Ed Howard: Claire Denis has always been a fascinating and elusive director, making strange, ambiguous movies where meanings are inscribed between the lines, in images and charged silences rather than in the minimal dialogue. Trouble Every Day is quite possibly her most challenging and unsettling film, both utterly typical of her approach—quiet, patiently paced, enigmatic in its characterization and plotting—and yet also a true outlier in her career. For one thing, in terms of genre it’s a horror film, and one of the reasons I was interested in talking about it with you, Jason, is that you’ve previously expressed a general disinterest in horror as a genre. Of course, this is not a genre that one would have intuitively attributed to Denis based on the films she made before (1999’s Billy Budd parable Beau travail) and after (2002’s poetic ode to a one-night stand, Vendredi soir). And her approach to horror is very unusual and idiosyncratic, even though she does eventually deliver enough gore and viscera to sate even the most jaded Saw franchise junkie.
As Andrew O’Hehir described it, “Watching Trouble Every Day, at least if you don’t know what’s coming, is like biting into what looks like a juicy, delicious plum on a hot summer day and coming away with your mouth full of rotten pulp and living worms.” That’s a lurid image, and an appropriate one for a movie whose own most potent, unforgettable images are also gustatory. That Salon review was from the film’s original US release in 2002, and it’s possible that anyone seeing the film for the first time now has more of an idea about what’s coming. So before rewatching the film for this conversation, I had wondered if some of the impact of Denis’ film came from the element of surprise, from being taken unaware by the film’s bloody sexual horror.
However, upon revisiting it I found myself as entranced as ever by its haunting imagery and slow build-up, and as repulsed and affected by its shocking outbursts of violence. I’m curious, though, since you hadn’t seen the film before, both how much you knew about it beforehand and what your initial (visceral) reaction was.
Jason Bellamy: I hope I don’t have to turn in my movie lover’s card for this, but I wasn’t even aware of Trouble Every Day before you proposed it for this conversation. As you know, I like going into movies unawares, so beyond the title and the director all I knew about the movie was that it in some way applied to the one word that jumped out at me in the Netflix blurb: “cannibalism.” That’s it. Thankfully, the cannibalism element is the first thing to arrive—we recognize it before we even recognize the characters involved—so it’s not like watching Citizen Kane and knowing the meaning of Rosebud. For almost everyone, I presume, the portrayal of cannibalism in a modern-day, first-world setting is shocking to behold whether you’re expecting it or not. To put it another way: I’m not sure one can ever be fully prepared for the sight of humans feasting on one another with sexual delight, especially when it’s portrayed as straightforwardly and soberly (without camp) as it is here.
You called Trouble Every Day a horror film, but is it? I mean, yes, it has horrific imagery. Yes, at times it’s bathed in blood. Yes, there is suggestion of a kind of otherworldly, demonic possession. No, I can’t deny that it feels like something close to “traditional horror,” whatever that means these days. But, even as I was watching it for the first time, Trouble Every Day seemed closer to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut than to, say, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The principal reason for that, I believe, is that the movie invites us to experience its horrors through the urges of the characters inflicting the damage. Most horror films, it seems to me, align us with the fear of the potential victims (slasher movies) or attempt to titillate us with the massiveness of their ghastly spectacles (“torture porn” movies). That said, I don’t want to undersell the significance of the grotesqueries here, because the extremeness of cannibalism is as fundamental to the root themes of Trouble Every Day as the extremeness of the sex is fundamental to Eyes Wide Shut. Cannibalism isn’t what this movie is about, per se, but that doesn’t mean it’s some simple window dressing that could be easily removed or swapped out for something else. It seems to me that Trouble Every Day must shock us, must genuinely unsettle us, in order to be effective.
So, to answer your question, yes, I was unsettled and viscerally disturbed. I’m not sure I want to meet the person who can watch Trouble Every Day without being repulsed in some way. And yet sickened though I was by some of the images, I was never offended, and that’s significant. I never found the gore of Denis’ film to be cheap or empty, and in that way the film is very watchable, even though it forced me to close my eyes more than once. I won’t pretend that I fully understand the purpose of all the horror in this film, and yet it all feels specifically purposeful, putting it in stark contrast to the comparatively broad and random repulsiveness of a film by Lars von Trier, who has always struck me as kind of the Johnny Strabler of cinema provocateurs. (“What are you rebelling against, Lars?” “Whaddya got?”) So my first response is that the film is compelling. However, I’m already beginning to wonder if I’ll continue to feel that way once the vibrations of that initial viewing have left my system.
EH: I’m glad you were able to experience this film for the first time with such minimal preconceptions; I agree with you that that’s always the best way to approach any film, but it’s especially the case here. Denis is deliberately playing with expectations and looking to shock the audience. And yes, one of the ways she achieves this is by engaging with the conventions of the horror genre. I did call Trouble Every Day a horror movie, and I think it is one by all but the most restrictive of definitions. Not only because it’s gory and violent, though at times it is, and not only because it features a pair of human (or superhuman?) monsters stalking and killing their prey. It’s a horror movie because Denis deliberately set out to make a horror movie, to bring her characteristic style—moody, slow-paced, elliptical—to bear on the conventions of a genre far from her seeming natural territory.
She also draws on a very specific kind of horror. I do not see in Trouble Every Day anything like a “demonic possession,” which would imply an external, non-human force supplanting human responsibility. I think that idea would be uninteresting to Denis, who’s always been drawn to human actions and their repercussions: Beau travail and L’intrus are all about guilt, betrayal and the weight of the past, just as Trouble Every Day is about infidelity and lust. This film is more in the tradition of “mad science” horror fiction like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and its many descendants: the horror arises because science has unleashed the terrible impulses already latent within humanity. Mr. Hyde is terrifying because his existence suggests that he was present within the kindly Dr. Jekyll all along; by the same token, the sexualized cannibalism of Coré (Béatrice Dalle) and Shane (Vincent Gallo) is an extreme relative of the gestures and emotions at the heart of “normal” sexual relations. (Think of the scene where Coré, after mutilating a young man she’s seduced, cradles him in her arms and tenderly kisses his bloody, torn-apart mouth. In her outré way, she’s actually quite loving and passionate.)
At the same time, you’re certainly right that the film reverses and subverts many mainstays of the horror genre, at least as it’s currently conceived. Trouble Every Day does in general follow the story of the “monsters” rather than the victims, though not entirely: the hotel maid Christelle (Florence Loiret-Caille) is a traditional horror movie victim and audience surrogate, which Denis reinforces with the frequent shots of the back of her neck, as though the camera were a stalker perched just over the poor girl’s shoulder, dogging her towards her inevitable gory end. Actually, though, I’m not even sure that horror movies always align us with the fears of the victims. Some horror films, it’s true, rely entirely on our fear of being killed in gruesome ways, but for me the most interesting horror is about unleashing exaggerated versions of the horrible forces lying dormant within us all. David Cronenberg’s early “body horror” films are variations on this theme, and Denis’ horror is a descendant of his work. She’s also consciously referencing a much older horror tradition, the ultra-familiar Hollywood classics like Frankenstein and Dracula. Denis signals her alignment with such early forebears by having her own two “monsters” strike poses straight from the Universal horror catalog: Coré standing by a roadside, lifting her coat up around her like batwings (and in some ways she is a vampire), and the hulking Shane playfully lumbering at his young bride June (Tricia Vessey) with his arms outstretched like Frankenstein’s monster or the Mummy.
JB: OK. I dig what you’re saying in relation to the “older horror tradition.” Along those lines, I agree with you; Trouble Every Day is of that ilk. That said, I think your dismissal of the “demonic possession” idea contrasts with your suggestion that this follows the “mad science” tradition. Sure, I realize that one influencer is spiritual and the other is elemental, but either way these monsters are made monstrous by an outside force. Is an impulse really an impulse if it requires a potion to unleash it? I ask not to be generally argumentative but because I’m not convinced this is a movie about “infidelity and lust.” I wouldn’t argue those elements aren’t part of the story, but I don’t see them at the center. If that’s the case, what is the movie trying to tell us, that deep inside we covet people with such ferocity that we want to devour them? I could buy that reading if Coré only coveted people she knew, but she’ll eat anyone she can get her hands on. Her lust seems to be a byproduct of a need for human flesh as sustenance rather than the other way around. Coré isn’t acting on a fetish or an emotional impulse but on a chemically-induced biological urge.
If I’m properly connecting the film’s vague dots (and I might not be), Coré and Shane are essentially infected. They are diseased. Without this infection, they wouldn’t have these perverse needs and thus wouldn’t act this way, and without the mysterious drug that caused this whole mess they wouldn’t be infected. As a result, I don’t look at Coré and Shane as portals to our dormant demons. I see nothing that reflects my own soul. What I do see in Trouble Every Day is a chilling portrait of addiction. Coré and Shane aren’t addicted to the drug that made them want blood but to the blood itself. Same difference. Now infected, they want to do nothing but “use.” Coré’s husband looks out for her, tries to protect her from herself, hopes to cure her and over and over again gets stuck cleaning up her messes. Shane, meanwhile, sleepwalks through his daily life, unable to connect with anyone outside of his addiction. If I wanted to pick a film that would exemplify the disease model for addiction, it would be hard to do better than Trouble Every Day, which shows how chemical imbalances in the brain obliterate normal rational thought so that ethics are meaningless. Coré and Shane never engage in any should-I or shouldn’t-I bargaining, because they can’t get that far. They just act, unable to imagine a world without their “drug.”
Is that a plausible reading? Or did I miss something?
EH: I think that’s a great reading, actually. One of the things I love about this film is how open it is, how receptive it is to alternative interpretations of its ambiguous chain of events. So I’d agree with your reading while also suggesting that it’s not necessarily mutually exclusive with my own. Literally speaking, of course you’re right, both Coré and Shane are driven by urges beyond their control, unleashed by a science experiment gone wrong.
On another level, though, this film, like many of its ancestors in the “mad science” genre, is symbolic more than literal. It’s almost misleading to talk about the film’s story, since the actual experience of the film is not of a linear plot; the story has to be pieced together from minimal clues, while the relationships and motivations of the characters are hinted at rather than spelled out directly. I think this suggests that the literal story—an experiment that turned its test subjects into voracious sexual cannibals—is perhaps secondary to the metaphorical implications, the treatment of Coré and Shane’s “disease” as an outlandish mutation of human sexuality. What I meant by rejecting the “demonic possession” interpretation of the film is that whatever happened to Coré and Shane was not merely an external imposition. Not only because they were experimenting on themselves à la Dr. Jekyll, either. It’s more like the monstrousness brought out in them by a drug is an extension or warping of ordinary humanity.
You say that you see nothing in these characters that reflects your own soul, to which I can only say, “I hope not!” At the same time, I think Coré and Shane’s urges are related, however distantly, to more familiar sexual feelings. One of the film’s most uncomfortable scenes is the one where Shane interrupts sex with June by going to the bathroom to masturbate instead, violently and joylessly, while June cries against the door outside. Sure, in terms of the plot the meaning of this scene is obvious, at least once one grasps that Shane is struggling with urges that link his sexuality to murderous inclinations. But it’s also a potent depiction of disconnection and solipsism, of the tension between the selfish, lustful desire for release and the more romantic personal connections of love.
For me, the film is about exploring human behavior as a network of primal urges and biological imperatives: the “potion” that transforms Coré and Shane into killers doesn’t impose something foreign on them, it simply strips their behavior to a hard core of pure, overpowering impulse. I think the movie suggests, not that deep down we want to devour those we covet, but that deep down we are creatures of impulse, driven by mysterious and powerful biological forces of survival and reproduction. The “disease” of Coré and Shane is a reminder that sexuality is evolutionary and instinctive, that what we call love and desire are actually imprinted in our genome; sexuality is always a loss of control. This is why Denis keeps returning to the scientists in their lab, and at one point focuses on a closeup of a brain as it’s dissected. She’s probing the mysterious forces at work within the human brain, the compulsions and instinctive behaviors that drive us even when we think we’re moving of our own free will. She’s wondering if it’s possible to ever truly know another person’s mind, no matter how close we are to them, as June begins to wonder if she knows her own husband, beginning to be afraid of what might be lurking behind his pale blue eyes. I don’t think Denis is saying that people, if stripped of self-control, would behave as Coré and Shane do; but she is suggesting that our behaviors and thoughts are to some extent beyond our control, that our minds contain primitive and perhaps frightening corners beneath the veneer of civilization and convention.
JB: Or maybe the repeated brain shots—there’s one in the cellar of Coré’s home, too—are there to reinforce the absolutism with which brains define who we are. Logically we know this to be true, but it’s hard to shake the romantic notions of “heart” and “soul.” There’s something cold and dispassionate about attributing feelings of love to the same organ that controls our general functionality. People say all the time, “My head tells me this, but my heart tells me that,” when the truth is that our brains tell us everything. Thus, once our brain becomes damaged, we are rewritten—similar but not the same. That’s what happens here.
Again, this works well as a metaphor for the disease model of addiction, because it shows how futile it is to reason with addiction. The brain controls the person, and so if the disease controls the brain then the disease is running the show. In that sense it doesn’t really matter whether the science experiment gone wrong enabled something dormant in the brains of Coré and Shane or instead created something that wasn’t there to begin with, just like it ultimately doesn’t matter whether an alcoholic is hereditarily predisposed to the addiction or is the first of his/her family to find the bottle. Addicted is addicted. Diseased is diseased. The root is irrelevant.
But is the root irrelevant within Denis’ art? I’m not so sure. Trouble Every Day is significantly more challenging and unsettling if it’s meant to reveal our innate hidden horrors, as you’re suggesting. If the science experiment gone wrong turned Coré and Shane into monsters, then we can dismiss their monstrousness by blaming the drug that stimulated the disease. At that point Trouble Every Day becomes a depiction of “them,” the sick, instead of “us.” Maybe that’s why I couldn’t identify with Coré and Shane, because their actions didn’t seem instinctive so much as involuntary. The disease aspect gives us a convenient out. Doesn’t it?
EH: That’s a good point, and it’s maybe why I’m so resistant to simply writing off this film’s horror as merely a “disease,” something outside of its human characters. If you’re right that this is just a story of addiction, of people irrevocably changed into monsters by forces beyond their control, then it becomes a significantly less rich and complicated film. I think what Denis is after here is much more interesting than that. For one thing, Shane, contrary to your earlier assertion that the film’s “monsters” never struggle with morality, does not entirely lose control of his actions. He does struggle with his impulses and seems aware of what’s going on within him. There’s that wonderful scene where, lying in bed, watching his sleeping wife, he whispers, “I would never hurt you.” We of course know this to be untrue—he harbors powerful fantasies about killing her and the evidence of his violence keeps turning up on her body in the form of bruises and bite marks—but it’s nevertheless obvious that he’s struggling with his urges, trying to divert or stifle them, trying to uphold this heartfelt promise.
Scenes like this make the film at least partly about the damaging cycle of an unhealthy love affair, about a man who knows he’s no good for the woman he loves but keeps trying to convince himself that he’s going to do better, that he’s not going to hurt her anymore. But we always hurt the ones we love, right? In some ways the film is about an abusive and often absent spouse, perhaps in contrast to the perverse loyalty of the marriage between Coré and Léo (Alex Descas). We feel June’s confusion and pain when she waits out in the rain, desperate for some sign of her missing man, or when she goes to visit one of his old friends, hoping for some explanation for his inconstant behavior but getting only nostalgia and vague comforting words. This theme is expressed most forcefully in the ambiguous final scene, with its piercing closeups of June as she looks at her husband. We’re left to wonder what she’s thinking: Did she or didn’t she see the single drop of another woman’s blood streaming down the shower curtain?
I think you’re right that the film is about the tyranny of the brain, about the way we’re controlled by mysterious electrical impulses pulsing through our nervous system. But for Denis, this theme isn’t about removing responsibility and agency from the equation, merely questioning and investigating what they mean when so much of human behavior originates beneath the level of consciousness. As you said, however uncomfortable we are with the idea that even love originates in the brain rather than the heart, the fact remains that in many ways we’re as dominated by our brains, by our biology, as Coré and Shane are. In that respect, the film is definitely about “us,” not just “them.”
Denis is also interested in examining how we can form bonds when we’re locked within our individual consciousnesses, unable to know what others are thinking and feeling. There’s a coldness and emptiness to the gaze in this film; seldom have there been so many closeups that reveal so little, and in this respect Denis picked her actors well. Gallo’s icy blue eyes in particular betray no feeling: his deadpan stare and flat affect come across the same whether he’s imagining a gruesome murder, locking eyes with a cute, affectionate puppy, or clinically admiring his wife’s naked body as she soaks in a bath tub. At the core of the film is the question, what’s behind the eyes of the people we know and love? It’s about a primal frustration, the fact that no matter how intimate we are with another person, the consciousness of the other will always remain alien and unknowable, just as our minds are for other people.
JB: That’s very well argued, but your last point is best applicable to the relationship between Shane and June. Léo knows perfectly well how Coré’s mind works. In fact, you could argue that he understands Coré’s impulses better than she does, first because he helped create the monster living inside her and second because he’s a sober observer of her unhinged condition. June, on the other hand, knows only that there’s something about Shane that she doesn’t know. She’s an outsider in their relationship. In fact, one could argue that Denis allows June to be too much of an outsider, with some scenes playing as if June and Shane have just met rather than just married. Then again, with only a little imagination we can fill in the elliptical gaps in the story: we can assume that Shane has become increasingly distant, and that June hoped marriage would somehow cure him and that the change of scenery provided by their honeymoon couldn’t hurt. You can sense that the distance between them has been growing, and the scene in which Shane must masturbate to get himself off is truly heartbreaking because he so easily and completely surrenders to his own needs while literally shutting out June. The loneliness of these characters is palpable. Same for Léo and Coré.
Indeed, these are doomed relationships long past the point of no return. Earlier you mentioned the scene in which Shane is seen “clinically admiring his wife’s naked body,” but that’s not quite right. As the camera pans across June’s body in the tub, letting us see June through Shane’s eyes, Denis lingers an extra moment over June’s crotch. At first, Shane’s gaze suggests some kind of naïve fascination, but by the end of the shot we know that the sight of June’s exposed crotch triggers Shane’s abnormal urges. To stick with the addiction metaphor: an exposed crotch is never just a crotch to Shane, just as a razor blade is never just a razor blade to the cocaine addict. In that moment, Shane doesn’t see his wife. He sees the potential for his next fix.
All of this leads me to a question: This film is tragic in many different directions, but which of these characters inspires the greatest amount of your sympathy?
EH: That’s an interesting question, because on the surface you wouldn’t really expect that any of these characters would arouse much sympathy, and not just because they’re so unlikable in various ways. Denis’ approach to characterization, here as in most of her work, is deliberately vague, keeping the characters’ internal turmoil at a bit of a distance. And yet it’s undeniable that the film is powerfully felt and emotionally intense, not to mention incredibly tragic. On some level, all of these characters are sympathetic, even (or especially) the “monsters.” In fact, I’d say that of all the characters in this film, the one who moves me the most is probably Coré, who seems to have been totally consumed by the urges just beginning to affect Shane. There’s a deep sadness in her character, and in the way Denis presents her. Initially, we don’t see her murders, only the aftermath, presented in such poetic imagery that even the sight of a murder being cleaned up is beautiful: the dark blood glistening in the moonlight, dripping heavily off stalks of tall grass; Léo lovingly sponging the blood off his wife’s naked torso; Coré sitting alone in an empty field, curled up into a ball, staring emptily into the night.
There’s something ineffably haunting about Coré, about whom we learn so little. On one level, Denis presents her as a kind of abstracted horror movie monster: Dracula spreading his wings, a seductive black widow luring men to their doom, a B-movie killer calmly destroying her room with the chainsaw she keeps hidden beneath the bed. But there’s also something almost childlike and serene in her, as well as that overwhelming sadness. Recognizable human emotions keep percolating up to the surface from beneath her chilly façade, like the expression of annoyance and rejection that flashes across her face when Léo cuts short some foreplay when she becomes too aroused. He’s doing it out of self-preservation, knowing he’s about to trigger her murderous impulses, but just because she’s a killer doesn’t mean she’s not also a woman, and she feels hurt and rejected.
There’s also the later scene where she stares with fascination at a lit match—which after our last conversation I now can’t help but compare to WALL-E’s EVE, awed by a cigarette lighter—and the dancing flame brings her cool green eyes alive for perhaps the first time. That’s another of those “what is she thinking” moments, scenes where we look into a character’s eyes and still have to wonder what’s going on behind them. Denis is subverting the conventional thinking about the closeup, the idea that such intimacy with the camera allows the audience to get closer to a character. Maybe the eyes aren’t really the window to anything. Here, we look into Coré’s eyes and find that all we see is the illusion of life and activity, the lively sparkle of a flame reflected in this woman’s otherwise impenetrable eyes. She’s fascinating, and dangerous, and yes, in spite of everything, I really feel for her.
JB: I feel for Coré, too, a little more than I feel for Shane. The difference, I think, is that Coré is so consumed by her disease that she appears to have lost all control. Thus, she’s innocent by reasons of insanity. Meanwhile, Shane’s actions are more distasteful because at times he exhibits some measure of self-control. For that virtue he is punished, even though he and Coré suffer from the same disease. It’s a familiar contradiction that pops up in society all the time: The more helpless a person becomes, the more leeway we tend to give them. At some point, the monster becomes the victim, and even though the ghastliness of their actions and the pain and suffering caused by them haven’t changed in the least, somehow we accept their sins a bit more, which isn’t to say we endorse them.
I also have a great deal of sympathy for June (Léo, too, but his screen time is unfortunately brief). In pondering this film, I keep asking myself: In that final scene, when June embraces Shane and maybe sees that droplet of blood running down the shower curtain, which reading is more tragic? Is it more heartbreaking if June remains clueless about Shane’s addiction or if she recognizes that the only reason her husband is looking at her with comparative lucidity is because he’s unleashed the beast inside of him to horrific ends? In that moment, as well as a handful of others, the ambiguity of this film enhances its richness. But there are also times when the film’s inscrutableness isn’t as rewarding, times when I struggled to find any satisfying rationale for what I was seeing. Chief among those offending scenes is the one just after Coré gazes into the flame of the match. Her reunion with Shane is what, exactly? A murder? An accident? Revenge? Insanity? How do you read that scene?
EH: I read it as something like an act of mercy, and maybe also a suicide. Certainly, when Coré was staring at the match, one of the thoughts that flashed through my mind was that she was contemplating ending it all, that she wanted this cycle of misery and gore to be over. So when Shane shows up not long after, it seems like Coré is to some degree embracing him as the instrument of her destruction, as a way to gain the freedom that her husband, who loves her too much, could never give her. For Shane, it’s complicated: he’s been looking for this woman he once had an affair with, knowing that since they were both exposed to the same process, she’s likely feeling the same things he is. And maybe he doesn’t want her to suffer through that. And maybe he also sees this as an opportunity to give in, without guilt, to his own murderous impulses, to kill someone and still be able to feel like he’s doing something merciful. I think it’s a little of both, probably.
So I see what you mean about the film’s inscrutability occasionally being frustrating rather than rewarding, but for me scenes like this are rich in possible interpretations, and therefore interesting even if I can’t settle on one or two satisfying readings in particular. I like that Denis seldom spells things out directly, that she allows her films to have these mysterious moments where we have to find the meaning or meanings for ourselves, often without a clear roadmap. Beau travail, which is probably my favorite of her films, ends with what can only be called an utter non-sequitur, a non-verbal scene with so little tangible connection to what came before it that it’s impossible to settle on a definitive interpretation. Not that that’s stopped people from trying, and I’ve seen many compelling readings of that scene, but I prefer moments like that to retain their mysterious aura, their potential for branching out in multiple different directions at once. There’s nothing quite so destabilizing in Trouble Every Day, but there are definitely scenes where the vagueness of the storytelling allows the film to lose its linear track, to branch off down hydra-headed multiple roads. At these points, it’s almost as though Denis is asking us to spin out several different films in our heads, to follow the characters along several different tracks of motivation and emotion.
JB: I enjoy a mysterious aura, too, both in theory and even in practice for most of Trouble Every Day. For whatever reason, many independent and foreign films manage to come off as almost egotistically inscrutable, as if abstraction increases depth, as if straightforwardness is the path to simplemindedness, but I don’t sense that here. Nor do I sense that Denis is engaging in the kind of random mind-fucking that I’ve suggested David Lynch resorts to on occasion—moments wherein numerous non-sequiturs are thrown together so that the audience can be conned into giving them a deeper meaning than they deserve. (To be clear, before I’m attacked by a Lynch mob, I’m not saying all of Lynch’s films are like that all of the time. I’m simply reiterating my contention that sometimes we give Lynch’s work more significance and richness than it earns.) When ambiguousness is done right I think it’s is usually more honest than not. Life is full of doubt and contradiction. Life is full of action taken without a plan or without an understanding of the result. It’s only right that art should reflect that with ambiguousness. So in that sense I love most of what I don’t know or can’t quite define about Trouble Every Day. But…
Coré’s death scene is unsatisfying for me because Shane’s behavior seems explainable but not convincing. I can justify his actions, but in that moment Shane doesn’t seem authentic: First he seeks out Coré, then he hides in the shadows. Then he confronts her and then he embraces her. Then he I-don’t-know-whats her and leaves her on the floor to burn. Is she dead yet? I don’t know. Is he happy? I don’t know. Was this the plan all along? I don’t know. But it’s not the not-knowing that bothers me. It’s that Shane doesn’t obsess over Coré in that scene the way he does when he looks at June, the hotel maid or the woman on the train. It seems he’s come to France specifically to track down Coré, and he badgers people for information as to her whereabouts, but then their meeting is swift and mostly empty. It just doesn’t feel like Shane. It’s not a huge flaw in the film, but it does feel like a crack in an otherwise remarkably believable world.
EH: Fair enough. The scene works for me as an anticlimactic non-confrontation between the two leads, but I understand your problems with it.
Anyway, while we’re talking about Gallo, I think his casting and performance is one of the more interesting aspects of the film, and adds a certain metafictional frisson to it. Denis obviously likes working with him, since he also appeared in her short film US Go Home and as an American ex-sailor in Nénette and Boni. In all his appearances in Denis’ films—as well as in his own semi-autobiographical directorial debut Buffalo ’66—his character has the last name Brown, which creates a kind of connection between various incarnations of his onscreen character and his real persona. Trouble Every Day was filmed a few years before The Brown Bunny made Gallo’s name synonymous with seedy onscreen sexual shenanigans, but Denis still seems to be exploiting the weird vibes the actor gives off: the contrast between his hulking, Frankensteinian body and his reedy, surprisingly high voice; the eerie, unreadable pale blue eyes. Of course, seen now, the scene where he masturbates and releases a stream of sticky white fluid onto a bath tub can only be read in relation to the infamous Chloë Sevigny blowjob scene from The Brown Bunny. Gallo seems to relish these unflinching depictions of male sexuality.
He also provides Denis with a strange, off-kilter acting presence. The first scene between Shane and June, on an airplane as they fly into Paris, has the same kind of stilted, artificial quality as much of David Lynch’s dialogue in Mulholland Drive, and it’s used to the same effect. These scenes play out like a movie ideal, like the stereotypical 50s sitcom vision of the happy newlywed couple: exchanging cheerful banalities, never seeming to connect, playing at love even though it’s obvious that their words are flying past one another. This scene, so visually graceful and romantic with gauzy tufts of cloud floating by the airplane windows in front of the surreally happy couple, comes after we’ve already seen the bloody menace of Coré and right before we get a flash of Shane’s own abnormal fantasy life. So Denis is positioning the movie clichés about romance and marriage sandwiched right in between her own much darker visions of sexual predation and unhealthy desires.
JB: That’s an interesting observation. As for Gallo, I haven’t seen all of his films, but his portrayal of Shane is my favorite performance of his career. In this film Gallo has a bit of Brandoness to him. I’m not putting the actors on the same level, but Gallo comes as close as anyone I can think of to approximating Brando’s blend of square-jawed masculinity and feminine vulnerability. The scene of Gallo holding the puppy recalls Brando stroking the cat in The Godfather. Shane’s mixture of menace and softness is similar to that of Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. And then there are the disturbing sex scenes, which resemble Last Tango in Paris with their combination of tenderness, desperation and brutality.
Speaking of Last Tango in Paris: In Pauline Kael’s famous rave of the Bernardo Bertolucci film, she wrote that it possesses “hypnotic excitement,” “primitive force” and “thrusting, jabbing eroticism.” “Exploitation films have been supplying mechanized sex—sex as physical stimulant but without any passion or emotional violence,” Kael said. “The sex in Last Tango in Paris expresses the characters’ drives.” I presume you’d agree with me that those descriptions of Last Tango in Paris could just as easily be used to describe Trouble Every Day, but maybe not. Certainly this is a film filled with eroticism, but is it erotic? Kael called Last Tango in Paris “the most powerfully erotic movie ever made” and perhaps “the most liberating movie ever made.” But while the frankness of Last Tango’s sex scenes were designed to shock, there’s a huge difference between sex acts involving fingernail trimmers and butter and those depicted in Trouble Every Day, right? Or wrong? Should we be horrified by what we see here? Aroused? Disgusted?
EH: Horrified, aroused, disgusted: probably a little of all three. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Trouble Every Day an “erotic” film, and certainly not a “liberating” one, but at the same time there are scenes and moments here that, viewed in isolation, are erotic. The film seethes with the kind of unrestrained, uncensored sexual energy that Kael would have appreciated—sex as a physical manifestation of inner states, inner turmoil. The scene where Léo comes up behind Coré and begins kissing and caressing her is remarkably tender and erotic, which is not surprising since it’s a traditional love scene right up until the point where Coré’s arousal begins shading into bloodlust. What’s more surprising is that Denis is also able to locate tenderness and eroticism in the scene where Léo towels off his wife’s naked body after she’s killed yet another innocent victim. Sure, it’s horrifying, but it’s also a demonstration of marital devotion, of having such overpowering love and affection for another person that one is able to tolerate even the worst aspects of the loved one. This moment echoes in the final scene between Shane and June. When they embrace, and we wonder if June saw the truth about her husband, we also wonder if their relationship could ever get to the same place as Coré and Léo’s relationship.
So, yes, there is some of the eroticism that Kael is describing in this film. Disgust and horror are the obvious reactions, particularly when Coré is tearing apart that boy she lures to her bedroom, or when Shane is devouring the crotch of the hotel maid. But for every scene like that, there’s another where Denis explores the sensuality and romance of love and sex. It should be said that Denis does not, in general, have a negative attitude towards sexuality; it might be easy to walk away from this film thinking it’s all about the darkness and ugliness of sex, and to some degree it is, but it’s also about the deep emotions and sensations at the core of human sexuality. It’s a film that says: sex is powerful, it’s dangerous, it’s something outside of the ordinary. The same deep-rooted impulses that are the wellspring for the film’s most viscerally disturbing images are also the source for the more sensual and erotic moments here. It’s surely no coincidence that Denis followed up Trouble Every Day with Vendredi soir, a restrained and quiet film about a one-night stand. Like its predecessor, Vendredi soir is dialogue-free for long stretches, telling its story in sensual, atmospheric imagery, and exploring the textures of human skin and the electric possibilities opened up by sexual contact. It’s as though she wanted to suggest, after making a film about the darker corners of human sexuality, that this wasn’t the whole story, that this kind of passion and sensuality could as easily be redemptive as destructive. The seeds of that redemption, however, are already present in the more erotic moments of Trouble Every Day itself.
JB: That’s beautifully articulated, and I think I agree with every word. Thus the only thing left for me to add would be this: I think Trouble Every Day is an erotic film, but I don’t think it’s trying to turn us on. In fact, Denis’ willingness to allow some people to see nothing but brutality or perversion here is the very quality that allows the movie to arouse. There’s no agenda here. Denis doesn’t judge these characters. She doesn’t moralize. As I suggested before, Coré and Shane are monsters and victims—both at the same time. Yes, Denis is trying to shock us, to make us cringe, but she’s not trying to get us to fall in love with the depravity on screen or even to get us to accept it. There is room to be angered and turned off and to be touched and aroused (emotionally as well as sexually). That’s rare. Again, Trouble Every Day isn’t ambiguous in the way we usually define that word so much as it’s honestly indistinct. The violent sex acts are like something out of a vampire movie, and yet Trouble Every Day provides “sex without phoniness,” to use another Kael description of Last Tango that is entirely appropriate here.
Speaking of vampires, by the way, it’s interesting to see this 2001 film for the first time in 2009, now that we’re smack dab in the middle of a vampire craze headlined by the Twilight and True Blood series. If Trouble Every Day reminds me of anything it’s this year’s Chan-wook Park film Thirst (Bakjwi), another film that manages to balance viscera with romance. And yet despite the similarities, Trouble Every Day is more compelling to me the less it feels like horror. Maybe I’ve just seen the wrong kinds of horror movies over the years (Thirst is certainly an exception to the rule), but my experience has been that in all too many horror films the blood and violence aren’t metaphorical so much as straightforward. It’s not meant to be “real,” per se, but rarely does it seem to be a path to anything deeper. I don’t want to sound judgmental here, because I can relate to the cathartic rush of a fright fest. But for me, if I’m going to watch a woman bite into the throat of her lover, I prefer for there to be some significance to the gesture.
EH: I agree with you about Trouble Every Day, but I can only say that perhaps you have seen the wrong horror films. You seem to be defining horror in a rather limited way—as a visceral “fright fest” with no depth—and then praising Trouble Every Day for transcending that low threshold, becoming something more than mere horror. It reminds me of a recent post over at Bill R.’s blog, where he talks about the horror writer Peter Straub and the low reputation that horror fiction, both in print and on film, has with many critics. Bill quotes Straub: “Claiming that a work transcends its genre is almost exactly like saying, as people once were wont to do, that an accomplished African-American gentleman, someone say like John Conyers or Denzel Washington, is a credit to his race—the unstated assumption of course being that the race in question needs all the help it can get.” Leaving aside Straub’s questionable implication that anti-horror bias is like racism (ha!), I think he has a point. People tend to treat horror as though the worst examples of it are all the genre has to offer, while praising the best examples as though they’re somehow not horror, that they’re too good to be horror.
Are there plenty of lousy, formulaic horror movies that don’t deliver much besides empty shocks? Sure, and as you say, they have their place. But the genre was built on deeper material. The seminal inspirational works of the genre—classic stuff like Dracula, Frankenstein, the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, etc.—aren’t just empty scares; they’re substantial works that present allegorical ideas or probe the human condition. A lot of horror cinema has done the same thing. In 50s Hollywood or post-war Japan, horror often expressed nuclear age angst, while people like producer Val Lewton used horror stories as vehicles for explorations of sexuality, psychology and spirituality. Lewton’s great Cat People is even an antecedent for Trouble Every Day, a meditation on the destructiveness of lust and the turmoil awakened by sexual feelings. More recent examples of substantial horror also abound: Cronenberg’s early films, Marina de Van’s In My Skin (a close cousin of Denis’ film, made the same year), the deconstructive horror of Todd Haynes’ Safe, The Shining, Carrie, etc.
I’m starting to go off on a bit of a tangent, so I’ll reiterate my point: I don’t think it’s remotely true that horror, as a genre, rarely provides “a path to anything deeper.” I could see arguing that the last few decades have seen a shift in horror away from substance and towards empty slash-fests, and that the genre’s high point lasted from roughly the 30s through the 50s. That’s a different thing from saying that horror films are predisposed towards shallowness, or suggesting that Trouble Every Day isn’t quite horror because it’s too deep. The fact is, a lot of genres have been degraded over the years, not just horror. Romantic comedies used to be the territory for people like Ernst Lubitsch and Howard Hawks, and, well, now look at them. I think a genre should be a fairly neutral container: it can express whatever a filmmaker wants to express. In that sense, Trouble Every Day deserves to be considered a great horror film, an exemplar of what the genre can and should be.
JB: Maybe, but I’m conflicted. I certainly agree that I’ve probably seen the wrong kind of horror films, as being scared in the theater isn’t one of my favorite experiences, so I rarely seek it out. On top of that, perhaps I’ve disparaged the genre unfairly by having a too limited view of what “horror” is; maybe I’ve incorrectly applied that handle to the kinds of films I don’t find all that interesting (slasher films, for example) while attributing works I do enjoy to some other genre, like “suspense” (Psycho, for instance). Straub’s argument is a compelling one, if perhaps a touch extreme, and it echoes Armond White’s criticism of the way Pixar is credited for transcending the low expectations of its genre. But as much as Straub’s argument works from one angle, there is a problem with it: If something meets several of the criteria belonging to a certain genre and yet somehow surpasses the popular understanding of that genre, then it does. For example, if I tell you that for lunch we should just grab “fast-food,” you’re likely to think I mean something like McDonald’s. You probably won’t think I mean we should stop off at a local deli and buy a sandwich, even though that’s food prepared quickly. Point being, if popularly the word “horror” now defines a narrow type of movie, then it does, and not necessarily just in my own mind.
So I think it’s a worthwhile question: What constitutes “horror” in this day and age? Does blood alone make something horror? If so, would M*A*S*H apply? Do monstrous characters make something horror? If so, does No Country For Old Men apply? Are terrifying behavior and mental illness criteria? If so I’d like to suggest, only half jokingly, that Happy-Go-Lucky is horror. (It sure was for me.) But if I told you that we were going to go see a horror movie and then sat you down in front of one of the above films, you’d think I was out of my mind. I don’t think this is an empty debate on semantics because, yes, maybe I’m unfairly narrowing what horror is by refusing to allow more complicated, deeper films into that bucket, but couldn’t I just as easily argue that the horror bucket is meaninglessly large and uselessly indistinct if it could be used to describe, say, There Will Be Blood? We don’t consider war movies part of the horror genre, even though those are often filled with violence and bloodshed, so why should we be so quick to call Trouble Every Day horror based on the same surface details (which isn’t to say I’m blind to its classic horror allusions)?
For me, in modern cinematic terms, “horror” describes movies that have scaring the audience (eliciting genuine fright) as their primary intent. That’s a narrow view, I admit (and it’s sure to piss some people off), but it also creates a pretty big (but not too big) bucket. Once a film transcends that fright focus, yes, I tend to place it in some other genre, regardless of how gothic or bloody it might be. I’ll probably call it drama or suspense, and that will feel more to the point for me. But all of that said, you’ve got me with Poe, because it’s hard to argue that he didn’t write horror, and yet his horror isn’t anywhere close to my working definition of the word. And I suspect I’m not alone.
EH: I must admit, it is kind of hard to come up with a satisfying working definition of horror that encompasses the breadth of the genre without becoming so broad that No Country For Old Men could just as easily be tossed in the bucket. (There Will Be Blood is another story, though: maybe you disagree, but I think Daniel Plainview is something of a horror movie villain in the same way that Norma Desmond becomes Nosferatu-like in Sunset Boulevard. Neither film is horror, per se, but both at least make nods in that direction.) That said, I think it’s obvious that defining horror as a film with the “primary intent” to scare people is too limiting, and also makes room for a great deal of ambiguity about filmmakers’ intentions, always a tricky area. For instance, was creating audience fear really Stanley Kubrick’s “primary intent” with The Shining, to name just one touchstone of the genre? What about Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead sequels, which have always been more about making audiences laugh than about making them scream?
Maybe a less stringent definition of horror is in order, one that makes room for films that don’t really intend to scare audiences so much as to explore the nature of fear, of what horrifies and disturbs us. What would a film like that be called, if not a horror film? Fear is central to horror, there’s no doubt about that, but just because a lot of modern horror movies have taken a reductive approach to fear—I’m thinking especially of the prevalence of the mindless “jump scare”—doesn’t mean that this is all there is to horror. Fear in the broader sense is at the heart of Trouble Every Day: not only the fear of being stalked and killed by a predator, but also the fear of hurting those we love, the fear of losing control, fears stemming from anxiety about sexuality and relationships. I think any definition of horror that excludes this kind of more nuanced exploration of fear and violence is essentially consigning the genre to a ghetto with no potential for producing lasting work.
JB: Kind of. I mean, yes, it’s true that if we limited the horror genre to stuff closer to the “jump scare” model that it would eliminate films like Trouble Every Day from that classification, but that wouldn’t rule out the possibility of making or appreciating great art within that more limited understanding of the genre. For example, I adore The Descent, and if that film isn’t horror it could only be considered action-adventure. The Descent wants to gross you out and freak you out, and anyone looking for allegory or some other deeper meaning is wasting their time. That is horror to me, and I bloody love it. It’s awesome. And when I call that “great horror,” I’m not placing an asterisk on the film saying it’s “less than” something else, I’m just describing the way it works. I’m succinctly articulating the impact of the movie and the way that it stimulates the audience.
That’s why I don’t want to call Trouble Every Day horror, because, no, fear isn’t the heart of this film. I disagree with you on that. I do see Trouble Every Day as an allegory for addiction. I do see it as an examination of relationships and trust and lies. Again, as much as anything it reminds me of Eyes Wide Shut. I worry that by calling Trouble Every Day “horror,” I’m limiting the film at least to being about fear by your broader definition, and yet I still think that would be too limiting, too far away from what I think are more central and more significant themes. To go back to There Will Be Blood, Daniel Plainview is something of a classic horror villain, yes. I agree with you there. But Paul Thomas Anderson’s film isn’t horror. We’re meant to look deeper into Daniel Plainview, to try and understand his tortured mind, not to recoil from him in fear (at least not primarily). To approach the film as horror is to see less of what’s there, not more. A movie like The Descent is bolstered by the horror label, because it defines its parameters for success and sharpens our focus. A movie like Trouble Every Day is reduced by the label even if the horror tag is placed on it without malice or bias, as you have done, because it misdirects our focus.
I respect your wish that, as with the gothic works of Poe, cinema horror should be able to stand for something more than blood and fear. The problem is that blood and fear are the elements that horror serves up that other genres don’t. Jenna Jameson could learn to act like Meryl Streep and write like Charlie Kaufman, but if the primary intent of her next film is to arouse us with graphic sex, then it’s porn. It’s that simple. Thus, once a film becomes intent on doing something deeper than arousing the audience with graphic sex, whether that sex is real (Brown Bunny) or convincingly simulated (Lust, Caution), it’s no longer porn. And so you can mourn that Poe’s work would now be considered too complex to fit within the horror genre, but where would be the loss? We’d still have Poe. We’d still have horror (and people who love it for what it is). The loss would be if folks read The Tell-Tale Heart and reduced it to a creepy story about a heart that wouldn’t stop beating or watch Trouble Every Day and think Coré is a sexy zombie.
EH: In some ways, you’re right, and you make a good case for your position. Certainly, no matter how we classify Trouble Every Day or Poe, they’re still great, so there’s no loss there. The loss, in my opinion, is if horror is consigned more and more to a ghetto, deemed a genre without depth or complexity, then artists could be discouraged from engaging with horror in substantial ways. A work like Trouble Every Day exists because Claire Denis saw something in the horror genre; she wanted to engage with that tradition, with the conventions and ideas of the genre, bringing her own sensibility to it. I think that’s the important thing: whether you agree with me or not that the final film is a horror film, Denis obviously set out to deal with horror on some level. I see your point that we should be happy with horror for what it is and not ask it to be other things, but at the same time I think genre should be more of an open concept than that. There needs to be room to stretch and experiment, to push at the boundaries of the genre without entirely shattering them. If our understanding of what horror is has changed since the days of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, then why can’t it change again? I think Trouble Every Day is a great example of that: it expands and challenges the popular conception of horror while retaining enough of the genre’s essential elements that it doesn’t completely abandon its roots.
Of course, horror is not the only prism through which Trouble Every Day can be viewed and understood. One reading we haven’t discussed yet that I want to at least throw out there is the feminist slant on it. Now don’t worry, I’m not going to posit Coré as a man-eating feminist icon. The film’s feminism asserts itself in more subtle ways, on the one hand playing off of male fears about female sexuality, and on the other dealing with the violence and antagonism implicit in sexuality. Coré may not be a “sexy zombie,” but she is a sexy/scary archetype, an exaggerated vision of the kind of unapproachable woman who would be so simultaneously appealing and intimidating to men (like the eager young guy she lures into her room and devours). In that sense, Denis is tweaking male sexuality, giving a concrete form to male fears about female sexuality—also one of the central themes of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, which I think you were right to identify as a similar film. Denis is also dealing with voyeurism and predatory sexuality by frequently putting the audience in the position of Shane or another imagined observer, watching the maids dress and undress in the locker room, peeking around corners or lingering just behind a woman’s neck, close enough to see the wispy hairs falling out of her ponytail.
As I said, I’m just putting that out there as one more way of reading the film, one more set of concerns that Denis is bringing to bear on this story. What do you think?
JB: Actually, I’m glad you brought that up, because one thing that occurred to me is what a significantly different message this film would seem to be sending if it didn’t have male and female predators to offset one another. Without Coré ruthlessly devouring men, one can easily imagine the knee-jerk feminist outrage that this film might inspire (and not just in women, to be clear) if this addiction metaphor was seen only through Shane’s growing inability to see women as anything more than figures in or victims of his sexual fantasies and urges. For example, that scene near the end when Shane attacks—and some would say rapes—the maid would be much more repugnant if we hadn’t already seen Coré’s three kills. (Just to clarify the “some would say rapes” part: That scene is confusing to me. The woman seems to consent to sex in the first place, but then she begins screaming as if in pain, as if Shane is biting at her neck, though there’s no evidence of that when he pulls away. So I’m unclear as to when or if Shane truly forces himself on an unwilling partner prior to performing his gruesome version of cunnilingus. But I digress.) Likewise, the feminist revenge angle would be stronger if Shane wasn’t there reducing women to objects of his perversion. In a sense, by presenting the female as both the conqueror and the conquered, those opposing readings cancel one another out. We can’t know for sure, but perhaps that was a purposeful choice. Perhaps Denis is making it clear that we should ignore the stereotypical gender roles that we inevitably assign to sexual power struggles. Perhaps she’s saying we should see the predatory sex here as a comment on the monstrousness of the characters rather than a comment on their female and male sexuality.
Furthermore, any feminist reading is on slippery ground. Yes, Coré is a sexy archetype, an exaggeration of the unapproachable woman who is both appealing and intimidating to men. But while Coré is a sexual predator, thus taking on the role usually assigned to men, she is also—much more than Shane—reduced to her sexual urges. Her husband locks her in her room, for example, because if he doesn’t Coré is going to go in search of sex; she can’t control herself. Shane at least has some kind of willpower, and at his stage of the addiction cycle his actions seem more voluntary, as if his sexual urges are a vice or a fetish that he can control. Coré has devolved far beyond that point. She must feed on men, which involves having sex with men. When she’s not attacking men, she wants to die. There’s no in-between for Coré. So, just as easily as you could argue that Coré is the strong female devouring men, you could argue that she is exactly what feminists hate: a woman reduced to her sexual desires who cannot control herself. This is all before we consider Shane’s wife, who could be seen as a woman who resigns herself to a loveless, sexless marriage and a cheating husband. She’s hardly an icon for female strength and individuality.
EH: All good points. I pretty much agree with everything you say. The ambivalence in the presentation of Coré and the contrast with Shane prevents the film from being read as anything like a feminist tract, even though Denis clearly intends us to think about these issues of sexuality, archetypes and predation. It goes back to the film’s essential ambiguity, its refusal to settle on any one interpretation, any one “message.” You suggested earlier that Denis “doesn’t moralize,” and that’s why I would never say that any one reading dominates; she wants us to reach our own conclusions. This ambiguity makes the film something of a Rorschach blot: Is it a horror film or not? Is it a commentary on gender roles? Is it about addiction? Sexual desire? Troubled relationships? The role of the brain in defining consciousness? All of the above? To some extent, anyone can see what they want in a film like this, and that’s the beauty of it.
Of course, this is not to suggest that Denis offers up no ideas of her own, or that the film is utterly vague or aimless. In fact, Denis’ style is nothing if not precise, and though she never pins the film down to any one interpretation, there’s little doubt about the emotional effects she wants to elicit in her audience. She has a real control of mood that extends also to the perfect choice of the soundtrack by great British band Tindersticks, who had previously scored Nénette and Boni and have gone on to score Denis’ recent 35 Rhums as well. Their distinctive jazzy, mournful sound—particularly on the title song—is a perfect fit for Denis’ atmospheric visuals. Their contributions here remind me of Neil Young’s spacious guitar and organ solos for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, atmospherically filling in some white space with gauzy smears of sound, buttressing the overall mood of the piece. Of course, Denis’ recurring use of Tindersticks’ music is consistent with her loyalty to other members of her crew, notably her cinematographer Agnès Godard and her frequent editor Nelly Quettier, whose presence here reinforces this film’s continuity with her other work.
I opened this piece by saying that I had previously thought of Trouble Every Day as characterized primarily by its startling violence, which is perhaps understandable: there’s no doubt that the film possesses unforgettable images like Coré nibbling at the loose, bloody skin on a victim’s face, her gritted teeth stained red. Now that I’ve revisited the film, however, I find that I can more easily think of it in relation to Denis’ career as a whole, as one more elegiac and enigmatic piece of visual poetry, defined by its unusual quietness and its even tempo. Yes, it’s a film about a sensational subject—as you said at the outset, the word “cannibalism” tends to leap out at one—but it’s not treated sensationally. Instead, Trouble Every Day is patient and introspective, probing into the nuanced emotions and ideas at the heart of this sanguine story.
JB: I presume you use sanguine in reference to the blood, and not as a suggestion of cheerful optimism. If so, I agree. But you say it best above when you compare it to a Rorschach blot. I usually cringe at that comparison, because it often manages to give the artist too much credit, as if as a rule abstraction and genius rise and fall together on parallel rails, but here it’s true. This is going to seem like a crazy leap, but at times during the film I found myself recalling a scene in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine when a character is about to get swallowed up by the sun and Cliff Curtis’ character breathlessly barks in to the radio: “What do you see?! What do you see!?” I think Denis is working with a plan in Trouble Every Day, but she’s also leading us to these moments where we have to stare into the light and wrestle with the undefined, both mentally and emotionally. Denis wants to provoke us, but I get the sense that she’s utterly unconcerned with prescribing our reactions so long as we’ve engaged with the material. That’s rare.
Trouble Every Day is one of those films that is fun to discover and yet richer to know. In other words, as interesting as it is to try to grapple with the movie as it unfolds, it takes getting to the end and seeing the complete view to really understand what you saw in the first place—and I don’t mean in some comparatively shallow M. Night Shyamalan kind of way. Lynch makes films like that. The Coens make films like that. Per everything we’ve talked about here, I’m not sure how I’d even begin to encapsulate the film to someone who’d never seen it. It is, for me, a portrait of addiction, but it’s not just that. It is, of course, a movie about cannibals, and yet as incomplete as any encapsulation would be without that word, that’s the word that’s most misleading. It is bloody and disturbing but, for me, not horror. Trouble Every Day defies any neat categorization. That alone doesn’t make it great, but it’s part of the allure. It would be easy now to fall back on that old cliché that “it’s not for everyone,” but if Trouble Every Day isn’t for everyone, who is it for? If it wasn’t a struggle to watch, it wouldn’t be so interesting to behold.
Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.
Review: Bombshell Is a Collection of Quirks in Search of a Trenchant Criticism
The film is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Roger Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.1.5
With Bombshell, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph make heroes of the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the late chairman and CEO of Fox News who was accused by several former employees—including star anchors Megyn “Santa Just Is White” Kelly and Gretchen Carlson—of sexual harassment in 2016. The filmmakers keenly depict these women’s courage and fixate on the toxic culture at Fox that fostered so much fear and intimidation, but Bombshell is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.
The film begins in the summer of 2016 with the Republican Party presidential debate in Iowa, where Kelly (Charlize Theron), the moderator, confronts Donald Trump with highlights of his long history of misogyny. This grilling, and her increasingly—if relatively—feminist stance on the Fox News daytime program The Kelly File, is met by backlash from the ascendant Trump cult, as well as Ailes (John Lithgow), whose professional relationship with Kelly at first seems productive in spite of its combativeness. Meanwhile, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from another Fox program, The Real Story, possibly for her own newfound—if, again, relative—feminism, and counters by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes.
Waiting for colleagues to make similar accusations in order to bolster her case, Carlson is left twisting in the wind by a collective fearful silence—a silence that even fierce former victim Kelly obeys—while Ailes and his litigation team prepare a defense. A third storyline involves “millennial evangelical” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing the many ambitious young women who suffered Ailes’s demeaning treatment in order to get ahead at Fox and the other organizations for which he worked.
Bombshell operates in a style that has become numbingly de rigueur since Oliver Stone’s W., in which political and corporate corruption are presented in a dramatic yet amiably humorous style that takes the edge off any potentially trenchant critique. Fourth walls are broken, jokes punctuate scenes, and the ambiance remains oddly congenial despite the purportedly suffocating and repressive environment of the Fox News offices.
Thankfully, there are moments when the actors transcend the too-casual tone. Lithgow portrays Ailes not merely as a dirty old man, but as a pitiful control freak whose disgusting actions unwittingly reveal a deep insecurity. The tensely coiled Kelly is a mass of contradictions, and one argument that she has with her husband, Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass), over an embarrassingly fawning follow-up interview with Trump is memorable for allowing Theron to reveal the strain imposed on Kelly by conflicting personal, professional, and political allegiances. Robbie—frequently playing off a versatile Kate McKinnon’s co-worker/lover—moves from bubbly naïveté to painful humiliation with convincing subtlety.
And yet, Bombshell is predicated on several dubious ideas that ultimately blunt its power. The film relishes the downfall of a public figure, as well as the growing chaos of a divided Fox News. By the end of the film, we’re expected to feel righteous satisfaction when justice comes to Ailes in the form of a disgraceful resignation. But such a response can only feel hollow when the country continues to suffer from widespread problems cultivated by Fox from the same sexist, callous, and exploitative worldview at the root of Ailes’s behavior. The film only briefly and tangentially explores this worldview, and mostly uses it to simply highlight conservative hypocrisy and the general sliminess of the Fox organization.
Bombshell also delights in referencing battles fought among high-profile public figures, emphasizing the kind of inside baseball that the media routinely focuses on instead of more complex and endemic manifestations of national issues. Rather than understand Ailes’s harassment in relation to the sexism so deeply embedded in American corporate media and culture, the filmmakers reduce that sorry tradition to the confines of the Fox News offices and elite legal channels. This approach allows viewers to understand the organizational and legal pressures that made it so hard for Carlson and others to speak out about Ailes, but once Carlson files her charges, the abuse that she and others endured becomes overshadowed by competitive backroom negotiations and maneuverings.
The film reinforces this emphasis with gratuitous appearances by actors playing famous Fox News personalities (Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity) who are tangential to the narrative, as well as cutesy direct-address segments meant to make us feel in the know about the world of Fox. This is the stuff that Roach, who’s mostly directed broad comedies, and Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short, clearly relish, but rather than connecting with the viewer through these strategies, Bombshell mostly feels insular, remote, and superficial. It would be nice if for once an accessible mainstream film took on the institutional powers that detrimentally shape our world with anger and incisiveness rather than a bemused concern.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Charles Randolph Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity
Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.2.5
Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.
Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.
Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.
Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.
In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.
In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)
Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.
Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.
Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate
This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.2.5
Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.
Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.
Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”
As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.
In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.
Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.
Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
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
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
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.3
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
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.3
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
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.
“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.
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.
Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.3
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
Review: The Aeronauts Takes to the Skies, Without Much of a Dramatic Hook
As a suspense film, it’s so sluggishly structured that it borders on the avant-garde.1.5
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
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
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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