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Thursday, September 10, 2015

SAIKAKU ICHIDAI ONNA / THE LIFE OF OHARU (1952)

The story of a fallen woman, who falls and falls and falls. But under Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi, the classic sad-sister elements are ennobled into high drama, and even higher cinema. Framed in a long flashback as an ill, middle-aged Oharu contemplates her past while visiting a temple, Mizoguchi’s remarkable control allows the film’s slow rhythms to move things along with deceptive swiftness. Oharu’s troubles begin at court where she spurns an arranged marriage for love with a man below her station. The man is executed; Oharu and her parents exiled. Next time, her father arranges to sell Oharu for breeding. She’s to be concubine to a rich man with a barren wife. But success is short lived. So too a brief moment of happiness as wife to a handsome, caring entrepreneur. And there are three more levels of purgatory to get thru (in a downward trajectory) before she’s working the streets in a rented kimono. It’s hard to figure out just how Mizoguchi keeps this from turning into soap opera or The Perils of Pauline, or perhaps Douglas Sirk. But his detailed eye and matter-of-fact multi-plane staging (a special gift of Japanese helmers who edit with the assistance of sliding panel doors, boxy apartment construction and narrow streets with circumscribed views) never settles for easy sentiment. OHARU may not have the transcendence of his next film, UGETSU/’53, but it has a power of its own.

DOUBLE-BILL: A woman’s place in a restricted society, and Mizoguchi’s technical finesse with long takes and elaborate tracking shots, make Max Ophüls’ THE EARRINGS OF MADAME D . . ./’53 not such a stretch for a Double-Bill.

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