Carmen Jones (1954) dir. Otto Preminger

CarmenShot in glorious technicolor and Cinemascope, Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones is a treat for the senses. From the opening credits and the strains of Bizet’s opera, vivid colour floods the screen in this lovely restoration from the BFI.

Using Bizet’s 19th century-set opera is transposed to a Southern military base at the end of the second world war, starring an all-black cast performing an Oscar Hammerstein book and lyrics. In terms of musicality it never quite works, I mean, who dubs Harry Belafonte? However, Carmen Jones is an incredibly important film, and one that should be heralded as monumental.images-3

Carmen (played beautifully by Dorothy Dandridge) is a troublemaker. She exudes a tomboyish quality; a playful femininity which sees her climbing, running in heels, happy for rough and tumble, and an inner strength which belies her slight frame. Her arrest places her in a car with strait-laced G.I. Joe (Belafonte). He is charged with driving her to jail. Needless to say, Carmen tried to escape and after wrestling Joe to the ground, he finds himself in her childhood home, being cooked for, seduced away form his girl Cindy Lou (Olga James), and then imprisoned himself for allowing the duplicitous Ms. Jones to flee. images-4

Sultry Carmen is hedonistic, carnal and revels in her freedom whether sexual or geographical – she makes it abundantly clear – she will never relinquish it. She is the epitome of the transgressive woman, and just like those women of cinema (and in keeping with the opera’s tragic heroine), she is irrevocably punished for her transgressions. Interestingly, examining the notion of freedom, conformity, acceptability and erotic desire of Carmen is worth questioning; is she is defeated or merely defiant? Her active sexuality does not appear over-sexualised but feels liberated and yet it is the scenes in which Belafonte is shirtless that feel fetishised. As Carmen’s freedom is threatened, her frequent calling of Joe “boy” loses its affection and becomes derisive.

imgres-1Love, jealousy and tragedy are abound in this opulent and liberal affair, people of colour fill every frame, Dandridge and Belafonte are supported by Pearl Bailey, Joe Adams, Diahann Carroll and Brock Peters to name but a few.  They have agency, and are (mostly) free from stereotype. With songs entitled “Dat’s Love”, “Dis Flower” and “He’s Got His Self Another Woman”, written to Bizet’s musical score, and every effort to present a black community (albeit thought through the lens of an émigré man), it seems incredibly odd to disjoint the narrative and risk alienating the viewer by having these songs dubbed with the operatic vocal talents of Marilyn Horne and LeVern Hutcherson. I can’t help but feel these songs would be more memorable, more gut-punchingly real if sung by the souls that play each character; the opera dub upsets the rhythm of the film.

Carmen Jones is wonderful but deserves to be seen on a huge screen, it loses a sense of this grandeur as a home release yet, regardless, is a gift; even an imperfect one. Its complexities certainly make for an interesting watch and one to unpick. Preminger’s use of space and incisive camerawork means there is a lot of visual charm but it feels muddled, a historical achievement for 1954, absolutely but missing something musically. The imposition of Horne’s vocals disjoints and the differences in pitch, tone and timbre seem, at times, farcical. It did, however, make an icon and Oscar-winner of Dandridge and rightly so, she is incredible in the role, and why CJ should always be hailed as “culturally, historically [and] aesthetically significant.”[1] imgres-2

Carmen Jones is available now on Blu-ray and screened as a part of the BFI’s Black Star season which ran from 17 October – 31 December 2016.

[1] In 1992, Carmen Jones was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress who described it as above.

Eyes Without a Face (1960, dir. Georges Franju)

Eyes-without-a-face

Georges Franju has a thing for masks. Both figurative ones and literal ones are dotted throughout his work, most notably in Thérèse Desqueroux (1962), Judex (1963) and Nuits rouges (1974). However, it is in his 1960 work Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage) that the literal mask plays a more prevalent role.

eyes4The BFI has lovingly restored the film and crafted a plethora of extras to release it on Blu-ray for the first time in the UK and it doesn’t disappoint. Picture quality is outstanding and the sound perfect. The film opens with Maurice Jarre’s carnivalesque, jaunty yet haunting score as a female (The Third Man’s Alida Valli) manoeuvres her car down dark winding country roads at night; the tension building as a person in a mackintosh and hat sits in the backseat. Something is not quite right and all unease is confirmed when the driver hoists the body from the backseat and dumps it into the local river. Louise works for Docteur Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) a prominent scientist and researcher in facial reconstruction, the viability of living tissue grafts and necrosis – the operation scenes of which are horrific thanks to Georges Klein’s make-up and Charles-Henri Assola’s special effects. The police have their suspicions about the good doctor but fail to act before the film’s climatic denouement.

Inside the Doctor’s home, silence is juxtaposed with the tweeting of birds and barking of dogs. It is eerie and foreboding, shot with low camera angles and a static camera is interspersed with the odd tracking shot. The use of chiaroscuro is stunning and shadows add to the atmosphere of the allegorical fairy tale. Darkness gives way to light the higher the stairs climbed until the bedroom of Christiane (Edith Scob) is reached. The camera work and lighting design is a real testament to Eugen Schüfftan’s cinematography. Director of Photography Schüfftan had previously worked with Lang, Siodmak, Ophüls and Pabst and had a three dimensional way of lighting a scene, alternating each first and third shot which is great for adding atmosphere, angst and anticipation.doc

Christiane appears to be a young girl in her white room but the deep velvety tones of a woman amid the caged doves cooing is a real surprise; an adult prisoner being harder to subdue. Two mandolins hang above her bed arranged like a butterfly; she is in a chrysalis awaiting transformation after a car accident causes facial disfigurement. Forever incarcerated in the old dark house of creaking doors and balustrades of the staircase casting bar-like shadows on the wall, all mirrors are covered and Christiane is forced to wear a mask. A mask of brilliant white frozen beauty that only allows the eyes to be visible and they are the windows to a tortured lonely soul. After a while we forget it’s a mask, it’s gentle and soothing, the fact that Scob glides within each scene makes her appear as if an apparition or marionette doll. She is the caged dove, the constant reminder of her father’s guilt and the feeder of his hubris.

Eyes Without a Face is Franju’s masterpiece, an austere and elegant horror-based fairy tale. It deals with scientific ethics, solitude and loneliness; never has human torture been so romanticised, so cruel, tender and lyrical. Edith Scob, perhaps it is fair to say one-time muse of director Franju having worked with him on five pictures, is the star. She provides such a nuanced almost delicate (yet powerful) performance, her Christiane is as beautiful as she is strange, objectified beyond expression. Well, almost…

eyes_without_face_poster_03Notoriously incongruous, Franju is quoted as saying he subscribed to images and “my images are my fleurs maladives [evil flowers]”. Eyes Without a Face is one evil flower that all must see, at least once in their lifetime.

Full Review and Disc Extras: Without a Face