Nicolas Pereda, Minotaur, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 53 minutes.


OF THE MORE THAN FIFTY WORKS in the “Projections” sidebar at the fifty-third New York Film Festival, nearly forty are in one digital format or another. At this point, of course, this is less surprising than the fact that eight films are in 16 mm and five in 35 mm. As always, there are familiar names as well as new ones; and as is to be expected, the works vary not only in focus and style but in merit as well. Against those digital pieces enamored of postmodern pretensions, there are plenty of artists for whom the digital is not a route to facile thinking but an opportunity for exciting new ways to create.

Among the latter is Lewis Klahr, whose unfailing instinct for generating “action” in the fleeting intervals between and superimpositions of still images is apparent in Mars Garden, an episode from his series exploring links between Greek myths and comic-book superheroes. Equally unmistakable is Vincent Grenier’s uncanny use of digital images against a fixed backdrop, effectively obliterating such notions of spatial configuration as foreground and background—evident in this year’s Intersection—and Janie Geiser’s gift for cutting between private, encoded images to create dense montages that defy ready interpretation, as vibrant as ever in Cathode Garden. These elegantly conceived, shot, and constructed gems bear the indelible signs of irreplaceable moving-picture artists. They share company with Laura Kraning (Port Noir), Simon Fujiwara (Hello), Giorgio Andreotta Calo (In Girum Imus Nocte), Riccardo Giacconi (Entangled), and Samuel Delgado and Helena Girón (Neither God nor Santa Maria).

Saul Levine’s 16-mm film Lost Note (1969) is less a blast from the past than a lovely remnant of one of the ruling forms of independent cinema of the 1960s and 1970s—the diary film. This was the period of such pioneers as Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage. Seen now, in the context of so many digital works, Levine’s film, with its handheld shooting, rapid editing, and in-camera superimpositions, has a fading, granular texture both startling and poignant, as suggestive of the vulnerability of celluloid as it is of the mortality of the filmmaker’s subjects—his wife, their dog, their friends and their friends’ children. Every image is suffused with an intimacy and personality that we rarely, if ever, see today. No one who first encountered American avant-garde cinema in that heroic era could fail to be moved by this work, the modesty of which now seems overshadowed by its fragile but monumental humanity.

Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias, Santa Teresa & Other Stories, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 65 minutes.


How does one make a film in which nothing ostensibly happens and manage to avoid both boredom and pretentiousness? Mexican director Nicolas Pereda does so in Minotaur, one of this year’s feature-length entries. Set, in Pereda’s words, in “a home of soft light, of eternal afternoons, of sleepiness, of dreams,” the film is neither a study in stasis nor, properly speaking, minimalist. Its comfortable, gutsy wide-screen compositions within a single apartment seem as natural as the ambience and the behavior of its “characters.” Pereda’s people neither make plans nor talk very much, although now and again Gabino Rodriguez, something of the director’s alter ego in several films, reads passages from a novel, about recognition and unremembered encounters. Even if life outside is, as Pereda puts it, “on fire,” one’s home is “impermeable to the world.” None of this is dull, at least for this viewer, which means that something is happening on that screen, if only the patient registration of each moment of existence, which asks to be taken as legitimate and precious, a style closer, in fact, to the way ruminative people actually live.

The sometimes porous boundary between fiction and nonfiction is not a new preoccupation of film and video makers, but two of the longer entries of this year’s “Projections” grapple with it as if it were. The more complicated is Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias’s Santa Teresa & Other Stories, a fascinating gloss on Roberto Bolaño’s mammoth 2004 novel 2666. Not unlike the novel, the movie is a collection of stories told by disembodied voices, its overall effect captured by remarks in the last pages of the book: “The style was strange, the writing was clear and sometimes even transparent, but the way the stories followed one another didn’t lead anywhere…” Both the town of Santa Teresa (Ciudad Juárez) and two of the movie’s talked-about but never seen characters are Bolaño’s creations. Opening with real footage of devout Mexicans visiting a shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the movie goes in many directions, intermittently and stealthily slipping in an account of the city’s most notorious crimes—the disappearances, rapes, and murders of young women. Despite this subject and occasional horrific imagery of decomposed bodies, the movie sustains an understated, ironic tone, as when an alleged “niece” recounts the death of her fictitious uncle, investigative reporter Juan de Dios Martinez, as having curiously occurred just when he was about to resolve “the worst serial crimes in Mexico’s history.”

In The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, Ben Rivers once again explores generic boundaries but with a more personal investment. The film’s last hour is an adaptation of Paul Bowles’s story “A Distant Episode,” while its first thirty-five minutes includes behind-the-scenes footage, some of it of another production by Oliver Laxe—who plays the protagonist in the Bowles adaptation. Since the early material is shot with an air of mystery and leaves most dialogue untranslated, the segue to the first “official” scene of the adaptation is virtually seamless, apparently to imply a continuity, if not a fusion of the man of the earlier section and the character in the story.

Bowles’s protagonist is a professor revisiting Morocco, but in Rivers’s take he seems just another clueless Westerner in an alien culture. Inexplicably, he is lured by a stranger and then beaten by bandits who cut out his tongue, dress him in a sack sewn of tin-can lids, and force him to dance. When later he refuses to perform, his enraged new owner is killed by the bandits, leaving the protagonist to escape. We last see him running and screaming maniacally into the desert toward the Moroccan sun. Whereas the power of Bowles’s tale is its implicit and stark fatalism, Rivers has one of the bandits mockingly remark to his victim, “You came looking for trouble and you found it” (a line not from the story), thus literalizing and diminishing this effect. While the compelling landscapes and faces of Morocco—impressively shot in 35 mm—suggest a real desire to bring Bowles’s tale to life, another reading seems apropos: The image of the enslaved artist, his voice silenced, turned into a provider of cheap entertainment and sold off until he is driven mad is all too apt a metaphor for what might be Rivers’s worst nightmare—becoming just another commercial filmmaker at the mercy of callous producers.

Lois Patiño, Noite Sem Distância (Night Without Distance), 2015, HD video, color, sound, 23 minutes.


At least two of the works rotating in the Amphitheater of the Elinor Bunin Center are must-sees. Katherin McInnis’s Two Sights is a witty, hypnotic riff on an eleventh-century theory of optics that influenced da Vinci and Galileo. McInnis claims her movie is a “false translation” of this work, but every pellucid black-and-white image in her movie is true and memorable. Idolater that I am, I was especially pleased to find a profile of Ava Gardner smack in the middle of McInnis’s imagery, shattering every quasi-scientific theory of illusory visions.

Also unforgettable is Lois Patiño’s Noite Sem Distância (Night Without Distance), a mesmerizing series of long takes of the border between Portugal and Galicia, the site of smuggling traffic for centuries. Patiño, a proven master of landscape cinematography, captures the clandestine night scenes in the Gerês mountain range in eerily composed “negative” images. Compounding the tension with this unnatural ambience, he embeds the nearly immobile figures of smugglers and guards within the dark and rocky terrain, rendering them both virtually invisible and as ghostlike sentinels of a timeless activity.

Though not officially part of the Projections series, the festival’s retrospectives of the works of Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler warrant mention in this context. Luminous and often achingly beautiful, Dorsky’s movies—which can only be seen projected on a screen—are living testimony to the visual and textural qualities of film even as we seem to be witnessing year after year its slow fade into history.

Tony Pipolo

The Projections section at the 53rd New York Film Festival is curated by Dennis Lim, Aily Nash, and Gavin Smith. It runs October 2–4, 2015.

Chantal Akerman, No Home Movie, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 115 minutes. Natalia Akerman.


“THE VOID IS MY DOMAIN,” crows French funambulist Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) midway through Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk, a 3-D recounting of the stuntman’s August 1974 high-wire promenade between the tops of the Twin Towers. Making its world premiere as the opening-night selection of this year’s New York Film Festival, Zemeckis’s extravaganza unquestionably instills, in the climactic scenes devoted to Petit’s extraordinary stunt, awe-inspiring acrophobia; viewers are convinced that they too are 110 stories above Lower Manhattan. Yet by the time this final act gets underway, the movie has long been in free fall: The plunge into the abyss commences immediately, as a Pepé Le Pew–accented and terribly bewigged Gordon-Levitt directly addresses the camera from Lady Liberty’s torch, concluding his blustery audience welcome with perhaps the stalest expression in any language, “C’est la vie.”

Seeking relief from the showboating perpetrated by The Walk’s lead—and to be fair to the usually charming JGL, he, along with everyone else in the cast, was clearly directed to go big—I thought of Chantal Akerman’s News from Home (1976), another tribute of sorts to the soaring downtown skyscrapers. This majestic, if doleful, contemplation of New York ends with a haunting shot of the World Trade Center, enshrouded in mist and fog; the image, captured from the Staten Island Ferry as it moves southwest, both salutes the buildings and augurs doom. Akerman’s melancholic city symphony is punctuated by the offscreen voice of the director reading aloud from the increasingly needy and importunate missives sent to her by her mother in Brussels during one of the filmmaker’s earlier stays in New York; nearly forty years later, maman is the star attraction of No Home Movie, Akerman’s tender, at times deliberately agonizing portrait of this supremely enamoring matriarch (who died in 2014).

Chantal Akerman, Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town), 1968, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 12 minutes 30 seconds.

Much of No Home Movie takes place in octogenarian Natalia Akerman’s apartment in the Belgian capital as Chantal, the elder of her two daughters, flits in and out of the frame, occasionally appearing to be padding around in her jammies. The two women spend a great deal of time in the kitchen—is it the same one that a then-eighteen-year-old Chantal detonated in 1968 in her first short, Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town)?—their reminiscences conveying profound affection and esteem for each other. “You were the most beautiful mother. The most beautiful woman,” coos Chantal one night over dinner, recalling how proud she was of Natalia while a schoolgirl. In distilling the filmmaker’s lifelong filial devotion, No Home Movie also intimates the darker, more complex side of that intense attachment. When Chantal, Skyping with Natalia from Oklahoma, tells her mother, “I want to show that there is no distance in the world,” she’s referring not just to collapsed miles and time zones.

Philippe Garrel’s evocatively titled In the Shadow of Women also centers on the claustrophobia engendered by too much intimacy. Married couple Pierre (Stanislas Merhar) and Manon (Clotilde Coreau) are partners not just in life but work, collaborating on a documentary about Resistance fighters. “Sharing projects together—that’s love,” Manon tells her mother. Forgoing the solemnity that has weighed down previous projects like Frontier of Dawn (2008) and wisely consigning his son, Louis, who’s played the male lead in his last four films, to offscreen narrator, Garrel here shrewdly explores the illusion required to keep a dyad functioning.

Melissa Anderson

The 53rd New York Film Festival runs through October 11.

The Walk, which opened the New York Film Festival on September 26, will have a limited release on September 30 before expanding nationwide on October 9. Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie screens October 7 and 8. Philippe Garrel’s In the Shadow of Women screens October 6 and 7.

White Lies

09.23.15

Roland Emmerich, Stonewall, 2015, color, sound, 129 minutes.


A CAMPAIGN IS UNDERWAY, so the New York Times reported on Monday, to create a national park recognizing the Stonewall uprising of June 1969. As it happens, I read that article while en route to a screening of another commemoration of the legendary queer insurgency: Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall, a ghastly project that places a lily-white muscle twink from Indiana as the tour guide for that pivotal event, with various trans characters and street queens of color assuming secondary roles and providing emotional succor to the Aryan beauty. The casting and story line notoriously ignited another LGBTQ intifada—if only on the spleen-soaked battlefields of social media—in August after outraged viewers of the film’s trailer called for a boycott. While insisting on the wholesale condemnation of any cultural product after having seen only a promo spot has never struck me as a savvy tactic, I’ll admit that many of Stonewall’s political failings are borne out in that roughly two-and-a-half-minute clip. What the trailer does not adequately prepare you for, however, are the movie’s stupefying mise-en-scène and dialogue crimes.

Emmerich’s film is not the first bad docudrama of the rebellion at 53 Christopher Street that ushered in the modern gay rights movement: Twenty years ago, Nigel Finch’s Stonewall was released to similar complaints about its use of a white hayseed hunk as the main protagonist, ministered to and schooled by a multiracial group of gender nonconformists. Yet Stonewall ’95, inspired by Martin Duberman’s essential 1993 oral history of the lavender revolt, at least achieved some semblance of authenticity by virtue of being shot in the West Village and other Manhattan locations. Emmerich’s Stonewall, in contrast, was shot in Montreal, its ersatz Sheridan Square seemingly constructed of discarded tubs of Boy Butter. The dominant hue of the film is a sickly yellow, a shade that lies somewhere on the spectrum between that of the cheese curds ladled on poutine and tearoom backsplash.

Best-known as the director of such bloated spectacles as Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (1998), and The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Emmerich clearly struggles when working with a budget of less than $20 million. That’s not to say, though, that Stonewall is without special effects, namely inadvertent time travel. More than one of the songs—including the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” the film’s anthem—that Danny (Jeremy Irvine, a vanilla nonentity), our Hoosier hero, and his new friends dance to at the Mob-controlled homo hangout were released several years after 1969. “Let’s do this,” says Seymour Pine (Matt Craven), the NYPD morals inspector who led the raid on the Stonewall Inn—and a seeming clairvoyant with knowledge of bro catchphrases that wouldn’t become popular until decades later.

Stonewall was written by Jon Robin Baitz, who, like Emmerich, is openly gay—a detail that’s salient only insofar as it offers further proof, as if any were needed, that same-sexers are sometimes the most egregious trivializers of queer history and the homosexual agenda. “I’m too mad to love anybody right now,” cries newly militant, brick-hurling Danny to Ray (Jonny Beauchamp), who exists in the film solely to weep after being spurned by the midwesterner and who appears to be partly inspired by Sylvia Rivera, a real-life habitué of Stonewall and later a cofounder of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. Too besotted by this corn-fed, bubble-butt cicerone, Emmerich’s film can stir only this response: Mary, please.

Melissa Anderson

Stonewall opens September 25.

Miguel Gomes, Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One, 2015, color, sound, 125 minutes.


“WE TELL OURSELVES stories in order to live,” wrote Joan Didion in 1979, a sentiment literalized several centuries earlier by Scheherazade, the legendary fabulist of The Arabian Nights who spins elaborate tales to delay her execution. In Miguel Gomes’s epic three-part endeavor, also called Arabian Nights—one of several titles I caught last week during press screenings for the New York Film Festival, which begins this Friday—storytelling is deployed to prolong the life of another endangered entity: present-day Portugal, a country severely diminished by austerity measures. With the organizing principle of this massive undertaking spelled out in on-screen text in each of the three volumes—Arabian Nights, which records events that took place in the Iberian nation from August 2013 to July 2014, takes the “fictional form of facts”—the project flows with a deluge of narrative tropes. Documentary passages (on chaffinch enthusiasts, laid-off shipyard workers) segue to elaborate fantasias (on ghost dogs, bow-tied cockerels, and other gifted animals) and, more often, to hybrids of the two. Not every passage in this six-hour-plus opus succeeds; “The Tale of the Men with Hard-Ons,” a jab at the IMF in the first film, is especially banal. But Gomes’s sheer ingenuity with storytelling structure and convention, not to mention his sound-track choices, often elates.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s luxuriant, hushed Cemetery of Splendour also offers a précis of sorts on a country—Thailand—with history allegorized as deepest REM sleep (or, to put it another way: in dreams begin responsibilities). Like the director’s previous works, notably Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (an NYFF selection in 2010), his latest is populated by all manner of reincarnated beings, mostly benevolent. At least three materialize to advise or console Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner), a gentle volunteer who tends to comatose soldiers hospitalized in a former schoolhouse. These wounded warriors, hooked up to glowing Flavinesque light fixtures that the medical staff insists will “give them good dreams,” are thought to be restaging centuries-old royal battles in their prolonged unconscious state. “I see no future in being a soldier,” one of the combatants says upon emerging from his narcoleptic state, a declaration that resounds all the more profoundly for being uttered so softly.

Les Cowboys, the first feature from Thomas Bidegain, on the other hand, clangs and shrieks with its grossly inelegant political melodrama. (As a screenwriter for Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet [2009] and Rust and Bone [2012], Bidegain has already made too many contributions to this odious genre.) Opening in 1994, the film updates John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) for the jihadism era, as the teenage daughter of a country-and-western superfan, Alain (François Damiens), disappears from a hoedown, bidding adieu to the French Republic to run off with her Muslim boyfriend. With his son, Kid (screen nullity Finnegan Oldfield), aiding Alain in his monomaniacal quest to reclaim his child from the chador, the father’s hysteria is quickly surpassed by the film’s own, never more so than when Bidegain himself warbles a disastrous cover of Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” over the closing credits.

Melissa Anderson

The 53rd New York Film Festival runs September 25–October 11.

Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One screens September 30; Volume 2: The Desolate One screens October 1; Volume 3: The Enchanted One screens October 2. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour screens September 30 and October 1; Thomas Bidegain’s Les Cowboys screens October 1 and 2.

Hasse Ekman, Banketten (The Banquet), 1948, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 104 minutes.


IT’S BECOME SO CUSTOMARY for clickbait headlines to presumptuously refer to movies and filmmakers that the reader has “Probably Never Heard Of” that we tend to lose sight of what constitutes genuine rarity and undiscovered territory. To wit: I can’t say if you’ve heard of Hasse Ekman, subject of the retrospective “The Other Swede in the Room” which begins on September 9 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but I do know that not a one of the ten films playing are available on domestic home video—I’ve only been able to watch a handful of them—and if you haven’t seen any of Ekman’s deft, fleetly paced, scaldingly emotional films, you are in for a surprise.

While Ekman has reemerged from obscurity in his native country in recent years, even the existent biographical information on Ekman in English is rather sparse—I am indebted to the Swedish scholar Fredrik Gustafsson for assisting me in fleshing out my portrait. Ekman was born into a theatrical family; his father, Gösta Ekman, played the title role in F. W. Murnau’s Faust (1925) and was one of the greatest stars of the Stockholm stage in his day. Hasse, born in 1915, went into the family business; in Intermezzo (1936), Gösta and he played relations. The film also featured a young Ingrid Bergman, soon to head to Hollywood—as would Ekman, though he went in the lowly role of a film journalist, in which capacity he was able to rub elbows with the likes of George Cukor. He brought the influence of 1930s American screwball comedy and British drawing room farce à la Wodehouse back to his native soil, and directed his first film at the Wellesian age of twenty-five. However, in the earliest Ekman film that I’ve seen, 1942’s Flames in the Dark, about a jealous schoolmaster (Stig Järrel) at a boarding school who relieves his frustrations in acts of pyromania, the director is already trafficking in rather more disturbing material.

Ekman, then still in his mid-twenties and boasting a dashing, aquiline profile, plays one of the school’s students—he continued to act regularly in his own films, as well as those of other filmmakers. He has a particularly juicy part in his own The Banquet (1948), a family drama set in the days leading up to the sixtieth birthday of a Stockholm family’s banker patriarch, during which time we see ample evidence of the ways in which luxury and privilege have psychologically malformed his offspring. Ekman is Hugo, a parasitic art historian aesthete married to the family’s middle daughter, played by Eva Henning, then Ekman’s wife, and their caged animal domestic scenes together offer a startlingly frank portrayal of a sadomasochistic relationship. (Ekman, prone to strategically employed passages of caressing mobile camerawork, includes an offscreen seduction which combines telling audio with the image of an onlooking cockatoo.)

Hasse Ekman, Flicka och hyacinter (Girl with Hyacinths), 1950, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 89 minutes. Eva Henning.


Ekman gave Henning—alive today at age ninety-five—her greatest role in Girl with Hyacinths (1950), the first of Ekman’s films that I ever saw, and perhaps his best-known outside of Sweden. After the suicide of a lonely young woman (Henning), a neighboring writer and his wife investigate the events leading up to her last days, narrated by a procession of friends, enemies, ex-lovers, the flashback scenes gradually completing the larger mosaic of a life. Because of its structure, some have likened the film to Citizen Kane (1941), with the “Rosebud” mystery at the center being soured idealism and thwarted same-sex desire, though in eschewing Great Man mythology to investigate the case of a wasted woman, as well as its downbeat atmospherics, it might just as easily be likened to Agnès Varda’s Vagabond (1985).

Ekman’s immediately preceding work, The Girl from the Third Row (1949), exhibits Hyacinths’s same tendency toward complex interlocking narrative structure and concern with suicide—also evident in The Banquet—though here with an interest toward repudiating nihilism. A popular stage comedian trying his hand at tragedy (Sigge Furst) debuts an ill-received new work called Hell, which posits that life is infernal suffering and self-slaughter is the only release. After the curtain falls, he is confronted backstage by a mysterious woman (Henning) who tells him a series of stories about the passage of a ring between various hands, each affirming the basic decency of humanity and suggesting the existence of a benevolent cosmic plan.

The enormously moving The Girl from the Third Row most obviously shows the influence of Capra, who Ekman had met during his Hollywood sojourn, though it also bears the mark of a closer-to-home contemporary. Shortly before beginning work on the film, Ekman appeared in Prison (1949) as a shallow movie director who comes gradually to believe that life is a hell on earth. Like Hell, Prison was a box-office flop—later, though, it would come to seem the film which, more than any other, announced its director, Ingmar Bergman, as a major talent. It is Bergman, of course, who is the main Swede in the room averred to in the title of MoMA’s program, but for a shining moment Ekman was perhaps the best-known and most critically well-regarded filmmaker in the country, a public figure known for his yellow sportscar and bevy of beautiful escorts. Ekman and Bergman, three years his junior, had apprenticed together under the producer Lorens Marmstedt at the Swedish production company Terrafilm, where both went to work in turn. (After the debacle of Prison, Bergman moved to AB Svensk Filmindustri.) During the 1940s and early ’50s, the work of these two directors evinces a sort of friendly rivalry, replete with mutual influence: In Alf Sjoberg’s Torment (1944), from a script by Bergman, Järrel once again plays a sadistic Latin teacher very near to his Flames in the Dark character.

This back-and-forth continued until around the time that Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night was given a special award for “Best Poetic Humour” at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival—not quite a Palme d’Or, but enough to move Ekman to send his friend a congratulatory telegram which read: “Just so you know, I give up.” This wasn’t true, exactly; Ekman continued to show up to work, though, as consensus has it, with less and less consistent or convincing results. (The latest Ekman in MoMA’s series is 1957’s The Halo Is Slipping.) In 1964 he relocated to Costa del Sol in the south of Spain, sometime around when he directed the pilot episode of Sweden’s first sitcom, Niklasons (1965), and spent the forty years until his death in semiretirement, collecting art like The Banquet’s Hugo and occasionally returning to Stockholm to direct a stage revue with friends.

As much as a celebration of Ekman himself, MoMA’s program suggests the unknown riches of the Swedish film industry—too often reduced to the output of a single figure, Bergman—in the years during and immediately after World War II, much as their recent “Mexico at Midnight,” also the work of programmer Dave Kehr, showed the scope of that nation’s época de oro beyond familiar names like Buñuel and Figueroa. But most important, “The Other Swede in the Room” offers a chance to reappraise a director who, at least on occasion and for a time very consistently, exhibited a mastery of his medium. A story has it that Orson Welles once defended the legacy of another Swede, Greta Garbo, against the claim that she’d only made two great films, rebutting: “You only need one.” By my count, Ekman is at four and counting.

Nick Pinkerton

Hasse Ekman: The Other Swede in the Room” runs September 9–18, 2015, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Mélanie Laurent, Respire (Breathe), 2014, color, sound, 91 minutes. Sarah and Charlie (Lou de Laâge and Joséphine Japy).


A BOLD, BRILLIANTLY ACTED study of adolescence, French director Mélanie Laurent’s second feature, Breathe, is riveting from beginning to end. Tracing a friendship from its initial euphoric harmony to sadistic betrayal and horrific tragedy, the film is not only a bracing antidote to mindless entertainments about teenage libidos but is virtually a clinical profile of a psychological stage defined by many professionals as a borderline condition. At no other threshold of the individual’s development is schizoid behavior almost the norm, or are so many aspects of the personality in upheaval. Crises of identity, sexuality, self-esteem, and peer acceptance plague the teenager, along with an erosion of trust in adult guidance at the very moment it is most needed. Although the two girls in Breathe are at the latter end of this phase, the portrait of their friendship convincingly hits every step on its path, revealing the lability and shame that teenagers go to extremes to conceal, the humiliating exposure of which can have catastrophic consequences. Anyone who thinks the film exaggerates these conditions has either repressed memories of their own adolescence or has negligible encounters with teenagers.

The recessive Charlie (Joséphine Japy) lives with her mother who is estranged from her father. She meets the spirited Sarah (Lou de Laâge) when the latter, a new arrival at her high school, is seated next to her in class. Sarah’s account of her own domestic situation is as suspicious as her worldly demeanor. Only later, when Charlie, in a move she will regret, follows Sarah and discovers the ugly truth, do we realize that Sarah is more than an adolescent in crisis. Before that, the arc of their friendship follows a not atypical course: Desperate need for an attachment to replace ones that are no longer viable leads to intense identification and idealization, followed almost invariably by disillusionment, jealousy, and mistrust.

But like the relationship, the film itself takes a more serious turn, moving from a study of adolescent blues to an ambience bordering on the horror film. That it does this effortlessly is a tribute to the director and her actresses, but it also affirms an important point: that behavior often linked to adolescent angst can easily mask clinically pathological disturbance. We soon realize not only that Sarah has crossed this line but that her behavior from the beginning has manifested an underlying psychosis.

The film’s success is unthinkable apart from its two extraordinary actresses, whose perfect fit and performances are a credit to Laurent’s instincts and professional savvy. From the moment Charlie sits at the breakfast table, listening to her mother’s pathetic sniffling as her father encourages Charlie to eat, her entire world is encompassed by Japy’s flawless grasp of how alienation makes uneasy peace with domesticity. Without a pout or a cringe or a line of snide dialogue or some sneakily telegraphed resentment, she holds our attention by the sheer conviction of her unforced interiority. The toll this takes is aptly implied by the film’s title—whose aspirate French title, Respire, is even more evocative of Charlie’s asthmatic condition, kept generally under control but prone to flare up in moments of stress. It seems utterly fortuitous, then, when the lovely Sarah is seated next to Charlie. Our hope, as well as Charlie’s, is in no small part fueled by de Laâge’s winning and seductive demeanor. It is no surprise that the characters’ instant rapport and its wildly varied enactments equally seduce the unsuspecting viewer.

When Sarah eavesdrops on a telephone conversation between Charlie’s parents and then screams at Charlie’s dad to “fuck off,” we are startled by her rudeness even as we recognize the liberating effect it has on Charlie. Snug in class, smoking outdoors, dancing and drinking together, the two share nearly every intimacy. Sarah seems bent on making over her “protégée,” teaching her how to improve her looks and attract boys. While all of this is familiar from other films about the bonding of teenage girls, it is carried off so affectingly and persuasively that we hardly see disaster on the horizon.

Given the fragility of such friendships, however, even small things can have crushing effects. When Charlie introduces Sarah as her “classmate” to her friend Paul, she fails to perceive that Sarah’s reaction to the innocuous term is more than a passing slight. And so she is stunned when Sarah kisses Charlie on the mouth and follows it with a violent slap. Things go downhill fast: Sarah, fresh from the narcissistic wound she has suffered, punishes Charlie by getting chummier with her mother and Paul; and they seem to climax when Charlie, catching Sarah in a lie, arouses her wrath. Curious about what could cause such a change, Charlie follows Sarah and discovers the truth about her mother, an unforgiveable step that unleashes vicious retaliations and death threats that alter everything.

Laurent handles this crucial moment with the only self-conscious mobile shot in the film—a shift from the generally understated style that refuses to intrude upon the wonderful dynamic between her actresses. The shaky, handheld tracking shot from Charlie’s perspective conveys both the awkwardness and risk of her action and its implicit violation of Sarah’s privacy. When it comes to rest just outside what seems to be a recovery house for alcoholics, Charlie is now in the shot, framed on the left listening to the unintelligible argument between Sarah and her drunken mother on the right—an image that unites and divides the girls in a single frame, clinching the irreparable damage that’s been done.

It would be unfair to give away how the consequences of this moment play out. But as the denouement approaches, Japy and de Laâge prove capable of even greater range and depth. It seems evident that both are destined to be bright lights in the future of French cinema, assuming they have the good fortune to work with directors as attuned as Laurent.

Tony Pipolo

Breathe opens in select theaters on Friday, September 11.

Jobs Report

09.05.15

Alex Gibney, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 128 minutes. Steve Jobs.


ALEX GIBNEY’S twisty, engrossing documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine approaches its subject from an oblique but highly productive angle: Why, Gibney asks, was there a worldwide outpouring of grief when the CEO of Apple, which at that moment in 2011 was the most valuable corporation in the world, died from cancer at the age of fifty-six? Without opening the larger issue of our hysteria-prone society, Gibney examines how Jobs, a storytelling genius, wove a narrative about the machines that Apple produced: a romance in which we are one with our iPhones and iPods and iMacs, and, because Jobs was their human face—and the source of their cool—at one with him as well. Or to paraphrase journalist Joe Nocera, one of Gibney’s many interviewees, Jobs built one of the great myths of the twenty-first century around the iPhone—and it’s just a phone.

Gibney’s doc is getting the jump on Universal’s Steve Jobs, directed by Danny Boyle, written by Aaron Sorkin, and starring Michael Fassbender, which screens in the New York Film Festival October 3 and opens nationwide October 9. If you believe even a teensy-weensy bit that the soul of Steve Jobs inhabits every iPhone, then it must be vibrating in ecstasy at the prospect of being embodied by one of the most attractive and witty actors to grace a movie screen. Fassbender also has a gift for humanizing the cowardly bad behavior of famous men, re: his performance as Jung in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (2011). But no actor can beat the revelation of Gibney’s pièce de résistance, a previously unseen video of Jobs testifying at Apple headquarters in 2008 to the US Securities and Exchange Commission in relation to Apple’s backdating of stock options. (Apple threw a high-level employee under the bus, but the government took no legal action against the corporation, perhaps because the law was muddled or maybe because Apple was deemed too big to fail.) At the commission’s request, Jobs begins at the beginning—his life story and Apple’s history made one. Gibney threads the movie with excerpts from the video, thus making Jobs the film’s narrator, against whom a variety of commentators are positioned.

The other running thread is Gibney’s offscreen voice, asking questions and talking about his own relation to Apple. He loves his iPhone, he loves some Pixar movies, but he was still mystified that people mourned Jobs himself. (Incidentally, Gibney’s editing team refused to use Apple’s Final Cut Pro because the latest version is ridiculously dumbed-down.) Although Apple and Jobs’s immediate family refused to participate, likely aware of Gibney’s skewering of corporate greed in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) and of a greedy cult in Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015), nevertheless the film has a wide-ranging, articulate cast of characters. Among them are technology theorist Sherry Turkle (“He was going for a computer that felt like an extension of the self.… The computer wasn’t just for you, it was you”); the engineer Bill Belleville, who weeps as he tells of how being on the team that built the first Mac cost him everything—his wife, his family, his health—but it was also a chance to do something great; Chrisann Brennan, Jobs’s former longtime girlfriend and mother of his daughter Lisa, who explains that Jobs wasn’t good at relating to people so he envisioned machines that could connect for him.

The first half of the film depicts a complicated, difficult man who chaperoned into being machines that were “paradigm shifters.” Jobs wasn’t an engineer, he didn’t write code, and he never gave sufficient credit to the people who actually built the machines he wanted under his Christmas tree. But he did envision those machines and he brought a fine-tuned aesthetic sense to bear on exactly what they looked like and felt like and their ease of use. In that sense he fit his own definition of being an artist of the twenty-first century. But it’s also clear from the first that the art of which Jobs spoke so seductively was an iteration of mass art. What made Jobs so compelling is that he thought of himself as a poet but his talent was that of an entrepreneur and a pitchman. And it’s the greedy capitalist side of both of those that Gibney foregrounds in the second half of the film—how every time we spend our bucks in an Apple store, we’re given the message that we’re making our life better and thereby bettering the world, when the reality is that our money is going to a company that pays Chinese factory workers the equivalent of $12 to make an iPhone that sells for several hundred dollars.

One of Jobs’s former employees describes how Jobs created a “reality distortion” around him. “If he told you the sky is green, for a while you’d say yes.” There is a stunning moment when Jobs is asked in a video interview about the high suicide rate in a factory that manufactures Apple products, and Jobs gets this smarmy look on his face, like a kid who’s been caught lying and is trying to talk his way out of it. He gives this garbled answer about how the suicide rate at this particular factory is no greater than that in the population at large, ignoring the obvious contradiction that the workers who manufacture the object that supposedly makes the world a better place don’t share that better place themselves. If nothing else, that bit of video makes one understand, more clearly than could any written text, why those who participated in the mass hysteria at Jobs’s death had fallen for a romance that Jobs created. As in any hysterical romance, idolization is a reaction to what the lover must disavow in the love object. Gibney doesn’t quite nail the answer to his initial question. Rather, he throws it back in our lap. I mourned Jobs’s passing because I knew I’d never again possess an object that enthralls me, for better and worse, as does my iPhone 5. In truth, does anyone really love that misshapen iPhone 6?

Amy Taubin

Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine is now playing in select theaters.

Brow Beating

09.01.15

Nicholas Ray, On Dangerous Ground, 1951, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 82 minutes. Mary Malden and Jim Wilson (Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan).


THOUGH NEVER ONE OF HOLLYWOOD’S BIGGEST STARS or romantic leading men, Robert Ryan arguably gave more great performances, even in mediocre films, than showier, bigger name actors like Marlon Brando. Unlike the latter, whose public image often loomed larger than any he left on screen, and who barely concealed his disdain for the many banal projects he agreed to do, Ryan never flaunted a superior air, was committed to his profession, and consistently, without irony, embraced the tortured souls of his characters, etching his way into film history and the consciousness of viewers with a killer grin and every furrow of his brow.

According to L. R. Jones’s recent biography, Ryan was “smitten with movies” from an early age, but also had theater in his blood. “The first minute I got on the stage [at age twenty-eight], I thought, ‘Bing! This is it.’ ” He played the title roles in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Othello, and Antony and Cleopatra; James Tyrone, Sr. in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night; and Thomas Becket in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. It was in Hollywood movies, however, that he would carve his name more indelibly. From the 1940s to the ’70s, he worked with many of the best directors: Jean Renoir, Max Ophuls, Nicholas Ray, Anthony Mann, Fritz Lang, Sam Fuller, Jacques Tourneur, Robert Aldrich, Raoul Walsh, Budd Boetticher, Robert Siodmak, Sam Peckinpah, and Andre de Toth.

In major studio films, his presence proved memorable—equal to if not overshadowing such star leads as John Wayne (in Flying Leathernecks [1951]), Burt Lancaster (in Lawman [1971]), Clark Gable (in The Tall Men [1955]), Spencer Tracy (in Bad Day at Black Rock [1955]), and James Stewart (in The Naked Spur [1953]). Not surprisingly, some of the best films in which Ryan’s name placed first were by directors whose sensibilities were more compatible with his peculiar blend of hard-boiled toughness and disillusionment: Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951), Fuller’s House of Bamboo (1955), Mann’s Men in War (1956), and De Toth’s Day of the Outlaw (1959). In none of these, however, do we detect his capacity to project genuine evil, as he does in Billy Budd (1961).

From his unnerving incarnation of the sadistic but craven anti-Semite in Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947, his fifteenth movie but the first to make an unforgettable impact) to the character of Larry Slade in the film version of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh in 1973, easily a third of the sixty movies he made in that span are notable largely because of his work. An early example is The Set-Up (Robert Wise [1949]), in which Ryan’s forceful, gritty performance as a boxer who refuses to take a fall still packs a punch despite the film’s overly calculated “real-time” narrative structure.

No graphic caricature of Ryan’s face could miss the penetrating gaze or the squint that announces a mood swing; the thick eyebrows whose rise dramatically rearranges the forehead into five elongated creases, or the dimpled smile that animates strong grooves from midcheek to lower jaw—and the way this map could be radically redefined, as if from a sudden implosion. The countenance is nicely parodied in the wanted poster James Stewart carries around in The Naked Spur: a perfect likeness of our man well before he makes his appearance.

Every line of Ryan’s face traces the past, each one the mark of a story that has forged character. Tall and lean, with a slow but steady walk and a slightly nasal tone when he’s not moved to breathy delivery, one could almost imagine him as Abe Lincoln but for the hard and cynical demeanor that precludes delusions about the better angels of our nature. He was a natural as the heavy, the racketeer, or the corrupt businessman of film noir and westerns—but transcending the hallmarks of these types was an intellectual grasp not only of the game he was in and the limitations of the opposing players, but of the existential stakes of which the good guys had not a clue. One wonders if his cerebral clout and innate bitterness were the reasons Ryan was never directed by John Ford, for whom Wayne’s nonintellectual hero was a better fit.

Fred Zinnemann, Act of Violence, 1948, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 82 minutes.


The six films in the series at Anthology Film Archives (all but one shown in 35 mm)—all made between 1948 and 1958, the period in which Ryan honed his misanthropic persona—provide a taste of his range and a glimpse of his greatness. In Act of Violence (Fred Zinnemann [1949]), Ryan plays a crippled war veteran bent on revenge against the commanding officer (Van Heflin), who informed the Nazis about a prison escape that resulted in the deaths of his buddies. Even before the title appears, it is Ryan’s limping shadow across the New York night and his grasp of a gun before boarding a train to LA that grabs our attention. Despite this strong opening, the film is driven by Heflin’s transition from “model” citizen to tortured conscience, a journey that leads to his ultimate redemption. Not for the last time, Ryan functions as the catalyst, the disruptive force that exposes the hypocrisy of middle-class conventions.

Playing against type had mixed results; he was best when a role fused the cynic with the guy who’d like to believe in goodness but has no evidence it exists. If his animal magnetism is all but suppressed as Shirley Booth’s “companion” in About Mrs. Leslie (1954), it’s partly because the best-selling novel’s adulterous affair between a wealthy manufacturer and a nightclub singer resulted, thanks to Hollywood’s Production Code, in something with all the pizzazz of a glass of warm milk. The sexless relationship, recounted in flashbacks by “Mrs. Leslie,” first seems a foil to the anxious lives of the characters in her boardinghouse, but then yields to her parting advice to a young couple to “have it all—marriage, kids, the works. It took me a lifetime to find that out.” The line falls as flat as the irony of the film’s title, which, though intended to stress the truer, though illegitimate bond she had with the man married to someone else, now lacks any resonance of a secret passion lived in earnest.

Nicholas Ray elicited both sides of Ryan’s persona—as he did Humphrey Bogart’s in In a Lonely Place (1950). In Flying Leathernecks, he cast Ryan as the empathic Captain Griffin because (quotes Jones) “he was the only actor in Hollywood who could kick the shit out of [costar] John Wayne.” We see that brute side in the first scenes of On Dangerous Ground, in which Ryan plays a sadistic cop so out of control that he is sent to a small upstate town to cool down. While assisting a search for the murderer of a young girl, he confronts his mirror image in the victim’s enraged father (Ward Bond), and is moved by the murderer’s blind sister Mary (Ida Lupino) trying to protect her retarded brother. Both encounters change his life. The chase ends as Bond, having caught his dead prey, remarks, “he’s just a kid.” Prefiguring the climax in The Searchers (1956), when John Wayne sweeps up Natalie Wood and speaks the line that dissolves his thirst for vengeance, the moment in Ray’s film frees Bond from his rage but transforms Ryan as well. Its understated effect kicks in when, driving back to New York, he suddenly turns around—literally reversing the doomed path he’s been on—and which the film’s traveling shots express. Entering Mary’s house, he simply calls her name, to which, unsurprisingly, she responds. It’s one of Hollywood cinema’s most transcendent moments and one of Ryan’s most affecting, understated performances—as close to finding redemption as he ever will.

In more familiar territory in The Naked Spur he plays the murderer James Stewart hunts to collect the reward money needed to buy back the ranch he lost while serving in the Civil War. From the get-go, Ryan is all toothy grin and mocking laughs, provoking Stewart’s dark, neurotic side and working to undermine the pact the latter makes with an ex–army lieutenant (Ralph Meeker) and an old prospector (Millard Mitchell) to help him bring Ryan in for a share of the reward. As both taunting conscience pricker and demonic philosopher, he all but steals the show.

None of these incarnations foreshadows Ryan’s masterful turn as the affable, eccentric patriarch Ty Ty in Mann’s God’s Little Acre (1958). True to the character in Erskine Caldwell’s novel, there’s not a trace of the meanness he can so easily tap. In place of the deprecating scowl is a twinkling eye and generosity of spirit. At once comic and serious, Ryan effortlessly embodies both uncanny wisdom and genuine innocence—without once condescending to the character’s Southern gothic behaviorisms—even when Ty Ty has his private talks with the Lord. Trying valiantly to hold his family together—to repair one son’s marriage while oblivious to his young daughter’s errant ways with men—we first see him amid a slew of dugout craters sprawled across his acre like so many giant anthills, the result of the last fifteen years he has spent searching for the gold he’s certain his pappy buried long ago. In his bio, Jones claims that Ryan’s character in About Mrs. Leslie is closest to his real self. But I’d like to think that the man waited a long time to play the homespun philosopher, unyielding dreamer, and loving family man that the role of Ty Ty allowed him, finally, to embrace.

Tony Pipolo

Robert Ryan: An Actor’s Actor” plays September 4–10 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.