As a child I involuntarily acquired a familiarity with Gilbert and Sullivan from my grandmother’s record collection (which consisted almost wholly of their operettas and Strauss waltzes — the popular music of her parents’ generation) and from the occasional televising of a performance. These were the days when a household had a single screen, and the children got to watch whatever the adults decided should be on it. In 2005, for the World Expo in Aichi, the commissioner of the Belgian pavilion published a lavish volume on the history of Japanese–Belgian relations (economic, diplomatic and cultural). I revised the essays in the book, more than one of which was about the 19th-century craze for Japanese arts and crafts (which can be seen in Van Gogh’s imitations of Hiroshige, or Monet’s more oblique debt to Hokusai).
Not long after this I first saw Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy on television. I have rewatched it five or six times since, and regret having become aware of it too late to see it on a big screen. The film covers a period of about a year in the mid-1880s when Gilbert and Sullivan came close to ending their flagging artistic collaboration, but triumphantly got it back on track with The Mikado. So many influences on our appreciation are personal that I do not know whether anyone else would respond with quite the enthusiasm that I did — a reluctant Gilbert and Sullivan buff, with an unsought depth of knowledge about the Victorian enthusiasm for Japan. The film certainly seems not to have done very well at the box-office, where according to Wikipedia it recouped not much more than 6 of the 20 million dollars that it cost to make.
I really cannot imagine why it had so little success at the box office, as I would count Topsy-Turvy among the cleverest, best written, best acted, and most beautifully produced films of the last twenty years. The sets and costumes are unimpeachable. It does rather pack in the novelties of the time – telephones, fountain pens, ice-cream cones, indoor plumbing – but in an entertaining enough manner. I think I’m right in saying that it won Oscars for costumes and make-up; if it didn’t it certainly deserved to. And of course, it is filled throughout with songs from the works.
As fair warning, I will mention that two scenes do always irk me. One is of Sullivan in a Parisian brothel, which takes a good deal longer than is necessary to convey whatever artistic point its inclusion requires (similarly, in Mr Turner, a film that is a stunning exploration of light and colour, Leigh has an uncomfortable sex scene that goes on long after its point is made, for no clear reason — certainly not for titillation). Luckily, once the brothel scene starts you miss nothing by skipping straight to the beginning of the next chapter on the DVD. The other is a group of leading actors from the company (the bass, tenor and baritone who in the final production of The Mikado have the roles of the Mikado, Nanki-Poo and Ko-Ko) dining together and discussing news from the Sudan (the contemporary events that provide the plot for the 1966 blockbuster Khartoum). They speak with a crude and dismissive racism that rings false. Racist assumptions may have been characteristic of many attitudes of the period, but the dialogue in this scene strikes me more as a modern liberal trying to sound like an imperialistic jingo (see how unenlightened they were!) than something respectable people at the time would actually have been likely to say over dinner in a public restaurant. I wouldn’t go so far as to call these minor irritations, but in the balance of the film as a whole they certainly detract little from it.
—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.
If you haven't seen Arrival, but plan to, I suggest you not read the comments on this post. It really would spoil the first experience of the movie to know certain things about it. So, that said, have at it.
Addendum: I do by the way definitely recommend this film. I can say without giving anything away that among many other interesting things it has a definite pro-life element (not that it's preaching that, it's just there in the situation).
Personally I do not take a position on the matter, other than that the whole thing is depressing. I haven't read AL and don't plan to, as it doesn't affect me directly and I have no voice in the controversy. I'm resigned to the likelihood that the Church is going to be mired in these post-Vatican-II intramural fights until well after I'm dead.
Diên Biên Phú is a two-hour war film by the French director Pierre Schoendoerffer, released in 1992. It tells the story of the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the decisive defeat of French forces in Vietnam that led to the French abandonment of its client state and former colony, and indirectly to American involvement in the ensuing civil war between Communists and nationalists. There’s a contemporary newsreel regarding the battle at this link. In Schoendoerffer’s film, three plotlines intertwine: the course of the battle itself, a famous violinist rehearsing and performing her farewell concert in the opera house in Hanoi (the capital of French Indochina), and vignettes of an American reporter trying to gain not just the latest information but also an understanding of the background to events. Exposition of context is provided in the scenes in which the American interviews or interacts with a range of figures — soldiers and nationalists, smugglers and opium dealers. He’s the outsider whose need to learn about the situation justifies explanations that for the other characters would be redundant.
The scenes of the battle are unlike any others I have seen. It is in one respect a very unusual sort of war film, quite possibly unique: the director had himself been present at the battle, as a cameraman for the French army’s film service. He saw it as his duty to document the event, but when defeat came he destroyed his cameras and his reels of film, so that nothing he had shot might be of use to the enemy. Almost forty years later he directed a film that would, in a sense, recreate his lost recordings from memory. One of the characters, played by his own son, is even a cameraman for the army film service. Battlefield scenes, whether of combat, or care of the wounded, or of an army chaplain’s field mass, bear witness to his memory of events. If the American journalist is a pretext for exposition, the battlefield scenes are essentially documentary reconstructions. Diên Biên Phú doesn’t fall readily into either of the two typical types of war drama, the glorifying and the anti-militarist, as it shows the anguish and suffering of the soldiers in the firing line quite bluntly and at some length, while also showing astonishing and admirable acts of courage.
Finally, there is the music. If the camera seeks accurately to recreate what Schoendoerffer saw on the battlefield, the haunting score adds an entirely different emotional layer to the experience. The first time I saw the film was on television – it happened to be on, and although I had never heard of the film before I had vaguely heard of the battle. As soon as possible after seeing it, for the first time in my life, I sought out and acquired the soundtrack. I have done the same for two other films since: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Searching for Sugar Man (2012). The composer, Georges Delerue, is apparently very famous, although I had to Google him. Apparently he scored another war film set in Vietnam, Platoon, but I haven’t seen that.
The clip below, from about an hour in, combines all three strands, cutting between the opera house in Hanoi, where the American journalist is in the audience, and the battlefield, where an artillery lieutenant defies an order to spike his guns, instead using them to cover the retreat of his comrades. Although rather low resolution (perhaps best watched on a mobile phone?), it captures many of the beauties of the film. The cinematography is far more stunning than it might suggest. The clip also contains the only explicit cinematic reference I have ever noticed to Newton’s laws of motion (the artilleryman’s “la loi du vieil Isaac”).
It is not a film to be watched for plot, although it does have one, but for the camerawork, the composition of the shots, the music, the vignettes of the sights and sounds of French Indochina in the 1950s, and above all the testimony to the hard-fought defeat in which three quarters of those who surrendered died in captivity.