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Review: State Like Sleep

There is a difference between ambiguity and vagueness, which State Like Sleep doesn’t always discern.

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State Like Sleep
Photo: The Orchard

Writer-director Meredith Danluck pulls a canny but superficial trick with State Like Sleep, refusing to commit her film to any singular genre as a signifier of her heroine’s own detachment. Danluck is devoted to Katherine’s (Katherine Waterston) aimlessness, following her as she sorts out the mess that’s left in the wake of the possible murder of her celebrity husband, Stefan (Michiel Huisman). The film’s dreamy, dreadful tempo is established with the opening images, as the camera hovers spectrally over cityscapes that are colored with a surreal cloudiness. Danluck then highlights totems of past debauchery, of empty beer and liquor bottles and drug paraphernalia, before lingering over a bullet hole in a window frame. Such images aren’t unexpected of a hybrid thriller noir, but Danluck and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt imbue them with an unease that’s complemented by the disorientation of the narrative’s chronological hopscotching.

There is, however, a difference between ambiguity and vagueness, which State Like Sleep doesn’t always discern. At a certain point in the film, it seems as if Danluck has constructed her screenplay out of isolated scenes that seem meaningful in the moment but don’t actually add up to anything. As Katherine is pulled from New York City into a quasi-murder mystery in Brussels, Danluck offers a gallery of “cool” encounters that give State Like Sleep fleeting indie-hipster cred, with only glints of authentic emotional resonance.

When Katherine discovers a club that Stefan once frequented, she enters a neon-drenched realm that suggests the work of a set designer who’s a David Lynch devotee. (Somehow, it feels inevitable when Luke Evans appears as the club’s sexy, dangerous proprietor.) The sequences in this club aren’t without a kick, but it’s unclear what it has to do with Katherine’s mother, Elaine (Mary Kay Place), who’s recovering from a stroke in a nearby hospital. And how does any of this material relate to Katherine’s potentially kinky relationship with a fellow American traveler, Edward (Michael Shannon)? For a while, Danluck’s command of atmosphere encourages one to go along for the ride and take every scene in State Like Sleep on its own faintly Sundance Lab-y terms. And one exchange, in which Katherine and Edward discuss words that sound like what they mean, is a funny and poignant expression of erotic alienation.

But the film meanders for so long that the seams begin to show. We never learn what Katherine and Stefan meant to one another, as their flashbacks are mostly composed of clichéd pillow shots of them canoodling in bed. Danluck also has little interest in Katherine’s relationship to Stefan’s fame, and how that inspires Katherine’s own art-making. (Katherine is a photographer, though that doesn’t matter to State Like Sleep’s various narratives any more than any other thread of information does.) Which is to say that Danluck sustains an atmosphere of mournfulness throughout the film as a way of evading the task of imagining the inner lives of her characters.

Katherine is a vulnerable rabbit who’s moved through a labyrinth of thriller clichés—a conceit that might have worked if Danluck had fully delivered a thriller rather than a patchwork of tropes and self-help platitudes. Danluck’s refusal to give her narrative a conventional catharsis once again suggests Lynch’s work, especially Twin Peaks: The Return. However, Lynch’s characters, underneath the stylization of the writing and acting, feel authentic and certainly one of a kind. (This near-paradox of reality imbedded within intense stylization is the miracle of Lynch’s best work.) Lynch is willing to give grief its due, while Danluck remains stuck in a structural and tonal middle lane: between convention and self-conscious oddness.

Cast: Katherine Waterston, Michiel Huisman, Michael Shannon, Luke Evans, Mary Kay Place Director: Meredith Danluck Screenwriter: Meredith Danluck Distributor: The Orchard Running Time: 104 min Rating: NR Year: 2018 Buy: Video

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Review: Where’s My Roy Cohn? Stares Steadfastly Into the Face of Evil

This sharp, to-the-point portrait of the crook, fixer, and right-wing pitbull resists the urge to darkly glamorize him.

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Where’s My Roy Cohn?
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

For those wanting to stare into the face of misery personified, look no further than Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary about “legal executioner” Roy Cohn. From the opening scenes of Cohn whispering in Joseph McCarthy’s ear in 1954 to clips of him denying his homosexuality and AIDS diagnosis not long before his death in 1986, the man’s hollow eyes show nothing but rancor. His mouth is pursed tight, waiting to launch the next poisoned barb. He looks like a man devoured by hate, a third-string movie villain transported to real life.

According to Where’s My Roy Cohn?, his villainy was complicated in its execution but not its source. For roughly three decades, Cohn operated as a kind of nexus connecting organized crime, influence peddlers, political chicanery, and American conservatism. Through it all, he tried to cut as large a profile as possible. Raised in the Bronx by a doting mother and a father who was a powerful judge, Cohn appears to have been a mean little cuss all along. His cousin, Dave Marcus, is one of many family members to appear in the documentary, calling Cohn “the definition of a self-hating Jew.” Apart from a virulent (and possibly legitimately felt) anti-communism, there’s no clue here as to what powered Cohn besides rage and ambition.

Except for a few short flashbacks, the documentary sticks to a mostly chronological telling of Cohn’s biography. It’s a brisk and lively telling, flickering through an incident-packed life in a way that suggests the existence of whole movies’ worth of stories that Tyrnauer didn’t have time to get to. Rather than sticking with straight biography, though, the filmmaker uses Cohn’s combination of ribald corruption and destructively reactionary politics not just as spectacle, but as a foreshadowing of the current political age. An indisputably brilliant legal mind, Cohn graduated from Columbia Law School at the age of 20 and was soon working as a fervently dedicated prosecutor on the controversial espionage case of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. One of the interviewees recalls asking Cohn later if he had any regrets about their execution in the electric chair. He replied that, if possible, he would have thrown the switch himself.

Cohn took his malice to the F.B.I., where he learned how to cripple an enemy with malicious press leaks. Recommended by J. Edgar Hoover to McCarthy, Cohn became a fixture at the Wisconsin senator’s hearings, whispering new lines of attack into the paranoid and undisciplined senator’s ear. While much of this has been reported elsewhere, Tyrnauer highlights one curious wrinkle. Cohn’s homosexuality was already an open secret. But he made the mistake of pulling strings for David Schine, a handsome aide to McCarthy who many believed was Cohn’s boyfriend, after Schine was drafted. This caused a scandal when the news came to light, leading to the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. Clips show a tight-lipped Cohn facing homophobic innuendo from senators about his “friendship” with Schine as some in the crowd snort and giggle. Tyrnauer doesn’t use the moment for sympathy, but rather to acknowledge that, vile or not, Cohn had no choice but to stay in the closet.

After the debacle of those hearings, which also destroyed his boss, Cohn moved into private practice. Through the 1960s and ‘70s, he became something of an obnoxious Gatsby figure, linking high society and the underworld. He blew money on fancy cars, lurked at Studio 54, and reveled in the most garish brand of success possible. Eager to be seen with famous people, he threw the kind of parties where one could meet politicos on the make, gangsters on the town, Cardinal Spellman, Andy Warhol, Barbara Walters, Halston, Donald Trump, and any number of Nordic-looking young men Cohn was most certainly not sleeping with.

Tyrnauer never tries to cast Cohn as an antihero. The picture that forms is less of a person than a black hole. A brilliant and utterly unethical lawyer who usually won his cases but stole from his clients nonetheless, Cohn used the same scorched-earth tactics whether defending a member of the Gotti family accused of murder or Trump against charges of housing discrimination: Never surrender, never apologize, attack relentlessly, leak to the press, lie as loudly and frequently as possible, and when in doubt, wrap yourself in the flag. Fortunately, the film doesn’t care to spend much time showing how those strategies were adopted by Trump, who comes off here as a flabby reflection of Cohn, without the brains.

In an excerpt from a 1970s interview that Cohn gave to journalist Ken Auletta that Tyrnauer strings out through the film, Cohn tries to recast his petulance as nonconformity. This act of Cohn’s is much the same one used by his acolyte, fellow practitioner of political dark arts Roger Stone, who pops up briefly to wax nostalgic about old Roy. More often than not, though, Cohn’s attitude played as venom for its own sake. Discussing all the times Cohn was targeted for crimes (stock fraud, insurance fraud that included possible murder), Auletta laughs that Cohn “enjoyed” the indictments, “because it gave him a platform to attack.”

The documentary’s unequivocal vision of Cohn as a dead-eyed being of pure malice could come off like hyperbole. But really it isn’t too far from the self-hating hypocrite depicted on stage by Tony Kushner in Angels in America. Sometimes, fiction gets it right first.

Director: Matt Tyrnauer Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Waves Sweeps You Up in a Formidable Current of Formalist Tricks

This is a rare case of a film that’s stronger when it colors inside the lines than radically traces outside of them.

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Waves
Photo: A24

Writer-director Trey Edward Shults’s Waves begins in motion, with shots kinetically circling and tracking its young characters. Along with the film’s editing—which is timed throughout to endless music cues, be they pop songs or the muffled industrial moans and staggered beats of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score—Shults is quick to establish Tyler’s (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) bona fides as a dedicated student and wrestler. The filmmaker also highlights the luxury in which the teen lives, from his huge home to the brand new cars that his parents and their children drive. Tyler immediately comes across as a kid who has it all, including the love of an adoring girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Dernie).

Efficient as it is as an introduction to Tyler, the montage that opens the film also simplifies the young man—namely, to all the good things in his life. Defining a character by what he has makes it all too easy to create the sort of drama that exists to strip all of those things away, which Waves proceeds to do in such quick and overwhelming fashion that Tyler starts to resemble a modern-day Job. A horrible muscle tear in Tyler’s shoulder threatens his wrestling career—and, implicitly, his college scholarship opportunities—while a text from Alexis that she hasn’t gotten her period sets into motion a series of events that shifts the mood of the film away from the joyful, if antic, toward something almost horror-like in its chaos.

The vivid color timing of Drew Daniels’s cinematography, which bathes every single shot in the film’s first half in some unreal shade of red, purple, yellow, or blue, first imparts a cool chic, only to then conjure an aura of oppressiveness as Tyler loses control of his life. Waves’s connections of sight and sound are initially intriguing and, by design, suffocating, but they’re often conspicuously on point. For one, Shults is prone to communicating the totality of Tyler’s misery through a series of music cues that are obnoxiously timed to moments of violence, such as the beat of Kanye West’s “I Am a God” hitting when an enraged and confused Tyler shoves his overbearing but loving father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), to the ground.

Shults at times nurtures an understanding of Tyler’s downward-spiraling life outside of the unfortunate events that dog him across the film. Ronald, who exudes the hardness of a man who had to fight for what was his, tells Tyler that they have to work twice as hard as whites to succeed. Fertile ground is created here to recast the millennial, upper-middle-class Tyler’s trajectory as a spin on Bigger Thomas’s own in Native Son. In Richard Wright’s novel, a crucible of poverty and systemic racism propels a young black man living in Chicago’s South Side to atrocity, and in Waves, Shults sees how the pressure of maintaining the precariousness of black wealth, in a society that looks for any excuse to strip it away, is a recipe for disaster.

But the film at no other point remotely explores the idea that Tyler, or anyone else in his family besides Ronald, ever exhibits any anxiety over being black in America. By and large, the forces that push at Tyler are the stuff of run-of-the-mill teen drama, from the stress of not being able to play sports to fear of becoming a parent at a young age. The latter concern is the primary motivating factor of the film’s first half, and it’s unnerving to see how much of the story is driven by Tyler’s controlling rage over Alexis’s pro-life views, even as the woman herself is portrayed as stubbornly closed to any discussion on any serious topic.

The sheer aggressiveness of Waves’s first half gradually becomes an assault on the senses that communicates nothing deeper than the despairing nature of Tyler’s setbacks. But just as the film reaches a fever pitch of violent, stylishly rendered catharsis, it shifts perspective from Tyler to his sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), who’s coping with the aftermath of his behavior. And this pivot is signaled by an abrupt and significant aesthetic change, as the artifice, propulsiveness, and rage that mark the film’s first half abruptly give way to a more naturalistic color palette, with the aspect ratio that had gradually narrowed as the walls closed in around Tyler opening back out into widescreen, as if Waves were starting to catch its breath.

The muted telling of Emily’s story seems to belong to an almost entirely different film. Isolated from her classmates and coping with Tyler’s actions, Emily finds some direction out of her own sadness with Luke (Lucas Hedges), a classmate nursing his own family trauma who sheepishly asks on her a date and begins a relationship with her. Throughout this section of the film, Shults mirrors some of his introductory shots of Tyler and Alexis with ones of Emily and Luke that illustrate the differences between the young couples. An early shot that spun around the interior of Tyler’s truck showed him and Alexis in a state bliss but also acting out a series of extended poses, as if they were taking Instagram selfies even when not on their phones. Their flashy, demonstrative behavior contrasts sharply with a later shot that repeats the spinning motion inside a car, but this time documents the quiet solemnity that smothers Emily and Luke as they try to take comfort in each other’s presence.

One can argue that Shults’s throttling back of his formal ambitions in Waves’s second half, and the way Emily seems as if she’s walked off the set of a coming-of-age indie, is a miss. But his pushing of the film’s aesthetic needle past its previously gimmicky contours allows us to sit with his characters in ways that feel more than just reverential. The shift in tonality strengthens the story’s narrative core, giving the characters enough space to communicate their internal worlds instead of just react to an endless barrage of horrifying external stimuli. It also fills Waves with a touch of humanity, allowing it to quite literally transcend the exploitative, unilluminating phantasmagoria that comprises its first half. This is a rare case of a film that’s stronger when it colors inside the lines than radically traces outside of them.

Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Lucas Hedges, Alexa Demie Director: Trey Edward Shults Screenwriter: Trey Edward Shults Distributor: A24 Running Time: 135 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Martin Eden Is a Moody Portrait of a Writer’s Need for Individualism

Martin Eden works better as a story of self-loathing and self-destruction than it does as a social critique or political statement.

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Martin Eden
Photo: Kino Lorber

Charles Baudelaire, the great French poet and intellectual, wrote in his journals, “There is no form of rational and assured government save an aristocracy. A monarchy or a republic, based upon democracy, are equally absurd and feeble. The immense nausea of advertisements. There are but three beings worthy of respect: the priest, the warrior and the poet. To know, to kill and to create. The rest of mankind may be taxed and drudged, they are born for the stable, that is to say, to practise what they call professions.”

Baudelaire became more aristocratic as he accumulated success, his views increasingly reactionary. We like to think of writers and artists as great humanists, as empathetic and caring creatures who see the world in a somehow smarter, clearer way. This is, of course, an unfair expectation, and Baudelaire, for all his indelible work, was just as human as the next person, and eventually succumbed to a common affliction: individualism.

Baudelaire is the subject of a conversation in Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden, an adaptation of Jack London’s semi-autobiographical novel that relocates the action to Naples, in a nebulous time period. (The details—clothes, technology, manners of speech—change from scene to scene, making it impossible to ascertain when the film takes place.) A socialite named Ruth (Giustiniano Alpi), whose skin has the gentle luminescence of fresh snow, asks the handsome, uneducated sailor Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli) if he’s ever read the poet, which, of course, he hasn’t. Baudelaire represents the allure of bourgeois life, which beckons to the working-class Neapolitan. He becomes smitten with the girl—and her lavish lifestyle—and decides to become a writer, like Baudelaire, and to write in Italian, even though he isn’t fluent in the language.

Martin, fueled by proletarian ire and the fervor of love, longs to earn the respect of the upper-class literary world so that he can marry the educated Ruth. From London’s novel:

“Here was intellectual life, he thought, and here was beauty, warm and wonderful as he had never dreamed it could be. He forgot himself and stared at her with hungry eyes. Here was something to live for, to win to, to fight for—ay, and die for. The books were true. There were such women in the world. She was one of them. She lent wings to his imagination, and great, luminous canvases spread themselves before him whereon loomed vague, gigantic figures of love and romance, and of heroic deeds for woman’s sake—for a pale woman, a flower of gold…”

Martin Eden works better as a story of self-loathing and self-destruction than it does as a social critique or political statement. Marinelli and Marcello don’t make the difference between Martin at the beginning and Martin at the end distinct enough for viewers to really appreciate the character’s transmogrification. But as a piece of filmmaking that’s about the craft of filmmaking, Martin Eden, which was shot on 16mm, is occasionally brilliant. It’s an amalgamation of epochal aesthetics and formal styles, from drifty handheld shots and grainy close-ups of emotional faces that recall the French and Italian films of the late-‘60s, to static compositions and inky-black shadows that threaten to swallow Martin and the bourgeoisie. The color grading lends an ethereal air to the landscape shots (the ocean, blue and writhing, looks especially beautiful). Marcello splices in clips of silent films and footage of workers in Naples, which further emphasizes the timelessness of the film’s themes.

Martin spends most of the film trying to transcend his meager origins. He sits at his typewriter, pecking away at the keyboard, composing love poems, aspiring for greatness. He reads, he writes, he sails, he broods. His prolonged toil and Sisyphean desperation wear him down, and he develops a disdain for the rich. And yet, as he becomes more educated, he also feels ostracized from his working-class friends. The ancient Greeks were able to create beautiful works of art and engender new philosophies because their slaves did the physical labor, Martin learns, and, in turn, he begins to liken socialism to a slavish system.

Martin’s individualism, which is dichotomous to London’s own unwaveringly leftist views (London intended Martin to be his foil, the novel a damning depiction of capitalism, and of the system that allowed him to become a well-off celebrity writer). London was 33 when he wrote Martin Eden, having already found tremendous success with The Call of the Wild and White Fang. He wrote the novel during a two-year trip through the South Pacific, on a ketch he designed himself, while afflicted with bowel disease. These despondent conditions inspired the cynicism that pervades Martin Eden. For London, the story of a writer who becomes self-obsessed and learns to despise everyone around him was a personal story, one culled from his own life and his own anxieties. Marcello’s film never seems as concerned with its character or his internal tumult. “Who are you, Martin Eden?” the sailor says while gazing at himself in the mirror. Like Martin Eden himself, it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be.

Cast: Luca Marinelli, Jessica Cressy, Denise Sardisco, Vincenzo Nemolato, Carmen Pommella, Carlo Cecchi Director: Pietro Marcello Screenwriter: Maurizio Braucci, Pietro Marcello Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 129 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers Is a Fun Parable of Great Recession Survival

The film is remarkable for capturing a brewing conflict between women while also celebrating their connection.

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Hustlers
Photo: STX Films

Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers immediately announces that it’s going to be as flashy as its fur-draped, jewel-bedecked protagonists, with an extended single take set to Janet Jackson’s “Control.” “This is a story about control,” Jackson tells us, as we follow Dorothy (Constance Wu), known professionally as Destiny, from a hectic strip-club dressing room out onto the stage, where, along with a line of other women, she’s presented to potential lap-dance recipients. The assertiveness of the film’s opening long take contrasts with Dorothy’s relative timidity at this point; as we’ll come to see, she hasn’t fully adapted to survival at Moves, the high-end but still very skeezy strip club where she works. Soon, both character and camera are stopped dead, transfixed by the act that follows the parade of lap-dancers: Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez), veteran Moves stripper and the film’s true center.

Ramona performs a rousing pole dance to the unexpected—but, as it turns out, entirely fitting—“Criminal,” contorting her body around the steel beam in rhythm to a bass-heavy version of Fiona Apple’s elusively sexy bad-girl lament. It’s a scene destined to be the film’s most memorable, given how overdetermined the enjoyment of pole dancing is today as both erotic spectacle and athletic performance, and given the way the scene calls attention to the physical prowess of its superstar actor. One can’t help but watch it with a kind of dual consciousness: On the one hand, there’s Ramona, Dorothy’s idol and de facto sovereign of Moves, and on the other, there’s Lopez, a 50-year-old pop icon and sex symbol, whose agile defiance of preconceptions about age, beauty, and fitness is crafted to elicit vicarious thrills.

It makes sense, then, that we don’t see another spectacular pole-dance performance from Lopez again in the film, as from this point, despite its playful approach to narrative form, Hustlers would prefer that we see her only as her character—with the exception, perhaps, of a shot of her reclining in a fur coat and one-piece that unmistakably brings the “Jenny on the Block” video to mind. The seasoned exploiter of horny men takes Dorothy under her wing, teaching her how to pole dance (the viewer is left to ponder how Dorothy got a job at a Manhattan strip club without knowing even the basics of pole dancing), and educating the Queens native about strategies for earning maximum tips from Wall Street slimeballs.

It’s 2007 and the time is ripe for dancers who service the privileged bros trading unregulated derivatives, and with Ramona’s help, Dorothy finds herself able not only to pay back the debts of her beloved grandmother (Wai Ching Ho), but also appropriate some of the wealth-signifiers of the decadent 1% she serves, like a monstrous 2008 Escalade. Scafaria accentuates this accumulation of wealth and agency in the runup to the 2008 financial crisis with no shortage of musical montages and slow-motion shots of Dorothy and Ramona striding through the club. The film dwells in the sensorial excess of high-end stripping, but also in the camaraderie that blooms between Dorothy, Ramona, and the other women at the club (a supporting cast that includes Trace Lysette, Mette Towley, Lizzo, and Cardi B as, essentially, herself).

Dorothy’s voiceover is justified by a frame narrative, in which she recounts the tale of these heady times to a journalist, Elizabeth (Julia Stiles). The film relies on this framing device for act breaks and foreshadowing, as when Dorothy makes the ominous, if somewhat incongruous, pronouncement that “Ramona wasn’t in it to make friends, she just did, but she was always in control.” The structure of the frame narrative leads Hustlers into some unnecessarily convoluted formulations, as the plot fast-forwards through the recession and later catches up with Ramona’s activities between 2008 and 2011 in flashback—a flashback embedded within a flashback that feels like extraneous stylistic flair. It’s one of many sequences in which Ramona usurps the authorial voice in the film, as if the force of her personality had pushed Dorothy out of the way. Scarfaia is clearly more interested in the strength and charisma of Lopez’s ambitious, alluring dancer than in her neophyte main character.

It’s after the financial crash that the titular hustle begins, with Ramona recruiting Dorothy, now the mother of a toddler, and two fellow dancers, Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), to help her drug men, cart them back to the club, and coerce them into handing over their credit cards. The cons that follow are presented with a vibrant sense of humor, relishing the way the women take advantage of the men’s oblivious horniness, their defenses lowered by the women’s nakedly performed obsequiousness. Recurring punchlines around Annabelle’s compulsive nervous vomiting and Mercedes’s ambivalence about her prison-bound boyfriend (“3-5 years is a serious commitment,” she says at one point) serve to lighten the mood around their commission of rather serious crimes.

Hustlers takes the intense bonds formed between the women in these unlikely circumstances as its driving theme. The film is remarkable for capturing a brewing conflict between women while also celebrating their connection, avoiding the trap of styling an argument between strippers as a petty catfight. This is true even if the dialogue sometimes falls back on repetitive proclamations about the group of nascent felons being a “family” or “real sisters,” and if the editing relies too much on pop-music montages that also grow repetitive (surprisingly, though, the soundtrack features more Chopin than it does comeback-era Britney). The film proves to be a fun parable of Great Recession survival, its barely submerged subtext being the communal strength of women of color, the population most affected by the crash.

Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Lili Reinhart, Keke Palmer, Julia Stiles, Trace Lysette, Cardi B, Lizzo, Wai Ching Ho Director: Lorene Scafaria Screenwriter: Lorene Scafaria Distributor: STX Films Running Time: 109 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Motherless Brooklyn Captures the Look but Not the Spark of Noir

The film revives many noir touchstones, but never the throbbing unease that courses through the classics of the genre.

1.5

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Motherless Brooklyn
Photo: Warner Bros.

Fans of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn will be immediately struck by writer-director Edward Norton’s decision to change the novel’s time setting from 1999 to 1957 for his long-gestating film adaptation. Given how effectively the novel transplanted a classic hardboiled noir setup to contemporary New York, Norton’s popping of the novel’s anachronistic bubble is curious for how it makes literal what Lethem made so playfully postmodern. By setting his film in the ‘50s, when the noir style was at its most influential, Norton only makes it easier to spot those moments where the dialogue is trying much too hard to capture the snap, wit, and loquacious cynicism of the genre’s best films.

Norton retains the central gimmick of Lethem’s book: a gumshoe protagonist with Tourette’s syndrome. Lionel Essrog (Norton) works as a private investigator for Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who accepts his mentee’s issues and very much appreciates his photographic memory. On the page, Lionel’s condition makes thematic sense, as his clear, observational, intuitive internal monologue, a staple of detective fiction, contrasts sharply with his uncontrollable outbursts, which shatter the image of the laconic private-eye hero who sees much but tells little. It’s problematic no matter how you slice it, but one can at least see the logic.

On screen, however, the story’s reductive, stereotypical depiction of Lionel’s various conditions becomes impossible to ignore. Norton sees his character as a live wire, compounded out of explosive twitches and explosive outbursts. In voiceover, the actor speaks with a low, gruff voice befitting an old-school movie detective, but when speaking aloud he has a high, almost childlike tone, one that uncomfortably casts Lionel as some sort of innocent naïf, despite consistently being the smartest and shrewdest man in the room.

When Frank is killed in a clandestine meeting with unknown clients, a heartbroken Lionel resolves to find his friend’s killer. Lionel, introduced in on-the-nose fashion as he tugs on a thread from a soon-to-be-unraveled sweater, digs so deep into the mystery that he begins to uncover a vast, Chinatown-esque conspiracy involving New York’s corrupt city planner, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin). A tyrannical bureaucrat with a Randian complex, Moses has concocted an elaborate trail of red tape to force poor, predominantly black residents out of the city to turn affordable housing into ritzy, modern blocks for the wealthy.

It’s here that the film’s altered time setting is most fascinating: By tackling gentrification in the ‘50s, Norton makes the argument that it isn’t a byproduct of late capitalism, but rather a core component in the history of city planning, a project that spans decades of careful molding of demographics and social hierarchies. But the racial angle of Lethem’s novel, more bracing for being set in the present, is mostly just period-appropriate window dressing in the film, not any more upsetting than any of the other openly racist policies of the era. What the material gains in a long-term view of social engineering it loses in specificity.

There are moments where Motherless Brooklyn succeeds as a loving homage to noir. The scenes where Lionel acts more like a determined, unflappable gumshoe—nicking a reporter’s press badge to pose as a journalist, piecing together disparate clues with reflex-fast deducing skills—hit all the right genre beats. And his relationship with Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a housing fairness activist who responds to Lionel’s kind soul, spark with chemistry that’s less sexual than affectionate. But even those moments in the film that could pass for something out of an actual noir find Norton riffing on the genre’s tropes rather than expanding on them.

Visually, Motherless Brooklyn is bathed in dirty smears of yellow light that mimic chiaroscuro technique, but Norton’s cutting patterns are distinctly modern-seeming, rife with seemingly endless shot-reverse shots that throw off the rhythm of the pulp dialogue by so obsessively cutting to each individual speaker. Norton’s too-neat visual coverage is indicative of the film’s greatest failing. At its best, noir leaves enough unsaid that, even if a mystery is solved, one is left with the distinct impression that nothing has been fixed. Motherless Brooklyn feels altogether too tidy, a film that revives many of the touchstones of noir, but never that throbbing unease that courses through the classics of the genre.

Cast: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale, Ethan Suplee, Michael K. Williams, Leslie Mann Director: Edward Norton Screenwriter: Edward Norton Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 144 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come Exudes the Respect of a Guest in the World

Laxe’s film refreshingly occupies an almost uncategorizable cinematic realm.

3

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Fire Will Come
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come refreshingly occupies an almost uncategorizable cinematic realm. Were it a piece of writing it would exist at the crossroads of an essay, a reportage, and a series of haikus singing the praises and the plights of a threatened ecosystem. Although we know its images to be composed and assembled, and as such “fiction,” the film’s delicate pace and the contemplative choreography of its camerawork conjure a sense of authenticity so organic that we’re almost convinced that there’s no space between the characters and the actors, between the filmed setting and the actual landscape.

This is a film where the characters’ names coincide with those of the actors playing them. It’s at once a portrait of a place and a portrait of a person—namely, of the Galician countryside and of Amador (Amador Arias), an arsonist who returns home to see his elderly mother, Benedicta (Benedicta Sánchez). Given the rich simplicity of the scenario, Laxe recognizes that even the smallest amount of traditional plot would feel excessive. The movements and intentions of the film’s camera, philosophy, and rhythms bear a lyrical kinship to Trás-os-Montes, a portrait of the eponymous region in the north of Portugal, not far from Galicia.

But filmmakers Margarida Cordeiro and António Reis juxtapose serene contemplation with unabashedly theatrical interventions in their landscape. Laxe, on the other hand, is largely happy to extract drama from the disarmingly un-posed ordinariness of his actors’ faces and sharp sounds of their environment. Raindrops hitting dry soil, toppling trees, the fog that turns the entire frame into an abstract canvas—all conspire toward a refusal to tell a story through something other than the meticulous observation of the world at hand. It’s a world teeming with dogs panting, cows mooing, roosters crowing, twigs breaking, chainsaws gashing trees. And, of course, fire burning almost as ardently as the many things that remain unsaid by characters too disillusioned to bother engaging with one another beyond the absolutely necessary daily tasks: eating, collecting milk from a cow’s udders, or attending a funeral.

Except when music plays, from Antonio Vivaldi to Leonard Cohen, at which point Laxe gets too close to stylizing an ecosystem that’s already polished enough, and forcing a dialogue that reticence articulates with much more refinement. A car scene where a veterinarian, Elena (Elena Fernandez), plays Cohen’s “Suzanne” to Amador, for instance, works as a coded declaration of love interest. Amador tells the woman he doesn’t understand the song’s lyrics. She’s clearly trying to get close to him and says he doesn’t need to understand a song in order to like it. Here, Fire Will Come loses its commitment to opacity and nuance, as Laxe juxtaposes Cohen’s song to images of the landscape and close-ups of a cow, distancing himself from art cinema’s froideur in favor of a kind of music-video sentimentality.

The film is much more in synchrony with the haziness of its imagery when it preserves the awkwardness between characters, the impossibility for anything other than life’s basic staples to be exchanged. In a scene where Amador is drinking beer alone in a pub, Elena approaches him as if to invite him to go somewhere, or to avow her feelings in some acceptable fashion. By then, we know Fire Will Come’s inhabitants to be too emotionally unavailable for any desire to find a way of manifesting itself. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise that all that comes out of the veterinarian’s mouth is: “What I wanted to ask you is how your cow is doing.”

It’s a wonderful, and wonderfully pathetic, moment, because Laxe doesn’t try to craft a metaphor around it or translate the true intentions behind the characters’ inability to see emotion as something other than foreign luxury. He simply lets the ecosystem function, observing without clarifying. That is, accepting the filmmaker’s position ultimately as that of respectful guest in the world he has created and which has developed a life of its own.

Cast: Benedicta Sánchez, Amador Arias, Ivan Yañez, Inazio Abrao, Rubén Gómez Coelho, Elena Fernandez Director: Oliver Laxe Screenwriter: Santiago Fillol, Oliver Laxe Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Ford v. Ferrari Soars Only as a Crusade Against Corporate Interference

James Mangold’s film mostly plays to nostalgic reveries of the auto industry’s golden age.

2.5

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Ford v Ferrari
Photo: 20th Century Fox

James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari brings to mind Roger Ebert’s classic line about Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor being “a two-hour movie squeezed into three hours.” A lethargic epic about the triumph of mass-scale U.S. industry to forge a product that combines European craftsmanship with American power, the film is a standard-issue smorgasbord of period echoes, reflective father-son drama, and ruminations on the good old days of the American dream. At a time when the nation continues to weigh the fate of its auto industry, Ford v Ferrari’s depiction of the Ford Motor Company facing its first major financial threat transparently plays to nostalgic reveries of the industry’s golden age.

To the film’s credit, its initially po-faced depiction of an American car company’s competition for entrepreneurial supremacy is swiftly revealed to be cynically motivated. When Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) agrees to ready his cars for the racing circuit in order to increase the Ford brand’s prestige, he at first opts to simply attempt to acquire Ferrari rather than compete with the Italian car manufacturer. The pompousness of the man’s corporate position is evident from his first entreaties on the proposition, with Letts luridly oozing the unctuousness of his character’s capitalist nobility. This is a man in his 50s who heads one of the world’s largest companies but asserts his authority by birthright. Amusingly, Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) ignites the war between his company and Ford by calling out this trait in the man, noting that he’s only “Henry Ford the second, not Henry Ford,” wounding the CEO’s pride.

To craft a racecar that could win the 24-hour Le Mans competition, the Ford Motor Company turns to Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a Le Mans winner turned car designer. Carroll’s experience behind the wheel gives him an intimate knowledge of how a minor adjustment to a vehicle can dramatically change how it handles, and his on-the-fly mechanical expertise is a freedom that Ford’s bureaucratic method mangles with extra hands. “You can’t win a race by committee,” Carroll argues when the company tries to overcomplicate the project. Carroll also demands to use his personal racer, the temperamental but skillful Ken Miles (Christian Bale), saying that the man behind the wheel is as crucial as anything under the hood.

Mangold bathes these men in golden magic hour light and the cool, reflective blues of twilight. They’re positioned as embodiments of basic goodness, honest work, and personal values: Carroll the business owner who works closely with the men on his shop floor rather than pushing paper in an office all day, and Ken the unpredictable livewire, who keeps his rambunctiousness in check through his love of his wife (Caitriona Balfe) and son (Noah Jupe).

That the film so often concerns the duel between Ford and these two men, rather than the one between Ford and Ferrari, enriches what could otherwise have just been a typical sports drama. Numerous scenes show Carroll and Ken forced to contend with the nattering nabobs who fill Ford’s executive board, who intrude on design conversations with suggestions that prioritize the branding of the racecar over its actual functionality and want to replace Ken with a more camera-ready driver. The pressure of their constant harping is such that Ken’s testing of the racecar on a practice track feels like a reprieve, with the roar of the vehicle as it makes hairpin turns and pushes for new speed records at times proving hypnotic and strangely tranquil. But the moments that depict Carroll and Ken speaking in gearhead jargon as they make infinitesimal adjustments to their prototype car can be tedious, and the test-driving sequences occasionally exude the canned quality of a sports montage.

Mangold manages to perfectly balance the oscillating emphasis on racing and behind-the-scenes drama in the film’s last act, in which the team led by Carroll competes in the 1966 Le Mans race. Scenes of Ken zooming around practice tracks all by his lonesome give way to ones that foreground the life-and-death dangers of competitive racecar driving, with cars spinning out, colliding, and catching fire all around him, and at speeds up to 200mph. All the while, the Ford execs treat Ken as if he were some advertising model, passing down demands that he race more photogenically as the man tries to win the competition in the only way he knows how. Plenty of sports-themed films end in disappointment for its protagonists, but Ford v Ferrari contains an added element of cynicism that stretches far beyond the matter of who wins or loses, a reminder of how badly corporate sponsorship and ownership undermines the individual and team achievements that are foundational to the mythology of sports.

Cast: Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Tracy Letts, Caitriona Balfe, Jon Bernthal, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe, Ray McKinnon, Remo Girone Director: James Mangold Screenwriter: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller Distributor: 20th Century Fox Running Time: 152 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Uncut Gems Is a Visionary Tale of a Man Set on Eating Himself Alive

In Josh and Benny Safdie’s film, a man’s individual tragedy illuminates the emptiness of the systems that define him.

3.5

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Uncut Gems
Photo: A24

Adam Sandler’s Howard Ratner, a small-time jeweler with a gambling addiction, is the latest in a line of hapless hustlers pushed to extremes in an adrenalized cinematic realm that could only have been conceived by filmmaker brothers Josh and Benny Safdie. From the outset of Uncut Gems, Howard spins a dizzying number of plates to stay ahead of creditors, pawning jewelry loaned to him by customers to raise money he needs to pay off sharks, only to instead drop cash on the latest basketball odds. Howard is a man for whom the big score is always just on the horizon, and were he not barreling toward disaster, and without any brakes, you’d almost have to admire his endless optimism.

Howard’s precarious balancing act is maintained on sheer force of will, and even amid the typically antic pitch of the Safdies’ filmography, his single-mindedness is overwhelming. Much of Uncut Games consists of Howard attempting to dominate every conversation, fast-talking over everyone from clients to creditors to his own wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), whose clenched-jaw loathing of her asinine husband signals that their marriage is in its late stages. But Howard, like so many of the Safdies’ protagonists, makes the fatal error of believing himself to be the only true swindler in any given room, despite occupying an underworld populated entirely by hustlers. Howard never fools anyone; at best, he talks so rapidly and incessantly to his debtors that he momentarily dazes them long enough to momentarily evade them.

By the time we meet Howard, though, this fragile way of life is starting to crumble. The jeweler is so heavily in dept to Arno (Eric Bogosian), an in-law and loan shark whose hired muscle (Keith Williams Richards) threatens Howard with beatings, that he attempts a Hail Mary move to get out of debt by way of ordering a valuable opal from an Ethiopian gem mine in the hopes of auctioning it for a massive profit. But because he cannot help himself, Howard complicates things by letting Kevin Garnett borrow the opal after the Celtics center visits his shop with another hustler, Demany (Lakeith Stanfield, radiating a shrewd, brooding variant of Howard’s more frantic scheming). It’s a potentially win-win situation, as Garnett needs a good-luck charm during the Eastern Conference finals and Howard hopes to bet on the Celtics winning, but things, of course, go awry after Garnett hoards the opal and backstabs Demany.

The stress of the situation wreaks havoc on Howard, and the man’s hopelessness brings out the best in Sandler. The actor’s gift as a comic has always lied in his volcanic rage relative to his characters’ inconsequentiality and powerlessness, and Howard is a fountain of impotent fury. His attempts to sound calm suggest a man trying hard not to scream, which he frequently does when trying to speak over the din of practically emasculating group arguments. Howard issues orders with a finality that would convey authority were he not ignored by literally everyone, and the more Howard cajoles and threatens the more pathetic he seems.

The film compounds Howard’s diminishing sense of strength with a punishing sound mix that elevates the overlapping dialogue into howls of white noise in which only fragments of people’s sentences can be gleaned at certain times. In their films, the Safdies always stress the omnipresence of street noise and the chaos of conversation between more than a handful of people, but Uncut Gems sees them pushing the decibel levels of their sound design to new and deafening heights. And that’s before you factor in Daniel Lopatin’s score, a shimmering, ringing chime of synthesizers that evokes light refracting off of precious stones. That quality, that suggestion of a gem’s glittering hardness, can also be found in Darius Khondji’s cinematography, which, with its metallic color timing and reflective sheens, is in stark contrast to the grimy, sweat-streaked naturalism of Sean Price Williams’s work for the Safdies.

As in Good Time, Uncut Gems finds the Safdies working in genre rooted in the grimy, character-oriented crime films of the ‘70s. In Howard’s doomed figure is something of Ben Gazzara’s character from The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, a social climber who keeps slipping on the bottom rungs and whose individual tragedy illuminates the emptiness of the systems that define him. But where Cassavetes foregrounds his protagonist’s woes, the promises of the American work ethic that push him to the edge of cynical despair, the Safdies stress the irreconcilable contradictions of late capitalism. Throughout Uncut Gems, they illustrate how even a small business owner can be implicated in a global network of misery-making, one that connects the exploitation of African labor to the pressures of social status that compel athletes, rappers, and everyday social aspirants to want to own the products of that labor.

Furthermore, the filmmakers trace the alienation that comes of this globalized system on a micro scale by observing the ethnic tensions between and within communities that alienate Howard from his mostly African-American clientele and even members of his own Jewish family. The film’s climax inverts convention by showing the “hero” getting the villains exactly where he wants them, only to monologue and give away his advantage. Howard’s folly is a testament to how far removed he’s become from reality, as he’s unable to see how his elaborate bricolage of bets and schemes become the jaws of a closing trap.

Cast: Adam Sandler, Lakeith Stanfield, Idina Menzel, Julia Fox, Judd Hirsch, Eric Bogosian, Kevin Gardnett, The Weeknd Director: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie Screenwriter: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie, Ronald Bronstein Distributor: A24 Running Time: 130 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Joker Is a Punishingly Self-Serious Mishmash of Borrowed Parts

The film is one that might have been dreamed up by one of the cynical douche bros from the Hangover during a blacked-out stupor.

1.5

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

Todd Phillips’s Joker is a film that might have been dreamed up by one of the cynical bros at the center of the director’s Hangover trilogy during a blacked-out stupor. Not so much part of Warner Bros.’s ongoing Batman series as adjacent to it, Joker imagines a Gotham City that looks suspiciously like Manhattan in the early ‘80s, with crime-ridden streets, movie titles like Blow Out and Zorro, The Gay Blade on marquees, and trash piling up due to a garbage strike. The air is stinking with gloom and decay, and among the morbidly downcast populace is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), our Clown Prince of Crime to Be.

Fleck is a skeleton-thin jester who works the sidewalks and hospital wards while dreaming of stand-up stardom, and he gets viciously beat up by a group of delinquents in the film’s first scene. As he lays bleeding in a scum-soaked alley, the prop flower on his lapel drips out a pathetic, pissy stream of water. It would be funny if the direction and framing wasn’t so arrogantly humorless. “This is serious,” Phillips seems to be saying, as if he’s prosaically altered the anarchic mantra (“Why so serious?!?”) of Heath Ledger’s Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Fleck, at one of his many low points, does something similar to the “Don’t Forget to Laugh” sign in his workplace, blacking out “Forget to” with a marker so that it now reads “Don’t Laugh.” His action sums up Joker itself, which is made almost entirely out of the preexisting parts of other films, the connections reworked just enough to avoid outright plagiarism, and the results then slathered in a patina of paranoiac solemnity.

The cinematic influences here have been well-documented, long before the film bafflingly took top prize at the recent Venice Film Festival. A little Taxi Driver, a little King of Comedy, with Robert De Niro making the Scorsese connection explicit as Murray Franklin, an officious late-night talk show host who’s Fleck’s idol and, eventually, his bête noire. A sequence of Bernie Goetz-esque vigilante violence concludes like The French Connection, while the loner Fleck’s relationship with his dotty mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), recalls a much superior Phoenix vehicle, Lynne Ramsay’s dissociative revenge thriller You Were Never Really Here.

Phillips further tarts up his jaundiced vision with an ironic glimpse of a cheery Fred Astaire dance number on TV, a you-gotta-be-kidding-me needle-drop of the Stephen Sondheim perennial “Send in the Clowns,” and a contemptuous movie-theater set piece during which the affluent pricks Fleck eventually rails against watch Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Among the heartless one-per-centers in attendance is billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), and if you think his son, Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson), doesn’t somehow figure in all the combustible drama that follows then I’ve got an all-access Comic-Con badge to sell you.

Fears that Fleck and his very slowly revealed alter-ego would be incel manifestos made flesh are unfounded. Despite vague stabs at currency, such as a horde of clown-masked protestors that could be likened to Occupy or Antifa, the fairly explicit period setting pretty much neutralizes any significant link Joker has with our tumultuous present. The violence, when it comes, is probably the film’s most “now” element. It’s as head-smashingly graphic as Tim Miller’s Deadpool, and about as soul-numbing. Though it’s obvious Phillips thinks he’s harking back to Taxi Driver’s Grand Guignol expressionism, referencing that film’s finger-gun-to-the-head moment several times over, and imitating its reality-blurring qualities via Fleck’s interactions with his kindly neighbor, Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz).

This brings us to Phoenix’s superficially impressive, yet incongruous Method performance, an awe-inducing black hole at the center of a film that’s otherwise all grubby surface. Fleck laughs at inopportune times due to a neurological condition. He does little soft-shoes and contorts his emaciated body into discomfiting, joint-cracking positions. This is probably the most pointless mass-weight loss—Phoenix took off a staggering 50-plus pounds for the role—since Christian Bale went cadaverous for Brad Anderson’s The Machinist.

Scene by scene, it’s clear Phoenix is having a conversation that no one else can hear, and he’s committed to an idea of Joker that’s far removed from his exertions. When he finally dons the iconic white makeup and goes full psycho, there’s no pleasurable charge since no real narrative or emotional groundwork has been laid. And as Jokers go, Phoenix has got nothing on Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s Batman or Mark Hamill in Batman: The Animated Series, both of whom found the right balance of dark humor and derangement. Phoenix, by contrast, is so relentlessly sullen (“I have nothing but bad thoughts,” he says in one scene) that it quickly becomes tedious. And like Fleck, he’s playing to an audience of one, the laughter, the tears, and the applause entirely in his own head. Glad someone is entertained.

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill, Douglas Hodge, Josh Pais, Marc Maron, Sharon Washington, Brian Tyree Henry Director: Todd Phillips Screenwriter: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Sibyl Mines Black Comedy from the Self’s Awareness of Itself

Justine Triet is committed above all else to the tricks that memory and language can play on us.

3

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Sibyl
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

Justine Triet uses the relationship between the creative process and the work of psychoanalysis, or its simplified cinematic version, as raw material for her latest dramedy. Sibyl follows the madcap efforts and subterfuges that the eponymous alcoholic therapist (Virginie Efira) deploys in order to finally write a novel. And the first step she takes is to get rid of most of her patients—most, not all, so that there’s always a lifeline connecting the new Sibyl to the old one. That is, so Sibyl never has to truly let go of anything at all.

This tactic, beyond mere plot device, is the first crucial clue, or symptom, that Triet discloses about Sibyl as the filmmaker smartly humanizes the figure of the therapist as someone in desperate need of a therapist herself. The initial line in Sibyl’s (non-)emancipatory equation, to start anew by keeping her old life handy, is one of the film’s many instances of mirroring, as some viewers will easily recognize in Sibyl’s pursuits their own tendency to make half-decisions. Which is to say, the way we can fool ourselves into thinking that we’re pursuing something whereas we’re secretly pursuing something else—something less avowable.

Sibyl’s fragile sobriety, and the endless ebbs and flows of addiction, literalize this universal defense mechanism against losing. As in real life, everything in Sibyl is a replacement, or a double, for previously experienced pain or pleasure. Fascinated by the struggles of her newest patient, Margot (Adèle Exarchopoulos), Sibyl poses as an analyst in her own therapy room as she uses Margot’s grievances as content for her novel, turning the analysand into a character.

It’s at that very moment, and at that moment alone, that Sibyl’s novel is written—the very modus operandi of creative and analytic practice. Stepping back in analysis is, Triet seems to say, very much like becoming the editor of one’s own novel, a way to look at the people around us, and the ones we have been, like characters, so one can take a moment and acknowledge the narrative of one’s life. This can be a freeing acknowledgement, albeit a difficult one. As Sibyl says at one point, life is a work of fiction: “I’m at the heart if every decision.” Therefore, she must have the ability to, at best, rewrite her history, and at the very least reinterpret it.

Sibyl’s humor is similar to Toni Erdmann’s most light-hearted moments without ever quite managing to cook up the pathos of Maren Ade’s film. But Triet’s ability to wrap up tragedy in a vaudevillian fabric is what makes Sibyl such a palatable and unpretentious affair. Margot is an actress having an affair with her co-star, Igor (Gaspard Ulliel), who happens to be dating the director, Mika (Toni Erdmann’s Sandra Hüller), of the film they’re working on. Margot ends up pregnant by Igor and depositing her life decisions, including whether or not to have an abortion, in Sibyl’s hands. Mika finds everything out and Sibyl is summoned to work as therapist, or savior, of the sinking film project. She’s happy to surrender to the lack of ethics that such closeness to Margot entails, recording their therapy sessions to serve as remedy for her writer’s block, and eventually joining the actress on the set of Mika’s film.

It’s at its most farcical that Sibyl yields the deepest insights into the film’s characters. Sibyl gets sucked into Margot’s world, to the point of becoming her co-worker, and her own director for at least one of the film-within-the-film’s scenes, where she gives directions to Igor and Margot on how to move their limbs during a love scene being shot on a yacht. It’s here that the narrative becomes increasingly over-the-top, but the film continues to feel credible because Triet is very much aware of its absurdities, and in control of them. Transitions to flashbacks where audio is all but absent tell us that the filmmaker is less committed to some make-believe realism than she is to the tricks that memory and language can play on us.

Triet, too, makes visible that she’s in on the homoerotics of Sibyl and Margot’s arrangement without overplaying her hand. In one scene, Sibyl is asked to feed Margot her lines for Mika’s film, essentially playing Margot’s romantic partner from off-camera. The future audience of the film-within-a-film would never know who was really the object of the actress’s gaze, if anyone at all. Here, that most Freudian of metaphors about love, so cinematic in its logic, takes shape: to see the other is to take them for someone else.

Cast: Virginie Efira, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Gaspard Ulliel, Sandra Hüller, Niels Schneider, Laure Calamy Director: Justine Triet Screenwriter: Arthur Harari, Justine Triet Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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