ON WEDNESDAY, a full-page ad in the New York Times for Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, which screened for the press that night, exhorted readers, in all caps: “See the film this Friday. Read the story in Genesis today. Read the story on the Bible app or at Bible.com.” With this promotion of platform agnosticism for the evangelical and irreligious alike, viewers are thus encouraged to fact-check Aronofsky, who has floridly embellished roughly a score of lines in the first book of the Old Testament to include Transformer-like boulder-behemoths, near-neonaticide, and psychoactive berry tea.
And yet Noah is the least bombastic and absurd of the director’s six features, which include 2006’s The Fountain (filled with time-tripping and astral-projecting) and 2010’s Black Swan (featuring a self-diddling, stigmata-oozing Natalie Portman). Perhaps the most outlandishly entertaining aspect of this otherwise sedate epic is how much Aronofsky and his coscreenwriter Ari Handel have unintentionally made the last of the antediluvian patriarchs (played with dutiful solemnity by Russell Crowe) sound like a tamer Fred Phelps. “The creator has judged us—mankind must end,” Noah tells his family on the ark, a declaration not so different from the placards that the repugnant (late) reverend’s followers used to brandish that read GOD HATES YOU.
And speaking of odious bigots, Aronofsky’s film also begs comparison with another high-profile Lenten-season release from a decade ago, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. During the two hours of nonstop flaying in Gibson’s appallingly audacious project, only Aramaic or Latin is spoken. (The lunacy paid off: Passion is the highest-grossing subtitled film in US box-office history.) In Noah, the entire cast, even those not originally from the Commonwealth of Nations, speaks in the gauzy British accent often deployed to signal a movie’s importance or prestige. This imprecise elocution is particularly glaring in New York State native Jennifer Connelly, here as Noah’s wife, Naameh. (The actress reprises the role of helpmeet to Crowe, to whom she was wedded in 2001’s A Beautiful Mind, and is the only cast member to have worked with Aronofsky before, in 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, in which her sex-show attraction character rides a rolling-pin-size dildo to support her scag habit.)
While it undoubtedly takes a particular strain of hubris to mount an adaptation of one of the best-known episodes in the Bible, Aronofsky’s signature grandiosity is too often at odds with—and diminished by—the familial melodrama he has created aboard the vessel. The two oldest of Noah’s three sons—all played by strenuously bland, epicene beauties—threaten to rise up against Dad’s autocracy and monomania (“We’ll work, complete the task, and then we’ll die”), conflicts in which Mom, sobbing, intervenes. Swaddled in garments that drape the body like—and recall the muted palette of—Eileen Fisher outfits, Noah and his clan, minus one defector, are restored to domestic bliss, rainbow visions filling the sky. That burst of color is the covenant between God and Noah “and every living creature of all flesh”—or, for the weary spectator desperate to create her own ending to this staid spectacle, a promising starting point for another work of biblical exegesis: proof that the Almighty really did create Adam and Steve.
Noah is now playing.
Bob Gill, The Double Exposure of Holly, 1976, 35 mm, color, sound, 77 minutes. Detail of film poster.
THERE’S A FAMOUS SCENE in Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946) in which Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe, caught during a sudden rainstorm in a bookstore stake out, flirts shamelessly with a clerk played by Dorothy Malone. “It just happens I got a bottle of pretty good rye in my pocket. I’d a lot rather get wet in here,” he says. “Well, looks like we’re closed for the rest of the afternoon,” she replies. We all know what’s going to happen next, though the scene fades out discreetly. The films in Anthology Film Archives’s “Porn Noir” series fill in the blanks: What if we just got to watch them fuck in the stockroom instead?
Recent weeks have seen the launch of London-based Porn Studies, a peer-reviewed academic journal devoted to pornography, and respectful reviews of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, so hardcore in the cinematheque is nothing to bat an eyelash at. After AFA’s long weekend of “Porn Noir,” Williamsburg’s Spectacle Theater will be presenting three “Gay Porn Classics from Hand in Hand Studios” in April. “Porn Noir” is the second installment of AFA’s “In the Flesh” program, a recurring quarterly series programmed by Casey Scott, a historian of the “classic adult” film. Per the program notes, the films showing this time around are homages to the Hollywood noir in which “[t]he sexual tension created between noir anti-heroes and seductive femmes fatales could now be embellished and visualized.” Because this is Artforum and not Screw, I will try to approach the bill of fare on the basis of aesthetic and historical interest, rather than rating them with Al Goldstein’s “Peter Meter.”
The four films that comprise “Porn Noir” will all be projected on 35 mm—and date from a pre-video era when hardcore was shot on 35 and 16 mm. From a practical standpoint, the more cumbersome equipment forbade the various intrusive perspectives on close-up penetration that make up the average contemporary PornHub clip. In lieu of this, we have storylines, performances, and actors staying in character while in flagrante delicto. This is not the only essential aesthetic difference here: These films hail from a time before infallible chemical erections, are full of pubic undergrowth that you could conceal a toaster oven in, and bodies that today wouldn’t be allowed within a mile of Porn Star Karaoke in Burbank.
The first installment of “In the Flesh” was a grab-bag of features from the first decade of hardcore, while “Porn Noir” takes a rather more selective focus. The title of the series is problematic—there are few terms more abused than film noir, which refers to a postwar moment in Hollywood filmmaking so specific that it cannot be detached from context. Better to call these films hard-boiled hardcore.
No less than the classic pizza delivery guy/ plumber/ pool boy, the detective’s job is a perfect fit for porn, since his work can bring him into contact with all manner of available young women. The private dick has been a hardcore staple at least since John Holmes’s Johnny Wadd cycle—parodied by Dirk Diggler’s “Brock Landers” in Boogie Nights (1997)—though the “Porn Noir” selections are more artistically ambitious fare. The film with the clearest linkage to the hard-boiled legacy is 1976’s Expose Me, Lovely, its title somewhere between Mickey Spillane and Chandler. Director Armand Weston, whose 1978 Take Off played at the last “In the Flesh,” uses a number of POV shots ŕ la Lady in the Lake (1947) and voice-over monologue, so as to put the viewer in the shoes of Harry “Frosty” Knight, a cigarillo-smoking NY private investigator played by hirsute blonde Ras Kean.
Roger Watkins, Corruption, 1983, 35 mm, color, sound, 75 minutes. Left: Felicia (Kelly Nichols). Right: Alan (George Payne).
Where Expose Me’s Knight talks in vintage Marlowe-isms, the other films in “Porn Noir” are plugged into the pop culture of the era they were produced in. Victor Milt’s 1976 Sex Wish was retitled to capitalize on the success of Death Wish—the 1972 Brian Garfield novel adapted into a hit film two years later by Michael Winner. Walrus-mustachioed Deep Throat lead Harry Reems returns home one day to find his fiancée murdered. Vowing revenge, he only pit stops for a threesome and sex with a sympathetic neighbor in his tireless quest to find her killer. (The dictates of the script demand that Reems perform while drunk in love, as well as dead drunk and inconsolable.) The perp, seen in action, is an infantile schizo played by Zebedy Colt, a queer cabaret fixture whose grating baby-talk monologues seem intended to dissuade all but the heartiest and most committed of pocket pool players from getting their rocks off.
Sex Wish owes more to the then-popular vigilante justice cycle than to noir—it’s one of three films in the program that were released in ’76, the year of Taxi Driver, whose protagonist Travis Bickle was a committed patron of Times Square’s porno pits. (Meanwhile, the soundtrack klaxon that announces one of Colt’s assaults recalls that used in 1981’s “Take Back the Night” vigilante classic Ms. 45 by Abel Ferrara, whose own career was launched in hardcore.) The last of the ‘76ers is Bob Gill’s The Double Exposure of Holly, which combines post-Watergate surveillance paranoia and sullen voyeurism. There is enthusiastic work from a young Annie Sprinkle here, but the most interesting performer keeps his clothes on. That would be Ronan O’Casey, also credited with the screenplay, playing the jilted lawyer who lays the hidden-camera trap at the center of the film. Slumming O’Casey, who gives coruscating line readings while patiently explaining the tangled exposition, had a long “straight” filmography—including a role in Nicholas Ray’s 1957 Bitter Victory!
The last film screening in Porn Noir, and chronologically the last produced, is Corruption (1983). It’s an ominous down-the-rabbit-hole free-fall by Roger Watkins, described as “the tortured artist of the adult film genre,” who operated under the nom-de-porn Richard Mahler. The film opens with a dispassionate boardroom discussion between all-business automatons that plays like something out of Fassbinder’s World on a Wire—and the on-screen coupling is as detached and mechanistic as that in Fassbinder’s films. It says something that a vignette involving necrophilia isn’t necessarily the coldest here; special credit is due Tish Ambrose, who gives a particularly disdainful performance. The industry had moved to LA by ’83, but a lot of the New York talent had come with it, including star Jamie Gillis, a downmarket Elliott Gould, and frizzy-haired goblin Bobby Astyr, one of the adult industry’s finest character actors. (Gillis appears in Double Exposure; Astyr in that and Expose Me.) It’s hard to parse the meaning of Watkins’s symbolism-laded nonstop erotic cabaret, but perhaps Corruption’s cinematographer Larry Revene and star Kelly Nichols, who will be present at the Sunday night screening, can help to explain.
We have now traveled from ’70s porn chic to ’80s New Wave smut. The year after Corruption, Brian De Palma’s R-rated Body Double was released. Body Double ostensibly belongs to that quaint genre, the erotic thriller, which was made obsolescent by Internet porn, just as surely as video porn killed off the analog fare showing at “In the Flesh.” (Body Double, by the way, plays IFC Center midnights on April 4th and 5th as part of their “Erotic Thrillers of the ’80s & ’90s” program.) The film has hack actor Jake Scully going undercover in the porn industry to solve a murder—and here De Palma takes great pleasure in drawing out the parallels between official Hollywood and its looking-glass image, the pornographic underground. This is where “Porn Noir” is instructive: It’s the Bizarro World version of straight genre filmmaking, a peek under the raincoat of the hard-boiled detective.
“Porn Noir” runs March 28–30 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
MS. 45 (1981) has to be the most succinct, eye-popping title in movie history. Four point-blank characters—a single abbreviation, and a double-digit number—typed out on the screen to the sound of gunshots and punctuated by a bullet hole! More than a title, it is its own self-generating graphic, instantly telegraphing a cruelly concrete meaning (woman-grabs-a-gun-and-goes-ballistic) together with a cornucopia of suggestiveness: This is NYNY, capital of vice and degradation, city of Mickey Spillane, Weegee, Taxi Driver, Son of Sam, “Street Hassle”–era Lou Reed, Cindy Sherman, Times Square grindhouses, screaming New York Post headlines, and Lydia Lunch on the half shell.
“Starring Zoe Tamerlis as…”: the daughter of Eastwood’s Man with No Name and Anne Wiazemsky’s violated waif in Au hasard Balthazar, as striking and flatly unadorned a performance as anything this side of Pickpocket or Jeanne Dielman. Tamerlis’s Thanta—short for Thanatos, Thantology, maybe Thanta Claus—is a mute who works in the garment district, sewing dresses for a petty-tyrannical designer, one step or so above sweatshop conditions. Walking home from work past a scuzzy gauntlet of catcalling male harassers, she’s pulled into an alleyway and raped by a masked assailant. When she staggers into her apartment, bloody and half undressed, she encounters a burglar who assaults her all over again; he thinks her torn-and-frayed look is hot. (Played by director Abel Ferrara, it’s a pointed gutterball cameo that beats Hitchcock for either irony or honesty.)
This time, though, she finds an apple-shaped paperweight and strikes back, then finishes her dazed attacker off with a steam iron. The cutaway from the coup de grâce to a close-up of a couple eggs frying in her neighbor’s kitchen indicates both the formal attention and macabre, precisionist wit of Ms. 45—Ferrara gives you plenty of rigor to go with the mortis. Tamerlis’s disposal of the body is a masterpiece of amok home economics and repurposed domesticity: maneuvering the corpse into her bathroom, lifting him into the tub, cutting off his right arm, and sensibly wrapping it in a copy of the Village Voice. (Not only was the weekly a great cultural institution in those days, but the paper apparently doubled as “the quicker picker-upper” to boot—and what writer hasn’t dreamed of seeing their byline interpolated into a Ferrara or Jarmusch frame?)
What’s terrific about the film is the way Ferrara is able to delineate a fierce sense of 1980 New York as a sparse, poisonously fertile combat zone where the daily grind of alienated work, dread, tedium, social compartmentalization, and impersonality cohabit with untold allegorical possibilities. In Thanta’s case, she not only rises from the near-dead but is roused from a sleepwalking existence of drudgery and exploitation. Armed with her attacker’s .45 automatic, she isn’t so much the angelic avenger as an instrument of God’s inscrutable design: Tamerlis plays her as a wide-eyed extraterrestrial who vacillates between anguish, detachment, and stricken awe. She becomes a participant in the horror and sorrow of the world even as she seeks to purify herself of it.
Awakened to her calling, going from mousy to dressing “provocatively,” she’s not especially discriminating about whom she dispatches. Some in this shooting gallery of potential rapists surely have it coming, but one man chases her because he’s trying to return the bag she dropped. (It contains more of her dead rapist’s remains.) An ambiguous photographer she blasts without warning may be a cologne-drenched pickup artist but he could also be halfway sincere about wanting her for a model: Thanta had the gamin look of an unmoored Audrey Hepburn. Or when she dons a kinky nun costume for the Halloween finale—the most arresting image in the movie—a mad, mad, mad Ingrid Bergman.
The future coauthor of Bad Lieutenant (where she cameos as a chillingly self-destroying version of herself), Tamerlis here has a quotidian presence that bleeds into an abstracted reverie of saintliness and stigmata. It’s a mixture of initiation and revelation: She’s sucked into the violent undertow of sexism that blankets the city like a scummy fog, but she feeds off the disgust and the deviance too. (Her boss is flamingly gay but still comes on to her—men are such hopeless pigs here that their default sexual orientation is “anything that moves.”)
Ferrara brings moral questions and human agency together with all these satiric elements and genre riffs and furtive spiritual asides, as a physical part of the fabric of city life. The filth flows through the same spaces as art, jacked-up impulses bounce off contemplative figurations: The staged violence can be raw and shocking or distant and incorporeal. The most harrowing scene in Ms. 45 is an abrupt sequence where Tamerlis jaywalks with a yapping little dog in the middle of a busy street. It doesn’t looked staged, this hard jump cut into them with traffic bearing down on as they dodge the screaming drivers and delivery trucks. There’s a genuine atmosphere of freedom at play, but danger too: working without safety nets or stunt coordinators or insurance, without any kind of studio or institutional framework. Rush out into traffic—it’ll make a great shot if you both aren’t run over. The most unnerving scene, though, is when Thanta’s gun jams as she tries to shoot a man on a bench. He takes it from her and coolly blows his own brains out.
By now, Travis Bickle and his “You-talkin’-to-me?” baggage is finally ready for mothballs, while Tamerlis’s Thanta has the quizzical, undiscovered freshness of a figure that hasn’t been rehashed to death. There is a lot to love about Ms. 45, but its spindly, splendidly arrayed decor is especially full of tiny, deeply evocative touches: handmade Halloween place settings in a restaurant, a poster of Raúl Juliá from The Threepenny Opera hovering in the background when Thanta’s apartment has become a crime scene. The art direction was by Ruben Masters (otherwise known as “Ruby”), a name you won’t find on IMDB, but one to reckon with: As half of the team (along with the late Michael Constant) that would take the pseudonym “Veronika Rocket,” in 1983 she went on to codirect Smoker, the wittiest, most darkly innovative, visually sophisticated, and slyly seditious porn film ever made. Some enterprising programmer ought to put the two films together, because that’s a double bill that could send a few shock waves through the body politic—are you listening, Film Society of Lincoln Center?
Fritz Lang, You and Me, 1938, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 90 minutes.
THE SCRIBES OF OLD speak to us of the Auteurist Wars, in which the guardians of high culture who could only love industrial Hollywood movies as mere “fun trash” were challenged by an army of young zealots, crusaders charged with the guiding doctrine that profound worldviews were discernible in that fun trash, and “that movies are primarily the creation of one governing author behind the camera who thinks in images and sounds rather than words and sentences.”
The insurgents carried the day decisively—and in cinephile circles, their burning faith has become entrenched orthodoxy. For younger critics who came of age when the Auteurist Wars were only a distant memory, “auteurism” has always been here—a sometimes useful, sometimes cumbersome framework through which to view film art, rather than a hill to fight and die on. The time is ripe, then, for a reform movement. The definition of the auteurist idea quoted above comes from “Critical Condition,” a much-discussed recent piece by the critic Kent Jones which appeared in Film Comment. Jones celebrates the critical revolution of the 1950s and ’60s during which, armed with the auteurist idea, “the lovers of cinema didn’t just argue for its inclusion among the fine arts, but actually stood up, waved its flag, and proclaimed its glory without shame”—but also expresses concern that strict allegiance to the doctrine has tended to blind film writers to the evidence of their senses, encouraging “the subtle transformation of the actual scene into an ideal one made in the state of artistic freedom.”
As though to accompany the ongoing interrogation of auteurism, along comes Anthology Film Archives’s program “Auteurs Gone Wild.” The series, programmed by David Phelps, highlights nine films which have been singled out as the “most atypical works” of classical Hollywood filmmakers—the least Capraesque of Frank Capra, the least Langian of Frank Lang, Ernst Lubitsch with an unfamiliar Touch. As Phelps puts it, these are “the exceptions that prove the rule,” many of them interestingly made in a state nearer to artistic freedom than more customary works.
I’m not sure that Lubitsch’s 1932 Broken Lullaby (aka The Man I Killed) is his “most atypical” film—the master of the droll, feather-light sex comedy once made a historical epic set in Ancient Egypt, after all—but it’s a work as weighty as the pyramids. An ironically jaunty montage places the scene in Paris, 1919, during a celebration of the first anniversary of Armistice. A young Frenchman (Phillips Holmes) is gnawed by the memory of a German soldier that he killed in close quarters. In hope of absolution, he travels to see the soldier’s family in their village, where he is accepted into their intimacy under false pretenses. The film abounds in the sort of narrative contrivances which are forbidden by the dictates of what presently passes for realism, but which allow for staggering emotional power. If there is a signature Lubitsch element, it is a certain sophistication in the film’s solemn conclusion, which suggests that the urge for confession is oftentimes a self-centered one, ennobling instead the gentle deception.
Lubitsch had arrived in Hollywood in 1923, the year of Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris, also playing at AFA. It’s the only film that Chaplin directed in which he doesn’t appear at all. With it, Chaplin seems at times to be making a play for territory more typical of Lubitsch; it’s a film of gay parties and knowing twinkles in the eye, where the precision of gesture and crack timing that marked his comedies is very much in evidence. There is no question that Chaplin’s ambitions went well beyond tinkering with gags—he wrote the swirling orchestral scores that his movies dance in time to, and he took himself increasingly seriously as an emissary of world peace in later years, a self-image that smothered his talent to amuse. In this light, Chaplin’s last film as a director, A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), set largely aboard an ocean liner, is oddly touching despite its waterlogged comic timing. Marlon Brando stars as an American aristocrat given to mouthing nostrums about saving the world who finally surrenders his sententiousness for a shot at happiness with stowaway White Russian aristocrat Sophia Loren. It’s Chaplin’s triumph over the burden of importance—and, like Woman of Paris, proof that the king of knockabout comedy secretly fetishized drawing room farce.
Chaplin could make a risky departure like Woman of Paris—shunned by the public—because of the new freedom allowed by his formation of United Artists, the independent studio he founded with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith. Many of the works showing here are outliers in their director’s filmographies for such readily identifiable reasons. Josef von Sternberg’s 1953 The Saga of Anatahan, his final complete film, was made on practically a home-movie budget in Japan, where the director’s name still counted for something, though he’d been all-but-forgotten in Hollywood. Elsewhere we find works by filmmakers who, for one reason or another, were at a transitional moment before settling into routine. You and Me (1938) is an oddity in Fritz Lang’s filmography, but it would be strange in anyone’s—the movie features sprechgesang musical digressions penned by Kurt Weill, and a didactic climax in which Sylvia Sidney teaches a Seven Dwarves rogue’s gallery of mugshot character actors that crime literally does not pay. Only Lang’s third film made in America, it teeters on the pivot point between Berlin cabaret and Hollywood studio. Frank Capra’s 1933 The Bitter Tea of General Yen is a swimmily sensual Orientalist fantasy in which Barbara Stanwyck’s American missionary becomes the property of Nils Asther’s sexually imperious Chinese warlord. For some, watching it for the first time will be like discovering that Norman Rockwell dabbled in erotic watercolors. Predating Capra’s It Happened One Night watershed and his concentration on less corporeal love, it allows one to imagine a different direction for Capra and American movies promised by the Pre-Code world.
From Capra corn we go to Under Capricorn: Those who missed the lone showing of this historical melodrama set in 1831 Sydney at Film Forum’s “Complete Hitchcock” will have two more chances here. There’s not a single knifing or strangulation in the 1949 film—although it does contain an unusual amount of psychological cruelty, and one shrunken head. Like Rope, which was released the previous year, Under Capricorn is in Technicolor and uses a number of long, unbroken sequence shots, although here the style seems more naturally suited to the setting, traveling through the enfiladed doorways of oversize colonial homes, or along the veranda of convict turned businessman Joseph Cotten’s home with Cotten and Michael Wilding before craning up to catch the subject of their conversation, Ingrid Bergman’s dipsomaniacal lady of the house. (Also like Rope, the film was made for Transatlantic Pictures, Hitchcock’s own short-lived production company, which Hitch created with the intention of making more experimental films after he’d left the employ of David O. Selznick.) The house and tropical surroundings were soundstage-built in England, augmented by garish matte painting skies, which the great Powell and Pressburger cinematographer Jack Cardiff complements with a palette of creamy pastels. (The other costume drama here is Peter Ibbetson , a rather overwrought adaptation of a George du Maurier novel by Henry Hathaway, rightly better known for his noir and western works.)
As it transpires, Bergman’s character in Under Capricorn is being “gaslighted.” The term comes from the title of a 1944 thriller also starring Bergman, in which her husband attempts to convince her that she is going insane, with Charles Boyer as the most menacing spouse since Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s 1941 Suspicion. Gaslight was directed by George Cukor, the second adaption of a 1938 play called Gas Light by one Patrick Hamilton, whose other stage hit was something called Rope, which would eventually be filmed by you-know-who. At AFA, Cukor is represented by a 1949 whatsit called Edward, My Son, a film which represents fifty years in the life of Spencer Tracy and Deborah Kerr’s married couple, and which finds its director every bit as infatuated as Hitchcock with stringing together long, Rope-like tracking shots.
All of this says something about the trickiness of attributing anything in Hollywood, the way in which certain circulating ideas wend freely between films and filmographies. Are the films collected here one-offs in their directors’ oeuvres, or the quintessence of them? In encouraging such questions, “Auteurs Gone Wild” is the ideal program for a moment when many movie lovers have begun to dismantle auteurism in order to save it.
“Auteurs Gone Wild” runs through March 30 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
Rithy Panh, The Missing Picture, 2013, color, sound, 92 minutes.
THE MOST ORIGINAL, thought-provoking, and gut-wrenching film memoir in years, Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture tells a riveting story whose very form addresses the interface of history and cinema—a document at once of utmost political relevance and of emotional and psychological truth. Panh was born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 1964; in 1975, he and his family were herded into cattle cars and driven from the city to refugee camps, where they were forced to serve what the writer Richard Bernstein calls (in an essay in the April 3 issue of the New York Review of Books) “the homicidal radicalism” of the Communist Khmer Rouge regime. Literally reduced to numbers, men and women, parents and children were separated—their names changed, their personal property confiscated. “The revolution is pure,” the narrator parrots, “there’s no room for humans.” Those who resisted or were too ill to be of use were quickly dispatched. According to Bernstein, an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died of execution, disease, or hunger under the Khmer Rouge, whose excesses surpassed those of the Maoist revolution. Panh’s parents, sisters, brothers, and cousins all died, and when the regime collapsed in 1979, he fled to Thailand and later to Paris where he attended film school.
The Missing Picture is Panh’s attempt to retrieve memories of his childhood both before and after deportation. Alongside newsreels and propaganda footage of the “proletariat” happily at work, we see images of elaborately designed, handmade dioramas of the camp “peopled” with numerous hand-carved clay figures. These re-create the daily, unrecorded lives of the interned, as well as the unfilmed or lost images of tortures and executions. The detailed expressions of the figures are “animated” not by single-frame shooting but by camera angles, pans, and overhead shots that treat them like characters in scenes from a live-action movie. Mute objects whose mournful countenances speak to the brutal erasure of an era and a population, these evocative constructs fill in for the missing photographic records.
Allegedly aimed at saving the country from prior devastations and bombings by Western forces, Pol Pot’s regime failed in every way. The only signs of the revolution’s “success,” the narrator remarks, are in the official movies of smiling workers toiling the land or digging canals. All other films were destroyed, cinemas were closed, artists and technicians were sent to work in the fields. Panh himself was one of those young workers, cutting down trees, planting corn or rice. “There is only one actor, Pol Pot. He is the revolution, his myth must be forged.”
Panh’s perspectivealready apparent in S21, The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2002), his eye-opening account of the regime’s atrocitiesis anything but neutral. Yet neither The Missing Picture’s text, by Christophe Bataille, nor its eloquently delivered narration, by Randal Douc, aims to shock with new harrowing details. What impresses here is the poignancy and consummate grace of the approach, the way in which the filmmaker’s need to “seek his childhood” is tied to the sense of irretrievable loss, the theme struck in the film’s first image of rusted cans of decaying celluloid sprawled under the credits. Despite the momentousness of its subject, the film’s quieter, understated gestures are no less poetic or emotionally powerful. A cluster of clay figurines, removed from their tableaux, suddenly appears superimposed in a photograph or incorporated within real footage—in effect, reinserting the displaced people they represent into the world from which they were wrenched. In a reverse move, a photo of relatives suddenly emanates from the midst of the crafted model, only to dissolve slowly out of the picture. At one point, we watch a hand delicately shading in lines of a sketch of the house in Phnom Penh where Panh once lived, as the narrator tells us that he remembers every detail—“the paintings, the doors, the jugs, the hallways. My house became a gambling dive, a karaoke, then a brothel. It, too, was voided, torn from its history.”
Despite the emotions these gestures and words arouse, the movie is hardly sentimental. Even before his time in Paris, Panh became fascinated by film, retrieving discarded scraps of celluloid and watching them in a box with a light. “A child who tells himself he is alive, who tells tales, that’s me.” His film attests to the many pictures that are missing. He wonders if people in Paris saw films of what was happening in Cambodia or whether those pictures, too, were missing. He tells us in the end that he never found the missing picture, and of course this must be so. No single image or images could testify to the truth of his past or explain its horrors. The full force of Panh’s film is the realization that the missing picture is not a photo or an image at all, but that which is impossible to seize, that mental picture of a life and a time torn from its native context. In the end, his art proves more powerful than any photo: The film’s final images are of the clay figurines, one after the other, lying in tiny, makeshift graves, as dirt is thrown over their faces and open mouths.
If we wonder how such a sight can move us in a world saturated with images and detached from the history they strive to evoke, Panh would simply say, as he does early on about his entire endeavor, “It just takes will.”
The Missing Picture opens Wednesday, March 19 at Film Forum in New York.
A SMART AND WITTY TWIST on the reality genre, Doll & Em is a six-part series created by actors Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells, starring Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells, and written by Emily Mortimer, Dolly Wells, and Azazel Jacobs. Mortimer’s husband, Alessandro Nivola, is the producer, and Jacobs directed the entire shebang. Mortimer and Wells are British, as is the series, which was made for the Sky Channel’s “Sky Living” and then acquired by HBO. Five of the six half-hour episodes, however, are located in LA.
So is this an incestuous selfie—smug Brits with excellent educations and cultural pedigrees (Mortimer is the daughter of the late novelist and playwright John Mortimer, Wells of the late actor and writer John Wells)—sending up Hollywood? Happily, not so much.
Wells and Mortimer, who have been best friends since childhood, do indeed play characters named Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells, who also have been best friends since childhood. A photograph of the real Mortimer and Wells taken nearly thirty-five years ago is a touchstone for the show. But the situation in which they, as writers, have placed themselves as characters is unlikely to have occurred. Did I mention that Doll & Em is executive produced by Andrew Eaton, who also did the same for Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip (2010–), in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play, to hilarious effect, characters very much like themselves but in a fictive situation? Think of Doll & Em as the female version of The Trip, the laughter it provokes more ambivalent and, at least for female viewers, laced with self-recognition.
The setup is primed for a disaster that gets worse episode by episode. On impulse, Emily rescues Doll, who has broken up with her lunatic boyfriend and is waitressing in a hip London restaurant, by offering her a free trip to LA and a job as her personal assistant. Emily is shooting a movie, described by everyone except its twit of a director as a female Godfather. It is her chance to transition from ingénue to leading lady, and since she’s already turned forty, probably the only opportunity she’s going to have. But if she thought Doll would offer her the support of a best friend and a personal assistant rolled into one, she had it all wrong.
Personal assistants need to be omnipresent but invisible, attentive to their employers’ every need, greeting the most impossible demands with a reassuring “No problem.” Doll, however, is physically and verbally impulsive and unabashedly expressive. She makes her presence known, on the set and off, unintentionally upstaging the reserved Emily at every turn. But when Doll decides that she wants to be an actor too and she’s offered a screen test for a role that Emily wanted, everything explodes.
What makes the show a pleasure is that both women are lovely and great fun to watch. There is a real-life intimacy and a shared history that can’t be faked. That’s why we care when an imbalance of power that neither of them can be straightforward about—they are both passive-aggressive—turns the friendship into a train wreck.
It’s all in the details, like the moment when they both decide they want ice cream but neither of them gets up to go to the kitchen. If they were simply friends, then Emily, who has invited Doll for a visit, would get off her ass and serve the ice cream. But now that Doll is the assistant, it’s part of her vague job description to fulfill Emily’s wants and needs, including her desire for ice cream. Friendship and work, power and status, competition and insecurity—there are no easy solutions.
Jacobs, whose not quite autobiographical feature Momma’s Man (2008) starred his own parents, Ken and Flo Jacobs, and was set in the magical Chambers Street loft where he grew up, is a perfect director for this reality-tinged fiction. The scenes between Emily and Doll have an improvisational feel, the camera hanging around long enough to let us know that what’s not being said is what’s important. Just as impressive is how the daily grind of shooting a mainstream independent movie is evoked on what was clearly a bare-bones budget, simply out of dialogue, behavior, and a smattering of star cameos. Susan Sarandon, Andy Garcia, and Chloë Sevigny have their moments, but Doll and Em (or should the billing be Em and Doll?) are the show.
Doll & Em debuts on HBO on Wednesday, March 19 at 10 PM.
Matt Wolf, Teenage, 2013, 16 mm and 8 mm, color, sound, 78 minutes. Rose Schlossberg, Elizabeth Raiss, and Alden Ehrenreich. Photo: Rose Holmer.
“TEEN” IS NOT AN AGE, or if it were, the Western adolescing could be neither an identity nor an interest group. Yet in nation-places from the US to Russia, the figure of “teenager,” putatively anyone aged thirteen to nineteen, didn’t exist until World War I, at which point those who matched the description were rendered virtual immigrants. Invented, they were promptly feared. And rationally so: What monster has the body of an adult, the mind of a child, and the heart of an animal? From 1920-ish to 1945, teenagers were Othered, vilified, sent to camps (Boy Scouts in America; Hitler Youth in Germany), released on certain conditions, promised equality, punished for rioting when equality failed to show up, then co-opted, target-marketed, and emancipated again in a kind of compromise that exists only to preempt revolution. Later they were idolized and sacrificed by turns, and now that they speak for themselves—on Tumblr, Twitter, Kik, and also on more traditional online publications, some bossed by teens themselves—they are fetishized perhaps oftener than they’re respected.
Matt Wolf’s new documentary, Teenage (2013), ends at the compromise of 1945, when the New York Times published a “Teen-age Bill of Rights,” although Bradford Cox’s cresting score seems fitter for a revolution. We also get a definition of the subject that explains its astatistical status. Simply: Not everyone belonging to the seven years ending in “teen” is actually a teenager. Some, like the children before or without labor laws, go straight from innocence to adulthood. Some, like me, turn twenty-one (or more) before entering the category of experience, not age, we call youth, while others pass as adults ’til they are. And though none of that is said on the surface of this coruscating doc—a finely animated collage (is there a more teenaged art form?) of archival film and reconstructed “footage” voiced-over by several young actors, including Jena Malone and Ben Wishaw—it’s dead-on obvious that being a teenager means abiding by a set of rules that contradict the wishes of authority. “I don’t trust my parents anymore,” says one. “I just want to be with my friends.” Another aches to “blot out the past,” adding that post–World War I, “there was a reckless sense of release.” After World War II, the sentiment is echoed, louder: “We knew we could be blown up in an instant, so we only wanted to live in the now.” Since forever exists for seconds at a time, less frequently every year, there are repeated pleas to live or stay young for good: “I love being seventeen,” etc. Teenagers, in Wolf’s eyes, want to get older only to the point of being free and equals, without having to become like the rest of us. Adults want to build a bridge between obedience to parents and obedience to the state, or to circumstances. Teenagers want to blow it up.
Wolf worked with researcher Rosemary Rotundi and Teenage author Jon Savage, on whose terms the film is based, to find the four lives, drawn from history, that anchor the chronological plot: Brenda Dean Paul, a proto–Cat Marnell in 1920s England who’d rather die than age (and does); Melita Maschmann, a member of the Hitler Youth who betrays her first-blush idealism by choosing National Socialism over her Jewish friends; Tommie Scheel, a seditionary German swing kid in the same wartime; and Warren Wall, a black Boy Scout turned rebel in the 1943 Harlem riots. No two of the four would sit together at lunch, which is part of why you feel for all of them. Since teenagers defined themselves against adults, adults would eventually counter this by defining teenagers against each other, telling girls and boys and especially girls what kinds of kids not to be, then making movies about the ineluctable cliques and class wars that arose. (What Tina Fey won’t tell you is that slut-shaming was cooked up by moms.) “It wasn’t just us having fun,” says the actor playing Scheel of his hijinks. “It was a direct threat to the nation.”
Teenage is sick for the last years without nostalgia. What the teenager wanted was a future in which we would not be defined by our parents, but by our friends; not by our grades, but by our vagaries; not by what we do, but by what we love. Consider a line from the aforementioned Bill of Rights, by then-teen Elliot E. Cohen: “To the ’teen-ager love is serious.” Nearly seventy years later, youth are commanded to “do what you love,” and when they do it, find that they no longer want it and cannot admit it ’cause they’re lucky. We are becoming a freelance nation under one slogan: “It’s not work when it doesn’t feel like work!” Well, nor does it feel like love when you’re constantly having to prove it.
“American culture spread,” says Melita. “They took away our weapons and gave us Coca-Cola.” Given, after all, that Coke is poison, you might find yourself wishing the kids had kept their guns—and remembered who the enemy was.
Teenage opens Friday, March 14 at the Landmark Sunshine theater in New York, and Friday March 21 at the Laemmle NoHo 7 in Los Angeles before a national rollout in the US.
NO: Liza Minnelli says this sixteen times to Robert De Niro in their first scene together in Martin Scorsese’s voluptuous, heart-piercing musical from 1977, New York, New York. (Five years earlier, in the incomparable Bob Fosse–directed TV special Liza with a “Z”, her opening number was a song called “Yes.”) Their characters, Francine Evans, smartly done up in her USO uniform, and Jimmy Doyle, who’s chucked his soldier’s attire for a Hawaiian shirt emblazoned with Big Apple landmarks, are among the hundreds of revelers celebrating V-J Day in a Times Square ballroom as the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra plays. Snapping his Juicy Fruit, Jimmy is on the make; Francine vigorously rebuffs his come-ons. But she is intrigued enough by this volatile ex-GI that she ends up accompanying Jimmy, a sax player, to his audition at a Flatbush Avenue dive—a tryout she rescues from another of his hotheaded outbursts by breaking into the 1930s standard “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me.” Shortly after this, they go on tour with a band, but their creative and romantic union will eventually be riven for good by emotional dissonance.
Scorsese, Little Italy’s most famous (and movie-besotted) son, followed up Taxi Driver (1976), his seminal portrait of New York as Sodom, with a far more sanguine tribute to his hometown, here mostly re-created on Hollywood backlots and sets. “I wanted to make it in the style of the forties films, with all their artifice and the idea of no reality,” the director says of New York, New York in the book-length interview Scorsese on Scorsese. “The sets would be completely fake, but the trick would be to approach the characters in the foreground like a documentary, combining the two techniques.” Augmenting the raw, vérité quality of this lavish, otherworldly musical is the fact that most of the dialogue was improvised. (After Taxi Driver won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Scorsese notes in that same interview, “we got big heads and felt that no script was good enough.”)
The casting of Minnelli—the only child produced during the union of two of the greatest artists of the film era and genre that Scorsese salutes—further deepens New York, New York’s authenticity. In her simultaneously ferocious and elegant performance, the actress—who sings both standbys from the Great American Songbook and tracks written for the film by her frequent collaborators Kander and Ebb, including the title anthem—also pays homage to her parents. She does this quite explicitly in the lengthy “Happy Endings” number, which recalls her mother’s “Born in a Trunk” sequence from George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954), Judy Garland’s comeback vehicle after MGM had suspended her contract four years earlier. At times Minnelli’s intensity suggests nothing less than filial exorcism—a volcanic recognition of Mama’s colossal talent and her equally enormous tendencies toward self-sabotage, traits that she passed on to her daughter. Or, as Sam Wasson, in perhaps the most incisive assessment of Minnelli ever written, says in his recently published Fosse biography: “Liza had a big voice, one that conveyed the punishing truth about making entertainment: It was mean. It was messy. It was a C-section and she was both mother and baby.”
New York, New York was not a success either critically or commercially, partly owing to the fact that, for all the film’s lush decor and surface sunniness, it forswore a typically happy Hollywood ending. “It’s about two people in love with each other who are both creative,” Scorsese said of his musical. “That was the idea: to see if the marriage would work. We didn’t know if this marriage was going to work, because we didn’t know if our own marriages were working.” After looking at a rough cut, George Lucas, then the husband of Marcia Lucas, the supervising film editor of New York, New York, told Scorsese he could increase his box-office take by $10 million if he reunited Francine and Jimmy. Scorsese, who was after—and gloriously reached—a level of truthfulness amid so much make-believe, wisely ignored the director of Star Wars, released less than a month before New York, New York.
New York, New York screens at BAMcinématek on March 19 as part of the series “Under the Influence: Scorsese/Walsh,” which runs March 12–26.
“I THINK HIS WORLD had long vanished by the time he entered it. But he managed the illusion with such grace,” one character says of another in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson’s latest Kool-Aid-colored diorama, set primarily in the fictional Eastern European country Zubrowska between the wars. The statement applies just as easily to the writer-director, an incorrigible nostalgist who relies on impeccable mise-en-scčnes to function as emotional ballast.
That’s especially true, and egregiously so, in GBH, inspired by the fiction and memoirs of Austrian Stefan Zweig, one of most acclaimed authors of the interbellum period. Though Anderson’s eighth film is his first to be rooted in epoch-defining history, the events of the past are treated like a handful of prized bibelots—an impression amplified by the movie’s matryoshka-doll-like structure. Three different eras are nested inside one another: GBH opens in 1985 with Tom Wilkinson, identified in the credits simply as the Author, recalling his younger self—played by Jude Law—in 1968, the year he stayed at the once-glorious spa resort of the title to cure his “scribe’s fever.” It is while taking the waters that Law’s character meets the Grand Budapest’s owner, Mr. Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Over dinner, the solemn hotelier recounts his time as a lobby boy—his teenage incarnation, a refugee from an unnamed land, played by relative newcomer Tony Revolori—at the hotel in the 1930s, when he was under the tutelage of the effete head concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes).
Doused in his signature cologne, L’Air de Panache, the gerontophilic Gustave (who swings both ways) spends many seasons bedding the octogenarian Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, buried under layers of latex and makeup, giving her an Edith Sitwell–meets–Trash Humpers look). Her death sets in motion a plot that strains—against perfectly framed interiors ablaze in orange, purple, pink, red, and lavender—to reach the supple yet sober screwball of Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942), his comedy about the Nazi invasion of Poland. In due time, the Grand Budapest will transform ignominiously from a bastion of Old World elegance to a barracks for the jackbooted thugs of the “ZZ,” led by Madame D.’s son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Still popping his peepers the same way he did as Salvador Dalí (and to the same wearying effect) in Woody Allen’s own recent romp in the Continental past, Midnight in Paris, Brody is also called upon to respond to Fiennes’s hyperarticulate suavity with grating vulgarity: He refers to the polished hotel employee—who also occasionally interrupts his own smooth oration with a string of obscenities—as “that fucking faggot” or “you goddamn little fruit.”
Never funny, this coarseness instead typifies the tonal imbalance that impairs most of GBH, a project that, despite its lofty aims, shrinks everything to precious mini-size, much like the pastel-hued confections made by Zero’s baker’s-assistant sweetheart, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan, embellished with a port-wine stain on her face in the shape of Mexico). Anderson’s film looks good enough to eat; swallowing it is another matter.
The Grand Budapest Hotel opens in limited release on March 7.
Andrew Bujalski, Computer Chess, 2013, analog NTSC video, black-and-white, sound, 92 minutes.
ANDREW BUJALSKI’S COMPUTER CHESS (2013) is set in an undistinguished hotel that gradually is revealed to be haunted by the problem of “the ghost in the machine.” The year is roughly 1980, and teams of unkempt, bespectacled computer science pioneers with MIT and Stanford pedigrees are competing in an annual chess tournament which pits program against program, with the winner then matched against a putatively human expert, the tournament’s organizer (played by film critic Gerald Peary, one of Bujalski’s first supporters).
Although no one would have predicted it, this most oddball of Bujalski’s four features is his biggest success—critically and commercially, playing for weeks in theaters and now available for downloads and on DVD from Kino-Lorber with such invaluable extras as “4 Computer Chess reference games” and a “1969 Sony-AVC-3260 video camera tutorial.” A fetishist of nearly extinct moving-image technologies, Bujalski shot and edited his first three features—Funny Ha Ha (2002), Mutual Appreciation (2006), and Beeswax (2009)—on 16 mm. He one-ups himself here by choosing a black-and-white analog video camera: the clunky Sony AVC-3260, which probably would have been used to document a weekend where the future of Basic was hotly debated and attendees lugged their twenty-pound PCs and funnel-like terminals from their cars to their rooms to the convention conference room, and back again.
Some of the humor in Computer Chess derives from our astonishment that, just thirty years ago, such hardware dinosaurs and maddeningly slow software programs were the cutting edge, and our consequent recognition of how ridiculously primitive our iPhones and Google Glasses will appear three decades hence. Bujalski doubles down on the joke with the AVC-3260. He fell in love with the look of early black-and-white video when he saw excerpts from William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton in Michael Almereyda’s documentary on the photographer, William Eggleston in the Real World (2005). In 1973, Eggleston had a brief flirtation with video and employed a Sony Porta-Pak rig, which he souped up with high-grade lenses, to shoot a documentary of the usual suspects who appeared in his photographs. Bujalski has cited Alan and Susan Raymond’s “video-vérité” documentary The Police Tapes (1977) as another documentary that interested him in the possibilities of early video technology. Had he investigated further, he might have found other genres of long-form black-and-white analog video pieces: Vito Acconci’s The Red Tapes (1976) and Ed Bowes’s Romance (1976) remain notable forays into novelistic video narratives.
Bujalski and his ingenious cinematographer Matthias Grunsky performed their own modifications on the AVC-3260, converting its analog signal to digital as they were recording. Since the conversion was not exactly seamless, the postproduction was neither cheap nor easy. Still, the tube camera is what gives Computer Chess its future/past sci-fi tone, just as Chris Marker’s use of black-and-white stills does in La Jetée (1963). The movie seems like something retrieved from a thirty-five-year-old time capsule, which, in terms of the speed of technological change over that period, might have been light years away.
The first scenes look as if they are merely an inexperienced videographer’s documentation of the weekend, replete with nerdy participants spouting a combination of practical and theoretical artificial intelligence jargon combined with stuff that I’ve been told by software programmers makes no sense at all. It serves as an introduction to the characters, including Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester), the young man who gradually becomes the movie’s focus. Bujalski has an amazing ability to discover nonprofessional actors who are able to live quietly but fully in front of the camera, and Riester is as vulnerable, curious, and willful as Kate Dollenmayer, who played the unforgettable heroine of Funny Ha Ha.
No sooner has the camera left the conference room than it discovers that another meeting is being held in the hotel, this one as touchy-feely as the computer chess conference is cerebral. In the funniest and most disturbing scene of the movie, a middle-aged couple from this Esalen-like group attempts to seduce Peter. “Think of us as your parents,” says the husband as he suggestively unbuttons the blouse that barely conceals his wife’s terrifyingly ample bosom. Patrick flees into the hotel corridors where spectral cats roam, their slightly disembodied forms the result of the analog camera’s propensity to “ghost”—to leave trails of light, like the supposed ectoplasm in nineteenth-century “spirit” photographs.
As the movie syncs more closely with Peter’s subjectivity, Computer Chess becomes more dreamlike, fully exploiting the AV-3260’s gauzy, smeared, ephemeral images. Peter’s devotion to computer chess is sabotaged by his sexual anxieties and his projection of his unconscious fears and desires onto his surroundings. The hotel becomes haunted by apparitions from Stanley Kubrick films: a room filled with those ghostly cats; ominous hallways out of The Shining, which coincidentally or not was released in the same year as the film is set; and a computer which, like Hal in 2001, begins to function on its own, posing questions about mind and soul, i.e., about “the ghost in the machine.”
That endlessly suggestive metaphor was coined by philosopher Gilbert Ryle in his analysis of how the Cartesian mind/body duality, with its profound categorical error, haunts philosophy. Techies use it when they cannot come up with any obvious reason for hardware or software malfunctions. In evoking the ambition and anxiety around artificial intelligence—even in such a convoluted manifestation as computer chess—Bujalski, in a glorious act of association, collapses AI, the mind/body split, and the ghosting effect of black-and-white video. As a final fillip, he places Peter’s sexual initiation in the hands of a lovely robot, like the one created by Thomas Edison even as he was inventing motion pictures, and which Annette Michelson, in a brilliant essay in October (issue 29, summer 1984) dubbed “the Eve of the future.” Is that a motherboard Peter sees inside her head?
Emmanuelle Bercot, On My Way, 2014, color, sound, 113 minutes.
I’VE NEVER HEARD Catherine Deneuve laugh as much as she does in On My Way; then again, I’ve never seen her wear an enormous neon-pink clown wig or share the screen so effortlessly with a flamboyant eleven-year-old. Emmanuelle Bercot’s film, which opens this year’s “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” in New York, was written expressly for the icon, whose tobacco-deepened chortles reveal a looseness and vibrancy all too rarely tapped in the fifty years since she became a superstar in Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Deneuve plays Bettie, a former beauty queen partial to subdued leopard-print blouses. Crowned Miss Brittany in 1969, she’s never left the region, running a bistro and living in the house she was born in with her mother. Shortly after learning that her longtime married lover has taken up with a twenty-five-year-old, Bettie walks out during the middle of the lunch rush, her head-clearing getaway soon turning into a nearly weeklong road trip through deepest rural France. Bettie’s desultory travels—involving pit stops in itty-bitty towns where an ancient, arthritic farmer hand-rolls her a cigarette and a group of hard-looking women invite her to share a beer at the only bar seemingly for hundreds of miles—account for much of the film’s easy charm. These scenes, which pair the most famous Frenchwoman in the world with nonprofessional actors, effervesce with their unpredictability, showing off Deneuve’s nimble give-and-take with these game first-timers. But the most exhilarating duet occurs between Deneuve and Nemo Schiffman (Bercot’s son), playing Bettie’s grandson, Charly, a melodramatic tween who belts out show tunes. Neophyte Schiffman’s formidable drama-queen energy gooses his fluid dynamic with Deneuve even further while never overshadowing his luminary costar.
If On My Way shows us new dimensions of a legendary actress, two other standouts in the “Rendez-Vous” lineup—Serge Bozon’s Tip Top and Axelle Ropert’s Miss and the Doctors—revitalize entire genres. Frequent collaborators, Ropert and Bozon cowrote the script for the latter’s La France (2007), a singular war movie/musical hybrid that celebrated 1960s-era pop manna while lamenting the folly of nationalism. Tip Top similarly upends categories: This sui generis policier, in which Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Kiberlain play internal-affairs officers summoned to investigate the death of an Algerian informant, audaciously balances slapstick—often deployed to excellent effect in the heroines’ unorthodox practices, both on the job and in the bedroom—with a fiercely intelligent probing of the still-knotty legacy of France’s colonialist past.
Ropert’s film also has a remarkable way of making the most shopworn conventions seem dazzlingly fresh—a skill already on display in her first feature, The Wolberg Family (2009). Like that earlier movie, which astutely explores the thorny struggle of how to carve out an identity wholly separate from one’s kin, Ropert’s follow-up project also addresses blood ties. Set in Paris’s thirteenth arrondissement, the home of the capital city’s rarely filmed Chinatown, Miss and the Doctors concerns two pediatrician brothers, Boris (Cédric Kahn) and Dimitri (Laurent Stoker). So close that they live in the same apartment complex and write prescriptions at desks positioned side by side, the siblings find their bonds tested when they both fall in love with the same woman, Judith (Louise Bourgoin), the single mother of one of their charges, a diabetic preteen girl. Yet this deceptively small project about a love triangle slowly reveals itself to be nothing less than an expansive, deeply compassionate look at universal dyads: physicians and patients, parents and children, immigrants and the native-born, the beloved and the loveless.
“Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” runs at the Film Society of Lincoln Center March 6–16, the IFC Center March 7–13, and BAMcinématek March 7–10. On My Way will be released in New York on March 14; Tip Top will be released later this year.