Our Nathanael Hood embarks on a Twilight Time subsidized trip across the pond to visit France and England, by way of Robert Parrish’s In The French Style and Pat O’Connors A Month in the Country. Who would’ve thought he’d be unimpressed with exotic France while exhilarated by his visit to the British countryside?
How appropriate that one of the first scenes in Robert Parrish’s In the French Style (1963) is of its protagonist, an American art student living abroad in Paris, trying and failing to paint her self-portrait. The search for personal identity dominates the film as Christina James (Jean Seberg) struggles to reconcile her dreams of success as a painter, her repulsion with the art world, and her own intrinsic need for romantic validation. A charming college student named Guy (Philippe Forquet) tells her one night over glasses of wine and Coca-Cola: “It is difficult enough to be a French girl in Paris. To be an American girl is impossible. Paris is a city with a hard heart. It is a factory for the production of egotists and cynics.” But in time he will be shouting that he was wrong. It was Christina who is too hard for Paris. By the end of her four year stay, she will have abandoned her dreams, been shuffled around among countless men, and left gasping for the normalcy of American suburbia.
Hers is a story of failure made all the more poignant by its parallels with Seberg’s real life. Plucked as a teenager from an Iowa town by Otto Preminger, she was thrust into the international spotlight much too early. Reviled in her early roles by critics, she only found true success in international productions, her most memorable performance being the fatally naive American girlfriend of the doomed small-time gangster played by Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960). Ultimately the fast life of European high society proved too much for Seberg: after several failed marriages she killed herself with barbiturates when she was only 40 years old.
But even this metatextual flourish can’t keep In the French Style—recently available on Blu-ray by Twilight Time—from feeling stagnant and ponderous. Christina spends the film an enigma, her emotional development truncated by several massive leaps forward in time. Much of this is due to Parrish and screenwriter Irwin Shaw’s inability to properly mesh together the two short stories the film was based on (both originally written, oddly enough, by Shaw himself). There are moments of brief tenderness and genius, in particular her disastrous first attempt at seducing Guy where they both ask the other to turn around while they disrobe and climb into an icy bed. But without any connective tissue these are mere vignettes that hint at characters without fully exploring them.
Perhaps A Month in the Country is more my speed, which offers a metaphor of stunning simplicity and power. Tom Birkin, veteran of the Great War, arrives in the rustic village of Oxgodby, Yorkshire in the north of England. He carries with him a tool-bag, a collection of nervous tics, and a humiliating stutter picked up from the trenches of Passchendeale. He comes to restore a Medieval mural in the local church whitewashed by a zealous vicar. Strange images emerge from beneath the white paint: a stern-faced Christ in the throes of judgement; awed saints kneeling in admiration; the miserable damned being cast into the fires of hell. Each he greets with an air of condescension or contempt. How can he believe in such rubbish as a God after enduring the war to end all wars? Yet he seems captivated with it: “When I look at it, when I’m working on it, I believe in his belief.” As the work nears completion, Birkin catches glimpses of the artist. The fine hairs he plucks from the paints suggest he was blonde. He was probably right-handed and needed a stepladder to reach the top. But most curiously, he left what should have been his masterpiece unfinished. With each tiny chisel and brush-stroke, the mural comes back to life, the painter comes back to life, the soldier comes back to life. Birkin isn’t just restoring a work of art, he is restoring himself.
But what a precious, unexpected gem is Pat O’Connor’s A Month in the Country (1987). Based on the novel by J. L. Carr, the film is a gorgeous meditation on trauma, healing, and the act of creation. After its initial release, the film was neglected to the point that it was almost lost, being rescued in 2004 after the chance discovery of an original 35 mm print. Now the film is widely available on Blu-ray thanks to the fine folks at Twilight Times.
In addition to being a great piece of art, A Month in the Country sees several of British cinema’s most formidable talents in some of their earliest performances. Birkin was Colin Firth’s first leading role. Despite his relative inexperience, he brings a tortured, quiet devastation and delicacy to the performance—one that will particularly intrigue film buffs since his stuttering predates his Oscar winning turn as King George VI in Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech (2010). The film saw the debut of Kenneth Branagh as James Moon, an archeologist excavating the grounds of the Oxgodby church in search of a 500 year old grave. He and Birkin become fast friends, partly because of their artistic interests, partly because—as a fellow traumatized veteran—he is the only one who truly understands his struggles. Then there’s the lovely Natasha Richardson as the angelic Alice Keach, the lambent wife of the local vicar whose quiet kindness and reassurance helps Birkin rediscover some semblance of purpose outside his work. At the time, Richardson had only starred in three previous movies.
A quick word about the Twilight Time release, though. On one hand, the transfer is one of the most beautiful in their catalog, accentuating Kenneth MacMillan’s painterly cinematography to the point of majesty: haloes of white light glow around the heads of characters lounging in the afternoon sun; the cracks and crannies of the mural jut out in exquisite detail; the countryside seems ripped from a picture book. But on the other hand, the audio track is quite possibly their worst. The volume levels are shot to hell; I repeatedly had to turn my television up to understand quiet conversations. Then when Howard Blake’s admittedly lovely string-heavy soundtrack chimed back in I would have to scramble to turn it back down. I missed entire lines, entire conversations because they were inaudible. And as if to add insult to injury, this might be the first Twilight Time Blu-ray I’ve ever seen which didn’t have subtitles.
Still and all, if you must visit the countryside this holiday season, A Month in the Country will do your heart good.