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

Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022)

I’ve been very slow to respond to the lulls between COVID spikes over the past couple years, waiting too long to poke my head out my turtle shell before the next variant sends me back inside.  As a result, I wasn’t fully ready to dive into the social deep end of Mardi Gras this past month, even though the gorgeous vibes and weather were making me terribly jealous of everyone out there celebrating early glimpses of a “post-COVID” life.  I’m gradually easing myself back into the world outside my living room, though, by which I mean I’ve returned to movie theaters for the first time since the lull between Delta & Omicron.  I generally appreciate the ways the theatrical environment enhances the joys of movie-watching for me, not least of all in how it forces me to ignore my phone for two-hour blocks – a near-impossible feat at home.  However, as I’ve returned to cinemas, I’ve found that the types of movies I’ve been watching on the big screen haven’t really changed.  If you ask most audiences, the only three movies of note to be released in the past year have featured Batmen, Spider-men, or Ghostbusters, and everything else has been either disposable or nonexistent.  I’m not feeling especially drawn to those big-name IPs as I’ve returned to the theater, though, whether that’s a safety precaution in avoiding indoor crowds or if I’m just out of practice in seeking out anything that’s not a low-budget indie that will soon be streaming anyway.  I’ve finally started leaving the house again, but I’m leaving it to watch the exact kinds of movies I was already watching on my couch.

The major exception to this loss of big-budget appetite is that I am ravenous for Indian blockbusters now that I’m back at the megaplex.  I enjoyed watching both Tamil-language actioners I caught at home last year—Karnan (an over-the-top blockbuster version of Bacuaru) & Master (an over-the-top blockbuster version of Dangerous Minds)—but I can’t say I loved them quite as much as I would have on the big screen, rattled by their booming sound & gargantuan visuals for their full three-hour runtimes.  So, the biggest change to my movie-going diet since I started leaving the house again is that I’m watching mainstream Indian cinema again, which I’m finding way more thoroughly entertaining (and way less conversationally exhausting) than its Hollywood equivalent.  While almost everyone I know was checking in with The Batman on its opening weekend, I sat down in a near-empty theater to gaze at another superhero of sorts: the fearless sex-worker advocate Gangubai.  The Bollywood drama Gangubai Kathiawadi is a formulaic, loose-with-the-facts biopic of its titular Indian political activist, depicted as rising to power from a victim of forced prostitution to a Mafia Queen to a populist hero of women’s rights.  As is tradition with most big-budget Indian productions, it delivers everything you could possibly want out of a movie, all at once: music, dance, laughs, danger, romance, tragedy, and shameless feel-goodery.  It’s also the rare Bollywood counterprogramming that’s actually shorter than the mainstream American blockbuster that’s currently crowding theater marquees.  Gangubai Kathiawadi is a half-hour shorter than The Batman and offers a much more impressive range of emotions & entertainment value.

For at least the first forty minutes of Gangubai Kathiawadi, I was worried I made a huge mistake in choosing which Indian crowdpleaser to return to theaters for.  The red-light Kamathipura district of Mumbai that the movie dwells in makes for a grim atmosphere.  Gangubai immediately looks cool & powerful at the start of the film, but she’s introduced in conversation with a child who’s being forced to start life as a prostitute after being sold to a brothel by her abusive, adult husband.  Asked to show the kid the ropes, Gangubai recounts her own story of being sold to a brothel by a boyfriend who promised her a career as a Bollywood actress.  Even with the rape & other violence mostly obscured offscreen, this early human-trafficking portion of the story is almost too dark to stomach, but that only makes the movie more satisfying once it starts hitting its feel-good biopic beats in the second hour.  Gangubai rescues the child from repeating that plight instead of condemning her to it, then recounts how she rose through the ranks in her own brothel to become the most powerful political voice in Kamathipura.  She essentially unionizes her fellow sex workers so they can set the terms of their employment, first as a low-level crime boss then later as a legitimate politician.  As she rose to power, I was hugely won over by the movie’s emotional stings & sex-work politics in a way that really surprised me, even if it took nearly an hour of squirming to get there.  By the time Gangubai shuts down all business in Kamathipura for a night so that her fellow sex workers can dance & celebrate instead of working for the first time in their lives, I cried.  Later, when she advocates in a radio broadcast speech that these women should be able to “Live with dignity” despite moralistic, hypocritical objections to their profession, I cried even harder.  It’s wonderful, hard-hitting schmaltz.

I am far from an expert in any of India’s varied, sprawling film industries, but I have finally seen enough of these movies to recognize a few of its main recurring players.  Gangubai is played by Alia Bhatt, who played the take-no-shit, tough-as-nails girlfriend in the “Bollywood 8-Mile” drama Gully Boy.  I was amazed by her fierce defiance in that performance, which she amplifies here to the point where she’s practically a sex-worker superhero.  Gangubai slaps anyone who disrespects her.  She openly drinks & smokes despite men’s moral objections.  She practically has a kink for making men sit on the floor to admire from below, which at one point manifests in forcing a young admirer to take her tailoring measurements in total awe of her body.  When she walks down the streets of Kamathipura, she immediately gathers a crowd of starstruck on-lookers, an effect that’s amplified by crunchy guitar riffs announcing her presence – like Gal Godot in Wonder Woman gear.  Just about the only thing she doesn’t do is lip-sync during her own musical numbers.  I have little context for how standard that is in modern Bollywood productions, but here it has an MTV-era music video effect, where she gets to strike powerful poses without worrying about emoting to the romantic lyrics.  Like an 80s action hero, Gangubai is presented as the coolest, most righteous person who ever lived, and Bhatt is incredibly adept at performing that badass self-assurance.  Between this film & Gully Boy, I’d even go as far as calling myself a fan, at least to the point where I’m looking forward to seeing her pop up as an “extended cameo appearance” in the upcoming S.S. Rajamouli film RRR.

Not everyone was impressed with the real-life Gangubai Kothewali’s portrayal in Gangubai Kathiawadi.  Her surviving family sued Bhatt, the film’s producers, and the authors of its source material for defamation, claiming that Kothewali was a social worker who was never employed by the brothels she serviced.  There are also news articles dismissing that controversy as a marketing ploy initiated by the producers themselves, so who knows.  All I can say for sure is that I don’t hold based-on-a-true-story Hollywood pictures accountable for being factually inaccurate, so I’m not sure how much that matters here.  The film was adapted from one thirty-page chapter in a much larger historical book about the Kamathipura red-light district called Mafia Queens of Mumbai, so it left itself a lot of room to build whatever story it wanted out of broad-strokes aspects of the real Gangubai’s life.  It went with the most formulaic, crowd-pleasing approach possible, typified by eye-pleasing symmetrical tableaus of vintage Mumbai street life and a romantic depiction of workers hooking by candlelight during a city-wide power outage.  It’s a big, beautiful mainstream heart-warmer with a shockingly grim opening and shockingly sharp political edge.  I’m more typically drawn to over-the-top Kollywood action thrillers than this sincere Bollywood drama, but I was fully satisfied by the movie-magic charms of Gangubai Kathiawadi in a way that I rarely am by American movies on its budgetary scale.  It was a satisfying return to a specific flavor of theatrical experience I’ve greatly missed over the past couple years.

-Brandon Ledet

Kung-Fu Master! (1988)

As I’m writing this review of a movie that’s nearly as old as I am, there are currently two prestigey Awards Season dramas from well-respected auteurs in theaters that dabble in age-gap “romances” between adults & teenagers.  In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, a 25-year-old-woman disastrously indulges a semi-romantic friendship with a 15-year-old boy.  In Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, a 40-something conman actively grooms a small-town high schooler for potential employment in the pornography industry.  Surprisingly, it’s the former film that’s taking a lot of online heat for its supposedly dangerous amorality, while the latter is enjoying a quiet, uneventful theatrical run.  Maybe the difference is that Licorice Pizza‘s friendly quasi-romance is played with a nostalgic sentimentality, while Red Rocket more aggressively interrogates the moral shortcomings of its skeezy conman protagonist.  Maybe it’s merely a symptom of Licorice Pizza reaching a wider audience, so more people are around to be offended by it.  I’m going to make no attempts to pinpoint the discrepancy, as I’ve been constantly baffled by what movies have been singled out by the sharpened knives of Age Gap Discourse™ in recent years.  Ever since Call Me By Your Name was treated like a Cuties-level provocation, I’ve struggled to figure out why we’ve completely lost our ability for nuanced discussion of morally ambiguous relationships, especially in discussion of fictional age-gap romances.  One thing I do know, though, is that if it were released in this current hyperbolic environment, Agnes Varda’s Kung-Fu Master! would make these morally righteous kids’ heads explode.

Agnès Varda’s cinematic persona has been over-simplified into a kind of wholesome meme in recent years, but she made provocative, fiercely political art in her time.  Even so, Kung-Fu Master! is one of the toughest watches I’ve seen from her, although it appears to have been made as a tossed-off afterthought mid-production on her documentary Jane B.  Made as a collaboration with that documentary’s titular subject—actor & singer Jane Birkin—Kung-Fu Master! is a sentimental romance drama about a middle-aged woman who inexplicably falls in love with a teenage boy.  The small cast includes Varda & Birkin’s own children, including Varda’s son Matthieu Demy as the snotty object of Birkin’s desire and Birkin’s daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg as his classmate & her romantic rival.  It doesn’t sexualize the scrawny, boyish Demy in any way – outside maybe lingering on a few closed-mouth kisses with the adult Birkin.  Still, it also doesn’t make any excuses for his adult fling’s transgressions.  She is attracted to him specifically because he is underage, visibly fascinated by his juvenile ramblings about boyish nonsense like Dungeons & Dragons and the titular arcade game Kung-Fu Master!.  Falling in love with him ruins her social life, isolating her from her own children & other adults.  The movie doesn’t make any grand gestures to demonize her for her bizarre infatuation, though.  It instead delicately interrogates the absurdism of an adult being so transfixed with a child she has nothing in common with.  It’s a premise that would not survive a minute of modern Age Gap Discourse, at least not in the morally ambiguous way it’s handled here.

Personally, I think Kung-Fu Master! more than justifies exploring this specific moral transgression.  It’s a movie that’s more about the why of its morally squicky events than it is about depicting the what; the most we ever see of Birkin & Demy consummating their onscreen fling are a few chaste little kisses and an implied sleeping bag sleepover.  Meanwhile, the film is anchored to a grim contemporary context that’s presented with much harsher tonal severity.  Kung-Fu Master! is not so much about its romance itself as it is about escaping from the grim circumstances of the AIDS epidemic by retreating into the innocence of schoolyard crushes.  Divorced & painfully lonely, Birkin’s fantasy-prone protagonist longs for the flattery & safety of flirting with a teen boy instead of a sexually mature adult.  She swoons for the smallest, scrawniest boy in her daughter’s class of brutes specifically because he is “curious & vulnerable”.  Meanwhile, the video game arcades she trails him to are crowded by AIDS pamphlets & condom dispensers, constantly reminding her of the much more dangerous, complicated logistics of adult romance.  It isn’t until the mismatched couple isolate themselves for an island vacation that they escape the havoc AIDS has wreaked on big-city living, and they enjoy a moment of interpersonal peace.  It would be very easy to dismiss this film outright for the hands-off way it approaches the immoral romantic pairing at its core, and I wouldn’t fault anyone for being too squicked out by that predatory dynamic to appreciate its larger themes.  I found it to be a tough but moving watch in more ways than I expected, though, especially the further it digs into the reasons for Birkin’s immoral predation.

Curiously, Kung-Fu Master! opens with a scene that’s perfectly tailored for today’s social media climate.  The teenage Demy, dressed in a karate uniform, mimics the stilted video-game motions of his favorite arcade game by treating his city sidewalk as a sight-scrolling button-masher.  It’s a visual gag that’s been repeated endlessly in TikToks & Vines, where teens will mimic the nonsensical body language of GTA maniacs or idle NPCs.  I don’t know that modern social media discourse would have much breathing room for discussing anything that happens after that adorable intro, though, since Varda is entirely disinterested in damning her wayward protagonist for her crimes.  I understand the inherent sensitivity of a film tackling statutory rape in its core narrative, but I still think there’s something lost when art is reductively discussed as real-life morality parables rather than a safe, fictional space to explore complicated ideas.  Despite the obvious personal connection to Varda & Birkin’s own families (including the eventual loss of Varda’s husband & Demy’s father to AIDS complications), these are fictional characters whose onscreen behavior are not being endorsed by their real-life creators.  However, the harsh circumstances of the world they occupy is very real, and their moral transgressions within it are a troubling psychological response to that circumstance.  It’s deeply fucked up, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth grappling with.

-Brandon Ledet

Rare Beasts (2021)

Rare Beasts is the directorial debut of Billie Piper, whom you might know as a nineties British pop star, the companion of the Ninth and Tenth Doctors, or perhaps even from Secret Diary of a Call Girl or Penny Dreadful. It also stars the talented Piper and was written by her as well, and it’s a bizarre, barbed delight, despite the mixed reviews, which we’ll get to. 

Mandy (Piper) is a single mother to the behaviorally challenged Larch (Toby Woolf), who may be on the spectrum. She works for a TV production company where she and several others are tasked with delivering pitch ideas, and the ones which the audience is allowed to hear are universally bad. It’s here that Mandy meets her relationship interest, Pete (Leo Bill). I say “relationship interest” because I initially typed “love interest” and then gagged a little, updated it to “romantic interest” and thought that this was an inaccurate adjective as well, given that there’s very little in the way of romance either. Pete’s a horrible man who comes very close to turning red and having kettle steam jet out of the sides of his head on their first date, as he spews unprompted vitriol about how much he hates women and desires what he considers an ideal marriage (one of female subservience), and how these questionable values align with his religious identity. Like, no one ever says “MRA” or “red pilled” but there’s a very clear reason why he’s alone. 

Nonetheless, the two navigate through the stations of the canon of the romcom plot; they go to their first wedding together (where Mandy briefly flirts with a man with whom she clearly has a history, and whose eyes twitch exactly like Larch’s), have a day in the park (which ends in a scene in which Pete and Larch bond and seemingly come to some kind of understanding by way of a screeching tantrum mirror match), and Mandy meeting Pete’s family for the first time. Every situation is frighteningly familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a screaming match break out at a wedding or family dinner, but also takes comfort in the bleak humor of detachment; it’s Marge Simpson in “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield” murmuring her way into the act break after grimly telling herself “At times like this, I guess all you can do is laugh”The Movie. That’s especially true as these relationship woes play out against the scenery of her relationship with her mother (Kerry Fox), who is terminally ill and, although separated from him, is still tormented by the not-so-harmless shenanigans of Mandy’s mostly absentee father (David Thewlis). 

I’m always someone who’s more interested in a fascinating movie over one that’s “good,” but I think Rare Beasts manages to be both. There’s a hyperreality to the bizarre dialogue, which is stilted and almost impenetrable in its content at times, but always delivered in a perfect clipped cadence. It’s an experience that ends up feeling like you’re hovering halfway between an unfamiliar Shakespeare play performed with the original dialogue but in a modern setting and one of those short films or musical performances that are meant to evoke the experience of what English sounds like to non-English speakers. It’s surreal and hyperreal at the same time. 

Mandy is captivating (as is Piper). She’s struggling, and that’s life. Larch is going to be who he is, and there’s very little that can be done about it. People are horrible, meeting dates is a tragedy in slow motion, and your parents will, someday, die. My favorite detail about Mandy is that, according to her father, she would write little death threats when she was a child. He laughs this off, but when pressed for what kind of threats they were, he notes that they were the kind “that would have you thinking,” as his eyes widen. Rare Beasts is a film of subtle details in that way; in an attempt at foregoing all the potential issues with intimacy, she shows Pete every part of herself, revealing in extreme detail which parts of her body she is neurotically obsessed about (there are many, including her legs, which are “too much femur, not enough tibia.”

The camerawork here is fantastic, shockingly ambitious for a first-time director and surprisingly effective and empathetic where it needs to be. When her sexist boss insults her talent and fires her, there’s a reversal of the kind of shot that’s so frequently applied to women; she is framed though his legs, and instead of being titillating, the angle at which his legs are spread (much more than would make logical sense for a standing person not in the middle of a cheer routine) creates a sense of overall wrongness that permeates the film just as it permeates our existence. At one point after Mandy stands up for herself, there’s an immediate cut to a crane shot of Pete and Mandy running through a deserted London intersection, and it’s like something out of a coming-of-age film, but it feels wrong, long before the details set in. At one point, when Mandy is eavesdropping on her parents by sitting on the floor outside of her mother’s bedroom, her father notices here and shuts the door, but he’s looking down on her as if she were a child, shortly before a sequence in which Mandy tap dances from childhood to her present age, in line with the film’s frequent dream logic. 

I was surprised by the film’s low Rotten Tomatoes score, which is an extremely imperfect metric at best, but when looking at the reviews and the critics who provided them, I noticed a pattern, and dug in a little further. There were 50 reviews, and for 48 of them, I could identify the critic’s gender (bless Rory Doherty for putting his pronouns in his Twitter bio and keeping that from being 47). Of those, 26 (54.2%) were written by women, and 22 (45.8%) were written by men, which is pretty uncommon; normally, reviews from male critics on RT outnumber those by women 2:1. I tried to find a film with similar statistics that I could compare that to and confirm, and after taking a look at The Novice, which had 60 reviews, I realized that it was also a film with a woman helming it, as both writer and director, so that would hew too close and skew the results. Then I found Cyrano, which at the time had 51 reviews, Joe Wright’s period piece with Peter Dinklage in the title role. With roughly equivalent reviews, 12 (25.5%) were written by women, and 38 (75.5%) by men. So yeah. Of Rare Beasts‘ 48, 10 of the male critics (45.5%) gave it a negative review, as opposed to 8 (30.8%) critics who are women. So not only did this film attract disproportionately female critical attention, more men still somehow managed to dislike it than women, and with women having an internal positive/negative ratio of 2.25:1, compared to 1.2:1 for dudes. So, I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re a man, maybe this one won’t be to your liking, but that’s not a guarantee since, you know, I thought it was excellent. Then again, this film is very much Not For Everyone, so maybe that’s to be expected. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Tove (2021)

It’s totally understandable to feel burnt out on biopics as a genre.  They’re often formulaic to the point of self-parody, especially the American star-vehicle variety that seems specifically designed to generate applaudable clips for Oscar highlight reels.  The recent Finnish film Tove admittedly does little to reinvent the biopic, but it at least finds ways to make its overly familiar tropes & structure feel intimate & tactile.  It’s unlikely that anyone who wasn’t already interested in the life & art of its titular subject would get much out of the film, which likely means it does not transcend the limitations of its genre.  Still, it doesn’t waste her fans’ time by shoehorning her into the by-the-numbers clichés that sink most biopics into tedium.

It helps that Tove is not a birth-to-death recap of Moomins creator Tove Jansson’s entire life.  It covers only her creative breakthrough & troubled romance years post-WWII.  We do not watch her experience an “Aha!” discovery at her drafting table, conjuring Moomins characters directly out of the creative ether.  She’s already doodling them in the margins of her notebooks at the start of the film, as if they were idle distractions from her “real art” as a classically trained painter.  Her journey in the film is less a rise-to-success story that is a slow, reluctant acceptance of the popularity of her more “frivolous” children’s book illustrations at the expense of her Serious Art.  Her self-acceptance as an artist runs parallel to her volatile bisexual romances in that same period, where she also finds herself reluctant to accept which opportunities are fruitful vs which are dead ends.  It’s all shot with a delicate, drunken fury in up-close, handheld engagement with Jansson as a complete, self-contradicting person – not just an iconic visual artist.

Tove is nothing mind-blowing, really, but it is lovely.  I was much more impressed with the similarly styled biopic Tom of Finland a few years back, which more aggressively shakes loose the limitations of its genre.  By contrast, the rejections of biopic cliché are much subtler here, rooted in exclusion & de-emphasis.  I’m a recent Moomins reader, so I knew nothing of Jansson’s life going into the film beyond the most popular work she left behind.  It was cool to see her raising hell in post-War Europe with her fellow art-community rebels, who dreamed that they could collectively re-shape the morals of modernity in the wreckage of the Old World.  Even though the Moomins are new to my life, I likely would’ve most appreciated this film in my teens or 20s, since it presents one of those fantasy realms where every single person you know is an artist of some kind – including your browbeating parents.  Seeing it now, it really only enhances the art I already adore by fleshing out the ferocious creator behind it.

-Brandon Ledet

Jumbo (2021)

It’s that frivolous, needlessly contentious time of year when every movie I watch is being filtered through our annual listmaking process, prompting me to ask idiotic questions like “Sure, this movie is really good, but is it Best of the Year good?”  I’m especially guilty of Listmaking Brain this year, since there were only five films released in 2021 that I rated above 4 stars, leaving the rest of my usual Top 20 list open to dozens of titles that I really liked but wouldn’t exactly call personal favs.  Discerning which 4-star film is worthier of a slot on my Best of the Year list than another feels more arbitrary & meaningless than ever before, something that is not helped at all by my full knowledge that no one alive gives a shit about the final results except me.  I love listmaking season as a diary recap of the year and as a movie recommendation machine, but I am fully aware that the “catching up” cram session portion of it is unfair to the (mostly) great movies I’m watching when there’s already no room left on the lifeboat.  By this time of year, I’ve completely lost track of what qualifies a movie as “list-worthy”, and I’m mostly just looking forward to the genre-trash relief that January dumping season brings when it’s all over.  That is when I shine.

While Jumbo is a very good movie on its own terms, I’m embarrassed to admit that I most appreciated the way it helped clear up some of grey areas in that listmaking struggle.  It’s one of two French-language movies I’ve seen this year where an emotionally stunted young woman has sex with a machine, the other of which is currently my favorite new release I’ve seen all year.  Julia DuCorneau’s Titane is often referred to as a kind of novelty film where “a woman has sex with a car”, which feels insultingly reductive considering how much else is going on in that sprawling mind-fuck genre meltdown.  Meanwhile, if you referred to Jumbo as “the film where a woman has sex with an amusement park ride,” I feel like that comfortably sums up everything that’s going on with it.  It’s a very good movie where a woman has sex with an amusement park ride, drawing an oddly touching & genuine story out of a novelty premise that’s loosely “inspired by a true story.”  Still, I found it most useful as an illustration of why Titane was smart to have more going on than a simple sex-machine premise.  It’s pretty limiting at feature length, even when the emotions of that scenario are treated with full sincerity, which is why Jumbo is not the one that’s surviving the arbitrary cruelty of the listmaking process.

For some reason I assumed Jumbo was about a woman romantically falling for a Gravitron (totally understandable), but instead she falls for a Move It (an inferior ride, but to each their own).  Noémie “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” Merlant stars as a sheltered mommy’s girl whose total lack of self-confidence prevents her from being properly socialized among adults outside her house.  The amusement park rides she services as a seasonal job don’t seem to mind her awkward social tics, though, which allows her to vulnerably open up to the first gigantic inanimate object that makes a move on her.  Jumbo makes no jokes at its lovestruck amusement park brat’s expense.  It takes her first-crush romantic feelings as seriously as it can, reserving its judgement for the people in her life who make her feel like a freak for the transgression instead of just letting her be.  Beyond the ups & downs of her amusement park romance, the dramatic core of the film is in begging her community to just let her have this one thing that makes her happy, whether or not it’s “real.”  Life is lonely & cruel enough without the people closest to you shaming you for whatever small comforts get you through it – even if that small comfort happens to be fucking a Move It.

Jumbo delivers everything you’d want out of a great romance: a convincingly emotional performance from its star, some charming personality quirks from the object of her affection, a close-minded community who fails to keep them apart, etc.  It even achieves some surprisingly striking visuals for an indie comedy on its budget level, especially in the glowing lights & otherworldly voids of its star’s ecstatic trysts with her gigantic fetish object.  It just also limits itself to a relatively small, contained premise, which doesn’t really push through its initial novelty to explore anything bigger or unexpected.  Had I discovered it during its film festival run instead of during Best of the Year catch-up season, that smallness in concept likely would not have bothered me, but here we are.  This is when I’m on my worst behavior, shrugging off 4-star films for not being “good enough” because of some self-imposed bullshit metric that does not matter in the slightest.

-Brandon Ledet

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

It takes all the strength in my body & soul not to turn this blog into a total schlockfest.  My natural inclination when selecting what to watch is to reach for the shortest, trashiest genre pic available, which constantly threatens to backslide Swampflix into a bargain-bin horror blog.  I do like to challenge myself, though, especially coming out of October’s horror-binge rituals where I indulge in my preferred cinematic junk food for a month solid.  And so, I find myself contemplating and writing about Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, winner of the 2010 Palme D’or.  Like previous detours into the works of Jarman, Tarkovsky, and Ozu, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a beloved arthouse auteur who I’m underqualified to assess, comprehend, or even appreciate.  Still, I crave the brain-cell alarm bells these alienating filmmakers set off in my brain; I can’t get by on a diet of Roger Corman cheapies & Chucky sequels alone.

Uncle Boonmee is the kind of calm, quiet, meditative cinema that always challenges my attention span and intellect.  Like Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, it’s a slow-cinema mood piece about a man dying in real time – in this case a Thai farmer succumbing to the gradual decline of kidney failure.  Static shots of the wealthy man’s inner circle & dialysis technicians sharing meaningful silences are scored only by whispers of waterfalls, car engines, and chirping bugs.  Harsh digital cinematography frames these exchanges with all the pomp & circumstance of a straight-to-YouTube documentary.  I am told that this is a deeply emotional film about life & the great mystery that follows it, but I don’t see the modern arthouse Ikiru in it that others are latching onto.  I mostly just felt as if Apichatpong were daring me to fall asleep with each lingering shot of meditative non-action & white noise.

To be fair to my emotionally distanced (and self-declared Communist killer) Uncle Boonmee, this movie at least met me halfway with some absurdly polite ghosts & magical creatures, who gather around the titular farmer as he approaches the gates of the spirit realm.  Death is not the end of the human spirit in this reality; Boonmee’s deceased family hold his hand through the transition into his next state of being, calmly sitting beside him along with his surviving acquaintances.  His dead wife appears as a classic, transparent ghost, materializing at the dinner table as if she had casually walked through the front door.  His dead son appears as a primate-hybrid “monkey-ghost” with glowing C.H.U.D. eyes.  I appreciated their magical-realist intrusions into the “plot”, since ghost stories typically are the kind of cinema I can comprehend.  They just did very little to disrupt the quiet calm of Boonmee’s slow demise.

I don’t know that I’ll ever revisit this film unless I can see it in a proper theater; I genuinely struggled to feel immersed & overwhelmed by it at home.  It was mostly worth the struggle, though, and it did often remind me of films I love that were likely influenced by Apichatpong’s meditative filmmaking style – namely the psychedelic ayahuasca drama Icaros: A Vision & Laurie Anderson’s memorial-doc Heart of a Dog.  There are individual images & ideas from Uncle Boonmee that will likely stick with me for a long time, especially its non-sequitur vignette in which a travelling princess makes love with a talking catfish.  If nothing else, that detour will stick with me as an all-timer of a sex scene.  My go-to horror schlock rarely reaches such glorious highs, even if they’re easier to digest en masse.

-Brandon Ledet

Rose Plays Julie (2021)

Rose Plays Julie is a subtle, well-made movie built on subtle, well-played performances.  A psychological thriller about a young veterinary student’s increasingly dark mission to uncover her place in the world as an unwanted adopted child (and, more to the point, about the generational trauma of sexual assault), it has all the potential in the world to swerve into a sensationalist rape revenge tale with a violently heightened sense of style.  Instead, it keeps its mood low-key & pained, allowing the Greek tragedy of its doomed characters’ downward trajectory to quietly unfold at its own pace.  It’s one of those thoughtful, tasteful indie chillers that I appreciate in terms of intent & craft but only help clarify my personal disinterest in subtlety & restraint.  I wish I could appreciate this quiet, finely calibrated psych-thriller on its own terms, but instead its coming-of-age fury & vet school setting just made me wish I was watching the explosive coming-of-age cannibal horror Raw instead.  That’s just the kind of audience I am, to my shame.

It’s okay that Rose Plays Julie works better as an exercise in craft than as a cathartic, stylistically expressive genre film.  It’s explicitly about performance in a lot of respects, which shines a direct spotlight on the actors in three central roles of Daughter (Ann Skelly), Mother (Orla Brady), and Rapist (Aiden Gillen).  Gillen puts in the same raspy creep performance he’s been delivering as a manner of routine since he was cast in Game of Thrones, but the drama is more centralized on the women he’s hurt anyway.  The mother is an actress by trade, shown avoiding her traumatic past by getting lost in her roles on period dramas & vampire movies.  The daughter—the surviving result of a rape—is an actress by choice, taking on her imagined persona of the name on her birth certificate (paired with an unconvincing wig) as an undetectable alias while pursuing revenge against the mother’s assailant, her “father”.  The tension between them is a feel-bad triangle of gloom that each actor ably performs through several layers of self-protective artifice.  The avenging violence that breaks that tension is just as dejectedly sad, providing little emotional catharsis for the generations of hurt at the film’s core – presumably on purpose.

To wish Rose Plays Julie was more expressive or cathartic would be wishing for a more divisive, if not outright irresponsible kind of filmmaking that it’s just not interested in indulging.  This is a very serious film about a very serious subject, and I’m sure there’s a larger audience out there who’d prefer that sober approach to genre storytelling over what’s usually offered.  Personally, I could only appreciate the craft of its individual performances rather than the larger purpose they served.  It’s a terrible thing to admit, but if it were even 10% trashier or flashier in its delivery, I’d probably be much more enthusiastic about where it fits in the modern revenge thriller canon.

-Brandon Ledet

French Exit (2021)

There was a lot going on in Darren Aronofsky’s Biblical whatsit mother!, all of it worthy of many fractured, contradictory conversations.  To us, it was both a 2.5-star misfire and one of the very best movies of 2017.  To others, it was simply an embarrassment to all involved, most notably Jennifer Lawrence as titular mother figure, who rarely leaves the screen.  In all those heated debates over mother!‘s merits, metaphors, and malice, I think we may have still overlooked one of its wildest, most deliciously fucked up ingredients: Michelle Pfeiffer.  An eternally lovable screen presence who’s been shamefully sidelined in the past couple decades, Pfeiffer pounced into mother! like a cat hunting unsuspecting prey, batting Jennifer Lawrence around with a mean-drunk indifference I found thrillingly campy & cruel.  It felt like a seismic shift in Pfeiffer’s career at the time, but then nothing really came of it – conversationally, professionally, or otherwise.

Finally, a proper career resurgence vehicle for a post-mother! Michelle Pfeiffer has arrived . . . and it’s being met with the same unenthused shrug she got back in 2017.  French Exit expands Pfeiffer’s role as a cruel, vamping drunk in mother! to a feature-length drag routine.  She delivers nothing but deliciously vicious camp from start to end here, easily putting in one of her career-best performances.  The response has been muted at worst, divided at best.  Maybe the movie would’ve earned more momentum in non-pandemic times, when word of mouth would’ve reached the exact right audience for what Pfeiffer is doing here.  Maybe the world would never be ready for Michelle Pfeiffer to star in an erudite revision of Leaving Las Vegas for pompous, affluent drag queens.  Who knows?  All I can report is that every bitchy barb, quip, and eyeroll she lands in French Exit is a precious gift to the few jaded cynics on the movie’s wavelength.

Pfeiffer stars as an heiress & former NYC It Girl who has completely depleted her dead husband’s fortune.  She decides to sell off the remainder of his estate for spending money, then fucks off to Paris with her adoring adult son (Lucas Hedges) in tow.  Her long-term plan is to kill herself when her funds run dry, something she announces in a matter-of-fact, smirking tone.  Despite the morbidity of that premise, there isn’t much grandeur or pathos to the film’s plot, as the mother-son duo aren’t especially emotional in demeanor.  Most scenes are slight, low-key episodes: a cross-Atlantic boat ride, an awkward dinner party, a search for a runaway cat, etc.  However, if you’re in tune with Pfeiffer’s scenery chewing (and Hedges’s studied impersonation of her faded, jaded glamour) there’s a dark humor to each of those episodes that will have you howling at even the slightest facial expression and casually tossed-off insult.

I’m surprised to learn that French Exit was based off a novel (adapted by author-turned-screenwriter Patrick deWitt himself), since its witty banter and for-the-back-row vamping feels so firmly rooted in stage play dialogue.  The best I can approximate its cruel, quirky tone is to imagine Wes Anderson directing an adaptation of The Boys in the Band, but even that description doesn’t cover its absurdist supernatural plot twists, which I will not spoil here.  Most importantly, French Exit is a Nic Cagian showcase for one of our greatest actors to go as big and as broad as she pleases from gag to gag.  Sometimes those payoffs are muted, finding her sharpening a kitchen knife in total darkness or absentmindedly musing about the sad nature of dildos.  At other times, she sets literal fires, slipping into full camped-up Cruella de Ville mania.  In either instance, she’s electrically, fabulously entertaining, and we all should be groveling at her feet for more performances in this vein.

-Brandon Ledet