Part social realist, part fabulist, Sebastián Lelio makes films that often ask audiences to rethink their biases and do better by the victimized and ostracized. But at its most explicit, his approach is ponderous and pedantic. A Fantastic Woman, about a trans woman who suffers one indignity after another in the wake of her lover’s death, is less of a challenge than an incessant finger wag: that we’re supposed to be better than this. We are, of course, but there’s a sense that Daniela Vega’s Marina exists as a tabula rasa—a mere receptacle for the monstrousness of others—so as to ensure that this message is delivered to us as loudly and as clearly as possible.
If you believe that, then Disobedience’s opening sequence may be cause for alarm. A rabbi, Rav Kruschka (Anton Lesser), delivers a sermon at a North London synagogue about angels and beasts, free will, and choosing the tangled lives we live. His tone is doctrinaire, poisonous even, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the frail-looking man drops dead on the spot. Meanwhile in New York, his daughter, Ronit (Rachel Weisz), is seen putting his words into action—less person than exemplar. Ronit, a photographer, is in session when she receives a phone call, presumably the one alerting her to her father’s death, after which she’s seen impassively skating around an ice rink, with a time-out for a random hookup with a man inside a bathroom stall.
Just as we hardly know it’s London that Ronit returns to and that it’s New York where she lives, we hardly know this woman. Lelio’s eschewing of the specifics of place makes sense though, as the London and New York of this film aren’t exactly poles of desire for Ronit. But while we’ll learn why she turned her back on the Orthodox world she was born into, the textures of her personhood will remain foreign to us. For one, we’ll never comprehend why exactly she chooses to photograph any part of that or any other world. Here, it’s as if her camera only exists to allow for the moment where she asks to take her long-ago lover’s photograph, but in this scene, like the film’s final one, there isn’t even a sense that Ronit is looking to reclaim something that was never hers.
Everyone in Disobedience is representative and every scene is declarative, and up to a point it feels as if the film is entirely following in A Fantastic Woman’s footsteps. Indeed, instead of an on-the-nose needle drop of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” we get an on-the-nose needle drop of the Cure’s “Love Song.” With the help of her old lover, Esti Kuperman (Rachel McAdams), Ronit goes to her father’s home to gather some belongings. Seeing an old radio, Ronit turns it on and instantly lands on the one station playing the one song whose lyrics most completely speak to the situation that these two women find themselves in: “You make me feel like I am home again/Whenever I’m alone with you/You make me feel like I am whole again.”
But many us can remember a time where it seemed as if every song on the radio was in conversation with the heartache of a bad breakup. Lelio is nothing if not a romantic, and it’s around the point that Ronit and Esti find themselves alone for the first time in however many years that the film’s style vibrantly keys itself to the characters’ passions. The magical realism that A Fantastic Woman flirts with is Disobedience’s guiding principle. Lelio increasingly embraces symmetry, and he positions persons within the frame in totemic fashion, with the dollops of Matthew Herbert’s dazzling musique concrète-style score underlying the sense that the characters are entering a trance of their own making. It’s perhaps natural that Lelio films Ronit and Esti finally talking about their romantic past in a single long take, and it’s some kind of masterstroke how the tension of their reminiscences and flirtations is rhymed to our wonderment over when the shot will dare to cut away.
Lelio’s actors help him to gild the lily of his style, and miraculously so, because Weisz, McAdams, and Alessandro Nivola, as Esti’s husband and Ronit’s childhood friend, Dovid, fill in the script’s gaps in characterization. Esti, at first glance, is another type: an obsequious adherent to orthodoxy. When she passionately kisses Dovid, you understood the gesture as compensatory, to convey that I’m just not that into her anymore. But then McAdams caps the moment by quickly playing with Nivola’s beard, and the actress subtly communicates the sense of the genuine love that exits between this husband and wife—an impression that’s confirmed when Esti later repeats the gesture with Ronit. Only theirs is a different kind of love, and we finally get a sense of what that is when, during a tryst in a hotel room, Ronit casually sends a stream of her spit into Esti’s mouth. This moment feels organically, almost miraculously stumbled upon—arrived at by two great actors wanting to convey the singular nature of their characters’ communion.
Disobedience also benefits from its fairness of judgment. Lelio understands that the community at the center of the film is rooted in old-school tradition, but as it’s physically rooted in a cultural capital of the world, no one here is a stranger to gays and lesbians, and so the reactions to Ronit and Esti’s rekindled love affair never rise to the level of the hysteric. Whether at a dinner table or in the midst a religious practice, men and especially women play their roles with an almost self-aware sense of expectation. Ronit is asked at one point why she isn’t married, and while her response rankles, it’s understood as a matter of course. In fact, in the subtlest of glances exchanged between the women of this community, one senses a certain respect for Ronit having broken away from tradition to find her own path through life.
Ronit, Esti, and Dovid—in another sign of the film’s generosity of perspective—are all freighted with a despair that’s understood to be self-created. Esti may have the courage to admit to Ronit that she’s only attracted to women, but she isn’t so brave to stand by her when they’re caught kissing by some friends and her survival instinct kicks in and she bolts from the scene. In the end, Disobedience is less about the subjugation of the self to the group than the courage to embrace uncertainty if one were to break out of the prison of a world one has been born into. And the triumph of the film is the balletic gracefulness with which the performances and style exteriorize the interior worlds of the characters—how voluptuously alive the film’s layered approach to melodrama is to people hesitatingly approaching the bridge to freedom.
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola, Anton Lesser, Bernice Stegers, Allan Corduner, Nicholas Woodeson, Liza Sadovy, Clara Francis, Mark Stobbart, Caroline Gruber, Alexis Zegerman Director: Sebastián Lelio Screenwriter: Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Sebastián Lelio Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 114 min Rating: R Year: 2017 Buy: Video
Review: The Changeover Enjoyably Pinballs Between Disparate Fantasy Styles
If, in the end, the film’s narrative fails to cohere, the journey getting there is at least enjoyably swift-paced.2.5
Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie’s The Changeover is an unusual and mostly enjoyable hybrid of disparate fantasy styles. Based on the 1984 young adult novel by Margaret Mahy, the film suggests a superhero origin story, developing a convoluted internal mythology involving a coven of benevolent witches, an evil vampiric “larva” who sucks the youthful vitality out of young children, and a “sensitive” schoolgirl, Laura (Erana James), who receives psychic premonitions of future harm. When the larva, Carmody (Timothy Spall), picks Laura’s kid brother (Benji Purchase) as his next victim, it’s up to her to save him.
It can be a little difficult to keep the story’s mythos straight, particularly when, in its final third, the film launches into a lengthy Inception-style action sequence that takes place entirely in a dream realm. By the time the credits roll, it’s not entirely clear what just happened, and exactly why. McKenzie’s script has to resort to voiceover narration—present only in the very beginning and end of the film—to fill in some of the gaps, and even then, not every piece of the puzzle seems to fit together. This makes for an ultimately somewhat confusing and unsatisfying viewing experience, at least for anyone who’s never read Mahy’s supernatural teen romance. But sometimes it’s better to feel a little lost than to know too much: The film confidently powers ahead without feeling the need, as so many fantasy stories do, to halt the momentum every reel or two to offer a dull exposition dump.
As directors, Harcourt and McKenzie eschew the soporific melancholia of teen fantasy films like Twilight in favor of a lithe, angular visual approach—including impressionistic close-ups and skittering, almost Michael Mann-ish handheld shots—that grounds the story’s supernatural goings-on in a sense of reality without draining them of their fantastical charm. Spall strikes a similarly appealing balance between plausibility and outright camp, digging into his villainous role with teeth-gnashing glee. Pitched somewhere between a deranged hobo and Mr. Dark from Something Wicked This Way Comes, his performance provides a fun yet menacing foil to James’s haunted, obsessive turn as Laura.
Even when the specific details of the film’s plot may seem silly or confused, Laura remains credible and compelling. It’s this carefully managed equilibrium between the inherent preposterousness of its mystical milieu and the convincing emotional reality of Laura’s journey that ultimately makes The Changeover, for all its muddled mythos, a lively and engaging excursion into an unusually naturalistic world of magic.
Cast: Timothy Spall, Melanie Lynskey, Lucy Lawless, Nicholas Galitzine, Erana James, Kate Harcourt, Benji Purchase, Ella Edward, Thomasin McKenzie, Claire Van Beek Director: Miranda Harcourt, Stuart McKenzie Screenwriter: Stuart McKenzie Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 95 min Buy: Book
Review: 1900 Obliterates the Barriers Between Story and History
Bernardo Bertolucci’s film is a living, fluid organism that spans the distances between several poles of extremity.3.5
A handful of iconic films are inseparable from a single, equally iconic review. Whether it was a pan, a rave, or somewhere in the middle, is immaterial: The piece of writing and the film are, by chance rather than design, now joined at the hip in the minds of every well-read viewer that encounters the film from that day forward. There’s John Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie, which inspired Graham Greene to write a provocative contemplation of wee Shirley Temple’s “adult” appeal. (A consequent lawsuit by 20th Century Fox further inspired Greene to flee to Mexico.) 1900 was Italian maestro Bernardo Bertolucci’s first film after Last Tango in Paris, the runaway international success of which can at least partly be attributed to a goalpost-shifting, all-stops-out rave by New Yorker critic Pauline Kael.
1900 didn’t necessarily send Kael into comparable flights of exaltation, but her review is almost as much a landmark as the one for Last Tango in Paris, in its way. Before getting to the business of weighing and measuring the qualities and liabilities of Bertolucci’s epic, a multi-generational mural that seeks to envelop the whole of the century up to that point, Kael circled the pool before swimming, meditating on the very idea of the director’s—any director’s—grandest gesture, the epic that danced on the knife edge between brilliant and insane, noble and foolish. It wasn’t a “think piece,” in today’s parlance, not the way Kael transmitted levies and decrees from her high judicial seat. Rather, it sought to address as directly as possible the tendency for auteurs of a certain stripe to render unto mortal audiences a monument of—and to—the cinema, a true gesamtkunstwerk in motion-picture form.
The gesamtkunstwerk, generally attributed (not exclusively) to Richard Wagner, has a special resonance with the cinema. While in the 19th century a “total art work” would combine or hybridize elements of several different media, the movies seemed to be one-stop shopping for visionaries with similar dreams of amalgamation and “total”-ness, pitched at the grandest scale, and encompassing the largest themes. Directors like D.W. Griffith and Abel Gance, as well as Hollywood moguls like David O. Selznick, attempted such Herculean exertions, but a film like 1900 is unimaginable during earlier decades. It requires the picture-window magnitude of widescreen cinema (without the lateral restrictions of the Cinemascope frame). It requires the new open-mindedness of art-house moviegoers in a post-Midnight Cowboy, post-Last Tango in Paris era, given the graphic nature of some scenes—some of which, without getting too specific, you’ll never, ever, be able to un-see. There’s the relentlessly mobile camera, requiring the most up-to-date production technology, and which seems to prowl and sweep at the same time. And there’s the melting pot of American and European stars, emblematic of an international cinema scene preordained by Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa and Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town.
Similar barriers between story and history are obliterated. 1900, of course, doesn’t draw lines around the world’s 20th century so much as limit the breadth and depth of the whole world to the story of modern Italy, from the death of Verdi in 1901 to the innumerable planes of struggle following WWII. This isn’t the kind of film that adheres to any tradition of screenwriting discipline; resolutely episodic, even its episodes (which are countless) are often amorphous, flowing and breathing into what happened before, and what comes after.
The heads of the principal characters are drunk on tempestuous cocktails of primal urges, political convictions, and sexual impulses. No corner of Italian society seems to escape Bertolucci’s attention, but, if anything, it’s most frequently concerned with class warfare, setting up Robert De Niro’s Alfredo Berlinghieri and Gérard Depardieu’s Olmo Dalco as respective totems of the landowner and peasant class, locked in eternal conflict, right to the end of the line—and to the present moment. Bertolucci’s concept of the epic is to fashion a living, fluid organism that spans the distances between several poles of extremity: ancient and modern, agony and ecstasy, life and theater, rich and poor. Foremost, perhaps, is Bertolucci’s trademark ability to weave intimate spaces into infinitely larger tapestries. If it fails, as some critics have noted—beginning with Kael—to live up to its ambition to stand as the greatest of all films, it is perhaps only because the century is itself profoundly, humanly disappointing.
Cast: Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, Burt Lancaster, Dominique Sanda, Sterling Hayden, Donald Sutherland, Francesca Bertini, Laura Betti, Werner Bruhns, Stefania Casini, Anna Henkel, Ellen Schwiers, Alida Valli, Romolo Valli, Bianca Magliacca, Giacomo Rizzo, Pippo Campanini Director: Bernardo Bertolucci Screenwriter: Franco Arcalli, Giuseppe Bertolucci, Bernardo Bertolucci Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 317 min Rating: NR Year: 1976 Buy: Video
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actress
Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress.
Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress for having given a performance that, while not your, um, favourite nominated one, is still deserving of an Oscar victory lap. Now, if only others felt the same. Very early on in the awards season, there was already a sense that this award could become a career-achievement coronation for the six-time losing Glenn Close—and that people were going to have a problem squaring that with the fact that her Oscar would be tied to a film perceived to be a piffle. That’s not an inaccurate perception, but it’s difficult to remember a time when critics have used that as an excuse to not do their homework.
In short, have you seen The Wife? Indeed, until the awards-media system’s attention shifted full time into covering AMPAS’s A Series of Unfortunate Oscar Decisions, it seemed as if every day brought us a new article by some pundit about the Oscar race in which it strangely sounded as if the The Wife was still a blind spot for the writer. Which is shame, because Close gives good face throughout the film. Certainly, few Oscar-nominated films this year are as absurd as The Wife, but I’ll do battle with anyone who thinks Close is getting by on her legend alone. Close’s triumph is recognizing The Wife’s inherent ludicrousness and elevating it, and without condescension, with a kabuki-like verve that seeks to speak to the experiences of all women who’ve been oppressed by their men. It’s a turn worthy of Norma Desmond.
Today, the most reliable Oscar narrative is the overdue performer. And if you take stock in that narrative, then you’ll understand why I texted Eric, my fellow Oscar guru, the following on the morning of November 29: “I think Close is going to Still Alice at the Oscars.” After that morning, when the New York Film Critics Circle officially kick-started the Oscar season (and gave their award for best actress to Regina Hall in Support the Girls), no actress ran the table with the critics and guilds, but most of the cards that matter did fall into place for Close, and much as they did for Julianne Moore ahead of her winning the Oscar for Still Alice.
This was a done deal when Close won the Golden Globe, received a standing ovation, and gave the night’s most impassioned speech, immediately after which Eric conceded that my instincts had been right. Of course, that was no doubt easy for him to admit given that, by that point, the oxygen had already seeped out of A Star Is Born’s awards campaign, leaving only Olivia Colman in Close’s way. Colman has worked the campaign trail in spectacular ways, giving speeches that have been every bit as droll as this, but in the end, she doesn’t have the SAG, and as bold and subversive as her performance certainly is, it isn’t sufficiently big enough to convince enough AMPAS members that Close should continue waiting for Oscar.
Will Win: Glenn Close, The Wife
Could Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Should Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite