VIFF 2017: Top of the Lake: China Girl (Jane Campion, 2017)

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Jane Campion’s most recent project, Top of the Lake: China Girl, a follow-up to Top of the Lake (2013), is a 6-hour, episodic journey that premiered, variously, at Cannes, on the Sundance channel, and, played, most recently, at the Vancouver Film International Festival. It is, as its length and as its screening venues suggest, difficult to pin neatly into a category. Is it a gorgeously shot TV show? A very long film? Campion and her work, as usual, resist tidy classifications of all sorts.

Does her work represent “female annihilation in bonnets,” as BBC Radio 5 film critic Mark Kermode once suggested, or is she definitely a feminist director, her work “emphasiz[ing] and almost perverse figuration of female strength” as Professor of Film Studies at University of East Anglia, Yvonne Trasker has said? Campion herself has championed women and women filmmakers, quoted as saying in an 1993 Cahiers du Cinema piece, “I think I know things about women that men cannot express.” And yet she “bridles” Virginia Wright Wexman notes in Jane Campion: Interviews, “at being narrowly identified as a feminist filmmaker,” and Wexman cites Campion as saying, “‘I think it’s quite clear in my work that my orientation isn’t political or doesn’t come out of modern politics.’” Continue reading “VIFF 2017: Top of the Lake: China Girl (Jane Campion, 2017)”

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017)

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This is the first movie I’ve seen from celebrated Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, and it’ll likely be the last. A bearded Colin Farrell plays a surgeon whose patient dies during an operation. The patient’s son (Barry Keoghan, super creepy) first tries to get Farrell to hook up with his mother (Alicia Silverstone, sad and sadly underutilized) to take the dead father’s place, but when that doesn’t work out, begins supernaturally torturing his family in an attempt to force Farrell to choose which one of his two kids should die as compensation for the boy’s dead father. It’s an adaptation of the story of Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon who is commanded to be sacrificed after her father kills a deer beloved of the goddess Artemis. But in adapting the story into the bleak world of Euro-art house cruelty, Lanthimos drains the story of its humanity and its tragedy, leaving instead a deeply cynical, and exceedingly dumb, black comedy. Farrell and Nicole Kidman, playing his wife, speak and relate with an affectless precision, which is funny and weird when playing up their bizarre oversharing at parties or depressing bedroom antics, but serves no other apparent purpose. A satire of bourgeois zombiism dressed up with a classical education. Lacking belief in either the cause or the tragedy of Iphigenia’s sacrifice, all that’s left is a cheap mockery of humanity. An adaptation of myth from the point of view not of the people who strive and suffer, but through the eyes of an imperious god, tormenting foolish, hubristic mortal souls. A film almost wholly lacking empathy.

The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola, 2017)

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Respectability, at least in the conventional cultural sense, is a slightly odd fit when discussing the idiosyncratic oeuvre of Sofia Coppola. After her breakthrough works, The Virgin Suicides and the Oscar-winning Lost in Translation, Coppola has increasingly moved along her own particular path, making films about well-off disillusioned youth in such disparate locales as 18th-century France (Marie Antoinette), modern Hollywood (Somewhere, The Bling Ring), and the Upper East Side (A Very Murray Christmas). In light of these works, The Beguiled may seem like a departure for the well-acclaimed auteur, who added a Best Director prize at Cannes this year to her not-inconsiderable collection. But the film is very much hers, albeit in a much different vein than before.

For starters, it is a remake, in this case of the 1971 film by the same name directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page, which itself was based off the novel by Thomas P. Cullinan. The fertile premise, which Coppola’s version follows faithfully, is set during the latter half of the Civil War and involves a wounded Union soldier (John, played by Colin Farrell) who is found and taken care of by a Christian all-girls school in Virginia. Slowly, he begins to forge connections, some of which involve lust, with practically every remaining occupant of the school, including teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), student Alicia (Elle Fanning), and headmistress/matriarch Martha (Nicole Kidman).

Continue reading The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola, 2017)”

Queen of the Desert (Werner Herzog, 2015)

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Werner Herzog’s biopic of British archeologist Gertrude Bell premiered more than two years ago at the Berlin Film Festival to poor reviews, and is only this week making its way onto American screens. Why this should be is not immediately clear, the ins and outs of which international art house films make it into domestic distribution is far too complex a matter for my mind to comprehend, but I believe it involves some combination of corporate nepotism, the star system and random chance. The stars in this case are what make the film worth watching, as Nicole Kidman can enliven even the deadest of features, and this might be her most heroic effort in that vein to date. There’s almost nothing of Werner Herzog in the film, though there might have been once: Bell superficially appears to be his kind of a hero, obsessed with a harsh landscape, driven outside the bounds of society to do something remarkable, but at nearly every level the film feels compromised. Herzog is the only credited writer, but this has all the hallmarks of a film written and edited by a committee.

Continue reading Queen of the Desert (Werner Herzog, 2015)”