THANKS TO THE VAGARIES of release schedules, sometimes a modest, intelligent movie can seem even more accomplished when it arrives in the wake of a similarly themed, lumbering white elephant. Writer-director Sophie Fillières’s fifth feature, If You Don’t, I Will, concerns the strained, often caustic interactions between a long-term couple—what the filmmaker herself has felicitously called “the more or less low-level violence of conjugality.” Unlike David Fincher’s ghastly commercial hit Gone Girl, in which the platitude “marriage is hard work” is carried out to its grimmest, most cartoonish extreme, If You Don’t, I Will pursues a more fruitful topic: exploring the ways that spouses become fiercely invested in perpetuating their own immiserating dynamic.
Though the length of their union is never specified—they’ve been together at least seven years—Pomme (Emmanuelle Devos) and Pierre (Mathieu Amalric) have long settled into a passive-aggressive push-pull. Their communication barely conceals the fury that simmers beneath each exchange; husband and wife appear incapable of not finding a slight in the most benign remark. Like most unhappy couples, they feel no shame in performing their acrimony in front of others, whether mutual friends or strangers at a party. If marriage is hard work—that is, a series of arguments and sulks resolved through unsatisfying compromises—then Pomme and Pierre seem to never be off the clock, outrageously in violation of French labor laws.
Speaking of work, the specifics of the professional lives of Pomme and Pierre, like other key details about this bobo Lyonnais couple, are parceled out in a pleasingly oblique way. Though we never see him at the office, we learn that Pierre works in some capacity at a local TV-news show owing to his habit of too eagerly insisting that one of his colleagues, weather forecaster Mellie (Joséphine de La Baume), stop by the squabbling spouses’ apartment, especially when his wife is there. Fillières’s film is well underway before we discover that Pomme is on medical leave from her managerial profession, having recently had a benign tumor removed from her brain. The twentyish son whom Pomme coddles turns out to be her child from a previous relationship—key information that isn’t bullet-pointed but transmitted in a casual, offhanded way.
In fact, the loose confidence on display throughout much of If You Don’t, I Will helps make the material, however frequently (and often enervatingly) mined, seem fresh. Although dour, Fillières’s movie is free of cynicism and bad faith, and buoyed by sly wit. That Pomme and Pierre are played by two of France’s finest actors (and frequent costars; Devos and Amalric are veterans of Arnaud Desplechin’s piquant yet compassionate ensemble-driven productions) also ensures that these scenes from a marriage aren’t unremittingly bleak. Even in Pomme and Pierre’s lowest moments, there are still flashes of tenderness, reminders that these adversaries once really liked each other and maybe still do but have forgotten how to. By film’s end, they’ve reached a fragile, touching entente, one that follows Pomme’s extended solo sojourn in the nearby woods. Need I mention that watching Devos rough it in a forest in the Rhônes-Alpes region is far more rewarding than tracking the woman’s journey undertaken by Reese Witherspoon in Wild, another gassy prestige picture?
If You Don’t, I Will plays at Film Forum December 17–30.
IN HIS BREAKTHROUGH FILM LA FRANCE (2007), Serge Bozon created a singular anachronistic war movie/musical hybrid: A drama about the horrors, loneliness, and camaraderie of World War I in which soldiers intermittently break out into delirious songs that suggest outtakes from Pet Sounds, the film celebrates 1960s-era pop manna while lamenting the folly of nationalism. Tip Top, Bozon’s latest, similarly upends categories: This sui generis policier audaciously balances slapstick with a fiercely intelligent probing of the still-knotty legacy of France’s colonialist past.
Using Bill James’s 2006 mystery novel of the same name as a jumping-off point, Bozon cowrote Tip Top with his frequent collaborator Axelle Ropert (whose two features, 2009’s The Wolberg Family and 2013’s Miss and the Doctors, both exceptionally compassionate explorations of blood ties, have scandalously never received US distribution). Internal-affairs officers Esther Lafarge (Isabelle Huppert) and Sally Marinelli (Sandrine Kiberlain) are summoned to the northern French town of Villeneuve to investigate the murder of an Algerian informant named Farid Benamar. The oddly matched cops—brusque Esther’s crisp teal suit contrasts sharply with reticent Sally’s oversize glasses and baggy white cable-knit pullover—are themselves surveilled by Robert Mendès (François Damiens), the local flic to whom Farid reported. Now grooming a new, younger informant, Younès (Aymen Saïdi), Robert is begrudgingly tolerated by Villeneuve’s Algerian residents, who must endure his horrible Arabic and his penchant for reading passages aloud from Are We Serious in Our Practice of Islam?
During his snooping, Robert will become aware of the highly unorthodox off-duty practices of Esther and Sally: The former is into heavy s/m, stashing a mason’s hammer under her hotel-room pillow until her beloved violinist husband (Sami Naceri) can join her, and the former is a compulsive voyeur. The bedroom behavior of this peculiar law-enforcement duo, mirrored somewhat in their dom/sub professional rapport, provides Tip Top with most of its bracing, askew humor—and allows its female leads to showcase previously underexplored talents. Huppert, a titan of French cinema best known for her performances in grave, somber works like Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), has rarely appeared in comedies (save for François Ozon’s kitsch musical misfire 8 Women from 2002). But in Bozon’s film, the actress displays perfect, if perverse, screwball timing—never more so than when single drops of blood, the result of the previous night’s rough play, slide down her nose to be caught by her darting, eager tongue. Although not as well known stateside as her costar, Kiberlain—who earlier this year fearlessly transformed Simone de Beauvoir into a living, breathing, if still formidable, mortal in Violette, Martin Provost’s intelligent biopic of Violette Leduc—expertly complements Huppert’s bumptious character with sly self-effacement.
Yet while Tip Top regards these two idiosyncratic cops with affection, Esther and Sally—both of whom, significantly, are married to Algerians—are nonetheless agents of a corrupt institution, and, by extension, a morally compromised nation. After introducing several plot twists and hatching a more than a few conspiracies, Tip Top ends abruptly, its case still unsolved. The investigation is ongoing, much like France’s uneasy reckoning with its own past crimes.
Tip Top opens December 12 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.
TRYING TO DEFINE the parameters of the Migrating Forms festival, I’m tempted to say that, more than any other New York fest, it imagines what cinema will look like when and if it wholly leaves behind the twentieth-century definition of “cinema.” Making such a statement, however, would ignore some essential things about MF, now in its sixth year and its second at BAMcinématek, like the importance of film history to the fest, which has established a tradition of important retrospectives—for Jean-Pierre Gorin, Glauber Rocha, and Anne Charlotte Robertson previously, and of William Greaves (Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, Still a Brother, The Fight) and Rolf Forsberg this year.
So whatever Migrating Forms is exactly is hard to put a finger on, but it isn’t boring—the same might be said for the baffling work of Gabriel Abrantes. Abrantes’s thirty-two-minute Ennui, Ennui, here in one of the four dedicated shorts programs of eighteen programs overall, imagines global politics in terms of dysfunctional parent-child pairs—a husky Afghan teenager reluctantly cast as a warlord by his overbearing mother; the princess he’s meant to kidnap and her touchy-feely father; a French Libraries Without Borders volunteer and her brittle diplomat mother (Edith Scob); and Barack Obama and his “daughter,” a military drone named Hellfire Destroyer #503027. I was recently dumbstruck by Taprobana, Abrantes’s “biopic” of the Portuguese poet Luís Vaz de Camões, and Ennui, Ennui is another unapologetically high-polish long short full of gross-out gags appropriate to a direct-to-DVD American Pie sequel, disarmingly tender and stunningly bratty.
Not all of Migrating Forms’ political content is so irreverent—The Irish Tapes (1974), for example, has the blunt force impact of its iconic image, a bloodied Belfast woman blinded for life by a British rubber bullet. Originally shown as a twelve-monitor installation, The Irish Tapes is the result of John Reilly and Stefan Moore’s visits to Ulster between 1971 and 1973 with a then state-of-the-art Sony Portapak video camera, the texture of its black-and-white half-inch tape adding a particular ghostly quality to footage of an IRA training camp, a Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City, and Catholic mothers visiting their sons in detention. Presumably because of a shared focus on prison culture, The Irish Tapes plays on the same night, Sunday December 14, as Field Visits for Chelsea Manning, an essayistic travelogue in which director Lance Wakeling narrates his visits to the periphery of the various detention centers where Army whistleblower Manning was held in Kuwait; Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia; Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; and Fort Meade, Maryland. Wakeling’s original drive-by footage from off-ramp America is interspersed with transcripts from Manning’s hearings, Google Maps cartography, and anecdotes referring to the history and present (inextricable, as ever) of the surrounding areas.
Wakeling gives us some indication how to interpret his findings in an early reference to “mosaic theory,” defined thusly: “disparate items of information which individually have no utility to their possessor can take on added significance when combined with other items of information.” A more compelling expression of this idea—likewise concerned with the presence of the past within the present—can be found in The Airstrip—Decampment of Modernism, Part III by Heinz Emigholz, who has been making films since the early 1970s. (In the company of the artists presenting new work here, this makes him downright venerable—Abrantes was born in 1984, and Wakeling is only a few years older.) Beginning with sculptor Reinhold Begas’s 1901 Prometheus, read as an allegory for the self-image of Germany under Wilhelm II, then shuttling to Rome’s Pantheon, Emigholz traces the interleaving histories of modernist architecture and twentieth-century political catastrophe, photographing buildings by Viktor Sulčič, Eladio Dieste, and Luis Barragán, while pursuing a wending route from Normandy to South America to Saipan, where Fat Man and Little Boy were loaded for delivery to the Empire of Japan. All the while, Emigholz elaborates and frustrates the elusive connection between what one US veteran, quoted in on-screen text, describes as “that indescribable cleanliness which one feels with bombs away” and a new cleanliness of design.
Heinz Emigholz, The Airstrip—Decampment of Modernism, Part III, 2013, color, sound, 108 minutes.
If it’s not the bomb, then it’s the Internet that will bring us together. I did not have the opportunity to preview Mario Pfeifer’s Approximation in the digital age to a humanity condemned to disappear, though the title encapsulates the rapture/horror at the imminent singularity evident in many of the works here. Wakeling, unable to purchase an analog map in a gas station, muses on the “transition of physical markers to digital coordinates,” while Jacob Ciocci’s The Urgency begins with the words “DEDICATED TO ALL THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE HAD THEIR LIVES WRECKED BY COMPUTERS, THE INTERNET, OR SOCIAL MEDIA.” If Ciocci is actually convinced that we’re locked in a digital dance of death, he seems to find the beat quite catchy—the video is an apoplectic montage of YouTube nuggets, message board–trawling finds, and shopworn memes, set to a mash-up sound track by Ciocci’s band, Extreme Animals. Cory Arcangel has generally gravitated toward an unapologetic gee-whiz tech-utopian line, and I can detect no satirical intent in his Freshbuzz (www.subway.com), a sixty-minute screenshot in which Arcangel wields his cursor like a torch to explore the catacombs of the Subway restaurant website (and ancillary brand tie-ins on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc.), without yielding significantly more interesting results than a viewer could get spending an hour of his own time. A more abrasive approach appears in the refrain image of Jon Rafman’s Mainsqueeze—a washing machine spinning itself into overdrive self-destruction, evoking center-will-not-hold entropy—which is broken up with “verses” of passed-out-at-party pics, crushing fetish videos, and moshing Juggalos. Speaking to this publication before a solo exhibition of his work at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis earlier this year, Rafman called Mainsqueeze “beautiful and ironic, or postironic,” that irony evident perhaps in his counterpoising of the hoary clichés of the Tumblr-puke aesthetic (ca. 2012 “seapunk” dolphins, Grimes) with certain staples of Renaissance painting.
Rafman is Montreal-based, and Mainsqueeze plays as part of a program of Canadian work, alongside Jeremy Shaw’s Quickeners, which also, after a fashion, addresses what Web 2.0 hath wrought, but with a quite original sci-fi vintage tack. Quickeners sets its scene in a future where so-called Quantum Humans are all connected to a network called the Hive and have attained a sort of rational enlightenment. It is designed to appear as a documentary on an atavistic outbreak of illogical religious ecstasy in Area 23, “a deserted and derelict region once known in the late age of human civilization as the Americas,” per the public school–accent voice of an English narrator. This is imagined through repurposing footage from Peter Adair’s 1967 documentary on a snake-handling Pentecostal church in West Virginia, Holy Ghost People, cutting the dialogue into an indistinguishable garble that sounds like hillbilly patois, while providing subtitles that tell his original story.
I like Shaw’s film, which reconfirms prejudices about intractable American religiosity while seeming to celebrate it, although it fits within a certain tendency in contemporary art which deems only the most extreme varieties of religious experience as suitable for consideration. An interesting contrast is provided by a sidebar devoted to the work of eighty-nine-year-old Rolf Forsberg, a son of Chicago best known for the sponsored, or “industrial,” films that he made for various Christian organizations. The program is the same four-film selection that played the UCLA Film & Television Archive last year on the occasion of Forsberg’s Parable being selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry. Commissioned by the Protestant Council of the City of New York for the Protestant and Orthodox Center at the 1964 World’s Fair, the silent-save-for-music Parable tells the story of Christ through the misadventures of a sort-of Pierrot clown in a traveling circus. Forsberg is drawn to such high-concept premises: His Ark (1970), set in a thoroughly despoiled post–environmental apocalypse future, follows one man who has made it his life’s mission to re-create the before-the-fall world in a pond in a controlled greenhouse environment—a modern Noah, in a kind of Walden Terrarium. Before arriving at a genuinely paining climax, Ark offers a design for living in the physical world once all of humanity has been raptured into the cloud-life.
“Migrating Forms” is curated by Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry and runs Wednesday, December 10–Thursday, December 18 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.
DIRECTED BY ROBERT ALTMAN during the New Hollywood paragon’s most fertile decade, 3 Women (1977) stars two of the greatest, most emblematic actresses of 1970s American cinema: Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek. This shape-shifting movie, which explores self-delusion, intense attachment, and identity-merging, originated in a dream Altman had and proceeds with a particular oneiric logic. The film is rich in brilliant oddities and juxtapositions, never more so than when Duvall and Spacek are encompassed in the same frame.
3 Women looks back to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) and anticipates David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001); all three movies revolve around a central female dyad, the dynamics of which are protean and radically altered by a destabilizing love. In Altman’s film, childlike Pinky (Spacek), a new arrival to Southern California, becomes utterly transfixed by Millie (Duvall), the garrulous woman who’s assigned to train her on the basics of hydrotherapy at the Desert Springs Rehabilitation and Geriatrics Center. These coworkers soon become roommates at the Purple Sage Apartments, Pinky dazzled by Millie’s professed sophisticated taste, largely shaped by McCall’s magazine. Willfully ignoring the fact that most people find her to be a nattering, desperate fool, Millie frequently upbraids her simple-minded, pigtailed devotee, whose dedication seems to grow only stronger with each rebuke. “You’re the most perfect person I ever met,” Pinky gushes to Millie, who, in between cigarette puffs, smiles wide and says, “Gee, thanks,” genuinely flattered that someone has echoed her own long-held self-assessment.
After a near-deadly incident that occurs well into the film’s second half, the power balance between Pinky and Millie is inverted, the latter now the doting caretaker of the former, who expresses her gratitude through passive-aggressive outbursts and petty tyrannies—behavior clearly modeled on that of her one-time idol. The epilogue reveals an even more profound transformation of identities, with Pinky, Millie, and the third woman of the title, Willie (Janice Rule), a peripheral though ultimately crucial character who paints mystical, Boschian murals, settling into either a perverse family unit or a separatist desert herland commune—or both.
Or neither. “I just had the most wonderful dream,” Willie says in the movie’s closing minutes, suggesting that maybe everything that has transpired in 3 Women is limited to her midafternoon doze. However open to interpretation 3 Women may be, the film deepens in meaning when considering the facts of its production and its principals. The movie is the sixth of seven Duvall made with Altman, who cast her in her screen debut, 1970’s Brewster McCloud. (Their final project together, the 1980 musical flop Popeye, was released the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Duvall’s best-known vehicle.) The film marks Spacek’s only collaboration with the director (who died in 2006) and, most likely, her sole film with Duvall, who hasn’t appeared onscreen since 2002. Though the actresses possess unconventional beauty, they are physically dissimilar—yet Duvall/Millie and Spacek/Pinky make perfect doppelgängers. Both performers were born in 1949 in Texas, Duvall in Houston and Spacek in Quitman, cities that also serve as the respective hometowns of Millie and Pinky. Their Lone Star State drawls intact, the actresses are reminders of a very specific somewhere, the one immutable truth in a film abounding with fantasies.
Jennifer Kent, The Babadook, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 93 minutes.
A SPOOKY, POWERFUL exploration of murderous maternal rage, writer-director Jennifer Kent’s domestic-horror movie The Babadook satisfyingly pierces the obscene sanctification of “mommyhood”—a pathological mandate that seems to have become an irreversible cultural imperative.
For the The Babadook, the Australian Kent’s debut feature, the onetime actress has expanded the scenario she first explored in her 2005 short, Monster. The film opens with a nightmare—a man and woman are struggling in a car underwater—unfolding in slow motion, though whose REM sleep we’ve been given access to isn’t immediately clear. Is this the recurring bad dream of Amelia (Essie Davis), a harried single mother who works as a health aide at a home for the aged, or of her extremely overwrought six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman)? The man with the starring role in these night terrors, it turns out, is Amelia’s husband, Oskar (Ben Winspear), who died in an accident while driving his wife to the hospital to give birth—a gruesome bit of family lore that Samuel is eager to share with strangers.
The macabre circumstances surrounding Samuel’s entry into the world may explain why the tyke is so highly strung, ever vigilant against monsters; one day, the constantly shrieking child works himself up into such a state that he collapses from a febrile convulsion. (Wee Wiseman, terrifyingly committed to the part, appears to have locked himself in a windowless room for several months and/or sprinkled trace amounts of arsenic on his Vegemite toast to give himself the peaked pallor of the frequently agitated.) His latest fixation is on the sinister children’s-book character that gives Kent’s film its title, an obsession that soon blossoms into a folie à deux—before assuming a tangible, physical, frightening form.
While the bumping and thumping that grows increasingly louder in this claustrophobic, dimly lit sanctum is clearly a manifestation of outsize, still unarticulated grief for a dead husband/father, the violent noises in the house are also an amplification of grief’s unseemly corollary: fury. Amelia, in a sleep-crime stupor—her tenuous grip on reality weakened further by her half-conscious viewing of late-night TV programming that seems to consist of nothing but Mario Bava movies, Georges Méliès shorts (a notable inspiration for the fantastical elements in The Babadook), and old episodes of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo—immediately snaps into lucidity whenever she expresses her wrath toward the bizarre first grader she’s burdened with rearing alone.
The force of that rage, both verbal and physical, can be jarring; ultimately, it will be tamed and managed. That’s not to say, though, that The Babadook contradicts its own logic or abandons its daring ideas. Parenthood—or more specifically, motherhood—the film boldly suggests, may be its own form of psychosis, a loss of contact with reality brought on by years of self-abnegation.
The Babadook opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 28.
Wim Wenders, Paris, Texas, 1984, 35 mm, color, sound, 147 minutes. Jane Henderson (Nastassja Kinski).
AROUND THE TIME that Francis Ford Coppola cast Nastassja Kinski as a circus performer in his swoony, romantic reverie One from the Heart (1982), he proclaimed her “the most beautiful woman in films today.” Many noted the actress’s uncanny resemblance to the young Ingrid Bergman; Paul Schrader, who directed the German-born Kinski in Cat People (1982), was certain that she would replicate the Swedish Bergman’s immense crossover success in the US. She did, sort of, but for an epoch-defining image, not for a movie as canonical as, say, Casablanca: Richard Avedon’s notorious 1981 photograph of Kinski, lying on the floor in a Zen-like trance, with a Burmese python, its forked tongue tickling her ear, coiled around her naked body. The shot distills the qualities that define Kinski’s best performances from 1979 to 1984, the apex of her career: deep wells of serenity and stillness behind a feral sexuality.
Kinski was born in 1961 in Berlin, the only child of Brigitte Ruth Tocki and Klaus Kinski, the volcanic actor best known for his collaborations with Werner Herzog. Of her father, Kinski said in a 1999 profile in The Guardian: “He was a very exaggerated person, very dramatic, and he hurt my mum a lot. I was glad when he was gone and it was just the two of us.” Assuming financial responsibility for both her mother and herself, Kinski made her screen debut in The Wrong Move (1975) by Wim Wenders, her first of three movies with the New German Cinema notable. The following year, at the age of fifteen, she met Roman Polanski at a party in Germany; he cast her in the title role of Tess (1979), his deeply sympathetic adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), a project that the director had originally hoped to make with his wife, Sharon Tate, who had introduced him to the novel shortly before her gruesome murder in 1969.
Tess would become Kinski’s breakthrough film, her performance as the proud, innocent peasant girl destroyed by Victorian double standards intensely moving despite at least one significant incongruity. Although she completed, at Polanski’s insistence, several months of dialect study in London before filming began, Kinski never quite sounds credible as a Wessex milkmaid; her untamable Mitteleuropean vowels, in fact, dominate all of her English-speaking roles. Yet for extended periods during the three-hour-long Tess, the heroine remains silent, Kinski conveying through her endlessly expressive eyes her character’s ever-diminishing, though never wholly extinguished, fortitude during increasingly abject events.
Kinski plays another innocent in the highly ludicrous Cat People: a virgin named Irena newly arrived to New Orleans, unaware that she is part of an “incestuous race” that originated with an ancestral mother who engaged in sexual congress with a black panther. As she transforms to her feline shadow self, Irena’s appetites—for human flesh, for sex—become unslakable, a metamorphosis made even more potent by Kinski’s sinuous ferocity. Introduced wearing a bear suit, the actress would have another animal alter ego in Tony Richardson’s adaptation of John Irving’s novel The Hotel New Hampshire (1984)—in which incest is also a dominant theme: Kinski’s Susie enjoys separate romps with the hot-for-each-other siblings played by Jodie Foster and Rob Lowe.
In Paris, Texas (1984), Kinski’s second pairing with Wenders, we wait nearly two hours for her pivotal scenes, her character’s absence the source of the deep melancholy in this tale of a couple rent asunder. As Jane, a worker at a strip club, Kinski reencounters, through a one-way mirror, her much-older husband (Harry Dean Stanton) after no contact for four years. She patiently listens to him narrate the history of their love’s unraveling, of his being undone by his ardor for her before she fully realizes who’s doing the talking. Kinski’s subtle reactions in this segment suggest those of a woman well acquainted with the destabilizing effects of her extraordinary allure.