The New Twee Extremity

Earlier this year, there were a couple low-budget, high-ambition throwbacks to the handcrafted twee fantasies Michel Gondry was making when I was in high school & college in the aughts.  There’s a proto-Etsy craftiness to the visual effects & heart-on-sleeve sentimentality of both Strawberry Mansion & Everything Everywhere All at Once that sent me time-traveling back to the twee era. In their wake, I even revisited Gondry’s divisive dreamscape drama The Science of Sleep to confront what an emotionally inept dipshit I was at the time.  It was an era when film festival titans like Gondry, Spike Jonze, and Wes Anderson ruled the land . . . at least in my mildewed apartment where Belle & Sebastian blared while half-formed semi-adults got stoned and doodled in coloring books.  I didn’t even know the term “twee” was a pejorative.  That label was slapped on so much art I loved in my formative years that it registered as the name of a movement rather than a critical insult.  So, I’ve been heartened to see Gondry’s influence creep up in recent films like Sorry to Bother You, Girl Asleep, and Dave Made a Maze.  I’m even more heartened to see a new generation of college-age weirdos embrace the small crafts & big emotions of Everything Everywhere the same way I did when twee was the go-to alt aesthetic.  I imagine Strawberry Mansion would also be a hit with that crowd, if it had a big enough marketing push for them to know it exists.  I’m getting to the age now when my generation is old enough to make mass-distributed art, and there’s apparently still a lot of affection for twee whimsy out there, despite early critical rejection of the (loosely defined) genre’s cutesy sentimentality.  I’m also encouraged to see directors like the Daniels, Kentucker Audley, and Albert Birney pushing twee aesthetics to new, modern extremes. Both Strawberry Mansion & Everything Everywhere recall vintage twee cinema, but neither could not be mistaken for being made in the aughts.

One of the signs that twee aesthetics are back in vogue is the wealth of recent stop-motion animation.  The dreamworld stop-motion effects of Strawberry Mansion account for a lot of that film’s Gondry-throwback appeal; the film-nerd celebration of Phil Tippett’s Mad God hints at a culture-wide appreciation for handcrafted art; and the heavily textured surfaces of the horror anthology The House feel like they were lifted directly from a Wes Anderson moodboard.  None of these recent stop-motion novelties could claim to be quite as twee as the Marcel the Shell with Shoes On movie, though, which is so aggressively cutesy it’s outright daring cynics to call it cloying & twee.  The titular Marcel is a thimble-sized seashell with a googly eye (speaking of Everything Everywhere) and a titular pair of sneakers.  Voiced by Jenny Slate in the creakiest, Joanna Newsomiest voice she can manage, Marcel’s entire existence is a celebration of how cute things are in miniature.  I remember the original series of Marcel the Shell shorts functioning as a rapidfire joke delivery system where every punchline is “So small!”, as Marcel shows off what he uses as a hat (a lentil), a hang glider (a Dorito), and skis (toenails from a man), etc.  That relentless setup/punchline rhythm carries over to the movie brilliantly, but Slate & director Dean Fleisher-Camp triple down on the twee whimsy of the shorts by expanding them into a feature film about loneliness, community, and loss.  Whenever cynics decry twee art for being overly cutesy on its fussy, manicured surface, I always feel like they’re deliberately overlooking how much deeply felt hurt & sadness is lurking just beyond that aesthetic armor.  With the Marcel the Shell movie, Slate & Fleisher-Camp are a real-life divorced couple collaborating on a heartfelt story about loss of community and the difficulties of friendship by revisiting a long-dead project they created when there were still together.  There’s some sincere love & heartbreak to be found in this stop-motion fantasy adventure, as long as you can get over your initial, cynical reaction to its overdose of tiny-things cuteness.

There’s a similar morbid-cute balance at play in the recent nature documentary Fire of Love, with even higher stakes in its real-life story of a doomed romance.  Fire of Love is essentially a twee revision of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, a connection made even more explicit by Herzog’s competing documentary on the same subject – The Fire Within.  Katia & Maurice Krafft were world-famous volcanologists, a married couple who studied volcanic eruptions up-close for decades until they were killed by one in the early 1990s.  In a way, the twee-ification of their volcanic nature footage is unavoidable.  Fire of Love is the story of two talented filmmakers just as much as it’s the story of two doomed scientists; the Kraffts were seemingly just as inspired by the French New Wave as they were by the immense power of Nature.  They dress like Steve Zissou’s crew members in The Life Aquatic, and they shoot quirky, fussed-over self-portraits in front of volcanic eruptions as if they were Wes Anderson’s college film professors.  Even so, the choice to hire Miranda July as the film’s narrator amplifies the twee undertones of the Kraffts’ film archives to an explosive extreme.  July records her vocal track as if she’s hiding in the back of a bedroom closet, shaking with the same cracked-glass vulnerability she brought to early projects like Me and You and Everyone We Know and her spoken-word records for Kill Rock Stars in the pre-twee 90s.  Anyone who already struggles to get onboard with Slate’s pipsqueak voice in Marcel the Shell is far too weak for the twee-poetry monologues July delivers in Fire of Love. Honestly, I love how alienating that choice is; it would’ve been an over-the-plate pop doc without her.  The Kraffts’ romantic fearlessness in the face of exploding lava, combined with their keen eye for vivid cinematic framing, calls for twee filmmaking conventions like no other documentary subject I can name.  Anyone too cynical for Miranda July’s trembling anxiety & wide-eyed awe will certainly have a much easier go with Herzog’s take on the same couple’s life, but that’s a shame.  Distaste for twee art is often just distaste for full-hearted sincerity.

I’ve seen enough darksided tweets about stomping on Marcel the Shell or shooting Paddington Bear dead to know that anti-twee cynicism is still alive and well out there.  I like to think that there’s a genuine, growing appreciation for aughts-era twee among the moviegoing public, though.  Audiences who don’t get their dopamine hits by dunking on overly earnest art on Twitter have more twee-throwback movies influenced by Gondry & Anderson to choose from than ever before; some of those films are even pushing that vintage aesthetic to new extremes.  And hey, there’s nothing cynics love to do more than complain on the internet so, in a way, everyone wins.

-Brandon Ledet

The Science of Sleep (2006)

I don’t know that we’ve ever given Michel Gondry his full due as a visual stylist and an auteur.  While other Twee-era directors who came up while I was a high school art snob are still regularly working and relatively celebrated—Wes Anderson, Miranda July, Spike Jonze, etc.—Gondry’s name isn’t often referenced as one of the aughts’ absolute greats.  And yet, his combination of arts & crafts whimsy and gloomy French New Wave dramatics are so specific & idiosyncratic that I often see direct echoes of his work in titles like Dave Made a Maze, Girl Asleep, and Sorry to Bother You (which does name-check Gondry, to its credit).  You’d think that this year in particular would be the one that inspired the most breathless, fawning articles on Gondry’s post-Twee legacy, though, considering that two of the best films of the year so far—Strawberry Mansion & Everything Everywhere All at Once—are so strongly, undeniably influenced by his work.  I wonder if it’s the bitter taste of Gondry’s debut feature as a writer-director (as opposed to his more iconic music video work or his non-writing credit for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) that has tempered his legacy as one of the greats.  Beyond its surface-level cuteness, The Science of Sleep is a deeply unpleasant, emotionally troubling watch, which makes it a tough sell as the purest feature-length form of Gondry’s vision as an auteur (despite that being a fairly standard internal conflict for Twee art in the aughts).  It’s also pretty great.

Revisiting The Science of Sleep felt like reliving the best and the worst parts of my college years in the aughts: the excitement of for-its-own-sake art collaboration and the complete ineptitude at healthy romantic interaction.  I even acquired my used DVD copy of the film in the exact way I would have back in 2007: plucked it off a shelf at the Goodwill (although I just as likely would have found it on a Blockbuster Video liquidation table the first time around).  Gael García Bernal stars as a toxic indie scene fuckboy who immaturely rejects the idea of settling for an office job even though his macabre, mediocre illustrations of famous tragedies are never going to pay his bills.  He’s a dreamer in the truest sense, struggling to differentiate between his nocturnal fantasies and the doldrums of his waking life.  He’s also a selfish baby.  When he moves in with his mommy to take a dull calendar-printing job that she arranged for him, he finds himself smitten with her next-door neighbor, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg.  The neighbor is delighted by the fuckboy’s crafty creativity and values him as a friend & artistic collaborator.  The fuckboy badly wants that friendship to turn into a romance and throws a feature-length temper tantrum when he doesn’t get his way.  From the outside, The Science of Sleep looks like a cute, whimsical romance between a couple of wide-eyed twentysomethings who’ve watched one too many Agnès Varda films.  On the inside, it’s a rotten little story about how inept all twentysomethings actually are at friendship & romance, especially entitled young men who don’t know how to handle rejection with grace.

Gondry offers plenty ammunition to audiences who want to treat Twee art as whimsical fluff.  The film opens with the whiny babyboy hosting a dreamworld cooking show, explaining to a delighted TV studio audience how dreams are prepared – stirring random thoughts, reminiscences of the day, memories of the past, and earworm pop songs into a giant gumbo pot, and voila.  The stop-motion, papier-mâché, cut-and-paste surrealism of the dream sequences that follow is a wholesome delight, in sharp contrast with the toxic, selfish behavior of the manic pixie fuckboy protagonist.  Gondry shoots the waking scenes in a handheld documentarian style, while the dream sequences that frequently interrupt that real-world drama directly echo his iconic D.I.Y. dreamworlds in music videos like “Everlong,” “Bachelorette,” and “Fell in Love with a Girl“.  In general, I don’t think people give the aughts era of Twee art enough credit for being emotionally challenging & bleak, likely because the romance & whimsy of its visual style is so pronounced.  Even at the time, though, The Science of Sleep tasted sourer than most of its peers, smashing the romance of its dreamworld fantasy sequences against its characters’ cruel, immature behavior in a volatile mismatch of tones (as opposed to the more subtle melancholy of most Twee art).  It’s a conflict that worked for me a lot more on this recent rewatch than it did at the time, because all I knew then was that the lead made me uncomfortable and the movie wasn’t as romantic as I wanted it to be.  That discomfort feels more purposeful & self-aware now, especially since I can see my younger self’s worst behavior reflected in the main character’s glaring faults.

Gondry continued to work well after The Science of Sleep, with plenty of highs & lows in his creative flow.  His underseen, underrated drama Mood Indigo was an excellent continuation of the bittersweet Twee of his debut; his director-for-hire work on the superhero action comedy The Green Hornet was an all-around disaster; and the quirky crowd-pleaser Be Kind Rewind falls somewhere in-between those extremes.  I’m not sure he ever recovered from the perception that his debut as a writer-director was a step down from his much more beloved work on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, though, which in effect made Charlie Kaufmann appear to be the true genius behind that project.  That’s a shame, since I find Gondry to be the more consistently rewarding, emotionally engaging artist of that pair, and the works that have been inspired by his distinct visual style are more often among the best new releases of their respective years (whereas I can die happy without ever seeing another Kaufmann-inspired psych drama about writer’s block, or whatever).

-Brandon Ledet

Strawberry Mansion (2022)

I grew up in a time when Michel Gondry was a golden god to artsy teens everywhere and not a kitschy fad everyone’s embarrassed to admit they were super into.  Gondry’s proto-Etsy music videos for classics like “Everlong,” “Bachelorette,” and “Fell in Love with a Girl” might still hold nostalgic value, but there isn’t much of a vocal reverence for him as an established auteur these days.  No one’s going around sharing screengrabs from Mood Indigo or The Science of Sleep with copypasta tags like “We used to be a country, a proper country.”  I’ve always been on the hook for Michel Gondry’s distinct brand of twee surrealism, though, to the point where I still get excited when I see it echoed in films from younger upstarts who were obviously inspired by his work, like in Sorry to Bother You or Girl Asleep. Maybe I should be rolling my eyes at his visual preciousness now that I’m a thirtysomething cynic with a desk job instead of a teenage poetry student, but I’m happy to swoon instead.

So, of course I was won over by a twee fantasy epic about dream-hopping lovers dodging pop-up ads in a hand-crafted, near-future dystopia.  Strawberry Mansion continues the Michel Gondry tradition of playing with analog arts-and-crafts techniques to create fantastic dream worlds on a scrappy budget.  If you still get a warm, fuzzy feeling from stop-motion, puppetry, tape warp, and low-tech green screen surrealism, there’s a good chance you’ll be charmed by Strawberry Mansion too, regardless of whether Michel Gondry’s heyday happened to overlap with your internment in high school.  I have no evidence that directors Kentucker Audley & Albert Birney were consciously channeling Gondry here, but they demonstrate a similar knack for illustrating fantastic breaks from reality with the rudimentary tools of a kindergarten classroom.  Strawberry Mansion is likely too cute & too whimsical to win over all irony-poisoned adults in the audience, but if you can see it through the poetry & emotional overdrive of teenage eyes, it’s a stunning achievement in small-scale, tactile filmmaking.

In the year 2035, a humorless IRS bureaucrat is tasked with auditing the recorded dreams of an elderly artist who mostly lives off-the-grid.  He’s supposed to create a running tally of various props & cameos that appear in her dreams, each of which can be taxed for pennies.  However, he’s quickly distracted by how much freer & more imaginative her dreams are than his, which tend to be fried chicken & soda commercials contained to a single room (painted entirely pink like the sets in What a Way to Go!). It’s not surprising that his limited, commodified dreams are part of a larger conspiracy involving evil ad agencies and governmental control.  What is surprising is the romance that develops between the young tax man & the elderly artist.  They flee persecution for discovering the ad agency’s subliminal broadcasts by retreating further into the VHS fantasy worlds of the artist’s recorded dreams, forming a delightfully sweet bond in the most ludicrous of circumstances: demonic slumber parties, swashbuckling pirate adventures, cemetery picnics, etc.  The imagery is constantly delightful & surprising, even though you know exactly where the story is going at all times.

At its most potent, cinema is the closest we get to sharing a dream, so I’m an easy sucker for movies that are about that exact phenomenon: Paprika, The Cell, Inception, etc.  I’m also always onboard for a psychedelic Dan Deacon score, which adds a needed layer of atmospheric tension here.  Even so, Strawberry Mansion joins the rare company of films like Girl Asleep, The Science of Sleep, and The Wizard Oz that feel like totally immersive dreamworlds built entirely by hand.  They evoke the childlike imagination of transforming a cardboard refrigerator box into a backyard rocket ship, except that every single scene requires a new arts & crafts innovation on that level – more than history’s most creative child could possibly cram into a single adolescence.  No matter how sinister this film tries to make its corporate-sponsored dystopian future (or how grim Gondry tries to make his own doomed relationship dramas), nostalgia for that lost childhood whimsy cuts through.  The closest we can ever get back to it—without the aid of movies or drugs—is in lucid dreams.

-Brandon Ledet

Delicatessen (1991)

One of my most rewarding viewing projects for the website this year was a chronological rewatch of the Alien series.  Not only did it help justify an ancient purchase of a Blu-Ray boxset I acquired years before I even owned a Blu-Ray player, but it also helped solidify the Alien saga as one of the very best horror franchises around.  There is no such thing as a bad Alien movie.  Their 40+ years of pop-media terror has spanned from philosophical reflections on the origins of humanity to dumb-as-rocks creature feature blockbusters – each worthwhile in their own special fucked up way, if not only for boasting one of the most continually upsetting monster designs in the Classic Horror canon.  While my appreciation for the series as a whole grew tremendously during that binge, I can’t say many of the individual movies rose or fell in my personal rankings or esteem.  There were only two exceptions: the dumb-fun teen horror AvP: Requiem and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s live-action cartoon Alien: Resurrection, both of which are far more fun & imaginative than uptight horror nerds are willing to give them credit for.  I’d even place Resurrection as the second-best film of the franchise (and I did!), bested only by the subliminal nightmare fuel of Ridley Scott’s original.

The truth is I’m always a sucker for Jeunet’s grimy aesthetics & cutesy twee bullshit.  Even when he deviated into the tropes & trappings of a traditional war epic—a genre that usually bores me to sleep—with A Very Long Engagement, I still greedily ate it up with a spoon.  Obviously, though, it’s when Jeunet mucks about with horror & sci-fi genre templates that I’m especially hopeless to his sepia tone charms.  To that end, I had a lot of fun returning to his debut feature, Delicatessen, after falling back in love with Alien: Resurrection all over again.  My tastes are basic enough that the chaotic twee romcom Amélie remains my favorite Jeunet film overall, but if he only made cannibal comedies (Delicatessen), big-budget creature features (Resurrection), and dystopian steampunk sci-fi (City of Lost Children), I’d be forever chuffed.  With Delicatessen, Jeunet premiered as an already fully-formed auteur, indulging in the exact improbably whimsical romances, monochromatic fantasyscapes, and vaudevillian comedy traditions that would carry throughout his career.  He just had to squeeze them all into a guaranteed-to-be-financed genre template, the same way he later had to adapt those same quirks to the American blockbuster template in Alien: Resurrection.  It’s hilarious in both cases how little of his personality he’s willing to give up to satisfy the expectations of the genres he’s working within, making for the exact kind of high-style, self-indulgent filmmaking I always love to see in horror.

Delicatessen is a (non-musical) Sweeney Todd-style comedy about an apartment building full of starving weirdos who turn to cannibalism as a desperate response to Post-War rationing.  Jeunet’s eternal muse Dominique Pinon arrives as the building’s new super, unaware that the butcher/landlord plans to kill him to replenish the residents’ meat supply as soon as he’s done fixing up the squeaks & leaks and repainting the ceilings.  A heavy dust storm of war-ravaged buildings drapes the sky outside the apartments, so that everyone feels trapped inside, living in an exponentially quirky microcosm.  That dusty coating antiques the film’s setting with the same Universal Horror & German Expressionist throwback aesthetics you’ll see in other traditionalist weirdos’ films like David Lynch’s The Elephant Man or Guy Maddin’s everything.  For the most part, though, Jeunet is not especially interested in the terror or tension of old-school horror, just the surrealist headspace those traditions tap into.  People may be chopped up & eaten by a small-minded, isolated community of weirdos, but this is hardly The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Most of the runtime is eaten up by twee-as-fuck dalliances like Pinon’s ill-advised romance with the butcher’s daughter, or their depressed neighbor’s Rube Goldberg suicide contraptions, or the last minute heist plot meant to sneak Pinon out of the building unchewed.  It looks grim & sinister at all times, but it’s all very silly & cute.

The one stroke of pure genius in Delicatessen is Jeunet’s casting of Dominique Pinon as a former circus clown, complete with black & white television broadcasts of his act with his former partner, a chimpanzee named Mr. Livingstone.  The image of Pinon’s wonderfully bizarre face slathered in vintage clown makeup is initially terrifying, fitting firmly in the film’s old-school horror traditionalism.  At the same time, Jeunet only uses that imagery as excuse to launch into the twee whimsy that interests him as a storyteller – including romantic sequences of Pinon wooing his neighborly crush with vaudevillian clown routines, sentimental heartbreak over the loss of Mr. Livingstone, and the eerie theremin-like sounds of Pinon playing a musical saw.  I always appreciate when a horror film manages to be genuinely scary, but that’s not usually what I’m looking for in the genre.  What I most love about horror is that it’s one of the only mainstream cinematic spaces left where creators are allowed to indulge in pure personal obsession & id with no regard for sensibility or logic.  Judging by Delicatessen & Alien: Resurrection, Jeunet doesn’t seem especially interested in the psychological terror or cathartic violence of horror, but rather takes advantage of the freedom the genre’s commercial viability affords him as a total weirdo with his own pet obsessions & personal quirks audiences & financiers won’t put up with in other contexts.  I applaud him for it.

-Brandon Ledet

We Are Little Zombies (2020)

I remember watching Edgar Wright’s video game breakup comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. The World in the theater and finding it charmingly cute, certainly better than its box office & immediate critical reception implied. As its then-teenage cast has grown into mid-level fame and its then-teenage audience has grown to become the critical establishment in the decade since, Scott Pilgrim‘s underdog status has long faded away. If anything, praise for its 8-bit video game nostalgia and self-critical, anti-romantic twee sentiments is absurdly overstated by now, and what was once a low-key charmer has become overloaded with unsustainably hyperbolic accolades as a modern classic – at least in online Film Nerd circles. Nothing has made that gradual canonization more absurd to me than catching up with the recent coming-of-age comedy We Are Little Zombies, which pushes the same twee video game nostalgia aesthetics everyone drools over in Scott Pilgrim to much more consistently exciting, surprising extremes at every turn. We Are Little Zombies is one of those over-achieving stylistic showcases where every single in-the-moment comedic gag & tangential flight of whimsy makes you shout, “That’s so cool!” at the screen; it’s just absolutely overflowing with creativity. I now understand where the Scott Pilgrim die-hards are coming from, because I’ve seen that movie’s stylistic flourishes exploded into a vibrant, over-the-top spectacle much more suited to my own maximalist tastes.

Like most twee fantasy pieces and whimsical coming-of-age stories, We Are Little Zombies’s flashy sense of style mostly just functions to obscure the deep well of pain flowing just below its manicured surface. The plot is simple; four freshly orphaned children meet at their parents’ simultaneous funerals and run away to form a surprisingly successful (but ultimately doomed) pop punk band. The pint-sized lineup of Little Zombies are all emotionally numb to their grief, so they write vibrant pop songs about their apathy as a form of art therapy. Most of the structural conflict in the film is typical to a rise-to-fame rock band narrative, deriving from evil record company executives converting their art into capital. However, from scene to scene their journey is guided strictly by video game logic, wherein their instruments must be acquired like digital armor and the record execs are level bosses who must be defeated. The vibrant colors, rapid cuts, 8-bit score, and continually surprising shot choices that power-boost this video game surface aesthetic feel like they belong to a kinetic live-action cartoon populated by hyperactive kids in constant search of their next sugar rush. Instead, the Little Zombies are decidedly anti-emotional as a band, despondently stumbling through their shitty little lives in the exact way their collective name implies. The only time they appear to be having as much fun as first-time director Makoto Nagahisa is having behind the camera is when they’re playing their candy-coated pop punk tunes, and there’s a genuine tragedy to how easily that collective art therapy is corrupted for a one-hit-wonder cash-in.

In terms of its mind-melting, genre-defying maximalism, there are a ton of psychedelic Japanese freak-outs I’d compare We Are Little Zombies to before citing Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: Suicide Club, Hausu, Funeral Parade of Roses, Wild Zero, etc. Still, the two films’ overlap of pop punk soundtrack cues, twee heartbreak, and video game surface aesthetics make the comparison unignorable. We Are Little Zombies amplifies the little touches that make Scott Pilgrim charming into an explosively entertaining video game dreamscape that much more clearly, consistently registers as Something Special to my eyes. It’s apparently now my turn to overhype an underseen, underloved video game fantasy piece until people are sick of hearing about how great it is. Hopefully, I’ve got at least a decade until the tides turn against it.

-Brandon Ledet

Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh (2020)

When I traveled to California for the first time last year, I was low-key worried that I might be inducted into a cult during my brief visit and be trapped there forever. I was already on the mailing list of a California-based U.F.O. cult at the time, and most of the cults I’ve become familiar with while researching movies over the past few years have originated in the state: The Church of Satan, Scientology, The Buddhafield, etc. There’s just something about the California temperament and its invitation for transplants to remake & remarket themselves in the state’s robust pop culture industry that makes its citizens uniquely susceptible to cult-leader predation.

Given how abusive most of those cult leaders become with enough time & unchecked power, that topic is a questionable foundation for a kooky, twee comedy. Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh is about a young couple of Middle America transplants who move to Los Angeles in an effort to reinvent themselves, only to immediately become involved in the treacherous, routine bloodshed of a suicide cult. It’s a lot cuter than it sounds, considering the real-life abuses that it parodies, but it might ultimately be too cute to resonate with any significance at all. Seven Stages is an overwhelmingly harmless, breezy movie about ritualistic suicide – which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if it were funny enough to distract from that tonal discrepancy.

Kate Micucci and Sam Huntington costar as recent L.A. transplants who are horrified to discover that their new apartment is only cheap because it’s the preferred “worshiping” grounds of a suicide cult. Taika Waititi plays the cult leader—the titular Holy Storsh—which is excellent casting considering his magnetic charisma as a real-life Personality. Thanks to Storsh’s teachings, intruders repeatedly break into the newly arrived couple’s shithole apartment for the privelege to commit suicide in their bathtub – a ritual aimed to achieve the bliss of “instantaneous eternity.”

This seems like an extreme practice at first, but the more the couple digs into Storsh’s vague self-help mumbo jumbo the more they warm up to their uninvited, self-harming visitors. They gradually transform their apartment into a Luxury Assisted-Suicide B&B to accommodate the ritual, then inevitably become indoctrinated into the cult as active participants themselves. It’s a tale as old as California, although in real life it tends to end in devastated & befuddled relatives back home rather than light chuckles & a wasted afternoon. I don’t know that I expected the movie to operate with the same Traumatizing Apartment Cult intensity as Rosemary’s Baby or anything, but it certainly could have benefited from taking the violence that drives its light-hearted jokes more seriously, at least so that there would be some tension for the punchlines to relieve.

There’s a sitcom-style repetition to the visits from the guest-start suicide cultists as they take turns breaking into the apartment, which allows the movie to pack in a ton of familiar, always-welcome faces who’d please any comedy nerd with an affinity for the L.A. scene: Maria Bamford, Mark McKinney, Brian Posehn, Dan Harmon, etc. These tangential guest-star spotlights don’t register with any staying power outside their momentary gags, though, so all that really matters is the unraveling of the central couple who rent the doomed apartment.

Some signs of the couple’s mental unraveling are absolutely inspired, especially the loopy improv-style backstory of why they had to leave Ohio and the gradual escalation of their birdhouse-building home business that transforms the apartment itself into a Lynchian otherworld. Mostly, though, the only memorable details from the picture are Micucci’s natural adorability and the catchy bathtub-themed suicide jingle Taika Waititi’s enigmatic cult leader sings over the opening credits.

The rest of the movie just gently flows down the drain as a pleasant-but-forgettable amusement – decent enough for lazy-afternoon viewing, but not worth going out of your way for despite the impressive cast list on the poster. Given the ultraviolent premise’s connection to real-life California cult culture and the talent involved, I think it’s reasonable to expect more than that.

-Brandon Ledet

The Future (2011)

One thing I noticed while drafting a potential Best Films of the 2010s list in recent weeks is how little the twee aesthetic means to me at this point in time. As a budding film nerd (and pretentious college campus twerp) in the 2000s, twee was the exact modernized introduction to the capital-c Cinema sensibilities of the French New Wave that I needed in my life. I even still appreciate the aesthetic to this day (if not only for nostalgia’s sake), but it’s now something I can apparently live without. Twee heavy-hitters like Wes Anderson & Michel Gondry released excellent films in the 2010s that doubled down on the visual fussiness & whimsical melancholy that made them famous in the previous decade. Smaller pictures from new voices like Girl Asleep & I Lost My Body even strived to push the sensibility into fresh, exciting directions. Yet, I can’t find a place for the twee aesthetic on my list of my favorite films of the 2010s. There just wasn’t anything especially urgent or resonant about its presence on the pop culture landscape that decade. The closest any title comes to touching on that end of precious cinematic melancholy that I’d consider best-of-the-decade material is Miranda July’s sophomore feature, The Future. And even that film feels more like a post-twee cultural autopsy more than it does like a genuine twee specimen.

If the heart-on-sleeve earnestness, despondent whimsy, and pastel-tinted visual fussiness of July’s debut Me and You and Everyone We Know operates as a genuine entry in the twee canon, her follow-up feels like a breakthrough to a post-twee world. With nearly a decade’s worth of retrospect behind it, The Future now plays like the official, miserable onscreen death of Twee Whimsy. This time-obsessed breakup drama for a pair of listless thirty-somethings captures that post-youth stare in the mirror when you first realize you’re not special and that life is largely pointless & devoid of magic. It’s a painful but necessary rite of passage, one that directly mirrors my own experience with wonder & self-worth over the past ten years. Curiously, it’s also a breakthrough that seems to be lost on most viewers, who apparently see the move as more of the same held over from July’s debut. It’s fascinating to see on Letterboxd that a lot of people view The Future purely as self-absorbed hipster quirk, when that’s the exact subject the film coldly picks apart in a despondent autopsy. There’s something about July in particular that sets off more cynical audiences’ Bullshit Detectors before she’s even allowed to get her point across, which is a total shame, since she taps into private, internal triumphs & crises no one else thinks to put onscreen. In general, I don’t think the (loosely defined) twee genre ever got enough credit for how dark & melancholy it was just under its meticulously curated surface, and Miranda July is maybe the most undervalued dabbler in despair to be dismissed in that way.

The biggest roadblock that July’s skeptics struggle with in The Future is its choice of narrator: a cat. What could be cutesier than a talking housecat narrating the story of a young couple’s struggle with mid-30s ennui? Except, the execution isn’t cute at all. The cat is ill and lonely in captivity at a “kill shelter,” waiting for the couple (played by Hamish Linklater & July herself) to adopt it before it’s euthanization day arrives. That rescue mission never comes to fruition, though, as the couple becomes so absorbed in their own increasingly meaningless bullshit that they forget about the promise they made to that pitiful beast. Likewise, a magical realist interaction with The Moon where a character stops time to delay an imminent break-up argument and converses with the celestial body in that frozen moment sounds like saccharine whimsy in the abstract. In practice, it’s a devastating illustration of how a moment of heartbreak can leave you feeling as if you’re struck in time. There is no magic in this world, and as soon as the ruse of being able to pause time to prevent hurt is lifted, it’s revealed that weeks have gone by without you. The world has moved on; you are not its center. In the twee era of mildly magical romances like Amélie & The Science of Sleep, these characters’ love for each other might have broken through the restrictions of physics & time to save the proverbial cat. In The Future, magic is dead, and all hope is lost. All we can do is bide our time until we are old enough to die – preferably with company we can stomach.

If your mid-30s sounds like too early in a lifespan to give up & wait for death, don’t worry; the movie’s willing to make fun of that premature panic too. Faced with the responsibility of adopting an ill housecat, our central couple—a work-from-home tech support dweeb and an overqualified children’s dance instructor—trigger their shared mid-life crisis at least a decade too early. Their first-act freak-out that life is essentially over at 35 and everything to follow is “loose change” is eventually treated as a naïve oversimplification and, essentially, a bratty temper tantrum. As long as you live to old age instead of perishing prematurely, there’s plenty of time to live after your youth shrivels up. Too much, even. The realization they suffer here is more that their options & freedoms are becoming severely more limited as they settle into the grooves of adulthood. Feeling that they have been “gearing up to do something incredible for the last fifteen years,” they suddenly realize that nothing incredible is ever likely to happen. They’re doomed to be mundane, unspecial, and purposeless until they die (a very long time from now): the same curse that afflicts the overwhelming majority of humanity. Any attempts to shake off their limiting responsibilities as budding adults to instead pursue “Fulfilling Experiences” only alienate them further from the one comfort they have in this meaningless, increasingly isolating world: each other. Magical escapes from their mundane doom become less fulfilling with time, operating more as distractions than life-changing epiphanies. Few of us will ever amount to much or affect any large-scale change in the world, which is the exact tragic realization that gradually dawns on this couple on the verge of dissolution.

If the title of this film suggests that it’s attempting to predict the actual future, I’d say July was fairly successful. Its varied themes of Climate Change defeatism, post-Obama disillusionment, the pressure to turn self-gratifying art projects to public displays, and the isolating effect of social media obsession all feel accurate to how the 2010s played out in the long run – give or take a flip phone to smartphone upgrade. Extratextually, the film also felt like a prescient death knell for the twee sensibility’s importance on the pop culture landscape. The aesthetic’s ghost continued on in twee-as-fuck films to follow like Moonrise Kingdom, God Help The Girl, and even my beloved Paddington 2, but July had already given it a proper burial in The Future. It’s a film that will alienate many a cynical grump who stumbles across it by accident – if not as soon as its cat-narrated intro, then at least by the time July is doing an interpretive dance about vulnerability to a Beach House track. Still, for those more in tune with the heart-on-sleeve melancholy of the twee sensibility (or its equally ill-defined “mumblecore” aftershock), it really does feel like the end of an era in wide-eyed wonder & hope for what’s to come. It’s a shame that it’s taken July so long to follow up this soul-crushing bummer with a third feature, as I’m very curious to find out what adulthood milestone is going to break my heart next.

-Brandon Ledet

I Lost My Body (2019)

The 2D-animiated French oddity I Lost My Body is an economic bargain, especially if you consider an audience’s time & attention to be the true currency of cinema. This is two films for the price of one. And it’s a very low price at that, considering its 80min runtime. As with all two-for-one bargains, however, one of the two complimentary films on this simultaneous double bill is far more satisfying & impressive than the other. To fully appreciate I Lost My Body, then, you have to appreciate its two dueling narratives as a package deal. The stronger movie in this combo pack carries the lesser, even if just by the virtue of their pairing.

One movie is a thrilling action adventure starring a sentient severed hand (think Thing from The Addams Family) who bravely travels across the city to find its former home — a still intact, living human body. The other is a wistful twee romance starring the awkward man who used to be attached to that hand. That melancholy romance angle is obviously the more familiar narrative track — especially considering the twee pedigree of the film’s co-writer, Guillaume Laurant, who also penned Amélie. An excruciatingly shy pizza delivery guy falls in love with a customer who is seemingly unaware that he even exists. Instead of simply introducing himself, he devises an elaborate scheme to insert himself into the woman’s life that he believes makes himself out to be a hearthrob romantic, but instead makes him out to be a total creep. As cosmic penance he loses his hand. Thankfully, that means we gain better cinema.

While our lovesick anti-hero is an overthinking, neurotic mess, his severed hand is a creature of pure action. From the moment it flops onto the hospital floor to teach itself to walk until when it attempts action hero stunts ziplining between buildings to reach its far-off destination, the hand is in constant motion. High-risk train rides, adopting a soup can as hermit crab armor, brawls with rats & pigeons: there’s no denying the hand’s adventures across the city are more exciting to watch (if not only for their novelty) than the frustrating, self-sabotaging inaction of its former human partner. Despite that glaring contrast, however, it gradually becomes clear that both of these protagonists are suffering from the same emotional ills: grief & purposelessness. As they both yearn for intimacy & a sense of purpose that’s been violently removed from their lives, the man and his hand become clearly linked thematically (as well as anatomically).

A bolder, more idiosyncratic film might have fully committed to the severed hand as the sole POV protagonist. In its most transcendent moments, I Lost My Body ponders what a hand’s fantasies & memories might look like. Through the hand’s “eyes,” we’re invited to ponder all the various tasks the tools at the ends of our arms are useful for: violence, art, tenderness, sex, labor, play, etc. It also never stops being wonderfully bizarre to see a world of infinite dangers animated from the hand’s low-to-the-ground POV. A melancholy twee romance & tale of ennui cannot compete with that kind of novelty. Still, the two contrast-and-compare narratives make for a delightfully strange combination, and their pairing makes for a remarkably efficient 80min stretch of traditional animation entertainment.

-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