Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The 10 best Americans-abroad films

1. The Third Man (1949)
For this exercise, I'm ignoring war or spy movies* - it's amazing how much of that stuff Americans are involved in all over the world - but Carol Reed's post-WWII classic based on a script by Graham Green gleefully wades in at number one. Writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) visits Vienna on the invitation of old friend Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, and finds himself in a whole mess of trouble. Welles later acknowledged that the cuckoo clocks in his inimitable speech atop the ferris wheel were traditionally German, not Swiss. (*or archaeology - sorry Indy!)

2. Last Tango in Paris (1972)
Another heavyweight performance, this time from Marlon Brando as a widower in an affair with a young Parisian played by Maria Schneider. They meet flat-hunting in the posh 16th arrondissement, with its views of the double-decker Pont de Bir-Hakeim. Director Bernardo Bertolucci captures desperation and fury, all within sight of a copy of the Statue of Liberty.

3. Barcelona (1994)
Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson visited in Vicky Cristina Barcelona but the hugely underappreciated Whit Stillman beat Woody Allen to the Catalan capital by some 14 years. Stillman married his Spanish wife in the city in 1980 and the American cousins at the centre of his film are smitten by the local women - 'that's one of the great things about getting involved with someone from another country, you can't take it personally,' opines one.

4. Before Sunrise (1995)
In the mid-90s, director Richard Linklater had actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy meet interrailing and spend the night together. Nine years later they were at it again, this time in Paris, where Hawke's character is on a book tour in Before Sunset. Lovely, and rather warming to a certain generation.

5. The Talented Mr Ripley (1999)
Perhaps a closet homosexual with definite fantastical and possibly psychopathic leanings, Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) falls under the spell of spoilt, rich Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) and, crucially, Greenleaf's playboy lifestyle. Italy's beaches and cities have rarely looked more inviting than in Anthony Minghella's adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's psychological thriller.

6. Roman Holiday (1953)
A generation before, Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn were injecting some star charisma into William Wyler's otherwise underpowered comedy romance. The couple pack in all of Rome's sights - who can forget the scene at the Bocca della Verità?

7. Frantic (1988)
Gene Kelly's Technicolor experience as An American in Paris (1951) could hardly have been more different from that of poor Harrison Ford, who finds himself thrown into the French capital's darkest spots when his wife goes missing. Roman Polanski controls the tension superbly, adding Emmanuelle Seigner as an accomplice for good measure.

8. 9 Songs (2004)
While many of these films pit Americans as fish out of water, here young student Margo Stilley wraps her legs round geologist Kieran O'Brien in a musical and sexual journey through a nine-month relationship in London. More here.

9. The Portrait of a Lady (1996)
This post was inspired by a Guardian article about literary Americans abroad that left out Arthur Phillips' Prague, which cheesed me off, but I could hardly omit Henry James, could I? Hal Hartley regular Martin Donovan joins a stellar cast, including John Malkovich and Nicole Kidman at her best as American heiress Isabel Archer touring Europe.

10. Lost in Translation (2003)
I was stuck between this and Paul Bowles adaptation The Sheltering Sky (1990) for the final spot, but we've already got Bertolucci so in come odd couple Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray. Director Sofia Coppola overdid the alienation in her last, Somewhere, but here Tokyo steals the limelight, full as it is of crazy Japanese-speaking Japanese doing crazy Japanese things.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Foxy Elena

In a month's time Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In opens in the UK, starring Elena Anaya opposite Antonio Banderas (pictured). Anaya's first major role came alongside Paz Vega and Najwa Nimri in Julio Medem's Sex and Lucía in 2001. Anaya plays the naughty nanny, Belén, who lends writer Lorenzo porn films starring her mother; the film's central tragedy is wrought when Belén and Lorenzo get together.

Unlike her equally beautiful co-star Vega, Anaya has largely avoided such cod-English comedy films as Spanglish, opting instead for French cinema. She is the heavily pregnant hostage in thriller Point Blank (2010), and appeared across both Mesrine movies (2008).

She's worked before with Almodóvar, in Talk to Her (2002), and returned to Medem for lesbian chamber piece Room in Rome (2010). Here's hoping her latest outing will uncover some grit beneath the wide-eyed features.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Dinner for none?

The way countries view each other can often be a mystery, especially when the reference point is not recognised in one nation. Much of Europe associates Brits with a TV play called Dinner for One (1963). It's an integral part of New Year in Germany and Denmark, but is unknown here. The skit stars May Warden as a rich old lady whose butler, Freddie Frinton, has to stand in for her dead friends at her 90th birthday dinner.

Despite featuring British character actors, it's a German TV production, which may explain its lack of celebrity this side of the Channel. The piece was discovered playing Blackpool in 1962 and presumably appealed because it is near silent - the butler is a tottering drunk by the end as he tries to fulfill his role. Nearly 50 years on, New Year - and Britain - without it would be unthinkable for many Europeans.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Pioneer sleuths

From contemporary women detectives in books and on TV, I've stepped back into the world of their fictional forebears. The first female sleuths didn't exist in real life but on the page, conjured by men and women writers as a means to allow them into a world males may not have gained entry, or simply because the characters remained unnoticed and beyond suspicion.

The heroines featured in Michael Sims' excellent anthology The Penguin Book of Victorian in Crime - out now - are feminist antecedents and many of their concerns resonate today: the case of The Mysterious Countess (by WS Hayward, 1864?) is suddenly accelerated when a policeman sells information to a newspaper, while the narrator of The Unknown Weapon (Andrew Forrester, 1864), Mrs G, notes, 'the detective force, many of whom, though very clever, are equally simple, and accept a plain and straightforward statement with extreme willingness'.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Three great European artist's museums

1. Musée Gustave Moreau, Paris
Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) converted this space - pictured - to show off his fantastic work, an example of which was used recently on the cover of Roberto Bolaño's gargantuan novel 2666. The artist's apartment and Grand Tour souvenirs are preserved as he wanted, while paintings fold out of wall-mounted holders.
14 rue de la Rochefoucauld, 9th; closed Tuesdays. €5.

2. Sir John Soane Museum, London
On a grander yet not less intimate scale, architect Soane (1753-1837) modelled this incredible venue to house his collection of books, sculpture and drawings for 'amateurs and students'. An act of parliament preserved the space after his death as close as possible to his intentions.
13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, WC2; open Tuesday-Saturday. Free.

3. Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen
The name Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844) may not ring any bells but his grand sculptures can be found in many of Europe's major cities. Denmark's oldest gallery, above, was specifically designed to house the oeuvre he bequeathed to the state - the sculptor's grave is in the central courtyard.
2 Bertel Thordvaldsens Plads, Slotsholmen; closed Mondays. 40kr.

If you happen to read this and can recommend other great artist's museums around the world in the comments below, please do!

Monday, 11 July 2011

Louisiana, Denmark

Apologies for the relative silence here, I went to Denmark where I visited this beautiful, coastal gallery (among other things, which I'll come back to). A 40-minute train ride from Copenhagen, Louisiana's collection includes work by Frank Auerbach, Per Kirkeby and Peter Doig, with a special emphasis on Alberto Giacometti. Outdoors sculpture is from Alexander Calder (pictured above), Jean Arp, Max Ernst and Henry Moore (below), and there are temporary exhibitions, too: architecture show Living and David Hockney's iPad drawings run until autumn.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Film find: Roy Andersson's debut

Artificial Eye seems to have slipped out a DVD release for Roy Andersson's debut feature film from 1970 but it's well worth picking up, for fans of the quirky Swedish director and non-initiates alike. A Swedish Love Story (pictured) is an ostensibly simple first romance, with strains of adult disappointment, and class and culture clashes. Five years later, Andersson's second, Giliap, was less successful and he didn't make another full-length movie for 25 years.

Andersson aficionados will be looking for deadpan elements familiar from his second coming - Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007), funded by his ad work - for instance, a sketch involving the installation of a pair of saloon-style swing doors. A Swedish Love Story is notable, too, for its sound design, from the very opening scenes, involving a motorbike on the open road, and a family gathering interrupted by a barking dog and insistent recorder practice.

Some viewers may be surprised by the great performances Andersson elicits, notably from his young cast. Inspired by the Czech New Wave, Andersson's own influence can most recently be seen in such films as Ruben Östlund's Involuntary and O'Horten by Bent Hamer, and here the debt Lucas Moodysson owes is obvious. The top image also reminds me of the Dardennes' L'enfant (below):