What a better film to mount a comeback to than one of the bleakest, coldest films I’ve seen in a long time! I generally love Claire Denis’ films - Trouble Every Day is in my top films of all time, so I thought I was ready for some delightful Denis brutalism. I wasn’t exactly prepared, it turns out.
(From here on out, be prepared for spoilers)
Vincent Lindon stars as a Marco, man whose brother-in-law, as close to him as a blood brother, commits suicide, and he takes leave from his solitary life as a ship captain in the Navy to help his sister. Not only is his brother-in-law dead, but his niece, his sister’s daughter, has been found wandering naked in the streets of Paris with her wrists slit. Marco theoretically comes to put the pieces back together, but he soon finds himself embroiled, with his emotionally unstable sister (Julie Bataille) in a plot for revenge against Edouard Laporte, the man both see as responsible, through his business dealings, for their loved one’s death. Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni) becomes an unwitting player in the revenge plot as Edouard’s trophy wife, who Marco quickly seduced once he moves into their building. From there, no one, including Edouard and Raphaelle’s son, is left untouched.
While this might seem like an awful lot of plot, it’s revealed slow as molasses. The film begins with intercutting scenes of the suicide crime scene, juxtaposed with Justine’s naked walk down the street. I appreciate this style of story-telling; in fact, when some major plot points come together in the final 15 minutes of the movie, it’s like watching a beautiful, terrible puzzle being finished (although I’d expect nothing less from Denis).
Now, on to those twists. The film surprises twofold in the last few minutes: first, when given the choice between killing her lover Marco and killing her husband, who has taken away her child, Raphaelle chooses to kill Marco, in what was honestly a very surprising turn of events. The willingness (or unwillingness) of a mother to protect her child is a main theme here, and it turns out that Raphaelle was willing to kill a man who may have truly cared for her in order to maintain her status quo life with her son. If Raphaelle had shot her husband, it would have been a totally expected change of heart, but also incredibly satisfying for the audience. Denis denies us both the pleasure of righteousness and that of predictability, and it’s really masterful.
On the other hand, there’s the second twist, which caused a minor uproar at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. (I remember hearing that there is some rough stuff that happens in the film, but thankfully didn’t remember the details.) It turns out Justine was being pimped out by her father to Edouard! Probably for some buisness favors! And not only that, but Justine was also raped by her father on camera with a decorative corn cob! This, I did not care for. I’m actually surprised that Denis, a strong feminist filmmaker, went this route. It seems like a cheap shock; perhaps Denis is making an ill-advised statement that we’re all violated by capitalism and patriarchy? But I really didn’t need to see that point made visual with corn, especially after a doctor describes the brutalized state of Justine’s vagina in an earlier scene. There was nothing in the film that seemed to suggest that Justine’s parents – particularly her mother, who seems to have known about the entire thing – would do this to her; but then again, desperate times call for desperate measures. The most desperate measures, apparently. (NB: A friend informed me that Denis remarked that the end of this film is a response to William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, a book I have not read – but was also the premise for The Story of Temple Drake. I sense a revisitation to these themes soon!)
That’s one of the things that bothered me most about the film – the judgements come down very hard on the mother characters. Justine’s mother at least helps to pimps her daughter out to ensure her family’s business stays afloat, but it literally costs her everything. Raphaelle is shown to be a bourgeoisie housewife who would rather keep her family intact than face what her husband has done. No one in the film comes out smelling like roses, to be certain, but it’s the mothers who have to live with the consequences, while everyone else is dead or gets away with it. But maybe that’s exactly the point – capitalism has changed our ideas of the family (and of right and wrong) that these captains of industry no longer feel responsible for the effects that their actions have on the family unit.
I was much colder on this film before I had a pleasant conversation on Twitter with some cinephile pals. Perhaps instead of a character study, it’s more useful to view the film as a dissection of the film noir, a genre associated with the tough man (Marco) and the femme fatale (Raphaelle? Justine? Both?). This is what choices made in film noir would look like in our times. While the irony didn’t always work for me – Marco is a near-saint, risking everything for a revenge plot that comes to absolutely nothing, in order to avenge a truly terrible man – I appreciate the sentiment, and the craft. Bastards is a searing indictment of capitalism and patriarchy, to be sure, but it never involved me on an emotional level, past gut-level shock. Perhaps that’s the point.
Sort of. Time Out London recently polled filmmakers, critics, actors, and people who just plain love horror (professionally) to come up with a list of the 100 Best Horror Films. It’s not a bad list, to be sure: there are the usual suspects on there, but a lot of weird, unexpected things came up, too. So we wanted to make lists of our own!
I love making lists, so I didn’t foresee how hard this would be. My only real rule was only one film per filmmaker. This is both a list of my favorite horror films, and what I think are the best horror films ever, so it’s a little lopsided, maybe. I can’t really decide on a number order, so here, in alphabetical order, it is:
The Beyond (Lucio Fulci, 1981)
Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978)
The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)
Female Vampire (Jess Franco, 1973)
Hour of the Wolf (Ingmar Bergman, 1968)
The Living Dead Girl (Jean Rollin, 1982)
Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
Tenebre (Dario Argento, 1982)
Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, 2001)
Some of these might be controversial (to nerds): Isn’t Female Vampire more pornography than horror? (Maybe, but with Lina Romay’s performance and some of Jess’ best direction, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong here.) Is Tenebre really Argento’s best? (I strongly say yes.) Isn’t Psycho sort of obvious? (Sure, but when I finally saw it a few years ago, it actually scared me, having lost none of its charm or its effectiveness over 50 years and knowing the ending.) Goddamn, wasn’t the period from 1978-1982 amazing for horror films? (You’re telling me.) But I’m happy with this list. Close calls: Deep Red (I almost, almost disregarded my one-film-per-director rule for that one), Peeping Tom, Possession, The Ordeal (Calvaire), The Descent.
I hate making lists. I’m gonna be awake all night tonight thinking of replacements and alterations.
The Night Of The Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
Black Sunday (Mario Bava, 1960)
Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (Robert Fuest, 1971)
Vampyros Lesbos (Jesus Franco, 1971)
The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)
Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975)
Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981)
Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)
Jacob’s Ladder (Adrian Lyne, 1990)
I could easily add The Hitcher, Last House on Dead End Street, Messiah of Evil, Halloween, The Evil Dead, Haxan, The Reincarnation of Isobel, Begotten, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the list goes on and on. This is in no way whatsoever a ten “best” list or even necessarily a ten “favorite” list, it’s ten films that over the years I’ve viewed a lot, thought about a lot, stole ideas from a lot, had my aesthetic shaped by a lot. I might do a couple more lists of ten with tighter themes to make myself feel better. I barely consider The Night of the Hunter to be a horror film in the strict sense, but for my money it’s one of the most dreamlike films (by which I mean it obeys a kind of occult logic all its own) I’ve ever seen, and for me the thing I love the most about horror is falling into another world, of entering a film and living inside it, so I couldn’t not include it.
We’re kicking off a very extended look at the work of Jess Franco and the late, great Lina Romay with two ’70s era films: Exorcism and Lorna, The Exorcist. Do not let the questionable English titles fool you: there’s no exorcism in Lorna and the exorcism in Exorcism is mostly Jess stabbing naked women with a switchblade while ranting about saving their souls.
Exorcism and Lorna, the Exorcist are both sterling examples of what a Jess Franco Picture is: both star the late, great Lina Romay, both have explicit sex scenes, and both deal with the confusing, perverse magic of female sexuality. Not only that, it seems like they both benefit from the Jess Franco Method of making films: finding locations that work, actors that work, and building a film around them. Both of these films, as well as Celestine Maid At Your Service and Brutal Nights of Linda, were shot using the same basic crew (though Exorcism didn’t see release until ’79, apparently) — some people don’t care for this approach but I applaud Jess’s work ethic. More is better than less!
One of the most interesting parts about Exorcism (L’éventreur de Notre-Dame) for me was the utterly Franco-ian fixation on public sex, particularly S&M shows. There are numerous examples of dark, sexy stage shows in Franco films (Succubus and Vampyros Lesbos, off the top of my head), and an S&M black mass is at the center of Exorcism’s plot. To Franco (and to Lina) in the 70s, sex was performative – Exorcism’s show takes the form of a Satanic rite, complete with chalices, bondage gear, and incantations. The audience watches the women perform bondage as we watch the audience watching them; it’s meta-performance, and the levels upon which Franco presents performance and spectatorship are fascinating to take apart. And Lina was always his partner in this performance; she was ready for anything Jess would throw at her, and Exorcism is a prime example of their equal partnership, in which one would push the other to do great things.
Jess playing a defrocked priest who attempts to save the souls of the damned through exorcism ending in murder is pretty much right in line with his general interests, particularly considering said priest makes a living writing second rate Sadean stories for (if we remember right) Knives And Garters Quarterly. While submitting his latest masterpiece, he overhears talk of a black mass (basically one of Jess’s patented nudes-and-fake-blood nightclub shows) and decides to make things right…PERMANENTLY! It’s not one of his most intricate plots, but things move along at a brisk pace and you get plenty of what you signed up for.
The character Lina plays in Lorna, the Exorcist (Les possédées du diable) is a far cry from her usual vixen roles – Lina is Linda (so many L names!), the soon-to-be-18 daughter of a man who made a deal with Lorna, a Satanic witch (I think?), before her birth, trading Linda upon womanhood for riches. Lina is innocent, corruptible, with increasingly dirty dreams of a beautiful (if ridiculously made-up) woman. It’s nice to see Lina stretch a bit and take on the wide-eyed ingenue role, but it’s equally amazing to see that final shot of Lina laughing hysterically, just having murdered her father.
Lorna is played by one-time Les Folies Bergère dancer and Franco regular (Doriana Grey, Sexy Sisters) Pamela Stanford, decked out in a truly unreal series of wigs and eye makeup, offering a promise of wealth and power to Patrick, Linda’s father, in exchange for his first born child on the day of her eighteenth birthday. Patrick, currently childless, doesn’t think too much about it and happily beds Lorna and follows her gambling advice. Eighteen years later, however, he’s decided he’s keeping his baby. Meanwhile, Catherine Laffiere is in a Renfieldian psychic connection with Lorna from her asylum bed where she writhes around and gets occasional visits from Dr. Jess. Did I mention Howard Vernon is Lorna’s butler?
Whether you’re as familiar with Lina’s work (and as bummed out by her way-too-soon passing) as we are, or a Franco naif, these two films are required viewing. They serve both as a great introduction to the Lina-Jess partnership, as they contain all the elements of the couple’s most fruitful collaborations, and as a way to celebrate the wonderful, inspiring, bonkers career of Lina Romay, a woman who would do anything, and was absolutely magnetic in the process.
Recently, I watched two films that I had no idea would correlate so directly, much less would create a bridge with one of the internet’s favorite TV shows, Twin Peaks. Alberto Negrin’s 1978 Enigma Rosso (also known as Virgin Killer, also known as Red Rings of Fear - it’s one of those films that has a million amazing names, but also is hard to get any information about because everyone calls it something different) and Joel Anderson’s 2008 Lake Mungo both share the conceit of the suspicious death of a teenage girl, whose life, upon further inspection, is less peaches and cream than it looks from the outside. This, of course, is the case with Laura Palmer, Peaks‘ omnipresent murder victim, a homecoming queen turned murder victim, who actually was addicted to cocaine and worked at a local brothel. Enigma Rosso and Lake Mungo, as different as they are on the surface, present an interesting pre- and post-Peaks look at what the girl in trouble movie is.
Engima Rosso is a relatively obscure giallo, starring genre great Fabio Testi as a detective looking into the murder of a local schoolgirl with a very close group of friends. Of course, since nothing is ever as it seems at Catholic girls’ schools, it turns out the group of friends were into some wild stuff, and someone is killing them to keep their mouths shut. Or to get revenge. While not a great film, Enigma Rosso is certainly an enjoyable watch, much of which is because of Testi, a consummate cool guy as always. He forces a suspect onto a roller coaster and chokes him to get answers, for Pete’s sake! But if that was all that was good about the film, I wouldn’t feel compelled to write about it.
The film starts with Testi’s detective being called to the scene of the crime, and finding the bruised, abused naked body of a teenage girl wrapped in plastic. The above image should be familiar to anyone who’s seen even the first episode of Twin Peaks, and makes me pretty sure that David Lynch saw this film before creating his Laura Palmer. The girls in Enigma Rosso aren’t in quite as deep as Laura, but they do also work in a brothel (I think? At least, they have sex with older men regularly – the plot of the film is admittedly a little hard to follow at times), and one girl goes through a traumatic abortion that would not have seemed out of place in Twin Peaks. While Peaks is, clearly, the better product, Enigma Rosso is a different beast, taking the slightly grimy route giallo fans love (the victim’s death – by dildo, I kid you not – is shown in juicy detail), giving the audience the dirt on these girls without really caring about them.
Lake Mungo, by contrast, takes a more contemporary genre look at the death of an unknown bad girl; it’s a found footage horror film about the increasingly supernatural circumstances surrounding the death of teenaged Alice Palmer (already the similarities!). Alice was enjoying a day at the lake with her family, when she simply disappears. After a few agonizing days, her body is dredged from the water, and it’s determined that she drowned while swimming in the dam. Alice’s father identifies the body, leaving her mother without a sense of closure. It’s this lack of closure that leads Alice’s family to a psychic, the information from whom starts to unravel the mystery of who Alice really was.
Lake Mungo is less sleazy than Enigma Rosso about its protagonist’s double life, but Alice’s family finds out secrets that differ only a little from the Italian girls’: Alice had been sleeping with the couple for whom she had been babysitting, and possibly doing drugs with them (or, being drugged by them). Alice’s family finds grainy videotapes of one rendezvous, and even though the action is not explicitly portrayed, Alice’s slurred, druggy flirtations is enough to be painful to her family, and the audience as well. Lake Mungo takes a slow, supernatural approach to what is a very physical revelation; in that way, we can see the influence Twin Peaks had on the story. Alice’s ghost haunts the family (and the film), just as Laura’s apparition haunts the characters in Twin Peaks.
For two films that I had no idea would have anything in common, I found a pretty interesting bridge from the giallo to the found footage supernatural horror film: Twin Peaks. Lynch’s masterpiece ties together the two genres, exemplified by these two films, through that eternal trope of the undercover bad girl, and her murder.
“Ideas are less interesting than the human beings who have them.”
Francois Truffaut (February 6, 1932-October 21, 1984)
This Monday would have marked Francois Truffaut’s 80th birthday. I thought this would obviously be the best time to take a minute to reflect and appreciate the work of my favorite director, and what his films have meant to me.
My first exposure to Truffaut’s work was, as many others’ must have been, The 400 Blows, which I rented on VHS from the library while I was in high school – I couldn’t have been more than 14 years old at the time, a girl pretending to be a sophisticated woman. I remember I rented it in the summer, while school was out, and I watched it in my parents’ room (the only place in the house with a VCR other than the living room), sprawled out on their bed with the windows open, a breeze coming in. I’ve probably romanticized that moment in my head since then, but the fact is, I didn’t like the movie that much. It bored me, which makes sense for my age – I thought I was worldlier than I actually was. (One of my favorite Truffaut anecdotes is about how Harvey Weinstein saw The 400 Blows in the theater only because he thought it was a porno, and it set him on his cinephile path.)
I revisited Truffaut again in college, when I got Netflix and finally realized that film was my true passion (too late to study it, of course). I devoured the Antoine Doinel series, Jules and Jim, Shoot the Piano Player. I was in love. After I graduated from college and went back home, I took a film class at a local community college, where I was able to analyze Shoot the Piano Player and, of course, The 400 Blows, along with Psycho (Truffaut was a Hitchcock devotee – I was recently able to pick up a copy of Hitchcock by Truffaut for a song at a rummage sale, and it’s delightful reading – along with The Films of My Life, an incredibly engaging volume of essays on films, filmmakers, and criticism).
Born in 1932 to an unwed teenage mother who resented him her entire life (the subtext, and just plain text, of which is visible in almost all his films), Francois Truffaut didn’t live an easy life. He was raised by his grandmother, and then by himself and the cinema, sneaking in and getting kicked out all the time. He joined the army in 1950, even after he had started writing film criticism – he spent his entire two year service term trying to escape, and tried to kill himself while in army prison. In 1954, he invented auteur theory for Cahiers du Cinema, in his essay “A Certain Trend of French Cinema.” That essay got him banned from the Cannes Film Festival, which he then came back and won its Best Director award for the 400 Blows at the 1959 festival. From there, his career was a veritable roller coaster – he made good films that were critical and financial successes, and lots of films, good and bad, that were neither. He died in 1984 of a brain tumor.
I think I somehow knew, even from that first lackluster viewing of The 400 Blows, that Truffaut was a man who didn’t have it easy, who didn’t come from privilege and instead taught himself filmmaking by watching (and falling in love with) thousands of films, long before Tarantino became a video store director. It’s that pure, undiluted love of film, and the sense that film can save us from ourselves, that I got from Truffaut’s work, long before I knew any biographical details about the man. It’s the people, not the ideas, indeed.
If I had to choose one of Truffaut’s films I like above all others (and I do, because I’m obsessed with listing and ranking things – thus how I am certain Truffaut is my favorite director ever), Bed and Board would be on top. Though I cannot say it’s the best film in the Doinel series – clearly that has to be 400 Blows – it is my favorite. We see Antoine and Christine together, and falling apart; falling out of love and, reluctantly, back in. We see the charming side of Antoine, of course, but we also see how he can be a total asshole, particularly to Christine. We see how much Truffaut loves Claude Jade. We see how much Truffaut loves Jean-Pierre Leaud, for that matter! It’s funny and painful and real and just fucking wonderful.
For Truffaut’s birthday, I rewatched Day for Night, one of my favorite films, but one I hadn’t seen for a while. The films I love can generally be classified as either Very Serious and/or Depressing, or trash (not in a pejorative sense – anyone reading this blog should know how seriously I take trash), so it has surprised some of my friends how much I love Truffaut’s work. But Day for Night, as so many of his films (Small Change in particular), just make me smile. It is, as the director set out to do, about people, about the people behind the great ideas and the great films we see projected larger-than-life in front of us. It humanizes the movies. Like a magician, he gives away his tricks (I laughed with childlike wonder at the candle with the lighted hole that points at the face!), if only to share with us how much he loves them.
I think, of all the great directors I love who have passed away, we lost the most when we lost Truffaut. Unlike Fassbinder, who left us about 500 films in his short lifetime, or Antonioni, Bergman, or Rollin, who left full careers-worth of movies, Truffaut died well before his time. Godard is still going strong; we could only assume that Truffaut would be, too (although he did say he would retire at 30 films – he made 25 by his death – and write books, but I think his love of filmmaking was too great to be restrained by an arbitrary number). But we’ll never know – his final, strongly Hitchcockian phase just teases at what could have been.
So thanks, Mr. Truffaut – the humanist, the director who chips away at life’s everyday hardships, just to give us a glimpse of the pure joy that thrives within – thanks for the films.
(All scans by me! From the Taschen book Francois Truffaut: The Complete Films)
Over at Ion Cinema, there’s been a fun list of the 100 most anticipated films of 2012, and while I don’t agree with all of them (Michael Haneke at number two??? No thanks.), there are some amazing gems in the top ten! In particular, I think they really hit the nail on the head with their number one pick: Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux. I am a HUGE Reygadas fan – he hasn’t yet made a film that’s anything less than breathtaking, and from PTL‘s plot description, that’s not going to change anytime soon:
Childhood and adolescence memories, dreams of life, emotions and thoughts of the present existence. It’s a feature film with a loose plot link in its discourse but really clear in its poetics. It is not united by the plot but by the harmony in the expression of the feelings. It works like this: at a superficial level, by the stylistic coherence; at a deep level, making sense through the identity of the personal vision.
Reygadas is again using non-traditional actors, which has worked incredibly well for him in the past. I’m looking forward to an exquisitely beautiful, moving film from him. Maybe we’ll even do a Reygadas spotlight here in celebration! (Darren has never seen any of his films, I’m determined to change that.)
Maybe that’s a little harsh. But I was pretty unimpressed with the theatrical offerings this year, for reasons which Darren and I will get into soon (a BCMH manifesto for the new year, if you will). So, my list:
10. Contagion (Steven Soderbergh) and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)
Two of my favorite contemporary directors (Soderbergh, don’t leave us!) brought it this year. Contagion is a study in paradoxes: a brisk yet grim, star-studded movie about the end of the world where most of the stars die. It definitely made me wary of human contact for a while, particularly in a place as often disgusting as New York. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is Fincher at his iciest, figuratively and visually; the characters never seem to not be freezing cold, and Fincher’s trademark distance works really well here (although it makes the characters hard to care about other than archetypes). Rooney Mara is animalistic and surprisingly empathetic as Lisbeth – it’s one of my favorite performances of the year. Plus, the cyberpunk opening credits are worth the price of admission alone.
9. Tabloid (Errol Morris)
Tabloid starts entertaining, gets crazy, and then proceeds to get crazier. Morris tells the story of Joyce McKinney, former beauty queen who kidnapped her Mormon boyfriend in England, and became a brief celebrity because of it. Joyce is amazingly open about the whole thing, revealing details that seem, well, crazy, but she is so forthright and earnest that you almost believe her side of things. Almost. Morris continues his run as one of the finest documentarians out there, as he tells this story without judgement.
8. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
Maybe it was that we saw it on Thanksgiving, so I was predisposed to feeling super-sentimental, but I absolutely loved Hugo. What starts as a cute story about a Parisian orphan in a turn of the century train station turns into an out-and-out love letter to the cinema, with the sprightly orphan (re)discovering Georges Melies, of all people. The best scenes are those that recreate the utter magic that Melies created with his early films; Marty gets a nice little cameo, and we get to see the explosions, mermaids, and dragons that Melies brought to life so ingeniously. There’s a sweet love story in there, too, and great performances all around. Plus, it uses 3D (a technology that threatens, through mediocre overuse, to become a mere gimmick) in brilliant, eye-popping ways. See it in the theater!
7. Hanna (Joe Wright)
2011 was the year that I discovered how profoundly inspired and enchanted by fairy tales I am; Hanna was the best modern interpretation of a fairy tale I’ve seen in some time. It’s sparse and then visually overwhelming, sweet and then devastating, moral and then amoral. Saoirse Ronan is an absolutely beautiful creature in the film, all blonde hair and blue eyes and naiveté about the world (as she kills guys, of course). This mixture of blood and innocence is pure catnip to me. I’m making Darren watch this one soon.
6. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
If I were to offer up a brief list of things I really like in a movie, it would include the following: great car chases, long periods of (badass) silence, blood, a nameless main character, Albert Brooks, a lot of blood, a protagonist who seems like a good guy but who is actually at best simply amoral, and tons of blood. Drive has all these things, and more.
5. Bridesmaids (Paul Feig)
While I definitely wasn’t enamored with the “Finally! Women are funny!” press that came along with this movie, it took two of my favorite comedians (Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph) and gave them something to do other than wacky sidekick. Sure, it’s achingly (as in gut-busting and awkwardly) hilarious; sure, it’s as gross as any fratty movie could hope to be (street diarrhea!); but most of all, it’s one of the most relatable movies I’ve ever seen. Every woman I’ve spoken to about the movie has related to at least one of the characters, and not in a Sex and the City way. It portrays the modern female friendship in a way I’ve never seen on screen, as well as the uncertainty of the postmodern, college-educated female. I mean, if I’m not a fuckup who moves back in with her Midwestern parents in about ten years, I’ll be shocked. It’s a hilarious movie with a real core, two things that are rare on their own, and near-impossible to find together. Plus, Jon Hamm is the best.
4. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
There were a lot of apocalypse films this year; this is one that did it best. Nichols, working with Michael Shannon again, balances the world-ending (or is it?) elements with the intensely personal story of a family being torn apart by its patriarch’s visions. Is he crazy? Is he right? I don’t think it really matters (although there is that issue of the film’s ending, the only part of it I didn’t completely love). Shannon gives another amazing performance; he really has the market on “quiet, insane men” roles. Jessica Chastain is also near-perfect as his wife, who is dealing with a deaf child and her husband’s instability, which threatens more than their marriage. She’s having a great year, and I’m rooting for her to be a huge star.
3. Incendies (Denis Villeneuve)
Part historio-social drama, part family quest, part Greek myth, Incendies is the most underrated film of the year. The gorgeous photography spans intimate moments and huge desert fires, bomb sites and military prisons, all with the same precise eye. It often feels operatic in its scope, but still intensely personal. I can get a little antsy at movies, but I was engrossed for Incendies‘ entire 130 minutes, and left the theater feeling like I had been punched in the gut. Highly recommended – it’s on DVD and an assuredly beautiful Blu-Ray now.
2. House of Tolerance (Bertrand Bonello)
One of the main themes I recognized in film this year was a tendency for a director to ask the audience to look at a film, rather than experience it. House of Tolerance, on the surface, seems like one of these films that I generally wasn’t impressed with; but it got under my skin and stayed there. I was definitely predisposed to loving the film; I like Bonello’s other work (which always expertly bridge that strange gap between impenetrable and empathetic), and I’m absolutely fascinated with turn-of-the-century prostitutes and isolated communities of women. If you’ve read anything about the film at all, it’s probably about the semen tears, or the use of The Moody Blues in a film set in 1900. Those things are the standouts of the movie, for sure, but it’s so much more than the idiosyncratic parts suggest. The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” is used perfectly in a funeral scene, and the semen tears the main character cries ties the film together. There is intense violence, but we see it in pieces, long after we see the results of said violence, which makes it more devastating. The women are a true ensemble cast, giving and taking to one another as you assume the characters do. It’s confounding, absolutely gorgeous and lush, and experimental in an almost mainstream way. I loved it.
1. Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
The obvious choice! But I really don’t think there’s any other choice to be made. Everything about this movie is damn near perfect: the performances are amazing – Jessica Chastain and her awesome year again, and especially Brad Pitt as the Malick-stand-in’s rough yet oddly sentimental father, – the visuals are (predictably) amazing, and I didn’t even hate the 20 minute “history of the world” section. The audience in my theater was getting a little restless, which I understand, but I was totally hypnotized; the flowing, erupting lava is a breath-taking stand-in for the human experience. I don’t think anything I could say would convince someone to like or dislike it, but it most certainly was the must-see film of the year. Tree of Life is both an experience, and a journey inside the viewer. That’s not something many films can say anymore.
Things that almost made the cut: The Skin I Live In, Cedar Rapids, Into the Abyss/Cave of Forgotten Dreams, I Saw the Devil, Submarine
Things that I still haven’t seen that might have made the list: The Artist, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Mysteries of Lisbon, The Turin Horse, Meek’s Cutoff, Certified Copy, The Muppets, A Separation, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Attack the Block, Margaret, Insidious (I guess I missed a lot of stuff after all…)
Things I was not impressed with; or, not as impressed as most other people seem to be: A Dangerous Method (natch), Melancholia, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Shame
Things I am excited about in the coming months: Haywire, The Divide, Miss Bala, Rampart, The Innkeepers, Jeff Who Lives at Home, Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, Silent House, and Casa de Mi Padre
Last evening, we ventured out into the world of real, first-run movie theaters in order to catch a few end-of-year things. First up was Corman’s World, a really delightful documentary on Roger Corman and his near-50 years of being an awesome guy. It’s mostly an opportunity for people like Jack Nicholson and Peter Bogdanovich to shoot the shit with stories about how ridiculous (and wonderful) working for Roger was. If you can catch it, definitely do; there’s probably going to be an amazing DVD release, if the list of people interviewed who didn’t end up in the film is to be believed.
And then, there’s A Dangerous Method. I had such high hopes: David Cronenberg! Michael Fassbender as Jung! Spanking! Unfortunately, I haven’t been as disappointed in a movie in a long time. It was…dull. The last thing I ever thought I’d call a Cronenberg movie was dull, but there you have it. Both of us here at BCMH were looking for something, any hook to get a good, interesting grip on the movie. There is nothing.
First off, the film’s chronology is not only vaguely confusing, but seems arbitrary: the movie begins with hysterical (but brilliant) Sabina Spielrein arriving at Jung’s Switzerland clinic. Jung decides to try out his fancy new “talking cure” on Sabina. It’s going really well! Sabina realizes she loves getting humiliated because her dad beat her as a child! And then…it’s two years later, and Sabina is in medical school and in love with Jung. The first few minutes is all we get to see of the talking cure, another one of my major faults with the movie. For as much clinical talk as there is in the film (and there is a lot), there’s no real explication of what Jungian analysis is. If a viewer comes into the movie not knowing much about Jung, they will certainly not come out knowing much more. Is Jung psychic? What is he talking about?
Then, there’s Kiera Knightley. I put her squarely in the category of “pretty actresses people think are really good for some unknown reason” (looking at you, Scarlett Johansson). Knightley is, frankly, pretty silly as Sabina. She lets her jaw do most of the acting; in the early scenes, when Sabina is freaking out, Knightley sputters and sticks out her jaw, and flails her limbs around, Thom Yorke-style. It’s almost embarassing to watch.
I wish I had caps of the scene in question, but you’ll have to look at these pictures I found on the internet and believe me. She is awful. Bless his little heart, Michael Fassbender tries to make this one interesting, and at times, he almost succeeds. He’s a great actor, and we can see it here, but in the end, it barely even matters.
Ultimately the problem is we don’t know why any of this matters: as far as the film goes, the split between Freud and Jung basically reaffirms that psychiatrists are the monks of a secular culture. Do they dare transgress the laws of the brotherhood? If you’re going to go that way, then you should go whole hog, because the most interesting thing is the results of this schism, none of which is mentioned in the film. It’s the sort of “Watch someone’s life from before they were interesting” you get when you read a biography that spends four chapters on someone’s childhood. The increasing slickness, the commercial lines of Cronenberg aren’t ironic any more. There’s nothing transgressive here, and that’s fine, but it’s not like there’s historical interest in Jung And Freud Go To America, Apparently, On A Stupid Boat. That’s my take, anyway. There’s just so little here that it’s hard to grab onto anything, which seems antithetical to the idea Cronenberg is trying to get across in the film (the catalyst of transgressing a boundary in ritual). I don’t even care if it’s historically accurate, if you’re gonna go that route you need to deliver on some other flavor, and there’s nothing there, really. Depressing! I could so totally go for a long boring film about Jung and even I didn’t like it! Two thumbs down on this one, for sure.
There is a (ever-dwindling) list of movies even I am shocked that I haven’t seen, as someone who is (relatively) serious about film. Until the other day, L’avventura was on it. I love, loooooove Antonioni’s work, particularly his work with the amazing Monica Vitti, but this had somehow slipped by me. Never again! I’m starting to learn that some things are standards because they are, indeed, awesome.
The film, shot seemingly entirely from behind Monica Vitti, is pretty clearly delineated into two halves. In the first half, Anna (Lea Massari) and her BFF Claudia (Vitti) go on a boat trip with Anna’s boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), and some of his questionable rich friends. Anna spends most of the time in the midst of an existential panic, and, after fighting with Sandro, disappears off the face of a tiny island. Claudia and Sandro spend all their time looking for Anna; for a few days, at least. In the second half, which takes place only a few days after the incident, they seem to have forgotten Anna altogether, and are embarking on an affair of their own. Claudia is torn between passion and guilt, between lust and reason, between right and wrong. Anna is barely mentioned in the second half of the film, and the mystery goes completely unsolved.
There’s an eerie 3 Women quality to the film (I know this predates the Altman considerably, but go with me here). In some of the final moments before she goes missing, Anna gives Claudia one of her blouses that she no longer wants; when Anna’s father shows up at the island after her disappearance, Claudia is wearing the shirt, which clearly freaks him out. Claudia’s relationship with Sandro seems to go into borderline-obsessive territory. Although we never saw what either woman was like before the events of the film started, they both took a half-obsessive, half-disdainful stance to being Sandro’s lover. For his part, he’s basically a scumbag. At first he’s concerned with Anna’s disappearance, then he’s not (Claudia seems to be the only one who remembers her, and even then, only vaguely), and while at first he begs Claudia for her love, once she gives it to him, he becomes markedly less interested. It’s as if Sandro is the bridge between these two women.
A few visual techniques really stood out for me in the film. As I mentioned above, it seems that during most of the film (particularly the first half), the camera is pointed at the characters’ backs. I love this! It’s really amazing; the audience gets to join Claudia and Sandro in their search for Anna, we get to see the hopelessness of actually finding the woman, and the vast stretches of nature that expand out in front of the characters. One of my favorite Antonioni visual tropes is the “small humans vs. vast nature” thing, and he’s really doing some remarkable stuff with that here. Plus, we don’t get to see Claudia’s face as she looks for Anna, so we have no idea what she’s really thinking. Antonioni forces us to extrapolate onto her. So good!
Another reoccuring visual motif is that of half-indoor, half-outdoor space. We see it in the film time and time again, where someone (usually Claudia) is inside, staring out the window, and we can see that expanse of nature in front of the character, within reach, but the other half of the frame reminds us that we’re still indoors. Trapped, if you will. Antonioni’s visualization of the struggle between heart and head usually has Claudia trapped inside, looking out. Until the last shot of the film.
After he has betrayed her, Claudia seemingly makes the choice to embrace Sandro anyway (and, in the process, Anna’s ghost?). They stand outside, still staring into the distance, still looking for Anna (maybe), but this time, a building half-obscures the view. Even when Claudia chooses love, the clarity she’s hoping for is denied her. That damn building is still in the way.
My favorite Antonioni, and one of my favorite films of all time, is Red Desert, and I was pleasantly shocked to see just how many similarities the two films have. It’s as if Red Desert‘s Guilana is Claudia, aged a few years and thoroughly disappointed by her life with Sandro. I’ll be doing a frame comparison of the two films within the next few days (get excited); for now, have a sexy Monica Vitti face for your patience.