliant and haunting first feature, he tells the story of a vicious young serial killer and his impassive underage girlfriend, both perfectly rendered by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. The violence unfolds in the context of a vastly uncaring natural world and is relayed to us by the girl through a detached narration utterly innocent of emotion. The result is not a moral inquiry into human action but rather a compelling meditation on the nature of being itself.
Belle de jour
As a sixteen-year-old when I first saw it, I was mesmerized, if utterly baffled, by Buñuel’s delightfully told, superbly crafted, and deeply disturbing fable of a young married woman, frigid at home, prostitute by day. Fantasy and reality interplay so freely that it is impossible to know the difference. And it matters not a whit. Love is punishment either way. And Catherine Deneuve’s almost unbearable beauty makes it hurt all the more.
With gentle humor and an atmosphere infused with magic, Jiří Menzel’s film casts its own spell, evoking the lingering longings of middle age. As if bewitched, an army officer, a priest, a bodybuilder, and his wife are all overcome with amorous desire when two circus performers arrive on the scene. Youthful foolishness and romantic fumblings ensue, but their idylls pass like summer showers, one by one, and the circus act moves on, much like youth itself.
In the Realm of the Senses
Crazy Love—A Double Bill Not for the Faint of Heart: On the face, Senso’s operatic melodrama and the pornographic explicitness of In the Realm of the Senses make for an odd coupling, but both serve up powerfully extreme and provocative portrayals of love run amok. Exquisitely photographed and scored, both are tales of unbridled passion and lust told against backdrops of political and social turmoil. Both end with women gone mad, consumed by obsessive love that destroys their men, who both die at their lovers’ hands. Luchino Visconti and Nagisa Oshima are filmmakers of deeply different sensibilities and concerns, of course, and the meaning and import of their stories are utterly divergent. Senso is an opulent, chilling tragedy of individuals bound in their lives and times. In the Realm of the Senses is transcendental; in death, love is forever.
Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator
Possessed of incisive humor and an uncanny knack for startling juxtaposition, Dušan Makavejev uses a veritable crazy quilt of stylistic elements to create an affecting portrait, at once funny and heartbreaking, of a romance gone awry, while at the same time lambasting the conventions and pretenses of society, including, not least, the constraints of narrative cinema itself.
A Man Escaped
Robert Bresson’s ode to freedom is an astounding tour de force. As a prison-break movie, it is a thriller of high suspense, told by a master who eschews artifice. He relies on precisely observed action, a sophisticated and spare technique (no one makes more of off-camera space and sound), and a direct, first-person narration to achieve a fully realized world of remarkable intensity in which our identification with the protagonist is total. His unshakeable faith and persistent effort elevate us all. His liberation is ours.
Journey to Italy
The voyage is one of the soul in Roberto Rossellini’s unblinking and profound film. An unhappy couple in an unraveling marriage, perfectly captured in the petty bickering of Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, ultimately reunite. It has the feel of a miracle but is no happy ending. Death and spiritual mystery pervade the film, and love seems but a desperate, painful response to mortality.
Tracy Letts’s Top 10
Tracy Letts is an American playwright, screenwriter, and actor. He received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama for August: Osage County and a Tony Award for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Karyn Kusama’s Top 10
For her list of favorite Criterion titles, the director of Girlfight and Destroyer celebrates the Hollywood classics, cult pleasures, and art-house masterpieces that inspire her, pairing movies that resonate with each other in style and theme.