Céline Sciamma Has Always Been On Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an intimidating movie to write about, because I find myself both endlessly impressed with its craft and somewhat baffled by its ecstatic critical reception. Portrait is a visually gorgeous but patiently observant film about a short-term queer romance in 18th Century France. Its gradual accumulation of small glances, electric touches, and guarded desire snowball to an avalanche of emotion in its final act that is so self-evidently magnificent that calling its merits & accolades into question feels like cinephilic blasphemy. Yet, it’s also an overwhelmingly quiet film in its earliest stirrings, soundtracked mostly by crackling fireplaces, hushed wave-crests, and charcoal scraping canvas. Without a guiding score to anchor my attention in its pensive build-up, I found my mind wandering outside the emotions of the conflict onscreen to instead consider the film’s significance in the mighty catalog of its director, Céline Sciamma. That strained attention span is admittedly more of an intellectual shortcoming on my part than any fault of the movie’s, but it did lead me to wonder: Why, exactly, is this the film from Sciamma that pro critics are deliriously gaga over, as opposed to her previous, equally stunning works? Basically, “Why y’all gagging so? She brings it to you every ball.”

The only other time I can recall stumbling over this exact internal conflict is with the films of New Queer Cinema poster boy Todd Haynes. While Haynes’s most idiosyncratic, structurally adventurous works like Velvet Goldmine & Wonderstruck tend to be flagged as uneven or “messy,” his traditionalist costume dramas like Carol & Far From Heaven are collectively exulted as his masterworks. I very much admire both of those films, if not only for their exquisite sense of visual craft and their detailed attention to quietly, bodily expressed desire under social policing. However, I would never guess that Todd Haynes in particular had made either film if his name wasn’t included in the credits, as they’ve been stripped of the idiosyncratic playfulness that distinguish his most personally identifiable works. Céline Sciamma’s personal stamp is similarly obscured in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, at least in terms of how her filmography has played out so far. Her masterful deployment of diegetic music and her fixation on themes of queer & gendered self-discovery certainly carry over here, but removing those touches from her usual modern settings to the more stately stage of a period drama somewhat dilutes what makes her distinct as a storyteller. Like with Haynes’s most critically lauded works, I’m not sure that she’d be the first director whose name I’d guess were attached to the film if it were obscured in the credits. That’s not even something I hold against Sciamma or the film itself, really; I’m happy to see the director emboldened to reach past her usual boundaries to explore new territory. I’m just a little skeptical of why this is the film that’s being singled out as the pinnacle of her catalog, as opposed the equally stunning, modernist teen dramas Water Lilies or Girlhood. It’s as if the film’s period setting & hushed tones are somehow automatically more Prestigious than films that feature Rihanna dance parties or trips to McDonalds. That’s bullshit.

It might just be that Portrait of a Lady on Fire leaves the strongest impression since it ends on its highest notes, entirely by design (whereas Girlhood somewhat unravels in its epilogue and Water Lilies & Tomboy both go gentle into that good night). In the film, a young painter is hired to secretly produce a portrait of a French heiress who is arranged to marry a noble Milanese stranger against her wishes. Posing as the subject’s hired companion, the artist closely studies her for hours as they socialize, memorizing her ever feature to later reproduce on canvas in private. The border between artistic study & romantic fixation gradually blurs as the two women’s companionship naturally evolves into an outright torrid affair. By the time they realize their growing love & sexual attraction for one another is mutual (or at least by the time they’re both brave enough to act on it) there’s a rapidly approaching expiration date on their time together, and so much lost time to make up for. Suddenly, the practiced restraint & quiet observations of the opening half of the film give way to a rush of overwhelming emotion as the two women cram the entire arc of a fulfilling romance into only a week’s time. Meanwhile, the guise of their artist-subject dynamic affords them a brief respite from the societal demands & economic exploitations of marriage & the world of men. They manage to carve out a perfectly functional femme community outside the restrictions of their typical daily lives. The tragedy of the film is just as much rooted in the impermanence of that femmetopia as it is in the inevitable dissolution of their tryst.

It’s exciting to watch the carefully planted seeds from the film’s quieter half bloom wildly in its explosively passionate conclusion – especially as its spooky Gothic literature & Greek myth allusions fully materialize in the narrative. Before that delayed payoff fully leaves its mark, however, I mostly found myself drawing comparisons between Portrait’s basic elements and similar triumphs in Sciamma’s earlier works. There’s a communal, witchy chanting scene around a beachside bonfire that directly recalls similar dance party tangents in each of Sciamma’s’ previous features, best exemplified by the “Diamonds” scene in Girlhood. Similarly, the stoic, unreadable expression of actor Adèle Haenel as the titular portrait subject is true to the quietly observant figures of Sciamma’s’ previous work, including Haenel herself as a teenager in Water Lilies. Usually, Sciamma’s stories of queer and fluidly gendered self-discovery are staged among children on the verge of teenhood. Here, that theme is echoed in how Adele’s adult bride-to-be has been “sheltered” (read: imprisoned) from the world outside her home because of her gender, to the point where she’s been robbed of the adult development appropriate for her age. She knows no more of her body or her sexuality at the film’s start than the preteen children of Tomboy or Water Lilies, and part of her initial attraction to her painter/lover is their usefulness as a window to the world outside her enclave. This film is very much in active conversation with the rest of Sciamma’s portfolio, but something about its period setting & quiet restraint has earned it more emphatic attention from pro critics. I think that critical impulse is worth questioning even if the film itself is practically unimpeachable.

I want to live in a world where two teenage besties breaking up their BFF status at a McDonalds can be considered just as cinematically Important as an adult woman having her heart broken at an 18th Century orchestral concert. I recognize that some of that craving for modern settings & mood-establishing score is a shortcoming of my own attention span, but I do feel like Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s critical consensus as Sciamma’s masterwork is somewhat arbitrary. She’s been making excellent movies that hit the same emotional highs (earlier & more often in the case of Girlhood & Water Lilies) for over a decade now. They just happened to be couched in a tone & context that aren’t afforded the same breathless critical gushing. Better late the never, I suppose. Céline Sciamma has delivered yet another exceptional work of queer romance & self-discovery here, one that’s now dressed up in the stately finery of what we’ve agreed to consider Great Art.

-Brandon Ledet

Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

Contemporary art galleries are some of my favorite places in the world. The shiny white floors and tall white walls sparsely decorated with bizarre, thought-provoking pieces make me feel like I’m trapped in a glorious nightmare. Dan Gilroy explores this mix of art and horror in his most recent Netflix film, Velvet Buzzsaw. It’s mysterious, stylish, and oh so very gory.

I have yet to see Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, but I’m well aware Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance in the film was well received. I haven’t seen many Gyllenhaal  films, so I never really had an opinion about him. I always thought he was just okay, far from being a noteworthy actor. His performance in Velvet Buzzsaw has completely changed the way I feel about him. I never thought I would say this, but I’m officially a Jake Gyllenhaal fan! His character in the film, Morf Vandewalt, is a pretentious art critic who is extremely influential in the art world. How Gyllenhaal was able to make me fall in love with such an unlikeable character is beyond me.

In the beginning of the film, Morf leaves his boyfriend and develops a sexual relationship with his colleague, Josephina (Zawe Ashton). There aren’t nearly as many bisexual characters in cinema as there should be, so this was just another reason for me to appreciate Morf. Josephina works under Rhonda (Rene Russo), a well-known, tough-as-nails art dealer who was once a member of a punk band named Velvet Buzzsaw (the origin of the film’s title). Josephina is sweet and probably the most down-to-Earth out of the bunch, but that all starts to change when she uncovers the massive personal art collection of her deceased mysterious elderly neighbor. Josephina claims the paintings, and after she brings them to the attention of her fellow art associates, the paintings take the art world by storm. When anyone looks at the paintings, they look like they saw Jesus Christ in the flesh. It’s obvious there’s something magical about these paintings, but once those who come in contact with them begin to die in mysterious ways, the paintings go from being magical to pure evil.

Velvet Buzzsaw effortlessly balances being a satire of the highbrow art world while also being a blood-soaked slasher. The star-studded cast (including fabulous appearances by my all-time favorite actress, Toni Collette) work their magic by giving fabulous performances without allowing the film to lose its funky underground vibes. This is one of the best horror films to come out so far this year,  so 2019 is definitely off to a good start.

-Britnee Lombas

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)

The microbudget documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening is the debut feature as a director for fine art photographer RaMell Ross. I doubt that was initially the film’s intended form. With the fractured, narrative-light meandering of a photojournal in motion, Hale County This Morning, This Evening plays more like a diary than a proper documentary. Ross appears to be gathering moving images to either calcify a concurrent photography project or to supplement those photographs with a curated installation piece. Either way, the experiment makes for rich raw material to pull from in the editing room when repurposed for a feature-length non-fiction piece, no matter how disjointed the result. Like all D.I.Y. art projects (especially ones this disinterested in narrative) there’s a hit or miss quality to Hale County on a minute to minute basis, but in its best moments it strikes the exact notes of beauty & nightmarish atmosphere you’d want to see in a microbudget, swing-for-the-fences debut. A lot of that artistry seems to be the result of editing-room tinkering in post-production, but it’s all built on the foundation of Ross’s already-established documentarian eye.

A large part of the reason RaMell Ross’s photography work lends itself so well to documentary filmmaking is that he already was documenting little-seen niches of life before he thought to set those images in motion. Ross’s latest project is portraits of black lives in the rural American South, finding eerie beauty & tragic calm in lives marginalized by poverty. More importantly, though, his work’s fine art formalism brings a distinct cinematic eye to his newfound medium so that these portraits don’t feel so much like matter-of-fact dispatches from lives on the fringe, but rather expressions of beauty and deep guttural moans of pain & frustration. The spaces he documents in Hale County, Alabama provide a very grounded, recognizable tapestry of black lives in the modern, rural American South: churches, dorm rooms, trailer parks, gymnasiums, bowling alleys, maternity wards. They don’t amount to much aesthetically, but Ross’s patience & detail-oriented eye allows them to develop into a larger tapestry that encompasses birth & death, time & the cosmos, real life & the world of our dreams. He asks abstract questions like “What is the orbit of our dreams?” and then “answers” them with small, candid moments of sweat dripping on a basketball court or the Sun vibrating across the sky in a time-elapsed road trip. It’s an eerie, disjointed gestalt — the kind of distinctly cinematic eye usually not afforded places like Hale County, Alabama.

As you might expect with a narratively disinterested, tonally experimental art project, Hale County‘s greatest strengths lie in the intensity & memorability of isolated images. Much of the film patiently documents the minor moments of toddlers’ playtime, stray kittens, wandering cattle, and video game “parties” in crowded living rooms. Yet, there are also spectacular moments of a one-of-a-kind novelty: intense Southern storms swarming in on tiny, unprepared human bodies; a mother’s eyes rolling around her skull on pain mediation during an intense birth; a prankster jokingly attempting to view a solar eclipse through a waffle fry. There’s an undeniable political weight to this style of portraiture as well, especially in the financial & physical conditions of the setting and the quiet presence of police lights that bathe & invade those spaces in regular intervals. I’m not convinced that Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a slam dunk (to borrow terminology from the film’s strong focus on local basketball culture), but it’s certainly a wonder to behold in its best moments and an emotionally harrowing experience even in its worst. The only question now is how much greater could RaMell Ross’s cinematic eye become if he set out to make a feature film on purpose at the start of a project, instead of finding one after the fact in the editing room?

-Brandon Ledet

The Square (2017)

Last year when I was putting together my list for the Best of 2017, I lamented that my roommate’s phone dying prevented us from seeing The Square during its all-too-brief run in Austin. While searching for something to watch this past weekend, we discovered that it’s finally found its way to Hulu, and we were overjoyed! Although there was some hemming and hawing about its 151 minute run time (especially as we had watched the 141 minute Bad Times at the El Royale earlier that same day), this was definitely worth the wait.

Christian (Claes Bang) is the divorced curator of the X-Royal modern art museum in Stockholm, which hosts such exhibits as a room full of identical piles of gravel, stacks of commonplace objects, an exhibit in which people must declare through the push of a button whether they trust other people or not (we do not see what happens if you admit you don’t, but entrants who go through the “I trust others” door must leave their phones and wallets in an open area), and the newest exhibit, Lola Arias’s titular “The Square.” Arias’s piece consists of a lighted square, four meters on each side, that is “a sanctuary of trust and caring” and within which “we all share equal rights and obligations.” After he is pickpocketed and loses his phone and wallet (and perhaps his cufflinks) as part of a con by a few people in a public space, Christian’s barely-together life falls apart completely. He sleeps with Anne (Elisabeth Moss), a slightly deranged American art journalist who he previously met professionally and runs into again later at a party, and their next interaction goes . . . poorly. His plan to retrieve his stolen belongings, encouraged by his assistant Michael (Christopher Læssø), involves tracking his GPS to an apartment building and stuffing all of the mailboxes in the complex with a threatening note. He succeeds, but not without affecting an innocent boy (Elijandro Edouard) whose parents assume the letter is about their son and punish him severely; the boy then demands Christian apologize and clarify the situation, or he will “make chaos” for the curator. His inattentiveness to the work of two young PR men (Daniel Hallberg and Martin Sööder) to increase the public’s interest in “The Square” results in their creation of a viral marketing attempt that manages to upset just about every person in Sweden; his daughters are constantly fighting; and to top it all off, one of the cleaners manages to vacuum up part of the gravel pile exhibit, meaning that the piles are no longer identical.

There’s a lot going on in this film, which functions more as a series of vignettes than as a complete whole, but it manages to be stronger than merely the sum of its parts, and even with two and a half hours of screen time, there are still answers left unexplored – for instance, if you’re hoping for an explanation of the bonobo that appears in the trailer, you’re still going to be unclear by the time that the credits roll (per the IMDb trivia page, director Ruben Östlund said in Cannes, “Anything can happen in a movie when suddenly a monkey appears in an apartment. Everything should have a monkey in it.”). In the U.S., when a film or TV show mocks the world of modern art, it’s usually mean-spirited and lacking in humor or depth, focusing on the apparent ridiculousness of the artistic sphere and their arch removal from the earthy, grounded nature of “normal” folk (see: any episode of King of the Hill in which Bobby becomes temporarily obsessed with anything other than clowning). In The Square, the mockery is still present, but less abrasively, as epitomized in the early, tone-setting scene in which Christian asks Anne if putting her purse in the museum would make it art. She waits for him to continue from what appears to be a rhetorical question, until the silence between them grows deafening.

Instead, The Square mocks not the artifice of haute culture and instead revels in needling the shallowness of artistic expression when self-important artists attempt to make broad social commentary while lacking any real depth of insight. In the introduction of the concept of “The Square” to the museum’s wealthy patrons, Christian’s assistant thanks two donors for their contribution of fifty million kroner (about 5.85 million USD); following this, Christian launches into a practiced speech before a minor interruption offers him the opportunity to make an “impromptu” request to go off-script and begin again, a specific strategy to appear more personable and relatable, and which we have already seen him rehearse in the previous scene. “Lola Arias compares ‘The Square’ to a pedestrian crossing,” he says. “In a pedestrian crossing, drivers are to look out for pedestrians. In a similar way, there is a contract implied by ‘The Square,’ to look out for each other. We help each other. If you enter this space and ask for help, anyone passing by is obligated to help you. ‘I’m hungry. Can you help me with a meal?'” This comes after several scenes in which Christian himself expresses reticence to leave his Tesla while visiting a poor neighborhood (you can tell because the building he enters has flickering lights in the hallway on every single floor), and in which requests from those experiencing homelessness are ignored by the characters we have been following. Immediately after this monologue, Christian yields the floor to the museum’s chef, who attempts to describe the meal that has been prepared for the patrons in attendance but has to shout at them in order to finish describing the menu as the horde ignores his description as they herd themselves to the dining room; this contrasts with Christian’s interaction with a homeless woman who asks specifically that he buy her a sandwich with no onions. The rich, despite being financially able to meet all of their needs until the end of their lives, are oblivious to the food they plan to shovel into their mouths; the poor, for whom every meal could be the last one for a while, have sincere desires that they may find difficult to explicate, and any desires that are specific are met with derision. Christian buys the sandwich, but throws it at the woman and says that she can pick out the onions herself, treating her with socially and economically enforced disdain, despite his pretensions toward equality that he espouses in the art that he curates. This motif repeats itself throughout the film: Christian the curator embraces the importance of charitable humanity and the need to support the poor and the weak; Christian the person ignores the plight of people around him, writes a threatening letter to an entire apartment complex with reckless abandon, refuses to apologize to a child for the havoc in the boy’s personal life for which he is directly responsible, and when he does try to make things right, it’s both too little and too late.

European art films also tend to highlight the beauty of centuries-old architecture and frame their outdoor sequences in such a way that captures their beauty, both that which is pristine and that which is distressed in an attractively antique way. The Square is instead comprised of harsh, gray, buildings that seem born out of the era of architectural brutalism. The museum itself consists of the former palace of the Swedish monarchy, but more often than not we see 711 convenience stores tucked away under concrete blocks or the aforementioned apartment building with its endlessly flickering lights. We see the sumptuous world of the rich more rarely, like in the dinner scene featuring Oleg’s performance (which gets out of hand) or in Christian’s apartment, which is haunted by the shouting of the boy he has wronged and his own screaming following a tantrum at his daughters. It’s no surprise that, near the film’s climax, Christian finds himself digging through the trash for something that he desperately needs, and that this is the moment where he finally realizes that he has responsibilities to make reparations to the people he has harmed.

This all makes the film appear more somber than it really is. It is at turns deeply discomfiting, hilarious, and charming. And now that it’s on Hulu, you can check it out. Please do.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Office Killer (1997)

I’ve been singing the praises of the directorial debut of art world “it girl” Tara Subkoff, #horror, for at least a year now, but the film seems to have, um, limited appeal. A tongue-in-cheek art horror with a cartoonish hook in its premise (social media is killing our children!), #horror premiered at MoMA in NYC before being quietly dumped onto VOD platforms (including Netflix, eventually) to a tepid-at-best critical response. This is not the first time the directorial debut of an art world darling has been treated this way. In the mid 90s, visual artist Cindy Sherman joined in the then-blossoming indie film industry with her own cartoonish art horror. Like with Subkoff’s debut, Sherman’s Office Killer was trashed by critics, tanked financially, and was eyerolled quietly into home video oblivion. Sherman made a fun, visually gorgeous, sardonically humorous genre film that should have launched a whole new phase of her career, but instead was shrugged off & swept away.

One of the more infamous Cindy Sherman photography series (in my mind, anyway) was her early 80s collection of “fashion” photographs, which depicted women (often herself) wearing clothing that supposedly made them powerful, looking miserable, squirming under the microscope of the camera lens. The picture numbered #122 in this series finds Sherman disheveled, wearing one of those monstrous shoulder pad power suits, and grimacing under the harsh florescent light of what appears to be an office. This one image almost seems to be the roadmap for where her film Office Killer would go over a decade later. The harsh lighting, the visible discomfort, and the disruption of disorder eeking out from within the rigid business world containment of the clothing feel like the stirrings of what Office Killer would eventually come to be. The only pronounced difference is that Sherman would bring in a sense of absurdist humor from her other works into the project.

Although Office Killer has Cindy Sherman’s eye crawling over every inch of the film, the real highlight is Carol Kane’s lead performance. Starting off as the exact uncomfortable-in-her-designated-role archetype depicted in the above referenced Sherman series, Kane’s titular killer is a mousy homebody who cannot suffer the intense scrutiny of being a young woman in the modern workplace. Her murder spree begins by accident, but then develops into a conscious, cold-blooded effort to make herself comfortable in a more domestic work environment. Carol Kane is usually relegated​ to minor supporting roles in her career, like her violent fairy in Scrooged or her crazed landlord in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but in Office Killer she’s allowed to command the screen whole-heartedly. What’s even better is that she’s given a chance to do so in a quietly campy, increasingly violent lead role that recalls Kathleen Turner’s performance in the John Waters classic Serial Mom, a comparison I evoke only as the highest of compliments.

Serving as a lowly, nobody office girl at a magazine publication, Kane’s anti-hero protagonist is an awkward ball of nervous energy. With a uniform of tightly-bunned hair, ratty sweaters, wire-framed glasses, and drawn-on eyebrows, she’s a sore thumb in the workplace, where more traditional Modern Women (including Molly Ringwald) poke fun at her discomfort & reclusiveness. The pressure of caring for her invalid mother (Alice Drummond of Ghostbusters fame) at home and fighting off the unwanted sexual advances of men at work tear her mind in half and she snaps. After accidentally killing a coworker after-hours, she takes the body home to her basement and finds them much easier to deal with that now that they’re lifelessly compliant with being manipulated and she’s in command. That’s when the killings become an intense obsession. She converts her basement into a “home office,” forgiving errands from her not at all alive victims to stave off search parties (in the same very early in the game Internet Age paranoia) and setting them up like mannequins at computers & typewriters. This is all in service of directly evoking a long simmering punchline about how she’s now able to “work from home.” It’s a deranged premise, but it’s all in good fun.

It took me a little while to get on the same wavelength as Office Killer. It’s the kind of film that improves exponentially each scene until it concludes at its most ridiculous point, so it makes sense to me that a contemporary audience in the 90s would turn on it early and never be able to land back on the same page as the film. Sherman has explained in interviews that the initial plan was for the film’s kills to be much bloodier & more gore-focused, but she scaled the violence back to focus on how Kane’s protagonist disposed (or doesn’t dispose) of the bodies instead of the actual acts of violence. I think this was ultimately the right decision, since it allows the film’s campy, Serial Mom vibe to play out much more brightly. The initial kills, which include electrocution, strangulations, and deaths by asthma inhaler, may not be bloody, but the softness of their initial impact makes way for a much more shocking, grotesque reveal once you get to see the full, gory scope of the killer’s self-made “home office” (which recalls John Landis’s “Family” episode of Masters of Horror). The dead bodies held together by scotch tape & Windex, including children, gives Office Killer the violent edge horror audiences may have been looking for throughout its runtime. Sherman chooses to save that mayhem for a morbid punchline that allows Carol Kane to shine in full Norman Bates glory before it hits. It may have been a decision that turned off audiences at the time, but plays in retrospect like an act of genius.

Cindy Sherman delivers exactly what I want from my genre films here, the exact formula that won me over in Tara Subkoff’s #horror. She mixes lowbrow camp with highbrow art production in an earnest, gleeful work that values both ends of that divide. As faintly silly as Carol Kane’s performance can be as a deranged killer, Sherman colors her background with a genuinely horrific history of sexual assault, where she constantly has to hear praise for her abuser in a work environment. She employs infamous provocateur Todd Haynes to provide “additional dialogue” to make sure that discomfort seeps in. The sickly, flickering florescent lights of her film’s office setting afford it a horror aesthetic long before the kills begin, especially when she focuses on the harsh, moving light of a copier running in the dark. Even the opening credits, which glides as projections across still, office environment objects, have an artfulness to them missing from a lot of tongue-in-cheek horror. Maybe some audiences don’t know what to do with that tonal clash and assumed Sherman similarly didn’t know what she was doing when she created it. Maybe it’s that exact attitude that also sank #horror before it really had a chance. All I can say for sure is that Office Killer deserved a much better response than the one it got and it’s criminal that Sherman hasn’t had a chance to make a follow-up to her near-perfect debut.

-Brandon Ledet

The House with the Laughing Windows (1976)

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The House with the Laughing Windows is a 1976 giallo film directed by Pupi Avati, and is the film in that director’s canon that has experienced the greatest visibility outside of Europe. The film follows Stefano (Lino Capolicchio), who has been invited to a small village in the Valli di Comacchio area in order to restore a fresco depicting the killing of Saint Sebastian, which is on the rotting wall of a church. The friend who helped him get the job, a conservatory scientist recovering from a breakdown of an undisclosed variety, becomes increasingly paranoid and warns Stefano that the village hides a dark secret, cryptically referring to a house with laughing windows. When this friend is killed before he can reveal the full truth, Stefano starts to wonder if all the threatening phone calls he’s been receiving are more than just pranks.

Stefano learns that the fresco’s original artist, Legnani, was considered to be mad, and the villagers imply that his two sisters were worse; Legnani had a tendency to portray his subjects, like Saint Sebastian, in states of torture, and it is rumored that the Legnani sisters would torture innocent travelers in order to provide their brother with models. Stefano reveals the faces of the two killers in the fresco and matches them to an old photo of the Legnanis, but no one seems interested in helping him except for Coppola (Gianni Cavina), the town drunk who takes him to the place where the Legnanis buried their victims (behind a house painted with large laughing mouths, hence the title). Everyone else treats Stefano’s concerns as unfounded, but events transpire to put him out of his hotel, which eventually lands him in a mostly-abandoned home occupied by Laura, a paralyzed woman who depends upon the assistance of Lidio (Pietro Brambilla), a mentally handicapped man who is also an acolyte at the church where Stefano is working. Eventually, Stefano goes to the police, but they are unable to find the evidence that Coppola previously showed to him.

Dejected, Stefano returns to the house where he is staying, only to discover that his love interest Francesca (Francesca Marciano) has been killed; when he brings the police around, all the evidence is gone. Still later, he discovers that the sisters of Legnani are alive and well and are attempting to bring their dead brother back to life by presenting sacrifices. Stefano barely escapes with his life, but for how long?

There’s a lot to unpack in this film, and I like that the entire village is in on the murders, a la the original Wicker Man or the modern classic Hot Fuzz, although the reason for why the consent to be complicit in the murders requires inspection. As is the case with many gialli from this era, there is a larger cultural context that I am unfamiliar with, and that knowledge may lend itself to a clearer interpretation of the film’s themes; one reviewer of the film refers in his analysis to a metaphorical attempt to transcend the Fascism of Italy’s past, especially in the wake of WWII.

This reading of the film is, no pun intended, foreign to me, and I can’t say that House illustrates this as well as, say, Your Vice is a Locked Room, which explicitly made mention of growing European solidarity and international trade. Still, a film should work in and of itself and succeed or fail on its own merits, and this one mostly succeeds. There is a sense of tension that permeates the proceedings, and the film is smart to open with a long diatribe from Legnani that encapsulates his artistic desires and his madness, as this sets the tone and keeps the maliciousness of the villain(s) in mind even when the scenery is idyllic and serene.

The one sticking point that I keep coming back to is the fact that (spoiler) the Legnani sisters are still alive, and the townsfolk seem content, for no immediately apparent reason, to let them continue their murderous machinations long after their brother has died. The best interpretation I can summon is that the villagers may be trying to cover the sins of the past (just as one of the sisters covers the revealed faces in the fresco with fresh clay to obscure their identity), which works well as a metaphor. The townsfolk cannot expose the current serial killings without revealing that they hid the Legnani’s crimes decades before. The final sequence, in which Stefano rides around the deserted village in a scene reminiscent of High Noon, pounding on doors and begging for help while the villagers ignore him with great difficulty, lends itself to this interpretation. They could stop this from happening, but they won’t, out of fear or guilt. The problem with this is that the villagers do not simply seal themselves off from the world until their past sin of allowing the Legnanis to reign in terror is interred with their bones; instead, they willingly accept newcomers like Stefano and Francesca into their midst with no warning.

The Legnanis terrorize by consent of the terrorized, and while that is an interesting twist on the genre, it doesn’t mix well with the giallo trappings. Overall, it’s a good horror film and deserves more than the modicum of attention that it has at present, but it falls short of greatness.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Felt (2015)

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My life is a fucking nightmare. Every waking moment. Every time I close my eyes I just relive the trauma. I’m never safe. I can’t even tell what’s real anymore. Everything just blurs. I don’t sleep. I don’t eat. Just . . . walking through this dream. Ghosts haunting me.

Just as its protagonist, Amy, describes in the above prelude, Felt is a hazy waking dream of a film, one haunted by a vaguely-defined sexual assault that occurred long before its first frame. It’s a story of coping, self-therapy, and retribution & as such it’s an ambiguous, wandering, deeply misanthropic work without any clear A-B narrative . . . until it reaches a shockingly violent conclusion. The purpose of the film, if there even is one, is intentionally left just as vague as the assault that started Amy’s emotional unraveling. Felt dares its audience not to get on its wavelength. Visual artist Amy Everson is deliberately obfuscated in her performance as the fictional Amy. The film’s warped dream logic structure stretches out its 80min run time to a downstream drift. Its full-on assault against rape culture & its deniers is sure to illicit some defensive balking. Still, if you can submerge yourself in the film’s striking imagery & connect with its protagonist’s frustrated emotional turmoil in any significant way, it’s an entirely singular work guaranteed to stick with you long after the end credits.

The men of Felt are a despicable bunch. They’re selfish, exploitative brutes who casually make rape jokes, pressure women to drink, and make them feel “constantly objectified and discredited for anything you do because you’re female.” Amy has a couple . . . unusual defense mechanisms for her world’s plague of predatory brutes, tactics that gradually escalate during the film’s runtime. Her first line of defense is a deliberately juvenile sense of scatological humor where “Ladies fart too” is more of a war cry than an obvious truth. She also indulges in fantasizing about torturing & killing men in a fanciful bid to reclaim power she lost in her assault. Amy’s most striking self-therapy & reclamation of her power, though, is in her trips to the woods where she dons self-made “superhero” costumes: a second, exaggerated skin that makes her look like gigantic, naked muscle men complete with hand-carved weapons & a lifelike penis.

In a world where men dominate public spaces, Amy finds her solace in the insular world of her bedroom/art studio & in the immense, primal embrace of Nature. It isn’t until she makes herself vulnerable to a male love interest by inviting him into these private spaces, only to be promptly betrayed, that her coping mechanisms are pushed beyond the point of no return & the film takes a nasty turn towards a psychological horror, one with a stomach-churning, blood-soaked conclusion. A lot of Felt echoes outsider art therapy themes you’d find in Miranda July’s work or in the documentary Marwencol and because most scenes are quick & visually intense, it often functions like a well-curated art gallery, a dream-like montage of gigantic, exaggerated genitals, fetal Hitler, and creepy bearded masks.

I’ve read complaints that Felt‘s images & dialogue are sometimes too “on the nose” (one of my least favorite critiques in general; subtlety often bores me) in how they relate to the themes of sexual assault recovery and the many forms violence & abuse can take in the patriarchy, but the film is so deliberately loose in its narrative & opposed to explaining its intent that I couldn’t disagree more. In a time where people are citing television as the next great art form, I find myself falling in love with films like Felt, Under the Skin, The Duke of Burgundy, etc. that achieve an aesthetic that can only exist in cinema & in no other format. Felt‘s “Life in general is awful” mindset & remarkably fluid procession of striking, subliminally horrifying imagery obviously amount to an overall bleak effect, but I found that allowing myself to get lost in its gloomy, loopy dream logic was invigorating in that it served as a reminder of how powerful & distinct cinema can be when it’s allowed to indulge it is own self-absorbed world. If you’re looking for a movie that’ll make you love movies, but hate people, Felt might be worth a gander. I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything quite like it before, which is always a great place for a film to start.

-Brandon Ledet

 

Missing People (2015)

fourstar

I first heard of the visual artist Roy Ferdinand when I attended his one-man show In Your Fucking Face at Barrister’s Art Gallery (when it was still on Oretha Castle Haley) sometime in 2004, As the title of that show suggests, Ferdinand’s work is aggressively crude & transgressive, assembling a unique document of New Orleans at the height of the city’s fever pitch crime rates in the 90s & 00s. An self-taught, outsider artist along the lines of a Henry Darger or a Daniel Johnson, Ferdinand drew portraits of the city & its inhabitants at their most cruel & vulnerable moments. His art is somehow both immediately digestible & impossible to ever shake once seen. The imagery sticks with you in a deeply affecting way, both in its violence’s absurdity & honesty, despite a lack of honed technical skills you’d expect from a more traditionally trained artist.

Roy Ferdinand may have been a somewhat financially successful artist, but he’s far from a household name & information on his personal life is scarce at best. That’s why I was stoked to discover that a documentary about Ferdinand was screening at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art as a part of the 2015 New Orleans Film Fest. Super stoked. Indeed, Missing People was a rare chance to see interview footage of Roy Ferdinand talking about himself, his city, and his art. However, it was far from the film that I was I expecting. Instead of being a documentary about Ferdinand outright, Missing People follows the story of Martina Batan, an art collector & curator who obsessively amassed hundreds of Ferdinand’s pieces for reasons that even she had difficulty understanding. It would be incredible to see a documentary strictly about Ferdinand & his work, but Missing People is not that film. Instead, it serves as a document about the way his art can deeply affect someone in a personal way. And after seeing the film it’d be difficult to argue that it’s ever affected anyone nearly as much as it has Martina Batan.

Described by a close friend & comic book artist Dave Carino as “a cross between Wednesday Adams & Holly Golightly”, Martina Batan was once a young art student with a Joey Ramone haircut in NYC’s highly influential late 70s punk era. The polaroids depicting her energetic youth are a stark contrast with her current life as a middle age divorcee & professional art curator. Living alone with two elderly dogs in Brooklyn, NY, Baton is a deeply depressed, anxious soul, one that rarely sleeps or, ostensibly, enjoys herself. One thing that haunts Batan in an ever-increasing intensity is the decades-old violent stabbing death of her teenage brother, a tragedy that tore her family to shreds. One of the ways Batan processes her grief over the loss of her brother, of course, is through collecting Roy Ferdinand’s artwork.

Batan first discovered Ferdinand while volunteering in New Orleans’ post-Katrina recovery shortly after the artist’s premature death in 2005. She soon became possessed with the task of collecting what she describes as “a greatest hits” of the artist’s work. Although Missing People is by no means a straight-forward documentary on Ferdinand & his art, it does feature hundreds of his pieces, by far the most I’ve ever seen, thanks to Batan’s tireless obsession as a collector. Besides the drawings, Batan also collected various ephemera from Ferdinand’s life, including a cowboy hat, boots, and unwashed socks Ferdinand’s two living sisters had entrusted to the owner of Barrister’s Gallery (a detail spookily echoed in Batan’s collection of her slain brother’s similar ephemera). Speaking of Ferdinand’s sisters, as a pair they offer one of the few points of insight into the deceased artists’ life & personality, outside stray interview footage of Roy in 1997, a few anecdotes from Barrister’s Gallery owner and, of course, the work itself. Roy’s sisters are particularly endearing in their dismissive laughter after hearing their brother describe himself as “an OG retired”. Whether or not roy was a certifiable “original gangster”, his self-declared role as a “journalist” & a “documentarian” that lead him to record “simple portraits of neighborhood characters” suggests that he at least had some kind of first hand experience with New Orleans’ crime element. As Roy himself puts it, he felt compelled to depict “guns, drugs, violence, and church” in his work because that’s what happens in a city where you constantly see “cops shooting at drug dealers, drug dealers shooting at cops, drug dealers shooting at each other.” Leave the scenic streams & meadows to the artists who live where that’s the reality. Although Roy’s sisters couldn’t corroborate his self-image of a “retired” hard criminal, they did admit that he often sold his paintings as a means to support his crack cocaine habit, saying “When he did his most eye-popping pieces, he was high as a kite.”

Not enough is really known about the “true” Roy Ferdinand to support a full-length documentary in the traditional sense (not that I wouldn’t love to see someone try). As one interviewee puts it, Roy was somewhat of a “performance artist”, adapting to many personas over the course of his lifetime: cowboy, voodoo practitioner, crack addict, fine artist, limo driver, French Quarter eccentric Chicken Man’s “official bodyguard”, etc. Although Missing People makes little to no attempt to offer a full portrait of the artist as a man, it does wonders to establish his role as a docuementarian. Roy explains the reasons he depicts the victims of horrible acts of violence is to preserve their likeness beyond being a mere headline in a news story. He says, “If it wasn’t for me, nobody would remember that these people existed.” Perhaps that sentiment is the essence of Martina Batan’s personal connection with Ferdinand’s work, seeing as how her long-deceased brother suffered a similar fate to many of Roy’s subjects, just in New York instead of New Orleans. The movie offers little in the way of answers.

As Martina struggles with her brother’s mysterious death, with her own failing health, and with an uneasy relationship with Roy’s sisters (who are justifiably suspicious & jealous of her collection of their brother’s work), Missing People paints a bleak, complicated picture. Much like Roy Ferdinand’s artwork, the documentary is painfully honest in an absurdly open, vulnerable way, refusing to play by the rules. Missing People documents the life of a great, little known artist not by offering a traditional biography, but instead focusing its attention on a few people still actively engaged with his work a decade after his passing. It works in the same way that Room 237 revealed a lot about the power of ambiguity in Kubrick’s The Shining by exploring the crackpot theories the film inspired instead of documenting the production of the film itself. As I said, as a fan of his work I would love to watch a proper, full-length documentary about Ferdinand (if that’s even possible), but that’s not at all what Missing People is aiming for. Instead, Roy is just the connective tissue in a story about the people living in his wake. It’s a bold & often frustrating choice, but in a lot of ways the film is more fascinating & satisfying for it.

-Brandon Ledet

Big Eyes (2014)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

It’s tempting, but not exactly accurate to think of Big Eyes as a return to form for Tim Burton. Although it recalls the vibrant cartoon suburbia of classic titles like Edward Scissorhands, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and Beetlejuice and the biopic format of the masterful Ed Wood, it’s not quite like anything Burton’s ever made before. In some ways Big Eyes is a by-the-numbers biopic of kitsch painter Margaret Keane, elevated only by performances by always-welcome names like Amy Adams, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, and Christoph Waltz. The most interesting play with form here is the way Waltz’s controlling husband steals the movie from its subject the same way his real-life counterpart stole the limelight & credit for her life’s work, kitschy paintings of depressed children with oversized eyes. For the most part, however, Big Eyes is a straightforward genre exercise, low-key in its scope & ambitions. At this point of Burton’s career, though, a low-key genre exercise is a welcome change from the long string of CGI remakes he’s been releasing since the early 2000s. It’s the most fun, relaxed, and memorable film he’s made in years, even if it bears little resemblance to the cartoon goth aesthetic of his 80s & 90s heyday.

That’s not to say that the film is devoid of Burton’s traditional modes of comical horror; it’s just that the horror takes on a much different form. In this case, Waltz’s sleazebag showman plagiarist (who takes a very Warholian approach to art as commerce) is the threat that plagues the film’s characters. Amy Adams’ Margaret Keane begins the film by leaving one abusive relationship and slipping immediately into another, with Waltz’s crazed pathological liar husband sucking up all of the life & freedom she barely had left over from her first marriage. As she explains it, “I’ve never acted freely. I was a daughter and then a wife and then a mother.” Even as a painter she’s treated as a subordinate, her personal expressions converted into commerce by an abusive, manipulative man. The creepy thing is that he’s so sleazily charming even while he’s ruining her life. Waltz is hilarious, hamming it up as much as he’s allowed, chewing scenery like a hungry dog who’s food’s about to get taken away. His performance is an impressive balance between funny & creepy and before you know it he’s forced Adams’s Keane to take a backseat to her own story the same way the true life plagiarist sidelined his kitsch artist wife. He’s not a headless horseman or a bloodthirsty Martian or a fabricated man with scissors for hands, but he most certainly is a monster.

I spent a lot of Big Eyes’ run time trying to figure out exactly what inspired Burton to tell this story. There are aspects of art as show business, the uselessness of critics, and the redundancy of an artist endlessly repeating themselves that could invite comparisons to Burton’s own work as a filmmaker, but none with too concrete of a conclusion. Maybe he was drawn to telling a story about how it sucked to be a woman in the 50s or he’s just a huge Margaret Keane fan and wanted to tell her story (which is quite interesting). Whatever the reason, it’s a welcome change of pace from Burton’s recent output and his catalog could benefit from more low-key, straightforward works like it. I’m not sure Waltz needs to be set free to ham it up more often, but it works here and the rest of the cast offer a good, calm counterbalance to his eccentricities. For now, it was great to see him steal some spotlight and for Burton’s aesthetic to receive some much-needed sunshine & relaxation.

-Brandon Ledet