Blog Directory CineVerse: February 2022

Fighting Hitler with humor

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Last week, our CineVerse group examined Ernst Lubitsch’s now 80-year-old comedy/drama To Be or Not To Be, starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. It’s a film that conjures up a range of thoughts and opinions and not a small amount of controversy considering its comical approach to depicting Nazis. Here’s a summary of our talking points (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here; to listen to the current episode of the Cineversary podcast which spotlights this movie, click here).

Why is this film worth celebrating 80 years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • To be or Not to Be matters because it was bold, groundbreaking, and divisive for its day. This was a movie that wasn’t afraid to tackle a very sensitive subject for 1942: Nazi aggression and the subjugation of Poland.
    • It didn’t shy away from infusing humor into a very dark and timely topic, and it paid the price of that risk-taking by being accused at the time by film critics, Hollywood elites, and others of being offensive, tone-deaf, and in bad taste.
    • Here was a film that dared to depict the Nazis as humanly flawed and comically fallible instead of being inhuman representations of evil incarnate; the bad guys are still vile and reprehensible, but they were also mere mortals capable of fatal ineptitude who could be made to look like clowns.
    • Lubitsch said: “It seemed to me that the only way for people to hear about the miseries of Poland was to make a comedy. Audiences would feel sympathy and admiration for people who could still laugh in the face of their tragedy.”
  • It’s worth celebrating because the comedy is graced that ever-indefinable Lubitsch touch, which meant that the jokes are layered, the laughs are not evoked from low-hanging fruit like slapstick or sight gags, and the humor was often decidedly adult, with thinly-veiled metaphors and double entendres used. As on Jack Benny’s immensely popular radio program, the film also gets a lot of mileage out of running gags, like the repetition of “Heil Hitler,” “So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt, eh,” and Joseph Tura’s delivery of “To Be or Not to Be.”
    • Criterion Collection essayist Geoffrey O'Brien wrote: “Almost no line of dialogue is without a barbed secondary implication; jokes comment knowingly on the jokes that preceded them, adding elements of ironic awareness too discreetly and rapidly for a single viewing to suffice.”
    • As David Kalat said best in his commentary on the DVD/Blu-ray: “The good guys win not because they’re stronger or have better weapons. The good guys win because they have the jokes.”
  • It has stood the test of time thanks to its hybrid design: It works as both a thriller and a comedy, fulfilling ably in both genres. When it aims to tickle the funnybone, it hits a bullseye with most of its jokes and gags. When it shifts into wartime espionage mode, the danger feels real and the knot is pulled tight.
    • Lubitsch also works magic hereby simplifying what could be an otherwise convoluted plot and paring away logic and plausibility for narrative efficiency. For instance, many questions are left unanswered, such as:
      • How and why does Maria become a central figure in the Resistance and how does Sobinski find her and end up in her home?
      • What’s the point of Maria leaving a fake suicide letter signed by Siletsky?
      • What happened to the duplicate copy of professor Siletsky’s papers? Did Maria burn them?
      • What happens to Greenburg? Does he also escape, or is he doomed to die?
    • Likewise, it’s improbable that Joseph would be able to speak perfect German to Ernhardt or be that calm and intrepid under pressure.

In what ways was To Be or Not to Be was influential on cinema, comedy, or popular culture?

  • To Be or Not to Be made a strong impression on Mel Brooks, who remade it in 1982 and also created the 1968 eyebrow-raising comedy The Producers, in which Hitler and his minions are mercilessly parodied. There was a 2008 Broadway play that adapted this story, too.
  • Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds pays homage to this movie, particularly in its third act depicting a plot against Hitler while he attends movie theater, and Paul Verhoeven’s 2006 war drama Black Book features a Jewish female character who becomes a spy for the resistance during World War II, likely taking a cue from Maria in To Be Or Not To Be.
  • Perhaps modern films like Life Is Beautiful, The Dictator, and Jo Rabbit wouldn’t exist without a feature like To Be Or Not To Be helping to pave the way for politically incorrect comedy.
  • On a bittersweet note, the posthumous death by plane crash of Carol Lombard just prior to the theatrical release of this film probably helped elevate her legacy and make fans appreciate her many talents, particularly in the comedy genre.
  • Ponder that Lubitsch’s film would have likely have been inspired to some extent by Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent released two years earlier, which features a similar professor character who turns out to be a villain, as well as by Fritz Lang’s Night Train to Munich (1940), and Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, which was the first feature-length Hollywood film to daringly lampoon Hitler and the fascists.
    • Other motivating predecessors include the Three Stooges’ shorts You Nazty Spy! and I'll Never Heil Again, from 1940 and 1941, which make Nazis and fascists the butt of many jokes. And Lubitsch even riffs on one of his own earlier works, The Shop Around the Corner from 1940, in how he recreates many of those Budapest storefronts and the look of the pedestrians and shopkeepers there, who resemble the people who frequent the streets of downtown Warsaw.

How would this film have been daring, controversial, or envelope-pushing, especially considering its political subtext and the fact that World War II was well underway by the time of this picture’s release?

  • Even though the full facts about Hitler’s final solution and the government-enforced practice of genocide wasn’t widely known to the public at the time this movie was being made, the filmmakers were certainly aware of mass atrocities being committed by the Nazis, the horrible conditions of the Warsaw ghetto in Poland, and the unconscionable suffering that Germany was inflicting on the Polish people and throughout Europe. So the decision to pursue a comedy about Nazis and the invasion of Poland would have been upsetting to many.
    • Remember, too, that the United States had not yet entered into war with Germany or the Axis powers at the time of the film’s production and release. And there was no guarantee that yuks about concentration camps, mass murder, and Hitler walking among a dumbfounded throng of Jewish Poles would resonate among viewers.
    • Deep Focus Review blogger Brian Eggert wrote: “Imagine if a comedy about al-Qaeda terrorists attacking the World Trade Center had gone into production in the summer of 2001 and been released shortly after 9/11. That would be the modern-day equivalent of Lubitsch shooting To Be or Not to Be in Hollywood in late 1941 for a premiere of March 6, 1942.”
  • To Be or Not to Be had the guts to make Nazis fallible and flawed, to strip them of their “unstoppable machine”-like qualities and expose them for the imperfect humans they truly were—a humanizing approach that may have angered some people.
    • Kalat, in his DVD commentary, made the following observation: “Lubitsch finds a way to defeat the Nazis by humanizing them. Understanding them is the only way to defeat them…our heroes understand our foes well enough to infiltrate and impersonate them.”
    • Brian Eggert further posited that: “Lubitsch emphasizes a profound truth indeed—that Nazis were not the superhuman monsters that so many cinematic representations made them out to be. Rather, they were preposterously cruel and deluded human beings, and whoever chose to follow ridiculous figures such as Hitler were equally incompetent. Lubitsch also demonstrated how vulnerable the Nazis could be, an important message to incite U.S. involvement in World War II… Lubitsch’s Nazis are weak-minded and buffoonish people, ever frightened of their overseer, and prone to interrupting conversational lulls with an enthusiastic-if-discomfited ‘Heil Hitler!’…By portraying them as incompetent, Lubitsch strikes a much more severe blow to the Nazi philosophy.”
    • Remember the words of Professor Siletsky: “We're not monsters...Tell me, do I look like a monster?...We're just like other people. We love to sing, we love to dance, we admire beautiful women. We're human.”
    • Recall, as well, the ample blood that soils Siletsky’s clothes when he is shot; it was rare to see blood or gore in a 1940s movie. This image makes us think of Greenburg’s recitation of Shylock from the Merchant of Venice: “If you prick us do we not bleed?” That saying is as true for the enemies as it is for the heroes.
  • This picture is a mashup blend that offers both laughs and thrills, comedy and tragedy, silliness and seriousness, satire and spy story, thespian farce and war movie. The narrative can shift suddenly in tone, disorienting viewers not used to this kind of alternation. It’s far from the funniest movie you’ve ever seen, and it is certainly not the most gripping study in suspense. But it does balance between light and dark tonalities quite deftly and entertainingly. Still, these abrupt tonal transitions won’t delight everyone.
    • In his commentary, Kalat suggests: “The movie isn’t reliable in signposting when it’s changing modes…The audience is consistently manipulated into laughing about things that are not funny and then made to feel self-conscious for having done so.”
  • There are many hints of sex, infidelity, and cuckolding, and the filmmakers consistently use comedic innuendo, double entendres, and farcical bedroom situations, as one would likely expect of a Lubitsch sophisticated adult comedy. There is also a risqué line by professor Siletsky about Maria being “a cheap little…” and we are left to fill in that blank, which of course means "whore." That’s quite the shocking line for 1942, even if it pulls its punch. Ponder, too, how Lubitsch equates Germany’s invasion of Poland with the infiltration of Joseph’s bed by Sobinski.
  • The film is replete with famous quotes that would upset many an applecart, lines like: “What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland,” “We do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping,” “So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt, eh?”, “You might not believe it, but I can drop 3 tons of dynamite into minutes,” and “If we should ever have a baby, I’m not sure I’d be the mother” followed by “I’m satisfied to be the father.”
  • Maria doesn’t pay a price at the conclusion for her flirting or potential infidelities, and she and the pilot remain sympathetic figures despite their philandering. Recall that the last scene suggests that Sobinski isn’t the only man she has a dalliance with; a new unidentified man in uniform gets up to presumably rendezvous with her during Joseph’s latest delivery of Hamlet’s soliloquy.
  • It’s also interesting that the character we loathe the most is professor Siletsky, not necessarily Col. Ehrhardt or Capt. Schultz. Perhaps that’s because Siletsky never makes us laugh, whereas Ehrhardt and Schultz are the butts of many jokes.

What themes, messages, or morals are explored in To Be or Not To Be?

  • Playacting, deception, and the power of theatrical performance. This is a farcical story about mediocre actors who somehow manage to fool their most hostile crowd: Nazis bent on their destruction. Here, artifice requires artistry.
    • Ed Gonzales, a reviewer for Slant Magazine, wrote: “To Be or Not to Be is largely about the interplay between art and reality and it uses modes of performance to challenge the stiffness and authority of a preposterous political regime…Just as Shakespeare gave Hamlet’s contemplation of suicide a political context, Lubitsch similarly offers the actors in his film an existential challenge: Frustrated by their inability to act (shortly before the Nazis invade Warsaw, their anti-Hitler play Gestapo is shut down), the actors take arms against a sea of troubles in order to live the life of the theater vicariously through their mockery of the Nazi movement that seeks to destroy them. Many of the film’s pleasures, then, derive from watching these characters successfully use the tools of the stage (improvisation, sense memory, prosthetics) to successfully subvert the Nazis.”
  • “To be or not to be,” or the juxtaposition of truth versus lies, of authenticity versus fabrication. Fascinatingly, in example after example, the movie gives us facsimiles of the truth, such as the thespians costumed as Nazis, before showing the real things.
    • Brian Eggert further wrote: “By pairing stage actors against Nazis who play the part of monsters, and then suggesting these actors must behave in farcical ways to pass as Nazis and survive, Lubitsch plays with notions of reality and theater, and by the end of his film resolves that the Nazis too are simply actors on a stage. This interplay of reality and theatricality aligns his film’s absurdist Nazi behavior with real life, whereas the Polski troupe’s stage performances are knowingly artificial; still, they’re both gross exaggerations and silly for the viewer, which thereupon delivers a staggeringly refined insult to Nazis. By implying Nazis are just actors on the world stage, Lubitsch discredits their most effective and intimidating weapon, their theatricality, and strikes a staggering blow through the art of cinema.”
  • Don’t underestimate the creativity and cunning of the underdog or the loser, who can overcome the odds with pluck and providence.
  • Exposing frauds for who they really are. The worst phonies—Siletsky and Ernhardt—are revealed as being true charlatans due to their incompetence. But the clever frauds, Joseph and his fellow actors, deceive relatively effectively, although they come close to ruin on several occasions.
  • "If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Greenburg recites this famous Shylock speech from The Merchant of Venice several times in the film, reminding viewers of the fact that real flesh-and-blood human beings – particularly Jews like Greenberg – were suffering at the hands of the Germans. Greenburg is a surrogate here for Lubitsch the director, trying to impress upon audiences in 1942 that the Nazis were treating Jews inhumanely. Greenburg is the film’s voice of conscience, forcing us to reckon with the unfair plight of the Jewish people, the extent of their suffering, and the abominable racist and discriminatory ideology that the Nazis used to justify treating Jews as subhuman.

What is To Be or Not To Be’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • One of its greatest gifts is its ability to so thoroughly satisfy as both a comedy and a suspenseful war film. It takes considerable talent to be able to alternate mood, manner, and method throughout a picture like To Be or Not to Be without completely alienating viewers who most value laughs or without abandoning those who like their espionage and intrigue served savory and warm.
  • Another is the screenplay, by Lubitsch and Edwin Justus Mayer—a story that functions like a finely crafted timepiece. As with an antique watch, which is comprised of a complex system of springs, rotors, gaskets, escapements, balance wheels, and other interrelated intricate parts, To Be or Not to Be relies on precision craftsmanship and a delicate rhythm between what would seem like incompatible components.
    • Consider how meticulously structured this story is, in which the dramatic narrative is commented on so cleverly by the jokes, which have layers upon layers of meaning and resonance, creating a sophisticated style of comedy that doesn’t aim for cheap and simple laughs but instead is designed to make you think deeper as you chuckle along while never forgetting the underlying conflict: that Naziism is at war not only with nations but with humanity itself, and it will take cunning and ingenuity by even the least skilled and talented to help defeat this formidable foe.
  • And we can certainly credit the “Lubitsch touch” with helping to make To Be Or Not To Be so downright smart and entertaining as both a laugher and a knot-twister. – Film critic Richard Christiansen described the famous Lubitsch touch as embracing “a long list of virtues: sophistication, style, subtlety, wit, charm, elegance, suavity, polished nonchalance and audacious sexual nuance,” while Billy Wilder summed it up as “the elegant use of the Superjoke. You had a joke, and you felt satisfied, and then there was one more big joke on top of it. The joke you didn't expect.”
    • As evidenced in so many of his best works, like Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner, Design for Living, and Trouble in Paradise, Lubitsch could marry many different sensibilities and hybridize varied genres and subgenres of cinema with relative ease thanks to his considerable gifts as a master teller of adult stories, his knack for showcasing the dynamism and distances between men and women, and his propensity for exploring the many facets of sexual politics. To Be or Not to Be is the ultimate testament to the man’s many talents.


The ties that bind

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Amanda Kernell’s Sami Blood (2016), an absorbing portrait of a Swedish adolescent who yearns to hide her indigenous bloodline and assimilate into mainstream Swedish society, is a poignant cinematic treatise on racial and gender prejudice that sticks with you long after the credits have rolled. Our CineVerse crew was impressed by the direction, thematic richness, and performances in this film. Here’s a synthesis of our conversation points (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What struck you as memorable, unanticipated, eye-opening, or rewarding about this movie?

  • The impact of this film relies heavily upon the performances of adolescent and child actors, which can be risky if you cast the wrong youngsters for the parts. But lead Lene Cecilia Sparrok and her younger sister Mia Erika Sparrok enthrall us with a credibility and authentic look that make us fully believe in their characters and their stories.
    • Variety critic Guy Lodge wrote: “It’s Sparrok’s quiet, searching debut performance that deserves substantial credit for “Sami Blood’s” delicately modulated tone. Blessed with a still gaze that can look hopefully defiant and utterly adrift all at once, she knots and loosens her body language according to who’s watching Elle-Marja, and how.”
  • The naturalistic cinematography, with many scenes shot in the picturesque outdoors of Sweden, is soul-stirring.
  • While the narrative presents disturbing sequences and uncomfortable, alienating situations involving Elle-Marja, there are also some welcome lighter moments and teenage rite-of-passage scenes that help our heroine feel normal and accepted.
  • The earlier scene where Elle-Marja cuts the reindeer’s ear serves as foreshadowing to a later scene where she is the victim of an ear-marking, suggesting that she and her people are considered as little more than wild animals by the higher-class Swedes.
  • The story is unquestionably told from Elle-Marja’s point of view and is subjectively sensitive to her experiences, as evidenced by the sudden percussive shrillness of the flashbulbs, the sound of the switch being used to whip her back, or the curious appearance and tactile sensation of the seminal fluid on her fingers.
  • The filmmakers aren’t being preachy or biased about Elle-Marja and her decision to leave her native people.
    • According to author Monica Mecsei: “Elle-Marja and her sister Njenna are in the same situation, but they make completely different choices. Elle-Marja desires to pass herself off as a “normal Swede” while Njenna is proud of her Sámi blood, refusing to make any changes. They are two typical attitudes toward the new culture. To be isolated, or to be assimilated? Sami Blood doesn't make value judgments on the options, but just presents the phenomenon to the audience. Neither of them is wrong or right. Young indigenous people face a self-identity crisis which was, is, and can be a universal problem all over the world.”

Major themes

  • The drawbacks of forgetting your roots, abandoning familial and cultural traditions, and denying your racial identity.
  • The subjugation and cultural denigration of a country’s indigenous peoples: a colonialist theme replete in world history.
  • The psychological scarring and damage caused by socially acceptable racism and discrimination.
  • Coming-of-age and the transition from childhood to adulthood, or at least from adolescence to young adulthood.
  • Rebellion and refusing to acquiesce to unjust societal norms.
  • A stranger in a strange land: Elle-Marja has gone AWOL and is determined to integrate within larger Swedish society, but she’s a fish out of water who can’t possibly blend in because of external bigotry and her lack of experience and resources.
  • The sting and shame of feeling like a lower-class social outcast and community pariah, and the extreme difficulties of attempting to climb the social ladder above your assumed class. This unresolved pain is symbolized by her mutilated ear, which bleeds afresh and festers throughout the film.

Similar works

  • The Cuckoo
  • Black Shack Alley
  • Carol’s Journey
  • Mustang
  • King Jack
  • Persepolis
  • I Am Not a Witch
  • The Magdalene Sisters
  • Rabbit-Proof Fence


Cineversary celebrates a killer comedy that turns 80

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

In Cineversary podcast episode #44, host 
Erik Martin honors the 80th anniversary of To Be or Not to Bedirected by Ernst Lubitsch, by interviewing Steve Darnall, host of the Those Were the Days radio show and publisher of Nostalgia Digest magazine. Erik and Steve explore what makes this film both a comedy gem and a gripping wartime thriller as they examine why To Be or Not to Be is deserving of kudos eight decades later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the movie in 2022, and more.
Steve Darnall

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download or subscribe to the Cineversary podcast wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotifyGoogle PodcastsBreakerCastboxPocket CastsPodBeanRadioPublic, and Overcast.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at and email show comments or suggestions to


Loving "Love Story" means never having to say you're sorry for it

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

If you’re hankering for a movie about amore that offers a bit more than the usual affectionate sentiment, look to Love Story, the 1970 weeper that enthralled America for months and created the earworm main theme to end all main themes. Just be forewarned that all the hype heaped upon this film five decades ago may feel like overkill today, when it’s much easier to poke holes in heart-shaped balloons inflated by Hollywood honchos eager to cash in on syrupy romance pictures. Still, Love Story is not without its charms and heartstring tugs, and our CineVerse group found plenty to parse through last week in its exploration in this movie. Here’s a roundup of our prominent conversation points (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What was surprising, unexpected, memorable, or curious about Love Story?

  • At the time, this was one of the biggest box office juggernauts ever, earning, in today’s dollars adjusted for inflation, $641 million; in fact, Love Story ranks number 41 on the all-time (adjusted dollars) box office list.
  • Perhaps the film’s instant and continued success between 1970 and 1971 can partially be attributed to fortuitous sociocultural timing.
    • In an era when many Americans were disillusioned and fatigued by the Vietnam War and the turbulence that ended the 1960s, maybe a straightforward and unapologetic tale of passionate, true love was exactly what audiences were looking for – a romantic escape from a depressing time in American history, even though Love Story is a tragedy and ends on a downbeat note.
    • This film can be seen as a verification that genuine, unconditional love is the most powerful bond human beings can share, which would have been a life-affirming message during a time of violence, hate, distrust, and sociopolitical angst.
    • Remarkably, the filmmakers and characters don’t touch on the political unrest prevalent at that time, including the Vietnam War – despite the fact that they are on the campus of Harvard, where you’d likely expect to see more outspoken views and protests.
  • However, many critics and moviegoers looked unkindly on this film for several reasons:
    • The cloying and repetitive theme song played throughout the picture (note that the score won an Academy Award);
    • Jennifer’s snarky attitude and the sometimes prickly rapport between her and Oliver;
    • the cliché and pretentious line “love means never having to say you’re sorry”, which to some sounded more like an emotionally manipulative marketing tagline (which it was, being used on the film’s poster);
    • overacting and/or underacting from Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw;
    • the ham-fisted and annoyingly obvious class warfare theme hammered home again and again;
    • lack of foreshadowing or build-up to Jennifer’s sickness (other than the fact that the movie opens at the end of the story, with Oliver revealing that his love has died);
    • implausibilities like the lovers not crying or breaking down, as would be expected of any human being, between the time Jennifer’s ailment is revealed and when she succumbs to it.
  • Love Story would have been slightly controversial, or at least attention-getting, because the lovers consider themselves to be atheists.
  • Interestingly, Jennifer’s illness is not disclosed in the film, although it is named in the book (leukemia). This begs the question: Should the filmmakers have been more specific about the terminal illness? Does it diminish the authenticity of the experience to at least not provide more details to the audience about what she is suffering from?
  • The creator of the story, Erich Segal, was asked to pen a novel of his screenplay; the book was released before the movie hit theaters, and it became a major bestseller, helping to drum up significant interest and enthusiasm for the forthcoming film. However, many believe the movie is better than the book.

Major themes

  • Love means never having to say you’re sorry.
    • Actress Ali McGraw said in an interview: “Saying sorry isn't what it's about. It's about really feeling badly for the hurt ... and then absolutely trying never to do it again. So there's a lot of work more than, 'Gee, I'm sorry,' and then scooting outside to get on your bike and ride into the fall leaves or whatever."
  • Life is short, but love is eternal. Oliver and Jennifer feel like star-crossed soulmates who were destined to be together and love one another forever. Oliver will presumably continue to love and miss Jennifer after her death.
  • Opposites attract. Oliver is wealthy and privileged, while Jennifer comes from a working-class family and is a Catholic. Despite their differences and backgrounds, they fall in love and complete one another, although there are arguments, conflicts, and compromises along the way.

Similar works

  • Oliver’s Story, a 1978 sequel starring Ryan O’Neal
  • Terms of Endearment
  • The Way We Were
  • Summer of ‘42
  • Sunshine (1973)
  • The English Patient
  • The Notebook
  • A Walk to Remember
  • The Fault In Our Stars

Other films by Arthur Hiller

  • The In-Laws
  • Silver Streak
  • The Out-of-Towners
  • See No Evil, Hear No Evil


Pastoral family politics

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Ever imagine if Monet, Renoir, or another famous impressionistic painter were able to create a motion picture in their day? The end product might be something like A Sunday in the Country, a 1984 movie directed by Bertrand Tavernier that, while thin on story, is richly textured with sumptuous natural visuals and fascinating dialogue that reveals volumes about its characters while also leaving plenty to the imagination. Our merry band of CineVerse members took a leisurely stroll through this cinematic outing last week and came away impressed, as evidenced by the following recap of our conversation (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What did you find fascinating, unexpected, notable, or fulfilling about A Sunday in the Country?

  • The filmmaking style feels “painterly,” as if we are watching a cinematic version of an impressionistic painting by a master artist. Interestingly, Ladmiral is a painter who deviated from the impressionists of his era, choosing instead to follow a traditionalist style.
    • The scene toward the end where Irene and her father visit the outdoor café and dance, with its movement of characters, array of colors, and cheerful spirit, is perhaps the closest this movie comes to an impressionistic painting.
  • There is no major plot. We simply observe an old man and his children and grandchildren on one day in the summer of 1912. Instead of a traditional narrative with rising and falling action, conflicts and resolution, and a conventional three-act structure, we are shown slice-of-life vignettes within a condensed time frame that “paint a picture,” impressionistically, of three generations of a family.
    • Roger Ebert wrote: “Tavernier never urges his story upon us, and has no great plot to unwind. He simply wants to observe his characters during the course of a long day during which we find that none of them are very happy with their lives…To find comparable attention to the subtle forces within a family, you would have to turn to Yasujiro Ozu, who made almost all of his films about Japanese families. The Japanese term "mono no aware," which suggests a bittersweet awareness of the beauty of life and the inevitability of death, applies to Ozu, and here to Tavernier.”
  • The film features sporadic voiceover narration by an unseen and mysterious third party, offering emotional navigation to the characters and providing commentary on what certain personalities are feeling or thinking.
  • We are shown several dream-like interludes that apparently are memories, fantasies, or thoughts a character is having but which depict something not actually happening in reality: for example, Ladmiral’s son and daughter-in-law and his housekeeper observe his dead body in his bed; Irene envisions her deceased mother who says “Will you stop asking so much of life, Irene?”; and Irene has an unspoken thought that her niece will die prematurely at age 15.

Major themes

  • Family politics, and the complexities of and undercurrents driving familial relationships.
    • Ladrimal is disappointed in his son and makes this dissatisfaction clear in his words and attitude, even though Gonzague tries to please his father and visits him fairly regularly; but Ladrimal’s daughter Irene can do no wrong, even though her life is not settled, she is an impulsive free spirit, she rarely visits, and she questions her father’s artistic choices.
  • Small, assumedly unimportant moments in a person’s life can make a major impact.
  • Self-reflection, personal assessment, and taking stock of one’s life, talents, ambitions, and legacy.
  • It’s never too late to reinvent yourself and make a change, and we can be suddenly inspired by unexpected forces that come into our lives and influence us to invoke new creativity.
    • An anonymous writer on the blog Ripple Effects wrote: “For an old man, every goodbye could be the last. But the final scene appears to turn the tide. Ladmiral goes into his studio, takes down the painting he’s been working on, a still-life subject he’s painted numerous times before and in a style he’s been following all his life. He replaces it with a blank canvas on the easel, sits down, and looks at it ponderously. Like his son’s, his life, too, has been a disappointment to himself…What I see is a slight, nuanced smile on his face. Every blank canvas is a fresh start no matter how old you are.”

Similar works

  • Films by Yasujiro Ozu, including Late Spring, Autumn Afternoon, Early Summer, and Late Autumn
  • On Golden Pond
  • The Farewell
  • About Schmidt
  • At Eternity’s Gate
  • Bienvenue parmi nous
  • The Ballad of Narayama

Other films by Bertrand Tavernier

  • The Clockmaker
  • Round Midnight
  • Daddy Nostalgia
  • The Princess of Montpensier
  • It All Starts Today


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