PRINT December 2017

Rachel Kushner

Paul Schrader, First Reformed, 2017, 2K video, color, sound, 108 minutes. Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke).

PAUL SCHRADER’S First Reformed and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless both feature pretty and guileless young blond women whose bellies swell with new life and who deliver babies, before the end of each film, into worlds that are maps of devastation—though the type of devastation varies slightly, as does the map.

Loveless takes place in suburban Moscow, where its miserable bourgeois characters live in symptomatic lack, as the title suggests. A divorcing couple bicker over how best to dissolve their life so they can go their separate ways. It’s late autumn, and, as a voice from a radio news program casually announces, the shortening days, combined with a prediction that the apocalypse is coming, have resulted in an uptick in depression. People in this film constantly gaze out of windows, seen from outside, and the incipiently wintry scenes that they observe, beyond fogged and frozen glass, seem not idealizations into which they might dream of escaping but zones of gelid malevolence, of dispersed and multiple loci of unthinkable evil. The couple has an unwanted and ignored twelve-year-old child who appears only briefly, and then disappears. The nameless volunteers in safety-orange vests who search for him become a net of abstract moral conscience, roving the barren brown landscape, combing the bad and blank world. The camera lingers twice on a school, a shot that seems to borrow a cue from the final, obliquely mesmerizing frame in Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005). Like Haneke, Zvyagintsev grips the viewer in a stranglehold of overwrought but thoroughly engrossing fiction. No deus ex machina is coming to save the child, and you can’t, either. At the end, his mother gets on a treadmill perched on the balcony of her rich boyfriend’s sleek, modern apartment block. Through the glass, we watch her take long strides toward nowhere in a red Team Russia tracksuit. All we have to hold on to is a single pounding piano note.

Andrey Zvyagintsev, Loveless, 2017, 4K video, color, sound, 127 minutes.

Do movies have to wager life, death, and destruction for greatness? Not always. But this year, maybe? First Reformed was described in a film-festival program as The Diary of a Country Priest meets Taxi Driver (1976). Laugh now, but you might cry later. Indeed, the film borrows quite heavily from Georges Bernanos’s 1936 novel, famously adapted by Robert Bresson in 1951. Like the curé in Bernanos’s book, Schrader’s troubled minister, played by Ethan Hawke, is keeping a diary, which turns out to be a portrait of his own sainthood. Both men are in charge of obscure parishes (First Reformed is a Calvinist ministry somewhere in rural upstate New York; Bernanos’s hero ministers to the denizens of a tiny village in northern France). Both are depressed and terminally ill, surviving on bread and wine alone—living, in other words, on the blood and body of Christ (although in Hawkes’s case, the wine is mostly whiskey).

Do movies have to wager life, death, and destruction for greatness? Not always. But this year, maybe?

Schrader was raised and educated according to strict Calvinist doctrine, and given that biographical detail, this film, in its conception of grace, violence, and sacrifice, becomes suddenly inevitable, after everything else the director has made. The minister’s feelings about the ruination of the planet from global warming and the corruption of the church by energy-industry billionaires result in his radicalization, bringing him into a realm that is closer to Bernanos the man—a conservative Catholic who later became an outspoken antifascist and attacked the Vatican for its support of Franco—than to the author’s much gentler fictional creation, the country priest. Hawke’s character lands on a new way to pray, a new form of prayer. If I were writing the promo I’d probably reference Yukio Mishima instead of Travis Bickle, but fewer people might remember that Schrader film’s perfect conflation of death, life, action, and destiny into one fine point, the point of a sword. The highest form of hope, Bernanos wrote, in a critique of the feckless stupidity of optimism, is “despair overcome.” The course of hopeful action, of lived prayer, that Hawke eventually takes doesn’t go as planned; but he does find solace, at the end, in a glass of golden liquid. Not Christ’s humors, but an earthly and everyday household product: liquid plumber.

Rachel Kushner’s forthcoming novel, The Mars Room, will be published by Scribner books in May.