Parkas, mittens and earmuffs can only do so much to starve off the imposing weight of winter. Many of us suffer, in some form or another, from seasonable depression and it’s easy to stay in bed all day instead of facing the dark and cold that comes during the winter months. Not all of us can afford vacations to warmer places, so all we can do is live vicariously through movies. So, without any further ado, here is a list of five films that will transport you to warmer lands and let you forget for a second the awful conditions of winter. What are your favourite films to help you forget the cold?
Tabu – A Story of the South Seas (F.W. Murnau, 1931)
Location: Bora Bora, Tahiti
Perhaps Murnau’s most poetic work, Tabu – A Story of the South Seas blends documentary style, Tahiti and a story of forbidden love in this late silent film. It would also prove to be Murnau’s last film as he would die in a car accident the year of the film’s release. This is perhaps the most beautiful black and white film about the tropics, and offers an impressionistic vision of the beautiful locale. The film’s narrative is one that draws heavily on local customs, which become the source of conflict for our star-crossed lovers. Robert S. Flaherty, who had worked with F.W. Murnau on the film and helped direct the opening sequence felt that the film was overtly plotted and westernized; his involvement in the project was heavily minimized in the majority of the production as a result. Flaherty was not wrong, and to call this film a documentary would be heavily misleading but that does not remove from its ability to dazzle years later. Though there are essential problems with the exoticization of cultures different from ours, the simplicity and universality of Murnau’s narrative evokes stories that are familiar to all of us. His characters feel real and sincere, and the locale – though perhaps over-mythologized, does not feel like the naively innocent paradise it is so often portrayed in during this era (see: Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). Murnau seems all-together aware of these stereotypes, and ironically plays on these concepts by dividing the film into two chapters: Paradise and Paradise Lost. If you’ve seen and loved this film, may I also recommend Miguel Gomes’ dazzling homage to Murnau’s masterpiece, released earlier this year, which is also titled Tabu.
To Catch a Thief (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955)
Location: The French Riviera
Often cited as being one of Alfred Hitchcock’s “slightest” films, this is a thriller in the strictly sexy sunshine kind of way. Cary Grant is a reformed jewel thief who is being accused of a new string of robberies, and he must find the real thief in order to prove his innocence. Of course, the most memorable portions of the film have very little to do with this rather flimsy plot and the main focus is on the sexy exchanges between Grant and Kelly. This is perhaps the most luminous of Hitchcock’s films, and the sparkling sea sets the tone for the film’s colour scheme and demands its cast to be the perfect shade of tan. It is hard not to have fun with a film like this, which flaunts such overt dialogue as “You want a leg or a breast?” which is quite obviously not about their picnic food. Though often considered a minor Hitchcock, as it lacks the menace and suspense of his greatest works, the film nonetheless engages with many of his staples of perversion. The slightness of the false accusations actually seems to point to a perverse desire by the characters to have committed the crimes they are accused of, even though they remain innocent. They are, in a way, in denial of their true sexual desires and can barely contain them as the dialogue suggests. They are on the brink of coming through, and in many ways, they want to let go of all inhibitions. The sparkling sea mirrors quite directly the sparkling diamonds that are central to the plot, and the heat of the Riviera the steamy chemistry that exists between Grant and Kelly.
Black Orpheus (Marcel Camus, 1959)
Location: Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
A revisiting of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set in contemporary Brazil during Carnivale, Black Orpheus revels in the atmosphere of the biggest party on earth, which becomes the setting for a story of doomed love. The film is most famous for its bossa nova soundtrack, and is often credited for introducing Brazilian music to Europe and the rest of the world. It’s the music that drives the film, inspiring heaven and hell, virtue and vice through its rhythmic beats. The film cleverly utilizes its locale to reinvent a very familiar myth, and as often as the beautiful location and heat is a source of joy, beauty and passion, it similarly becomes an incarnation of hell as Orpheus searches for his missing lover in the second half of the film. Black Orpheus remains to this day one of the best contemporary adaptations of Greek mythology, and suggests the heartache and cruelty of both God and fate. All love is fleeting but we contain to pursue it because of the circularity of nature and the knowledge that it will return once again. In spite of the great tragedy the film presents, there is hope and joy in the finale, as we are reminded that one man’s life exists as part of a larger tapestry in which hope of a brighter tomorrow remains.
Chocolat (Claire Denis, 1988)
Any number of Claire Denis’ films could easily take the place of this one, as she returns time after time to the continent of her childhood. Chocolat often takes a backseat to her more famous films set in Africa, Beau Travail and White Material, but is a powerful debut from one of the best working filmmakers. Chocolat features two parallel storylines, one in contemporary Cameroon about a young woman revisiting the home of her youth, and the story of her childhood in the 1950s living on a colonial outpost with her mother. The film is quite light on narrative, focused instead on the aural and physical textures of the environment. The strangeness of the location is tied directly with confused issues of identity related to nationality, gender and race. The focus is primarily on the child’s relationship with the family’s houseboy, Protee and the complex social and cultural interactions that develop between him and her family due to the colonial conditions. Contemplative and sensual, the film is detail oriented, focused on apparently insignificant moments between people that hold heavy emotional longing and desire. Claire Denis’ cinema is often about a glance or an offscreen sound, the mysterious nature of the world and the entrapment caused by our inability to escape our own perception and experience.
Un 32 aoȗt sur terre (Denis Villeneuve, 1998)
Location: Montreal QC & Utah, USA
Only a Canadian would think having sex in a desert would be anything but an awful idea. Un 32 Aoȗt sur terre remains Denis Villeneuve’s least seen film, probably due to the fact that it is near impossible to find due to poor distribution. It remains nonetheless a startling representation of his talents, as he skillfully blends pop aesthetics, mysterious narrative elypsis and strong characterizations in a unique and exciting way. This film begins in Montreal as Simone, a model, has a life-changing accident and decides to abandon her career to have a child. But with no relationship and a desire for some personal attachment to her future child, she enlists her best friend Phillipe who happens to be in a relationship. He agrees reluctantly, telling her that the only way he’d agree is if the child is conceived in the desert, hoping she will rescind the offer. Of course, they find themselves many hours later stranded in the desert outside of Salt Lake City, unprepared for the heat and the expectations that have brought them there. A film ripe with humour and a uniquely Quebecois philosophy of life, this film is the perfect “fish out of water” experience for the Montrealer accustomed to cold winters and humid summers, with little to no understanding of the true conditions of the desert. The almost apocalyptic implications of the film’s title tie in directly to this, as the desert comes to represent a world removed totally removed from contemporary society, at once futuristic and alien. It become a reminder our relationship with death, which is persistent but totally unfamiliar, and how this ties with love, sex and creation. Perhaps the desert is not a future land, but a return to something more primitive, the survivalist need for procreation that precedes any concept of love or consciousness in man.
– Justine Smith