François Girard – Le Violon Rouge aka The Red Violin (1998)


In present day Montreal, a famous Nicolo Bussotti violin, known as “the red violin,” is being auctioned off. During the auction, we flash back to the creation of the violin in 17th century Italy, and follow the violin as it makes its way through an 18th century Austrian monastery, a violinist in 19th century Oxford, China during the Cultural Revolution, and back to Montreal, where a collector tries to establish the identity and the secrets of “the red violin.” Continue reading

Hsiao-hsien Hou – Xi meng ren sheng aka The Puppetmaster (1993)


Hou Hsiao-hsien’s masterpiece about the childhood and early adulthood of octogenerian Taiwanese puppet master and actor Li Tien-lu. This is the second part of a trilogy about Taiwanese life in the 20th century, covering all but the first few years of the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945). Hou’s preference for filming entire scenes in long takes from fixed camera angles and for eschewing close-ups has never been as masterfully employed and modulated as it is here–some of the landscape shots are breathtaking. The film alternates between re-created scenes from Li’s life, Li speaking directly to the camera about his past, and extracts from his puppet and stage performances, creating a layered density in the narrative that does full justice to the complexity and poetry of Hou’s investigation. Continue reading

Bartabas – Mazeppa (1993)


Mazeppa tells the story of a painter (Gericault) who is brought into the sensuous and strange world of a traveling “circus” — not like Ringling Bros., but more of a demonstration of horse training and acrobatic feats on horseback. The story is of Gericault’s immersion in the sensual pleasures of the circus — gorgeous horses, gorgeous music by Ukrainian singers, gorgeous women — and his transformation by that experience. The main strength of the movie is in the lush visuals, particularly in the portrayal of the sensuality of the horses’ bodies and movement. There isn’t a lot of dialogue, which allows the viewer to concentrate on everything else, but also leads to some confusion about what is happening and why. It was my sense that this was partly intentional, paralleling Gericault’s experience. The film has the visual richness of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, but is not as disturbing (though there are some disturbing scenes at beginning and end). I loved this movie but gave it only a seven out of 10 because even after having seen it three or four times, I can’t really say what it’s about — I love the music and the imagery so much I’m willing to overlook that, but it’s hard to get anyone else to watch the movie with me. Continue reading

Maria Maggenti – The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (1995)


This enjoyable film combines features of teen movie, coming-of-age film, and lesbian flic. Made by a female director, with attractive actors, it is a role-reversal farce. The appeal is not restricted to lesbians – this is particularly suitable for the male audience, and not only because of the erotically effective love scenes (and the undeniable fact that the two main actresses are well worth looking at). Most importantly the comedy works well. There is an intriguing reversal of roles. The white girl is poor, and the black girl is rich.The poor girl belongs to a sort of “family” of lesbians that is warm and caring, while the black girl’s parents are separated and she lives with her mother. There is the gift from the rich girl of Walt Whitman’s poetry collection “Leaves of Grass” to the poor girl, who reads some of the poems while smoking grass and wakes up to the meaning of the words. The story has a satisfying ending, allowing everyone to get on with their lives. Continue reading

David O. Russell – Spanking the Monkey (1994)



The debut feature from writer-director David O. Russell tells the darkly comic story of a young pre-med student’s nearly unbearable summer vacation. When Ray Aibelli’s promiscuous father orders him to stay home for the summer and care for his mother, who recently broke her leg, he misses out on an incredibly important internship. As Ray struggles with the realization that he’s wasting his summer doing nothing at home, he must contend with an endless string of seemingly insurmountable circumstances, including a failed brief relationship with a young high school student. Things reach their boiling point when Ray and his mother get drunk one night, leading to an incestuous encounter that pushes him over the edge. Humiliated, depressed, and downtrodden, Ray decides to commit suicide to end his troubles forever. Russell’s racy story walks a tightrope between deep psychological drama and taboo comedy, resulting in a highly original tone that keeps SPANKING THE MONKEY from buckling under the pressure. Featuring a standout performance by Davies, as well as Watson, who recalls Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson in THE GRADUATE, this is one of the 1990’s most auspicious directorial debuts. Continue reading

Jean-Charles Fitoussi – D’ici là (1997)


Jean-Charles Fitoussi’s second short movie (rather experimental), before he goes on making his masterpieces.

Short in seven days, in Rome, with two friends, a 16mm camera and no scenario.

A cinematic essay about time — an ode to life, however tragic it may be.
Essai cinématographique sur le temps — et ode à l’existence, pour tragique qu’elle soit.
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