Notes from the Dream House
Philip French: Selected Film Reviews 1963-2013
Edited by Kersti, Karl, Patrick and Sean French
Carcanet Film, 2018
Notes from the Dream House encloses half a century of films reviewed for the Observer by legendary critic Philip French. The book is a compact reminder of French’s immense knowledge of film and the cinematic world, spanning from 1963 to 2013, almost half the history of film, throughout which French’s ability to convey dense ideas in a short and easily digestible format shines through, whether the high-brow or low-brow is being reviewed.
In this collection of reviews, there are the big names, Bunuel, Bergman, Kubrick, Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson and many others, along with some less resounding ones. Notes from the Dream House is solid proof of the fact that French left nothing unseen. There are the Oscar-bound ones. There are the comedy hits. There are also films that ended up not doing so well, some at the time of release, and others that to put it kindly, did not stand the test of time.
Every review bursts with cinematic and literary references, as French draws parallels between the film in question, and those which came before it. He recalls specific elements in order to compare and contrast pictures, making Notes from the Dream House a near–encyclopaedic collection. In a piece about Pixar’s Toy Story 3, the critic not only makes mentions The Incredibles and Ratatouille, but also Child’s Play and Dead of Night. He even compares it in quality to the then-new Inception, qualifying the two films as “good reasons for being alive in these dismal days of the second decade of the twenty-first century.”
Given the timescale from which the reviews are drawn however, one gets a sense – particularly in light of the #MeToo era – of how society has changed, of what was once accepted, but now rightly considered reprehensible. The inclusion of the review of Last Tango In Paris brings to mind the obliviousness of a different time. Philip French dubs the 1973 film “totally unerotic”, and innocently mentions a scene of “semi-rape, semi mutual seduction”. This is due to the fact that the scene only became a scandal much later, as Schneider’s claims were not heard for decades, until Bertolucci himself confirmed that he had left parts out of the script, making the scene a non-consensual one in part. This, along with the review of Manhattan, emphasises to the 2018 reader the distance between then and now. French for example mentions but does not dwell on Allen’s character’s relationship with a minor in the 1979 film, as the allegations against the filmmaker were not made until the 1990’s.
It should also be noted that Notes from the Dream House perhaps involuntarily reflects the male-dominated world of film, particularly in the late twentieth century. The book includes a microscopic number of reviews for films directed by women, but this is probably a reflection of an institutional disproportion rather than showing a reflection of French’s views.
Notes from the Dream House is a great collection that allows the reader to rediscover Philip French’s brilliance. From the horror staple The Shining to the timeless fun of Good Bye Lenin!, we see that French’s reviews included less recognisable features but also offer a rare insight into the “newness” of now well-known — some classic —films. It is a wonderfully large collection of Philip French’s critiques of both low and high brow films, showcasing his incredible knowledge but also, somewhat unknowingly, highlighting current issues.
Words by Laila Obeidat.