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.  

Advertisements

Blue is the Warmest Colour (La vie d’Adèle, France-Belgium-Spain, 2013)

blue-6

Extraordinary performance

This Palme d’or winner from 2013 is certainly an extraordinary movie primarily because of the performances of its leads Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos. They received the award alongside director Abdellatif Kechiche, an acknowledgement of their importance to the film. I’m not talking about their performance in the ‘notorious’ sex scenes although they are remarkable for their length and explicitness for a non-pornographic film. I’ll return to these later.

The story is of Adèle’s (Exarchopoulos) ‘coming of age’ as she experiments with her sexuality before committing to Seydoux’s Emma. It covers approximately six years of her life, from 17, and focuses on her relationships. Exarchopoulos’s performance is particularly brilliant and I’d place it amongst the best I’ve even seen in film; alongside, for example, Daniel Day Lewis in The Gangs of New York (US-Italy, 2002). Her ability to portray fleeting thoughts through facial expression is riveting, particularly the conflict she is feeling between her desires and her, initial, inhibition. Although Kechiche’s direction is competent, and I thought his Couscous was great, without Exarchopoulos, supported by Seydoux, the film would be an overlong (its’ three hours), voyeuristic curiosity.

Which returns us to the sex scenes. They are explicit but integral to the narrative as they convey the women’s passion for each another. However: Kechiche is obviously aware of how montage can be used to convey, with brevity, a great deal of activity that occurs over a long time, as he does use montage in the sex scenes. However, why does the first scene run for over five minutes? I’m not saying it makes particularly uncomfortable viewing but its excessiveness does draw attention to the viewer’s voyeurism. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if I felt that was Kechiche’s purpose which I’m sure it isn’t. I couldn’t see the dramatic purpose of such length and, apparently, both Exarchopoulos or Seydoux have said they won’t work with the director again suggesting they were feeling exploited. There’s also an explicit shot up Adèle’s naked body as she posed for the artist Emma which was gratuitous in its detail.

Queer feminists seem fairly united in their dislike of the film – see here for example. I’m sure Fox is right when she says the sex scenes were straight male fantasy (probably why I enjoyed them mostly) but I disagree with her statement that Emma is represented as predatory. I felt the relationship between the characters was one that many lovers, regardless of their sexuality, experience.

A great film that raises the bar for acting but hopefully not for what is expected of female actors in sex scenes.