Tag Archives: film review

Get Out (2017): a cutting social thriller uncovering the horror of liberal racism

Half a century ago, still in the middle of America’s Civil Right’s movement and in the same year interracial marriage became legal in a historic court case Loving v. Virginia (recently brought to screen by Jeff Nichols in his last feature film Loving), Sidney Poitier gets introduced to his girlfriend’s white, liberal parents in Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Not expecting their daughter’s boyfriend would be black, they try to keep their cool and be supportive, but are clearly uncomfortable by the fact that a black man is about to become a part of their family. This makes the film escalate into an inter-generational battle of him trying to justify his cultivation and education that would, despite his race, make him worthy of inclusion into their white nuclear family. And while the plot of Get Out, Jordan Peele’s brilliant debut feature, might at first remind us of Kramer’s classic, the times has changed, and so did the ways in which racism still pervades in our society, casually emerging in everyday encounters even when least expected. Which is why Get Out ends up being a very different movie, albeit no less relevant than Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner proved to be back in 1967.

More The Stepford’s Wives meeting Rosemary’s Baby than Poitier’s racial melodrama, Get Out explores and in many ways subverts the horror genre, all while delivering a scathing social commentary on contemporary racism. It flirts with a social satire, but nonetheless remains serious and horrifying in its accurate portrayal and dissection of race relations and subtle, hidden, almost invisible racism of white liberals who, by admiring black culture and treating every black person as a fascinating, exotic Other (while at the same time pretending they don’t even notice their skin colour, because “they don’t see race”), may be equally harmful as far-right alt-right groups and white supremacists whose racism is always straightforward and therefore easier to detect, condemn and argue against. But where Peele’s subversion of a horror/slasher genre really excels is in how it places a final guy in a position that is usually reserved for a woman – an innocent, virginal final girl. Few men have been in this position, and even fewer have been minorities such as Get Out‘s protagonist, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) – and it is this switch of gender and race that makes this movie that much more outstanding.

There is quite a few correlations between Peele’s debut and The Stepford Wives, but each film deals with a different type of social subjugation: if one dealt with a critique of patriarchal society and sexism in the highlight of second-wave feminism, this one delves deep into the core of America’s racism and systematic oppression of racial minorities. And even though it focuses on contemporary racial problems that people, disillusioned by Obama’s presidency and what it meant for racial relations in the country, tried to ignore until things completely escalated in Ferguson, Get Out isn’t afraid to look in the past and leave small hints linking modern-day reality to a time when slavery was still a reality to most African-Americans. Post-racism – a word that was widely thrown around after Obama’s first win, which was also when Peele started to work on the script – is not really a thing, and it never was. But it may have became harder to detect among certain groups of people – namely among white liberals, whose racism became more subtle and sophisticated, undergoing a makeover of political correctness that makes it ever more impossible to talk about race and racial issues in a way these issues should be talked about.

When Chris agrees to go to his girlfriend’s parents house over the weekend, we instantly know that nothing good will come of this. By what Rose (Allison Williams, no less white and privileged than in the role of Marnie in Lena Dunham’s series Girls) tells him, his parents are not racist – and indeed they seem extremely casual and cool by the fact that their daughter is dating someone who’s black. And yet casually (and in most instances, unknowingly) racist comments start to creep into the conversations after some time – especially when Chris finds himself in a company of Rose’s brother and her family’s friends. Some seem to be fascinated by his “genetic makeup”, his potential physical strength, muscles and supposed endowment, others feel like they have to mention at least one famous black person while carrying a conversation (“I know Tiger Woods!”), stating that they would vote for Obama one more time if they could, or simply state that “black is in fashion these days”. Even though each of them carefully avoids acknowledging Chris’s race, they are throwing out comments they would never even think of saying to a white person. Why? They simply see him as Rose’s black boyfriend, a generic black man, instead of as a person – Chris, a photographer that he is.

But things get even weirder when Chris realises that his girlfriend’s supposed liberal white parents who voted for Obama and pride themselves in being open-minded and enjoy to experience new and different cultures through their travels, have a black gardener and a maid; two characters that, at first, seem as the archetypes of old Hollywood’s representation of African-Americans. Walter, physically strong but somewhat creepy and potentially violent is a perfect representation of what was once known as “a savage”, and Georgina comes across as a classic mammy who seems to enjoy nothing more but to serve her white employers and swipe dust off drawers. But Peele’s mind-blowing twist shows that nothing is as it seems – not only is Rose’s family not what they present themselves to be, but Walter and Georgina also turn out being two entirely different people. As does Rose.

SPOILERS AHEAD! 

The entire film is permeated with symbolism and smartly coined phrases that only once you see the film all the way through – or revisit it for the second time – reveal their double meaning. It starts with the intro, where a seemingly unconnected story of a black guy’s abduction unfolds. A white car that creepily slows down and hunts down the man who got lost in the suburbs is reversing the symbolism of the colour white that usually represents something pure and innocent – in contrast to the colour black that tends to be associated with death and evil. Subtle symbolism such as this re-appropriation of the meaning of a certain colour (that in reality all too often gets extended to the understanding of a certain race; white as pure, black as deviant and evil, as portrayed from D. W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation forward) is to be found throughout the entire film – from Rose’s mother wearing white when she first hypnotises Chris, sending him into the Sunken Place, to Rose wearing white in the final, most brutal act where she goes full on psycho and her drinking white milk in a real A Clockwork Orange fashion while her boyfriend is supposedly getting lobotomised in the basement. On the other hand we have the colour black which is continuously re-appearing in relation to something dangerous and bad – as Rose’s dad quite early on explains, there’s “black mold” in the basement which makes it off limits, not to mention there’s people arriving in black attire and limousines that have more resemblance to the funeral than to an annual family meeting (that is, as it is later revealed, a modern-day slave auction disguised as a game of bingo).

But the symbolism hardly stops at colours that Peele smartly incorporates in certain scenes. On a way to Rose’s family estate, far out from the city, the couple hits a deer – and while the accident has a strong connection to Chris’s personal hit and run story, to the way his mother died, the dying deer is first and foremost meant to represent him. Not only is Rose the one who is behind the wheel, causing the accident (as she is also behind the wheel of a racist scheme her family is planning) – she is also the one that initially hunted him down like game and is just waiting to hang his picture up on a bedroom wall among her other trophies, in the same way taxidermied deer is exhibited on the wall where Chris is later held captive. That the deer is supposed to represent Chris who is walking into a trap no one could have ever predicted becomes even more apparent after they tell her parents about the accident. Her father’s response about hating deer and how eradicating them would be a service to their community has a double meaning if we pay close attention to the words he uses. When he casually slips the word “buck” into his argument about deer overpopulating the area, it is hard to say if he is really still talking about animals, since the word “black buck” was once widely used as a racial slur to describe black men who refused to bend down to the authority of white men.

Casually incorporated racial slurs that are mostly long forgotten, games of bingo that end up being slave auctions, a throwback to old Hollywood’s stereotypical portrayal of African-Americans and a helmet resembling a Ku Klux Klan’s hat that Jeremy wears when abducting black victims in his ironically white car (an image that gives a whole new meaning to a “knight in shining armour”) is just a few of Peele’s reminders to tragic history of African-Americans. But although we overcame the portrayal of black women as devoted housemaids and men as savages, representation of black people still hasn’t broke free of stereotypes such as gang members, funny sidekick best friends and sassy girlfriends. White supremacists are also alive and well, maybe more than ever now that Trump’s presidency gave a big thumbs up to openly expressing one’s racism. But where I find Peele’s horror-satire most successful is in how it subtly incorporates the question of slavery into the film. Slave auction may seem horrific and somewhat archaic from today’s point of view, but modern-day slavery is a reality that we need to stop ignoring. An auction selling Chris’s body to the highest bidder represents just about any young black man who finds himself in front of a white jury and judges who have the power of holding his whole life in their hands. Chris’s captivity therefore directly correlates with a devastating number of black people currently incarcerated (and used as a free working force; which is nothing else but slavery transferred from plantations to private prisons), while disappearance of his conscience into the Sunken Place represents black people’s feeling of paralysis and helplessness for living in a system that was set out against them from the very beginning. And it is of course no coincidence that the only thing that makes them break free from the Sunken Place is a use of a mobile phone – as phones have been an important part of bringing the reality of police brutality and unjustifiable murders of black people to the public and made discussions about systemic racism, racial inequality and racial profiling possible.

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The Edge of Seventeen (2016): teenage angst movie of the decade

The Edge of Seventeen seemed to have appeared out of nowhere when it premièred at last year’s TIFF, but it wasn’t long before it won over both critics and regular audiences alike. Still, with years of disappointment under the belt when it came to teen movies, I remained sceptical. These past years were overflown with either problematic, body shaming teen comedies such as The DuffGleespin-offs (Pitch Perfect) or adolescent dramas filled with overly eloquent and grown up characters (Paper Towns) that were nowhere near to what real teenagers are supposed to sound like, let alone go through. It was clear – the golden days of John Hughes’s teen movies were over and while there were some films over the years that somehow did the genre justice, none of them ever managed to reach the greatness and timelessness of the ultimate teen classic, The Breakfast Club (1985). The genre seemed exhausted and uninspired, with one film after another falling into a trap of good girl vs. bad girl logic, vicious catfights and “who is dating who” premises. And then along came The Edge of Seventeen – a fascinating directorial debut of Kelly Fremon Craig who depicts teenage angst and overall agony of adolescence with such accuracy that it instantly catapulted me back to my dreadful high school experience – even though it’s been almost a decade since I left those horrible, painful and confusing years behind.

Nadine (portrayed by Hailee Steinfeld who excels in the role) is a tomboyish, unpopular and self-absorbed seventeen-year-old who doesn’t quite belong and is yet to find her place under the sun. She doesn’t get along with her peers, nor does she find any refuge at home where she stubbornly fights with her widowed mother whenever she’s not shamelessly hating on her perfect and popular brother. The only person who gets to see the insecure, imperfect but charming Nadine that hides under the carefully constructed façade of uncompromising sarcasm and biting humour with which she keeps everyone else at bay, is her best (and only) friend Krista. That is at least until Krista starts to date Nadine’s brother. Already feeling misunderstood by the entire generation of “mouth-breathers who get a seizure if you take their phone away” and her family, she now starts to isolate herself even more, using sharp sarcasm to protect herself from the world around and self-sabotagingly hurting everyone around  – only to end up getting hurt the most herself.

Where this film really hits the right note is that it avoids going into a direction of high-school hardships and injustices. Nadine’s classmates are not treating her badly and she is never a victim of any kind of social exclusion. It is she herself that isolates her by rejecting the company of everyone around, looking down on her peers and on all they are supposed to represent. She feels like an old soul, wiser and maturer than anyone else around, but it is all just an act and it is sometimes hard to say if even she herself believes in her supposed superiority. She is simply arrogant (as most teenagers are) and deeply insecure, battling her own demons every step of the way. There hasn’t been quite enough films that would effectively explore the idea of how the biggest enemy of an adolescent girl is usually no one else but herself – but The Edge of Seventeen does just that. No matter what is her external situation, whether she runs with the cool crowd or is completely unknown to people at her school, being a teenage girl is exhausting and horrifying, which makes it quite easy for us to sometimes get overwhelmed by our mere existence. Self-doubt and self-questioning are with us every second of the day, no matter how we pretend to look like we have it all figured out, and while this may be what every youngster goes through, there is also constant observation, evaluation and judgement of others that is mostly reserved for girls – and that we at some point start to project onto ourselves. Or as John Berger smartly put it: “A woman is always accompanied, even when quite alone, by her own image of herself. From earliest childhood she is taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.” And indeed this is exactly what Nadine goes through and what causes her so much pain, even though she uses her brother dating her best friend as a catalyst for her angsty outbursts:

You know, ever since we were little, I would get this feeling like… Like I’m floating outside of my body, looking down at myself… And I hate what I see… How I’m acting, the way I sound. And I don’t know how to change it. And I’m so scared… That the feeling is never gonna go away.

What makes this character so authentic and relatable is her constant distress and inherent loneliness. Most of us went through a time when we felt completely and utterly alone, when we believed that nobody could possibly understand what we are feeling, what we are going through. And no party, no amount of alcohol, no sleepover with our best friend could make us feel better and fill the utter emptiness and despair that was slowly taking control of our body. Indeed, Nadine is sinking into a depression (just another thing that hit close to home for me, having been battling depression for a better part of high school myself), but the film smartly avoids lingering on her sad, distressed face or focusing on melancholy afternoons of her sinking into self-hating and damaging thoughts. The direction instead remains vibrant throughout the entire film, bringing to light just how invisible depression is to the world and people around us and how hard it sometimes is for us to get to terms with it; admitting to ourselves that it is really our negative mindset and outlook on life that is the cause of our problems and not our sibling dating the “wrong” person.

But even though there is a lot of depth and sadness running through the film, The Edge of Seventeen ultimately comes across as a thoroughly enjoyable and funny cinematic experience. This is mostly due to fantastic comedic chemistry between Nadine and her grumpy history teacher (Woody Harrelson) who seems to be the only one capable of decent comebacks to her sarcastic attacks and who ultimately becomes the only person she trusts and whom she seeks out when in need.

Although it can’t quite compare to the provocative brilliance of last year’s teen indie, The Diary of a Teenage GirlThe Edge of Seventeen, despite being a mainstream film, ends up being the best teenage angst movie that the past decade had to offer. And why it will probably appeal to generations to come with its timeless wisdom and relatability, is probably most evident in an emotional and cathartic ending when during final confrontation between Nadine and her brother, she finally realizes that she is far from being the only person whose life is filled with problems and who sometimes doesn’t know how to cope with everything that life throws at her. It is a definable moment – one that everyone of us had to go through – when she has to let go of her egotism, realizing that she is just one of many people in the world who feels trapped, burdened and inadequate. And indeed, this feeling may never go away, but as Nadine’s mother would say: “Everyone’s just as miserable and empty, they’re just better at pretending.”

The Basics:
Directed by: Kelly Fremon Craig
Written by: Kelly Fremon Craig
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner, Woody Harrelson
Running Time: 104 minutes
Year: 2016
Rating: 8

Suicide Squad (2016): a messy and inconsistent blockbuster that even superheroes can’t save

This film was supposed to be about the worst superheroes ever – about the bad-ass, chaotic, nihilistic criminals who are brought together to fight an even bigger, other-wordly evil that threatens to destroy the world as we know it. But as it turns out, they’re hardly anything of the above. Sure, they’re criminals – something that the film quickly establishes by letting us know they are all in high-protection Louisiana prison. But where’s all the chaos, anarchy, things spinning out of control when these inexplicably bad guys get set free? They’re far from the “worst heroes ever”, as Amanda Waller introduces them before turning them into her soldiers – not only that, they can hardly even pass as actually being bad. And as if that’s not enough, the film seems to be disturbingly aware of that for we are constantly reminded that they are, in fact, dangerous and evil, working on the wrong side of the law. “We’re the bad guys!” Harley Quinn points out defensively when she stops in front of the store window to steal a purse – just in case we forgot because based on their actions they seem anything but.

The film is an inconsistent mess that, as the story progresses, makes less and less sense. Perhaps one of the biggest questions that the film doesn’t manage to answer is why Waller actually puts the group of unrehabilitated criminals together, since the negotiations leading to their release happen before the biggest evil of them all, the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) escapes from her captivity. Waller’s shady persona is otherwise perfectly captured by Viola Davis, but as far as the plot is concerned, we hardly ever know what her motivations are or where are her constant manipulations supposed to lead.

That being said, perhaps the biggest problem I had with the film is how it is supposed to be about the members of the Suicide Squad, yet it fails to let us know who they are actually supposed to be. Only Deadshot and Harley Quinn (and to a lesser extent, Diablo) manage to rise above the rest of the crew with flashback stories that give us some minimal insight into their personal life and that, as a result, also reveal the more human side of their criminal persona. Sure, the human part makes them weaker and more vulnerable, but it also establishes them as real characters, while the rest of the group ends up being somewhat forgettable and in retrospect quite insignificant.

Will Smith does a good enough job portraying Deadshot, but the one that really and uncompromisingly stands out has to be Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Margot perfectly captures her disturbing joyfulness, unpredictability and chaotic tendencies and manages to lift the character beyond the “hot but crazy chick” that she could easily become would this part end up in someone else’s hands, since most of the remarks made by other squad members made it crystal clear that she wasn’t supposed to be much more than a sexualized object whose presence was primarily to visually please the male audience. And director’s numerous close-up shots of her bending down in the tiniest hot pants was simply another proof that she wasn’t meant to be much more than a caricature of a frat boy’s wet dream.

13-harley-quinn.w1600.h1064 (1)
Harvey Quinn’s original look (she first appeared in 90’s cartoon Batman: The Animated Series and was later incorporated into the comic books where her look gradually became more sexualized).

If David Ayer managed to spend half as much time on establishing and exploring her character as he did on close-ups of her overly-exposed ass this would have been a much better film. However, portrayed as she is, she never manages to establish herself as anything else but Joker’s counterpart, as her whole existence, her every act, seems to be for and because of him. And even Margot’s charisma and undeniable talent can’t help much about the fact that her character simply does not have her own identity.

When the film finally tries to give us some insight into Harley’s head it once again manages to fail. When crossing paths with the Enchantress, each member of the squad starts hallucinating their deepest desires and life-goals due to her unlimited magic powers and this results in a unique opportunity to see into Harley’s subconscious; to see past her current madness and into the person, a psychiatrist, that she once was. And to my complete bewilderment this subconscious dream was Harley living a perfect little family life right from some 50’s lifestyle catalogue for women, while being married and having kids with Joker. The hallucination didn’t make any sense – even Deadshot, otherwise obsessed with getting back to his daughter, imagines defeating Batman and not being with his family. Where did this dream came from? If anything, her dream should be about escaping the suffocating power that Joker has over her – about breaking free from the psychologically and physically abusive relationship they are in. This would open up doors to establish her as a character that could exist on her own, as well as address the problem of domestic violence that their dysfunctional love life clearly represents. The film thus makes a poor choice of portraying their love story as a romantic one, because it is anything but. They are far from being equal partners in crime, Bonnie and Clyde of Gotham City. They are more like Sid and Nancy, where madness is their heroin and where Nancy eventually ends up dead due to a stab wound.

“I sleep when I want, where I want and with whomever I want” Harley points out at the very beginning of the film, as if this is somehow the core idea of female empowerment. But there is hardly anything empowering about her – true, she walks around with a baseball bat, but below her smudged make-up and pantless cheerleader appearance she is hardly anything else but a damaged, vulnerable and, as far as her hidden core values go, conservative character who is unable to break free from a destructive and abusive relationship.

Jared Leto does a fairly good job as the Joker, but since he went all Method-acting for a year (which resulted in a few disturbing on-set incidents that I wouldn’t mind characterising as harassment) I need to point out that there wasn’t a moment where I would forget that I am watching Leto desperately trying to fill Heath Ledger’s shoes. This was one, albeit perfectly adequate, very self-aware performance and all the publicity that was made due to his unprecedented commitment to the role just shows how unproportional Leto’s ego is compared to his acting abilities since he won an Oscar.

However, the weakest link of the film and where the story really fails to engage has to be the character of Enchantress. An ancient magical spirit that possesses the body of an archaeologist June Moone has to be one of the least interesting villains I have ever seen on screen and Cara Delevingne’s poor acting doesn’t help to lift this character above cringe-worthily awful. Her army of blobby faceless creatures also doesn’t manage to make things interesting and what we’re essentially left with is a messy and inconsistent story that threw all the potential of elevating this genre to something different and potentially more interesting out of the window.

The Basics:
Directed by: David Ayer
Written by: David Ayer (based on a comic book by John Ostrander)
Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Jared Leto, Cara Delevingne
Running Time: 123 minutes
Year: 2016
Rating: 4

 

Me Before You (2016): a manic pixie Cinderella finds her Prince Charming

Lou Clark with her naive happy-go-lucky attitude seems to be a British variation of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl – her main purpose in this awful film is, after all, to bring happiness and the will to live to the male protagonist; something that she is supposed to achieve with her kooky style, unrealistically positive outlook on life and a constant smile on her face (that in all honesty makes her look more mentally unstable than anything else). It all begins when she unexpectedly loses her job at the bakery where she got stuck working for far too long and starts searching for a new employment. Her being from a working-class family and completely unqualified for most of the jobs on the market doesn’t make it easy for her to figure out what to do next – this is until the aristocratic family of the region doesn’t call out in need of an assistant.

It is the Prince Charming who recently suffered from an incident that gradually comes to the rescue to our Manic Pixie Cinderella. And while the film leads us into believing that it is all about Lou showing him the meaning and joys of life, it soon shifts into something very different. For it is ultimately him, the aristocratic son, who shows her what life is really about: foreign films, classical movies and exotic travels. He shows her how fantastic and more fulfilling life is among the “cultivated”, richer and privileged – and it is far from surprising that she eventually ends up falling in love with him (or rather, with the life that he represents).

Now, I do not want to imply that it is impossible to fall in love with a disabled person – but I do want to point out how utterly ridiculous and unnecessary the choice to make the quadriplegic character an English aristocrat was. I would guess that most of the people who were unfortunate enough to have had an illness or an accident that left them in a wheelchair do not belong to the 1%, nor do they have a family who has the means to re-build their entire house and change the stables (!) into a new apartment where everything is easily accessible. While the film would certainly like us to believe that it is about quadriplegia and the impossibly complex question of life and death that such a condition usually brings with it, I do not believe that this is the case here. Him being in a wheelchair seems more like a plot-device that helps Lou’s character to develop and that makes us somewhat more invested into the love story that would never had happened if it weren’t for his unfortunate condition (since it is more than obvious that he would not have spend a minute of his time with this simple, uneducated, overly-nice and naive girl if he would still have been his old, healthy self).

Lou (played by Emilia Clarke) is a plain and uninteresting character that does not do much but spend time with her family and her self-involved boyfriend. She does not seem to have friends outside of this circle of people and she sure does not seem to have any interests in life (besides fashion; the most stereotypical female interest there is). She is also one of the least independent women I have seen portrayed in cinema lately – the kind of a woman who lets men to take her for granted and who never expresses her discomfort or disagreement because she does not want to offend anybody. And it is not until she meets a sarcastic, cynical, well-educated, well-travelled and rich beyond our comprehension Will Traynor (played by Sam Claflin) that she reaches her full potential and blossoms into a curious and exciting new woman who leaves her old life behind and moves to Paris. She is a modern-day Cinderella and she needed her Prince Charming to be able to transform from the simple girl that let people walk all over her into a woman that does what she wants. She needed the Prince to be able to escape from her simple-minded athlete of a boyfriend and a family that was keeping her stuck in her unexciting hometown. So, despite the all-women crew that worked behind the camera and despite the novel being written by a woman as well, this movie ends up being just another story where a woman needs a man to succeed in life.

At least they do not get their happily ever after, something that I thought would somehow save this insufferable tearjerker. However, it turned out that even his death could not have saved the film. I do believe that euthanasia should be a possible option for all people who are not able to end their own life – however, this is a very complex matter and a very hard choice to make for each individual; something that the film does not emphasize at all. For Will living is not an option, not ever. I would have expected this decision being approached to more delicately, as I would also preferred the film to focus on his decision-making process and not only on the furious reactions of people around him, unable to accept his (selfish, at least from the film’s point of view) decision. We do not get to know him well enough to know what exactly is it that makes his life so insufferable – is it the awful feeling of being a burden to the people around him? Or is it really just because he cannot return to Paris for his ego cannot handle Parisian women not turning around anymore when he would pass them on the sidewalk? Because he cannot go skiing in the Swiss Alps anymore? Or go sky-diving? And jumping off a cliff? Because if so, this is a shitty reason; he has done and seen more things in his 20+ years than most people will ever do in their lifetime. And they do not seem to commit suicide over that. The bottom line is therefore this: His reasons for not wanting to live anymore seemed superficial and ultimately disrespectful to all disabled people who deserved a better portrayal as well as a more meaningful contribution to the conversations and dilemmas about euthanasia and assisted death.

The Basics:
Directed by: Thea Sharrock
Written by: Jojo Moyes (based on her novel)
Starring: Emilia Clarke, Sam Claflin, Janet McTeer, Charles Dance, Matthew Lewis
Running Time: 110 minutes
Year: 2016
Rating: 2

 

Into the Forest (2015): survivalist feminist drama

The scene opens with Patricia Rozema’s camera taking a mystical walk through the woods and Cat Power’s mesmerizing voice singing Wild is the Wind, before stopping at a secluded family house situated on the edge of the forest – a house that despite its physical closeness seems to be extremely far from the nature that surrounds it. The family consists of two daughters, Eva and Nell (played by Evan Rachel Wood and Ellen Page) and their widowed father, all of whom seem to be living in a near future that all too much resembles the world that we already live in. Disconnected from the world and nature around and all too dependable on the technology that is micromanaging every aspect of our personal, social and professional lives – this is the future that has already happened, with futuristically designed technology being the only indicator of the film being set in a period that is yet to happen. Each of them seems to be  pursuing their own thing, chasing their own dreams and trying to make the bright future ahead of them (they are living a privileged middle-class life after all) a reality, with Eva trying to make it as a professional dancer and Nell focusing on her education, possibly wishing to pursue her studies in an academic sphere. They know exactly what they need to do, how hard they need to work for it and what reward is awaiting for them in the end. That is until the power suddenly goes out nationwide in what is at first interpreted as a terrorist attack – only that the loss of power does not end up being a simple inconvenience that would last for a few days. Days instead turn into weeks and weeks into months.

When their father loses his life in an unfortunate accident and it starts to become clearer that life with electricity is the thing of the past, girls find themselves completely alone and entirely dependable on themselves – instead of on the patriarchal order that the father (and later, briefly, Nell’s boyfriend) represented so far. However, they (understandably) find it hard to switch their mindset to the new reality in which everything that was once an important part of their everyday life suddenly does not exist anymore and the expression “fugue state” that Nell is learning for her upcoming SAT’s before the power outage, starts to get a life of its own since the girls seem to be unable to let their old, comfortable and privileged lives go. Nell keeps on studying for the exams as if she is still about to finish high school and pursue her education at one of the Universities that she applied to, and Eva practices her dance routine, accompanied by nothing else but the frustrating sound of a metronome, as if the upcoming audition and a professional dance career is still something that will somehow happen.

They’re clearly in denial and they seem determined to keep on living their life as they did before, no matter how much the reality around them has changed. And while they slowly adapt to certain changes, learn to gather food in the forest and chop wood, they somehow still cannot fully acknowledge the permanence of their situation – which, considering how very different persons they are, culminates in quite a few sisterly disputes. It’s not until Nell temporarily leaves, although merely to pick blueberries in the woods, while Eva (alone and unable to defend herself) gets brutally raped (in what is one of the most devastating and powerful scenes in the film) that the two realize just how very important it is for them to stick together and how, no matter how strong and independent they otherwise are, they are completely helpless without one another.

It is only after the rape and Eva’s realization that she got pregnant during it that the fugue state slowly starts to dissolve – but it’s not until she actually gives birth that they fully accept their new reality and find the strength to not only leave, but destroy the life that they once lived (at least what has left of it).

Of course we are all too familiar with dystopian stories that focus on how the end of the world would affect our society as a whole. And it is in this aspect that Into the Forest manages to be a refreshing variation of those all-too-frequent macro-societal dystopian futures. Rozema surprisingly barely mentions the crisis that is going on in the city nearby (and elsewhere throughout the country) – instead, it focuses entirely on these two girls, on two particular individuals trying their best to learn to survive after the world as they knew it suddenly stops existing. But while I admire her intention of analysing how such crisis affects people on a micro level, the characters at times do not feel developed enough for us to contently spend an hour and a half in their company. We hardly learn anything about Eva and Nell that would make us see them as real persons – for which I blame a somewhat clumsily written screenplay (adapted for screen by Rozema herself) that doesn’t manage to portray the sister’s dynamic as well as it could have, despite Wood and Page giving fantastic performances and managing to carry the film forward even when they do not have much to work with.

The Basics:
Directed by: Patricia Rozema
Written by: Patricia Rozema (based on a novel by Jean Hegland)
Starring: Ellen Page, Evan Rachel Wood, Max Minghella, Callum Rennie
Running Time: 101 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 7

The Piano Teacher (2001)

Michael Haneke is without a doubt one of the most recognized and critically successful contemporary European auteurs. His films are challenging and often unpleasant to watch, but at the same time admirable and unforgettable, for he delves into painfully honest presentations of our society’s anxieties and uncertainties; something that very few directors have ever dared to do. As Janina Falkowska points out, “Haneke leaves no hope in his films, but throws the spectator into a state of despair and pain.” (Falkowska, 2007) The Piano Teacher, a literary adaptation of Elfride Jelinek’s 1984 novel of the same name, is one of his least typical films, for it is also his only film based on a pre-existing material. However, it is also a film that gained him an international recognition and that has perplexed, as well as inspired, many film critics and psychoanalysts since its release. Many of them decided to delve deep into the narrative and aesthetics of the film, trying to figure out the puzzling, at times also quite revolting main character, while also trying to find the answer to the ambiguous and confusing ending. Since Haneke continuously refuses to talk about his film’s interpretations, we can never know for sure what certain details and shocking open endings are supposed to mean. What we do know, however, is that Haneke intentionally tries to lure us into “a self-reflexive voyeurism to rape the spectator into autonomy and awareness”. (Landwehr, 2011) This raping of the audience into being reflexive and intellectually independent  in some disturbing way very much resonates with one of the last and indeed the most uncomfortable scenes in The Piano Teacher – but let’s first focus on the beginning where Haneke in one short scene manages to establish exactly what film we are about to witness. The film opens with Erika Kohut, a middle-aged piano teacher at a music conservatory in Vienna, entering a cramped, overly-furnished and somehow claustrophobic apartment that she shares with her ever-present, over-controlling, suffocating mother. The whole sequence is filmed in a close-up or a medium shot; something that makes us even more aware of Erika’s spatial (as well as emotional and developmental) entrapment by her mother who clearly sees Erika as an extension of her own body. She immediately insists on knowing why Erika (whom she greets with “Good evening, child”) is late, for her last piano lecture ended hours ago. Erika, clearly annoyed by her mother’s nosiness but at the same time unable to stand up for herself and set up the boundaries between the two, tries to explain that she went for a walk after spending “eight hours in a cage” – the cage being the musical room where she teaches, if not simply her whole life: her work place, as well as the apartment where she lives, since both those places are under her mother’s constant surveillance. The mother, clearly not convinced by her answer, responds by pulling Erika’s purse out of her hands, turning it inside out, with which the dynamic of their pathological, destructive relationship is fully displayed to the viewers, making us aware of the fact that the purse is meant to be a symbolic representation of both Erika’s personal life, as well as of her physical body in general, for the mother’s examining of the purse’s content implies that Erika is allowed no private internal space.This is further implied when Erika enters the bathroom, the one place in an apartment where most of us expect to have some privacy: while momentarily being physically distanced from the mother while she is brushing her teeth, the mother’s voice, communicating a set of demands on how Erika should earn more money, still penetrates into the room, stealing the last bit of Erika’s privacy (this scene is later paralleled by another bathroom scene where Erika is cutting her genitals while the mother’s voice, this time calling her to dinner, once again penetrates into the room, disrupting her in the midst of her disturbing self-mutilation). By the mother-daughter dyadic duo always being shot closely together, Haneke’s camera is implying that there is no empty space between them: that they are one and the same, since the mother seems unable to break the maternal bond with her child. By thinking of Erika’s body as an extension of her own she is preventing Erika, whose masochistic and sadistic acts should be read as an attempt of her breaking free from the mother whom she still perceives as being a part of her, to fully step into the world of the symbolic order. Their pathological connectedness is further depicted in the scene where they get ready for bed – for what this scene reveals is that they sleep together in the master bedroom where Erika clearly replaced the role of her absent father. “Their pathological, hostile-dependent relationship results in Erika’s defensive identification with the male who has the power to possess and dominate the mother”. (Wyatt 2005) This identification at one point goes as far as Erika actually kissing and attempting to sexually assault the mother. She also seems to identify with the male audience while watching pornography in a booth of a sex shop where she often spends time after work – however, as Slavoj Žižek notes in Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, her looking at porn is not to get aroused, for she is looking at the pictures as a pupil who is trying to learn and consequently builds her sexual fantasies based on what she sees in these films.

Lacan’s psychoanalysis recognizes the “maternal desire as the crucial factor that forces a child to separate from its early fused identification with mother” (Wyatt 2005: 458). Because only when the child realizes that the mother lacks something, which makes her direct a part of her desire elsewhere, is the child “forced to recognize that he/she is a split and lacking subject” (Homer 2005) and to realize that he/she is “not mother’s immediate and sole object, which opens up the field of others beyond the mother-child dyad and thus the possibility for other objects”. (Wyatt 2005: 458) However, Erika cannot establish her desire for there is no maternal desire which would pressure her into recognizing her lack. This is represented in a scene taking place during a private musical recital where a man is trying to get the mother’s attention by showing her his antique collection of musical instruments, only to get a complete disinterest as a response. She who, just as Erika, seems to possess nothing other but jouissance, seems incapable of directing her attention to anything outside of Erika, who is at that time talking to her future student and lover Walter. What thus seems to be at the core of The Piano Teacher is the portrayal of both the mother’s and Erika’s jouissance, which is a Lacanian term for an “expression of drive energy, erotic and/or aggressive, that exceeds the limits of social rule and restraint and goes beyond pleasure, even beyond self-preservation” (Wyatt 2005: 453), making it closely associated with Freud’s death drive and the real.

Kristeva, who mostly followed Lacan’s psychoanalytic model, made some variations when it came to Lacan’s model of psychosexual development. What seems to be one of her most important attributions is her introduction of a term “abjection”, with which she describes something that “does not respect borders, positions and rules, which disturbs identity, system and order”. (Creed: 68) As it happens, “one of the key figures of abjection is the mother who becomes an abject at the moment when the child rejects her for the father who represents the symbolic order.” (Kristeva in Creed: 68) Since Erika’s father has been absent for her entire childhood, she was never able to establish herself as a symbolic subject based on lack and emerging as a subject of desire, which resulted in her pathological attachment to the mother who is using her “as the object that completes her”. (Wyatt 2005) Kristeva posits the stage associated with the abject in a pre-linguistic (and with that, pre-mirror) stage in which “a child is beginning to establish a separation between him/herself and the maternal, creating boundaries between self and other”. Erika and her mother are clearly unable to realize this separation that would let Erika to grow up and perceive herself as her own, differentiated individual, which results in Erika’s entrapment in this mother-daughter dyad from which there is seemingly no possible escape. As Kristeva explains, “all individuals experience abjection at the time of their earliest attempts to break away from the mother; when they struggle to break free – and it is in this attempt to break away that the mother becomes an abject”. (Kristeva in Creed: 72) It is with this in mind that we should interpret Erika’s vomiting, urinating and (usually self-inflicted) bleeding, for she is trying to eject the maternal Other out of her body; something that is most notably presented in one of the film’s most disturbing scenes of her slicing her genitals with a razor-blade, as if she is trying to establish “a minimal degree of distinction from the mother at the level of the body, as if she experiences her mother’s over-proximity as a corporeal fusion that requires a separation between skin and skin, flesh and flesh.” (Wyatt 2005) Her genital mutilation can thus be seen as “an attempt at removal from the mother, especially if read as a symbolic triggering of menstruation, implying maturation from girlhood to womanhood”. (Restuccia 2012: 63) When later joining her mother in the dining room, with her blood still dripping down her leg, her mother’s initial reaction, thinking its Erika’s menstrual blood, is repulsion: her announcement of how unappetizing Erika’s blood is “reveals her unease with this supposed sign of her daughter’s sexual maturity.” (Restuccia 2012: 64)

This is far from being the only time where the cutting occurs – the film seems to be saturated with it. After finding an elegant, but rather expensive frock while examining her daughter’s purse, the mother asserts to Erika: “I should cut off your hands”. Soon after we are introduced to the opening credits, seeing different hands practising a piano in conservatory’s music room: hands that are cut off from the body by the director, reminding us both of the mother’s vicious comment in an earlier scene, as well as of the fact that Erika does not perceive her pupils as whole human beings. This is later even more loudly echoed by her student’s mother who, after Erika puts glass in her student’s coat, permanently damaging her hand and quite possibly ruining her future as a pianist, comments that “whoever cut her daughter’s hands should have his hands chopped off”. Erika’s cutting of her student’s hands might be taken as vicarious fulfilment of the threat/wish of her own mother toward her, but given her student’s position of submission to maternal pressure and control, “Erika’s cruel act could also be read as offering a long, if not final, benevolent respite to her student Ana from her mother’s overbearing influence”. (Restuccia 2012: 63) Since Ana is supposed to represent a younger version of Erika (hence also a parallel of Ana’s domineering mother to Erika’s own), it is quite possible that Erika’s horrendous act at some level represented her trying to free Ana from the same miserable future of a pianist, since pursuing musical career is clearly more of a mother’s wish than of Ana herself. This why she is giving her an opportunity of freeing herself from the mother’s influence and finding something that she herself desires to do in life.

In the suffocating dyad, in which there is no room for mother’s desire and consequently also no possibility for Erika’s desire, it is quite apparent from the very beginning that Walter’s sudden presence will have a disastrous consequence for Erika whose life soon begins to spiral even more drastically towards self-destruction. His intrusion in their relationship is visually established during their first encounter, when Erika shuts the elevator doors before he could enter, closing herself and her mother into the small, cage-like elevator room that is perfectly portraying their claustrophobic, isolated reality based in the real – while Walter, on the other hand, represents an outside (symbolic) world of lack and desire. It is not until Erika hears him play that she becomes intrigued by the young man (something that is communicated to the audience by the mere twitch in her upper lip while the camera zooms in an extreme close-up of her face during the piano recital). And since the feeling seems to be mutual, for he is equally fascinated by her musical talent and intelligence, he soon starts to attend the conservatory in an attempt to seduce her. Walter, being young and fairly self-absorbed, is therefore completely clueless about her emotional immaturity and sexual perversion that hides below the façade of her intimidating strictness and perfectionism; traits that he somehow finds fascinating and desirable.

Her perversion expresses itself “as a need to control the phallus” (Wyatt 2005) – something that is portrayed in Erika and Walter’s first sexual encounter in the conservatory’s bathroom, where they seem to be battling over who will take control over the situation. The sexual dynamic seems to be somehow similar to that of film noir, with “Erika embodying a femme fatale who tries to seduce the representative of masculine identity into her world of destructive sexuality – a sexual immersion that would dissolve his masculinity by depriving him of the autonomy, mastery and phallic control that constitute its core”. (Wyatt 2005) After the initial battle for control, where the whole sexual encounter is entirely off-screen, invisible to us, the voyeurs, who are left in a painfully long one-take shot of Walter’s face filled with pain and agony, Walter still believes that their relationship is bound to progress. And it is not until Erika writes him a letter in which she  explains what she wants from their relationship, that he gets a glimpse of her perversion – although it can be said that he does not quite understand what she is trying to communicate, as we can see from the numerous questions that he poses and that she lefts unanswered; a scene that once again establishes her not living fully in a world of symbolic order, for she is obviously using a language, but is unable to communicate with another person, of engaging in a dialogue. Walter, not understanding what it is she wants from him, and as a representative of a bourgeois society a part of which they both are, is visibly repulsed by her and in a burst of disbelief and anger suggests that she should get some help. When he later re-enacts her letter after breaking into her apartment overcome by rage, he fulfils her sexual fantasy that at first so much repulsed him and, as Žižek points out, “gives her an opportunity to transform herself. Erika’s blankness during the rape, her corpse-like position and ashen facial expression only enhance the point that she is entering absence, an abyss, an empty psychic space that will enable her to configure herself”. (Žižek in Restuccia 2012: 68)

The final act of her cutting, as she stabs herself right above the heart at the entrance hall of the conservatory where she is about to perform at the musical recital, closes this film’s narrative. This can be read as one last, and quite possibly her only successful attempt at breaking free from her mother. As wounded Erika decides to walk out of the conservatory and onto the busy street full of anonymous car drivers unaware of her injury, the camera finally zooms away from the medium close-up shot. The space around her is opening up and we can indeed interpret the ending as her walking towards her newly-established freedom. “The former submissive Erika is now dead, her fundamental melancholic fantasy gluing her to the demanding mother traversed.” (Restuccia 2012: 68) The wound and its blood that cover up her beige coat could thus signify her finally ejecting her mother, as well as her menstrual blood, finally transforming her from an infant, undifferentiated from her mother, to an independent woman, free of the suffocating mother-daughter bond.

This was originally written for my Psychoanalysis of Film class at Anglo-American University in Prague.

List of references:

  1. Creed, Barbara: The Monstrous Feminine
  2. Falkowska, Janina (2007): Michael Haneke, Mourning and Melancholia in European Cinema
  3. Homer, Sean (2005): Jeaques Lacan
  4. Kristeva, Julia: Modules on Kristeva – The Abject
  5. Landwehr, Margarete Johanna (2011): Voyeurism, Violence and the Power of the Media: The Reader’s/Spectator’s Complicity in Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher and Haneke’s La Pianiste, Cache, The White Ribbon
  6. Restuccia, Frances (2012): The Blue Box – Kristevan/Lacanian Readings of Contemporary Cinema
  7. Wyatt, Jean (2005): Jouissance and Desire in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher

The Danish Girl (2015): a dissapointing and conservative portrayal of transsexuality

tumblr_nzdmp3HlW31s3tn06o1_540I didn’t expect much of this film when I entered the cinema. I thought I knew exactly what kind of misinterpretation of transgendered pioneer Lili Elbe I’m about to witness and I was kind of right. However, the film still managed to disappoint, no matter how very little I expected from it in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to like here – the cinematography by Danny Cohen is beautiful and Alexandre Desplat’s score is great, as always. Alicia Vikander also manages to give an amazing performance, but this sadly wasn’t enough to make this film a worthwhile cinematic experience. The biggest weakness was mainly it’s “all-to-safe” and conservative screenplay, not to mention it’s false portrayal of what could (and should) have been a story about the brave life of Lili – the first publicly known person who underwent a sex reassignment surgery in 1929. But instead of introducing us to the inspirational life story of Danish painters and spouses, Einar (later Lili) and Gerda Wegener, this film chooses to tell it’s own version of the story that is only loosely inspired by their real life (even though it gives the impression that it’s based on true events). The amount of inaccuracies in the screenplay was unbelievable and downright offensive, and since films are supposed to be much more than just pretty pictures with good acting, The Danish Girl ended up being just another example of a film where style prevails over any kind of substance.

tumblr_nyyk79Odaj1s8esgpo4_1280Both Einar and his wife Gerda were fascinating, open-minded and somewhat controversial people who lived in 1920’s bohemian Paris where they both experimented with their sexuality. Yes, both. Gerda was far from a woman who lived in a shadow of her husband’s talent and who wouldn’t get her big break until she started to paint her husband in women’s clothings. Apart from her paintings of Lili, she was most famous for her lesbian erotica art – which is why many wonder if she was, in fact, a lesbian herself. If not, she was most certainly a bisexual woman, since she supposedly had many affairs with other women while being married to Einar. She was therefore far from being a conventional wife who struggled to understand her husband’s transition into a woman. But none of this gets mentioned in the film; probably because of the fact that bisexuality is largely still considered a taboo in Hollywood studio films.

tumblr_nyyk79Odaj1s8esgpo1_1280This is why The Danish Girl ends up being a very conventional love story where Gerda, somewhat supportive, but unable to fully understand her husband’s struggle, gets turned into a martyr who sacrifices her marriage for the sake of her husband’s happiness. While watching the film, you’ll find yourself more sympathetic towards Gerda than Lili who’s slowly coming to terms with her gender and her newly established identity. To make a film about a transgendered person where your main sympathy goes to everyone else but that transsexual person perfectly demonstrates where the true agenda of this film lies, because it’s certainly not in representing LGBT community. When the credits finally rolled, I actually began to wonder whether the title The Danish Girl really meant Lili, because it sure seemed more like Gerda’s story at more than one occasion. Not to mention the fact that Lili often came across as an egoistical and downright selfish person who doesn’t care about anyone but herself. There was one particularly problematic scene where Gerda asked Lili if she could speak with her husband, which was a perfect moment to explain that Lili is, in fact, Einar (and vice versa); that they’re the same person, that they always were the same person. Instead, she only responded with: “No. Can I help, please?”, which came across as if she’s depriving her wife of speaking to her husband one more time. It’s awfully manipulative to portray her like that: this film was supposed to be about her inner struggle and not about the struggles of people around her. Especially when those struggles didn’t actually exist: Einar lived as Lili for more than 10 years before having a surgery, and in all this time, Gerda and her had a lovely, loving marriage. They lived together as two women for a long time before their marriage became annulled due to legal issues. After Lili had her first surgery (out of four; the last one in 1931 was fatal), she legally changed her name from Einar to Lili Elbe, and this made their marriage invalidate, since two women couldn’t be legally married at the time.

tumblr_nyyk79Odaj1s8esgpo8_1280Another problem that cannot remain unaddressed was how Einar first acknowledged that she actually identifies as a woman. When one of Gerda’s models cancelled her appointment, Einar came to pose in her place – and it’s in that exact moment, when he puts on women stockings and a dress, that he (or rather, she) discovers her true gender identity (which is, of course, misleading – she was born as a woman, and has therefore always identified as a woman, even though everyone else around her identified her as a man. Did the film tried to suggest that if she wouldn’t try those clothes on, she wouldn’t realize that she was born in the wrong body?). It’s not long before she starts touching her silk dress in a ridiculously erotic way, as if she didn’t just realized that she feels much more herself when dressed like a woman, but as if the dress actually turned her on. And at least the next half of the film continues in this fashion; as if her dressing up in women’s clothes would be more of a roleplay between Gerda and herself, and not about her actually being a woman born inside of a man’s body. That is until she starts to suffer from monthly nosebleeds and stomach cramps. If she’s actually experiencing something as close to a menstrual cycle as a “man” can get, then maybe there really is something more to her dressing up as a woman? Because only after that the film slowly begins to explore the possibility that she actually is a woman and always was a woman: but by that time it is already too late, the damage has already been done.

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Just as Jenny’s Wedding earlier this year, this film’s representation of homosexuality and transsexuality feels disappointingly conservative and outdated, not to mention the fact that a transgendered role once again isn’t played by an actual trans actor. It’s not more than two years since Jared Leto’s Oscar-winning role in Dallas Buyers Club opened up a discourse about the lack of trans people on screen – and yet here we are again, watching Eddie Redmayne dressing up and trying to (somewhat unsuccessfully) come across as Lili Elbe, when I am sure that there’s more than enough talented trans actresses in Hollywood that would be perfect for the role. It’s also somewhat infuriating to see that Redmayne’s performance got him another Oscar nomination. While I liked his performance in The Theory of Everything, his choice of playing Lili in the same physical way as Stephen Hawking felt wrong to me. Everything he did – from his hand gestures and smiles, to his excessive blinking with the eyes, seemed choreographed and forced. There was nothing natural about it; in every scene he looked like he’s posing for a portrait, but the most annoying thing was probably the way he batted with his eyelashes as if that’s the characteristic that makes you look the most feminine version of yourself.

The Danish Girl doesn’t even come close to representing trans community; nor does it tries to understand it. All that this film actually manages to do is showing us how trans people are perceived by cisgendered, heterosexual majority. And this is, for me, an unforgivable misrepresentation of a minority that deserved something much better.

The Basics:
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by: Lucinda Coxon (based on a novel by David Ebershoff)
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Ben Whishaw
Running Time: 119 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 5