Wars are shocking and impactful phenomena that have devastating consequences for the human experience. As Betrand Russel once said, “War does not determine who is right – only who is left.” It is in this vein that French filmmaker Christian Carion has directed his latest film, Come What May, a suspense-filled drama he co-wrote with Andrew Bampfield and Laure Irrmann that depicts Nazi atrocities in such a vivid way it will get the audience furious all over again about that terrible regime. Despite a formulaic feeling that will be familiar to those who have seen many World War II films, the violence is quite vivid and inescapable, set in contrast to the bucolic European landscape, which is heightened by strong camera work and a score from a well-known composer.
September 15, 2016
If it’s hard for Terrence Malick to weave together an affecting story from shreds of beautifully photographed pastiche and disembodied voice over, then imagine one of his acolytes giving it a try. With that in mind, The Vessel, the feature-length directorial debut of Julio Quintana, a camera operator who worked with Malick on The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, actually comes across as quite accomplished.
August 20, 2016
Get ready, one of the most heart-rending movies of 2016 may be Little Men. It’s one of those films that will hit you like a ton of bricks with a final, subtle scene that encapsulates a somber sort of loss that is sadder in its seeming lack of significance. It’s just one moment that captures a change that no one wanted but no one could prevent. That director Ira Sachs (who co-wrote the script with Mauricio Zacharias) captures the moment with no sentiment and a brutal matter-of-factness will rip the rug from right under you.
My Golden Days explores the distorting filter of time with keen storytelling and powerful performances
March 30, 2016
“I am not Ulysses. No nostalgia for my country,” says the anthropologist Paul Dédalus (Mathieu Amalric) to a lover in Greece. With a title like My Golden Days, you might be forgiven to think this is indeed a nostalgia piece, but this is a film by Arnaud Desplechin, a French filmmaker who understands how to pick apart sentiment to its raw core. He understands that memories are fragments within shards of moments that wipe each other away and are never true records of the past. Time is a moment that as soon as it is considered has been altered from that moment. Desplechin is keenly aware of this, using cinematic devices like iris shots to transition between scenes that speak to the tunnel vision of memory and the filter of time. With My Golden Days, he focuses on first love and how it can haunt and form our beings as told in retrospect by Paul, who sometimes has trouble remembering things.
June 5, 2015
Results is one of the most creative, honest romantic comedies made recently. It follows the story of personal trainer Kat (Cobie Smulders), a driven and determined trainer who also has anger issues that are not quite under her control or even completely acknowledged by her yet. Kat works for Trevor (Guy Pearce) the founder of Power 4 Life, a gym that fashions itself a lifestyle, complete with a philosophy for life, with Trevor at the forefront. Though he fancies himself a guru, Trevor also seems unaware of his character flaws. He believes so deeply in his own Soul 4 Life philosophy, he takes himself seriously to a fault.
Into this mix, arrives Danny (Kevin Corrigan, in a wonderfully tic-filled performance with excellent comedic timing), a New Yorker that has recently moved to Austin, Texas, after inheriting a large sum of money. Danny is an odd character but brutally honest and self-aware –a stark contrast to Trevor. Danny shows up at the gym, and he is unable to articulate clearly what he wants. His life seems to be out of control, and when asked by Trevor what his goals are, he just says, “I just want to be able to take a punch.”
Kat starts to train Danny, which soon becomes painfully awkward. Danny is extremely uncomfortable in his own skin but at least ties to connect with people. He quickly develops an attraction for Kat. Danny’s half-empty mansion and his own life philosophy creates a disconnect between him and Kat, who tries to encourage him during personal training sessions but makes no inroads with him. Coaxing her with a drink and some weed after a session, he steals a kiss. The next day, he finally goes after her, and she goes into a full-on anger fit, to which Danny responds, “This is not making me any less attracted to you.”
Results is the latest feature-length film by Andrew Bujalski. After the trippy existentialist journey into vintage artificial intelligence (Film Review: Computer Chess reveals the mystical in the cyber), Results brings him back to exploring romance in all its awkward glory through intriguingly flawed characters. While he was known to be at the forefront of the mumblecore movement (An Essential Guide to Mumblecore), which now seems like a passé categorization, the writer/director has grown into an insightful storyteller with characters that resonate because of their failings. Previous films such as Funny Ha Ha (2002), featuring a young woman who stumbles to find meaningful connections in post-collegiate limbo, explored emotional struggles that were verbalized in less than articulate terms. Bujalski soon became more refined. Mutual Appreciation (2005), where an ambivalence about long-term commitment drove the action, still stands as one of his strongest works. It’s a perfect example of this subtle character-driven narrative.
In Results, the action is also driven by each of the characters’ own failings, which provides a sort of meta-narrative of the unspoken motivations that drive the action: confusion and love. While mumblecore was known for its natural acting, it is now clear that Bujalski is exposing something deeper than natural acting, he is showing the complex interplay between action seen, spoken and felt, through a patient eye that finds the humanity in people, even they’re gym rats.
This character-driven approach stands out in Results, and gives the movie an interesting shape, rather than the formulaic boy-meets-girl device so familiar in Hollywood films. Smulders and Pearce give magnificently modest life to Kat and Trevor. They spar, argue, get mad at each other but otherwise seem incapable of truly expressing what they feel for one another. It is suggested early in the film that they had a fling, although by the time we catch up with them, they seemed to have figured out that their liaison was unprofessional. However, their interactions are marred by that comfortable/uncomfortable dialectic that starts to really make sense the more we learn about the couple.
For a romantic comedy, Results is also very funny in a smart way. Bujalski has created a deep narrative about relationships that is character-driven. Bujalski’s approach is delicate and kind; the funny moments come from the collision of all three characters, as they stumble through articulating their emotions. For instance, when Danny meets Trevor, he notices a poster in his office and reads it out loud, “Fear, excuses, surrender.” Trevor seems perplexed. It turns out the poster was actually blocked by something else that Trevor removes revealing the full poster that reads: “No fear, no excuses, no surrender.” The contrast between the two characters is stark, and it foretells many obtusely comedic moments scattered throughout this subtle, yet powerful, film.
Results runs 105 minutes and is rated R (for weed use, sex, profanity). It opens in our Miami are on June 12 at the Bill Cosford Cinema on the Coral Gable campus of the University of Miami. Results has already opened in some cities and is scheduled to open in select cities at later dates. For current playdates, visit this page. All images are courtesy of Magnolia Pictures, who also provided a screener link for the purpose of this review.
‘The Blue Room’ captures the sense of memories in murder-mystery full of telling imagery — a film review
October 15, 2014
I’ve only ever noticed Mathieu Amalric as an actor. I had no idea he could direct, and what an introduction to his directing is The Blue Room (La chambre bleue)! What first strikes the viewer is the gorgeous work of cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne and set design by Christophe Offret. The framing is sometimes ideally symmetrical or fractured by strategic placement of foreground. Colors are either vibrant or obscured by shadow. These visuals carry an important weight because it will be hard to trust what anyone in this movie says. This is a murder-mystery, after all, and even though police detectives have caught their suspects at the start of the film, what actually happened will remain a mystery until the movie’s still intriguing finale.
Based on Georges Simenon’s 1955 novel, a book that reads like a puzzle gradually coming together and into focus, Amalric co-wrote the script with co-star Stéphanie Cléau with great respect to the work both literally and figuratively. The recurring image of a woman’s legs opening to reveal a glistening pubic bush half-covered in shadow is lifted right from the book. Oh, the trouble that lies within. But the story takes on another quality as a movie. It’s a fractured mirror inviting the viewer to both judge these people and sympathize with them, as the film takes a while to arrive at any sense that a horrific crime was committed.
The director/actor plays the lead role of adulterous husband Julien Gahyde married with a young daughter to the quietly suspicious but repressed Delphine (Léa Drucker). We meet him in the afterglow of sex with Esther Despierre (Cléau). She’s the wife of his family’s pharmacist. Julien seems both nervous and excited by the liaison. But this is only a memory. In fact, the film seems filled and informed by the haze of memory. At a curt 76 minutes in run time, the movie is best thought of as a series of vignettes reflected on from the trial. Hidden in the edits could lie the truth. “Life is different when you live it and when you look back on it after,” Julien tells a magistrate early in the film during questioning.
Visually, blocking and vertical lines fracture many images, reflecting half-remembered situations. There are many windows, passages, doorways that represent obscured and maybe not completely honest memories. Presented in the 4:3 academy aspect ratio, which speaks to the influence of early mystery masters like Hitchcock and Chabrol, masters in the game of perception, the film’s framing also creates a window in and of itself. The movie is filled with many a lush image loaded with probable meaning. The score by Grégoire Hetzel is often overwrought and steeped in nostalgia. Strings swell and woodwinds modulate from wispy to soaring. It’s a bit over-the-top, but it’s by design.
Not only does Amalric show an incredible eye for beautiful staged images. He has pacing down to a brisk clip, and his interpretation of the source material is brilliant in how it embraces mystery and suspense giving no sign of relief but also no solid answers. The Blue Room is a baroque thriller that presents more than an answer to whodunit but offers the questions and stories in layers of tantalizing teases toward a subtle reveal that speaks more to the notion of judging people than any ultimate, definitive truth.
In some ways, the movie has a kinship with Gone Girl (‘Gone Girl’ examines perceptions we make with stories we tell — a film review). Like Fincher, Amalric prepares the viewer early on for the film’s unique quality. In the titular bedroom, Esther bites Julian on the lip, drawing blood. “Will your wife ask you questions?” she asks Julien. During his recounting of this incident to the magistrate, Julien is asked, “Could she have bitten you on purpose?” This is a film that says more in its questions than it does in any of its scenarios, so Amalric prepares the audience quite nicely to play interpreter and judge. Questions can only lead you so far, but they can also lead to great post-movie conversations, and many viewers will not always come away with an exactly similar viewing, as the film also features blink-and-you-might-miss-them behavioral reveals that will maintain the film’s intrigue long after the house lights go up. The Blue Room is an exquisite movie made for the dark chamber of the movie house.
The Blue Room runs 76 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is not rated (but expect violence and frontal nudity). It opens this Friday, Oct. 17, in the Miami area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. It then expands the following week, on Friday, Oct. 24, at the Bill Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus. IFC Films provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. It began screening across the U.S. on Oct. 3, so it may already be screening at your location, check local listings.
March 25, 2014
It was Carl Jung who theorized all genders have an opposite within. Men have a female side and women have a male side. He said part of what drives the unconscious mind was the anima and animus. If ever there was a male director who desperately wanted to bring life to his anima, it may be Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. And if there was ever proof at how futile his efforts are in tapping into the female side of his unconscious it lies there in his filmography. But dammit if he does not strive for it with a brutal honesty.
Though many have written him off as a misogynist, von Trier clearly has sympathy for women. Breaking the Waves (1996), still (maybe sentimentally for this writer) his strongest film, made a star of Emily Watson. She played a virginal bride whose husband (Stellan Skarsgård) grows distant. She turns to whoring and then implicitly rises to the status of saint. In Dancer In the Dark (2000), our heroine (Björk) escapes into musical sequences to come to terms with an unavailable father to her son as she gradually goes blind and meets the cruelest sort of end one could imagine. Most recently, Kirsten Dunst became his anima surrogate in the over-indulgent Melancholia (‘Melancholia’ offers intimate, if flawed, look at the end of the world), which explored the depths of a depressed woman (Dunst) but short-changed her grounded sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as a giant planet grew ever closer to earth to swallow it whole.
In even more sexually explicit films, there is Dogville (2003), Manderlay (2005) and Antichrist (2009). Either victimized or self-destructive, women are quite doomed in von Trier’s universe, burdened by their anatomy instead of empowered by it. But he’s far from finished exploring female sexuality. It’s fitting that his most primal and focused of his women-centric movies is the epic-length, four-and-a-half-hour long Nymph()maniac (parentheses for extra evocative effect).
As one can expect from title and that () in place of the o, von Trier’s unapologetic heavy hand is once again all over this film, which, in the U.S. has been divided into two films: Nymph()maniac Volume I and Nymph()maniac Volume II. It has also been more than cut in half for stateside consumption, it has also been shortened by a half-hour. One might assume it is a move by von Trier to protect the more puritanical American audience from explicit sex overload because there is a lot of it in this movie. To his detriment, he is a condescending director, who would consider such a notion, as his coerciveness once again mutes the impact of his theme. However, the film does have its strengths, albeit within a mixed bag of genuine effort.
The film is not rated, as it would have never earned anything less than an NC-17 rating. Sexuality is ever-present in the film. Even the U.S. version has a few scenes of penetration (body doubles were reportedly used). No anecdote is absent of sex or the implication of it (even references to fly fishing). This uncompromising effort by von Trier is by design. He does not only stay true to the title but creates an implicit effect that will indeed place the audience in the title character’s body. Before the end of the film, the viewer will become numb to the sex on-screen. This is actually one of the film’s strengths, as it draws the audience into the titular protagonist’s world.
Gainsbourg, in her third major role in a row for von Trier plays Joe. After a slithering camera silently turns a few brick walls and gutters dripping melting snow, we find her bruised and unconscious in an alleyway. We are then sonically assaulted with the film’s black metal theme song (there’s that heavy hand). An older man (Skarsgård) helps her up and insists he call an ambulance. She threatens to run away if he calls any authority, so he offers her tea at his place. He then tucks her in his bed where she proceeds to tell him a bedtime story all about her self-described nymphomania (a long out-dated psychological disorder on par with hysteria) and what “a bad human being” she has been.
The man, who later reveals his name as Seligman, for the most part seems rather unstartled by accounts of her sexuality, which begins with her first memory, when, as a 2-year-old, “I first discovered my cunt.” He can’t help but divert her narrative to his experiences as a fly fisherman and goes on about the “nymph” fly. She pauses silently, as if to say, “I don’t know what to say to that” and carries on with her story. This disconnect between the characters could be relevant or not. Maybe von Trier is subverting his own ham-fistedness, as Joe’s pregnant pauses easily invite laughter from the audience.
She later shares an anecdote where she took a challenge from a friend to try and have with sex with as many men as possible during one train ride. The film flashes back to a teenage Joe (Stacy Martin) and her childhood friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) as they plot and seduce for a prize bag of “chocolate sweeties.” Sex does not make the reward but candy. It’s significant to the gradual desensitization of intercourse for Joe. The two childhood friends soon form a club where the pair and other school girls chant “mea maxima vulva” while masturbating in a group. They swear to have sex with many different partners and never fall in love with them. It’s an act of rebellion against what they consider the oppressive notion of love.
There’s meaning in everything in von Trier’s world. Forgiving the teenage notion of “mea maxima vulva,” the idea that Seligman must connect her stories to fly fishing and his obsession with Fibonacci numbers are a bit harder to forgive. But, we can hope it’s by design. Joe hardly entertains his theories (and maybe von Trier would probably not forgive my anima allusions). She just carries on with her stories, each one divided by title cards, including “The Compleat Angler” and “Delirium.”
The transference between Joe and Seligman becomes quite apparent. Von Trier, as ever, gives us scenes that are choppily cut and highlight silences between characters more than dialogue. The internal world is always more interesting to von Trier, and this is his way to emphasize reflection and thought. This is a contemplative film. It mirrors what may be happening between screen and viewer. It’s as amazingly candid as some might think it lurid.
One of the easier chapters to swallow is simply titled “Mrs. H” also features some rather cruel humor. A rampaging wife (Uma Thurman in spectacular high gear) enters Joe’s apartment right after her cheating husband (Hugo Speer) has appeared with his suitcases, ready to move in with Joe. The missus has brought their three young sons to introduce them to the woman who has destroyed their family and takes them on a tour of Joe’s apartment, all the way to “Daddy’s whoring bed.” Joe just stands there, silent and unapologetic. It’s one of the film’s more honestly hilarious moments because it’s like one of those revenge letters by a woman scorned, which often go viral on the Internet.
But it’s a rather cheap joke that more importantly culminates in the usual coldness from Joe, who once seems to care less about emotional involvement over the physical act of sex. Men are replaceable to Joe. Well… except for one. Shia LaBeouf plays Jerôme, the man who once happened to take her virginity in three thrusts (plus five more in the behind, spelled out in numbers that are burned on the image, hence the Fibonacci number). He comes to matter to her because she denies him sex for much of their second life together, when he rather surreptitiously reappears in her life as her boss.
The most sincerely accomplished and, finally insightful, of the chapters must be “The Little Organ School,” which comes toward the end of Volume I. Once again, Seligman illuminates Joe’s account with a theoretical notion, this time the musical one of polyphony. And again, Joe turns the story back to herself, noting three particularly distinct love affairs during a time at the height of her sexual escapades, where she was bedding an average of 10 men a day. Our director, in turn, works in montages within a triple split-screen, featuring Jerôme at the center. It’s another rather overt move by von Trier, but it also reveals a complexity in this woman’s sexuality rarely represented so vividly and powerfully in the film. It also allows for a rare moment of emotional illumination of this woman, who may indeed have a human, beating heart and a desire to be understood.
Returning to the notion of anima and animus, it’s not incidental that Joe has a name more often associated with men. It hints at one of the more interesting premises in the film that offers up many ideas surrounding sex to varying effect. There’s one rather witty scene where Joe flawlessly parallel parks for a frazzled Jerôme who insists the gap between two cars is too small for his vehicle. So much for this idea, Germany.
Yet, as this film is but a “Volume I,” it feels incomplete when we get a sort of cliffhanger of an ending that would have actually worked quite ingeniously as a finale to the film had it been a movie focused on Joe’s trouble with feelings and sex. Still lingering of course is the mystery that put Joe in the street, not to mention what role Seligman has to play beyond fun house mirror to her tales of perverse sexual behavior.
It becomes difficult to make up one’s mind about this film without the completed vision. Maybe it will let down because, so far— barring some hopeful moments toward the end— it mostly feels like the usual forceful von Trier. Joe still has to finish that long story she began, so we can find out the why and the what in “Volume II.” Also, could von Trier be pandering to U.S. audiences too much? Has he compromised not only by dropping almost a half-hour of (what some reports have said) of more sexual images and some extended dialogue? Has he also gone too far in following the annoying trend of several recent Hollywood movies of allowing his film to be chopped in half for easier consumption at the cost of complete story flow? Beneath these kinks and complaints, is a rather intelligent and bold concept few filmmakers dare to unabashedly explore: a rather taboo subject, not just for mainstream cinema, but a male director: a woman and the power of her sex. Nymph()maniac Volume I stands as an interesting though mostly imperfect film that teases there may be some hope for the follow up, out next month.
Nymphomaniac Volume I runs 118 minutes and is not rated (it would have been an easy NC-17 had it been presented to the MPAA for a rating). It opened this past weekend in South Florida in Miami Beach Cinematheque, Bill Cosford Cinema, O Cinema and the Tower Theater. It is also available on demand, but it’s a beautiful big screen film. Note: Nymph()maniac Volume II will see release in April. Here’s that trailer, which bodes some hope for the questions brought up by this review: