Personal Shopper – Olivier Assayas (2017)

The living often make use of the dead for their own purposes, but do the dead ever return the favor? What would it mean if they did? Such questions lie at the heart of Olivier Assayas’s new film Personal Shopper, which stars Kristen Stewart as Maureen Cartwright, a young woman living in Paris, working at the titular job, which she claims to hate, as a means of supporting herself while she pursues her true calling as a spiritual medium. This slightly silly-seeming turn, which is not unexpected, given the interest Assayas has expressed across multiple films in the power of the occult (in all senses of the word), is explained through plotting as being the result of newly cemented grief. Maureen lost her twin brother Lewis unexpectedly three months prior to our entry into her world, his passing a result of a heart condition which they both share (but which their doctor reassures Maureen should not deliver her to the same fate). Apparently both twins have the gift of extra sensory perception (although the film suggests that perhaps Lewis simply convinced both of them that this was the case) and earlier in their lives the twins agreed that whoever passed into the unknown first would try to contact the other in some material way. As the film begins, Maureen is trying to suss out if Lewis is haunting his old house, both as a means of seeking his company and as a reassurance to the couple who want to purchase it. She has several weird and inexplicable encounters in the building, but although one such includes a female apparition vomiting up ectoplasm, none rises to the level of what Maureen would consider definitive proof of after-life.

Maureen does start to give Lewis’s persistence on this plane of existence more credence once it seems like he might be texting her. This is where the movie turns away from what seems to be a psychological mood piece rooted in the supernatural and begins to resemble a more conventional psychological thriller. The thriller aspect arrives via Maureen’s day job; she is the personal shopper for one Kyra (last name forgotten no thanks to IMDB, but portrayed by Nora von Waldstatten), a high powered individual of uncertain profession, who we, and Maureen, rarely encounter in the flesh as the film unfolds. Maureen picks up clothes for Kyra, sometimes illicitly trying them on first (they are a similar size, but apparently the practice infuriates Kyra), and then delivers them back and forth, depending on Kyra’s whim. She acts a little like a personal assistant, and so has full access to Kyra’s residence. On an early delivery, Maureen meets Ingo (Lars Eidinger), a similarly jet setting lover of Kyra’s, who is about to get his walking papers – he is waiting around while Kyra is on an interminable phone call with her lawyer to, one supposes, beg for a second chance between the sheets. During their encounter, Maureen opens up to Ingo, and tells him that she dislikes her job, although refusing a better paying one he offers up (she tells him that even though it is more creative, she sees more “freedom” in her current, “stupid” job). Further, she confides that her brother has recently died, and that she is staying in Paris to try to contact him. Soon she is getting text messages from an unknown number which are coy in their provenance and hint, in both the rapidity of delivery and in the metaphysical nature of their demands, that they could be from her dead twin. (Of course, they could be from Ingo, who we think might be trying to seduce her or perhaps gaslight her for some as yet unknown purpose). As the texting becomes more intense and intimate, Maureen slips further down the rabbit’s hole of her own fears and desires, and the stakes become higher, both within this material plane and on the metaphysical one. Soon we don’t know if Maureen is losing her mind, unraveling a plot, making a breakthrough to the other side, or all of the above.

Assayas likes to blend genres, and this is no exception. Sometimes, as in Demonlover, the blending succeeds and creates a heady, uncanny experience – we feel we are watching something with little precedent and revel in the audacity. At other times, as in Boarding Gate, we don’t understand what he is trying to accomplish, and the generic elements of the blend fail to gel and instead grind against each other (with tedium being the result). Personal Shopper falls somewhere in between. We can see the plot points of the thriller coming a mile away, but that is beside the point, as the thriller is really just a mirror within which Maureen’s interior voyage is reflected – it allows her to answer the questions she has about her brother (or at least ask them fully) while providing a plausible real-world explanation that undermines her quest. By marrying the mundane with the possibly supernatural, Assayas creates for the viewer the same uncertainty that Maureen experiences – we are fully with her in her own confusion and in the ambivalence she feels towards believing that the “answers” are telling her what she wants to know. On the supernatural side of things, there are some genuinely chilling moments (especially later in the film) and, at the same time, some slightly stupid ones (as in the overwrought CGI ghost early on). Everything makes sense, and has aesthetic merit, in that what we are seeing might all be a projection of Maureen’s mind, and the movie really is about the difficulty of knowing who one is, and if one can trust their own feelings and perceptions to reveal TRUTH, or merely “truth.” For this viewer, however, the overall shape of the film still feels a bit like paint-by-numbers art film. There is the questioning of the coherent self, ruminations on the nature of identity, freedom, and the possibility of real knowledge. There is a doubling of women accompanied by the projection of desire, there is ambiguity and a refusal to give any firm answers, despite much accumulation of “proof.” Everything shifts and could be a reflection of “reality,” or just a reflection of the protagonist’s desires (well, more than that, a working through of issues and the prospect of some kind of interior synthesis). We have seen it all before; indeed, I at first assumed that this film was a continuation of Assayas’s prior Clouds of Sils Maria, as Kristen Stewart in that film portrayed a personal assistant who, if I remember correctly, speaks of having a twin brother. While I suppose it is still possible that this film is set prior to the other, it does seem that Personal Shopper is a reflection rather than a continuation of that earlier (and far better) film. Part of my deep interest in seeing Personal Shopper was in seeing how Assayas and Stewart would work together one-on-one, and how the themes of the prior film might expand. Sadly, they do not. While Personal Shopper has many affecting moments, the emotional core of the film cannot deliver, and I must sadly report that this is due to Kristen Stewart’s performance. She simply can’t reach the intensity of sadness coupled with fear (mostly the fear of self-discovery) that the role demands. She excels at portraying a kind of interior anomie, the blank alienation of the world-weary or the self-imposed exile (which makes her a natural match for a director like Assayas, who is interested in “cool” but also in what lies beneath such surfaces). But she just can’t deliver the intensity required when the facade cracks. In every scene where she is asked to cry, it looks forced and faked – Stewart will rub her eyes, and sniffle, and hide her face with her jacket or her hands. Of course defenders might say that such mannerisms are based in her character, but compared to an actress like Isabelle Huppert, who can build the pressure of pain behind the facade and then deliver the devastation of the facade crumbling, Stewart appears out of her depth. (Of course Huppert has 40 years of experience on Stewart, so I understand the comparison is unfair). While Stewart is a very talented actress, this role made me reconsider Clouds of Sils Maria, and how impressed I was with her performance in that film. It made me realize that so much of what made the prior film powerful was the interplay between the women (and it made me reconsider how much weight and impact the presence of Juliette Binoche lent to all the performances in the film). Personal Shopper focuses on one character, and the interiority of that character is all – so the emotional power of the film rests squarely on Stewart’s shoulders. She doesn’t fail, and neither does the film, but her limits as an actress are also the film’s limits. It ends as it begins: a thriller with some genuine chills, but without the transcendence necessary to make it more than an admittedly interesting genre mash-up.

Mea culpa

Those paying attention might have noticed that there has been nothing here to pay attention to. Verily, the blog is not dead. Without getting too disgustingly confessional, the reviews stopped because life picked up, and sadly even though I am now at the center of the film viewing universe, I have had the time and energy to see barely a thing. The languishment will end later this week, when I see High-Rise at the Tribeca Film Festival, but I wanted to catch up by way of confessing my thoughts on the films I have seen but not reviewed.

First and foremost is Room, since everyone seems to love it and it won awards. I will happily play the poop in the punch bowl. The film is tedious and awful – your average made for cable drama has more gravitas and narrative thrust than this ludicrous snooze. Oh I get it, we’re supposed to be so enamoured of the boy, and so into sharing his supposed sensory liberation, that the glaringly dubious aspects of this purported true story pass by as unnoticed as William H Macy’s presence. For instance, the woman and her son are held in a room locked with a four digit numeric pad. Given that it would take a few days at most to run through every combination, why exactly is she still trapped eight years later? Or why has she not tipped over the wardrobe and kicked out the skylight? Just so she could raise a really bad pint sized beat. I suppose the child’s point of view is intended to be charming, but his ersatz poetic Nasdat is incredibly twee and pretentious. Since there is no mystery as to the unfolding or resolution of the plot, we are left with little but sentimentality to provide interest. And that is not nearly enough.

Cosmos, Andrzej Zulwaski’s most recent (and, sadly, final) film, an adaptation of Witold Gombrowicz’s novel of the same name, was highly anticipated, mostly because of the director. Much to my chagrin, I slept through two thirds of the film, so hopefully my perkier and more knowledgeable fellow viewer will soon be contributing a review. I also dozed through the beginning of The Witch. (Rest assured that I am working to ensure that this does not turn into a trend). An over-rated but still decent supernatural chiller, the movie provides a gritty (if doubtlessly inaccurate) portrait of colonial nuclear family living, and has a climax that marries the ridiculous to the sublime while paying homage to Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 masterpiece Haxan. Worth seeing.

More to follow…

Queen of Earth – Alex Ross Perry (2015)

Last year was director Alex Ross Perry’s breakout. His third film, Listen Up Philip, a dramedy centering around two narcissistic authors, one young and rising, the other an aging literary lion, brought the director something close to mainstream recognition (while a cover story in Film Comment might not be a barometer of mainstream, certainly Disney tapping him to direct the upcoming live-action adaptation of Winnie the Pooh is). Listen Up Philip is a very good film, exploring the personality traits required (or are they?) to be a great writer, and investigating with some finesse how maleness and the egoism necessary to turn life into “art” are mutually reinforcing in our culture. While that film, as far as most of the press it received was concerned, hinged on two Philip Roth-like characters and their back and forth, the middle chunk was given over to Philip’s girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss) and provided the alternative reality against which Philip and his mentor’s self-aggrandizement could be measured. In that section, Perry showed himself to be a keen observer of women, and perhaps more sympathetic to Ashley’s worldview than to those of his protagonists, all too easily read as stand-ins for himself. Now, only a year later, Perry has returned with Queen of Earth, again featuring Elizabeth Moss. A portrait of two female friends, meticulously investigating the ebb and flow of their relationship, and the difficulties inherent in being close enough to someone that you feel responsible for their well-being, despite being two separate, unrelated “adults,” Queen of Earth has received little of the attention that Listen Up Philip did. I will not play Kreskin much in this regard, but it does not take a soothsayer to imagine that the gender of the protagonists has something to do with it. Yes, it could simply be the fact that the film followed too closely on the heels of last year’s publicity, but looking at the critical response, and to a degree the marketing of the film, we can discern that nobody is quite sure what to make of it. The poster advertises it as an “acidly funny comedy,” which it assuredly is not (and which Listen Up Philip definitely was). calls it “as unsettling as any horror film,” and other sources pigeonhole it as a psychological thriller; while I understand this sentiment to a degree, as the main character is in crisis throughout much of the film, and we as viewers become worried that the shoe will drop, the implicit violence mustering behind Moss’s visage becoming explicit, there are ultimately no “thrills” to be had, and no horrors to behold. Anthony Lane, writing in The New Yorker, comes closest to the truth when he compares the film to Bergman – one cannot help but think (and Perry is indeed prompting us to) of Persona, with two female protagonists going tête-a-tête in a dialectical discovery of identity while on a “vacation” that doubles as a period of convalescence. Persona, however, is more psychoanalytic, with the women losing a sense of who they were, and discovering new identities through their isolation – it views their feminine aspects as two sides of the same coin. Queen of Earth is more down to earth (surprise, surprise), more “realistic,” interested ultimately in the problems of friendship and the limits of knowing, and helping, another person. The protagonists are women, perhaps, not so much because the film is interested in the nature of women, but because women tend to care about, and interrogate more deeply, the nature of friendship, and the responsibilities and rewards contained within that relationship.

Elizabeth Moss plays Catherine, an artist who has long lived in the shadow of her much more famous artist father, whose affairs she manages. Katherine Waterston plays Virginia, a longtime friend who is seemingly content to do little with her life (in a conventional sense); she seems to rely on her parents, and their wealth, for her existence, although the details of the arrangement are never made crystal clear. As the film begins, Catherine is breaking up with her longstanding boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley), and breaking down emotionally. Virginia offers Catherine safe haven at her house upstate (actually her parents’ summer home), with the implicit promise of time alone to recuperate and work on her art in solitude. We sense tension between the friends from the moment of Catherine’s arrival, and soon it has made its way to the surface, with the pair snipping at each other as much or more than they sympathize. At first we don’t understand this dynamic, and assume that Virginia is being a bit remote and cold; after all, she invited Catherine up, knowing she was in crisis. Further, Virginia inserts a man into the situation, neighbor Rich (Patrick Fugit), a nice-enough seeming fellow who ultimately reveals himself to be an unsettling presence, a smarmy enigma who, as Catherine later critiques, stands emotionally apart from people and pokes at them with verbal sticks. As the film progresses, however, the past begins to emerge into the present, and via flashbacks (which tend to arrive unannounced) we soon learn that a year ago the situation was reversed – it was Virginia who was in crisis, and it was Catherine who arrived, supposedly to give succor to her friend, with her then-new boyfriend James in tow. The movie then moves back and forth between these two periods (although giving more weight, and play, to the present). Catherine in the present moves further and further down the spiral, into a place that on the surface looks like “madness,” but which, in terms of her thinking revealed via monologue, seems quite in touch with the raw existential truths of reality; a year earlier, we see her smiling, preening a bit, contented and self-satisfied, happy, but only by way of forcing a comparison against Virginia, who we sense she has always resented for the ease with which she approaches life. So while we are happy to see that Catherine was not always so miserable, we also sense that her miserable state is more honest; and while Virginia at first seemed unsympathetic, we begin to see that her role in the friendship has been the harder one, perhaps, with her stoicism being mistaken for aloofness, her own crises, and problems, always given short shrift. The men in the story complicate the relationships, but they are also strictly secondary in importance – they exist to be used by the women against each other, and to flesh out aspects of the relationship that would remain unseen otherwise. The film moves to a kind of climax, with Catherine making a scene at a party Virginia hosts, and then telling off Rich even as she tries to understand him. Eventually she leaves, after having sunk further and further into isolation – she becomes not mad exactly, but beyond caring about trying to hide her inner turmoil, and her departure signals not recovery, but her desire to spare Virginia further stress (driven perhaps by guilt at recognizing her own failings as a support a year earlier). In the end, the friendship persists – we understand this through a closing gesture – but each character must bear the heaviness of their faults, and of life’s unfolding, alone.

What is remarkable about the film is how astute it is in tracing the complexities of a relationship that is chosen and not forced upon either party; it truly investigates what it means to be friends with someone, and all the pain that such a relationship brings. In Virginia and Catherine’s flip-flopping positions, with one in crisis in the past, the other in the present, we begin to see how each brings something to the relationship that attracts the other: Catherine her emotional openness, and her ability to verbally unpack the realities surrounding her (regardless of if they are “true”); Virginia her acceptance and unrelenting graciousness, a kind of maternalism, even when it is barbed and grudging. Catherine likes the ease with which Virginia takes life as it comes, not understanding that it really is not so easy for her, while Virginia admires Catherine’s talent and drive, even if it is halting or expressed in a passive aggressive way. While all of this is well and good, and displays a very admirable, and assured, grip on interpersonal psychology by Perry, what carries the film upward is the way all of this is blended into a portrayal of life as an unfolding that we have little control over; the friendship is a barometer that measures the revelation of a mystery. In the movement of Catherine from a place of happiness and assuredness to one of despair and doubt, we feel how life reveals itself as a continual series of revelations that are, for individuals and those who care about them, self-revelations as well. This is part of the motivating force behind Catherine’s monologues – she is trying to understand the nature of existence by parsing herself, and those around her, in real-time. Thus we also come to understand that Virginia is not pleased in any way by Catherine’s downfall, for it reveals to her the contingency of things, and also prompts her to consider that perhaps the seeds of the downfall were always present, and that this friend she thought she knew well is different, and always has been; further, such knowledge leaves Virginia fully alone, as she realizes she is the “strong one,” and thus will always be isolated. Indeed, the whole film is a reflection on the open question of how far we can go toward knowing others, and given that we are all, in a way, isolated inside our experience of time passing, it asks what responsibilities are inherent to friendship, and questions what we hope to get out of knowing others. Why do we do it? Why do we seek to become close to people we are not obliged to know, when it entails so much unhappiness, pain, and failure? The movie only raises these questions, it does not attempt to answer them, except insofar as to suggest, by way of Catherine’s art, that seeking truth, about our own natures as well as that of the universe, is the ultimate reason. I am happy to say that I have barely scratched the surface of the insights and pleasures that Queen of Earth provides. As usual, the cinematography is outstanding, and signifies “period” in ways that Listen Up Philip‘s also did, but much more subtly, making us feel less like we are in the realm of pastiche. This is by far Alex Ross Perry’s finest film, and one of the finest recent films about women, the nature of friendship, and what growing older feels like from the inside. The cliche says growing older is growing wiser, and there’s truth there – but such wisdom takes the form of a greater knowledge of our own failings, and humility in facing our inability to break away from our pretensions. Catherine’s laughter, which ends the film, is not the bleak laughter of the void; rather, it is laughter of the reflections in a funhouse mirror, a recognition that the way we prefer to see ourselves is distorted and (except perhaps in periods of distress) almost always backwards.

Four out of five stars

Son of Saul – Laszlo Nemes (2015)

Son of Saul, the first feature film by Hungarian director László Nemes, stirred up much controversy at the Cannes Film Festival last year, where many, including the New York Times’s Manohla Dargis, denounced it as exploitative, despite the fact that it went on to win the Grand Prix. If you don’t know that the film is about one prisoner’s experience of the Holocaust, the controversy perhaps makes little sense. And on the surface, one might be able to imagine why: the film follows the daily experiences of one Sonderkommando at Auschwitz with a level of detail and single-mindedness rare in previous representations of the Holocaust. Of the film’s defenders, perhaps the most surprising is Claude Lanzmann, the documentarian whose 10 hour film Shoah, which eschews direct visual reference to the atrocities of the camps, remains the definitive account of the event. Lanzmann, a critic of almost all cinematic narrative approaches to the subject, hailed the film as an “anti-Schindler’s List” and “a very new film, very original, very unusual.” Given this unusual praise from a notoriously caustic skeptic, this viewer entered assuming that the controversy would be self-evident, and I would leave the film feeling either transported or repelled. So perhaps the most surprising thing about the film is that its greatest mystery is the controversy surrounding it. The subject matter is indeed intense, and the narrative does not utilize the usual tactics when dealing with this subject: it does not sentimentalize the experience (much) and it does not take a sweeping, definitive approach, as does a film like Schindler’s List. It does deal with the day to day realities of the camps that even the grittiest films on the subject (outside of purely exploitative works nobody tends to take seriously as anything but prurient titillation) do not much linger on: the deception necessary on the part of the Sonderkommando (Jewish prisoners dragooned into making the death machine run as smoothly as possible) to facilitate the quick movement of fresh prisoners from the trains, into the showers, and then, after their executions, the backbreaking, numbed task of pilling corpses onto carts, feeding them into the ovens, cleaning up, picking through belongings, and thus resetting the stage for it to happen again, and again. What is shocking is that, given the film’s program, it does not have much impact. Despite the praise of Mr. Lanzmann, the film does indulge in a narrative that, while not melodramatic in the sense that many other Holocaust films are, still very much fits the mold of an art film, with a desire to be symbolic on an almost literary level, and to make use of many contrivances to push forward an account of the Holocaust that is, despite its opening rhetoric of inescapable, quotidian horror, a tale of an exceptional individual seeking a redemption no less audacious (and perhaps more repellent) than Oscar Schindler’s.

It is hard to proceed without spoiling something, I suppose; or rather, the film is already spoiled, as we know how things will inevitably end from the beginning (this being a film about that horror with no exit), the experience of viewing the film unaware of all else about it the only way to keep it from being foreclosed from the start. The plot takes little describing. A Hungarian Sonderkommando named Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) witnesses a boy, still alive, pulled from under a pile of corpses in the gas chamber. He later calls this boy, soon snuffed out by a Nazi doctor, his son, but the actuality of this assertion is in question; other prisoners claim he has no son. It becomes his quest, for reasons obscure and either indicative of Saul’s utter acceptance of his existential situation, or of the loss of his sanity, to preserve this boy from an autopsy and find a rabbi to give him a proper Jewish burial. Over the course of a day and a half or so, Saul will manage to move from one work gang to others, across many different modes of camp life, to fulfill his quest – and, at the same time, to provide us viewers with a tour of the camp that, while different from those provided by other Holocaust films in terms of point of view, is much similar to other films in terms of its desired sweep. As it happens, Saul’s quest overlaps with a very unusual time in the history of Auschwitz, and of the camps in general: the prisoner revolt of October 7, 1944, which led to the destruction of one of the crematoria and the escape of many prisoners through the wire fence. Saul is tasked with helping in this rebellion, but his single mindedness botches his part in the revolt, which causes his fellow Jews to excoriate him for prioritizing the dead over the living. Nonetheless, Saul manages to escape with the other Sonderkommando, the dead boy over his shoulder, and in the final moments of the film, he fails in his ultimate task, losing the boy’s body as he attempts to ford a river. Hiding with other escapees in a wooded shed, Saul sees a young German boy, about the age of the Jewish child he attempted to bury, spy them through the door. He smiles strangely, as if relieved, and the boy runs away as German soldiers approach to execute the escaped prisoners. We follow the boy as he flees into the woods, and hear the sound of distant gunfire.

What makes the film truly unique, and gives it what interest and intensity it has, is its formal technique of tying the camera to Saul’s point of view in a very austere way. Nemes uses a very shallow depth of field and the Academy aspect ratio of 1.375:1 to restrict our view of the camp drastically. The camera is almost always centered on the back of Saul’s head, following him as he moves and performs his required tasks, sometimes pivoting around the side so we can see his profile or the front of his face; in a few rare cases, he moves away from it to give us a glimpse of a fuller reality. In all cases, however, the depth of field is so shallow that almost everything we see of the camps is a blur and indistinct – the horrors are suggested rather than dramatized. The result is that the film’s visuals reflect Saul’s interiority and single-mindedness to an exceptional degree. He is only concentrating on what is right in front of him, the task at hand, either as a means of survival or as the unsurprising result of such numbing trauma, and the film succeeds in making his perspective ours to an uncanny degree. The true horror of the surrounding events is conveyed by sound design that, while exceptionally well done, makes up in the aural sphere for the lack of visual obscenity. We hear the doomed screaming, wailing, and pounding on the iron doors to the gas chamber as the poisoned air does its work; we hear methodical gunshots and cries of despair as person after person is led into a ditch backlit by unfocused, burning pyres. The most disturbing aspect of the film is the pairing of Saul’s impassive demeanor as he mechanically moves through a multitude of spaces with these auditory nightmares. While heavy-handed in the extreme, to the point of perhaps indeed being obscene, the opening of the movie has power in the methodical repetition of this grinding reality. That movie, where we simply follow Saul for two hours as he is forced to do such infernal work, would have truly been unique and unusual, although perhaps intolerable (and impossible to imagine being funded by any investor anywhere). As it is, though, the movie acquires its plot, and as Saul begins his quest, the “reality” thus established starts to seep away. We very quickly enter the realm of the symbolic, and pretentiously so – is the dead child Saul’s real son? Or is he a representative (pace Arthur Miller) of all the dead sons left unredeemed? Is Saul insane and selfish, sacrificing the possibility of escape from the camp for others in favor of a sham symbolism? Or is he the most clear-eyed of everyone, seeing that there is no escape, and hence, albeit absurdly, working toward one holy act within a sea of desecration? All these questions are made possible only by setting the film during this exceptional and uncharacteristic moment in the life of the camps, just as Saul’s task makes possible a tour of the camps for our sake which would also, in almost any moment of camp existence, be equally unlikely. Thus we have contrivance heaped upon contrivance, all to ask a series of questions that have no answer and, ultimately, no purpose aside from a self-serving, pseudo-poetic one. It seems bizarre, given such a setup, for Lanzmann to claim that the film “gives a very real sense of what it was like to be in the Sonderkommando” – as if he is an arbiter of such realities! Of course one, upon seeing the film, understands what he is getting at, but we also understand, perhaps more so than in other films, just how vast the gulf is between what we can know about such experience and what is represented before us; and in this fact, we might find the film’s saving grace. For at the end of Son of Saul, we are all forced to ask: what was the point? Not simply of this film, but of representing the Holocaust at all? What are we doing? Trying to learn something? Trying to have sympathy with those who were destroyed? Getting a vicarious thrill – or feeling an unearned pride at play-suffering in a mock parallel with those who were lost? For all its failure and pretension on a narrative and artistic level, the ending of the film, with Saul’s queasy, self-satisfied smile patching over a bogus transcendence, meaningful only to an insane mind, provides a reflection of the viewers of such films. We watch Holocaust films seeking the void, but can only find pleasure of some sort; usually the most narcissistic, self-deluding variety. We hide from the truth, which is that we want to enjoy this horror. Perhaps, in this way, films like SS Experiment Love Camp, while the saddest response to this moment in history, are also the most honest. Perhaps Lanzmann had it right all along – you cannot represent the Holocaust directly.

Two out of five stars

The Hateful Eight – Quentin Tarantino (2015)

I was so excited when I heard that Quentin Tarantino was making his first Western. Now, Tarantino is not one of my favorite directors by a long shot – in fact, he has yet to make anything close to a great film. He has always been a very facile director, and never fails to entertain; what sets him apart from other directors is that he thinks cinematically, and makes use of a wide variety of cinema’s formal devices to aid in the task of entertaining us. Noted for his distinctive voice and his ability to write gobs of dialogue that snap and pull us along, Tarantino has, all the same, failed to apply that voice to the task of saying something. His films are about little more than the experience of watching films; at least until recently. While I am in the distinct minority that finds Deathproof to be his best work, a vehicle where he finally unleashed all his energy as a purely genre filmmaker, generating little more than 90 minutes of adrenaline, it is nonetheless true that Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained both were exceptionally good films, and marked a turning point for him in terms of narrative concern. Both of those films took as their subject a certain historical revisionism, but one that revised history by way of playing with and detourning the tropes of past films which were themselves already revisions of historical “fact.” I found Inglourious Basterds exceptional in the parts where Tarantino departed most from being Tarantino, where we almost forgot we were watching a postmodern pastiche and instead slipped into a kind of serious art film about World War II (the parts with Christoph Waltz, that is, and not the idiotic stuff like the intrusive ’70s exploitation freeze frame on Eli Roth swinging a baseball bat). “If only Tarantino would ditch his shtick and make a straightforward, serious historical film,” said I. Well, Django was resolutely not such a film, but it was an incredible one nonetheless, containing some of the most perverse and jarring questioning of racist representations, and their presence at the core of our national self-conception, that any director has posed. It was also very funny and rousing, giving us a black hero who finally begins to revenge himself on the stupidity of past screen representations; Tarantino deconstructs our own expectations, almost making fun of us, while also entertaining us. Given that upward trajectory, I was quite hopeful that The Hateful Eight would be more along those lines, a take on the Western genre that both satisfied as a genre film while also having something to say about how those films relate to our still unquenchable thirst for manifest destiny, male desire, etc etc. Instead, Tarantino gives us a three hour “Agatha Christie” Western. Why has nobody thought of such a hybrid before? Perhaps the answer is self-evident. I must give Tarantino credit for such a radical conception, as it assuredly fits the formal mold of his more recent efforts. If only it were any good…

Okay, maybe that was a bit low. It is good enough, in the sense that all his films are good enough – it is entertaining. Mostly. Along with Kill Bill: Vol. 2, though, it is the most leaden and boring of Tarantino’s output. The plot is a kind of Ten Little Indians without any suspense or “mystery.” Eight scummy Western varmints find themselves trapped together in a small mountain cabin during a blizzard. There is John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter noted for bringing his captives in alive, so the hangman can get his due, and his captive, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a feral woman who, we eventually learn, is leader of a nasty gang of thugs. There is Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), also a bounty hunter, and a former Union officer, who begins the film by hitching a ride with Ruth in his private stagecoach. There is Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), newly elected sheriff of the town of Red Rock, purported destination of all involved, and a former Confederate soldier, who also hitches a ride with Ruth. At the cabin (really a store – Minnie’s Haberdashery), we meet Bob (Demian Bichir), a strange Mexican with little to say about his past; Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), an English hangman, headed to Red Rock to start work; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a lone wolf cowpoke; and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a Confederate officer who doesn’t like people yelling in his ear while he sits under a blanket. Is that eight? I hope so. Well, once everyone is all snuggled up together, we get treated to a long session of Ruth making the circuit of the cabin, asking everyone about their origins, and then the characters hash over the veracity of said origins, in a style that feels like Tarantino channeling Encyclopedia Brown. Everyone is not who they say they are – imagine that! What is the mystery afoot? Basically, who will get their head blown off, or their testicles shot through, and when. Told in chapters, the film jumps back and forth somewhat in time, building “tension” through withholding information that, if presented chronologically, would make for a straightforward tale of treachery and revenge. It would still be a tale which we have little stake in, but at least it would dispense with the pretension that there is some puzzle to be solved. Even though we have copious backstory on each character, we don’t care about their fate, as they aren’t real to us; only Samuel L. Jackson succeeds in making his character (really the main one) sympathetic, to the point that we do care about his fate. I dare not say much more about the course the film takes, as it would “spoil” it, but there is very little to this movie – after you’ve seen it once, I can’t see the need to revisit it. Does it have any relationship to the Western as a genre? Barely. The tone is of a piece with Django, a kind of unconcealed glee at the nastiness of its subject matter, but in Django, the subject was a revenge rightfully deserved, and it implicated the audience in a very intelligent way. The Hateful Eight is grim, nihilistic, borderline misogynist, and, in the end, dreary. There are good performances – Walton Goggins is a standout alongside Jackson – and a few intelligent points about race, but you leave the theater wondering what the necessity of any of it was, the mood souring the longer you dwell on the ending. Even the original score by Morricone is uninspired and quite conventional. I must admit, I didn’t see it in 70mm, which might have at least provided some further diversion during the tedious middle 45 minutes, but really, why Tarantino pulled out those stops for this picture is the real mystery.

Two out of five stars

Top 10 Films of 2015

I guess it’s the time of year for drawing up lists… or rather, well past that time, I suppose. Thinking of the inevitable “best of” list throughout the year, I kept projecting forward – where are those 10 best films? I’m so excited for them! Can’t wait! Until, with a bit of a shock, sometime around November I realized I’d probably already seen the 10 best films of the year. What? Those films?! I do not mean to slander the films on this list, but they do somehow feel less self-evident than last year’s did. While I can’t claim that Brooklyn is any revelation in terms of the history of cinema, and maybe not even the “best” film of the year, it was the film that had the greatest emotional impact on me, so… there it is, sitting on top.

  1. Brooklyn (John Crowley – Ireland)
  2. Sicario (Denis Villeneuve – US)
  3. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell – US)
  4. The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle – US)
  5. Hard to be a God (Aleksey German – Russia)
  6. Phoenix (Christian Petzold – Germany)
  7. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller – Australia)
  8. Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry – US)
  9. Dog Lady (Verónica Llinás and Laura Citarella – Argentina)
  10. The Gift (Joel Edgerton – Australia)

The Revenant – Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (2015)

This past year has been an excellent one for trailers. I found the trailer for Carol  more affecting than the full movie, and to some extent, The Revenant falls into that category as well. Trailers have the advantage of being short and sweet, of suggesting with the most fleeting of fragments what must (almost always) per force be elaborated and expounded at feature length in order to provide some kind of through line for the audience. (Rare is the feature film, even in the heady heyday of such features, the 1960s and 70s, that dared keep an audience hallucinating for more than 90 straight minutes). Trailers can often, through compression and a kind of distillation, intensify the themes and emotions of the film proper; of course, few take advantage of this in our era of thuddering robot superwhatever apocalyptics perpetually descending from the sky. The trailer for The Revenant was very dreamlike and hypnotic, suggesting an acid western set in the polar north, the setting perhaps scrubbing the film clean of that genre’s more egregious elements. I had the opportunity to see the trailer often over the course of the fall, and it raised the goosebumps every time. So stoked was I to see it that I actually had the release date memorized. Given my anticipation, it is no surprise that the film could not quite match it. And it is not only unrealistic, but undesireable, for a film to live up to its trailer. While we might think we want to taste only strong flavors, to be continually excited by thrills and chills, such moments can only stand out, and acquire a power that resonates as something greater than a mere image, by being cast against a continuum of “normality” (which is established differently by every film). For an image to have staying power, it has to generate more than an adrenaline spike or a soak of serotonin within us, and for that to happen, it must be surrounded by images that work differently, that labor quietly and don’t call us to attention. The ideal film, like a piece of symphonic music, marshals these two modes in a collaborative relation to each other, so that the quiet or “boring” parts build in such a way that the loud or “exciting” parts seem natural, or, even when surprising, a necessary result of the other. I can’t, then, fault The Revenant for not getting there; it tries, and comes close to the mark.

The film is a relatively straightforward survival and revenge epic, and I can elaborate the plot without spoiling anything, as the trailer pretty much reveals the major plot points. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a mountain man scout whose back story we only get a fleeting glimpse of. Having “gone native” and partnered with a Pawnee woman, who is subsequently killed in a French raid on their village, Glass is, at the outset of the movie, working with his adolescent son as guide to a party of trappers led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). The trappers are a motley crew, with one in particular, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), carrying an unconcealed antipathy for Glass and his boy. Soon after the story begins, the trapping party is beset by a war party of another tribe set on recovering the chief’s daughter, who has been kidnapped. Forced to abandon their pelts and flee by river, the trappers, now reduced in number, must journey overland for their best chance at survival – or so says Glass. Fitzgerald is distrustful, and not shy about saying so, but he ultimately adheres to the orders of the upstanding Captain Henry. Soon everything is turned on its head as Glass is mauled by a bear while out scouting. Barely alive, Henry tries to carry him out of the wilderness, but is soon forced to abandon that idea, and Glass, in the interest of saving other lives. Glass’s son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) stays behind to tend to Glass until his seemingly inevitable demise, along with the naive, straightforward Bridger (Will Poulter) and Fitzgerald, who volunteers, Henry having promised those who stay a hefty reward later on. Within a few days, Hawk has been killed, Glass left for dead in a shallow grave, and Bridger and Fitzgerald are trudging their way out of the wilderness. At this point, the film transitions to a survival epic, as Glass hauls himself out of his grave, and begins the long process of dragging himself, injured, unarmed, and unprovisioned, to civilization, in the hopes of revenging himself upon Fitzgerald. How and if he succeeds in this quest, who he encounters along the way, and how the journey changes him are the subjects of the film.

The Revenant succeeds in building the kind of relentless pressure that is suggested in the trailer; Glass’s struggle to navigate the landscape as well as overcome his physical limitations, conveyed through DiCaprio’s performance, places the pressure of his body on the viewer. At the same time, his journey is plausible, both physically and historically, with the hallucinatory aspects a side effect of historical distance. Tom Hardy almost succeeds too well in his role, as Fitzgerald is almost sympathetic, an antihero rather than a villain; thus, while the final confrontation does have impact, it doesn’t provide the catharsis we hope for. (I know, I know, that’s probably the point, but after two hours of wilderness trekking on the verge of death, I think some catharsis is not too much to ask). The rest of the cast is excellent, in particular Domhnall Gleeson as Captain Henry – he is a portrait of moral outrage, uprightness, and his period flavor is quite canny. Formally, the film is innovative and compelling. Inarritu makes use of digital technology in the service of his trademark long takes to great effect, as in the opening raid on the hide factory, where the camera moves with horsemen, drawing near to their faces, then pulling away as they fall, wheeling about to capture a medium shot of action unfolding, panning up to see action in the trees, and the like, all without cutting. While the already famous bear attack does look like digital animation, it is incredibly well done, and still has physical force behind it – partly because the rest of the film is rooted in a very real, and formidable, landscape. It would be nice if more directors would follow Inarritu’s lead, and use digital technology to enhance reality, rather than to prop up blatant unreality. The film’s failures will also be familiar to the director’s followers. The relationship between Glass and his dead wife, portrayed in dream sequences or magical realist visions, we cannot say for sure, are quite pretentious, and a bit patronizing in their New Age-y view of Native Americans. Further, while DiCaprio is great in his role, he doesn’t quite look old, or grizzled enough, to pull off a realistic mountain man, and, more importantly, the father of a late adolescent. Because of this, his relationship with Hawk lacks the realism necessary to make Hawk’s death felt rather than merely symbolic. We never see enough of Glass caring for Hawk when he is younger, or struggling to raise him without his mother; instead, the flashbacks concentrate on the hazy details of the mother’s demise, which, after one iteration, is somewhat beside the point. Even so, The Revenant succeeds, and more so than last year’s overly lauded Birdman, as it has a straightforward drive that it mostly sticks to and delivers. The real star of the film is the setting, the landscape as a memento mori of and ode to an age when the struggle for human survival was primal and brutal. Like DiCaprio’s character, we are left feeling unfulfilled, the journey not quite accomplishing what we might have liked – but Inarritu nevertheless takes us farther than most other filmmakers these days.

Four out of five stars

Spotlight – Tom McCarthy (2015)

I only recently saw Spotlight, despite it having been out for a few months now, after it was named best picture of the year by the National Society of Film Critics. I must admit I had ignored it because its genre – let’s call it the “institutional procedural” – is not my favorite, and there were other films that, in the end of the year goodie glut, were more pressing. And I will admit I’m glad I saw it; it is assuredly not the best film of the year, but it is a very solid, engrossing film that revitalizes a genre that has languished recently. What is an institutional procedural, you may (or may not) ask? Like a police procedural, which follows the particulars of a crime investigation, being more attentive to the process of discovery and prosecution than the drama of the crime itself (which often is accomplished either before the movie begins or happens in the opening minutes), an institutional procedural is concerned with the inner workings of an organization, usually set to a particular task, revealing (hopefully) some concealed truth about how the organization functions, successfully or not, and perhaps how in touch it is with the reality that it serves. In the past several years, the focus of this genre has been the national security apparatus, an exemplar being Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. That film, while nominally following Jessica Chastain’s character, is less concerned with her story than with the story of how the various intelligence agencies worked to capture Osama bin Laden. Past similar films, though, have focused on the lobbying industry (Thank You for Smoking) or the newspaper industry (All the President’s Men, perhaps setting the standard for the genre). Given such examples, we could claim that the institutional procedural is really about watching how power works, examining it forensically – that is, from multiple points of view. Spotlight, then, at the second level, is not so much about how a newspaper functions, but about how power was wielded by the Catholic Church, and the fact that this power often seemed invisible simply because it was an everyday fact of life in Boston. This is not to say that the populace was willfully blind to the power the Church wielded; they gave the Church the power it had. Rather, they were blind to it because it was a given feature of the cultural landscape, and of their corporate identity as Bostonians. The paradigm they inhabited prevented them from seeing it, because it was a natural feature of the terrain. This fact does not absolve them of responsibility in any way, of course, and one of the prime accomplishments of the film is that it portrays the gnawing realization, across multiple characters, of how they have been complicit in horrible injustice simply by claiming a common identity.

This is all putting the cart before the horse a bit, however. The film, for those unaware, concerns the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting that uncovered the widespread child abuse perpetrated by clergy of the Catholic Church over the course of many years. This initial case is, indeed, what broke the worldwide abuse scandal wide open. The film, and the investigation, begins with the arrival of an outsider – recently hired managing editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), an outsider both in origins (he hails from New York, by way of Miami) and culture (he is a Jewish bachelor in a land of Catholic family men). Baron picks up on a columnist’s recent piece about allegations by a “crank” lawyer (an excellent Stanley Tucci) of abuse against local clergy, and asks why an investigative piece hasn’t been written on the subject. The Globe has such an investigative arm, the “Spotlight” team, headed by Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton). Everyone tries to convince Baron he’s wasting his time, but the editor persists, even going so far as to sue the Church to unseal court documents they have fought to keep closed. The Spotlight team starts its work, and the rest of the movie is the step by step account of their work of disclosure, and of the snowballing implications. Baron continues to urge them on, correctly guiding them away from points of easy closure, pressuring them to go further, and dig deeper – the real story, he asserts, is the institutional cover-up, the abuse of power that reaches ever higher, and not the revelations centering on how many “bad apples” are within the Church. I could go into more detail, but in the case of this film, the plot is the meaning of the work, so instead I’d just say see it if you are interested. The film works well, first of all, because the script is incredibly intelligent, deliberate, and well researched. Indeed, it is so “objective” and procedural that we get almost no insight into the lives of the reporters, as we might have in a more typical film, and little to no scenes of outrage or emotionalism. While this is commendable, and lends the film its realism, it works almost too well, as the end denies us the catharsis of a city being shaken to its core; instead, the climax feels like a letdown, an anti-climax. While this is probably quite true to the experience of those reporting the case, who could not help but feel deflated, or wrung out, with no possible response living up to the months of sweat that went into their work, for us viewers, a little more comeuppance would have been nice, and not gratuitous. (It almost feels rushed in the end). Another factor that gives the film its power is the excellent, understated work of all the actors. While Mark Ruffalo, usually a favorite, is a little too gamy in his portrayal of a Boston “character,” the rest of the cast excels, particularly Schreiber, who balances resolve with a gentle, knowing humanity, the humility of an outsider who wants results, but does not want to hurt anyone’s feelings to get them. He really should get a supporting actor Oscar for his work here, it is so modulated and human. Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Billy Crudup, in fact pretty much the entire cast, come off as everyday, conflicted citizens. As a portrait of the collective coming to consciousness of guilt and blindness, the film is fascinating. It is not especially technically exciting, but has no particular reason to be. Few movies have done so well to help us understand how the public is served in the workings of a particular institution. At the same time, this is still a fiction, despite the reality of its topic. As the institutional documentaries of Frederick Wiseman (which are, of course, fictions in their own way) show us, institutions, being little but intricate webs of human interaction, produce aberrant, or unexpected, results as a rule. The real story of Spotlight, like most procedurals, takes place before the movie begins – it is the years of willed ignorance and complacency that allowed the abuses of power to remain unchecked for generations.

Four stars out of five

Carol – Todd Haynes (2015)

Todd Haynes is a master of the semiotics of repression, of portraying people who are caught within various forms of social control, and who work, however haltingly and unsuccessfully, to express the truth of their identity despite the pressure brought to bear by such controls. Identity is his great theme, in particular the mysterious realization it takes as it is formed, ad hoc, or emerges, inchoate, from within the half-sleep of consciousness. Thus, his greatest films are those that deal with this topic without the “contaminate” of love to complicate things – Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, I’m Not There, the little-remembered short Dottie Gets Spanked, and his still greatest Safe (one of the greatest films in contemporary cinema aside from being his personal best). Now, many would argue that identity cannot be formed outside of a relationship to another person – that it is indeed absurd to speak of such an idea. This is psychoanalytically true; our primary relationship from birth is with our mother, and it is through relating to her, and distinguishing her body and person from our own, that we form an original idea of self. If we take the search for love as the quest, in adulthood, for a reunification with that (perhaps illusory) maternal state of identity loss, acceptance, and re-formation, then the romantic relationship is perhaps the crucible of identity and change for us “grown-ups.” At the same time, though, the romantic relationship is very normative, and we often desire it for reasons that have little to do with an authentic search for identity – we desire it because we desire to conform to social expectations, and affirm our identity in another sphere. Haynes deals with both kinds of identification in his films, both the need to conform and the often oppositional need to express (irrational) desires. This is why he almost always sets his films in the past, as social expectations and the patterns of conformity they engender are easier to see in hindsight. Not only that, it is easier to read the social codes of a past era intelligibly, and, at the same time, to project our own age into the past as a way to search out our own repressions and blind spots, as if in relief. While this is admirable, and I do not blame him for it, it succeeds too well in some cases – those cases being the films that deal with romantic love. Far from Heaven, Carol, and, to a lesser extent, Mildred Pierce, all portray desire rather than embody it. Haynes’s failure is that, while we come away understanding how we are intended to feel about the relationships portrayed, we fall short of actually feeling the emotions he’d like us to – they are indicated, rather than expressed, and these films end up, like many relics of the past, inert, glazed in a kind of preserving amber that, while allowing us to see the detail of the period quite clearly, are also rather bloodless, the emotions on the other side of an impenetrable surface.

Carol, adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s early pseudonymous novel, concerns a love affair between well-to-do housewife Carol (Cate Blanchett) and the younger, semi-bohemian shop girl Therese (Rooney Mara). These women meet, happenstance, when Carol comes into Therese’s section of the department store she works at, looking for a doll for her daughter (and settling, per Therese’s advice, on a train instead). Both women are already attached to men; Carol in an unhappy marriage to husband Harge (an excellent Kyle Chandler), Therese in a rather one-sided romance with conventional and unimaginative Richard (Jake Lacy). Both women are instantly attracted to each other, and Carol, perhaps purposefully, forgets her gloves, giving Therese a reason to contact her again. They arrange a meeting, and soon Therese is spending Sunday afternoon with Carol at her large country home – much to Harge’s consternation. We soon understand that Harge and Carol’s marriage is on the rocks, and apparently has been for a long time, as they both have tried to accommodate her attraction to women. Harge, seemingly controlled by his mother, is taking daughter Rindy (Sadie and K.K. Heim) with him to Florida for Christmas, while Carol will stay at home, apparently set to spend time with best friend, and past lover, Abby (Sarah Paulson). Instead, Carol and Therese have some alone time, which winds up torpedoing what was left of Therese’s sham relationship with Richard. Carol, in need of solace after Harge threatens to take Rindy away from her, and, we assume, desperate to activate the physical side of her desire for Therese, decides to go on a road trip “out west,” and invites Therese to go along. Therese eagerly agrees, not only to spent time with Carol, but to feed her burgeoning interest in photography, a hobby that she hopes will become more, and which has been encouraged not only by Carol, but by understanding friend (and would-be suitor) Dannie (John Magaro), who works at the New York Times. On the road trip, Carol and Therese finally consummate their love (in a scene that, it must be said, is erotic, without being overly passionate); however, this peak is also a valley, as they are snooped on by private investigator Tommy (Cory Michael Smith), who is working for Harge, digging up dirt on his wife’s “amoral” relations with women to use against her in the impending custody battle. Carol flees the trip, flying back to New York to attend to legal matters, leaving Therese in the care of Abby, who drives her back east. Eventually, Carol and Harge come to terms, mostly because Carol chooses her identity over access to her child, and in the end Carol confesses her love for Therese. Is it too late, though? The ending of the film revolves around Therese’s desire for Carol, and her decision to take the relationship further, or not.

As previously mentioned, the attention to period detail in Carol is peerless, and not just in the surface trappings; the film is a corrective to our often patronizing view of the past as an uncomplicated land of steely repression and willed ignorance. Everyone in the film, from Richard to Harge to Tommy, understands, with varying degrees of sympathy, what is happening between Carol and Therese. It is not portrayed as foreign, exotic, or shocking, and the impossibility of the relationship, refreshingly, has more to do with previous romantic commitments (driven, of course, by convention and social expectation) rather than fear of being ostracized or cast out of society. (It also helps that the film is set in New York). And, ultimately, we do feel the emotional stakes involved, partly because of Carol’s sacrifice (her willingness to choose her own desire over access to her daughter), but mostly because of an exceptional performance by Rooney Mara as Therese. Her coming-to-awareness of her identity goes hand-in-hand with her growing courage and authenticity, which expands as her self-consciousness does. It is not so much in the results that the film fails us, but in the origins. We never understand, nor feel, the attraction between Therese and Carol. Yes, we understand that it is meant to be instant, a kind of love (or lust) at first sight, but the best Haynes can do to communicate this is having Carol coolly, and knowingly, sashay away while Therese stares at her a bit bug-eyed. And in the resulting long build-up to their trip, and sexual encounter, we never feel the heat. The relationship feels stilted, and distant, which may be a result of the characters’ differences in age, experience, and social status, but which gives the lie to the original, and supposedly overriding, primal desire. As with the relationship between Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert in Far from Heaven, we can understand intellectually what is happening, we just can’t understand it emotionally. Far from Heaven had the added interest of being based on an existing melodrama (two, actually), and so that built-in turmoil made it marginally more interesting, but in both cases, for stories that are supposed to be about the sturm und drang of forbidden love, the results are often quite boring. Why do the love relationships in Haynes’s films have this problem? I have thought long on possible reasons, and have come up with two possibilities. One is that he does not give his characters enough build-up; we do not see them in their natural habitats, being themselves, for long enough, nor are we familiar enough with their inner worlds (as expressed in the quietude of “uneventful” sequences) to have a fuller identification with them. The larger problem, though, are the period settings. While it makes it easier for us to identify and parse how the social codes communicate (and, as mentioned above, allows us to reflect on our own codes more fully), it also has the ironic consequence of repressing our desire for the characters. They seem distant because they are distant; their concerns, to some extent, are not our own, their worlds are alien to us. As a fan of Todd Haynes, I would love to see him take on similar issues in a contemporary setting, and it is interesting that his best film is also his only contemporary one. I begin to wonder if he takes on so many projects set in the past because they are, in a way, purer realms of signification, free of the contaminates of present-day politics. They are safe. Here’s to hoping he soon makes a film that is messier, and less aesthetic, than his work of the past decade.

Three stars out of five

Joy – David O. Russell (2015)

Joy might be as close as David O. Russell has come to making a women’s picture in the mold of the classics of the genre, such as Mildred Pierce or Stella Dallas. In many of those films, a plucky and persevering heroine, usually of working-class origin, pulled herself up by her bootstraps and made herself a success despite the odds against her, and usually at the cost of either her sanity, her reputation, or her lineage (the two previously mentioned films feature mothers who sacrifice themselves for their daughters in different ways, only to have the sacrifice result in a deterioration of the bond itself). There is a dark edge to most women’s pictures, which either is ultimately redeemed, or not, but which allies the genre to the film noir and the psychological thriller. (Indeed, Mildred Pierce was adapted from a novel by James M. Cain). Russell’s film shares the plucky heroine, and the blue-collar roots, but has little of the dark edge. Oh, there is plenty of seeming skulduggery in the tale, what with a jealous step-sister, a cut-throat mother-in-law to be, and a scheming Texas moneyman, all of whom want to claim what Joy has made for herself, but the difference is that in the earlier films, the darkness clung to the heroine, and contaminated her psyche. Although usually redeemed in the end, the heroines of those films went through moments of spiritual abandonment, self-questioning, and outright mental torment in the quest to achieve what had often been a status reserved for men. Not so Joy; she has moments of frustration, and discouragement, self-doubt like many of us do, but she always rises above and, by sheer force of will and self-confidence, steamrolls all opposition, always finding, as in another of Russell’s films, a page in her playbook that will lay claim to the silver lining. Unlike the character in Silver Linings Playbook, Joy is not an outsider in any way but circumstance, and the film chronicles, in a kind of soap opera meets Horatio Alger fashion, her continual ascent, with virtue and verve winning out in the end. It makes the tale rather straightforward, and although not uninteresting, gives it a strangely static quality. While some commentators have raised an eyebrow at an entire film being structured around a woman who invented a mop, that detail is one of the main links to the older films in this genre – like Mildred Pierce with her pancakes, Joy and her mop are humble symbols of female frustration taken up as talismans of power. All the same, Joy is not Mildred Pierce, and so it falls onto the shoulders of Jennifer Lawrence to make us care about the fate of this woman’s endeavor, as the melodramatics fall short of the task.

Yes, this is the story of the inventor of the Miracle Mop. Russell begins the tale with an intergenerational framing device, as grandma Mimi (the somehow expected Diane Ladd) narrates Joy’s childhood and signals to us that, from an early age, she was exceptional, always full of drive and entrepreneurial imagination. (Thanks be for another film with voice-over narration this year. When all else fails, tell us how it is, filmmakers). Joy’s ambitions are snuffed out by Mom (Virginia Madsen) and Dad (Robert De Niro), with Dad quite explicitly tearing her dreams to shreds in a moment of pique. Joy doesn’t go to college, but stays home to tend to Mom, who has suffered a nervous breakdown because of her disintegrated marriage, and stays in bed all day, addicted to a soap opera that the movie tries to draw into parallel with the drab everyday of the characters (with mixed results). By the time Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) takes center stage away from granny’s gabbing, she is living in her childhood home with her mother, her ex-husband, her children, and suddenly her father, trying to support them all with her quite average income. While stressed, she is, as Mimi tells us, the calm eye in the center of the hurricane of craziness that is her family. Dad meets a new love interest, the rich widow Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), and it is aboard Trudy’s yacht that inspiration strikes Joy. A wine bottle breaks, and in her attempt to clean the resulting mess off of Trudy’s precious teak deck, Joy cuts her hands on the shards as she tries to wring wine from the mop. While picking the broken glass from her palms later, she has a eureka moment, and immediately retreats to her daughter’s bedroom (and to the creative, free zone of her own childhood’s inspiration) and mocks up a mop that is self-wringing, eliminating the need for touching gross stuff. With the encouragement of Mimi, and of her steadfast best friend (Dascha Polanco) and supportive ex-husband (Édgar Ramirez), Joy builds a prototype and convinces Trudy to invest in her plans. Initially unsuccessful, with Trudy and schadenfreude hungry step-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm) nipping at her heels, Joy manages to snag a meeting with QVC executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) thanks to her ex-husband’s connections. Initially unsuccessful again, due to a botched pitch by a clueless pitchman, Joy strong-arms Neil into letting her pitch the mop to millions herself, and despite (or perhaps because of) her inexperience in the realm of T.V. fakery, she makes the mop a success. Not all is well, however, because Peggy botches a crucial deal, and Trudy, having given bad legal advice early, has locked Joy into a losing business deal with her manufacturer. So in the climax of the film, Joy goes to California, confronts the manufacturer, and then the Texas heavy hitter behind the scenes, to claim her rightful patent, her molds, eventually walking away rich and righteous. In the denouement, we see a kind of Dickensian still life, with Dad, old, frail, and wearing a rather nasty eye patch, and Peggy, looking like a mourner at a wake, washed up, we are told by Mimi from beyond the grave, done in by greed after having attempted to claim Joy’s success as their own. Joy sits behind a big polished desk in her McMansion, attended to by her faithful friend and her ex, as she nobly ushers other young strivers along the road to success she had to roughly hoe out for herself. Yay!

The movie winds up feeling slight because it is so empty of the oddball complexity usually featured in Russell’s films. He keeps the camera moving, and the characters yapping, and throws in some extraneous, and often funny, bits of “meaning” (as in the aforementioned attempts at allegory with Mom’s soap opera), but compared to previous works of weirdness like I Heart Huckabees and Three Kings, it is quite pat. Without the presence of Jennifer Lawrence, who is naturally winning, and who does make us root for Joy, and hiss at the villainous money-grubbers who dare step in her way, we would be rolling our eyes in many spots. We can instinctively understand the appeal of the material for Russell, as his great theme, at least since The Fighter, has been the downtrodden outsider who instinctively understands the system better than the insiders, and fights his or her way to the top. Russell enjoys digging through the rather more unseemly parts of our capitalist, aspirational society, a kind of poet of the glamour of mundane consumption and hoary striving (the chief theme of American Hustle). And since he has a good eye, and also good taste for lumpy, bumpy protagonists weird enough for us to identify with and be fascinated by, he usually, like his heroes, carries the day because of, rather than despite, his unevenness. But what does he have to say about any of his great themes? It is hard to tell. I Heart Huckabees succeeded as an absurd parody of our acquisitive imaginary (and nothing in his work has ever topped Jason Schwartzman and Isabelle Huppert trading mud-dunks over a log in the woods), but The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle are all, underneath the zippy camerawork, snappy dialogue, and weirdo charmers, very, very conventional films. His style makes Russell look like a loving critic of the culture he portrays, but is he critical, or just loving it? What is he actually saying about being an outsider, or about our breed of later-day capitalist desire? I can’t tell. Joy continues in this tradition of convincing us all that we, weirdos to the person, have a chance at success if we just go with our gut and believe, but, more so than his previous films, the entertainment quotient doesn’t quite carry us through. Would we consider him an auteur without Jennifer Lawrence’s considerable talents? These days, no. David O. Russell makes films that are considerably entertaining, but his films have also been, for the last 10 years, flaccid and easy in retrospect even as they seem sharp and incisive in the moment. What happened to the skeptical cynic who made Spanking the Monkey? I miss that guy.

Two and a half stars out of five