Brooklyn – John Crowley (2015)

Brooklyn is one of those films that sails by under the radar, as watching the trailer, for instance, produces no particular impression other than mild disinterest as a series of quite generic and bland, if slightly humorous or heartwarming, sequences pass by. The heroine looks unremarkable, the dramatics subdued, the film pretty in a conventional way; it looks like a story we have seen or read a hundred times before, a safe, perhaps even conservative film, that will offer little to distinguish itself aside from a quiescence and universality that might result in mass appeal. Taken as a series of pieces, of sequences taken out of the context of the greater film, Brooklyn would not add up to much. Unlike many films which are produced these days (at least in the generally straightforward English speaking world of filmdom), Brooklyn’s impact and artfulness arises only through slow accumulation. It works subtly, deliberately, and with an attention to detail that is almost invisible. Thus, when the full film emerges (which happens only in the final shot, perhaps, but not in the sense of a more typical coup de théâtre, even of the slower Tarkovsky variety), the accumulated force is all the greater, washing over us as does a massive wave that we have barely detected, as we have studied it from underwater, unaware of its surface effects until the final moments.

The film, adapted by Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibín’s novel, tells the story of Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a young woman who is languishing in her small Irish town during the 1950s. She seems congenitally dissatisfied, as if not even realizing her constraints, but her older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott) takes an interest in her liberation, and secures her a job in Brooklyn through an acquaintance in the clergy, as well as passage on an ocean liner. We follow Eilis as she struggles to make her way, both on the boat, and later in the city, as an inexperienced, and generally shy country girl. Living in a boarding house with four other girls in similar circumstance, and under the shrewd and watchful, but compassionate, eye of Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), Eilis works at a department store, but has a hard time adapting to the cheerful demands of the job. Taking note of her homesickness, the clergyman, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) intervenes, and pays her first semester of tuition so that she might attend night school and become a bookkeeper. Perking up at this intellectual stimulation, Eilis begins to find her footing as she is taken into Mrs. Kehoe’s confidence, due to her compassion and sensibility, and eventually she meets a young suitor at a dance. This young man named Tony (Emory Cohen) is Italian, and thus we expect a clash of cultures, which never materializes, as Tony woos Eilis, eventually introducing her to his family, and finally proposing love and marriage. Her deepening connection to Tony coincides with sister Rose’s unexpected demise, which calls Eilis back to Ireland, both to console her now abandoned mother and to sate her guilt at having not said a final goodbye to Rose. Eilis and Tony marry before she leaves, but once arrived, she tells no one of her recent nuptials. Although she tries to demure, her childhood best friend sets her up with Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), the local most eligible bachelor and all around decent fellow, and thus a tension develops as Eilis’s mother actively implores her to stay in Ireland, and Jim passively offers her a future and a reason to. Meanwhile, Tony writes Eilis letters, trying to stay in the forefront of her mind, but perhaps disavowing the pain the separation is causing to both of them, she leaves them unread. Her bookkeeping skills put to good use, Eilis steps into Rose’s old job on a temporary basis. No longer the dissatisfied, sallow girl without a future, Eilis is now a sophisticated import with a worldly outlook and skills that are sought after; Ireland could indeed be a satisfying place to live, unlike before her journey. Or could it?

As you can tell, there is nothing particularly innovative about this narrative – it is classically shaped, and the conflicts it sets up are universal in nature. What is impressive about the film, particularly for a work adapted from a piece of literature, is that is eschews psychologizing its subjects in any definitive way. We don’t get precise explanations of certain events, nor do we get a narration or other device to guide us through the interiority that is literature’s métier. For instance, Rose’s death is a bit of a mystery. Her mother finds her dead shortly after a sequence that portrays her as unhappy. Father Flood tells Eilis that she must have died from a medical condition she kept hidden, and Rose does indeed have a fragility about her physicality (she has, for instance, an unexplained scar above her right eye). Did she die of natural causes, or did she commit suicide? The book provides a more definitive answer, but the film, by refusing to resolve the issue, provides a resonance to Eilis’s dilemma when she steps into Rose’s shoes later in the film. Is unhappiness caused by the limited nature of this place, or by the people in it? Does it, and other emotional opportunities, emerge from within, as part of our temperament, or from without, imposed by the existential conditions we find ourselves trapped within? By simply portraying such situations, and allowing them to suggest, rather than define, the film amplifies the emotions at stake as it moves along so that, like the wave that carries us to the shore, by the end we are borne along by feelings and desires, rather than intellectual recognitions. Ultimately the film is working with very basic, and well-worn, tropes, such as the nature of love, the ability to adapt, the desire for and impossibility of return, the journey from innocence to experience. But, like many of the greatest films of the classical era of Hollywood, these universal issues allow us all to step into Eilis’s experience imaginatively by way of our own, and fuse our own voyage with hers; like many of those films, there is something for “everyone” in this portrayal. That the film effectively carries off its aims is not despite, but indeed a feature of, its simplicity, and a credit to an adroit adaptation by Hornby, and incredibly faceted performances by everyone, but especially Ronan, whose transformation does not even register for us until the last quarter of the film, and also the two men in her life. Tony, and his close Italian family, could have been a caricature, slipping into an easy identification based not on human experience, but on past filmic representations; instead, he is brash in a respectful, shy way, and his family distinctive while feeling contemporary and fresh. Jim is also a study in unexpected humility, as instead of trying to woo Eilis and keep her in Ireland, he remains at a remove, always aware of the depth of experience she has acquired that he has not, and respectful of the fact that her life is now elsewhere, in a place that likely cannot but make what he has to offer pale in comparison. The film ends in a way that is unsurprising and, like the rest of the movie, emblematic rather than distinctive. But at least this viewer found it one of the most deeply moving experiences of the past year. A powerful, and beautiful, humanist vision.

Four and a half stars out of five

Sicario – Denis Villeneuve (2015)

There have been many films about drugs, and about the war on drugs. Most of them deal, a la Scarface, with the “gritty” street realities of the trade, or with power struggles within and between various factions of organized crime. (Such films are really just a variation on the more traditional gangster film, with drugs sprinkled over the top as a way to provide viewers with a vicarious high). Fewer films, such as Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, attempt to view the problem from a wider perspective and look at the structures that undergird the continual failure of this war, attempting to dramatize the failure of a systemic response to a systemic problem. Sicario, the new thriller from Denis Villeneuve, hews closer to this second model, but is a fresh hybrid. In some ways, it resembles an intragovernmental procedural of the Zero Dark Thirty school, with intrigues between and internecine battling among the FBI, DEA, CIA, etc. taking center stage. In other ways, though, it is a fairly straightforward revenge thriller, less Dirty Harry and more Death Wish (although we understand this only in the final quarter of the film, even if we’ve been feeling it all along). It is also an action film, and there are touches of the Western, the war film, and the bildungsroman, as we follow a neophyte officer from innocence to experience. What makes the film remarkable, though, is that it is all of a piece; the hybrid nature does not poke out, and the film does not seem a pastiche of various genres, but one sinuous, long, smoothly moving and tightly coiling snake. Unlike Traffic, which often jerks from one place, and tone, to another, and which also often becomes leaden and boring, Sicario is extremely easy to follow and consistently pleasurable to watch.

The film unfolds in three acts, with very little connective tissue in between (that is, just enough) and no flab or extraneous material. We begin at the scene of a purported kidnapping, which turns out to be a cartel-owned house in a Phoenix subdivision, the walls of which are stuffed full of dead bodies. At the scene of this crime, we are introduced to Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), our avatar in this world, as well as her friend and somewhat partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) and her boss (Victor Garber). Kate works for the FBI, but as a liaison for kidnapping cases; she has no real experience within the world of drug dealing. After this introduction (which ends in a trauma I won’t reveal), Kate is debriefed by a room full of drug enforcement interests from various agencies. The most powerful man in the room is not her boss, but Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the head of a task force dedicated to reducing cross-border drug violence. Matt is strange in ways that indicate he is a potential rogue presence: unlike the rest of those present, who are dressed in suits, Matt is very casually dressed (he wears flip-flops) and he takes a special interest in questioning Kate on her personal life and marital status. (We think he is hitting on her, but by the end of the movie, we understand he has a very different, and ice-cold, pretext for his questions). Kate is asked to volunteer for Matt’s task force, and after a little consideration, she does so. (Again, we spend much of the movie questioning why this seasoned force would want her on their team – it seems a Hollywood contrivance – only to have the reasoning made painfully clear in the final quarter of the film). Act two of the film involves the task force, with the aid of the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who seems unconnected to any official agency, retrieving a high level drug suspect from a jail on the Mexican side of the border and bringing him back to a military base on the U.S. side for questioning. Act three of the film takes up the search for a drug tunnel gleaned from information provided by said suspect’s interrogation. The drug tunnel operation is basically a ruse, however, to lure one of the cartel’s high level enforcers into contacting the big boss, revealing his location to the task force. The last part of the film deals with the aftermath of the tunnel raid, and the ultimate goal of everything that has occurred is revealed, both to Kate and to us.

There are many things this film does exceptionally well. First and foremost, it is structured in a very straightforward way, and with very little dialogue, but still manages to convey all of the intricacies and gray zones of the drug war, and of working across international borders and among multiple agencies, without ever belaboring it, getting bogged down in detail, or resorting to clichés (characters bemoaning inefficiencies, overly cynical explanations to newbies, etc). Fundamentally, the film is a thriller, and the structure and pacing pulls us through, tightening the ropes as it goes (in a way very reminiscent of Michael Mann’s best work). Each of the film’s acts centers on an action sequence – in act two it is the attempted assassination of the drug suspect before he can be brought onto U.S. soil, and in act three it is the infiltration of the drug tunnel. What makes the film work so well is not just the structure, but every other factor as well. First, there is the cinematography (courtesy of the always excellent Roger Deakins). It is both gritty and beautiful, and makes amazing use of available light – the darks (and there are many of them) are truly dark, night sequences are lucid yet atmospheric, and the sunsets of the southwest have rarely been more sensuously shot. At the same time, this beauty is grounded in a thoroughgoing realism, which is perhaps most on display during the trip into Ciudad Juarez to pick up the drug suspect. (The difference between Texas and Mexico is not night and day, but it is stark, grim, and the entire sequence seems to have been filmed on location at the border). A good part of the realism, and much of the lucidity of the staging, comes from the use of “technological” points of view. For instance (and especially in the unfolding of act two), we have many shots from the viewpoint of a drone; that is, a camera floating far above the action, but close enough to make clear the extent of the terrain being traveled into and through, and the exact location of all parties we need to care about. Unlike other films that have utilized such footage, Sicario does not spell it out as “drone footage” – we do not see HUD or targeting artifacts to betray to us “where” this footage comes from. In this sense, it is not jarring, and could simply be an aesthetic choice – the drone lies latent, behind this footage, unannounced. Villeneuve also makes use of infrared/night goggle footage and thermal imaging during the tunnel raid, and this footage is, while obviously tied to the equipment worn by the characters, equally seamless in its insertion. I would even dare to say it might be the first use of such footage that I would call lovely, and every use is purposeful in increasing the tension and putting us, as viewers, in the same zone of imperfect information as the characters. The music is subtle, spare, and works on us slowly, in pace with the increasing tension. The acting, like the rest of the film, is controlled and (unlike in some of Michael Mann’s work) never histrionic. (Indeed, Benicio Del Toro, who carries the last quarter of the film, has rarely been better). I suppose the film, like many actioners or thrillers, doesn’t have much of a politics beyond a weary, cynical resignation, but that does not bother me in the slightest, as it also keeps the script taut and without any unnecessary moralizing (we can see how failed things are, without needing to be told). Like Whiplash of last year, Sicario is a film that could easily appeal to a mass audience, but which also has much to offer lovers of serious film. I have no pithy or solemn words on which to end, except to recommend the film to one and (almost) all.

Four and a half stars out of five

Phoenix – Christian Petzold (2015)

Phoenix is a film that seeks to understand how we live through traumatic events. It is also a film about the passing of time, and the effect that passing has on our relationships, and on ourselves. Is it possible to recapture, or reestablish, what once was? Is there power in returning to places and people of past import, a prospect of mastery and satisfaction in regaining what was lost, or instead is it the mark of weakness, a sign of an inability to accept that the past is closed and to embrace the reality of the new person looking back at us in the mirror? Is the return a rebuke to those who scorned or betrayed us, a kind of revenge upon the past and a reassertion of our own identity, or instead a kind of stasis, a blind alley we venture down, inviting further trauma and abuse, in our inability to accept new realities? With this film, Christian Petzold delves into questions of identity not only on a personal level, but on a national one as well. Scripted by the director and the late, great Harun Faroki, Phoenix is very reminiscent of the kammerspiele films made in Germany during the early to mid 1920s. Those films, such as Murnau’s The Last Man or Jessner’s Backstairs, tend to feature lower middle class protagonists stuck in closed loops of possibility and identity formation. Often set in a few locations, most often the interiors of dingy apartments (or a men’s washroom, in the case of The Last Man), these films concentrate on psychodrama and character development, using expressionistic camerawork and lighting to augment the internal emotional states of their subjects (as well as make up for the lack of action in a more traditional sense). Set just after the end of the first World War, these films reference the damage of that conflict, both upon the bodies of their characters, and, albeit in sublimated form, upon the national character as a whole. Phoenix is similarly set just after a World War, but we have moved forward 20 years, and so find ourselves not in a world of the decrepit escapism and febrile political rebirth provided by the early Weimar years, but instead within the rubble of a destroyed and conquered Berlin, seemingly in a trance after its “liberation” from Nazi power. It asks the strange question – what would happen if you returned to the scene of your former life, went unrecognized, and then were asked to impersonate yourself?

We begin in the days just after the war, shortly after the liberation of the camps by Allied forces. Our protagonist is Nelly, a successful and cosmopolitan singer before the war who, ethnically Jewish but non-practicing, was at first hidden by her friends and husband until she was perhaps sold out by them. Her husband, Johnny, was a successful pianist, but not Jewish. When we meet Nelly, she has just barely survived the camps, and has been disfigured by violence shortly before they fell. Accompanied by her friend, caretaker, and Zionist Lene, Nelly undergoes plastic surgery to restore her face. She is warned that she should pick a new “type” of visage, as trying to get her back to her old self will leave her in an uncanny place, partly looking like she used to, partly a stranger. Regardless, she wants to look as close to her past self as she can. Healed up and, presumably, occupying the doubly uncanny space of not quite looking like herself while slipping back into the city she once called home, now a broken edifice, Nelly becomes obsessed with news of Johnny, and wishes a reunion. Lene tries to convince her that Johnny was the cause of her suffering, but Nelly is unconvinced (or perhaps simply still in love). She searches the streets, and then the nightclubs, until she discovers him, working, not as a musician, but as a busboy. After a few missed connections, she finally gets to speak with him, but he does not recognize her, and she does not reveal her true identity. Taking her for someone desperate for work, rather than truth, Johnny (now calling himself Johannes) suggests that since she somewhat resembles his past wife, whom he is convinced is dead, Nelly should enter into a deception with him. She will pretend to be his wife, mocking up a return to the city for the benefit of their friends, and, ultimately, to his benefit, as his wife was due to inherit her family’s estate (since the entire family was murdered in the camps). Nelly will pretend to be… Nelly, long enough for Johnny to claim the estate. Nelly will get a cut, she is assured. So we enter this strange, dreamlike pas de deux where Nelly lives most of the time with Johnny, observing him, trying to ferret out the truth of his betrayal. Was it forced upon him by circumstance – and hence is there a possibility for a reunion? Or did he sell her out callously, revealing himself to be a different man than she believed? Lene, of course, is horrified at this turn of events. About how the plot resolves itself, I will say no more, except that it is one of those rare films (rare except in the works of a master like Tarkovsky) where the final shot reveals everything, bringing together all the threads of the narrative as well as laying bare the emotional truths at play throughout. In this, Phoenix is fairly singular among recent films, as it practically demands to be viewed a second time in order to sort through the implications of the resolution and to allow us to feel the full force of the ambivalences and ironies at play in this tragedy. (Or is it a story of strength and redemption)?

The narrative may sound contrived. In some ways, it is guilty on this count, but it matters not, as we understand we are witnessing not just a character drama, but a larger metaphor for the afterlife. Not heaven, mind you, but life after the world has been destroyed. In the reunion of Nelly and Johnny, we witness the attempted assimilation of the survivors of a pogrom into a social fabric that they, years earlier, would have called their own. We sense that Johnny is now Johannes as a way to shore up his German identity post-facto; not as a way of proving his nationalism (as he might have done during the war), but as a means of convincing himself that this is who he was all along, as a way of both explaining to himself why he could do what he did, as well as running from the memory of that past life (in this way, the name becomes his scarlet letter). Nelly is trying to come to terms with the betrayal of an entire nation as it is personified in the people she knew and loved; were these people different than she always thought, or were they too the instruments of a diabolical machine far beyond anyone’s control? Are they sorry? Do they feel guilty? Are they even responsible for what happened to her? By being asked to impersonate herself, Nelly becomes a metaphor for her own impossible situation – she is still the same, and she is also completely different. She is, in effect, being asked to live both in the past, and in the future, with the present a kind of waking nightmare. The film has a taste of noir, but the airless, compressed, and dreamlike nature of the narrative is more reminiscent of the previously mentioned kammerspiele, and the different registers the film works in removes any reluctance we might have to accept this contrivance as truth. For Nelly is a contrived person – she is trying to recover an identity stolen from her while accounting for the fact that everyone she knew has also had something taken from them. In a way, the ending suggests, she is in the best possible position, for whatever her future, she does not have to reconcile her own guilt, or wonder what lie she has chosen to live. Her mask is sewn onto her face – she really is a new person – whereas her countrymen are left wondering, perhaps, if the mask they once donned is their true self, or worse, if there is a difference between the mask and the reality. Petzold is a well regarded German director, but one whose work I know far too little of – while he is responsible for prominent films such as Jerichow (2008) and Barbara (2012), I am only familiar with his entry in the Dreileben trilogy (his entry, the excellent first segment Something Better than Death (2011), deals with young love and class relations in an exceptionally nuanced and heartbreaking way). Phoenix is a rarity, in that it provides no answers, easy or otherwise, and no closure, while being sensitive to the points of view, and the pain, of all its characters, be they tainted by their choices or not. While the phoenix is often the emblem of rebirth, a kind of token for moving on, Petzold concentrates on the ashes, and on the struggle that lies behind the attempt to keep going. For ashes also signify rest, and finality, whereas the process of birth is a violent one. Rebirth is no more of a choice than death is, and the true horror of Nelly’s ordeal is that, dead or alive, she has no way out of it. At the same time, the phoenix can fly, and the film also suggests that impersonating herself might not help her fly off to a wonderful new life, but that she can perhaps climb above the world that left her behind.

Four and a half stars out of five

 

The Wolfpack – Crystal Moselle (2015)

Memories are notoriously unreliable, because they are sensuous, living things; unlike facts, which suffer a death when committed to the page, memories transform because we transform. They age as we age, they fade as we fade. But this, the source of their unreliability, is also the source of their power – they are twinned with experience in a way that we cannot control, and if they must share our lives to exist, they also have an existence of their own. This power is attested to by their unexpected emergence; they come forth suddenly, heeding the call of some external stimuli, innocuously living its own life, unaware of the double that we have always borne along inside ourselves. In this way, memories are like a spirit, and we like a vessel – as memories age, they evaporate, leaving behind a substance which is less in quantity, but, as in any distillation, more powerful and potent because of the process. An era, a relationship, a passage, becomes an emblem: a look or a voice that, by being a fragment, cuts all the deeper. Films, like memories, are fragments, and, like memories, are notorious in their unreliability. Pieces of film, like memories, are stitched together into a larger work – the work of telling a story. The best films not only tell a story, they reflect on this ability, which is at the very heart of human nature and sentiment: the desire to use that which is fleeting as the bedrock on which to build an edifice of meaning. For memories are the evidence we sift through (if we are honest, always futilely), to make meaning, and to understand how we are and who we are. Unlike the world of fact, the more we search in memory, the less sure we become, and the less sure we become, the more we sense we are close to truth. It is a testament to the power and art of The Wolfpack, then, that the longer we watch it, the less sure we are that we understand the nature of the story we are seeing, and the more meaningful and multiple that story becomes. It is a story about loving movies. It is also a story about survival. It is a story of pain, dysfunction, and abuse, which is also a story of love, protection, and idealism.

The film, shot in a style not often seen anymore, mimics memory by allowing the story of a family to emerge from observation, and from the mouths of the family members. It is not exactly Direct Cinema, but it is close. Whereas Direct Cinema had a political teleology, The Wolfpack is interested in identity, in manifold forms. Some of these forms are indeed political, or, at least, the film is concerned with liberations of several sorts, but it is an anthropological inquiry only by the way of being an (it must be said, Surrealistic) disquisition on self and other, inside and outside, and the power relations that flow, always, from those two people we all know as Mom and Dad. As is usually the case with those who occupy seats of power, Mom and Dad emerge gradually here, in the negative spaces cast by their authority, in the differences we manage to map between the childhoods before us and memories of our own. The film concerns a band of brothers (and, sadly, discursively, one sister) who spent almost their entire childhood locked away from the world; not far away, as in a fairy tale, but close, in a run-down Manhattan apartment. They can see, smell, and taste the metropolis right outside their window, but they are home-schooled, and only father has the key to the front door. Father also has an interest in movies, and so instead of interacting with other humans, the boys interact with films, and eventually interact with each other through films. They recreate in detail (as far as they can), and re-enact, scenes from the movies they love, as a way to ward off boredom, yes, but moreso as a way to understand what it means to be a human among other humans. Reservoir Dogs (a favorite, we are left unsure, because it deeply connects or because it offers substantial roles for all of them), the Batman trilogy, Halloween, and others become quasi-religious rights, enacted in the living room and hallways with the aid of costumes painstakingly hewn from painted pieces of cereal box and sliced-up yoga mat. The undertaking has the atmosphere of a cult, more of the cargo than of the supreme leader variety – celebrations take on an intensity amplified by the close proximity to the “real thing,” the mysterious society that produced the images that entrance and educate them. (Their Halloween celebration is a thing of beauty, power, poignancy, and some dread). We are introduced to Mom early on, but she seems a bystander, almost one of the gang. Like the titular animals, we begin to think that these teens have raised themselves, and we await the revelation that Dad has absconded to another life, or to the next. But no, gradually father is revealed (although that word might be too strong) to be a hermit, ruling over his own small kingdom rather ineffectually. He could easily have been cast as a tyrant, and without sympathy, but Ms. Moselle is too canny for that. Yes, he is a monster in a way, but he is also a magician. Like Oz, he is a small, disappointed man, out of his element, and with a desire for grander things. He is an idealist – or, better, he identifies as an idealist. Originally from South America, he met mid-western Mom as a guide on the Incan trail. Somehow both of these seemingly hippy dreamers escaped paradise into the urban jungle, and never could find their way out. Unable to go native, Dad dreams of bettering himself in the city, to take the family to the true Western utopia, Scandinavia. Unable to make that happen, he slips into stasis, so close to the ideal, but always too far; he lives in the heart of modernity, and cannot escape to a better one. Or so he says – perhaps these are simply the rationalizations of a lazy, drunken failure. Like everything in this impressionistic film, it is hard to tell what is “true” from what is “real.” Failing to reach his destination, and to deliver his family to their true identities, he recreates his trapped position for his children. As he lives just out of reach of his desire, so shall they.

What separates the monster from the magician might be a matter of perspective. For while this father locks his children away, he does not throw away the key; indeed, he creates a situation (or was it always the case?) that allows them, slowly, to discover that they can escape. And, one by one, they do. They begin to rebel against him, in the necessary process of creating their own identities, and by doing so, reveal their uniqueness to the world, and bring the world into the household (in ways that in other films would have been obvious and ham-handed in their “drama,” but which here flow by suggestively, as memories tend to do). So while father replicated his own prison, he also created a way in which his children could escape theirs in a way he never could. Yes, we can say he has hobbled them, ill-prepared them for the “real” world. At the same time, as we see in a late movie trip to an upstate pumpkin farm, the years cloistered from “reality” have also enchanted reality in a way most of us cannot comprehend. The boys run, whoop, and play, experiencing the colors, tastes, and smells of nature at a time of life which ensures they will be remembered. The father’s sin allows his offspring to experience the world with the fresh senses of children. And, in a turn that is both poignant and potentially self-serving, the children liberate their father as much as is possible – he is along for the ride, although, heartbreakingly, always keeping himself at a remove. As the film winds down, questions only multiply, while answers do not, and the narrative becomes even more fragmented. One of the brothers seems to hitchhike away. Another gets a job as a PA on a film set, and even moves into his own apartment. Mother is reunited with her own mother, who she has not seen in decades. (We hear of a reunion, but do not see it). The daughter, too young to be independent, and who naturally seems to stick close to Dad, remains obscure. (One devastating shot, taken from a distance at the pumpkin farm, shows Mom, Dad, and daughter moving across a field in happiness, only to part as Mom wants to investigate what the boys are up to, Dad splitting off, recoiling into solitude, and the daughter, tottering between them, staggering on, unsure who to follow. We do not see her choice). I am quite positive that the unresolved nature of much of what we see will be dissatisfying for many viewers. If so, that would be a shame, because there is much skill, and strength, in Ms. Moselle’s technique. It takes considerable command, and resolve, to let material speak for itself. The results are mysterious, enigmatic, and gripping, revealing depths that reflect on the nature of the self and of family, and on how we live together at the larger level of a society. In some ways the film is reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s films from the ’70s that focus on outcasts in relation to society, but in many aspects The Wolfpack is more powerful, as it is more humble and less mythic. With the logic of a dream, the film ends with the family producing a “real” film; no longer enacting the dreams of others, each player comes before the camera transformed, representing both him or herself as well as enacting their newly recognized “role.” It is both the logical culmination of the life of a cinephile (playing out in micro form the New Waves of the 1960s) as well as a poetic testament to the forever present possibility of self-fashioning and transfiguration. It is a portrait of the artist as a young man as well as a family portrait; it is the family portrait of us all.

Four and a half stars out of five

It Follows – David Robert Mitchell (2015)

It Follows is pitched as a horror film. It is so only insofar as it is a stalking ground for a certain kind of dread. Beyond the trappings of the genre, which It Follows inhabits only as much as it needs in order to critique them, the film is about the sadness inherent in moving from adolescence to adulthood, and more specifically, from a teenager’s conception of sex to a fully informed, mature one. If it were only this, it would already be an unusual, and significant, addition to a genre that, especially in the last few decades, has been painfully devoid of intellectual and emotional significance. But it is more than that. It is not an elegy for a lost, idealized youth, but rather, a portrait of what it means to become an adult, if we take adulthood not as a fallen state, or a cynical inevitability, merely the grabbing ground of goodies denied to youth, but as a stage that must reckon with the endgame while trying to figure out how to play to the end ethically. What sets It Follows apart is not that it contains more insight than your average horror film (it indeed contains more insight than your average film, period), but that it provides an answer to the problems it poses. If it is a portrait, it is a picture of what it means to ethically interact with other people in full knowledge that the end is always already in view, that nothing lasts, and that true friendship, or even love, places demands on us that, if not heeded, result in the destruction of everyone in the game.

Let me be less abstract. It Follows concerns Jay, a girl on the far side of adolescence; she still lives at home with her mother, and attends a local college. She has a clutch of friends that are always hanging around at her house, watching movies, behaving like teens. Jay is not a teenager anymore, but she still has the trappings of a teenager’s life, and we sense, in one of the many quiet moments the film provides, as she floats around in her above ground pool in the family backyard, that she feels herself on the cusp of something she is not quite sure of. She goes on a date with Hugh, who seems a nice enough guy; at the movies (a revival of Charade, ho ho), Hugh becomes disquieted, as he sees a girl in the theater that Jay cannot. They depart, and eventually wind up in the back of his car, having sex. The sex is depicted like much in this low-key, non-exploitative film: as a bit of sweaty, heated connection, not overly profound for either partner. After the sex, Jay lounges in the back seat of Hugh’s car, and he approaches her from behind; he forces a rag over her face, and she passes out. When she wakes, she is in an abandoned building, tied to a wheelchair, and Hugh begins to tell her, and eventually shows her, what will happen to her. She will be stalked by an apparition, which can appear as any person – often it will look like someone she knows, but just as often it will be a stranger. This apparition is, basically, death. If it catches her, it will kill her. This specter is not fast moving; it is insidious, and threatening only in its relentlessness. The only way Jay can avoid this fate is to pass the curse on to someone else – if she has sex with another person, then that person will now be stalked. Jay will not be off the hook, though, just as Hugh is not now off the hook. If the apparition catches the person Jay has slept with, and kills him, then the apparition will return to hunting Jay, and if it catches and kills her, it will return to hunting Hugh. This infinite regress of death, this vertiginous space of slow-moving inevitable destruction, is her new reality, for good. This is the premise of the film, and the rest of the movie works to slowly clarify the realities of this new mode of being; it is really nothing but a description of what it means to live like this. We are not in doubt that this curse is real – the film does not toy with the usual “perhaps she’s crazy, and nobody believes her” cliches. Her friends are affected physically by this unseen force, which can cause collateral damage in its relentless movement toward Jay. Given that it is a real, if invisible, presence, the group tries to destroy it – and indeed, it appears that you can temporarily slow its advance, cause it to dissipate for a short period of time, but eventually it will reappear and resume its forward motion. This invisible force frequently appears to the afflicted with the hallmarks of its character – it often, even when resembling a friend or relative, has the pallor of a corpse, and just as often signifies a sickly sexuality (in this way the film pays homage to Kubrick’s The Shining, specifically the scene where Jack Torrance is seduced by a sexually voracious young woman who, when glimpsed in a mirror, he recognizes as a decomposing yet living body).

Now, this concept, strangely resembling a type of game, or perhaps a chain letter, might sound like a gimmick not much different from many others that guide horror films recently (such as the one that drives the Saw franchise). What places this film above its peers, and reveals the concept to be both a parody and a critique, is that it is not cynical. In fact, the structure of “the gift” forecloses cynicism, or rather, makes mindlessly passing along the curse the most losing strategy of all. Pass it on to some nameless somebody you have no connection to, and before long the specter of death will be back stalking you, as your nameless somebody was unprepared, unknowing of the danger, and thus quickly succumbed. Further, you are setting yourself up to be surprised, as you’ll have no idea when this nameless somebody died, and hence no idea when you will be next. No, “the gift,” for the sake of your own survival, comes with an ethics as well. The best way to ensure your own future is to do what Hugh does: inform the victim of what will befall them. But better yet, take it a step beyond Hugh – watch over your “victim.” Keep an eye on them. In fact, in the best of all possible worlds, you will help them stay safe by becoming a permanent fixture in their life (as everyone with “the gift,” no matter if they are the next intended or far down the list, having been so enlightened, can see the specter). Thus this predicament, undoubtedly a despairing and insolvable one, does have a solution: learn to live with it. And the best way to learn to live with it is to build a community around it. This is why Jay, after much delay and coming to grips with her new reality, gives her “gift” to another. The first intended is Greg, a fellow student at the local college who, we come to learn, she had a sexual relationship with in high school (which was “no big thing”). Greg is likable, and we trust that he has Jay’s best interest at heart, but we come to learn, sadly (for his sake) that he cannot handle the reality that Jay hands him. Taking on her burden as his own, he very quickly becomes distant, avows that he has not seen the specter, and begins to cast doubt on Jay and her burden. Jay’s friends, however, become suspicious of him because of this, as they have both seen material evidence of the specter and, more importantly, understand that something horrible is happening to Jay. Soon enough, Greg’s disavowal catches up with him (in the appearance of his own mother) and he succumbs to his inevitable demise. The second intended is a childhood friend of Jay’s, Paul. He and she shared their first kiss together, and he has obviously retained his crush on her. Near the end of the film, after their last, seemingly fruitless attempt to destroy the apparition, Jay relents to Paul’s desire to share her pain, and she passes “the gift” on to him. The film ends with the suggestion that this bond will take, and, consequently, they will both be better equipped to deal with the future, as they can look for, and fight against, the specter as a team. The last shot of the film shows them, walking hand in hand down the street, with a possible manifestation of the dread ghost slightly out of focus, walking behind them in the near distance.

Rarely, at least in contemporary cinema, has there been as thoroughgoing and unsexy a portrayal of what it means to be an adult, and to live in the grown-up world of knowledge of inevitable death and decay and the responsibility toward others that such knowledge entails. It is not a conservative worldview, predicated on fear of sexuality, despite the coupling of sex and decay throughout the film. Rather, it is a deeply more ambivalent portrayal of sex than we are used to. On the one hand, sex is the release from the world, a means of escaping inevitable death – passing on “the gift” stands in for what the French call “the little death,” the paradoxical forgetting of oneself that another body and, ultimately, the orgasm that body elicits, provides. In mirroring the permanent forgetting of self promised by one’s demise, sexual coupling allows a subject to, temporarily at least, escape their knowledge of mortality. At the same time, passing on “the gift” also binds the two parties together in a permanent relationship, just as sex does in a properly adult world – not as an obligation, but as a profound sharing, profound because of the consequences that can result from the act: not only pregnancy, or the transmission of disease, but of heartbreak or emotional damage. Of course, anyone can ignore such consequences, or pretend they don’t exist, but such a disavowal marks hedonism with a requisite moral decay in our own world, and in the world of the film, the disavowal marks one as weak, an easier target for the creeping inevitable. Thus the depth of the metaphor within the film – of course anyone can pretend sex has no consequences, but doing so is tantamount to believing you will live forever, or that you are self-sufficient and cannot be touched. It marks you as singular, and forever alone; truly alone in your flight from the realities of life (and death). Acceptance of the fact of mortality, and the burden of the responsibilities that it entails, is, really, no burden at all. The film shows this in its resolution – in forming a couple, in partnering, in accepting the consequences of sex, Jay and Paul strengthen each other. This relating as adults, “adult sex,” if you would, is not a buzzkill, but indeed the seedbed of love (as we see them holding hands as they walk away into their future). This real love is not narcissism and denial of reality masquerading as care for another, but actual acceptance of fragility, decay, and the death that awaits us all, with or without “the gift” (indeed, the gift is simply a metaphor for the mature recognition of the facts of life). What is brilliant about the film, and again marks it as not conservative in nature (that is, as espousing that the answer to all life’s problems is to couple up), is that it provides a picture of relating that is fundamentally humane: no matter if within a coupling that is monogamous, or within a polymorphously perverse community, the answer to the problem at hand is to watch over one another, watch out for one another, and to know when to flee, or fight, together.

What is doubly impressive about It Follows is that it provides not only this mature picture of what true love is, but that it does so within the framework of a genre that usually does the exact opposite. As the film begins, before we even encounter Jay for the first time, we are met with the image of a victim of the stalking specter. She flees her house in the early morning hours, perhaps unaware of what is happening to her and the nature of the knowledge she has acquired. She is dressed in a way that is completely ridiculous, even more so for someone running for her life: she wears close-fitting girl “booty short” boxers, a loose tank top, and high heels. This image, so incongruous that it caused me almost instantly to lose faith in the film I was embarking on, is indeed a parodic picture of most films of this type. Sexualized children, set loose in a world of deadly consequence that they cannot comprehend, try their best to play at being adult. Such play is what most films of this type engage in – not actual play, but playing-with, where humans stand in for dolls, and are pressed together, thrown about, and pulled apart with cynical abandon by makers who either possess the minds of adolescents, or believe that we do. There are myriad other, more specific ways that It Follows, image for image, is a revelation, and a significant critique of our culture (I have not even touched on its use of Detroit as a setting, or of its portrayal of fatherless families, or the other filmic quotations, from Breaking the Waves to The Exorcist, that it contains). Its prime contribution, however, is to play fair with its toys, as the “game” that the film proposes is indeed the game of life. Winners will need to strategize, and to realize that such “play” is nothing if not deadly serious; but only by taking it seriously can it also be exciting, beautiful, and fun.

Four and a half stars out of five

The Last Picture Show – Peter Bogdanovich (1971)

The death of small town America, and thus the death of our favorite national imaginary, is by now so done as a topic that I wonder if it even registers anymore. (The Internet has faked us into thinking that geography is irrelevant and that we can all participate in that big whatsit from wherever). Such death is ostensibly the topic of The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich’s well-known and respected first “real” feature from his trio of successes in the early 1970s. Although I’ve seen the other two (What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon), and enjoyed them, The Last Picture Show remained elusive – which is to say, I never sought it out, so it is no surprise it did not seek me out either. It happened to be playing as a Sunday matinee at one of the many lovely restored theaters around here, in a small town that, while neither as forlorn nor as inward as Anarene, Texas, did resonate upon greeting me, leaving the film, with empty streets and a hard wind blowing.

If The Last Picture Show was simply about the death of small town America, as it has been often mourned, through the teary and false eye of a simple nostalgia, I can bet I wouldn’t have been terribly affected. Thankfully, the film is really about small towns and death, with America being a happenstance, the far-flung relation calling long distance; we see this America in the movies playing at the picture show, in Duane’s new/used automobile, and in the fissures that provide passage out of or toward it (Mexico, military service, the Korean war). Yes, the film is about the death of a kind of community, but the relationship that community bears to the American “community” is unclear, obscured by the vastness of the land and the pressure that lives lived elsewhere provide, slowly compressing this small pebble of a place from afar. What the film really deals with is community as such – how it is formed, almost ad hoc, and how it goes on, simply because it has to for those that remain. We are given entree to this place through the eyes of Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), a quiet, unsure, and ambivalent witness who is unable to tackle life in this small place in any way that produces a satisfying outcome. He is in his last year of high school, and so his fate – what will become of his life? – becomes, in many ways, the fate of the place. The film moves back and forth between a set of teenagers, trying to make their first life decisions (taking guidance from a well-worn and small playbook), and the adults who have to live with their own decisions (and who are also trying to reinvent themselves, although perhaps in small measures, along the way).

The usual cliches about small town existence are avoided. This town is painfully small, and yes, everybody knows everybody else’s business. Whereas in the stereotype of such a community this type of knowledge would lead to ostracism or at least judgmental rumor mongering, Anarene hews closer to the lived reality of such places, where although everyone might know everything that’s happening, judgement recedes and a kind of discretion reigns. Partly this is common sense, the old “don’t shit where you eat” line, but it is also partly compassion of the “we’ve all been there” kind and partly the reality of a forced tribalism, a “we’re all in this together,” even if they’d rather not be. The adults are refreshingly free of bitterness and closed-mindedness, instead trying to impart some wisdom of lived experience while at the same time not discounting their own demanding inner voice, their own desire to feel young or renewed. The teens likewise escape the broad brush, with Jeff Bridge’s semi-dim Duane and Cybill Shepherd’s Jacy being the closest to types we encounter. Jacy in particular could have fallen into the usual mold of the icy, controlling prom queen, but Shephard, particularly in the first half of the movie, portrays her as wistful, unsure, and naive while also craving validation in the usual ways a too-attractive girl might. (It is only after she sets her sights on Sonny that she becomes more craven and hence less sympathetic).

The engine of the drama, if dramatic these events be, is sex. Sex in this community, and this film, is not the hidden aspect of Janus-faced love, ready to tear all stability asunder with the primal forces of desire; rather, love is herein paired with familiarity, and sex provides one of the few forces of novelty in an environment rather devoid of possible permutations. Sex is the force that can and does cut across the static lines of this world (static not because conservative, but simply because this world is small): class, age, power, intellect and experience. What is wonderful about the film is that sex and love are not a simple dichotomy, and that the sex, rather than having unpleasant noir-style implications or “thrills,” instead serves as a way for the characters to generate new alliances, experiences, and (perhaps aborted or sham) voyages of self-discovery. It is a place to pose questions, such as, “How do we live here? What can be done?” and “What does life mean when it has to be small?” Answers are harder to come by. The most resonant of the relationships, and the one that endures in some way, is between Sonny and middle-aged Ruth (Cloris Leachman). Bogdanovich captures the above dynamic perfectly in his portrayal of Ruth’s “seduction” of Sonny. During their first afternoon tryst, the bed springs squeaking perfectly mimic the squalling springs on a screen door as it opens and closes (as they do often in this film, grabbed and flung by the unrelenting winds). Ruth sheds tears, but they are not of remorse, seemingly – perhaps ennui, perhaps confusion. This sound, of the new and the possible, figured as sexual desire and the young lover, and of the return of the old and familiar, figured as monogamous love and the return of the husband, match. There is no escaping the twinning, hence the tears, but neither is this recognition relentless or shattering; indeed, it is, in a way, comforting. Not the terror of being caught, but the reassurance of being caught – the comfort inherent in being held close and accepted, regardless. Her tears and confusion are not those of the trapped, but those of the seeking. As she looks into the middle distance during the proceedings, Ruth seems to be gazing into the human condition as horizon, that flat line also familiar, homely, comforting yet devoid of meaningful marker or measure.

The film ends, as you might guess from the title, with a shot of the movie house, now shuttered and empty. Set in the 1950s (as is George Lucas’s superficially similar but inversely worthy American Graffiti), the film’s main argument is about the death of a kind of community, represented by movie-going, rapidly being replaced by television and the atomization of life (now, in 2015, already in its baroque phase). This is a familiar (and nonetheless true) observation at this point in history, but Bogdanovich’s vision has not dated, as, for one, the film is set in the historic period of this change, and two, his film is an inquiry into a type of community, not an attempt to diagnose a larger (perhaps national) malady. If it is mourning, the film is mourning the death of the human animal; what better place to observe this animal than in its natural habitat which also happens to be, perforce, an enclosure? Movie-going becomes the metaphor for this animal community: it is a semi-random assortment of folk who meet in the dark to alleviate boredom, to canoodle, to forget themselves, and also to gaze on one another, in an attempt to make meanings that are individually elusive. Thus the death of the picture show is much darker than the film portrays, as it implies a coming reality where individuals are deemed sufficient to figure it out on their own, always already outside the nest. Yet Bogdanovich (and Larry McMurtry, who likely deserves equal credit) is not simply practicing an admittedly higher form of nostalgia here, as he also questions what the nature of this “human animal” really is. Near the end of the film, simple Billy (Sam Bottoms), at his Sisyphean task of sweeping out the road, is struck in the middle of the street and killed by a passing truck. The sheriff and his old cronies stand about, tut-tutting and confirming for themselves Billy’s stupidity, his uselessness. Perhaps this is simply a performance, salve to the man who hit him, or perhaps a way of denying their own sadness. But it is coldness and distance nonetheless, and leads to Sonny’s flight out of town, then back into town, and, eventually, to Ruth, both to make amends (we assume) and for comfort. This leads to the perfect, heartbreaking final scenes, where Ruth and Sonny try to speak, but cannot find words. Instead, the purely animal, the comfort and touch of another sympathetic body, presents the only bulwark, if not solution. At the same time, the ending is tragic, as it represents Sonny’s (and our) realization that perhaps this community of human animals was and is a sham, a self-satisfied delusion – that individual meanness and might-makes-right is the way of the human animal, in or outside of a community. Thus the figure of Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) as singular. Not, as we first think, as the last of the old-timers, but as their exception: an animal of power, but also of kindness and help. The question that torments Sonny is, perhaps, does the exception prove the rule? And is he capable of inheriting such a mantle?

Four and a half stars out of five

 

Hard to Be a God – Aleksei German (2015)

Hard to Be a God is one of those rare films that defies description. It is nominally sci-fi, adapted from the novel of the same name by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, but if you don’t pay somewhat careful attention to the opening voice-over, you can be forgiven (if not excused) for not understanding the fantastical underpinnings of the tale. The story, told obliquely, concerns a parcel of scholars sent to an Earth-like planet (picked, we are informed, because it has castles like Earth) to observe and interact with the locals. It is unclear if the scholars are taken as actual gods or simply nobility descended from mythical stock, but they wield power over the populace both because of their titles, and because they are more intelligent and skilled, in most every life task, than the locals. The planet on which they’ve landed appears to be stranded in an Earth-like Medieval period, but unlike on our snug rock, the Renaissance on this planet has happened in reverse; that is, it is in the thrall of a kind of anti-Enlightenment, with knowledge being lost, scholars pilloried and killed, universities sacked. This description does not quite convey the extent of it, though, as the “problems” are more thoroughgoing. It is not simply that this planet is going through a dark era, or a period of iconoclasm; indeed, the denizens of this planet seem to be regressing, or rather, one gets the feeling that this place is slowly tilting off its kilter, spinning backward not only in a historical sense, but in an evolutionary one as well. It is a place of anti-production and anti-consumption. The Dons (as the scholars are called), being stranded here, have been forced to involve themselves in the internecine politics of the planet (which are confusing), and after so long dealing with the locals, have become weary, apathetic, unhinged, or a combination of the three. The focus of the film is one Don Rumata, who seems a pretty decent overlord, but who definitely falls into the weary bordering on apathetic category. (He fights when he has to, prefers not to kill, although he has skills that allow him to wreck havoc if he wants, and opens and closes the film playing his intergalactic saxophone with a resigned ennui). There is not much conventional “action,” but the overall thrust is that the Don has to rescue one worthy, named Budakh, from the “greys,” which leads to out and out destruction.

Visually, the film is stunning. The planet, as much as we see of it, looks like a massive Medieval city, with some bleak marshy countryside for good measure; everything is covered in mud. Well, this is a vast understatement. The film’s environs are by far the gloopiest, poopiest, glopiest, wettest, muckiest you will ever see – the set design and production quality are amazing. This is a planet covered in scat, but not in the John Waters gross-out mode; you get the sense that everything is shit, but you can’t tell the difference between the shit, the mud, and … well, there isn’t much else. Furthermore, the locals are obsessed not only with shit, but with effluvia of every variety. The key sense on this planet is smell, not taste, such that the Don, when offered a mug of something (usually milk?), will take it in his mouth, swish it around, and then spray or spit it out – not from any offensiveness, it seems, but simply because that is how it is done. Everyone is obsessively spitting or clearing their noses by ripping massive goobers this way and that (usually ending stuck to or dripping down their faces), or, with much due fascination, wiping some glob of gloop out of some nether-crack and giving it a nasal once-over, equal parts means of identification and aesthetic judgement. If you are to be randomly killed (and odds are, if you are a local on this planet, you will be), it will likely be by dunk in an overflowing latrine – but such events happen with such equanimity on the part of all participants (victims included) that one gets the sense that it is kind of entertaining too. This is what I mean by describing the populace as devolving. It’s not the right word, as we don’t have evidence they were ever different, but most of them seem dim in the sense that a primate is “dim” – easily distracted, struggling to suppress their id, randomly poking, hitting, throwing dirt, grabbing people by the nose, etc. (In some sense, it does recall the Three Stooges). Their sense of humor is equally deranged. Dead dogs, which abound in the film (usually strung up from small gallows), are used to bonk people over the head, with a Nelson-from-the-Simpsons “ha ha” not uncommon. Outhouses are often on the second floor, and delight is taken (again, seemingly by both parties) in crapping on someone’s face. My attempts at analogy are going a little over the top; the tone is everyday and spot-on anthropological, in that the dwellers of this planet by and large take it all in stride, knowing no different. It’s not a hootenanny, nor a nightmare – just the way things go. They may behave like bird-brains, but there is a nascent innocence to them, and the acting never goes over the top.

Already we are in a strange world. German makes the planet more closeted feeling, smaller, dirtier, cramped, tired and piling up on itself (reflecting the Don’s weariness and the experience of constant repetitive stimulation) by way of his staging and shooting. This film contains what must have been some of the most difficult exercises in blocking and camera movement in film history. The camera moves in a way very similar to the “hysterical” camera of Andrzej Zulawski, but with less sweep, in spaces much more cramped and confined, and within takes that last far longer. We are often very close to people and things, so much the better to scent them, but the scope is epic in that there are constant entrances, exits, and details, details, and more details to sniff in. The film does not do much to help the confused spectator, but the camera, strangely embodied, almost becomes our second self, or at least an equally bewildered friend helping us through. It is a long film, but only because there is so much to see and so little guidance; tiring, but only because the planet is unrelenting and exhausting. The experience of watching the film is the exact opposite, though – the longer it went on (unlike Don Rumata, I would wager), the more I found it funny, fascinating, and inexhaustible.

Four and a half stars out of five

Clouds of Sils Maria – Olivier Assayas (2014)

Olivier Assayas’s work is often uneven. He has directed some brilliant films (1994’s Cold Water, 2000’s Les Destinées, and Demonlover in 2002), some that are a mixed lot (such as his best-known, 1996’s Irma Vep), and a few absolute duds (2007’s Boarding Gate, for example). And then there is Carlos – the less we speak of Carlos, the better, but suffice to say that any film that spends a third of its six hour running time with a protagonist hiding out and complaining of varicose testes… One tendency in Assayas work that some perhaps find alienating or off-putting is his foregrounding of the problems of the glamorous, powerful, and well-to-do in a fairly non-ironic way. Irma Vep was about a director losing his way directing a famous actress, Demonlover concerned power plays by sexy movers and shakers within international corporations, and Carlos was Assayas at his international jet-setting worst, a work that signified “cool” at every juncture while being deeply boring, self-satisfied and self-indulgent.

Given that his best films tend to hew away from the surface sheen of money, fame, power, and what we could generally term the “eye-candy” of international capital, I was a bit hesitant on the approach to Clouds of Sils Maria. (The rush to judgement in certain online forums, where users were vehement about wishing the early demise of such “annoying” characters, didn’t help my hopefulness). The film concerns an older actress, played by Juliette Binoche, and her hesitation to take on a role in a play about power dynamics between two women, one older and one younger, where the younger seduces and destroys the older. She originally played the younger role, to much acclaim, twenty years prior, and now is offered the role of the older (to be destroyed) woman, against a current Hollywood ingenue (played by Chloe Grace Moretz). Along for the ride as a helper and confidant is her personal assistant, played by Kristen Stewart.

The film becomes a kind of mental triangle among the women, with Binoche and Stewart mostly bonding, sometimes sparring, as Stewart helps convince Binoche to take the role and coaches her through dialogue preparation. A subtle transference begins to occur, and the dynamics of the play (titled Maloja Snake, after the rarely seen movement of clouds through a mountain valley) start influencing the women’s relationship. Binoche struggles with the meaning and personal ramifications of playing an older, “debased” role (when she is still somewhat resting on her laurels from her younger performance), while Moretz shape-shifts and personifies the “emptiness of today’s youth” that every older generation feels in some measure about its younger competition. Kristen Stewart is stuck in the middle, not only as the go-between for Binoche and the world, but as a woman who can see what getting older has in store for her, and is sympathetic to the prospect and compassionate in her analysis, but who also isn’t there yet and doesn’t want to be.

If this sounds like problems for the elite, well, on one level it certainly is. At the same time, I did not find the characters annoying or their problems uninteresting, as the writing is exceptionally good and the layers manifold. The film deals with multiple issues very subtly: the difference between “performance” and “authentic” self, the nature of acting and popularity, how women relate to each other, all of which is filtered through the larger dynamic of aging and what it means to get older and to feel you are still in step (or not) with your time. It is a drama without pyrotechnics, but it lingers, and the performances are incredibly strong – particularly Kristen Stewart, who I didn’t expect much from but who knocked me out. The film is up there with Bergman’s reflections on the performing life, but Assayas brings an appreciation and critique of both the ridiculousness and the wonderfulness of the post-modern capitalist phantasmagoria. And in terms of a film that tries to observe, and not polemicize, what it means to be a woman and an image, and that seriously considers how women are or are not allowed to age and still remain socially relevant, this is the finest recent film I can think of. For Assayas fans, it’s his strongest film since Demonlover, and worth returning to.

Four and a half stars out of five

Whiplash – Damien Chazelle (2014)

Whiplash is my second favorite film of the year (top honors go to Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition). I skipped it earlier in the fall, as it centers on drumming and a striving student / taskmaster teacher relationship, neither of which I’m overly enamored with as subjects for a narrative. I’m glad I gave it a chance, and was able to see it on the big screen. In some ways, it is reminiscent of cult classic Breaking Away (which I’ve always had a warm fuzzy for), but is less character driven and more concerned with questions of the line between art and madness and the will to power underlying such strivings for “greatness.” It features a clash of the titans that keeps you guessing as to how it will resolve, but boy oh boy, when it does, it provides more pure cinematic catharsis than anything mainstream of the past year (even topping Snowpiercer). A few bits of the musical montage verge on the cheesy, especially in the climax, but unlike many films, the editing does actual work. The resolution is brilliant (especially the final few shots) and should leave audiences breathless and feeling great. I hope it finds a wider audience on video, as it is perfect Oscar material – serious, intelligent, and crowd-pleasing all at once.

Four and a half stars out of five