Them, Not the Film: Claire Denis and CHOCOLAT Introduce Each Other

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Giulia Boschi in Chocolat

Claire Denis deserves her own adjective. It seems like the least we could do, and on a purely self-interested level, it would be helpful to nail down a shorthand for the elusive mixture of tones, perspectives, and slippery structures that define the French director’s work. Her consensus masterpiece, Beau Travail, takes an immersive, otherworldly emotional landscape and then ends on a note that’s completely jarring but somehow immediately perfect. Some might say her style is like Terrence Malick, if Malick were a little less interested in the sacred and a lot more interested in the profane. (Some might say that’d be an improvement). She can be an impressionist, yes, not just between shots and between scenes, but between films. Her work has been tender and it has been transgressive; dragging a friend sight-unseen is a risk if you don’t know your audience. She’s made movies that critical discourse can shoehorn into discussions of genre: thriller (Bastards), horror (Trouble Every Day), or even romantic comedy (last year’s Let the Sunshine In, which I groused about here until I landed in a kind of admiration). But they feel like countries on the same psychic continent.

Her latest release, High Life, is quite a pitch: a Claire Denis dark erotic sci-fi space odyssey starring Robert Pattinson—a mixture of elements to inspire the essential perversion of cinephile curiosity when everything else out there feels so goddamned expected. And it is, happily, the only excuse the American Cinematheque here in LA needed to mount a weekend retrospective of her work, with Denis in person for two of the screenings. Her appearance at Beau Travail was, alas, sold out before I got to it. But she was also on hand for the Aero’s opening night screening of her 1988 debut Chocolat, which put the then-42-year-old filmmaker on the map after a career as the assistant director for 80s arthouse zeitgeisters like Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch.

Chocolat focuses on a French family in colonial Africa after World War II. Denis had grown up there and then, but though there is a young girl in the family, the story does not belong to her any more than any event ever belongs to a witness. She is a conduit, a child’s-eye-view filter that presents an “exotic” world as the only one you’ve ever known and makes the stuff of melodrama feel like the stuff of memory. Her white mother (Giulia Boschi) navigates an unspoken attraction with their black manservant (Isaach de Bankolé). Meanwhile, the father is often absent, and after a plane has to make an emergency landing nearby, a group of Western outsiders wander into this strange social ecosystem and bring their own (mis)conceptions of Africa with them.

Like Malick’s debut, BadlandsChocolat is the work of a lyricist whose camera had yet to discover its full mobility, and of the films of hers I’ve seen, it’s among the most conventional. But each gorgeous composition moves to the next in a 35mm haze. The narrative alternately offers and withholds, bookended by dreamy flashback transitions that give the story its impact without ever really giving it an ending. The young girl is literally named “France”, and that a film could tip its hand so allegorically and somehow still feel elusive testifies to how much of Denis’ method had already formed. It ends as a deeply complex film about personal and political history that, like her best work, and like life experience itself, presents a variety of contradictions while remaining totally cohesive yet inherently incomplete. “No future and no past” is its climactic line. And then the characters depart, but the camera lingers and finds new subjects. It is all anyone could hope for from a first film—more, even. It is a thing of earned, distinct, and quiet beauty.

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After they settled in on the stage in Santa Monica, the moderator said to Denis, “One of the things I find so remarkable about your movie, considering it’s your first film, is that it has such a wonderful sense of place. I’ve heard the actor Robert Pattinson say that a lot: that what he likes about your movies is that they create these little worlds. Do you feel that way? That even in your first film, what was drawing you to cinema was creating these little worlds?”

“I was not aware at all,” she replied casually. “It’s good not to be aware of such things. The film exists, but I don’t think it’s interesting to be aware of what it means. Maybe after time, something sort of…” She trailed off, and added, with thirty years of retrospect, “I don’t know if I really know Chocolat.”

Artists can often turn down the chance to analyze their art, and for the matter it’s often preferable, especially if the artist works by intuition. “Don’t be aware of what it means” could be the rallying cry of the instinctive; David Lynch, I’m sure, would co-sign. But Denis’ answer felt more honest than evasive. This was not the impishness of Lynch, or the cranky shield of someone like John Ford. In a strange way, the author’s stated uncertainty—in fact, her uncertainty about her uncertainty—left me feeling on some intuitive level that I knew the film more.

She was, in short, a disarmingly open presence. In her responses, I couldn’t detect a trace of showmanship, and I mean that as a compliment. That is, there was no sense that she was playing to a crowd (though she had one), going for laughs (though she got some), or in general basking in the print-the-legend atmosphere that such events can engender. She was there, simply, to be as candid as possible in a language that wasn’t quite her own. It also seemed that the busy publicity tour for High Life had taken a small toll. She arrived with a nasty cold—”I’m coughing and sneezing, I’m a terrible mess” was the first thing she said on stage—and she coughed through her initial answers until someone in the audience got up and handed her a cough drop, eliciting a very gracious “merci beaucoup!”

The moderator presented her with the honor roll of directors she’d worked for before Chocolat, which included not only Jarmusch and Wenders, but Andrei Tarkovsky. He could have just as easily thrown in Dušan Makavejev, whose dangerous cult classic Sweet Movie—now there’s a background in transgressive cinema—was Denis’ first paid gig behind the camera when she was in her 20s. “Working with all those directors was my way of living,” she said. And for a split second, the slightly atilt wording left me wondering whether she meant a professional track or spiritual sustenance before deciding, well, why not both? “I was not sure I would be able to be a director,” she explained. “I wanted to take my time, because I’m slow, and also because I really enjoyed being an assistant director. Totally enjoyed to work for certain directors.”

She then added, quickly and without any audible self-consciousness, “Not with Andrei Tarkovsky…he was really horrible to work with.” (She had done casting on Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, and apparently he had “some cliche about French actresses” that didn’t sit well with her—no elaboration given or asked for).

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Isaach de Bankolé and Cécile Ducasse in Chocolat

Her recollections made taking one’s time as rewarding and inspiring a path to the directors chair as any hype about young hotshots or festival prodigies. Writing her own script had begun when she joined with Wenders and Jarmusch, but Chocolat itself was a long decision in the making:

I thought it was important to me to do my first film in Africa, to pay a tribute to the continent in which I grew up. And it was not easy at that time, at the beginning of the 80s, to finance a first movie, made by a woman, in Africa, because it needed, obviously, trust from the producer but also more money than if I had shot it in a small apartment. So it took me time to find the right person to produce the film.

The core of the film, Denis said, was the family’s servant. The figure of the servant had what she called an “oblique look” on French families: a close but repulsive class dynamic that involved access and intimacy, but not an invitation. Isaach de Bankolé had impressed Denis when she saw him on stage in Paris, and he would become a recurring collaborator of both hers and Jarmusch’s. (You can see him in Night on Earth and Ghost Dog—or, for that matter, everywhere from Casino Royale to Black Panther). His character in Chocolat is largely stoic, and Denis’ insistence on Bankolé confused the producers.

For them, “this guy, almost silent, was not the main part,” she said. “They did not understand why I wanted to bring from Paris this young man. They thought it would be so easy to find any guy in Cameroon, you know? And it was hard to explain, ‘no, this is the center of the film.'” It is a wonderful performance, of the sort that Denis’ film needs: communicating much with very little, and showing how any elusiveness on screen can have emotional clarity when tied to the right human presence.

“It was your first feature,” the moderator said. “It was accepted to premiere in the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival. How did that feel? What did that mean to you at that point in your career?”

“Honestly, I was terrified,” Denis replied. “The Cameroonese people who co-produced the film were very happy, so for that, I was happy. But I thought, ‘I’ve made a film, and maybe no more.’ So I was half dead. I fell asleep during the screening.” The audience laughed. “No, it’s true,” she insisted. “I was so afraid, I fell asleep.”

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Isabelle Huppert in White Material

It befit the evening that Denis’ answers occasionally played out as the sort where candor could so lovingly flip presumptions. Critics saw Chocolat as autobiographical—did she relate to it that way? No, she meant it for the Bankolé character and was inspired by a book by a Cameroonese writer, though personal anecdotes made it in. Her 2009 film White Material, which played as the second half of the double bill, was a return to Africa—were the two films connected? No again, at least not for her. The legendary Agnes Varda had recently passed away—had Varda been an influence on her work? “I think no,” but Denis was happy to praise Agnes as a model for how a woman director could enter the industry, maintain her independence, and never stop.

For all the artists and collaborators from her past that Denis was asked about in detail, there was one she brought up of her own accord: Jacques Rivette, a key filmmaker of the New Wave, whom Denis credited with giving her a decisive push forward. After Chocolat, she co-directed a documentary about Rivette, and in Santa Monica she sang his praise again:

He was trusting his instinct. He wanted everyone to work on the script with him. He was sharing a lot. And I never met anyone who was so much in cinema. It was his life, completely, you know? As we were shooting, a million other films were important for him: a film he had seen, a film he was wishing to see—as if his own film were not the main thing. I was completely amazed.

Something of that democratic spirit found an echo in how Denis discussed her own work. It was not a form of Rivette’s cinephilia; she was the first to admit that she did not arrive at filmmaking through the cinematheque the way that Rivette, the former critic, had. But the aspect of a director’s life that she returned to was that of the communal undertaking and the bonds that form therein.

White Material came from a partnership with Isabelle Huppert, and when asked what she got out of working with Huppert, Denis answered, in a word, “love.” “If I see some clip of White Material, I see the little Isabelle with a pink dress and I am almost in tears,” Denis said. “She was probably the only one apart from the Cameroonese crew who never complained…She was always happy to do everything.” Asked directly how she thought of Chocolat now, her response had nothing to do with the movie as it existed on screen, or with a moment in her career, or with industry war stories that are now old enough to laugh at. Instead, she immediately talked about Chocolat as one might share a photo album:

For me now, I know the little girl in the film. She is a mother, she has children, she’s a veterinarian. Isaach de Bankolé is still a great friend of mine. He is a very important person in my life. Giulia Boschi is no more an actress. She’s teaching Chinese in Italy. It’s because of those actors that the film touched me…When I think of the film, I think of them. Not of the film.

It is, I think, a lovely takeaway from a film, or from a lifetime of filmmaking, and it speaks to the human element that informs even her darkest films. As much as any movie and more than most, Denis’ explorations require fellow travelers: collaborators who will give something of themselves to the camera, something that the film needs, and something that, as Rivette would be the first to say, does not and cannot belong to the director alone. From where Denis was sitting, that aspect of the process may be what matters the most and lasts the longest.

“The relation with a film, it’s strange,” she said. “It’s full of regrets, full of memories…” She paused, either because she was searching for the right word or because here, at this moment, was something she’d prefer to keep to herself. Then, finally: “It’s done.” A way of living, certainly.

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High Life, Claire Denis’ English-language debut, came out in theaters in April and will hit the web in June. Chocolat is only on disc and currently not available on any major streaming platform. Too much gets left behind.

Next Door to Prestige 2: A Year in Search of a Center

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It was the stuff P.R. disasters are made of: a move that was intended to accommodate everybody and ended up pleasing no one. That about sums up the Academy’s decision, back in August, to announce a new “Best Popular Film” category. The internet became a hornet’s nest. If you were the sort of fan upset that Nolan’s Batman movies got shut out from top honors, creating a new category looked condescending. If you didn’t care for blockbusters, it looked like a vulgar concession. If you knew Oscar history, it looked absurdly unnecessary (JawsStar WarsE.T., and Avatar were all nominated). And if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t care about the Oscars at all until they start recognizing Claire Denis and Tsai Ming-Liang, the transparent, ratings-hungry desperation made your eyes roll even harder.

The decision was reversed following a public outcry, but more followed. Kevin Hart was set to host—withdrawn, due to ugly Tweets. The Academy said it would cut down on the broadcast of some of the awards to save time—withdrawn, due to backlash from the film community. (Though IndieWire has admirably compiled an oral history of how that decision wasn’t exactly what we all thought it was). The corker was that the new “Best Popular Film” category was yanked before they even announced what, exactly, a “popular film” is—never mind that the definition of “a popular film” (hell, of “a film” in general) is increasingly worth debating.

The Oscars are in no small part about symbolism, and I’ve gone back and forth about how much that symbolism should mean, especially since the Academy follows rather than leads. The 2015 #OscarsSoWhite controversy drew attention to the very real uphill battle of ethnic minorities and women filmmakers to get their due in Hollywood. If the numbers had gone a different way, and Ava DuVernay and her cast had gotten nominated for Selma—surely no less deserving than, say, The Imitation Game—it’s impossible to imagine the same firestorm. But would their nominations have actually fixed anything? Would it have just been optics? Or, for this annual pomp-and-circumstance of What Our Movies Mean, are optics enough?

It’s fair to say that anyone who thinks the Oscars matter, or wants them to, has an Oscars of their own. Should it be more populist? More cinephiliac? More youth-oriented? More inclusive? The Academy has one foot in advertising, one foot in inside baseball, and one foot in aesthetic judgment, which is already more feet than a person can handle. Early in 2018, when The Shape of Water was the frontrunner, Bill Maher’s panel on Real Time took a moment to tweak the Academy’s choices. “The movies are not what America is watching,” said Maher. Conservative pundit Erick Erickson nodded along, pointing to the snub for The Dark Knight and adding, “What Hollywood thinks are the greatest movies—they’re not what my family goes to see.” And the sense I get is that, rather than telling them to fuck off back to their respective media outlets, the Academy takes such criticism very seriously.

So given that the Oscars are symbolic, and that the nature of its symbolism is fleeting, hyperbolic, and overdetermined, I still can’t think of a more evocative symbol for Hollywood cinema in 2018 than the Academy’s string of controversies: the old-school tribute to What Our Movies Mean cycling awkwardly through ideas to try and keep people from going away. The Oscars are Hollywood P.R., that much has always been true—but it’s hard to do P.R. when it’s uncertain what you should be doing P.R. for.

This was a weak year for movies, people keep telling me. And you should take that with a grain of salt because a) anecdotal evidence means little, b) my sample size is small, and c) people in Hollywood tell me that almost every year. Is it true? I don’t think so, no—2018 was just a year when you had to keep your ear to the ground to find your cinema. It offered a wealth of worthy titles, especially for international films and documentaries, which are where some of the snubs sting the most. American movies were no slouch, but for what it’s worth, eight of my top ten of 2017 were English-language American productions or co-productions. For 2018, that number is four—one of which is the completion of a much older movie, and two of which were released by Netflix.

Indeed, 2018 should go down as the year when Netflix truly came of age as a studio, even if there’s still a major question mark over what it can be. There’s Roma, yes, but don’t miss that Cuaron’s sensation—getting flattened by hype, as all good Oscar contenders are—is just one of at least a half dozen worthy films that went straight from prestigious festivals to your TV. Many reliable prognosticators are predicting Roma for Best Picture, which would be historic on two major counts. It would be the first time a streaming service has won Best Picture, which is something I’d assumed would happen eventually. And it would be the first time that Best Picture has ever gone to a foreign language film, which is something I’d assumed would never happen at all. Even a Best Director win, which looks like more of a lock, would be unprecedented—but then, precedent isn’t exciting people in the LA bubble as much as it has before. So with no regrets about spending 2018 at the movies, and as someone who thinks the Oscars can/should matter (if not in the way they intend to), I look forward to tuning in Sunday night—intrigued by how we just might have year so messy that a safe bet can be placed on something that has never happened before.

My 10 favorite films of 2018:

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10. Happy as Lazzaro (Alice Rohrwacher, Italy)

During the opening of Alice Rohrwacher’s dreamy new film, you may find yourself wondering what year it is. Hang onto that thought. The fantasy that unfurls from there is like a tour through a half-century of Italian history—and Italian cinema—with the eternal Holy Fool at its center and both magic and realism impinging around the edges. Its ending is simultaneously too direct and too metaphorical to suit me, but that’s a small quibble in the face of a pilgrimage with such entrancing textures and compelling ideas. It won Best Screenplay at Cannes and was picked up by Netflix. Sadly, they never gave it much of an offline push. Happily, it’s available to watch right now.

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9. Zama (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina)

Like Herzog filtered through the eye of Jacques Tati, Martel delivers an absurdist historical portrait of “the new world”, full of tart, frustrated irony. Is it about colonization? An emasculated warrior? The lives of men and women? The values of an invented country? Yes, yes, yes, and yes—and its sense of politics and adventurism builds to a line that a freshly “conquered” continent deserves: “I do for you what no one did for me. I say no to your hopes.”

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8. The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles, US)

The unlikely repertory event of the year: the restoration of a notoriously unfinished film, released by a streaming service that isn’t exactly known for cinephilia, and arriving with the hype of a filmmaker who has a greater stature in death than anyone could possibly have among the living. There is a lot to unpack from this kamikaze film, and its accessibility to any cineaste with an internet connection can speed up years of debate on what is, at first glance, impenetrable editing chaos. It’s a work of acidic contempt for movies and the whole frenzy that surrounds them: the money, the fans, the myths, the endless doomed attempts to stay relevant. But “contemptuous” is not the same as “unfeeling”, and this mockumentary’s paranoid number of cameras snap plenty of pure, honest emotions—which is part of its warning. Its arrival is like the Hollywood ghosts of bygone eras rattling their chains at you.

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7. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel & Ethan Coen, US)

What starts out looking like one of the Coen brothers’ most pointless films turns out to be among their most purposeful: a Death-and-the-West compendium from pop culture junkies and natural born storytellers who shine to the mythic potential of the American heartland. Stick with it. It expands and enriches as it goes along, adding soul, casting doubt on fatalism, combining philosophy with cheek, and making clear at the end that, for the Coens, the thrill was always in the telling.

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6. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, US)

Aside from a comedy, a thriller, and the best script Lee has had in years, this is something else: a movie about movies, from the open racism of Birth of a Nation to the Confederate nostalgia of Gone with the Wind to the rumblings of blaxploitation. If you take it as a straight comedy/thriller, it’s solid if imperfect. As a pastiche of politics, pop culture, and varying degrees of (un)reality, it achieves a lucid agitation about the pleasures that movies offer and the pitfalls in trusting them too much. Funny, frightening, and rousing, willing to bait controversy and deserve it. No American film of the year is as worth debating.

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5. Dead Souls (Wang Bing, China)

Of our major documentarians, Wang Bing is the most uninterested in hooking you with technique. No montages, no music, no reenactments, no stunts, no jazzy editing, just a dedication to testimony that’s as pure and potent as anything in cinema today. For a filmmaker so intent on bearing witness to political sins, Wang comes off not as a firebrand, but simply as a humanist, which is radical enough on its own. This one is heavy lifting: at eight hours, it was the longest film to ever play Cannes, and I spent much of it fearing that Wang was using an extreme duration for sheer volume rather than scope. But his method is to create form out of formlessness, and the interviews he saves for last make it hurt even more. It played at the Hammer Museum in LA for one illuminating, emotionally draining day, and will be more widely available soon (I hope) however eight-hour documentaries are.

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4. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-Eda, Japan)

This comedy-drama about a family of petty criminals struck a chord in Japan (where it outgrossed Infinity War) and with the Cannes jury (who gave it the top prize) before landing in the States as a hot ticket at the arthouse. Kore-Eda wouldn’t make a film with just one idea, but the spirit of Shoplifters is closest to the jocular father figure, who seems aware of every human shame and hardship and is willing to forgive it all. It’s beautifully drawn, warm in its view of people but critical of their circumstance. It makes you wonder how long outlaw humanism can last without betraying itself. And it’s determined to find a way to forgive it anyway.

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3. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, UK/US)

Lanthimos hits Oscar gold by finding the juicy spot between familiar prestige and batshit insanity. But what’s most surprising about the film is that, beneath the viciousness and gleeful obscenity, lies a tenderly felt sympathy for the pains of female competition. Colman is the heart and soul of both a satire and a love story. No comedy or drama of 2018 has a sadder final act—you yearn for them to all be happy together.

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2. Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, South Korea)

In a way, it would be a shame to let any review of Burning say anything about the plot: better to let the viewer start the film, with the camera tailing the main character, and then follow along wherever it goes in terms of texture, theme, and even genre. Lee’s mournful, literally incendiary thriller about a lost generation is rich in unsettled mystery, but lucid and impassioned in its view of a system that can swallow people up and leave no trace.

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1. Roma (Alfonso Cuaron, Mexico)

Cuaron’s use of the long take continues to conjure a world spreading out in all directions, and it allows the simplest of plots—an unwanted pregnancy, an imploding marriage—to find a social and personal context with fragments of lives criss-crossing through the frame. The festival awards, the hype, the cinephiles lining up early outside the Nuart, the Oscar nods, the backlash, the backlash to the backlash—personally, I’ve been waiting for something like this for a decade. A streaming service has produced the year’s best film, and in doing so has proved how much we still need theaters.

Short Cuts: SHOPLIFTERS

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In the opening scene of Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Shoplifters, a father and son commit the titular crime. They move quickly through a grocery market, mindful of lines of sight, slipping food quietly into a backpack and leaving without paying. In the next scene, the father stops to buy croquettes for himself and the boy—a spontaneous and lawful treat, spending what little money they have to celebrate nothing in particular. And there you have the duality that drives them: a mixture of generous spirit and disregard for social ethics. After all, the father might ask, how bad is a theft if its net impact is more good than harm? It’s thorny logic already, and it will become even thornier when, before long, they “shoplift” something altogether larger: a child.

She is a young girl, barely old enough to go to school, who has run away from an abusive home. They spot her huddling in the cold, and feeling that she’d be better off with them, they decide not to return her to her parents. What they can offer is a spot in a loving but particularly makeshift family. Crammed together in poverty, their exact genetic relations (or lack thereof) are teased out subtly, and any titles—father, son, sister, mother, grandmother—are unofficial enough to deserve asterisks.

But they get by, skimming extra money in ways that range from disreputable to illegal, all of which the film greets with a beautiful warmth, humor, and charity. The mother steals from her job at a laundry. The grandma grifts pension checks and lies to her wealthier relatives. The college-age sister performs at a peep show, where Kore-Eda is characteristically non-judgmental to both the women who work there and the men who pay them. And the son teaches his new “little sister” the art and science of petty larceny, even if he’s getting old enough to start to Figure Things Out for himself. This is a family’s worth of character arcs, but the film may be most closely defined by the endlessly cheerful father figure: a small, humble, even childish man who seems doggedly aware of every human weakness and shame and has determined to assuage them all. By the time they all have a lovely reverie on the beach, you might wonder how long such outlaw humanism can possibly last. How long before it contradicts or even betrays itself?

When they have to break a window to commit their next crime, even a single pane of shattered glass feels jarringly like a breach of their code. Twists, conflicts, and revelations tumble out from there, muddying the plot, which isn’t a good thing, but complicating the humanism, which is—especially since the film’s idealistic sympathy remains steadfast, even as its instability is exposed. Back home in Japan, the film has been a hit and a controversy. Over here, Kore-Eda’s patience alone would throw him into the arthouse corner, never mind the subtitles. But a lot of what he has to say (about the importance of family, the supremacy of love over blood ties, the lessons that children can teach adults) would be perfectly suited to anything made by Hollywood. What makes it delicate is the nature of his storytelling style, the way he doesn’t insist upon action so much as let the characters take root and then steadily grow into it. There are threads in Shoplifters that arise and resolve with the directness of a Dickensian melodrama, and others whose ideas float unanswered. The final shot returns to the girl, who by the end is in a more uncertain place than ever. It is a graceful coda. It resolves nothing at all. But its placement, and tentative calm, open the film to how much lies ahead.

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Shoplifters won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and is up for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards this weekend. You can rent it now on iTunes.

Capsules: January 2019

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Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the time or revisited after many years.

Husbands (John Cassavetes, 1970)

Husbands announces itself as “A Comedy About Life, Death and Freedom”, and “Comedy” may actually be the most ambitious word in there, as it’s a term that Cassavetes could only ever use loosely. This one’s more an absurdist drama, where the unruly excess of his characters—either the stuff of life or the stuff of acting workshops—is necessary for the moments where pure, crystalline, vulnerable emotional truth rises up out of it. A potent look at men who emasculate themselves just by clinging desperately to manliness. It sets out to feel like the days and nights you’re ashamed of. It succeeds.

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*****

Boxcar Bertha (Martin Scorsese, 1972)

This Corman-produced hothouse gangster flick is considered Scorsese’s nadir, and rightly so. (According to history/lore, Cassavetes turned to Scorsese and politely told him he’d spent a year of his life making “a piece of shit”, prompting young Marty to regroup). The script is thin and porous, and there are only trace amounts of Scorsese’s flair with editing and camerawork—at least before the germ gets loose in the red-bloody-Catholic finale. Until then, it’s drifting actors, indifferent grindhouse luridness, wonky plotting, and home movie staging. But its mediocrity should be inspiring, both for directors and those who follow them. After all, the next stop was Mean Streets.

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*****

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki, 1984)

Miyazaki’s manga-turned-movie is by any standard—in suspense, intrigue, world-building, visual design—a top-notch action sci-fi movie in a decade full of them. If you come at it from a reverse Totoro, you may miss the Wonderland/Narnia effect he can get by leaving one foot in reality. But the construction of Nausicaä makes a strong case for Miyazaki as one of better epic filmmakers of his era: lean, grand, purposeful, imaginative, with his eco-pacifist morality feeling somehow both idealistic and worldly.

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*****

Made in U.S.A. (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966)

Godard’s kiss-off to making “fun” movies is, ironically, one of his most inviting, maybe because it goes full looney, or because it makes no less sense than a normal noir, or because Godard’s typically dense set of allusions is so very American. This is Godard trying to reconcile our country’s best absurdities (his favorite B-movies) with our worst, creating an immediate, accessible, and pleasurable pinpoint of the exact moment he fully swapped genre for radical politics. And Anna Karina, watching as tears go by, makes a wonderfully animated plucky detective.

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*****

Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)

Third time’s the charm, I guess. After being unmoved twice in film school—first finding it an impenetrable object, second a po-mo intellectual stunt—catching Contempt in a theater ten years later finally did it. How close can a cinephile get to their dream world without killing their muse? Suppose they took the muse for granted? Suppose the muse didn’t want to be a muse, but had her own desires in life? There are multitudes here, possibly the best film about selling out, drawn from big themes and little games so private that it helps to have basked in Godard (and his own cinephile heroes) to feel it. And “feel” is the operative word.

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

Baraka (Ron Fricke, 1992)

I’ve heard some viewers watch this ambitious, eye-popping documentary and feel at one with the universe. I can report no such awakening, except to emerge with renewed appreciation for grand cinematic undertakings and the power of the image. A lot of its cosmic metaphors are elementary, though that doesn’t make them untrue. My main hang-up is that I’m not sure how I feel about turning real individuals into symbolic props. But between the scale and the CinemaScope frame, this is its own kind of epic cinema, where the sets and synchronized crowds are provided by the world itself. For movie buffs, an astounding trip and a lucid tone poem—even for those who find that term uninviting.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Short Cuts: ROMA

ROMA

Alfonso Cuarón loves the long take, and it’s fair to say the long take loves him back. What excites in his use of tracking shots isn’t that he merely shows off—looking at you, Iñárritu—but that the motion and the action conjure up a larger world beyond the edges of the frame. The Mexico of Y Tu Mamá También and the future dystopia of Children of Men spread out in all directions—it’s all the camera can do to gulp in as much as possible, and for the script to try and keep up. Then, of course, there is Gravity, Cuarón’s trip to outer space, where “all directions” has an altogether more alarming meaning. It was also boxed in by his narrowest, stiffest sense of narrative and character. Whether you loved Gravity as a technical achievement or hated it as a collection of lousy monologs, you were right.

With Roma, he’s come back down to earth, dialing down the pyrotechnics but maintaining the expansiveness for his most ambitious and glorious film yet. There is story in Roma: a year in the life of Cleo, a Mexico City maid; the imploding marriage of her employer; an unwanted pregnancy where the father bolts. But there are hardly enough plot points to fill 135 minutes on their own, and a solid half hour goes by before anything like dramatic conflict. What we have instead are an accumulation of incidents and sensations that place its most basic of stories into a series of social, personal, political, and vaguely mystical contexts. Roma has set-pieces—a forest fire breaks out, dissidents riot in the street. Yet its eye is just as informed by the way that, say, the contents of a drawer or the leftover glasses on a table are worthy of a CinemaScope composition.

“It oozes with life!” the heroine of Y Tu Mamá También cried, providing her movie with its mission statement. Roma oozes with life too, only no longer from the point of view of wired juveniles but from a more somber place of memory. The frenetic tracking shot has been replaced with a slow pan; the camera absorbs the action while being seemingly indifferent to the speed of the people in front of it. Planes forever fly overhead, reminding you of an outside world that the heroine, whose economic status keeps her a supporting player in so much of her own life, may never get to explore. The film closes, perfectly, with Cleo’s best friend approaching her and excitedly saying “I have so much to tell you.” As the two disappear together, we don’t know what needed to be told, or why it was so urgent. But the world of the film continues, even as the film ends.

Here on prime display is the sort of storytelling that makes film distinct from other arts; adapting even Roma‘s most incidental moments to prose would require a hell of a writer. Inevitably, all this talk of style and drama-through-immersion arrives at one of the film’s main fascinations: namely, that it’s released by Netflix, despite being slow, reliant on atmosphere, and essentially not what online binge-views are made of. Just from the opening credits alone—a hushed, three-minute Tarkovsky ape to set the pace—I wondered how easy it would be for a curious audience to start fidgeting in a living room full of distractions. But the prestige has also given Netflix cause for their biggest theatrical push. Find it on the big screen, and the visuals and especially the sound design create a flow of hypnotic environments. The festival awards, the hype, the cinephiles lining up early outside the Nuart, the Oscar nods, the backlash, the backlash to the backlash, the (worthwhile) debate over bourgeois politics—personally, I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen for a decade. A streaming service has produced one of the buzziest cinematic events of the year. And in the process, they’ve proved how much we still need theaters.

✬✬✬✬✬

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Roma is now streaming on Netflix and playing in select cinemas.

Short Cuts: THE FAVOURITE

the-favourite

Over Thanksgiving, The Favourite arrived in American theaters with the strongest box office premiere of any limited release of 2018, and it’s been off to the races to since then. It comes as no surprise that Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film hit the ground running for awards season; I hadn’t seen it yet, but had been at the theater when the trailer played for an Oscar-inclined audience, and you could feel the responsiveness every time. On the one hand, you had the sort of British period piece with familiar appeal but typically too safe to muster any urgency. On the other, you had the sense that a necessary germ of madness had been introduced, infecting the 18th century court with comic perversity and chilly danger—hence the delicious pitch of Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as two cathartically devious aristocrats competing for the favo(u)r of Olivia Colman as a cathartically unhinged queen.

By the time its release expanded over Christmas, I got a text from my aunt asking me about the film, because she and her sisters had gone to see it and had found it “a bit odd.” This struck me as notable for two reasons: first, because calling a Lanthimos film “a bit odd” initially seemed like the polite understatement of the year; and second, because my extended family was texting me about the disturbing director of Dogtooth and The Killing of a Sacred Deer in the first place. But then, hasn’t Lanthimos been a clever courtier himself, leaping to greater opportunities, big stars, and the red meat of the English-language market? I know poor souls who even watched The Lobster with their parents, having no idea what they were getting into. So maybe “a bit odd” isn’t an understatement after all. We’re in surreal territory by any sensible standard, but by Lanthimos’s, this is among his tamest and most appealingly open films—a calculation that means something artistically as well as financially. If it’s struck gold, it did so by finding a juicy sweet spot between traditional prestige and total insanity, and then mining it exquisitely.

The film’s schema for weirdness isn’t terribly complicated: dialogue as cleverly refined as the next battle of wits, only punctuated with the word “cunt”, plus wide-angle lenses that make the 1700s pop with spastic alien energy. What elevates it is that, intertwined with all the comedic viciousness, lies an empathy for the world of female competition—and on that count, Weisz, Stone, and Colman deserve to be credited as coauthors. Colman especially: she is the heart and soul of both its satire and its longing, the seat of power and somehow the least glamorous role.

Men are there, of course: secondary comforts at best, total brutes at worst, and most often resources, obstacles, or mosquitos with erections. But the women carry their own public and private faces and their own means of moving up and down the hierarchy. Naturally, they have their own taboos to indulge as well—this is a homoerotic love story, and indeed it’s hard to imagine any other type of love being as pure within the world of the film. Even before it becomes explicit, Weisz’s domineering hold over Colman clearly has a tangle of affection mixed in. As for Stone, she’s the long-suffering interloper, experienced with the mercilessness of the bottom rung and more than ready to play her hand when forced. We don’t have to fight anymore, she says triumphantly to Weisz near the end, and it registers as a peculiarly honest, brazenly optimistic, and even vulnerable sentiment, particularly given what came before. Weisz, for reasons no one could blame, rejects it, setting the stage for perhaps the saddest final act of any drama in 2018.

The Favourite‘s most valuable perversity, then, is one of its most unexpected: its tenderness. The film’s schematic pleasures would be hollow without it, or else end up in the corner with films whose contrary nature and ruthless cleverness far exceed their substance. But tenderness exists in the film, and it is expressed, exploited, guarded, and ultimately snuffed in an unnerving finale that grinds up dynamics of the heart in the dynamics of power—which is what these sorts of stories generally aspire to in the first place. All this is based on real-life figures; I’m not sure how much of it comes from solid historiography, and more to the point, I’m not sure the filmmakers care. It could just as easily be set in a past dreamt up by Lubitsch or Sternberg (to pick two telling examples), and its humor, provocations, observations, betrayals, and pains would mean precisely the same. As the three leading ladies navigate Lanthimos’s own dreamt up past, rightly confident that a germ of madness can beat sanity at its own game, the most lasting impression is as classical as tragedy gets: you yearn, in vain, for some way they could have a happy ending.

✬✬✬✬✬

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The Favourite is in select theaters now. I will, emphatically, not be going around recommending Dogtooth at the next reunion.

Short Cuts: COLD WAR

cold-war

In 2015, back when he won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for Ida, Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski played chicken with the Academy orchestra. He was at the microphone for his acceptance speech for less than sixty seconds when they started to play him off—but, full of good spirit, he spoke over the music and kept on thanking. The orchestra music climbed higher and higher until it had nowhere else to go. With an audible sense of confusion, the musicians stopped playing completely. The audience laughed. The Academy’s bluff had been called. Pawlikowski finished his thank you’s, saving his family for last, and made a triumphant exit.

Having seen his new film, Cold War, that acceptance speech is still my favorite thing he’s done.

While Ida was (and is) celebrated, I remained a tepid non-fan. I chalked up its success with the Academy to it fitting the platonic ideal of what too many people think an “art film” is—a platonic ideal that’s 50 years old by now, and that Ida didn’t transcend. It had a stately topic and looked beautiful, but what it had to say felt undistinguished, and its choice to frame every lovely image off-center was more an affectation than a meaningful style.

Cold War, which won the Best Director prize at Cannes and opened in the US this month, continues with most of the same virtues and vices, even though it is the more interesting film. It tells a love story criss-crossing the Iron Curtain, as two Polish musicians (Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot) move back and forth between the East and the West during the Stalin era. In the Soviet bloc, they’re subject to censorship and violent bureaucratic insanity. Abroad, they are dislocated. He feels unsatisfied with his lower place on the cultural ladder. She chafes at being seen as exotic by condescending Westerners. And so they search for some place and some way to be happy together. The film drops in and out of their lives, jumping ahead years between scenes, with each point in space and time marked by a different style of musical performance.

It is a fine structural conceit, but the result is curiously arid. She is the woman of my life, the hero insists, though the film captures neither the expression of passion nor the pain of it being held in. The two lovers argue, split, and embrace in the streets, but they register less as desperately emotional beings and more like models in a high-end, glossy black-and-white magazine ad. (An ad for what? Maybe cologne, or perfume, or a fashion line—in high-end ads, they don’t even have to show the product). Part of this thinness may have to do with length. Cold War aims to span decades and phases of life in under 90 minutes. And while master impressionists can and have flipped through time with both historical acumen and emotional pain, Pawlikowski’s execution feels like holes of causality have been punched out. Just to be strict but fair, I set it alongside other Cannes-feted, critically-raved films that cover similar thematic ground, like The Double Life of Veronique and Nostalghia—and Cold War looks all the more cursory and prosaic by comparison.

This is not, however, to say that Cold War is entirely unrewarding for arthouse hangers-on, but rather that its rewards almost entirely skim the surface: a resonant historical setting, immediate melodrama, literal metaphors, and pictorial beauty. The main exception is Joanna Kulig’s wonderful performance itself. She dredges up what’s unspoken in her character, and only a fool could deny a moment as exquisite as Kulig’s lonely, jaded heroine whipping her hair to rockabilly to try and squeeze every bit of consolation out of freedom that she can. But now that Cold War is short-listed for another Best Foreign Film Oscar, I can’t help but wonder why such definitions of “cinematic art” can’t be richer or more daring. And why movies about the trauma of the past arrive here with hype that smells vaguely like nostalgia.

✬✬✬✩✩

*********

Cold War is open in select arthouses, with more to come. In case you’re curious about that Oscar speech, here it is.

Short Cuts: THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

the_ballad_of_buster_scruggs

In the Coen brothers’ last movie, Hail, Caesar!, George Clooney played a kidnapped movie star who wound up in the thrall of blacklisted Communist screenwriters. “They’ve figured out the laws that dictate everything,” he gushes bumblingly at the end, once he’s retuned to the studio. “It’s all in a book called ‘Kapital’, with a ‘K’.” He’s summarily slapped upside the head and pushed back in front of the cameras.

His excitement about answers is a telling moment, and not because the Coens’ work is particularly Marxist or anti-Marxist. Indeed, nailing down the philosophy of their movies is a good deal more complex, more frustrating, and more fun. Their films are loaded with symbols and “isms”, enigmas and portents, references to politics and myth and the Bible, but all handled with the puckishness of natural born storytellers (and, on occasion, inveterate class clowns) who’d sooner shrug it off than cop to an academic reading. But what they have been, time and again, are our most affable chaoticians: from Blood Simple to Fargo to Burn After Reading to A Serious Man, their films return to a fiendish vendetta against anyone, on their side of the screen or ours, who presumes they’ve “figured out” what’s going on—or what’s going to happen next.

In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, their new film for Netflix, the spinning of such tales is itself a central theme. Even by Coen standards, Buster Scruggs is an odd bird: an anthology of six vignettes set in Old West, dotted with balladeer heroes and framed as short stories found in a musty cloth-bound book. At first, the cartoonishness of the film is so out of sync with its own literary framing device that I wondered if the Coens really had turned into the cheap, heartless ironists their detractors always claimed. The opening two chapters don’t have narratives so much as characters who are established and then promptly dispatched: first a sociopathic singing cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson), and then a lone bandit (James Franco) who might have borrowed his coat from Sergio Leone. To the extent that these first thirty minutes, in a vacuum, mean anything at all, it’s mainly to take old movie archetypes and drop them into a vision of the West where death is not only brutal, but sudden and arbitrary. Such ultraviolent genre revisionism has been done before, better and deeper. And as for the Coens’ vision of the West, it starts out so thin that I had to wonder if thinness was the point. (If they actually went to Monument Valley, they opted to make it look like a digital matte painting).

That curiosity should be nurtured, because the film expands and gets richer as it goes along. Its subject is death, or the eternal threat of it, as viewed through American mythology. And by the end, this idea has picked up nuance, added thematic complexities, transitioned from looney-tune comedy to pathos, hinted at self-reflexivity, and opened itself to the possibility that even if death is inevitable, fatalism needn’t be so absolute. I can’t, for the life of me, sympathize with the criticism that it feels like stitched-together TV episodes. This is a clear case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, a steady progression whose stories shade one another and allow meaning to flourish in the cracks between them. The passage with Tom Waits is perhaps the most soulful work in a filmography where genuine, intimate soulfulness is rather rare. Zoe Kazan’s chapter is the longest and most densely plotted, and thus saved for near the end, as if the initial thinness of the film has thickened enough to tell it. And the corker is the finale, a single scene of darkly comic dialogue that, depending on how you read it, is either a trip to the underworld or an ordinary stagecoach ride where waning light and a good narrator can play tricks on your imagination.

It wouldn’t do to read too much wisdom into Buster Scruggs—or too little. In fact, either one seems disrespectful to a morbid compendium whose climax is an on-screen storyteller flashing a grin and saying “How would I know?” But if this is how smart-asses (now in their 60s) approach the concept of mortality, it’s mature and haunting, one of the most eccentric and gnawing surprises of 2018. And as it reaches a resolution, it makes it clear that if you’re looking for a lesson from the film, or from the Coens, it’s that the thrill was always in the telling.

✬✬✬✬✩

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs went straight to Netflix after stopping off at the Venice Film Festival to win the award for Best Screenplay. In a rare touch of class, Netflix doesn’t shrink the player until all the credits have rolled.

Short Cuts: A STAR IS BORN

star-is-born

I was interested in the new A Star is Born for a simple reason: it seemed like a deeply uncool movie to make. The story is something like Hollywood’s equivalent of Romeo & Juliet: one doesn’t walk into any iteration of A Star is Born expecting narrative surprises—or, for that matter, any type of hip, ironic savvy. It’s a weepie and a melodrama, rooted in an (imagined?) cinematic past where the former term existed and the latter wasn’t a dirty word. You know how it goes: a star at the peak of his fame falls in love with a struggling ingenue and helps launch her to the stratosphere. Only as her star rises, his falls, and a mixture of alcoholism, jealousy, and the cruel machinations of fame destroy their happily-ever-after. Here, they are a country musician played by Bradley Cooper (also directing and co-writing) and Lady Gaga (fairly new to acting, and thus the closest thing to an ingenue ever trusted with the part) as a girl with a heart of gold and a voice to match.

“Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,” Cooper warbles sincerely, though the movie itself might disagree. There is a modern sheen here, from YouTube to synth beats to updated sexual politics. But it hews to an old-fashioned ideal of what a Hollywood movie should be: this is real you’ll-laugh-you’ll-cry stuff, going big on unironic emotions, putting star power front and center, doubling down on any cliches, and leaning happily on the modern fairy tale conceits that can lift a Cinderella into a world of riches, true love, and artistic validation in the span of a week. I have far more use for L.G.’s transformation into an actress than B.C.’s into a singer, though the fact that each of them is trying on new hats has let them pull off a nifty show-biz trick of being known quantities and underdog revelations at the same time. If you walk out after the first 45 minutes, you’ll have seen the friendliest, giddiest, most genuinely feel-good movie of the year, and even a hardened cynic might be so swept up by the offhand warmth that they’ll dread what they know is coming. The cynic, then, can take comfort in knowing that Cooper and co. sell the rise better than the fall, and that the spell wavers any time the screen doesn’t have the chemistry of its two already-born stars to rely on.

I’m still not sure, however, that this story actually means anything, or ever has. There are certainly topics this A Star is Born explores. The filters of pop culture authenticity, for one—the difference between sitting alone at the piano and having a laser show with backup dancers. Lady Gaga’s own star persona gets its close-up, from her nose to her status as a Queer icon. And of course, there’s addiction and depression, which Cooper wisely recognizes as a more vital catalyst than jealousy. But there was always a certain exultation of show business inherent in the tragedy on display, not just in this version but in all of them, as if to ask “well, what else is there?” And no A Star is Born has ever really tried to reconcile that paradox when it’s so much more desirable (for them? for us?) to romanticize it instead. So guard yourself, as much as you can, against Sam Elliott’s grizzled metaphor about how all any artist can do is work within “twelve notes and an octave.” Your skepticism will be correct. But if the only way the movie could ever make its point is simply and shamelessly by hooking you, it does. Oh, how it does.

✬✬✬✩✩

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A Star is Born is up for 5 Golden Globes and enjoying a box office afterglow. If you were put off by it, you have two months to make peace with the phrase “Academy Award winner Lady Gaga.”

Short Cuts: THE GUILTY

the-guilty

In which a Danish first-timer with one set, one principle on-screen actor, and a series of phone calls gives most Hollywood thrillers a run for their money. Of course, suspense-mongers in this town have their own history of wringing tension out of minimal elements, from Hitchcock to Fincher. But even the apartment of Dial M for Murder (an average film, if I can be blasphemous) is downright baroque compared to what Gustav Möller cooks up in his feature debut, The Guilty.

The film centers on a Danish police officer (Jakob Cedergren) working the night shift at an emergency dispatch call center, and Möller and company very economically establish two defining traits. First, he’s good at what he does. And second, his experience has left him with a barely veiled contempt for the victims, perps, and fuck-ups he encounters after dark. There is something else, too—a more personal matter quickly hinted at, and then teased out with increasing specificity. But when he gets a call from a woman who’s been abducted, something lights up in him, and he spends a tense 80 minutes of real-time juggling calls to try to get her to safety. At times, he is a Langian figure, a technocrat manipulating the action from afar. At others, he is like Jimmy Stewart in the late passages of Rear Window: the helpless voyeur, able to see everything (or in this case, hear everything) but be too removed to effect it.

The film doesn’t waste a minute of its lean runtime, which is rare enough these days. And if it doesn’t feel constrained, it’s because the direction shows remarkable formal control within the sandbox it’s built for itself. The film knows when to let the stillness of the camera play against the chaos of the audio, when to go handheld, when to draw out the shot, when to suddenly cut—in short, how to tighten the screws for the sort of story that may make you want to close your eyes, but diabolically knows that you can’t so easily close your ears.

The worst I can say is that, underneath this conceptual ingenuity, it is really a rather ordinary film, relying on familiar elements of sensationalism, suspended disbelief, and conventional emotional pivots. It is not empty-headed: its thematic scope expands just when you think it’s narrowing, and it has something on its mind about a society of civil servants who, with all the data at their disposal, may still completely fail the human element. But form and concept are the virtues that linger. The Guilty succeeds at delivering an inventive genre twist far more than landing the lofty grandeur that its title might portend, if only because both feel a bit like show business. Whether it’s a one-off or the start of a career is something only time and maturation will tell. But for now, with an appealing lack of fanfare and expectations, inquisitive audiences can be surprised by a less-is-more thriller that any Friday night moviegoer might be sit up for and any low-budget, idea-hungry director might envy. I got hooked in, and so should you.

✬✬✬✬✩

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The Guilty won the Audience Award at Sundance and is Denmark’s submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. It’s now playing in select theaters—and if the theaters are too select, the people at Magnolia have generously made it available on iTunes for a $7 rental.