Midwinter dreams

6th December 1996 at 00:00


Robin Buss sees two of this Christmas season's magical films.

There is no difficulty in choosing a Christmas film as a treat for the young: the distributors put out a fine bunch of family movies around half-term and we still have Roald Dahl's Matilda and the live-action 101 Dalmatians, which will be arriving with the holiday itself. But what about slightly older children, who have started to outgrow Dahl and dalmatians? One can pack them off to the new Star Trek or any similar product suffering from too much heavy artillery and a bad case of special effects; but it doesn't seem to have much to do with Christmas, really, does it?

Luckily, this year, there are two films that have just the right mixture of enchantment and colour, plus a hint of virtue about them, to make them ideal for the season. The first is Adrian Noble's A Midsummer Night's Dream, a film inspired by his production at Stratford two years ago - a deliberately modernist staging that tried to ditch some of the trappings of Victorian fairyland or art-school camp (the fate of the play in earlier film versions), by using a bare stage hung with lampbulbs, and four doors, detached from any supporting architecture, which might have been left over from an absurdist drama by Ionesco or Adamov. I saw it with a group of Russian film-makers, who were not terribly impressed.

Oddly enough, on the screen, this deliberate staginess works better than it did on stage. Noble has framed Shakespeare's dream in that of a young boy (Osheen Jones, who was interviewed in The TES by Michael Church on November 22), an invisible observer who watches the play unfold in the rooms of a house and beyond them on the stage of the Stratford production, an ill-defined and suitably dream-like space.

There are also passing visual references to the sort of fictional characters who might inhabit the imagination of such a boy. The verse is finely spoken and, in contrast to the sparse sets, the costumes are lavish. The comedy, though nothing can make it funny for a modern audience, is well done and faintly amusing. All in all, this is an enjoyable film, with a magic of it own.

Jacques Demy's Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) was made in 1963 and has just been re-released in a superb new print. Demy knew that the original Eastmancolour would fade and in the 1980s acquired the rights to the film, in order to make a new print from three colour-graded black-and-white negatives. After his death in 1990, his widow, Agnes Varda, carried on with the project, which also involved restoration of the sound and remixing in Dolby stereo. The outcome of this labour of love is a print which is probably better than the one shown on the film's first release.

The story is banal: a young girl (Catherine Deneuve, in her first major role) falls in love with a garage mechanic (Nino Castel-nuovo); when he leaves for military service in Algeria, she discovers that she is pregnant and has to choose between fidelity to the man she loves or marriage to the likeable, but dull middle-class suitor favoured by her mother.

Genevieve's dilemma is very like that of Fanny in Marcel Pagnol's "Marseille trilogy" of the 1930s: the originality of the film is not in the plot, but in the fact that this is a musical, in which all the dialogue is sung (to music by Michel Legrand) and nothing is spared in catering for Demy's weakness for pastel colours, sugary costumes and tender feelings, above all nostalgia.

The result is a unique blend of the commonplace and the ethereal - unique, because even Demy never achieved it again, though he tried three years later with Les Demoiselles de Rochefort. Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, a confection as anti-naturalistic as one could imagine (yet one of the few films of its period even to mention the Algerian war), disarms criticism in much the same way as Dickens's A Christmas Carol.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is on general release. Les Parapluies de Cherbourg opens on December 20 in London at the Barbican, Screen on the Hill, Curzon Mayfair and Filmhouse Richmond

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