Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (2021)

I recently corrected a major personal blindspot for an episode of The Swampflix Podcast: I finally watched Vertigo.  Actually, we watched four different versions of Vertigo for that discussion, if you include its cheap-o homages Obsession, Perversion Story, and The Green Fog.  While I wasn’t fully convinced by the critical consensus that Vertigo is The Greatest Film of All Time (a near-impossible standard for any movie to live up to), I found the experience of watching that same story repeated in film after film to be mildly hypnotic, to the point where I now see its influence everywhere.  Thinking back to recent, unrelated movies I didn’t immediately clock as “Hitchcockian” when I first watched them—titles like Phoenix, Ismael’s Ghosts, Double Lover, and Dogs Don’t Wear Pants—all I see is Vertigo, Vertigo, Vertigo all the way down.  That was also my exact experience while watching the recent Hungarian romance thriller Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time.  Any of the long-simmering intrigue & dread the movie establishes with its high-concept premise can’t help but feel like a distant, hollow echo of Vertigo to me right now, while I’m still stumbling through new movies in this Hitch-hypnotized state.

At least Preparations to Be Together gender-flips the usual Vertigo dynamic, detailing the romantic & erotic obsession of a woman trailing her dream version of a man who may not exist, as opposed to the Pygmalion tropes of the story we’re used to.  A Hungarian neurosurgeon returns to her home city of Budapest after decades of practicing medicine in New Jersey, stalling her prestigious career on the cutting edge of medicine technologies to chase down a man she had a brief romantic connection with at a medical conference.  When she reunites with him in his hospital’s parking lot, he does not recognize her, claiming they have never met.  And so, we have the ironic story of a neurosurgeon losing her mind as she obsesses over a man she’s intensely attracted to but who also may be a total stranger, a ghost, or a figment of her imagination.  She’s more of a quiet observer than she is an active, charismatic protagonist – conveying most of her internal conflict through the cold intensity of actor Natasa Stork’s metallic blue eyes.  Still, director Lili Horvát manages to maintain a constant tension between heartbreaking loneliness & otherworldly mystery throughout, even if her reluctance to do anything flashy or concrete with that stored-up energy can be a little frustrating once the end credits hit.

Preparations to Be Together feels like Vertigo reimagined (or maybe unimagined) as the kind of middling Euro psych-thrillers I routinely, dutifully watched as a teen, when late-night IFC broadcasts were my only access to High Brow Cinema.  Its unflinching indulgences in sexual intimacy, surgical gore, and philosophical discussions of the human brain are the exact kind of thing that would’ve made me feel smarter than I really was as a mouthbreathing teenager, but I can’t say they resonate with any real heft now.  It ultimately wasn’t my recent over-exposure to the apparently wide-ranging genre of Vertigo Homage that numbed me to the movie’s low-key, ethereal charms.  It was more that after decades of watching so many wishy-washy Euro headscratchers on cable broadcasts, film festival screens, and borrowed library DVDs it’s hard for any one example to stand out from the others.  If anything, my recent Hitchcock Homage tangent was a life raft that gave me something solid to latch onto, since so much of the film is fluid & restrained.

-Brandon Ledet

Black Bear (2020)

There have been a few truly great entries in what I call the Writer’s Block Thriller genre in recent years, a canon once populated only by Charlie Kaufman screenplays. Titles like Staying Vertical, Sybil, and Ismael’s Ghosts haven’t exactly dominated the pop culture discourse, but they’re fantastically frustrating headtrips for the few audiences who discovered them in their film festival & Netflix algorithm burial grounds. These are films in which a creatively constipated artist stares at the blank page until they go mad, eventually getting further & further wrapped up in pointlessly absurd, go-nowhere conflicts created mostly by avoidance of completing their own work. The Writer’s Block Thriller is often a meta, heavily neurotic genre that’s mostly about their off-screen creators’ personal & professional anxieties more than they are about characters or plot. Even when done well, there’s an embarrassing layer of narcissism that weighs down the exercise, which can feel like reading a stranger’s tell-all diary. When done poorly, it can feel like reading an exceedingly boring stranger’s diary, which doesn’t at all help with the second-hand embarrassment.

Black Bear fits very snugly in the Writer’s Block Thriller genre, if not only because it plays more like an academic writing exercise than it does a complete work. Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, and Sarah Gadon co-star in this meta mental-breakdown thriller as narcissistic filmmakers & artists who are bad at their jobs and bad at their relationships. They start the film as Brooklynite hipsters staging a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? type dinner party from hell while on an artists’ retreat in the woods. Then, their character traits are scrambled & reassigned for a second, paralleled scenario in which they all continue to manipulate & berate each other in feel-bad Edward Albee tradition – this time for twice the length. These two lopsided segments are rigidly separated by chapter breaks & a repeated image that resets the stage like a rotary dial: Aubrey Plaza sitting at a writing desk, frustrated by the blank page. It plays as if writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine had access to a nice woodland cabin location & a few talented actor friends for a long weekend, but no clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish with those resources. You can practically see him sitting at his own writing desk, unable to get any work done because petty arguments with his friends & lover are looping loudly in his own neurotic skull. The result feels labored, uninspired, self-indulgent and, worst of all, pointless.

If there’s anything useful that came out of this Creative Block writing exercise, it’s in gifting the three central actors a lot of archly hyper-emotional dialogue to play around with. I’ve seen some claims that this is Aubrey Plaza’s best work to date, which can only be assumed if you haven’t been paying attention to her work in recent years; she’s been just as great in much better films (Ingrid Goes West, The Little Hours, Joshy, hell even The To Do List & Dirty Grandpa). Still, it’s true that the second, overreaching segment of the film allows her to run wild & manic in a way we only really get to see from Elizabeth Moss in recent years (an unavoidable comparison, given the central premise’s parallels with Queen of Earth), a mode that Plaza is deliciously sinister in. As frustrating as Black Bear‘s structureless meandering can be in a narrative sense, it is consistently impressive as an actors’ showcase. That feels like an intentional feature of the writing too, which loosely sketches each character as an over-the-top stage play archetype rather than a real person. In the film’s best scene, Plaza is trapped at a dinner table listening to a couple systematically contradict every one of each other’s statements in an absurdly endless flood of bickering & snipes – the one time both the writing and the performances seem in sync instead of circling each other in search of a purpose.

The most frustrating thing about Black Bear‘s shortcomings is that it’s totally aware of its own pointlessness. In the opening segment, a character openly asks a filmmaker “How you can you make something if you don’t have anything to say?” with the incredulity of someone who just sat through a screening of Black Bear. Levine even works in a parody of a Kubrickian asshole director who allows his creative hubris to drive his collaborators into the ground with endless takes & headgames in empty pursuit of some unattainable intellectual exercise that’s above everyone else’s heads. By all accounts, Kubrick was a total nightmare to work with, but at least his films all felt like they had a clear vision & sense of purpose. By contrast, this movie feels like a placeholder for an idea that never fully formed by the time production wrapped. If the best Writer’s Block Thrillers feel like reading a filmmaker’s personal diary, Black Bear feels like flipping through an abandoned, forgotten sketchbook. It’s all very lopsided, unfinished, and not quite ready for public view.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: 3 Women (1977)

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 Boomer, Hanna, and Brandon watch 3 Women (1977).

Britnee: “I’m trying to reach toward a picture that’s totally emotional, not narrative or intellectual, where an audience walks out and they can’t say anything about it except what they feel.” Robert Altman’s words about his 1977 masterpiece 3 Women accurately describes the experience I had when watching it for the first time about a year ago. When I first saw the film I didn’t really understand what I had watched, but I knew that I loved it. Over time, it’s become one of my all-time favorite movies. The idea for 3 Women came to Altman in a dream, and the movie really does feel like a dream, where nothing really makes sense yet everything feels perfectly normal. Typically, when you wake up from a dream it’s difficult to explain it to others, and 3 Women is equally difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it.

As the title suggests, 3 Women is about three women: Pinky (Sissy Spacek), Millie (Shelley Duvall), and Willie (Janice Rule). Pinky is a carefree young girl and possibly a teenage runaway. She finds a job working at a geriatric health spa, which is where she meets her new coworker and her new obsession, Millie. Millie is a bit older than Pinkie. When she’s not working at the spa, she’s talking about all sorts of unappetizing recipes and how much she loves Scrabble. She actually never stops talking, but the problem is that no one listens to her. Everyone around her acts as if she doesn’t exist. Everyone except for Pinky, who is infatuated with Millie in a very Single White Female sort of way. Pinky eventually becomes Millie’s roommate in an apartment complex for singles. On their way to the apartment, Millie brings Pinky to her favorite bar, Dodge City, a dive attached to an abandoned Old West theme park in the middle of the desert. Both the bar and the apartment complex are owned by Edgar and his pregnant wife, Willie. Willie is older than Millie and Pinky, and she spends her time painting bizarre murals in silence.

Of the three women, my favorite is Millie. My God, Shelley Duvall is utter perfection in that role. She’s one of the most tragic characters in all of cinema, wasting most her time talking to people who don’t bother making eye contact with her or even acknowledge her existence. Whether it’s the group of male physicians she awkwardly lunches with, her coworkers, or the tenants in her apartment complex (especially bachelor Tom, with his never-ending “cough”), everyone treats Millie like a ghost. She really embodies that feeling of when you are trying to talk to someone in a dream, but they won’t respond or pay any attention to you.

Brandon, what did you think about Millie? Did her character’s journey throughout the film stick out to you more than Pinky and Willie?

Brandon: The main reason that Millie is such a standout in that central trio is that Shelley Duvall is such a heartbreaker of a performer. She is too fragile for this callous world, and watching people crush her spirit is always absolutely devastating. Whether in canonized classics like The Shining or in disposable novelties like Altman’s own Popeye adaptation, she is perfectly suited for the damsel in distress archetype. Unfortunately, this extends beyond her fictional performances and bleeds over into her real-life persona, something that’s haunted me ever since her offscreen struggles with mental illness were crassly exploited for ratings on a very special episode of Dr. Phil in 2016. Watching Millie endlessly chat at no one in particular, reaching out for human connection to a disinterested world only to be rejected, ignored, or taken advantage of over and over again easily made for the most compelling performance of the three women for me. By which I mean I spent most of the movie wanting to reach through the screen to whisk her away to a community that actually gives a shit about her. Even seeing her skirt get caught in the car door every time she went for a drive was just as heartbreaking as it was adorable.

The tragedy, of course, is that she does not acknowledge the one person who’s actively listening to her babble about boardgames and casserole recipes. Pinky’s childlike crush on Millie is just as delicately menacing as Spacek’s telekinetic fury was in her performance as Carrie White, but there is a kind of sweetness to her obsession as well. Pinky goes way overboard in her fixation on Millie, extending beyond a “I want to be your best friend” sentiment to more of a “I want to wear your skin like a housecoat” vibe. Still, Pinky’s loving attention towards her new roommate & unwilling mentor is essentially just an intense overdose of the kindness & interconnectedness that Millie longs for. It’s heartbreaking that they can’t get past their awkward social barriers to truly connect with one another on a meaningful level (ditto in their relationship with the reclusive artist Willie, who’s just as closed off to the world as Millie is openly vulnerable to it), so it’s effectively a relief when real-world logic breaks down to allow them to form a truly cohesive unit. The film strikes a nightmarish tone as it shifts their world around to allow these connections to happen, but the end result is outright sublime, serene: they become a family.

I don’t know why there are so many psychological thrillers where women who are fixated on each other start to meld & swap personalities over time, but I do know that I’m always a sucker for it (with recent examples including titles like Queen of Earth, Sibyl, Always Shine, and Butter on the Latch). Even so, 3 Women registers as one of the greats, maybe bested only by the queen of the genre: Persona. Boomer, do you have any thoughts on this genre in general or how 3 Women functions within it? What differentiates its tone & purpose from a more typical woman-on-the-verge-of-a-breakdown story?

Boomer: When the Swampflix Canon was updated a few months ago, I took a look at my contributions to that list and had one of those “You really don’t see your patterns until they’re laid out in front of you” moments and realized that there are apparently only three things that I like: (in Brandon’s words) “populist superhero spectacles, obscure Euro horrors,” and women-on-the-verge films. My love for the aforementioned Queen of Earth is well documented, but the film that I thought of most frequently throughout 3 Women (after my initial thoughts of “Oh, this is Single White Female” followed by “Oh this is actually Mulholland Drive“) was Puzzle of a Downfall Child, which similarly features dreamlike narrative and “gauzy” filmmaking juxtaposed against harsh realities of disaffection and occasional violence.

There’s a definite undercurrent of that quality that fascinates me in that genre present in 3 Women, but one major difference that I see is that 3 Women has (arguably more than) one woman who’s already on the other side of the verge: Willie. She’s clearly past the point where she cares about “society” in any meaningful way, living in a derelict mini golf park/shithole bar and spending her waking moments making angry and occasionally violent (literally, with bullet holes on the canvas) art on every available surface. Millie isn’t really flirting with the edge, yet, but you can tell that she knows it’s not too far away, as her constant attempts to garner not just the friendship but the mere attention of her peers and other members of the community is her defining character trait; at first, Pinky isn’t even aware that there’s a cliff that she could possibly go flying over, until her disappointment in and (tacit and explicit) rejection by Millie causes her to leapfrog straight over her crush/roommate into complete loss of identity.

What really differentiates 3 Women from others in this genre, however, is the way that it treats the characters’ pasts. Queen of Earth has flashbacks to the year prior and features much discussion of the past and the characters’ relationships that delineate their current conflict; Puzzle of a Downfall Child likewise has flashbacks to Lou’s childhood that ultimately explain why she is the way she is, albeit not without some contradiction; 2011’s The Roommate (which I’m citing because I saw it more recently than Single White Female, despite it being a worse movie in every way) has a backstory and a diagnosis for our identity-coveting villain. Like the desert itself, the “now” of the film seems ageless in an anxious, foreboding, and eternal way. We learn relatively nothing about Willie, even in comparison to her husband, whom we at least know is a prankster and a former stunt double from the outset. We know a little bit more about Pinky, but her backstory is still mysterious and possibly false, as we never really confirm if she’s even from Texas. In comparison, we know lots more about Millie because she’s always talking about herself, but the things we learn about her are pretty shallow (that irises are her favorite flower, that she had to sleep in the rollaway bed in the living room a lot when her previous roommate had “company,” and that she keeps a daily journal that’s factual and perfunctory rather than insightful or meditative) and don’t really inform an understanding of her long term psychology, other than the fact that she’s doing her level best to be “normal” without much success. There’s a strength of character and identity that’s conveyed solely through performance here without the standard packaging of “Character X does Y because of childhood event Z” that we normally see, and I like that a lot.

Hanna, what do you think of Pinky’s story, in or out of the context of the epilogue? I’m thinking in particular of her pre-hospitalization stories (such as they are) about herself, and the scene where Millie drives her home to the apartment for the first time, wherein Pinky compares their surroundings to Texas; later, when Pinky’s parents (maybe) visit to see her, her mother (maybe) says “It sure doesn’t look like Texas.” Does she really not recognize her parents only due to amnesia and taking on an amalgamation of Millie’s real and imagined identities, or is it because they’re not her parents, as is potentially indicated by Mrs. Rose’s claim that Mr. Rose came up with the name “Pinky,” although we know her real name is Mildred (or is it)? Is Pinky merely an honest girl who experienced severe brain damage or does she simply lie about her past like a lot of teenagers do and lose track of her deceptions?

Hanna: To be honest, I had a very hard time interpreting the journeys of these characters, or at least articulating any kind of interpretation. Just like in a dream, the relationships are foggy, disjointed, and archetypal; it seems like you can’t make sense of them unless you close your eyes. So, when I close my eyes, I feel like Mr. and Mrs. Rose are the parents of pre-coma Pinky, who dies in the pool; when Pinky is “reborn” as Mildred, her parents aren’t her parents anymore. I don’t think Pinky is lying about her past, and I don’t even really think that “Mildred” Pinky is brain damaged; I see “Pinky” Pinky and “Mildred” Pinky as two connected but distinct people, one of whom has started to absorb Millie’s identity. Pinky’s dive felt sacrificial, and the first step towards fulfilling the prophecy of enmeshed identity that Willie’s paintings seem to predict; through the sacrifice, she destroys any part of her that has history outside of the other two women. I also think it’s telling that, in the very end, Pinky identifies Millie as her mother, and that all three women have established relationships that preclude individual lives. This is a totally strange line of logic in real life, but if it was happening in a dream I don’t think I would question it.

I think one of the most compelling aspects of this film was each woman’s sublimation of self into a single folkloric identity. Boomer’s pointed out that nagging “eternal” feeling of the desert, and that perfectly describes my feelings about the three women. The film starts off with Pinky and Millie working in the rehabilitation center for the elderly, but slowly the two women are drawn out of Californian society and into this dreamworld saloon by the magnetism of Willie, the pregnant Wild Woman. In the end, we find all three of the women abandoning the identities that no longer serve them, creating a dreadful symbiotic family comprised of a Child, a Mother, and an Elder out on the ranch that’s incapable of fostering growth outside of itself. I imagine that they’ll be living out there until the end of time, certainly never in need of a spa for the old.

Lagniappe

Brandon: This feels like a huge departure from what I’ve come to expect from a Robert Alman picture. I’m much more used to seeing him in his big cast/overlapping dialogue mode (Short Cuts, Nashville, Pret-a-Porter, Gosford Park, etc), and 3 Women feels like a much more insular, cerebral experience than that. I wish he had tackled this kind of eerie, dreamlike, horror-adjacent material more often; he’s damn good at it. Looking through his filmography, the hallucinatory psych-horror Images is really the only title that seems close to this territory, and I’m excited to check it out.

Hanna: I definitely agree that Shelley Duvall was the standout (I cringed very deeply and personally during the lunchroom scenes), but I really wish this movie had more Willie. Her energy elevated 3 Women from a dreamy psycho-drama into the realm of the mystical. On the other hand, I think that mysticism was accentuated by the fact that she spent 90% of her scenes skulking around the edges of the frame painting beautiful, tortured fish-people.

Britnee: Listening to Millie talk about now vintage recipes made with nothing but processed ingredients brought me so much joy. The one that stuck out to me the most was Penthouse Chicken. When she was trying to impress the table of silent doctors with the recipe that can be “made with a can of tomato soup,” I was sold. It turns out I’m not the only one who wanted to make Penthouse Chicken after watching 3 Women. The Famous for My Dinner Parties blog (titled after a direct quote from Millie) posted a picture of the recipe from the 1963 cookbook Cooking with Soup. What a great dinner and movie combination!

Boomer: Shelley Duvall’s overall career is referenced above, and I think it’s worth mentioning that when I think of her name, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t The Shining or Popeye, it’s Faerie Tale Theatre. Enjoy.

And also this, which is one of my earliest memories of watching a movie and fully warped my brain.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
September: Hanna presents Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
October: Brandon presents Monster Brawl (2011)
November: Boomer presents Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (2003)

-The Swampflix Crew

Sibyl (2020)

I’m becoming increasingly tickled by the Charlie Kaufman-esque story template in which Writer’s Block leads an increasingly unraveled protagonist down an absurd rabbit hole at their own peril. Between Ismael’s Ghosts, Staying Vertical, and now Sybil, France has gradually emerged as the #1 exporter of these bizarro psychological thrillers about frustrated writers, which rarely earn great critical accolades despite constructing some of the most unpredictable, confounding plots in cinema. Overall, Sibyl doesn’t revolutionize the structure or purpose of the Writer’s Block thriller in any significant way, but it does reshape the (admittedly loose) genre’s usual tone by casting a woman in the central writer’s role. Typically, these post-Kaufman psych-thrillers profile Macho Academic types in a moment of Mid-Life Crisis, so it’s a relief to see the genre shaken up with a woman’s internal fixations & sexual urges for a change. Otherwise, Sibyl behaves just as you’d expect given the Writer’s Block-driven downward spiral its protagonist suffers. It’s just an acquired taste I’ve personally acquired with glee.

The titular Sibyl is a frustrated psychiatrist who’s decided to pull back from the professional demands of her clientele to re-focus on writing novels – only to be confronted by the dreaded Blank Page. She’s then pulled back into her psychiatry practice by a new patient in crisis, an actress whose affair with a famous co-star is causing an on-set meltdown (as the man is also sleeping with the film’s director). Sibyl verbally protests that she cannot become involved in this young, chaotic woman’s life, but she’s clearly addicted to the drama that unfolds. Her avoidance of writing a new novel fades as she chooses to write about this soon-to-be-famous (or soon-to-implode) actress under a pseudonym, becoming more & more involved in the young woman’s life under the guise of “research.” It’s clearly addictive behavior that’s linked directly to her addiction to work, her addiction to past sexual partners, and—most explicitly—her alcoholism. At the start of their relationship, the psychiatrist is protesting that she cannot become involved in the actress’s personal drama. By the end, she’s practically directing the movie herself as her life falls apart outside the boundaries of her newest, singular obsession.

As with the best of these Writer’s Block psych-thrillers, Sibyl is excitingly playful in its style & narrative structure. It begins with a chilling piano score & 70s grindhouse typeface, as if it were a remake of Halloween instead of an intellectual drama. It also later teases swerves into De Palma-era erotic thriller territory, but those genre throwback touches are more stylistic flavor than they are narrative substance. The narrative itself is more guided by tabloidish obsession with “celebrity” criminals like Robert Durst & Casey Anthony than anything recalling De Palma or Carpenter, to the point where Sibyl’s only connection to those genre traditions is in her shameless voyeurism (most amusingly depicted in her late-night laptop binges on junky clickbait headlines). The movie itself is tickled with the farcical adultery configurations of its central cast, but it’s most concerned with creating a fractured portrait of its doomed alcoholic writer as she spirals out. The sordid details of her involvement in her patient’s life is less important than the addictive, self-destructive impulses that lead her there – freeing the movie to have a laugh at her exponentially absurd downfall even when it’s at its most excruciatingly grim.

The only major fault with Sibyl is that you could name several movies that push its basic elements way further into way wilder directions. Beyond its obvious Kaufman ancestry, Double Lover & Persona both come to mind. Otherwise, it’s an admirably solid Movie For Adults, the kind of thoughtfully constructed erotic menace that used to be produced by Hollywood studios at regular intervals but now only seeps quietly through European film festivals. The movie works best when it’s clearly having fun with the absurdity of its unraveling premise, like when it frames Sibyl pensively vaping out a window in a Writerly way or in its casting of Toni Erdmann star Sandra Hüller as scene-stealing comic relief. It also takes the sexual urges & self-destructive behavioral patterns of its protagonist seriously enough that its central conflict never implodes into comic oblivion either. We’re fully invested in the manic downfall of this frustrated writer, even if not quite as much as she’s involved in her patient’s.

-Brandon Ledet

Madeline’s Madeline (2018)

Although she’s been working steadily since the buzzy “mumblecore” movement that established a new standard tone for microbudget indie cinema over a decade ago, 2018 is proving to be a breakout year for Josephine Decker. This started for me, personally, when Decker’s collaborative, self-loathing documentary Flames tore my brain in half in its emotionally volatile record of a toxic, years-long romantic detangling. Her much larger cultural breakout arrived later in a drama where she was more of the auteurist voice: the festival-circuit darling Madeline’s Madeline. What’s impressive about Madeline’s Madeline as a follow-up to Flames is that it maintains the documentary’s emotional volatility and damning self-reflection on the nature & tortures of its own medium, while branching off into the realm of fictional drama. It didn’t hit me quite as hard in the gut as Flames did (perhaps because I was braced for impact this second round in the ring with Decker, whereas I was caught off-guard for the first bout), but Madeline’s Madeline is just as heart-achingly confrontational in its emotional honesty and just as complexly mapped out in its engagement with its own medium as an artform. Decker may have been active and in-plain-sight in both theatre & cinema for at least the last decade solid, but in just two films 2018 has been the year when she set a staggeringly high expectation for the form-breaking phenomena she can achieve on the screen.

Teenage newcomer Helena Howard stars as the titular Madeline, a mentally ill high school student who finds a brief utopian respite in an avant-garde NYC theatre troupe, before that artistic safe space becomes just as messy & volatile as her home-life & her internal psyche. Her home-life crisis is mostly anchored to her relationship with her dangerously high-strung mother (played by Miranda July), a conflict that often erupts into physical violence. As she coldly rejects one mother’s affections at home, Madeline seeks a new motherly figure in her theatre director (played by Molly Parker). This relationship also sours when the play they’re collaborating on with their troupe mutates into a sinister meta-drama about Madeline’s “real” home-life. Madeline’s discomfort with her real-life domestic conflicts being exploited for Art is complicated by the film’s exponential detachment from realty, where the divisions between Art & “reality” become blurred to the point of effective obliteration. A spiritual descendent of Charlie Kauffman projects like Synecdoche, New York or Michel Gondry’s “Bachelorette” video for Björk, Madeline’s Madeline’s echoing of the artifice of theatre in the “The world’s a stage” artifice of real life folds the plot in on itself so many times that it’s near impossible to distinguish what’s “really” happening from what’s just in our protagonist’s head. There’s a clear three-way war that develops between Howard, July, and Parker’s characters, but everything else on the screen is highly subjective to personal interpretation.

This immersion in theatre & artificiality is an immediate cornerstone of the text, as Madeline finds comfort in her troupe’s exercises of getting lost in character work. This starts innocently enough when she’s pretending to be a cat, a turtle, or a pig, but concerns about whether she’s being a sea turtle or “a woman playing a sea turtle” eventually give way to much more violent crises of perception & reality. Madeline has no appetite, is prone to bursts of physical violence, and suffers auditory hallucinations of constant, rhythmic whispers. She’s already a blatantly untrustworthy narrator, then, which Decker chooses to amplify by immersing the audience in her POV on an almost subliminal level. The insular sound design & detail-obsessed photography of the film is so personal to Madeline’s sensory experiences that any “What’s really happening?” narrative concerns are beside the point beyond how they relate to Madeline’s emotional state. Its immersive POV falls closer to the anxiety-driven horrors of Krisha more than the eerie beauty of The Fits, as what Madeline’s feeling is often frustration & an urge to lash out. Her relationships with her director & her mother gradually sync-up with her relationship to theatre, as art itself becomes the weapon she uses to lash out in her all-out war with her dual parental figures (who also wage their own war on each other through theatre). By the time the whole conflict reaches its climax in a Tune-Yards reminiscent performance art piece on an art instillation set, theatre itself becomes both the battlefield & the weapon, whereas it starts the film as a safe-space sanctuary.

The tones & methods of collaborative theatre seem to be a guiding force in Decker’s work, perhaps best represented in the presence of Miranda July (whose undervalued film The Future frequently feels like an influence here) and Sutina Mani (whose work in Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone is a more playful take on a similar avant-garde performance art aesthetic). However, by the time the film directly calls itself out for daring to tell the inner life of another person’s story (across barriers like race, mental health, and life experience), I get the exact same form-breaking self-reflection vibe that Decker (again, collaboratively) brought to the screen in Flames. In just the two releases she’s had this year, she’s established a very distinct, often menacing tone of artistic & emotional honesty that’s just as admirably staged as it is emotionally ugly & upsetting. This film wasn’t my personal favorite of the pair, but I believe both are worth an engaged, self-reflective look. I also believe Decker’s trajectory indicates there are more form-breaking freakouts to come, and soon.

-Brandon Ledet

Queen of Earth (2015)

EPSON MFP image

fivestar

I’ve read a lot of positive reviews of Alex Ross Perry’s 2014 film Listen Up Philip, but my deep and abiding loathing for Jason Schwartzman ensured that I was never tempted to see the film, despite the fact that it also starred Elisabeth Moss, an actress that I like quite a lot. Perry’s new film, Queen of Earth, has generated a great deal of buzz, and I’m happy to say that I found the film to be deserving of every accolade it’s received so far. Set at a lake house in the Hudson River Valley, the film focuses on the relationship between lifelong friends Catherine (Moss) and Virginia (Katherine Waterston), and the way that that people who love each other can cause more damage to those they care about than any outsider can, as well as the fact that, as Virginia says in one of her fantastic monologues, “You can escape other people’s cycles, but you can’t escape your own.”

The previous summer, Virginia invited Catherine to her parent’s lake house for what was supposed to be a week of healing intimacy between friends after Virginia experienced a painful event (implied to be a complicated childbirth before giving the baby up for adoption). Catherine spoiled their getaway by bringing along her codependent boyfriend, James (Kentucker Audley), with whom Virginia had a mutual open loathing. This summer, Catherine is the person suffering; as revealed in the film’s opening moments, James recently dumped her shortly after her artist father’s suicide, citing a relationship with another woman with whom he had been involved even before Catherine’s father’s “accident.” Catherine, herself an artist who worked for and idolized her father in an unhealthy way, is distraught and breaking down, and her recuperation at the lake house is impeded by the frequent presence of Rich (Patrick Fugit), Virginia’s neighbor. He and Virginia were in a long term relationship, but he ignored her attempts to let him down easily when he chose to leave for grad school and she decided to let the relationship end. Both Virginia and Catherine are emotionally ignorant and immature; Virginia was much less traumatized by her experience the previous year than Catherine is by the dissolution of the relationships that she allowed to define her. This is best exemplified in a flashback showing Virginia discussing her hospital experience but ultimately ending her monologue with declarations of how much she despises people who weigh on her emotionally and eventually cuts them out of her life. She dismisses Rich’s desires to maintain their relationship despite the distance between them as delusional, but her attempts to turn the tables on Catherine (by inviting Rich, an interloping lover, to spend time at the lake house during what is supposed to be a healing period for Catherine) are petty and heartless in a way that exceeds any reasonable amount of resentment.

Catherine, for her part, is little better. Although a great deal of the film’s conflict is found in implication, flashbacks show her to be a self-interested child of privilege with little regard for the concerns of others. Bringing James with her to the previous year’s retreat was a mistake that she fails to appreciate the gravity of and does not apologize for, even after Virginia makes her displeasure evident. Further, her reactions to the attempts that people make to connect with her, and the way she perceives all communication as meddling in her personal affairs, paint her as a bit of a brat. Although she is surrounded by people who do not seem to be significantly less privileged than she is (Virginia’s parents’ lake house is beautiful and doubtlessly expensive, and Rich’s parents own a similar, neighboring location, so it’s not as if the two are struggling), her peers perceive her as cold and unapproachable. It’s implied that her late father may have schemed to take advantage of others’ money, but nothing is ever made explicit, and, if her father was the Bernie Madoff of the Hudson River Valley, her denial of his sins and weaknesses despite being his assistant as well as his daughter would make their dislike of her more understandable. Overall, however, our sympathy lies with her, as she descends into the kind of spiraling depression that is rarely depicted onscreen, as she becomes more and more detached from social mores and human behavior, becoming more feral and inhuman with each passing day. Virginia’s failure to realize how much her vengeance is hurting her oldest and dearest friend, and her refusal to send Rich away as he becomes more confrontational and cruel, paints her in a more unsympathetic light, although we also empathize with her inability to properly conceptualize just how deep Catherine’s wounds are.

This is a deeply emotional and cinematically beautiful movie that gets to the heart of interpersonal relationships and how affection can sour due to an individual’s blindness to his or her own faults. The musical cues, increasing tension, and sense of dread are all cribbed from thrillers of the seventies, but the violence on display never transcends from emotional to physical (or does it?), and the intentionally ambiguous ending is at once both a perfect ending and a somewhat unsatisfactory one, although that does not detract from the overall quality of the picture. What’s more, it’s impossible not to note what a funny movie this can be in its smaller moments, as it doesn’t shy away from the ways that a person’s breakdown can often lead to moments of unintentional hilarity. As rare as it is to see a film that so unabashedly stares into the face of mental illness, it’s even rarer to see a film that understands and appreciates that, from the outside, the behaviors of an irrational person can be objectively humorous even if they are subjectively heartbreaking, and the film manages to tread that line in an insightful and deft way. More than just adding more scenes to Moss’s career highlight reel, this movie is the most honest portrayal of unhealthy bonds I’ve seen in as long as I can remember. It will break your heart and then make it sing, and you’ll be haunted by the images and their emotional resonance for weeks.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond