Fan Mail: First, a couple of follow-up items about Argo, which I wrote about in US#103. I had admired the scene near the end where they show what happened to the maid. An article in the Los Angeles Times tells us that that scene was written and shot after the first test screenings of the film, since the audiences wanted to know what happened to her. Sometimes the audience tells you what it needs to have. (Another item in that same article deals with Moon Bloodgood’s marvelous performance in The Sessions, which I admired, also in US#103.)
It has also come out in the publicity for Argo that Chris Terrio’s first drafts of the script told the story more as a comedy romp. When Ben Affleck came on the film as the director, he suggested that if they start with the Iranian Revolution, it would set a serious tone which would provide a little more heft to the film and which the comedy could play off of. I know it goes against everything I preach in this column, but sometimes directors can actually make a serious contribution to a film.
And now on to the Fan Mail for US#105, of which there was a bunch, including one comment that got me in one of my occasional errors. The big dispute in the fan mail was between David Ehrenstein and “tkern.” David gave us some backstory on the actors in Amour, but tkern felt we should not have to know any “gossip” about the actors for the film to work. I am not sure that was exactly what David was proposing, and I agree with tkern that we shouldn’t need to know the actors’ private lives for the film to work. I don’t think you need to in Amour. I did not mention in my item that I thought both Trintignant and especially Riva gave brilliant performances. Even though I have seen them both before over the last 60 years, I think the performances stand on their own. If the script had been better, their performances would have also been better, although I am not sure if Riva’s could be better.
I will share with you a couple of revelations about gossip about stars that changed my life completely, and definitely for the better. Several years ago, I had the minor revelation that there were a lot of British performers whose work I liked but about whose private lives I knew nothing. The major revelation is…I didn’t care. I realized I did not need to know about their private lives to enjoy their work. Since then I have avoided, as much as possible in Los Angeles (and more on that later), reading and watching and learning about the private lives of the stars. I cannot tell you how much time that has saved me. Try it; you’ll see.
David thought I was asking for more backstory about the couple in Amour, but I wasn’t. I just wanted more detail about the way they live now. And I agree with David that Nunnally Johnson is a great screenwriter and that his 1964 film The World of Henry Orient is one of his best scripts. Even if, unlike David, you did not grow up in New York.
“lproyect” was gobsmacked to discover that Dr. Strangelove (1964) was as controversial in its day (actually more so) than Django Unchained. Yes, it is a classic now, and one of Kubrick’s best, but then its comic attitude toward nuclear war and the military upset a lot of people. There had been service comedies before, but nothing as ruthless as Strangelove. Keep in mind it came out in the middle of the Cold War, less than two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Speaking of Strangelove, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art currently has a large exhibition of Kubrick’s stuff, and for me the jewel in the crown were production stills from the food fight in the War Room that was the original ending of the film. But I still think Kubrick missed a beat when he did not have the lyrics of “We’ll Meet Again” printed along the bottom of the screen with a bouncing ball so we could all sing along.
Ah, yes, the error. Arthur Seaton asked about where I got the information that William Boyd was writing the next two James Bond movies. I thought I had got it from the IMDb, but it’s not there, and I cannot find it anywhere else. It may have been one of those things on the Internet that comes and goes quickly. However, in searching for it now I found his website and this article in the Los Angeles Times both of which mention he is writing the next James Bond novel.
And now that we have the housekeeping details cleaned up, it is time for The Main Event…
Zero Dark Thirty (2012. Written by Mark Boal. 157 minutes.)
Hey, folks, we’re making a movie here: When this movie was in production, the American Right thundered that it was being made by Godless liberal communists in Hollywood financed by the Democratic National Committee as a propaganda piece to re-elect that Kenyan who usurped the office of President of the United States. As in many, many areas, the Right was completely wrong.
As the release of the film drew closer, it was attacked in mid-December by the other side of the political spectrum. Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee had just approved a 6,000 page classified report which stated that torture was not useful in tracking down Osama bin Laden. And here comes a film that is reported to show that the “big break” in the case came from torture. While there had been advance screenings for some select audiences (mostly awards giving organizations), there is no indication any of the senators who complained about the film had yet seen it. As George W. Bush and Dick Cheney learned in 2003, going into battle without good intelligence can be problematic. (The factual information in this item comes mostly from the coverage in the Los Angeles Times in a series of articles written by Steven Zeitchik and Ken Dilanian, either separately or together, unless otherwise noted.)
In writing about Argo I rather cavalierly dismissed the claims that it was not completely historically accurate by using the old Hollywood line, “Hey, folks, we’re making a movie here.” The filmmakers are trying to make the most interesting movie they can, which occasionally means they change things from the way they really happened. Those changes are generally rather trivial, mostly good for general grousing on Wikipedia. Zero Dark Thirty raises much more serious concerns, since what is at stake is the basic political and moral issue of whether the torture used by the C.I.A. was effective and provided essential information. Zeitchik and Dilanian in their first article on December 14th stated that the film “shows torture as yielding a big break and setting in motion the chase” that got bin Laden. If they and the others criticizing the film had seen the film and paid attention to it, they would know that is not what the film shows. Boal’s script does begin with an extended torture scene, but it is clear in the film that no information that directly leads to bin Laden comes from it. Not only that, but later in the film, the limitations of torture are discussed (although not as much as they should have been, which may also have caused people to misread the film), as well as government’s decision to stop torturing. In an irony I love, the one shot of “that Kenyan” is a television clip from 2008 in which he says we have to avoid torture. So why did people assume that the film shows torture as working? I suspect partly it is because the torture scenes are the opening scenes in a film that ends with bin Laden’s death. In traditional dramatic structure, that suggests cause and effect. Boal could have helped himself by making it clearer than he does that the torture was not useful. He may be too subtle in dealing with that for his own good.
You may have noticed that since I started this column in 2008 I have made a concentrated effort to avoid all the awards seasons hype. To me the single worst thing about living in Los Angeles is having to spend four months out of the year wading through the waist-deep putrid swamp of the awards season. So I don’t do any Ten Best Lists, Five Scripts That Should be Nominated, Three Scripts That Should Have Been Nominated, etc. The relentless egotism and narcissism of people who make millions and are loved the world over spending their time, creativity and money to get small pieces of hardware to add to their homes is repugnant. Nevertheless, I am going to have to break that rule for this discussion. One of the worst aspects of the season is that people in the industry not only work for awards for their films, they work against other films. That seems to be the case with Zero Dark Thirty. It would not surprise me to learn that the “political chatter,” as Zeitchik and Dilanian call it, may have included Hollywood people rooting for other films. Even if that is not the case, Boal and his director, Kathryn Bigelow, have bungled the public relations disaster they faced. The publicity for the film, as well as a title at the beginning, points out the film is based on first person accounts of the hunt for bin Laden. The p.r. also makes the point that Boal has done the sort of research he did as a former journalist. When the controversy first started in December, the reactions to the criticism by Boal and the others was incredibly wishy-washy, with one statement to the press on December 13th, then nothing but silence until the Los Angeles Times asked Bigelow for a statement, which the paper ran on January 16th. The statement was still rather general. Obviously nobody on the p.r. team for the film got into crisis mode, nor did they hire a crisis manager.
As Boal continued his silence, I began to wonder why. After all, a film writer is a public writer, and he had better be able to deal with the public aspect of the work, particularly when it raises both historical and moral questions. I have no access to his mind, but the following possibility occurred to me (as well as some of the criticizing Senators). Boal talked to a lot of people in the C.I.A., and there are some in the agency who still believe that torture was effective in this case. As one of what I call my “acquaintances with several years experience working closely with the intelligence community” put it, people in the agency know that sometimes they have to do things they find morally reprehensible to get the job done, just as soldiers have to in wartime. Boal probably did talk to those who believe in torture; we certainly get the sense that some of the characters in the film believe in torture. Those who believe in torture may have tried to persuade Boal, either directly or indirectly, that torture works. Boal is I am sure reluctant to reveal any of his sources, which may constrain him from talking about how the script developed. Boal talked about the First Amendment at an event in early February, and Zeitchik’s article about it in the Times indicates that Boal is, legitimately, concerned about a possible Congressional Investigation into his sources.
I still think Boal and the film’s team could have responded more vigorously. As we used to say in the Navy, “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” I take that to mean that those of us with voices, pens, and computers should call out those in power when they get carried away with their own importance. Look at the example of Tony Kushner, who, as I mentioned in writing about Lincoln in US#104, is a public writer. When Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn) attacked Lincoln for its historical inaccuracy about the votes by Connecticut’s Congressional Representatives on the 13 Amendment, Kushner came out swinging with a vigorous defense, which you can read here. Courtney insisted he was not doing any Oscar politicking, but his letter was headlined “Before the Oscars…” According to an article in the L.A. Times, it turned out that Ben Affleck had campaigned for Courtney in 2006, and Courtney said he attributed his narrow win to a rally Affleck held. You see what I mean about the “waist-deep putrid swamp”?
One person we do know Boal talked to is Michael Vickers, the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. Judicial Watch, an organization that keeps an eye on government goings on, has recently gained access via the Freedom of Information Act to several unclassified (I love my readers, but I am not going to jail for you) documents about the raid on bin Laden, and for our purposes, the most interesting one is a transcript of the meeting Boal and Bigelow had with Vickers. You can read it here. You can see Boal the journalist at work, getting Vickers to talk not only about the details of the planning of the raid, but also the thinking he and others did about it. You should also notice that Boal does all the heavy lifting, with Bigelow just throwing in an occasional line about how useful something will be.
You may remember from US#30 that I was a big fan of Boal’s script for The Hurt Locker (2008). This one is not quite as good, even once you get past the torture scene. In The Hurt Locker, we learn about Staff Sgt. James by what he does, a classic case of “action is character.” That does not work here. We are introduced to Maya, a C.I.A. intelligence analyst, as she watches the torture of a prisoner. This establishes her character: she is a little queasy, but not as much as we might expect. I think that is what Bigelow means when she says the torture scenes are “part of the story,” a point she could have been more precise about. We then watch Maya reading stuff on computers, listening to wiretaps, watching potential targets, and then something blows up. She reads more stuff on computers, listens to more wiretaps, and more things blow up. There is not a lot that action can tell us about her. She is so single-minded, a good thing given her job, that she is briefly upstaged by another analyst, Jessica, who is so lively that my wife thought for a minute she was the star of the film. Jessica is played by Jennifer Ehle, who does the same kind of great work here that she did in Contagion (2011, see US#82 for the paragraph I wrote on her in that film). Jessica Chastain plays Maya, but she is a rather one-note character, although Boal does give her at least one great line. She is sitting against the wall while the men are around the conference table talking to the head of the C.I.A.. He asks her who she is, and she replies, “I’m the motherfucker that found this place, sir.” The “sir” is a great touch, and I wish there were more lines like that.
Just as the search by Maya for bin Laden gets repetitive, so does the raid on his house. Maya does not go on the raid, so we are with the Navy Seals, whom we do not really know. Boal and Bigelow let the sequence run on in close to real time, and while it is suspenseful, it gets wearying. Killing bin Laden turns out to be anti-climactic, which is appropriate, since that is what it is for Maya. As it was to some degree for us. But we’re still glad the son of a bitch is dead, aren’t we?
This Is 40 (2012. Written by Judd Apatow, based on characters created by Judd Apatow. 134 minutes.)
Scenes from a Marriage, but not alas Bergman’s: I have a lot of the same problems with this Apatow script as I did with his 2009 Funny People (see US#31) The scenes wander all over the place as he lets the actors improvise. There is a single outtake at the end that shows you the problem. Pete and Debbie, the married couple from Apatow’s 2007 Knocked Up, are back, this time as the leads. In one of the sequences they have run afoul of another mother, Catherine, and they are all called into the principal’s office at school to discuss the matter. Catherine goes ballistic, as does the ubiquitous Melissa McCarthy (she was in at least three of the trailers we saw with this movie), who plays her. In the outtake, we see McCarthy going on and on and on, as Paul Rudd (Pete) and Leslie Mann (Debbie) crack up. Yes, there is a little less of it in the film, but there is still too much of it, and nothing happens with it in the film. What Apatow has written are a bunch of scenes of the marriage of Pete and Debbie, but with very little to connect them. Early on in the film Debbie says they all (they have two daughters, played by Apatow and Mann’s two kids, much better used here than they are in Funny People) have to improve themselves and their lives. Some scenes have something to do with that, such as a nice scene in which Pete and Debbie suggest the kids give up their electronic toys and play outside and even build a fort. The oldest daughter Sarah’s rant is nicely done. Other scenes have nothing to do with making themselves better, so much so that when Pete and Debbie decide at the end of the film not to try to be better, I was surprised to learn that was where the film was going.
Part of the problem with This Is 40 is that Pete and Debbie are not very likeable characters. They were mildly amusing as a counterpoint to the leads in Knocked Up, but you don’t really want to spend that much time with them. They are shallow and narcissistic, and between them they don’t appear to have the brains God gave a goose. He runs a small record company, but he has put all his eggs into one basket: a singer who has not had a hit in years. We are supposed to admire him for that, but we tend to go along with his friends and co-workers when they suggest it’s a mistake. This is the same problem I pointed out with Middle of Nowhere (see US#104). Debbie runs one of those little Brentwood boutiques that rich men’s wives own to amuse themselves between trips to the spa. She discovers early in the film that $12,000 is missing from the store. If I owned a store with that much missing, I would be there 27 hours a day, 8 days a week until I found it. Debbie seems to wander in from time to time, which is doubly odd because the family is having financial problems. Why should we care about these two village idiots?
Pete and Debbie’s relationship is sort of a mess, although it at least has a little more detail than Haneke gives us in Amour, which is probably the only time you will find those two films mentioned in the same sentence. What I think Apatow is up to with this and Funny People is that he is trying to make the change that Woody Allen made in the mid-‘70s from the early, funny ones, to the more serious films. Allen managed it, but so far (never give up on people with talent) Apatow has not managed it. I mentioned in the item on Funny People that Apatow as the writer on that was not as tough as Wilder, Sturges or Ben Hecht would have been, adding that they all wrote their scripts, and in Wilder and Sturges’s case did not allow for a lot of improve. The same thing is true of Allen. He writes and rewrites and rewrites, but you will never see an outtake from one of Allen’s films like the Melissa McCarthy one here. As the classic line goes, dying is easy, comedy is hard. And even harder still if you are combining comedy and drama.
Margin Call (2011. Written by J.C. Chandor. 107 minutes.)
Just like the railroad tycoons of the late 19th Century: I have recently been reading a fascinating book by Richard White called Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. We all know the great American epic of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s: John Ford’s drunken Irishmen fighting off the Indians and all that. Well, White’s look at the period after it was built comes to the conclusion that the Transcontinental Railroad was built at the wrong time, in the wrong ways, in the wrong places, and with corrupt methods of financing that lead to the monopolistic practices of The Golden Age and by extension modern American financial behaviors. I am not sure I agree with everything he says, but he makes a convincing case, and you can see a lot of modern banking and financial methods beginning to take shape. I was in the middle of the book recently when I happened to catch up with Margin Call, one of the better small films of last year that I happened to miss in theatres.
It’s bad day on the Risk Management floor of a financial trader. The strangers with boxes coming into the offices are not the Feds but people assigned, like George Clooney in Up in the Air (2009), to fire people. One of those let go, Eric Dale, slips a flashdrive to Peter, a younger worker, and tells him there’s stuff on there, but it may be dangerous. Peter looks at it, throws in some figures of his own, and realizes that the company has more money out in questionable deals than the company is worth. At least I think it’s something like that. One of the great running gags of the film is the higher up in the company the discussion goes, the more the senior officers ask Peter and the others to “explain it in plain English.” As we saw in the aftermath of 2008, very often the financial “wizards” who got us into those messes did not even partially understand what they were doing, just as White points out the “Octopuses,” Frank Norris’s term for the big shots running the railroads, had not a clue how to run a railroad. The movie follows Peter’s discovery as we go up the chain of command, and Chandor, like John Huston on a good day, just sits back and lets us watch these guys (and a gal) stew in their own juices.
Chandor, whose father worked on Wall Street, knows this world intimately, and his script is wonderfully nuanced in its approach to character. And he has written some great characters. And guess what, folks? Yeah, you know the drill. He’s got a lot of great actors to appear in his low-budget ($4 million by IMDb’s count) film. How can you top a cast consisting of: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Zachary Quinto, Mary McDonnell and Stanley Tucci, just to name a few? Spacey is playing a sympathetic character so brilliantly that my wife did not recognize him. But everybody else is also on the top of their game, and Chandor has given them lots to do.
And true to the real live events of the last five years, goodness does not prevail, and as with the Octopuses, the sleazeballs still walk off with all the money.
Red State (2011. Written by Kevin Smith. 88 minutes.)
A misleading title: You would think with this title that Kevin Smith is going all political on the tea partiers and the far right in general. But there is surprisingly little about recent politics in the film. So if audiences had had a chance to see it in 2011 they might have been disappointed, but Smith came up with a misconceived marketing plan in which he took the film around to theaters one theater at a time. It never really had a chance, which is too bad, since it may be his best film. Well, now with Netflix, which is how I caught it, and assorted other platforms, it has a chance.
Most of Smith’s films are dialogue heavy, which is not necessarily a bad thing. He does have an ear for foulmouthed dialogue. There is some of that in here, but only in the first part of the film, and then the dialogue gets richer, as do the characterizations. And for the first time, a Kevin Smith film has a real, if peculiar, narrative drive. And his direction, both in the staging and in the performances, has improved drastically.
We start out with three teenage boys who talk exactly like teenage boys in a Kevin Smith movie do. But we get something else. One boy, Travis, is being driven to school by his mom, and they go past the funeral of a local boy. There are protesters at the funeral who claim the boy deserved to die since he was gay. The boy’s death and the protesters are discussed in class, and the teacher makes the point, which may be a bit of a copout on Smith’s part, that even the tea partiers and neo-Nazi groups think the protesters are too far out. The three boys, meanwhile, have discovered a woman nearby online who says she is willing to have sex with all three of them. So they go out to her trailer…and are drugged and taken to the church of the protesters where Abin Cooper is preaching to a very small congregation. As in his extended family. Cooper’s sermon goes on at some length, but it is necessary to give you an in-depth sense of what he believes. The focus on religion is reminiscent of Smith’s 1999 Dogma, but less playful and more contained by the story. Cooper’s dialogue is very different than that of the boys, and Smith has Michael Parks, in one of his best performances, get as much out of it as an actor can. You can see why the congregation is spellbound, and you feel yourself caught up in it. Even if there is a man completely wrapped in plastic about to be killed in the church.
The narrative shifts again, and we get into a Waco-like shootout that evolves in the chaotic way real shootouts do, not in the highly stylized way they do in movies. And Smith is perfectly willing to kill off people we assumed were going to be major characters, and not in the order you might expect in another film. At this point we meet the ATF officer in charge, Keenan, who seems to be the only sane adult in the movie. And his dialogue is very different from everybody else’s, which comes in handy in the final sequence, where he has to do almost as much explaining as Simon Oakland does at the end of Psycho (1960), but in a much better written speech. Keenan’s sanity provides us with at least some release from the horrors that have come before, but those horrors make it a close run thing.
New Year’s Eve (2011. Written by Katherin Fugate. 118 minutes.)
Companion pieces to US#42, take one: In US#42, I wrote about the 2010 release Valentine’s Day, which I sort-of liked, especially the Los Angeles based jokes. Its characterization was limited, and the cinematography did its leading ladies no favors. In New Year’s Eve, the companion piece written by the same writer, they have at least made the women look great. However, it is based in New York, and I am not sure the New York jokes are as good as the Los Angeles ones in Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day as an event is more cohesive a subject for a film than New Year’s Eve. Fugate tries to suggest the variety of themes that might show up on New Year’s Eve, which means this film is not as focused as it might be. As before the characterization is not as sharp as it could be, and we can mainly tell the characters apart because they are played by different stars, always a useful ploy in a multi-story film.
Some of the stories seem to fit nicely into the format. The one with the teenage girl fits about right, but the one about Ingrid, who just quit her job and has a list of things she wants to do and is helped by Paul, a messenger, could easily be a feature film. Fugate throws in some connections we were not expecting, as when we learn that Paul is the brother of Kim, but nothing other than a minor plot turn is done with that. And there are no really breakout characters or performances as there were in Valentine’s Day with Anne Hathway’s Liz.
I caught the film on New Year’s Eve on HBO, and that didn’t help as much as it should have.
Prince Valiant (1997. Screenplay by Michael Frost Beckner and Anthony Hickox & Carsten Lorenz, story by Michael Frost Beckner, based on the comic strip by Harold R. Foster. 91 minutes.)
Companion pieces to US#42, take two: In US#42, I wrote about the 1954 film Prince Valiant, which was a moderately entertaining affair. This version is mess. I am usually pretty good at sorting out the narrative line of films, but this one had me completely baffled. I would say that I was distracted by a repairman coming and going while I watched it, but I DVR’d it off HBO, so I could stop to talk to him and to try to mentally figure out the story, but it was hopeless. It begins with some Vikings sneaking into Camelot and stealing King Arthur’s sword Excaliber. OK, nice inciting incident, as some screenwriting gurus would call it, but then they don’t go back to Scandinavia. They hang around the British Isles until they get their just deserts. Arthur assumes the Scots have taken the sword and sends his knights and army north. Who knew that Arthur was the role model for George W. Bush and his search for WMDs in Iraq? Anyway, that leaves only Valiant, a squire, to escort Princess Ilene back to her home castle. But she gets kidnapped along the way. Several times in fact, and I cannot tell you who all the different ugly looking guys with beards who kidnap her are. Valiant keeps getting her back, and learns at the end of the adventures he is really a prince in one of the tribes in the British Isles. The tribe sent him as a child to Camelot as kind of a British boarding school.
Not only does all of this make no narrative sense, but the tone keeps shifting in the middle of scenes. Sometimes it seems like comedy, especially when there are actors with very Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) accents. Other times it is played straight. The production was financed by a variety of European sources, and it appears nobody was on the same page on this one. According to a story that may be too good to be true on the IMDb, the German producers cut out four scenes and material that set up the comedy while the director was on Christmas vacation and would not pay his way back to Germany to restore his cut.
There is some nice cinematography of Wales, but a young Stephen Moyer does not have the swashbuckling presence for Valiant; he is much better as Bill Compton on True Blood. Princess Ilene is a 19 year-old Katherine Heigl when she was soft and round and charming and funny and not the hard-edge actress she has become. Ah, ye olden dayes.
Vegas (2012. “Estinto,” written by Vanessa Reisen & Nick Santora. 60 minutes.)
Developing: When I wrote about the new television season in US#102, I said this was the show I liked best. It is developing very well, and unlike a lot of television series, it is doing it rather slowly. We are getting to know a large bunch of people, and characters who we thought were minor, if we even thought of them at all, are given more to do. Yvonne Sanchez has been the receptionist at the Sheriff’s office from the beginning, but in the later shows she has more to do, including suggesting in this episode which jewelry store in Vegas a guy would use to buy an item for his mistress. How does she know that? She also has a flirtation with the sheriff’s son, Dixon, and she is way smarter than he is.
Jack, the sheriff’s brother, is attracted to Mia Rizzo. She is the daughter of Johnny Rizzo, the hard-nosed gangster who is pushing Vince Savino to use more hardball tactics to take over Vegas. Mia didn’t show up until the second episode, and she is not just a bimbo. Savino hired her to run the count room at the Savoy Casino, and she is a tough cookie. Jack and Mia seem unable to keep their hands off each other, which will undoubtedly lead to trouble. How would you like to be a sheriff’s deputy and have a gangster for a potential father-in-law? (Since this episode, Rizzo has been killed. Whew. By Jack. Uh-oh.)
One thing I worried about after the first couple of episodes was that the crime-of-the-week stories were not as interesting as the casino stories. The writers have been good about keeping a balance. In this episode, the murdered man runs a construction company who builds casinos, including the one Savino wants to run, the Tumbleweed. When the victim is found in a cement mixer, it screams mob hit, but Savino points out that having the head of the company building his new hotel dying screws up his plans. Dixon, who is a deputy, goes undercover at the Savoy to drive to find who is stealing. He does very quickly and Savino is impressed. Dixon tells him that the thief was glad the deputy got him and not the mob, figuring he would be safer in jail. Savino offers Dixon a free room, but his dad, the sheriff, won’t let him take it. Meanwhile, Rizzo has insisted Savino hire Rizzo’s girlfriend, Diane, as a singer. That’s a bit awkward, since Savino and Diane had a fling years before. Savino finds out she is a snitch for the F.B.I. and he tells Rizzo. They find Diane, an ex-junkie, dead of an overdose. Savino and we pretty much know she was murdered by Rizzo. On Christmas Eve we see Savino with his family and it is obvious he is still thinking about Diane’s death.
And I haven’t even mentioned that Katherine, the assistant district attorney, is becoming friends with Savino’s wife…
Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.
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
Interview: Jessica Hausner on Little Joe and the Ways of Being and Seeing
Hausner discusses wanting to sustain the tension of the first act of a Body Snatchers production over the course of an entire narrative.
With Little Joe, director Jessica Hausner reinvigorates an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type premise by boldly suggesting that modern humans don’t have any identities left to lose. The true body snatcher, rather than the beautiful, manipulative red flower at the film’s center, is a corporate culture that stifles our individual thought with double-speak and other subtly constant threats to personal status.
The challenge of such a premise, then, is to reveal the private individual longings that are suppressed by cultural indoctrination without breaking the film’s restrictive formal spell—a challenge that Hausner says she solved with co-writer Géraldine Bajard during a lengthy writing session. Little Joe is so carefully structured and executed that one is encouraged to become a kind of detective, parsing chilly tracking shots and flamboyant Wes Anderson-style color schemes for signs of a character’s true emotional experience.
Ahead of the film’s theatrical release, Hausner and I discussed her obsession with boiling societies down to singular metaphorical places, a tendency that unites Little Joe with her prior features, including Amour Fou and Lourdes. We also talked about the notion of social coding and pressure, and how the filmmaker was interested in sustaining the tension of the first act of a Body Snatchers production over the course of an entire narrative. For Hausner, such tension is certainly fostered with a rigorous devotion to sound and composition, which her actors found freeing, perhaps in the ironic tradition of her own characters.
Little Joe evinces a strong understanding of that staid, subtly restrictive office culture.
I think in all my films I try to find a closed space. Sometimes it’s a company or, in Amour Fou, it’s bourgeois society. I made a film called Lourdes where it was very clear it was that place in Lourdes. I’m trying to portray the hierarchies of a society, and I think it’s easier to do that if you have one place. Then you can show who are the chefs, the people in the middle, and the ones who just have to follow. Sometimes you can even see these statures on the costumes.
The brightly colored costumes are striking in Little Joe. It seems as if they’re expressing emotions the characters aren’t allowing themselves.
Yes. Well, they don’t allow themselves, or maybe I’d put it slightly differently: No one really shows their true emotions [laughs]. We all play a role in our lives and we’re all a part of some sort of hierarchy. And no matter what kind of life we live, we’re living within a society, and we do have to obey rules most of the time. My films focus on that perspective, rather than saying, “Oh, everyone has a free choice.” My experience is that free choice is very limited even in a free world. We are very much manipulated in terms of how we should think and how we should behave. Social codes are quite strong.
One of the lovely ironies of this film is that it’s difficult to discern which enslavements are caused by the flower and which are already inherently in place via society.
Absolutely. That’s the irony about it. When we worked on the script, it wasn’t so easy to build up a storyline that suggests a change that you never really see. Over the process of scriptwriting, we decided that the validity of feelings was invisible. We also had conversations with scientists, and we considered which part of the brain was responsible for emotions.
I’m curious if any singular story element led you to this premise.
I’m a big fan of science-fiction and horror films, and I do like those Invasion of the Body Snatchers films, but only the beginnings. I like the setups, those scenes where someone says, “Oh, my uncle isn’t my uncle anymore.” I had this idea to prolong this doubt about who people really are over the whole length of a feature film. Because it’s a basic human experience: You can never really understand what another person is thinking or feeling.
I love that there’s no overt monster in Little Joe. There’s no catharsis exactly.
No, there isn’t. The catharsis takes place on a very strange level, which leads to one of the other starting elements of the film. I wanted to portray a single mother who loves her job. So, the catharsis in the end is really very much centered on Alice as she finally allows herself to focus on her work and to let her son live with the father, which is okay.
You’re right that there’s a catharsis, from the fulfillment of the final line of dialogue.
This is what’s hard to reconcile: Despite the loss of self that debatably takes place over the course of the film, Alice gets exactly what she wants and the flower does exactly what it’s supposed to do.
Yes, I’m glad to hear you say that. I do get a lot of questions about the dark, dystopian perspective, but there’s no such perspective in this film. It’s a very friendly, light ending. If we all change, perhaps it’s for the better.
I’m curious about the visual design of the flower. It seems to me that it’s both male and female at once, which I think is an achievement.
What do you mean male and female? The design?
The shape seems phallic. Yet the color scheme almost has a lingerie quality.
I think the basic idea is that it’s a male plant. I wanted that basic juxtaposition between the boy and the plant. The film suggests that it’s a male plant, but yet, of course, when the plant opens and is exhaling the pollen…well, I would say it’s a very male plant. [both laugh]
The release of the pollen, especially for the first time against the glass of the lab, does feel like an ejaculation.
Yes. That was very much a part of the idea. The plant is trying to survive.
It’s like a revenge of the sex drive.
Which parallels how the humans are repressing their sex drives. It’s a lovely reverberation. What was the collaboration with the actors like? Such a careful tone of emotional modulation is maintained throughout the film.
I enjoyed the collaboration very much. the actors understood what the film’s style was about. You do have actors sometimes who are used to the fact that the camera is working around them, but in my films it’s always the other way around. The camera is determining the image and the actor has to fit in. The actors—Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, and the others—were able to cope with that method very well. I remember especially Ben Whishaw even liked it, because—if you don’t feel suffocated, if you’re strong enough to fight against the style—it can be a joyful way to work. The collaboration with the actors also focused very much on the undertone of what they’re saying. A lot of scenes have a double meaning. I’m always trying to show that people normally lie. So, everything that’s said is also said because it should be said, I don’t know if you know what I mean…
Yes, social coding.
I’m trying to make the actors act in a way that makes us feel a character’s position rather than any individuality, so that we know that the characters are a part of something larger and have to say whatever they’re saying now. We try to reveal the typical codes of a society.
Review: The Wolf Hour Is Dubiously Content to Watch Its Protagonist Squirm
The film is all surface, and its depiction of trauma becomes increasingly exploitative and hollow as it moves along.2
An air of decay and discomfort pervades the dingy Manhattan apartment where nearly all of The Wolf Hour unfolds. An agoraphobic recluse, June Leigh (Naomi Watts) languishes in the unit, overwhelmed with guilt from a past misdeed. The cramped, underlit apartment, full of dusty old books and overstuffed trash bags, takes on an increasingly oppressive quality as the door buzzer continues to go off with unnerving frequency. Despite June’s pleas to whomever is on the other end, all she gets in response is an ominous, crackling static. It’s an unsettling sound that’s a fitting approximation of the feminist icon and writer’s brittle mental state, which is inextricably tied to the decrepit state of a 1977 New York City plagued by sweltering summer heat and the Son of Sam killer’s reign of terror.
From the limited perspective of this tiny apartment, writer-director Alistair Banks Griffin constructs an aura of danger and alienation, filling out the broader scope of the citywide upheaval with street scuffles and snippets of news coverage that June overhears on the radio or television. It’s a provocative setting, which could have served as a compelling backdrop for June’s mental unraveling, but the acutely detailed portrait of this specific time and place never extends to that of the muddled, half-baked characterization of the woman who inhabits it.
Watts has made a career playing the most brooding and agitated of characters, and with a practically unparalleled visceral depth. Here, her subtly skittish gestures and facial expressions lend June a raw, nervous energy that suggests a woman on the verge of losing her mind. Strange, cathartic scenes, such as when June abruptly lets loose and feverishly dances to Suicide’s “Ghost Rider,” gives a strong sense of how far she’s strayed from the person she once was. But such unexpected character beats arise too infrequently throughout the film, and for all of Watts’s efforts, the roots of June’s anguish are never more than vaguely explored.
In an attempt to flesh out June’s interiority, Griffin’s script works in a handful of people who visit her apartment. But none of these characters, from her sister (Jennifer Ehle) to a grocery deliveryman (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) to a compassionate gigolo (Emory Cohen), offer much insight into the celebrated genius that June used to be. In fact, it’s only through June’s viewing of a contentious TV interview that she gave when her first book was released that we get any sense of the catalyst for her downward spiral. It’s a remarkably contrived manner of inserting much-needed backstory into The Wolf Hour, but even worse, it hints at a story far more intriguing than the miserabilism that quickly reveals itself to be the film’s default mode.
That interview reveals that June had a tumultuous fallout with her family due to her leftist screed’s thinly veiled criticism of her businessman father. It’s a turn that suggests something akin to the complicated father-daughter antagonism between Shiv and Logan on HBO’s Succession, yet Griffin does nothing with this bombshell, simply returning to June as she continues to drown in her paralyzing guilt. An abrupt and woefully misguided deus ex machina attempts to do some heavy narrative lifting, but it changes our perception of June without laying the sort of groundwork needed to make such a twist land with any gravitas.
In the end, June remains an enigma and the film’s finale only solidifies the notion that Griffin never had any interest in plumbing June’s emotional struggles. Like the sweat covering June’s face at all times or the dust that coats her apartment, The Wolf Hour is all surface, and its depiction of trauma only becomes increasingly exploitative and hollow as it moves along.
Cast: Naomi Watts, Brennan Brown, Jennifer Ehle, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Emory Cohen, Jeremy Bobb, Maritza Veer, Justin Clarke Director: Alistair Banks Griffin Screenwriter: Alistair Banks Griffin Distributor: Brainstorm Media Running Time: 99 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Interview: Céline Sciamma on Redefining the Muse with Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Our talk ranged from the personal to the political, her singular work to the cinema at large.
My experience talking with directors leads me to informally sort them into three categories based on what element of their work they can speak most eloquently about: theory, emotion, and technical execution. Few have straddled all aspects of the filmmaking process quite like French writer-director Céline Sciamma, the mind and muscle behind Portrait of a Lady on Fire. She’s able to deftly answer questions that address the end-to-end process of how a moment germinates in her head, how an audience will interpret it, and how theory can explain why they feel the way they do.
Sciamma’s latest directorial outing relegates her minimalism primarily to the screenplay, which revolves around the interactions between a painter, Noémie Merlant’s Marianne, and the subject, Adèle Haenel’s Héloïse, that she’s been commissioned to covertly paint. The deceptively simple contours of Portrait of a Lady on Fire belie the ambition of the film, which sets out to achieve nothing less than a complete deconstruction of the artist-muse relationship. What Sciamma proposes in its place is a love story between the two women rooted in equality and artistry rather than in domination and lust.
I spoke with Sciamma after the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival in September. Our talk ranged from the personal to the political, her singular work to the cinema at large, our present moment’s liberation to the centuries of patriarchal influence over our shared historical narrative. In short, a full spectrum of conversation that few directors can match.
You’ve placed Portrait of a Lady on Fire in conversation with discourse around the subject of muses. Does the film suggest that we need to dispense with this ideal altogether, or that we just need to update and revise our notions of what it means?
Well, it’s a contemporary conversation, and even though the movie’s set in the past, it definitely could be something that could have been set in 2019. It’s been a long [journey] for me, because it’s been five years from my previous film, and I thought about this for years. Within these five years, a lot happened. [The time] gave me confidence and new tools and ideas—also less loneliness—to be radical and without compromise. It gives you strength and structure to be radical with all the ideas. The movie is full of them.
Women artists have always existed. They’ve had more flourishing moments, like that time in the mid-18th century when there were a lot of women painters. That’s why we set [the film] in that period, of course, but mostly women were in the workshop as models or companions. That was their part in artistry, so that’s how they’re told [in cultural narratives]. The real part they took in creation isn’t told. Something is happening in art history because there are women researchers on the other side. Dora Maar was the muse of Picasso, but actually, she was a part of the Surrealist group. There’s a lot of them we know now. It was a way to tell the story again to reactivate this nature of art history. But I’m sure it’s true; it’s not this anachronistic vision.
You hired an “art sociologist” to help develop Portrait of a Lady on Fire. What did you learn from this person, and how did that affect the film?
It was a woman who [studied] that period when there were a lot of women painters. The fact that she’s a sociologist and not a historian actually was really important for me because, as we were inventing this character, sociology was really important to make her true to all of these women. Whereas if we’d picked [one historical figure], it would be about destiny. She read the script, and [determined that] there were no anachronisms. What I learned is that it gave me confidence to trust this character all the way. It was something I could hand to Noémie on set.
Is the notion of the “muse” inherently incompatible with equality?
The fact that you could be inspiring just by being there, beautiful and silent, there’s definitely domination. The fact that it’s told as something that always has to do with [being] in a relationship, even the love in creation in the muse—you have to fall in love with your actresses or models—is a fantasy that allows abuse of power. Even the possessive, sometimes I’m asked about my actresses. They’re not asked about their directors; they’re asked about the director.
When I wrote the part for Adèle, she was the model. When I talked about the film, and not much because I’m very secretive, people told me, “So, Adèle’s going to be the painter?” And I said, “No, Adèle is going to be the model!” People were like, “Why? She should be the painter.” And I was like, “Oh, so you find that the model is too narrow for her? You find that this isn’t the dynamic of power she’s entitled to. She should be the painter.” She and I laughed and thought, “Of course, [Adèle] should be the model because I’m the actress.” So, what are they saying? That it’s too small for her? That was also very nourishing, the idea today that she shouldn’t be in that position. It would be a weak position. And it isn’t.
I was surprised to learn that you didn’t write Marianne’s character from the start as someone assigned to paint Héloïse covertly. What did that discovery in the writing process unlock in the story for you?
When I got the idea, I was like, “Now the movie’s got a chance.” The movie is very full of ideas and has some theory of cinema, but that’s why it should be strongly dramatically charged. The fact that we embodied these problematic [ideas] really is important. The journey of the gaze, the fact that it’s stolen at first, then consensual, then mutual, then…we don’t even know who’s looking at who. It makes it really physical and organic. And also, it’s true that all my films are [thematically] bound with a character having a secret. Usually it lasts until the end, but this time it’s only half an hour of being secretive. The secret becomes this reservoir of what’s going to be said and what’s going to unfold, which felt different.
Unlike Tomboy, where schoolyard bullies embody the antagonistic forces of transphobia and heteronormativity, the villain in Portrait of a Lady on Fire seems to be time and the reality of Héloïse’s marriage on the horizon. Was this always your intent to write a story with a more abstract foe?
Yeah, because I really wanted not to go through the same negotiations and conflicts. I wanted it to be a new journey for the audience. Their love dialogue relies on a new ideal that’s equality. There’s no gender domination because they’re two women. That’s practical. But there’s no intellectual domination. We didn’t play with social hierarchy, either. We know their love is impossible, but we aren’t going to play with that. We aren’t going to try and project them into the future. Some people, the old culture, wants you to do that. Show the taboo, the impossibility, the struggle, the conflict with yourself. And we didn’t want to do that.
Because it’s about what you put in the frame. We’re just looking at what’s possible, that suspension of time, and we know very well the frame. We don’t have to tell you the prospects for these women, especially because it’s set in the past. They’re shitty. Lousy. We’re not going to waste time and put you in that position where you will go through this conflict to tell the same thing, that it’s impossible. The real tragedy is that it is possible, but it’s made impossible—by the world of men, mostly. That’s also why there are no men in the film. It would mean portraying a character whose sole purpose is to be the enemy, which isn’t something that interests me at all. I don’t need to take time to portray that. It’s not generous enough.
Are we to take the shot of Héloise on fire literally? That scene seems to enter such a representational, abstract realm, and then we’re jolted back into the reality of her walks with Marianne with that match cut of her extending a hand.
That [says] a lot about the film. It wants to be very embodied in a very simple but kind of brave [way], not just purely theoretical. She’s really going to be on fire! That was one of the key scenes I had in mind as the compass of the film. If you’re really setting her on fire, you’re setting the bar for the other scenes. They have to be in dialogue with this [moment]. It shouldn’t be this unique thing out of the whole language of the film.
I was so struck by the shot toward the end of the film where Marianne sketches herself in a mirror placed over Héloïse’s nether regions. It’s a masterly composition that also feels like a real thematic lynchpin. Can you describe both how the shot developed intellectually and how you executed it on set?
It’s about where you put the focus. In the mirror, she’s blurry. It’s about trust, about being playful, about going all the way with your ideas. But also, it’s fun. It’s a fun thing to do. Even the difficulty of it makes you think about cinema and how we’re going to do this. It’s a way to always be woke about your craft and having new challenges, solving old questions with new ideas. Really trying to harvest most of the situation of people looking at each other. It’s a very simple [way to] access ideas. She’s portraying herself with this mirror, this woman is naked, and her head is where her sex is. It’s really overt, so you don’t have to think about it. But, still, it’s this idea that’s given to you through a sensation. It should always be about this, I think.
I didn’t think it would be possible to top something like the “Diamonds” scene in Girlhood, but here you have a three-minute scene that features Adèle Haenel reacting to music. How do you go about shooting these scenes in a way that allows the audience to understand the impact the music has on the characters?
For Girlhood, I really tried to think of [the scene] as if it were a scene in a musical. When they start to sing in a musical, [they’re] very strong moments within the characters’ relationships. They’re saying things to each other, and, if they’re dancing, their bodies are expressing themselves. It’s about the music not being the commentary, but really thinking about it like, “Okay, if there was a Fred Astaire film, when would this thing happen? What would it say?” It’s always about the intimacy between the characters and what their bodies can express.
But this is kind of different because it’s the final scene. It unveils the fact that it’s cinema. It’s a shot-reverse shot. At first, you’re looking at Héloïse and Marianne looking at Héloïse. But, at some point, it’s about you the audience looking at Adèle performing. It’s about cinema. It leaves room for you. It’s the same in the “Diamonds” scene in Girlhood; it doesn’t become a clip if suddenly there’s room for the viewer. When we talk about the female gaze, of course it’s about not objectifying women, it’s also about mostly how you experience the journey of the character. You experience it with your body and mind. You’re fully aware. It’s not about you being fully inside the film; it’s about the film being inside you. I think that’s what we can offer.
You’ve talked about needing to develop a new grammar to tell the story of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Now that you have developed it, do you think it will be applicable to other films? Or will you have to reinvent the wheel again?
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is my fourth film, and it felt like a departure. But it’s also a growing of a lot of decisions and myself as a 40-year-old woman. So next time, I never know what I’m going to do next. I really feel like I’ve said all I have to say right now. I feel relieved of something also. And now that we are having this discussion around the film, it puts it in the world. It’s something we share. When you craft a film, it’s really your secret for so long. Now I feel like I’m going to have to find a new secret for myself.
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