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Red Beard (1965, Akira Kurosawa)

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Red Beard (1965, Akira Kurosawa)

Ben Begins:

The liner notes to the Criterion edition quote Kurosawa on Red Beard: “I wanted to make something that my audience would want to see, something so magnificent that people would just have to see it.” Instead of the quantitatively vague “people,” he should have said everyone. The film truly has something for everyone. Red Beard really is magnificent for its grand variety of scenes and wide range of mini-stories, all integrated into the central narrative with plot relevance, thematic significance and visual elegance. The entertainment value of the thing is off the chart. At the same time, all of the auteur’s elements are on display. The sheer stylistic density of Red Beard would be enough to single it out as the director’s definitive work. But what really seals the deal is that Red Beard is Kurosawa’s most fully developed and by far and away his most positive humanist statement. While very successful in Japan, that the film was not a commercial success upon its release overseas is downright bizarre to me.

In our discussion of Ikiru (1952), we addressed the desperate post-war circumstance conditioning that film. Kurosawa had achieved international celebrity two years prior with Rashomon, a forlorn search for justice that denies the possibility of absolute truth. Approximately 15 years later, Red Beard is coming out of a time when Japan is undergoing protectionist re-assimilation into the global capitalist system. This happened under Most Favored Nation terms of trade that allowed both domestic tariffs and non-tariff access to the US market, still in its own economic Golden Age. In short, prosperity is trickling down for most as promised. Life is a hell of a lot better than it was immediately following the bombs when many in Japan were actually dying of stomach cancer. Kurosawa himself was probably at the peak of his powers and popularity. In retrospect we can observe that Red Beard caps his own Golden Age and his own retrospective observation about his ambition for the film at the time supports this. At that moment, Kurosawa indulged in the goodness of humanity without even the slightest trace of cynical restraint.

Red Beard has a Dickensian faith in regular working people. The basic notion is that even if they don’t do the right thing at first, they’ll come around to the right thing in the end. The moralistic adoption of the orphan at the end of Rashomon rings false. Red Beard is sincerely about this kind of love. All the characters are adopting each other all over the place in every conceivable way. Plot-necessary villains aside, the best is brought out in everyone. There’s a few Gift Of The Magi mix-ups, with less happy conclusions than O. Henry would have provided, and even some inexplicable weirdness for the sake of campfire ghost story thrills, but it’s all benign at the end of the day. The film is tremendously uplifting; outstandingly positive; deep comedy. This is no small achievement considering the whole show is about dealing with death. I dare Disney to enter Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward and come out alive, never mind alive and well as Kurosawa does. Alive and kicking is more like it; as in, kicking ass aesthetically on behalf of booting butt ethically.

Red Beard takes on the gloom of human doom just as directly as Ikiru. But whereas Ikiru takes a solitary existential approach to human mortality, Red Beard takes a fully communitarian approach that celebrates the human spirit without recourse to spiritualism. This difference plays out politically in plain relief. The protagonist in Ikiru, Watanabe, undergoes a private transformation that allows him to undertake a personal project with radical political ramifications. The telling of this is sublime but unrealistic insofar as the character transcends suffering alone and acts without the support of associates. The protagonist in Red Beard, Yasumoto, is publicly mentored by the title character to discard his aristocratic snobbery and voluntarily enter into the collective work of alleviating the suffering of others. The realism attending this is as anti-Disney as anti-Disney can be. Forget the healing arts, the medical craft is explicitly reduced to nothing more than palliative care. But even more remarkable, the division of labor in the hospital is fundamentally egalitarian. I dare say, it’s socialistic.

On the face of it, Ikiru and not Red Beard is the more political film. Ikiru eviscerates the government bureaucracy for both its feudal vestiges and false American promises in the face of proletarian poverty. But I maintain that Red Beard is ultimately the more political film. It’s just that its politics are embedded in an ideal of a humane society. Red Beard presents a microcosmic model of a perfectly cooperative and, at bedrock, non-hierarchical polity. The medical clinic is a mini-village of ethically transparent social relations. Note that the economic basis of this unalienated little town is in no way utopian. The dependence on the state for financing and the need to extort inflated service fees from the wealthy in the real world is all too plain. Similarly, the little boy who steals rice from the hospital kitchen sends the same signal in the other direction. But the way everyone gets along and cares for each other shoulder-to-shoulder, it’s as groovy as a hippie commune.

The social leveling depicted in the context of living and working together does not erase the designations of skilled and unskilled labour as this accords to men and women respectively. Unlike Ikiru, Red Beard does not have an implicitly feminist organizing principle. Nevertheless, the social leveling within the division of labor is very pronounced. Initially it is hinted that the character of Red Beard is a ball-busting tyrant. He turns out to be the farthest thing from it. Instead of a boss, he is an example. Not a ruler, a leader. As the film progresses, everyone working at the hospital is shown to be performing different but equally valuable work. And their status within the organization is revealed to be equal too. That the hospital is not exclusively a work site but is also the worker’s residence is not trivial in all of this. The egalitarian work ethic in Red Beard runs so deep, it applies to those residents of the hospital who do not work, properly speaking; the patients. I would go so far as to say that the patients do work. Their job is to die. To die with dignity.

I am stretching beyond the literal to the metaphoric, to be sure, but one thing is for certain. The patients have status equal to the health care staff, including the doctors. This is ground zero for the egalitarianism of the film. This is the large leveling. The point is not that everyone has to die sometime and that it is possible for anyone—even an elite medical professional—that dying will entail horrible suffering. That’s an individualistic leveling with which any liberal can be comfortable. No, the leveling between the doctors and the patients is class leveling. This is true literally insofar as the doctors come from privilege and the patients from poverty. But it may, and I say should, be interpreted at a much more general anti-elitist and class-analytical level.

On behalf of this, in my estimation the key chapter in the story is the transformation of young doctor Yasumoto into the patient of the girl rescued from the whorehouse. This role reversal is more than some moralistic sermon about walking that empathetic mile in the other guy’s shoes. And never mind the fabulous dialectics about his illness being her cure. The big news is that they are made into equals. Everything about the clinic resonates out from and replicates in miniature this leveling. And of course, everything in the film as a whole resonates out from the clinic and is meaningful only in relation to it.

Red Beard

Dan replies:

What’s so profound about Ikiru, for me, is that it is a movie made by a man who still had forty years of living to do. Kurosawa wasn’t a young man, but Ikiru has the wisdom the we associate with seniority. That is, the lessons Watanabe learns and the way he reshapes and rededicates his life, this feels like the kind of signature statement you’d expect of an artist as he nears the end of his career, not as he was approaching the apex of his talents. The film is really quite remarkable in this regard alone, never mind the rest of the things (performance, cinematography, editing, score and more) that serve to emphasize its excellence.

Red Beard, on the other hand, tells the story of a young man. It is the sort of artistic comment you’d expect to see at the beginning of a career, a mission statement for the director’s art. Yet with Red Beard, Kurosawa is rededicating himself to such matters just as his powers begin their slow decline into mere good-ness. It is the film that marks, for many of us, the end of Kurosawa’s greatest period. It would be an interesting experiment to show these two films to someone who has never heard of Kurosawa and ask the viewer to guess the age of the filmmaker in both cases. I suppose it is yet more proof of the artist’s superior skills and expansive outlook on life that he was capable of making an older man’s film when he was younger and a younger man’s film when he was older.

I completely concur on Kurosawa’s indebtedness to Dickens. (All that’s missing is a “god bless us, every one” at the end of the poisoned child/family episode). But I’m going to say something that will be anathema to those who hold literature far above film in the pantheon of artistic endeavours. I believe that both Ikiru and Red Beard are better than pretty much all of Dickens’ work. They have a more clearly enunciated understanding of the social reality of the characters. Kurosawa does not rely upon artificial conventions, such as the kind of coincidence that mars the ending of Great Expectations or Oliver Twist, or the sudden emergence of a savior, the benevolent benefactor, to get his characters out of jams. Conclusions emerge out of reality in Kurosawa and sometimes those conclusions are damned bleak (Ikiru, Lower Depths, Ran). And even the relative optimism of Red Beard is well-earned and does not happen without substantial emotional and material costs to the characters.

I like your idea that the clinic is, first of all, a socialistic enterprise, in that there is little to distinguish between the various ways that different people with a variety of skills and training provide health services at the clinic. I’m also down with your suggestion that since they all live in the same place where they work, the clinic is sorta one big hippie commune. I am also certain that the curing of the young doctor by the damaged girl is a key to “unpacking” the film’s core message. This passage falls pretty much at the film’s center. It is the heart and soul of Kurosawa’s film, as it is in these moments that the young doctor’s physical cure and socio-political consciousness are guaranteed.

And speaking of Yasumoto’s transformation, you compare it to Watanabe’s in Ikiru and find it much more realistic. I have to agree. Think about this by considering which of the two characters we are better able to identify with. Watanabe’s conversion takes place pretty much all on his own (once he escapes the writer and the bubbly fellow employee), and his ability to stick it out, to maintain the course of his cause while all about him conspire to make it nigh-impossible, strikes me as the kind of superhuman achievement that few of us could really aspire to emulate. Yasumoto, conversely, is converted through deed after deed, through immersion in a world that wears down his arrogance and self-involvement, that pretty much dares him to remain separate and distinct from it. Further, once Yasumoto throws himself into the fray and joins the cause, he has a network of support that would be pretty much essential for most of us who decided to dedicate our lives selflessly to greater/higher causes.

As for the patients’ job being to die with dignity, that is indeed an interesting notion. Of course the doctor’s job is to bear witness to the death, which carries with it the responsibility to remember the life that is lost. It adds a significance and a weight to the patients’ passing that a doctor is there to record the memory. Even deeper than this, I think, the doctors at the clinic record much more than simply the memory of these patients’ deaths, but also their entire lives. This is why the stories that they tell of their patients—and which the patients tell of themselves to these doctors—are also the great levelers. We see that these are people, despite their poverty and suffering, who have led lives of no small consequence, and they are as worthy of remembrance and commemoration as any of the shoguns that Yasumoto might have ended up tending to.

Then Ben:

Your observation of the doctors’ work of bearing witness was entirely neglected by me and your treatment of it supports my thesis, so thank you. Yet I want now to take your treatment and turn it inside-out too. You are absolutely correct that the doctors validate the lives of their patients by listening to their life stories. Red Beard explains to Yasumoto explicitly that this is in their job description as far as he’s concerned. But at the same time, this witness-bearing validates the lives of the doctors themselves. And they need this validation desperately. Why? Because as I’ve already noted, according to the film, medical science is little more than palliative care. The doctors cannot literally save lives but they can metaphorically save lives and this work of memorization is what empowers them to do the dross, futile toil of easing a person into that good night.

What the above interpretation shows is that the doctors and the patients need each other. The role reversal that best demonstrates this is not some superficial, symbolic recognition of the other. It is actual, practical reciprocity. The pivotal event in the story, the curing of the doctor by the damaged girl, is not just the curing of the doctor. That would be merely a moment of half-leveling (hence, not really leveling at all) from the perspective of the doctor-as-patient. No, the curing of the doctor by the damaged girl is also and maybe even moreso the undamaging of the girl, the curing of the girl by the girl herself, from the perspective of patient-as-doctor. That her efforts to heal another constitute her own self-empowerment is supported by dialogue, by the way. She tells Yasumoto that Red Beard told her as much. The upshot of this genuinely mutual aid is that it becomes impossible to say who is taking care of whom—and that’s precisely the point! The leveling is real and has established the solidarity of equals. Sure, sure, it’s all about love. And later Red Beard explains to Yasumoto that the girl will have to learn to spread her love to the whole hippie commune, and of course the Tiny Tim type tot is the vehicle for this. But there are politics inside that love.

And then Dan:

And you love to get inside politics. But what about the action outside the commune? You touched on the magnificent variety of the film. The film certainly is as full of wide-ranging elements as any Kurosawa. Hell, he even throws a gratuitous samurai showdown into the mix, to see if we’re paying attention. This scene is extremely emotionally gratifying but is also intellectually dishonest given the tenor of what has gone before. The fact that Red Beard is able single-handedly to dispatch so many foes without sustaining even a bruise is a terrible betrayal of the film’s otherwise stellar realism.

But Christ! When Kurosawa pans across the carnage after Mifune has leveled that entire crew, I felt like I was looking at a miniature of the wounded soldiers in the Atlanta scene in Gone with the Wind. The sounds of the bones being broken is later matched by the sight of these beaten deadbeats crawling around in the dust with compound fractures. Pretty grizzly stuff. Later on, Red Beard gives some lip service about how he should never have done it, that a doctor’s job is to heal, not to hurt. This is hot air given that he was trying to do just that (trying to protect the girl from further harm) and these soon-to-be vanquished foes were preventing him from doing so. He had no alternative. To leave the girl there, alone, would have been an even greater abrogation of his duties as a doctor, no? So, the message is that the martial arts were called for. It’s an outstanding action sequence, but it’s cowboy crap.

Red Beard

Back to Ben:

Hey, I love to get inside politics so much, I’m going to get inside the politics of the action outside the commune. For me, the lack of realism has to do with Kurosawa failing to take the group principle outside of the hospital. The source of the problem is that the egalitarianism of the clinic is not carried into the fight scene. It borders on gratuitous violence—however brilliantly crafted—because it is a phony succession of duels fought and won by our hero all by himself. That Red Beard combats with the surgical precision of, uh-huh, a surgeon, that he fights like a technician and not a sportsman, that he is conducting a ruthless military campaign and not playing at war like a perverse dilettante—none of this saves the scene from being bogus. It is bogus because—to cop a line from the cartoonist Spain Rodriguez, who once rode with a bike gang—ten guys can kick the shit outta anyone. And the offer of Hippocratic guilt afterward as a rationalization is the lame icing on the bogus cake.

I can easily imagine an alternative version of the fight scene that supports my egalitarian interpretation of the film. Instead of Red Beard going it alone, he and Yasumoto, together, fight it out with the gang, whose numbers are realistically reduced, but who still outnumber our two. Because the odds are against our two, this means that rather than a heroic clean sweep we get a genuine scrap. Shucks, some phony drama can occur, pretending that the outcome is uncertain. Of course, this is neither here nor there because the good guys win the battle, beaten up but not beaten back. In other words, instead of Clint Eastwood (Yojimbo), your basic buddy-comedy fight scene, but played completely seriously. Red Beard and Yasumoto should have limped home with the girl they rescued, bringing in a few minor wounds of their own to be licked by the rest of the hospital staff. Why Kurosawa went with the necessarily fake cowboy rather than the potentially realistic buddies is beyond me. Bloody thrilling bit of business though.

Back To Dan:

Want some sex to go with that violence? The fight scene may be gratuitous but it makes perfect sense in the main plot. The sub-plot about the psychotic female patient who tries to seduce/murder Yasumoto is not so easy to connect. It’s inclusion shows the Kurosawa definitely pulled out all the stops for Red Beard. This character plays into some standard figures in Japanese fiction; the creepy, mysterious “dark” lady who makes regular appearances in J-Horror films these days. (See The Ring or Pulse or The Grudge for contemporary examples).

But I think she’s also there for another reason. Red Beard and Yasumoto have a conversation about whether her psychosis can be attributed to her horrific upbringing full of sexual abuse. Red Beard rejects this excuse. He says that many girls have suffered similarly yet they haven’t turned into murderers, so this cannot be used to justify the woman’s behavior. The whole nurture/nature thing is up for grabs at this point, but Kurosawa seems (rightly, I think) to be abandoning it as quickly as he seizes on it. After all, while it might be interesting to argue how much of each play a part in determining who were are, the truth for these doctors is that such information is not particularly useful. They cannot cure the larger disease in society; they are only able to address the symptoms in individual patients. There are clear limitations on the ability of medicine alone to cure what really ails us.

Ben Again:

I must admit that I don’t know what to make of the kiss that almost happens with the spider woman. I mentioned before that unlike Ikiru, Red Beard does not challenge patriarchal assumptions. The way sexuality is brought into the relation between Yasumoto and the would-be psycho killer would seem to support this. The sexist routine of a crazy bitch coming on to a fine fellow in order to destroy him is as old as the hills. But in Red Beard, more is at stake. (Namely, my political interpretation—ha!)

Nutty sexuality undermines the potential for real solidarity between romantically social equals. Remember, for much of the scene it is unclear if she really is nuts and dangerous, and just as uncertain whether or not Yasumoto, still resistant to his destiny, will become her renegade ally. They are equals up to this point in the narrative. Yasumoto is on her level insofar as he has not taken on the responsibilities of being a doctor; indeed, he is getting drunk. But even more, the two of them originate from the same aristocratic class. Then she makes her move and any hope of friendship between them falls apart, to put it mildly. Seems a shame to bring this about by way of a sexist trope.

On the other hand, and contra my initial assertion, there is perhaps a faint glimpse of feminism in the film. I am thinking of the long recollection of the dying patient who recounts how an earthquake made a tragedy of his love life. This is almost a movie unto itself. Of course, it is intended to explain why this man was so respected by his community, what motivated him to be a good person in the first place. What is interesting to me about his tale is that his tragedy involves the breaking of a bond between real romantic friends, true married equals. The marriage custom in 19th-century Japan that arranged for a wife to “belong” to her husband is under severe scrutiny in the tale as this custom leads to the unintentionally assisted suicide of the man’s wife. Yasumoto’s wedding at the end of the film contradicts this modern sensibility, however. He informs his bride that as his wife she will have to accept his vocational calling. This being a masculine take on Mother Theresa’s devotion to the poor does not get it off the sexist hook.

As for your comment about the larger meaning of palliative care in Red Beard, I agree that the film points beyond the clinic to implicate the broader society with respect to what really ails us. On this score I cannot emphasize enough the house call to the rich patient’s house. This visit to the magistrate is a very short scene, but it speaks volumes. Here the power of money and the ruling authorities are attacked outright. I dared to say previously that Red Beard is socialistic. Now we come to the anarchist aspect within this, the reddest part of the beard, if you will. The owning and governing class is identified as a ’’tax” on the resources of the commune and therefore must be “ripped off” in return. That this is essential to the material subsistence of the hospital was set-up at the start when it was explained that the facility is pathetically under-funded by the state.

In case the corrupting influence of moneyed power remains unclear to the audience, the message is driven home when Red Beard is questioned by the rich man’s henchman. The latter cynically disregards any palliative purpose in order to supposedly articulate a realistic position about the futility of medicine. It is on this basis that he ridicules any rationale for its market worth. Red Beard does not dispute the stupidity of putting a price-tag on medical service, but he turns the point on its head to retrieve the palliative purpose—among social equals! Yes, you cannot put a price on caring for the sick who live and work side-by-side with the healthy, all together in an egalitarian society.

And finally, Dan:

You touched on the tragic tale told by Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), about the earthquake that brought terrible sorrow into his life. One of Red Beard’s more memorable sequences, it unfolds in a detailed reminiscence that is as visually stirring as it is emotionally wrenching. You are right that this is almost a movie unto itself. But I want to highlight that it is simultaneously vital to the main story. It leads to one of Yasumoto’s deepest epiphanies. Yasumoto does not receive wisdom suddenly, but gradually, and it is in this that Kurosawa’s film achieves the miraculous. The layers of Yasumoto’s egoism are worn away, one patient at a time, and nobody lets the scales fall from Yasumoto’s eyes like the noble, self-sacrificing Sahachi. Despite his own poor health, and the ill blows that life has dealt him, Sahachi chooses not to cave in to bitterness or cynicism, but instead toils away ceaselessly to provide his fellow patients with their basic necessities. It is fitting then that the young doctor learns from the humble Sahachi that contentment comes only when he gives himself up to the downtrodden people he has at first scorned. It is in Sahachi’s testimonial to the restorative powers of selflessness that Red Beard achieves something as majestic and poetical as a Shakespearean soliloquy, and as moving and precise as a Verdi aria.

Sahachi’s understanding is rough and ready compared to the sophisticated consciousness of Red Beard, but both of them are Yasumoto’s teachers. And the two of them teach out of the same lesson book. In making him represent an ideal of human conduct, Kurosawa may have felt a personal connection with the character of Sahachi. After witnessing the aftermath of the 1923 Tokyo earthquake and subsequent riots, Kurosawa commented that the scene was one of unimaginable horror. He saw “corpses charred black, half-burned corpses, corpses in gutters, corpses floating in rivers, corpses piled up on bridges, corpses blocking off a whole street at an intersection, and every manner of death possible to human beings displayed by corpses.” He tells us that when he tried to turn away, his brother would not allow it, telling him to look at the devastation carefully. The best of Kurosawa’s films are a challenge to look into our greatest fears and at our most terrible afflictions, whether personal or systemic, without turning away. Arguably the best Kurosawa film, Red Beard does not turn away.

Red Beard

Dan Jardine is the publisher of Cinemania.

Ben Livant is the current Blog Slave in Residence at Cinemania.

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Review: Saudi Runaway Is a Raw and Immediate Chronicle of an Escape

Camera, character, and cameraperson are one throughout, and the effect is exquisitely suffocating.

3.5

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Saudi Runaway
Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films

Susanne Regina Meures’s invitation into the filmic world of her exquisite Saudi Runaway is by way of a camera that moves as if attached to a body. It’s a mobility completely devoid of the vulgar familiarity of a GoPro, or the numb slickness of a dolly shot that only simulates the point of view of a character. We don’t yet know where the body is headed but we can feel its fear. Camera, character, and cameraperson are one here, and the effect is suffocating. We see people’s heads bare and covered. Our vision is fuzzy. Soon, though, the wind lifts what turns out to be a piece of a garment—the camera’s sartorial filter. We’re moving inside an abaya. That’s where we remain for most of the film: between the body of a young woman, Muna, plotting her escape from Saudia Arabia and the dark fabric of her garb.

The film’s handheld camera suggests a baby being held. Not just because of how tethered it often is to the cameraperson, but because our mostly hazy gaze suggests eyes just getting used to a terrifying world. By the time Muna tells us that she will try to record “everything” and that “it will be dangerous,” she’s stating the obvious. Though it pulsates with raw intimacy, Saudi Runaway does have its share of obvious elements, from the sound of music when we least need it, to one too many shots of a trapped bird, to Muna telling us, midway through the film, that “the majority of society is conservative.” But its conceptual device is so uncanny, so un-mediated by how Meures structures Muna’s original footage, that we can’t help but excuse the director’s attempts to turn the original fragments into a coherent narrative.

The camera in Saudi Runaway is so prosthetic, and its images all but birthed by Muna, that, at first, it’s difficult to accept that someone other than she is credited with directing the film. Must Westerners save brown women so that they can speak? However, Muna’s occasional prefacing of her murmured voiceover account with “Dear Sue” gives us a hint of a transnational sisterly collaboration. The epistolary layer of Saudi Runaway isn’t fully explained, a technique often used in the essay film genre that helps give a video-diary aesthetic a sense of depth while maintaining its mystery. Is Sue the director or an imaginary friend? Is Sue a rhetorical device like one of Chris Marker addressees in Sans Soleil? Is Sue actually listening?

The fact that this writer sat immediately in front of both Muna and Meures at the film’s Kino International screening at this year’s Berlinale made the experience of watching it all the more eerie. Our real-life escapee was clearly now safe and sound in Germany, reacting in real time—with self-conscious sighs and sad moans—to the presentation of her ordeal.

On screen, we learn that Muna isn’t allowed to leave her family home without being escorted by a male relative. That she will only be allowed to drive if her future husband allows her to. That her father keeps possession of her passport, which she can only renew with his approval. “Be obedient and everything will be fine” is the advice that Muna’s grandmother gives her.

All of the film’s faces, apart from Muna’s, are perpetually pixilated, reminding us that these are images captured without her family members’ consent. That betrayal and guilt might be prerequisites for deliverance. The pixilating effect also means Muna “covers” everyone else’s faces while liberating her own, her flight necessitating an exhilarating mix of precision, and risk, and anxiety. But, also, the anger of those she must dupe in order to leave them behind. “Do you really think you can go to paradise and leave me here in hell?” is Muna’s mother’s reaction to her daughter’s courage. Although with the benefit of hindsight, she eventually anoints Muna’s newfound independence with a WhatsApp voice message praising her. As if freedom were contagious, experienceable by proxy, or the sheer power of imagination.

Director: Susanne Regina Meures Screenwriter: Susanne Regina Meures Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Swallow Is a Provocative Me Too Parable in Body-Horror Guise

Fortunately for the film, Carlo Mirabella-Davis continually springs scenes that either transcend or justify his preaching.

3

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Swallow
Photo: IFC Films

Writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s Swallow pivots on a queasy premise: the uncontrollable urge of a young trophy wife, Hunter (Haley Bennett), to swallow inedible objects. Hunter first ingests a marble, after touching it as if it’s a talisman, cherishing its assuring tactility. Later, Hunter carefully removes the marble from the toilet after passing it, cleaning it off and placing it on a tray as a trophy. The marble will soon be joined by a stickpin, a lock, and a variety of other increasingly disturbing things. But there’s another wrinkle of perversity to Hunter’s new hobby: She’s pregnant, and the possibility of these objects puncturing her developing child, no matter how irrational, haunts the film.

For a significant portion of Swallow’s running time, Mirabella-Davis maintains an aura of ambiguity, keeping the audience in a state of discomfort as to what Hunter’s ailment precisely means. There are plenty of hints even early on, as Hunter is married to a svelte GQ-ready hunk, Richie (Austin Stowell), who’s more interested in his phone and his job with his prosperous father, Michael (David Rasche), than his wife. Yet Mirabella-Davis initially resists doubling down on the sort of denouncements of the wealthy that come so easy to filmmakers. In his way, Richie seems to care about Hunter, and his mother, Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel), occasionally comforts her. The filmmaker’s initial refusal to totally render these people rich monsters only intensifies the scenario’s mystery and tension.

Mirabella-Davis is also willing to take Hunter to task for her own alienation, as people often tune her out because she has so efficiently rendered herself a dully accommodating and complacent Stepford wife. Her psychological disorder, known as pica, partially appears to be a response to her knowledge of this fact, serving as a contemptuous act of self-punishment, with perhaps an element of sexual gratification. The narrative contains multitudes of subtexts, and Bennett superbly modulates between learned impassivity and outright despair, capturing the pain of a kind of actress who has come to feel trapped in her role. This entrapment is formally complemented by an aesthetic that’s been very fashionable in art-house horror films lately: pristine, symmetrical compositions of stylish, remote residences that express the inhumanity of essentially living in a one-percent fashion catalogue.

Swallow is initially marked by a driving tension, as we’re led to wonder just how awful and crazy Hunter’s habit will become. The film is never as gross as one might fear, as Mirabella-Davis is less interested in shock-jock flourishes than in sincerely rendering Hunter’s physical pain and mental anguish; like Mike Flanagan, Mirabella-Davis is the rare humanist horror filmmaker. As such, Hunter’s choking—the most disturbing detail in the film—becomes a piercing affirmation of her struggle to feel something and be seen.

There’s a strange irony to the film’s second half. As Mirabella-Davis sets about explaining the meaning of Hunter’s predicament, Swallow grows simultaneously more poignant and pat. Dished out in pieces throughout the film, Hunter’s backstory has been self-consciously overstuffed with topical elements of women’s struggles against patriarchal atrocity, from casual objectification and condescension to rape to the struggle to be pro-choice in the United States. (Hunter’s mother is even said to be a right-wing religious fundamentalist.) This psychology eventually waters the evocative premise down with literal-mindedness, so that Swallow becomes less a body horror film than a Me Too parable.

Fortunately, Mirabella-Davis continually springs scenes that either transcend or justify his preaching. Later in the film, a nurse, Luay (Laith Nakli), is hired to keep watch over Hunter. As a refugee of the Syrian civil war, Luay is partially offered up as a device to score points on Hunter’s privilege (he memorably remarks that one doesn’t have time for mind problems when dodging bullets), though he also shows her profound compassion, most acutely when he climbs under the bed with Hunter in a moment of crisis, patting her back with an affection that we’ve never seen extended to her by anyone else.

Near the end of the film, Hunter holes up in a cheap motel, shoveling dirt into her mouth while watching soap operas that peddle the dream of marrying rich and hot—a sequence of profound and wrenching loneliness. And the film’s climax, in which Hunter tracks down a man from her past, Erwin (Denis O’Hare), is equally heartbreaking, exposing Hunter’s swallowing for what it truly is: an attempt at annihilation as atonement, as well as a self-defiling as paradoxical affirmation of control. Hunter resists her status as an accessory by swallowing others.

Cast: Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Denis O’Hare, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, Luna Lauren Velez, Laith Nakli, Babak Tafti Director: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Screenwriter: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 94 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Interview: Corneliu Porumboiu on The Whistlers and Playing with Genre

Porumboiu discusses the links between his latest and Police, Adjective, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.

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Corneliu Porumboiu
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Anyone inured to the downward-facing schadenfreude of Corneliu Porumboiu’s prior features might be taken aback by The Whistlers, the Romanian auteur’s first foray into slick, international genre filmmaking. The title refers to a crime ring in the Canary Islands that uses a bird-whistling language to evade surveillance. A crooked cop named Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) successfully infiltrates the group, but his undercover status is increasingly compromised by his fixation on Gilda (Catrinel Menghia), the sultry girlfriend of the ringleader, as well as by the tight leash his commanding officer back in Bucharest has him on.

Lest anyone think Porumboiu is making a play for more commercial appeal, The Whistlers is choc-a-block with teasing allusions, including repurposed music like Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” and Jacques Offenbach’s “Baccharole” from The Tales of Hoffman, as well as cinephilic references: One expository dump happens during a screening of The Searchers, while a climactic set piece takes place at an abandoned movie set. I had the pleasure of picking Porumboiu’s brain after the film’s U.S. premiere last fall at the New York Film Festival about his toying with genre, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.

All your films are playful in my opinion, but with this one, you’re playing with genre.

If you had asked me four years ago if one of my films would have flashbacks, I would have said, “No, no way.” [laughs] With The Whistlers, the way it’s structured, I was interested in the process of learning the language. That determined the core of the film. After that, I knew I needed flashbacks so I can have different types of plot movements happening—so that the main character, Cristi, can look differently at things as they happen, because of language. Double-movement. A parallel structure. After that came the other characters in the film, who play specific roles for—in front of—the camera. Catrinel Menghia plays Gilda, which is an assumed name. We don’t know much about this character.

The femme fatale.

Right. She’s assuming that position. At the end of the day, this is a world of people chasing money. They’re using dialogue to have a fight, you know? So, I knew it was time to look back at the classical noirs. I watched some films and began pulling from them.

The film’s plotlines get increasingly convoluted as Cristi learns more about the world he’s stepped into, the threat of a double-cross always looming over him.

Well, at the end I think you get it all back. My focus was to arrive in the middle, to arrive at a type of cinema linked exclusively to his character, his personality. So, I was thinking in classical noir but not dominated by it.

This is your second time working with Vlad Ivanov, the first since Police, Adjective, nearly a decade ago. Was this role written for him?

Yes. Because in a way I was revisiting the character from Police, Adjective, starting from that. To me he’s an almost theological character. So, at the end of the day, I asked myself if this guy, who’s almost like a military officer, who has a very strict background, can his philosophy last? To find this guy 10 years after, what does he still believe in? Who is he now?

Tell me more the difference between then and now.

Well, in the last film he was someone who trusted a certain system, was a part of it. He had his own philosophy, he knew very well where his power was. A decade later he’s completely lost. He doesn’t know what he believes in anymore. I wanted the difference to be subtle but indisputable. He’s become obsessed with money, his motivations are more harsh.

Is there something about Romania’s economic situation that you’re linking this to?

In 12:08 East of Bucharest, my characters defined themselves in relation to the revolution of 1989, and they believed in communication. In Police, Adjective, you have a boss imposing his own ideology from the top down. In Metabolism, it’s like a game: The director can’t assume his position at the top. Here, my characters don’t believe in anything, they just think in terms of fighting and winning. This is how we perceive the world now, I think.

The transition from value systems to anarchy, or at least a certain realpolitik—even working cooperatively, everyone is looking out for themselves.

I think after the economic crisis, the world changed drastically. I don’t know, the classical noir has a certain vision about the world that’s quite dark, yet was proper for that time. Maybe we can find some similarities today.

Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between this film and Infinite Football?

Infinite Football is about utopia—one man’s political, ideological utopia. He wants to change the game, and what his new game implies is a reflection of the history of Romania. His personal history. But I was doing it in a different way, so I did it like a work in progress.

And you figure into the film as well. You have personal history with these people. They talk to you, talk to the camera, pull you into the frame.

Well, it’s a personal project. Laurentiu, the subject, my friend, he may not have faith in the system, but he has faith in the game, or that his rules will prove themselves. This is the Don Quixote thing of it all.

Spanish and Romanian are not that far from one another, and in order to whistle, the main character has to break his messages down into units of Spanish syllables.

I saw a documentary on TV about La Gomera, the island in Spain. From that I learned about the language of whistling and became very curious. That was 10 years ago. I started to read about the language, and I went to the island where they were teaching it. It was then that I knew I wanted to do a film about the character from Police, Adjective. Being a film about language and codes, I thought I could play with genres; cinema at the end of the day is coding reality, after all. When I write, it’s like going back to the first act, and trying to be there, be present with the characters. Eventually it is them who move me into the story. I have a very particular way of writing. Police, Adjective had eight or nine drafts. I wanted the dialogue to be functional, transactional. And not to go too deep. Each of the characters has a double nature that can’t be opened too much. At the end of the day I’m making these movies for myself. You have to believe in what you’re doing, at least at the beginning of the shoot. [laughs]

I think the first 15 minutes of this film have more edits than all of Police, Adjective. Surely this switch-up is getting you questions from people.

The story called for this approach though. It pushed me to do that.

Critics love packaging things. The “Romanian New Wave,” epitomized by the slowness and realism of your earlier films, is a perfect example. Do you find these categories or tropes at all oppressive?

Well, the truth is it wasn’t a “movement” in the sense of something written down or programmatic. Young filmmakers started working in 2000 and, of course, critics outside Romania don’t know much about Romanian cinema before “us,” so it’s expected that they will put a stamp on new films coming out. For me, each of the directors has their own voice, their own way, developed on its own terms, and for me the movies are especially different now. I’m not offended, but it means I have to speak about my own cinema—none of these generalizations. These critics probably have not seen The Reenactment, or Reconstruction, by Lucian Pintillie, my mentor—the so-called “Old Wave.” This was a hugely important, inspiring film for all of us in my generation. He died before I finished shooting The Whistlers. Regarding Police, Adjective, he told me: “If you cut five or 10 minutes from this film, you’ll have a really good audience.” And I told him, “No.” [laughs]

The generalizations tend to break down, or that’s just the nature of an artist discussing their own work. And the idea of a “movement” implies a finitude or a strategy.

The Treasure was a fable, no? You could find the structure less threatening if you had seen my previous films. Maybe other films from Romania around the same time. But I began to try a nonlinear structure in my documentaries, then applied it to The Whistlers.

Do you prefer the original title, La Gomera, to The Whistlers?

I do think The Whistlers is better. But translated into Romanian, it doesn’t have the same power as La Gomera! Also, I wanted to avoid confusion with Gomorrah.

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Review: Autumn de Wilde’s Emma Takes a Classic for a Stylish, Ironic Spin

This lively adaptation plays up the novel’s more farcical elements, granting it a snappy, rhythmic pace.

3

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Emma
Photo: Focus Features

Jane Austen’s Emma concerns the mishaps of a self-assured young country aristocrat who prides herself on her savoir faire but who remains, in the terms a certain modern adaptation, totally clueless. A light comedy neither broad enough to be farce nor pointed enough to be satire, the novel lends itself to interpretation as both, given the narrative’s manifold romantic misunderstandings and host of kooky, idle gentry. Without departing far from the text, director Autumn de Wilde’s lively new film adaptation emphasizes the more farcical elements of Austen’s second-longest novel, granting it a snappy, rhythmic pace.

The eponymous gentlewoman, the story’s only three-dimensional character, is played with impressive depth by Anya Taylor-Joy here. On screen, Emma can seem frivolous right up until the climactic moment that forces her into a self-confrontation, but Taylor-Joy’s open, expressive face, so often in close-up, captures Emma’s creeping uncertainty regarding her powers of judgment, as well as her own feelings, even as she continues to act the social butterfly. She’s aided by a screenplay by Eleanor Catton that doesn’t quite resolve the story’s main fault—its concluding romance counts as perhaps the least convincing of any of Austen’s works—but which preserves much of the complexity of its “handsome, clever, and rich” heroine, who must learn to abide by her judgment rather than her vanity.

Emma begins the film at the height of self-regard, the reigning socialite of the small countryside community of Highbury. The 20-year-old has recently made a match for her governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), arranging her marriage—well above her station—to the neighboring widower gentleman Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves). She elects Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a recently arrived schoolgirl of uncertain origins and inelegant manners, to be her next project. She teaches the naïve girl, enraptured by Emma’s ostentatious wealth and delicate bearing, to present herself as worthy of a genteel suitor, manipulating her into rejecting the proposal of hardy local farmer Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells), and encouraging her to pursue the affections of the young vicar-about-town Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) instead.

O’Connor plays Mr. Elton with palpable smarm, wearing a perpetual shit-eating grin above the ridiculous splayed-out collar of an early-19th-century Anglican vicar. Here, as elsewhere, de Wilde communicates much of what remains implicit in the novel (like Mr. Elton’s odiousness) via a tidy mise-en-scène redolent of Wes Anderson. The sterile pastels of the elegant clothing and the precise movements of both the aristocracy and their servants (who hover about in the background like strange automatons) give the film’s sudden eruptions of human neuroses a droll, punchy tone—as when Mr. Elton casually mentions that it may snow, and a dinner party suddenly erupts into chaos, the nervous guests rushing to the carriages to get back home.

It’s in one of those carriages that, in a scene played perhaps a bit too broadly, a slightly drunk Mr. Elton confronts Emma with the revelation that he’s been aiming to court her. Naturally, the news of Mr. Elton’s true affections devastates Harriet, whom Emma very belatedly realizes may have been well suited to Mr. Martin, though at this point Harriet has learned to think of the farmer as beneath her. Outraged at Emma’s tutoring of Harriet in the ways of class presumption is Martin’s landlord, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), a wealthy Highbury bachelor who, as brother to her brother-in-law, counts as family to Emma and her worry-wart father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy). In the lavishly decorated living rooms and salons of their immense estates, Emma and Mr. Knightley bicker in the way that unwitting lovers in Austen tend to, arguing verbosely about the propriety of introducing Harriet to high society.

Emma and Knightley later have occasion to debate the relative virtues of Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) and Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), who arrive separately in town under much whispered ballyhoo. The young and handsome Frank seems destined to ask for Emma’s hand; Jane, the orphaned niece of local gossip Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), is rumored to be heartbroken after forming an inappropriate attachment to her adopted sister’s husband. Emma is as flattered by Frank’s attentions as she is jealous of Jane’s level of gentlewomanly accomplishment. Catton and de Wilde extrapolate from the novel’s succession of social scenarios to make Emma’s doubt about the shifting social field more comically apparent: One of the funniest scenes has the ostensibly modest Jane follow up Emma’s dilettantish performance on the pianoforte with a beautiful, complex sonata, in front of the whole town.

Emma’s discomfort in her new situation will come to a head when she, with Frank’s encouragement, grossly abuses her privilege as a gentlewoman with a practiced wit, embarrassing herself and wounding an old friend. Emma is interested in such textures of early-19th-century society, if not in the latter’s pace. The film fits so much of Austen’s narrative in by judiciously condensing scenes to suit its more ironic tone, occasionally using transitional smash cuts to get right to the point. The result is a stylish, eminently watchable farce that, despite its old-England trappings, is every bit an update as it is an adaptation.

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Amber Anderson Director: Autumn de Wilde Screenwriter: Eleanor Catton Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack, Book

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Review: The Trouble with Being Born Is a Chilly Rumination on Memory

In the end, the film suffers from the same issue as its moody androids: enervation borne out of repetition.

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The Trouble with Being Born
Photo: Berlinale

The near future looks a lot like the present in Sandra Wollner’s The Trouble with Being Born, only bleaker and lonelier. That sense of isolation is conveyed right from the start. In the fantastically dreamy introduction, we float through a forest on a summery drift of whispering voiceover and buzzing insects before coming upon a father and young daughter next to a backyard pool. What looks like a relaxing day quickly reads as forced, even icy. While the girl (Lena Watson), Elli, stays by the pool, the father (Dominik Warta) goes inside, only to dash back out again when he sees Elli floating lifeless in the water. “Fuck,” he says. “Not again.” In the next scene, he’s using his phone to reboot the not-quite-drowned Elli.

An android whose deep black eyes and waxily smooth skin—evoking the eerie expressionlessness of Christiane’s face mask in Eyes Without a Face—are the very definition of the Uncanny Valley, Elli was built to replicate the father’s daughter, who disappeared 10 years before. Her reactions are slow and mannered, as though she were puzzling over a bug in her programming instead of playing like a human 10-year-old. Even though her actions are mostly set on a loop built out from scraps of what the father remembers of his daughter, Elli seems to take a mix-and-match approach to those implanted memories, obsessing like an amnesiac trying to make sense of a muddled past. At times, it’s unclear whether the lines in the voiceover (“Mum…doesn’t need to know everything”) are repeated from the human Elli or invented by the android Elli as a way of mimicking her biological predecessor.

The first half of The Trouble with Being Born is narratively thin but heavy with the promise of something more. Inklings of something disturbing in this isolated idyll, that too-close stare of the father and his dressing her just so, are eventually made explicit and disturbing. In one of the more effectively queasy body-horror moments ever put on film, the father removes Elli’s tongue and vagina for cleaning, leaving her naked on the counter. It’s a strikingly disgusting moment, pointing not just to the abuse he subjected his human daughter to, but the casual disdain with which he regards her replacement. But despite the power of this scene and a few others—particularly the wordless shot of Elli watching her father from a distance with the same restless curiosity of the cat flopped next to her, visualizing the unbridgeable gulf between “father” and “daughter”—Wollner continues to fill her film with too little story.

That problem becomes more acute once Elli runs away and the story shifts to another android-human relationship. After Elli is picked up by a passing motorist (Simon Hatzl) who then gifts her like a new toy to his elderly mother (Ingrid Burkhard), still mourning the little brother she lost 60 years before. The ease with which Elli is made into a boy—in the world of the film, reprogramming androids is about as complicated as restarting a smartphone—stands in stark contrast to the violent trauma of abuse that still lingers like a ghost in her flickeringly sentient CPU. But while the setting and the primary human character changes in the second half of the film, Wollner’s narrow view of her story means just more of the same glassy expressions and long maundering silences, like Tarkovsky without the existential pain. At some point, the mirroring begins to feel more like straight repetition without any significant revelation.

In the end, The Trouble with Being Born suffers from the same issue as its moody androids: enervation borne out of repetition. There are some attempts here and there to comment on the replacement of human connection with silicone facsimiles. We almost never see people together. The only time the mother, who spends much of her time walking her dog and wistfully pondering the past, is with another person is when her son drops off Elli. Shopping malls, car-choked roads, and distant skyscrapers dominate the landscape. But rather than truly exploring the ramifications of its futuristic conceit, whether from a broader societal or individualistic and relational perspective, the film just keeps looping back to the same luminously filmed but ultimately blank silences.

Cast: Lena Watson, Dominik Warta, Ingrid Burkhard, Jana McKinnon, Simon Hatzl Director: Sandra Wollner Screenwriter: Sandra Wollner, Roderick Warich Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog Wages a War Between Language and Cinema

It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic.

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Malmkrog
Photo: Berlinale

Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog is based on 19th-century Russian philosopher and mystic Vladimir Solovyov’s prophetic Three Conversations, which, through a series of dialectical maneuvers, addresses such topics as economic materialism, nationalism, and abstract moralism. The film takes place on a snow-covered hillside, where a large pastel-pink mansion sits and Puiu turns the philosophical into drama. Sheltered in the mansion’s walls are a small group of aristocrats that includes a politician, a general and his wife, and a young countess. It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic. A Christmas gathering stretches on in what seems to be real time, as the party’s high-minded philosophical and political chatter takes on an increasingly strained air.

That tension is heightened by the obstacles that Puiu uses to discombobulate his audience. Malmkrog is the Transylvanian village where the film takes place, yet the characters, who speak primarily in French, talk of being in Russia. And as they discuss imminent war and the potential outcomes of violence, it’s as if the film appears to exist outside of time and place. Doorways and mirrors obfuscate who’s involved in a conversation, and the characters move through the mansion as though compelled by spirits of the past, with cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru often lighting all those drawing rooms using only natural light sources. Malmkrog exudes a painterly expressiveness that’s a far cry from the cold, handheld aesthetic that typically defines the look of Puiu’s work and the Romanian New Wave as a whole.

The film’s first scene lasts nearly an hour and is a magnificent example of staging. The camera glides left and right, with each movement matched by a change in composition that the actors match as though dancing to the music behind their endless words. This balletic circularity, slow but constantly surprising, recalls Max Ophüls’s fixation on the oneiric, circular properties of time. In a surprising moment of violence, a number of characters die on a staircase, only for them to come back to life a scene later, and without comment from anyone. When Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard), the mansion’s wealthy owner and Malmkrog’s central figure, looks up the staircase, it’s as if he recalls what previously occurred there. The moment echoes one from Letter from an Unknown Woman where Joan Fontaine’s Lisa stares up the very staircase up which Louis Jourdan’s Stefan and another woman ascended years earlier.

Whenever Nikolai, who makes the domineering Stefan from Ophüls’s 1948 masterpiece seem meek by comparison, utters lines like “prayer is a soap for the soul,” he carries himself like the Sherlock Holmes of moral arbitration. But he’s closer to a 19th-century Ben Shapiro: a pompous rat obsessed with facts and logic, who won’t let a woman finish a point for fear that he won’t be able to counteract it with a cogent counter-argument. It’s not always clear to what extent Puiu is satirizing this type of behavior, given the spectacle of the man’s endless pontificating, and that the other characters only rarely undercut his words with references to his verbosity. Puiu clearly believes in Nikolai enough to make him the mouthpiece for Solovyov’s philosophizing, which makes it harder to buy to what extent these people are being sent up, and how much Puiu wants the viewer to eat up his words wholesale.

With our perspective held hostage in one place, memory and imagination blur into one. When Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité) reads from a book, the account of a vicious battle between Cossacks and bashi-bazouks, the effect is rapturous. In this claustrophobic endurance test, Puiu transports the viewer through language to a scene with the epic scope of the film’s runtime. He focuses on listening faces, themselves teleported to a different space.

Like his characters, Puiu wages his own war of discourses, in his case between language and cinema. Whenever Malmkrog seems to have settled into a formal rhythm, the filmmaker flips it, using a different device to interrogate how people talk, and to what extent they listen. One heightened dialogue exchange culminates with the main characters staring out of the window in complete stillness. Then Nikolai starts to move, unstuck from this tableau, and seemingly from time. The boundaries of reality keep getting pushed at, to the point that one almost expects the mansion’s walls to fall and reveal a film set. Later, he glides away from a tea reception to observe the servants, who silently rearrange the house and conceal their own power structure through glances and outbursts of violence that are hidden from the wealthy class. They are like spirits, pulling out chairs for aristocrats who don’t acknowledge them, clearing out items like empty champagne glasses that hint at the echo of a past time.

The creeping dread of history repeatedly overwhelms character and viewer, particularly during General Edouard’s (Ugo Broussot) screed on the world’s necessary “Europeanness,” which becomes a Buñuelian account of fascist tendencies and culminates in the film’s most shocking moment. His wife, the imperious, frizzy-haired Madeline (Agathe Bosch), obsesses over the authority behind language: who may speak, and how. This is the sneaky vessel for a larger discussion on power and control. Living in a religious nation, Nikolai posits, one must first understand what Christianity is, and define national identity from that. The characters situate this in the context of war, and a globe that’s shrinking in the face of technological progress.

But with each scene, Puiu strips away the layers of his ornate style, so that by hour three, all that’s left is the close-up. With Nikolai’s straight face berating Olga, evangelizing on resurrection, the sophistication of the dialogue rarely matches that of Puiu’s aesthetic form. As Malmkrog becomes less ostentatious in style, the redundancy of its philosophizing becomes almost impossible to ignore, having made its conclusions about the inability of the intellectual class in combating fascism through language by the 100-minute mark. Puiu’s assaultive mass of a film speaks to modern times in its depiction of aristocrats indulging in comfortable platitudes as the world edges toward the precipice of chaos, but the Romanian auteur doesn’t entirely make the case for sticking around to listen.

Cast: Agathe Bosch, Frédéric Schulz-Richard, Diana Sakalauskaité, Ugo Broussot, Marina Palii, István Téglás Director: Cristi Puiu Screenwriter: Cristi Puiu Running Time: 200 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: For Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, the Cruelty Is the Point

The thrill of the film’s craftsmanship is inseparable from its main character’s abuse.

1.5

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The Invisible Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

Elisabeth Moss brings unexpected shades to the flimsiest of roles, and she makes it look so easy. Even if you go into writer-director Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man blind, you will know what Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) did to his wife, Cecilia Kass (Moss), simply from the way she moves one of his hands from her belly. Across a taut and nerve-wracking opening sequence, Cecilia orchestrates what becomes increasingly clear is an elaborate escape. If it’s easy to overlook the hoariness with which the camera lingers at various points on some object that portends things to come, that’s because Moss never stops conveying the agony of the years-long abuse that Cecilia has endured, through the surreptitiousness of her gait and the way paralyzing bolts of fear shoot through her body.

That kind of talent only helps a film like The Invisible Man that doesn’t really care about abuse beyond its function as a plot device. After escaping Adrian’s clutches, Cecilia goes to live with a childhood friend (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter (Storm Reid). Or, rather, struggles to live, as leaving the house is too hard for Cecilia to bear. Cecilia never really stops talking about the control that Adrian exercised over her, even after she learns that he committed suicide, thus freeing her to finally put her life back together. But there’s a frustrating friction to such scenes, between an actress sincerely committed to expressing her character’s pain and a filmmaker interested in trauma only as far it whets our appetite for how a psychopathic tech magnate who specialized in optics could possibly torment his wife from beyond the grave.

With his directorial debut, Insidious 3, Whannell effectively goosed an otherwise insipid haunted-house attraction with clever twists on a franchise’s trite dependence on the jump scare. But it was Upgrade, which saw him freed of franchise responsibilities, as well as longtime collaborator James Wan, that felt closer to a coming-out party for the filmmaker. And it practically announced him as a master, if not of horror, then of evasion, for the way his acute sense of movement is so thrilling in the moment that it can make one overlook his rickety storytelling. Upgrade is a film that’s less suspicious of the not-so-brave new world of tomorrow that anti-authoritarian tech bros are rapidly ushering in than it is in awe of what their toys can do. Its meditation on vengeance is closer to justification: that it’s okay that a bro turned half-machine is going on a violent rampage because of what was done to his wife.

The Invisible Man, another distinctly male fantasy set in a more recognizable present-day San Francisco, has even less to say than that, though it seeks to also entertain us with all that a techie can do with one of his toys. And that it does, as in an impressive early scene inside James’s house where Cecilia walks out of the kitchen while making breakfast and a long shot unobtrusively captures a knife falling off the counter and the flame on one of the gas burners being turned to high. The frisson of unease to this and several other scenes, of a man hiding in not-so-plain sight as he mounts a spectacular show of gaslighting, is close to unbearable. And when the titular menace is finally glimpsed, if only intermittently, the straight shot of action-infused momentum that marks the sequence as he lays waste to a small army of police officers inside the hallway of a mental institution feels like a release, for Cecilia and the audience.

But to what end does Whannell really fashion all this style? In one scene, and only one scene, the film tells us that Cecilia is an architect, not to illuminate all that she’s capable of as a creative, but to allow for the moment where she shows up to an interview at an architecture firm and discovers that the samples of her work were removed from her portfolio. That scene, some 30 minutes into The Invisible Man, is the moment where the film starts to provoke a certain queasiness, where it becomes clear that Cecilia only exists, for Adrian and for Whannell, to be terrorized, to be held up in the air, to be flung across a room, to be punched, to not be believed, to be thought of as insane. And to be raped. That this violation happens off screen proves that Whannell has foresight, that he’s aware of the controversy that surrounded Hollow Man upon its release in 2000. But that we must be told that it also took place at an indeterminate time, almost as a matter of course, feels like an icky attempt at not having to actually grapple with the implications of the crime by casting doubt on it.

Out of sight, out of mind. That feels like Whannell’s mantra. Indeed, by the time it gets around to the business of Cecilia being believed, the film starts to collapse under the weight of an increasingly absurd series of plot reveals for the way she turns the tables on the invisible man to feel like anything but an afterthought. Even then, when her tormentor is right there out in the open, it’s still clear that Whannell only thinks of violence in terms of how it can be paid back. Which is to say, he’s consistent. Through to the end, you can’t get off on the thrill of this film’s craftsmanship without also getting off on the spectacle of more than just Cecilia brought to the brink of destruction. Like its style, The Invisible Man’s cruelty is the point.

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, Benedict Hardie Director: Leigh Whannell Screenwriter: Leigh Whannell Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 125 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Guns Akimbo Squanders a Nifty Setup with Excruciating Humor

Writer-director Jason Lei Howden’s humor might have been tolerable if his film was at least reasonably imaginative.

1.5

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Guns Akimbo
Photo: Saban Films

For much of Jason Lei Howden’s Guns Akimbo, Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) is in his jammies, because getting dressed is difficult when your hands are nailed to pistols. Eating and using the bathroom are no easy feat either. With this, the film hits on an amusing setup for physical comedy, as Miles can do little but stumble about as he strives to drive a car or use his phone with his nose. He also must avoid being shot by Nix (Samara Weaving), his designated opponent in a kill-or-be-killed online competition called Skizm. But the film ultimately fails to capitalize on its concept and gets smothered by its smug, abrasive tone.

Miles is a coder for a video game titled Nuts Bust 2, one of too-many examples of the film’s groan-inducing comedy. He’s also a bizarrely self-aware depiction of an internet troll, as Miles admits via narration that, in order to feel worthwhile, he seeks out arguments in comment sections and reports “offensive content.” When he goes to Skizm’s chatroom to tell the viewers off, he runs afoul of the organization’s facial-tattooed leader, Riktor (Ned Dennehy), who at one point says, “I’m going to do a poo-poo in my pantaloons,” because why not? Those guns for hands and his forced participation in Skizm are Miles’s punishment.

Most of Guns Akimbo’s dialogue squanders an intriguing concept through truly excruciating attempts at humor, oscillating between snide comments, gay panic jokes, and capital-A attitude-laden one-liners. In one scene, Miles remarks that the world looks “so HD” because, with gun-hands, he can’t go outside with his face in his phone.

The humor might have been tolerable if the film was at least reasonably imaginative. Radcliffe really digs into Miles’s sniveling bafflement and the expressive Weaving clearly has a lot of hammy fun as the unhinged Nix. But too much of Guns Akimbo consists of unremarkable car chases and gun fights that hardly feel transformed at all by Miles’s unique predicament. We watch a lot of people fire a lot of guns against a lot of concrete backdrops, except Howden deploys a hyperactive camera style that’s always zooming around the characters in slow motion or fast forward. He appears to be going for the Neveldine/Taylor style of films like Crank and Gamer, except he’s not nearly as inventive and most of his flourishes outright distract from the action choreography, sometimes obscuring it altogether.

Worse, Guns Akimbo strains to be self-aware, with Miles assuring audiences via narration that this isn’t one of those stories where he wins back his ex-girlfriend, Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), in the end. And it’s weirdly self-congratulatory for a film that visibly revels in torturing Weaving’s character and eventually has Nova kidnapped for the big climax anyway. The film has even less to say about the sort of obsessive spectatorship that makes up the story’s backdrop, as though simply depicting reality-TV audiences and internet users as assholes is some profound statement. Luckily, unlike Miles, viewers have a say in the matter. They aren’t bolted to the couch and the remote isn’t nailed into their hands; they’re free to quit watching at any time, or simply opt not to watch this obnoxious film at all.

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Samara Weaving, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Ned Dennehy, Rhys Darby, Grant Bowler, Edwin Wright Director: Jason Lei Howden Screenwriter: Jason Lei Howden Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Assistant Is a Chilling Portrait of Workplace Harassment

The film is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as its main character.

3

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The Assistant
Photo: Bleecker Street Media

With The Assistant, writer-director Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in the Tribeca offices of a film mogul, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing much of its resonance. Offices encourage professional functionality as a way of divorcing people from themselves, leading them to make actions without a sense of complicity. What starts small—throwing co-workers under the bus, neglecting friends due to punishing work hours—can blossom over time into people enabling atrocity under the guise of “doing what they’re told.”

With this psychology in mind, Green fashions The Assistant as a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae. The film opens with a young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), being picked up from her apartment for work so punishingly early that it’s almost impossible to tell if it’s morning or night. By 8 a.m., she’s been making copies, printing documents, reading emails, and tending to office errands for hours. Other employees gradually drift in, talking obligatorily of their weekends off—a privilege that Jane isn’t accorded.

In these early scenes, Green conjures a peculiar, very palpable dread, her precise, anal-retentive compositions suggesting what might happen if David Fincher were to adapt Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” This dread springs from two places, as the visual palette is silvery and moody, evoking a potential corporate thriller, though the film refuses to move beyond the expository stage and gratify this expectation, and so we fear that we may be trapped with Jane in her tedium. We are, and this is by Green’s moral schematic.

The Assistant is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as Jane. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the film mogul is only evoked via male pronouns (he’s never seen but often referenced and occasionally heard over the phone, usually in a torrent of rage against Jane for her inability to talk down his wife, who knows of his infidelity). Jane brings another assistant the wrong sandwich, and he treats her cruelly; it never occurs to him, or anyone else, to thank Jane for the tasks she performs for everyone in the office. At best, Jane’s co-workers regard her with a kind of pitying befuddlement, as if she’s not quite real. When Jane eats, it’s quickly and without pleasure, and she’s always alert to being watched. No one speaks of their personal lives. Green springs one perceptive, poignant detail after another, especially when the mogul compliments Jane via email just as she thinks he’s reached his limit with her. This is, of course, a major tool of the master manipulator: praise when least expected, and only enough to keep the person in your sphere of influence and at your mercy.

Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere. Jane finds an earring in the mogul’s office, which is repeatedly seen from a distance through its open door and becomes a chilling symbol for the mogul himself, suggesting his unshakable presence even in absence. There are jokes made about his couch, which Jane cleans. Young, beautiful women are brought into the office at late hours, and are referenced by both male and female employees with contempt. Growing fearful for one of the women, Jane tries to complain to an unsympathetic H.R. officer who sets about gaslighting her. It becomes evident that we’re watching—from the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit person—a parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Green’s grasp of Jane’s indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable.

Yet The Assistant also feels too narrow, too comfortable with its thesis. The rendering of the mogul as an unseen specter is effective but also dime-store lurid in the tradition of mediocre horror movies, and this device also conveniently absolves Green of having to wrestle with how a Weinstein type might live with himself. George Huang’s similarly themed 1994 film Swimming with Sharks, which is mostly inferior to The Assistant, benefited from such a friction, as its own Weinstein surrogate (played by Kevin Spacey) had a magnetism that complicated and enriched the script’s anger. There’s also something insidious about Green’s evasion, as the mogul’s absence elevates him, mythologizes him, which reflects how people low on the power ladder see powerful exploiters. But Green physicalizes this idea without standing outside of it, challenging it, or contextualizing it; she traps us in a monotonous hell and leaves us there. Her fury with Weinstein and his ilk contains an element of awe.

Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, Stéphanye Dussud, Juliana Canfield, Alexander Chaplin, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bregje Heinen Director: Kitty Green Screenwriter: Kitty Green Distributor: Bleecker Street Media Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy Is a Half-Hearted Spin on Peter Pan

Wendy veers awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never accruing any lasting emotional impact.

2

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Wendy
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Like Beasts of the Southern Wild before it, Wendy unfolds through the eyes of a child. Benh Zeitlin’s sophomore feature puts a new spin on Peter Pan, and not only because it takes on the perspective of a 10-year-old Wendy Darling (Devin France). The film’s modern-rustic settings and costumes and relative lack of fantastical elements—notwithstanding the presence of a majestic, glowing sea creature, referred to as “mother,” who may hold the secret to reversing time—also play a large part in re-envisioning J.M. Barrie’s classic. But Zeitlin’s brand of magical realism strains in its conflicting desires to both demystify Neverland (never mentioned by name in the film), chiefly by grounding it in a rather prosaic reality, and imbue the story with all the enchanting qualities we’ve come to expect from fantasies of everlasting childhood. Like its version of Peter (Yashua Mack), Wendy wants to fly, yet, because of its self-imposed restrictions, it never quite gets off the ground.

Across this tale of a child lurching toward adulthood, there’s a sense of wonder and awe to the sea creature’s brief appearances, and to Wendy’s initial encounters with the free-spirited Peter, who playfully eggs her on from atop the train that regularly roars across the barren, rural locale that houses her family’s rundown diner. But Wendy’s whimsical flourishes, from Dan Romer’s incessantly rousing score to Wendy’s breathy and all-too-mannered voiceover, brush awkwardly against the film’s dour conception of a Neverland drained of all its magic and grandeur. Despite this, Zeitlin strives to capture an unbridled sense of childlike exuberance as kids cavort around the rugged cliffside vistas of the remote volcanic island that Peter calls home. But lacking any of the mystical features typically associated with them, Peter and his cohorts’ behaviors appear overly precocious to the point of ludicrousness; it’s almost as if they’re performing a twee, optimistic rendition of Lord of the Flies.

Unlike Quvenzhané Wallis, whose magnetic presence imbued Beasts of the Southern Wild with a pervasive warmth and soulfulness, Mack is an unfortunately listless presence as Peter. Several years younger than Wendy and her twin brothers, Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin), Peter appears, more often than not, like a six-year-old playing dress-up. His utter lack of charisma and gusto renders him an ill-fitting avatar for boisterous youthfulness, while his occasionally domineering, yet still unimposing, demeanor hardly makes him out to be the inspirational figure that the film ultimately wants him to be. Not only does he allow one boy to drown at one point, he chops off the hand of another to prevent him from aging.

Such events position Wendy as a twisted take on Peter Pan, but these moments are never given room to breathe. Rather, they’re uniformly undermined by the film cutting back to the idyllic adventures of children, in lockstep with Zeitlin’s relentless pursuit of galvanizing his audience through a gleefully idealized vision of the world. This jarring intrusion of darker elements into the story makes for bizarre clashes in tone, leaving Wendy to veer awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never to accrue any lasting emotional impact. When Peter buoyantly declares that “to grow up is a great adventure,” one is left to wonder not only why the boy who never grows up would, out of nowhere, embrace this worldview, but why Wendy, or any of the other children, would want to follow such a troubling figure on that journey.

As Wendy stumbles into its final act, where adult pirates attempt to use Wendy as bait to catch the giant sea creature, it becomes even more convoluted, contradictory, and murky in what it’s trying to say about growing up. Wendy eventually begins to stand up to and question Peter, both for his mistreatment of her brother and his harshness toward the adults Peter has excommunicated to an impoverished community on the outskirts of the island. But no sooner does she chide Peter than she’s back on his side, cheering him on as he fights off an admittedly cleverly devised Captain Hook. It’s as if she, much like the film, can’t seem to settle on whether Peter’s a hero or a borderline psychopath, or if childhood is a magical time to live in permanently or a necessary step on the way to adulthood. Rather than meaningfully subverting audience expectations, Wendy instead plays like a half-hearted twist on the familiar tale that ultimately doesn’t change the moral at the core of countless other Peter Pan adaptations: childhood is magical, and growing up is scary but inevitable.

Cast: Tommie Lynn Milazzo, Shay Walker, Devin France, Stephanie Lynn Wilson, Ahmad Cage, Gage Naquin, Krzysztof Meyn, Gavin Naquin, Romyri Ross Director: Benh Zeitlin Screenwriter: Benh Zeitlin, Eliza Zeitlin Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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