Favorite Moments from Locarno Festival 2017: Soviet Spirits, Cinema's Cats, Nick the Sociopath

From Jacques Tourneur's WW2 drama "Days of Glory", Valérie Massadian's new film "Milla" & Tourneur's Gothic mystery "Experiment Perilous".
Daniel Kasman
Days of Glory
Days of Glory (1944)
This year at the Locarno Festival I am looking for specific images, moments, techniques, qualities or scenes from films across the 70th edition's selection that grabbed me and have lingered past and beyond the next movie seen, whose characters, story and images have already begun to overwrite those that came just before.
“Like anything you will ever tell me,” dreamily says a Soviet dancer-turned partisan (Tamara Toumanova) to her lover and commander Vladmir (Gregory Peck in his first role), “it’s learned by heart.” Days of Glory (1944), a highly evocative masterpiece from Jacques Tourneur conjured in that brief moment during World War 2 when Hollywood was asked to make movies in support of our Soviet allies, with disjunctive, lyrical surrealness casts this dancer among the hardened Russian soldiers isolated in a crumbling, underground redoubt behind enemy lines. She comes from a world of art unknown to these fighters, “a strange world: a world of music and poetry and dancing,” says one of the guerrillas, calling her “a person of light and such life.” When she falls for Vladimir and murmurs this glowing aside, she confirms her existence as an ethereal spirit descended to earth (under the earth, even) and in love with a mortal. This love bolsters the two in a sublime, otherworldly ecstasy, yet somehow dooms both to war's onslaught.
A cat playfully batting the droplets falling from a leaky faucet, and later mischievously crawling into an open refrigerator in Valérie Massadian’s Milla (Filmmakers of the Present). The inexhaustible pleasure of a cat’s inscrutable, unpredictable behavior and on-screen charisma is lovingly evoked in Massadian’s somber drama of low-wage domestic loneliness. The cat is a touch of solace and spontaneity in a household haunted by a missing spouse. Any time a cat seems to do what it wants in a movie, I am reminded of this great old quote from director Kihachi Okatmoto’s What the master Mikio Naruse taught me: Spirit & Technique (as translated by Audie Bock):
But even Mr. Naruse could hit an occasional impasse. Once when he couldn’t get the actors to do what he wanted he turned to me.

“Kihatchan, I’m sorry to ask you this so suddenly, but could you get me a cat? Just one will do.”

When I came back with a cat borrowed from the woman in charge of the prop room, Mr. Naruse filmed it just under the eaves of the house, a little dazed as it shook off the rain. Not only did this device compensate for the acting, it unobtrusively created the right mood.
“Nick.” When a stranger tells another about a third stranger by constantly referred to him only by his given name, he’s bound to be trouble. In Jacques Tourneur’s Gothic mystery Experiment Perilous (1944), a man on a night train is woken by a frightened, ill and perhaps mad woman who keeps talking about her brother in New York, all of his importance and troubles. His name is Nick—she won't have you forget it—and the way this name dominates the story she tells, and therefore her life, presages the introduction of a real sociopath. He is played by the Austro-Hungarian actor Paul Lukas, whose purring accent often times connotes a warm, embracing humaneness, as in Tourneur's 1948 Berlin Express, where he is an advocate for post-war decency and cooperation. But here it has the erudition and obscure origins of something corrupting and malignant. Nick will prove to be trouble.


LocarnoLocarno 2017Festival CoverageJacques TourneurValérie Massadian
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