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.

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

Crimson Peak – Guillermo del Toro (2015)

All of Guillermo del Toro’s films are, in some way, tales of the gothic. Like his influence (and failed adaptee) H.P. Lovecraft, they are also hybrids, so it is not surprising if the gothic tendency is not the first quality that springs to mind when considering his work. But it is there, running like a subterranean stream through films that feature a kind of art cinema historical realism (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth) or that seem genre exercises in fantasy (Hellboy and Hellboy II, Pan’s Labyrinth) or sci-fi (Mimic, Pacific Rim). In fact, looking at his filmography, it is possible to wonder if all these categories are indeed fused for him – while horror is the overarching category that captures all of his work, most of the films fall into at least two categories. (Blade II, for example, is a horror film, but also has elements of sci-fi and fantasy. Mimic could be considered sci-fi horror. Pan’s Labyrinth is art horror fantasy. And on and on). So what is surprising, given this trajectory, is that Crimson Peak is not a hybrid, and that it is avowedly gothic through and through. Like most of his other films, it is a tale of ghosts, of the dead who refuse to remain dead, and of the vampiric need for the blood of others to guarantee personal survival.

Like Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak is the story of an escape from a traumatic reality into a fantastical space where, it seems, dreams can come true. In fact, it could almost function as a kind of sequel to Pan’s Labyrinth, as while it lacks that prior film’s grim historical specificity (and outcome), it focuses on a young woman, just on the far side of adolescence, who also seeks to escape a personal tragedy, but instead of forming a closed, safe interior universe, instead ventures outward, both physically and emotionally, leaving her country and falling in love for the first time. Pan’s Labyrinth was a story about the dangers inherent to trusting that the world will support you; Crimson Peak is about the risks of trusting others, after the continuation of the world itself has been assured. The story will be very familiar to anyone who has had a passing encounter with 19th century literature. Our heroine, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), is an aspiring writer of gothic tales and the only daughter of a self-made magnate in 19th century Buffalo, New York. Her father, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver) is visited by Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a vaguely aristocratic young Englishman of seemingly decrepit lineage, who tries to interest Cushing père in funding his mud harvesting and brick making scheme. Carter, ever cagey, doesn’t trust Sharpe at first because he is not the up from nothing American type that he can identify with, and then later because of some nasty details learned through the aid of a private detective (the distinctively seedy Burn Gorman). Not thrilled that Sharpe has been making a romantic impression on his daughter, and armed with his evidence of skulduggery, Carter confronts Sharpe and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and writes them a check to send them on their way, on the condition that Sharpe thoroughly breaks Edith’s heart before leaving. He does so, humiliatingly, at a dinner party, but before they can leave town, someone bashes Carter’s head in. Edith, newly orphaned and without anyone to protect her from the Sharpe siblings except her friend and doctor Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), who is too discreet, respectful of Edith’s will (and perhaps hurt at being passed over) to intervene, falls back into Thomas’s arms, and soon is newly married and travelling to his vast manse in the wilds of the English countryside for a new life with he and his sister. Sister Lucille seems strangely jealous of Edith, the house is a monstrous wreck, and haunted to boot. Soon, Edith is wondering what is kept secret in the supposedly too dangerous to visit basement, but before much can be discovered, she inexplicably falls ill. Are the mysterious visitations from bloody women portents of some vile past? Are Edith’s sudden health issues the sign of foul play? (I think you don’t need to read the tea leaves to find that answer). Eventually, all sorts of degenerate yet predictable “secrets” will be revealed, but does Edith make it out alive? Is the love of Thomas true, or will Dr. Alan reemerge and press his case? For the answers, tune in tomorrow… (Or simply imagine, as you are probably right).

Crimson Peak plays out as a kind of cut and paste mashup of the Illustrated Classic’s versions of Wuthering Heights, The Turn of the Screw, with a few panels from Great Expectations thrown in for good measure. It is well done, and the attention to period detail, and character filigree, is impressive. And, although the first third of the film, set in Buffalo, is far more interesting than the high gothic doings that comprise most of the rest, and although del Toro’s ghosts look crummy, are not scary, and seem attuned to the worst trends in horror films from the past decade or so, the movie is still affecting and moving in parts, as it does plug us back into what makes the gothic an affective and disturbing form. The acting is good, and helps sell the weaker parts, with Wasikowska being particularly winning and sympathetic (can the gothic exist without a woman at its core?) and her dad Beaver a nuanced standout as well. Beyond that, it is not particularly memorable or powerful. What is fascinating about del Toro as a director is also what is frustrating about him – his films are quite uneven. He’s made a few very good films (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone), many solid and thought provoking entertainments (Blade II, Cronos, Crimson Peak) and a few semi-stinkers (Mimic, Pacific Rim). He doesn’t tend to write characters with deep or complex psychology, and he rarely surprises with novel techniques or with narrative originality. Just as his imagination is clearly visual first and foremost, it is citational as well; he tends to ransack other films and literature for character types, plot devices, and generic situations. What is surprising, though, is that despite this, each of his films has a distinctive flavor, whether they are art films that we would think more “personal” or genre moneymakers. Despite the hoariness of his material, he is totally sincere; the familiarity of his references feels warm, and comfortable, rather than tired or lazy. Indeed, even though many of his films are “generic” in this way, del Toro takes considerable care to make sure all the details are right and that there is a fidelity to the original within his elaborations. Yes, he tends to focus on the surface, but he is meticulous in his construction, and seems to believe that through detail something larger can emerge. For his faithfulness to the source material to matter, del Toro needs to understand it, not just intellectually, but emotionally, and not just for modern audiences, but for the original ones too – and it is clear that he does. This is why he never winks at the audience, why his references are completely straight, and unironic, as for him (and often for his characters) the imagination is a vehicle that provides an escape into, not just an escape from, and where we are carried is just as important as the fact that we are carried away. Unlike the majority of cynical image makers, who mine the history of representations for shorthand notations in an attempt to convey emotions and meanings that they are too limited to create, del Toro is instead recalling – his cinema is a cinema of memory, but the subject is his own memory, the child-like delight evident in the beauty and directness of his imaginings a window to what he finds important morally and emotionally. del Toro is an anachronism in the sense that he reminds one of those journeyman directors of yore, toiling within the studio system, who turned out uneven product and inconsistent art, and who never rose to the rank of household name or avatar of “greatness,” but who nonetheless, in their ubiquity, in their striving, in their simple desire to work and solve problems of visual communication, helped build the grammar of the visual language we speak with today, and by the by constructed a palace of dreams vast and rich enough to escape into, perhaps, like del Toro, forever. Crimson Peak does not do anything new, nor does it overly impress us in any particular way, but at the same time, it helps us remember the stories we thought we had forgotten. Even if this remembering does not linger far beyond the end credits, in the time of our transport it reminds us that we are haunted by the ghosts of past representations for a reason. The ghosts are important, as when we are haunted, we are, like Edith, learning how to navigate the world of humans by remembering those who came before. And, also like Edith, such remembering ultimately allows us to survive, able to become the author of the story of our own lives.

Three stars out of five

Mistress America – Noah Baumbach (2015)

It is less than six months since While We’re Young graced our nation’s screens, and already we have another offering from Mr. Baumbach? Incroyable! This time around Baumbach has re-teamed with his real life teammate, and Francis Ha collaborator, the indomitable Greta Gerwig. Like that film, Mistress America concentrates on Gerwig as a seemingly unflappable striver, besotted with more ambition than good sense, and focuses on her attempts to climb, if not every mountain, at least the social ladder of the Big Apple, such as it is in 2015 (that is, there’s a lot of horizontal clamoring from one social media platform to another). The mode of Francis Ha was a bit more down to earth, a bit more realistic, a bit more subdued in its portrayal of a woman trying to exceed herself – the performances were relatively toned down, the main character more vulnerable, the city more shaded in grey (indeed, Mistress America is the only case I can think of with a reverse bait and switch, as the trailer I saw earlier in the summer was in black and white, but the resulting feature in color). So, yes, if you are expecting Francis Ha Part Deux, you will be disappointed, but there are many moments of bleed over. A more useful comparison might be the more recent While We’re Young, however, as it allows us to sample Baumbach solo against Baumbach plus femme. And let me break it to you right up front – for the most part, Baumbach is better with Gerwig as a cowriter. One of the problems with While We’re Young (and, come to think of it, almost all of Baumbach’s films in the past 15 years) is that the female characters are underwritten and have little to do except act as sounding boards and useful narrative devices for the male characters. (Yes, there is Margot at her sister’s wedding, but the less we speak of her, the better, for both our own and Mr. Baumbach’s sake). With Gerwig on board, females move front and center – in Mistress America, it is the men who serve as backdrop and mirrors for the female characters. The plot concerns a neophyte New Yorker, Tracy (Lola Kirke), an 18 year old recently arrived at Barnard from suburban New Jersey. The first quarter of the film concerns her attempts to get her bearings at college, where she feels out of place and struggles to fit in (whatever that might mean). She strikes up a friendship with Tony (Matthew Shear), a similarly literary type who also shares her seeming middle-class roots; over screwdrivers, they swap stories which they hope to get into Columbia’s literary magazine. At first this alleviates her alienation, but she soon discovers, much to her chagrin, that Tony has a girlfriend, Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones). Feeling rootless once again, Tracy takes her mother’s advice, and contacts her soon to be step-sister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig). Brooke immediately takes Tracy out for what is supposed to be a crazy, enchanting introductory night on the town, and by the end of the evening, Tracy is smitten, crushing on older, charming, “kooky” Brooke while Brooke relishes having a protege and an always interested ear. Soon Tracy is crashing at Brooke’s place in Times Square (which is zoned commercial – yowza!) and, while not ignoring her studies, is definitely more invested in living vicariously through Brooke than striking out on her own. Her early story rejected by the literary mag, Tracy makes use of Brooke as a character in a new composition, an act of self-assertion that will eventually come back to bite her. The rest of the movie revolves around Brooke’s attempt to get a fledgling restaurant (to be named Mom’s) off the ground, as the financing originally provided by her unseen Russian boyfriend falls through when he, apparently, breaks up with her (she returns to the edgy domicile one night to find the locks changed, but somehow seems to continue living there, after having to pathetically crash in Tracy’s dorm room for an evening). To secure the now absent financing, she is directed by a medium to travel to Greenwich, Connecticut, for a visit to a well-off frenemy who formerly stole Brooke’s even richer fiancé, along with a golden idea for graphic t-shirts. The second half of the movie portrays this road trip, with Tony and Nicolette along for the ride (as Tony provides the ride, and jealous, suspicious Nicolette won’t let Tony out of her sight). The quartet arrive just in time to crash an art discussion group slash pregnancy coffee klatch, and during a long, awkward afternoon, Brooke pitches her idea first to her former friend, Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), and then to her more enthusiastic ex-fiancé Dylan (Michael Chernus). Banter zings and pings off the walls, and the occupants of this modernist house on a green hill are joined by expectant lawyer waiting for a ride home Karen (Cindy Cheung) and intruding neighbor Harold (Dean Wareham, making the most of his return to official Baumbach supporting player status). The core group, observed and commented on by this peanut gallery, work over past animosities, try to reconcile old grievances, and make new plans for the future. Some hatchets will be buried, and others will be brandished; by the end of the evening, all will have turned against Tracy, as Nicolette reveals to the group the former’s unflattering “fictional” portrayal of Brooke, and Brooke will reveal that she and Tracy are no longer step-relations to be (as her father has called off the impending marriage to Tracy’s Mom, who apparently does not have it going on). In the denouement, Brooke returns without her restaurant money (as Dylan is willing to give it to her only if she does not start a restaurant, instead proposing, not so subtly, that she take on the role of his city lady in waiting), and Tracy gets into the literary society she yearned for. Tracy feels unsatisfied, though, and rather than sell out as a literary phony, she rejects the Columbians and files to start her own society of letters the next semester. She makes up with Brooke, who she once characterized as a failure, now recognizing her as a success in providing the zing, not to say the tang, to the unimaginative, bored rich who are her obvious inferiors.

The first half hour of the movie is, like Brooke, very striving. The cutting is so fast, and the dialogue piles up so quickly, that we could be forgiven for thinking we are still watching the trailer; we begin to wonder if the movie will ever take a breath, settle down, and recognize what the word expose is doing inside expository. It has the form of an ersatz screwball comedy, but without the laughs, or the debonair sheen of old Hollywood money. It is “witty,” but like much Baumbach, it is hard to detect if this is the real McCoy, or a simulacra of intelligent humor (we suspect the later, as we are rarely laughing). This reveals what is perhaps the key feature of Baumbach’s work, for good and for bad – the inability to discern if his characters are parodies, if he is a satirist and is using his characters as a means to splay open the unattractive guts of upwardly mobile wannabes, or if he is identifying with them, and takes their foibles and follies to be endearing, humanizing traits. Perhaps an example will help illustrate what I mean. Early in Brooke and Tracy’s whirlwind romance, they are in a bar having a drink (in Baumbach’s world, IDs never figure, apparently) and are approached by a woman who happened to have gone to high school with Brooke. At first it seems like it will be a pleasant reunion, but the woman soon takes Brooke to task for having tormented her back in the day by continually approaching her with a similarly too cool male pal, touching her skin, tasting it, and saying, “Mmm-hmm, bitter.” Brooke has no recall as to who the woman is until this jogs her memory, but her response to the woman’s request for an apology is, to say the least, no. (No luck with sympathy or recognition of grievance either). After a few rounds of yelling at each other, Brooke returns to her conversation with Tracy, dismissing the whole thing by rationalizing, “Everybody’s an asshole to someone else sometimes.” (A classic from the great American songbook, if I do recall). Tracy seems to pause over this for a second, then quickly accepts it and moves on, as does the movie. What are we, as the audience, to make of the exchange? The behavior is off-putting; we already understand that Brooke is not the type of person for deep reflection, but this introduces a negative aspect to what has been, up to this point, the key to her “charm.” Is Baumbach identifying with her – that is, can he imagine a world where no, not everyone is an asshole to someone at some time? (There is a difference between treating someone poorly with regrets and being purposefully and unapologetically cruel). Or is Baumbach satirizing the type of person so ensconced in her own cocoon of privilege, or so self-involved, that she is blind to another’s suffering? Baumbach does not portray the aggrieved as being unreasonable, and goes to pains, via the woman’s monologue, to elaborate the negative effect the teasing had on her. This would lead us to believe that Baumbach is in the later mode, satirizing blindness and narcissism, but the fact that this is pretty much a one-off, and that nothing ever builds from it, makes it seem as if it’s yet another quirky nugget, another facet of Brooke’s “charm” to be mined for warm laughs and cuteness. I won’t say it leaves a sour taste, but it does recall the flavor of his earlier films where being mean, being funny, and being close and intimate are all pretty much the same thing.

Thus the tone of the film never resolves, even as the plot does, and we are left wondering if we should actually care about these characters (as it certainly doesn’t come naturally) or if we should laugh at their lack of insight and general self-satisfaction. The problem is further amplified by the fact that, while many of the characters do lack insight and are self-satisfied insofar as nothing will deter them from their generally static natures, they are vulnerable. If there is one great theme to Baumbach’s work, and one that he elaborates with some nuance, it is masked insecurity – which, at the other end of his dialectic, becomes a preoccupation with intellectual, artistic, or social status, and with characters who are, or fear they are, legends in their own minds. In his films from earlier in the millennium, this masking might take the form of cruelty and meanness, whereas lately its form (pace Gerwig) has been charm, klutziness, and befuddlement. In both modes, though, it expresses itself through a preoccupation with a kind of arrested development, which is why his first film, Kicking and Screaming, about post-collegiate angst and anomie, somehow remains the genetic blueprint for all further films. It certainly helps explain why he rarely makes a movie about anyone over the age of 30. He is quite effective at portraying the limitations, which go hand in hand with the expectations, of our current age, and the frustration that smart, creative people feel in a world of constant exhibitionism when their talents are recognized by few and often left unrewarded. But what is he saying about this problem? It is hard to tell. We end Mistress America with Tracy’s recognition still waiting in the wings, as she is too young and unresolved to feel herself a failure (although the prospect preoccupies her, which is part of her interest in Brooke). Brooke ends up not speaking for herself (yet another movie with voice-over, yippee!), but is proclaimed fabulous by Tracy as a kind of diamond in the rough, an occult tchotchke whose powers those lessers she encounters, who lack her moxie and verve, make use of as a kind of talisman. But it is also quite possible that Tracy and Brooke are an army of two, clueless and static, legends in their own minds because they are unable to adapt to the world as it is, or, even more mundanely, simply two people who can’t accept that they might not be as great as they’d like to think they are. In this way, Baumbach is our leading expositor of the fear of mediocrity. Or is he? Perhaps he thinks that Brooke has it all figured out in her continual thrashing about. Like Woody Allen, a filmmaker he resembles in passing (the banter in the second half of the film is very Allen-like, and often very funny), one senses that it is Baumbach’s self-doubt that drives his representations. Unlike Allen, though, Baumbach seems to be hedging his bets, and playing it coy – “I’m not all that,” he seems to say, “unless you’d like to think I am!” Both Allen and Baumbach make films driven by a kind of autobiographical impetus, but Allen has always been firmly in the mode of self-abnegation (or at least self-deprecation). Baumbach is too, on the surface, but with a bitterness that makes one feel he is insincere about it; he’s going through the motions, but secretly he’d be happy to discover that he’s great, the hero of his own story, the genius who everyone loves and lavishes praise on despite his (not so?) hidden churlishness. Is he, in this way, the great reflexive filmmaker of his generation? I’m sure he’d like to think so – but it is this very characteristic that leaves his films feeling light, fluffy, and unsatisfying, even as they feel heavy and leaden in their misanthropic undertones.

Three stars out of five

Dope – Rick Famuyiwa (2015)

Dope has garnered many comparisons to 1983’s Risky Business. The comparison is apt insofar as both films revolve around college-bound teens who, generally being straight shooters, want to live it up and taste some of the wilds of adulthood before heading off to school, and who get caught up in more excitement than they bargained for. Dope also has elements that throw back to Kid ‘n Play’s features from the early 1990s, as well as the Friday series of drug comedies. The film concerns Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his two friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), a trio of nerds who are obsessed with the hip hop culture of the 1990s. They watch old tapes of Yo! MTV Raps, are ardent collectors and defenders of the era’s music, and they dress in homage to the decade (Malcolm sports a hi-top fade too). They are intelligent, good students, and misfits, as besides their obsession with the past and geeky ways, Diggy is a lesbian, and Jib is of indeterminate ethnicity in this largely African-American neighborhood. The three live in the Bottoms, a tough section of Inglewood, where they have to continually dodge thugs at school who want to steal their stuff (mostly shoes) and drug dealers on the street, who want to take their bikes. One day, Malcolm happens to talk to and somewhat befriend one of the dealers, who asks him to be a romantic courier to Nakia (Zoë Kravitz) the neighborhood hottie who is studying for her GED so she can go to college. Malcolm of course develops a crush on Nakia, and offers to help her study for her GED, in the hopes that she’ll go with him to the prom. The drug dealer, Dom (A$ap Rocky), invites Malcolm and his crew to a party, and the three go, despite being under-aged and drug free, mostly to further Malcolm’s romantic designs on Nakia. The party, of course, is where the plot really picks up, as everything goes haywire – Dom is in the middle of a drug deal when gun-wielding robbers try to boost his weight, and in the midst of the mayhem, he secrets the large quantity of ecstasy into Malcolm’s backpack (unbeknownst to him). Discovering the drugs, and a handgun, the next day at school, Malcolm at first panics, then tries his best to get the drugs back to their intended source without getting killed, or arrested, in the meantime. After much hustling around and avoiding various rival drug dealers who also want to get their hands on the stash, Malcolm is directed to pay a visit to the big boss, who also happens to be the local magnate of a chain of payday loan storefronts and the man Malcolm is supposed to have his Harvard application interview with. This man, Councilman Blackmon (Rick Fox), is a pillar of the community, but runs a boys club that is a front for his drug dealing activities. Blackmon has no desire for the drugs, he simply wants the cash that Dom would have generated from them, so he tasks Malcolm with converting the drugs into money himself, as the best possible credential for his placement within the Ivy League. Being a nerd, Malcolm decides to make use of technology to aid him, rather than deal on the streets, and enlists the help of his “friend” Will (Blake Anderson), who helps them establish a listing on a dark web drug site and sell the drugs for Bitcoins. To cut to the chase, he gets it all done, avoids being killed or arrested, and, to an extent, wins the heart of the girl, all while various more and less serious hi-jinks ensue.

The film doesn’t have quite the atmosphere or “walk on the wild side” tension that Risky Business does, for a couple of reasons. One is that Risky Business is about a fish out of water, a preppie white kid entering a world of sex and larceny that is quite foreign to his everyday experience. Dope is about a black kid from a tough neighborhood who, although a straight arrow, is quite familiar with the world he is entering into – in a way, it is more about his ingenuity and ability to play a variety of roles, rather than about adapting to various shocking yet arousing situations. Formal elements make the stakes feel lower too. Malcolm’s drug dealing, thanks to the magic of technology, feels distant and light weight, far from the street or danger, and is accorded a quite small parcel of screen time. The website goes live, the drugs move, the end. There are one or two shots of the crew using the chemistry lab to cut the stuff up, but that’s about it in terms of the hands-on portrayal of dirty deed doings. There are also simply fewer moments of threat than in Risky Business. In that film, the adults are absent because of a vacation – in Dope, the adults are usually absent, due to economic necessity or social contingencies. Which gets us to the main difference between the two films: race (duh). The differences between Risky Business and Dope provide a portrait of the differences between white and black America. For Tom Cruise, one wrong move would bring down a carefully constructed edifice of expectation and responsibility, destroying a life that would have no reason, except for perverse inclination, to fail. For Malcolm, the stakes are lower – not for his own care for his future, but for society’s. His father is absent, his mother is working and barely present, and, given his neighborhood and skin color, nobody expects that much from him, so his dilemma takes on the form of a fork in the road of existence. One way leads to Harvard, the other to prison, but oftentimes the roads overlap and cross, and how Malcolm navigates this split matters for him personally more than it does for anyone else. The film does a good job of playing up this doubleness (also reflected in the multiple meanings of the title), and making it clear that life for Malcolm, a bright, charming kid with promise, matters much less to society than it should. There are times it lays bare this hypocrisy in a way that is almost didactic, as at the end, when Malcolm, his problems solved, writes (and performs for the camera) an admissions essay that explicitly addresses the double nature of expectation that America places on its youth, depending on the color of their skin. The end of the film also smartly leaves us in suspense as to Malcolm’s success – we see a large envelope arrive from Harvard, we see an ambivalent reaction shot from Malcolm, and the film ends. Did he get in or not? Malcolm’s essay makes the point that, if he were white, we wouldn’t have to ask this question. By not answering the question and satisfying the audience, Famuyiwa reinforces the point – nothing in Malcolm’s world is ever a given in the way it would be for a white man and, yes, even in our supposedly post-racial society, we all know that Malcolm can do all the right things and still lose out big time. What complicates this view is that he doesn’t do all the “right” things, because he can’t – he does what he has to, in a world where there are no right answers, and where doing the “right” thing will potentially penalize him as much as doing the “wrong” one. The portrayal of Councilman Blackmon is thus not cynical, but plays up how the mindless praise we as a society heap upon the “entrepreneurial spirit” is a lie; both the Councilman and Malcolm are doing what America has told them to do (that is, pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps), but because they have done it within the world they have access to, and with the materials of that world, they have to, at the least, live a double existence that denies part of their identity. The true denial comes from a society that has attempted to put success out of reach for them a priori, by making the world they live in, and the paths out of it, all illegal. The film does a great job of showing this reality without being overtly political, and we feel for Malcolm and the way his life is twisted and confined by the lies we, who live in another world, tell ourselves about who we are. The proceedings, especially in the second half of the film, have the rushed, sketchy quality that much exposition has these days. The cast is fresh-faced and very appealing, though, and there is much that is funny and enjoyable about the movie, especially for anyone who remembers, and is perhaps nostalgic for, the 1990s. All the same, the second half plays out as expected, and by the end, is a bit rote and boring. We do need more films like this being made; films which do not play into the lies we like to tell ourselves, or which pretend that magical, shiny technology has somehow solved the problems of racial and economic justice that exist within our society. We need more films about what it is like to be black, or outside of any social guarantee. It is sad that such films are rare, and Dope serves as a reminder of how many films cravenly congratulate and coddle their audiences on having a politically correct attitude which amounts to having “solved” problems simply by refusing to acknowledge them.

Three stars out of five

Saint Laurent – Bertrand Bonello (2015)

I have not so much to say about Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent. It is nominally a biopic about fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent; I say nominally, because Bonello eschews most of the trappings of the biographical film. There is little in the way of exposition or explanation – we are thrown into YSL’s life in 1967, and jump around, chronologically, through the year 1976 (with a few detours to 1989). There is generally little dialogue. What we learn, we learn through observation. So, this should be a slam-dunk for me, right? I generally despise biopics, and this one works against the conventions of the genre I most dislike. Call me agnostic. I found the film interesting without connecting to it much emotionally. Like its subject, Saint Laurent attempts to convey something substantial through the accumulation of surfaces; like the human form in fashion, the person at the center of this film emerges as the negative space to which substances cling, the bones around which an edifice is built, an edifice that both transforms the subject as well as obscures his “reality.”

The film begins with a confession, as YSL (Gaspard Ulliel) gives a phone interview in which he reveals some of the sordid, and potentially formative, experiences of his childhood (like much in the film, this sequence returns later to play out in full). This, along with a few flashbacks later in the film, is all that we have of YSL to “explain” him. Rather, the film focuses in on the years 1967 and 1976 because they are the years of his major collections, with the interim being the height of YSL’s influence and originality. Not that we, the audience, would know, except that the periphery of YSL’s existence makes us dimly aware of how the outside world is responding to him. There is little to none of the expected “outside” viewpoints on his work, no dramatic catwalk montages with the press and/or celebrities giving us a hint as to what is original or exciting in his work and/or why. Most of what we understand about YSL’s relationship to the outside world comes through his partner, Pierre Bergé (Jérémie Renier). Instead, we stick with YSL almost exclusively throughout the film. In the beginning, we see him at work in the atelier, a kind of back-office god who calls forth outfits, touches them, and then sends them back, while we mostly stay with the workers, going about their tasks wordlessly (this part of the film is quite fascinating). As time goes on, and YSL rises, he spends less and less time in the office, and more and more time doing drugs, having sex, and going out and about. Yes, be prepared to admire manifold people “looking cool” in this film, as this activity (I can’t even call it cruising), mostly perpetrated in nightclubs, provides a good deal of the meat of YSL’s existence. It is while clubbing that YSL meets his muses and inspirations, Loulou and Betty (Léa Seydoux and Aymeline Valade, respectively), as well as one of his lifelong loves and figures of fascination, the libertine Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel). We begin to get the general sense that YSL is sliding into non-productivity and addiction, but then he returns in force with the 1976 “Ballet Russes” collection. There are a few flash-forwards to 1989, with an elderly YSL, played by Helmut Berger, isolated, seemingly doddering, trapped in memories and surrounded by the (now empty) surface features of fame and style. However, the film does not propose a reading of YSL’s life, and so we don’t get a theory or summation of what his body of work “meant.” In fact, if the film has a thesis, it would be exactly that – YSL was tormented during his lifetime over what his work meant, and grew to view fashion as transitory (and potentially empty). He is portrayed as resenting the work’s inclusion in museums, which marks it as passe, but also transforms his home into a virtual museum, and speaks of painting with admiration, as it is a form that “lasts.” So, the film presents the artist as he who is left bereft by his art, trying to accomplish something, the gist of which largely eludes him. The film ends with false reports of YSL’s demise in the ’70s (as he was given to periods of elusiveness) – a team of glib and insipid reporters (lead by director Bonello) finally track him down, at work in his atelier, and we conclude with YSL simply smiling at reports of his own demise.

What is Bonello up to in this film? The most interesting aspect of the production, probably, is the unlikely and undramatic rendition of the creative life it provides. As a portrait of the creative process, it is honest, in that portraying such things is very difficult, the process being mostly interior, and usually furtive, even to the artist. Bonello does not try to “get around” this difficulty, and this is why long sections of the film are a bit dull (at least in terms of the narrative, if not visually). We do begin to understand the creative process with the inclusion of other people – for instance, the most fascinating part of the film (and one of the briefest) is watching a room of professionals grapple with how to transform what are basically sketches with some colored ink on them into fully realized commodities that a person will not only successfully wear, but covet. The majority of the film, however, deals with YSL off the job, in the realm of “inspiration,” one supposes. And I must congratulate Bonello, as the more YSL slides into drugs and booze, the more we too, as viewers, begin to feel the effects. Time slows down, dilates, and drags, but not in the stereotypical ways. One great, and emblematic, shot, in which de Bascher and YSL see, and cruise each other, for the first time, feels like it takes place underneath an opium-laced pillow. The camera slowly tracks from de Bascher’s side of the club, across the dance floor, dense with slowly thrashing bodies and replete with mirrored surfaces, until it finally reaches YSL’s side, and his returned glance, and then the camera slowly tracks back to de Bascher again. We fully feel the “heroic” aspect of this movement, as a great struggle against torpor and drugginess – desire in this situation being that which can keep its purpose in mind long enough to arrive, against such inertia, at its original destination. The film has many such shots, and the chronology keeps us interested, if only by mixing things up. All the same, sequences are difficult to determine. Is there a method to Bonello’s montage? The film has an orchestral feel, in that one remembers glitzy parts, and slow parts, ups, and downs, but only in a gestalt. From moment to moment, we begin to wonder “why are we here?” (And this amplifies the feeling of being drugged). There are bravura moments. At one point, Bonello splits the screen, one half showing newsreel footage from the eras of YSL’s collections, the other side presenting, one at a time, emblems of those collections on models who continually descend a spiral stair. The shot hints at didacticism without being didactic, as there are no pat points of confluence; what could have been a cheesy or lame device turns out to be quite compelling (partly because Bonello lets it run for a good while). The flash-forward to YSL in his old age, which occurs during the Ballet Russes section, is also very well done. At first, it is structured to make us feel that YSL is remembering back to this triumph, his last great contribution (his moment of timelessness, and hence art). However, we are soon back in 1976, and we discover the flash-back was actually a flash-forward; it is as if the YSL of 1976 intuits where he will wind up, how “other” he will be compared to this contemporary self, how old and strange he will one day be. It feels very similar to the sequence in 2001 in which Dave Bowman witnesses his aged self sequestered in an ornate and antique room, only to suddenly find himself occupying that room as subject, time bridged in the span of an eye’s blink. Thus we get one of many small chills up our spine. The film delivers more than a few of these, but almost always in retrospect. (Another is a sequence in which we accompany Jacques de Bascher as he awaits his death from AIDS – he is alone, in an almost white room, smiling ruefully, afflicted, and sewing an eye back onto his teddy bear, which will be buried with him). So while the film is strangely affecting, and intriguing, it is more so in hindsight; during the film, things feel unresolved and somewhat empty. Bonello is a director who has no problem being provocative – his first film, The Pornographer, features unsimulated sex in the tale of a former porn director (disturbingly played, too convincingly, by a raggedy Jean-Pierre Léaud) trying to get back into the game and rediscover his “inspiration.” What carries over from one film to the other is an unironic style and an interest in the convergence of the everyday and its exception, the obscene. Saint Laurent asks, without asking, if art that is not timeless can exist, as it tries to portray what a life dedicated, at the highest level, to ephemera as art and the different repetitions of style required for such an endless renewal, looks and feels like. Living through it might be a nightmare, or an opium dream, but by the time one has enough distance to gain clarity and reflect – does anyone remember what we were talking about?

Three stars out of five

Unfriended – Levan Gabriadze (2015)

I am beginning to have hope that we are in the midst of an unexpected Renaissance of horror films. At the very least, Unfriended is the third in a row I’ve viewed that I’d recommend without reservation. I am doubly happy as, from much of the early evidence, Unfriended looked awful, to the point that I almost passed on it. The trailer was grating and full of screechiness, and, come on, the film centers around teens using Facebook and Skype. Not only does that sound inauspicious in terms of scares, it just sounds painful in general. Drumming myself out of the torpor which has kept me from theaters in the past few weeks, I scanned Rotten Tomatoes for some help, and was shocked, shocked, I say, to see Unfriended labeled as fresh (and in the low 80s at that). And lo and behold, the film is quite good, very rarely annoying or stupid. In many ways, there is not much to it. The simple plot centers around a group of “friends” (chums and graduates of Knife Sharpening 101, Spring, Prof. Choderlos de Laclos all), one of whom is driven to commit suicide via online bullying by way of a shaming video. This friend, Laura, returns one night in demonic form to take her revenge on these faithless friends. The night in question happens to be – video chat night! (Which is every night in teen world, I suppose). Laura, in the guise of an anonymous, lurking video chatter cum invincible malware blackmails her former cohort into betraying each other’s secrets, shaming them (with a little help from her demonic mojo) into acts of violence against themselves, all of this wrought through and then revealed by our beloved networking technologies.

More than a few reviewers have mentioned the similarities to Christie’s Ten Little Indians, which I suppose exist. A few fewer (but more than one) have also made reference to Val Lewton’s immortal Cat People, I guess because of a seeming shared economy of means, a “less is more” mentality. Okay, whatever. In truth, I would call Unfriended more avant-garde than Lewton, and perhaps the most avant-garde “mainstream” film this year, certainly. The formal elements that make the film so interesting exist in a kind of strange opposition to the rather hackneyed narrative elements, but instead of failing to mix like proverbial oil and water, they come together in some kind of sleepy emulsification – the senescence that the film lulls you into is not boring, though, but properly nightmarish in quality. One could say the film consists of a long 80-odd minute shot; in reality, it is a faked-up screen capture of a desktop in which the “cuts” happen through the many little screens of the video chativerse. What is fascinating is that, by and large, the film captures the reality of multitasking and the phenomenological ambience of the computer screen to a T. This one long “shot” is almost completely devoid of non-diegetic sound. We hear the computer whirring away, and the crispy crunching of a Mac’s hard drive, along with sometime pop-up and notification sounds that are, sadly, in this historical moment recognizable without need of visual cue. This limited purview leads to a strangely embodied experience, which the film heightens by, at times, dampening the background chatter of the vidiots with an “I’m underwater” type of sonic submersion. There is a lot to look at, what with all the windows popping up and moving around, but it is fascinating how watching Blaire (our “eyes” and the film’s ersatz protagonist) type, erase, and then retype Facebook timeline posts, search around the Internet, or otherwise fiddle with interfaces becomes engrossing, both dreamy and more interesting than the plot itself. Likewise, within the plotting, watching the characters in their “off” moments, when they are passive and we should be looking at the character talking, for instance, becomes more fascinating and, strangely, moving, than the plot as such. What elevates the film, though, is that this subdued mode does not overtake the story and the unfolding horror – it actually increases interest and heightens the tension in those sequences when the characters are forced to confront each other and the ambient world drops away (as in the extended sequence where Laura forces them all to play “Never Have I Ever” for high stakes). Thus the nightmare quality, as in the sleepy majority of the film, we are happy to watch this or that little thing happen, tidbits that increase the humanity of these potentially cardboard teens, only to be ripped out of this state of appreciation by snippets of self-destruction and degradation that, because of this contrast (and their brevity) do indeed disturb. Conventions of Internet life are played like sick jokes, but the laughs don’t often come off, and are not cheap when they do, as they are not simply jokes, but, like a bad dream, dig at something more profound. The film manages to ride the line between satire and serious with some skill, and could perhaps be called a true dark comedy.

There are disappointments, of course, as the film sadly has not the courage of its relatively austere convictions. There are moments near the end of the film where non-diegetic sounds (particularly the cliche sub-bass rumble endemic to almost all contemporary horror films) do seep in. The filmmakers chose to over-utilize a kind of digital artifacting and pixilation that is more common in cruddy DVDs or corrupted digital video files than in streaming video, which tends to go soft and smudgy in my experience – while generating some interesting effects, this look winds up reading more as a filter pasted on after the fact, and worse, unlike the rest of the film’s relationship to technology, seems out of touch and ultimately distracts from the verisimilitude. Worst of all, the ending is pretty stupid. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense, but it makes sense only from the standpoint of horror conventions we thought we had left behind (in this regard, it reminds me of the first Paranormal Activity). Really, though, this film does engage all the issues surrounding how we relate virtually, and how such relating involves degradation a priori, and it does so in the best possible way: not by saying, but by showing. In its 80 minutes of submersion into what is seductive and horrifying about digital reality, Unfriended both defamiliarizes the technology and makes you feel strangely comfortable and at home, not an easy task. Yes, it is not a terribly poetic film, but anyone who knows me knows that I was won over from the moment the film opens with Liveleak’s lovely warning screen.

Three stars out of five

Two by Nils Malmros: Pain of Love (1992) and Sorrow and Joy (2013)

Danish director Nils Malmros is little known in this country, or outside of his native Denmark; within that country he is quite highly regarded. Lincoln Center brought him stateside as part of their recently ongoing Film Comment Selects series, showing most if not all of his films. I don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of his work, but I had seen 1983’s Beauty and the Beast, a masterly film about a single father coming to terms with his adolescent daughter’s sexuality and desire for freedom. Based on my love of that film, I saw Pain of Love and Sorrow and Joy in back-to-back screenings, with Malmros himself present for a Q&A. The result was surprising, in that I emerged not loving these other works, but with a fairly critical take. Because the films were presented together, and as they relate to “true” events within the director’s life, which he expounded upon during the Q&A, I will evaluate the films together as well.

There is no point in beating around the bush; both films deal with a traumatic event in Malmros’s personal life. In 1984, his wife had a psychotic break during which she killed their infant daughter. She had struggled with mental problems her whole life, and has since recovered, at least enough to live normally within society. Malmros was at pains during the Q&A to make clear the extent of his wife’s problems, and the fact that he does not blame her, to the point that it felt like an apologia, or that he is perhaps defensive about the topic (in his gentle, Scandinavian way of course). The films, however, are the true defense of these events, and what makes them difficult films is that in both the director seems to shy away from a thoroughgoing evaluation of his own role in their unfolding. Does he have a role in them? It would be hard to say if one saw only Pain of Love without Sorrow and Joy, or vice versa, but the director claimed, during the Q&A, that the former film portrays the events “from his wife’s point of view,” while the later film portrays them from his (and, we are given to understand, from an objective point of view as well).

In Pain of Love, Malmros addresses the events discursively, sublimating them and transforming them through the creative process. The film deals, as many of Malmros’s films do, with adolescent desire and coming of age; in this case, it is the story of his wife’s life as a late teenager and young adult, just before she met him. Kirsten (Anne Louise Hassing) is a bubbly and buoyant teen, well-liked and with a boyfriend she adores and dotes on. All the same, something is not quite right within her world, signaled by her overly eager demeanor and broad to the point of breaking smile. (We later understand, only obliquely, that she is manifesting the manic side of manic-depression). When her boyfriend proposes marriage before they head away to college, she puts him off, and proceeds to become smitten with one of the young teachers in her high school. This being the 70s, and Scandinavia, they drink together and kiss a little, but the teacher breaks it off before it can progress beyond this point. Kirsten goes off to college, but at this point, things begin falling apart. Originally wanting to be a doctor, she fails her exams, not through any inherent lack of intelligence, but because she is distracted, and seems taken aback when her natural charm is not enough to pull her through the end-of-semester orals. Her old teacher crush Soren (Soren Ostergaard) reenters the scene, and helps her pass her exams (just barely). Perhaps hoping for a renewal of their romance, Kirsten is distraught after Soren marries another teacher. Kirsten becomes pregnant after sleeping with an older man she meets in a bar (who appears to be a film director or well-known creative type, but I am unable to verify this). This drives her depression farther forward, and she becomes gloomy and detached, fixated on Soren and assured of her own failure (even though by now she works as a teacher). Eventually, she tries to commit suicide (failing where her maternal grandfather succeeded). She recovers, but remains depressed and set on Soren as the solution to her problems. Eventually, his marriage to the other teacher falls apart, and slowly he reenters her orbit, eventually marrying her. She moves in with him, and he is a father to her child, but the distance is never breached, and the film ends with Kirsten, unlike in real life, killing herself and leaving the child behind.

With Sorrow and Joy, enough time has passed that the director feels he can tell the story of the tragedy directly, from “his point of view.” In this telling, we begin with the sad event, recounted from filmmaker Johannes’s (Jakob Cedergren) perspective, as he arrives home one evening after giving a lecture to find his wife gone, his child dead, and his in-laws beyond distressed. His wife, Signe (Helle Fagralid), has been remanded to psychiatric care, and the bulk of the film is told in Johannes’s voice, in flashback, as he dialogues with Signe’s forensic psychologist and tries to explore and explain what happened. Thus we go back in time to find Johannes single, for some time, it is intimated. He meets schoolteacher Signe in a bar, and the two become a couple, despite differences: Signe’s parents, and by extension Signe, have “bourgeois taste,” which means that they like simple, directly expressive (kitschy) things; she is open and outgoing where he is reserved; she wears her heart on her sleeve while he is an intellectual. The two are a bit of an odd match, but we see how their differences are potentially complimentary as well. Signe becomes pregnant, and the film from there on out is a portrait of the day-to-day reality of their lives. Johannes starts filming a new movie (which will be Beauty and the Beast) and Signe becomes jealous, paranoid that he is falling for or involved with the film’s adolescent star (who he wrote the role for specifically). He takes on the defense of a fellow filmmaker whose movie about the sex life of Jesus has gotten him into trouble with financing and censorship. There are no major dramatics; instead, Johannes is often simply absent, and when present does not seem to know how to deal with or read his wife. Signe has not hid her mental problems from Johannes, but after her pregnancy and as time goes on, the manic-depression becomes more of a factor, and he is ill-prepared to deal with it (although he does so in the staid, calm, rational way one would expect). What develops, perhaps despite itself (it is difficult to say how consciously self-critical Malmros is in this film) is a portrait of a marriage where one partner is often mentally or physically absent, involved in his creative work, while the other, already of a type more expansive and less “self-sufficient,” becomes more neurotic and isolated. There is a minimal amount of “suspense,” as we await the outcome of the trial which will remand Signe to more or less time in a mental hospital (the parents of the students in her class, in typical Scandinavian fashion, all lobby for her to return to teaching as soon as possible), but really the film is not about outcomes, but about the nature of the husband/wife relationship. It forms a kind of loop; at the end, we see our couple in the year 2010, although not much aged at all. Signe is “better,” and asks her husband why he hasn’t made a film in so long, and why he hasn’t made one about being an adult. He takes this (and so does she, as portrayed) as a question about why he hasn’t addressed their marriage and the death of their child on film. He claims it is because he cannot portray such a thing – the scream of their dying child – but as soon as he says it, you can see the wheels start to turn, and he promptly announces that he could make a film about it, without portraying that moment. Indeed, the film, as he imagines it, can become something like a redemption. Our film, now also a prospective film, ends almost where it began, just shortly before Johannes drives off to give the lecture that fateful day. He arranges for his wife’s parents to stop by and check in on her (as she has just been released from the psychiatric hospital), and despite the bad weather, is about to head off. Having a premonition of violence, he stops, removes an ax from the stump in front of the house, and throws it into the tool bin within the garage. (His wife does not make use of an ax in any case). Then he drives off for his lecture, and the film ends.

Perhaps, dear reader, you can sense why these films feel odd. Pain of Love is definitely the odder of the two, which comes as little surprise, as it is avowedly about the tragic infanticide, yet will not approach it openly. It is also avowedly recounted from his wife’s “point of view,” yet imagines her as a latent teen, not the fully formed woman we find, perhaps bereft by the impacts of matrimony, in Sorrow and Joy. Pain of Love, made 8 years after the events it claims to portray, sublimates some details and changes others in the oddest ways. For instance, Malmros is not fully present in the narrative – he is partly portrayed as the older man who gets Kirsten pregnant, and also as the less-older teacher who helps her raise the child. This split preserves all the roles of fatherhood – the physical act of impregnation as well as the daily task of raising the child – while making the agency required less direct and hence less accountable. (We can only guess at why he imagines this child of his as the product of another, and he the loving “step-father,” but the guesses are none too flattering). Then there is the question of the ending; Kirsten leaves the baby behind, in the care of step-father Soren, while she takes leave of this mortal coil. If Malmros is not working out some kind of wish-fulfillment with this change, he should consider how it looks. Based on his Q&A talk, I think he is trying to signify that the death of the child was an act of self-destruction, rooted in issues to do with his wife’s self-conception, and not an act of hatred toward the infant or a violent rejection of motherhood. The fact that so many of the details have been shifted, and re-imagined within a different context, however, makes any reading squishy and unpleasant feeling, as the main topic becomes the question “Why didn’t he make Sorrow and Joy in 1992?” Malmros would claim that it was too soon… but my response would be, it was not too soon to make use of the events as fodder for an exercise in sublimation, that resulted in not only a weaker film on its own merits, but one that is now rife with strange projections and transformations that beg second level psychoanalyzing. It is a film that displays a hostility to his wife’s character that is itself sublimated.

Sorrow and Joy, while the stronger of the two films, also, in the end, misses the mark. At least in the more recent account, Malmros is present as a character, as is the question of how much he is responsible for the event. His character can definitely be criticized, which is a strength – his treatment of Signe is, at certain points, uncaring and unfair, and, at least in this instance, the film reflects this self-awareness. How aware he is of the other faults in his characterization is hard to tell, as they are simply portrayed, and not discussed within the rap session with the psychoanalyst. What worries me, and causes me to wonder how much Malmros might care to investigate his own affective life, is the ending of the film. The ending frames the making of Sorrow and Joy as a redemption of the tragedy. This I fully do not understand, especially as the last shots are of the empty gesture of Johannes moving the ax out of view of the house and into the garage, then leaving. Such an action is obviously only an attempt to assuage his guilt at leaving his sick wife at home during a fragile period; he senses something bad might happen, but displaces it onto an object both too emblematic of violence (too over the top) and also onto an empty gesture. Yes, by all means, move the ax so you can feel better about going to your lecture – like you’ve done something positive here. The film, as it ends, remains tragic, not redemptive, as, given the lacuna of 26 years, Johannes has learned nothing, and will still return home to find his child dead and his wife undone. If, as he states in the moments when he is formulating this new film, Johannes wants to move beyond the trauma through creation, he should make use of the power of film to transform reality, not merely replay it. The correct ending of this film (psychoanalytically speaking) would be for Johannes to blow off his lecture, stay at home with his dear wife, and, at least for that day, put off a dreadful future. That would have been a beautiful ending, one that dealt with recognitions honestly, and at the same time retained its sadness, and did not disavow the trauma that preceded it. It would have re-imagined an ideal future while acknowledging the frailty and faults of man. That Malmros apparently sees a mere repetition as a redemption signals, to me at least, a filmmaker satisfied with himself, for whom the passage of time is static and unyielding, healing all wounds in the style of a cliche: the work nothing more than the visible rippling of the surface of a body of water whose depth we cannot gauge, but whose impassivity is obvious in its aestheticization.

Two stars out of five
for Pain of Love


Three stars out of five
for Sorrow and Joy



The Sign of the Cross – Cecil B. DeMille (1932)

Another hole in my schedule, so another semi-random choice (part of a Charles Laughton retro at Film Forum, although Laughton does a smaller, albeit memorable, turn as Nero). This is a pre-code epic that focuses on the early Christian church and its persecution in Rome during the reign of Nero; being pre-code, it is well-known for some racy bits involving Claudette Colbert (as Nero’s sister Poppaea) bathing in asses milk and the “lesbian” Dance of the Naked Moon (often cut). As a chance to see an early epic by DeMille, a director whose works I am hardly versed in, on the big screen, I decided it was too good to pass up.

I do have a few things to say about the film as a discreet object, but in honesty “reviewing” a film this old feels odd. I do not discount that my evaluations would be as valid, in my time, as a review of the film on original release might have been to its time; and I would resist anyone who views films this old, or older, as mere artifacts. All the same, this is not a film made for us, or for the ages, and my review of it as a semi-mediocrity wouldn’t add much. Instead, I’d like to focus on the audience for this film, then and now, and talk a little bit about laughter. You see, a film of this age, with this topic, and within the classical Hollywood rubric of coy sleaziness (or lewd chastity), will be treated by some percentage of the audience as camp, and the reaction will be laughter. Calling it “camp” is giving too much credit to these audience members, as they are not likely, during their laughter, thinking of any particular aesthetic category. The Sign of the Cross is not camp; it is, in many places, kitsch, but as a popular, industrial form of “art,” all film is, in part, indebted to, if not partaking of, kitsch. It would have been understood as kitsch in its own time, and really, these folks who laugh take a little kitsch a long way, as often their laughter is simply a marker of the change in performance and film styles over the past 80 years. Okay, a lot of “sophisticated” types come to films like this and laugh – not the laughter of ridicule, but of distance and knowingness. So what? (It was not even particularly bad in this case, being that most moviegoers at Film Forum, attending a 12:30 pm screening, are film nerds, are there alone, and only laughed very occasionally. I just happened to be sitting in front of two couples who did laugh a lot).

Well, the laughter got me thinking about distance and why audiences go out to be entertained. First, though, let me set the stage a bit. The film, as previously mentioned, deals with the early Christian church in Rome. The plot concerns a beautiful young Christian, named Mercia, who happens to come into the purview of the prefect of Rome, Marcus Superbus (played by a frighteningly young and “dashing” Frederick March). The general edict around town is to sniff out and report any Christians, as Nero has framed them for burning Rome. Mercia and her little group of believers are betrayed; Marcus, who is no lover of Christianity, but wants Mercia for himself and hopes to teach her to “enjoy life,” is caught in a tough situation. He wants the girl, but without her community, the girl has no interest, so he is caught between wanting to “save” one Christian while not wanting to save them all, lest he piss off Nero. He might be able to thread this needle if it were not for Poppaea, who is herself in love with Marcus, and wants to eliminate the competition. As Nero’s puppet mistress, Poppea makes sure Marcus’s pleas for leniency fall on deaf ears. It hardly matters, however, as Mercia (Elissa Landi) is indeed virtuous, and prefers to die with her fellow Christians within the Colosseum than live on as Marcus’s wife and practice her faith invisibly. The film spends its final hour or so within the Colosseum, as the games are played out that will climax with the wholesale slaughter of Mercia and her group. Marcus, after all else has failed, pleads with Mercia to reconsider (Nero will let her live if she converts), and when she does not, he decides to go to his death with her, even though he does not believe in her God. (Perhaps he hopes for conjugal visits in purgatory). They ascend the stairs of the dungeon together, walking into the light (and the waiting jaws of a dozen lions we’ve previously seen licking their chops). The film ends.

I think we can all understand why such a film might be met with laughter. What struck me was the rippling laughter across the centuries, the mirroring within this film’s performance of three audiences. First, we have our contemporary audience, the so-called “sophisticated” audience; then we have the “original” audience, which attended the film when released in 1932; finally, we have the “primitive” audience, that audience portrayed in the film itself, a vision of Romans at the Colosseum, reacting to the “movies” of their own day. What struck me was the diminution of a spectrum as time passes. The “ancient” Roman audience watch their entertainments and react with a variety of affects: laughter is predominate, but also fear, revulsion, sadness, pathos, and anger. This makes sense to us, as they are watching “real” events: gladiators killing each other, or pleading for mercy; prisoners fed to animals, or trampled to death; animals battling each other to the death; fights between exotic prisoners (such as the pygmies vs. Amazonian women match that is re-staged for us sophisticates). We imagine the audience of 1932, only partly mysterious to and distant from us, as having a mixed reaction – not the reaction of the “ancient” audience, obviously (even viewers in 1932 were more sophisticated than them), as the screen partly removes both the threat and the allure. What is seen is present but absent; it is not real, it cannot really affect us, and furthermore, even if it does affect us, we know that it is all an imagining. No blood was spilled for our, or their, benefit – film audiences have understood this from the beginning of the medium. All the same, we can also imagine this audience of 1932 having an investment in the drama unfolding before them. Of course, some viewers will be too “sophisticated” to do anything but laugh or be bored, but there will also be viewers who take the portrayal of religious devotion seriously, or who are also frightened or horrified by the violence, fascinated by the spectacle, and the like. And perhaps the majority, if not most, of that generation of viewers might feel many of those things at the same time. But then we come to the contemporary audience, who do not react to the images at all (as far as outward displays go) except to laugh. My first thought was that we do indeed live in a hideous age of decadence, one in which we have become too inured to images, both as entertainments and as emblems of historical, lived reality (of any register). These bearers of an undead past that stalks through our lives flow over our eyes too smoothly. And in comparison to the decadence of ancient Rome, of which we, as modern folk, are often compared by those on the righter side of the political spectrum… well, we come off far worse, and far more decadent. For those ancient audiences, the spectacle had a stake – the lives and deaths of those far below, but also the emotional state of the viewer, and the interrelation of both levels to a realpolitik, to civic life and responsibility. That entertainment was full-blooded, embodied, and hid behind no scrim of disavowal. This portrayal of ancient decadence is, of course, a negative example, a message as well, and it was intended for the audience of 1932 – if we are to compare it to a world, it should be the world of 1932. And that world of 1932, in the depths of that Depression, was full-blooded as well, but it had its scrim that belied harsh reality: the movies. What do we have now? Decadence without the blood, as the world is now flat and dry. In 1932, images referred, even if through denial, to that unrelenting world out there. Now, images refer to images, and images are paramount, the “bloody” world only a remainder, that necessary sacrifice which enables the image to exist, but is then left behind. “Sophisticated” laughter bothers me because it is bloodless, because it takes all images to be the same, and in a perverse reversal of reality, “beneath” the viewer, as if, given a modicum of intelligence, an individual can float above this world, now purely representational, like a god. The laughter marks this evacuation: of responsibility, of the possible, of affective response, of a world of stakes and of the rule of violence (or the violence of rules). What makes me sad about this laughter is that it is not a mark of superiority, but a sign of failure and of inferiority. It is not an indicator that one is “above” the representation, but indeed, beneath or behind it – a shade of a shade, an unsuccessful image haunting its betters, trying to convince itself that his or her reality matters, when, indeed, the laughter is the mark of hollowness, of the irrelevancy of the physical, and of the spectator him or herself.

It need not be thus. All it takes to engage with an image is imagination and, yes, compassion; you must meet the otherness of the image halfway. This is the disaster of post-modernity, as we have begun to offload such affective work onto machines and plow those atavistic desires into a constant seeking that takes technology as its avatar. We are losing real abilities. I, for one, prefer to stay naive and credulous. And, I am sure, others in the audience were likewise affected by Mercia’s martyrdom, or by the ridiculous horrors of the arena. Like much of what matters, though, such sentiments have gone underground, out of a pathetic self-policing, totalitarian in form but in function nothing more than meager embarrassment. Laughter is the public response, the washed-out face of cynicism we all must wear to stand a world so unhinged by empty imagery and useless spectacle. I’d suggest, though, that there could still be a “sophisticated” response to such a film that would not be empty and condemned to one gesture only; one could affectively respond to the representation as such, that is, the image already at a remove. For instance, could not a contemporary audience find a gang of middle-aged dwarves in blackface (the pygmies) fighting androgynous, middle aged “Amazonian” women disgusting? Or sad? Or outrageous? Perhaps the scenes of captive animals, forced to play-act for the camera? The problem, such as it is, would not exactly be solved, because within these sentiments would still linger the bitter triumph of presupposed superiority, but at least they would be reactions to the reality of what was present before us. If our reality is to be reduced to the purely representational, then let us at least moralize about and find fault with that; let us treat the production of these images with the same seriousness that the ancient audience treats the production of “reality.” Restricted to laughter, we become mirrors not of the ancient rabble, but of Nero – weightless, mad, above the fray, laughing at everything until the knives come out, any recognition arriving too late. Future audiences, in all likelihood, will be at an even greater remove, and for the better. Who can look at the portrayal on an ancient urn, for instance, and feel anything except an intellectual understanding or fascination, a passing sense of a world forever closed to us? Many films will some day be like this, objects that have a distinctly archaeological, or anthropological, interest.

Now that I’ve whetted your chops with that juicy disquisition, I’m sure you are still wondering if the movie was any good or not? Well, like the later DeMille films I’ve seen, it was a mixed bag of boring parts and interesting parts. It surprised me how poor DeMille is at maintaining clarity of action during a sequence; he tends to cut from a variety of angles, none of which exactly repeat, and often his cut-ins are clunky and slightly mismatched. Individual shots are strong in a “pictorial” kind of way, but often lack an underlying pull or heat. The best part of the film, as well as the worst, was the ending. Poor Mercia, having been for the duration confused by Marcus’s pleas of love and fidelity mixed with his distaste for her beliefs, finally gets to have her day and die like the virtuous maiden she is… until Marcus crashes in on her and steals her thunder. His final pleas to her, and then his decision to die by her side, not only feels contrived – what exactly is the point of dying with someone when you don’t believe you’ll be reunited in the afterlife? – but it robs her of her agency. Her solo martyrdom (as Poppaea has ordered her held back, so she can’t be part of her beloved community in their death) is now transformed into a forced wedding, her sacrifice discounted at the hands of the over-the-top self-destruction of Marcus. Her radical chastity is reduced to that of the dutiful wife. While she ascends the stairs head held high, I couldn’t help but feel her resignation, and the relief that death would bring from this world of self-important, deluded, and cowardly men. A prime example of a Hollywood ending that tries to make everyone happy by splitting the difference (a win for romantics, and for chastity too, I suppose) and succeeds only in denaturing both.

Three stars out of five

Wild Canaries – Lawrence Michael Levine (2015)

I saw Wild Canaries on a lark; there was nothing much else playing that fit my time slot. Expecting this to be a Brooklyn film of the mumblecore variety, with perhaps a pinch more quirk thrown in to distinguish the thriller aspects, I was surprised to find a film that could be titled The Bird with the Bakelite Plumage. From the opening credits, it is apparent that this film is at least a little familiar with the conventions of giallo films, and hence will be (and is) far slicker than any mumblecore production. No, Wild Canaries is old-school indie, a nebbish murder mystery that provides plenty in the way of intelligent comedy, if not thrills or suspense. This being Brooklyn, the plot revolves around a thirty-something grump (director/writer Levine), his child-like, impetuous yet “charming” fiance (Sophia Takal), and their roommate (Alia Shawkat), who seems to be living with them to help offset the high cost of rent, and who happens to have a crush on the fiance. The fiance, Barri, having no employment and a standing chess lesson with the elderly lady downstairs, becomes the engine of the film – she finds said elderly lady dead, seemingly of a heart attack, but becomes convinced that the lady’s son (Kevin Corrigan) offed her for some reason. She begins airing her theories to anyone who will listen, which drives her fiance, Noah, crazy, and exacerbates tensions already present in their relationship. Roommate Jean takes slight advantage of the newly forming cracks, sides with Barri, helps her snoop, advances her theories, and soon tries to cozy up to her romantically. At the same time, Noah is re-warming to his ex, and now boss, Elanor, herself an avowed lesbian. Barri keeps upping the ante by eventually breaking into her neighbors’ apartments to find more dirt, and we come to discover that there is indeed dirt to be found, but not in the expected places.

What makes the film fun is that it very intelligently weaves giallo conventions into the storyline, but without much visual punning and certainly without any winking toward the audience. (Behold the powers of successful sublimation, people!) For instance, the rampant sexualization of women in giallo, and in particular the presence of what could be termed the “predatory lesbian” within the genre, is displaced onto the sex-positive openness of contemporary Brooklyn. The lesbians in the case of Wild Canaries are not the aberrant, perverse, and exotic sirens of the swinging ’70s, narrative red hearings that pull in the innocent heroine all the better to spit her out less innocent but better prepared for her encounter with the real killer; rather, the lesbianism here is ascendant, matter of fact, and all-encompassing, being not the outlier, but the boss, the roommate, perhaps the fiance, along with (spoilers ahead) the killer’s girlfriend, her babysitter, a jilted ex, and many party-goers. In the spirit of the times, and of reality, this lesbianism is gentle and not perverse, “predatory” only in a parodic sense, as an unrelenting front against which our nebbish protagonist seems powerless. Another giallo convention made amusing herein is the switcheroo identity of the killer. We are set up, along with Barri, to suppose that it is doughy, unpleasant Anthony, the dead woman’s son, but instead we find it is the owner of the building, a dissolute hipster artist (named Damien, natch) played by Jason Ritter. This follows in a long tradition of deranged artists who use crime as their canvas; admittedly, this tradition exists outside of giallo as well, but the Italians somehow elevated the criminal artist to (usually his) greatest heights of grotesquerie. The updates in this case are funny and intelligent too, poking fun at Brooklynite cliches, as Damien fumbles his one hitter in the street after an argument with his wife, or as he stumbles around his studio talking to his “props.” Ritter is great in the role, but then again, all the acting is good, and draws us into the world of these annoying people. There is a narrative breakdown at the end for those of us too slow to paste the shards together along the way, and this is perhaps the closest the film comes to formally acknowledging its roots. Unlike a giallo, and perhaps as a sign that, all their derring-do aside, these characters are trying to fit into the bourgeois universe, Wild Canaries uses the action of the plot to restore the world, to draw the characters back into the couplings that they started in, and that, we are to understand, fit them best. The plot of the film is not only an aphrodisiac, then, but something more powerful – a testing ground that allows these birds to take wing, see something of the wild, and then return to their cages, rather peacefully, happy to have their exploratory flights of fancy satisfied, and now ready to nest.

Three stars out of five