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The Conversations: Last Tango in Paris

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.

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The Conversations: Last Tango in Paris

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.

Last Tango in Paris

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.

Last Tango in Paris

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.

Last Tango in Paris

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.

Last Tango in Paris

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.

Last Tango in Paris

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.

Last Tango in Paris

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.

Last Tango in Paris

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.

Last Tango in Paris

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.

Last Tango in Paris

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.

Last Tango in Paris

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.

Last Tango in Paris

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.

Last Tango in Paris

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.

Last Tango in Paris

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.

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler. Follow his updates on Twitter.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema. He can also be found on Twitter.

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Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line

There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.

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The Two Popes
Photo: Netflix

Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.

This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.

The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.

Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.

The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.

Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.

That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.

As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.

The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.

Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence

The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.

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Empty Metal
Photo: Factory 25

The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.

Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).

Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.

Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”

Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.

Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.

By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.

Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.

Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother

It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.

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The Disappearance of My Mother
Photo: Kino Lorber

Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.

The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).

Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.

It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.

That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.

Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”

In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.

Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality

Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.

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Eddie Redmayne
Photo: Amazon Studios

“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.

The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.

Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.

During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.

Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.

What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?

What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.

I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.

As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?

It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.

How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.

Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.

You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?

We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.

Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.

[laughs]

That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?

I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.

Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?

Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.

You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?

That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.

Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?

When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.

Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?

Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.

The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?

I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!

I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.

That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.

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Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.

3

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Midnight Family
Photo: 1091 Media

Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.

For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.

Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.

Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.

Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.

Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Aeronauts Takes to the Skies, Without Much of a Dramatic Hook

As a suspense film, it’s so sluggishly structured that it borders on the avant-garde.

1.5

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The Aeronauts
Photo: Amazon Studios

Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts is such a sluggishly structured suspense film that it borders on the avant-garde. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a 19th-century meteorologist, is attempting to prove that man can predict weather patterns, and he plans a hot-air balloon ride high into the Earth’s troposphere to conduct high-altitude measurements. With no available technology for breathing apparatuses or other modern safety equipment, James’s gambit is a bold one, but he hopes that by traveling so high he can use the most accurate measurements to prove his meteorological theses. Accompanying him is Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a daredevil aeronaut with experience flying balloons at extreme altitudes. They’re practically a study in contrasts. James, humorless and bookish, talks rapidly and in fussy detail, mostly holding conversations with himself and putting others in the position of needing to interject to get a word in edgewise. Amelia, meanwhile, is filled with a certain joie de vivre, literally arriving to the balloon launch doing acrobatics to liven up the assembled crowd.

This is the second time that Redmayne and Jones have starred in a film together, but familiarity has done little to deepen their stilted chemistry. James and Amelia don’t converse so much as recite their respective credentials at each other. This might have worked if The Aeronauts gave the characters specializations that the other lacked, yet each has similar strengths: James, the less experienced balloonist, nonetheless knows enough about piloting the craft to not need instruction, while Amelia understands enough about meteorology to not require James to dumb down his scientific jargon. As a result, the pair’s dynamic is devoid of inherent conflict, which might have distracted them from the monotony of their balloon’s ascent into cloud-studded skies, which Harper stages as if in real time.

Of course, sitting in a vehicle that slowly drifts upward as its two occupants engage in, at most, haughty disagreement makes for moribund drama, so Harper fills time with flashbacks to show how James and Amelia got to this point. Anyone who’s ever seen a historical fiction about a scientific pioneer will know what to expect of James’s backstory: repeated scenes of the man explaining his ideas to academic administrators with sideburns large enough to count as mating displays, all of them mirthfully wagging their turkey necks as they respond to James’s hypotheses with sayings like, “Hitting the sherry a bit early this morning, aren’t we, Glaisher?”

Meanwhile, across a series of frenzied, chaotically edited memories of trauma, Amelia relives the death of her husband, Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez), in a ballooning accident. It’s a hysterically lopsided distribution of character motivation. We get a few shots of Amelia and Pierre tenderly embracing, but otherwise the dead man is a mere device, and all that she can say of him to James is that “his most enduring quality was a deep, true love for the beauty of the world,” which, as far as eulogies go, is about two steps above “He loved to laugh.”

George Steel’s cinematography, namely the way it captures the balloon’s ascent, is the film’s strong suit. Especially noteworthy is when James and Amelia break past the cloud layer and are left in direct sunlight that’s rendered with brilliant white light that washes out the frame even as it communicates the rapidly falling temperatures at that altitude. And that temperature drop becomes the first catalyst for actual drama when James lets slip that he didn’t pack a warm enough coat out of concerns for the balloon’s weight, setting up the last act’s belated decision to include some kind of suspense in order to give the film a dramatic hook.

Indeed, the film’s last hour, in which James and Amelia find themselves increasingly starved for oxygen as their balloon rises higher into atmosphere, is its most engaging. Here, a violently shivering James transforms into the reckless adventure, while Amelia becomes the more anxious and fearful of the two. As she urges caution in the face of falling oxygen levels, the mild-mannered scientist is suddenly overcome with delusions of grandeur and fame and does everything to keep them rising. The camera begins to blur at the edges to reflect the characters’ fading consciousness, while a series of desperate last-ditch efforts on Amelia’s part to save them both is mounted with real tension. Still, the film’s wonky, flashback-heavy structure puts so much emphasis on the by-the-numbers backstory of the characters that the actual drama of the balloon flight itself is muted, making the eventual turn toward chaos less of a narrative culmination than a last-minute recalibration of the film’s inert quality.

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin Limply Aspires to the Lynchian

The film gets so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.

1.5

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Knives and Skin
Photo: IFC Films

Something terrible has happened to Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). But unlike Twin Peaks and its plastic-wrapped Laura Palmer, Knives and Skin makes it immediately clear what occurred to her: She was left bleeding and without her glasses in the wilderness by a vengeful jock, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), because she wouldn’t have sex with him. She never makes it back. This transpires near the start of the film, and what transpires after this point is a dreamy, neon-tinted vision of a town overcome less by grief than ennui.

Throughout Knives and Skin, writer-director Jennifer Reeder draws heavily from the style of David Lynch, cycling through the townsfolk and their weirdest tendencies. Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), insists that she can smell her daughter on Andy. Andy’s sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to Principal Markhum (Tony Fitzpatrick), cash only. The girl’s father, Dan (Tim Hopper), who’s cheating on his wife (Audrey Francis), is seen at one point emerging from between a waitress’s (Kate Arrington) legs while wearing clown makeup. And Grandma Kitzmiller (Marilyn Dodds Frank) pesters everyone for weed. Certain objects glow, and the girls’ choir practices a series of haunting pop song arrangements, its members whispering to each other one by one while the rest of the ensemble keeps singing.

Other than Lisa’s persistent, unfounded hopes that her daughter is still alive, Carolyn’s disappearance seems to intentionally leave little impression on anyone. Everyone is wrapped up in their own concerns and pursuits, struggling to hold down jobs or dealing with disinterested partners. They’re united only by their vaguely odd feelings and a sense of being trapped, as one boy (Robert T. Cunningham) does when he stands on the roof of the high school; he doesn’t intend to jump, he just wants to see the highway that leads somewhere else.

But in untethering itself from what happened to Carolyn Harper, Knives and Skin ends up unfocused, shambling from one moment of self-conscious weirdness to another. Its themes, like the constant and varied violations of consent going on throughout the town, get lost in favor of things like the talking tiger T-shirt and the hamburger meat lobbed at a vehicle in protest until the entire purpose of these surreal flourishes seems to melt away.

The film is intermittently striking with its heavily stylized lighting and wistful electronic score, but it creates little sense of place. The town where these people all live, which seems to be affecting them to such a profound degree, is so nondescript beyond a few anonymous landscape shots that it stops evoking a place they would want to leave because it doesn’t really seem like a place at all. Rather than explorations of individual oddness, Knives and Skin becomes a rather tedious mood piece with an ethereal atmosphere so remote, so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.

Cast: Marika Engelhardt, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Ireon Roach, Haley Bolithon, Aurora Real de Asua, Grace Smith, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Tim Hopper, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith, Kate Arrington, Kayla Carter, Robert T. Cunningham, Alex Moss Director: Jennifer Reeder Screenwriter: Jennifer Reeder Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Interview: Jessica Hausner on Little Joe and the Ways of Being and Seeing

Hausner discusses wanting to sustain the tension of the first act of a Body Snatchers production over the course of an entire narrative.

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Jessica Haustner
Photo: Karina Ressler/Magnolia Pictures

With Little Joe, director Jessica Hausner reinvigorates an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type premise by boldly suggesting that modern humans don’t have any identities left to lose. The true body snatcher, rather than the beautiful, manipulative red flower at the film’s center, is a corporate culture that stifles our individual thought with double-speak and other subtly constant threats to personal status.

The challenge of such a premise, then, is to reveal the private individual longings that are suppressed by cultural indoctrination without breaking the film’s restrictive formal spell—a challenge that Hausner says she solved with co-writer Géraldine Bajard during a lengthy writing session. Little Joe is so carefully structured and executed that one is encouraged to become a kind of detective, parsing chilly tracking shots and flamboyant Wes Anderson-style color schemes for signs of a character’s true emotional experience.

Ahead of the film’s theatrical release, Hausner and I discussed her obsession with boiling societies down to singular metaphorical places, a tendency that unites Little Joe with her prior features, including Amour Fou and Lourdes. We also talked about the notion of social coding and pressure, and how the filmmaker was interested in sustaining the tension of the first act of a Body Snatchers production over the course of an entire narrative. For Hausner, such tension is certainly fostered with a rigorous devotion to sound and composition, which her actors found freeing, perhaps in the ironic tradition of her own characters.

Little Joe evinces a strong understanding of that staid, subtly restrictive office culture.

I think in all my films I try to find a closed space. Sometimes it’s a company or, in Amour Fou, it’s bourgeois society. I made a film called Lourdes where it was very clear it was that place in Lourdes. I’m trying to portray the hierarchies of a society, and I think it’s easier to do that if you have one place. Then you can show who are the chefs, the people in the middle, and the ones who just have to follow. Sometimes you can even see these statures on the costumes.

The brightly colored costumes are striking in Little Joe. It seems as if they’re expressing emotions the characters aren’t allowing themselves.

Yes. Well, they don’t allow themselves, or maybe I’d put it slightly differently: No one really shows their true emotions [laughs]. We all play a role in our lives and we’re all a part of some sort of hierarchy. And no matter what kind of life we live, we’re living within a society, and we do have to obey rules most of the time. My films focus on that perspective, rather than saying, “Oh, everyone has a free choice.” My experience is that free choice is very limited even in a free world. We are very much manipulated in terms of how we should think and how we should behave. Social codes are quite strong.

One of the lovely ironies of this film is that it’s difficult to discern which enslavements are caused by the flower and which are already inherently in place via society.

Absolutely. That’s the irony about it. When we worked on the script, it wasn’t so easy to build up a storyline that suggests a change that you never really see. Over the process of scriptwriting, we decided that the validity of feelings was invisible. We also had conversations with scientists, and we considered which part of the brain was responsible for emotions.

I’m curious if any singular story element led you to this premise.

I’m a big fan of science-fiction and horror films, and I do like those Invasion of the Body Snatchers films, but only the beginnings. I like the setups, those scenes where someone says, “Oh, my uncle isn’t my uncle anymore.” I had this idea to prolong this doubt about who people really are over the whole length of a feature film. Because it’s a basic human experience: You can never really understand what another person is thinking or feeling.

I love that there’s no overt monster in Little Joe. There’s no catharsis exactly.

No, there isn’t. The catharsis takes place on a very strange level, which leads to one of the other starting elements of the film. I wanted to portray a single mother who loves her job. So, the catharsis in the end is really very much centered on Alice as she finally allows herself to focus on her work and to let her son live with the father, which is okay.

You’re right that there’s a catharsis, from the fulfillment of the final line of dialogue.

Absolutely.

This is what’s hard to reconcile: Despite the loss of self that debatably takes place over the course of the film, Alice gets exactly what she wants and the flower does exactly what it’s supposed to do.

Yes, I’m glad to hear you say that. I do get a lot of questions about the dark, dystopian perspective, but there’s no such perspective in this film. It’s a very friendly, light ending. If we all change, perhaps it’s for the better.

I’m curious about the visual design of the flower. It seems to me that it’s both male and female at once, which I think is an achievement.

What do you mean male and female? The design?

The shape seems phallic. Yet the color scheme almost has a lingerie quality.

I think the basic idea is that it’s a male plant. I wanted that basic juxtaposition between the boy and the plant. The film suggests that it’s a male plant, but yet, of course, when the plant opens and is exhaling the pollen…well, I would say it’s a very male plant. [both laugh]

The release of the pollen, especially for the first time against the glass of the lab, does feel like an ejaculation.

Yes. That was very much a part of the idea. The plant is trying to survive.

It’s like a revenge of the sex drive.

Yes.

Which parallels how the humans are repressing their sex drives. It’s a lovely reverberation. What was the collaboration with the actors like? Such a careful tone of emotional modulation is maintained throughout the film.

I enjoyed the collaboration very much. the actors understood what the film’s style was about. You do have actors sometimes who are used to the fact that the camera is working around them, but in my films it’s always the other way around. The camera is determining the image and the actor has to fit in. The actors—Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, and the others—were able to cope with that method very well. I remember especially Ben Whishaw even liked it, because—if you don’t feel suffocated, if you’re strong enough to fight against the style—it can be a joyful way to work. The collaboration with the actors also focused very much on the undertone of what they’re saying. A lot of scenes have a double meaning. I’m always trying to show that people normally lie. So, everything that’s said is also said because it should be said, I don’t know if you know what I mean…

Yes, social coding.

I’m trying to make the actors act in a way that makes us feel a character’s position rather than any individuality, so that we know that the characters are a part of something larger and have to say whatever they’re saying now. We try to reveal the typical codes of a society.

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Review: The Wolf Hour Is Dubiously Content to Watch Its Protagonist Squirm

The film is all surface, and its depiction of trauma becomes increasingly exploitative and hollow as it moves along.

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The Wolf Hour
Photo: Brainstorm Media

An air of decay and discomfort pervades the dingy Manhattan apartment where nearly all of The Wolf Hour unfolds. An agoraphobic recluse, June Leigh (Naomi Watts) languishes in the unit, overwhelmed with guilt from a past misdeed. The cramped, underlit apartment, full of dusty old books and overstuffed trash bags, takes on an increasingly oppressive quality as the door buzzer continues to go off with unnerving frequency. Despite June’s pleas to whomever is on the other end, all she gets in response is an ominous, crackling static. It’s an unsettling sound that’s a fitting approximation of the feminist icon and writer’s brittle mental state, which is inextricably tied to the decrepit state of a 1977 New York City plagued by sweltering summer heat and the Son of Sam killer’s reign of terror.

From the limited perspective of this tiny apartment, writer-director Alistair Banks Griffin constructs an aura of danger and alienation, filling out the broader scope of the citywide upheaval with street scuffles and snippets of news coverage that June overhears on the radio or television. It’s a provocative setting, which could have served as a compelling backdrop for June’s mental unraveling, but the acutely detailed portrait of this specific time and place never extends to that of the muddled, half-baked characterization of the woman who inhabits it.

Watts has made a career playing the most brooding and agitated of characters, and with a practically unparalleled visceral depth. Here, her subtly skittish gestures and facial expressions lend June a raw, nervous energy that suggests a woman on the verge of losing her mind. Strange, cathartic scenes, such as when June abruptly lets loose and feverishly dances to Suicide’s “Ghost Rider,” gives a strong sense of how far she’s strayed from the person she once was. But such unexpected character beats arise too infrequently throughout the film, and for all of Watts’s efforts, the roots of June’s anguish are never more than vaguely explored.

In an attempt to flesh out June’s interiority, Griffin’s script works in a handful of people who visit her apartment. But none of these characters, from her sister (Jennifer Ehle) to a grocery deliveryman (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) to a compassionate gigolo (Emory Cohen), offer much insight into the celebrated genius that June used to be. In fact, it’s only through June’s viewing of a contentious TV interview that she gave when her first book was released that we get any sense of the catalyst for her downward spiral. It’s a remarkably contrived manner of inserting much-needed backstory into The Wolf Hour, but even worse, it hints at a story far more intriguing than the miserabilism that quickly reveals itself to be the film’s default mode.

That interview reveals that June had a tumultuous fallout with her family due to her leftist screed’s thinly veiled criticism of her businessman father. It’s a turn that suggests something akin to the complicated father-daughter antagonism between Shiv and Logan on HBO’s Succession, yet Griffin does nothing with this bombshell, simply returning to June as she continues to drown in her paralyzing guilt. An abrupt and woefully misguided deus ex machina attempts to do some heavy narrative lifting, but it changes our perception of June without laying the sort of groundwork needed to make such a twist land with any gravitas.

In the end, June remains an enigma and the film’s finale only solidifies the notion that Griffin never had any interest in plumbing June’s emotional struggles. Like the sweat covering June’s face at all times or the dust that coats her apartment, The Wolf Hour is all surface, and its depiction of trauma only becomes increasingly exploitative and hollow as it moves along.

Cast: Naomi Watts, Brennan Brown, Jennifer Ehle, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Emory Cohen, Jeremy Bobb, Maritza Veer, Justin Clarke Director: Alistair Banks Griffin Screenwriter: Alistair Banks Griffin Distributor: Brainstorm Media Running Time: 99 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Interview: Céline Sciamma on Redefining the Muse with Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Our talk ranged from the personal to the political, her singular work to the cinema at large.

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Céline Sciamma
Photo: Claire Mathon

My experience talking with directors leads me to informally sort them into three categories based on what element of their work they can speak most eloquently about: theory, emotion, and technical execution. Few have straddled all aspects of the filmmaking process quite like French writer-director Céline Sciamma, the mind and muscle behind Portrait of a Lady on Fire. She’s able to deftly answer questions that address the end-to-end process of how a moment germinates in her head, how an audience will interpret it, and how theory can explain why they feel the way they do.

Sciamma’s latest directorial outing relegates her minimalism primarily to the screenplay, which revolves around the interactions between a painter, Noémie Merlant’s Marianne, and the subject, Adèle Haenel’s Héloïse, that she’s been commissioned to covertly paint. The deceptively simple contours of Portrait of a Lady on Fire belie the ambition of the film, which sets out to achieve nothing less than a complete deconstruction of the artist-muse relationship. What Sciamma proposes in its place is a love story between the two women rooted in equality and artistry rather than in domination and lust.

I spoke with Sciamma after the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival in September. Our talk ranged from the personal to the political, her singular work to the cinema at large, our present moment’s liberation to the centuries of patriarchal influence over our shared historical narrative. In short, a full spectrum of conversation that few directors can match.

You’ve placed Portrait of a Lady on Fire in conversation with discourse around the subject of muses. Does the film suggest that we need to dispense with this ideal altogether, or that we just need to update and revise our notions of what it means?

Well, it’s a contemporary conversation, and even though the movie’s set in the past, it definitely could be something that could have been set in 2019. It’s been a long [journey] for me, because it’s been five years from my previous film, and I thought about this for years. Within these five years, a lot happened. [The time] gave me confidence and new tools and ideas—also less loneliness—to be radical and without compromise. It gives you strength and structure to be radical with all the ideas. The movie is full of them.

Women artists have always existed. They’ve had more flourishing moments, like that time in the mid-18th century when there were a lot of women painters. That’s why we set [the film] in that period, of course, but mostly women were in the workshop as models or companions. That was their part in artistry, so that’s how they’re told [in cultural narratives]. The real part they took in creation isn’t told. Something is happening in art history because there are women researchers on the other side. Dora Maar was the muse of Picasso, but actually, she was a part of the Surrealist group. There’s a lot of them we know now. It was a way to tell the story again to reactivate this nature of art history. But I’m sure it’s true; it’s not this anachronistic vision.

You hired an “art sociologist” to help develop Portrait of a Lady on Fire. What did you learn from this person, and how did that affect the film?

It was a woman who [studied] that period when there were a lot of women painters. The fact that she’s a sociologist and not a historian actually was really important for me because, as we were inventing this character, sociology was really important to make her true to all of these women. Whereas if we’d picked [one historical figure], it would be about destiny. She read the script, and [determined that] there were no anachronisms. What I learned is that it gave me confidence to trust this character all the way. It was something I could hand to Noémie on set.

Is the notion of the “muse” inherently incompatible with equality?

The fact that you could be inspiring just by being there, beautiful and silent, there’s definitely domination. The fact that it’s told as something that always has to do with [being] in a relationship, even the love in creation in the muse—you have to fall in love with your actresses or models—is a fantasy that allows abuse of power. Even the possessive, sometimes I’m asked about my actresses. They’re not asked about their directors; they’re asked about the director.

When I wrote the part for Adèle, she was the model. When I talked about the film, and not much because I’m very secretive, people told me, “So, Adèle’s going to be the painter?” And I said, “No, Adèle is going to be the model!” People were like, “Why? She should be the painter.” And I was like, “Oh, so you find that the model is too narrow for her? You find that this isn’t the dynamic of power she’s entitled to. She should be the painter.” She and I laughed and thought, “Of course, [Adèle] should be the model because I’m the actress.” So, what are they saying? That it’s too small for her? That was also very nourishing, the idea today that she shouldn’t be in that position. It would be a weak position. And it isn’t.

I was surprised to learn that you didn’t write Marianne’s character from the start as someone assigned to paint Héloïse covertly. What did that discovery in the writing process unlock in the story for you?

When I got the idea, I was like, “Now the movie’s got a chance.” The movie is very full of ideas and has some theory of cinema, but that’s why it should be strongly dramatically charged. The fact that we embodied these problematic [ideas] really is important. The journey of the gaze, the fact that it’s stolen at first, then consensual, then mutual, then…we don’t even know who’s looking at who. It makes it really physical and organic. And also, it’s true that all my films are [thematically] bound with a character having a secret. Usually it lasts until the end, but this time it’s only half an hour of being secretive. The secret becomes this reservoir of what’s going to be said and what’s going to unfold, which felt different.

Unlike Tomboy, where schoolyard bullies embody the antagonistic forces of transphobia and heteronormativity, the villain in Portrait of a Lady on Fire seems to be time and the reality of Héloïse’s marriage on the horizon. Was this always your intent to write a story with a more abstract foe?

Yeah, because I really wanted not to go through the same negotiations and conflicts. I wanted it to be a new journey for the audience. Their love dialogue relies on a new ideal that’s equality. There’s no gender domination because they’re two women. That’s practical. But there’s no intellectual domination. We didn’t play with social hierarchy, either. We know their love is impossible, but we aren’t going to play with that. We aren’t going to try and project them into the future. Some people, the old culture, wants you to do that. Show the taboo, the impossibility, the struggle, the conflict with yourself. And we didn’t want to do that.

Because it’s about what you put in the frame. We’re just looking at what’s possible, that suspension of time, and we know very well the frame. We don’t have to tell you the prospects for these women, especially because it’s set in the past. They’re shitty. Lousy. We’re not going to waste time and put you in that position where you will go through this conflict to tell the same thing, that it’s impossible. The real tragedy is that it is possible, but it’s made impossible—by the world of men, mostly. That’s also why there are no men in the film. It would mean portraying a character whose sole purpose is to be the enemy, which isn’t something that interests me at all. I don’t need to take time to portray that. It’s not generous enough.

Are we to take the shot of Héloise on fire literally? That scene seems to enter such a representational, abstract realm, and then we’re jolted back into the reality of her walks with Marianne with that match cut of her extending a hand.

That [says] a lot about the film. It wants to be very embodied in a very simple but kind of brave [way], not just purely theoretical. She’s really going to be on fire! That was one of the key scenes I had in mind as the compass of the film. If you’re really setting her on fire, you’re setting the bar for the other scenes. They have to be in dialogue with this [moment]. It shouldn’t be this unique thing out of the whole language of the film.

I was so struck by the shot toward the end of the film where Marianne sketches herself in a mirror placed over Héloïse’s nether regions. It’s a masterly composition that also feels like a real thematic lynchpin. Can you describe both how the shot developed intellectually and how you executed it on set?

It’s about where you put the focus. In the mirror, she’s blurry. It’s about trust, about being playful, about going all the way with your ideas. But also, it’s fun. It’s a fun thing to do. Even the difficulty of it makes you think about cinema and how we’re going to do this. It’s a way to always be woke about your craft and having new challenges, solving old questions with new ideas. Really trying to harvest most of the situation of people looking at each other. It’s a very simple [way to] access ideas. She’s portraying herself with this mirror, this woman is naked, and her head is where her sex is. It’s really overt, so you don’t have to think about it. But, still, it’s this idea that’s given to you through a sensation. It should always be about this, I think.

I didn’t think it would be possible to top something like the “Diamonds” scene in Girlhood, but here you have a three-minute scene that features Adèle Haenel reacting to music. How do you go about shooting these scenes in a way that allows the audience to understand the impact the music has on the characters?

For Girlhood, I really tried to think of [the scene] as if it were a scene in a musical. When they start to sing in a musical, [they’re] very strong moments within the characters’ relationships. They’re saying things to each other, and, if they’re dancing, their bodies are expressing themselves. It’s about the music not being the commentary, but really thinking about it like, “Okay, if there was a Fred Astaire film, when would this thing happen? What would it say?” It’s always about the intimacy between the characters and what their bodies can express.

But this is kind of different because it’s the final scene. It unveils the fact that it’s cinema. It’s a shot-reverse shot. At first, you’re looking at Héloïse and Marianne looking at Héloïse. But, at some point, it’s about you the audience looking at Adèle performing. It’s about cinema. It leaves room for you. It’s the same in the “Diamonds” scene in Girlhood; it doesn’t become a clip if suddenly there’s room for the viewer. When we talk about the female gaze, of course it’s about not objectifying women, it’s also about mostly how you experience the journey of the character. You experience it with your body and mind. You’re fully aware. It’s not about you being fully inside the film; it’s about the film being inside you. I think that’s what we can offer.

You’ve talked about needing to develop a new grammar to tell the story of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Now that you have developed it, do you think it will be applicable to other films? Or will you have to reinvent the wheel again?

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is my fourth film, and it felt like a departure. But it’s also a growing of a lot of decisions and myself as a 40-year-old woman. So next time, I never know what I’m going to do next. I really feel like I’ve said all I have to say right now. I feel relieved of something also. And now that we are having this discussion around the film, it puts it in the world. It’s something we share. When you craft a film, it’s really your secret for so long. Now I feel like I’m going to have to find a new secret for myself.

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