Ma vie en rose (My Life in Pink, 1997)

When we recently reviewed all of Céline Sciamma’s back catalog for the podcast, the only film in the director’s portfolio that I couldn’t fully get on board with was Tomboy. The 2011 coming-of-age drama is a quiet, bare-bones portrait of children at play that illustrates in the simplest, most direct terms possible how limiting & cruel societal enforcement of gender traits is, which is especially apparent in how young kids are taught to socialize. I enjoyed Tomboy well enough, but it was clearly the slightest effort in Sciamma’s mighty catalog – adhering to a slice-of-life docudrama style that mostly avoids the transcendent catharsis of Sciamma’s superior works (with the exception of one indulgence in care-free bedroom dancing). Weeks later, I stumbled upon a fascinating counterpoint to Tomboy in Ma vie en rose (My Life in Pink), a Belgian film that had arrived more than a decade before Sciamma’s. Narratively, Tomboy and My Life in Pink are nearly identical. Both films follow a young child’s misadventures in a new school & neighborhood when they decide to introduce themselves to their peers as a different gender than what they were assigned at birth (and what their parents enforce at home). The difference between them is that My Life in Pink is the extreme opposite of a muted docudrama; it’s prone to frequent indulgences in hyper-stylized escapist fantasy, to the point where it’s practically a fairy tale. It gave me the small taste of transcendent catharsis I was searching for in Tomboy in overwhelming heaps, to the point where I was nearly choking on it. Given that the muted docudrama style of Tomboy is likely the more Intellectual approach to their shared subject, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I gobbled it up.

Ludovic is a seven-year-old child in suburban Belgium (which suspiciously looks like Tim Burton’s dreamlike vision of suburban America) who declares that she wants to live her life as a girl going forward, despite her parents’, school’s, and classmates’ insistence that she be treated and express herself as a boy. The social fallout from this self-declaration of trans identity plays out much the way you’d expect if you’ve ever seen a queer coming-of-age story before. My Life in Pink distinguishes itself less in the actions & trajectory of its characters than it does in the specificity of its style & setting. The nuclear-family suburban backdrop is perfectly illustrative of how gender is societally expressed, reinforced, and policed (even among young children, who are essentially genderless). The film opens with a rapid succession of Business Men husbands in the same suburban cul-de-sac zipping up their wives’ dresses, each in an individualistic way that perfectly illustrates their relationships with sexuality & marital tradition. Meanwhile, Ludovic is playing dress-up with his mother’s & older sister’s clothes & makeup in the family attic, a private moment of delicate self-fulfilling bliss that’s only shattered when she premieres her look-du-jour to the world and receives nastier feedback than anticipated. As an audience, we can predict everything that will happen to Ludovic & her family as her newly forming gender identity steps outside of what’s properly Allowed. Watching this particular kid navigate that painful process is still an enlightening experience, though, especially as we sink deeper into the private fantasy world she keeps hidden away from the cruel adults who’d prefer to lock her in a gender box that obviously doesn’t fit her shape.

The escapist fantasies Ludovic uses to dissociate from her cruel social conditions are the movie’s real selling point. They mostly revolve around a generic Barbie Doll-type character Ludovic is obsessed with, to the point where she frequently mentally projects herself inside the doll’s house & playset. This internal fantasyscape allows the film to indulge in bright, overly saturated colors & plastic dollhouse aesthetics as often as it pleases – blowing up a child’s inner world while playing dress-up to a worldwide playground outside their mind. It’s an aesthetic that also spills over to the stylized, ludicrously Artificial suburbia where Ludovic actually lives, given how the sunflowers are as huge as hubcaps and the neighborhood husbands all back out of their driveways perfectly in sync to start their collective morning commute. That’s not to say that My Life in Pink doesn’t take the day-to-day drama of its protagonist’s unfairly policed childhood gender identity as seriously as Tomboy does with its own. It just approaches that same subject from a more expressionistic, dreamlike lens. It very much feels like a product of its New Queer Cinema era, with a particular debt to how Todd Haynes explored real-world gay crises through a stylized fantasy lens (particularly recalling the segment of Poison about the boy who flew out the window). I don’t believe that approach is any more valuable or insightful than how Sciamma chose to frame the remarkably similar narrative of Tomboy; nor do I believe the opposite is true. Both the docudrama approach of Tomboy & the internal fantasy realm of My Life in Pink have their separate merits (and make for interesting contrast-and-compare companion viewing). I’m just such a sucker for the dollhouse fairy tale aesthetics of the earlier film that I can’t help but choose it as a personal favorite over its more stylistically muted counterpart.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Hanna, Brandon, and Boomer watch Fried Green Tomatoes (1991).

Britnee: Growing up, my main sources of movies were cable TV, Debra’s Movie World (a local video rental store in my hometown), and the local public library.  The highlight of my weekend was checking out the TV guide in the newspaper to see what movies were going to be on TV (mostly the TNT, TBS, and USA channels) and taking a trip to Debra’s or the library to browse through the racks of VHS tapes.  When borrowing movies from the library, I was limited to two.  My first pick was always a film I had never seen before, and my second pick was always reserved for one of my go-to movies.  Almost every time, that go-to movie was Fried Green Tomatoes.  The film is adapted from Fannie Flagg’s novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which I was also a fan of.  I even did a book report on it when I was in the seventh or eighth grade!  I was, and still am, very much in love with this movie, and I’m so excited to share it with the Swampflix crew for our April Movie of the Month.

Fried Green Tomatoes is a heartfelt, hilarious, tearjerking masterpiece that focuses on the relationships and lives of Southern women.  Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates) is a housewife in early 1990s Alabama.  She’s riddled with low self-esteem and is desperately trying to add life back into her dull marriage.  One of the most iconic scenes in the movie is when Evelyn fantasizes about wrapping herself in a cellophane dress to seduce her husband but, sadly, he’s even just as boring in her fantasies as he is in real life and isn’t into it.  While visiting her husband’s aunt at a nursing home, who really doesn’t enjoy Evelyn’s company,  Evelyn meets Ms. Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy).  Ms. Threadgoode begins to tell her stories about the lives of the residents of a small town named Whistle Stop during the Depression Era.  The two stars of her stories are Idgie Threadgoode (Mary Stuart Masterson) and Ruth Jamison (Mary-Louise Parker), two women who are in an obvious lesbian relationship even though it’s never blatantly stated.  Evelyn becomes obsessed with hearing these stories and starts making regular visits to the nursing home to hear Ms. Threadgoode tell them.  The stories bring Evelyn back to life and inspire her take control of her life, all in the name of Tawanda!

The relationship between Idgie and Ruth is both beautiful and tragic.  The two women are soulmates who are known throughout the town of Whistle Stop as “really good friends” beacause, well, this is the South in the 1920s.  Both women run The Whistle Stop Cafe (yay for female business owners!), serving pies, BBQ, and you guessed it, fried green tomatoes.  Fun Fact: The Whistle Stop Cafe building used for the film was actually turned into a real restaurant Juliette, Georgia.  It still looks just like the restaurant in the movie and serves up fried green tomatoes and BBQ (hopefully not like the “secret sauce” BBQ in the movie).  Prior to the cafe, Ruth was in an abusive marriage, and when Idgie discovers Ruth is both pregnant and being beaten, she rescues her.  The two women start their own life together, and Idgie helps Ruth raise her child.  Everything seems to being going okay for the two until Ruth’s husband goes missing, and Idgie is a suspect for his murder.

Boomer, this film has received criticism for glossing over the lesbian relationship between Idgie and Ruth.  What are your thoughts on this?

Boomer: I was really excited when Fried Green Tomatoes was nominated for Movie of the Month, because I just read the book last October and was itching to talk about the book with pretty much everyone I knew.  The film was also a treasure of a different kind, albeit one that made me turn to my friend with whom I was watching it and say “In the book . . . ” at least twenty times.

The nature of film is different from that of literature, and some excisions are to be expected.  For one thing, the novel is much more realistic in its presentation of period accurate language, which is a polite way of saying that I’m completely comfortable with the fact that studios decided it wouldn’t be much fun to watch beloved actors and actresses say the n-word with the frequency it appears in the novel, even in the mouths of characters we otherwise like and admire, simply to be more historically correct.  Those who have only ever seen the film would also likely be surprised to learn just what a large part of the novel focuses on Sipsey’s family, including grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and the hardships of the pre- and post-King civil rights movements as seen through their eyes.  Of particular note are Big George’s two sons, one of whom is light-skinned and other darker, and how life is harder for the latter than the former despite their identical lineage; one becomes a train porter who lives long enough for his modern grandchildren to be critical of his attitude towards white people (remarking behind the old man’s back that his “bowing and scraping” to white people is “embarrassing”) while the other lives a shorter, more tragic life that involves a self-perpetuating cycle of incarceration following an initial arrest that is extremely unjust, even for its time.  This excision also leaves out, as a consequence, one of my favorite little touches of the novel: Evelyn’s visit to the black church in the novel (unaccompanied by Ninny) involves her sharing a pew with and shaking the hand of one of Sipsey’s great-granddaughters, with no one but the omniscient voice of the author to recognize this serendipitous connection and meeting.

Even though Fried Green Tomatoes was hailed as such a breakthrough that it received the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Film in 1992, it’s surprising how understated the romance between Idgie and Ruth is, although it is explicitly and openly queer in a way that I’m surprised to see in such a mainstream film of the time (and which was such a big hit, grossing nearly $120 million against its $11 million budget).  Even more surprisingly, this isn’t that different from the book, which never uses the word “lesbian” or any derivatives which is for the best, as I would hate to have had to watch a scene of aged Jessica Tandy telling Kathy Bates “They were lesbians.”  The closest the text gets is in a scene between Ruth and Idgie’s mother in which the latter begs Ruth not to leave at the end of the summer in which she and Idgie first meet, with only Mama Threadgoode tells her that Idgie loves Ruth in her own Idgiosyncratic (sorry) way.  What the film adds is Ruth’s earlier love of Buddy, which layers on a Schrodinger’s Sexuality element that allows a more conservative audience to dismiss the queer undertones that discomfit them, getting them to unwittingly cheer a queer romance.  That Ruth and Idgie are in love is evident, both to the others in their town and to the reader and audience, without ever having to verbalize or label it, which is beautiful in its way.  It’s also not shot for the male gaze at all, either; although Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary-Louise Parker are beautiful women, but there’s nothing salacious or sexualized about them.  I’d consider it a win across the board . . . were it not for that Buddy/Ruth added element.

So, uh, one thing I didn’t know about this narrative before reading the novel is that unwitting cannibalism is arguably the crux on which the entire story rests.  That was unexpected.  Brandon, what did you think of this development?  Did you foresee it at all; did it take you completely by surprise?  Do you think that a great and grievous wrong was committed against the people of Whistle Stop by feeding them human flesh without their knowledge?

Brandon:  I felt fully prepared for the cannibalism by the time it arrived in the story, but only because the movie trains you to be prepared for anything Fried Green Tomatoes looks & acts like a Normal movie on the surface, but it constantly veers into absurdist humor, grisly violence, and straight-up Gay Stuff that you don’t normally get to see in a Hollywood picture of this flavor.  Before starting the film, however, I never would have guessed that cannibalism would play such a central role in the story, since it looked from the outside to be a good-ol’-days, Simple Southern Living melodrama along the lines of Driving Miss Daisy or Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.  I even remember chuckling about how adorably quaint the tagline on the poster felt: “The secret of life?  The secret’s in the sauce.”  In retrospect—now knowing that the sauce’s recipe sometimes includes human flesh—that tagline is absolutely horrific, which is a perfectly illustrative example of how subtly bizarre this movie can be.

By the time the cannibalism arrives in the story, we’ve already been thrown for so many loops by Kathy Bates’s cellophane lingerie fantasies & mirror-squatting vagina workshops, the nearby train’s bloodthirsty quest to crush all children, and the local sheriff’s side hustle as a barroom drag queen that I was game for pretty much anything.  I wasn’t even especially aghast that they fed the beautifully barbequed corpse to their clientele, since the only customer we see chowing down on the stuff (in the movie, at least) is an evil cop we’ve been prompted to hiss at every time he appears at the café.  I love how the mystery of who among the main cast killed the KKK member that winds up on the Whistle Stop’s menu is given tons of breathing room to loom large over the plot, but the cooking & consumption of that monster’s body is practically a throwaway punchline.  It’s that exact emphasis on the conventional vs. underplayed indulgence in the bizarre that made Fried Green Tomatoes such a treat for me overall.  It’s both proudly traditional & wildly unpredictable, paradoxically so.

While the murder mystery eventually gets settled (both in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of the audience), I think there’s a much more inconclusive mystery the movie leaves open for interpretation: Who, exactly, was Jessica Tandy playing?  From what I understand, the book is explicitly clear about who the old woman was at the periphery of the central romance (Idgie’s sister-in-law), but I think the movie is a little more ambiguous.  There’s enough evidence onscreen to implicate that the elderly Ninny Threadgoode was actually Idgie Threadgoode all-growed-up, not just some tertiary family member who watched Idgie’s life play out from a distance.  Hanna, how did you interpret Ninny’s identity?  Did you take her word at face-value that she was a distant relative of Idgie’s, or did you suspect that she might be Idgie herself?

Hanna: I was one thousand percent convinced that Ninny was Idgie.  In fact, part of my brain is still refusing to acknowledge any evidence to the contrary that may be provided in the book.  It would have been pretty easy to establish Ninny’s selfhood outside of the Idgie’s story (e.g., “Idgie’s sister told me … ” “I was visiting my brother when I heard …”), especially considering that Ninny’s identity is made clear in the source material. More than that, I would like to keep myself blissfully ignorant because I like the idea of Idgie telling her own story disguised as a secondary source; I feel like that mischief is in keeping with Idgie’s character in general.

I also have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the presence of the queer romance. I really didn’t know that much about Fried Green Tomatoes except that “Were Idgie and Ruth lovers in Fried Green Tomatoes?” is apparently a popular question on Google. Based on the need to ask the question, I assumed that the love would be purely subtext, projection, and wishful thinking; I was surprised by the tender sensuality between the two, especially in that bee scene!  I do wish the relationship had been pushed further, I think it was a pretty perfect depiction of what a lesbian love would look like during that period of time.

Besides the queer Southern lady romance, the mythos of Whistle Stop is one of my favorite aspects of the movie: the shadow of the ever-present Trauma Train, for example, or the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Ruth’s horrific ex-husband.  Idgie is nestled at the center of all of these myths, and she weaves her own, too: she robs trains and Robin Hoods the spoils away!  She is a friend to bees!  She’s a free-wheeling, entrepreneurial, Southern lesbian!  She’s like a considerate version of Tom Sawyer, embodying the spirit of wildly compassionate independence; her unconventional bravery raises her as a kind of folk hero in the eyes of her community, and just as much in Ninny/Idgie’s stories for Evelyn decades later.  I think this is another reason I’m prone to believe that the sisters-in-law are the same person: I am in love with the idea of an elderly Idgie leaving an offering of honey for her lady and disappearing into the woods at the end, cementing her status as the grand ghost of Whistle Stop.


Lagniappe

Brandon:  I also found it incredibly refreshing how open this film was about the romantic spark between Idigie & Ruth . . . up to a point.  There’s an early scene where Idgie takes Ruth on a picnic to pull honey for her directly out of a beehive (a total show-off move that invites horrific My Girl flashbacks) where I thought “Is this a date?,” but I initially brushed it off.  Later, when Ruth kisses Idgie on the cheek after a round of drunken nightswimming, I was astonished that we were actually Going There.  And then the movie just kinda drops it.  The two women eventually establish a Boston Marriage version of domesticity while running the Whistle Stop Cafe, but we never get to see them share that kind of intimacy again after the kiss.  The closest we get is some light sploshing during a flirty foodfight scene in the Whistle Stop kitchen.  Otherwise, their daily routine mostly consists of Ruth looking after her baby at home while Idgie tends the store, together but separate.  I’m not saying that I was aching for a passionate on-screen love affair, but over time I did come to miss the private, intimate conversations between the two women, since their connection was one of the main anchors of the story (before it evolves into a murder mystery, at least).

Speaking of Lesbian Content, I was not at all shocked to learn that Fannie Flagg was at one time in a relationship with feminist author Rita Mae Brown.  Brown’s landmark lesbian novel Rubyfruit Jungle is not as wildly chaotic as Fried Green Tomatoes in tone or narrative, but their settings & thick Southern drawls are remarkably similar.  I suspect that a movie adaptation of Rubyfruit Jungle would resemble this film a great deal; it would just have to swap out the cannibalism for explicit lesbian sex.

Hanna: Usually in these Present/Past movies, one of the two storylines drags a little bit, and it’s typically the present (e.g., Big Fish, although the final with the father still gets me).  Evelyn’s story, on the other hand, is just as delightful as the Idgie storyline.  I would watch a whole movie about Evelyn ramming the cars of youngin’s in the parking lot, attempting to familiarize herself with her vagina, and bashing down the walls of her own house in the name of Towanda (decked out in her fabulous 90s prints, of course).

Boomer: (Content Warning: mention of Sexual Assault)
My favorite thing that was in the novel but not in the film is the fact that Frank Bennett (Ruth’s abusive husband, who is also a gangrapist in the novel) has a glass eye.  It’s so well made that he makes a habit of challenging strangers to a bet to see if they can guess which one is real, and he never loses.  Until, that is, a homeless man correctly identifies the glass eye; when asked how he knew, he admits that the manufactured glass eye was the only one of the two that had a glimmer of humanity in it.  It’s as poetic an indictment of a character as I’ve ever read.

I also love that, in the novel, the judge presiding at the trial is actually Curtis Smoote, who had years before been the one investigating Bennett’s disappearance.  He sees straight through Idgie and Company’s ruse from the very beginning, but the omniscient narrator tells us that his own daughter had been a victim of Bennett’s, even fathering a child with her and then beating her when she came to him for help for the baby, so he lets the farce play out.  The world won’t miss an asshole like Frank Bennett, and there’s a kind of justice that supersedes the law.

I only get five channels clearly with my TV antenna, and one of them is Buzzr, a game show whose most up-to-date regularly aired program is Supermarket Sweep.  I’ve seen many an hour of The Match Game and author Fannie Flagg is consistently one of the funniest contestants.  Nobody asked, but my dream Match Game lineup is  Scoey Mitchell, Brett Somers, and Charles Nelson Reilly on the top row and Marcia Wallace, Dick Martin, and Fannie in the bottom row.  I swear that I am in fact 32 and not actually in my 80s, and I will be taking no follow up questions on this subject at this time.

One of the caveats of Movie of the Month selections is that the film has to be one that no one else in the group has seen before (it’s right there in our charter), and I was positive I never had, but there was one scene that I had seen some time in my primordial memory was Buddy getting stuck in the train tracks.  That scene imprinted on me pretty heavily, and over the years I folded that memory and the scene in Stand By Me when the kids run from a train into one and “stuck” this scene there in my mind.  When I rewatched Stand By Me recently, I was struck by the fact that I had fully inserted a scene in it which did not exist, and thought, “Well, that must have been in The Journey of Natty Gann.”  But nope!  Here it was, waiting for me to rediscover it in Fried Green Tomatoes after all this time.

Britnee: One of the most beautiful scenes in Fried Green Tomatoes is when Idgie retrieves honey from a tree for Ruth.  This is how she gets her romantic Bee Charmer nickname.  Mary Stuart Masterson actually did the bee scene 100% herself without a stunt double.  Her stunt double quit before the bee scene because she was too afraid to do it, so Masterson performed the stunt herself.  There’s a great article about the scene from the blog of the Asheville Bee Charmer honey shop where they speak with one of the location scouts from Fried Green Tomatoes.  The shop is owned by a lesbian couple, and the name of the shop was inspired by the film.  Fried Green Tomatoes lives on!  Tawanda!

Upcoming Movies of the Month
May: Hanna presents Playtime (1967)
June: Brandon presents Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)
July: Boomer presents Marjoe (1972)

-The Swampflix Crew

Matthias & Maxime (2020)

The New Orleans French Film Festival’s screening of Xavier Dolan’s latest feature was announced to be its US premiere. It initially felt exciting to watch a fairly significant new release without any already-ingrained critical consensus informing the experience – a rare treat these days. Except, the movie did arrive with its own pre-checked baggage even coming fresh off that international flight, thanks to the general divisiveness of Dolan’s flashy, bratty oeuvre at large. Even going in as cold as possible, I felt the exact same about Matthias & Maxime as I have about the other stray few Dolan movies I’ve happened to catch over the years (some at the very same fest): it was wildly uneven & in need of a shrewd trim, but also too stylistically bratty & refreshingly Gay to dismiss. At only 30 years old, Xavier Dolan has already firmly established a recognizable, idiosyncratic groove with a decade’s worth of routinely distributed feature films behind it. I greatly respect that level of professional & creative ambition in that young of a filmmaker, even if my own routine experience with his work is finding it Impressive but glaringly Imperfect.

Matthias & Maxime’s premise is so #OnBrand with the rest of Dolan’s career to date that it practically feels as if he’d already wrote it six or seven screenplays ago and was banking on audiences forgetting that it isn’t new. Dolan costars with Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas as the titular Max & Matt, respectively: two lifelong best bros who kiss on camera at a party after losing a bet and must deal with the aftermath of being very much Into It. The fallout of this revelation—that the presumed-straight macho dirtbags’ close friendship has an unspoken erotic undercurrent—plays out in two rigidly segregated settings: in tedious snapshots of their troubled home lives and in frantic, vibrant party sequences where the film periodically comes alive. True to form, Dolan punctuates his best moments with excitingly unpredictable needle drops & finely observed body language, but he also allows the story to drag on at least 20 minutes past its natural point of conclusion. Whether you’re enthusiastically on the hook for what Dolan regularly delivers or find it eyerollingly inane, Matthias & Maxime is eager to serve it up in heaps. It’s purely, precisely his usual thing.

I don’t mean to sound negative on this film’s value as an isolated work. If nothing else, I think Matthias & Maxime is incredibly observant about macho bonding rituals & typical group dynamics among basic bros – especially when parsing out what’s considered Normal male-on-male touching vs. what’s considered Gay. It’s just a shame that same thoughtful consideration didn’t extend to knowing how to trim the movie down to its best, most efficient shape. Like the few other Dolan titles I’ve caught, it’s frustrating because it has so much potential to be Great yet stumbles just enough to settle on being Good. It was exciting to walk into the film without a clear critical narrative warning me to expect more of the same from the director instead of a rare 5-star knockout. In typical Dolan fashion, watching it teeter on that tightrope was a significant aspect of its appeal.

-Brandon Ledet

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

Pier Kids (2019)

There’s a reason we’ve seen so many documentaries about homeless queer youth in America over the decades, especially on the festival circuit: it’s a huge fucking problem. Gay, trans, nonbinary, and otherwise queer children are especially vulnerable to being kicked out onto the street by their families, which often resigns them to high-risk lives of petty theft & sex work to get by in an increasingly hostile world. Many documentaries are (rightfully) drawn to signal-boosting these stories as a means to advocating for the kids locked in this never-ending epidemic, which makes for both an amplified political advocacy in total and a crowded field where it is difficult for any one individual film to distinguish itself in isolation. Pier Kids is one of many, many documentaries on a frequently covered (even if vital) topic. Its merits as an individual work can only be judged by two criteria, then: the specific kids it chooses to document and the way it handles presenting their story.

This particular queer homeless youth advocacy doc opens with seething commentary on the assumed POV in the cultural history of queer identity. A title card asserts that in the fifty years since the Stonewall Riots the narrative of modern gay rights has been dominated by cisgender White Gays, when the real work needs to be focused on protecting & uplifting POC homeless youth, especially black trans women. Other recent documentary work I’ve seen in this same line of advocacy has been centered on action & organization in “solving” this epidemic, like the unofficial Paris is Burning sequel Kiki and the gang violence “rehabilitation” effort Check It!. Pier Kids is seemingly more focused on calling attention to the problem than actively advocating for a specific solution, as it profiles individual homeless youths who frequent the piers of NYC in-between excursions in sex work & shoplifting. This matter-of-fact document of systemically ignored & discarded youth has plenty of intrinsic value without having to push for a more clearly defined solution to the problem, and the film is likely better for not reaching beyond its means for that lofty goal.

The title “Pier Kids” is especially telling in this approach, as it emphasizes that these young, homeless sex workers are disenfranchised children who’re struggling to establish a foundation of normality in a systemically cruel world. Like many docs in this milieu, the film dedicates much of its energy to parsing out the structure & functions of gay “families” – wherein veterans of the scene provide makeshift homes & parental guidance to their “gay children.” Cops, drunken Wall Street bros, and physically violent johns create a cruelly unfair, rigged system where financially desperate youths are solicited for sex, then suffer all the legal, emotional, and physical consequences for prostitution. Director Elegance Bratton can’t help themselves in vocally responding “Oh my god” and “I’m so sorry” to the more egregious horrors suffered by their subjects, but just as much room is left for tenderness & tough love shared in these chosen, D.I.Y. family structures. This is not an act of culture-gazing; it’s a slice of life look at a community with volatile ups & downs.

To its credit, Pier Kids openly acknowledges its small part in a larger documentary tradition. Glimpses at ball culture glamor and detailed explanations of differing vogueing “house” structures directly recall Paris is Burning. A central subject named Krystal Labeija Dixon encourages the audience to look up the Crystal Labeija’s infamous read from the landmark documentary The Queen on YouTube as an explanation of why she chose her name. Pier Kids’s cheap digital equipment leaves it with a cold visual palette that can’t compete with those early documentaries’ wonderfully grimy, color-saturated celluloid patina. Similarly, its soundtrack is often overwhelmed by the roar of traffic, the hum of mobile streetlight generators, and the menace of police sirens. However, its personal, intimate documentation of a new, specific crop of homeless queer kids is just as essential as any past works – if not only as confirmation that the epidemic is still ongoing. These children are still out there taking care of themselves & each other with no end or solution to this cycle in sight. I do hope there will be a day when these documentaries are no longer such a regular routine, but only in the sense that I hope for a future where they’re no longer necessary. We’re not there yet.

-Brandon Ledet

The Garden (1990)

Derek Jarman’s process for creating the look of his 1990 experimental feature The Garden was to put the film through an exhausting gauntlet of format transfers. Shot on super-8, then recorded to video, before finally being printed on 35mm film, the physical shape of The Garden had been put through the ringer to achieve its deliberately scuzzy, highly color-saturated patina. The general effect of the film on the audience is much the same. Non-narrative, mostly dialogue-free, and constantly shifting in both mood & technique, the film feels more like a process meant to break its audience down than it does a piece of creative entertainment. It opens as a vibrant, playful experiment in overlapping visions of homoromantic tableaus & Biblical Christian iconography, but its titular Edenic tone is gradually soured into a somber, morbidly violent affair that loses all of its initial energy to disorganized doom & gloom. It’s exhausting, purposefully so, and it’s easy to leave the film feeling just as worn out as its imagery was by the time it reached its final form.

My assumption is that Jarman intended The Garden’s soul-deep exhaustion to be a kind of diary of his own emotional state in the early 90s. Suffering from a series of AIDS-related health crises at the time of production (a sign of declining health that would eventually end his life just a few years later), Jarman filmed this disjointed series of Biblical tableaus & scenes of homophobic violence around the bleak exteriors of his coastal home in Dungeness, England. Self-described early in the proceedings as a tour though a “wilderness of failure,” the film’s backslide from paradisiac peace into morbid atonement serves as a kind of eulogy to the loss of an entire queer generation to a single virus, one which would eventually claim the filmmaker himself. We open with James Bidgood-esque visions of queer love & harmony (similar to Todd Haynes’s contemporary work in Poison), but the onscreen couple being depicted is eventually arrested, beaten, and shamed into disorder & dissolution. Religious imagery like a lynched Judas dressed as a leather-clad punk shilling credit cards, a young Tilda Swinton appearing as a Madonna figure hounded by paparazzi, and old women playing wine glass tones as the twelve apostles at the Last Supper interrupt this reverie, until it finally sours into an official funeral for the real-life dead in Jarman’s familial circle. The film can be occasionally beautiful, but it’s pretty fucking grim on the whole.

As an aesthetic object, The Garden is wonderfully exciting in its stabs of surreal shot-on-video era imagery. Its experiments in Ken Russellian green screen fuckery in which the entire sky is supplanted with flowers & other poetic, Polaroid-grade images are especially wondrous. The film also clearly has a sense of humor, despite its overall descent into despair, often breaking for absurdist musical numbers – such as a bargain bin music video for the showtune “Think Pink” from Funny Face. I don’t know if it’s the kind of film I’d recommend watching at home, though, where smartphones & other distractions are readily available. Even seeing it digitally restored in a proper theatrical environment (thanks to Zeitgeist’s summer-long queer cinema series Wildfire), I struggled to stay awake for the final 20-minute stretch. Not only is the film deliberately draining its trajectory from Eden to funeral service, it also suffers from the same attention-level difficulty that many feature-length works from directors who mostly work in short films suffer, the same exhaustion that tanks a lot of Guy Maddin’s films. As interesting as each homoerotic image, Biblical tableau, or outbreak of bigoted violence may be in isolation, they never really congeal as a cohesive, unified collection.

Jarman was at least aware of how miserable & patience-testing The Garden would be for his audience. The opening introduction in his woefully sparse narration includes the invitation, “I want to share this emptiness with you.” By the closing sequence wherein Tilda Swinton’s Madonna figure conducts a memorial for the homoromantic Eden lost over the course of the picture (a quiet ceremony involving cheap paper lanterns), I definitely felt that emptiness to some extent. It wasn’t the most pleasant or even the most clearly decipherable feeling to leave a movie theater with, but it was effective nonetheless. If you ever find yourself braving this “wilderness of failure” to “share this emptiness” with Jarman, just go into the journey armed with patience & a willingness to feel hopelessly miserable by the end credits. An experimental art film dispatch from the grimmest days of the AIDS crisis will apparently do that to you.

-Brandon Ledet

Breakfast on Pluto (2005)

I very distinctly remember going to the theater to see Breakfast on Pluto in 2005. I remember enjoying it. I even remember why I sought it out in the first place (the ads reminded me of the glam androgyny of Velvet Goldmine, a movie that meant a lot to me at the time). When I recently ran across a used DVD copy of the film in a thrift store, however, I realized I remembered almost nothing else about it. The cast, the characters, the plot, the setting, the soundtrack – the entire film, really – had all dissipated from my memory like a vapor. I didn’t even know it was directed by Neil Jordan, whose chaotically inconsistent catalog somehow also includes The Company of Wolves, Interview with a Vampire, and this year’s Greta. It all makes sense in retrospect now that I’ve revisited the film, though. Neil Jordan’s involvement tracks as a follow-up on his interest in transgender narratives via The Crying Game (for good and for bad). The Euro-glam 70s setting and gender androgyny that drew me in as a teen is strongly present throughout, even if the movie doesn’t comment on it directly. The story told therein is so vague & exhaustively obedient to the tropes of a lifelong memoir that it’s easy to quickly lose track of the details. And yet, even with its many, many faults only made more glaring in the sober light of a late-2010s revisit, I still left Breakfast on Pluto with an idiotic smile on my face (and its major details again immediately slipping away).

Cillian Murphy stars as a trans woman in this coming of age biopic about a fictional 1970s Irish community in crisis. Murphy’s vocal performance in the role can occasionally be off-putting in its exaggerated lilt; the politics of casting trans and gender-nonconforming characters has changed drastically since the film’s mid-aughts release; and the language around gender identity has evolved since its 1970s setting even more so. All of these modern discomforts are only compounded by the fact that the character was made up entirely by a cisgender author, Patrick McCabe, in the late 90s, leaving very little room for authenticity in its exploration of transgender themes & narratives despite being constructed like a birth-to-death biopic of a real person. Still, despite all these red flags, Breakfast on Pluto is immensely enjoyable to watch for the relative eternity of its 128mn runtime. It often plays like a glammed-up spiritual sequel to the Quentin Crisp biopic The Naked Civil Servant in its story of transgender identity in a time before its proper terms & borders were solidified, but its fictional source material opens it up to even more absurd, outlandish plot developments than that relatively well-behaved work. It’s also packed with always-welcome character actors who had not yet become recognizable faces to wide audiences in 2005: Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Ruth Negga, Liam “The Onion Knight” Cunningham, and Neil Jordan mascot Stephen Rea. Also, if nothing else, it’s just always wonderful to stare at Cillian Murphy’s gorgeous face for two solid hours.

This fictional trans woman’s coming-of-age story starts with a few scenes of small-town childhood crossdressing so cinematically familiar they were already cliché when they surfaced in Billy Elliott five years prior. Patricia “Kitten” Braden’s life’s story gets incrementally more distinct as she ages into her teenage & young adult years, however, since her unorthodox gender expression becomes more of a source of conflict at home, school, and church as she ages. She eventually announces, “Oh fiddly boogles, what’s the point?” and leaves her small Irish town for the metropolis of London, the city that “swallowed up” her estranged birth-mother – known to the audience as The Phantom Lady. As Kitten chases down this human MacGuffin (surviving mostly on various forms of sex work along the way), her friends back home struggle with the escalating violence of The Troubles – which encroaches closer & closer to her own life in unexpected jolts of gory brutality & rudimentary CGI explosions. With over 30 onscreen chapter titles interjecting every couple scenes, Breakfast on Pluto is a never-ending parade of period-specific details that swirl around Kitten as she searches for a family of her own: glam rock bands, penny arcades, mournful priests, milk deliveries, car bombs, etc. When she does eventually find her family, emerging miraculously unscathed from a chaotically cruel world, it’s both the least expected configuration possible and the most endearingly sweet.

This is essentially a fairy tale, complete with talking CGI birds that flutter around the screen warning you of the fantasy indulgences to come. That genre distinction helped me get over my main problem with the film, which is that it’s gushingly romantic at every turn and yet entirely sexless when it comes to genuine eroticism – as if it were unafraid to actually depict non-straight, non-cis couplings on the screen. Fairy tales (or at least the modern post-Disney variety) are largely sexless affairs, so I’m okay with overlooking that hiccup. Whether or not you’re personally okay with a cisgender male actor playing a fictional trans woman within that glam-70s fairy tale is up to you, and will likely guide your relationship with the film at large (especially when it comes to adjusting to the hushed, delirious whispers of Murphy’s vocal performance). There’s plenty to enjoy in Breakfast on Pluto otherwise, though, and even if you happen to impervious to its other charms it has a way for sprinkling fairy dust over you by the end credits so that you forget most of the movie permanently anyway.

-Brandon Ledet

Rocketman (2019)

I should have known better than to venture out to the theater for the Elton John biopic Rocketman. I was at least smart enough to skip last year’s big-deal musical biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, even before I knew it had a notorious rapist attached as its official credited director. The uncredited director who was tasked to save that drowning production (when Bryan Singer was rightly booted from it), Dexter Fletcher, promised a little more cohesion & stage-musical fantasy in this follow-up, but everything else about Rocketman looked just as cheesy & false as Rhapsody. If I’m being totally honest, the only real reason I was curious about Rocketman was the news reports after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, which slated it as the fist-ever major studio Hollywood production to feature onscreen gay sex. I had to see (and support) that decades-late “achievement” for myself, but it put a lot of unfair pressure on the film to, em, perform in that one specific way, setting me up for disappointment before frame one. Very few people are wholly successful in their first full-on gay sex encounter, so I’m not sure why I expected Hollywood to be any different.

Rocketman was only willing to give me wholesome showtunes gay when the material at hand clearly called for drunken, sweaty dive bar gay. The framing device of this post-Walk Hard biopic is an AA meeting where Elton John looks back on his life in sappy, musical flashbacks while gradually stripping off a gorgeous bejeweled-devil stage costume to reveal the vulnerable man underneath. His narration continually reassures the audience that his life was ravaged by sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, but everything we see onscreen is musical theatre kids playing dress-up in squeaky clean sound stage environments. Taron Egerton does a decent-enough job embodying Elton John both onstage & off, except that his vocal performance is more Broadway musical than coke-addled rock ‘n roll. As I should have expected, the onscreen gay sex early reports promised is similarly neutered. The most intimate, extensive scene of two men bonin’ is accompanied by the least sensual Gospel soundtrack imaginable and quickly averts its eyes just when the room is steaming up. Later, an expressive, Old Hollywood musical staging of a pansexual orgy is intercut with childhood memories & returns to the AA frame story, zapping the moment of any potential titillation. Elton John reports in the picture that he “fucked everything that moved,” “abused every drug there is,” and “enjoyed every minute of it,” but it all amounts to the effect of a “Footage Not Found” title card, a classic case of telling-not-showing.

That’s not to say there’s no fun to be found here. Bryce Dallas Howard is an unexpected hoot in a career-high role as John’s cruel alcoholic-housewife mother, essentially a half-speed Mommie Dearest drag routine sponsored by Quaaludes. There are also a few Baz Luhrmann-esque poetic breaks from reality among the musical numbers, the highlight being a moment of communal levitation at John’s first American concert. Even those moments are hindered by Fletcher making the safest choices possible, though. For instance, when John announces “For my next trick, I’m going to kill myself,” and overdoses at the bottom of a swimming pool, he’s greeted there by a childhood version of himself singing “Rocketman” – not the obvious, more daring choice of “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself.” Other sordid, sweaty rock ‘n roll numbers like “Dirty Little Girl” & “Sweet Painted Lady” are missing in favor of safe Greatest Hits tracks, which are further softened with musical theatre, Bollywood dance homage, and – I swear to God this is true – second-wave ska. Elton John’s life story is honestly not all that interesting. He’s a blue-collar kid who worked hard to develop his talent, did a few too many drugs when he first got famous, and is now happily married with kids and a swelling bank account. When you remove the sweaty, hedonistic danger of the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll from that template there isn’t much left worth an audience’s time. I didn’t show up to celebrate a millionaire’s (albeit admirable) success in sobriety; I showed up for gay sex & fabulous costumes – of which only the latter satisfies.

-Brandon Ledet

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

As a shithead atheist teenager, I always made an obnoxious show out of not participating in the Catholic rituals my parents dragged me through. This bratty rebellion reached its pinnacle when I was enrolled in Confirmation classes in high school, which I agreed to complete as a final favor for my family before never stepping foot in a church again (wedding & funerals excepted). I was a total ass in these Confirmation classes, joining forces with the few fellow over-this-bullshit weirdos who had gotten pulled into that orbit to just generally disrupt the process in a way I’m sure annoyed the more earnest participants around us. I recognized a lot of that same dynamic in Desiree Akhavan’s sophomore feature The Miseducation of Cameron Post. It’s just that the film’s gay “conversation” camp (read: emotional torture camp) setting makes for much higher emotional stakes than whether I could shut my bratty suburban mouth during a lecture about the sins of abortion or masturbation. The Miseducation of Cameron Post offers a sympathetic eye to that kind of bratty camaraderie in the face of religious evangelism, using the setting of gay conversion “therapy” (again, torture) to frame that snotty attitude as an essential act of political rebellion. It even goes a step further to offer the same sympathy to the counselors on the other end of the dynamic, lost souls who do not know the extent of the damage they’re causing to the teens in their “care.” If I were a mature, well-rounded adult I would praise the radical empathy of that approach. The truth is, though, that a large part of me is still a shithead teenage atheist who wants to see the piss taken out of those evangelizing counselors. I much prefer the glibber takes on this same material like Saved! & But, I’m a Cheerleader!, because at heart I’m still a combative brat.

Chloë Grace Moretz stars as the titular brat of this particular religious battle, sent to conversion therapy when she’s caught smoking weed & having sex with her closeted girlfriend in the parking lot outside their high school prom. I’ve always had a difficult time taking Moretz seriously as a dramatic actor, but her casting here leans into her strengths as dazed, confused participant in a culture she doesn’t believe in. From her awkward body language when trying to fit in as a straight girl with a boyfriend to her puzzled expression at the sermons of her God’s Promise prison, her visible discomfort fits the character & script here, when it’s often distracting in other projects (this year’s Suspiria, for one). The Christian instructors at God’s Promise are just as confused & uneasy, using “stern love” (abuse) and reinforced gendered roles to attempt guiding hormonally-rattled teens back to a Godly, de-sexed lifestyle. The truth is that they don’t have any more idea what they’re doing there than the kids do, and there’s a humanizing vulnerability in that lack of confidence. They’re essentially attempting to erase identities that haven’t been fully forged yet, as teenage years are a time of transformation & self-discovery. They push our protagonist to admit who she is (gay) and why that’s wrong (it’s not), but she struggles with the exercise because she’s too young to be sure of the answers. For fellow campers who take the Christianity portion of the therapy dead seriously, this forced, unnecessary identity crisis can lead to volatile, life-threatening results. For our more dismissive, out-of-place POV character it’s more a disorienting haze of psychobabble & mixed messages. She holds onto the other non-Christian weirdos in her vicinity (including American Honey’s Sasha Lane) for life support as she resists “the treatment” offered by God’s Promise. The resulting US vs. Them battle of stubborn wills unfolds in a mature, even-handed, tender drama; it’s an admirable search for kindness & understanding when what I really wanted was for the kids to lash out & burn it all down.

There’s a highly-specific version of queerness bucking against religious conservatism in Akhavan’s debut, Appropriate Behavior, that feels like it’s largely missing in this follow-up. The entire film has a kind of sanitized YA sensibility that feels entirely foreign to the NYC hedonism of Akhavan’s particular POV. The times when her wilder, more passionate depictions of queer sexuality do crop up (mostly in the protagonist’s nighttime sex dreams & erotic memories) it feels like an out-of-nowhere intrusion on an otherwise delicately told story. The Miseducation of Cameron Post could have used some of that rebellious hedonism in its daytime drama, whether or not it would have been faithful to its source material novel. The closest we get to an open act of bratty rebellion is in the inclusion of a so-bad-it’s-good Christian workout video titled Blessercize, a real-life found object that offers some much-needed levity to the film’s soundtrack & imagery. Mostly, our bratty non-Christian rebels restrict their resistance to hushed eyerolls, hikes to smoke ditch-weed in the woods, and smuggled copies of The Breeders’ Last Splash on cassette (to be fair, it’s a really good album). There’s a brief moment when they stage a forbidden singalong to 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?,” but the less I say about that tragically corny coup the better (it may be my least favorite scene of the year?). As someone who was lucky enough to escape any indoctrination worse than a few (hundred) Catholic masses and a mind-numbing Confirmation course, it’s not my place to say if anything more than those minor, hushed rebellions would have been appropriate to the story told here. I can only report that I was personally much more pleased by the cathartic, disruptive, over-the-top rebellions of Appropriate Behavior, Saved!, and But, I’m a Cheerleader!. This is a well-staged, well-performed, admirably empathetic drama mired in a subject I love to see treated with a snottier attitude unconcerned with those qualities.

-Brandon Ledet

Dirty Computer: An Emotion Picture (2018)

I had honestly given up on Janelle Monáe’s potential as a popstar a few years back when I first heard her single “Yoga” on the radio. She’s proven to be a talented screen actor since, via roles in Moonlight & Hidden Figures, but there was something dispiriting about “Yoga” that made me lose interest in her music career. It’s not an especially horrendous pop song or anything. I even mildly enjoy it. It was just disappointing to hear a persona once tied up in the weirdo A.I. sci-fi themes of early releases like 2007’s Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) deliver an anonymous pop song about letting your booty “do that yoga,” an adequate tune that could’ve been sung by anyone. I imagine it was the equivalent of longtime David Bowie fans feeling alienated by the relatively personality-free stylings of the objectively-enjoyable “Let’s Dance” in 1983. Like those disenchanted Bowie devotees before me, I was wrong to lose faith in Monáe so easily. Not only did the sci-fi themes of her early career eventually reemerge in her work, they came back louder, brighter, and more undeniably fun than ever. And as a wonderful bit of lagniappe, they also came back queer as fuck.

Janelle Monáe publicly came out as pansexual in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine. This announcement coincided with the release of her latest record, Dirty Computer, and its accompanying visual album, Dirty Computer: An Emotion Picture. A fifty-minute narrative film stringing together an anthology of music videos with a dystopian sci-fi wraparound, the Dirty Computer “emotion picture” delivers on the genre film undertones promised in Monáe’s early pop music career while also advancing the visual album as a medium to a new modern high. We already litigated the value of the long-form music video as cinema here when we covered Girl Walk//All Day as a Movie of the Month selection in the wake of Lemonade’s release in 2016. Dirty Computer easily earns its place among the best examples of that visual album medium by both adapting it to a clearly discernible narrative that unifies its anthology template and by feeling exceptionally personal to the artist behind it. There are seven different directors listed as having collaborated on individual segments of Dirty Computer, but Monáe clearly stands out as the auteur of the project. It’s even billed as “an emotion picture by Janelle Monáe” on the poster. A large part of that auteuism is how the film works as an expression of Monáe’s newly public identity as a queer black woman navigating an increasingly hostile world that targets Others in her position.

Monáe stars as Jane 57821 (not to be confused with THX 1138), a bisexual rebel whose group of friends & lovers have been abducted by a tyrannical future-government for conformity-encouraging brainwashing. In a cruel twist of pure malice, it’s her own previously-brainwashed girlfriend (played by longtime Monáe collaborator and all-around talent Tessa Thompson) who’s tasked with walking her through the mysterious, scientific process that drains her of her vitality & sexuality, essentially leaving her a living robot. This scenario reads like a sci-fi expression of conversion therapy anxiety, to a point where the tyrannical government facility, The House of the New Dawn, is literally draining the gay out of her in tubes of rainbow ooze. The music video tangents featured in the film are presented as memories that the facility is deleting one at a time. Through these stylized flashbacks we see a harsh contrast between the lifeless, oppressed world the government offers and the gorgeous, nonstop party Jane was living with a community of outsiders before they were broken up & captured by police drones. The world’s rebel Others appear to be a Warriors-style collection of varied factions: Bowies, punks, Holy Mountain freaks, Beetlegeese, etc. They party in a swirl of heavy leather, drag makeup, and glittered-up naked flesh that calls into question what’s memory and what’s fantasy. The drone-equipped future-police intrude in each vignette, along with Tessa Thompson’s character (and the couple’s masculine third), to establish a clearly discernible narrative through-line with a Blade Runner/Logan’s Run sci-fi throwback bent.

Like many examples of classic sci-fi, Dirty Computer gets a lot of mileage out of establishing its own futuristic terminology. In the evil future-government’s parlance, social Others are “dirty,” while all people are “computers,” devices that can be “cleaned” and made more useful. Monáe is clearly invested in challenging this kind of constrictive labeling through the film’s conversion therapy metaphor. The music videos read as aggressive challenges to the societal & governmental oppression that she faces as a queer black woman (from the South no less). She sings of being “highly melanated’ and of how “Everything is sex except sex, which is power.” Some tracks include studio collaborations with the since-deceased Prince, which can be heard just as clearly in the synths & guitars as it can be seen in Monáe’s weaponized, politicized expressions of race & sexuality. (At one point she appears in floral vagina pants that would make Georgia O’Keeffe blush; this film is anything but subtle.) I don’t know if I’ve seen or heard such a clear Prince descendant in a major pop star since Beyoncé’s fabulously filthy music video for “Blow.” I was a fool for giving up on Monáe so easily after a brief experience with hearing “Yoga” on the radio. With the recent losses of both Bowie and Prince, her mainstream exposure as a neon-lit queer icon feels like a beacon of hope in the grimmest times Western culture’s seen in decades. The fact that she chose to broadcast that beacon through a long-form, sci-fi themed music video about queer rebels who like to party might just be my favorite thing she’s done in her career to date, even with the awkward “emotion picture” branding.

-Brandon Ledet