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The Conversations: Quentin Tarantino Part Two

Tarantino is offering a peculiar form of thrills, for the most part; it’s not always exciting in quite the way one expects a Tarantino film to be exciting.

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The Conversations: Quentin Tarantino Part Two

JASON BELLAMY: Well, Ed, after a few days off we’re ready to move into decidedly fresh territory, because now Inglourious Basterds has entered the conversation, and it has done so with a bullet, or a baseball bat, or something. I have seen the film twice now and I’m ready to proclaim it the most thrilling picture of the year thus far (and, just so you know, that’s a carefully chosen adjective). But what does that really mean? Pretty much nothing. So, with another tip of the cap to My Tarantino Problem, and Yours, the April 2007 give-and-take between Matt Zoller Seitz and Keith Uhlich, let’s dive into the deep end once more.

At the end of Tarantino’s World War II (revenge) fantasy, Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine looks straight into the camera and says: “I think this might just be my masterpiece.” He’s referring, of course, to a freshly carved swastika, but I wonder if—like so many characters before—Aldo might just be speaking for the filmmaker behind the camera and behind that carefully chosen line. And so, Ed, I ask you: Is Inglourious Basterds Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece?

ED HOWARD: If you’d asked me beforehand, I never would’ve expected to be saying this, but like you I’ve seen the film twice now, and yes, I’d declare it to be Tarantino’s masterpiece. Why wasn’t I expecting this? Well, the trailers, which made the film look like an unrelenting farce, probably had something to do with that; I know you managed to avoid those, and I envy you for that. And then there’s the World War II material, which to say the least did not seem like a natural fit for Tarantino; it was hard to know what to expect from this movie. So I went in with somewhat mixed expectations. Did I expect to be entertained and, as you so delicately put it, thrilled? Of course; I’d never expect any less from Tarantino. But did I expect something so tonally varied, so rich, so sprawling and intense? Did I expect to be stunned into silence at various points, or to feel so many conflicting emotions and ideas fighting for my attention? I can’t say that I did. Shame on me.

So what does it mean for a film to be Tarantino’s masterpiece? Well, for one thing it’s everything that his past films have been, only more so. It’s about other movies, of course, but more than that it’s about The Movies, about the cinema and its power. It’s cartoony and wild and over-the-top, sometimes awkward (hello, Eli Roth), often deeply moving, funny, heartbreaking, irreverent, silly, brutal and sensitive. It represents Tarantino really embracing his contradictions, making a movie that encompasses the totality of his cinematic range: from the bracing, patient building of suspense through dialogue in the film’s major set pieces, to the caricatured treatment of Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke) and the “Nat-zi”-scalping Aldo “the Apache” Raine, to the melodramatic conflagration of the film’s cathartic climax. I wondered before how Tarantino would approach a World War II movie, and the answer, as it turns out, is that he has made a World War II movie that isn’t even really set in World War II, at least not as we know it. In other words, Tarantino has retreated fully into the Tarantinoverse and has made a movie that could only be set in his own unique cinematic world—and a film that, indeed, revels in the limitless possibilities of the cinema for creating these kinds of imaginative alternate realities.

Now you know where I stand, generally speaking. I have a feeling I know where you stand, too, based on your judicious selection of the word “thrilling” (with the implied “and nothing more”), but I’ll ask anyway. You concluded our discussion of Tarantino’s earlier films by saying that you haven’t ever seen the light, that you’re not one of the director’s true believers. So has Inglourious Basterds changed your mind? Do you fully believe now?

JB: Inglourious Basterds has done nothing to substantially alter my opinion of Tarantino’s previous films or his talent. I still believe he is a sometimes brilliant writer and an even better visualist whose biggest weakness is using film as a device to take masturbatory pleasure in his own genius, which, while considerable, isn’t as infallible as he believes. However, there’s no doubt in my mind: Inglourious Basterds is indeed Tarantino’s masterpiece.

I say that a bit uncomfortably, I admit, because one of the many things that astounds me about this picture is how distinctly different it feels from its predecessors, even for all the ways it is utterly familiar. The last thing I want to do is give the impression that I regard this as Tarantino’s finest picture because he has “grown up,” or some such nonsense. This isn’t me playing “I told you so” while delighting in watching Tarantino toe the line. Not at all. Tarantino wouldn’t consider this film to be a condemnation of his earlier works, and I don’t either. When I call Inglourious Basterds Tarantino’s masterpiece, it’s because of what it does, not because of anything that its predecessors might fail to do.

Like you, I appreciate Inglourious Basterds for its tremendous range, and I’m awed by its ability to play with contradictory genres, emotions and themes, not just in a single movie or a single scene but sometimes in a single shot. This is the same Tarantino we’ve come to revere and at times just barely tolerate (yep, that’s an Eli Roth reference), but it’s Tarantino at his most challenging and even most vulnerable. When I said that I was careful in calling Inglourious Basterds the most thrilling movie of the year, that’s because, for all of the picture’s successes, it is both exasperatingly and endearingly flawed. (Thrilling? Yes! And occasionally boring.) In proclaiming this Tarantino’s masterpiece, I don’t think I need to consider it the year’s most affecting movie on all fronts, because it isn’t.

Likewise, Inglourious Basterds is by no means universally superior to Tarantino’s predecessors. Yet for me there is one way in which this effort stands alone. Inglourious Basterds is the first Tarantino picture that made me feel like an insider. It is the first Tarantino movie that, at least during its running time, made me feel as if I might be enjoying it as much as QT himself. That isn’t the only reason I consider Inglourious Basterds to be Tarantino’s masterpiece, let’s be clear, but it goes a long way toward describing how it affected me.

Inglourious Basterds

EH: Certainly enjoyment is a big part of it. There’s no shortage of thrills here. But Tarantino is offering a peculiar form of thrills, for the most part; it’s not always exciting in quite the way one expects a Tarantino film to be exciting. Yes, there are outbursts of violence, much of it enacted by the titular Basterds, who despite their top billing actually thread through the film at intervals rather than remaining at the center of the narrative. These bursts of violence are quick and bracing, often preceded by a lengthy and nail-biting build-up that lasts much longer than the violence itself. Think of the seemingly endless series of shots before “the Bear Jew” (Roth) beats a Nazi colonel with a baseball bat: long, slow tracks in on the opaque black of the tunnel from which the hollow thunk of the baseball bat on the wall emerges, cut together with equally slow tracks into the impassive eyes of the doomed man, thinking about his impending death. Then the violence itself is abrupt and brutal and kind of silly and capped with Roth’s utterly ridiculous ranting about baseball, and the slow-building tension has erupted into something ugly and uncomfortable. The violent climax to the lengthy tavern scene is even swifter, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it frenzy of one-second shots set up by at least a half-hour of patient, probing dialogue.

In fact, the film’s three most tense and exciting sequences—the opening chapter, the interrogation of Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) by SS colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), and the tavern rendezvous—are driven by the dialogue, by conversations that dance around hidden subtexts and dangerous topics with that typically Tarantinoesque (or Rohmeresque) patience. The opening scene, a half-hour masterpiece in itself, sets the dominant tone for the film, even if that tone is frequently disrupted and warped by the intrusions of the Basterds or the Hitler caricature. This opening chapter, titled “Once upon a time… in Nazi-occupied France,” is sublime, suspenseful and emotionally devastating. It unfolds slowly, as Landa toys with a dairy farmer (Denis Menochet) who’s been sheltering a Jewish family beneath his floorboards. The scene develops so patiently that its stakes aren’t clear for quite some time—the conversation is polite and formal, almost ceremonial in the exchange of pleasantries and compliments. All the while, Tarantino’s camera wheels around the two, capturing the unspoken tension in the scene, finally panning down to the men’s feet and then down even further, into the crawl space beneath the house where a Jewish family is hiding, terrified. Then, from a shot of the family’s eyes peering up through the floorboards, the camera inches back up to the pattering conversation above, which has suddenly acquired a new intensity and urgency. The scene’s denouement is harrowing, particularly the grief-stricken, shamed expression on the face of the farmer as he betrays his charges, a few tears streaking his cheeks.

There’s so much going on in this scene that it’s frankly stunning, and even if Inglourious Basterds had ended right there, with Landa yelling goodbye to the fleeing Shosanna, the sole survivor of her family’s massacre, I think I would’ve left the theater satisfied. It just feels so complete, so self-contained, like a perfect short story. Landa is sinister and charming in roughly equal measure, with a preening, superior manner that shows through in his tight-lipped smile and occasional moments of goofy theatricality. His moment of triumph within the scene, when he reveals that he knows about the hidden family, is undercut when, just at that moment, he whips out a ludicrously big pipe, dwarfing the farmer’s own pipe. It’s both a self-conscious assertion of his authority over the farmer, and a hilarious sight gag whose impact, both times I saw it, was tremendous: the audience was still giggling when Tarantino cuts in for a close-up of Landa as the SS officer chillingly reveals his endgame to the farmer. Tarantino does this kind of stuff throughout the film, nakedly manipulating his audience, letting the film’s multiple tones clash against one another, creating storm fronts where queasy humor and dead-serious suspense crash together. Tarantino also nods to the audience when, after the opening pleasantries have been exchanged, he has Landa make a big show of switching to English for the remainder of the conversation, an acknowledgement of the blockbuster audience’s limited patience for subtitles—and, it turns out, also a component of Landa’s forward-thinking plotting, since the family beneath the floorboards can’t understand English. This opening sequence and the other tense conversations like it throughout the film masterfully control the audience’s emotions and reactions: there are long stretches where everyone seems to be collectively holding their breath, waiting for a release that seldom plays out quite as expected.

Inglourious Basterds

JB: I wholeheartedly agree that the opening scene with Landa and the dairy farmer is the film’s artistic high point. You’ve already touched on some of the brilliant contradictions in the scene, like the pipe gag and the clumsy excuse to use English that at first seems like an eye-rolling Tarantino indulgence (too cute by half) but then turns out to be diabolically brilliant. But let me back up for a moment to take an even broader view. To me, part of what’s so fascinating about that scene is how Landa is such an archetypical oversized cinema villain, even in the moments when he stimulates thoughts of real-world horror, while the farmer, LaPadite, is straight out of a more historically considerate drama. These are two genres playing out side by side, so different that Tarantino could have used his De Palma-inspired split-screen trick to present them. On one side, in Landa, we have the Tarantino film his previous works suggested Inglourious Basterds would be. On the other side, in LaPadite, we have the reverent World War II film that some Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan devotees feel the historical subject demands. It would be entirely misleading to suggest that Tarantino’s film is a marriage of both of these genres, because from start to finish Inglourious Basterds is pure fantasy with only allusions to textbook history. Nevertheless, it is true that both of these seemingly opposed genre sensibilities share the screen beautifully in this scene. Both sides feel equally invested in, equally realized, equally significant. I’d call it a balancing act, but Tarantino isn’t tiptoeing on any fine lines here. He isn’t interested in such things. He’s simply showing us his cinematic world from his own unique diagonal perspective.

Meantime, the dialogue in that scene is as subtly loaded as that superheroes analysis in Kill Bill without ever seeming indulgently arbitrary. Evoking memories of Mr. Pink’s rant against tipping in Reservoir Dogs or Jules and Vincent’s debate about eating pork in Pulp Fiction, Landa uses a hawk/rat/squirrel analogy that establishes his skill for deductive reasoning while also raising the thematically significant issue of ethical double standards. We can talk in greater detail later about the climactic “Revenge of the Giant Face” chapter, where those double standards come into play. For now, though, it’s merely important to note that Tarantino’s opening scene stirs the audience to reconsider our engrained ideas about predator and prey.

The dialogue in this initial scene has a rhythm that’s atypical to Tarantino’s norm, and in that respect Inglourious Basterds announces itself as something new from the very start. (What an entirely different mood we’d have at the end of the first chapter if the film introduced the Basterds straightaway.) One thing is familiar, though: For as oft-quoted as Landa’s introduction is sure to be, it’s Tarantino’s filmmaking, not his screenwriting, that makes this scene special. In a scene that is seemingly all words, ignore the dialogue and focus instead on the mooing cows, the ticking clock, the slow zoom (interrupted by cuts) toward Landa and LaPadite’s faces at that critical moment and, finally, the outstanding repurposing of John Ford’s famous doorway shot. These are tried and true tools for creating suspense and drama that Tarantino uses so effectively that they feel like new.

Inglourious Basterds

EH: What’s especially brilliant about this opening chapter, which you hint at in mentioning Landa’s use of the rat analogy, is that Tarantino is forcing us not only to reconsider ideas about predator and prey but to confront the mentality of prejudice head-on. Landa’s tone is so reasonable, his point-to-point argumentation so strictly logical, that by the time he’s come to his conclusion we actually understand why he considers the Jews to be vermin. It’s disturbing, and Landa’s offhand equation of Jews and rats earns the same nervous gasps that a Nazi major later gets by suggesting the unexpected resonances between African slaves and King Kong. But we get what he’s saying, and we sense that the farmer perhaps grudgingly understands as well: as even he has to admit, he’d never greet a rat with a saucer of milk, and no amount of logic about the similarities between rats and the more respected squirrels will convince him otherwise, just as Landa and his Nazi colleagues cannot be convinced of the essential humanity of the Jews. It’s a horrifying scene because it presents Landa as such a logical monster and, as Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) will later say about his protégé Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a “strangely persuasive monster.” This scene doesn’t present prejudice as an aberration or something unknowable and distant; prejudice here is the end result of a scrupulously logical mind reasoning from a foundation of certain hateful constants.

You’re also right that the two main characters here represent Tarantino playing with varying tonalities, even within the same scene: the brooding, emotionally real farmer and the cartoonish villain Landa. On a broader scale, this is the kind of thing going on throughout the film. There is an astonishing variety of performances on display here, many of them broad and deliberately overplayed: the backwoods kitsch of Pitt’s Aldo Raine, the Austin Powers pastiche of Mike Myers’ cameo as a high-ranking British officer, the Looney Tunes-esque Hitler, Julie Dreyfuss evoking her appearance in Kill Bill as Goebbels’ showy translator/escort Francesca. Tarantino sets these cartoonish performances off against more subtle and realistic ones, like Laurent’s reserved Shosanna, who barely says a word throughout the entire lunch with Goebbels, Landa and Zoller, conveying her bemusement, fear and confusion through her expressive face. Tarantino seems to revel in the friction generated by placing believable, realistic characters up against vibrant, oversized caricatures—it’s like Who Framed Roger Rabbit achieved entirely with human actors.

This film is also replete with the kind of structural mirroring that we’ve noted in earlier Tarantino films. The zooms you note into close-ups of Landa and LaPadite, increasing the tension of their confrontation, are repeated in Chapter 2 when the Nazi colonel is awaiting his death by baseball bat. More significantly, Landa’s attitude towards his nickname, “the Jew hunter,” changes over the course of the film from the barely restrained childish glee of the opening chapter to the visceral disgust with which he pronounces it when talking to Aldo in the fifth and final chapter, when he wants to be thought of as merely an employee of the Nazis rather than an eager participant in their agenda. This cynical reversal resonates with one of the key themes of the Basterds sequences, the idea of what happens to the Nazi soldiers after the war, whether they’re able to simply slip back into ordinary society and ignore their Nazi past.

Inglourious Basterds

JB: Speaking of the Nazis and cartoonish characters, that’s yet another surprising thing about Inglourious Basterds. Oh, sure, Tarantino’s Hitler is a screaming maniac and Goebbels is a clown (that he likes to bang his interpreter tells us what, exactly?), but otherwise Tarantino’s Nazis are something that Nazis are almost never allowed to be in American movies: intelligent. Landa is an opportunistic devil without a conscience, to be sure, but will we see a smarter character this year? I doubt it. Fucker is almost clairvoyant, and beyond that he’s ballsy. Presented with an opportunity to write his own endgame, he makes a bold all-in play that involves collaborating with the Americans without their knowledge. Then there’s Major Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl) who displays his intelligence three ways: first by sniffing out a curious German accent, then by deducing his identity in the questions game based on scant information and finally by spotting Lieutenant Hicox’s (Michael Fassbender) fatal tell. (Heck, throw on top of that what might seem like a small detail: Hellstrom knows immediately that there’s no way he’s walking out of that tavern alive.) Also not to be overlooked is Fredrick Zoller, who isn’t the mindless killing machine his war heroics have us conditioned to believe he must be. In the movies the opposition sometimes gets one smart character, but the rest of the force is usually a collection of shortsighted morons. Here, instead, it’s the Americans who are cartoons who blunder into their good fortune.

If you think this is me on my way to arguing that Tarantino is making some bold political statement, guess again. Tarantino just likes bad guys. Always has. I never thought there was any deep messaging in his idolization of Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction, and the same rule applies here. Again, and this point can’t be underlined enough, this isn’t a historically minded film; of course all those makers of “serious” war movies might want to look in the mirror and ask themselves why it took Tarantino, of all people, to create Nazi enemies who seem like a force to be reckoned with.

Before we leave this subject, I feel we do have an obligation to talk about Eli Roth’s participation, which in my mind stands as Tarantino’s only entirely indefensible decision in this film. Is Roth’s grand entrance as the Bear Jew, after all that bat slamming anticipation, meant to inspire laughs? Perhaps we need to consider that. All I know is that “satisfying” the suspense of that scene by having Roth emerge from the shadows is the cinematic polar opposite of Orson Welles’ unveiling in The Third Man. The only praiseworthy thing I can say about Roth’s involvement is that at least it isn’t Tarantino himself in the role, nor is it Adam Sandler, who was originally considered for the part. (Obvious question: Why do I prefer Roth to Sandler? Because whatever power the bat-bashing scene has would be obliterated if I felt Tarantino had gone from making allusions to Sergio Leone to paying tribute to Happy Gilmore. Just saying.) Roth’s involvement doesn’t ruin the film, but it marks one of those moments when my thoughts left the action on the screen and I found myself thinking, “Why, Quentin? Why?” But maybe that’s just an intrinsic part of the Tarantino experience.

Inglourious Basterds

EH: I’m in total agreement that the few scattered appearances by Roth are embarrassingly bad and thankfully brief—although I do wish that Sandler had actually gotten to play the part, as was originally intended. Don’t think of Happy Gilmore, think of the way Sandler channels his signature man-boy persona into much darker, psychologically unstable, violent territory in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love. The Sandler glimpsed in that film would’ve been a perfect fit for the Bear Jew’s stunted, amoral ridiculousness, though I wonder if he could have been as scary as Roth’s face is when he gets a deranged-looking close-up during the climactic conflagration.

Anyway, while Tarantino is perhaps not making a “bold political statement” with this film, I do think it’s a very politically, historically and morally engaged film. Tarantino is never going to be about sending a message, but by the same token he’s never been blind to the moral ramifications of people’s actions, or the unspoken politics behind everything his characters say and do, and that’s the case here more than ever. The finale’s destruction of a Nazi-packed movie theater suggests that all revenge and brutality are ugly and cruel, even when the motives are good and even when the victims are deserving. This baroque, flaming finale is frantically edited, with shots of Shosanna’s warped, cackling visage looming above the panicking crowd as Roth and fellow Basterd Omar Doom machine-gun the fleeing cinemagoers with that sadistic, gleeful look on their faces, monstrous and psychopathic. This scene represents a rewriting of history for the better—WWII ends early, and the worst of the monsters responsible for the war all die in flames and a hail of bullets—and yet watching it happen is unpleasant rather than celebratory, suggesting that all victories come at a price. The film’s morality is complex and twisted, depicting Aldo and his Basterds as violence-loving sociopaths who seem to enjoy their work a little too much—and who can blame them, because even 60-plus years removed from WWII, there’s still a visceral pleasure to be had in watching Aldo and his boys “killing Nat-zis,” and little guilt about it. Tarantino seems to know this and his multilayered, intelligent Nazis are continual reminders of the humanity present even in those who do terrible things. Even Goebbels gets a moment of genuine emotion when Hitler tells him that Nation’s Pride is his best film ever.

The Nazi officer who’s killed in the film’s second chapter says that he won a medal for bravery, while the Bear Jew asks him if he got it for “killing Jews,” an attempt to simplify this guy before beating him to death. But he is brave and loyal, even though he’s also hateful scum who dies after spitting out epitaphs against Jews. These traits are not contradictions: he is a brave, honorable man who has committed himself to, and seems to believe totally in, a reprehensible cause dedicated to extinguishing other human lives. On the other side, Aldo and his men are not honorable in the least, they are deceitful and sadistic and merciless, and yet they are committed to a noble cause, motivated at least in part by the desire to defeat a truly evil world power. There are, obviously, no easy answers here.

This is even truer in the scene with Wilhelm (Alexander Fehling), the new father out celebrating his baby’s birth. His showdown with Aldo over the tradeoff of the actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) is heartbreaking precisely because it’s obvious that no matter what Aldo says to bargain with Wilhelm, the Basterds could never allow a witness to leave the bar knowing that Bridget is a double agent for the Allies. This had already been established explicitly in the Basterds’ pre-meeting planning. So as Aldo and Wilhelm negotiate, the audience knows that Aldo doesn’t really intend to live up to his bargain, though he never actually gets the chance to betray the German since Bridget finishes him off first. It’s an odd scene, one where the Nazi suddenly becomes the sympathetic protagonist, the guy we’re rooting for even though we know he’s pretty much doomed. When he puts down the gun and agrees to deal with Aldo, I actually found myself groaning at his stupid choice the way you’d yell “don’t go in there” at a horror movie character.

Inglourious Basterds

JB: I suspect that many people would disagree with your characterization of this film’s political, historical and moral engagement, and not necessarily those who feel offended by its anti-historical bloodlust (of which I’m sure there are many). For QT fans it might in fact be easier to enjoy this film by concluding that “it’s only a movie,” explaining away any moments of possible commentary as the unintentional byproduct of Tarantino’s cinematic allusions. But I agree with you, it’s not that simple. This isn’t a “message movie,” no, but I have no doubt that Tarantino intends to provoke the audience by preying upon our established World War II sensibilities.

For me, the proof in the pudding is the scene in which Marcel (Jacky Ido) goes around locking the theater doors: He doesn’t just turn the locks near the handles, he also flips locks at the top and bottom of the doors, and then he threads steel bars through the handles to barricade the doors for good measure. Marcel does all of this after first opening one of the doors to peek at the unsuspecting audience that is about to be burned alive. Only the most ignorant viewer could watch this unfold and not think about unsuspecting Jews being terminated in gas chambers, and, likewise, only the most ignorant (and dumb-lucky) filmmaker could make these cinematic choices without knowing he is making an overt historical reference to the very era in which his story takes place. Tarantino might not be as brilliant as he thinks he is, but he’s certainly not that unaware.

And so it was that on my most recent viewing of Inglourious Basterds, as the schemes of Shosanna and the Basterds come to fruition in tandem, with the screen catching fire and the Basterds unloading ammunition into the mosh pit of Germans below, I had two thoughts: First, what would cinema be without the Nazis, the only historical villains so unequivocally evil that (even despite Tarantino’s efforts) we can watch hundreds being helplessly slaughtered and still feel ultimately OK about it? Second, I wonder what Laughing Guy is thinking right now?

That latter thought needs clarification. “Laughing Guy” would be the dude near the front of the theater who’d been yucking up all the action from the moment the movie began. If you think Tarantino’s Hitler is over the top when Zoller’s on-screen exploits turn him into a cackling buffoon, well, you should have seen Laughing Guy, who during the Bear Jew’s bat-bashing scene rocked in his chair screaming in delight, stomping his feet and slapping both of his knees. I won’t go so far as to say that Tarantino condemns that sort of reaction, as there’s too much evidence to the contrary; Tarantino thinks violence can be fun. Nevertheless, I do think the “Revenge of the Giant Face” chapter is meant to give us pause, to make us question those previous impulses. In a moment we go from loathing the Nazis in the theater for cheering the deaths of anti-German soldiers on the field of battle to feeling compelled to embrace, at least in some way, the slaughter of an unarmed crowd. That shouldn’t sit well, and it doesn’t. If this is a revenge fantasy, revenge comes at a price, as you suggested, and Tarantino’s film is frank about that.

In a previous conversation I expressed my endless frustration with Fight Club, which I think preaches out of both sides of its mouth. Here I saw a different result. Is there ambiguity and contradiction to Inglourious Basterds? Of course! That’s part of what makes it a masterpiece. But while I still contend that Fight Club’s lasting impression is that Tyler Durden is super-cool, even though by the end of the film he’s unveiled to be everything he preaches against, here I believe that the violence of Tarantino’s film, while sometimes romanticized, is ultimately made to appear, well, inglorious. To miss that is to miss the obvious.

Inglourious Basterds

EH: The crucial difference between Fight Club and Inglourious Basterds, in the sense that you’re comparing them, is that Fight Club starts as one thing and then becomes something else altogether, a reversal of its earlier meanings, while Tarantino’s film is instead ambiguous throughout its length, vacillating between two poles in regard to violence just as it does between cartoony exaggeration and stolid realism. Sometimes the violence in the film is horrifying and deeply felt, as in the murder of Shosanna’s family and the movie theater fire. Sometimes it seems meant to provoke shocked laughter, as in the baseball bat sequence or the quick insert of the Basterds strafing a Nazi patrol with machine guns. I think this is part of what Tarantino’s after, getting his audience to a point where they’re not sure what to feel: both times I saw the film, the audience laughed uproariously when the Bear Jew beats that Nazi colonel, but once the killer’s extended, celebratory rant begins, the laughter died into more of an uncomfortable silence, punctuated by a few nervous titters. How much of that is just Roth’s off-key performance, and how much Tarantino’s deliberate effort to make the laughs choke in one’s throat? Either way, I don’t think anyone leaves this movie feeling completely comfortable. Maybe the Laughing Guys are able to shrug off the more unsettling moments and simply enjoy the thrill ride, but Tarantino seems to want us to at least think about violence, to think about its effects and its cost. He’s too much of an entertainer to assume a Michael Haneke-style moralist position and castigate his audience for enjoying the film, but certainly he wants to bring up these issues.

As you say, this is especially clear in the build-up to the big fire, as Marcel goes around locking the doors while, inside, Tarantino shows us the Nazis laughing as soldiers are killed. But Zoller, the soldier whose exploits are being depicted, is not comfortable with what he sees. What Tarantino’s engaging with here is the essence of his movie, the difference between reality and fantasy, and how they come together in the cinema. For Zoller, Nation’s Pride is simply too real, too close-to-home, and he can’t be entertained by watching the reenactment of all the men he really killed. For everyone else in the room, they’re not thinking about what they’re seeing as human lives being ended, just as Landa doesn’t think of his own job as exterminating other humans, but rather tracking down vermin. If the door-locking montage was the pivotal moment of this sequence for you, Zoller’s confession that he can’t watch his own movie is it for me. At this moment, reality and fantasy have come together for the young German war hero, and he is totally out of step with both the Nazis cartoonishly cackling and the Inglourious Basterds audience who had not so long ago been cheering on the sadistic Bear Jew.

Personally, I can’t see how anyone could emerge from this climax thinking that Tarantino is engaged in the straightforward glorification of violence. The whole scene is horrific and bracing, with the closeups of the murderous Basterds accompanied by Shosanna’s echoing laughter. Then the sounds of explosions abruptly give way to that quiet shot of the military truck pulling through a sparse forest, a possible reference to the climax of The Conformist, another movie about violence and morality. It’s a startling moment, and Tarantino obviously lets the silence linger for contemplation, for processing what’s just happened. I guarantee you, at that moment, no one’s laughing.

Inglourious Basterds

JB: To jump back just a bit, the Zoller moment you mention is another crucial example of how Tarantino explores some of these moral issues head-on. It could be interpreted at least two ways. On the one hand Zoller’s reaction seems to underline that Tarantino’s film, in contrast to Nation’s Pride or, by extension, even Spielberg’s aforementioned World War II films, is pure entertainment—decidedly not an accurate depiction of actual events, and thus not something to get too concerned over. On the other hand, one could contrast Zoller’s reaction with that of the on-screen crowd and use it as evidence of how myopic we can be as moviegoers when faced with entertainment that appeals to our sensibilities, thus coming to the conclusion that the impact of movies must not be dismissed.

Which of these two opposed interpretations is correct? Both of them are, because within this pure entertainment is a tale in which film stock is used to bring down the Third Reich. In that regard, Inglourious Basterds is a propaganda film promoting the importance of cinema itself. And who better to make that film than Tarantino, whose entire oeuvre is a long love letter to the movies that shaped him as an artist and as a man.

EH: In his “love letter to the movies,” Tarantino especially privileges the cinema of the past, peppering the film with cinephile-friendly references to G.W. Pabst, Leni Riefenstahl, Henri-Georges Clouzot (one of the few French directors to continue making films during the Occupation, including Le Corbeau, one of the films Shosanna screens at her theater) and actor Emil Jannings. Most of all, though, Inglourious Basterds is about the power of the cinema: its power as propaganda, as entertainment, and of course as art. Much has been made of the denouement’s grand metaphor, the cinema literally changing the world, but I don’t think Tarantino really sees cinema as a social tool, as a way of changing history, which is the obvious interpretation. Inglourious Basterds isn’t about a reel of film changing the world so much as it is about the movies as gateways into different ways of imagining and thinking about the world. The film belongs to the same lineage of speculative fiction as Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, both of which imagine alternate realities where Nazism and fascism were victorious in the WWII era.

That’s why the readings of this film as “Holocaust denial” are so dramatically offbase (even beyond the fact that the opening chapter is an especially potent acknowledgment of the Holocaust’s personal horror). Tarantino’s film doesn’t erase the memory of the Holocaust. Rather, he’s actually relying on our knowledge of real events; the film would be all but meaningless to someone who didn’t already know at least the barebones basics about the real history of World War II. Tarantino’s vision of a fiery end to the Third Reich is only powerful when it plays off of the knowledge that this isn’t what really happened, that this is a “what if” scenario. Tarantino knows he can’t rewrite history, but he can create a cinematic alternate history that resonates in various ways with the real world, with real ideas. The power of cinema is its freedom, its virtually limitless capacity for imagination and creativity, and, as you suggest, the powerful grip of the movies on the imaginations of audiences.

Goebbels certainly understood this power, treating the cinema as a vital ideological tool, taking personal control of UFA in order to turn the German film industry into a way of spreading Nazi ideas and rallying enthusiasm. The British officers in the film compare Goebbels to Hollywood producers like David O. Selznick and Louis B. Mayer, and Goebbels, while placing himself in opposition to these Jewish moguls, also borrowed from their playbook, trying to create popular entertainments and massive hits. When Zoller is described as “a German Sergeant York,” it’s not a shallow comparison: both men are somewhat reluctant heroes whose gory exploits, consisting mainly of killing a whole lot of men, are turned into films to stir up patriotic sentiment in their home countries. Just as Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (like his later Pearl Harbor revenge flick Air Force and countless other Hollywood propaganda films of the era) stirred and moved audiences, Goebbels’ films were intended to awaken similar emotions in his own German audiences. The hammering brutality of Nation’s Pride echoes the relentless climax of the otherwise admirable Air Force, in which Hawks presents an orgy of anti-Japanese violence for audiences to wallow in. Tarantino’s point seems to be that this is what all films do, that the propagandistic and manipulative aspects of the cinema are unavoidable. Thus he both embraces them and, to some extent, exposes their workings.

Inglourious Basterds

JB: Those are good points, and the comparison to The Plot Against America is particularly apt. (Probably the comparison to The Man in the High Castle, too, I just haven’t read that.) Obviously the “what if” scenario of Tarantino’s film is narrower than that of Roth’s novel, which examines the long-term effects of its historical rearrangement, which Inglourious Basterds never gets to, but that doesn’t make it any less valid.

If there’s a sentiment that Tarantino does anything here to confuse the historical record, well, I just don’t see it. The only thing I can see to get offended by (beyond Eli Roth’s acting) is the rough equation between the gassing of Jews in the real-world Holocaust and the burning of Nazis—including the architects of the Holocaust—in this historical fantasy. One group of victims did nothing to deserve their fate. The other group had it coming. In that respect, I understand how someone might react to the sight of the Basterds emptying their machine guns into the helpless crowd by becoming miffed at Tarantino for making this mass execution of Nazis seem horrific in any respect, turning the Nazis into victims if only for a moment.

The trouble with that reading is that it only works when looking at the theater massacre by itself. As we said earlier, the underlying message of the scene is that revenge comes at a price. Indeed, in the manner by which the Basterds choose to enact their vengeance on the Nazis—both in the theater scene and in their previous bat-swinging escapades—they are forced to become dangerously close to the evil they are trying to defeat, regardless of any moral justification. Patriotic violence is just as bloody as criminal violence, this movie reminds us. Offhand, we might think that no amount of suffering inflicted on a Nazi could ever be too great. But if you’re disturbed watching Nazis being slaughtered in the theater, maybe you don’t really believe that. My point is, if you watch the theater scene and come away confused, conflicted or distressed, I think that speaks more to your ethics than to Tarantino’s. Atypically for a QT picture, the climactic chapter of Inglourious Basterds seems designed not to unveil Tarantino’s feelings but to put us in touch with our own. Or am I giving Tarantino too much credit?

Inglourious Basterds

EH: No, I think you’re right. Tarantino is deliberately pushing buttons, he wants to provoke reactions and force his audience to think about the consequences of violence and the ethics of vengeance. I’ve been arguing right along that Tarantino’s films don’t merely present outlandish violence for simple delectation; his attitude towards the violence in his movies is much more complex than he’s given credit for, and probably much more complex than the blithe attitude he cops in interviews. Inglourious Basterds is his most potent movie in this respect.

Anyway, I feel like we’ve spent a lot of time thus far talking about the first two chapters (the farmhouse scene and the Basterds’ titular second chapter) and the final chapter (“Revenge of the Giant Face”), and have perhaps neglected the equally important Chapter 3 (“German Night in Paris”) and Chapter 4 (“Operation Kino”). I mentioned earlier that there are three key suspense/dialogue scenes in the film, lengthy set pieces where the tension is slowly ratcheted up even as the dialogue explores and reveals layers of character. Chapter 4 is almost entirely taken up by the tavern scene where a few members of the Basterds rendezvous with Bridget von Hammersmark and unexpectedly find themselves in a nest of Nazis. In Chapter 3, the climax is Landa’s ambiguous interrogation of Shosanna, where even when the scene is over we’re left in nearly the same place as Shosanna, unsure of what this guy is after—we’re only slightly up on her because we have the information necessary to recognize the glass of milk as a veiled threat, a reference to the opening scene. (The other callback to the first chapter is that here Landa speaks fluent French with no need to switch to English. The linguistic games of Landa/Tarantino run through the whole film, extending even I think to some playfulness with the subtitles. My fiancée pointed out that common words like “merci” were sometimes translated into English in subtitles and sometimes left in French, but while she thought it was a mistake, I wonder if Tarantino wasn’t having some more fun with the film’s Tower of Babel approach to language. He’s continually poking fun at Americans for not speaking any language besides English.)

The film is packed with internal references, discrete echoes of previous events. Even Landa’s pointed gesture of putting out his cigarette in a strudel could be read in relation to his use of a comically large pipe as a threat in the opening scene. Likewise, during the tavern scene, the game the soldiers are playing, trying to guess the names written on the back of playing cards, references Shosanna’s movie theater by namechecking, yet again, Leni Riefenstahl and G.W. Pabst. These echoes reflect Tarantino’s continuing interest in structural storytelling. Inglourious Basterds is structured more like a series of short stories than a straightforward narrative. Other than these subtle connections, each chapter is positioned as a standalone segment, except perhaps the final one, which finally knots together the various threads of the earlier chapters.

The echoes built into the film create the structure necessary for the finale, when the separate narratives of Shosanna, the Basterds and Landa finally come together. One of my favorite scenes in this respect is Shosanna’s preparation for the movie premiere, which opens Chapter 5. Tarantino films her putting on her makeup in intimate close-ups, and when she streaks rouge across her cheeks, it becomes apparent that she’s donning war paint—another echo, this time of Aldo’s nickname “the Apache,” linking the film’s two primary instruments of anti-Nazi vengeance. The whole sequence is gorgeous and multilayered, scored by a Giorgio Moroder/David Bowie song originally from Paul Schrader’s Cat People remake. The visuals, meanwhile, are seeped in the baroque pre-war/post-war aesthetic of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s late films, particularly the chapter-opening shot of Shosanna framed in a circular window, her reflection fragmented and multiplied by the glass—Sirk by way of Fassbinder. There’s also the very Fassbinderian close-up of the heroine pulling a black veil across her face, which is both pure style and a gesture of mourning for her murdered family as she prepares to walk out into a room filled with their murderers. This opening with its layered cinematic pastiche signals the final chapter’s turn to melodrama as a source of inspiration, suggesting a very different set of references from spaghetti Westerns and The Searchers, even as the subtext connects this scene with events earlier in the film.

Inglourious Basterds

JB: There’s a lot to reply to there, so I’ll go in chronological order according to the film, which will allow me to quickly address three lesser issues at the jump: First, I noticed the irregular non-translation of French in the English subtitles in that opening scene, and I agree with you that it’s not a mistake, but I don’t think the purpose is any deeper than typical Tarantino cuteness. Second, I disagree that we’re at all ahead of Shosanna when Landa orders her a glass of milk, because the expression on her face shows that she indeed takes it to be a veiled threat. (If she remembers Landa from four years ago, she certainly also remembers that he consumed two glasses of milk before his henchmen blasted away at the floorboards under which she and her family were hiding.) Third, while Shosanna views the glass of milk as a threat, I don’t think it is one. Landa no doubt thinks Shosanna’s current identity is fraudulent, but there’s no way he knows that she’s the lone survivor of one of his stings. As the director of security for the premiere, Landa would never allow the event to occur at Shosanna’s theater if he knew her true identity. His whole manner of questioning—including the cigarette in the strudel—is certainly designed to intimidate her, however. But Landa uses that approach with everyone. It’s effective. He rattles people.

As for the scene in which Shosanna dons her war paint and readies herself for the premiere, I’m not a fan. Over time, I’ll warm to the sequence; I love the rest of the movie too much not to. But at best I’ll only learn to ignore it. Through seven films now, Tarantino has demonstrated an uncanny ability to score his films with repurposed musical selections that would often seem ill-fitting on paper. Beginning a World War II movie with music from John Wayne’s The Alamo, for example? I wouldn’t have thought of it. But, darn it, it works, regardless of whether you can spot the allusion. The use of the Bowie song, however, is the first time in Tarantino’s career that one of his musical selections flops around awkwardly like a dying fish in the bottom of a boat. The problem isn’t that the tune is anachronistic. The problem is that the song—like just about everything from the 1980s—doesn’t feel classic, universal, eternal. Tarantino seems to be guiding his film toward the song, instead of the other way around. Perhaps that’s why his nod to melodrama didn’t remind me of Fassbinder but of ‘80s music videos, something from the archive of Duran Duran. There’s part of me that respects and even applauds the boldness of Tarantino’s anachronistic leap (though I’m not surprised by his courage), but it does play like a stunt to me.

EH: Interesting interpretation of that scene with Shosanna and Landa. Now that I think about it, during the opening chapter, Landa did ask for his first glass of milk before the switch to English, so Shosanna probably would have heard and understood that. But if Landa didn’t mean it as a threat when he orders the milk for her, why did he do it? Considering what happens at the premiere itself, and how easily Landa betrays his masters, I think he knew exactly who the theater’s owner really was all along, and deliberately did nothing about it because, in some way, he was already thinking about his eventual bid for that island retreat in Nantucket. But then, that’s the wonderful thing about this scene: it’s so ambiguous that Landa’s words and actions can mean practically anything, and the audience is left, like Shosanna, collectively raising their eyebrows, wondering what’s going to happen next.

That scene with the Bowie song seems to be as divisive as the treatment of violence; a lot of reviews thus far have picked that out as an example of Tarantino’s self-indulgence, while others have praised it as I have. I thought it worked, although to some extent I liked it because it felt so different from the sound palette used in the rest of the film—maybe I’m getting a little sick of Tarantino’s heavy recycling of Ennio Morricone, seamless as it usually is, and maybe I also thought the film’s pivotal moment, the lead-in to its explosive climax, deserved something big and grandiose and melodramatic. And as dated as ‘80s music usually is, it’s Bowie! I actually think that’s a damn good song.

Inglourious Basterds

JB: Yeah, I’m not trying to diss Bowie. In and of itself it’s a fine little montage, but its arrival is jarring and made Inglourious Basterds feel a little like Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, a movie in which the songs seem a little too desperate to be profound. (And I say that as one of the few people to actually like the melodramatic sex scene set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Go figure.) Maybe the best way of framing my dissatisfaction is to put it this way: Usually when Tarantino inserts music into a film I find myself thinking, “That’s perfect! Nothing could be better!” More traditional, sure, but not better. In this case, the use of Bowie satisfies Tarantino’s unpredictability, but the end result certainly didn’t leave me feeling like it was the natural choice.

As for the Shosanna and Landa scene, it could be that his milk order is a pure coincidence. Or perhaps he does recognize her and leaves their meeting satisfied that she’s too intimidated to cause trouble. The idea that he saw Shosanna as a threat and let it go doesn’t really hold water, though, because if she kills Hitler and ends the war Landa has nothing to gain. Only the U.S. government can offer him Nantucket. Regardless, I agree with you that the scene is intentionally and deliciously ambiguous. Even if we leave the scene concluding that Shosanna is safe, we spend every second up to that clenched in fear on her behalf. Dramatically speaking, that’s all that matters.

Now that we’re into the weeds a bit on Inglourious Basterds, there’s a very minor detail I’m curious to ask you about. The question goes like this: Mike Myers…why?

EH: I’m tempted just to say: Why not? That does seem to be Tarantino’s general philosophy here. The film is constructed around detours and diversions. The two Samuel L. Jackson-narrated segments—a faux-documentary explanation of the flammability of nitrate film stock and a kind of origin story for the Basterd Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger)—are perfect examples. The casting is full of little nudges like this, like recognizing Jackson’s voice, or recognizing Harvey Keitel as the American general who makes a deal with Landa. Or seeing Rod Taylor (of The Birds, coming out of semi-retirement for a film littered with Hitchcock references) as Winston Churchill, in a cameo that strikes me as somehow Lynchian in its randomness—maybe it’s just the red curtains behind him, though. Frankly, with all this going on, Myers’ appearance, doing a very dry pseudo-Austin Powers routine as a British officer named Ed Fenech (ha!), barely even stands out. It’s one more jokey little meta-reference in a film teeming with them. I’m guessing it nagged at you somehow, though, or you wouldn’t ask.

Inglourious Basterds

JB: The Mike Myers thing irks me only because it prompts the audience to laugh before he does anything funny, thus increasing the likelihood that people miss what I think is the scene’s true humor. But I admit that’s a pretty pretentious reaction. Both times I saw the movie, the audience started to snicker just in recognizing Myers, as if to say, “Oh, goody, another Austin Powers character!” That’s a fair reaction, I suppose, but it doesn’t make the laughter very well earned. (I’d prefer to be laughing at this movie, not in memory of Myers’ other films.)

To me what’s truly hilarious about that scene is how it’s the epitome of a war movie cliché that I didn’t quite realize the ubiquity of until I saw it parodied here: the nerdy Englishman (Myers) who in his diminutiveness and ordinariness makes the hero (Fassbender’s Lieutenant Hicox, in this case) look all the more rugged and dashing; the conspicuously enormous room which seems to have been built solely for the purpose of being under-furnished and under-populated save for the enormous war map hanging on the wall; the casual mood in which major operations are discussed as if war is a parlor game. That’s what Tarantino (with Myers) conjures here, and that’s what is truly clever. The rest is just distraction.

Then again, I do agree with you: Why not? If Tarantino did everything conventionally, he’d cease to be Tarantino. I admit that Myers’ appearance here reminds me of an especially snobby argument I used to make with regularity in college: “Pity the man who tells you his favorite Seinfeld character is Kramer,” I would say, “because that man doesn’t know why Seinfeld is funny.”

EH: That scene between Myers and Hicox is a spot-on parody of “stiff upper lip” British dramas, and of the kind of “gentleman’s war” stuffiness that Powell and Pressburger had already so effectively skewered and documented in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. “Down with Hitler?” “All the way down.” Throughout the film, one of Tarantino’s primary targets is the idea that there’s any such thing as noble violence, so it makes sense that he’d include this swipe at the gentlemanly war planners who make assassination sound like a tea party: “We blow up the basket.”

The mention of Hicox also reminds me of my favorite moment with that character, who like many in this film is sometimes a walking cliché (“jolly good!”) and sometimes much more nuanced. His greatest moment—and Fassbender’s as an actor—comes at the climax of the tavern showdown in Chapter 4, when he realizes that the game is over and he’s slipped up somehow, so he might as well face his fate as himself rather than continuing to hide behind a shoddy disguise: “I hope you don’t mind if I go out speaking the King’s.” His switch from German to English of course mirrors the similar switch in the opening scene, which is also preceded by a formal question to an adversary, but in the first chapter the switch is a devious tactical move while here it’s an admission of defeat. It’s also another indication of Tarantino’s fascination with masks and role-playing. And it allows Hicox, who was mostly a target of gentle mockery before this, a moment of real nobility and honor, bravely facing death with wit and serenity. The same quality that made him so funny in the earlier scene, his unflappable understatement, now seems like a virtue, like bravery and dignity.

Inglourious Basterds

JB: That’s true. Indeed, the Hicox character feels like he stumbled into Inglourious Basterds by making a wrong turn somewhere on the cinema backlot. That’s a compliment. A big one, actually. Earlier I criticized Tarantino for writing characters who serve as puppets for his own interests, characters who embody QT’s own manner of speaking, both in word choice, sentence structure and cadence. Well, Hicox doesn’t belong to that group at all. And, after this film, what used to be a lonely crowd of non-QT talkers (I’m suddenly envisioning Jackie Brown’s Max Cherry leading support group meetings) now has several new recruits: Hicox, Shosanna, Bridget von Hammersmark, Frederick Zoller and General Fenech being the most consistent examples. Landa qualifies, too, as his few linguistic eccentricities (“That’s a bingo!”) deliver a welcome dose of Tarantino’s screenwriting wit without making it seem like he’s delivering outtakes from Pulp Fiction.

Inglourious Basterds is very self-contained in that respect, and I admire that greatly. Though Tarantino’s sprawling efforts can be exhilaratingly epic in their own right (Kill Bill being the prime example), Inglourious Basterds and Jackie Brown suggest to me that the best way to appreciate Tarantino’s screenwriting and filmmaking is to see what he does when slightly boxed in. That, for me, is part of the joy of Inglourious Basterds: that it feels both restrained and fearlessly unhinged. It is Tarantino operating one-inch out of control. It’s not his “comfort zone,” because that would be Death Proof, a film that for all its genuine thrills feels like something Tarantino could put together effortlessly in an alcohol-induced slumber. But does Inglourious Basterds feel in any way cautious or unsure of itself? Heavens no! This is as confident a Tarantino picture as he has ever made. In fact, I’m tempted to argue that it’s his most confident picture, precisely because he proves willing to distance himself from the kind of colorful, pop culture obsessed banter that, though frequently witty, was turning into something of a crutch.

Inglourious Basterds

EH: I agree about the appealing confidence of this film; Tarantino pushed himself out of his comfort zone but it never seems like he’s flailing around. (Though I think the lack of pop culture banter can be overstated. It’s not so much that Tarantino has stopped namedropping the things that he likes, it’s just that he’s decided to stick to some period-appropriate pop culture, like The White Hell of Pitz Palu and Le Corbeau, rather than peppering the dialogue with references to Kung Fu and Vanishing Point.) In any event, maybe because the film took so long to develop—he reportedly worked on the script for something like a decade—it’s self-assured and affecting, and its disparate parts fit together in interesting ways. For all its excesses, there’s a lot of nuance here, a lot of subtlety in the themes and emotions Tarantino is exploring. Two of my favorite shots in the film are as quiet and romantic as anything in Jackie Brown, previously the Tarantino film I found most emotionally affecting.

The first is the affectionate goodbye between Shosanna and Marcel, which with one tender kiss and with Shosanna’s gesture afterwards, touching her hand to her mouth as she tearfully watches her lover go, establishes the depth of this relationship. And of course this romantic image takes place in the reddish glow of the movie projection booth: their romance is explicitly cinematic, just as the film’s vision of vengeance is cinematic. The second image that really sticks with me is the shot from behind Marcel as he’s standing at the back of the screen, waiting for his cue to ignite the fire. He’s smoking a cigarette, and a halo of white smoke wafts around his head as, on the screen towering above him, spent shells fall into piles, mirroring the pile of film stock just below.

It’s at moments like this that Tarantino is at his most spiritual, where I can really see what Keith is talking about when he compares the director to a fire-and-brimstone preacher. These haunting images, and many more like them in Inglourious Basterds, have the power of myth, of great fantasy. It’s the power of the cinema, of course, and also the power of the imagination—the power to imagine a world, not only where things turn out better than they do in real life, but where everything’s more romantic, more exciting, more vibrant in its colors and sounds.

JB: Right. Tarantino creates movies that exist in a vibrant cinema universe. Going from one QT flick to the next can be like wandering through the smaller “lands” of Disneyland—we are aware all the time that this is make-believe, but we are overwhelmed by the sense of total immersion. At his best, Tarantino creates fantastical realities.

Having watched Inglourious Basterds twice now, and seeing it again in my mind as you described those two beautiful images, it strikes me that Tarantino’s films are precious because—in spite of all their adult interests—they are filled with a childlike awe for cinema that’s amazingly timeless. In his conversation with Matt, Keith copped to the fact that his initial jaw-dropping reaction to the chronological leaps of Reservoir Dogs was enhanced by his relative naïveté at the time: “I can hear the cinephiles now,” Keith said, “saying, ’Oh, what a sad child, to have experienced Tarantino before Godard.’” That’s always been one of the knocks on Tarantino: that he’s some kind of pirate, plundering cinema history and repackaging the goods under his own flag in order to profit from the ignorance of the audience. But here’s the thing: Tarantino’s films are infused with the spirit of discovery even when we can spot their influences. Inglourious Basterds, for one, seems to increase in power in tandem with one’s appreciation of cinematic history. Ignorance lessens its impact.

So while Tarantino has unquestionably received too much credit in some areas over the years, in others he’s been tragically undersold. To well-seasoned film fans, he offers nostalgic time warps. Keith is probably correct that Reservoir Dogs would have had a different effect on him in 1992 if he’d been familiar with Godard. But that doesn’t mean that Reservoir Dogs would have been without the thrill of discovery. Just like watching a romantic movie can stir memories of what it feels like to fall in love in the real world, Tarantino’s love letters to cinema make us remember what it felt like to fall in love with the movies. Touched as if for the very first time.

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.

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Film

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.

1.5

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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.

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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.

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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.

2

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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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