With Gemini, Aaron Katz does his cover of the Los Angeles-set murder mystery, homing in on the genre’s evocative loneliness. In a city known for reinvention, anyone can be anything, which implies that everyone is also no one. Katz opens the film on a haunting image of upside-down palm trees, suggesting a rarefied dream world that’s out of tilt—an impression that’s intensified by Keegan DeWitt’s score, which bridges the jazzy sound of 1940s noirs with the synth-laden melancholia of so many ’80s-era neo-noirs. The film abounds in such topsy-turvy re-appropriations of familiar tropes, but Katz doesn’t bracket Gemini in quotation marks, understanding that L.A. murder mysteries live on for their simultaneous senses of damnation and possibility. Most people who dream of being filmmakers and movie stars aren’t successful in their aims, but there’s always the haunting promise of the few who are.
Katz is a location-centric artist, making films that follow characters who find themselves adrift in cities that are often relatively new to them. Gemini particularly suggests a companion piece to his Cold Weather, as both inform mystery narratives with naturalism. Katz’s films so recognizably belong to everyday people that our expectations are violated when the narratives take a turn toward the perverse or uncanny, which contrasts with genre films that announce their weirdness from the outset, making weird banal.
One can never quite tell in a Katz film, for instance, whether dialogue is setting up punchlines for future use, or whether the rich randomness of the characters’ conversations is reflective of the free association of daily, reassuringly unremarkable life. Katz is attentive to how characters move and speak in their settings, allowing his camera to drink them in at length as they banter. This all feels very “real,” yet the settings, especially those of Gemini, are heightened in the tradition of the L.A. noir: bathed in neon, with an emphasis on rococo angles that suggest German expressionism, or cages. Gemini is more of an overt style piece than Katz’s prior films. In certain fashions, the film is reminiscent of Nate Silver’s Thirst Street, as each allow their creators to heighten their formalism to a fevered pitch without losing their grasp of the pathos of essentially middle-class life.
Gemini concerns a crisis that erupts between a personal assistant, Jill LeBeau (Lola Kirke), and her employer, a movie star named Heather Anderson (Zoë Kravitz). Jill and Heather are informal and affectionate with one another in fashions that suggest friendship and even romantic involvement—except there’s always a line signifying the differences in Jill and Heather’s respective class statuses. Heather makes messes on a whim that she expects Jill to clean up, evincing a classic sense of wealthy entitlement that Kravitz plays with unusual subtlety. Katz and Kravitz don’t make a joke of Heather’s self-absorption, understanding that parody would defang it.
Characteristically, Katz devotes a long and leisurely act to getting to know Jill and Heather—to the point that we may begin to wonder if this film is solely a character study. Katz floods the dialogue with red herrings, carefully preparing for a thriller situation while illustrating the distrust that comes with a life as privileged as Heather’s. Early in the film, a man calls Heather’s phone, which Jill answers, and says that he’s going to kill her. Later, a young woman named Sierra (Jessica Parker Kennedy) sits next to Heather and Jill in a restaurant booth, exhibiting a sense of entitlement that rivals that of Heather herself, and asks for a picture. Sierra looks eerily like Heather, which, given the film’s title, also causes our anticipatory senses to tingle. Heather eventually asks Jill for a gun, and the two drink some sort of Mello Yellow cocktail in Jill’s apartment. They wind up at Heather’s mansion, and a motion-detection light can be seen illuminating the property in the background.
The film does eventually explode the latent tension of these sequences. Jill’s accused of a crime, and the trouble in which she finds herself scans as an elaborate metaphor for the headaches that are frequently caused by Heather’s blithe selfishness. As a personal assistant, Jill is simultaneously understood to be the ultimate insider and outsider, regarding L.A. from the perspective of a great success as well as that of an anonymous worker bee. Jill is tasked with solving a mystery, and she dyes her hair blond and wears a trench coat, suggesting an unconventional, almost handmade P.I. along the lines of the one played by Anna Karina in Godard’s Made in U.S.A. She’s allowed to take charge of her life, being active rather than reactive, yet Jill’s quest is still framed within Heather’s larger narrative.
Jill traverses many facets of L.A.—the glamorous side of secret bars and hotels for stars, and the working-class realm that includes strip-mall laundromats and cafés—and Katz informs her quest with a poignant existential quality. He frequently blends Jill in with her settings, often as a reflection within a reflection, suggesting a person who’s become a ghost of their own life, which Kirke casually physicalizes in a performance of careful, intense, and enraptured inhabitation. Gemini is ultimately revealed to be a story of failed self-actualization. Jill is offered a terrifying opportunity to start again, to reacquaint herself with whatever she wanted to be before she was an assistant. But how many people would accept such an offer? Maybe Jill, without Heather, no longer exists, and the pull of L.A.’s promises is steadfast.