Babylon (2022)

“Welcome to the asshole of Los Angeles.”

Spending the holidays with family was a healthy shake-up for me after a couple years of COVID-related isolation, which only compounded my usual, longstanding reluctance to travel to rural & suburban Louisiana.  Getting outside the city meant getting outside my bubble, and I talked to a few distant loved ones about movies without being able to cite relatively popular artists like Bergman, Lynch, and Cronenberg as household names.  Meanwhile, actual household name Steven Spielberg’s magic-of-the-movies memoir The Fabelmans was being categorized as elitist snobbery for Julliard graduates on Twitter, and every movie without a blue space alien in it was drowning at the box office.  And if you count cameos, at least one movie with a blue space alien was drowning too.  Damien Chazelle’s Babylon sank while James Cameron’s Avatar sequel soared, and it was impossible not to fret over the two films’ disparate levels of success, since the madman Chazelle dared to include a few frames of Cameron’s Na’vi creatures in his film’s climactic Movies-Through-The-Years montage.  The financial failure of Chazelle’s star-studded movie industry drama sounds surprising in the abstract, but after a few days of talking about movies with people who don’t often Talk About Movies it makes total sense to me.  Caring about the craft & history of cinema as an artform is a niche interest, even when the cinema itself is populist media.  The thing is that Babylon is explicitly about that exact disconnect: the horrifying gap between how much general audiences love to be entertained by The Movies and how indifferent those audiences are to the lives & wellbeing of the people who make them.

The obvious reasons for Babylon‘s financial failure extend far beyond expectations that general audiences would share its nerdy academic interest in the century-old history of pre-Code Hollywood moviemaking.  If anything, Chazelle’s $80mil flop is most impressive in how eager it is to alienate its audience, regardless of its movie-nerd subject matter.  It’s a three-hour, coke-fueled montage on double-speed that not only indicts the unwashed masses for our indifference to the artistry behind our favorite movies but also assaults our eyes with every fluid the human body can produce.  Piss, shit, tears, blood, puke, and cum all dutifully grace the screen in their own time, with the piss & shit ticked off the checklist early on to help set the tone.  Modern-day movie stars Brad Pitt & Margot Robbie suffer the same rough transition from silents to talkies that has been mythologized as the downfall of Early Hollywood since as far back as 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. Only, their backstage debauchery between productions is cranked to a year-round Mardi Gras bacchanal never before depicted with so much onscreen hedonistic excess.  It’s enough to make you want to puke yourself, if not only from the carsick momentum of the film’s manic pacing, which rarely slows down from its intercutting dialogue barrages to stage a genuine scene of real-time drama.

Because its characters are more symbolic than dramatic (directly recalling past industry castoffs like Clara Bow, Louis Armstrong, and Anna Mae Wong), Babylon is often more interesting for what it’s trying to say on a big-picture scale than it is for its scene-to-scene drama.  I was particularly struck by the way its repetition of Singin’ in the Rain‘s talkies-downfall plot is directly acknowledged in the text, with Babylon consciously positioning itself as yet another example of Hollywood’s cyclical, self-cannibalizing nature.  When most movies cite the magic of cinema being greater and more enduring than the people who make it, it’s coming from a place of awe & respect for the artform.  Here, Chazelle projects pure disgust & horror.  In its mission-statement climax, our low-level-fixer-turned-high-level producer POV character Manny (Diego Calva) watches caricatures of his dead friends & colleagues mocked as comic archetypes at a screening of Singin’ in the Rain, then slips into a subliminal montage of the next 100 years of Hollywood-spectacle filmmaking, with each successive title—Un Chien Andelou, The Wizard of Oz, 2001, Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, Avatar, etc.—building on and borrowing from the past for its own in-the-moment splendor until there’s no splendor left to go around.  Chazelle even shamelessly participates in this ritual himself, as Babylon can easily be passed off a cruder, shallower Hail, Caesar! crammed into a Boogie Nights-shaped box. It’s an ungenerous reading of how cinema perpetually “borrows” from itself in a way that feels like homage but rarely acknowledges or takes care of the real-life people who built its founding texts.  And when Manny snaps out of it to gawk at the uncaring, unknowledgeable audience cackling at ghosts of his loved ones, the tragedy of his cruelly perpetual industry hits way harder than any of the character deaths that sparked his melancholy in the first place.

I was most impressed with Babylon in its scale and in its eagerness to alienate casual moviegoing audiences.  It likely would have been better received if it were a 10-hour miniseries that allowed each of its overlapping character arcs to breathe (especially since it already intercuts their stories like a long-running soap opera anyway), but its manic tempo is exactly what makes it special among the million other movies about The Movies, so it was probably better off flopping than capitulating.  I also love that Chazelle projects such a sour view of moviemaking as an artform, a compulsory practice he immediately likens to dragging a diarrheal elephant uphill.  The only reason I don’t fully love this movie is I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve already seen it all before (even if at half-time pace), but that kind of complaint only plays into exactly what Chazelle is trying to say about Hollywood’s cyclical history here.  Even his climactic montage’s assertion that cinema has already reached its end—a death knell also sounded by the hundreds of click-bait articles that auto-populate every time a major production like Babylon flops—feels like a self-cannibalizing repetition of Hollywood lore.  How many times has cinema already “died”?  Did it die when the talkies ended the silent era, when television became affordable, when television went prestige, when normies began to stream?  Every generation thinks they’re going to be the last, and although one day they’ll be proven right, the cinemapocalypse has yet to fully come to fruition.  In the meantime, artists can only watch in horror as their work and their peers are absorbed, digested, and regurgitated by subsequent art movements they do not understand, with no wide audience recognition for how they contributed to that greater continuum.  Even the populist Spielbergs of the industry become historical, esoteric references in the long run, and there will come a time when Chazelle’s own name is synonymous with The Russo Brothers, Kevin Feige, and Michael Bay as dusty antiques only of interest to high-brow academics.

-Brandon Ledet

Decision to Broker

There are two new high-profile, Korean-set detective dramas currently making the rounds, directed by Park Chan-wook and Hirokazu Kore-Eda.  Anyone familiar with the beloved auteurs’ past work would expect their latest films to be incomparable outside some light genre overlap and a shared national setting. They’d be right. Broker and Decision to Leave are tonally & narratively distinct enough that I’m likely doing them a disservice by lumping them together here, but as a pair I do think they indicate an interesting, mirrored career shift for their respective auteurs.  I know Park Chan-wook as an over-the-top sensationalist, one who pushes the boundaries of good taste & genre tropes within the confines of finely tuned, exquisitely staged chamber dramas.  By contrast, I know Hirokazu Kore-Eda as a restrained, observational dramatist who finds grand emotion & political importance in small, subtle gestures.  What makes their dual 2022 detective stories interesting as a pair is the way the two directors are both reaching towards a middle ground between those extremes.  Decision to Leave finds the usually more prankish Park working on his best behavior, while Broker finds Kore-Eda shaking up his typically underplayed docu-dramas with some more traditional, genre-minded payoffs.

That’s not to say that either director has compromised their personal stylistic touches or thematic obsessions.  In its broadest strokes, Broker is a very similar movie to Kore-Eda’s previous film, Shoplifters, which in turn was a more accessible version of his earlier triumph Nobody Knows.  A story about an illegal, D.I.Y. adoption agency who broker the sale of babies to families outside the foster system, Broker clearly continues Kore-Eda’s auteurist fascination with how unconventional parentage takes shape below the poverty line.  It just perks up that story with more entertainment-minded genre tropes and a more pronounced, devious sense of humor than I remember seeing in his previous work.  This is basically Shoplifters as a road trip movie where detectives are on the makeshift family’s tail, staking them out so they can be busted at the point of sale.  It’s a subtle introduction of accessible genre entertainment into Kore-Eda’s usual low-key dramas, a shift was seemingly influenced by the international success of Parasite – given it’s the Japanese director’s first film set in Korea, he anchors it to the charisma of Bong muse Song Kang-ho (as the lead broker), and he borrows its opening image from Parasite‘s iconic flood sequence.  Whatever the inspiration, Broker manages to feel much livelier that Kore-eda’s past work without sacrificing any of his usual emotional or political heft.

Unlike with Kore-Eda, I’m not sure that “measured restraint” is the first quality I look for in a Park Chan-wook film, but it does make Decision to Leave an interesting addition to his oeuvre.  You would expect his throwback crime story about an insomniac detective who falls disastrously in love with a femme fatale he suspects to be a murderer would land closer to Basic Instinct than to Hitchcock, but it seems he already got those erotic thriller indulgences out of his system with The Handmaiden.  It’s not any less thrilling than the lewder, more explosive payoffs of The Handmaiden, though.  There’s an exciting tension in watching Park push his more perverse impulses just below the surface of this traditionalist noir . . . for about an hour; then he starts more openly playing around with the detective-suspect eroticism of the genre.  Park holds himself together just long enough to tell the full classic Hollywood version of this detective story, then he stretches it a half-hour past its breaking point to search for the kinkier aspects of the detective-murderess dynamic.  It’s a relatively tame movie by his standards, but there are scenes where he lingers on the femme fatale displaying her domestic abuse wounds as an act of flirtation or becoming visibly aroused by her assigned-detective using brutal force against other perps.  It’s almost like watching Hitchcock make the subversively kinky Vertigo after he made the more explicitly perverse Frenzy, pulling back instead of leaning into his darkest impulses.

Maybe there’s an indication that these two distinct, disparate directors are gradually meeting in the middle – one softening their perversion stories’ sharpest edges and the other spicing up their intimate family dramas with some crime-world thrills.  More likely, they just happen to be pushing themselves to try new things instead of remaking the same picture over and over again, something that should be an auteur’s biggest fear.  Even if they both fully committed to these new directions in their work, it would take dozens of films for them to meet on common ground.  I just find it interesting that these deviations from their respective personal norms both happened to take the shape of detective stories set in the same country, released at the same time of year.

-Brandon Ledet

Women Talking (2022)

Thanks to the secretive background maneuvers of the Almighty Algorithm, the very first thing I saw online after my private screening of Women Talking was a few viciously negative tweets declaring it one of the worst movies of the year.  I understood them, even though I do not agree.  Sarah Polley’s latest is a stage play adaptation of a hot-topic novel, one with prescriptive declarations to make about the rigidly gendered power dynamics of mass-scale sexual assault.  It’s an opportunity for some of the most critically lauded actors in Hollywood—Frances McDormand, Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley—to dress up in rural-America poverty costumes and deliver perfectly tailored Oscar-clip soundbites with industry-damning implications about the post-Weinstein fallout of #MeToo.  It’s also visually ugly, recalling a 2000s era switch to digi filmmaking that used to clog up the broadcast schedules of IFC and the Sundance Channel (back when they used to play movies at all).  I totally understand how someone could be coldly cynical about Women Talking as Bad Art with Good Politics.  Personally, I found it to be crushingly powerful from start to end, more than I had emotionally steeled myself for.  Even its drained, pallid color palette, which looks like a fundamental flaw from the outside, completely works in the moment.  Everything in the film is grim, grey, grueling – even its stabs of humor.  It’s an earnest, wounded, furious howl into the soulless abyss of traditional gender dynamics.  Like any political protest, you can either join in its righteous chorus for personal, communal catharsis, or observe how small & ineffective it looks from a distance.

Inspired by true events, Miriam Towe’s source-material novel details the aftermath of the habitual, conspiratorial rape of women in an isolated Mennonite community in the 2010s.  Drugged with livestock tranquilizers and assaulted in the night, the women were told that these acts of violence were “the work of ghosts or Satan [. . .] or a wild female imagination” by their abusers, communally gaslit until those same men were caught in the act.  Thankfully, Polley only revisits these violations in flashes.  Most of the film details a hayloft meeting where the women decide what to do now that the men’s crimes have been exposed: leave, fight, or forgive.  The camera drifts around the barn in an attempt to make cinema out of this stationary debate, recalling William Friedkin’s tight-set stage play adaptations The Birthday Party & The Boys in the Band.  Mostly, though, this is a movie of ideas not images, as indicated by its dim, dingy color grading.  As the women draw up very simple Pros & Cons lists for each of their painfully shitty options, the deliberation gets broadly philosophical in a way that reaches far beyond the specifics of this particular atrocity.  It starts with the tension between the impossibility of forgiving such a heinous act and the possible denial of access to Heaven if that forgiveness is withheld.  From there, they push past the religious implications of their decision to ponder more universal conundrums about the violence men put women through on a mass scale, and whether the pleasure of their company as individuals is worth the potential harm of their power as a unit.  Both within the context of this story and in the world outside it, there are no easy answers.

There were a couple fleeting moments in Women Talking where I was disappointed by how literal & straightforward Polley was being in her messaging.  The movie gets its point across plenty clearly without horror-tinged flashbacks to victims smearing their blood on bedroom walls or onscreen text declaring “What follows is an act of female imagination.”  As a dialogue-driven Movie of Ideas, however, I can only report that it weighed heavily on my mind & heart.  Despite their shared religious beliefs, the titular women are all drastically varied in age, experience, bodies, and temperaments.  The only thing that unites them, really, is their victimization by the other half of the colony; they are united by hurt, anger, and grief.  Even the “woman” narrating the story is a child’s voice, a sharp indicator of how predatory men see their fellow human beings.  This is not an easy sit.  It’s typical to the types of two-plus-hour misery dramas that crowd the movie release calendar this time of year.  It asks bigger, more devastating questions than most Awards Season weepies tend to, though, even if its philosophical prodding can easily be mistaken for political didacticism.  And since its initial ecstatic praise out of the festival circuit is now being swatted back by a few loud, indignant cynics on Twitter, I assume it’s going places.  It’s going to reach, challenge, and upset a lot of people – as long as they’re willing to engage with its troubling questions beyond initial reactions to its muted imagery.

-Brandon Ledet

Aftersun (2022)

Since the New Orleans Film Festival ended in early November, my inboxes (both physical and virtual) have been overflowing with FYC Awards Screeners.  Within the two-hour span of pressing play on a movie and checking my phone during its end credits, I’ll have received two or three more titles fighting to make their way into my eyeballs.  It’s an unrelenting flood of #prestigecontent presented in low-res, watermarked glory.  As much as catching up with this season’s “Best of the Year” contenders (some of which won’t reach wide distribution until early 2023) before this month’s SEFCA vote can feel like a marathon homework session, it has been pretty illuminating about how these year-end lists take shape.  I always wonder how the 100+ new releases I see every year are whittled down to the same 15-20 titles repeated & rearranged on pro critics’ & voting bodies’ “personal” Best of the Year lists, even though they presumably watch even more new releases than I do.  The answer, apparently, is marketing.  The FYC discs & emails sent directly to critics’ doorsteps are a huge part of the narrowing-down process.  Since I haven’t received any FYC screeners for some of my personal favorites of the year (so far)—Neptune Frost, Inu-Oh, Mad God, Jackass Forever, etc.—I’m meant to assume there’s no way to build momentum for their nomination, and thus voting for them will essentially be a waste of my microscopic modicum of clout.  It’s frustrating that money & marketing are the answer to the mystery of how critical consensus is formed, but in retrospect I should’ve assumed that was the case from the start.

The reduction effect of movie marketing doesn’t start with Awards Season screeners, though.  It’s a year-long process, starting with the Sundance Film Festival in January and picking up steam during Cannes in the spring, months before reaching its FYC screeners crescendo.  For instance, take the small, intimate, festival-circuit drama Aftersun, which is currently being marketed as a formidable awards contender by A24.  Every single film festival of merit—from mid-tier conversation starters like Sundance to the cultural juggernaut of Cannes to the regional community events like NOFF—are overstuffed with movies exactly as substantial as Aftersun.  Most of those films do not land proper distribution and are never heard from again outside a few stray critical raves in their festival roundups.  Aftersun is one of the lucky ones; it made it past the first, second, and third rounds of marketing-driven consensus culls, premiering to ecstatic enough reviews at Cannes that it’s now being shipped out to critics’ homes with an official FYC stamp of approval.  Maybe this process is necessary.  Maybe if no one was able to peek over their shoulder at each other’s homework, there would be no room for consensus at all, as Aftersun would be competing with hundreds of other slice-of-life indie dramas on its budget level instead of dozens.  Either way, I still often find this year-long ritual bizarrely arbitrary, as I cannot personally tell the difference in quality of what Aftersun achieves vs. the intimate, small-scale dramas I catch at NOFF every year that never reach theaters outside the fest.

If I’m avoiding talking about the movie itself here, it’s because there isn’t much to it.  Charlotte Wells’s debut feature is a stubbornly understated, bittersweet nostalgia trip – time stamping its period setting with “Macarena” dance routines & MiniDV camcorder footage.  Paul Mescal stars as an emotionally troubled, recently divorced father of one.  His blackouts, arm cast, and meditation techniques suggest he’s struggling with either anger or addiction issues, but we don’t get the full story.  Instead, we ponder him through his preteen daughter’s precociously discerning eyes like an exotic zoo animal.  She is embarrassed by her dad’s tucked-in t-shirts and cheesy dance moves, but she can’t quite pin down what’s happening in his mind.  So, we can’t either.  He consciously teaches her how to do new things the way a proper dad should, but subconsciously condescends to her the entire time in a way that maintains a cold, emotional distance.  There are also things she has to learn on her own, observing the zoological mating rituals of the older teens who stalk around their getaway vacation resort.  Her digi camcorder footage adds layers of innocence, nostalgia, remorse, and alien fascination on these teen & adult behaviors, with no pressure put on what any individual scene means with the larger-scope, slice-of-life story.  Mostly, we just spend a few days with a somewhat troubling, somewhat adorable father-daughter duo, wondering if the dad’s occasionally sentimental treatment of his daughter as his “wee poppet” is enough to outweigh the emotional damage of his frequent recesses into his insular, dark moods. 

There are distinguishing touches to Aftersun that might explain some of its continued critical acclaim beyond the festival circuit.  There’s a strobelit framing device that appears to be set in a modern-day nightclub, but gradually reveals itself to be some subliminal dungeon of the grown-up daughter’s mind where this ghost image of her father still dwells.  It’s a psychic space that grows in its onscreen significance as the movie closes in on its final ten minutes, which leave you feeling as if you’ve watched something much grander & more emotionally impactful than a modern reenactment of 90s home video vacation footage.  The two main actors—Mescal & Frankie Corio—also put in excellent, measured performances throughout, never straining the father-daughter intimacy of individual scenes to reach for anything grandly melodramatic.  It’s a good movie.  I just don’t know what to say or feel about it beyond that, because it’s not an especially unique one, no matter how personal it may feel to its director.  Refer to the closest film festival near you to see more solidly Good films just like it, and refer to future year-end lists and televised awards ceremonies to see which ones got a decent marketing push.

-Brandon Ledet

EO (2022)

I discovered the 1960s arthouse donkey story Au Hasard Balthazar the way a lot of modern film nerds “discover” the largest looming titles in the Cinema Canon: I saw it on the Sight and Sound Top 100 pollEO director Jerzy Skolimowski hails from an older, pre-internet world, though.  When Au Hasard Balthazar was first earning a name for itself among critical devotees as noteworthy as Andrew Sarris & Jean-Luc Godard, Skolimowski was already a twentysomething filmmaker, striving to establish his own name as a world-class auteur.  Half a century later, Skolimowski has revisited & reinterpreted Bresson’s reverent, observational tale of a noble donkey’s travels through an unjust world in his latest—and possibly last—feature film.  EO does not at all feel like an old man reminiscing about the lost artistry of Euro cinema’s golden age, though.  If anything, it only occasionally plays like a colorized TV edit of Au Hasard Balthasar.  More often, it takes wild detours into an energetic, dreamlike approximation of what it might look like if Gaspar Noé directed Homeward Bound.  It’s incredible that the film was made by a long-respected octogenarian, not a fresh-outta-film-school prankster with something to prove. 

As you might expect, the titular EO is just as stoic & unknowable of a protagonist as Balthazar, as they are both nonverbal, unmagical donkeys.  He also goes on similar one-off adventures, finding both kind-hearted animal lovers and totally heartless animal abusers on his slow trot towards death.  The drunken football hooligans & incestuous trust-fund aristocrats of modern Europe might be mixed in with the farmers & carnies of olde, but the shape of humanity has not changed much since Balthazar left his hoof-prints all over provincial France.  What has changed, though, is the exponential intrusion of human technology in the donkeys’ natural environment, confounding EO with strobe lights, lasers, and drones as he absentmindedly searches for a home.  It’s in that alien machinery where Skolimowski separates his own vision from Bresson’s, often by flashing intense red gel lights to highlight the unique terror of our modern-tech hell world.  Whether he’s mounting his camera to junkyard cranes or zooming in on a single donkey tear rolling down EO’s cheek, you can tell he’s having fun with the exercise of updating Au Hasard Balthazar as a conceptual experiment.  And every time EO is confronted by a machine you could not imagine entering the frame of a Bresson picture, the film is at its most riveting.

I don’t know that EO has too much to say about the internal lives of animals nor the existential crises of life in general.  I also don’t know that it’s trying to say anything.  EO mostly just chews, breathes, and trots his way through most scenarios without much effect on their outcome.  My biggest, most abstract question while following him around Europe was “What do donkeys dream?”  Skolimowski supposes they dream out of jealousy for horses’ freedom, agility, and beauty, but it does not matter how much he is right about that.  Waking life is a series of disconnected, emotionally taxing episodes that the immense beauty & terror of our dreams only occasionally interrupt as we steadily trot closer to death.  EO cannot expect a happy ending to his life, because no life ends on its sweetest note.  There’s plenty to wonder at & take comfort in along the way, though, as well as plenty villains & obstacles to avoid.  Observing the world beyond those simple terms is likely a young artist’s game, but that doesn’t mean an old man can’t find a youthful exuberance in how he interprets what he sees.  Since Skolimowski has nothing left to prove, you have to assume the playfulness & subversions of EO are only trotted out for the pure joy of filmmaking as an artform; I love that he’s held onto that as long as he has.

-Brandon Ledet

Girl Picture (2022)

One danger of watching too many movies is that you can become a spoiled little brat.  It’s easy to become jaded about what makes an individual picture special when you’ve seen dozens of equally great movies just like it, to the point where you overvalue novelty & surprise instead of emotional resonance & dramatic truth.  Girl Picture is a thoroughly lovely teen-girls-at-the-edge-of-adulthood drama, chronicling the messy lives & loves of three Finnish high schoolers who are figuring themselves out before they get locked into the braindead rituals of adult responsibilities.  It’s thorny, sweet, well observed, and swooningly romantic in all the exact ways you’d want a coming-of-age drama to be.  And yet, I found myself comparing it against a long line of already-established modern classics that have delivered exactly what it offers, titles like Water Lilies, Girlhood, Princess Cyd, Babyteeth; etc. That’s great company to be in, no matter where Girl Picture ultimately fits in that hierarchy, but I also can’t help but search for the few dramatic details & stylistic nuances that help it stand out in that crowded field.  The easiest solution would’ve been to, you know, just watch fewer movies to begin with.

I can really only think of two aspects of Girl Picture that distinguish it from the rest of its high-style, coming-of-age sorority.  The most obvious distinguishing factor is its setting, with trades in the genre’s typical American summer backdrop for a harsh Finnish winter.  The less obvious, less easily definable distinction is the film’s matter-of-fact approach to sex.  I’m not used to watching teens order drinks at a sweaty dance club, then doing vigorous Hand Stuff as a nightcap.  Girl Picture is very nonchalant about sex, centering its two main BFF’s paths to sexual self-discovery – one learning how to advocate for her pleasure with boys in bed, the other learning how to let girls into her heart instead of just into her sheets.  There isn’t much drama to the story beyond to those two bedroom crises, and its sexual frankness also sometimes plays as deliberately rattling, at one point harshly cutting from a cliche shot of a teen’s hand soaring through the wind outside a car window to that same hand doing something much more vulgar between a fellow teen’s legs.  It’s not at all played for shock value, though.  If anything, these youngsters are extremely polite fuckers; they always ask for verbal consent before indulging their bodies, which at least feels unique to this generation of kids even if it’s not unique to this specific picture.

Ultimately, novelty doesn’t make or break a movie like this.  These dramas are hinged on the personalities of the girls they profile, and Rönkkö, Mimmi, and (Mimmi’s love interest) Emma are all lovely to spend 100 minutes with.  It’s a relatively low-stakes winter, with only so many mistakes that can be made between house parties, gym class, and afterschool jobs at the mall.  When one girl swoons as if she’s met the love of her life, it cuts to the other playing laser tag with strangers in the woods.  It’s all sweetly innocent, even when it’s raunchy or heart-soaringly romantic.  Director Alli Haapasalo finds plenty room to flex her sense of visual style in this feature debut, too, even if it’s all decorated in the same neon crosslighting, strobelit dance parties, and pastel bedroom decor that’s typical to the genre.  No matter how familiar Girl Picture can feel frame by frame, it’s always a pleasure, and it’s headlined by a lovely group of kids who deserve the absolute best.  Rooting for these girls to get their acts together before life throws real consequences at them is more than enough to make this a satisfying teen-years drama.  Just try your best to forget that you’ve seen it all done before many times over.

-Brandon Ledet

Táriangle of Sadness

I am wildly out of sync with the consensus on the two highest profile movies making their way through arthouse theaters right now, which means it must be Awards Season again.  Both Todd Field’s Tár and Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness emerged from the festival circuit with plenty of praise & accolades, but now that they’re hitting wider audiences, the Correct Opinion to have on both has drastically split: Tár is genius, and Triangle is vapid.  I can only halfway agree.  Whereas most media-smart people I follow online see an exquisite, perversely funny treatise on #cancelculture in Tár, I only see a slightly better tailored version of Aaron Sorkin’s self-satisfied political fantasies, now shot with all the elegant refinement of a Lexus car commercial.  Meanwhile, Triangle of Sadness won this year’s Palme D’or, and it’s being received among people I generally trust as if it’s the European equivalent of Green Book.  I can at least get behind the consensus that the surface-level things Triangle of Sadness has to say about the grotesqueness of the wealth class are blunt & unsubtle.  I just also found it to be delightfully, cathartically cruel to its satirical targets to the point where subtlety & insight had nothing to do with its merits as a class-conscious comedy.  Speaking as someone who prefers entertainment to nuance, there is no doubt in my mind that Triangle of Sadness is the better film of this unlikely pair, and it’s been jarring to see that conclusion so relentlessly contradicted by every take I’m stumbling across in the wild.  I haven’t felt so out of touch with what cinema obsessives value since . . . almost exactly one year ago.

In the broadest terms, both Tár and Triangle are political provocations about how power quickly corrupts the marginalized.  Two (soon-to-be three) time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett stars as the titular orchestral composer Lydia Tár, who has risen to the top of her field despite the macho gatekeepers above her, only to use, manipulate, and discard women lower on the ladder in the exact predatory ways men in her position have for eternity.  The lesser-known character actor Dolly De Leon goes on a similar journey in Östlund’s film, when the luxury yacht she scrubs toilets on sinks into the ocean, leaving her worshipped as an abusive tyrant on the island where her privileged, unskilled employers depend on her blue-collar work ethic for food & shelter.  Neither woman wastes much time abusing their positions of power to squeeze sex & adulation out of their underlings.  In Tár, that abuse prompts provocative questions about the moral conflict between appreciating great works of art and appreciating the great pieces of shit who make them.  In contrast, Triangle of Sadness asks no questions.  It’s more a grotesque boardwalk caricature of the ultra-wealthy at their most obliviously evil, followed by a cosmic comeuppance of Titanic proportions.  Depending on a minimum-wage toilet scrubber for daily survival is just one indignity among many as their luxury-yacht voyage is disastrously derailed.  At one point, they’re made to roll around on the floor like pigs in their own puke & shit while a drunken Woody Harrelson reads Karl Marx quotes over the yacht’s loudspeaker.  We were invited onboard that yacht to point and laugh, not to ponder the complex power dynamics of modern living.  That may be the easier, cheaper route to take in this kind of Awards Season art film about wealth & prestige, but that also means it’s the quicker road to success.

These two films aren’t tethered by theme so much as they are by their dark, transgressive senses of humor.  Lydia Tár’s monstrous behavior is the same as any macho anti-hero’s; once it is narratively condemned, the audience is invited to take delight in its moral transgression.  When Tár crosses the good-taste boundaries of safe space, trigger warning, and identity politics rhetoric in her lecture to Zoomer students, the audience is supposed to find her offensive to a point . . . but then also take delight in her freedom to speak “the truth” (apolitical Gen-X nonsense) to “power” (idealistic Gen-Z children) without fear of being #cancelled (because that’s already inevitable).  It’s an Aaron Sorkin political rant coated in a couple thin layers of moral-distancing armor.  Outside the classroom, her elitist disgust with the uncultured “robots” of the world work much the same: both a stain on her personal morality and a transgressive thrill for an audience who partly agrees with her, against their better judgement.  It’s basically French Exit for the most boring people alive (i.e., subscribers to The New Yorker, which is name-checked in the first few lines of dialogue).  Triangle of Sadness has no such pretensions.  It picks out an easy, agreeable political target, strips them of their finery, slathers them in shit, and isolates them as far as it can from their bank-account safety nets.  Its humor is rooted in Jackass & John Waters-style scatology; its schadenfreude is worthy of a Femdom Island reality TV show; it’s a loud, braying joke told over one too many bottles of whisky.  I just personally found that joke much funnier than the understated musings of Tár, which aims more for droll chuckles than full belly laughs.

I know that I’m in the wrong here. I’ve seen enough intelligent people roll their eyes—in exasperation at Östlund’s film and in ecstasy at Field’s—to know that I’m just too impatient & too uncultured to “get it.”  I’ve been paying attention to The Discourse long enough to know when I’m out of my element.  So, just go ahead and disregard anything I have to say about Film Twitter’s punching bags & pet favs until, let’s say, the evil-doll horror M3GAN hits theaters in January.  Until then, I’ll be searching for the scraps of crass entertainment I can find in the arthouse darlings that eat up marquee space this time of year, which is probably why I’m overly grateful that Östlund was willing to meet me halfway.

-Brandon Ledet

Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982)

I first heard a cassette of Pink Floyd’s The Wall as a child in the 90s, long before I had developed any sense of personal taste in pop media.  In that pre-Wikipedia world, I’m not sure I knew the album was a soundtrack for a feature film, but I do remember picturing live-action movie scenes in my mind as it played, if not only because tracks like “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2” included snippets of spoken dialogue in the music.  It wasn’t until I got to college in the aughts that the movie version of The Wall entered my life, but even at that time I imagined a wildly inaccurate version of it in my head instead of actually watching it.  By then, I was full-blown music snob, drawn almost exclusively to the sharp, concise pop perversions of punk instead of the loose, noodly prog of bands like Pink Floyd.  That’s likely why I didn’t participate in dorm room watch parties of The Wall, where dozens of my stoner classmates would cram into & cloud up a campus apartment to group-watch the film as if it were the psychedelic Rocky Horror Picture Show.  I had a very specific assumption of what The Wall was like based on that dorm room ritual, which turned out to be even less accurate than my childhood imagination of the film.  And since it’s one of many titles that have fallen through the distribution cracks in the modern streaming era, it wasn’t until I found a thrift-store DVD copy of my own that I finally cleared up my misconceptions. 

I have a couple questions about those freshman-year burnouts: What were they smoking, and where can I get some?  The Wall is visually playful & surreal enough to pass as stoner background fodder, but goddamn it’s grim.  It’s hard to imagine a dozen teenage dirtbags sincerely grappling with the film’s post-WWII grief & resentments while passing around a plastic bong.  They probably would’ve found a lot more “Whoa dude, far out!” entertainment value in the “Dark Side of the Rainbow” fan-edit of The Wizard of Oz . . . or just staring at an iTunes visualizer for a couple hours.  Technically, The Wall does deliver enough sex, drugs, and rock n roll imagery to fire up the imaginations of college-age thrill seekers, but it’s all conveyed through the perspective of an emotionally hollowed, terminally jaded rock star who’s lost the will to live.  This is less a psychedelic hedonist free-for-all then it is a cry for help, an outlet for Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters to lament his post-War childhood woes and his professional disappointments as an adult who barely survived the druggy haze of the 1970s.  If it has a guiding thesis, it’s that the Brits are not okay.  That S.O.S. message is only an extension of Waters’s own dwindling interest in life, love, and art, though, as pantomimed by fellow rock star Bob Geldof (of The Boomtown Rats) as his on-screen surrogate.  Fun!

In modern pop media terms, The Wall is Pink Floyd’s “visual album,” predating recent experiments in that medium like Lemonade, Dirty Computer, or When I Get Home.  It’s a feature-length music video, with little plot or spoken dialogue to distract from Waters’s lyrics.  Frankly, the songs themselves are not especially great, an assessment even most Pink Floyd fans would agree with.  They mostly just clear space for director Alan Parker (Angel Heart, Bugsy Malone, Evita) to play with the iconography of post-WWII Europe, as guided by Waters’s lyrics.  The composite character “Pink” (Geldof) is a lifeless, strung-out rock star with no remaining passion for his art and no remaining lust for his groupies.  He blankly stares at football & war movies on the TV, while reminiscing about a life where his father didn’t come home from the war, his mother was swallowed up by religion, the English school system wrung the life out of him, and everything else has been flavorless gruel in the decades since.  All the emotional walls, sexual hang-ups, and cultural rot of modern British masculinity are on full, grotesque display, while Nazi fascism slowly creeps back in to regain lost ground in the country’s schools, politics, hearts, and minds.  It’s all very loose & free-associative, but it paints a clear, deeply ugly picture of where Waters’s mind was at in the bitter afterglow of the 1970s.

If there’s any way in which The Wall delivers on the far-out, trippy, dorm room stoner experience that my knucklehead classmates were looking for, it’s in its tangents of psychedelic animation.  Gerald Scarfe’s animated sequences play like an alternate version of Wizards designed by Ralph Steadman instead of Ralph Bakshi.  Scarfe tinkers with the same post-War iconography as Parker, particularly in an early battlefield sequence when speeding war planes transform into flying crucifixes while decimating the land below.  A lot of his imagery is much freer to follow its own momentary whimsies, though.  A pair of flowers will have raunchy pistil-stamen sex, then transform into heroin needles & specters of death, then rearrange again to strings on a rubbery guitar neck.  If the entire film were just Scarfe illustrations of the images evoked by Waters’s lyrics, The Wall would still be oppressively grim, but I’d at least better understand its reputation as the thinking man’s Yellow Submarine.  As is, I mostly see an illustrated & pantomimed therapy session from a depressed loner who’s tired of the spotlight and bitter about his (admittedly shitty) childhood.  It’s a solid film on those terms, but I’m not in a rush to gawk at its bleak splendor again over pizza & bong rips with my closest, goofiest friends.

-Brandon Ledet

Gagarine (2022)

In the early 1960s, the Communist Party of France funded the construction of the Cité Gagarine housing project in the Parisian suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine.  On a practical level, the building was intended to house low-income Parisians & immigrant communities in its near-400 units.  On a more symbolic level, it was intended as a monument to the power & possibility of Communist ideology in France.  To that end, Cité Gagarine’s opening was commemorated with the attendance of the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin—the first human to reach outer space—who also inspired its namesake.  To me, Gagarin is only significant as the muse for a kickass PJ Harvey song (simply titled “Yuri G“), but a half-century ago he was a much more inspiring symbol of the endless possibilities of a Communist Future, in France and beyond.

That dream apparently ended in the late 2010s, when Cité Gagarine was demolished for not keeping up with modern public health & safety standards in the decades since its construction.  As the Communist Party of France lost its financial & political sway, no other governmental power stepped in to support the Cité Gagarine residents.  First-time directors Fanny Liatard & Jérémy Trouilh are obviously fascinated by the political symbolism of Cité Gagarine’s history & demolition.  Their 2015 short Gagarine was inspired by interviews with the real-life residents of the housing project in the months before its condemnation, and they’ve since expanded the project into a debut feature of the same name.  It’s a small, intimate drama with huge, Paris-wide political implications about both the current state of European politics and what communal solidarity & resources have been lost from more hopeful eras of the past.

Newcomer Alensi Bathily stars as the aptly named Youri, the last true believer of the Yuri Gagarine dream.  As Cité Gagarine is being forcibly evacuated, the teenage Youri has nowhere to turn, so he decides to squat until the building is physically destroyed.  A lifelong astronautical obsessive, he converts the abandoned building into a kind of D.I.Y. spaceship, recruiting as many fellow teens as he can for his naive mission into the uncertain beyond (including The French Dispatch‘s Lyna Khoudri as an amused love interest).  What little community is left in the aftermath of Cité Gagarine’s closure is only held together by Youri’s stubbornness.  He inspires fellow tenants with solar eclipse watch parties and analog retro-futurist refurbishments to his living space, but it’s just not enough to overcome the cold, bureaucratic indifference of the modern world.  No matter how much beauty or community Youri finds in his home, recent history has already decided his mission is doomed.

Gagarine maintains a striking balance between grounded, pessimistic realism and the magical thinking of a young mind still awed by the possibilities of life.  It searches for a far-out middle ground between a twee version of Silent Running and a distant galaxy where the Dardenne brothers occasionally lighten up.  As often as the film slips into heart-soaring escapism, it’s also balanced by a wealth of archival footage from Cité Gagarine’s history that makes it clear that fantasies of a bigger, better life were always part of its design (including footage of Yuri Gagarine’s attendance at the building’s inauguration).  Gagarine has had a slow international roll-out since it first premiered at Cannes in 2020, which speaks to its relative anonymity as a low-budget coming-of-age indie drama, but there is something special in its heart and its historical context that merits more attention than it’s ever likely to get.

-Brandon Ledet

Maîtresse (1975)

Why is it that every movie about a dominatrix follows the same trite storyline where the hardened, leather-clad woman in charge softens the moment she finds a romantic partner who can lower her defenses?  From corny, vintage domme media like Body of Evidence & Exit to Eden to more modern, thoughtfully considered dramas like Dogs Don’t Wear Pants & Pvt Chat, every feature-length depiction of a dominatrix’s love life I’ve seen is framed through a macho “I can fix her” POV.  That tradition apparently dates at least as far back as 1975’s Maîtresse, in which a young, bumbling thief (Gérard Depardieu) falls in love with an experienced dominatrix (Bulle Ogier) despite being baffled by her profession, then schemes to break her “free” from the lifestyle.  It’s up there with Basic Instinct as one of the more nuanced, subversive movies about sexually dominant women that I can name, but it still plays directly into the dominatrix romance’s most tired cliché.

What’s funny about Maîtresse‘s narrative phoniness is that director Barbet Schroeder is obviously proud of its Authenticity in every other metric.  His in-your-face, documentarian approach to Authenticity can be a little tiresome, like in moments when a horse is slaughtered & drained for butcher meat on-camera, or when the titular mistress nails one of her client’s dicks to a wooden board in full surgical detail (a stunt thankfully performed by a real-life professional, not Ogier).  It’s an incredible asset to the film’s mise-en-scène, though, especially in the dominatrix’s play dungeon.  Schroeder hired a professional domme to ensure the legitimacy of the kink scenes’ props & practices.  The camera’s awed pans over the mistress’s tools of the trade or her clients being dressed in lingerie and ridden like horses (some, apparently, clients of the sex worker hired to oversee the shoot, getting off on the humiliation of being filmed) are electric in their documentation of vintage BDSM play.  I somehow doubt that real-life dominatrix was also consulted for the story beats of the central romance, though, which is a shame.

To be fair, Maîtresse does directly challenge the macho POV of its in-over-his-head protagonist.  Depardieu plays a real mouthbreather, a thug who’s visibly intimidated by the whips & leather gear he finds in the play dungeon he burgles before wooing the dominatrix who owns it.  For her part, Ogier’s mistress character clearly explains to her new thief boyfriend that she is no damsel in distress, saying “I couldn’t do it if I didn’t like it.”  He attempts to “rescue” her from her comfortable, voluntary sex work routine anyway, and every drastic knucklehead action he takes on her behalf only makes her life worse.  Although the story is framed through the thief’s POV, he is introduced to the audience picking his nose on his motorcycle, undercutting whatever brutish cool he could possibly convey with the same dipshit goofiness that makes the thieves in Mandibles so laughably ineffectual.  Maîtresse may participate in the same “I can fix her” trope as every other dominatrix romance I’ve ever seen (Hell, for all I know it may have been responsible for creating it), but at least the central relationship in this specific example is dramatically complex.

This is essentially the story of two mismatched tops struggling to dominate each other, both barreling towards ruin because they won’t do the obvious thing and break up.  I’m always a sucker for stories where characters are compelled to repeatedly do things that are obviously going to kill them just because it makes them super horny; this version is even somehow refreshingly sentimental in its romance . . . when it wants to be.  Karl Lagerfeld’s fetish-fashion designs for the dominatrix’s wardrobe also afford it some wonderfully vivid imagery.  Genital torture & horse deaths aside, Maîtresse is commendable.  It’s only when I stop thinking about it as an individual work and consider it instead in the larger continuum of how dominatrices’ inner lives are portrayed (or ignored) on-screen that I’m disappointed it didn’t transgress in even more pointed, narrative ways.

-Brandon Ledet