Ed Howard: The opening titles of Bernardo Bertolucci’s infamous 1972 film Last Tango in Paris lay out, in an especially naked way, the themes and aesthetics of the film to come. The titles sequence is backed by two paintings by Francis Bacon, whose work inspired Bertolucci during the filming of Last Tango in Paris: first, on the left half of the screen, an image of a man in a white T-shirt reclining on a red couch, his body contorted and grotesque in contrast to the seeming languor of his posture; then, on the right half of the screen, a woman sitting primly in a wooden chair, her legs awkwardly crossed and her face, like that of the man, a jumble of distorted features. Only at the end of the credits are the two images placed side by side, and the film’s whole story is encompassed by that single gesture: two tortured, haunted, isolated figures placed together as a study of separate lives, separate pains briefly united. The psychological torment suggested by Bacon’s figures—which seem to be writhing, contorting, straining at the stasis of the paintings, all of their internal ugliness written into their bodies and faces—carries over into the rest of the film.
The man in this diptych is Paul (Marlon Brando), an American abroad in Paris, dealing—rather badly—with the very recent suicide of his French wife. The woman in the diptych is Jeanne (Maria Schneider), a French girl who Paul meets in a rotting, trashed apartment where he pulls her into a violent sexual entanglement, an escalating game of debasement and sex-as-conflict. The simple device of preceding the film proper with Bacon’s ugly/provocative figures, with their fleshy pink tones and sprawling ruin, suggests how we should read these characters, and if it wasn’t clear enough already, the film opens with Paul practically in mid-scream, a howl of unrestrained anguish that’s hardly drowned out even by the roaring train passing overhead. It’s tempting to think that Last Tango in Paris is about sex, for obvious reasons, but it’s not really. It’s about pain. The characters—and Bertolucci—simply use sex as a tool to express things that actually have very little to do with sex itself.
Still, there’s no doubt that the sex got—and continues to get—most of the attention. Pauline Kael, in an ecstatic (I’m tempted to say orgasmic) review, praised Bertolucci for bringing eroticism to the movies. (She goes on to make more nuanced arguments, which I’m sure we’ll get to later; I can’t think of another movie that seems as linked to a single critic’s response as this film is with Kael.) Norman Mailer, responding to Kael, said the film would have been better if it’d been more extreme, more sexually explicit, more real: “Brando’s real cock up Schneider’s real vagina would have brought the history of film one huge march closer to the ultimate experience it has promised since its inception.” But that’s missing the point, no? Did Bertolucci bring sex to the cinema with Last Tango in Paris, or is all that sex just a red herring for the film’s real concerns?
Jason Bellamy: Well, “red herring” isn’t the term I’d use, as that suggests Bertolucci is attempting to divert attention away from the film’s “real concerns,” which I don’t think is the case. But I agree with your larger sentiment that Mailer and Kael are missing the point by implying that Last Tango in Paris is somehow about eroticism. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the eroticism of Last Tango in Paris is the 800-pound gorilla that everyone talks about (an apt idiom if for no other reason than because of the memorable scene in which Brando’s Paul makes primate-like grunting sounds). But it’s easy to understand why the film’s sexual imagery gets so much attention. Simply put, the sexuality of Last Tango in Paris is both striking and plentiful. The film isn’t about sex, but the majority of its scenes are sexual in nature, with at least half of the film taking place inside Paul and Jeanne’s sexual hideaway—a dingy apartment that’s essentially one giant bed. Each scene that happens there is sexual, because Paul and Jeanne are either about to do it or lounging in a post-orgasmic haze of having done it (often in states of partial or complete undress), or they’re doing it, and when they do it, their behavior is aggressive and often vulgar—never gentle or sweet. So, not surprisingly, sex dominates the film, at least in memory, and thus tends to dominate the conversation about the film.
But if all the attention paid to Last Tango in Paris’s sexuality is disproportionate to its actual significance within the film, it’s not altogether off base. Sex isn’t just a setting here the way that, say, ballet is just the setting of Black Swan, to recall a film we discussed recently. Bertolucci seems to be examining the role of sexuality in our relationships and our general existence, probing its impact and significance. For me, what the film is “about” comes down to an exchange between Paul and Jeanne early in the film, when he demands that they not call one another by their names or bring the real world into their sexual refuge. Paul demands that they “forget everything” that’s beyond the drawn shades of that apartment. “I can’t,” Jeanne says, “can you?” “I don’t know,” Paul replies, but it’s obvious he sure wants to. Sex is Paul’s means of distraction—some pick alcohol or drugs, and he picks sex—and his extreme behavior with Jeanne in and around their sexual escapades is evidence of the lengths that Paul needs to go to forget.
EH: You’re right of course, and the sex scenes do dominate the film in retrospect. (Or is that simply a function of how forgettable a lot of the film becomes whenever the camera leaves the apartment? I get the sense that the sex takes up less screen time while watching the film than it does when remembering the film later on; it’s as though everything surrounding the sex fades away as soon as the film stops.) But I think you hit the mark when you say that Paul picks sex from among a menu of distractions, which suggests that the film is about his attempts to erase his humanity in the wake of a tragedy, and that the sex is just a tool towards that end. So is violence, which in some ways seems more important to him than the sex itself, and which manifests itself outside of the apartment as well, when he chases down and beats, for no apparent reason, the prospective john who’d abandoned a prostitute at Paul’s hotel.
You say that Bertolucci is probing the significance of sex, “examining the role of sexuality in our relationships,” but I’m not really convinced. I don’t feel like the film has a whole lot to say about sex—or that it even intends to say very much about sex. Paul uses sex, basically, in the same sense as censors tend to use it: as a form of obscenity. In the monologues he directs at Jeanne, Paul devises complicated sexual/scatological scenarios that simply mash together all sorts of juvenile fixations, spewing out seemingly off-the-cuff rants about farting, defecation, vomiting, bestiality and assorted sexual acts, as though they’re all simply interchangeable elements in his desire to offend, to gross out, to shock. In the same way that the MPAA rating system views sex and violence and curse words as equivalent, just objectionable elements to be weighed and rated—and Last Tango in Paris itself, of course, was distributed in the US with an X rating—Paul just wants to debase himself and Jeanne, and he’ll use sex, violence and language to do it. It’s all just raw material for him, the foundation for his psychodrama of loss and pain. What the film has to say about sex, paradoxically, is that sometimes sex is about everything except the sex itself.
Or maybe what I’m really getting at is that the film is only about one facet of sex. Because certainly obscenity is a part of sex: dirty, nasty, edging across the line from erotic to disgusting or disturbing and then, perhaps, back again. But, as you say, the characters aren’t interested in other types of sex, other uses for sex. There’s little tenderness between them, and whenever Jeanne tries to express a gentler sentiment, she usually prompts some new burst of degradation and absurdity from Paul: his famous speech about farting and vomiting pigs, delivered while Jeanne sticks her fingers up his ass, is triggered by Jeanne’s admission that she loves him. The sex, scatological and aggressive as it is, is only a vehicle, one that Paul, at least, hopes will get him where he wants to go: towards forgetting, as you say, and also forgetting how to be human, erasing all those pesky feelings and replacing them with dirty words and grunting. Of course, the impossibility of this goal is obvious from the beginning, and neither Paul nor Jeanne can help continually betraying hints of their humanity and their feelings.
JB: That’s right, they can’t, and that’s why I say that Bertolucci is probing the impact and significance of sex. Paul goes into his relationship with Jeanne wanting only sex—sex as distraction, sex as aggression, sex as a coping mechanism. Whenever Jeanne attempts to bring the real world into their refuge, Paul objects—unless Jeanne is talking about sex. Paul and Jeanne keep meeting, keep fucking and keep going their separate ways, with Paul taking measures to assure that they never step back into the real world together (at one point sneaking away from Jeanne as if fleeing a crime scene). Paul and Jeanne see one another only in this fantasy environment, but we get to watch them beyond it, and what I think we see is that the outside world affects who Paul and Jeanne are within the apartment more so than the other way around. Their connection through sex comforts them in the moment, but it does nothing to alter the realities of their lives. Paul is still heartbroken and angry over his wife’s suicide, and Jeanne is still falling in (turbulent) love with her goofy filmmaking boyfriend. I think that’s a statement. The usual approach to this kind of relationship would be to portray Paul and Jeanne sleepwalking through their daily lives, preoccupied with getting back into one another’s arms, but that’s not what happens here. While the pressures of the outside world clearly influence what happens within the apartment, the only indication we have that Paul and Jeanne ever think about one another in their “real” lives is that they keep returning to one another for more.
So, are Paul and Jeanne different people in and out of the apartment? Yes and no. The conclusion is telling: At some point Paul doesn’t show up at the apartment, and Jeanne—who has been the more affectionate of the two, and the more genuinely forthcoming—is devastated. She cries. She asks the woman at the front desk if she knows where Paul lives, seemingly determined to track him down. But when she comes up empty, Jeanne quickly changes course and tries to convince her fiancé that they should move into the apartment that has been her sex nest, as if the atmosphere of the fantasy is more important than the person she fantasized with. When her fiancé refuses, Jeanne forlornly closes up the apartment and leaves it for good, and as she walks away, under the same train tracks where she first passed Paul ranting in the streets, Paul comes up behind her and playfully taps her on the shoulder. He looks liberated, carefree. Jeanne looks furious, scarred. “It’s over,” Jeanne says immediately. And then Paul delivers what I think is the film’s second most significant lines: “That’s right, it’s over and then it begins again … We left the apartment, and now we begin again with love and all the rest of it.”
Paul seems to view the apartment as a kind of purgatory, and having atoned for his sins and purged his demons, he’s now “ready to live normally again,” to “love Jeanne as a person,” to quote Kael. But Paul’s personae in and out of the apartment are more similar than he realizes, which Jeanne learns when Paul spends the conclusion of the film stalking her with the same raving intensity that he displayed when he forced himself on her for anal sex or verbally demeaned her with his graphic fantasies. Inside the apartment, Paul seemed desperate to objectify Jeanne, as if to prove to himself that he could fuck her without care for her feelings (because he worried that his wife fucked him without feeling and he wanted to show he could do it too? because he wanted to convince himself his wife fucked her lover without feelings? because he was simply desperate not to feel? maybe all of the above). But clearly Paul became emotionally involved despite his intentions, or else he wouldn’t be so determined to move forward with “love and all the rest of it.” It’s as if he needs to bring these worlds together, because he can’t survive wholly in one or the other. And Jeanne? We might have expected throughout the film that she was ready to fall in love with Paul in the real world, if only he would allow it, and maybe even Jeanne thought so, too. But it turns out that Jeanne is no more comfortable living with Paul in the real world than she is giving up their sexual oasis. She is a pre-Brokeback Mountain Jack Twist, unable to let go or to commit. “I wanted to leave you, but I couldn’t, I can’t,” Jeanne says earlier in the film, when she arrives at the apartment in her rain-soaked wedding dress. She might as well have said, “I wish I knew how to quit you.”
What does this all add up to? Not a whole number, that’s for sure. As Kael puts it, “I don’t believe there’s anyone whose feelings can be totally resolved about the sex scenes and the social attitudes in this film.” Does the film suggest that “sometimes sex is about everything except the sex itself”? Absolutely. But it never denies that sex has an impact.
EH: I think that last Kael quote gets to the heart of it, although perhaps not quite in the way she intended. Kael implies that the film is so complex, so original in its attitudes and ideas, so shocking in the way it approaches sex and relationships, that it’s impossible to ever fully get a handle on what it’s saying and showing. That’s partly true, for sure. The other part is that it’s often tough to resolve one’s feelings about this film because the film itself is unresolved, and also in some ways rather unsatisfying. In the e-mail you sent me accompanying this latest exchange, you remarked that Last Tango in Paris is more interesting to talk about than it is to watch, and I feel like we really need to bring that idea into the conversation proper because it so perfectly sums up how I feel about this film. It’s a film of bold performances, bold ideas and bold images, and yet there’s also something curiously flat and aimless about so much of it. It was partially improvised, and it feels like it, which works sometimes (as in Paul’s outrageous monologues, in which Paul the character and Brando the actor are both trying to imagine, spontaneously, the most disgusting, disturbing, demeaning things to say) but also contributes to the sense that the film doesn’t entirely add up.
Another element that’s tough to resolve is the gender dynamic that’s at work here. Paul, of course, is brutal towards Jeanne, abusing and demeaning her, taking out on her all the aggression and hatred that he feels towards his wife for cheating on him and for committing a final act that proves how little he understood her. The problem is that while it’s very easy to grasp what Paul is getting out of this relationship with Jeanne, it’s less clear what she’s getting out of it. The film’s gender roles feel very unbalanced. Paul’s pain is so much more well-defined than Jeanne’s: he is suffering from his wife’s suicide, and suffering more generally from his feeling that he never understood his wife, that indeed maybe it’s impossible to ever fully understand another human being. But Jeanne is just saddled with vague and rather clichéd daddy issues, while loitering around with her filmmaker boyfriend Tom (Jean-Pierre Léaud) in scenes that ultimately say way more about Bertolucci’s fascination with the French New Wave (more on that later) than they ever do about Jeanne. This is very much Paul’s movie, even though Bertolucci has devised a parallel structure that at least purports to follow the two characters’ arcs equally. Jeanne is such a murky character, and part of that is surely purposeful—to show that Paul doesn’t get her any more than he got his wife—but it’s still odd that by the end of the film we have such a complete portrait of Paul while Jeanne remains an enigma, her motivations obscure, her thoughts mostly kept to herself. We see a lot of her body and almost nothing of her soul—an equation that is reversed for Paul.
JB: I wouldn’t disagree with any of that, and yet one of the things that I find most compelling about Last Tango in Paris is the murkiness of Jeanne, the fact that her motivations are never made clear. Does she have “clichéd daddy issues”? Maybe. Certainly she seems conflicted about her real-world relationship with her boyfriend, who objectifies her more sweetly than Paul but just as completely. Or perhaps she’s attracted to Paul’s brokenness or his lack of varnish. Who knows. All I can tell you is that each time I watch this film I find myself fascinated by Jeanne’s behavior over the final act. The sequence during the tango contest is my favorite in the film, partially because it includes some of the film’s most compelling images but mostly because it allows us to sit back and watch Jeanne wrestling with her emotions. One moment she looks as if she’s going to leave Paul. The next moment it looks as if she’s going to surrender to a depressing existence with him. The moment after that, she falls under his spell again, exudes genuine and complete happiness and love again. And then the moment after that she looks as if she wants to drink herself to death. In a sequence less than 10 minutes long, Jeanne must go through that cycle almost three times, unable to resolve her feelings. And before they leave the dance hall, Jeanne unzips Paul’s pants and gives him a handjob—objectifying herself this time, perhaps in a last ditch effort to conjure the magic of the apartment, or perhaps in the hopes that it will afford her an escape. Of the hermetic apartment environment where Paul and Jeanne have their tryst, Kael wrote, “The necessity for isolation from the world is, of course, his, not hers.” But each time I watch the film’s final act, I wonder if that’s actually true.
But of course you’re right that Last Tango in Paris is more concerned with Paul than Jeanne, even though it seems to imply otherwise. The truth is that Bertolucci uses Jeanne much like Paul does: as a sexual object, delighting in her full breasts while ogling her thick mass of pubic hair. (For all the movies in which naked actresses lounge about on beds with sheets strategically placed to cover up their privates, Bertolucci gives us a scene in which Jeanne stands wrapped with a towel over her shoulders in order to draw attention to her exposed crotch.) But Jeanne captivates in spite of her second-class status thanks to the exuberance of a then-20-year-old Maria Schneider, who died earlier this month at 58. Jeanne is an enigma in this film not only because the movie fails to develop her character but because of Schneider’s magnificent ability to juggle Jeanne’s contradictory emotions. This is Brando’s movie, and in moments he’s as powerful as ever, but on the whole I think Schneider outshines him.
Kael would disagree, of course. She adored Brando in this film, proclaiming that “Paul feels so ’real’ and the character is brought so close that a new dimension in screen acting has been reached.” She then continued: “I think that if the actor were anyone but Brando many of us would lower our eyes in confusion.” She’s probably right about the second part. And yet what Kael ignores is that the reason it’s hard to imagine any other actor as Paul is because there’s so much of Brando in Paul. Kael argued that Brando needed room to improvise in order to be magical, and I think she might be right about that, too, but when I watch Last Tango in Paris I often feel like I’m watching an actor working rather than a character behaving, and that’s the wrong kind of realism.
Almost 40 years ago, upon the film’s 1972 release, I might have thought otherwise. But post-1979’s Apocalypse Now, and especially in the aftermath of 1991’s Hearts of Darkness, the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, Brando’s mechanics are difficult to ignore. In several of the apartment scenes in Last Tango in Paris, Brando gives essentially the same performance he went on to provide as Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now—a performance of obscure ramblings seasoned with Brando’s peculiar ability to make an English word sound foreign by means of emphatic enunciation: in this case “cow shit,” “mustard field,” “rabbits,” etc. Perhaps if I hadn’t seen Hearts of Darkness, and thus had never seen footage of a desperate Francis Ford Coppola trying to get Brando to say something, anything, while the cameras are rolling, I might be able to watch Last Tango in Paris and see Paul gleefully experimenting with oddity and vulgarity, trying to see what Jeanne will let him get away with. But instead, as often as not, I see Brando gleefully experimenting with what Bertolucci will let him get away with, while trying to provoke the audience in the theater. When Kael suggested that Brando found a “new dimension in screen acting,” that isn’t what she had in mind.
EH: I think that’s all very true. Frankly, it’s baffling to me that Kael thinks the film is so shockingly “real,” because to me it’s anything but. The virtues—and the vices—of Last Tango in Paris arise not from its realism but from its very obvious emphasis on acting, its very cinematic conception. Bertolucci, a director who worked out his admiration for the stylistic excesses of the French New Wave throughout the ‘60s and then began making heavily stylized, symbolical/psychological films in the ‘70s and onward, is not a filmmaker from whom I’d expect raw realism, at least not in the sense that Kael seems to mean it. There’s emotional realism in this film, and in Bertolucci’s other films of course, but it’s certainly not the kind of realism where the filmmaking becomes invisible. Bertolucci’s early flirtation with neorealism as a pupil of Pier Paolo Pasolini didn’t last much beyond his uncharacteristic Pasolini-scripted debut, La Commare Secca, and Last Tango in Paris is anything but a return to realism or naturalism.
Brando, especially, is inseparable from Paul, not in the sense of disappearing into the character, but that the actor has become an integral part of the character. Bertolucci even draws on the actor’s persona and screen history, giving him the white undershirt of Stanley Kowalski and the washed-up boxer’s background of Terry Malloy. It’s very self-consciously Brando up there on the screen, not just Paul. It’s fascinating to watch him anyway, to see how actor and character are layered together, how the process of improvisation keeps burbling up to the surface of the performance—but naturalistic it’s not. The performance works in this context, as you point out and as I suggested before, only because Paul’s motivation as a character and Brando’s motivation as an actor line up so perfectly: just as Paul wants to shock Jeanne, Brando wants to shock the audience.
All of which means I agree with you that Schneider’s embodiment of Jeanne is the more captivating of the two central performances here. Her performance isn’t constantly calling attention to itself, nor is it marked by the showy Brandoisms of her costar. Even the tinge of exploitation in Bertolucci’s use of her naked body can’t extinguish the charm and the fire of the actress, nor can the sense that Bertolucci is using her in a different way than he is Brando. (After all, Brando doesn’t even take his pants off for the anal sex scene, a stark contrast to the casual and copious nudity that’s demanded of Schneider.) That Schneider radiates such a fascinating screen presence even in these sometimes tawdry surroundings, even with an underdeveloped and often rather pathetic character to work with, is a testimony to how fantastic she was. She never amassed the largest or most high-profile filmography, but there was always something special about her. In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, she worked with legendary directors Bertolucci, Antonioni and Rivette, and in Last Tango in Paris, as in The Passenger and Merry-Go-Round, she projected an unstudied sense of self-possession on screen—or the illusion thereof, which amounts to the same thing—that’s very much the opposite of Brando’s mannered, self-conscious acting.
Of course, that very disjunction between the acting styles of the principals is part of what makes the film so compelling to watch. It becomes a part of the tension between the lovers, another sign of the differences that separate them from one another: Paul is brutish and brooding, Jeanne is light and expressive; Paul is vulgar and aggressive while Jeanne is, for the most part, simply acquiescent; Paul replaces his name with animalistic grunts, Jeanne with a series of playful lips-pursed trills. The characters, brought together, are a study in contrasts, so it makes sense that the performances would come from very different places as well.
JB: Agreed. And while the circumstances by which Paul and Jeanne first get together would seem preposterous even to Austin Powers, it’s to the film’s credit—and to Brando’s and Schneider’s—that from that first kiss onward I never doubt their attraction, curious though it might be. Paul and Jeanne’s relationship, whatever it is, is genuine. Their sex is visceral and emotional. It’s passionate. But what it isn’t, I don’t think, is “erotic,” and that’s the word Kael threw at it, first noting that Last Tango in Paris has a “thrusting, jabbing eroticism” and then reasoning that it “must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made.” High praise. And in my mind misplaced praise. Assuming that Kael used “erotic” to mean something in the neighborhood of “arousing sexual desire,” I find that description baffling, because while there is certainly a lot of “thrusting” and “jabbing” in this picture, and depictions of orgasmic relief, for me the prevailing emotion in each of the sexual encounters is excruciating pain. Not physical pain, although maybe that, too, in places. Emotional pain. And there’s never anything sexy or arousing about emotional pain, so far as I can tell.
Of course, that’s me, out there in the audience looking in. And I concede that for all the pain that these characters are going through—pain that motivates their actions—Paul and Jeanne do seem to lose themselves to their sexploits and become overcome by their arousal, at least briefly. That puts even the darkest of sex scenes in Last Tango in Paris in stark contrast with one of 2010’s late releases, Blue Valentine, which in addition to some genuinely erotic moments also features one of the most gruesome episodes of consensual sex I’ve ever seen, precisely because the characters never get beyond their suffering. It’s that way by design, of course; two different films, two different aims. But I bring up Blue Valentine anyway because sometimes it takes comparing Last Tango in Paris’s sex scenes to those of other films in order to appreciate what a strange emotional place this film inhabits: thrusting and jabbing with anger and heartbreak and thrusting and jabbing with arousal at the same time. For all of its unrestrained pursuit of sexual pleasure, I don’t consider Last Tango in Paris an erotic cinematic experience. But do Paul and Jeanne find eroticism within their relationship? Absolutely.
EH: I don’t consider Last Tango in Paris erotic either—though I’m sure there’s someone out there who thinks “go get the butter” is a very sexy come-on—and I agree that Kael was off the mark in praising the film for its eroticism. And while I also agree that Paul and Jeanne “lose themselves to their sexploits,” trying to erase their pain through sex, they also seem intent on causing one another even more pain. The sadistic pleasure they get in hurting one another isn’t even always sexual in nature: one of my favorite nasty little moments is the pixyish expression on Jeanne’s face after she playfully/sadistically tricks Paul into shocking himself with the sparking electrical outlet.
So far, we’ve mostly focused on this central relationship—understandably, since it does dominate the film—but some of the more interesting implications of Last Tango in Paris exist at the fringes of the narrative, beyond the borders of the apartment, in the figure of Tom the manic filmmaker. With this character, Bertolucci is nodding to the French New Wave, which was one of the most important influences on his own career and his own thinking about film. The mere presence of Jean-Pierre Léaud summons the association: he is one of the actors irrevocably linked to the New Wave, as the young star of Truffaut’s debut The 400 Blows, an actor who grew up on camera in that film’s sequels, appeared in Rivette’s Out 1, and starred in some of Godard’s most political cinema of the ‘60s. In Last Tango in Paris, Léaud plays a devoted cineaste much like his New Wave directors, a man obsessed with getting everything on film, capturing something authentic through the most artificial means possible. He’s a punchline, with a camera crew following him everywhere, concocting scenarios that are intended to examine race relations and his girlfriend’s past as the daughter of a French colonialist officer, but it’s all phony, a game. He screams at his camera crew for halting filming in a sudden rainstorm—it’s so romantic and photogenic—and then he runs off into the rain, screaming his love’s name, still acting out the big romantic moment even though the cameras have stopped rolling. In another scene, the background music seems to be non-diegetic until Tom abruptly switches off the tape recorder hanging around his neck, which had apparently been playing the music as an accompaniment to a confrontation with Jeanne. This is a guy who carries around his own soundtrack.
Tom is a walking, talking critique of the contrivances and artificiality of filmmaking, and I think also a critique, if perhaps an unwitting one, of Brando’s self-conscious performance style. Tom is obsessed with authenticity, trying to rearrange reality to fit within his frame. He’s always walking around with his hands held up to form a frame around what he sees, an obvious caricature of a pretentious film director, and all his attempts to capture the essence of reality only come out artificial and silly. Though superficially quite different from Paul—who claims to want to avoid the truth, not discover it—Tom winds up being very much like his counterpart, another character who’s hiding from reality, even while claiming to seek it. In his case, he hides in the cinema, like the characters in Bertolucci’s 2003 film The Dreamers, who hole themselves up in an apartment and immerse themselves in films and sex in order to blot out the political turmoil of May 1968 in Paris. Last Tango in Paris is the same story in coded form: made in France four years after the disillusionment of 1968’s failures, it’s about characters who can’t see past their own emotional and psychological problems, who are solipsistic in the extreme, locking themselves away from everything they can’t face in the outside world.
Bertolucci, though an avowed Communist, seems fairly cynical about the limits of political upheaval. His remarkable New Wave-infused second feature, Before the Revolution, was a portrait of a young man who claimed to want to change the world, but instead retreated into incestuous sex and, eventually, into bourgeois safety and security; seen now, it’s a startling prediction of the disappointments of ‘60s idealism, made four years before the “revolution” began and fizzled out in 1968. It’s a familiar story and a familiar theme for Bertolucci, and it’s not difficult to see the self-involved characters of Last Tango in Paris as a further development of this archetype. Paul’s past, as it’s described towards the beginning of the film in a blatant scene of verbal exposition, is the past of an idealist and an adventurer, a world traveler. One imagines him, in his youth, not so different from the well-meaning but aimless young man of Before the Revolution, who desperately declares, towards the end of that film, that “it’s always before the revolution for people like me.” The same goes for people like Paul, whose obviously disappointing life has led him to a dark, hopeless place: to this grimy apartment, to alcohol and angry sex, to the kind of soul-crushing despair he expresses in the film’s first shot, and eventually to the balcony where he meets his pathetic end.
JB: That’s an interesting take on Paul. I think it works, but I can’t say I ever thought of Paul that way, mainly because I never imagined his roots. Something about his immediate pain obliterates any past he might have had. Was Paul a dreamer? I don’t know. Maybe. But Last Tango in Paris constructs itself in such a way that we can never take Paul at his word. We can’t believe his backstory. One of the film’s great mysteries, in my opinion, is the nature of Paul’s relationship with his wife. Was theirs a close and happy relationship? Paul’s anguish would suggest it was. But the fact of the matter is that Paul’s wife committed suicide, apparently surprising Paul, and before that she had a long-term lover—a tenant in the same building, who Paul’s wife outfitted in a bathrobe to match Paul’s.
In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Paul sits beside his wife’s heavily madeup corpse, all laid out for burial, and grasps at loose ends. He wonders if a small collection of knickknacks he discovered in the closet—knickknacks he didn’t know his wife had—could perhaps be an indication that he didn’t know her as well as he thought. He wonders about her lover, who he apparently willingly ignored when his wife was alive, questioning to whom, if either of them, his wife was truly devoted. “For five years I was more a guest in this fucking flophouse than a husband,” he says with anger and assurance. Is Paul lashing out, cursing the soul of his wife for breaking his heart? Certainly that’s part of it, but it’s risky to assume that’s all of it. I’ve always looked at Paul and thought that he had the makings of an absentee husband, and that if his wife often treated him like a tenant it’s because he often treated her like a landlord. Maybe more than a soulmate Paul’s wife was someone who gave an aimless American a place to rest his head each night.
It’s hard to say. Although I still get frustrated when I can see Brando improvising, his performance in the scene in which Paul interrogates his wife’s corpse is his best work in the film. Few actors have ever combined rage and vulnerability as well as Brando, and that’s precisely the combination he brings to that scene. But even more than Brando’s performance, I love the way Bertolucci captures that scene: It begins with Brando’s Paul walking into a dark room and talking into the blackness: “You look ridiculous in that makeup; like a caricature of a whore.” Paul shuts the door behind him, walks through the pitch-blackness, turns on a small bedside lamp and sits down in a chair in the middle of the frame. To the right of Paul is empty shadow. To the left of Paul is a blanket of purple flowers, and, we suspect, his wife’s body. “Fake Ophelia, drowned in a bathtub,” Paul says with disgust, looking toward that blanket of flowers, confirming what’s just beyond view. Now we know the body is there, but Bertolucci is slow to reveal the corpse. Instead Paul begins to talk, criticizing his wife’s appearance, and only then does the camera begin tracking to the right while turning to the left, very slowly revealing his dead wife. By initially limiting our scope of vision to only Paul, Bertolucci ensures that the focus of the scene is Paul’s feelings about the dead woman, and not the dead woman herself. The body is given one clean closeup, perfectly timed with Paul’s desperate attempt to reconcile his wife’s true nature: “I’ll never discover the truth about you,” he says. “Never. I mean, who the hell were you?” It’s a question Bertolucci never resolves.
EH: That’s definitely Brando’s finest acting moment in this film, an absolutely devastating scene; Brando still doesn’t quite disappear into Paul, but he does tap into this man’s grief in a far deeper sense than he does elsewhere. When he starts wiping off his wife’s lipstick because she never wore it while she was alive, that’s just heartbreaking, and embarrassing, and difficult to watch—exactly as it should be. Paul is desperate to understand his wife Rosa, but of course that’s impossible now—as Bertolucci’s slow unveiling of her impassive corpse emphasizes—and moreover it was likely impossible even when she was alive. That becomes clear in that other great scene, when Paul sits down next to his wife’s lover, both of them downtrodden middle-aged men wearing the same bathrobe, in a room that Rosa deliberately tried to model on the apartment she shared with Paul. How could one ever make sense of something like that?
It’s a pretty bleak portrait of marriage, of course, suggesting that one never really knows or understands another person, even the person one lives with. That’s why Paul deliberately tries to form a relationship with Jeanne in which the possibility of understanding has been taken off the table altogether: even as he’s weeping by Rosa’s bedside, begging for understanding, he’s brusquely cutting Jeanne off anytime she tries to tell him the least thing about herself. He knows: once he learns something, once he gets to know her a little, the illusion that he could eventually understand her completely will return. The film looks on relationships and especially marriage as a trap, and by the end of the film Paul has become ensnared again, seized by that desire to understand, to take this relationship beyond the musty boundaries of the apartment and out into the real world.
Of course, he’s doomed to failure, because Jeanne, like Rosa, isn’t very easy to catch. Which doesn’t stop him or Tom from trying anyway. When Tom proposes to Jeanne, he places a boat’s life preserver around her torso, as though imprisoning her, making her his. She plays along with a smile, but tellingly tosses the life preserver off into the water at the first opportunity, and when it bobs back up a closeup reveals that the name of the boat is L’Atalante, a reference to Jean Vigo’s iconic film of the same name. The central relationship of that film, however, provides a model and a template, not for the relationship between Tom and Jeanne, but between Paul and Jeanne: the brooding boat captain and his wife who increasingly feels imprisoned by his moods and expresses her dissatisfaction by skipping out on him. Relationships are continually depicted here in terms of traps and cages: the elevator cage that leads up to the apartment where Paul and Jeanne have their trysts; the apartment itself, an isolation chamber for the lovers; the life preserver with its implication of constricting marriage (encircling Jeanne like a giant wedding ring). These characters are desperate to escape from such traps and, at the same time, equally desperate to be trapped.
JB: That’s a perfect way to put it, and I think that brings us to the film’s shocking and yet oddly telegraphed conclusion. After Paul runs up the staircase that spirals around the elevator shaft, circling the caged Jeanne like a great white shark circles a caged diver, he forces his way into Jeanne’s mother’s apartment and in doing so appears to end what until then has been an aggressive, menacing pursuit. Once inside the apartment, Jeanne at first seems less afraid, and Paul is certainly less violent. The edge is off. All the running around has sobered them. And now it’s as if a chase that once seemed dangerous was just another one of their games. First it was “go get the butter,” then it was “get the scissors,” and finally it’s “I’m going to get you,” something like that.
The chase over, Paul relaxes, as if he’s climaxed, and walks nonchalantly through the apartment (“A little old, but full of memories, huh?”) until he spots Jeanne’s father’s military cap, which he dons before giving a playful salute. If he was a shark before, he’s a pussycat now, and he slowly approaches Jeanne, who stands at the dresser, hands concealed in a drawer. We know what’s there, because the gun, not to mention Jeanne’s ability to shoot it, was established much earlier in the film (unnecessarily, I might add). Then Paul takes Jeanne in his arms and delivers a line that in any other film would cause the violins to crescendo: “You ran through Africa and Asia and Indonesia, and I found you.” Paul takes a breath and stares into her eyes, as if bracing himself to speak from the deepest part of his soul. “And I love you,” he says, “I want to know your name.”
It’s then that Jeanne pulls the trigger, shooting Paul dead. And the question is, why? Does she fear for her physical safety? Maybe moments before, or long-term, but probably not at the moment she pulls the trigger. Does she fear for her emotional safety? That’s quite likely, because maybe she feels that the only way to move on from Paul, and to move ahead in her marriage with Tom, is for Paul to die. Does she fear for her sanity? That would make sense, too, because throughout the previous tango scene we watched Jeanne’s emotions bouncing from one extreme to the next like the needle of a Richter scale during a major earthquake. But is it possible that Jeanne pulls the trigger because more than anything she fears the truth and considers Paul’s sincere expression of love to be the most perverse and dangerous moment in their relationship? (And if Jeanne is scared of the truth, is that a further indictment of the French New Wave, as represented by Tom, the man she will now marry?) I realize there’s no single explanation for this scene, but I’m curious to know what you think.
EH: It’s yet another moment where we’re left to wonder what Jeanne is thinking, and any of the motivations you suggest seem plausible for this enigmatic woman. If I had to choose, I’d say that Jeanne is most disturbed by Paul’s flippant appropriation of her father’s military cap. When Paul approaches her in that hat, it’s Jeanne’s opportunity to kill a father who, the film hints, seems to have had a lingering impact on her life and her sexual identity: think of her mother’s very funny line about the enduring erotic charge of her dead husband’s boots, a sexual electricity that has transcended death (“They give me strange shivers,” she says). As we’ve discussed, Jeanne’s psychology isn’t examined as intently as Paul’s, but it’s clear that for her, military power and fatherly authoritarianism and sexual pleasure are all tangled together. Certainly, killing fathers was very much on Bertolucci’s mind at this point. Two years earlier, in 1970, he’d released a twinned pair of films about the often unwelcome power of the father figure: The Conformist, in which Bertolucci cheekily gives an assassination target the real-life Paris address and phone number of the director’s cinematic father Jean-Luc Godard, and The Spider’s Stratagem, in which the mystery of a father’s long-ago death reshapes the life of his son.
There’s another element to this last scene, which is that Jeanne and Paul have switched places by the end of the film. Just as Paul begins to desire a more conventional relationship, Jeanne now wants to avoid personal connection and to maintain the impersonal, anonymous relationship the duo have had thus far. Earlier in the film, Paul cut Jeanne off when she tried to tell him anything about herself, but in this finale she cuts him off—for good. As with Paul and Rosa, the possibility for understanding is now severed. In the film’s very final moments, Jeanne is already concocting her excuse for the murder, practicing the words she’s going to say to paint this as a simple case of self-defense against a man she doesn’t know. There’s a pointed irony to the fact that everything she says is, technically, true: he chased her through the streets, she doesn’t know his name, she doesn’t know him at all. Leaving aside the fact that she spent a few days having sex with him, she really doesn’t know him, and maybe by the end of the film Paul has at last convinced her that that’s a good thing.
JB: Yes, put another way, maybe by the end Paul has convinced her that sex should just be sex, and not personal. I’m glad you pointed out that Jeanne and Paul have switched places by the end of the film, because that’s one of the movie’s clever surprises: Jeanne disposes of Paul as casually as he first ravaged her in that dingy apartment. It’s an action of impulse. After shooting him, Jeanne concludes her rehearsed alibi by saying that Paul is a “madman,” and while it’s hard to disagree, Jeanne seems sane only by comparison.
Even though I’ve seen the film a few times now, I always find the ending shocking. And by “ending,” I mean everything from the beginning of the tango scene until the credits. The conclusion is so unconventional: no one falls in love, one of them runs screaming for her life, the other one ends up dead, and yet I wouldn’t really consider it an unhappy ending. But in what is a difficult film to pin down, I always end up concluding that its shocking finale feels like the only conceivable destination. And as I let the impact of the final act settle, I find myself wondering who I should feel worst for? Paul, because he loses his wife, falls in love and then gets killed? On paper it would seem like it has to be him, but it isn’t. Jeanne, because she might have been in love with Paul, and now she’s about to settle for a marriage with Tom that’s all about his passions and not about hers? Maybe, but Jeanne disposes of Paul so easily that something tells me she’ll actually forget him. Tom, because, in the parlance of Paul, he doesn’t have a clue about his wife’s true nature? Perhaps, because I find it easy to imagine Tom someday coming home to find Jeanne’s dead body in the bathtub. Or maybe it’s Rosa, because for whatever pain Paul and Jeanne have been in, her pain must have been much worse?
Those are the kinds of questions that make Last Tango in Paris a memorable film, albeit one that’s more interesting to dissect than to experience. I can’t share Kael’s unrestrained enthusiasm for it, but then who could? (And before we go, I’d like to point out that two of the films Kael is most famous for championing, Last Tango in Paris and Robert Altman’s Nashville, are ones that she had the opportunity to review in print several months ahead of their premieres. One could deduce that Kael’s effusiveness might have been a calculated attempt to put herself in the spotlight. Or maybe it’s just coincidence. Anyway …) When I remember the film, I usually find myself ticking through the sex scenes first, even though the scenes that really move me happen outside the apartment. Is that because the sex scenes have become a part of pop culture taboo with their distinctive nature (butter, scissors, etc.)? Or is it possible that Kael had it right, and the film’s eroticism is more potent than I give it credit for? I’m not sure, but if sex is a coping mechanism for pain and suffering, it seems this film should be remembered for its agony before its sexuality.
EH: Like you, I don’t share Kael’s rapturous opinion of this film, nor do I buy her proclamations of the film’s revolutionary potential. Last Tango in Paris is a fascinating film, but not quite a great one, and at times I’m not even sure it’s a good one. In the scenes at the tango contest, leading up to the finale, as Paul and Jeanne stagger out onto the dance floor, disrupting the rigid formalism of the dance with their goofy, sloppy antics, I’m not sure how I should feel about these characters. Is Bertolucci mocking the stiff conventions of bourgeois love, as represented by the tango dancers, and upholding the passionate messiness of Jeanne and Paul as an alternative? Certainly, the insert shots of the tango contestants frozen in formalized poses, the women with makeup heavily caked on their faces, seem designed to make the dancers look ridiculous and laughable, like mannequins striking the poses of love without the feeling. Are we supposed to be laughing along with Paul as he mocks the dancers and bares his ass to them? Of course, Paul is just as ridiculous, not so much an icon of rebellion against convention as a pathetic drunk whose antics are more sad than funny.
It’s appropriate that the film ends with its emotions and its messages in a tangle like this. It’s a film that opens with agony and ends with an emotion that’s equally negative but closer to resignation than torment. Last Tango in Paris begins with those grotesque Francis Bacon paintings, and with Paul’s tortured scream, but by the end of the film its emotional color has cooled, reflecting the switch from the angry, emotionally naked Paul to the much more restrained and ambiguous Jeanne. Bertolucci leaves his themes dangling in the end, unresolved and unresolvable, a network of suggestions about marriage, love, sex, pain, psychology and even filmmaking and politics. Last Tango in Paris begins, quite literally, with a scream, but it ends with a whimper.
Review: Tigers Are Not Afraid Wrings Preciousness from a Drug War’s Carnage
It never resolves its commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly coherent argument about the legacy of trauma.2
Writer-director Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a tapestry of flourishes. All are inseparable from Mexico’s gangland carnage, but its most memorable one is also rooted in magical-realist tradition, namely 100 Years of Solitude. The novel tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, and in one particularly exacting and vivid passage, master fabulist Gabriel García Márquez details how the seemingly eternal Ursula Iguarán learns of her son José Arcadio’s death after a trickle of blood from his body winds its way through war-torn Macondo, around corners, across terraces, down steps, and over curbs, before finally arriving at his mother’s doorstep. “Holy mother of God,” she says.
Ursula comprehends the truth of that thread of blood even before it leads her back to her son’s body. By contrast, the protagonist of Tigers Are Not Afraid, Estrella (Paola Lara), prevaricates so as to put distance between herself and the horrors around her. “We forget who we are, when the things from outside come to get us,” she says in voiceover at the start of the film. She doesn’t see the line of blood that runs from a dead man’s head and follows her all the way home until it’s already tracing a path across her living room floor and up a wall, finally creating the shape of an insect on a dress that hangs from the ceiling. Estrella’s mother is missing, and in this moment, the girl seems to know that she’s being sent a message, which she won’t learn to decipher until she becomes more fluent in the language of fairy tales.
At its most assured, Tigers Are Not Afraid strikingly literalizes the idea of the ties that bind, suggesting how the living and the dead walk hand in hand, almost as a matter of course, in a modern-day Mexico where 160,000 have been killed and 53,000 have disappeared since the beginning of the drug war in 2006. Before Estrella stumbles upon the aforementioned dead man’s body, you get the sense that today isn’t the first time she’s seen boys use police tape as limbo sticks, or dragged her fingers across walls riddled with bullet holes. Which isn’t to say that the girl is desensitized to this violence. She seems to almost exist at a remove from it, and López sensitively syncs the swaying of her camera to the girl’s visible numbness.
That sensitivity, however, proves to be a kind of redundancy. Throughout Tigers Are Not Afraid, López effectively conjures an aura of ordinariness, but she never resolves her commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly coherent argument about the legacy of trauma. The film concerns Estrella and a group of orphaned boys going head to head with a cartel after young El Shine (Juan Ramón López) swipes a gun and phone from the treacherous El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), and when that narrative isn’t picking up signals from the supernatural realm, you sense its allegiance to so many films indebted to the neorealist tradition, from Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados to Héctor Babenco’s Pixote. Tigers Are Not Afraid is alive to the harsh reality of its main characters’ lives, though at times it feels as if López’s only means of accessing that truth is by conspicuously shaking her camera.
As for the film’s supernatural flourishes, none are as inspired as that thread of blood that trails Estrella at various points. Little flying creatures suggest visitors from Guillermo del Toro’s cabinet of curiosities, while a gathering of ghosts inside an expansive, derelict building brings to mind a Silent Hill freak-out. And in the case of the tiger graffiti on a wall that comes to life at one point, there isn’t even the sense that we’re watching the dead’s handiwork. After a while, death’s intrusions come to feel more cosmetic than substantial.
Early in the film, López fascinatingly suggests that Estrella’s perception of the world, after a teacher grants her three wishes, is both shield and sword. But after the girl uses one of those wishes to commit an act of brutality, the film’s fairy-tale conceit reveals itself as an engine for easy absolution. By the time the girl arrives at an understanding of her world that isn’t too far removed from the logic of her opening voiceover, Tigers Are Not Afraid has so given itself over to feeling the innocence of cocooning that it only effectively haunts us with its preciousness.
Cast: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas, Tenoch Huerta, Nery Arredondo, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero Director: Issa López Screenwriter: Issa López Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 83 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette Serves Up Lifetime-Grade Chestnuts of Wisdom
The film is a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.1.5
The opening passages of Where’d You Go, Bernadette include a handful of scenes in which an agoraphobic architect and mother, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), restlessly expresses her internal thoughts inside the empty rooms of her Seattle mansion. Observed in flowing Steadicam shots, these soliloquies—recorded and translated to text by Manjula, the digital assistant on Bernadette’s smartphone—give space to reflect on how the woman’s eclectic furnishings grow out of her racing mental landscape. And in performing them, Blanchett offers the rare cinematic spectacle of a mother in her alone time, compelled to let her imagination and anxieties loose outside the pressures of maternal duty. In these moments, the film, an unapologetically straightforward adaptation of Maria Semple’s best-selling novel, briefly takes on the tone of something candidly personal.
It’s a shame, then, that Where’d You Go, Bernadette is cloyingly beholden to the demands of its crowd-pleasing narrative arc—that of a creative woman driven to ennui by motherhood and middle age yet rescued from the brink by an inspiring vacation and the love of her family. It’s nice, reassuring stuff, not false by any standard, but told with such didacticism and cuteness that one can’t help but be bewildered by the fact that the film was co-written and directed by Richard Linklater. Where the Texas auteur’s leisurely paced Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!! excel in their attention to the nuanced spectacle of characters changing over time, Where’d You Go, Bernadette plays like all of its air has been sucked out in the interest of plot progression, which it conducts with the workshopped efficiency of a television movie mindful of commercial breaks. In fact, with its coverage-dependent mise-en-scène, off-the-rack musical score, and tacked-on bookending voiceovers, Linklater’s latest feels strangely close to something Lifetime might have churned out in the early aughts.
The film establishes its narrative conflicts quickly and bluntly, often through dialogue, simple juxtaposition, and, in one particularly dull case, a YouTube mini-documentary about Bernadette that plays in full in order to clarify her backstory. A brilliant and influential architect in the midst of a long hiatus after a demoralizing relocation and a series of miscarriages, she displaces her creative frustration on her city and its inhabitants, including her prosperous, TED Talks-giving husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup); stuffy neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig); and Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), a gossipy associate of Elgie and friend of Audrey. Her only routine source of joy is her wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), who loves her unconditionally and whom she treats perhaps a bit too much like a peer.
Symptomatic of Linklater’s always-generous worldview, the film sees Bernadette’s quirks not as deficiencies, but as inevitable side effects of life’s persistent curveballs. When the character refers to herself as a “creative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares,” it’s clear that the filmmaker endorses that assessment, and perhaps even recognizes it as a description of his own artistic career. For all their suspicion toward Bernadette, Elgie and Audrey aren’t characterized entirely negatively either, for each is given a path to redemption, and Wiig’s portrayal of her character’s transition from belligerence to empathy in particular is one of the highpoints of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
Rather, in true boomer fashion, Linklater reserves his cynicism for technology, kickstarting the film’s third act with the contrived revelation that Manjula is actually a Russian-operated phishing scheme seeking to steal Bernadette’s identity. This development briefly gets a Department of Homeland Security agent, Marcus Strang (James Urbaniak), and a therapist, Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer), caught up in the narrative, but it’s all really just a busy preamble to the Antarctica family vacation that’s hinted at from the very first scene. Bernadette has her reservations about the trip, Bee thinks it will be cathartic for the family, Elgie is too preoccupied with his career to concern himself with the logistics, and the shadowy forces behind Manjula are poised to swoop in and cause chaos during the scheduled dates.
What ends up happening is neither the transporting escape Bee wants nor the complete disaster Manjula intends to enact, but something messily in between that triggers a coordinated stream of life lessons—and a few uninspired drone shots of icebergs. Indeed, in its eagerness to diagnose Bernadette’s existential impasse, the film lays on thick the kind of back-patting chestnuts of wisdom that have become increasingly common in Linklater’s recent films, groaners like “Popularity is overrated” and “You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna do.” Such sentiments have always been window dressing in Linklater’s nonchalantly libertarian body of work, but if in many cases his films have tacitly acknowledged the limits of language to articulate life’s mysteries, here there’s very little sense of a frontier to be explored. If Bernadette is Linklater and Blanchett’s collaborative expression of the right balance between parenting and artistry, it’s a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening—and privileged—idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Emma Nelson, Zoe Chao, James Urbaniak, Judy Greer Director: Richard Linklater Screenwriter: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, Vincent Palmo Jr. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 130 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
The film is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.2
With What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, Roberto Minervini returns to the American South to tell the stories of several African-Americans living in New Orleans, over the summer of 2017. These stories are so self-contained that the documentary comes to suggest an anthology film, which, in this case, has been organized around a pervading theme of how political and personal textures intersect in everyday black life. And in the tradition of the anthology film, Minervini’s material is also variable, suggesting that the filmmaker could’ve been more ruthless in the editing room and less beholden to the pleasures of his self-consciously neat aesthetic.
Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Minervini’s subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew that’s clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titus’s inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocence—an impression that’s affirmed later in the film when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titus’s hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness that’s bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love that’s deeply poignant.
Juxtaposed with this coming-of-age youth narrative are stories of a recovering crack addict, Judy Hill, who’s realized her dream of opening a bar, and of a local chapter of the New Black Panthers, which is investigating and protesting several murders, such as the recent decapitation and burning of a local black man. Intellectually, one can see why Minervini believes these threads belong together, as they both illustrate how African-Americans foster their own infrastructures as a reaction to the corruption and indifference of governments on various levels. But Minervini’s cross-cutting shortchanges both of these story threads. Minervini reveals preciously little about the principle murder that the New Black Panthers are seeking to avenge, using it vaguely as a symbol of Southern atrocity at large, and the practical details of operating Judy’s bar are reduced to sketches. In both cases, the specifics of the subjects’ concerns haven’t been entirely dramatized.
In certain portions of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, particularly those featuring the New Black Panthers, Minervini taps into reservoirs of anger that are nearly at odds with his chilly formalism. The film was shot by D.P. Diego Romero in pristine black and white, with long takes that drink in the details of the landscapes and people’s bodies. One is often encouraged to savor the beauty of the lighting, especially in Judy’s bar, and Minervini eschews typical documentary devices like narration and interviews. In terms of gliding, sumptuous style, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, as both films verge on turning class struggles into moving coffee-table books.
We’re supposed to feel as if we’ve slipped effortlessly into the lives of Minervini’s subjects, which might have been possible if more time had been devoted to pivotal moments. If Minervini wasn’t able to capture the moment when Judy learns that she must close the bar, then perhaps he could’ve wrestled with his inability to capture it. Judy demands a meta-textual approach anyway, as she is a highly charismatic and self-absorbed person who is often clearly performing for the camera, most gratingly when she responds to her mother’s fear of homelessness with a monologue about her own generosity. A filmmaker like Robert Greene might’ve challenged Judy and utilized her for a riff on the power of self-mythology, but Minervini prizes his faux-objectivity; he’s more interested in mood than process or character. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.
Director: Roberto Minervini Screenwriter: Roberto Minervini Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Good Boys’s Raunchy Take on Tweendom Is the Same Old Shtick
Gene Stupnitsky’s film is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action.2
Gene Stupnitsky’s Good Boys is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action, though it lacks the Netflix show’s frankness and authenticity. While hearing sixth graders curse and exhibit their burgeoning sexual awareness constitutes the film’s entire gimmick, its coarse language and surprising displays of sexual material mask an inner timidity. In the post-“puberty monster” world ushered in by Big Mouth, a show that cares to acknowledge that girls also experience puberty, both the film’s jokes and easy coming-of-age morality tale seem tame, beautified for an audience it assumes will not want to confront the abjectness of tweens’ emotional and sexual imaginations.
That said, there are laughs to be had in Good Boys, many of them deriving from the main characters’ mistaken understanding of the adult world. Max (Jacob Tremblay), for example, believes that his college-age neighbor, Hannah (Molly Gordon), is a “nymphomaniac” because she has sex both on land and at sea. Thor (Brady Noon), who pretends to possess advanced knowledge and experience in all areas, misinterprets his parents’ sex toys as weapons. And Lucas (Keith L. Williams) comes to believe that Hannah and her friend, Lily (Midori Francis), are irredeemable drug addicts because they want to do the “sex drug” molly.
Max doesn’t know how to kiss girls, and his middle-school mind tells him that the best way to learn is by using his father’s (Will Forte) drone to spy on Hannah kissing her boyfriend, Benji (Josh Caras). That leads to Hannah and Lily taking the drone, and as recompense, Thor steals Hannah’s purse, which contains a vitamin bottle full of molly that the boys promptly lose. Part of the film’s at least outwardly risqué treatment of tween boyhood is that the boys’ possession of and efforts to procure a party drug drives much of the story. And that story is a chain of cause and effect that abides by the protagonists’ middle-school priorities: If Max doesn’t find more molly, he will lose his father’s drone, which means that he never gets to kiss a girl.
The cascading series of absurd situations that are driven by Max’s desire to kiss his crush, Brixlee (Millie Davis), includes the boys trashing a frat house, selling a sex doll to a weirdo (Stephen Merchant), and handing over the bottle full of molly to an oblivious cop (Sam Richardson). (This last bit is as tenuous as a dangling thread for conspicuously missing a punchline, almost as if the filmmakers never got around to shooting it.) In the end, the trio, the so-called “bean bag boys,” must learn that middle school will mean growing apart to some extent: Max is into girls and the sixth-grade social scene, Thor loves theater, and Lucas is a kindly nerd who enjoys card games. That these interests aren’t in the least mutually exclusive, particularly for Generation Z, proves beyond the film’s capacity to acknowledge.
Good Boys’s humor is by and large the same as that of any other male-centric R-rated comedy; if it differentiates itself from other iterations of the genre, it’s through a group of pre-teens making verbosely obscene comments and engaging in gross-out physical comedy. There’s a sense that Good Boys draws open a curtain and peeks into a rarely seen and dimly remembered space of tweendom. But it’s satisfied with just this peek—and as convincingly as the filmmakers can compel their child stars to enunciate obscene exclamations, the film never captures much of the feeling, of the world of childhood experience, in which they might be based. As a result, Good Boys never transcends its Superbad-but-with-11-year-olds shtick.
Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis, Izaac Wang, Millie Davis, Josh Caras, Will Forte, Retta, Lil Rel Howery, Sam Richardson, Stephen Merchant Director: Gene Stupnitsky Screenwriter: Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cold Case Hammarskjöld Is a Gonzo Look at an Unsolved Mystery
The film is about a mystery that isn’t solved, and how that inconclusiveness spotlights the insidious functions of society.3
Like Oliver Stone’s JFK and David Fincher’s Zodiac, Mads Brügger’s documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld is about a mystery that isn’t solved, and how that inconclusiveness spotlights the insidious functions of society. Brügger also has in common with Stone and Fincher a visceral fascination with the minutiae of a particularly flabbergasting conspiracy theory. At one point near the end of the film, Brügger even comes clean, admitting that his investigation of the suspicious 1961 plane crash that killed United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld is mostly a pretense for allowing him to partake of a larger reportorial adventure that includes, among other things, Belgium assassins. By that point, though, Brügger needn’t bother with the confession, as his true obsessions are already quite clear.
Brügger is also the de facto host of Cold Case Hammarskjöld, and he has a penchant for hamming it up that brings to mind Werner Herzog. At the start of the film, as if seemingly ready for a safari, the Danish filmmaker is seen wearing an all-white uniform, which he claims is the wardrobe worn by the ultimate villain of his narrative. Brügger is holed up in a hotel with two African secretaries, Saphir Mabanza and Clarinah Mfengu, dictating to them the events we’re about to see. Both the wardrobe and the presence of these secretaries are gimmicks, and while the former is harmless, the latter is of questionable taste.
Much of the film pivots on various colonialist atrocities wrought in Africa by the British and other imperialist powers. And so it seems that Brügger wants the shock of these implications to register on the faces of Saphir and Clarinah, people who have a potentially intimate connection to his alternate history. In other words, he seems to have hired these women in order to achieve a sensational effect. To their credit, they don’t oblige him, and their sober intensity suggests that they don’t need a white man to tell them of the evils of the world.
Of course, Brügger isn’t trying to be likable, as he’s pointedly allergic to the pathos affected by Herzog and, more gallingly, Michael Moore. There’s something of an irony to many first-person documentaries: They prove that bad news often makes for good drama, with their makers all the while feeling the need to make a show of being enraged or saddened. Brügger, who resembles a slimmer Louis C.K., never once bothers with this pose, and his honesty gives Cold Case Hammarskjöld an aura of self-absorption that’s weirdly bracing and resonant in an age that’s dominated seemingly by nothing but conspiracy theories, “alternate facts” that suggest that reality is dictated by those with the most power. Brügger, a scrappy journalist, seeks truth as a means of accessing that very power, looking to cement his own name.
Brügger’s narrative is an intimidating thicket of dead ends, coincidences, and a seemingly endless procession of interviews with creepy elderly white men who almost certainly know more than they care to admit. Hammarskjöld was a drab-looking, pipe-smoking Swedish diplomat whom many assumed would be the very embodiment of minding the status quo of global politics, though he turned out to be an idealist who was especially concerned with the exploitation of the Congo. Several powers were vying for control of the Congo’s mineral resources, including Belgium, the Soviet Union, and Britain, and Hammarskjöld supported nothing less than revolution, leading to a costly U.N.-backed military mission in Katanga. On September 18, 1961, a U.N. plane carrying Hammarskjöld went down in a field in Northern Rhodesia—an area that’s now part of Zambia—eight miles from the Ndola airport, which Brügger memorably describes as a perfect “kill room” for being tucked away from prying eyes.
Following a labyrinthine trail, Brügger makes an intoxicatingly convincing case for the U.N. DC-6 crash, which killed Hammarskjöld and 15 others, as a murder conspiracy. Interviewing people who lived near the Ndola airport at the time, Brügger reveals that investigators didn’t pay any attention to these witnesses, who spoke of bursting, gunshot-like sounds and of fire coming from the plane—negligence that’s probably due as much to racism and a disinterest in the truth. Brügger also speaks with Charles Southall, a former official of the National Security Agency, who heard a recording of the crash that references a second plane and gunshots. Along the way, various potential smoking guns pop up, including a panel of metal riddled with what appears to be bullet holes, and, most ghastly, an ace of spades card that was placed on Hammarskjöld’s corpse, which was remarkably and inexplicably intact following the crash.
The documentary’s structure is somewhat loose, reflecting how detection often involves running in circles, discarding trails only to see them heat up again, and so forth. At times, Brügger’s transitions can be murky, as he’ll be talking to a new person before we can entirely digest how he arrived at this point. But the somewhat arbitrary quality of Cold Case Hammarskjöld becomes a significant source of its power, suggesting less a singular answer than a reality composed of a hundred half-truths. Eventually, Brügger homes in on a secret operation known as the South African Group for Maritime Research, or SAIMR, which becomes the object of the filmmaker’s obsession, to the point that Hammarskjöld is nearly forgotten.
Brügger never entirely proves SAIMR’s existence, as he’s led to the organization via documents uncovered from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that are suspiciously on the nose, suggesting the stuff of bad spy fiction. SAIMR is said to be a private mercenary group, probably serving the U.N. in secret, and responsible for Hammarskjöld’s murder as well as a plot to kill the black population of Africa with cheap medical centers that are actually giving patients shots of the H.I.V. virus. This revelation is so operatically evil, so beyond the pale of a liberal’s worst fantasies, that it serves to transform Cold Case Hammarskjöld into a kind of political horror film. And Brügger, in his meticulous sense of sensationalism, does prove one point via his lack of answers: that he and his dogged collaborators are asking questions which should’ve been posed at much higher levels of multiple chains of government. In Brügger’s hands, the general indifference of the major world powers to the possible murder of a key political figure suggests nothing less than maintenance of a diseased hierarchy.
Director: Mads Brügger Screenwriter: Mads Brügger Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 122 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Blinded by the Light Is a Wet, Sloppy, Public Kiss to Bruce Springsteen
The film bottles a palpable emotion of unabashed joy, even when the rest of it seems to barely hold together.2.5
As rebel icons go, Bruce Springsteen is as unlikely as they come. One does not, after all, tend to look to a man nicknamed “The Boss” for advice on raging against the machine. But in 1987 England under Margaret Thatcher, amid economic turmoil and fascist demonstrations, a British-Pakistani teenager, Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), hungers for a dissenting voice in his life. Javed is constantly at the whim of his domineering, recently laid-off father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), and his only real outlet for his troubles is writing poetry. But once his friend, Roops (Aaron Phagura), foists Born in the U.S.A. and Darkness on the Edge of Town cassettes upon him, Javed gets swept up in Springsteen’s music, hearing no small part of himself in the white American singer-singer’s working-class howl.
What follows in Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light is a wet, sloppy, public kiss to Springsteen that’s at once hackneyed and infectious. Inspired by co-screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor’s 2007 memoir Greetings from Bury Park, the film has a love for Springsteen’s music that feels raw and real. For one, it sees no shame in Javed and his pals dorkily dancing in the streets to “Born to Run,” as the filmmakers understand that teenage obsession really is that all-encompassing, so open-hearted that it naturally teeters into absolute corn.
Blinded by the Light is also endearing for not feeling like its edges have been sanded off. Indeed, you may find yourself worrying about Javed plastering the walls of his room exclusively in Springsteen posters, or about the way he gives a teasing, zombie-like moan to the stick-in-the-mud kid running the school radio station: “Bruuuuce.” There is, the film understands, a dizzying thrill to finding yourself in something that’s not even explicitly designed for you, like you’re in on a secret. Springsteen certainly wasn’t thinking of a British-Pakistani kid when writing his lyrics, but they speak to Javed anyway.
Chadha’s film bottles a palpable emotion of unabashed joy, even when the rest of the story seems to barely hold together. Its comedy is always mugging and its melodrama is especially heightened, and to the point that scenes are apt to trigger secondhand embarrassment, as when Javed and Roops chant Bruce lyrics at boys harassing them. Much of the drama feels like the narrative of a music video, which needs to be big and obvious enough so that viewers can recognize what’s happening based on the imagery and the music alone. But with the songs stripped away in Blinded by the Light’s latter half, the supporting characters and themes are left as stumbling, half-sketched husks. It becomes clear that the music cues fill in so many gaps, standing in for whatever nuance might have otherwise supported scenes like a parade confrontation that relies on the blaring “Jungleland” sax solo.
Cast: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Hayley Atwell, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Dean-Charles Chapman, Rob Brydon, Meera Ganatra Director: Gurdinder Chadha Screenwriter: Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurdinder Chadha, Sarfraz Manzoor Distributor: New Line Cinema Running Time: 117 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: 47 Meters Down: Uncaged Soars When It Disregards Characterization
The film wrings white-knuckle tension less through jump scares than from the darkness of a seemingly infinite void.2.5
While Johannes Roberts’s 47 Meters Down was marred by strained dialogue and flat characterizations, it certainly knew how to instill a sense of dread in the audience. That film’s premise, about two sisters with conflicting personalities who take an adventurous excursion that goes horribly awry, carries over to 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, though this standalone film is less concerned with exploring its main characters’ familial relationship. And that’s mostly for the better, as it gives Roberts more than enough room to foreground the grueling terror of coming into contact with sharks in the ocean deep.
In its opening stretch, Uncaged aggressively runs the gamut of teen-movie clichés. Indeed, as soon as it’s done establishing the contentious relationship between two stepsisters, shy and awkward Mia (Sophie Nélisse) and outgoing and popular Sasha (Corinne Foxx), the film is flashing the girls’ frustration with their archeologist father, Grant (John Corbett), for spending too much time working. And then there’s Catherine (Brec Bassinger), the prototypical mean girl who fake-apologizes for foisting Mia into the pool outside the international all-girls high school they all attend in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. That Uncaged doesn’t end with Mia, accidentally or otherwise, throwing Catherine into a shark’s maw is the final proof that all of the film’s initially corny character work is in service of absolutely nothing.
Mercifully, though, the film quickly shifts into thriller mode once Sasha drags Mia off to a remote region of the Yucatán, where their father recently discovered a submerged Mayan city. Soon after Mia, Sasha, and the latter’s adventurous friends, Nicole (Sistine Rose Stallone) and Alexa (Brianne Tju), arrive at the site and enjoy a swim above the main entrance to the city, they decide to strap on scuba gear and plunge into the water in order to gawk at the ancient relics that lurk below the surface. One crashed city column later and the girls come face to face with a deadly species of sharks that has evolved to survive in the darkness of the labyrinthine system of caves and tunnels where marine life isn’t supposed to exist.
Roberts wastes no time ratcheting up the tension, and a stifling sense of claustrophobia, once the girls find themselves trapped underwater and are forced to navigate a series of increasingly tight passageways, all while trying to harness the dwindling supply of oxygen from their scuba tanks. The filmmakers sustain this vise-grip suspense as the girls continue to face an array of unexpected, increasingly challenging obstacles, which, in fairly realistic fashion, extends their time stuck below the surface alongside the blind yet vicious sharks. At one point, they discover a pocket of air that proves to be as much of a bane as it is a boon.
Throughout, Roberts makes ample use of negative space as Mia and company make their way through the Mayan city with flashlights in hand. All the while, the bubbles from their scuba gear and the clouds of dust caused by falling rocks intensify their feelings of disorientation and panic, while also helpfully obscuring the low-rent nature of the film’s CGI effects. If, toward the end of Uncaged, the impact of these visual tactics is dulled by a few too many “gotcha” moments, the film more or less keeps things efficiently moving, wringing white-knuckle tension less through jump scares than from the darkness of a seemingly infinite void.
Cast: Sistin Stallon, Corinne Foxx, Brianne Tju, Sophie Nelisse, Brec Bassinger, Khylin Rhambo, Davi Santos, John Corbett, Nia Long Director: Johannes Roberts Screenwriter: Ernest Riera, Johannes Roberts Distributor: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: The Amazing Johnathan Documentary Is Gratingly Self-Knowing
Over and over, the film reminds us that banking on a gimmick isn’t an adequate substitute for an incisive character portrait.1.5
Despite its title, Ben Berman’s The Amazing Johnathan Documentary isn’t exactly about comedian-cum-magician John Edward Szeles. The film initially seems like it will remain within the boundaries of conventional portraiture. We’re presented with clips of Szeles’s performances, talking-head interviews with his family and other comedians, and the news that he only has a year left to live due to a heart condition called cardiomyopathy. Then, a title card indicates that we’re a few years into the future and that Szeles has outlived his prognosis. He decides to start performing again—against his doctor’s wishes—and the looming prospect of death gives Berman enough material to supply this film.
Unfortunately, Berman’s plans for a straightforward documentary are thwarted by events beyond his control. Most notably, it comes to light that another documentary about Szeles’s life is being produced, apparently by the people behind Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. The news makes Berman visibly nervous, and The Amazing Johnathan Documentary soon devolves into an awkward account of its own completion, with Berman talking with the other documentary’s crew, worrying about his own film being overshadowed, and stressing out about the extent to which Szeles might favor the other project.
Szeles’s interviews with online publications, radio shows, and Berman himself readily—and redundantly—corroborate the filmmaker’s impression that his subject is more excited about the other documentary being made about him. Berman doesn’t ask questions that carve out the fullness of anyone on camera, as he seems more interested in making sure that we grasp the severity of his dilemma. By the time he interviews John’s parents in order to draw empathy from them, claiming that he “for once […] was making a documentary out of love and art,” The Amazing Jonathan Documentary comes to feel like an echo chamber of affirmation.
Much like Szeles’s own act—composed of prop gags built around simplistic puns, gross-out illusions, and jokes that riff on his ostensible inabilities as a magician—Berman’s film is convinced of its own cleverness. While The Amazing Johnathan Documentary hints at being a meta film about the hardships of documentary filmmaking, or a mirror to Berman’s own foibles as a person, it’s constantly cut short by a lack of foresight. At one point, Berman decides to smoke meth with Szeles—who’s revealed to have been addicted to the drug in the past—as an act of “gonzo journalism” and to make the documentary more “interesting,” though the moment is ultimately cut from the film for legal reasons. Later, when Szeles accompanies Criss Angel to the presentation of the latter’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Berman is forced to use press footage because he didn’t make the event. This resulted from a lack of communication between Berman and Szeles, illuminating their current rift, but Berman’s acknowledgement of this tension is emblematic of the film’s biggest failure: The lack of cooperation from Berman and Szeles isn’t outrageous enough to be amusing on its own, nor does it come across as anything more than run-of-the-mill discord among colleagues.
The Amazing Johnathan Documentary seems born out of necessity rather than intent—a side effect of Berman needing to find a sensible ending for the film. We eventually find out that Always Amazing, the other documentary being made about Szeles, actually has no connection to Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. And in a desperate, last-ditch stab at coherence, Berman ends up getting Simon Chinn—the Oscar-winning producer behind those films—to sign on as his executive producer. The moment feels like a consolation prize for those who had to sit through so much ego-massaging on Berman’s part. It’s a final stroke of luck for the filmmaker, but it also suggests a bandage being placed on a gunshot wound, reminding us again that banking on a gimmick isn’t an adequate substitute for an incisive character portrait.
Director: Ben Berman Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Aquarela Viscerally Attests to Mother Nature’s Fight for Survival
At heart, Aquarela is a war film: a cacophonous survey of the global battle between man and water.3
On the surface, Victor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela suggests a conventional nature doc, filled as it is with breathtaking images that attest to Mother Nature’s might and majesty. But at heart, it’s a war film: a cacophonous survey of the global battle between man and water. The film’s wide array of visual evidence showing people in brutal disharmony with their surroundings presents a compelling case that as humanity continues to assault the planet through climate change, our Earth is fighting back twice as hard.
The film opens with a series of scenes in which a group of Russian officials traipse around a large expanse of ice, periodically stabbing at it with long poles. It takes a while before we understand that they’ve been tasked with recovering automobiles that have fallen through the frozen body of water, which has started to thaw earlier in the season than normal. In one nail-biting sequence, a car speeds along the ice before, without warning, abruptly falling through and disappearing beneath the surface. A rescue crew saves the driver and passenger in a chaotic sequence in which no one’s safety seems guaranteed, not even those behind the camera, whom we never see but whose terror is palpable in the nervous camerawork.
From a sequence of a sailboat operated by a single woman battling a fierce storm to shots in which giant chunks of ice that have fallen off a glacier bob up and down in the water like gigantic breaching whales, Aquarela doesn’t lack for simultaneously awesome and terrifying images. There’s a ferociousness and churning volatility to the film’s view of nature—a point heavily underlined by Eicca Toppinen’s heavy metal-inflected score. Though not quite as abrasive as Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan, which utilized an arsenal of GoPro cameras to create a turbulent, viscerally unsettling document of a commercial fishing trawler’s voyage at sea, Aquarela evinces a similar desire to overwhelm and discombobulate its audience. Kossakovsky employs a deeply immersive sound design that emphasizes the rough swoosh of waves and the shattering cracks of thawing glaciers.
Through a variety of cinematographic gestures—picturesque long shots, underwater footage, and tracking shots of waves—Kossakovsky gives us a wide view of the diversity of forms that water takes on Earth. Massive fields of drift ice are juxtaposed against ocean water that seems viscous and almost as black as oil. But Aquarela isn’t merely interested in showcasing water’s different states of matter, as it also constructs a subtle but distinct narrative in which water itself is the protagonist in a war for its own survival. After one particularly violent sequence of glaciers cracking apart, we see a disquieting shot of jagged, broken ice that suggests a battlefield strewn with the bodies of fallen soldiers. But later in the film, it’s as if the water is avenging itself on humankind with a series of hurricanes and torrential downpours.
Aquarela ultimately closes with the image of a rainbow appearing across Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall. If that sounds like a serene coda, it feels more like the mournful calm after a particularly harrowing catastrophe. Someday, this battle between nature and humanity will end, but Kossakovsky suggests that there will be no victors on either side, only victims.
Director: Victor Kossakovsky Screenwriter: Victor Kossakovsky, Aimara Reques Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 89 min Rating: PG Year: 2018
The 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time
These films are fearless in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own.
“The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by the 100 boldly imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a visionary depiction of a near-future dystopia, is almost impossible to imagine as a work of prose fiction. Strip away the Art Deco glory of its towering cityscapes and factories and the synchronized movements of those who move through those environments and what’s even left? It’s no accident that some of the greatest cinematic adaptations of sci-fi novels bear only a passing resemblance to their source material. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, simply mines some of the concepts from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about human-looking androids, using them as the raw material for a haunting urban future-noir that owes more to visual artists like Moebius and Antonio Sant’Elia than it does to Dick himself. Then there’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which transfigures Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s briskly paced novella Roadside Picnic into a slow, mesmerizing journey into an uncanny space.
Ballard may have been right that literary sci-fi has provided all the interesting themes and ideas for which sci-fi in general has become known, but he failed to grasp how cinema has expanded our understanding of sci-fi by pricking at our collective visual consciousness. The titles on our list of the 100 best sci-fi movies of all time have shown us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed. Some of these depictions are humorous, others haunting. Some rely on complicated special effects, others use none at all. But they’re united by their fearlessness in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own. Keith Watson
100. Altered States (Ken Russell, 1980)
Ken Russell’s psychedelic Altered States examines one man’s egregious deflection of paternal responsibility in the name of scientific innovation. Fantasy and self-indulgence are the most powerful narcotics in the film—drugs that allow Harvard scientist Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) to flirt with an increasingly volatile dream state where, as he puts it, “time simply obliterates.” Consumed by religious repression and self-guilt regarding his father’s painful death from cancer decades ago, Eddie becomes addicted to medicating his own primal urges through lengthy self-deprivation experiments. The theme of escape dominates the film, especially during Eddie’s visit with a native tribe from Central Mexico where a peyote session causes Eddie to hallucinate, visualized by Russell as a nightmarish dreamscape of striking imagery. It’s an incredibly subjective sequence, placing the viewer inside Eddie’s headspace during a lengthy and jarring slide show from hell. Lava flows, sexual acts, and animal disembowelment all crash together, images that take on even more symbolic meaning later in the film when Eddie begins to evolve physically into a simian form. Glenn Heath Jr.
99. Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (Jindřich Polák, 1977)
A film as brilliantly constructed as it is titled, Jindřich Polák’s Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea is a swinging comedy about a secret cabal of Nazis who’ve discovered the secret of time travel and are intent on using it to go back to World War II and supply Hitler with an atomic bomb. The plot also involves a pair of twins, mistaken identities, and anti-ageing pills, and yet, despite having to keep all these narrative balls in the air, the film never feels convoluted or over-stuffed. Instead, it’s a delightfully wacky farce that treats its potentially terrifying premise with cheerfully irreverent humor, exemplified by the film’s opening credits, which feature archival footage of Hitler manipulated to make it look like he’s boogieing to disco music. And if all that’s still not enough, Polák’s film also offers a nifty showcase of some of the grooviest low-budget futuristic production design the ‘70s Soviet bloc had to offer. Watson
98. Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980)
A gleefully cheesy throwback to the sci-fi serials of yesteryear, Mike Hodges’s Flash Gordon is as pure a camp spectacle as you’re likely to find. A glitzy—at times garish—extravaganza of brightly colored sets, skin-baring costumes, and otherworldly vistas that wouldn’t seem out of place in the gatefold of a Yes album, the film is silly and cartoonish in the best sense of those terms. Featuring such outlandish characters as the fu manchu-sporting villain Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow), Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed, bare-legged and sporting giant metallic wings), and the blank-eyed beefcake at the center of it all, Flash (Sam J. Jones), the film is very much in on its own joke. Produced by Dino de Laurentiis to cash in on the post-Star Wars mania for space-opera flicks, Flash Gordon ultimately has more in common with tongue-in-cheek cult musicals like Phantom of the Paradise and Xanadu than it does with George Lucas’s action-packed monomyth. That’s thanks in large part to the rip-roaring soundtrack by Queen, whose spirited pomposity seamlessly complements the film’s flamboyant comic-strip visual delights. Watson
97. The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933)
James Whale’s anarchically playful The Invisible Man is an outlier among Universal’s line of classic monster movies. More of an inventive mash-up of black comedy and sci-fi than true horror, the film is an incendiary piece of speculative fiction that counterbalances its cautionary-tale tropes by perpetually reveling in the chaos its megalomaniacal protagonist stirs up, even as his intensifying violent impulses shift from harmlessly prankish to straight-up lethal. This pervasive sense of moral ambiguity is only strengthened by Whale’s decision to keep Claud Rains’s Dr. Jack Griffin invisible until the film’s closing seconds and elide his character’s backstory altogether. Griffin’s unknowability and cryptic motivations are mirrored in his literal invisibility, allowing his corruption and unquenchable thirst for power to take on a universal quality that implicates the audience even as it as it entertains them. Derek Smith
96. The Brother from Another Planet (John Sayles, 1984)
A gentle-hearted satire on race and the immigrant experience, John Sayles’s The Brother from Another Planet follows an unnamed mute extra-terrestrial (Joe Morton) who, after crash-landing in the Hudson River, navigates life in the Big Apple. The hook, of course, is that while this “brother” hails from a far-off planet, to the people of New York, he looks like just another black guy. This premise, which could’ve been mined for easy laughs or obvious platitudes about racism, is instead, in Sayles’s hands, a sensitive, socially observant fable about the difficulties of assimilation. The brother is, in all senses of the term, an alien: far from home, isolated from those around him, unsure how to navigate local social interactions, and, ultimately, unsure if he belongs in this world at all. Bolstered by Morton’s soulful lead performance—few have ever made the act of listening so compelling to watch—Sayles’s film is science fiction at its most succinct and humane. Watson
95. Days of Eclipse (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1988)
Aleksandr Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse opens with a majestic birds’ eye view tracking shot of a desolate desert landscape. As the camera speeds up, it descends from the heavens, violently crashing into the ground in a poverty-stricken Turkmenistani community. The shot invokes a metaphorical image of invasion, and after a hard cut, we’re offered a blistering glimpse of that invasion’s impact: a landscape neglected to the point of decay, crumbling amid the oppressive heat and other inexplicable natural phenomena. Alternating between drab sepia tones and more vividly colorful footage, Sokurov films a multicultural community through the disoriented, foreign eyes of Malyanov (Aleksei Ananishnov), a Russian physician sent on a vague mission to bring modern science to the village. But Malyanov remains a stranger in a strange land, unable to commune with the shell-shocked villagers, whose trauma and desperation has rendered them alien to all outsiders. Like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God, both also based on novels by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Days of Eclipse transforms an ordinary landscape into something mystical and otherworldly. And in this film in particular, it perfectly embodies the unbridgeable disconnect between colonizer and colonized. Smith
94. Voyage to the End of the Universe (Jindřich Polák, 1963)
While some Czech New Wave filmmakers in the 1960s explored the interconnected social and political foibles of people in their home country, Jindrich Polák’s effects-laden Voyage to the End of the Universe trades the oppressed Soviet-ruled Czech Republic for the outer reaches of the cosmos. The journey of the starship Ikarie XB-1 in searching for life on another planet isn’t without the Czech New Wave’s notable playfulness when detailing how travelers cope with the monotony of space travel (here’s looking at you, dance party sequence), though Polák expresses a darkly fatalistic worldview as well. If the haunting sequence of Ikarie XB-1 crew members finding a doomed ship that went on a similar mission is any indication, Polák suggests that sheer advancements in innovation and searching for a new life-sustaining planet is ultimately an exercise in futility, since human life, in both the individual sense and as a species, will end at some point. It seems we might as well, like the film’s bored cosmonauts, just simply let go and dance the night away. Wes Greene
93. The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951)
Legend has it that The Thing from Another World was helmed not by its credited director, Christian Nyby, but by producer Howard Hawks. The film certainly provides ample evidence to suggest that such a covert switch occurred, as the its controlled atmosphere of dread and abundant rapid-fire repartee between the primary players seem to have been molded according to Hawks’s trademark template. Regardless, what remains most remarkable about the film is its continued ability to function as both a taut science-fiction thriller and a telling snapshot of the Cold War paranoia beginning to sweep the country in post-WWII America. The story, about the battle between a group of stranded military personnel and an alien creature fueled by human blood, is a model of economic storytelling. The conflict between Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) is one between Force and Reason, and represents a debate over whether America should cope with its Soviet adversaries through military confrontation or intellectual and diplomatic study. Given the ‘50s political climate, it’s no surprise that the film’s climax answers such a question by painting the sympathetic Carrington as a danger to mankind and the violent Hendry as a heroic warrior. Nick Schager
92. The World’s End (Edgar Wright, 2013)
Edgar Wright wrapped up his Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy with The World’s End, a rollicking alien-invasion ode to boozing up and moving on that bests even Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz in its comingling of hilarious buddy humor, aesthetically electric action, and genre shout-outsmanship. The story of a group of high school friends reunited to complete a famed pub crawl at the behest of their once-great, now-pitiful leader (Simon Pegg), only to find that their sleepy rural England hometown has been turned into a picture-perfect haven for extraterrestrial cyborg pod people, Wright’s film is a blistering barrage of contentious one-liners and CG-ified mayhem. Staged with the director’s usual high-wire dexterity and bolstered a cast that handles whip-crack dialogue with giddy aplomb, it’s the filmmaker’s most exciting, inventive, and purely entertaining mash-up to date—not to mention, in its alternately sympathetic and critical portrait of a man-child navigating the literal and figurative pitfalls of growing up, also his most heartfelt. Schager
91. Liquid Sky (Slava Tsukerman, 1982)
The world of Slava Tsukerman’s cult classic suggests the neon-tinged flipside of Warhol’s Factory. Anne Carlisle memorably plays dual roles: as Jimmy, a male model with a raging drug addiction, and Margaret, a bisexual girl who could easily pass for Aimee Mann during her ‘Til Tuesday days. Otto von Wernherr (Madonna enemy and early collaborator) plays a German scientist chasing after an alien spacecraft that visits the Earth in order to feed off the opium-producing receptors inside the brains of heroin users. During sexual orgasm, these receptors produce a sensation similar to the feeling produced by the brain during the absorption of heroin. The film’s aliens (visually represented using negative film stock of a blood-shot eye) feed off of this pleasure principle, spontaneously combusting humans as they engage in sexual intercourse. Aliens, drugs, clubs, orgasms, and big hair! On its crazed surface, Liquid Sky is a celebration of the ‘80s counter-culture. But more than three decades after its release, the bad behavior and paranoia depicted here seemingly foreshadows both the ramifications of said culture’s sexual indiscretions and a nation’s political naïveté. Ed Gonzalez
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