I came up with this heading, and subsequently nearly every film I was watching seemed to fall under the rubric. So this theme will help me get current at last.
Among the most beset of women is the title character of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Absalem (MC-90, NFX). The Gett in question is permission to divorce, and since in
marriage is not a civil matter, it’s a religious
court that must decide. The woman in
question is played by Ronit Elkabetz, memorable from Late Marriage and
others. She also writes and directs, in
partnership with her brother Shlomi. Her
character is the wife seeking a divorce, but she winds up as the one under
trial in these Kafkaesque proceedings, as her husband stonewalls and the panel
of rabbis temporizes. The claustrophobic
setting, and the exclusive use of POV shots, with the camera always viewing
from the perspective of one of the participants -- who may even be looking away
from the speaker -- make for a unsettling experience. In this Oscar-nominated chamber drama, the
backstory is a puzzle to solve, with sly humor punctuated by emotional
outbursts. If you liked A Separation from
Israel , you’ll probably like this film from Iran , unless you’re a hardliner on either side. Israel
In Clouds of Sils Maria (MC-78,
NFX), Juliette Binoche is the woman under duress, playing
a successful international film star (what a reach!), who has been lured back
on stage to act in the play that kickstarted her career. She’s a difficult character, who puts a lot
of stress on her personal assistant, played naturalistically and
self-effacingly by Kristen Stewart (who won Best Actress at Cannes), with sly
sideward glances at her own immense celebrity from the Twilight series
(none of which I’ve seen). The title of
the film – as well as the play within -- refers to a meteorological phenomenon,
where clouds glide through an Alpine valley like a snake. The play is about an older woman victimized
in a lesbian affair with a younger.
Juliette once played the hot young number, but is now cast as the
pitiful older woman, no easy transition for her. She runs lines with her assistant, and it’s
hard to tell what emotions come from the play, and which from their own personal
interactions. Olivier Assayas’ film is a
cross between Persona and All About Eve, with many nods to other
classic and not-so-classic films, but entirely his own. And made compelling by his actresses and
their various masks. (Chloé Grace Moretz
plays the third, a notorious young film star who becomes the seductress in the
I wrote about the British tv series
in my last
post, and noted my fixation on Brit Marling.
She graduated from Babylon
as valedictorian, with a degree in economics at the behest of her parents, but
soon rejected Goldman Sachs, and Georgetown Hollywood acting, to make D-I-Y films with two friends from
college, which she co-wrote, co-produced and starred in. Both came out at Sundance in 2011, and her
career was launched. With Mike Cahill
she made Another Earth (MC-66, NFX), and with Zal Batmanglij made Sound of My Voice (MC-67, NFX), both of them extraordinarily ambitious
and accomplished, given the budgets and circumstances of their making. And in each, a sci-fi set-up, reminiscent of Melancholia
and The Terminator respectively, yields smart, low-fi films grounded
in Marling’s ethereal beauty and other-worldly demeanor (something of a type
for her, though she seems quite the opposite in interviews, quick-witted and
lively, instead of languorous, intense, and enigmatic).
Another Earth is what appears in the sky, apparently a doppelganger of our own. Brit is a high-school senior bound to study physics at MIT, when her life veers drastically off-course and she winds up in prison, coming out four years later, still stunned by her wrong turn and desperate for atonement. The planet in the sky is a big honking metaphor for an alternate outcome to one’s life, but despite implausibility, the film is serious-minded and provocative.
Sound of My Voice follows a couple who want to make a debunking documentary about a cult, which meets clandestinely in a SoCal basement, where they are mesmerized (as are we) by Brit, portraying a woman who claims to be a time traveler from the future, promising to help her followers survive the coming apocalypse of civil war. Not giving the game away, even at the very end, the film leaves us to guess just who she is, and what her motives are. This is a bargain-basement mind-bender, doing a lot with a little.
Then with Zal again, she made The East (MC-68, NFX), about another cultish cadre, this time the eponymous ecoterrorist cell. Brit plays a corporate security agent working for Patricia Clarkson, who tries to infiltrate the group to forestall any acts against the companies who pay them for protection. This time she’s the one drawn in, and compromised in her beliefs. The cell is led by Alexander Skarsgard, and includes Ellen Page. Their schemes are reticent with violence, but dependent on wit and humiliation to make their points, against polluters and other corporate malefactors. This turns into a thriller with a brain, and a bit of heart.
Another female filmmaker I’ve been following lately is Céline Sciamma, so I caught up with her first film, Water Lilies (2008, MC-65,
NFX), which is
not as good as her subsequent Tomboy and Girlhood (both recently reviewed on this blog), but makes a
promising start to a trilogy of films about teenage girls forging a sexual
identity. In this case, the girls are
all on a synchronized-swimming team, and much of the film takes place in the
pool and locker room, as an outcast girl betrays her chubby friend for a crush
on the queen bee (or mermaid princess, in this case). This is a young film maker staking out her
territory, before mastering it.
In the same vein, but a totally different setting, Pariah (2011, MC-79,
NFX), written and directed by Dee Rees and centered on the glowing central
performance by Adepero Oduye, follows a black Brooklyn teenager, as she tries
to find her own way, between a slightly older lesbian friend and her
straight-laced parents, while seeking the grail of actual sex. Shot by Bradford Young, and featuring good
performances all round, this film may be familiar in its coming-out contours,
but engrossing in its specificities. Pariah
seems much more authentic -- and precious -- than Precious.
Next we address three uncomfortable comedies that concern stressed-out women. Welcome to Me (MC-67,
NFX) is the most surprising, as Kristen Wiig continues to show her
legitimate acting chops, playing an Oprah-obsessed borderline personality (if
such a diagnosis makes any sense) who goes off her meds, wins the lottery, and
decides to spend the loot on hosting her own reality tv show. Her essential oddness fascinates and
horrifies in turn, and she develops a following among hipsters who see her show
as performance art, rather than the acting out of quirks and grudges. Wiig seems authentically strange, and remains
within the character without winking, or trying to win us over. Linda Cardellini is the longtime true friend
she finally alienates. With Wes Bentley
and Joan Cusack in the control room, Shira Piven’s film becomes a media satire,
as well as an amusing, yet perceptive and sympathetic, character study of
In Laggies (MC-63,
NFX), Kiera Knightley, whom I never find as charming as
I’m supposed to, is a woman who decides to drop out of her life when her longtime
live-in boyfriend proposes marriage, for which she doesn’t feel ready. Or for a job.
Nor does she still bond with her friends, who have left high school
hijinks behind for proper husbands and children. So she runs away, meets a group of teenagers
who ask her to buy booze for them, and in short order is bunking in the bedroom
of one of them, Chloé Grace Moretz, and flirting with her father, Sam Rockwell. Lynn Shelton’s films are never all they
promise to be, but this one lags further behind than usual.
On the other hand, I liked While We’re Young (MC-76, NFX) more than any Noah Baumbach film since The Squid and the Whale, primarily for the all-out performance of Naomi Watts as a woman trying to turn back the hands of time, as she and her husband Ben Stiller fall under the influence of a younger couple, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. Always cinema-savvy, Baumbach here has a lot of fun with Stiller as a frustrated documentarian, caught between his father-in-law’s eminence in the field, and Driver’s drive to make a name for himself doing the same. Meanwhile, our sympathies go to the women, one who has a loser for a husband, and the other a user. There’s a lot of amusing observation of generational differences, but Naomi’s energy is the force that really breaks through.
It’s the women who bear the brunt of change when an
ISIS affiliate takes over a section of , in Abderrahmane
Sissako’s Mali (MC-91, NFX, AMZ).
They must cover themselves and submit, though some find ways to resist. This Oscar-nominated film is remarkable in
offering understanding not just to the victims of Islamist fundamentalism, but
to the perpetrators of jihad, with their wide array of mixed motives, from
teenagers wanting to be part of a gang, to frustrated officer types longing for
real power. Religion is the least of it,
as a local imam instructs some of the jihadi on the actual meaning of
Islam. You can appreciate this film
simply as exotic and beautiful, though disturbingly so, and even witty at
times, but its implications ramify widely, in a world where we face a
disturbing force we little comprehend.
Pairs nicely with Sissako’s other film named for a city in Timbuktu , Mali . Bamako
I conclue this grouping with a very strong recommendation for a documentary that bends this category a bit, being rather about a “woman under the dress.” Even if you have less interest in fashion than myself, which would be saying something, I strongly urge you to see Iris (MC-80, NFX), the penultimate film from master of direct cinema Albert Maysles, reminiscent of -- but antithetical to -- his famous Grey Gardens. Here’s an old lady with her wits about her, for sure. With her husband Carl, Iris Apfel had a successful career as an interior designer, but in her eighties, the Met’s fashion department mounted an exhibition of clothes and accessories she had collected over decades of world travel, which turned her into a fashion icon, and as she puts it, a “geriatric starlet.” Showy, over-the-top, and hungry for attention, Iris is not the kind of 93-year-old I would normally gravitate to, but there is something down to earth about her, blunt and sharp at the same time, with clear vision and artistic purpose, that makes her entirely lovable, at least within the confines of this warm-hearted 80 minutes between old, very old, friends.