Criterion’s new 4K restoration of Claire Denis’ remarkable 1999 film looks absolutely gorgeous—stark, luminous, vividly colorful, and precise in every fine line and minute detail. That precision suits the film’s subject: a tightly disciplined French Foreign Legion troop under the demanding leadership of an obsessive sergeant. A loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and a quasi-sequel to Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (1960), the film tracks the gradual psychological unraveling of Chief Master Sergeant Galoup as he develops a jealous fixation on a new recruit, Gilles Sentain, whose beautiful face and ineffable cool make him a favorite both with the other legionnaires and with Galoup’s superior, Commander Forestier. Envy, repressed desire, and festering rage commingle in Galoup’s deteriorating mind, and the innocent Sentain suffers for it. As the film proceeds, we are inexorably drawn into the inevitable tragedy of their story, even as we revel in the startling beauty of Denis’ extraordinary vision.Continue reading “Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)”
Kelly Reichardt’s latest film is, in most ways, of a piece with her previous films. Quiet in tone and measured in pacing, First Cow continues Reichardt’s sympathetic and observant explorations of the lives of outsiders and people on the margins. Like the settler women of Meek’s Cutoff and the homeless drifter of Wendy and Lucy, First Cow’s protagonists don’t have meaningful control of their destinies, despite their efforts to lift themselves out of their assigned places in the social and economic order. And like the radical environmentalists of Night Moves, First Cow’s protagonists aren’t above breaking laws in pursuit of their aims. First Cow, however, is perhaps the first Reichardt film that combines her keen-eyed artistry with genuine entertainment. Less grim than Wendy and Lucy, less cynical than Night Moves, more accessible than Meek’s Cutoff, and more tightly plotted than Certain Women, First Cow is an engrossing, engaging study of life in early nineteenth-century Oregon and two of its unlucky but ambitious inhabitants. Adapted from a novel by longtime Reichardt collaborator Jonathan Raymond, it has the rhythms of a folktale—and the lessons of one—detailing what might happen when clever, resourceful striving tips over into dangerous hubris.
Levan Akin’s gorgeous coming-of-age tale And Then We Danced fairly glows with beauty, pain, hope, and joy. It is a thoroughly transporting film, one that makes you wish that you were part of its hero’s world instead of being a mere observer.
And Then We Danced is set in the nation of Georgia and features the hauntingly beautiful dance and music of traditional Georgian culture. The film follows Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), a college-aged member-in-training of the National Georgian Ensemble, a troupe specializing in traditional dance. Merab has been chastely dating his dance partner, Mary (Ana Javakishvili), with whom he was first paired when they were just children, and the two have an easy, playful rapport that comes from many years of knowing each other and dancing together. If Mary suspects that her partner is gay, she keeps that suspicion under wraps until the truth becomes too obvious to ignore—which it does when a new dancer, Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), suddenly arrives from out of town and begins to claim more and more of Merab’s attention. Irakli is dashing and mysterious, and Merab is soon utterly fascinated by him. A relationship that should proceed apace, however, is complicated by the fact that both young men live in a sternly judgmental culture where being gay is a criminal offense. Further complexities arise when auditions are announced for a single, prestigious position in an ensemble piece, a position for which Merab and Irakli find themselves competitors.
Too few people know about the extraordinary woman who arguably created cinema as we know it. With La Fée aux Choux (1896), Alice Guy-Blaché became the first director in history to use film to do something that we now take for granted as the obvious job of the movies: to tell a story. (Some critics and scholars make a case for the Lumière brothers as the inventors of fiction film with the staged prank depicted in their 1895 L’Arroseur Arrosé, but this argument depends entirely on what one believes counts as a “story,” as opposed to an incident or attraction.) To note only that Guy-Blaché was “the world’s first woman director,” then, is to do her somewhat of a disservice, given her other even more remarkable achievements. (She also, for example, was the first director in history to use synchronized sound in film, decades before The Jazz Singer.) Pamela Green’s long-overdue documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché is therefore a little safe and cautious in calling Guy-Blaché only “one of” the earliest fiction filmmakers. Even so, Green’s compelling account performs an essential service in at last giving a remarkable and nearly forgotten figure from cinema history the feature-length documentary that she deserves. Be Natural (entitled after the advice Guy-Blaché always gave her actors) is wholly engrossing, and by turns surprising, illuminating, and moving.
Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu’s marvelous, joyful Rafiki tells the story of two girls in love. It’s a story that has been told before, replete with obstacles en route to what we hope will be a happy ending, but two things set this film apart from the rest of the star-crossed crowd. One, the girls live in Kenya, where a colonial-era law marks out homosexuality as a criminal offense. Two, despite the seriousness of the dangers and challenges before our heroines, their story is wildly, vibrantly fun.
I first saw this film in the mid-1980s, when I was a mildly alienated, slightly chicken-hearted New Waver who was curious about what more dangerous versions of myself were up to. I remember thinking at the time that Suburbia was really cool. Its depiction of rebellious street punks who make a home together in a squat spoke to my need to feel affiliated with something wild and counter-cultural without actually taking any real risks myself. And as someone who was disillusioned with suburbia, I appreciated the movie’s frank commentary on the hypocrisies of middle-class life. Revisiting the film today, I realize that I overlooked a great deal the first time around—not just its major themes about the blindness of youth but also the directness of its depictions of the casual racism, misogyny, and homophobia of some of its characters (and their society as a whole). Watching it now, it looks like much more than a stylish time capsule of a not-so-great period in American history (the Reagan years). It looks like an honest attempt to tell the truth about the way that young people experience a harsh world.
This is not to say that the film is always good. The performances of its mostly non-professional actors (actual street punks) are often wooden, the dialogue is stilted, and the attempts at humor mostly fail. Even so, the film is bold and completely unflinching in its attention to human ugliness, to the simultaneous vulnerability and cruelty of the young, and to the way that disaster so often strikes with little warning and for no good reason.
What is the source of Carol Danvers’ power? This is the question that Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s excellent Captain Marvel asks, and the answers are various. The answer to the most literal form of the question is the typical sort of quasi-semi-demi-scientific explanation we’ve come to know and mostly love from the rest of the entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—something about an accident involving an advanced energy source, etc. etc. Where the movie becomes deeply interesting, however, is in its many answers to the metaphorical versions of the question, many of which will resonate deeply with most of the women in the audience, and many men. The movie details a specifically female set of experiences, and not only in the ways one might expect from a movie about a woman who rises through the intermittently sexist ranks in the U.S. Air Force, eventually to fight alien bad guys. To say much more on this subject requires spoilers, which are plentiful after the page break here. So before you read on, go see this enormously entertaining and wonderfully hopeful movie.
Over the course of 83 brisk, entertaining minutes, Yony Leyser’s alternately raucous and thoughtful documentary traces the origins and rise of the queer punk rock scene. Like a punk song, much of the film’s force is in its economy, and like a punk song, it challenges the status quo, flouts taboos, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Leyser does a fine job recovering buried history in a way that’s fresh and illuminating, reminding us that settled narratives exist to be unsettled and that the voices of outsiders can often tell the truth the loudest.
In her excellent history entitled Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood, film scholar Karen Ward Mahar presents a startling fact, unknown to many of even the most avid cinephiles today: in the 1910s and early 1920s, close to half of the people working in the film industry were women. Women worked not just in the capacities that one might expect—as actresses, assistants, makeup artists, and wardrobe designers—but also as writers, producers, editors, and, crucially, directors. Once movies became what Mahar calls a “Wall-Street defined, vertically integrated big business,” however, directing opportunities for women swiftly began to vanish, leaving only a tiny number of American women working as directors from the late 1920s through the 1960s. (Even now, the Directors Guild of America estimates that only 15% of the directors working in Hollywood today are women.) The prospects for women filmmakers by the end of the 1920s were so bleak, in fact, that one of the most prolific and influential directors of her time, Lois Weber, advised young women seeking to break into directing, “Don’t try it; you’ll never get away with it.”
Though some women did “get away with it,” none enjoyed as much popular success as Weber until our own century. Weber is best known for her high-minded social problem films during the “uplift” period of film history. Her projects considered such topics as birth control (Where Are My Children?), capital punishment (The People vs. John Doe), and income inequality (The Blot). Uplift films, however, were far from her only métier; she also directed white-knuckle thrillers (Suspense), comedies (Discontent), and quasi-historical epics. The last category is represented gorgeously in the recently restored The Dumb Girl of Portici. Based on an opera, the film stars the great ballerina Anna Pavlova as Fenella, a young mute girl tragically swept up in a violent revolution. Pavlova’s extraordinarily expressive performance is the centerpiece of this lavish adaptation, but there’s quite a bit more to commend. Opulent sets, stunning costumes, lively ensemble performances, and inventive special effects make this film a genuine pleasure to watch.
The first narrative feature film by documentarian Crystal Moselle (The Wolf Pack, 2015) opens with a black screen and the sounds of the city: A train rattles and screeches by, people shout, children play, and a skateboard hits the pavement. Even before we see the film’s protagonist perform her first onscreen skateboard trick, the feeling is already somehow both electric and familiar, much like the story that follows. The film tracks its young heroine as she joins an all-girl skate crew in New York City. (In a move that blurs the line between documentary and narrative film, the fictional crew is made up of members of the real-life crew known as Skate Kitchen.) All the usual elements of outsider stories, sports movies, and teen dramas abound: A young upstart joins a team of mavericks, tests her skills against those of her teammates and those of her opponents, and clashes with members of both as she grows and finds out more about herself. But this film invests the familiar sports-movie and coming-of-age-drama tropes with a raw energy, honesty, frank physicality, and genuine feeling that elevate it from a mere genre film into something precise and visceral.