Queen of Earth – Alex Ross Perry (2015)

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

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

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

Four out of five stars

Carol – Todd Haynes (2015)

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

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

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

Three stars out of five

Joy – David O. Russell (2015)

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

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

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

Two and a half stars out of five

Suffragette – Sarah Gavron (2015)

While preparing to write this review, I wracked my brain trying to think of any other films I knew that concerned the history of the feminist movement or the battle for women’s right to vote. And I came up bone dry. Even films that are generally feminist in perspective, at least mainstream films, are pathetically hard to come by. (I exclude such films, more prevalent in the past 15 to 20 years, particularly within the genre of comedy, that would claim the feminist mantle by snarkily proving that women can be men too, while doing nothing more than celebrating the status quo of white upper middle-class life and winner-take-all capitalism). So even if Suffragette were not a very good movie, it would be notable and worth seeing simply because it tries to portray an era of history almost never portrayed, and a political movement that is almost never considered within popular culture, even as it is the foundation, in many ways, of huge swaths of what is taken for granted about the modern world. Happily though Suffragette is a good movie; it is not pedantic, and conveys the historical detail and political stakes of its subject in a naturalistic, fluid way while also connecting on an emotional level. While it does have its problems (mostly on a formal level), it also is powerful in that it pulls no punches, and does not lamely celebrate how far we’ve come, as you might expect such a film to. Instead, it is happy to paint the suffragettes realistically, as angry agitators willing to break the law, destroy property, and reject slow, incremental change in favor of direct action even at the risk of inciting violence. In this, it speaks to our own moment more so than a film that, like so many in the last few decades, dare only portray the fight against political injustice through the lens of passive resistance. It is a film unafraid to be angry.

The story concerns the political awakening and radicalization of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a wage slave toiling non-stop in a laundry in turn of the century London. She and her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) work together and, we assume, live in factory housing with their son George (Adam Michael Dodd). One day while out delivering some laundry, Maud is surprised when two women smash a shopfront window with rocks while yelling political slogans. Awakened to the idea of women’s equality, but still ignorant of the details, Maud is educated by her coworker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), who is generally a thorn in the side of management, and set to testify before Parliament and Prime Minister Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller) about the generally deplorable working conditions of the laundry, and particularly the condition for women, ahead of a general vote on women’s suffrage. Unable to testify because she has been beaten by her husband, Maud steps into her place and gives extemporaneous testimony. Present at a rally that hopes to mark the announcement of suffrage, Maud and the other women are outraged when Lloyd George announces the proposal did not pass. Maud’s affinity for the movement is cemented when the police, under the supervision of Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson), beat and arrest many of the women at the rally. Unable to bail herself out of jail, Maud is forced to stay in prison for a week, her husband and son at home only able to guess where she is. Freed, and all the more committed to the cause, Maud joins up with a more militant arm of the suffrage movement under the direction of Dr. Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), a rare female physician who cares for many of the workers at the laundry. They begin a campaign of bombing post boxes and breaking shop windows; at the same time, Inspector Steed begins to tighten the dragnet in an attempt to put down the suffrage movement. Sonny eventually sides with the law against his wife, and presses his claims to custody of their child, while shutting her out of the household. Maud is forced to live in a church attic which provides sanctuary for suffragettes, and visits George on the sly. Sonny, unable or unwilling to care for George without Maud’s support, puts him up for adoption, and after blowing up Lloyd George’s soon to be completed summer home, Maud and her cohort plan to use the upcoming Epsom Derby to get their message before the film cameras there to photograph King George V.

What makes the film powerful is that it ties together several threads that are often considered separately, or left dangling, in the popular imagining of what women’s suffrage means. Chief among them is the connection between economic justice and the vote – Maud is not interested in having the vote as a means to achieve some abstract equality with men, or to be able to exercise political power for its own sake, or to be the equal of her husband socially, but because it is the only road she can see to a less miserable life for herself and her family. Before he decides to take recourse in the law and deprive her of her maternal rights, Sonny and Maud are de facto equals in that both are wage slaves and both have little opportunity to change their circumstance, or provide a better one for their child; Maud’s testimony importantly makes concrete that poverty is not just deprivation of leisure and pleasure, but indeed a life lived in physical pain and an early trip to the grave. Where Sonny and Maud are not equal is in their treatment at the laundry, as the foreman, who controls the employees from an early age, the status quo begetting generations of misery, is free to sexually molest the female workers from a young age. So the film does well to tie together economic power and biopower, and to show how limits on one helps guarantee a limit on the other (and thus keeps bodies docile). Another strength is that the film portrays agitation in a realistic manner; the police are shown to be a tool of state repression, and the portrayal of officers beating up women in the street is an effective counter to the image that tends to be propagated, in popular culture, of the Victorian era and its long sunset as an age of decorum, patronizing chivalry, and of women kept prisoner in gilded cages. (Again, when do we see working women of this era portrayed? Almost never, and even when we do, they are still too often idealized, a la Downton Abbey). When Inspector Steed confronts Maud with the violence implicit in her act of helping to blow up Lloyd George’s country estate, she does not pause and is not chastened, but instead vehemently rebukes him, offering a critique of the state’s monopoly on violence, and effectively making a case that when deprived of figurative representation before the law, bodies must use the only force they have access to – that is, physical force. The film portrays Maud not as a woman who is nobly willing to sacrifice her family and child for her cause, as we might expect, but instead as a woman who has already been forsaken by society, her previous status of wife and mother just the scrim of propriety the social order has cast over a person who was born without power, without choice, and without recourse. She is driven, from point to point, to survive and work against this system by asserting whatever power she can find – be it in the indecorous use of her body, or in the raising of a rock, or the planting of a bomb. And the ending does not seek to tidy up the picture in any way. This is not a tale of triumph; it might shock those who don’t know, or remember, that the rights being agitated for at the end of the film are still 20 years in Britain’s future. The film is not without fault, but one cannot accuse it of overly sentimentalizing its subject matter. It does lack historical context in that we are dropped into 1908 and don’t understand where the movement arose from materially. This might not matter, but such emphasis is placed on the figure of Mrs. Pankhurst (Meryl Streep, who does stick out a bit), a fixation not only of the police, but of the film itself, which treats her as an enigma and as an avatar of the movement, without allowing us to understand her involvement, where she came from, or why she is important. The camerawork is also problematic in that it is of the shaky, handheld faux documentary style familiar to the work of director Paul Greengrass, but without much motivation. Do directors even think about motivation for camera placement anymore? The handheld shakiness would make sense in the crowd scenes, if we take the camera to represent the point of view of a member of the rally – but why is the camera moving otherwise? The framing is often sloppy as a result. These are minor distractions, though. Overall Suffragette not only does justice to its subject matter, it sobers us with the realization that so little has changed.

Three and a half stars out of five

The Diary of a Teenage Girl – Marielle Heller (2015)

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is without doubt one of the most honest and nuanced portraits of unabashed feminine sexuality in the history of (mainstream) American film; it is probably the best, and most sex positive, portrayal of specifically adolescent female desire we have had in this country. There have, of course, been other films that treat this subject matter, such as Larry Clark’s Kids or Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, but most of those films have been perceived, often unfairly, as chronicles of threat, gritty warnings of the perils about to befall our children. In a recent positive review of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Amy Taubin compares the film to the work of Catherine Breillat in which the sexuality of girls is treated with all due honesty and without pulled punches or a fear of giving offense (that is, Taubin sees Diary as an American counterpart to such work). While I take her point, it is also the case that Breillat is a provocateur, and that films such as A Real Young Girl, 36 Fillette, and Fat Girl are transgressive avant la lettre. (Those films, devoid of such niceties as Diary‘s animated flowers and winsome heroine, are interested in serving as aggressive critiques of larger chunks of social terrain than the film before us, which functions more as a mostly gentle corrective). Which is to say, although its success with audiences is hardly assured, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is an appropriately American film, in which its strengths are also, to my taste, its limitations.

Adapted from a graphic novel of the same name by Phoebe Gloeckner (who also illustrated the RE/Search edition of J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, which I was obsessed with while in college), The Diary of a Teenage Girl chronicles the coming of age (or, more bluntly, the quest for sexual experience) of Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley), a budding 15 year old artist living in San Francisco with her divorced Mom (Kristen Wiig) and younger sister (Abby Wait) during the swinging ’70s. Mom is a semi-wreck, having recently parted ways with her (second?) husband, and Minnie’s surrogate father, Pascal (Christopher Meloni, always a treat), who now lives in New York. Mom parties too much, does drugs unabashedly in front of her kids, and is dating a semi-layabout dreamer named Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). Monroe is the object of Minnie’s sexual fascination, so when Mom suggests that he take her out drinking with him one night, as she is too tired to attend, Minnie takes advantage of the opportunity to plant the not so subtle seeds of her desire within his mind. Pretty soon, Minnie and Monroe are having an affair behind Mom’s back, which sends Minnie not into a tailspin, but on to further sexual adventuring as she satisfies curiosity while at the same time exploring the reach of her powers. She does this by, for instance, hitting on and then sexually dominating one of the boys at her school, dropping her drab nerdy wardrobe to dress up for a Rocky Horror midnight screening, and, in what she and her girlfriend both concede is a bridge too far, giving random guys in a bar blowjobs for $5 each (holding hands with each other while kneeling on the bathroom floor). Eventually Monroe starts to lose his luster (in proportion to how quickly he reveals himself to be a real person, and possibly in love with her) and Minnie, empowered by a correspondence with cartoonist, and riot grrrl touchstone, Aline Kominsky, seeks to move on – but not before Pascal gets the drift of what is happening, and the whole house of cards comes crashing down as Mom takes a listen to Minnie’s audio diaries. Minnie skirts dangerously close to leaving home for good as Mom tries to work through this revelation, but eventually things smooth over (if not for Mom, then for Minnie) and the film ends with Minnie vowing that, unlike her mother, she will never need a man to be happy.

I fully admit that I am not doing the film justice with my synopsis. It is very funny in many parts (perhaps unintentionally so at times), coming close to a non-juvenile sex comedy, and also transgressive in its own way. Indeed, the opening, which features Minnie sauntering in slow motion through a park laden with big breasted joggers and topless sunbathers, who she ogles, happily exclaiming (internally) “Wow! I just had sex!,” obviously elated at that fact, skirts close to the tropes of pornography. It would not be surprising if this libidinous teenager, comfortable in her wielding of phallic power, made male viewers equally and oppositely uncomfortable. According to Taubin’s report, one male audience member at the Sundance festival screening asked the filmmaker to address the fact that the film was “obviously about pedophilia.” (He was met with laughter from many female members of the audience). There should be little doubt that the film is not about pedophilia, as we are quite clearly inside Minnie’s head and point of view for the entirety. The film communicates this not only through the narrative structure, but by the use of Minnie’s voice-over and by bringing Minnie’s art to life on the screen, animating moments of her affective response. This is part of what sets the film apart from the work of Breillat; here, we are with Minnie all the way, and rooting for her, as we are inside her head. There is none of the distance, and irony, that Breillat often employs to question the points of view of her protagonists, even as she is sympathetic to them. (Her protagonists tend to be “unsympathetic” to begin with anyway). For instance, Diary ends with Minnie, in voice-over, rejecting her mother’s apparent need for a man, and basically saying, “This is for all the girls out there like me.” While perhaps an important political move on the part of a filmmaker trying to communicate to a particular audience, it also has the impact, and tone, of pat after-school-special messaging. A director like Breillat, even if she deployed such a device, would not allow us to forget that this “you go girl” wisdom comes from the mouth of a 15 year old; we would be left with the bitter understanding that time proves most of us, no matter how spunky, wrong. Another “problem” which could be considered a feature for an American audience is the setting. Although it adheres to the reality of the graphic novel, setting the film in the 1970s allows the director a certain license for honesty and, hence, the audience a certain distance, that setting such events in a contemporary setting would not. Yes, Minnie is a 15 year old who does drugs with her Mom and has an affair with her boyfriend, but after all, it is the 1970s, and San Francisco. The setting helps naturalize what should, rightfully, cause question, regardless of Minnie’s maturity and empowerment. The director has stated that she’d really like teenage girls to be the audience for the film, and I don’t disagree – girls need images that show their desires as normal, powerful, and their sexuality as fully their own. At the same time, where is the film that addresses these same issues for today’s teenage girl, in her own milieu? (That is, post Reagan-era sexual repression and paranoia, and post-Internet double standard of valorized exhibitionism coupled with To Catch a Predator prurience). While these issues niggle at me, they mostly do so on the level of aesthetics – I happen to dislike the rampant use of voice-over in contemporary film, and feel that directors of serious (American) films often take refuge from our present era these days. I fully recognize that on some level it sounds like I’m complaining that an apple is not an orange (or that the United States is not France… although I might plead guilty on that count). It is hard to make a work that is serious, addresses a (sadly) taboo subject like this, contains nuance, and is still a feel good, funny, and happy film that sends a message of empowerment to a population that gets far too little along those lines. On that count, Marielle Heller has done a superb job, and her film deserves to be widely seen.

Three and a half stars out of five

Dog Lady – Verónica Llinás and Laura Citarella (2015)

Some movies tell, while others show. Of course, even within the most abstract or avant-garde film, there is often a narrative, submerged, perhaps, or needfully constructed in the mind of the viewer, but even so, we can divide most cinema along a line of expository clarity. Does the film labor to make sure all viewers alike understand in the same way, and follow along the same thread, or does the film create a space within which viewers are allowed to play more freely, to make their own meanings from the materials at hand? Answering this question, classically, has also served to describe the difference between “Hollywood” productions, where clarity and impact are paramount, and many foreign films, which make the viewer do more work to come to an understanding of what, exactly, is happening. Dog Lady, a low-key and fairly unprepossessing film from Argentina, happily falls into the later camp – it is really little more (but this is a lot) than a book of days recounting the comings, goings, difficulties, and small triumphs of a homeless woman who lives on the outskirts of an unnamed city with a large pack of dogs. While I am probably biased to films that show rather than tell, and which are observational and “meandering” rather than running smoothly on rails, I must admit there might be more bad showing films than bad telling films; it takes some effort and purpose to create a narrative that will attract viewers, so the observational film can often fall into an “art for art’s sake” mindset that elevates anything “real” and unadorned to a place of poetry. (For a recent example of this kind of failure, see Heaven Knows What). Luckily, Dog Lady has only a few wobbles, and the solid acting of Verónica Llinás in the title role, along with an assured tonal sense and a point of view sympathetic without being patronizing or sanctimonious, allows the film to achieve a rough poetry which lingers in the mind of the viewer far afterward.

The film starts in a fragmented cloud of shots, low to the ground, and travelling, in which parts of dogs and the parts of our protagonist are confused. The dog lady is hunting, with a slingshot, to provide her sustenance. At first we might think this is a film about a woman with a confused identity, a feral lady who is one of the dogs that surround her. But no, we gradually see she has a much more ambivalent relationship to the animals, to the point that we begin to wonder if she even enjoys their company much, or if it is forced upon her. She is definitely the alpha, and enforces her priority – we see her smack overly eager dogs in the face when they try to snatch food from her – but she is not overly stingy either. Neither is she the alpha to the degree that the dogs kowtow to her, as they assert the priority of their numbers a few times, as when they tip over her barrel of fresh rainwater; all the same, we do not feel the dog pack is a menace, nor do we feel that the woman and the animals have a combative or competitive relationship. It is one of the main strengths of the film that the woman is not analogized to the animals, and that the animals and the humans have multiple and often conflicting relationships with one another, even as they live in a kind of symbiotic unity (although it is obvious the dogs need the woman far more than she needs them, except as mute witnesses to the facts of her existence). The film takes place over the four seasons of one year, each season being heralded by an intertitle. (This is one of the few criticisms I might level against the film: it could segue from season to season subtly, using the changing environment to cue us to the passage of time, rather than imposing it from without, which gives the film a greater air of allegory and metaphysics than the tale requires. The other main criticism would be the use of music, spare and moody electronics, which still detract from a few key scenes, as when teen boys harass the woman, and she finally defends herself by pegging one of them with a rock from her sling). We, as viewers, have many questions about who this woman is and how she makes a go of it. The film does little to answer the former, but, by the end, has resolved most of the latter. We see where she lives, and how she repairs and builds her structure; we see her collect water, shower, and cook; we even see her interact with locals, fringe types like herself, from sneaking into a more well-to-do woman’s shack to steal some necessities, to having a sexual encounter with a field worker about her own age. She goes to the doctor. She goes, with her pack of dogs, to a kind of demolition derby / spontaneous car festival. What is impressive about the film is that, while we don’t have concrete answers to this woman’s identity, watching her make her way in the world allows us to get to know her such that we can begin to answer our questions for ourselves, even if not definitively. The film allows us to glimpse inside her by way of familiarity; we begin to sense her, to feel her out. A narrative of a type does emerge, and the final shot, while not providing a climax to this narrative, does explore, in a quite simple way, the stakes at play in our dog lady’s tale. Perhaps everyone needs to feel useful, and necessary, for someone, and the dogs, beyond being companions, are also helpful to this woman because they depend on her. Like the best of the neo-realist tradition (in particular De Sica’s Umberto D), which it resembles, Dog Lady reveals the desperate truths at the heart of society and the individual’s quest to survive at all costs, while at the same time never slipping into a bleak cynicism or despair. Whether life is or is not worth living, or is or is not too cruel to tolerate, these films, in their objectivity, do not pass judgement; life gets lived because it is the only choice, but the presence of the animal, or any constant companion, provides solace and camaraderie, if not redemption.

Four stars out of five

Trainwreck – Judd Apatow (2015)

It would be far too easy to pan Trainwreck by claiming that the film lives up to its title, in the same way many of the film’s raves have run the opposite, and equally lame and easy rhetorical gambit (as in “Trainwreck is anything but.” Good night, Philadelphia). It is a very disappointing failure, however, and a spectacular loss of nerve on the part of Amy Schumer (although not so much for Mr. Apatow). If you admire the Amy Schumer who courts discomfort in the service of exploring the ambivalences of the modern female subject position, the Amy we are all familiar with from her Comedy Central show and her stand-up routines, prepare yourself. Trainwreck does feature a facsimile of that Amy Schumer, but it does so, sadly, only to destroy and bury her under the twisted, piled-up wreckage of the contemporary romantic comedy. (Okay, I went there). The film betrays its audience not simply by being conventional, but by being downright conservative, in the sense that it proposes a set of problems that it is only interested in resolving with fake-outs and lies. Trainwreck is a selling out of Ms. Schumer’s previous worldview, and talents, on a spectacular level. I am not the biggest Amy Schumer fan by any means, so please don’t mistake my upset as a disappointment with a personal dimension. Or even a political one. It is the disappointment of someone who would like to laugh at a comedy. It is the disappointment of someone who would like to see a narrative unfold that takes itself seriously. Yes, the film provides more comedy than something like Spy, and yes, there is some truth to the proceedings, and to the portrayal of this self-proclaimed “broken” woman. So the stakes are higher, as at least this viewer expects a comedy about an unhappy, alcoholic prisoner of fear to be honest, and hopefully acidly funny as well – because otherwise, why bother? Instead, we are subjected to non-stop cynicism and subsequent cleansing bromides passed off as truth. By avoiding honestly exploring and resolving, if not solving, the problems raised, the film reveals itself as deeply disparaging of reality. By flinching, Ms. Schumer makes a joke not just of herself, but of the real people who suffer as her character does, in a similarly relentless and cynical reality, and have not the magical ability to write their own happy ending.

The Amy of our film is a combination of the brutally honest and self-deprecating Amy we know from stand-up, combined with the satirical and mocking “Amy” of her Comedy Central show, who is often used as a device to reveal the stupidity, sexism, and embedded misogyny of our culture. She is a hard drinking career woman who works for a men’s magazine called S’Nuff (a parody of FHM and its brethren) and spends her free time having meaningless sex with as many men as she can. We know, or come to understand, that behind this facade lies a deeply unhappy sad sack with low self-esteem and no expectations, who hides her true reality behind her outrageous “humor.” Where do the problems come from? From a broken home, and from Dad (Colin Quinn, doing a horrible job of playing 70), who we see at the beginning of the movie lecturing his daughters on the foolishness of monogamy by way of breaking the news of divorce. Amy’s younger sister Kim (Brie Larson) somehow escapes the nightmare, growing up to live a conventional life as a seemingly contented and loving housewife and step-mother (a relationship that Amy openly mocks). When she’s not having one-night stands, Amy is dating Steven (John Cena), a lovable and loyal, if somewhat dim jock who, upon realizing Amy’s polyamorous ways, breaks it off, calls her mean, and exits for good, obviously hurt. This breakup does apparently give Amy some pause, and so when she is assigned an interview with prominent sports doctor Aaron (Bill Hader) by her Kim Gordon-meets-a-pumpkin editor/boss (Tilda Swinton, the film’s finest hour), she is primed to find within him a possible long-term partner, even if she at first treats him like one of her one and dones. The rest of the narrative is comprised of a battle between the better angels of Amy’s nature (her sister, her intended, LeBron James) and the worse ones (herself, her Dad, her boss) as she vacillates between trying to shoehorn Aaron into the category of “not meant to be” and believing that indeed she does want to stop identifying as a whore, find Mr. Right, and hopefully a happy ending, after all. When she proves too much for even God’s gift to self-actualization to handle, she breaks. After quickly dumping the booze and drugs, tidying up her apartment so it resembles a Hallmark movie bedroom Della Reese would not be ashamed to inhabit, she rushes to Madison Square Garden (although there is no crisis, and hence no tension to the climax) and regales Aaron in a cheerleader outfit, dancing along with those other “community builders” her previously self-hating small mind had rejected as sexist mascots of male fantasy. The film ends with our couple in full missionary under the backboard, Amy apparently cured of her self-hatred, alcoholism, and funnybone by her loving man.

Based on that synopsis, I guess it probably seems like there is not much cause for alarm, or consternation, as what we have is simply an unambitious romantic comedy that happens to star Amy Schumer. The problem is less in the grand scheme than in the details, however. Much of the proceedings come off as Schumer wanting to have her cake and eat it too. She wants to have an edge, but also be nice. She wants to explore the psychological reality of her self-destructive character, while also keeping things Golightly light and leaving room for wish fulfillment. So we get plenty of awkward turns, such as playing Kim’s family for laughs as a bunch of lumpy, un-hip, unattractive fools, who dare to be nice and have feelings for each other, then later in the film making us feel guilty for laughing at them earlier (which we didn’t anyway) as it is really Amy who is the fool for being afraid of the conventional and for judging others. Likewise, we are supposed to laugh at the stupid homophobic stories promulgated by S’Nuff (as, duh, this is satire), while finding Kim’s coffee klatch friends’ mild homophobia worthy of eye-rolling and condescension (as we are now taking a moment to impart a serious message). As the film swings back and forth between purported edginess and dullness, or self-hatred and therapy, or comedy and drama, or reality and fantasy (pick your dialectic), we begin to feel the laughs are on us, either for finding the offensive funny, or for taking the real stuff seriously, and we begin to understand that a resolution will not come through synthesis or catharsis, but will be bestowed by authorial fiat. And this is where the real problem lies. Amy Schumer wants her comedy to mean something, to tell some sort of truth – and that is fine. But truth often hurts, and real problems cannot be solved by recourse to 30 seconds of resolve followed by becoming exactly what you spent the previous half-hour mocking. Think about the potential of this comedy if it allowed itself to be truly black, and tackled such a self-destructive character with honesty; it might actually say something about our society, and about the forces that construct such pain and misery, forces which undermine people in real ways. Schumer has not the nerve for reality, though, and for me this is the most unforgivable sin. For a while, in the third quarter of the movie, there exists an uneasy tension, as Schumer’s drinking is no longer funny, or relateable, but indeed “real” in that it is a problem, and ugly. We begin to sense someone might suggest she is an alcoholic, or that one of the other characters might have a real talk with her about why she drinks (and smokes pot) to such an extent. When was the last time you saw the issue of how alcohol functions in our society portrayed in such a personal, realistic way on the big screen (comedy or not)? So it was very disheartening to see her behaviors (perhaps not quite addictions) dealt with in less than a minute. She simply takes the booze, and the drugs, and boxes them up, giving them to some more deserving soul (the homeless man who lives outside her building, ha ha). She lights a Glade candle, contemplates her new resolve, and then bounds off to the arena, to suit up and impress her man. It is not that she seeks to be conventional that offends, as the movie does not err in proposing that being conventional is the way to be “happy.” But what is such happiness? It is herein pitched purely as winning the battle with internal demons, plague of the weak-willed, which pull us out of conventional ways because we are too afraid to fail, or be rejected, rather than as also being a social phenomena that provides a safe role to play while allowing us to be this way or that for the benefit of others (that is, the film refuses to see convention as also a mechanism of external control). And along the way, the ending sells out the reality that informs Amy’s character – it sells out all of us who cannot muster such easy solutions, and willpower, and for whom Mr. Right is not the answer (because perhaps he never appears, or does not exist). It sells out those who truly struggle with alcohol, and drugs, and by way of succor gives a completely disingenuous (never mind, for many, equally unappealing) “solution.” “Find a true love. Build community. Love yourself. And do it dressed as a cheerleader!” Does no one else find this crass? Pathetic to the point of tears?

One and a half stars out of five

P.S. The half star is for Tilda Swinton, who is indeed amazing, and for an unexpected appearance by Norman Lloyd – yes, Norman Lloyd, who worked with Welles, and Hitchcock, and Ed Begley Jr. At 100, I’d expect this, sadly, to be his final film, but I hope he proves me wrong.

Still Alice – Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (2015)

As I watched Still Alice, I thought it would be interesting to see the same script (or at least the same material) as directed by a woman – Claire Denis, perhaps, or Catherine Breillat, whose Abuse of Weakness came to mind. That was the tougher of the two films, the more nuanced, perhaps, and the more probing, but in the end, I found Still Alice more affecting. In some ways, the film is not far from a Lifetime made for TV movie (or at least a Lifetime movie before the network became obsessed with domestic violence); the travails of a successful career woman, and of her family, as she is forced to submit to her human frailty far too early. And yet, especially in the last half-hour or so, Still Alice rises above weepy melodrama (not that I have anything against weepy melodramas) to ask serious questions about the nature of identity, and the value of life if it is lived without the ability to self-reflect, or to inhabit the world meaningfully. That it rises above is in part due to the script, the simplicity of which allows it to usefully tighten and focus in the end, but more so because of the acting, which is truly the reason to see this film. Julianne Moore well deserved her Oscar win (although she should have won for many other roles too, especially what I still consider her finest hour, as Carol White in Todd Haynes career-best Safe), as she moves with amazing skill from eloquent and smooth star professor to terrified thousand yard stare to almost complete emptiness as Alice’s personality evacuates. It is not a one woman show, however. Alec Baldwin gives a much more nuanced and gentle turn than expected as her sympathetic and kind husband, and Kristen Stewart, who could be the weightiest actress of her generation if she is given the opportunities, inhabits her wanna-be actress daughter, a role that could have easily been one note, with an easy grace, moving from sulky tension to mature understanding and compassion very convincingly.

The film, if it isn’t already obvious, deals with a woman and the ramifications of a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s on both her life and her family’s. Alice is a celebrated linguist who teaches at Columbia; her husband, John, also teaches there, in the hard sciences. They have three grown children: Anna (Kate Bosworth, the weakest link acting-wise) and Hunter (Tom Howland), who both also live in New York, and Lydia (Kristen Stewart), the youngest, and family black sheep, who skipped college to move to L.A. and pursue her desire to act (the main source of tension with Mom). Alice begins to notice that certain things drop out of her memory and her experience; it is not simply forgetfulness, as she enters a kind of somatic panic when she loses her way on a jog around campus. After some testing by her neurologist (Stephen Kunken), it is discovered that she not only has early onset Alzheimer’s, but that it is of the genetic variety, making her children susceptible. Anna, who has been trying to conceive with her husband Charlie (Shane McRae), will get the disease; Hunter will not; Lydia prefers not to find out and does not get tested. The rest of the film follows Alice’s increasing, and fairly rapid, degeneration, as well as the impact on the lives of her family (foremost on her husband’s career). Lucid Alice leaves a testing system, accompanied by an instructional video, to direct afflicted Alice to commit suicide, via an overdose of sleeping pills, when she has reached the point of not being able to answer a series of basic questions. Afflicted Alice, accidentally stumbling across the video (the test itself long since forgotten), tries to follow through, but botches it and loses her chance. Eventually, John moves to Minnesota for a job at the Mayo Clinic, leaving Alice in the care of Lyida, who voluntarily returns from California to live with her mother. The film ends, affectingly and poetically, to my taste at least, with a shot of Lydia reading a passage from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America aloud, and then asking her mother what it means. After much effort, Alice manages to work out the word “love.” “Yes,” says Lydia, “it means love.”

What is so intelligent about the film, and what prevents it from being overly sentimental, is that, due to the focus and simplicity of the second half, double meanings abound, and we can see the hard questions answered from both sides. For instance, we fully understand Alice’s desire to commit suicide; not only is it a fundamental way to deal with the anguish of losing her identity and purpose, but it also saves herself, and her family, the pain of lingering on far, far beyond what a normal patient of the disease might endure. That said, when the “time comes,” we cannot be sure that it is time. Is she far enough gone? She is fairly debilitated, yet she has just managed to have a video chat with her daughter, alone in the house, her caretaker off for the day (a fact which dismays Lydia). She stumbles upon the video, but has not the judgement to make a choice; she is simply carrying out the commands of a friendly, helpful, and familiar face. We feel that either way it goes has merit, but in the end, fate intervenes, Alice fumbles the pill bottle, and just as the caretaker arrives on the scene. What is so lovely and tragic about the sequence is that it presents a gentle and uncomplicated argument for life – when she signs off from the video chat, and finds the video, Alice has just made toast and tea for herself, and those humble enjoyments, set aside for the new stimulus of the suicide pact with her past, are tragic. The argument for life boils down to tea and toast. She can still enjoy the buttered bread, and the warming heat of the tea, in a sensuous way; need there be more reason to live? Is personality, or identity, necessary to exist at that level? After all, the “purely animal” is good enough for animals. Later on, as she orders a Pinkberry with her husband at one of their final outings (Pinkberry being a favorite), she snuggles against him at the counter, gently rubbing her cheek on his thick, furry flannel collar. Again, this gesture of love and comfort redeems the sadness (and perhaps amplifies it) through the purely phenomenological. The last scene, where Lydia reads to her, also works similarly. On the one hand, there is nothing left of Alice as she was – she can barely speak, and we can’t know if she understands her situation or recognizes her surroundings. When Lydia asks what the passage she read means, Alice could be responding with some level of cognition. Or, much more likely, she is simply responding to a loving face, looking upon her with kindness; she is responding to presence. Whether she understands or not, or can have a life with “meaning,” the fact that others care for her, and that she can respond at all, in the moment, to such care, makes her existence worthwhile. Lydia fully recognizes this, as her response mirrors the facticity of the moment while leaving open the question of what is understood – love is the answer in either case. Yes, the movie has problematic elements. Especially early on, the directors use a very shallow depth of field to mirror, in a too literal way, the haziness of Alice’s memory, the loss of focus; it is an overly obvious metaphor, and furthermore, aesthetically it grates, in some scenes making the actors pop out of their surroundings in a very distracting way. It is also the case that this story, like many we get from Hollywood, presents us with a best-case scenario, with the deck fully stacked in Alice’s favor: successful, affluent, and surrounded by a loving family, she is hardly the usual Alzheimer’s patient. The positive of such a portrayal is that it perhaps allows the audience to relate, and staves off the distance or denial that can easily take hold in a more “realistic” scenario (“that’s not me”). All the same, the negatives are abundant, and we wind up close to glamorizing a very unglamorous condition. Regardless, though, the gentleness and honesty with which the movie asks the question, “Is this life worth living?” and the nuanced and thoughtful, if unsurprising, answer of yes that it provides, sets it apart. The enjoyment of the senses, the presence of another, even stripped of understanding, is perhaps a rebuke to the idea that life without identity is the equivalent of a death without dignity.

Three and a half stars out of five

Clouds of Sils Maria – Olivier Assayas (2014)

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

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

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

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

Four and a half stars out of five