Most Beautiful Island (2017)

The intensity of your reaction to the concluding minutes of the indie thriller Most Beautiful Island is likely to determine much of your overall opinion of the film. Most Beautiful Island is less of a slow burn art piece than it is a quiet character study that incrementally builds tension as it reaches for a last minute payoff. It’s a relatively short film, but it’s still one that requires patience, as the release of that tension relies heavily on last minute reveals & the mystery of what, exactly, awaits the audience there. Personally, I enjoyed the movie overall but found the mystery of what horrors await at the conclusion to be a little unsatisfying, if not an outright disappointment. There’s a level of intensity that underlines the everyday struggles of the film’s protagonist, an undocumented immigrant woman struggling to find even medial labor on the NYC job market, that I couldn’t quite connect with in the supposedly shocking conclusion to her story. I’d normally praise a movie for filtering these political themes of subjugation *& (lack of) cultural integration through a horror or a thriller premise, but in this case the genre film element waiting in the third act isn’t nearly as horrifying as the horrors of the real world they mirror.

Ana Asensia writes, directs, and stars in this debut thriller, which she introduces as being “mostly” based on true events. As an undocumented immigrant woman running from a recent familial trauma, her protagonist is incredibly vulnerable. Unable to find steady work because of her immigration status, she barely holds onto housing in a modest NYC apartment, fearing imminent homelessness despite holding several high stress, low pay jobs: babysitting, advertising fast food, participating in medical studies, etc. A friend in a similar economic rut offers an easy way out: a one-time gig modeling at a cocktail party, where she’ll make months’ wages over a single night, no sex work required. It’s too good to be true, of course, but the movie milks a lot of tension out what terrific exploitation could possibly be waiting for her at “The Party.” A labyrinth of cab rides, warehouses, and underground bunkers leads her to an art gallery space, where guests sip wine and consider which “models to select for their mysterious evil deeds. We wait, almost in real-time, for her to be selected, but for what? A human trafficking auction? An occultist ritual? A guillotine? The answer is unexpected, but also unsatisfying.

Even though I wasn’t nearly as invested in the answer to the mystery it posits as I was in the tension of its lead up, Most Beautiful Island still found surprising ways to chill my blood before it arrives at its dubious destination. Before it ramps up as a slice of life character study, the film opens searching for our protagonist in crowded NYC streets. From a distant, voyeuristic vantage point, the camera seeks out young women walking alone in anonymity, making our lead out to be just one vulnerable face among many (and setting up characters who will not reappear until The Party). Later, as she enjoys a bath in the apartment she cannot afford, a veritable plague of cockroaches spills from a hole in the plaster walls and the bugs frantically drown in her bath water. I swear there’s more tension in that opening act of voyeurism and the underwater HD roach photography than there is in the film’s disappointingly pedestrian conclusion, but since the majority of the runtime happens outside The Party it’s not necessarily a deal breaker. I’m not sure about what it says that the real life circumstances of an undocumented American immigrants are more horrifying than an extreme fictional metaphor for their exploitation, but Most Beautiful Island isn’t done any favors by starting off at its most intense, then tapering off.

-Brandon Ledet

The Unknown Girl (2017)

Directors and brothers Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne began their collaborative career making socially conscious documentaries, forming a critical eye for class and race-based politics that has carried over to their more recent work on narrative features. Their latest film, The Unknown Girl, breaks away from the blatant deliberations on those topics in economic dramas like Two Days One Night, in which Marion Cotillard has to beg those slightly better off than her for the opportunity to keep her menial blue collar job, to mix in some genre thrills to sweeten the medicine. The Unknown Girl plays with the hallmarks of a murder mystery and a medical drama as an easy in for its short form portraits of folks struggling with the class, race, and nationality divides of modern France. It subverts the expectations of a typical mystery plot by shifting focus away from seeking the identity of the killer and instead looking to uncover the identity of their victim, raising questions about the financial and abuse of power circumstances that lead to their death in the first place. There’s still a danger in asking these questions, though, even if the intent is to properly acknowledge the life & value of the victim and not to unmask their assailant.

A young medical doctor struggles to be taken seriously by her even younger male intern and frets with her own decision to leave a somewhat charitable office as a public servant for a more lucrative career with a private practice. Her insular concerns are disrupted when two criminal investigators inform her that a young woman who rang her doorbell for help late in the night, a plea she uncharacteristically ignored, was murdered at a nearby construction site. Shaken, the doctor throws her entire life into serving the patients at her meager practice, as well as launching a vigilante investigation of the murder. Sometimes the borders between these two quests are blurred and her investigation takes the form of home visits, where she employs her medical expertise in ways like checking a patient’s pulse rate as a makeshift lie detector test. Taking no time out of her endless routine to care for her own needs, she seeks answers about the identity & home life circumstances of “the unknown girl” who rang her doorbell shortly before being killed. As she puts it, “I can’t accept the idea that they’ll bury her with no name.” This oppressive sense of self-inflicted guilt extends far beyond her initial inaction to answer her door too. That worry weighs just as heavily on her as larger issues of poverty, immigration, abuse, race, and human trafficking, even if most of those underlying issues are left unspoken.

The murder mystery aspect of The Unknown Girl rarely aims for edge-of-your-seat thriller beats. Its medical drama moments don’t extend much further than focusing on the sores, burns, and addictions of the between-the-cracks societal castoffs who can’t afford proper medical care (or fear deportation if they dare to seek it). Our medical doctor protagonist is certainly isolated & vulnerable in her quest for the truth, which leads to occasional scenes of threatened or actualized violence, but that’s not where the film’s main focus lies. You can feel the Dardenne brothers’ documentarian past in The Unknown Girl‘s quiet, music-free drift through the domestic abuse, alcoholism, sex work, social services, and immigration imagery the doctor encounters on both her medical rounds and her one-woman murder investigation. As she ignores her own needs and works on her smartphone even while traveling between patients & interviewees, you get the sense that she’s trying to solve much larger systemic problems than just the death of one nameless stranger. Of course, she cannot solve every societal wrong she comes across in her daily rounds, but by the end of the film it’s easy to see how she’s made at least some small positive change in the world by trying, even when in the face of being told to butt out and the system itself remaining hopelessly broken. That’s not the usual resolution for a typical murder mystery plot structure, but The Unknown Girl‘s central concern was never its titular mystery anyway.

-Brandon Ledet

Swagger (2017)

Music video director Olivier Babinet borrows a deliberate style over substance ethos from his preferred medium and brings it to its most unlikely onscreen home: the documentary feature. With Swagger, Babinet profiles the lives & personalities of eleven school age immigrants living in French housing projects, some first generation and some second. He offers their musings on topics as wide ranging as love, death, pop culture, poverty, and the surveillance state as mostly raw information, free of context, only stepping in to add music video style visuals as onscreen flavor. Swagger is like a Rodney Ascher film in this way, broadcasting instead of editorializing, except that it focuses on humanizing disadvantaged communities living under the radar in France instead of exploring more trivial topics like The Shining and sleep paralysis. It’s an approach that’s sure to be as divisive here as it is in Ascher’s features, The Nightmare & Room 237, but if you’re onboard with the formula it feels like a new, exciting kind of postmodern filmmaking.

One of the more alienating aspects of Swagger is its lack of a narrative structure. The eleven children interviewed speak in meandering, conversational tangents with no real story to tell other than who they are and how they see the world. Some of these tangents include insightful information about their daily lives in the insular housing projects communities: how lookouts inform drug dealers of encroaching police scrutiny, how outlandish fashion affords them a sense of self identity, how they’ve never seen a “person of French stock” in their entire lives – living entirely among “blacks & Arabs.” Some tangents are much less informational, including musings on the Obamas, the Fast & Furious franchise, and a lengthy recital of seasons’ worth of American soap opera plotlines. When considered as a whole, the interviews offer a detailed portrait of what a school age immigrant looks & sounds like in modern France. That may not immediately seem like the kind of political documentary filmmaking that challenges cultural hegemony, but the way it humanizes and gives voice to a section of the population that’s usually ignored or vilified without a second’s thought is nothing short of radical.

Speaking of things that are rad, the most striking aspect of Swagger is the way it frames these kids’ musings in a music video context. They strut their fashion in slow motion as if the doc were an update of the historical piece Fresh Dressed. Drone shots of the housing projects and the nearby suburbs look too good to be real, with one especially smooth transition from the exterior to the interior of one of the kids’ bedrooms looking like MCU-level CGI. Nature footage of owls and bunnies contrast with an industrial dance sequence involving welding masks & The Robot choreography. In an opening Facebook post of a fashion-conscious selfie, one of the kids describes themselves as “too stylish for your eyes.” Babinet’s visual style lives up to that promise, framing Swagger more like a narrative feature than a digital age documentary (because of its subject matter it feels like Girlhood in particular). He often allows this imagery to overpower the interviews that populate the audio. In one particular sequence, he even turns the film into a glimpse of a sci-fi dystopian future, solely because the kids’musings took him there. Some audiences are going to be turned off by those choices early & often, but as someone who values a style over substance ethos in almost all cases, I find it to be a bold, satisfying vision.

The lack of a narrative structure at the center of Swagger is only amplified by the way Babinet refuses to rigidly segment his interviews, allowing the reaction shots of one kid to seep in to inform the dialogue of another. I think he finds an interesting common ground between his subjects in this way and Swagger ultimately does offer a modern immigration portrait, even if flashy & loosely told. Its main goal is not necessarily to inform. It’s likely no surprise to most people that these kids help their parents translate & navigate their official correspondence or that their large housing buildings are eyesores that lead to massive white flight (along with other factors like, I dunno, racism & xenophobia). If Swagger were more interested in that kind of informational diatribe it would likely have included talking heads interviews with adult activists, urban planners, historians, and so on. Instead, it chooses to allow the kids to speak for themselves without offering an editorial analysis on what they report. I don’t have a term to describe this documentary style yet outside Ascher-esque, since it is so new & so foreign to the way these stories are typically told, but its highly stylized, Anthropology-style reliance on oral history documentation has me excited for the future of the medium.

-Brandon Ledet