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.
Jeonju IFF 2019: Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, & Introduzione all’oscuro
These are three enigmatic, challenging, and weird works of art by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.
Shortly after arriving in Jeonju, the mid-sized Korean city about 200 kilometers south of Seoul that serves as the site of the Jeonju International Film Festival, I pulled my bedraggled, jet-lagged body over to the guest center to pick up my press credentials. As I made my way through the carnivalesque open-air city block known as Jeonju Cinema Town, I found myself, to my surprise, in the midst of a rather peculiar, almost surreal scenario as a bunch of white- and black-suited stormtroopers marched in lockstep toward me, weapons at the ready, flanking none other than the Grand Imperial Poobah himself, Darth Vader.
The group maneuvered around me without incident, eager to pose for selfies with the crowd of locals assembled in the area, but after over 20 hours of travel, the encounter took on a vaguely sinister air, as if the forces of Hollywood monoculture had been dispatched to this relatively remote cinephile retreat to ensure that no one here got the wrong idea: Have fun with your cute little art films, but remember who really wields the power in the world of cinema.
I suppose these are the sorts of strange inclinations that strike you when your body’s circadian rhythms have been shaken up like a snow globe, but, despite the presence of the Walt Disney Company as one of the festival’s premier sponsors, the films I saw—personal, challenging, at times exhilarating work from all across the world—couldn’t have seemed further away from the market-tested franchises that clog American cineplexes. Having said that, it’s with some irony that one of the first films I took in at Jeonju IFF was in fact a sequel—albeit one whose eccentric sense of humor and repetitive, unresolved narrative mean it’s never going to be mistaken for the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The sequel in question is Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to Li’l Quinquin. One of the great left turns in the history of auteurism, Dumont’s 2014 miniseries signaled his transition from austere Bressonian miserablism to a singular brand of deadpan grotesquerie that gleefully explodes the thin line between the clever and the stupid. Dumont doesn’t vary his style too much for the sequel, as it’s another bizarre sunlit mystery set in the windswept countryside of Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And Dumont has reassembled the same cast of non-professional local oddballs led by Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a twitchy, hapless police detective investigating matters way beyond his depths.
Dumont, though, still finds ways to mess with his audience’s expectations, starting with the baffling and completely inexplicable change of the title character’s name. If the earlier film felt like Dumont’s riff on popular international crime dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing, Coincoin turns out to be his spin on The X-Files, a sci-fi pod-people procedural featuring a mysterious black goo from outer space that inhabits its victims and forces them to give birth to their own uncanny clones. Like many stories about body-snatching, the series is a satire—here on provincial racism, the poor treatment of African migrants, and the rise of the French far right—but Dumont isn’t simply interested in topical point-scoring against Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant politician who represents Nord-Pas-de-Calais.
Rather, with its ambling, directionless narrative and lackadaisical long shots that perversely undercut the screenplay’s gags, Coincoin evokes a deep-rooted spirit of reactionary malaise, of people whose lives are hopelessly circumscribed by their own fears and prejudices. Dumont rigorously resists developing his plot or deepening his characters: They’re all trapped in an absurd loop, doomed to endlessly say the same things and reenact the same jokes.
Van der Weyden sums up that mentality in a single line: “Progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s a group of black men who periodically appear throughout the film only to be consistently and summarily dismissed in a fit of racist panic. Each time, we expect the film to create some meaningful interaction between the white townsfolk and these migrants, and each time we’re rebuffed—that is, until a final musical explosion of kumbaya-like camaraderie that’s somehow goofy, moving, tedious, and invigorating all at the same time.
Dumont is one of the few artists in cinema willing to risk exhausting his audience to induce a particular effect, but he’s not the only one, as demonstrated by James Benning’s L. Cohen, a 45-minute static shot of a seemingly unremarkable field with a mountain visible in the distance. It’s an elegantly composed frame, reminiscent of an American Regionalist painting and whose centrally located peak perhaps coyly refers to the Paramount logo.
After 20 minutes, even the most hardened cinephiles are bound to be squirming in their seat, at which point Benning reveals his remarkable trump card: As the sky quickly darkens and blackness falls over the Earth, we realize that we’ve been watching the leadup to a total solar eclipse. It’s a moment of quiet astonishment and confusion for anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming, bringing us close to the feeling a caveman might’ve had when the same event occurred. With typical mathematical precision, Benning has placed the eclipse at the exact center of the film, allowing us to explore the subtle shadows that precede and follow it.
The film, however, isn’t just some academic structuralist exercise, as it’s also a meditation on death, a fact highlighted by the next startling moment: the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Itself” on the soundtrack, a stark divergence from the ominous drone (identified by Benning during his festival Q&A as the hum of airplanes flying overhead) that fills the rest of the film. This song and the dedication of the film to the recently deceased Cohen add a deeper layer of meaning to Benning’s precisely calibrated study of light and time.
L. Cohen is in essence a meditation on temporality. All things are fleeting, even grand interplanetary ballets. Considering the brief alignment of these celestial bodies puts one in a cosmic mood and calls to mind a cryptic, haunting line from a different Cohen song, “Stories of the Street”: “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.”
One could also find the specter of death looming over Introduzione all’oscuro, an expressionistic tribute to director Gastón Solnicki’s good friend, Hans Hurch, the recently departed director of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. Described by the director not as a film about Hurch, but a film for him, Introduzione all’oscuro dispenses with biography entirely, instead evoking its subject’s buoyant, ragtag spirit in an almost subliminal fashion: through music, film, and the city of Vienna. Hurch “appears” in the film primarily through his letters and through his voice, recorded by Solnicki when he provided notes on one of the director’s previous films. Solnicki does appear on screen: a comically lonely figure visiting some of Hurch’s favorite Viennese haunts—such as the Café Engländer, from which he would periodically steal cups—on a journey that drolly recalls Holly Martins’s investigation into the apparent death of his pal Harry Lime in The Third Man.
Like Solnicki’s Kékszakállú before it, Introduzione all’oscuro is what might be called “slideshow cinema”—a procession of taut, piquant compositions whose relationship to one another isn’t precisely clear but which, when taken together, create an indelible impression of a highly specific milieu. Structured more like a piece of avant-garde music than a narrative work or traditional documentary, the film has a hypnotic yet often dissonant allure. It pulls us into a strange liminal zone where Hurch seems to be simultaneously present and absent, haunting the film like a benevolent spirit. Solnicki simply has one of the best eyes in cinema today, and it’s the pungency of his images which makes the film such an endlessly compelling experience, even when the reasons behind Solnicki’s individual choices remain obscure.
Abstruseness, though, is no crime. In fact, the greatest pleasures of Jeonju IFF were to be found in grappling with “difficult” films such as Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, and Introduzione all’oscuro: enigmatic, challenging, and even downright weird works of art made by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.
The Jeonju International Film Festival ran from May 2—11.
Review: As Teen Comedy, Booksmart Is Sweet and Nasty in Fine Balance
It’s an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness.3
An uncharitable way of describing Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut, Booksmart, is as a gender-flipped version of Superbad. Like Greg Mottola’s 2007 film, it concerns a pair of best friends who’ve spent their high school years as outsiders but, at the end of their senior year, decide to attend the biggest, coolest graduation party imaginable. As in Superbad, getting to the party devolves into an almost picaresque gauntlet through suburban nightlife, consisting of comical encounters with outlandish characters (both films even feature a “creepy car guy”). Booksmart and Superbad also share a ribald, R-rated sense of humor and a sex scene interrupted by vomit—even the same casting director (the venerable Allison Jones).
For all that, Wilde’s film is less a derivative of Mottola’s teen comedy than a corrective to it. Its exaggerated universe is less mean-spirited than the one depicted in Superbad, where so much of the humor depended on Jonah Hill loudly proclaiming his character’s misogyny. Booksmart isn’t above getting laughs from sex jokes that land somewhere between honest and outrageous—there’s a recurring bit about Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) masturbating with her stuffed panda doll—but it does show that teenage conversations about sex can be funny without being demeaning. And its belief in its main characters as more than just stand-ins for the most distorted beliefs that virginal high schoolers have about sex gives the film a fuller, more satisfying arc.
Amy and her best friend, Molly (Beanie Feldstein), are their elite Valley High School’s A-type-personality do-gooders, well-meaning in their ambition and their wokeness, but with streaks of haughtiness and self-righteousness. Beanie is class president, the kind of kid who pushes the school principal (Jason Sudeikis) to arrange a budget meeting with the juniors on the last day of class. In contrast to the brashly assertive Molly, Amy is meek, barely able to eke out syllables when talking to her crush, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), but she’s also intensely woke, adorning her denim jacket with feminist-slogan patches and her car with “Elizabeth Warren 2020” bumper stickers. The pair are so close that they’re often mistaken for being a couple (Amy has been out since the 10th grade), and they definitely don’t party.
As school is letting out, Molly discovers that her and Amy’s monk-like approach to high school life has been for naught. Although the two pride themselves on respectively getting into Yale and Columbia, it seems that virtually all of their classmates have a similarly propitious future lined up. Even the horny goofball Theo (Eduardo Franco), who repeated seventh grade three times, was recruited for a six-figure job with Google. Molly adopts partying as her new project, dragging the reluctant Amy, all the more anxious because Ryan will be at the party, along with her. The problem is that, not being a part of their school’s social scene, they have no idea where the party actually is, and limited means of figuring it out.
The obliviously indefatigable Molly is a star-making role for Feldstein, who keeps let her highly dynamic character—Molly can be both very rigid and very foolhardy—from feeling inconsistent, or leading to broad caricature. As the quieter Amy, Devers’s role is mostly reactive, but, in the tumultuous climax, she supplies the film’s most poignant and relatable moments. As the omnipresent Gigi, a troubled party girl who inexplicably appears at each of the girls’ wayward stops on their journey to the party, Billie Lourd channels a chaotic energy, becoming the film’s strung-out jester. Lourd is just part of an altogether impressive ensemble that also includes Jessica Williams as the teacher who loves Amy and Molly perhaps a bit too much, and Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s super-Christian, super-supportive parents.
For the most part sharply written, and tighter and more consistently funny than the fragmented improv-style Superbad, Booksmart nevertheless has a couple of stretches that don’t quite land. There’s a claymated ayahuasca-tripping sequence that neither suits the rest of the film nor is followed up on in any way by the narrative. And the film’s conclusion is more than a little formally messy, with Wilde relying on a too-rapid succession of non-diegetic pop songs as emotional accents and to fast-forward the plot—at one crucial moment even drowning out the dialogue. But despite these small missteps, Booksmart feels like an innovation, an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness, and that you can be gross without being too mean.
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Billie Lourd, Diana Silvers, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin, Eduardo Franco, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Mike O’Brien Director: Olivia Wilde Screenwriter: Olivia Wilde Katie Silberman, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Terminator: Dark Fate Official Trailer: Going Back to the Well with Sarah Connor
Linda Hamilton at least makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.
Today, Paramount dropped the trailer for the sixth entry in the Terminator series, Terminator: Dark Fate, which promises to deliver…more of the same? With this film, Deadpool director Tim Miller aims to give the series a reboot: by pretending that none of the films that came after Terminator 2: Judgement Day ever existed (sorry, Rise of the Machines fans), maybe even Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. “Welcome to the day after judgment day,” reads the poster, promising the badass return of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. And on that front, the film looks to deliver, as Hamilton certainly makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.
But based on everything else that’s on display throughout the trailer, we’re worried that there’s not anything new that a film in this series stands to bring to the table besides running and gunning, with the occasional wink thrown in for good measure. Cast in point: Mackenzie Davis stars as Grace, an “enhanced human” who looks to fill the hanger-on role to Connor that Edward Furlong’s John Connor did to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, now apparently living in woodsy retirement, and at the ready to give sage advice. In short, we’re not impressed, and that also holds true of that cover of Björk’s “Hunter” by some zombie man singer.
Watch the official trailer below:
Paramount Pictures will release Terminator Dark Fate on November 1.
Review: Woodstock Offers a New Look at the Three Days that Defined a Generation
Throughout, the era-defining yet problem-plagued music festival astounds in large part for all the disasters that didn’t occur.3
According to Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, the 1969 Woodstock festival seemed fated to fail. But a rare convergence of good luck, good intentions, and good vibes somehow snapped into place and crystallized over a few days in August the aspirations of a counterculture about to hit its peak. The festival’s planners, mostly promoters and music-industry pros, talk off-camera throughout this gloriously gleeful documentary about their somewhat spur-of-the-moment concept in a purposefully overlapping mosaic that makes it difficult to determine who’s saying what. Their original idea was simply a big concert that would celebrate the opening of a recording studio in the bucolic artist community of Woodstock, NY and take advantage of the musicians living nearby.
That conceit ballooned into a sprawling three-day cultural amoeba of feel-good psychedelia billed as “An Aquarian Exposition” to be held in a bucolic setting. It would ideally seem, according to one organizer, “like visiting another world.” Creating that gateway to paradise, however, hit one snag after another. Conservative fears about an invasion of hippies led to much anger among locals and triggered permitting issues. Original desired stars like Bob Dylan, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones all passed on the vent. Months’ worth of construction at the original site in Wallkill, NY had to be scrapped at the last minute.
But Woodstock shows also how both lucky circumstances and in-depth planning saved the day. The lineup swelled with a killer roster of acts whom David Crosby defines simply as “everybody we thought was cool”: Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Creedence Clearwater, Janis Joplin, and so on. According to writer Bob Spitz, interest grew as the organizers put the word out through the underground press, and though their top estimates of attendance topped out at 150,000, the eventual total was closer to a potentially unmanageable 400,000. Seemingly foolhardy ideas like hiring Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm commune to handle what they termed “security” and what Wavy defined as trying to “spread grooviness,” helped the increasingly massive enterprise maintain an appealingly mellow tone. Then, a Republican dairy farmer named Max Yasgur, who just happened to have a visually gorgeous sweep of land shaped like a natural amphitheater, agreed to host the festival.
Just about everyone interviewed in Barak Goodman and Jamilia Ephron’s documentary still marvels a half-century on at the scope and tranquility of what happened, though the potential for disaster provides some dramatic grit to the narrative. Much of the festival’s harmoniousnes was a result of on-the-spot empathetic resourcefulness, from Hog Farm’s thrown-together Sunday-morning “breakfast in bed” and “freak-out” tents for people on bad acid trips to the previously resentful locals who spontaneously emptied their pantries to feed the long-haired kids who had been tromping through their front yards. The crowds were soothed by the reassuring voice of the festival announcer, whose “we”-focused addresses over the PA system strengthened the communal spirit, which is then echoed in the film’s starry-eyed reminiscences of interviewees who all sound as though they wish they could go back.
Woodstock cannot hope to supplant Michael Wadleigh’s more symphonic and experiential 1970 documentary. But conversely, its tighter, narrower focus on narrative and context ultimately tells a bigger story at roughly half the length. Co-director Goodman has shown in some of his darker work for PBS’s American Experience, like his episode about the Oklahoma City bombing, a knack for building suspense. He deploys that skill here marvelously when showing the sea of humanity converging on Yasgur’s farm, balancing a fear of impending disaster (short supplies, last-minute glitches, a crowd many times larger than the highest estimates) with the dawning realization that things might just work out.
That tightrope-walking drama is maintained through the actual concert portion of the movie. The musical highs, Hendrix’s squalling “Star-Spangled Banner” and Richie Haven’s raucous two-hour jam (filling the gap while helicopters ferried musicians in over the blocked roads), play out while the vast crowd contends with food shortages and an unexpected rainstorm. But even though the attendees rushed past the mostly unbuilt fencing and by default created what organizer John Roberts here terms “the world’s greatest three-day freebie,” he and his partners appear now happier about the instant community that metamorphosed in the mud than the fact that as a business venture the concert was “in deep shit.”
Woodstock hits many of the expected notes about the concert’s place in the nation’s cultural history. But it’s refreshingly less self-satisfied than awestruck at the simple beauty of what happened at the Woodstock festival and the utopian example it provided to the world. Though unmentioned here, the disastrous music festival that occurred four months later at Altamont Speedway, in the hills of Northern California’s East Bay, where the organizers’ callous indifference to advance planning led to chaos and multiple deaths, shows just how rare the event that occurred in Bethel across three days back in August ‘69 remains to this day.
Director: Barak Goodman, Jamila Ephron Distributor: PBS Distribution Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Is a Knotty Trip Down Memory Lane
Its stylistic fluctuations are a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today.3.5
True to the mission of its protagonist, a well-meaning student filmmaker working on a thesis feature about a community foreign to her, writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is engaged in a running dialogue with itself around the notion of how—and how not—to make a personal narrative. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a London-based, upper-middle-class young woman coming of age in Margaret Thatcher’s England who feels a moral imperative to transpose her own experiences onto a fictional story set in working-class Sunderland, and she’s given ongoing opportunities in her film workshops to try to articulate why that is. Hogg, who based the character on her own early experiences as an artist, views Julie’s trajectory tenderly but through the lens of a greater maturity, dotting the young woman’s path with interlocutors who challenge and redirect her inclinations. Gradually, Julie’s certitude seems to fall out from under her, transforming Hogg’s film in the process.
Pivotal among these forces is Anthony (Tom Burke), a spectacularly smug older man with ambiguous professional and personal affiliations who becomes inexorably drawn to Julie, and she to him. When he first appears on screen across a table from Julie at a café, Hogg frames the scene in the kind of spacious, sophisticated master shot that defined her 2013 film Exhibition, snapping The Souvenir out of the close-up-heavy, fly-on-the-wall aesthetic with which it opens. The shift in style registers the exhilarating impact Anthony has on Julie, who is up to that point seen as a wallflower at college parties, taking photos and rolling a Bolex in the corner while bouncing in and out of conversations. Sizing up Julie’s film project with suave dismissiveness, Anthony suggests that she might heed the influence of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were able to express personal emotions free of the constraints of realism, and later proposes that “it’s not enough to be sincere or authentic.”
Julie takes such counseling in stride even when it comes from her casually condescending professors (also men), giving her a headstrong resilience that Swinton-Byrne beautifully underplays. But Julie’s toughness doesn’t equate to stubborn pride, and soon The Souvenir turns away from its portrait of early filmmaking ambition and toward the knotty dynamics of Anthony and Julie’s strengthening relationship—itself modeled off a fling in Hogg’s past. The director orchestrates this formal shapeshift with sly subtlety, first introducing the couple’s scenes together as elliptical diversions from the central storyline, then gradually lengthening them until the sequences set in and around Julie’s film school take a backseat entirely. Now sharing an apartment, Anthony and Julie go through the growing pains of coexistence—the former posits a “Wall of Jericho” made of pillows in a reference to It Happened One Night to solve his discomfort in bed—but nonetheless find a strange harmony in their dissonant personalities, with his brutal honesty charming her and her placidity disarming him.
In Anthony’s case, however, this apparent personality yardstick proves misleading, as it turns out that he’s frank about everything but his own life. Talk of a vague government job creates an impression of a posh background belied by Anthony and Julie’s trip to visit his parents, and later, an offhand remark made by one of Anthony’s friends when he’s in the bathroom yields the startling revelation—cued by spatially disorienting mirror shots and the gentle use of Dutch angles—that Julie’s boyfriend is a heroin addict. Hogg omits the scene where Julie confronts Anthony about this revelation, but the mark it leaves on their relationship is implicitly, delicately apparent in every part of The Souvenir moving forward. The neatly organized, white-walled apartment where much of the action takes place becomes charged with tension, not only from the threat of dissident bombing that percolates outside its windows (a reality contemporaneous to the film’s early-‘80s setting), but also from Anthony’s frequent, unexplained comings and goings, which starkly contrast Julie’s more fixed physicality as she spends her time hunched over a typewriter.
The Souvenir flirts with a few conventional movie premises—the doomed romance, the spiral into the hell of drug addiction, the pursuit of self-actualization—without ever fully engaging one, which doesn’t indicate an uncertainty on Hogg’s part so much as a supreme confidence in the intricacies of her own material. Likely to some viewers’ dismay, Julie’s story isn’t one that ever comes to hinge on an a-ha moment, a sudden realization that she’s strayed from her artistic passion in her entanglement with a toxic partner. Rather, Hogg evokes both the seductive appeal of an irrational romance and the less sexy but nonetheless potent comfort of falling into the role of nurturer, a discipline shown in a few touching scenes to be inherited by Julie from her mother (Tilda Swinton). What’s more, it can’t be said that Anthony’s influence is purely deleterious, as his bouts of real vulnerability, carried off with a persuasive display of wounded pride by Burke, repeatedly push Julie toward greater sensitivity and awareness.
Perhaps ambivalent herself to Anthony’s recommendation that Julie seek inspiration from Powell and Pressburger’s work, Hogg shoots in a grainy, underlit 16mm palette that has less to do with period fetishism than with draining the sparkle from Julie’s privileged upbringing. The Souvenir is shot from a measured distance, often with the camera in rooms adjacent to the actors so that walls and other objects populate the foreground, and the resulting sense is of being simultaneously immersed in the spaces of Hogg’s early adulthood and at an intellectual remove from them, a fusion seemingly reflective of the director’s own mixed emotions in revisiting this story. In this case, however, that quality of fluctuation isn’t a deficiency but a virtue, a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today, and the mark of a film that’s beholden to no recipe but its own.
Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Jack McMullen, Frankie Wilson, Richard Ayoade, Jaygann Ayeh Director: Joanna Hogg Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg Distributor: A24 Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Aladdin Is a Magic Corporate Ride to Nowhere Special
Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake is content to trace the original’s narrative beats with perfunctory indifference.1
Compared to a few other recent live-action remakes of Disney’s animated films, which at least attempted to bring striking story wrinkles or an auteurist perspective to bear on their interpretations, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is a remake in the most literal sense. Much of the film’s first act traces the narrative beats of the 1992 animated feature, and in shot-for-shot fashion: Thieving street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets and charms the princess of his native Agrabah, Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and ultimately runs afoul of scheming grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), before obtaining a magic lamp containing a genie (Will Smith) who has the power to transform the young pauper into a prince worthy of Jasmine’s station.
The steadfastness with which every aspect of the original is replicated by this new Aladdin makes Ritchie’s film a grueling example of the streaming-era notion of art as content. Because there’s no chemistry between Massoud and Scott, the legitimacy of Aladdin and Jasmine’s flirtations is largely sold on the basis of the viewer’s preexisting knowledge that these two will become a couple. Elsewhere, the relationship between Jafar and the Sultan (Navid Negahban) is an even paler imitation. In the original, Jafar’s viciousness was at least partially driven by his hatred of the Sultan, who issued inane commands to his grand vizier in all sorts of parodically infantile and buffoonish of ways. Here, though, the Sultan is a negligible figure, neither callous nor especially influential, thus robbing his subordinate of a compelling motive. The Jafar of this film is evil simply because he’s been designated as the story’s big bad.
If the dogged faithfulness of Ritchie’s film to the original proves consistently stultifying, it’s the most noticeable deviations that ultimately damn the remake. In an attempt to give Jasmine something to do other than be the object of men’s affections, Ritchie and co-writer John August blend the character’s traditional frustrations at being trapped behind palace walls with a newfound resentment over how her capacity to rule as sultan is thwarted by traditional gender roles. Nonetheless, her desires to lead are bluntly articulated and reflective of a broader tendency among the film’s characters to express their awareness of their own repression by tilting their heads back and staring off into the distance as they speak extemporaneously about their dreams. Poor Scott is also burdened with the film’s big new song, “Speechless,” an instantly dated empowerment anthem that suggests the sonic equivalent of that old woman’s botched restoration of the Ecce Homo fresco in Borja, Spain.
The film does come somewhat to life during its musical numbers. Though these sequences are marked by simplistic and unengaging choreography, they don’t quell the verve of Howard Ashman and Tim Rice’s original songs. Less successful is Smith, who, unable to match the intensity of Robin Williams’s performance as the Genie in the original film, leans into his signature drawling sarcasm to bring his spin on the character to life, effectively draining the Genie of everything that made him so memorably larger than life in the first place. Even when portraying some of the Genie’s more antic behavior, Smith mostly takes the path of least resistance, injecting just enough energy into his performance to hint at Williams’s memorable take on the character but without seeming as if he’s actually working up a sweat.
Elsewhere, Massoud mostly goes through the motions in establishing Aladdin as a rakish pauper, but the actor comes alive in a comic scene that sees his street urchin, newly styled as a prince by the Genie, presenting himself to the Sultan’s court. Having never been trained on any points of social graces, Aladdin can only stammer out pleasantries, using strange honorifics to refer to the Sultan as he curtsies instead of bows. Later, the Genie helps Aladdin perform an elaborate dance by controlling the young man’s body in order to wow the Sultan’s court. Impressively, Massoud manages to perform complicated steps while looking as if every movement is done against his will, giving Aladdin’s flailing motions a slapstick quality.
Such flashes of personality, though, are few and far between in this remake. Certainly there was a lot of room to bring a contemporary perspective to this material—to counter the original’s problematic representation of its Middle-Eastern milieu and deepen its characters. Instead, the film settles for telling you a joke you’ve already heard and botching the delivery.
Cast: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Alan Tudyk, Frank Welker, Billy Magnussen Director: Guy Ritchie Screenwriter: John August, Guy Ritchie Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 128 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Review: Brightburn Is a Soulless Mishmash of Disparate Genre Elements
The way the film shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped of its most crucial narrative parts.1
Like a lot of kids squirming through puberty, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) is an asshole. Unlike most, however, he’s from outer space and possessed of formidable superpowers. Soon after learning of his abilities, he stalks a classmate, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), who consoled him in class after he was teased for his incredible smarts. Brandon makes a show of controlling Caitlyn’s laptop before appearing outside her bedroom window, eerily floating in the air. By this point in director David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, one is still optimistic that Brandon’s creeper tendencies will be the most insidious of his problems. But when Caitlyn calls him a pervert, after letting him fall to the ground during a “trust fall” exercise in gym class, Brandon crushes the bones in her hand after she’s forced to help him up. By the end of the film, Caitlyn will prove to be one of the lucky ones.
That Yarovesky and screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn don’t exactly push the link between Brandon’s pubescence and his growing self-awareness isn’t the first sign that something is amiss here. Right out of the gate, Brightburn reveals itself unwilling to animate its characters’ emotional dramas, using visual shorthand to simply hint at them. In the opening scene, set more than 10 years in the past, the camera pans across a bookshelf full of fertility books, informing the audience that Brandon’s parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman), really want to have a baby. Later, while helping his dad with chores, Brandon accidentally throws a lawnmower halfway across the family farm. This is when he recognizes that he has superpowers, but rather than prolong the kid’s doubt across more than one scene, the film zips straight to the moment where he’s about to shove his hand into the lawn mower’s spinning blades to confirm his suspicions that he’s nothing short of invincible.
More genre films—more films, period—could stand to have a lot less fat on their bones, but the way Brightburn shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped even of its most crucial narrative parts. Outside of one pulpy hallucination sequence, the film stubbornly refuses to give a concrete sense of the desperation that drove Tori and Kyle to adopt Brandon, just as it can’t be bothered to give shape to the mythology of his creation—or rather, his arrival. For a spell, though, this suggests a purposeful show of evasion. Much is made of the red light that peeks out from the floorboards in the family barn and to which Brandon is drawn throughout the film. If you’re a fan of Larry Cohen’s canon, you may wonder if the kid will be revealed as a kindred spirit of the ever-glowing human-alien antagonist from God Told Me To, here to make sport of our biological urge to procreate in our increasingly decaying world.
No such luck, as Brightburn is a meaningless mishmash of disparate genre elements. The truth of what lurks beneath the floorboards turns out to be of no particular consequence—not exactly a red herring, just a bit of hogwash that confirms Brandon to be a gene splice of Damien and Superman. Maybe a sense of majesty, of mythic grandeur, might have made him feel as if he was less arbitrarily willed into being, though Yarovesky certainly conveys the weight of the kid’s killing spree. Not its existential weight, only its repugnant force. At one point, one of his victims struggles to hold up the lower part of his grotesquely shattered jaw, as Brandon pulls off the mask that he wears because, presumably, he understands that that’s what someone with superhuman powers should do. Brightburn never shows us how Brandon came to such a realization, but it does let us glimpse the stone-cold delight he takes in erasing human life—a spectacle of violence that exists for its own soulless sake.
Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Jennifer Holland, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Gregory Alan Williams, Steve Agee, Emmie Hunter Director: David Yarovesky Screenwriter: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019
The Nightingale Trailer: Aisling Franciosi and Sam Claflin Star in Jennifer Kent’s Follow-Up to The Babadook
Today, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825.
Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, the Aussie filmmaker’s much-anticipated follow-up to The Babadook, premiered way back in September at the Venice Film Festival, and to mostly positive notices. Today, ahead of its U.S. theatrical release in August, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825 and follows a young Irish convict settler, Clare (played by Aisling Franciosi), who, after finishing her seven-year sentence, struggles to be free of her abusive master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). According to the studio’s official description of the film:
Clare’s husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) retaliates and she becomes the victim of a harrowing crime at the hands of the lieutenant and his cronies. When British authorities fail to deliver justice, Clare decides to pursue Hawkins, who leaves his post suddenly to secure a captaincy up north. Unable to find compatriots for her journey, she is forced to enlist the help of a young Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) who grudgingly takes her through the rugged wilderness to track down Hawkins. The terrain and the prevailing hostilities are frightening, as fighting between the original inhabitants of the land and its colonizers plays out in what is now known as “The Black War.” Clare and Billy are hostile towards each other from the outset, both suffering their own traumas and mutual distrust, but as their journey leads them deeper into the wilderness, they must learn to find empathy for one another, while weighing the true cost of revenge.
Watch the official trailer below:
IFC Films will release The Nightingale in NY and LA on August 2.
Cannes Review: The Lighthouse Is a Hilarious and Grotesque Genre Pastiche
Robert Eggers loosens the noose of veracity just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.3
Willem Dafoe farts and Robert Pattinson masturbates vigorously in Robert Eggers’s creepy and unexpectedly, if grotesquely, hilarious follow-up to The Witch. Set in 1890s New England, The Lighthouse finds Eggers again mining the past for an air of mythic portent but loosening the noose of veracity that choked his meticulously researched yet painfully self-serious debut just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.
From the moment that lighthouse keepers Thomas Wake (Dafoe), an experienced old “wickie” with a shuffling gait and a hair-trigger temper, and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), his handlebar mustache-sporting assistant, set foot on the tiny island where they’re to spend the next four weeks, they start to get on each other’s nerves. Wake is a slave driver who’s said to have made his last assistant go crazy, and who ignores any and all regulations, while Winslow, who’s on his first assignment as a lighthouse keeper, refuses to drink and be merry with Wake, which causes its own problems. Before long, the two men kick into motion a game of one-upmanship, a raising of the stakes to see who will be the first to drive the other to madness—with flatulence and horniness among the many, many factors fueling that pursuit.
Eggers’s willingness to get goofy, and to not worry about humor defusing his narrative’s macabre horror—as in, say, the cartoonish pummeling that a devious seagull receives—makes The Lighthouse something of a breakthrough for the filmmaker. Diverging from the formula of coiled tension followed by sudden and jolting release that’s favored by so many contemporary arthouse horror films, Eggers parcels out the action in the film, steadily and methodically building toward the psychological breaking point of his characters.
Dafoe and Pattinson are crucial to selling that trajectory, ensuring that every moment here bristles with performative bluster. Dafoe’s surly former sea captain is a blowhard who’s given to sentimental reverie whenever he gets hammered, while his foil is played by Pattinson with slyly vacillating docile subservience and scheming spitefulness. The veteran character actor and dressed-down movie star play off each other exceptionally well, especially when, as is often the case in a two-hander, they have to pull-off a tricky role reversal.
Taking advantage of a bigger budget than The Witch, Eggers shot The Lighthouse on 35mm film. He’s also utilized the 1.19:1 Movietone aspect ratio, which was briefly standardized in the 1920s and is tighter than the already boxy 1.37:1 academy ratio, as a means of emphasizing his vertical compositions and the at times literally stratified relationship between his main characters. At one point, Dafoe’s old codger refuses to share lantern duty, while Winslow toils down below, swabbing decks and maintaining the dilapidated station.
Eggers successfully approximates F.W. Murnau’s stark and dynamic use of light and shadow in images that ensconce his characters in darkness and place them in geometrically unbalanced positions within the frame. But the quirkiest influence on this film is Night Tide, Curtis Harrington’s 1961 supernatural farce of a noir, which Eggers cribs from blatantly in a surreal sequence where Pattinson’s character has an erotic fantasy about a mermaid, and in a delirious body-horror montage—realized through largely practical effects—that co-opts Harrington’s hybridization of Roger Corman and Kenneth Ager’s stylings.
And like Night Tide, a send-up of beach-party movies and cheap ‘50s sci-fi, The Lighthouse aims for self-aware pastiche and pulls it off without smugness. Unlike Harrington’s film, though, it doesn’t register much affection for the forms it’s working with, and can come off like a calculated exercise. Still, Eggers’s ability to take the piss out of his inflated genre movie pastiche, without lapsing into parody, is an impressive and an entertaining feat.
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman Director: Robert Eggers Screenwriter: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers Distributor: A24 Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Maryland Film Festival 2019: The Hottest August, Donbass, & American Factory
This year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.
Judging from the enthusiasm of the surprisingly high number of New York filmmakers and critics this writer met in Baltimore this past weekend, the Maryland Film Festival isn’t seen as a pale shadow of Big Apple filmgoing. Rather, it’s a vital supplement to it—a program that compresses many of the festival season’s essential offerings into a manageable four-day run in an easily walkable city with comparatively chill crowds.
Those who made the commute to Baltimore for the festival this year had the chance to encounter one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory in Brett Story’s The Hottest August, an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker. Shot in August of 2017 around a principle of “organized spontaneity,” per producer Danielle Varga, the film spans New York City’s five boroughs while adhering to a nebulous, difficult-to-define but nonetheless valuable objective: to take the temperature of the times we live in and tease out the collective mood of the country’s most densely populated area.
Willfully biting off more than it can chew, The Hottest August features rich people, poor people, scientists, skateboarders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, barflies, artists, and more waxing extemporaneous on topics including climate change, economic inequality, automation, racism, and the future. The mood is off the cuff, conversational. A pair of women in lawn chairs joke about how their street’s rat population has swelled as a result of gentrifying construction in adjacent neighborhoods. Two former cops reframe the term “racism” as “resentment” in a sports bar just moments after demanding that no politics enter the hallowed space of the drinking hole. A loft-dwelling futurist pontificates on what the tax system might look like if the country embraced robotics instead of fearing it as a job killer. Occasionally we hear the filmmaker off screen, tersely prompting her subjects with open-ended questions, but mostly this is an ensemble of eager talkers, their openness running contrary to the old chestnut about closed-off New Yorkers.
Finding form in this seemingly disconnected mass is editor Nels Bangerter, who managed a similar feat with Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film drifts subtly from subject to subject, pointedly using B roll not just to evocatively provide a sense of place, but to extend someone’s thought or offer counterpoint. Three streams of information exist at once: whatever opinion is being put forth by the person on screen; whatever in-the-moment perspective Story takes on her subject’s response through the questions she asks or the camera angles she chooses; and the question of how that segment ultimately interacts with the film in its final form, where images have been invested with meaning through context.
The Hottest August is a film that’s constantly “thinking,” and that thought isn’t fixed or authoritative, but rather in flux and negotiable. Story isn’t setting out to answer any pressing political issues so much as capture the tactile sense of how those issues permeate everyday settings. Hers is a form of ambient reportage that feels very welcome in our contemporary moment, when the daily barrage of information can sometimes make it difficult to recall how one felt about something two days earlier, let alone in that turbulent August of 2017.
Similarly macro in its approach is Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, which adopts a sprawling, vignette-driven structure as it catalogues the miseries and grotesqueries of the eponymous eastern Ukrainian territory. A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces (specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics) ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that Loznitsa doesn’t so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity.
In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, they’re portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and the film’s bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated.
Cameras, we’re repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scène, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. Donbass’s most harrowing elucidation of this theme comes in a scene on a public street, where a Ukrainian loyalist, tied to a telephone pole by a pair of armed separatists, endures a humiliating beating at the hands of a growing mob of passersby, one of whom decides to record the grisly spectacle with his smartphone. As Loznitsa’s camera circles the action, the heckler’s phone presses right up into the face of the prisoner, relishing in the man’s suffering, and we get the sense that the escalation of violence may have never come to pass in quite this way were it not for the spontaneous idea to turn it into a video meme. Later, the recording gets shown to a hooting crowd of Novorossiya sympathizers at an absurdly overemphatic wedding celebration, assimilating smoothly into the atmosphere of nationalist fervor.
Donbass is fueled by such collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsa’s preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. In one scene, Loznitsa even seamlessly integrates an extended use of documentary language into a longer fictional setup when his camera descends into a cramped and overcrowded bomb shelter, where a local host, lit by a camera-mounted source, walks us through the destitution of those living inside. As with the later street scene, the dreariness is eventually spiked by a dash of absurdism, but the counterpunch isn’t intended to lighten the mood so much as further disorient, ultimately giving Donbass an unnerving precarity that must come somewhat near the feeling on the ground.
If these two films, content as they are to revel in ambivalence, seek to grasp the experience of the now in all its bewilderment, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory takes a more committed stance on an issue that’s equally topical. Fuyao Glass America, an outgrowth of a global glass manufacturer owned by a Chinese billionaire, opened in Moraine, Ohio in the shell of a shuddered General Motors plant toward the beginning of the decade, persisted financially for years while pursuing its awkward goal of unifying Chinese and American work cultures, and then inevitably ran up against controversy in 2017 when safety concerns and low wages encouraged the local employees to vote to unionize.
American Factory charts this entire compelling history with surprising comprehensiveness: When a late scene plays out as an illicit audio recording from an employee over a black screen, it stands out for being one of the only instances when the filmmakers don’t appear to have unencumbered access. But this sprawl has its downsides. Though briskly edited and tonally varied, Reichert and Bognar’s documentary skims over the surface of some of its most fascinating threads while in pursuit of a rousing decade-long tale.
The American workers depicted in the film, disgruntled by their diminished earnings and recalling a recent past with less bureaucratic oversight, too often blend into one undistinguished mass of Midwestern homeliness, and the few individuals who do get singled out for attention—a woman living in her relative’s basement and a rancher who befriends one particular Chinese co-worker—often get neglected for long stretches of time. The Chinese are perhaps even less differentiated, their insistence on dogged work ethic and company allegiance repeatedly emphasized almost to the point of xenophobia. That Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, who weaves through the film as an amusingly oblivious villain for its majority, eventually gets a moment to fondly reminisce on China’s pre-industrial past and contemplate his own complicity in the country’s shift to globalized capitalism comes across as penance for the film’s occasional treatment of foreigners as misguided corporate drones.
What American Factory ultimately amounts to, however, isn’t an exploration of culture clash or a penetrating depiction of rust belt dejection, but rather a rallying cry for worker solidarity (in America, if not across the globe), a message it pulls off resoundingly in the final hour. Reichert and Bognar smartly detail all the insidious ways in which corporate messengers mischaracterize unionizing as a threat to individual liberty, and the populist filmmaking vernacular they employ as the union vote nears—fluid crosscutting between different intersecting narratives, plenty of emotional close-ups, a score of almost Spielbergian grandiosity—gives the documentary a genuine shot at trafficking radical politics to a relatively wide audience. If it’s any indication of future success, American Factory was one of the most well-attended screenings I went to during my time in Baltimore, but it’s a testament to the Maryland Film Festival’s outreach that healthy crowds congregated throughout the weekend. Though modest and inviting, this year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.
The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8—12.
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