Movie of the Month: Ginger & Cinnamon (2003)

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 CC made Britnee & Brandon watch Ginger and Cinnamon (2003).

CC: Ginger and Cinnamon is an early-aughts Italian romcom that centers on a thirty-year-old woman, who is reeling from a recent break-up with her long-term boyfriend, and her fourteen-year-old niece, who is unabashedly horny and determined to lose her virginity ASAP. The film combines traditional elements of a romcom and an odd-couple comedy. The aunt, Stefy, is neurotic and repressed. She constantly struggles with the extremely unhealthy body issues our toxic culture promotes to women her age; this mostly manifests in an obsession with losing weight and a delusional belief that eating chocolate will help her achieve that goal. Her niece, Megghy, is her exact opposite. She is entirely confident in her own skin, unconcerned with her own baby fat and convinced that she is an irresistible sex goddess that every man desires. When the two polar-opposite women escape their messy lives in Italy to vacation on a Grecian island, the niece unknowingly attempts to seduce the aunt’s adult, uninterested ex, Andrea. Meanwhile, the aunt is also pursued by a virginal boy half her age who is just as hormonally charged as her niece. A farcical comedy of errors ensues, complete with mistaken identities and near-connections, until all appropriate couples are re-scrambled correctly in a classic manner.

When I first saw this film in the early 2000s, I was the same age as the niece. While I didn’t fully identify with her maniacal level of horniness, I do remember being impressed by her pragmatic ideas about sex. While her delusion that she was going to orgasm three times during her very first sexual encounter was impractical (and points to toxic societal ideas about sexual performance in its own way), I did like the way she reasoned that she shouldn’t lose her virginity to someone she loved because she was likely not going to be very good at it and needed to practice while the stakes were lower. Returning to the film now, I’m much closer to the aunt’s age. Again, I don’t identify with the aunt’s particular hang-ups, but I do feel for her in how she’s so damaged by toxic societal ideals, especially in her neurotic fears of gaining weight. Both then and now, I appreciate the two women’s dynamic. The aunt never passes her own harmful ideas about bodies or sex down to her niece. She keeps an eye on her niece’s disastrous attempts to have sex, but she mostly thinks it’s a bad idea on a practical level, not a moral one. Usually in a romcom where one character is too horny and the other is too frigid, the pair must learn a lesson and meet in the middle, but there’s no real moralizing about sexuality in that way here. Instead, the film mostly plays as dumb, fun summer fluff – as long as you can get past the self-inflicted fat-shaming.

Between its fantastical musical interludes and its island full of maniacally horny young adults, this almost has the same bizarre energy as the first Mamma Mia! film, released just a few years later. At the same time, it often interrupts its Grecian romcom fantasy with realistic documentary touches, like ethnographic interviews with real life people on vacation on the island where it was filmed. Brandon, do you think these cinema verité breaks from the fantasy served any thematic purpose? How did it feel to have the romantic fantasy elements of the film interrupted with reminders that its island setting is a real place that real people visit? By contrast, you never get that with Mamma Mia!, which does not feel like it’s set in a real-world place you can actually visit.

Brandon: The island of Ios, where Ginger and Cinnamon is set, self-brands as “the Island of Love,” so even in real life its reputation as a tourist attraction is built on romantic fantasy escapism. This film’s earliest scenes establish a classic romcom dynamic where the audience is primed to expect that fantasy to be fully indulged, Mamma Mia! style. Our adult protagonist’s profession as a bookstore owner is one of the romcommiest jobs imaginable; her differences with her ex are traditionally gendered to an absurd degree (when they go to the video store to pick out date night rentals, she likes romcoms but he likes gialli); the ex is a bit of a callous brute, but he makes absolutely divine chocolate cakes that melt her heart. We’d fully expect a film with that first-act foundation to dive into the deep end of wish-fulfillment romcom fantasy once it reaches Ios, but Ginger and Cinnamon is stubborn in its decision to show the island as it truly is. Instead of “The Island of Love,” Ios is portrayed here as “Crazy Teenager Island,” a hedonistic hell-pit swarmed by horned-up youths from around the globe. All the background extras look like they’re tertiary members of dirtbag 90s bands like Sublime & Sugar Ray; they’re all delirious from day-drinking in a punishing overdose of sunshine then partying late into the night, fueled only by a dangerous cocktail of hormones & sugary liquor. Even the long-distance ferry ride to the island is about as unromantic as it gets, with dumbass kids sporting hideous aughts fashions hooking up in an endless sea of sleeping bags – like a hostel on the water. As jarring & obtrusive as the interviews with real-life vacationers in Ios sometimes felt, they helped reinforce a greater contrast between romantic expectation vs grotesque reality that runs throughout the rest of the film. Our two lovelorn (and/or sex-starved) leads struggle to reconcile the fantasy of what’s in their heads with the disappointing reality of the men they have to work with, and the romantic fantasy of the island clashes with its slimy reality in a similar way.

That’s not to say that Ginger and Cinnamon doesn’t find traditional romcom escapism elsewhere. If nothing else, the movie concludes on two different romantic fantasy topes: the last-minute sprint to the airport (or, in this case, the ferry dock) to stop the love of your life from leaving without hearing your true feelings and the break-with-reality Bollywood dance number. While I did eventually come to understand how that romcom conclusion fit in with the film’s general contrasting of expectation vs. reality, the Bollywood fantasy that followed was much more of a surprise. That might just be because the music choices throughout the film were so scatterbrained & erratic that I had no idea what to expect from minute to minute, much less where it would conclude. Whereas Mamma Mia!’s own romantic escape to Horny Teenager Island is tonally anchored to its function as an ABBA jukebox musical, the needle drops in Ginger and Cinnamon are all over the place. Italian opera, romantic sitars, Boy George, The Village People, Wire, and theme songs to Saturday morning cartoons of the 1980s all clash in a spectacular tonal gumbo that’s just as jarring as the film’s mix of fantasy & reality. Concluding on a Bollywood-style dance number set to an Italian pop song about smoking cigarettes displays just about as much tonal consistency as it would to conclude with black metal, polka, or Miami bass; it’s all chaos anyway, so practically anything could fit. Britnee, were you more delighted or distracted by Ginger and Cinnamon’s erratic soundtrack choices? Did any one musical moment stand out to you as a particular favorite?

Britnee: The soundtrack for Ginger and Cinnamon was like setting your music library on shuffle, which is how I already listen to music for the most part anyway. I’m typically never in the mood to listen to the same genre of music for longer than an hour or so, and shuffling songs keeps the music fresh and exciting. In Ginger and Cinnamon, the mystery of what song could be lingering around the corner and whether or not it would include a dance and lip sync performance was very enjoyable. Although the songs didn’t have much in common as a collection, they were all very fitting for each individual scene. For instance, the Ios bar crowd drunkenly singing along to Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” in the wee hours of the morning was so spot-on with reality. As for my favorite musical moment, the kooky “Ta Ra Ta Ta” musical number at the end of the film between Stefy and Andrea was my absolute favorite. It was so much fun in that Mamma Mia! sort of way (it seems like we are all on the same page with the Mama Mia! similarities). Their performance had me bopping my head and smiling to a song that I never heard before and couldn’t understand whatsoever. I’ve actually been listening to “Ta Ra Ta Ta” by Italian pop singer Mina Mazzini on repeat every day since, and I’ve fallen in love with Mina’s music and scandalous presence in the Italian pop music scene in the 1960s. Ginger and Cinnamon is the gift that keeps on giving.

I really enjoyed the fabulously random music’s contrast to the tranquil Grecian background. At first, I was a little confused as to where Stefy and Megghy were vacationing. I assumed that because this was an Italian film that the two were heading to the Amalfi Coast or some other Italian beach destination. I was surprised to find out that they were going to the Greek island of Ios, which is quite a ways away from Italy. No wonder that ferry ride looked so miserable! I know that Mamma Mia! has been brought up a few times in our conversation, but it’s so bizarre how the two films share so many similarities – mainly horniness and musical numbers on a Greek island. CC, is there just something about the white sands and white buildings of Greece that serves as a great blank canvas for quirky romcoms? Would you have felt differently about Ginger and Cinnamon if the setting were different?

CC: I think the only absolutes required for this setting was that it was a beach and that it was far enough away from Italy that they couldn’t just go home when they stopped enjoying themselves. I think any “Horny Teen Island” would have done. I’m not familiar with European beach-party culture, but surely Ios isn’t the only beach where people sunbathe all day & club all night. (Isn’t Ibiza a thing?)

Nevertheless, we’ve now got at least two quirky romcoms set on Greek islands, Ginger and Cinnamon & Mamma Mia!, so what about that setting is a siren song for the genre? Perhaps it’s a little bit of snobbishness from Mainland Europe? A major aspect of the plot in both romcoms involves our protagonists traveling to a remote locale where communication with the “real world” is limited and life is lived at a slower pace. And, as Greece didn’t really have a strong economy even before the recession, perhaps the stereotype of being backwater had some truth to it? I couldn’t see any romcom, unless it was about the 1%, being set on the French Rivera; romcoms usually feel the need to appear at least semi-attainable as wish-fulfillment. The affordability and the supposed Old World authenticity of the locale make it a perfect place for a dream vacation where European women can imagine themselves being swept up in a grand, passionate romance, so of course it’s enticing to set romcoms there.

Brandon, we’ve talked a lot about the music and the ambiance of the movie so far, but we haven’t really gotten into the interpersonal drama. There are two types of relationships depicted in Ginger and Cinnamon: the romantic bonds between men & women and a familial bond between aunt & niece. Did you find either category more satisfying or compelling than the other?

Brandon: I found them almost equally compelling, but in entirely different ways. The romantic tension of Ginger and Cinnamon is compelling the way that a horrific car accident can be, as we cringe through the colossal mistake of a teenage girl believing her only path to happiness would be to seduce an adult man. To make matters worse, we know something she doesn’t: the specific man she’s after is the same scoundrel who broke her aunt’s heart, the same one who she’s been hearing complaints about the entire vacation. That’s what makes the near-connections of the two ex-lovers almost running into each other in Ios such an effective throwback to the type of Old Hollywood farces that were usually set in fancy hotels. We know that as soon as everyone realizes that the aunt & niece are pining for the same man there’s going to be an awful mess of hurt feelings & mangled relationships to clean up, but the film obviously prolongs that release of tension for as long as it can.

In the meantime, while we’re holding back the urge to scream, the familial dynamic between aunt & niece is much more compelling & satisfying in an emotional sense. As toxic as the aunt can be when tearing herself down with body shaming & sexual repression, she doesn’t weaponize that cruelty towards the teen in her care at all. If anything, the horned-up niece is allowed almost too much bodily confidence & sexual freedom in a potentially dangerous environment where they can get her in trouble. At least, that’s what the aunt allows her niece to believe as she keeps a close, protective eye on her. The men that could potentially stand between them are useful for generating comedic & dramatic tension, but the curious relationship between repressed aunt & carefree niece (and how they gradually become more like each other in positive ways) is the true heart of the film.

For all of this film’s wild sexual energy and over-the-top farcical mishaps, a lot of what stands out to me are its small grace moments of pure, wholesome sweetness. Besides the “Ta Ra Ta Ta” & “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” dance numbers previously mentioned, I also thought it was sweet when the aunt buys a slice of chocolate cake (made with ginger & cinnamon, of course) that was, unbeknownst to her, made by her ex. She enjoys the familiar taste of the recipe, but remarks that her ex made it better. Since we know that he made the exact same cake she’s eating in both instances, using the exact same recipe, she’s effectively just saying that food tasted better when he was around to enjoy it with her. I found that disarmingly sweet, especially considering how callous & raunchy the film can be elsewhere. Britnee, were there any other moments of Ginger and Cinnamon you could single out as being especially sweet or endearing, despite the film’s hedonistic surroundings?

Britnee: I found just about all of the heart-to-heart talks between aunt and niece to be especially sweet. The one that stuck out the most in my mind was when Stefy and Megghy were lying in the bed with their legs resting up on the wall, talking about all the issues weighing on their hearts. It’s the sort of thing that young girls do at a sleepover when talking about their school crushes. In that moment, there was no age difference between the two. They were just two girls sharing their thoughts with each other, and it was incredibly heartwarming.

I also found the moments when Megghy was desperately trying to get Andrea’s attention surprisingly charming. The obnoxious teenage qualities of Megghy reminded me so much of myself when I was her age, and I cringe to even think about it. Andrea’s reaction to her chatter is something I found to be both funny and sweet. He knows that she has a crush on him, but he doesn’t make her feel stupid or embarrassed. He responds to her without feeding into her advances, which I was so thankful for. I really didn’t want this movie to be about a 14 year old girl having a summer fling with a grown-ass man.

Lagniappe

CC: So many embarrassing final thoughts! Okay, so my chocolate cake recipe—for years—was the hot-water Hershey’s cocoa powder recipe with added powdered cinnamon & ginger (and I never let on that I got the idea from a romcom). And my other confession (oh god, why am I admitting this on the internet?) is that in high school I would walk up and down the halls singing “Ta Ra Ta Ta” even though I do not have any vocal talent. At all. I should apologize to those who had to endure me in that period of my life, but I don’t want to remind them.

Britnee: I always thought that the terrible Smash Mouth look that so many teenage guys sported in the early 2000s was strictly something that existed in the USA. According to crowd on Ios (aka Horny Teen Island), it was a tragedy that spread across the globe. I am forever thankful that it’s over.

Brandon: My favorite throwaway detail of the film is that even the pet animals of Ios are overcome with maniacal horniness. In a café scene, the film foregrounds a hamster cage where two animatronic puppet hamsters continually hump throughout the aunt & niece’s conversation, as if we could pay attention to anything anyone’s saying while the little rodents are going at it right in front of us. It’s such a delightfully bizarre detail for the film to distract itself with, especially once you pause to consider how much effort must’ve gone into creating those literal fuck-puppets.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
August: Brandon presents Smithereens (1982)
September: Britnee presents Blood & Donuts (1995)
October: Boomer presents Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)

-The Swampflix Crew

Long Shot (2019)

In a lot of ways, the Seth Rogen/Charlize Theron two-hander Long Shot is a traditional, by the books romcom. Two socially mismatched idealists spark an unlikely romance after a chance meeting in the first act, then gradually learn to be more like each other through the ups & downs of their early months together (most romcoms bail before the real work of building a relationship starts, once that early emotional rush cools down). It’s arguable that Seth Rogen’s overgrown stoner-bro humor is a little out of place in that context, but the Apatow style of modern comedies where he cut his teeth were basically just romcoms with some lagniappe improv takes, so even that influence isn’t much of a subversion. If you find it comforting to watch two characters fall in love over a series of quippy one-liners and farcical misunderstandings, Long Shot is more than willing to deliver the formulaic romcom goods, building an amiable romance between two adorable leads with oddly believable chemistry. What’s really interesting about the film is how it manages to pull that off while discussing something most formulaic romcoms actively avoid: politics.

Charlize Theron plays a US Secretary of State who’s poised to make her first presidential bid in an upcoming election. Against the guidance of her campaign advisors, she hires Seth Rogen as her speech writer for the early stages of the campaign trail – both because she respects his leftist idealism and because she thinks he’s cute. In apolitical romcom tradition, the unlikely couple inspire each other to edge closer towards the political center from their extremist starting points. Theron relearns to stick to her guns ideologically without giving up too much in political compromise, while Rogen learns that compromise & reaching across the aisle are sometimes necessary to accomplish larger goals. It’s a relatively safe, careful approach to modern politics – an arena defined by increasingly violent extremes. As such, the movie leaves little room to make clearly stated, concrete political points without risking the fun-for-everyone charm of romcoms. Its only clear political stances are detectable in Theron’s campaign platform that centers The Environment, and in the way working in the news media spotlight is unfairly difficult for her as a woman. As far as modern political topics go, gendered scrutiny & saving the trees are about as safe as the movie could have played it, and you can feel it struggling with how political is too political for a romcom when addressing nearly every other topic.

One major way Long Shot avoids alienating half of its audience with its political stances is avoiding declaring which political parties it’s actually talking about from scene to scene. Theron’s environmentalist crusade and the feminist lens through which she views media coverage of her public persona both suggest that she’s a registered Democrat, but the movie is careful to never make that association explicit. Her role as Secretary of State is in service of a bumbling president (Bob Odenkirk) who is even more amorphous in his declared politics. Neither Democrat nor Republican (at least not explicitly) Odenkirk is a cipher for more universally acceptable jokes about how all politicians are more obsessed with celebrity than policy and how they’re all corrupt goons in lobbyists’ pockets. The only time I can recall the words “Democrat” or “Republican” being verbally acknowledged in the film is when Rogen is mocked for being horrified by the revelation that his best friend (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a member of the GOP, when he supposedly should be willing to find common political ground with his best bud. That’s a tough pill to swallow in a time when Republicans are actively trying to outlaw abortion access and in a time when, as acknowledged in the film’s opening gag, many “Conservatives” are literal Nazis hiding in plain sight. Still, it’s the only position the film can really take without risking its traditional romcom cred.

For a more daring example of how the romcom template can productively clash with modern politics, the Jenny Slate vehicle Obvious Child is commendable in the way it plays with the genre’s tropes while also frankly discussing Pro-Choice stances on reproductive rights. The closest Long Shot gets to saying something specific & potentially alienating about modern politics is in its parodies of Fox News media coverage (complete with Andy Serkis posing as a hideous prosthetics-monster version of Rupert Murdoch), which is a joke that writes itself. The difference there is that Obvious Child is a subversion of the romcom template, one that nudges the genre closer to an indie drama sensibility. By contrast, Long Shot is more of an earnest participation in the genuine thing. It is, for better or for worse, a formulaic romcom – with all the charming interpersonal relationships & tiptoeing political rhetoric that genre implies. I can say for sure that the romantic chemistry between Theron & Rogen works completely. The gamble of bringing modern politics into an inherently apolitical genre template is a little less decidedly successful, but at least makes for an interesting tension between form & content.

-Brandon Ledet

Obsession, Whimsy, and Mayhem in the Early Aughts Romance

Our current Movie of the Month, the menacing twee romcom Love Me If You Dare, fits a story template I never tire of seeing repeated in entertainment media: the paired couple of doomed souls whose violent attraction to each other is discouraged by and dangerous to the world at large. As in other properties like Sheer Madness, Heavenly Creatures, Thoroughbreds, and Wuthering Heights, Love Me If You Dare profiles a young couple who are harmless enough in isolation but whose mutual, near-supernatural obsession with each other causes widespread mayhem. If there’s anything that distinguishes Love Me If You Dare from other examples of its ilk, it’s how it attempts to adapt this template to a cutesy romcom aesthetic. Early-aughts, Amélie-flavored twee whimsy starts the film off as a kind of romantic fairy tale, where a childhood game of escalating dares & pranks causes adorable mischief in the rigidly structured lives of adults. It isn’t until the central couple grows into adulthood themselves that the scope of their mayhem is truly alarming. For a glimpse at what that same story might look like if their dynamic were immediately off-putting from their childhood beginnings, there’s no better place to look than the 2001 stage play adaptation Disco Pigs. Featuring a young Cillian Murphy acting like a total creep in a thick Irish brogue, Disco Pigs is a little too nasty to match the twee-whimsy romance of Love Me If You Dare; it functions more as a drunken, sadistic melodrama than anything resembling a romcom. Still, it follows Love Me If You Dare’s exact story structure: introducing us to two mutually-obsessed weirdos who are menacingly inseparable until puberty hits and love complicates their peculiar relationship. The only difference is that it wastes no time making these strange creatures off-putting, whereas Love Me If You Dare holds off until they are adults.

It’s not fair to say there is no whimsy or romance to Disco Pigs’s central relationship. The film starts in the same realm of youthful fantasy as Love Me If You Dare, stretching even further back in establishing the childhood bonds of its treacherous pair. The story opens in the womb, narrated by a character we come to know as Runt. She explains that she was born in the exact same hospital at the exact same moment as her next-door neighbor & obsessive partner in crime: Pig. There’s a whimsy to the way their dual lives on opposite sides of their bedroom walls are synchronized, like a horrific Busby Berkeley routine, complete with matching pajamas. The film opens with the standard fairy tale greeting “Once Upon a time . . .” in its in-utero prologue, promising a much sweeter picture than what’s ultimately delivered. The childhood fairy tale fantasy element of their relationship continues into their adulthood, represented in mental escapes to a mystical Palace where Pig & Runt reign as The King & Queen of Everything (recalling the Kingdom of Borovnia escapes in Heavenly Creatures and the Adam & Eve pop-up book fantasy of Love Me If You Dare). As Disco Pigs opens, these unsavory twins from different mothers are 17 days away from celebrating their 17th birthday on the 17th day of the month – the most golden of birthday festivities. It all sounds as if it would be in service of a cutesy romance, but Pig & Runt’s dynamic is more grotesque than idyllic. They spend most of their teen years staging increasingly dodgy pranks, just like the lovefools of Love Me If You Dare: pantsing strangers in dance clubs, robbing liquor stores, singing British karaoke songs to the IRA, etc. As their self-given names suggest, they also develop unsavory forms of communication with uncomfortably childlike phrasings like “We man and woman now. We ain’t babbas no more,” and telepathic exchanges that don’t even require that base of a level of spoken dialogue. Much like Love Me If You Dare, Disco Pigs is the kind of fairy tale that invites you to bite into a pristine apple only to find that it’s mostly made of worms.

Besides sharing the false promise of fairy tale whimsy, Disco Pigs also uses the same device to separate its once-inseparable protagonists: the pangs of love & lust that accompany puberty. Almost as soon they reach sexual maturity, Pig crosses an unspoken boundary by kissing Runt in an alleyway behind a nightclub, mistakenly assuming that the impulse is mutual. It’s a rejection that disrupts their synchronicity permanently and the world around them is increasingly in danger the more violently Pig attempts to jolt them back into sync. The main difference between that dynamic and the trajectory of Love Me If You Dare is that the synchronized menaces of Disco Pigs are off-putting long before the pangs of lust harsh their vibes. Yes, it’s even more grotesque when they intone childlike half-English as adults in lines like “Why I kiss the honey lips of Runt?,” but even as children their privately shared language reads as deranged & unhealthy. There’s no true-life violent crime to attach to that sensation to either, like in how Heavenly Creatures ultimately results in an infamous from-the-headlines murder. It’s a more abstract, subliminal menace in this case – the way stage plays are often psychologically troubling without having to state their menace in-dialogue. The contrast of the fairy tale whimsy and unsettling romantic undertones is apparent here as soon as the characters announce themselves under the names Pig & Runt. Even their shared fantasy of ruling the world as The King & Queen of Everything feels oddly sinister, as long as you take a second to imagine what the world might be like under their rule. In Love Me If You Dare, by contrast, the central relationship doesn’t really become a menace until the couple refuses to give up their childhood game of dares once they become adults. It’s the difference between immaturity being the culprit vs. the kids themselves being a menace through the violent reaction of their chemistry.

There are some unfortunate indulgences in early-aughts aesthetics that keep Disco Pigs from joining the upper echelon of titles in its mutual-obsession genre (namely cheap techno & some unfortunate choices in choppy frame-rates). Much of the psychological menace of its stage play source material shines through in the production, though, if not only through Cillian Murphy’s slack-jawed, dead-eyed (and, honestly, still kind of hot?) portrayal of Pig – a character he originated onstage. Anyone with a fondness for stories of this ilk – Heavenly Creatures, Wuthering Heights, Love Me If You Dare, etc. – should find plenty of delicious menace in that performance, which paves over a lot of the film’s more glaring faults in craft & budget. If nothing else, we can all take solace that we don’t live in a world where Pig & Runt are crowned The King & Queen of Everything. It’s difficult to imagine many hells worse than the one we currently dwell in, but that one sounds like it might qualify.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, the sinister twee romance Love Me If You Dare (2003), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison to the violent attractions of Heavenly Creatures (1993), and last week’s look at its prankish twee predecessor Amelie (2001).

-Brandon Ledet

Romantic Pranks in Parisian Twee

In our initial conversation about our current Movie of the Month, the maniacal twee romcom Love Me If You Dare, CC suggested that one of the reasons she had such a strong affinity for it as a teen is that she happened to catch it before she saw Amélie. That stipulation is a reasonable one to note if you consider the films in tandem. Arriving two years before Love Me If You Dare and achieving much more visible international acclaim (including five Oscar nominations), Amélie provided a blueprint for much of the latter film’s basic quirks & structure. An ungenerous reading of their parallels could even define Love Me If You Dare as a direct Amélie rip-off, given the alarming overlap of their broader details: the intense absinthe-green color correction, the whimsical fairy tale romance that starts in childhood, the tragically deceased mother lost in that childhood, the emotionally distanced father who miserably stayed behind, the female leads’ waitressing jobs at Parisian cafes, etc. Even the coincidence of these overlaps could be dismissed as being the basic building blocks of early-aughts French twee (an aesthetic partly established by Amélie director Jean-Pierre Juenet in general, not just in that picture in particular). What really links Love Me If You Dare to Amélie, though, is the two films’ shared premises of profiling chaotic, prankish adults who hide their romantic feelings for each other behind a childish game that goes on for far too long. However, watching the two films back to back, I do believe Love Me If You Dare manages to justify its own existence beyond merely echoing the accomplishments of Amélie before it. Only, it does so by reimagining a version of Amelie where the central couple aren’t good natured pranksters, but rather total monsters whose romantic games endanger the world around them.

In Love Me If You Dare, the young couple at the center avoid expressing their romantic vulnerabilities for each other by instead focusing on The Game: a lifelong competition of one-upmanship where they trade a cookie tin back & forth that gives them authority to issue an escalating set of dares to each other. As they get older, the dares become increasingly destructive to the point of being lethal, a trajectory that challenges the most extreme boundaries of the romcom genre. The titular character of Amélie similarly hides her feelings for a mysterious beau through a prankish game of one-upmanship; the difference is that her version of mischief is largely harmless to the other citizens of Paris. The young lovers of Juenet’s film play their flirtation as a quiet, mostly private game involving trading discarded photobooth strips left around the city by strangers instead of directly talking to each other. Amélie herself does pull pranks on other, unsuspecting people outside this game – but mostly to their benefit. She helps her father break out of his hermetic life by sending him traveling photos featuring his stolen garden gnome in exotic locales. She helps lonely, elderly people outside her family rediscover their connection to larger social worlds by unearthing precious objects from their past: lost childhood relics; forged letters from dead lovers; homemade VHS montages of found-footage cinema; etc. She even plays matchmaker for an unlikely couple in her café, extending a kindness to others that she won’t afford to herself. The most harmful her pranks get is in her gradual, repeated gaslighting of one local merchant – swapping his shoes for smaller sizes, salting his whiskey, replacing his toothpaste with foot cream – as righteous retribution for his abuses towards his disabled employee. The juvenile pranksters of Love Me If You Dare are so obsessed with each other & themselves that they cause widespread, horrific damage to the world around them without hardly taking notice. By contrast, Amélie spends too little time focusing on herself and instead pranks the outside world with absurdist kindness. These are directly opposed paradigms, making for two drastically different tones – no matter the overlap in details.

Even though Love Me If You Dare & Amélie overlap in a significant portion of their broader details, the specificity of Amélie’s more minuscule, microscopic touches are so manicured & specific that they could never be copied outside a direct remake. The film has a fetish for specificity, zooming in on mundane human experiences like the indent lines pillows leave on faces, the feeling of plunging fingers into cool sacks of grain, and the nervous release of cracking knuckles & popping bubble wrap. By contrast, Love Me If You Dare revels in the broad & the external, following a bombastic, ill-advised relationship’s exponentially violent escalation to the point where it feels like the entire world might end if no one puts a stop to it in time. It’s clear to me, then, that Amélie is the superior film of the pair, whether or not it’s the one you happen to catch first. There’s a very peculiar, detailed, dark-magic energy to its fairy tale rhythms that’s enduringly endearing, trafficking in a hyper-specific, hermetic world that still feels unique & intimate no matter how often it has been echoed in its twee-tinged decedents. Love Me If You Dare’s chaotic misanthropy doesn’t allow for such intimacy, but rather terrorizes its audience by perverting the twee romcom template into something cruel & unpredictable. It’s less a photocopy of Amélie than it is a darkest timeline inversion of that film’s romantic-pranks premise into something deeply sinister. These two films use their respective love-game antics to show what it’s like when twee French whimsy is used for Good vs. when it’s used for Evil. They may exist in the same color-saturated, overly-manicured, early-aughts Paris, but their philosophical worldviews are polar opposites, making for two drastically different experiences.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, the sinister twee romance Love Me If You Dare (2003), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s comparison to the violent attractions of Heavenly Creatures (1993).

-Brandon Ledet

Heavenly Tweetures

Our current Movie of the Month, 2003’s sinister twee romance Love Me If You Dare fits into a thematic pattern I’ve recently noticed in a lot of my personal media consumption: the story of two damned souls who are relatively harmless in isolation but absolute menaces when working in tandem. Films like Sheer Madness, Heathers, Thoroughbreds, and Love Me If You Dare (not to mention one of my all-time favorite novels, Wuthering Heights) establish a canon of stories about young people whose violent, unignorable attraction to each other at the expense of engaging with the world at large leads to deadly, widespread mayhem. Love Me If You Dare is only an outlier in this genre because of its general adherence to romcom tropes and its weakness for twee whimsy. Its story of two young children who bond over an escalating set of dares as they grow into increasingly dangerous adults starts relatively cute & romantic before gradually mutating into an off-the-rails thriller of sorts. Love Me If You Dare’s adherence to romcom tropes & twee whimsy may establish it as an outlier in its own violent-attraction subgenre, but I still don’t know that I’d call the it the most extreme specimen of its ilk. That honor still belongs to Peter Jackson’s 1994 true crime thriller Heavenly Creatures, a film that knows a thing or two about sinister romance & childlike whimsy.

One of the most obvious ways that Heavenly Creatures represents a fucked-up extreme as a tale of violent romance & childhood imagination is its status as a true story ripped from 1950s Australian headlines. In their big screen debuts, then-preteen actors Kate Winslet & Melanie Lynskey star as a pair of misfit schoolgirls who become maniacally obsessed with each other to the point of detaching from reality entirely. Their dual “unwholesome attachment” results in the murder of one of the girls’ mothers, a scandalous tabloid story that made the girls locally infamous for decades. Obviously personally obsessed with the material at hand, Jackson shoots the girls’ murderous attraction to each other with the same funhouse cinematic eye he afforded the over-the-top splatter comedies of his early career, except with a newfound pathos. Jackson’s camera work is as drunk on the characters’ violent chemistry as they are, adapting the same cartoonish aesthetic of his zombie comedies to a newfound, purposeful effect. I could never choose between Heavenly Creatures or Dead Alive as the best title in his catalog, then, as they’re equally, weirdly broad & childish considering the violence of their content. Heavenly Creatures is distinguished there in its immersion in the imagination of two real-life children whose dual fantasy ultimately resulted in a real-life body count. It’s both incredibly impressive and incredibly fucked up how well Jackson manages to put his audience in the headspace of these two extemely particular young women.

The parallels between Heavenly Creatures and Love Me If You Dare are unmistakable once you start looking for them. The two girls in Heavenly Creatures initially bond over their shared history of debilitating illness, whereas Love Me If You Dare also begins with a long-term terminal illness disrupting a family’s functionality. Both films detail children forming intense bonds across class lines, with working class parents initially embracing their children’s intense friendship with better-off classmates for the potential social mobility before the red flags become unignorable. Most substantially, the two childhood bonds established between them are built upon flights of fancy that go too far: in one, the game of escalating dares; in the other, the roleplaying game of the fantasy kingdom of Borovnia. Although it is based on real-life events, Heavenly Creatures is just as prone to reality-breaking whimsy as Love Me If You Dare, bringing to life the made-up fantasy kingdom of Borovnia that the girls’ dual imagination concocted in real life. The clay figures the girls use at playtime are frequently blown up to life-size fantasy figures as they sink further into their escapist imaginations to avoid the dull Hell of reality. While the doomed pranksters of Love Me If You Dare grow up into the real-world adults, the fantasy-prone murderers of Heavenly Creatures shy further away from it. What’s really fucked up about that dynamic is that the young children of Heavenly Creatures are much more honest & active in expressing their romantic, sexual, and violent attraction to each other than the gradually adult players of Love Me If You Dare, even if both pairs’ inevitable downfall is an inability to fully distinguish the border between fantasy & real-life consequence.

Considering its own clash of childlike imagination & deadly menace, it’s tempting to suppose that Heavenly Creatures might’ve taken on a more twee aesthetic if it were released a decade later than it was. Peter Jackson would have been working on the Lord of the Rings films around the time of Love Me If You Dare’s release, a series that is in no way twee or cutesy (or, in my opinion, nowhere near as good as Heavenly Creatures), but a different director handling that same material in the early aughts could’ve transformed it into a twee classic with just a few tonal tweaks. It’s not too difficult to imagine a Michel Gondry or Jean-Pierre Juenet playing around with the same eerie whimsy of the Barovnian clay kingdom in their own retelling of the story. I’d even argue that you get a decent taste of what a twee Heavenly Creatures might have been like in the early childhood stretch of Love Me If You Dare. The debut feature of the much less-accomplished Yann Samuell, Love Me If You Dare never had the chance to compare to the pure cinematic bliss of Heavenly Creatures. No matter what it may lack in craft, however, it’s still impressive how the film manages to match the maniacal energy & deadly stakes of Jackson’s superior work while still mimicking the basic tones & tropes of the early-aughts twee romcom: the most sinister of cinematic balancing acts.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, the sinster twee romance Love Me If You Dare (2003), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-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

Movie of the Month: Love Me If You Dare (2003)

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 CC made Britnee, Brandon, and Boomer watch Love Me if You Dare (2003).

CC: When I was a culturally starved teenager, it was incredibly rare for me to program my own media intake. I desperately wanted to watch pretentious art films and feel like an intellectual, but at the time I was living in a FoxNews and Tim Allen comedy world, stifling my artsy-fartsy dreams. However, I do remember one pivotal weekend when I was around fourteen or fifteen where I got to indulge myself on those impulses. Left alone to set my own schedule, I spent an entire few days’ vacation from others’ control sunbathing and eating bagels all day, and binge-watching the Sundance & IFC movie channels all night. I don’t remember most of the movies I watched that weekend, but a few really stood out to me as gems, including the 2003 French romantic comedy Love Me If You Dare. Something about Love Me If You Dare‘s subversive tone (and bizarre ending) struck me as extraordinary and, importantly at the time, sophisticated. This is before I had even seen Amélie, so I had truly not experienced anything like this unconventional, artsy, French romcom before.

Love Me If You Dare is the story of a boy and girl duo (Guillume Canet and Marion Cotillard) who are locked in a life-long game of romantic oneupsmanship. They first meet as children when the girl is being bullied and the boy cheers her up with the gift of a cookie tin. From there they develop a mischievous game, where whoever possesses the cookie tin can issue a dare the other has to complete, no matter how outrageous. They pass the tin back and forth this way with each completed dare, with no end to the game in sight. Told from the boy’s POV, the story follows this game’s escalation from relatively harmless childhood anarchy to catastrophically destructive mayhem as they hit adulthood and sexual maturity. The film is set up like a traditional romcom, but it’s weirdly antagonistic towards its audience in a way that genre usually isn’t. Its sweet setups usually lead to sour payoffs, subverting expectations established by traditional romcom patterns.

Brandon, given this film’s devious deviations from genre, would you even consider this a romcom? Is there any other genre that would be a more apt description?

Brandon: I don’t think I would readily describe Love Me If You Dare as a romantic comedy, but I’m not exactly sure why. It’s romantic; it’s (darkly) humorous. Yet, classifying it simply as a romcom feels no more accurate than it would be to describe Heathers or Heavenly Creatures as such. This is, at heart, the story of two adrenaline junkies whose violent attraction to each other’s mischievous spirits only leads to destruction. Something about the volatile clash of their thrill-seeking energies (and overactive imaginations) is a Biblically destructive force, crushing the lives of any innocent bystanders in their vicinity who are just trying to get through the day while they are daring each other to tear the world apart. It’s like visiting a world where two Bugs Bunnies are anarchically attempting to out-Bugs Bunny each other, when one is already far more than enough. Sure, the hetero romance at its core (where two characters who are obviously made for each other eventually find a way to be together forever) is a textbook romcom dynamic, but the devilish details veer so far off the rails that its romantic beginnings are a faded memory by the time we reach the life-threatening oneupsmanship of the bonkers third act. We’ve covered romcoms for Movie of the Month before with similarly subversive escalations of unromantic danger: the Hitchcock-riffing Head Over Heels & the noirish Mrs. Winterborne, to be specific. Those examples feel like extreme outliers in the genre, however, and Love Me If You Dare‘s own maniacal self-escalation might even best them in its sheer audacity.

If I had to ascribe Love Me If You Dare to a single genre it might be this: twee mayhem. In general, twee is a much more difficult genre to recommend (or even to define) than the romantic comedy, as it was specific to a very distinct time & sentiment. As I was also a culturally-starved teenager in the early aught, I’m personally predisposed to being helpless to twee pop culture. Where more cynical audiences were revolted by the whimsical imagination, visual fussiness, and cutesy musical cues of twee, I found a desperately needed respite from the grotesque, macho muck pop culture was stuck in for the nu-metal end of the late 90s & early 00s (not knowing at the time that I was mostly watching ideas repurposed & repackaged from French New Wave artists half a century prior). I’ll concede that a lot of twee has aged horribly in the last couple decades; I’ve rolled my eyes at many a Zooey Dechanel project & Etsy store as the years have trudged along. However, I don’t think the loosely-defined genre ever got enough credit for how dark & melancholy it was just below its meticulously curated surface. Artists like Wes Anderson, Michel Gondry, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet often handle topics like depression, abuse, dead pets, and terminal illness with childlike vulnerability & outsized emotions – crafting art that looks pretty but is often surprisingly sinister. That’s exactly where I see Love Me If You Dare fitting in. It’s a darkly romantic comedy that starts with themes like cancer, poverty, and nationalist bullying before escalating to full-blown torture, murder, and suicide. How sweet! Even considering similarly morbid twee romances like Pushing Daisies or Amélie, this film reaches a level of destructive mayhem that feels remarkable for its cutesy tone of childlike whimsy.

Boomer, how does Love Me If You Dare fit into the twee romance template for you? Does it feel at home with how you typically experience the genre or does its level of destructive mayhem make it as much of an outlier in that context as it is as a romcom?

Boomer: It’s funny that you mention Wes Anderson, a director that I love; while watching Love Me if You Dare, my roommate got up and left the room twenty minutes in, saying “This is what I see when I look at a Wes Anderson movie” (he’s not a fan). I think that I might have a slightly different idea of what comprises twee filmmaking; my go-to example of the genre is God Help the Girl, the 2014 film project of Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch starring Emily Browning, Olly Alexander (of queerpop band Years & Years), and Hannah Murray (Skins, Game of Thrones, Bridgend) – a musical featuring songs from Murdoch’s 2009 concept album of the same name. As much as I love Belle & Sebastian – they’re one of my top 5 all time bands – when I finally found a copy of God Help the Girl I hated it for the first fifteen minutes before realizing that I could just give into it and have a good time, and a good time I had indeed. I would also note that I, too, am generally disposed to be forgiving of tweeness when I find it, and for much the same reasons, and I’d add Stranger than Fiction, I ♥ Huckabees, and the most recent TV version of Dirk Gently, Holistic Detective to that canon. It’s fine to enjoy things. I even spent this last New Year’s Eve watching a Friday the 13th marathon on TV with my best friend while we listened to Françoise Hardy records she brought back from France; since those films are mostly young adults wandering through the woods, skinny dipping, and angsting about getting laid, having Le premier bonheur du jour play on while little Corey Feldman watched the horny teens next door get down to business turned the whole film series into a franchise of French coming-of-age films that just happened to have a hockey masked murderer show up from time to time (relax Mrs. Voorhees “well, actually” purists: they were only showing III-VII on a loop). So you could say that even when there is no twee, I might end up adding it in myself.

You also mentioned Heathers, and around these parts it’s no secret that it’s my favorite movie of all time. I’ve never really imagined that it fell into the “twee” category (the musical version notwithstanding) simply because it’s so weirdly and unabashedly dark (“Corn. Nuts!”) and even its lighter elements are still part of an all-encompassingly nihilistic worldview, even with Martha doing a little doughnut on the scooter in the hallway of Westerberg High at the end. I understand where you’re coming from, though, as Love Me if You Dare has a lot of the same hallmarks, and I think that the difference for me comes from the fact that, ultimately Veronica recognizes that her suburban dissatisfaction and the town-wide ignorance of parents and school administrators alike has led her to go all-in on J.D.’s menacing plans for the future. It feels right, in the same way that if Julien and Sophie had pulled back from their life-and-death game of dares it would have felt wrong. Any cutesiness that arises from their ever-escalating dare tag is belied by how utterly committed they are to the whole thing: even the first dare endangers a school bus full of children (granted, they were a bunch of racist little shits who deserved a good scare if nothing else). If that level of intensity had ever been subverted, it would be a different story, but by starting with that platform of playful malice and going from there, there’s never a moment where you really question how cute the whole thing is, until the leads are buried in concrete (or are they?). As it stands, I’d say that it’s just as much a subversion of romcom standards as it is of performative cuteness, so it’s equally an outlier for both but the gentle ribbing it gives to both genres is born out of fondness and affection, rather than something like Heathers (which specifically aims to undermine the supposed harmlessness of eighties teen romances à la John Hughes) or my dearly beloved trash masterpiece Head Over Heels (which asks the question: what if the misunderstanding that separates the two romantic leads involved a murder, maybe?).

Britnee, with regards to romances that take themselves more seriously than Love Me if You Dare, they often have a lot of the same tropes that are present here: the angelically perfect parent with vaguely defined medical problems, resentment from the remaining living parent, economic and/or social stratification between the two romantic leads, etc. Do you think these work here, or do they undercut the smirking self-awareness that the movie has? Are there any that I’ve missed or that you felt should have been present here?

Britnee: Love Me If You Dare had a way of making the basic tropes of romantic films very unsettling. Were we supposed to laugh when Julien was being an insanely rambunctious kid while his mother was dying in her hospital room? Was his relationship with his dad supposed to break our hearts or make us roll our eyes and chuckle? I’m still not sure what the answer is. I love how the film challenged my emotions and really got me to question my humor and sensitivity.

Another romance trope that the film pokes fun at is the reunited lovers living happily ever after. Both Julien and Sophie marry other people and have completely different lives with their significant others. Once the two get together for real without prolonging the game, they don’t run off to start a new life. Instead, they drown in cement at a construction site while making out with each other. It’s so wonderful and silly.

What I enjoyed the most about Love Me If You Dare is the beginning of the film that focuses on Sophie and Julien’s blossoming childhood friendship. Their childlike imagination is brought to life on the screen with whimsical visuals and slanted camera angles. Some scenes even looked like they were taking place in a lifesize pop-up book. Their innocent shenanigans (for the most part) were quirky and adorable, but once the two were pulling the same crap as teenagers and adults, they seemed like total monsters.

CC, did you find young Sophie and Julien to be more likeable than grown Sophie and Julien?

CC: Absolutely! If a teacher lectures a child and said child starts to pee themselves, it’s hilarious. If another adult pees on you, it ruins your day and both parties feel a great deal of shame. Sophie and Julian were two troubled children who used their game as a means of coping with poverty and emotional isolation, respectively. As adults we expect them to either “grow up” and stop playing the game or to get professional help. I’m not saying that children aren’t capable of daring each other to commit heinous crimes, but in the context of this film, the crimes Sophie and Julian commit as adults destroy the lives of everyone in their path. It’s one thing to utter a string of scatological expletives during class in elementary school; it’s another to frame someone for attempted murder and call the French equivalent of the SWAT team on them as a prank.

I think what is most frustrating about their relationship as adults is their refusal to admit their feelings for each other. Neither one is brave enough to declare their love and end the game so it just drags on and on, destroying everything in its path.

Brandon, this film feels very French to me, but do you think it had to be set in France to work? Would it have read as “twee” if it were set elsewhere?

Brandon: It’s more than a vague cultural sensibility or sense of morbid whimsy that makes Love Me If You Dare feel distinctly French. It’s that the film feels so in line with French Cinema of its era. The sickly green digital palette of its early 00s aesthetic is unmistakably akin to the look of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s works. The artificial hand-built theatrical sets of the early childhood fantasy sequences are pure Michel Gondry (who was mostly popular as a music video auteur at the time). It’s like a Greatest Hits collection of early aughts twee aesthetics in that way, except that the limited scope of its CGI budget and the . . . moderate visual talents of debut filmmaker Yann Samuel sometimes make it feel like the kind of Greatest Hits collection you find in a grocery store checkout line or gas station CD rack. What truly makes the film special, then, what distinguishes it among its French cinema peers, is the increasingly morbid nature of its central romance. You can see its absurdist dynamic of two volatile minds who are unavoidably drawn to each other reflected in works from other countries: Heathers, Heavenly Creatures, Thoroughbreds – films far outside the realm of twee. Clashing that inevitably tragic relationship dynamic with the overactive imagination of childhood whimsy does feel distinctly French to me, though, even beyond its adoption of twee visual tropes specifically.

Of course, twee has been exported globally to the point where it is no longer explicitly French, if it ever was. Michel Gondry made most of his iconic works in America. Wes Anderson, a hipster Texan, is a cornerstone of the aesthetic. 2010s twee devotees like the Australian dreamworld comedy Girl Asleep and the aforementioned Scottish musical God Help the Girl are twee as fuck, undeniably so. I’d like to think you could export Love Me If You Dare to practically any urban setting without losing what distinguishes it as twee. What I’d be more concerned about losing in that translation is one of the major reasons the film works as well as it does and one of the defining tropes of artsy-fartsy French cinema at large: the bleak ending. It’s almost a cliché to say that Hollywood productions are more inclined to have a happy ending than their French film counterparts, but I could very easily see an American remake of this film sidestepping or undercutting its tragic conclusion while maintaining the twee whimsy free of morbidity, zapping it of its magic.

Boomer, am I being my own worst nightmare (a pretentious art film snob) by assuming that this quirky French romance must have a tragic ending to succeed on its own terms? Is there any satisfying way you can see this story about two thrill-seeking hedonists who express their affection through torturous dares concluding without them dying in each other’s arms, locked away from the rest of the world? Would a traditional “Hollywood ending” have ruined the appeal of the film’s otherwise sinister romance dynamic?

Boomer: If I’m being completely honest, at the moment that Julien (supposedly) crashed into that truck while speeding away from the police and apparently died, I thought the film was over. When it continued and there was more to it, I thought to myself, “Oh, how French.” It’s not that the French are without morality, of course (I saw enough Earth Day demonstrations in Lyonne last year to know that there are things about which they care deeply and passionately), but their different viewpoint on the relativistic ethics of sexpolitik are pretty different from ours (or at least mine; I’m not trying to project onto anyone else in this group). For me, I kept expecting a more American moralistic standpoint to leap out of the shadows and take over this viewing experience; as a result, I expected that this purely hedonistic joy that Julien declared to be better than [insert your drug/sex position/adrenaline junkie activity of choice here] to be his last moment, and that we were being treated to a Hays-lite moralization that “This may look like fun but it is bad and you will be punished.” And to be honest, I wasn’t entirely opposed to that? Interpreting from a purely American perspective is tricky; while I was watching the scene of Julien’s mother’s death, which Britnee mentioned above, I found myself consciously thinking that this would be treated differently in an American film. Here, I think it demonstrates that Julien is deeply unaware of just how unwell his mother really is, and reflects the way that children fail to understand the articulation of the adult world, and that tragic failure to read the situation may even be the instigating factor in his inability to navigate the adult world with any kind of joy outside of his game with Sophie. That’s not explicit (although it would be in an American film), but it gets to the heart of your question: is there anything tragic in this film (like, as you asked, the ending) that is treated with the deference due to tragedy? Even if death at the bottom of a concrete pylon is a tragedy in theory, the film doesn’t treat it this way, instead acting as if living to a ripe (and ribald) old age is just as emotionally satisfying a “happy” ending as being buried alive. Honestly, seeing the elderly Julien and Sophie together is the Hollywood ending, and it’s not nearly as thematically resonant or tonally consistent as (what I assume is) the real ending. That’s not necessarily being artsy-fartsy to say so, but it does underline all of the ways that this differs from the mean.

Britnee, you mentioned above that you found the first act which took place during our leads’ respective childhoods to be more endearing than the rest of the film. I agree, although I wasn’t as cold to the rest of it as you were. How would you have preferred to see this play out? What changes would you have made?

Britnee: The romcom-loving side of me would want to see Julien and Sophie get together for good in the dinner scene when he fake proposes to her. That was probably the most upsetting scene in the entire film. The secondhand embarrassment was so bad and made me hate Julien so much. After the proposal, the rest of the film would be a quirky journey to their wedding day. Julien’s father would have a come-to-Jesus moment and embrace his son on his wedding day, letting him know how proud he is of him and how much he loves him. Sophie’s sister would give a heartfelt toast at the reception explaining how she forgives her sister for ruining her wedding cake. Their families would just come together in the comic style of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Basically, I want My Big Fat French Wedding to be a thing.

I don’t want to seem like I don’t appreciate the darkness of Love Me If You Dare, because I do. I just have to be in the right mindset to watch two people lose their minds on a path of destruction.

Lagniappe

Boomer: Man, Julien’s father is such an asshole.

Britnee: Part of me still doesn’t think that Julien and Sophie really died in the end. It’s very unlikely that they lived, but based on all the other times I thought they died when they didn’t, I just don’t trust them.

Brandon: I do think this movie’s greatest asset is the unpredictability of its storytelling, which makes it feel as if anything is possible from minute to minute, as long as that anything is emotionally cruel. What impresses me most about that unpredictability is that the storyline still manages to maintain a clear, logical progression in its tone & aesthetic; it’s not all chaos. The dreamlike pop-up book sequence Britnee described feels totally in tune with the characters’ childhood imaginations, which later give way to the visual tropes of action thrillers, romantic melodramas, and wedding ring jewelry commercials as they grow into adults. I also greatly admire the trajectory of its central romance, which does not shy away from the impossible scenario these two characters have set up for themselves where “Happily ever after” cannot be achieved without a few casualties, if not the end of the world. For all of the film’s visual showiness as an excited director’s dressed-to-impress debut, its value as an off-kilter feat in morbid, fluid storytelling is what really makes it a gem.

CC: I’m really glad this film held up! Once I saw Amélie a couple years later, it obviously replaced Love Me If You Dare as my favorite darkly whimsical French film, but this still holds up on revisit.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
April: Brandon presents Local Legends (2013)
May: Britnee presents Belizaire the Cajun (1986)
June: Boomer presents Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)

-The Swampflix Crew

I Want to Eat Your Pancreas (2019)

Although it’s at best a cult favorite in America, the animated supernatural teen romance Your Name. was a massive success in its native Japan. Likely fueled by repeat viewings from droves of lovelorn teens, the film broke all kinds of box office records – spawning official merchandize jewelry, planned live action remakes and, unavoidably, knockoffs. The teen anime romance is nothing new as a genre (if nothing else, Your Name. director Makoto Shinkai also made a film titled 5 Centimeters Per Second in a very similar vein as his smash hit an entire decade earlier), but there are some basic elements of Your Name. that have been echoed & rearranged enough times in the couple years since its massive success to establish an entire subgenre of knockoffs. Lightly proggy emo soundtracks, heart-swelling fireworks displays, supernatural shenanigans, and overreaching romantic narration have become almost standard in the post-Your Name. teen anime, as if films were attempting to reverse-engineer its success using the exact same building blocks. Last year’s goofily haphazard Fireworks is a clear example of how the cynical Your Name. riff can fall flat on its face – the butt of some cosmic, absurdist joke. Although it’s more humorously titled, this year’s I Want to Eat Your Pancreas swings in the exact opposite direction – suggesting that the sub-Your Name. genre is worthy of being continued & explored, that there’s plenty of room to keep the formula flesh & emotionally effective.

Part of I Want to Eat Your Pancreas’s saving grace as a deliberate Your Name. riff (besides its attention-grabbing title) is that it’s adapted from well-established source material entirely separate from its newfound anime subgenre. A YA teen romance novel that has already been adapted into a manga series and a live-action film titled Let Me Eat Your Pancreas, this is a property that’s already popular & familiar enough to Japanese audiences to stand on its own legs as an individual work. It even comes from a different angle than Your Name. in that its premise isn’t at all supernatural, but instead is a romantic terminal illness teen weepie along the lines of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, The Fault in Our Stars, and the upcoming Cole Sprouse vehicle Five Feet Apart. A high school student who’s eternally cheerful despite slowly dying of “a pancreatic disease” becomes unlikely friends with (and the unlikely love interest of) a stubbornly antisocial boy who’s defiantly boring & needs help breaking out of his shell, but reluctantly gets roped into helping the dying girl complete her bucket list anyway. The quiet, conversational drama that unfolds from that premise doesn’t sound at all similar to the raucous body-swapping, physics-defying romance of Your Name., which helps the film distinguish itself from that apparently seminal work. However, as the checkboxes of the purple narration, power pop soundtrack, and CG fireworks display are each ticked off the entire exercise starts to feel strikingly familiar. Then, it all ends in a climactic supernatural fantasy that transcends reality in a sequence inspired by The Little Prince on a planet populated by cherry blossom trees – far away from the grounded, conversational tone of its source material – solidifying it as a fully committed Your Name. disciple.

To be honest, distinguishing itself from Your Name. was far from I Want to Eat Your Pancreas’s greatest hurdle to clear. There’s a reason that formula has been echoed in so many recent teen anime titles: it works. If anything, it’s the terminal illness weepie premise of its source material that threatens to sink its enjoyability, especially in regard to its choice of POV. This is the story of a chipper, terminally ill child who seemingly lives without fear; she misshelves library books, kicks bullies in the nuts, runs from cops, experiments with alcohol & sex, gorges on rich foods, and does basically everything else a rebellious suburban teen wishes they could get away with. So why, then, do we instead see the world through the POV of her polar opposite, a killjoy boy who literally feels sorry for himself because he’s boring? It initially seems as if this choice were a textbook repetition of the Manic Pixie Dying Girl trope, where a tragic girl with a rambunctious spirit exists only to improve the life & disposition of a milquetoast male protagonist with a much less interesting POV. If you afford I Want to Eat Your Pancreas a little patience, that dynamic is beautifully subverted in its emotionally cathartic climax, which saves the entire film in one paradigm-shifting information dump. In reading the Manic Pixie Dying Girl’s private diary (morbidly titled Living with Dying), we’re suddenly flooded with her perspective & story of personal growth, something that had been missing for the entire film before it. Not only is there a huge emotional payoff in that reveal, it’s also where the film justifies its animation format by reaching for some Little Prince by way of Sailor Moon surrealism to match the soaring emotional stakes of that catharsis. The trick is trusting the film long enough to get there.

The flashier, attention-grabbing details of I Want to Eat Your Pancreas are likely to draw in most of the audience, but also promise a much wilder, louder movie than what’s ultimately delivered. Once you look past its weirdly cannibalistic title, its Your Name.-riffing aesthetic, and the severity of tis terminal illness romance premise, however, you will find an intimate, minor teen drama that (outside the visualization of its climax) makes total sense as a work that was previously translated into live action. There are slideshow sequences & CG animation shortcuts that call into question the film’s need to be animated at all, outside the opportunity to ride the wave of Your Name.’s success, but it’s a decision that’s eventually justified, even if at the last minute. More importantly, I Want to Eat Your Pancreas eventually finds distinct, emotionally satisfying things to say about how teens establish their sense of identity & self-worth that feel entirely separate from its value as a post-Your Name. anime or a post-John Green teen weepie. It takes a lot of work for the film to stand on its own beyond those comparison points and the novelty it its title, but it does get there with time & patience.

-Brandon Ledet

Burning (2018)

It doesn’t come up here very often as this is a film review site and not a place where I brag about all the books I read, but I’m a huge fan of Haruki Murakami. I was 16 in 2004 when a friend recommended The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the book helped save my life in a dark time. Murakami has notoriously been reticent to hand over adaptation rights to much of his work (and if you’re a fan, imagine someone trying to turn 1Q84 or Kafka on the Shore into a movie and you can probably see why), but director Lee Chang-dong (Oasis, Secret Sunshine) did it, and the result is nothing less than spectacular. It took a little time, but Burning made its way back to Austin via the Film Society Cinema, and it was well worth the wait.

After his father runs into trouble with the law, Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), who finished college after his mandatory military service but has yet to find gainful employment, is making his way back to his father’s small farm in his hometown near the North Korean border to manage his livestock. Along the way, he runs into Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a childhood friend and neighbor, whom he doesn’t recognize at first, which she attributes to plastic surgery. She demonstrates a talent for pantomime and tells him that she is planning a trip to Africa and asks him to feed her cat, Boil, while she is out of the country. The two sleep together when she gives him the tour of her tiny apartment, showing him the one spot in the single room which gets a ray of sunshine reflected off of the Seoul Tower for a few moments a day. After she leaves, he attends his father’s arraignment and attends to feeding Boil, whom he never sees, and grows more attached to Hae-mi in her absence. When Hae-mi returns from Kenya, she is accompanied by Ben (Steven Yeun), a fellow Korean with whom she bonded when they were both trapped in the Nairobi airport for three days due to a terror warning. The three attend dinner together, where Ben plays coy about his employment and claims to have never shed a tear in his adult life as he has never experienced sadness, while Jong-su appears envious of the rapport Ben and Hae-mi have developed.

The three get together again and Ben prepares dinner (or, as he says he sometimes imagines, and offering to himself) in his home, an upscale apartment in Seoul’s expensive Gangnam neighborhood; Jong-su compares him to Jay Gatsby, a young man of great wealth whose income is obscure. Still later, Ben and Hae-mi visit Jong-su’s farm and the three get high; Hae-mi dances topless beneath a beautiful sunset, Jong-su opens up about his mother’s departure when he was a child and his father’s anger, and Ben admits to having a fascination with burning down greenhouses. Jong-su insults and shames Hae-mi, and she and Ben leave. Later, when Jong-su tries to contact her again, she doesn’t respond. Eventually her phone number is disconnected, and after a visit to the Shin family still reveals no secrets, Jong-su investigates further. But what is he chasing? A woman? A shadow? A victim? A dream? A ghost? Someone who was never there at all?

This movie is dense. It also never feels its length, moving along at a steady clip for all 150 minutes. I’d never read “Barn Burning,” the Murakami short story on which the film is loosely based (and which was in turn inspired by a Faulkner story), but there’s a 13 page PDF version floating around the internet, so I gave it a quick once-over to see how much of the film’s plot correlated to the original text, and it’s less than you would expect. Still, it’s obvious that Lee (the director, not the carrier) is a fan of Murakami’s wider body of work based on other elements that he inserted in expanding the 5000ish word piece into a sprawling film. There’s no cat in “Barn Burning,” for instance, but the presence of cats in the author’s work can’t be understated (the missing cat Noboru kicks off the plot of Wind-Up Bird, Tengo’s obsession with a short story about a town of cats is an integral part of 1Q84, and Nakata in Kafka on the Shore can communicate with cats, just to name a few). There’s also no mention in the story of the father of the unnamed narrator (who is older than Jong-su), but bad fathers are also a frequent element in Murakami’s work (the titular Kafka runs away from home because of his father, Tengo’s reminisces about his childhood that don’t involve around Aomame are all about being used as a prop by his father on his NHK fee-collecting route, etc.), and Jong-su’s father here is explicitly a man with anger issues who drove his wife away before forcing his son to burn the woman’s clothes and who can’t seem to stop fighting with local authorities. As soon as there was a cat and a shitty dad, I thought to myself, “Now all we need is a well,” and sure enough, Hae-mi ended up telling a (probably false) story about falling into a well as a child and being rescued by Jong-su about ten minutes of screentime later. It’s all the Murakami hallmarks you’ve come to know and love, even down to the fact that the song Hae-mi dances to is Miles Davis’s “Générique,” although the narrator mentions that the trio listened to Davis during the visit to his home in “Barn Burning.” All that’s missing is an internal monologue about staying in shape by swimming in the city’s public pool or a step-by-step recitation of how to take care of vinyl records and you’d hit Murakami bingo.

Not that you need to speak Murakami to love this film. I confess I’ve not seen any of Lee’s previous work, but I have to imagine that if it contains half the subtlety, the meaningful composition, the sweeping cinematic beauty, and the intensity of emotion here, it’s no wonder he’s considered one of the great living directors (just look at the list of awards and honors on his wikipedia page). It’s almost impossible to really get into the layers of composition here without giving too much away, since there’s a lot going on. Just how reliable is Jong-su’s point of view? He paints Ben as Jay Gatsby, but Ben comes across more as a Tom Buchanan type, with Hae-mi as the mercurial and flighty Daisy to Jong-su’s obsessive Gatsby (albeit lacking in the archetype’s material wealth). We dislike Ben because Jong-su does, but should we like Jong-su, really, even before he starts to suspect Ben might have had something to do with Hae-mi’s disappearance and thus stalks Ben around in the world’s most conspicuous “stealth” vehicle? But if Ben’s so innocent, what is he up to with all his mysterious riches and his gaggle of friends? Is he a sociopath, as his lack of empathy seems to imply? What’s up with his collection of women’s jewelry – is he hiding a cuckqueaned wife from his series of girlfriends? Is this his collection of trophies from sexual conquests? Something more sinister? What really happened to Hae-mi? When she returns from Kenya, she delivers a poignant monologue about watching the sunset over the desert and feeling that she was at the end of the world, citing fear of death but a desire for non-existence. Did she disappear because that’s what she really wanted? This hearkens back to her explanation of pantomiming eating a tangerine (which does come from the short story): it’s not about believing that the tangerine is there, but forgetting that it isn’t. Does she want to not exist, or does she want to forget that she ever did? We even see this void/lack when Jong-su visits Hae-mi’s mother and sister, who not only haven’t seen her but tell Jong-su that she’s not welcome to return until she repays her debts; they’re correct that Hae-mi is responsible for Jong-su’s visit despite his protests that she didn’t send him, they simply don’t realize that its Hae-mi’s absence that is driving him.

I really can’t add any more here without telling you too much. Just go watch Burning. It’s currently streaming for $3.99 (a steal, believe me) on Vudu and Amazon Prime.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Cold War (2018)

There’s an expensive type of fine art photography print—one with processing names like Ilfochrome & Cibachrome—that makes black & white prints look positively silver, vibrantly metallic instead of merely devoid of color. It’s a look that’s been digitally replicated recently in comic book noir visual experiments like (the positively dreadful) Sin City & Mad Max: Fury Road’s (surprisingly worthwhile) “Black & Chrome” reissue. It’s also so old-fashioned to cinematic language that the phrase “on the silver screen” is a well-worn cliché. The most striking thing about the romantic Polish drama Cold War is the silver glow of its cinematography – so visually stunning it recalls seeing an expensive Cibachrome print in person instead of in recreation. Shot in a boxy “Academy” aspect ratio and covering nearly two decades of a tragic romance in 90 rapid-fire minutes of editing room efficiency, Cold War is undeniably impressive as a formalist object. It’s absolutely stunning as a fine art photograph – both handsome & haunting in its cold, metallic imagery. Yet, as a motion picture it’s a little too formally rigid for its own good, and staring at any still image photograph for 90 consecutive minutes is going to test your patience, no matter how well composed.

That’s not to say there’s no passion, music, or movement to the story Cold War tells. In fact, its story about two mismatched lovers whose passionate, unavoidable attraction to each other inevitably leads them to ruin is full of life & music. It’s just that its overwhelming, soul-consuming emotions are directly at odds with its art gallery formalism. A music director of a Polish folk preservation project falls in love with one of the more mysterious, magnetic performers in his cast – a young woman with a violent past. Their lust for each other is consummated quickly across class lines, but they subsequently fail to establish a normal, healthy life together as romantic partners. As an artistic musical project meant to preserve authentic Polish folk culture is coopted as nationalist propaganda under Stalinist rule, indicating the general political landscape around them, the two lovers make drastically different choices in how they relate to their shared homeland. Their mutual attraction to each other is deadly powerful, however, and they continually cross social, political, and ethical boundaries over a decade or so of dangerous cat & mouse “romance.” The problem is that the harshly segmented edits, rigidly formalist photography, and overall machine-like precision of the filmmaking does little to match or enhance their passion. As impressed as I was with the film’s storytelling efficiency, it felt like the deadly attraction at its core kept getting cut short every time it started to heat up. The result was very pretty to look at, but also frustratedly stilted in its movement.

The opening “Poland’s Got Talent” portion of Cold War, where hipster sophisticates “elevate” “peasant-style” folk art by affording it a proper stage, matched the rigid fine art photography of its formalist structure perfectly. As the wild, destructive passions of its story heat up & flame out, however, the film does little to signify that change in any noticeable way. It’s like watching a handsomely composed still photograph try to break form and become a motion picture, but it never leaves its fixed spot on the art gallery wall. This is a complaint I saw lodged much more frequently (and, to me, erroneously) at another one of this year’s Oscar frontrunners: Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. If any film’s form does not match its subject, it’s Cold War, where it’s easy to be impressed with the silver screen artistry of the projected image, but difficult to get swept up in the music, movement, and emotion before they’re harshly cut short. I can’t deny the potency of the film’s visual achievements, but I wonder if they were applied to the right project.

-Brandon Ledet