The Nun (1966)

Usually when an older film resurfaces in digital restoration, it means brighter colors, shaper lines, a renewed vibrancy. Such joys are sparse, if at all existent, in the new digital scan of the 1966 French New Wave political screed La Religieuse (The Nun). That’s not to say the restoration itself is lacking in any technical achievement or attention to detail; The Nun is given a new, bellowing potency in its restored form – both in the refreshed patina of its imagery and in the thunderous effect of its sound design. The lack of vibrant color and lush imagery in the restoration is more a result of the material it’s servicing. This is a grim prison sentence of a motion picture, a harsh reminder of the punishment that awaits anyone born a woman under the “wrong” circumstances. Although it’s never as overtly, sexually blasphemous as later arthouse nunsploitation pieces like the Ken Russell classic The Devils or the recent sex comedy The Little Hours, it’s not difficult to see why the Catholic Church pushed to have The Nun banned upon its initial release. Any brief flashes of joy, light, color, or relief detectable in the film are quickly stamped out by exploitation, guilt, and misogyny, all in the name of serving God and the Church. I watched the new restoration of The Nun in a crowded theater at this year’s New Orleans French Film Fest, but it felt as if I were locked in solitary confinement for all 140 grueling minutes of it, which may as well have lasted 140 years.

Director Jacques Rivette is generally understood to be one of the more cerebral, surreal artists of The French New Wave, but that reputation doesn’t come into play too frequently in this instance. His most experimental, challenging impulses surface in The Nun as a dissociative approach to sound design. Story-wise, Rivette remains relatively faithful to Denis Diderot’s 18th Century novel of the same name. Roaring winds, deafening church bells, disorienting thwaps of arrhythmic jazz: the soundtrack of The Nun is pure auditory madness. It places the audience in the overwhelmed, dissociative mind of its protagonist in the exact same way modern auteurs like Josephine Decker still establish first-person POV in the 2010s. As the titular nun is starved, isolated, forced to kneel in repentance for vaguely-defined “sins,” and sold by her parents into a life of perpetual boredom, the audience is miserably in sync with her. Sometimes, a harsh edit will mimic her disoriented sense of time as she loses track of the clock & calendar while also losing sense of her autonomy & self. Mostly, we’re left to rot within the grim, grey walls of her cell as a Kafkaesque battle for her freedom unfolds in locked rooms far offscreen, away from her control and our observation. As overwhelming & figurative as the sound design can be, Rivette holds back substantially in the potential mental escapes offered by verbal or narrative experimentation. It’s an artistic restraint that emphasizes the constraint in freedom suffered by its protagonist – locking us all away to die alone in misery right along with her.

French cinema legend Ana Karina stars as the titular, tragic nun. Her story is meant to be reflective of many unmarried, unwanted young women of her era: locked away in a convent for her family’s convenience. Born out of wedlock to parents with at best moderate wealth, she’s treated as a burden that weighs her family down; she can’t make a life on her own without a husband, and the circumstances of her birth render her unmarriable in “decent” society. Her trips to the altar to take vows as God’s bride, under protest, read as funeral marches. She pleas to her parents not to sacrifice her to God from behind prison bars, causing great public scandal. Her birth mother coldly requests, “Do not poison my life any further” and gradually breaks down her resistance to taking vows as a nun, an act she cannot remember once it is done. From her birth mother’s cold indifference to her mothers superior’s varying modes of tyranny, she’s never allowed an inner life or independence. Across two convents and countless authority figures’ rule, she’s tortured, coddled, groomed for rape, consoled, pitied, shamed, and silenced – all while prisoner to a religious cause she was forced to assume under duress. And everyone around her has a nerve to contextualize her path as God’s sacred plan.

For all the shame, confinement, physical abuse, and sexual grooming that awaits Ana Karina’s reluctant nun, the greatest tragedy of the film is the way The Church extinguishes her inner life before it gets to fully develop. She’s allowed no feeling, no emotion, no dreams, no desire. When asked how she’s getting along in the convents, she replies only “I obey my fate” and “Time passes.” There’s a soul-crushing emptiness to her perpetual boredom that weighs heavily on the tone of the picture. Any brief promises of relief from a seemingly kind priest, lawyer, or mother superior who might break her free from her vows or allow her to explore her own inner life are quickly stamped out as those authority figures reveal their true selfish, lustful desires for her – purposes that offer no personal ambition or autonomy. In The Nun, being born a woman under the “wrong” circumstances is a life-long prison sentence – a mandatory sacrifice of self to others’ piety, lust, and vanity. It may not be an especially pleasant sit and it’s understandable why The Church might bristle at its political implications, but it’s a true account of a very gendered, widespread form of human misery experienced by countless women across history – one the film replicates almost too vividly.

-Brandon Ledet

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Yellow is Forbidden (2019)

I’ve been making an attempt in the last few years to learn more about fashion as an artform – something I have a lot of ground to catch up on after decades of being a snotty brat who didn’t appreciate its full value. Unlike other niche artforms I’ve recently taken a better-late-than-never interest in – pro wrestling, drag, comic books, etc. – fashion doesn’t have an easy crash course introduction to its history or artistry. You can pick up practically any comic book issue, tune into any wrasslin’ bout, or drop by any dive bar drag show and get a basic feel for the merits of their respective media. To fully get fashion, by contrast, there’s centuries of factual history, evolution in craft, cultural context, and seasonal fads to catch up on to even approach a basic appreciation of what you’re looking at. I’ve found a couple decent quick-fix workarounds to this daunting gap in my art history education: The podcast Dressed: The History of Fashion is an excellent resource, although an auditory account of a visual medium. Reality competition shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, Project Runway, and America’s Next Top Model drop fashion history context in small morsels while showing off the basic building blocks of workroom craft (when not distracted with the typical beats of reality TV drama). Documentaries, then, would seem like the perfect middle ground between the fashion history podcast & the reality completion show – offering an explicitly visual format that can discuss historical context and fully display the artistry of the medium. That’s why it’s so frustrating that so many fashion documentaries fail their subjects by only profiling personalities & historical movements – literally losing sight of the artform being discussed, zapping it of its visual majesty.

Although its own subject is extremely niche, Yellow is Forbidden is a cut above the average fashion documentary in this way. A feature-length profile of Chinese couture designer Guo Pei, the film largely traffics in the well-established grooves of the fashion doc as a medium. Its fascination with Guo Pei’s larger-than-life ambition & peculiar persona, and its tangential interest in the history of Chinese fashion & the current state of Chinese textile production, are well in tune with the concerns of the typical fashion documentary. It even works those contextual details into a clear narrative structure, following Guo Pei as she prepares for a career-high runway collection meant to earn her recognition among the Parisian haute couture elite. Where Yellow is Forbidden overachieves within its own medium, however, is in the cinematic eye of its director (and fine art journalist) Pietra Brettkelly. Within just a few minutes of the film I was crying at the beauty & extravagance of Guo Pei’s work. That’s not something that can be achieved with a photograph or a podcast recap or even television news coverage of a runway show. Guo Pei’s extravagant, hand-beaded art gowns speak loudly for themselves as grand, inspired works of genius design, ambitious collaborations that take years to stitch into place. I’m sure seeing them in person, whether in motion on the runway or propped up on art museum display, could easily trigger an emotional response in an observer. That’s not an easy experience to reproduce in the document of a show, however, and I’ve seen few fashion films even attempt to do so as actively as Yellow is Forbidden. Brettkelly shoots Guo Pei’s designs with the careful, eerie beauty of an arthouse nature documentary, matching the avant-garde designs on display with its own heightened cinematic language. It’s an impulse I wish were more prevalent in the fashion doc as a medium.

Guo Pei is most widely recognized for having designed a bright yellow dress modeled by Rihanna at the Met Gala in 2015. The story of how she & that gown got to that world stage and how much of a struggle it has been to be recognized by the infamously snobbish Parisian couture elite in the years since is perfectly suited for the documentary feature treatment. Themes of class disparity, political tyranny, racial & gendered glass ceilings, and the abuses of auteurist ambition arise naturally in Guo Pei’s quest to impress The Haute Couture Commission with her climactic runway show. Brettkelly could have very easily rested on the virtues of telling that story in plain documentarian language. Instead, Guo Pei’s intensely dyed fabrics, wedding gowns made of pearls, and glow-in-the-dark contraptions are treated as part of a larger, ethereal cinematic language that includes goldfish fins waving in slow-motion, kaleidoscopes turning in impossible configurations, and the cold digital exterior views of cityscapes being harshly interrupted by intensely colorful art shows of the museums they contain. Composer Tom Third matches this eerie beauty with an appropriately atmospheric, delicately sinister score. Brettkelly excels at the fashion documentary by keeping in mind that she’s not only documenting history; she’s also cataloging fine art – an achievement in craft & a sensory experience that’s difficult, but necessary to recreate in your documentation to do couture creations justice. The ambition of Guo Pei’s work and the importance of her outsider status in the fashion industry are enough to trigger an emotional response on their own merits, but what makes Yellow is Forbidden a great film is the way it attempts to match that significance in its own mood & artistry. It feels less like an academic document of a culturally significant artist than it does like a swooning, dizzying trip to a fine art museum where the designer’s work is on magnificent display.

If you’re as ignorant to the history & cultural context of the fashion industry as I am, I’m not sure that Yellow is Forbidden will do much to fill in those gaps of personal knowledge. There’s some insight here into textile production & the political limitations of the industry’s gatekeepers. Yet, this story of one artist’s struggle for recognition & legitimacy within that paradigm is a little too specific to be all that illuminating in a big picture sense. Guo Pei’s work in particular is very much worthy of study for anyone with an interest in fashion as an artform, though, no matter how well versed you are in the subject. Yellow is Forbidden does justice to her artistry by at least attempting to match her ambition in its own craft, no matter the impossibility of that task. That’s an ethos that the fashion documentary template in general could benefit from repeating, as too many middling docs chase down the medium’s history at the expense of its visual art.

-Brandon Ledet

The Image Book (2019)

Before Jean-Luc Godard’s latest essay-in-motion screened at the 2019 New Orleans French Film Festival, a presenter reassured the audience that the projection we were about to see was not broken, glitching, or corrupted. That turned out to be a helpful tip, as The Image Book plays about as smoothly as a gas station rap CD found facedown on parking lot pavement. The audio & imagery of the film alternate from complete darkness & silence to deafening booms & blinding vibrancy to erratic peaks & valleys in-between. Godard’s narration is sometimes subtitled in English, sometimes not, and he’s often cut off in the middle of a vague political or philosophical pontification. Images are frequently shown in their proper aspect ratio for a half-breath before being stretched out into full-screen, over-saturated monstrosities. The Image Book is a deliberately ugly, frustrating experience that strips the art of cinema of all its sensory pleasures in order to punish its audience. If I weren’t watching it with a snooty film festival crowd and if Godard’s name weren’t vouching for the purposeful intent of its sensory aggression, I assume there would have been even more flustered walkouts than the two or three I witnessed at our screening. Listening to old folks & college students intone “Hmmm” & “Ahhh” to themselves during the film as if in an art gallery where they “got” the subliminal meaning of an abstract oil painting was hilarious to me, as Godard did not give us much to work with in establishing patterns in his madness. I suspect most of our audience saw the grueling experience through for the exact reason I did, though: appreciation for the aging, curmudgeonly filmmaker’s audacity, even though he hates our guts for being there.

To his credit, Godard does afford The Image Book a clear sense of structure as a whole, even if its minute to minute rhythms are a dissociative free-for-all. The film is broken into five segments: one for each finger of the hand. This is explained with brief justification about how all art is made by the hands of its creator, which ultimately doesn’t mean much to the themes of the piece, but a guiding sense of structure is still appreciated in this kind of experimental cinema anyway. Three of the five segments seem especially vital to the The Image Book‘s thesis, as vaguely defined as it is: an early section titled “Remake” that pulls & distorts imagery from notable cinema past; a central section that collages imagery of steam trains & Nazi occupation; and a concluding section that offers sympathy to the suffering people of Arab nations who can only express their frustration with their government & Western oppressors through terrorist violence, as all other means have been stripped from them. There’s a lot of bleedover in all these segments, as even the early cinema clips are interrupted by war footage (and home videos of children playing war) and the distorted movie montages themselves continue throughout all five “fingers.” What Godard is trying to say with this assemblage is anyone’s guess. He makes a somewhat clear-eyed distinction between the decadent wealth of the West and the war-torn poverty of the Middle East, but the narration itself is too loosely philosophical to put too fine a point on what he’s saying. Mostly, what comes through is the sadness & anger of an old man who’s getting weary of watching the world burn with no sign of substantial change to come, a frustration he’s eager to pass on to his (mostly Western) audience as punishment. It’s a bleak political treatise that supposes its audience is unworthy of any cinematic pleasure, even the comfort of a clear thesis or narrative.

The Image Book is many things: a movie fanzine, an angry political screed, a flippant troll job, a solemn philosophy piece, a pretentious art film indistinguishable from a parody of itself. The wide range of cinematic relics it pulls from (including titles as varied as Un Chien Andalou, La Belle et la Bête, Elephant, Freaks, Salò, and Johnny Guitar) could easily make for a stunning, moving work of transcendent film fandom, but Godard deliberately uglies them up and robs them of their splendor. This may initially seem pointless when he’s distorting them though color-saturated Xerox copies in stretched-out aspect ratios or interrupting them with footage of war atrocities & hardcore pornography. By the time the film focuses on the atrocities of the now, particularly in the politics of The Gulf, it at least feels like there’s a commanding thesis behind the ugly chaos of it all – if not only in reflecting the ugly chaos of the modern world at large. Attempting any more concrete of a guess on what the French New Wave veteran was getting at with this ugly, fractured, grueling essay in motion could only make me sound like the beatnik lunatics in my audience who were shushing background chatter and whispering “Aha!” to themselves as if they had cracked some intellectual code. This is not a film that allows for a hypnotic, immersive experience; it has all the fluid movement & graceful logic of William S. Burroughs’s herky-jerky cut-ups experiments at their herky-jerkiest. However, it does command a confident, ambitious, righteous anger that I can’t help but be impressed by as a stunned observer, an anger that affords it a one-a-kind novelty as a stream-of-consciousness cinematic tirade.

-Brandon Ledet

La Belle et la Bête (1946)

A couple years ago when Disney was making ungodly amounts of money off its “live-action” remake of its own animated Beauty and the Beast adaptation, there was an online push to remind everyone that the perfect live-action Beauty and the Beast already exists. Often cited as the inspiration for Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast, legendary French filmmaker Jean Cocteau had already transformed the fairy tale’s 18th century source material into pure cinematic magic in the 1940s, a visual achievement that has been exceeded by few films of any era or genre, much less one that tells its exact story. It turns out I was smart to procrastinate on that online recommendation for the perfect Beauty and the Beast adaptation – not only so that I wouldn’t enter the film overhyped, but also so that my first experience with it would be on the big screen at the 2019 New Orleans French Film Festival. After being confronted with its magic & majesty in a proper theatrical environment, I cannot deny the visual splendor & fairy tale magic of Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête; it’s every bit of a masterpiece as it has been hyped to be, just a gorgeous sensory immersion that defines the highest possible achievements of its medium. What I didn’t know to expect, however, what its reputation as the defining Beauty and the Beast adaptation had not prepared me for, was that it would be so deliriously horny. La Belle et la Bête is more than just a masterpiece; it’s a Kink Masterpiece, which is a much rarer breed.

Opening with a classic “Once upon a time” preamble and establishing a toxic dynamic in the prologue where the titular Belle suffers at the whims of her wicked sisters and her financially irresponsible father & brother, La Belle et la Bête is on the surface a picture book fairy tale with few deviations from its genre template. Where the film’s unorthodox horniness starts to creep in is in the oddly sensual magic of the Beast’s castle. Like in the Disney cartoon most of us would be familiar with, the castle is alive & sentient. However, instead of being anthropomorphized as singing, dancing appliances, the castle is alive in more weirdly sensual ways. Stone faces carved into the fireplace silently watch visitors while slowly smoking, as if enjoying a post-coital cigarette. Muscular arms of bare flesh hold candelabras in dutiful, disembodied servitude – jutting out erect from framed adornments on the castle walls. Bedroom doors & mattresses beckon for entry in pleading ASMR whispers, luring Belle into undressed comfort. The castle isn’t alive so much as it’s thirsty, desperate for the sensual touch of a visitor. At first the production design reads as a post-German Expressionist nightmare recalling early Universal Monsters & Val Lewton sets in its impossibly tall, drastically lit interiors. Then, as the horniness & power dynamics of the film’s central romance heats up, it registers more clearly as a sentient sex dungeon – as if the Beast’s longing for sensual human contact were so strong that it started infecting the inanimate objects that house him in a kind of everlasting thirst curse.

In this unexpected kink dynamic, the titular Belle is our unlikely domme. Too beautiful to be living her life as a servant, yet cursed to be mired in domestic labor because of her father’s business debts, Belle is unfairly powerless in an increasingly cruel world. That might explain why she finds taboo pleasure in exerting power over the Beast, who is ostensibly her captor but grovels at her feet. Belle is prisoner to the Beast’s whims in the same way that all kink subs tend to exert control by ordering their doms to issue commands. He laps water out of hands like an obedient dog. He watches her eat extravagant meals in a pre-Internet version of Mukbang. He showers her in jewels & beautiful clothes yet shies away from her eye contact & compliments. He kneels at her feet, awaiting commands, flipping the power dynamic of their captor-prisoner relationship. La Belle et la Bête is a femdom fairy tale, just as much of a kink romance story as Secretary or Crimes of Passion or Belle du Jour, although its costume design pedigree allows it to hide that dynamic in plain sight. The film is genuinely creepy & beautiful as a straightforward fantasy-horror romance; there’s just also a subtly played layer of sadomasochistic kink just under its surface that made me feel a little uncomfortable with watching it in the same theater as young, French-speaking children.

As the endless possibilities of CGI allow for anything to happen onscreen, the magic of moviemaking is slipping away from us. There’s nothing especially magical about remaking an animated film in CG-bolstered live-action in the 2010s, as the tools that allow for that achievement are common to the point of being pedestrian. The practical effects, hand-built sets, and disorienting fairy tale logic of La Belle et la Bête were going to be more memorable that the 2017 Beauty and the Beast “remake” no matter what, then, as its basic building blocks & cultural context are far more unique and, by necessity, inventive. What really makes the film stand out from most modern fairy tale adaptations, however, is how unbelievably horny it feels in a kink power dynamic context. Even your average dark fairy tale corrective like The Fall or Tale of Tales tend to emphasize the violence of their source inspiration much more predominately than the sex. There are many things that make La Belle et La Bete a special, one-of-a-kind work, but I’m not sure enough emphasis has yet been afforded to tis raging, kinky libido.

-Brandon Ledet