Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Recent Movie Roundup 32

I was hoping to get this post done before last week's Oscar ceremony (with its eye-rolling final result), but this week feels like an equally good cutoff point.  In a few days Captain Marvel will be upon us, and the blockbuster movie season of 2019 will have officially started.  Before that happens, there are still a few stragglers from last year's prestige film season that I was able to catch up on (though several films I really wanted to see never even made it here--chiefly First Reformed and If Beale Street Could Talk).  Here are some thoughts about them.
  • Cold War - Poland's entry in this year's best foreign picture race follows the on-again, off-again relationship of a couple, pianist and conductor Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and singer Zula (Joanna Kulig), over a span of about fifteen years in the mid-20th century.  The titular conflict lingers in the background, but its effects shape the relationship just as much as Wiktor and Zula's own hangups.  Their first break comes when Zula admits to spying on Wiktor on behalf of the newly-Communist Polish authorities.  Years later, when Wiktor, now a defector to the West, tries to meet Zula in Yugoslavia, he manages to catch only a glimpse before being bundled off to Paris by the local police, who are eager to avoid a diplomatic incident occasioned by the Polish government's demands that he be extradited to them.  At the same time, however, it's clear that the couple's problems are rooted just as much in the personal--in Wiktor's selfishness, and Zula's self-destructive tendencies.  When they do unite in Paris, seemingly free of totalitarian control, the cracks in their relationship soon show, and are only exacerbated by the pressure of living as emigres.  Wiktor is now a small fish in a big pond, and Zula is frustrated by the need to perform a certain exotic type, the grateful escapee from the horrors of Communism.  But underlying it all is their inability to work as a couple, despite their overpowering, years-long love for one another.

    It's a good love story, and a great balancing act between the personal and the political.  But what I found even more engaging about Cold War was its backdrop.  Wiktor and Zula meet while establishing a folk-music troupe, a project that is as much ideological as it is artistic.  The film follows Wiktor and his fellow artists as they first record the music and dances of Polish farmers, and then massage that material into a form that suits Communism's desire for a wholesome, semi-imaginary vision of rural life (one that occasionally slides into nationalism and even white supremacy, as when Wiktor's apparatchnik superior suppresses the music of ethnic minorities and tries to get rid of company members who don't fit his ideal of Slavic beauty).  Similar processes--and musical groups--existed in Israel, some drawing from the same cultural sources.  The Hebrew version of at least one of the songs featured in Cold War (the film is, aside from everything else, a feast for music lovers interested in this corner of the medium) is a classic of Israeli folk music, and several other melodies heard in the film have been repurposed here with new lyrics--as Wiktor tries to do, at one point, to one of Zula's signature songs, fitting it with French lyrics in his hopes of building her audience in the West.

    Much has been made of Cold War's short running time--it takes barely 90 minutes to tell its Doctor Zhivago-esque story of a romance set against the mid-century upheavals in Europe.  For most of the film, this is a refreshing choice.  The way that events in Wiktor and Zula's relationship are used to hint at geopolitical turmoil is clever, and allows the film to foreground Kot and Kulig's fine performances.  Writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski's script is brilliant at conveying tiny nuances of the characters and their relationship, as well as how they are affected by world events.  But as the couple's story draws to a close, and Wiktor and Zula's indecision and inability to forget one another starts costing them dearly, the bittiness of the script starts to feel like a problem.  The couple's final choice, in particular, feels unearned--it's not that you can't imagine how they could have reached this momentous decision, but the connective tissue isn't there on screen, which ends up making the film's ending feel jarring and abrupt where it should be moving and cathartic.  It's not a movie-destroying problem--though, coming as it does right at the end, it can't help but cast a pall on the rest of the experience--but it is a flaw in what is otherwise an intelligent and deeply affecting melodrama.

  • The Favourite - Yorgos Lanthimos's most un-Lanthimos-esque film (among other things, it's the first time he's directed someone else's script--The Favourite's is by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara) takes place in the early 18th century, at the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman).  Querulous, ill, and depressed, Anne is attended to regularly by her lifelong friend (and lover), Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who uses her closeness to the queen to run both the court and the government.  A canny political operator married to England's top general, Sarah promotes her Whig allies and urges Anne towards policies that outrage the leader of the Tories, Harley (Nicholas Hoult).  That arrangement is rocked when Sarah is entreated by a dispossessed relative, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) for support.  What Sarah envisions as a simple position as a servant soon becomes more when Abigail ingratiates herself with Anne, substituting flattery and seeming devotion for Sarah's more spiky affections, and making herself available at all times while Sarah is occupied with affairs of state.  This eventually leads to Sarah being sent away from court, while Abigail, now Harley's creature, helps the Tories gain sway over the queen.

    Most of this is taken from history (though some liberties have been taken, for example shuffling off Anne's husband before the story starts when in reality he died when the crisis with Sarah and Abigail was already raging) but The Favourite's focus is less on historical recreation and more on using it to tell a sort of parable about power and the way women approach it.  Abigail desires safety above all.  As she explains to Harley, she doesn't care about affairs of state, or indeed the fate of the state, so long as she's safe.  And since she's a great deal more desperate than Sarah, she's more willing to devote herself to Anne's needs, less interested in challenging or disagreeing with her.  Sarah, on the other hand, wants to use her power in order to change the world.  The film initially makes her seem like something of a villain--the stereotypical figure of the evil vizier whispering lies in the weak-willed monarch's ear (not to mention that Sarah is interested in extending a costly war, which can't help but make her unsympathetic).  But it eventually becomes clear that her strong hand is necessary at court, for both Anne and the country.  Abigail's seemingly unconditional but actually entirely mercenary love is a treat that Anne initially gorges on, but which eventually makes her sick, and that sickness spreads to the court and government.  In one of the film's final scenes, Abigail intercepts a letter of apology from Sarah to Anne that might have healed the rift between them, and burns it in tears, seemingly understanding that everyone would be better off if Sarah returned to court--everyone except for Abigail, which is why she can't allow it to happen.

    The result is a film that starts out seeming like a farce--both in how it highlights the decadence and foppishness of the lives of 18th century aristocrats, and in multiple scenes that expose its characters in all their weakness and absurdity--and ends up becoming a tragedy.  For all three women, power is a zero-sum game--Abigail initially thinks that she can make peace with Sarah after cementing her position with Anne, but is quickly made to realize that her survival hinges on total victory.  But winning is never the safe harbor they might have hoped for.  Male violence lingers constantly in the background.  It is, in fact, fascinating how the film balances being a story about women in which men are merely supporting figures, with the frank admission that any one of them would be considered fair game under the right circumstances--when Abigail's machination lead to Sarah being injured and held for a paltry ransom by some peasants, her rescuer asks casually "were you raped?", and Harley routinely beats Abigail when she resists his attempts to get her to spy on Anne.  Even Anne, who is nominally protected from that violence, has her own tragedy of womanhood, having lost all seventeen of her children to miscarriage, stillbirth, and childhood illnesses.  Some reviewers have decried Lanthimos as a misanthrope, but to me his films seem to be about the awfulness of their world, and how it forces people to become monsters.  In The Favourite, no one has a choice in how they act, and yet they make the wrong choices, and the result is ruin for everyone.

  • Can You Ever Forgive Me? - Much as it bucks most Hollywood trends in terms of the kinds of stories that get told about women, The Favourite is still very much in the middle of the pack as far as what types of women get their stories told--powerful, famous, and usually beautiful.  Marielle Heller's Can You Ever Forgive Me? is so far outside that norm that it feels worth celebrating just for that fact--how often do female protagonists get to be depressive, down-on-their-luck alcoholics with a shitty personality?  More importantly, Can You Ever Forgive Me?'s heroine, nonfiction author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is "unlikeable" not in the demonstrative, in your face of so many anti-heroines, but in a realistic--and realistically unpleasant--way.  Her career guttering due to a combination of her choice of subjects (she writers biographies of 20th century female entertainers and fashion figures) and her unwillingness to play the game of publicity and connection-making, Lee finds herself friendless, and unwilling to admit that this bothers her.  She's a defiantly solitary person, but her misanthropy is as much a deep-seated fear of rejection.  It's easy to imagine how Lee, a smart, unattractive, gay woman, could have gotten so used to being ignored that she built her life around loneliness, but the film also makes it clear how she ends up rejecting anyone who does try to show her kindness and friendship, unwilling to be burdened by their needs or expectations.

    Can You Ever Forgive Me? revolves around a cash-strapped Lee forging personal letters from witty, sophisticated luminaries such as Noel Coward or Dorothy Parker, and selling them to collectors and specialist stores.  This is not a particularly cunning scam--anyone who has watched a heist movie will be able to spot, very early on, the weaknesses that make it unsustainable--and the focus of the film is instead on Lee's joy at being appreciated, at having her humor and cattiness praised, even if it's only because she's done such a good job of imitating others.  For someone who is both terrified of and desperate for connection, this ventriloquism offers a perfect outlet, until it inevitably collapses, forcing Lee to confront her own self-loathing.

    As well as being a fine--and uncommon--character portrait, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a wonderful portrait of a particular corner of New York in the early 90s.  Lee is part of the literary world, but the glittering salons she occasionally visits aren't really her scene.  She's much more comfortable in libraries, used bookstores, or seedy bars.  Her people are the also-rans, who like her had smarts and potential but never quite made good, and end up peopling the ecosphere from which stars and public intellectuals emerge.  This is particularly true of Lee's friend and partner in crime, Jack (Richard E. Grant), an aging party boy who sells drugs, chases pretty young things, and reacts to his diagnosis of AIDS at the end of the film with a shrug of "it was always going to get me".  With him, and with Lee, Can You Ever Forgive Me? offers a rare glimpse at people who know they're never going to be winners or even achieve much happiness, and who grasp at the small pleasures they can, even if these end up being self-destructive.

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