Christopher Hobbs is a production designer whose work includes Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane (1976), Caravaggio (1986), and Edward II (1991); Terence Davies’s The Long Day Closes (1992) and The Neon Bible (1995); and Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine (1998). He says that his choices, listed in no particular order, inevitably reflect his profession.
Terry Gilliam does nothing by half measures, and Brazil is no exception. This hallucinatory take on George Orwell’s pessimistic and prophetic book 1984 is a marvel of black comedy and yet somehow embodies the anger and despair of the original. Astonishing to look at and sometimes chilling, this is one of Gilliam’s best films.
The title of the film refers to “the gods”—in French, le paradis—that upper gallery in a theater where the seats are cheap and the audience boisterous. Throughout the film, we are the audience watching parallel stories in which the world of the stage, presented largely in mime, mirrors the “real-life” setting, itself of course a fiction shown on the screen. Through the obvious theatricality of the stage and the far subtler theatricality of the “real” story, we follow a tale of love, loss, and revenge straight from late nineteenth-century French literature but reinvigorated by the magic of film.
This is proof that despite the difficulties it is possible to make a wonderful film from a wonderful but very long book, in this case Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, which describes the dissolution of the great Sicilian ruling families during the 1860s. Set in the magnificent and sometimes crumbling palaces of Palermo and the arid Sicilian summer countryside, the film shows us the privileged but largely pointless lifestyle of the ruling elite, threatened by political change and their own inertia. One shot in the film encapsulates the message: when the central family arrives at their country estate exhausted from the grueling journey there, they enter the local church and sit in their family pew, along the length of the nave. The camera tracks across their faces, exhausted and gray with dust. The reference is unmistakable; they resemble those mummified bodies held in catacombs under the Capuchin monastery of Palermo, held upright in endless rows, many still in their nineteenth-, even eighteenth-century clothes, rotting and collapsing, covered in the dust of centuries. It is a beautiful example of how much can be said in a single camera shot when used by a master.
An old myth retold by Ingmar Bergman: the story of the knight who cheats Death, one of the loss of faith, of redemption, of the triumph of innocence in the person of the holy fool and his young family. Although one might expect doom and gloom, there is comedy and great beauty, but mixed with a feeling of relentless fate. The shot of the dead reeling across the horizon in a macabre dance, though seen only briefly, must be one of the most famous images on film.
This is art concealing art. On the face of it, the film is a gentle satire of French bourgeois life on holiday. There is no story, just Hulot (Jacques Tati himself) drifting innocently through a holiday resort, leaving a trail of confusion behind him. The gags are wonderful, apparently effortless, the situations natural. In reality, the film is the extraordinary creation of a man obsessed with perfection. Each move, each image was planned in detail by Tati until the gags were immaculate; the tennis ball that bounces off the head of the serious little girl curtsying to her elders, the paint pot that floats out to sea, then back on the opposite side of the beached fishing boat; everything apparently natural, everything the product of intense creativity.
For me, this is an almost perfect film. It is worth seeing for John Bryan’s sets alone, a master class on how to use texture and film architecture to create the illusion of depth and atmosphere. The script and acting are very fine, but Alec Guinness’s famous or infamous portrayal of Fagin is probably his best performance on-screen.
Jean Cocteau at his romantic and slightly camp best, playful, poetic, showing how the lowest budget can be transformed into magic and a film that is unforgettable.
The distinguished director of The Passion of Joan of Arc in a moment of strangeness. He said Vampyr was not a horror film. Certainly, in a setting where images and voices fade through a sort of ghostly mist and shadows take on an independent life, where the leading man drifts from one bizarre and unsettling episode to another with a look of incomprehension on his face, an atmosphere of threat and unease is created, but it is the unease of dream, of nightmare, and is ultimately more unsettling than Hollywood’s brash efforts.
It is hard to believe that this film about a nunnery in the Himalayas was filmed entirely at Pinewood Studios outside London. We are used now to entirely digital sets, but Alfred Junge’s designs and Jack Cardiff’s wonderful lighting and camera work are dazzling, the illusions spectacular. Add to this a gripping story beautifully acted and directed, despair, passion, and madness; you can’t lose.
I have to declare an interest here—I was the production designer of the film. Terence Davies takes us on a fictionalized journey through his childhood. There is no story; the film is composed of memories, some long and complicated, some very short, all vivid. A shot onto a carpet in which nothing happens but movements of shadow and sunlight is memorable because so universal; a sailing ship seen in a child’s schoolroom daydream, the tortures of confused guilt, the joys of a close family life, and the loneliness of the outsider are, in one way or another, common to us all. Davies has somehow caught that essence for us.