Legendary director David Cronenberg on “the flesh” and the “deforming” properties of Hollywood in Maps to the Stars
February 27, 2015
As noted in my recent review of Maps to the Stars and in an article “Miami New Times” published a few days ago (read it here), the concept of the flesh is an important element in understanding the films of David Cronenberg. “I’m an atheist,” says the 70-year-old Canadian director speaking via phone from Toronto. “I don’t believe in an afterlife and so on, so for me that is what we are.”
Some film critics have deemed him redundant, even antiquated in his thematic interests. When, in fact, his focus on the flesh exists as a foundation that makes his films more than schlocky shock cinema. Since the early ’70s he has brought an eerie humanism to horror, perfecting it in the later part of the decade from Rabid (1977) to the Brood (1979). He reached a pinnacle in the ’80s from Scanners (1981) to Dead Ringers (1988). In more recent years, he has extended his interests in the body to more grounded, psychological, if not still visceral, disturbing fare. A History of Violence (2005) stands as one of the greatest examples.
Cronenberg arrived on the independent film scene during an era of filmmaking known for challenging the boundaries of taste. The word “exploitation” and “gore” were often bandied about. But Cronenberg had a deeper connection to the post-60s era of disillusionment. There was something sad and foreboding in his horror. It’s even empathetic. The reason the exploding head of Scanners disturbs so fundamentally is how Cronenberg sets up the character with humanity, despite his possession of an otherworldly talent to enter the minds of other people.
There have been supernatural elements in many of his movies, most recently including several appearances by phantasmal apparitions that come to haunt a couple of his characters in his latest film. Still, the director confesses he does not believe in anything mystical, supernatural or even spiritual. To a man who describes himself as an atheist, the flesh is sacrosanct. “I mean the more we accept that and recognize it, I think the better off we’d be,” says Cronenberg about his concept of the flesh, “but in any case, the body is what you go to. It’s the primal fact of our existence, so it’s always been a significant thing for me whether metaphorically or literally. When you think of it, what does a director direct? What do we photograph most in movies? Well, it’s the human body. We’re photographing flesh.”
Despite the harsh dissection of Hollywood and those who work in the industry/city in Maps to the Stars, he admits to a great empathy for those who enter the gauntlet of Hollywood, noting there is no one in that machine who gives more to it than the actor, for, he says, “Flesh is their instrument.” His new film features some incredible performances by Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska, who respectively play an aging actress and her assistant. Havana Segrand hires Agatha Weiss, who bears scars of a childhood fire, upon the recommendation of Carrie Fisher (who plays herself in the film). Fisher tells Havana she became friends with Agatha via Twitter. But Agatha’s priority goes beyond penetrating the inner circles of Hollywood. She is on a quest to reunite with the Hollywood family that disowned her. She has a younger brother Benjie (Evan Bird), an actor who, at 13, has just been released from rehab. Their mother Christina (Olivia Williams) is eager to get the kid back to work. Meanwhile, their father Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is a new age guru who hosts an “hour of power” on TV and makes house calls to celebrities like Havana, who is struggling for work and being haunted by visions of her legendary mother actress Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), who perished in a fire at a young age.
Agatha had been “put away” to the far away reaches of Jupiter … Florida … in a mental institution to receive treatment for her pyromania. But now that she is 18, she is free, released on her own recognizance. She is also a person transformed by fire both inside and out. Though her family has achieved a level of success, no matter their dysfunction, it is Agatha who has transcended her experiences, and her ultimate confrontation with her family, so absorbed by the superficial world of Hollywood, will indeed make for fireworks. “She’s experienced things that they had been kind of denying and covering up,” says Cronenberg, “and she’s experienced all those things and has the marks on the body to prove it.”
Asked why he made the film, Cronenberg says he was more interested in the family drama instead of making a critique of Hollywood. “Well, it was primarily Bruce Wagner’s script, the characters, the dialogue. It wasn’t as though I’d been obsessed for years about Hollywood … In fact, I have great affection for Hollywood, the way most people do, and I would have never thought that I would make a movie about Hollywood. It wasn’t really in my portfolio until I read Bruce’s script.”
Cronenberg notes Wagner brings a lot of experience to the screenplay, having written it while he was a limo driver in Los Angeles in the early ’90s, similar to Robert Pattinson’s character in the film, who is somehow dragged into Agatha’s web. But the director has also had experience with Hollywood, though he prefers to work as an independent filmmaker. He notes there were projects that fell though for him in the big studio business and recalls varied successes in the industry, which he admits a sort of ambivalence toward. “I live in Toronto and most of my movies have been co-productions between Canada and Europe, so there’s not been much of Hollywood involved, but on the other hand, there have been many projects that had almost happened and also movies like M. Butterfly and The Fly. There were Hollywood studios that were distributing the films, like Warner Brothers or FOX and so on, so I’d had meetings with studio executives about casting, about distribution, about script, about all kinds of things, and I can certify that what Bruce portrays in the movie is accurate.”
He says what he knows of the surreal and absurd reality of the Hollywood industry was something he could channel in Maps. “Although it isn’t the totality of my life, it is certainly something that I had dipped my toe into and can confirm from my own experience, and I’m sure that it helped me make the movie resonate, to feel real because I knew the reality.”
But it all comes back to the people and characters in the film, which Cronenberg agrees stands as a protest against a system that dehumanizes people for the entertainment of others. “There is that element,” he admits. “It’s kind of a bubble city—Hollywood. It’s not a city, technically, but the concerns are so incestuous, which is another theme of the movie, but everybody thinks the same way; everybody wants the same thing. Everybody wants to be an actor or writer or director. It would be a difficult town to live in if you weren’t obsessed with the business, you know? And though I am a filmmaker, I’m not obsessed with the business, and that’s why I still live in Toronto, my hometown. I could never live in Hollywood as a result.” He then offers a warning to those who aspire to enter the Hollywood business: “I think that obsessiveness can deform people. As I’ve often said, Hollywood’s like this incredibly dense planet with a huge gravitational pull. It pulls in people from all over the world, but then it’s very hard to break away from that, and the force of that pull can deform you and your relationships and the course of your life of which you aspire to. It’s all very insular.”
Finally, the director does not want anyone to read too much into the delay of his film to reach the home country of Hollywood. Maps to the Stars premiered at the Cannes Film Festival early last year. Cronenberg says it was only logistics that delayed the film’s release in the U.S. “Focus World took on the distribution in the U.S.,” he notes, “and they felt, given the time we made the deal with them, and what was happening at the end of the year when so many movies get released because everybody’s thinking about Golden Globes and Oscars and stuff, they thought it would be a very crowded marketplace. I think that’s correct, and I think they thought they would have a much clearer road to potent distribution if they waited until this year.”
He does admit that the fact the film is already available on home video in other parts of the world besides the U.S. is a bit odd for one of his movies. “It’s very unusual because it’s been released in Canada,” he admits. “It’s been released everywhere in Europe already, very unusual for the U.S. to be so late, but it’s just the way it happened. It’s really Focus’ call, and I’m assuming they know what they’re doing.”
You can read much more about my conversation with Cronenberg in “Cultist,” the art and culture blog of the “Miami New Times” where he shares what he likes about Wasikowska’s acting and more on why the flesh is the pinnacle of our beings:
Then there is also this small piece I wrote in the Miami Herald where he discusses Hollywood some more and Wagner’s script. He also talks about how Moore was one of the earlier actresses to commit to the role despite some financial hardships in getting the production off the ground. Jump through the logo below to read that:
Here’s the trailer:
Maps to the Stars opens Friday, Feb. 27 in our South Florida area at O Cinema Wynwood in Miami and Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale. On opening night at O Cinema’s 9:15 screening, I will introduce the film and probably stick around for a second viewing and chat for a bit afterward. The film opened in the U.S. a few days ago and will continue to open across the country. For other screening dates in other parts of the States, visit this link. Focus World provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this interview. All images in this article are courtesy of Focus World.
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem shows how to make a powerful, resonant drama using one setting — a film review
February 26, 2015
In their new film, the Israeli sibling writer/directors Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz, pull a sort of magic trick in cinema. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem closes out a trilogy of films following the same characters over a period of 10 years. But this film stands on its own for all the drama and tension created in one room. Earning a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign language film, the sibling team of directors from Israel also wrote the script together and Ronit, a notable actress from Israel, plays the lead, as she did in the previous two films of this trilogy, To Take a Wife (2004) and 7 Days (2008). In Gett, she once again plays the role of Viviane Amsalem, who in the previous films endured the tension of a loveless marriage, and now finally takes concrete steps toward divorce. However, in the religious state of Israel, a divorce — or a “gett” in Hebrew — must be agreed upon by the husband, as tradition holds that a wife is the property of the husband, and her devout husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) has refused to grant her the divorce. With this imbalance of power, a gett stands more as a ceremonial affair rather than a real trial. It is even adjudicated by a court of three rabbis. The directors focus on this imbalance of power and make it the crux of the film’s drama to powerful effect.
The movie runs 115 minutes and the drama unfolds almost exclusively in the rabbinical courtroom. The only other setting is the anteroom where some small but important exchanges also happen between characters. But the directors do not waste a second in this movie. There is all kinds of tension between all of the movie’s characters, be it the husband and wife, Viviane and her lawyer (Menashe Noy) — who is implied early on to have an affectionate relationship with his client — and everyone between the varied trio of rabbis who try to sit in judgment but come to empathize with Viviane as the trial drags on (I won’t spoil its length).
Viviane has no complaint about her husband except that she does not love him. This is not a woman complaining that her husband beats her or cheats on her, which heightens the stakes in an interesting way, making Elisha’s denial for divorce all the more disturbing. This becomes a battle of wills for something bigger than personal differences, which is hard to deny between these two who yell at one other almost every time they have an exchange in the film. You get a picture of a marriage long frayed, although Elisha is not presented as a mere plot device; he is a man with a conflicting and powerful array of feelings. There’s anger, but there’s a devoted sense to tradition favoring patriarchy. In that sense, the film calls attention to the problem of tradition as adapted for civil matters, especially the absence of a woman’s voice in tradition, making the film a powerful feminist commentary on a patriarchal system.
On another level, Gett presents a tightly knotted drama where the viewer is also forced to consider perceptions and the impossibility of presenting a person to another person that is fair to that person being held up for scrutiny. This is much more than he-said/she-said argument that drives the film’s tension. The writing by the two directors shows a brilliant capacity to create drama by withholding information. Too often, Hollywood screenwriters concern themselves with characters explaining how they feel, what they will do, that it saps the drama of mystery, but Gett shows how valuable mystery is to drama, as the directors never bog down the pace of their movie to explain the differences among the characters. Instead, they allow them to gradually reveal their issues through action.
There are also a great, varied array of witnesses who offer their own perspectives, some of whom gradually reveal flaws about themselves as they try to judge the couple. All of them, down to the court aide (Gabi Amrani) are efficiently drawn characters, carrying heavy burdens of perspective. It also comes across in the creative framing and the varied angles the directors find when presenting these various characters, reflective of new points of view. Gett is a very deliberately crafted film that never feels overcooked. By turns hilarious and disturbing, Gett stands as one of the most remarkable films I saw last year. To create suspense in such a simple, enthralling way while making such a strong statement for women’s rights will surely blow many viewers’ minds.
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem runs 115 minutes, is in Hebrew and French with English subtitles and is not rated (nothing really offensive in its material, except some raised voices, maybe). It opens Friday, Feb. 27 in the South Florida area at O Cinema Miami Beach and the Coral Gables Art Cinema, which has also invited noted film scholar and author Annette Insdorf to introduce the film during its 6:30 p.m. screening, on Saturday, Feb. 28. It opened in U.S. theaters on Feb. 13 and is scheduled to open in many more through April. To find theater listings, click “theaters” after jumping through this link. Music Box films provided an on-line screener link for the purpose of this review, and I introduced this film at one of its screenings during the Miami Jewish Film Festival.
You can also read an interview I conducted with Shlomi Elkabetz, which was just posted by the Miami New Times art and culture blog Cultist by jumping through the blog’s logo below. He talks about pulling back the curtain of these secret ceremonial divorce trials and the surprising response the film has received in his country and around the world:
February 25, 2015
Considering the story of Maps to the Stars, you may be forgiven for questioning David Cronenberg’s feelings toward Tinsel Town. It follows a family of recognizable modern-day Hollywood archetypes. Benjie (Evan Bird) is a bratty 13-year-old child actor fresh out of rehab. His “momager” (Olivia Williams) cares less about the boy’s mental state than his next big paycheck reprising the title role in Bad Babysitter 2. His father, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), is a new age guru less involved with his family than his persona as a host of a self-help TV show, “The Hour of Power,” and making house calls to celebrities like Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) where he practices a form of Reiki mixed with platitudes from the school of Carl Jung.
Then there’s the ostracized Weiss daughter, 18-year-old Agatha (Mia Wasikowska). Fresh off a bus from Jupiter (Florida), the abandoned older sister has a face deformed by burns from a childhood case of pyromania. She wishes to “make amends” after her release from a mental institution on the other side of the States. Slithering back into the family after taking a job as a “chore whore” for Havana and warming up to a limo driver (Robert Pattinson) who has aspirations to write, direct or act she also rekindles old traumas.
Then you have Carrie Fisher playing herself. Her appearance is more than a bit of stunt casting. In real life, Fisher has had no shame in talking about being a young actress born of Hollywood royalty (singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds) and its affects on her persona. She’s done it with a similar tone of dark humor that Maps after toys with. She achieved pop culture fame in Star Wars at only 19 years of age. Then, as an adult, she wrote about the dark side of Hollywood success in Postcards From the Edge and Wishful Drinking. There’s something meta-poetic about her being the one who recommends Agatha to Havana as an assistant, after “friending” the young women via Twitter, of all places.
Agatha enters the story as an interloper on fire, playing the acting game at an almost spiritual height that is as disturbing as it is riveting. While everyone struggles to maintain a front in order to find a way to matter, she slithers among the Hollywood inhabitants to get what she wants. She’s viscerally in touch with herself. She becomes — if you can forgive the Jungian reference — a disturbing kind of anti-hero enlightened by fire and her scarred flesh. As in so many other films by Cronenberg, the flesh is essential to the drama. Agatha recites “Liberty” by the great French surrealist poet Paul Éluard a number of times in the film.
On the harmony of the flesh
On the faces of my friends
On each outstretched hand
I write your name
Benjie also recites the poem, revealing a link between brother and sister that could very well threaten the frayed link between their parents. Indeed, it all builds to a disturbing climax that’s one for the Cronenbergian canon. You only wished he had more money for the special effects, but those are the sacrifices of an indie filmmaker. Cronenberg still delivers with his cold framing and the otherworldly delivery of some of Wagner’s dialogue that hums with a “dead inside” malaise from the Weiss family. Except for Agatha, who strides in with bold, creepy purpose that everyone else, so lost in themselves and aspirations, can hardly notice.
Special note should also be given to the always game Moore, who could have very well been nominated for best actress for this role had the film been released earlier, and — more importantly – if Hollywood could dare show as bold a sense of humor as Moore herself. Her character features echoes of Lindsey Lohan. She plays with a bubbly voice and offers a broad range of personal suffering, from passive-aggressiveness to deep sadness that also make Havana sympathetic, even when she’s sitting on a toilet struggling from a backup by Vicodin, reciting a list of chores to Agatha while trying to worm into her mysterious assistant’s personal life.
Though it’s easy to consider the film from Cronenberg’s perspective, it is Maps to the Stars screenwriter Bruce Wagner who brings a broad range of experience from Hollywood to his writing (he’s the man behind Dead Stars and Wild Palms). This was one of the first scripts he wrote as a limo driver in Hollywood on the early ’90s, not unlike the role Pattinson plays in the film. The scenes are loaded with an undercurrent of disdain for the city. The characters are archetypes of the business; charm stands as superficial but underneath there’s almost a psychotic desire for success and recognition that has rotten their souls. It’s blackly funny at times but mostly cringingly disturbing.
It could have easily become a tiresome movie, but Cronenberg has such a light yet effective quality as a director, another layer, hidden beneath the superficial struggle of conflict rustles below, like the flesh gun trying to puncture through the TV screen of Videodrome. That tension arises from Agatha’s unwanted reappearance. It speaks volumes not only about celebrity-obsessed culture but the weight of maintaining false fronts for ulterior gains. Hollywood is the milieu, but greed and the sacrifice of identity and humanity for profit and popularity is the theme. Agatha is the flesh scorned by family and scarred by flames, and she’s here to bring a warped sense of balance to a warped world.
Maps to the Stars runs 111 minutes and is rated R (cursing, violence to the flesh and sexual situations). It opens Friday, Feb. 27, in our South Florida area at O Cinema Wynwood in Miami (where I will introduce the film at 9:15 p.m.) and Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale. The film opened in the U.S. a few days ago and will continue to open across the country. For other screening dates in other parts of the States, visit this link. Focus World provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this review. All images in this article courtesy of Focus World.
Also, read my interview with with Cronenberg in “Cultist,” the art and culture blog of the “Miami New Times” where he shares what he likes about Wasikowska’s acting and more on why “the flesh” is the pinnacle of our beings:
You can read even more of my interview in this blog post:
Legendary director David Cronenberg on “the flesh” and the “deforming” properties of Hollywood in Maps to the Stars
Duke of Burgundy plunges deep into the frailty of love and S&M as lush, evocative, retro Euro-sexploitation film — a film review
February 13, 2015
It’s funny that the 50 Shades of Grey movie will hit the multiplex on the same day as The Duke of Burgundy enters select art house theaters. I haven’t seen 50 Shades, but there’s no way it can present as complex a picture of a relationship between a sadist and a masochist than The Duke of Burgundy. Director Peter Strickland, who also wrote the script, presents a bold vision of S&M that not only tests the limits of its value in a relationship between an amorous couple, but he makes the couple women. He heightens the relationship further by placing them in a world only populated by women (the title actually refers to a variation of a genus of butterfly, but there is no “Duke” in the film, per se). Furthermore, Strickland also adopts a cinematic style that recalls early 1970s Euro sexploitation films like those by Jesús “Jess” Franco and Jean Rollin.
The atmosphere of the film is so on point and other-worldly, the viewer will forgive any superficial judgment of the two women at the center of the film, as the director explores the dynamic break-down of the relationship that gradually frays feelings and questions the roles between these two women, the lepidopterist Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her younger lover and servant Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), who reveals an amateurish interest in the moths and butterflies Cynthia studies. The film’s opening scene immediately seems to fetishize atmosphere. We meet Evelyn in a velvet cape sitting by a babbling brook, her back to the camera. Smash cuts to close-ups on some green moss that coats the bottom a tree trunk and protruding, brown mushrooms emphasize a fantasy world. Then there’s a cut to the brook and its sparkling surface reflecting the sunlight that dapples through the leaves overhead.
Next, there’s a wide shot of the mountain forest, what appears to be a Bavarian wilderness. Evelyn rides out of the trees on her bicycle, as the opening titles begin with the film’s theme song by the film’s composers, Cat’s Eyes, a duo from London, who have a sound comparable to the ‘60s-influenced Broadcast, the composers of the music in Strickland’s last film, Berberian Sound Studio (2012). At a time when many Hollywood films are eschewing the opening title sequence in favor of cutting to the action, this moment in The Duke of Burgundy stands as a terrific musical testament to the importance of setting a mood for a film. First, the music sounds like a slight chamber pop song from the late ‘60s. Over the bright, pastoral rambling of an acoustic guitar, Cat’s Eyes vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Rachel Zeffira punctuates the soft tap of a beat with staccato sighs. After a flute plays a circular, cheerful melody, shimmering, languid strings join the track, and Zeffira hushedly (maybe) sings, “One day you’ll be back … when you’re done dreaming … about lust.” Her breathy voice sounds as though it is coming out of the ether of a dream. Her partner in the duo, Faris Badwan, who also sang on the band’s previous self-titled record, has no vocal duties in the score, once again, keeping the film strictly female-centric.
As the credits appear, the pictures freeze, like what Ti West did with the opening of The House of the Devil (2009), another contemporary indie film interested in recalling a film style of the past. Strickland takes it further, washing them out to monochromatic images of various colors using flickering filters of various primary colors. Another funny detail in the credits: lingerie and perfumes are given credit. Early in this sequence, when Evelyn pedals her bike out of the forest, the music is interrupted as a distant voice calls out her name and a young woman on another bike travelling the opposite direction waves at her. Her echoing voice has a surreal, archaic quality that speaks to Strickland’s detailed tribute to the past style he is emulating.
Sound is incredibly important in this movie. When the title song ends in a flourish of flutes, twinkling harpsichord, swooning strings and that sighing voice, the chirp of birds and the mundane rattle of Evelyn parking her bike and grabbing her hard leather bag sounds jarringly pronounced. After buzzing the doorbell, Cynthia opens the front door with a creak and greets her with, “You’re late.” Evelyn does not reply but follows. The sound of their footsteps even vary, speaking to Evelyn’s smaller size to the older and taller Cynthia. When they speak, there’s an almost disembodied character to their voices, as if the dialogue has been dubbed into English. One could go on and on about the sound in this movie, which gradually grows from scandalously suggestive (behind a closed bathroom door it won’t take much imagination to figure out what one of Evelyn’s punishments entails) to surrealistically evocative (in several montage sequences the dissonant sound of insects, from chirps to fluttering wings evoke the internal state of things).
One could also go on at length about the rich use of lighting and shadow or the dynamic camera work, which often highlights reflections and double images, not to mention the atmospheric set design and the loaded mise-en-scène within those refracted images, as duality and role-reversal abounds. It’s also important to note that none of this could be pulled off without the sincere, heartfelt chemistry between the two leads. The Duke of Burgundy is such a rich film that upon returning to the opening scene after the first watch, I could not help but notice the witty foreshadowing of the babbling brook and all the water Cynthia gulps down as the movie unfolds.
Though it all might sound a bit salacious or gratuitous, the film never goes there. Strickland keeps much of it suggestive, and that’s where the sex appeal lies. I think there was only one nipple shot in the entirety of the film, and when Cynthia sits on a chair with her legs open, all you can see is darkness. It’s not about keeping it classy, though. Strickland seems more interested in evoking mystery. Who knows? Maybe the women in this world do not even have genitalia. There’s always a sense that something is missing. During a languid pan of the audience at one of Cynthia’s lectures, the camera reveals not only are there no men in the audience, but there are also some mannequins of women sitting in the audience. It’s a stylistic flourish that calls attention to something being amiss in a world of only women.
The film soon reveals that S&M seems to be the de rigueur choice for intimacy between women who have paired off in the world of this movie. At least in the case of Evelyn and Cynthia, it is also revealed that their relationship is so mannered that it is the master Cynthia who is actually obliging herself to the commands of her servant Evelyn, who leaves notecards with instructions of what Cynthia should tell her as her punishment looms. Evelyn’s desperation to be punished also makes it feel as though the passion between this couple might falter at any moment despite such declarations as Evelyn whispering to herself, “Cynthia, as long as I am yours I remain alive.”
As the film lumbers along to even more twists, scenarios are repeated between the couple that reveal the terrible thread they have hung their relationship on. The idea that the spice of sadomasochistic sex might heighten romance is profoundly questioned in this film lush with atmosphere and a disturbingly probing insight into relationships. I highly doubt 50 Shades of Grey will dare to go as far as The Duke of Burgundy.
The Duke of Burgundy runs 105 minutes and is not rated (this film features all sorts of advanced sexuality between women except for the kind you might expect). It opens in the South Florida area exclusively at Miami’s O Cinema Wynwood on Friday, Feb. 13. It will later expand to the Miami Beach Cinematheque on March 12. It could be playing in your area if it isn’t already on its way. It’s also available on VOD, but we always encourage the viewer to give in to the controlling mercy of the dark theater. IFC Films sent us a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.
February 12, 2015
Throughout his oeuvre, writer/director Xavier Dolan has presented viewers with the great range of loving relationships. Love cannot be contained in neat categories constrained by normalcy or appropriateness. In his films, love spills over, revealed in raw emotion both beautiful and ugly. In Mommy, Dolan has developed characters filled with contradictions, shortcomings and limitations, brought to life through powerful performances by Anne Dorval as Diane, mother to teenage Steve played by Antoine-Olivier Pilon. These raw performances coupled with Dolan’s stylistic narrative make Mommy one of the most immersive, adventurous and – dare I say – masterful films of this year. It rightfully won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014 tying with another master, Jean-Luc Godard (Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D affirms a master filmmaker’s place in history of cinema). Mommy also won the Best North American Film Award at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.
The film opens to a stark announcement about a law that allows parents to commit their children to a state-run facility if they are beyond control. The harsh law is also a warning for the audience to brace themselves, as the world we are about to enter is not an easy one. Mommy is the story of a dysfunctional family, a recently widowed woman and her teenage son, who has just been released from an institution, struggle to make a life for themselves. Circumstances constrain both mother and son. They live in economic distress and have difficulty managing their emotions in socially acceptable ways. The emotionally fractured characters are all strong and vulnerable, needing a family while rejecting structures — a modern tale of family.
The film kicks off with the encounter between mother and son, which is both a violent clash between two opposing worlds and a beautiful encounter between two family members who love each other so deeply it hurts. Diane “Die” Després (Dorval) is a recently widowed single mother living pay check to pay check. Die flaunts an over-sexualized image complete with youthful, scantily clad outfits that make for a garish exterior. Her maternal instincts kick in when Steve comes to live with her. Steve is loud and rude, but his is also screaming for attention and starving for familial connection. Going through adolescence, Steve’s sexuality is also very much present. Both Die and Steve are deeply affected by the loss of Steve’s father a few years earlier, and although they love each other deeply, their dynamic is fraught with confrontations that escalate to conflict easily. Dolan does not hold back, constraining much of the action in a suffocating 1:1 aspect ratio, and inviting the actors to express their characters to grating, bombastic heights that those familiar with his work should be prepared for.
Early in the movie, Steve comes home with bags filled with groceries and a gift for Die: a gold necklace that spells “Mommy.” He clearly has no way to pay for any of these things, and his worried mother scornfully implies thieving, shutting down his at first triumphant and exuberant entrance. Feeding off her negativity, Steve’s joy quickly turns to a violent outburst, one of the constants in the character dynamic throughout the film, which also seems on the edge of exploding in unpredictable ways.
Pilon’s performance captures that teenage angst and volatility brilliantly, and Dolan understands how to ratchet them with his shooting style. Some of the shots of Steve by himself running around and playing with a shopping cart in a parking lot showcase that combination of boredom and excess of energy all captured in the narrow confines of a life that seems overbearing, as demonstrated with a tighter aspect ratio than the sometimes familiar and more comfortable 4:3. Dolan’s stylistic choice therefore pushes the film medium to new heights, which is what makes him an exciting director. His defiance to the establishment can be likened to Steve’s own frustration with rules and order.
The complex relationship between mother and son is somewhat alleviated by the presence of neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clément), who becomes a friend to Die and a caretaker to Steve. Unable to connect with her own family because of a mysterious trauma early in her life, Kyla suffers from a speech impediment that becomes less pronounced as she settles in with Steve and Die. Her ability to find her voice comes as the three characters discover an unconventional family structure. The trio go from feeling trapped in their own circumstances to a freeing state that feels easy and open. As the entire mood of the film changes, “Wonderwall” by Oasis takes over the soundtrack, and beyond Steve’s smile, we can hear Noel Gallagher’s bratty cool voice intone, “Back beat, the word is on the street/That the fire in your heart is out.” The relief is so enjoyable it’s easy to forget the looming warning foreshadowed at the top of the film: the possibility of having Steve committed.
Dolan’s fifth film is as much an exploration on familial relationships and friendships, as it is a transformation in his filmmaking to another level. The exuberance and emotion that jump out of the screen are as much a product of strong performances as they are a result of Dolan’s directorial vision to take light, music and even the screen in a different direction. The stylistic choices in Mommy are not gratuitous but serve the overall arc of the story, doing what cinema does best, telling a story with imagery that captures all your senses. Dolan’s Mommy grabs on to your psyche and does not let go, and it will stay with you.
Mommy runs 139 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is rated R (for cussing and sexual referencing). It opens this Friday at the Coral Gables Art Cinema in Coral Gables, the Miami Beach Cinematheque in Miami Beach and The Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale. To find screenings elsewhere in the US click here. The Coral Gables Art Cinema hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review.
We will lead a Q&A on Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound to screen at Filmgate Festival tomorrow
February 7, 2015
Miami is known the world over as a city full of surprises. As a freelance music writer here for more than 20 years, I have become accustomed to expect some mind-blowing realignment of my perspective of this city every year. The last surprise happened about a year ago, when I learned the photographer of some of my favorite ‘70s glam rock albums lived here (read that article here). Now comes Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound, a documentary that opens a portal to a ‘60s-era soul scene I never knew had existed in Miami.
Among those who also never knew about this distinctive music scene was the film’s co-director and writer Dennis Scholl. I dropped him an email to ask what inspired him to make this documentary. He wrote: “When a friend sent me the Número re-release of the Deep City catalog, knowing I loved soul music, l listened to it, and before I read the liner notes, I called him and said, ‘This is great, where is it from?’ My friend said, ‘Don’t you know? This is all from Miami.’ I was shocked.”
Eccentric Soul, Vol. 7: The Deep City Label is a diverse and amazing compilation beautifully preserved by the Chicago-based reissue label Número. It’s even available on vinyl. It features bombastic horn sections and swinging grooves that speak to the region’s Caribbean influence at an almost molecular level. There are also famous, gorgeous female voices by the likes of Helene Smith and Betty Wright, who went to levels of great notoriety in the early ‘70s with “Clean Up Woman” and was on the cutting edge of the disco scene.
Scholl could not believe the riches he found in the compilation. “I had lived here close to 50 years and never heard about it,” he says about the Deep City label. “The quality of music was so high that it sent me on this exploration of our soul scene that, as DJ Spam says in the film, had been virtually forgotten. The more I got into it, the more I felt a strong need to bring the work of these artists to the attention of our community, and thus began an almost four-year odyssey to make a documentary film about the birth of the Miami Sound.”
So he, along with co-directors Marlon Johnson and Chad Tingle, made this documentary, which first premiered in South Florida at the Miami International Film Festival in 2014 and enjoyed a run at SXSW before airing on Miami’s public television station WLRN and won an Emmy. It’s a punchy, colorful examination of a time in Miami focused around the music released by the independent record label Deep City. The film features interviews with artists like the soulful songbird Helene Smith and legendary guitarist/vocalist Willie “Little Beaver” Hale, who both recorded for the label. Then there’s label co-founder and songwriter Willie “Peewee” Clarke, who grew up in Overtown during the years of segregation in Miami. Also featured is Clarence Reid, who also recorded for the label, co-wrote many songs with Clarke and continues to perform in Miami as the notorious and original shock rapper Blowfly. Then there’s Arnold “Hoss” Albury who brought in fellow members of the Florida A&M University marching band and added big arrangements to the pop songs released by the label.
In the documentary, Clarke credits label co-founder Johnny Pearsall, who owned a record shop in Overtown, for coming up with the label’s name. He says it was because Miami was the deepest city in the South. In 1963, Deep City was the first black-owned record label in Florida, notes Clarke in the documentary, and it spawned some slight hits in its time, which got lots of regional airplay but also some airtime on national TV shows like “Soul Train” and “American Bandstand.”
Deep City is a well-rounded film, featuring additional testimonials by Miami’s well-respected music historian Jeff Lemlich, Miami’s TK Records’ founder Henry Stone and, as Scholl noted earlier, Andrew Yeomanson, a.k.a. DJ Le Spam of Spam All Stars fame, among others. Yeomanson is real proud to be associated with this documentary. “The film provides the uninitiated with a snapshot of a crucial time in Miami’s musical development and the characters who made it happen,” he says about the documentary. “Most people in Miami had no idea that there was a soul scene here in the 1960s until recently.”
Miami will get a chance to get re-acquainted with the label on Sunday afternoon during a special screening at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, as part of FilmGate Interactive, a workshop-oriented film festival in its third year. I was invited by the festival to host a Q&A with Scholl and Clarke after the screening. Before the film, DJ Le Spam will be spinning ‘60s Miami soul records as people walk into the screening, so if you have tickets get there early.
Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound runs 56 minutes and will screen Sunday, Feb. 8 at 4 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. The screening is nearly sold out. For tickets jump through this link. All images here are courtesy of the producer, WLRN, except the image of the vinyl of Eccentric Soul Vol. 7, which was provided by Número Records.
February 3, 2015
From the country of Mauritania comes Timbuktu, one of the most heart-breaking and humanistic films you will see this year. Do not be turned off if you do not know where Mauritania is, for director Abderrahmane Sissako, who co-wrote the script with Kessen Tall, has put together a border-busting story that is both stark and beautiful. It also helps that the film has been nominated for the best foreign language Oscar. At last year’s Cannes Film Festival, it won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the François Chalais Prize.
Sissako grew up in Mali but was born in Mauritania. As a filmmaker he has worked from Russia and France, making movies concerned with Africa both inside and out. He has not made a movie since his much-loved Bamako (2006), now long out of print on DVD. In interviews, Sissako has said he makes movies when he is called to it. In 2012, the stoning death in a small town in Mali of an unmarried couple who had children outside of wedlock compelled him to make Timbuktu. His extraordinary film tells a story about oppression in Timbuktu by fundamentalist interlopers, true to its current history. Co-produced by a French company, Timbuktu expresses a universal idea informed by the current climate of fear propagated by a fundamentalism that oppresses expression in many forms.
The film opens with a small gazelle running for its life as men, with faces covered by turbans, riding in the beds of speeding pickup trucks displaying a large black flag of Islamic jihad fire AK-47s. Next they are shooting up African masks and statues, including a fertility goddess, symbols of paganism to them but also icons of earthbound humanity. When they arrive at the dusty city if Timbuktu they use a megaphone to announce: “no music, no smoking and women must wear socks.” When they enter a mosque, the imam scolds them, “One cannot enter the house of God with shoes and weapons.”
“But we can. We’re doing jihad,” says one of the men, his mouth covered by a turban. The layers of hypocrisy are rich, from the jihadists’ desire for anonymity to their entitlement, and it permeates this film in various stories featuring an array of characters. Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino) lives on the outskirts of the village in a tent with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), his young daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed) and Issan (Mehdi A.G. Mohamed), a 12-year-old boy who shepherds Kidane’s small herd of cows. Kidane’s life seems a peaceful one, where he can play guitar and sing to his wife and daughter. Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri) is a jihadist who patrols the outskirts of Timbuktu and has a crush on Satima. He sneaks cigarettes, but as his driver tells him, “Everyone knows you smoke.” Then there’s Zabou (Kettly Noël), a woman who not only does not wear a veil, but wears her unkempt hair and a brightly colored robe with a long train with a pride many dismiss as madness. She is almost Shakespearean in her role as the town fool, having found her own sense of freedom in insanity in this insane world. At least she can get away with calling the jihadists “assholes” and carry on her merry way.
These stories cross only incidentally, and Sissako presents them with little embellishment. Their connections may seem tenuous to some, and there are some characters that are hardly developed and mysteriously drop out of narrative, but it does not detract from the film as much as you might think. It speaks to the chaos and coldness that the jihadists bring to the community. That it does so in such a banal way speaks to the terrible, heavy cloud they have brought to Timbuktu, a once mystical place of romantic mystery.
The film is consistently and impressively shot. There are beautiful wide shots of the arid lands outside the city walls. The vistas are sometimes punctuated by the spare lute and flute-dominant score by composer Amin Bouhafa. But it never comes across as self-conscious and moody. It’s more contemplative, inviting the viewer to appreciate the beauty of a moment of peace. On the other hand, inside the city, dirt streets are crowded by the walls of buildings, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere, and when music appears in the city, it’s in violation of the militants’ law. That some of these men are foreigners adds further insult to their presence for these people who are only trying to live, love and enjoy life in peace, while still recognizing the importance of God in their lives. What becomes terrible is when these people are forced to submit under the threat of sharia punishments like lashings and even execution by stoning. The harsh dualism calls intense attention to the dynamic that drives the film’s drama, and Sissako mostly presents it with a stark, unembellished touch. Violence and even death comes suddenly, interrupting a languorous life defined by the quotidian but peaceful details.
What Sissako has created with Timbuktu is a piece of art that reminds the viewer of the everyday beauty of love, be it between people or the arts, like music, and even sports (the film features a surreal and bitter-sweet moment of boys playing soccer without a ball, for even soccer is forbidden by the jihadists). All the while the cloud of terror looms over the drama, driven by an old testament idea of justice and informed by narcissistic, vengeful righteousness, far from anything truly holy. Timbuktu is a vital film presented by a man deeply in touch with his humanity. If it does not call attention to a country cursed by a post-colonialist fate, it should at least speak to the horrors dished out by the more popularly known invaders in Iraq and Syria who are calling for a new nation under the flag of jihad built on the spilled blood of innocents.
Timuktu is in French, Arabic, Bambara and English. It runs 97 minutes and is not rated (some language and stark encounters with violence). It opens Friday, February 5, in the South Florida area at the MDC Tower Theater in Miami and the Cinema Paradiso – Fort Lauderdale. If you live outside of my area, it could be screening in your town already or coming soon. Visit this page (that’s a hot link) for other screening locations across the U.S. Cohen Media provided a screener link for the purpose of this review.