Action/Adventure Drama Foreign Language Romance


Napoleon: 10 unmissable highlights from Abel Gance's five-and-a-half-hour  masterpiece | BFI

In 1927, the days of silent film were coming to an end, but some brilliant directors sent it out in style. William Wellman’s Wings and F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise landed the first-ever Academy Awards, while in The Soviet Union Sergei Eisenstein’s October hit the screens. But a French film towered even over that mighty company in ambition, scope, and enduring fascination: Writer/Director/Producer Abel Gance’s Napoléon.

The plot: Well, take a deep breath, because this 5 1/2 hour epic covers a lot of ground (and incredibly, Gance wanted to make it only the first of a series of six movies!). The story begins when young Napoleon (Vladimir Roudenko) is an eccentric, bullied schoolboy, already brilliant at strategy and tactics as shown by his triumph at a massive, extended, snowball fight. He grows into an impecunious, unappreciated young man (Albert Dieudonné), with little to comfort him other than his loving family of origin in Corsica. The French Revolution erupts, and Danton (Alexandre Koubitzky), Robespierre (Edmond Van Daële), and Marat (Antonin Artaud) try to guide its fractious, passionate supporters, while Napoleon’s life is turned upside down by political events, forcing him into a dramatic escape from Corsica. But fate finally smiles on Napoleon when he is given command of the artillery at the Siege of Toulon, defeating the British and becoming a hero of the revolution. Returning to Paris and enmeshed in political intrigue as The Revolution devolves into The Terror, he finds time to romance the bewitching Joséphine de Beauharnais (Gina Manès), before being promoted to head the French Army in Italy, leading to a spectacular final battle against his country’s enemies. (Insert sound of reviewer pausing to catch his breath). But those are just the highlights of this mammoth cinematic event.

The Many Lives of Abel Gance's 'Napoleon' - The New York Times

Everything about this movie is on an epic scale, the performances, the battles, the artistry, and the themes. And yet it’s in no way ponderous or pretentious; indeed it’s tremendously fun to watch, containing thrilling action sequences, delightful moments of comic relief, and eye-catching eroticism. The best way to see this film if ever you get the chance is on a big screen with a live orchestra. But though I suppose it’s a sin, you can still appreciate many of its virtues on a smaller screen.

The movie is also unforgettable because of Gance’s creativity as a filmmaker, as he fluidly shows off innovation after innovation in multiple exposure, triptych photography, fast cutting, special effects, cameras strapped to horses, and more. He was such an influential filmmaker that you will many times recognize moments that were echoed or consciously copied in subsequent films. My own favorite of these is the scene in which before a life or death battle, Napoleon confronts the ghosts of The Revolution, which almost perfectly prefigures Aragorn doing the same in the Paths of the Dead scene in The Two Towers.

Napoleon (1927) | The ominous ghosts of Saint-Just, Robespie… | Flickr
The Lord Of The Rings' Army Of The Dead Explained

Gance cut and re-cut Napoléon many times over the years. The original Paris release was 4 hours (which I suspect is about the right length as the 5 1/2 hour version has some slow spots). In one of the most astonishing feats ever in cinematic restoration, historian Kevin Brownlow painstakingly reassembled the film with input from Gance and financial support from Francis Ford Coppola. That preserved this treasure of the silent era for future generations, earning Brownlow an honored place in film buff heaven.

Foreign Language Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

Les Yeux Sans Visage

In the decades immediately following the war, French film makers didn’t produce many horror movies, but when they did they took more risks than studios in other countries who simply revived classic monsters or reworked hoary ghost stories. Among the most compelling and influential of such productions shocked audiences when it was released in 1960: Les Yeux Sans Visage.

The story opens with a shot of a lone woman, played by the elegant Euro-superstar Alida Valli, driving down a dark highway in fear. The audience worry for her: Is she being pursued? Can she please get away? But then the film roils our emotions for the first of many times by showing us that in fact “our vulnerable heroine” is on her way to dump a mutilated corpse into the river. As the bizarre story unfolds, we learn that Valli’s character is the slavishly devoted partner of the brilliant Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a surgeon who is guilt-wracked over a car accident that disfigured his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob, who impressively manages to convey rich emotion while wearing a smooth mask). But if Génessier can capture a similar enough looking woman and force her to undergo a radical surgery, could a face transplant restore Christiane’s beauty? Grade A+ shocks and chills follow.

French director Georges Franju made this one of a kind horror film with a talented group of artists who implemented his vision. The legendary Boileau-Narcejac writing team adapted Jean Redon’s novel, implementing substantial changes to make the story more cinematic, and, approvable by censors (no mean feat in those days). Maurice Jarre composed the score and the famously innovative Eugen Schüfftan contributed pristine cinematography. Various film critics have placed the stunning result in the tradition of fantastique, surrealism, poetic realism, and even German-style Expressionism (even though it’s nowhere near as experimental as Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). I don’t know enough about the history of French film to arbitrate that debate, so I will use the less cultured term Art House Horror to roughly categorize this movie.

Les Yeux Sans Visage recalls Suspiria in that the visuals rather than the plot largely drive the movie and command the viewer’s attention. Dr. Génessier’s lair, to which the kidnapped young women are taken, is one of cinema’s most terrifying “second locations”, with ferocious dogs in weirdly shaped cages, tortuous passageways, and an underground surgical suite where you would never want to be a patient (roses for production design and art direction to Marie and Auguste Capelier). The horrifying, deathly, beautiful, dreamlike, series of images of this film’s last five minutes may never leave your mind.

At the time of its release, Les Yeux Sans Visage was not universally appreciated, but its reputation has deservedly soared since. Among its artistic descendants are Halloween, Face/Off, and yes, that Billy Idol song.

Foreign Language Horror/Suspense

La Maschera del Demonio

American film fans probably associate Italy first with spaghetti westerns, and next with romances or white telephone films. Few realize that Bel Paese is also the source of some chilling horror fare, including the 1960 film that put Mario Bava on the map: La Maschera del Demonio.

The story opens with a witch (Barbara Steele, in the role that launched her as a genre star) being burned at the stake by a mob of pious, torch wielding, medieval villagers who seem like many other things in this movie to have escaped from a 1930s Universal monster picture (which Bava visibly adores). In a horrific sequence, they brand her with Satan’s mark and then nail a metal mask on her face and also on that of her malevolent henchman. She of course promises that she will rise again to take vengeance. Centuries later, two men stumble into a crypt and discover an ancient stone coffin and, well, you can guess much of the plot from there (again, especially if you watched the 1930s Universal monster movies).

Bava had done uncredited directing by this point in his career, but was mainly known as a cinematographer. Here, he is officially the director, and turns in one of the most atmospheric, visually stunning entries in the horror genre. He respectfully echoes the classics but adds his own sensibility and enormous technical skill to create a landmark in the genre and in Italian cinema more generally.

The best way to recommend La Maschera del Demonio might be to simply post dozens of photos. Part of why Bava influenced so many directors was his world-class visual sense: where to put the camera, where and when to move it, and how to create images that rivet an audience. In this respect, La Maschera del Demonio recalls two of my other film recommendations in the horror/thriller genre, Les Yeux Sans Visage and Vampyr. The movie is also flat out scary, with suspenseful moments where you want to look away yet also can’t not watch.

There are multiple versions of this film, for two reasons. First, some of the violence — jolting even by today’s standards — was edited out in some countries (indeed, the UK banned the film entirely). Second, it’s an Italian film, so there was no sound recording on set. The actors were likely speaking different languages, and the language for each target audience was inserted in post-production (The multiple English “dubbed” versions of the film are pretty smooth, so it appears that many of the actors were doing their lines in that language on set). Probably the best version to watch is the completely unedited Italian language version, but the next best is the only slightly edited US version that Samuel Z. Arkoff and Roger Corman released under the titles “Black Sunday” and “Mask of Satan”. You can legally watch that version legally and for free right here.

Action/Adventure Comedy Foreign Language

Ernest & Celestine

I received some nice notes from parents who enjoyed watching my recommendation A Cat in Paris with their kids (as well as from some non-parents who enjoyed it just for themselves). So I return this week to the same terrain with another absolutely charming French-language animated film that was re-dubbed for American audiences: Ernest & Célestine (French/Belgian title Ernest et Celestine).

Based on the popular illustrated children’s books by Gabrielle Vincent, the film relates the tale of two communities that fear and distrust each other. Above ground live the bears, who tell their little children about the mouse tooth fairy who will leave them a coin under their pillow in exchange for a lost tooth, but in their hearts loathe mice (except of course when they want to eat them). Below ground live the mice, who steal the bear teeth to compensate for the loss of their precious incisors. A soulful young mouse named Celestine rebels against a mandated career in dentistry, dreaming instead of becoming an artist. Meanwhile, a ne’er do well bear named Ernest is struggling to make ends meet. Fate brings this mis-matched pair together in a daring robbery spree that advances both of their goals, but also puts the police forces of both worlds on their track.

The film has multiple laugh out loud moments, but mainly it’s a sweet 79 minute smile fest. The joy of friendship and the thrill of rebelling against unfairness take center stage. The animation is marvelous, particularly the surge of color that erupts as Ernest and Celestine’s friendship grows concurrent with the coming of spring.

Although its heroes are a pair of robbers, the film is highly moral. Their victims are an avaricious married couple for whom we feel no sympathy (He sells little bears sugary candy and she sells them replacement teeth after their originals rot away). Even more importantly, the film sends a wonderful message about the power of friendship and understanding to overcome prejudice between groups.

As with a Cat in Paris, the dubbers of the American version did not spare expense in picking the voice actors: Lauren Bacall, Paul Giamatti, William H. Macy, Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman, Forest Whitaker and Jeffrey Wright all essay their parts with gusto. Also on hand is a rising 12-year old talent, namely a pre-Interstellar Mackenzie Foy, who voices our heroine. At the other end of life’s journey, with sadness I note that this was my beloved Bacall‘s last film.

This warm and entertaining movie deservedly carried off a boatload of awards. It’s superlative viewing for the whole family.

Foreign Language Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

The Hands of Orlac

The idea that a possession or even more creepily a body part of a dead person can take over the life of its living owner has appeared in fairy tales and ghost stories for centuries. In cinema, the touchstone story of this sort is Maurice Renard’s 1920 novel Les Mains d’Orlac, which has been adapted to the screen many times, including in both films I am recommending: The 1924 Austrian and 1935 US version of The Hands of Orlac (The latter is sometimes titled Mad Love).

The story concerns gifted pianist and composer Paul Orlac, whose hands are severely damaged in an accident. He survives his injuries, but the surgeon must replace his hands with those of a recently executed murderer. As Orlac and his devoted lady love Yvonne attempt to put their lives back together, the murders start again, and Orlac begins to suspect that his new hands are driving him to commit horrible crimes.

The 1924 version is a silent film directed by Robert Wiene and starring Conrad Veidt, who will be familiar as principals of the all-time cinema classic Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which I recommended here. Like that famous film, the Hands of Orlac is skillfully made in the expressionist style and is anchored by striking visuals and Veidt’s uncanny ability to convey emotion without dialogue. The film was recently restored with a newly composed soundtrack and became deservedly popular on the classic film festival circuit.

The 1935 version is a talkie that changes the story substantially in an effective way. Here, the surgeon is the central character and is driven by his lust for Orlac’s wife rather than any desire to help the composer. This was Peter Lorre’s first American film and he’s magnetic as a villain who is loathsome in some ways and pitiable in others. I like this version even better than the original because of Lorre’s strong performance, director Karl Freund’s visual sensibilities and the tighter pacing.

Here is a short promotional film made for the US release of the 1935 version. It’s more than a traditional trailer because while Lorre was a big star in Germany, Hollywood had to introduce him to American audiences.

Action/Adventure Foreign Language

A Cat in Paris (Une Vie de Chat)

I like to recommend films for kids every now and then. Accordingly, allow me to point you to a charming 2010 Oscar-nominated French animated film originally titled Une Vie de Chat that was subsequently re-voiced using English language actors as A Cat in Paris.

The titular cat of the film is Dino, who lives a double life. By day he is the beloved pet of a little girl named Zoe. But at night he makes a daring (and amusing) journey across the neighborhood to the flat of Nico, who is a (what else?) cat burglar. The two conduct daring robberies until dawn, when Dino races back to Zoe’s bed. Zoe very much needs Dino because she has been so traumatized by the murder of her policeman father that she has lost the ability to speak. This frustrates her grieving mother Jeanne, who is a senior police detective. Jeanne is trying to track down her husband’s fearsome killer as well as the burglar who is stealing precious jewels across the city. She has no idea that the two mysteries will become interwoven. The stage is set for suspense and excitement, as well as the possibility of healing both for Zoe and Jeanne.

The snazzy, jazzy animation is somewhat impressionistic but not so much that children will be confused. Nico’s movements and figure show that he is at heart as much a cat as Dino. Through some artful drawing and script writing, Jeanne, initially seeming to be on the steely side, is revealed in a scene where she practices martial arts to have a bit of the cat in her as well, albeit hidden under emotional scar tissue. This feline connection ties Dino, Zoe, Nico and Jeanne together thematically and artistically in a way that makes the resolution of the story highly satisfying (even if you are more of a dog person).

I watched this movie with three little boys who enjoyed it as an exciting story, but I think I would recommend it even more for little girls. The struggles to understand each other that mothers and daughters can have are well brought out, and Jeanne (voiced by the great Marcia Gay-Harden in the English language verson) is a terrific role model as a wounded but also strong and brave woman. Jeanne chides her daughter at times but when the chips are down, she protects her with inspiring ferocity.

Roses to Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol for their artistry and for their ability to craft a film that parents and children can enjoy together. A Cat in Paris delivers drama, excitement, sweetness and laughter in a pleasing combination that will put a smile on your little one’s face and quite probably yours as well.

Action/Adventure Foreign Language Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

Män Som Hatar Kvinnor


The left-wing Swedish author Stieg Larsson had a strange and remarkable life. As a teenager, he witnessed some of his friends commit gang rape, and was haunted thereafter both by guilt about his failure to intervene and the omnipresence of violence against women. As a journalist he was unknown outside of Sweden when he died suddenly at the age of 50, but soon became one of the most widely read authors on Earth when his Millenium triology was posthumously published. The first filmed adaptation of Larsson’s crime novels is the unforgettable 2009 Swedish television mini-series Män Som Hatar Kvinnor.

Though known as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” to Americans, the original Swedish title actually translates as “Men who Hate Women”, which better describes what this film is about: a ferocious, unforgettable, superheroine battling some of the slimiest and scariest misogynists in film history (which is saying something).

Noomi Rapace knocked the film world on its ear with her four-barreled performance as Lisbeth Salander, a social misfit with a history of trauma, a genius for computer hacking, and an invincible survival instinct. Events bring Salander together with crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist, nicely underplaying his part), who is attempting to solve the long-ago disappearance of a little girl in a remote Swedish village that is icy in more ways than one. Along the way they encounter enormous human ugliness (almost all of it male), perplexing clues, and life-threatening risk.

Having not read Larsson’s books, I cannot evaluate the faithfulness of Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel’s screenplay to the original story. But I certainly aver that it’s a fine bit of writing, rounding out each character and having them bounce off each other in ways that advance the story. The relationship between Salander and Blomkvist is particularly refreshing because it completely reverses the gender role conventions of the genre. The mystery/thriller elements are also fairly well-done, keeping the audience puzzling over the solution at times and on the edge of their seat at others.


As photographed by Eric Kress, Northern Sweden is a bleak and lonely physical environment populated by bleak and lonely people, amongst whom some true monsters can easily hide. The film could easily have been a downer if not for the breathtaking power of Salander’s character and Rapace’s performance. Multi-layered female roles are sadly uncommon in movies; the worldwide embrace of Lisbeth Salander shows that audiences are hungry for more.

p.s. This review is based on the 180 minute version that played on Swedish television (later edited down into a shorter film for release in theaters). The 2011 English-language remake has a bigger budget with bigger stars (including a miscast Daniel Craig as Blomkvist) and is certainly a polished piece of work, but not quite as effective as the original.

Drama Foreign Language Horror/Suspense



When movie aficionados think of Japan, their minds typically turn to Akira Kurosawa. That’s understandable, as one could make a plausible case for him being the best director in the history of cinema. But Kurosawa is far from the only brilliant filmmaker to hail from the Land of the Rising Sun. Another is writer-director Kaneto Shindô, the creative force behind Onibaba.

Shot in lustrous black and white under demanding conditions in 1964, Onibaba is a primal, sensual and eerie story of human beings struggling to survive. Emphasizing the mythological nature of the tale and its universal themes, the two central characters do not even have names. The older woman and her young daughter-in-law eke out a living in a swamp by murdering unfortunate soldiers who are lost or are fleeing the battles that rage across 14th century Japan. Strong, complex women characters were one of Shindô’s hallmarks, and he chose brilliant actors here to essay the roles: Nobuko Otowa (his real-life wife) and Jitsuko Yoshimura.

Onibaba (1964) | The Criterion CollectionInto this small, brutal world eventually comes a disruptive force, an ex-soldier played by Kei Satô who informs the women that the link between them is gone: the older woman’s son is dead and the younger woman is therefore now a widow. The ex-soldier moves into the swamp, while keeping a lustful eye on the young woman, whose own uncontrollable sexual yearnings are memorably dramatized by her racing through the tall, undulating susuki grass (truly, the grass forest is the film’s fourth character). The older woman is consumed both by her own sexual frustration and her fear that the young woman will leave her, ending the bloody partnership that allows her to survive. So she concocts an unusual scheme to disrupt the relationship, which backfires as the movie takes a supernatural turn that will resonate with those viewers who are familiar with Buddhist folklore. - Review for Onibaba (Masters of Cinema)This is a raw film about how human beings’ animal nature emerges under harsh conditions. On display are unbridled lust, jealousy, greed and violence. Even the way the characters eat suggests animality. Hikaru Hayashi’s one-in-a-million score, a mix of Taiko, jazz and ghostly notes from wind instruments, is the perfect marriage of music with celluloid. Kudos are also in order for cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda for achieving technical brilliance on a hot, rainy and swampy set (It was so brutal that Shindô allegedly refused to pay the rebellious crew unless they finished the shoot). Like Saed Nikzat, Kuroda has the confidence to hold a still long shot and let the audience experience the environment and characters rather than forcibly directing our attention by moving from one quick cut to another. This is especially effective in his hypnotic, sensual images of the ever-swaying susuki grass forest.

Although the film is perhaps 10 minutes too long, Onibaba is completely original and fascinating. It’s also rather unsettling in the best artistic sense of that word. To fully enjoy this classic of Japanese cinema, try to get your hands on the gorgeous Criterion Collection re-issue.

Drama Foreign Language

A Time for Drunken Horses

A Time For Drunken Horses review | GamesRadar+

I remember the Kurdish area on the Iran/Iraq border as a land of stunning beauty and inordinate risk. No movie captures both realities better than A Time for Drunken Horses. Made by then-unknown Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi in 2000, it’s the first widely-released film in the Kurdish language, one of many virtues that help it bring alive this part of the world in an authentic way.

The Kurdish villagers (most of whom Ghobadi had play themselves on screen) eke out an existence by smuggling goods back and forth across the snowy, mountainous border. In addition to avoiding border guards who mete out lethal summary punishments, the smugglers must also scramble to evade armed bandits who raid their caravans. Crushing poverty is the lot even of those smugglers who succeed, but they are too economically desperate to abandon their dangerous business. The film’s plot centers on an orphaned family led by a heroic 12-year old boy named Ayoub. He provides for his siblings by smuggling, but his profits are too small to save his deformed, pained, and ill brother Medi. Though an operation will only extend rather than save Medi’s life, Ayoub takes on increasingly dangerous work out of love for his sickly brother.

This is an achingly sad film that tells a painful story in an unsparing fashion (Analogies to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves are inevitable and accurate). But it’s watchable because of the astonishing performances of the young actors and the inspirational courage and love of the family upon whom the story centers. As a director, Ghobadi is wise enough to never descend into mawkishness or to idealize the moral character of the poor, some of whom are portrayed here as greedy and conniving. Nor does he make the mistake of some films of this sort by lecturing the audience (e.g., by having some character deliver an earnest speech about the callousness of wealthy Westerners). Rather, he lets the audience feel their own emotions and draw their own conclusions about the characters’ bleak lives.

The Film Sufi: "A Time for Drunken Horses" - Bahman Ghobadi (2000)

Saed Nikzat’s cinematography captures the harsh gorgeousness of the region. Nitzat also, wonderfully, lets the camera linger in extended shots so that viewers can immerse themselves in the events portrayed rather than have their attention jerked around by constant jump cuts and close ups. The camerawork makes watching this film at times feels like a melancholy form of meditation.

A Time for Drunken Horses is a powerful piece of cinematic art that deservedly raised the profile of Iranian film worldwide. It will not make you happy, but it will stay with you in a way that is precious beyond words.

Foreign Language Horror/Suspense


Some film historians consider Carl Theodor Dreyer cinema’s most visionary director. His talent is on vivid, memorable display in the pioneering 1932 horror classic Vampyr.

The story, which Dreyer and co-writer Christen Jul adapted in part from the writings of Sheridan Le Fanu of Carmilla fame, concerns a student of the occult named Allan Grey. Grey arrives at a French town with a blank expression on his face that suggests he might be dreaming. He checks into a small hotel and is startled when a strange man enters his room and gives him a package “to be opened upon my death”. Grey wanders around the hotel, where he encounters a creepy doctor and his elderly female companion, as well as dancing shadows and a one-legged old soldier. Travelling through the town, Grey witnesses the murder of the strange man, leading him to open the package. It contains a book relating the story of the vampyr, one of which is currently menacing the village. The vampyr’s victims include a lovely young woman who catches Grey’s eye and whom he wants to save. As Grey tries to battle the fiend and its accomplices, he experiences disorienting visions and mysterious events that may daze the viewer as well, but at the same time will compel attention.

As the film was destined for release in France, Germany, and England, Dreyer kept dialogue to a minimum to avoid language challenges. Instead, he tells the story through unforgettable images: A strange metal sculpture against cloudy skies, an inside-the-coffin view of a live burial, a mysterious figure with a scythe, a relentless downpour of deadly flour, the visible carnal hunger of an incipient vampyr, and shadows that move independently of their casters. The novel visual effects are many, including double-exposure, shooting through cheese cloth and other trickery.

No film I have seen quite captures the inner logic of nightmares as well as Vampyr. In our scary dreams, events often seem nonsensical, yet we encounter characters who are completely undisturbed at the maddeningly illogical proceedings. They proceed in their own bizarre course and we proceed along with them because we have no choice but to obey the rules of our nightmare. That is the journey on which this film takes the audience, and it’s completely original and masterfully executed.

It’s a tribute to Dreyer’s directorial skills that he got effective performances out of an almost entirely amateur cast, including colorful bon vivant Nicolas Louis Alexandre, Baron de Gunzburg who bankrolled the project and appears under the name Julian West. The other critical ingredient is the groundbreaking camerawork of the legendary Rudolph Maté. The resulting film is probably too “arty” for some tastes, but most viewers will find it stays with them for a long time.

p.s. The public domain version of this film is available for free on Internet Archive and is watchable, but you will enjoy yourself much more if you view the Criterion Collection restored version, which is leagues better in terms of visual quality.