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Review: Cluny Brown

3.5

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Cluny Brown
Photo: Photofest

What is the famed “Lubitsch touch” if not the quiet thrill of being in on the joke? The director’s penchant for sly elisions—the knowing pan away from imminent hanky-panky or the arch relish of his double entendres—rests upon an implicit understanding between filmmaker and viewer, a trust that, coming from such a sophisticated source, feels like a gift unto itself. He takes for granted not only a worldly knowledge of sex, romance, class, and the multitude of ways that adults so royally mix them up, but an attitude toward such foibles that is at once wry and empathetic. This cocktail of urbane compassion is a very specific blend (the eye must roll in bemusement, but also twinkle in self-recognition); or, rather, it feels specific when you watch a Lubitsch film, his observations on human experience as seemingly candid as a wicked bon mot murmured into your ear above the din of a cocktail party.

That comedy so seemingly contingent upon the felicities of individual temperament can tickle so many viewers speaks not only to the delicacy of Lubitsch’s tone and the mastery of his technique, but to the sneaky accessibility of his narratives, which frequently consider the pleasures and perils of social and sexual transgression. Decked in suave European refinement and surrounded by Lubitsch’s twin brands of dolt (clueless aristocrats and stick-up-their-butt philistines), his protagonists’ sly mistrust of societal convention marks them as isolated outsiders as much as stylish renegades. Lubitsch applauds their casting off of ridiculous communal strictures, while also recognizing the sting of rejection and the difficulty of sorting our life—and especially love—on your own terms. These pinpricks of regret and uncertainty ground the lighter-than-air farce in poignant self-awareness without deflating its comic buoyancy: an acknowledgment that being in on the joke often means choosing to separate oneself from the rest of the party—which was probably not worth attending to begin with.

Cluny Brown, Lubitsch’s last completed film before his death in 1947, offers ample evidence that the then-aging filmmaker still possessed a sharp eye for the absurdities of class snobbery. The year is 1938, and anti-Nazi Czech refugee Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer) has come to prewar London to find safe haven with a professor friend. Finding the apartment occupied by a fussbudget sub-letter (Reginald Gardiner) awaiting the arrival of a plumber to fix his stopped-up sink, the wily Belinski nevertheless makes himself at home. Enter the eponymous plumber’s niece (Jennifer Jones), a spirited orphan who arrives in her uncle’s stead and quickly unclogs the pipes. Belinski and Brown hit it off in their brief—and unexpectedly drunken—afternoon together, and are surprisingly reunited after she gets a job as a chambermaid for the wealthy Carmel family, whose earnest if callow son Andrew (Peter Lawford) takes it upon himself to shelter Belinski at the family estate.

Belinski and Brown continually cross paths in the estate, sharing the kind of easy rapport that makes their eventual pairing a sweet inevitability. If Belinski and Brown dance around romance in a familiarly protracted manner, however, they move more to the rigid waltz of class consciousness than the looser rhythms of personal neuroses that usually drive movie couples apart until the closing act. Few Hollywood films of the time (or any time, for that matter) foreground the economic barriers between their characters as much as Cluny Brown, even if Lubitsch does so largely in the name of light-fingered satire. The Carmel estate proves a ripe target for skewering old-money intransigence, with father Henry (Reginald Owen) and the family’s butler both barely able to conceal horror when Cluny makes a whispered suggestion on which piece of meat to take from the tray as she serves the family dinner. And while Henry can barely muster the interest to keep track of the impending Nazi threat, Andrew twists himself in liberal-guilt knots over the forthcoming crisis, writing irate letters to The Times and threatening to join the RAF—though only after his marriage proposal is rebuffed by the coolly elegant socialite Betty Cream (Helen Walker). (Wife Alice, played by Margaret Bannerman, has some similarly oblivious moments, but possesses more intrinsic wisdom than she lets on.)

But Lubitsch chides the Carmels while still casting an affectionate glance at their daily lives and inner workings. He saves his most barbed humor for Wilson (Richard Haydn), a simpering, nasal-voiced pharmacist whose courtship of Cluny includes tea with his sour-faced mother. For all its delicious dialogue (courtesy of Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt’s script, adapted from the novel by Margery Sharp), the biggest laughs might come from this scowling matriarch, whose sole verbal utterances of harrumphs and throat-clearings speak volumes about the film’s vision of middle-class banality and pettiness.

Boyer’s Belinski remains a respected outcast within these overlapping milieus, a quintessential Lubitsch male who recognizes the blinkered sightlines of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie alike and gently manipulates them for his own survival. Cluny Brown largely downplays Belinski’s role as an anti-Nazi freedom fighter, though he does offer a late-film plea for British intervention that feels strikingly earnest in a movie whose eyebrow appears perennially cocked in self-amusement. (The issue of his German heritage aside, is it any wonder that Lubitsch’s disdain of uncritical groupthink would so often manifest itself in unsparing mockery of fascism?) Cluny, on the other hand, lacks Belinski’s cosmopolitan defenses, and finds herself the clearest target of supercilious class condemnation. There’s a heartbreaking moment when Cluny first enters the Carmel estate escorted by their neighbor, the courtly Colonel Duff-Graham (C. Aubrey Smith). Mistaken for an acquaintance of the colonel’s, Henry and Alice invite her for tea. Cluny energetically chats up the Carmels, commenting on their graciousness and hospitality, until Henry and Alice suddenly realize who she really is. With little more than a few judiciously edited close-ups and medium shots (Dorothy Spencer is the film’s superb editor), Lubitsch charts the conversation’s sudden deflation to its quietly heartbreaking conclusion: a crestfallen Cluny sitting alone, her cup of tea a mocking totem of mistaken social parity.

The scene wouldn’t be such a punch in the gut if it weren’t for Jones’s vivacious performance; her breathless comic energy marks Cluny as a mold-breaking original and underscores those moments when the wind gets knocked out of the character’s sails by those attempting to squeeze her into “appropriate” social roles. Jones excels in that delicate balance of guilelessness and self-awareness shared by so many screwball goddesses of 1930s and ‘40s Hollywood comedies; somehow, we simultaneously buy that she knows Wilson is a dud and that she wants to live up to his skewered expectations of middle-class propriety. When she leaps from the table mid-dinner-party at Wilson’s to fix his backed-up sink, the look of revulsion on Haydn’s face and the slow track-in on Jones as he proceeds to dress her down stings like little else in all of Lubitsch’s oeuvre.

It’s difficult to say that Boyer and Jones have great sexual chemistry. Their burgeoning romance lacks the spark of such earlier Lubitsch pairings as Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan in The Shop Around the Corner or Kay Francis and Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise. (Certainly, no moment in Cluny Brown matches the sly melancholy of Francis and Marshall’s late-film farewell, one of the great, poignant shrugs in American comedy.) Rather, they delight because they’re twin displaced souls stuck in a conformist universe, finding in one another the possibility of surprise and cheerful defiance.

Lubitsch, similarly, offers his viewers low-key pleasures over grand gestures throughout Cluny Brown, admittedly lacking some of the winking verve more prominently displayed in his earlier films. His penchant for hinting at off-screen naughtiness by shifting the focus onto telling details in the mise-en-scène is kept to a minimum—save for a film-ending joke involving a blossoming book series and its connection to the couple’s sexual shenanigans. Working with DP Joseph Le Shelle, he moves the camera with graceful unobtrusiveness, all the better to highlight the film’s note-perfect ensemble. Indeed, this formal simplicity fits snugly with the film’s relaxed comic rhythms and gently skeptical view of social barriers and the rare people who can transcend them. For Lubitsch, happiness is the pleasure of having someone to smile with about the world’s absurdities. It’s his great gift as a director that, by the end of his films, we feel as if he’s graced us with that smile, and the sad, funny knowledge that comes with it.

Cast: Charles Boyer, Jennifer Jones, Peter Lawford, Helen Walker, Reginald Gardiner, Reginald Owen, C. Aubrey Smith, Richard Haydn, Margaret Bannerman Director: Ernst Lubitsch Screenwriter: Samuel Hoffenstein, Elizabeth Reinhardt Distributor: Criterion Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 1946 Buy: Video

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Review: End of the Century Tells a Sexy and Haunted Riddle of a Romance

The film is at its most intense, and sexiest, when it’s also at its most unknowable.

3

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End of the Century
Photo: New Directors/New Films

A triptych of snapshots, two real and one possibly imagined, from the lives of two gay men, writer-director Lucio Castro’s End of the Century is at its most intense, and sexiest, when it’s also at its most unknowable. More precisely, up to the moment that one of these men, Ocho (Juan Barberini), remains unknown to himself, withering in uncertainty, Castro’s feature-length directorial debut is a profound and casually artful expression of the lengths to which people go in order to not have to embody their desires.

The film begins at a literal remove from Ocho, capturing the fortyish man as he walks through the octagonal streets of Barcelona. By day, he drinks in the city, and by night, he checks Grindr before jacking off. Right away there’s a hint of José Luis Guerín’s In the City of Sylvia in both Castro’s blocking of the handsome and scruffy Ocho and the ineffable weight that emerges from the way he looks at the world, as if the man were willing it to look back at him.

And yet, unlike the tormented artist at the center of Guerín’s film, Ocho is a sensualist who seems resistant to emotional nourishment. That isn’t immediately understood, and isn’t obvious from Ocho’s botched meet-cute with the adorable Javi (Ramon Pujol) at a local beach—a scene that ends with Javi curiously annoyed and Ocho frustrated by his own lack of follow-through. But they get a second chance, after Ocho catches a glimpse of Javi on the street and invites him up to his apartment—and after small talk pregnant with desire, the men have sex with a passion that doesn’t faze Ocho but seems to leave Javi haunted.

Javi’s look would seem to contain multitudes, an impression that’s confirmed after he and Ocho reunite that evening, drinking and eating on the rooftop of Ocho’s building and alternately speaking about their lives. Ocho, who’s Argentinian, is visiting from New York, on the rebound after a 20-year relationship that came to an unexpected end, and Javi is married to another man and living in Berlin. There are multiple worlds between them. And yet, there’s an ease to the way they present themselves to each other that feels very much like the initial stirrings of love. It’s something that Ocho seems to sense, and is possibly why he tells Javi that it feels as if they’ve met before. To which Javi responds, “We have met before.”

If this moment is as discombobulating to Ocho as it is to us, we’ll never know, as Castro radically cuts from the scene before any emotion can register on the man’s face. It’s here that End of the Century seemingly reboots itself, capturing Ocho going through the same motions as he went through at the start of the film, walking through the streets of Barcelona before arriving at the apartment of a friend, Sonia (Mía Maestro). And it’s here, sitting across Ocho and through words filled with quiet anguish, that Sonia speaks of her life in ways that come, like so many other moments in the film, to reverberate with Ocho and Javi’s rooftop musings.

Who is this version of Ocho who’s now with a woman? Who is Sonia’s ex, Eli, and was he really in love with Ocho at one point? And who exactly is this woman who talks, and sometimes sings, of her heartache as if she knows that it might kill her? The film doesn’t answer these and seemingly countless other questions, delighting in our uncertainty over its mysteries until suddenly it all seems to fall into place when Ocho meets Sonia’s boyfriend: Javi. End of the Century’s masterstroke isn’t so much this reveal—which is impossible to expect, given that Castro puts little effort into making Barberini look 20 years younger—but how the filmmaker tasks the viewer with stitching together the story of two men’s lives from how their conversations echo each other across a vast expanse of time.

Castro has a gift for elision. The Ocho of old, who pukes after receiving a blowjob from a stranger, is a long way from the Ocho of new, who doesn’t bat an eye when Javi asks him if he has a condom and Ocho responds, “I’m on PrEP.” But if Ocho’s response to his ostensibly first sexual encounter with a man registers as shame, it’s understood to be something else entirely as soon as he pulls David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration from Sonia’s bookshelf. A bit too on the nose, perhaps, but there’s a quiet beauty to the moment where Javi finds the book, after Ocho has left him for the first time, and opens to a bookmarked page. In this moment, he understands Ocho through Wojnarowicz’s words and, suddenly, we comprehend why Javi appears so tormented throughout the film’s first section.

The story of so many gay men’s coming out is similar, so it’s perhaps inevitable that Ocho and Javi’s conversations about who they are and who they want to be not only mirrors Wojnarowicz’s writing, but also Andrew Haigh’s Weekend. The nonlinear quality of End of the Century, then, could be seen as Castro’s way of putting some distance between Haigh’s film and his own, which similarly resides in a realm somewhere between fantasy and reality.

But if Weekend progressively inches toward the real, End of the Century embraces only fantasy in the end, offering up in its final section a vision of what Ocho and Javi’s lives may have been like if Ocho hadn’t at one point in time pledged allegiance to Wojnarowicz’s pursuit of “perpetual freedom.” It’s a jarring endnote to an initially mysterious film, as the philosophical inquisitiveness of the first two parts is replaced by an indulgence of fiction as wish-fulfillment. (It would be understatement to say that the moment doesn’t hold a candle to the allegorical plunge of Tropical Malady’s second half, where the desire of two men for each other is elevated to the level of myth but without it losing its present-tense veracity.) Whether or not we’ve been dropped into a projection of Ocho’s imagination is almost beside the point, as End of the Century leaves us with the not-so-ambiguous impression that Castro believes that a gay man’s path toward happiness is only possible through the performance of domesticity.

Cast: Juan Barberini, Ramon Pujol, Mía Maestro Director: Lucio Castro Screenwriter: Lucio Castro Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Working Woman Is Powerful Testimony to Workplace Sexual Harassment

Michal Aviad’s film forcefully brings home a reality that many of us have been aware of only intellectually.

3.5

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Working Woman
Photo: Zeitgeist Films

The general outline of director Michael Aviad’s Working Woman will be familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to the discussions provoked by Me Too—and familiar to most women professionals, for that matter. An industrious, white-collar working mother finds herself the target of her superior’s unwanted and violating sexual advances, and despite her attempts to vocalize her discomfort, both his relative power and her precarious economic situation stand in the way of her making a clean break. But—and in this way, Aviad’s film isn’t unlike Dan Reed’s Leaving NeverlandWorking Woman is able to forcefully bring home a reality many of us have been aware of only intellectually.

The film captures the unspoken pressures that keep sexual harassment victims silent and force them into situations where it seems almost impossible to say “no” with enough authority to make the harasser stop. Liron Ben-Shlush plays Orna, a young Israeli mother who gets a job working as a personal assistant to Tel Aviv real estate magnate Benny (Menasche Noy). Orna’s husband, Ofer (Oshri Cohen), runs a fledging restaurant, and their family comes to rely on her income as Ofer’s dream project struggles through its unprofitable first few months. As Benny’s assistant, Orna finds something like a calling: Intelligent and personable, she proves particularly adept at finding buyers for Benny’s under-construction high-rise on Rishon Beach.

It becomes painfully difficult to tell whether Benny’s praise of Orna’s sales acumen is genuine, as he uses his approbation to engineer situations in which, alone with her and unobserved, he can test and violate the professional boundary between them. His harassment of her starts with small comments: In an early scene, he uses a prospective buyer’s orthodoxy and wealth as an excuse to instruct Orna to put her hair down and wear a skirt (“conservative but chic”) to their meeting. The film grows increasingly tense and unsettling as these ambiguous comments—which you can see Orna trying to rationalize as mere professional advice—escalate to full-on assaults. Benny, performatively contrite after the first forced kissed, grows increasingly brazen, ignoring Orna’s obvious indications that she’s uncomfortable with his advances.

Orna’s experiences at work, of course, have an impact on her personal and home life. Her relationship with Ofer is both affectionate and mutually supportive, but Ofer’s support has limits determined by the same sort of toxic masculinity that produces the Bennys of the world: Ofer is unable to view Orna’s work situation outside of the framework of his own concerns, whether it be the restaurant or his supposed rights to her body. Emotionally and financially, Orna is increasingly painted into a corner, and most of this distress goes unspoken; one of the film’s points, of course, is that in such situations there’s no one to turn to.

This means that much of what the film has to communicate, especially for those of us who don’t speak Hebrew, is delivered through Ben-Shlush’s gestures and expressions rather than in dialogue. The actress signifies her character’s dubious acquiescence and repressed revulsion in a gamut of forced smiles and hesitant body language, but Orna never feels like a one-note character—a victim only. Her workplace is a source of pride as well as a threatening space. One can understand her getting caught up in the thrill of making a difficult sell and forgetting that celebration drinks with Benny might be a bad idea. After all, shouldn’t she be able to?

Aviad concentrates us on the physical and psychological details of harassment largely through such communicative performances and precise blocking. There isn’t excessive commentary in the film’s editing: At a crowded birthday party at Benny’s, we notice in subtly composed long shot the way Benny takes her by the hand to introduce her to other attendees (in actuality, we suspect, to separate her from her husband), and doesn’t let go. There’s no close-up of their hands, or on Orna’s face, but we can almost see her squirming on the inside, and can’t help but notice that Benny is refusing to cease physical contact with her.

Working Woman thus becomes a deeply and intentionally unsettling film. Like Benny, the tension creeps up on the viewer, and the stress ratchets up as Orna is forced into more and more impossible circumstances. Many professional women will probably not need Aviad’s film as proxy to relate to that kind of stress, but for those of us who haven’t directly experienced a Benny, the film is a powerful testimony.

Cast: Liron Ben-Shlush, Menashe Noy, Oshri Cohen Director: Michal Aviad Screenwriter: Sharon Azulay Eyal, Michal Vinik, Michal Aviad Distributor: Zeitgeist Films Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Mary Kay Place on the Emotional Journey of Kent Jones’s Diane

The actress speaks at length about the little pieces of herself that she sees in her character.

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Mary Kay Place
Photo: IFC Films

Diane, the eponymous character of film critic, programmer, and documentarian
Kent Jones’s narrative directorial debut, provides Mary Kay Place with a rare leading role that the character actress inhabits with customary nuance. Diane is a woman grappling with countless burdens, none bigger than her struggle to bridge the gap between herself and her son, Brian (Jake Lacy), who’s battling addiction. Place is in every scene of the film, and she’s mesmerizing in each one, for showing how Diane’s routines, from volunteering at a soup kitchen to caring for a dying cousin, takes some kind of toll on her mind.

Place has delivered many memorable performances throughout her long career, most notably in The Big Chill and Manny & Lo. She became reliable for playing folksy, no-nonsense women—often mothers—who’re predisposed to putting others first and leading from the heart. Maybe that’s why Diane felt like a perfect fit for the actress. Throughout Jones’s film, Diane drops by houses and hospital rooms, looking to stay “only but for a minute.” But her business masks a deeper pain and loneliness, and the film allows Kay to bring to the surface certain rhythms that she hasn’t often been allowed to channel in her previous work.

In a recent conversation with Place about Diane, the actress spoke to me at length about the little pieces of herself that she sees in her character, how she expresses her own anger, and why she considers herself a “kitchen dancer.”

Diane is selfless, lonely, ashamed, tough. Do you see yourself in her?

Yes, because she lives in a small community, and my parents came from small towns in Texas, and because I went to these towns my whole life to visit my grandparents with my family. The casserole exchange, and the experiences that take place in small communities—they resonated with me. Many of us in our families have addiction issues; we can all relate to that aspect of Diane. And many of us have said things we regret or feel ashamed about and hold on to, though maybe not for as long as Diane does. As members of her family pass away, that family loss is an initiation into a new dimension of your life. I could relate to that as well. She takes a turn into a deeper exploration of her own needs and wants because she has time to reflect.

Diane’s well-meaning is an attempt to compensate for her failures. Why do you think Diane is the way she is, so hard on herself?

Because some people just are. She’s a sensitive person. She busies herself with lists to distract her from thinking about the things she carries around as a burden. But as the film moves on, she has more time for reflection and goes through a transformation in small, tiny ways.

Much of your performance as Diane is internal. Can you describe your process in playing those moments?

It flowed naturally because of the script. There was an inner dialogue going on and that was reflected on my face. I was aware of subtext. Even though it wasn’t written, my imagination found the rhythm and flow that occurred. Once you get into shooting, being in every scene helped that development. There was an inner and outer dialogue. We go through this whole time period and as she has more time alone and once her son gets sober—that’s a huge weight off her shoulders—she doesn’t know what to do with herself.

Diane’s relationship with her son is interesting. He lies to her, he bullies her, and at times she stands up to him. She’s no-nonsense in dealing with him. I’m curious to know your personal thoughts about this dynamic of their relationship?

She’s definitely codependent and enabling her son by doing his laundry. She doesn’t know how to let go. Maybe she’s never been to an Al-Anon meeting—or has and rejected it. So, they have this dynamic, and they feed off each other. They’re hooked in. She’s not able to break free of it.

How do you personally cope with the ups and downs of life?

Well, I do centering prayer, and mindful meditation, exercise. I think the prayer and meditation have always been important coping mechanisms.

There’s a scene in a bar where Diane goes drinking, puts on the jukebox and dances. It made me remember your dancing in the kitchen to “Handyman” in Smooth Talk.

I’m a big kitchen dancer—with other people or by myself. I have all kinds of playlists and I love to dance. I really wanted to do that bar scene. I picked the song—Leon Russell’s “Out in the Woods”—because it’s fun to dance to, and the lyrics were appropriate for Diane. Kent was game for that. It showed another side of Diane that we hadn’t seen. It was from when she was at a simpler time in her life and didn’t have shameful thoughts and was just out having fun.

We see what makes Diane come undone. So I guess I’m also curious to know what makes you lose your temper or patience?

I come from a family that doesn’t hold things in. We let the freak flag fly and then it’s totally over and done with. Explosions and then we’re through! I lose patience with people being oblivious to the feeling of others, and I have no tolerance for meanness. None. I might lash out, depend on the circumstances—and I can if called upon—but I generally don’t.

Diane appears to be a creature of habit, living a life that consists of routine. Are you in that mold, or more peripatetic or free-spirited?

I’m “both/and” instead of “either/or.” I get real orderly and then I get real spontaneous and have to start all over again. Diane’s driving connects the scenes and shows that monotony that she experiences. Oh my God, we’re back in that car again driving to someone’s house! It’s not a walking community. And it’s a different rhythm driving on country roads than in L.A.

We also see how patient Diane can be. Where do you think she gets that quality, and do you share it?

Sometimes she’s not patient. I strive to be more patient. I can be patient and sometimes I can be very impatient. Once again, it’s a “both/and” kind of thing.

Your career has been as an in-demand character actress. This is a rare leading role for you. Watching Diane, I kept thinking: “It’s long overdue that you were the star!”

Thank you for saying it’s long overdue. I enjoy every minute of it, but I love ensemble work. It’s interesting to find a rhythm and exchange words and movement with other people. It’s fun. It’s been interesting to have this leading part, but I love the other work as well.

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