Certain Women (US, 2016)

‘Hostage situation? No problem.’

It has taken over twenty years for writer-director Kelly Reichardt to complete seven features; not a terrible average for a mainstream director but an excellent one for someone who ploughs a distinctively indie furrow that doesn’t compromise. Her previous film, Night Moves, was more generic that Certain Women but I much preferred the latter. The film before that, Meek’s Cutoff, was a western filtered through Reichardt’s feminism. I haven’t seen her first four films.

From what I have seen it is clear that Reichardt’s concerned with women’s experiences and Certain Women gives us three tales that, tangentially, cross. Common to all are women’s battles against their lot where the dice are loaded against them by patriarchy. Laura Dern’s lawyer (Laura), in the first tale, finds a recalcitrant client only understands that his situation is hopeless when a male lawyer tells him. She later finds herself trying to talk down this client, who’s holding a hostage at gunpoint. Amongst the wintry landscape, dominated paradoxically by a distant Montana mountain range, there is deadpan humour. When it’s suggested that Laura is not qualified to deal with a hostage situation, the chief of police looks at her and she shrugs and says, ‘Well I’m here!” and goes ahead. Laura finds it difficult to deny men.

‘Why does it have to be so hard?’

Michelle Williams (Gina), in a narrative I struggled to follow somewhat, has to battle the passivity of her husband (who’s being unfaithful to her with Laura) and an alienated daughter. At a party (celebrating the Superbowl?) Gina hands her husband food, he’s watching the game, and he tells her to “stop working” and promptly asks for a beer.

‘I’m successful. Right?’

Kristen Stewart also plays a lawyer; she’s newly qualified and finds herself travelling for eight hours twice a week to deliver an evening class. Stewart’s exhaustion is writ large in the bags under her eyes but she is charismatic enough to catch the attention of a lonely ranch hand; astonishingly played by Lily Gladstone. The nameless ranch hand looks to have Native American Indian ancestry, further reinforcing the western references. You’ll have noticed it is a stellar cast but it is Gladstone that shines the most.

A glowing Gladstone

Like Meek’s Cutoff, Certain Women is a western; or rather a ‘Twilight’ western. The melancholic post-19th century take on the end of America’s ‘manifest destiny’. Trumpism is the complete disavowal, in its insularity, of America as a place of freedom; however, this isn’t a new phenomenon because once the frontier of the ‘wild west’ closed the institutions of society necessarily constrained freedoms. This conflict may explain much of what is wrong with America: from guns to libertarianism.

Reichardt’s ‘certain women’ are trapped by their circumstance as are the men; Laura’s client has been shafted by his company; the second Laura’s husband reeks apathy. After seeing Certain Women I watched Elle for a second time and I was struck more forcibly by the men’s pathetic attitudes. Reichardt’s vision certainly influenced mine.

Girlhood (Bande de filles, France, 2014)

Group therapy

Whilst youth is hardly overlooked in cinema, female protagonists are a minority and if the colour of their skin fails to be white, then western cinema seems barely interested. Hence Girlhood is already a necessary watch given its focus on this double-minority. It’s also important, such is the burden of representation on films that focus on diversity, that they do not misrepresent. Given the writer-director is Céline Sciamma, who’s white and not from the banlieue setting, there might have been a question of authenticity. However, her first feature Water Lilies (Naissance des pieuvres, France, 2007), was also a (minority-gay) girls’ coming of age tale; her next film Tomboy (France, 2011) – which I haven’t seen – similarly focused on teenagers. The fact the film is more about being poor (financially and in education) and female than about ethnicity is appropriate as class and gender, as categories, can be at least as important than race .

That said, I’m not sure why the film didn’t grab me as much as I expected. It’s superbly done with convincing performances but maybe I wasn’t in the mood. Newcomer Karidja Touré, as Marieme, is particularly engaging as she forges her own identity through friendship under the shadow of patriarchy and an uncaring system. I found it difficult to shake La Haine (France, 1995) out of my head – a very different film from the same milieu – which is unfair to Girlhood as it wasn’t trying to be a ‘female’ version of the earlier classic.

Certainly a film worth seeing.

Elle (France-Germany, Belguim, 2016)

Just the ticket

Thrillers are mean to take us out of our comfort zone. If our lives are routine and safe then the urge to feel afraid, whilst in a position of absolute safety, can be a strong one; particularly amongst the young. Director Paul Verhoeven succeeds in creating this discomfort through the visceral portrayal of rape; making us jump in our seats with shocks and squirm in suspense; and, most importantly, he skewers bourgeois ideas by challenging our expectations about women (and reinforcing them, sadly, about men).

That said I’m not sure what say about Elle and that might be the point of the movie. It is a typical Verhoeven film and although I’m not keen on the auteur ‘theory’ in a few cases it is enlightening. His Hollywood films were often provocative: the possible homophobia in Basic Instinct (1992) and misogyny in Showgirls (1995); the sledgehammer satire of Robocop (1987) and Starship Troopers (1997). On the other hand, Black Book (Zwartboek, Netherlands-Germany-UK-Belguim, 2006) was more straightforward in focusing on the wartime thrills and so may it not be ‘typical’ Verhoeven. Which is one of the problems of auteurism: forcing films into preconceptions.

What provocations does Elle offer? The April issue of Sight & Sound has for/against pieces: Ertika Balsom and Ginette Vincendeau respectively. The brilliance of Elle lies, in part, in the fact that both writers are possibly right.

Roland Barthes described ‘readerly’ and ‘writerly’ texts: the former is closed and offers a clear ‘preferred’ reading; the latter is open allowing the reader to ‘write’ their own text; in other words, decide what it means. Elle is a ‘writerly’ film, though all texts are open to an individual’s interpretation some, such as this film, offer much latitude when it comes to trying to pin down meaning.

I suppose, what I am saying, is I’m not sure about what I feel about Elle. And this ambiguous response is what, I think, Verhoeven is after. He’s not offering us pat ideas or a black and white representation of the world but one that requires thought, particularly about areas we don’t necessarily want to think about. At this point stop reading if you haven’t seen the film as spoilers follow and preconceptions about the film are likely to muddy the spectator’s response.

The only preconception I had for the film, apart from the baggage of Verhoeven, was that it was a rape revenge thriller and Huppert was brilliant (of course). I also thought, probably because it was feted at Cannes, it would be more arthouse than commercial. Huppert is brilliant but, even though it started with a rape, it doesn’t follow the revenge trajectory (this rewriting of the genre is one of the most interesting aspect of the film) and whilst it is a commercial film it is far too unsettling for 21st century Hollywood (early ‘70s Hollywood might have made it) and it’s not surprising that Verhoeven could find no A-list actors to pay the Huppert role as he had intended it to be an American film. He had Nicole Kidman in mind; her glassy fragility would have offered a very different performance to Huppert’s indestructible visage. Kidman may have played the character as more neurotic than Huppert which would work against most of the film (or at least the film as it appears with Huppert) but might have made the film’s conclusion more convincing (except I’m not sure he wanted it to be convincing). I apologise for the lack of clarity but ambiguity is the response the film encourages.

Michèle is raped in the first scene and it is surprisingly restrained in the way it’s filmed (for Verhoeven) but that’s only because we return to the event on two more occasions where the restraint is undone. Then Michèle clears up the smashed crockery; doesn’t inform the police; does not tell her friends until a few days later. So it is immediately clear that we are dealing with a very unconventional kind of ‘she’ . This is reinforced when we find she’s the co-owner of a video game company that produces texts that include rape as part of the gameplay. She’s forthright in telling her mother to look her age and not play with toyboys; she also tells her son he’s been duped by his girlfriend and that the baby isn’t his (based on skin colour) while everyone else coos at the newborn. Although she is hard it is clear that she’s also protective of her son. Her decisiveness is clear including the fact that left her husband after he hit her, though they remain friends. This friendship does not stop her gleefully driving into his car when she’s parking next to it.

The rape-revenge tag would suggest that Michèle would spend the film tracking down her assailant but while she does take measures to seek out who assaulted her, this isn’t the prime narrative thrust. We are observing her life in the aftermath of the rape and we’re not invited to like her; she’s having an affair with her best friend’s husband, and her sexual tastes appear to be unconventional (which may make her more likeable – that depends upon you). She’s a member of the bourgeoisie, classical music is prominent in her home and she gives dinner parties. Some commentators have mentioned the film’s debt to Bunuel in the portrayal of these parties but they owe more to soap opera, with their bickering, than surrealism. The point is that, other than her friend Anna, there are no wholly likeable characters in the film; a bit like real life then. The men, in particular, are pretty rancid and it ironic that the weakest of them all should be the one that… That’s a spoiler too far.

Motivation for Michèle’s refusal to engage the police is explained through her serial killer father who was caught when she was 10; she was even implicated in the psychotic slaughter of 27 people. Her father, who’s seeking parole 40 years after the event, killed after he was preventing from blessing the children of the village. The Catholic faith also looms in the devoted neighbour who wants to watch the Mass at midnight on Christmas Eve during one of Michèle’s parties; at least one of which was thrown to get at her ex-husband’s new (younger) girlfriend.

As you can see, there’s lots going on but it is adeptly welded together until the final scenes. As a thriller it’s very effective: I jumped three times which is a record for me in my fifties. However, the ending… pat resolutions abound so much so that I doubt Verhoeven believes we should take them seriously and the last shot, of a reconciled Anna and Michèle deciding to live together, walking arm in arm though a cemetery must be a joke… isn’t it?

 

Ida (Poland-Denmark-France-UK, 2014)

In the bleak midwinter

It’s taken me a while to catch up with this extraordinary film and I have to berate myself for not seeing it in the cinema such is the power of the visual imagery. The image above is misleading as director Paweł Pawlikowski uses the 4:3 Academy ratio. This frame shape emphasises vertical composition and in this interview in Film Comment he suggests that the decision to tilt the camera up for many of shots was whimsical (he was bored). The effect is to leave protagonists ‘drowning’ in the bottom of the frame, oppressed by what’s above them; often the ‘big sky’ seen above.

Ida (debutant Agata Trzebuchowska) is sent by Mother Superior to her remaining family, an estranged aunt (Agata Kulesza brilliant), before taking her vows. Reluctantly Ida finds herself investigating her Jewishness and Polish collaboration with the Nazis; the film is set in 1961. This portentous theme is dealt with fairly matter of factly though when her family are dug up in an unmarked grave the anti-drama mise en scene finds itself ‘compromised’ for a moment. By this I mean, Pawlikowski’s restrained aesthetics, such as little camera movement and non diegetic music, allow the drama to play out with seemingly little comment from himself.

It’s only Pawlikowski’s third feature in 15 years; it’s wrong to think of him as anti-commercial but he is uncompromising in his vision. The fabulous ‘look’ (ironically it’s a drained out black and white) of the film almost makes it appear as if was made in the time it was set although the unconventional framing mentioned above means it avoids pastiche. Polish cinema at this time was awash with brilliance and the young saxophonist that Ida meets reminds me of the great Zbigniew Cybulski (see for example Ashes and Diamonds). So it’s an unusual experience watching Ida which seems at once old and new.

It’s a proper arthouse film that lets the audience think and opens a window on history.

Moonlight (US, 2016)

Moonlight shadow

Moonlight won Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, not something that particularly interests me as they are hardly a reliable barometer of great films. The commercial bent of Hollywood, the Oscars are designed to market films that are harder to sell than its usual product, has meant that non mainstream fare is rarely celebrated. Was it because ‘films of colour’ were badly treated at last year’s Academy Awards that this year members leaned toward such minority filmmaking as Moonlighting? Whatever the reason, this year the voters have got it right, not because Moonlight is necessarily the best film of 2016, but because it is a great film about vastly under-represented people, gay men of colour, that should be widely seen.

I’m not going to judge the film as a work of Queer cinema but as a melodrama; not for any ideological reason just I understood the film primarily as melodrama. The three-part story covers roughly three decades of the bullied Chiron’s life from being ‘Little’ to a young man (‘Black’) with the teenage years (‘Chiron’) in between. Melodrama focuses on relationships and often uses narrative in an overtly exaggerated fashion, using coincidence for dramatic effect. Moonlight eschews this aspect of the genre, however, and its relatively slow pace, and sometimes alienating use of rack focus, situates the film’s aesthetics in ‘art house’. Although the narrative is slow, punctuated by one particularly explosive moment of violence that is all the more shocking in the ‘slow’ context, it never drags; the rack focus (a change in the depth of field in the shot so different parts of the image go either in or out of focus) occasionally puts the image’s subject out of focus for no apparent reason which I haven’t seen before. I think the visual style, quite violently handheld at the start, and point-of-view shots, is intended to emphasise Chiron’s subjective experience of a hostile world. In this, the film is expressionist a style that fits with melodrama.

Without spoiling, the most melodramatic moment is near the end of the film when Barbara Lewis’ ‘Hello Stranger’ is played on a jukebox and the song’s words speak the character’s thoughts – a moment to wallow in cinema’s power. The drug dealing milieux is represented through some great hip hop and the film starts with ‘Every Nigger is a Star’. In addition, the character with a Cuban background is celebrated with Caetano Veloso’s classic ‘Cucurrucucú Paloma’ and there’s even room for Mozart. Melos = music and writer-director (adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play) Barry Jenkins has excelled in bringing melodrama back to its roots where music substituted for dialogue.

Obviously we are invited to empathise with the bullied Chiron… I was about to write ‘who wouldn’t?’ but The (London) Times film critic, Camilla Long, managed to spark outrage with her review that suggested that the film would only be watched by straight, white and middle class audiences (you can see enough of the review here). Her bizarre contention seems to be that such art cinema as Moonlight is only for people like herself, such mono-vision is itself evidence of the necessity for diversity in representations. Piers Morgan recently complained that he wasn’t considered to be ‘diverse’ in a spat about… well, I’ve forgotten what the publicity seeking hound was bellyaching about but his response was indicative of the fact that challenges to white, male (and straight) hegemony are often seen to have gone ‘too far’ (when they’ve really gone nowhere) by those in the position of privilege. My MP, the execrable Philip Davies, persistently tries to ‘talk out’ legislation designed to protect women on the grounds that men are being discriminated against. You couldn’t make it up but rather than berate the straight-white-middle aged-males for their stupidity it’s best to remember that it is ignorance rather than a lack of intellect that informs their perspective. Where was I…?

The film’s strength is not only in its sympathetic representation of black gay men, the first character we meet is the local drug ‘king pin’, played with vast charisma by Mahershala Ali, and the street dealer stereotype is thoroughly challenged as he becomes a father figure to the besieged  ‘Little’ in the first part of the story; we might have expected him to cultivate the youngster as a worker for his business. He’s humanised but the film also doesn’t fail to highlight his hypocrisy when he berates the young boy’s mother (a fantastic Noami Harris) for her addiction; she points out that it is he who sells her the rocks. The nuances portrayed in the film offer a complex representation of life.

According to imdb the film cost an estimated $1.5m to make. This is a sensationally small amount for a film with such high production values. Clearly the lives of black men are cheap in America and such humanising representations of an ethnicity under fire need to be widely circulated to call out the racism of those that have made #blacklivesmatter a necessary locus of resistance. So well done to the Oscars for doing social good; if La La Land had won at the expense of Moonlight then 2017 would have been another year of Academy Award irrelevance.  

Manchester by the Sea (US, 2016)

Split personalities

It’s wrong to judge anything against something it’s not trying to be so I’m hesitant in criticising Manchester by the Sea as I’m probably falling into this trap. However, having been impressed with the first half of the film I found my engagement derailed by the flashback of the narrative enigma, a traumatic event (spoilers ahead).

The film focuses on Lee whose past returns to haunt him. That sounds formulaic but the narrative and visual style takes its cue from early 1970s New Hollywood, which favoured art over commerce. Casey Affleck’s portrayal of Lee is point perfect: a youngish man who is trapped within inarticulate masculinity; he habitually chooses to end his solo boozing sessions with a fight. He is a man whose manual work offers no fulfilment and he speaks his mind to ungrateful customers. The slow paced early scenes that introduce his mundane existence, in a snow littered Boston, are reminiscent of the down-at-heel locations favoured by, for example, Bob Rafelson (The King of Marvin Gardens, 1972, and Five Easy Pieces, 1970). The relatively long takes of Lee’s routine work, beautifully framed and using a long lens to flatten the mise en scene, are redolent of such ‘70s American art cinema and I was delighted to watch this part. Rafelson’s films also dealt with delusional and ‘bottled up’ males who won’t engage with their reality. For Rafelson this was the ‘human condition’ of a certain type of man, however Kenneth Lonergan’s (he wrote and directed) Lee actually has a reason for his emotional stunting. And that’s where the film took the wrong path for me.

About half way we find that Lee is responsible for his children’s death in an accidental fire. Unfortunately Lonergan uses Albinoni’s Adagio, a saccharine-sweet ersatz piece of classical music, in the staging of the fire and this lurches the film into full blown melodrama that is at odds with the realism of the first part. Was the death of the children needed to explain Lee’s obtuseness or would it have been enough that he’d lost his wife (the incredible Michelle Williams) through his boorish behaviour we see in one of the many flashbacks? Either way, the melodrama (a genre I love) turned me off the film and it took Williams’ all-to-brief appearances to get me involved again; she is an amazing actor.

Lee becomes his nephew’s trustee, after his brother’s death (the motivating incident for Lee to return to his hometown) and I wasn’t convinced by the young man’s (he’s 17) response; this wasn’t Lucas Hedge’s performance but the script’s fault. He – Patrick – obviously yearned for a parent, he wants a relationship with his absent mother but his grief at the loss of his father, to whom he was clearly close, is muted at best.

Lonergan shoots Lee’s brother’s funeral, like the fire scene, ‘at a distance’ with no diegetic sound (sound derived from what we see on screen) with only music accompanying the images; this aestheticism struck me at odds with the New Hollywood style. However, of course, maybe that wasn’t the film Lonergan was making so my criticism should be moot. I suggest he makes a female version of the film, sans the fire incident, that focuses on an emotionally damaged woman (or Sarah Polley could do this – see her great Take This Waltz with Williams). I am bored of male stories; women have them too.

Lion (Aus-US-UK, 2016)

lionfilm17a

Lost

About half way through Lion, which tells the astonishing tale of how a foundling finds his mum despite being brought up in a different continent, I wondered what the film was going to say. It was brilliantly done: the direction from Garth Davis (his first feature) is highly promising and the young Saroo (who’s 5 years old ) gets an amazing performance from Sunny Pawar. But the film lacked a focus as it didn’t seem to adding anything to my understanding of the world. The last third of the film filled that absence and spoilers follow.

Davis, with the editor Alexandre de Franceschi, links the two worlds – of India and Tasmania – with great skill. Close ups of the protagonists in crowds emphasises the anonymity and massive populations of cities showing how miraculous it would be for Saroo to be reunited with his mother. When, as an adult, he is having a ‘nervous breakdown’ the editing serves to illustrate his memories with graphic (the composition in the frame) and content matches between where he is and the past he is remembering. For example, when he breaks with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara brilliant in a necessarily somewhat passive role of the female encouraging the man) Saroo walks across a bridge (a melodramatic emblem for transition in life) which is matched with a shot of the young Saroo on a bridge. It is a very effective way of dramatizing how memories, which he struggles to recover, can overwhelm  after they’d been triggered in a Proustian moment set off by food.

Although it is well done, Saroo’s breakdown did cause the narrative to sag and it struck me that this might be a consequence of the difficulties film has of dramatizing small events that encompass a lot of time. Conventionally, as it is here, montage is used to signify this however because screen time is inevitably much shorter than narrative time, it is difficult to emotionally understand the profound mental trauma Saroo, now in his late twenties, was experiencing. A paragraph in a book could convey this much better I suspect.

Despite this the film does convincingly demonstrate the strength of familial ties. Even though he’d only been five when he’d lost his family it is clear that Saroo will forever be missing a part of himself if he can’t find them again. Unsurprisingly the reunion is extremely emotional and Dev Patel and Priyanka Bose (mum) are exceptional in the scene.

Nicole Kidman must also be mentioned as she is at her brilliant best here as Saroo’s adoptive mum. It is difficult for a star with Kidman’s charisma to convincingly play an ‘ordinary person’ however she does it brilliantly and then we realise that Sue Brierley is anything but ordinary.