Undine (2020)

The last time I saw a movie in public with a live audience was The Invisible Man back in March of this year, at the start of the COVID-era lockdowns. I recently ended that drought eight months later at the New Orleans Film Festival, which included a few outdoor screenings among the virtual at-home viewing options that comprised most of this year’s fest. The projection was a little hazy, mostly due to the lights of passing cars and my own glasses fogging up from my mask. The mosquitoes were out, and they were thirsty. The movie was solidly Good, but not entirely My Thing. And yet I treasured every minute of the experience, if not only for the novelty of being part of a moviegoing audience again instead of watching everything alone on my couch. It felt like cinematic therapy, a necessary break in routine.

The movie that dragged me out of the safety of my home for a low-risk outdoor screening was Undine, Christian Petzold’s follow-up to the consecutive critical hits Phoenix & Transit. If Petzold has a particular calling card as a director (at least based on those two prior examples), it’s perhaps in the way he treats outlandish, high-concept premises with a delicate, sober hand. I probably should have known to temper my expectations for Undine, then, which on paper sounds like it’d be catered to my tastes but in practice is maybe a little too subtle & well-behaved to fully warm my heart. Its IMDb plot synopsis hints at an aquatic horror fairy tale: “Undine works as a historian lecturing on Berlin’s urban development. But when the man she loves leaves her, an ancient myth catches up with her. Undine has to kill the man who betrays her and return to the water.” Filtering that modernized Little Mermaid thriller premise through Petzold’s normalizing, prestige-cinema eyes, though, the movie somehow lands under the Breakup Drama umbrella instead.

I can’t imagine being the kind of person who watches the glammed-out disco horror musical The Lure and thinks “What if this was remade as a quiet, understated drama?,” but apparently that kind of person is out there. Meeting Petzold halfway on those terms, Undine is a smart small-scale romance, the exact kind of Adults Talking About Adult Issues filmmaking that has been abandoned by Hollywood movie studios and now only exists on the indie festival circuit. While it treats its fairy tale premise with a quiet, restrained sense of realism, the drama it seeks in the relationship dynamics at its core is both wryly funny and passionately heartfelt. It’s difficult to make sense of what all of its lengthy train rides & lectures on the urban planning of a reunited Berlin have to do with the aquatic-horror myth of its premise, but the breaking-up and falling-in-love cycles of its two opposing romance storylines are engaging enough to prop up those intellectual indulgences. The chemistry between actors Paula Beer (Undine) & Franz Rogowski (Undine’s next potential lover/victim) is especially potent & worthy of attention.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I probably would’ve been more enamored with this film if it were a little messier or a lot more over the top; that’s just not Petzold’s deal. Still, it’s easy to picture a dumber, less nuanced American remake of this exact screenplay (starring Nicole Kidman & Joaquin Phoenix as the central couple), and there’s no way it would be half as thematically rich or dramatically accomplished. Besides, American studio movies don’t offer many COVID-safe venues for public screenings right now, so I couldn’t have enjoyed the outdoor film fest experience that Undine had afforded me if it were a mainstream genre pic. I’m very thankful for that therapeutic break in pandemic-constricted routine, even if I overall found the film itself to be Good Not Great.

-Brandon Ledet

The Future (2011)

One thing I noticed while drafting a potential Best Films of the 2010s list in recent weeks is how little the twee aesthetic means to me at this point in time. As a budding film nerd (and pretentious college campus twerp) in the 2000s, twee was the exact modernized introduction to the capital-c Cinema sensibilities of the French New Wave that I needed in my life. I even still appreciate the aesthetic to this day (if not only for nostalgia’s sake), but it’s now something I can apparently live without. Twee heavy-hitters like Wes Anderson & Michel Gondry released excellent films in the 2010s that doubled down on the visual fussiness & whimsical melancholy that made them famous in the previous decade. Smaller pictures from new voices like Girl Asleep & I Lost My Body even strived to push the sensibility into fresh, exciting directions. Yet, I can’t find a place for the twee aesthetic on my list of my favorite films of the 2010s. There just wasn’t anything especially urgent or resonant about its presence on the pop culture landscape that decade. The closest any title comes to touching on that end of precious cinematic melancholy that I’d consider best-of-the-decade material is Miranda July’s sophomore feature, The Future. And even that film feels more like a post-twee cultural autopsy more than it does like a genuine twee specimen.

If the heart-on-sleeve earnestness, despondent whimsy, and pastel-tinted visual fussiness of July’s debut Me and You and Everyone We Know operates as a genuine entry in the twee canon, her follow-up feels like a breakthrough to a post-twee world. With nearly a decade’s worth of retrospect behind it, The Future now plays like the official, miserable onscreen death of Twee Whimsy. This time-obsessed breakup drama for a pair of listless thirty-somethings captures that post-youth stare in the mirror when you first realize you’re not special and that life is largely pointless & devoid of magic. It’s a painful but necessary rite of passage, one that directly mirrors my own experience with wonder & self-worth over the past ten years. Curiously, it’s also a breakthrough that seems to be lost on most viewers, who apparently see the move as more of the same held over from July’s debut. It’s fascinating to see on Letterboxd that a lot of people view The Future purely as self-absorbed hipster quirk, when that’s the exact subject the film coldly picks apart in a despondent autopsy. There’s something about July in particular that sets off more cynical audiences’ Bullshit Detectors before she’s even allowed to get her point across, which is a total shame, since she taps into private, internal triumphs & crises no one else thinks to put onscreen. In general, I don’t think the (loosely defined) twee genre ever got enough credit for how dark & melancholy it was just under its meticulously curated surface, and Miranda July is maybe the most undervalued dabbler in despair to be dismissed in that way.

The biggest roadblock that July’s skeptics struggle with in The Future is its choice of narrator: a cat. What could be cutesier than a talking housecat narrating the story of a young couple’s struggle with mid-30s ennui? Except, the execution isn’t cute at all. The cat is ill and lonely in captivity at a “kill shelter,” waiting for the couple (played by Hamish Linklater & July herself) to adopt it before it’s euthanization day arrives. That rescue mission never comes to fruition, though, as the couple becomes so absorbed in their own increasingly meaningless bullshit that they forget about the promise they made to that pitiful beast. Likewise, a magical realist interaction with The Moon where a character stops time to delay an imminent break-up argument and converses with the celestial body in that frozen moment sounds like saccharine whimsy in the abstract. In practice, it’s a devastating illustration of how a moment of heartbreak can leave you feeling as if you’re struck in time. There is no magic in this world, and as soon as the ruse of being able to pause time to prevent hurt is lifted, it’s revealed that weeks have gone by without you. The world has moved on; you are not its center. In the twee era of mildly magical romances like Amélie & The Science of Sleep, these characters’ love for each other might have broken through the restrictions of physics & time to save the proverbial cat. In The Future, magic is dead, and all hope is lost. All we can do is bide our time until we are old enough to die – preferably with company we can stomach.

If your mid-30s sounds like too early in a lifespan to give up & wait for death, don’t worry; the movie’s willing to make fun of that premature panic too. Faced with the responsibility of adopting an ill housecat, our central couple—a work-from-home tech support dweeb and an overqualified children’s dance instructor—trigger their shared mid-life crisis at least a decade too early. Their first-act freak-out that life is essentially over at 35 and everything to follow is “loose change” is eventually treated as a naïve oversimplification and, essentially, a bratty temper tantrum. As long as you live to old age instead of perishing prematurely, there’s plenty of time to live after your youth shrivels up. Too much, even. The realization they suffer here is more that their options & freedoms are becoming severely more limited as they settle into the grooves of adulthood. Feeling that they have been “gearing up to do something incredible for the last fifteen years,” they suddenly realize that nothing incredible is ever likely to happen. They’re doomed to be mundane, unspecial, and purposeless until they die (a very long time from now): the same curse that afflicts the overwhelming majority of humanity. Any attempts to shake off their limiting responsibilities as budding adults to instead pursue “Fulfilling Experiences” only alienate them further from the one comfort they have in this meaningless, increasingly isolating world: each other. Magical escapes from their mundane doom become less fulfilling with time, operating more as distractions than life-changing epiphanies. Few of us will ever amount to much or affect any large-scale change in the world, which is the exact tragic realization that gradually dawns on this couple on the verge of dissolution.

If the title of this film suggests that it’s attempting to predict the actual future, I’d say July was fairly successful. Its varied themes of Climate Change defeatism, post-Obama disillusionment, the pressure to turn self-gratifying art projects to public displays, and the isolating effect of social media obsession all feel accurate to how the 2010s played out in the long run – give or take a flip phone to smartphone upgrade. Extratextually, the film also felt like a prescient death knell for the twee sensibility’s importance on the pop culture landscape. The aesthetic’s ghost continued on in twee-as-fuck films to follow like Moonrise Kingdom, God Help The Girl, and even my beloved Paddington 2, but July had already given it a proper burial in The Future. It’s a film that will alienate many a cynical grump who stumbles across it by accident – if not as soon as its cat-narrated intro, then at least by the time July is doing an interpretive dance about vulnerability to a Beach House track. Still, for those more in tune with the heart-on-sleeve melancholy of the twee sensibility (or its equally ill-defined “mumblecore” aftershock), it really does feel like the end of an era in wide-eyed wonder & hope for what’s to come. It’s a shame that it’s taken July so long to follow up this soul-crushing bummer with a third feature, as I’m very curious to find out what adulthood milestone is going to break my heart next.

-Brandon Ledet

Appropriate Behavior (2015)

EPSON MFP image

fourhalfstar

It’s difficult to describe Appropriate Behavior without using titles like Broad City & Obvious Child as reference points, but those comparisons truly do the film a disservice, as it’s much more emotionally satisfying than either of those titles (both of which I like very much). True, Appropriate Behavior is yet another raunchy, sex-obsessed comedy-drama centered on a New York City woman-child struggling to figure her shit out, but there’s something uniquely direct & honest about its approach to this aesthetic that distinguishes it from its peers. Its authenticity might have a lot to do with the overall strength of the writer/director/actress Desiree Akhavan, who delivers the material as if she’s lived it before, but what’s really arresting is the crippling, all-too-common sadness that anchors the story. The details of the protagonist’s Shirin’s lifestyle & personality may be specific, but her heartache is universal & familiar.

Shirin is a young, bisexual Brooklynite party girl with a journalism degree & Persian heritage. Not everyone is going to relate to certain aspects of her sex life, such as safe-words, strap-ons, group play and hiding her sexuality from her Iranian-born parents.  However, the film’s central romantic conflict is an about as universal as they come. Appropriate Behavior details the depressing, gradual detangling of two people exiting a long term relationship. The film thankfully doesn’t dwell solely on the couple’s post break-up gloom, but instead adopts a flashback structure that allows it to show the former couple in better times, like in a flirtatious exchange when the first meet where Shirin says, “I find your anger incredibly sexy. I hate so many things too.” When the broken relationship Shirin’s mourning is first detailed it looks too toxic to be worth the heartache. The flashbacks reveal that it was at one time something playful, something worth saving. It allows the film to run through the entire cycle of a romantic tryst from first meeting to fucking to fighting to eventual dissolution.

Although the universal relatability of this cycle is what makes the film affecting, it’s the specificity of Shirin’s world that makes it special. The film’s Brooklyn setting provides a lot of room for lampooning of ludicrous personalities like social justice comedians, Kickstarter gurus, pothead businessmen, and absurdly pretentious performance artists. Shirin’s open, playful sexuality is an invitation into a world of group sex, kink play, and drag queens. Her Persian heritage is a window into both the culture’s familial intimacy & rituals as well as its malignant homophobia. At the center of this Venn diagram is a very relatable Shirin. She calls Brooklyn hipsters out on their nonsense, asking  “What is up with your placid disinterest in everything?” She laughs in the faces of people who take their kink play seriously and finds a way to reconcile her sexuality with her family in a somewhat disheartening “don’t ask, don’t tell” type of equilibrium.  A lot of Shirin’s life goals amount to “a good time”, which is more than understandable for a woman in her twenties.

It’s incredible how much Shirin’s zest for fun shines through when Appropriate Behavior finds her in such a dark time. It’s a familiar balance to anyone who’s experienced true heartbreak: trying to party away the pain like it doesn’t matter, but the superficial hedonism always feeling empty. She pretends like she doesn’t care, but she continuously ends up alone & hurt after the high. No matter your relation to the specifics of Shirin’s background & lifestyle, it’s easy to see yourself in her sadness when she curls up in a ball and says, “I’m going to lie here and forget what it feels like to be loved. Could you please turn off the light?” It’s a sadness that feels like it’s never going to fade, but it always does . . . eventually. Shirin can’t move past it until she gets wrapped up in her own project, a distraction that finally allows her to let go of the past. The thing that saves her? An elaborate fart joke. That’s the exact kind of clash between emotional devastation & goofball irreverence that makes Desiree Akhavan’s debut such a strong, relatable film, even for those worlds apart from her protagonist’s exact circumstances.

-Brandon Ledet