The 8-year-old boy, Matthew, is clutching his motherâs sleeve tight and holding her hand. He looks very pale. As the director of photography, Arsenio Assin, sits on a nearby couch inspecting the Hi-Def camera, which is state of the art and still has that “new car smell,” and the filmmaker, Preston, assembles the costumes, which are, to say the least, quite bizarre (a white cowboy hat, white zip-up hoodies, white sweatpants and Texarcana cowboy boots), the boy seems to wonder just what he got himself into here. We load up the passenger van and drive out to the shopping mall, where we will proceed to shoot these actors in these strange costumes moving through this consumer-driven space. Matthew barely says a word to us; he is going through something completely interiorâand completely personal.
Several months ago, almost on a whim, this brave young man auditioned for the feature film Godâs Land, which is to be Preston Millerâs follow-up to his art house film Jones. It is a very ambitious project, set in Garland, Texas and documenting a Taiwanese familyâs crisis of faith as they follow a religious cult to this suburban town under the belief that on a certain date, God will transport their flock to the fourth dimension. It is based on a true story, but the family is a fictional construct. In many ways, the husbandâs faith-based belief in the cult reminds me of Prestonâs obsessive belief in the power of filmmaking to convey and signify meaning.
But the story centers on the wife, Xiu (played by Jodi Lin), a non-believer who was used to a cosmopolitan life and, out of loyalty to the family bonds, is willing to go on this mad adventure with her husband, but remains ever watchful and protectiveâand at the first sign of trouble, or first threat of group suicide (though the benevolent cult swears they have no intention of doing this), she will immediately swoop in to protect her husband Hou (played by Shing Ka) and her child Ollie (played by Matthew Chiu).
Matthew has never acted before, nor does he have the fascination with stardom that most child actors seem to exhibit. When he went on the audition, he felt like acting would be of interest to him in what a grown-up might describe as a “philosophical way.” (How typical that adults find big words to describe what is so much simpler for a child.) He is a math kid, a little shy, and thought perhaps auditioning for a filmâmaybe even acting in a filmâwould build his confidence, and be a curious hobby. When he came in to read for Preston and me, he had an easy, relaxed likability, a presence onscreen that didnât feel like one of those movie kids who knows how to smile on cue. Those children often remind me of wind-up robots. Matthew, on the other hand, seemed comfortable in his own skin, and this introspective, clearly intelligent young man had much in common with the stoic, smart, curious little boy in the movie.
As the start of shooting drew ever closer, Matthew started feeling that (very natural) fear in his heart that we call stage fright.
And he didnât speak to anyone when he arrived. The boy looked so small. So drawn into himself. Iâm sure his mind was racing, but he stood so frozen and still.
Shing, who struck me during the audition process as being quite intense and aloof, has revealed himself to be a man of strong character, and very kind; he went to the boy and softly asked, “How are you feeling? Nervous?” The boy nodded wordlessly. “Yeah, me too!” said Shing. And I thought it was such the right gesture, creating solidarity between Shing and Matthew, who shall play father and son. Jodi also stayed close to the boy, very often holding his hand in a supportive and maternal way, which to me says very much about the generosity of actors.
Prestonâs shooting style is non-traditional, to say the least. He has more in common with non-American filmmakers such as Hou Hsiao-hsien or BĂ©la Tarr. He has no interest in the traditional coded language of American acting, or of the coverage that movies have co-opted from television. His images, particularly on this first shooting day, were expansive wide shots of the family walking through a western shopping mall, allowing the characters to move through a space, taking in their behavior in real time. Something about Prestonâs camera takes in a kind of reality about the actor, or performer, inhabiting this space at this time, and by not cutting we see right into the presence of this actor. It demands a kind of acting that is not acting; it also demands an actor who is inherently an interesting person, and without shields.
I think the combination of pure-hearted actors and Prestonâs style, where the camera seems practically invisible even when in plain sight, immediately created a relaxed and positive atmosphere within the shopping mall, and it felt quiet and controlled and surefooted even as we were shooting in a hectic environment with so many people and shoppers roaming about. Yet Preston and his DP, Arsenio, are masters of stealth filmmaking, slipping around the mall and finding camera positions or hiding the camera in shopping carts and roving through department store aisles, and the camera rolls as the actors inhabit this space. Matthew, in a way, realized that there was no pressure in this style of filmmaking; that instead it is very far away, and doesnât feel like pressure; it simply feels like living your life.
Matthew is a boy comfortable with himself, and once he realized, by the end of the first take, that he could simply be himself for Prestonâs camera without fear of having to be some kind of magician transforming into something he is not, he found himself completely at ease.
But genuine, honest children who make movies without the pressure of wanting to be little movie stars are so good at this; so instinctive and intuitive in their ability to be real in front of the camera. I watch Matthew doing his work, and easing up between takes, smiling and staying close to Shing and Jodi. His real mother and father, Alice and Tony, also seem relieved in some way; as if their son has found his way, and the only struggle was an imaginary one. Iâm glad we found this sensible, heroic and bright young man for Prestonâs movie, and am also glad he found himself in front of the camera.
The House Next Door will continue the Godâs Land production diaries when shooting resumes in April 2009. Jeremiah Kippâs writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series of on-set reports on Godâs Land, a feature film written and directed by Preston Miller.
Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line
There isnât anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francisâs public persona.1.5
Fernando Meirellesâs The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming sheâs being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the worldâs Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.
This brief prologueâs slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplayâs often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised cameraworkâunsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zoomsâfamiliar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lensâs focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.
The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglioâs life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglioâs relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their dioceseâs bishop.
Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBAâs âDancing Queenâ to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and â60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.
The dogmatic Ratzingerâs election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the churchâs liberal wing, back to Rome.
Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside worldâas Benedict professes it does to himâthat the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.
Thatâs all very cute, surely, but itâs also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglioâs morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the â70s, there isnât anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francisâs public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.
As, in scene after scene, the heads of the worldâs most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglioâs spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual manâs fateful misjudgment.
The second time the pairâs conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. Itâs as if Bergoglioâs hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan MinujĂn, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence
The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.3
The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillipsâs Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostilityâmilitarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending warsâsubtly dictate our lives.
Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakersâ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzerâs background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalilâs backgrounds).
Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the filmâs evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figuresâa Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplicesâwho watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.
Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops whoâve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alphaâs clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the filmâs longer monologues, from William S. Burroughsâs novel The Place of Dead Roads: âI will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.â
Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julianâs stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.
Nonetheless, thereâs something of a poetic logic to the charactersâ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. Thereâs also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that canât or shouldnât be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.
By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerreâs character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, itâs casually implied that the three charactersâwho suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the âL.A. riotsâ or Wounded Kneeâare merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.
Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasikâs monk, and itâs a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the filmâs strongest effects. As the father dismantles his sonâs second amendment convictions, heâs left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and itâs telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.
Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Beniamino Barreseâs The Disappearance of My Mother
Itâs fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.3
Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a familyâs history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the motherâs status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmakerâs mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.
The tragedy here isnât to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world thatâs obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesnât value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).
Barziniâs feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity sheâs paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if womenâs bodies disappeared altogether.
Itâs fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and manâs fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like âWhat does âold ageâ mean?,â âWhy do imperfections bother people?,â and âWhat is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?â These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barziniâs presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And theyâre in striking contrast to Barreseâs instances of shoving the camera into his motherâs reluctant face.
That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuityâs sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, âIs there anything you want me to put in the wash?,â or âMom, what bothers you so much about images?,â itâs impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.
Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesnât want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, âPut the camera down! Put it down!â He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like thisâfull of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the otherâs love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when sheâs asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then sheâs been protesting his advances. âI want to disappear, not to appear,â she says, because âthe lens is the enemy.â
In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. Sheâs happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her childâs contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: âAre you done playing?â Heâs not, and neither is she.
Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality
Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.
“I canât believe you wrote your dissertation on Les MisĂ©rables,â Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooperâs 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the filmâs close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.
The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. Heâs genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014âs The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015âs The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now heâs back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloonâs basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.
Redmayneâs role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les MisĂ©rables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.
During post-production on Les MisĂ©rables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during âI Dreamed A Dream,â setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.
Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldnât get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it workedâand, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldnât shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.
What you did with Les MisĂ©rables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?
Whatâs weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. Itâs not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you donât know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the characterâs arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different thatâs more interesting! What I like to do, and Iâve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if Iâm allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.
I do find that dynamic really interesting, and Iâve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because itâs so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, youâre never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.
As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?
It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldnât get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, itâs all been a massive learning curve.
How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, youâre tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough youâre stopping and restarting.
Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. Itâs the other bits that arenât. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out whatâs best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students werenât there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasnât going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. Itâs all about the stuff you do beforehand so youâre ready when youâre working the other actor to be completely free.
You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?
We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloonâwe had this accident, it was really terrifyingâand the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when youâre in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that thereâs blinding sunlightâŠof course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.
Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, youâve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.
Thatâs not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?
I try and do a load of research, so even if itâs on Fantastic Beasts, itâs talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so itâs not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, whoâs in Fantastic Beasts and very free. Heâll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. Itâs a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.
Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?
Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something thatâs not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.
Youâve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?
That is rehearsals. Thatâs why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that itâs this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, itâs also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel thatâs been pummeled.
Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?
When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloonâeven centimeters outâit doesnât feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we canât suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.
Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?
Yeah, it does. Because youâre confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You canât be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.
The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films youâve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?
I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe thereâs a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicityâs character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like youâve seen space investigated, but I hadnât seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, thereâs something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience whoâs so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I donât specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!
I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.
Thatâs really interesting. I havenât read that, but Iâm probably not thatâŠselfless. It tends to be something I just react to. Thereâs a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. Thatâs when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. Thatâs the reality of the responsibility.
Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexicoâs Ambulance Crisis
Itâs the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.3
Director Luke Lorentzenâs Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a countryâs wide-reaching healthcare crisis.
For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a businessâa means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)
Itâs the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. Theyâre not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.
Across Lorentzenâs documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.
Yet Lorentzen doesnât turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driverâs sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Grayâs We Own the Night.
Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Familyâmoments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and loveâthe invisibility of Lorentzenâs presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.
Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Aeronauts Takes to the Skies, Without Much of a Dramatic Hook
As a suspense film, itâs so sluggishly structured that it borders on the avant-garde.1.5
Tom Harperâs The Aeronauts is such a sluggishly structured suspense film that it borders on the avant-garde. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a 19th-century meteorologist, is attempting to prove that man can predict weather patterns, and he plans a hot-air balloon ride high into the Earthâs troposphere to conduct high-altitude measurements. With no available technology for breathing apparatuses or other modern safety equipment, Jamesâs gambit is a bold one, but he hopes that by traveling so high he can use the most accurate measurements to prove his meteorological theses. Accompanying him is Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a daredevil aeronaut with experience flying balloons at extreme altitudes. Theyâre practically a study in contrasts. James, humorless and bookish, talks rapidly and in fussy detail, mostly holding conversations with himself and putting others in the position of needing to interject to get a word in edgewise. Amelia, meanwhile, is filled with a certain joie de vivre, literally arriving to the balloon launch doing acrobatics to liven up the assembled crowd.
This is the second time that Redmayne and Jones have starred in a film together, but familiarity has done little to deepen their stilted chemistry. James and Amelia donât converse so much as recite their respective credentials at each other. This might have worked if The Aeronauts gave the characters specializations that the other lacked, yet each has similar strengths: James, the less experienced balloonist, nonetheless knows enough about piloting the craft to not need instruction, while Amelia understands enough about meteorology to not require James to dumb down his scientific jargon. As a result, the pairâs dynamic is devoid of inherent conflict, which might have distracted them from the monotony of their balloonâs ascent into cloud-studded skies, which Harper stages as if in real time.
Of course, sitting in a vehicle that slowly drifts upward as its two occupants engage in, at most, haughty disagreement makes for moribund drama, so Harper fills time with flashbacks to show how James and Amelia got to this point. Anyone whoâs ever seen a historical fiction about a scientific pioneer will know what to expect of Jamesâs backstory: repeated scenes of the man explaining his ideas to academic administrators with sideburns large enough to count as mating displays, all of them mirthfully wagging their turkey necks as they respond to Jamesâs hypotheses with sayings like, âHitting the sherry a bit early this morning, arenât we, Glaisher?â
Meanwhile, across a series of frenzied, chaotically edited memories of trauma, Amelia relives the death of her husband, Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez), in a ballooning accident. Itâs a hysterically lopsided distribution of character motivation. We get a few shots of Amelia and Pierre tenderly embracing, but otherwise the dead man is a mere device, and all that she can say of him to James is that âhis most enduring quality was a deep, true love for the beauty of the world,â which, as far as eulogies go, is about two steps above âHe loved to laugh.â
George Steelâs cinematography, namely the way it captures the balloonâs ascent, is the filmâs strong suit. Especially noteworthy is when James and Amelia break past the cloud layer and are left in direct sunlight thatâs rendered with brilliant white light that washes out the frame even as it communicates the rapidly falling temperatures at that altitude. And that temperature drop becomes the first catalyst for actual drama when James lets slip that he didnât pack a warm enough coat out of concerns for the balloonâs weight, setting up the last actâs belated decision to include some kind of suspense in order to give the film a dramatic hook.
Indeed, the filmâs last hour, in which James and Amelia find themselves increasingly starved for oxygen as their balloon rises higher into atmosphere, is its most engaging. Here, a violently shivering James transforms into the reckless adventure, while Amelia becomes the more anxious and fearful of the two. As she urges caution in the face of falling oxygen levels, the mild-mannered scientist is suddenly overcome with delusions of grandeur and fame and does everything to keep them rising. The camera begins to blur at the edges to reflect the charactersâ fading consciousness, while a series of desperate last-ditch efforts on Ameliaâs part to save them both is mounted with real tension. Still, the filmâs wonky, flashback-heavy structure puts so much emphasis on the by-the-numbers backstory of the characters that the actual drama of the balloon flight itself is muted, making the eventual turn toward chaos less of a narrative culmination than a last-minute recalibration of the filmâs inert quality.
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Jennifer Reederâs Knives and Skin Limply Aspires to the Lynchian
The film gets so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.1.5
Something terrible has happened to Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). But unlike Twin Peaks and its plastic-wrapped Laura Palmer, Knives and Skin makes it immediately clear what occurred to her: She was left bleeding and without her glasses in the wilderness by a vengeful jock, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), because she wouldnât have sex with him. She never makes it back. This transpires near the start of the film, and what transpires after this point is a dreamy, neon-tinted vision of a town overcome less by grief than ennui.
Throughout Knives and Skin, writer-director Jennifer Reeder draws heavily from the style of David Lynch, cycling through the townsfolk and their weirdest tendencies. Carolynâs mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), insists that she can smell her daughter on Andy. Andyâs sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to Principal Markhum (Tony Fitzpatrick), cash only. The girlâs father, Dan (Tim Hopper), whoâs cheating on his wife (Audrey Francis), is seen at one point emerging from between a waitressâs (Kate Arrington) legs while wearing clown makeup. And Grandma Kitzmiller (Marilyn Dodds Frank) pesters everyone for weed. Certain objects glow, and the girlsâ choir practices a series of haunting pop song arrangements, its members whispering to each other one by one while the rest of the ensemble keeps singing.
Other than Lisaâs persistent, unfounded hopes that her daughter is still alive, Carolynâs disappearance seems to intentionally leave little impression on anyone. Everyone is wrapped up in their own concerns and pursuits, struggling to hold down jobs or dealing with disinterested partners. Theyâre united only by their vaguely odd feelings and a sense of being trapped, as one boy (Robert T. Cunningham) does when he stands on the roof of the high school; he doesnât intend to jump, he just wants to see the highway that leads somewhere else.
But in untethering itself from what happened to Carolyn Harper, Knives and Skin ends up unfocused, shambling from one moment of self-conscious weirdness to another. Its themes, like the constant and varied violations of consent going on throughout the town, get lost in favor of things like the talking tiger T-shirt and the hamburger meat lobbed at a vehicle in protest until the entire purpose of these surreal flourishes seems to melt away.
The film is intermittently striking with its heavily stylized lighting and wistful electronic score, but it creates little sense of place. The town where these people all live, which seems to be affecting them to such a profound degree, is so nondescript beyond a few anonymous landscape shots that it stops evoking a place they would want to leave because it doesnât really seem like a place at all. Rather than explorations of individual oddness, Knives and Skin becomes a rather tedious mood piece with an ethereal atmosphere so remote, so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.
Cast: Marika Engelhardt, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Ireon Roach, Haley Bolithon, Aurora Real de Asua, Grace Smith, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Tim Hopper, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith, Kate Arrington, Kayla Carter, Robert T. Cunningham, Alex Moss Director: Jennifer Reeder Screenwriter: Jennifer Reeder Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Interview: Jessica Hausner on Little Joe and the Ways of Being and Seeing
Hausner discusses wanting to sustain the tension of the first act of a Body Snatchers production over the course of an entire narrative.
With Little Joe, director Jessica Hausner reinvigorates an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type premise by boldly suggesting that modern humans donât have any identities left to lose. The true body snatcher, rather than the beautiful, manipulative red flower at the filmâs center, is a corporate culture that stifles our individual thought with double-speak and other subtly constant threats to personal status.
The challenge of such a premise, then, is to reveal the private individual longings that are suppressed by cultural indoctrination without breaking the filmâs restrictive formal spellâa challenge that Hausner says she solved with co-writer GĂ©raldine Bajard during a lengthy writing session. Little Joe is so carefully structured and executed that one is encouraged to become a kind of detective, parsing chilly tracking shots and flamboyant Wes Anderson-style color schemes for signs of a characterâs true emotional experience.
Ahead of the filmâs theatrical release, Hausner and I discussed her obsession with boiling societies down to singular metaphorical places, a tendency that unites Little Joe with her prior features, including Amour Fou and Lourdes. We also talked about the notion of social coding and pressure, and how the filmmaker was interested in sustaining the tension of the first act of a Body Snatchers production over the course of an entire narrative. For Hausner, such tension is certainly fostered with a rigorous devotion to sound and composition, which her actors found freeing, perhaps in the ironic tradition of her own characters.
Little Joe evinces a strong understanding of that staid, subtly restrictive office culture.
I think in all my films I try to find a closed space. Sometimes itâs a company or, in Amour Fou, itâs bourgeois society. I made a film called Lourdes where it was very clear it was that place in Lourdes. Iâm trying to portray the hierarchies of a society, and I think itâs easier to do that if you have one place. Then you can show who are the chefs, the people in the middle, and the ones who just have to follow. Sometimes you can even see these statures on the costumes.
The brightly colored costumes are striking in Little Joe. It seems as if theyâre expressing emotions the characters arenât allowing themselves.
Yes. Well, they donât allow themselves, or maybe Iâd put it slightly differently: No one really shows their true emotions [laughs]. We all play a role in our lives and weâre all a part of some sort of hierarchy. And no matter what kind of life we live, weâre living within a society, and we do have to obey rules most of the time. My films focus on that perspective, rather than saying, âOh, everyone has a free choice.â My experience is that free choice is very limited even in a free world. We are very much manipulated in terms of how we should think and how we should behave. Social codes are quite strong.
One of the lovely ironies of this film is that itâs difficult to discern which enslavements are caused by the flower and which are already inherently in place via society.
Absolutely. Thatâs the irony about it. When we worked on the script, it wasnât so easy to build up a storyline that suggests a change that you never really see. Over the process of scriptwriting, we decided that the validity of feelings was invisible. We also had conversations with scientists, and we considered which part of the brain was responsible for emotions.
Iâm curious if any singular story element led you to this premise.
Iâm a big fan of science-fiction and horror films, and I do like those Invasion of the Body Snatchers films, but only the beginnings. I like the setups, those scenes where someone says, âOh, my uncle isnât my uncle anymore.â I had this idea to prolong this doubt about who people really are over the whole length of a feature film. Because itâs a basic human experience: You can never really understand what another person is thinking or feeling.
I love that thereâs no overt monster in Little Joe. Thereâs no catharsis exactly.
No, there isnât. The catharsis takes place on a very strange level, which leads to one of the other starting elements of the film. I wanted to portray a single mother who loves her job. So, the catharsis in the end is really very much centered on Alice as she finally allows herself to focus on her work and to let her son live with the father, which is okay.
Youâre right that thereâs a catharsis, from the fulfillment of the final line of dialogue.
This is whatâs hard to reconcile: Despite the loss of self that debatably takes place over the course of the film, Alice gets exactly what she wants and the flower does exactly what itâs supposed to do.
Yes, Iâm glad to hear you say that. I do get a lot of questions about the dark, dystopian perspective, but thereâs no such perspective in this film. Itâs a very friendly, light ending. If we all change, perhaps itâs for the better.
Iâm curious about the visual design of the flower. It seems to me that itâs both male and female at once, which I think is an achievement.
What do you mean male and female? The design?
The shape seems phallic. Yet the color scheme almost has a lingerie quality.
I think the basic idea is that itâs a male plant. I wanted that basic juxtaposition between the boy and the plant. The film suggests that itâs a male plant, but yet, of course, when the plant opens and is exhaling the pollenâŠwell, I would say itâs a very male plant. [both laugh]
The release of the pollen, especially for the first time against the glass of the lab, does feel like an ejaculation.
Yes. That was very much a part of the idea. The plant is trying to survive.
Itâs like a revenge of the sex drive.
Which parallels how the humans are repressing their sex drives. Itâs a lovely reverberation. What was the collaboration with the actors like? Such a careful tone of emotional modulation is maintained throughout the film.
I enjoyed the collaboration very much. the actors understood what the filmâs style was about. You do have actors sometimes who are used to the fact that the camera is working around them, but in my films itâs always the other way around. The camera is determining the image and the actor has to fit in. The actorsâEmily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, and the othersâwere able to cope with that method very well. I remember especially Ben Whishaw even liked it, becauseâif you donât feel suffocated, if youâre strong enough to fight against the styleâit can be a joyful way to work. The collaboration with the actors also focused very much on the undertone of what theyâre saying. A lot of scenes have a double meaning. Iâm always trying to show that people normally lie. So, everything thatâs said is also said because it should be said, I donât know if you know what I meanâŠ
Yes, social coding.
Iâm trying to make the actors act in a way that makes us feel a characterâs position rather than any individuality, so that we know that the characters are a part of something larger and have to say whatever theyâre saying now. We try to reveal the typical codes of a society.
Review: The Wolf Hour Is Dubiously Content to Watch Its Protagonist Squirm
The film is all surface, and its depiction of trauma becomes increasingly exploitative and hollow as it moves along.2
An air of decay and discomfort pervades the dingy Manhattan apartment where nearly all of The Wolf Hour unfolds. An agoraphobic recluse, June Leigh (Naomi Watts) languishes in the unit, overwhelmed with guilt from a past misdeed. The cramped, underlit apartment, full of dusty old books and overstuffed trash bags, takes on an increasingly oppressive quality as the door buzzer continues to go off with unnerving frequency. Despite Juneâs pleas to whomever is on the other end, all she gets in response is an ominous, crackling static. Itâs an unsettling sound thatâs a fitting approximation of the feminist icon and writerâs brittle mental state, which is inextricably tied to the decrepit state of a 1977 New York City plagued by sweltering summer heat and the Son of Sam killerâs reign of terror.
From the limited perspective of this tiny apartment, writer-director Alistair Banks Griffin constructs an aura of danger and alienation, filling out the broader scope of the citywide upheaval with street scuffles and snippets of news coverage that June overhears on the radio or television. Itâs a provocative setting, which could have served as a compelling backdrop for Juneâs mental unraveling, but the acutely detailed portrait of this specific time and place never extends to that of the muddled, half-baked characterization of the woman who inhabits it.
Watts has made a career playing the most brooding and agitated of characters, and with a practically unparalleled visceral depth. Here, her subtly skittish gestures and facial expressions lend June a raw, nervous energy that suggests a woman on the verge of losing her mind. Strange, cathartic scenes, such as when June abruptly lets loose and feverishly dances to Suicideâs âGhost Rider,â gives a strong sense of how far sheâs strayed from the person she once was. But such unexpected character beats arise too infrequently throughout the film, and for all of Wattsâs efforts, the roots of Juneâs anguish are never more than vaguely explored.
In an attempt to flesh out Juneâs interiority, Griffinâs script works in a handful of people who visit her apartment. But none of these characters, from her sister (Jennifer Ehle) to a grocery deliveryman (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) to a compassionate gigolo (Emory Cohen), offer much insight into the celebrated genius that June used to be. In fact, itâs only through Juneâs viewing of a contentious TV interview that she gave when her first book was released that we get any sense of the catalyst for her downward spiral. Itâs a remarkably contrived manner of inserting much-needed backstory into The Wolf Hour, but even worse, it hints at a story far more intriguing than the miserabilism that quickly reveals itself to be the filmâs default mode.
That interview reveals that June had a tumultuous fallout with her family due to her leftist screedâs thinly veiled criticism of her businessman father. Itâs a turn that suggests something akin to the complicated father-daughter antagonism between Shiv and Logan on HBOâs Succession, yet Griffin does nothing with this bombshell, simply returning to June as she continues to drown in her paralyzing guilt. An abrupt and woefully misguided deus ex machina attempts to do some heavy narrative lifting, but it changes our perception of June without laying the sort of groundwork needed to make such a twist land with any gravitas.
In the end, June remains an enigma and the filmâs finale only solidifies the notion that Griffin never had any interest in plumbing Juneâs emotional struggles. Like the sweat covering Juneâs face at all times or the dust that coats her apartment, The Wolf Hour is all surface, and its depiction of trauma only becomes increasingly exploitative and hollow as it moves along.
Cast: Naomi Watts, Brennan Brown, Jennifer Ehle, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Emory Cohen, Jeremy Bobb, Maritza Veer, Justin Clarke Director: Alistair Banks Griffin Screenwriter: Alistair Banks Griffin Distributor: Brainstorm Media Running Time: 99 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Interview: CĂ©line Sciamma on Redefining the Muse with Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Our talk ranged from the personal to the political, her singular work to the cinema at large.
My experience talking with directors leads me to informally sort them into three categories based on what element of their work they can speak most eloquently about: theory, emotion, and technical execution. Few have straddled all aspects of the filmmaking process quite like French writer-director CĂ©line Sciamma, the mind and muscle behind Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Sheâs able to deftly answer questions that address the end-to-end process of how a moment germinates in her head, how an audience will interpret it, and how theory can explain why they feel the way they do.
Sciammaâs latest directorial outing relegates her minimalism primarily to the screenplay, which revolves around the interactions between a painter, NoĂ©mie Merlantâs Marianne, and the subject, AdĂšle Haenelâs HĂ©loĂŻse, that sheâs been commissioned to covertly paint. The deceptively simple contours of Portrait of a Lady on Fire belie the ambition of the film, which sets out to achieve nothing less than a complete deconstruction of the artist-muse relationship. What Sciamma proposes in its place is a love story between the two women rooted in equality and artistry rather than in domination and lust.
I spoke with Sciamma after the filmâs premiere at the New York Film Festival in September. Our talk ranged from the personal to the political, her singular work to the cinema at large, our present momentâs liberation to the centuries of patriarchal influence over our shared historical narrative. In short, a full spectrum of conversation that few directors can match.
Youâve placed Portrait of a Lady on Fire in conversation with discourse around the subject of muses. Does the film suggest that we need to dispense with this ideal altogether, or that we just need to update and revise our notions of what it means?
Well, itâs a contemporary conversation, and even though the movieâs set in the past, it definitely could be something that could have been set in 2019. Itâs been a long [journey] for me, because itâs been five years from my previous film, and I thought about this for years. Within these five years, a lot happened. [The time] gave me confidence and new tools and ideasâalso less lonelinessâto be radical and without compromise. It gives you strength and structure to be radical with all the ideas. The movie is full of them.
Women artists have always existed. Theyâve had more flourishing moments, like that time in the mid-18th century when there were a lot of women painters. Thatâs why we set [the film] in that period, of course, but mostly women were in the workshop as models or companions. That was their part in artistry, so thatâs how theyâre told [in cultural narratives]. The real part they took in creation isnât told. Something is happening in art history because there are women researchers on the other side. Dora Maar was the muse of Picasso, but actually, she was a part of the Surrealist group. Thereâs a lot of them we know now. It was a way to tell the story again to reactivate this nature of art history. But Iâm sure itâs true; itâs not this anachronistic vision.
You hired an âart sociologistâ to help develop Portrait of a Lady on Fire. What did you learn from this person, and how did that affect the film?
It was a woman who [studied] that period when there were a lot of women painters. The fact that sheâs a sociologist and not a historian actually was really important for me because, as we were inventing this character, sociology was really important to make her true to all of these women. Whereas if weâd picked [one historical figure], it would be about destiny. She read the script, and [determined that] there were no anachronisms. What I learned is that it gave me confidence to trust this character all the way. It was something I could hand to NoĂ©mie on set.
Is the notion of the âmuseâ inherently incompatible with equality?
The fact that you could be inspiring just by being there, beautiful and silent, thereâs definitely domination. The fact that itâs told as something that always has to do with [being] in a relationship, even the love in creation in the museâyou have to fall in love with your actresses or modelsâis a fantasy that allows abuse of power. Even the possessive, sometimes Iâm asked about my actresses. Theyâre not asked about their directors; theyâre asked about the director.
When I wrote the part for AdĂšle, she was the model. When I talked about the film, and not much because Iâm very secretive, people told me, âSo, AdĂšleâs going to be the painter?â And I said, âNo, AdĂšle is going to be the model!â People were like, âWhy? She should be the painter.â And I was like, âOh, so you find that the model is too narrow for her? You find that this isnât the dynamic of power sheâs entitled to. She should be the painter.â She and I laughed and thought, âOf course, [AdĂšle] should be the model because Iâm the actress.â So, what are they saying? That itâs too small for her? That was also very nourishing, the idea today that she shouldnât be in that position. It would be a weak position. And it isnât.
I was surprised to learn that you didnât write Marianneâs character from the start as someone assigned to paint HĂ©loĂŻse covertly. What did that discovery in the writing process unlock in the story for you?
When I got the idea, I was like, âNow the movieâs got a chance.â The movie is very full of ideas and has some theory of cinema, but thatâs why it should be strongly dramatically charged. The fact that we embodied these problematic [ideas] really is important. The journey of the gaze, the fact that itâs stolen at first, then consensual, then mutual, thenâŠwe donât even know whoâs looking at who. It makes it really physical and organic. And also, itâs true that all my films are [thematically] bound with a character having a secret. Usually it lasts until the end, but this time itâs only half an hour of being secretive. The secret becomes this reservoir of whatâs going to be said and whatâs going to unfold, which felt different.
Unlike Tomboy, where schoolyard bullies embody the antagonistic forces of transphobia and heteronormativity, the villain in Portrait of a Lady on Fire seems to be time and the reality of HĂ©loĂŻseâs marriage on the horizon. Was this always your intent to write a story with a more abstract foe?
Yeah, because I really wanted not to go through the same negotiations and conflicts. I wanted it to be a new journey for the audience. Their love dialogue relies on a new ideal thatâs equality. Thereâs no gender domination because theyâre two women. Thatâs practical. But thereâs no intellectual domination. We didnât play with social hierarchy, either. We know their love is impossible, but we arenât going to play with that. We arenât going to try and project them into the future. Some people, the old culture, wants you to do that. Show the taboo, the impossibility, the struggle, the conflict with yourself. And we didnât want to do that.
Because itâs about what you put in the frame. Weâre just looking at whatâs possible, that suspension of time, and we know very well the frame. We donât have to tell you the prospects for these women, especially because itâs set in the past. Theyâre shitty. Lousy. Weâre not going to waste time and put you in that position where you will go through this conflict to tell the same thing, that itâs impossible. The real tragedy is that it is possible, but itâs made impossibleâby the world of men, mostly. Thatâs also why there are no men in the film. It would mean portraying a character whose sole purpose is to be the enemy, which isnât something that interests me at all. I donât need to take time to portray that. Itâs not generous enough.
Are we to take the shot of HĂ©loise on fire literally? That scene seems to enter such a representational, abstract realm, and then weâre jolted back into the reality of her walks with Marianne with that match cut of her extending a hand.
That [says] a lot about the film. It wants to be very embodied in a very simple but kind of brave [way], not just purely theoretical. Sheâs really going to be on fire! That was one of the key scenes I had in mind as the compass of the film. If youâre really setting her on fire, youâre setting the bar for the other scenes. They have to be in dialogue with this [moment]. It shouldnât be this unique thing out of the whole language of the film.
I was so struck by the shot toward the end of the film where Marianne sketches herself in a mirror placed over HĂ©loĂŻseâs nether regions. Itâs a masterly composition that also feels like a real thematic lynchpin. Can you describe both how the shot developed intellectually and how you executed it on set?
Itâs about where you put the focus. In the mirror, sheâs blurry. Itâs about trust, about being playful, about going all the way with your ideas. But also, itâs fun. Itâs a fun thing to do. Even the difficulty of it makes you think about cinema and how weâre going to do this. Itâs a way to always be woke about your craft and having new challenges, solving old questions with new ideas. Really trying to harvest most of the situation of people looking at each other. Itâs a very simple [way to] access ideas. Sheâs portraying herself with this mirror, this woman is naked, and her head is where her sex is. Itâs really overt, so you donât have to think about it. But, still, itâs this idea thatâs given to you through a sensation. It should always be about this, I think.
I didnât think it would be possible to top something like the âDiamondsâ scene in Girlhood, but here you have a three-minute scene that features AdĂšle Haenel reacting to music. How do you go about shooting these scenes in a way that allows the audience to understand the impact the music has on the characters?
For Girlhood, I really tried to think of [the scene] as if it were a scene in a musical. When they start to sing in a musical, [theyâre] very strong moments within the charactersâ relationships. Theyâre saying things to each other, and, if theyâre dancing, their bodies are expressing themselves. Itâs about the music not being the commentary, but really thinking about it like, âOkay, if there was a Fred Astaire film, when would this thing happen? What would it say?â Itâs always about the intimacy between the characters and what their bodies can express.
But this is kind of different because itâs the final scene. It unveils the fact that itâs cinema. Itâs a shot-reverse shot. At first, youâre looking at HĂ©loĂŻse and Marianne looking at HĂ©loĂŻse. But, at some point, itâs about you the audience looking at AdĂšle performing. Itâs about cinema. It leaves room for you. Itâs the same in the âDiamondsâ scene in Girlhood; it doesnât become a clip if suddenly thereâs room for the viewer. When we talk about the female gaze, of course itâs about not objectifying women, itâs also about mostly how you experience the journey of the character. You experience it with your body and mind. Youâre fully aware. Itâs not about you being fully inside the film; itâs about the film being inside you. I think thatâs what we can offer.
Youâve talked about needing to develop a new grammar to tell the story of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Now that you have developed it, do you think it will be applicable to other films? Or will you have to reinvent the wheel again?
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is my fourth film, and it felt like a departure. But itâs also a growing of a lot of decisions and myself as a 40-year-old woman. So next time, I never know what Iâm going to do next. I really feel like Iâve said all I have to say right now. I feel relieved of something also. And now that we are having this discussion around the film, it puts it in the world. Itâs something we share. When you craft a film, itâs really your secret for so long. Now I feel like Iâm going to have to find a new secret for myself.
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