Monday, October 17, 2022

Irma Vep

Screen Shot 2022-09-21 at 2.48.39 PM Olivier Assayas’s HBO series Irma Vep is perhaps the best film/TV series/whatev about filmmaking that I’ve seen. If his 1996 film version, starring Maggie Cheung was a grungy version and a love letter to its Hong Kong starlet, and low budget 'French' filmmaking, The series is bigger and more indepth look at filmmaking in the age of globalism with secondary characters more fleshed out - Assayas taking advantage of the long form. Thanks to Assayas, I have a better understanding of filmmakers’ compulsion to make movies one after another. That there’s a sadness in btwn projects because you see your film crew as a surrogate family and you want to have that constantly not to get lonely. I never thought of it that way before.

Also it’s a beautiful way of seeing the film as a spiritual medium capturing the ghost of the past in many different ways.

So this is Irma Vep related story. In ep.3, Mira wears what looks like a Korean folk tiger shirt and I wanted it. I did some googling and it directed me to a French band, The Great Divide, website. I ordered a t-shirt. Two weeks later, I get an email:

The Great Divide Sep 15 to The, bcc, me


I'm Antoine, The Great Divide guitarist. I might have reach you earlier regarding your order, please find further information below.

First of all, we are deeply sorry for the lack of attention paid to your order.

As the band is on hiatus, nobody delt with the bandcamp and emails lately. We have been noticed only yesterday that our tiger T features in Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vepp series on Alicia Vikander’s shoulders. Following that, our bandcamp has been crushing under orders of that tee.

We assessed the stocks and the shipping fees, and we are not in the position to fulfill the order with the set up deal. We mostly sold our merch at our shows, therefore did not pay a closer look to the fees for worldwide shippings. Almost all of these new orders are to be shipped worldwide and these fees reach €30 per item through the French postal service, way above the €5.50 we previously asked for, putting us in the position to sell at a loss.

We are canceling all orders and proceeding to full refunds. We updated the product page with the appropriate price & fees and will ship the new orders by the end October if you would kindly decide to place a new one in support of the band.

Please accept our apologies and bear in mind that we are not a company but a punk band which primary focus was to play and share music with others.

Don't hesitate to answer to this email if you did not receive your refund or if you have any questions. Best regards, Antoine Pépin

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Unsolved Mystery

Decision to Leave (2022) - Park Screen Shot 2022-10-12 at 3.31.29 PM Screen Shot 2022-10-12 at 4.43.44 PM Screen Shot 2022-10-12 at 4.08.52 PM Screen Shot 2022-10-13 at 7.59.18 AM Screen Shot 2022-10-13 at 8.09.22 AM It is very hard for me to surrender myself into the Park Chanwook universe. It's because I've always regarded him as a visual stylist more than anything and can't help being self-conscious when I watch his films, that I am indeed watching a film, a make-believe, a fake. His every-over-the-top plot twist, every elaborate set piece, always reminds me that I am staring at the silver screen. Then it is perhaps the first time that I bought into the seductiveness of Decision to Leave, his sumptuous, yet down to earth film noir starring a luminous Chinese actress Tang Wei as the recipient of a Hitchcock heroine like obsession. Don't get me wrong, all his unrivaled trademark craftmanship is there - rapturous transition shots, highly textured production design, artful framing, etc. But it's Tang Wei's embodiment of her character, Seo-rae, a mysterious woman in foreign land that is truly the main magnetic pull here.

Detective Park (Park Hae-il of Memories of Murder) oversees investigating the death of an old rock climber in mysterious circumstances. The widow is a young Chinese woman, Seo-rae (Tang), who works at a nursing home. The focus of the investigation naturally falls on her, a young trophy wife of an old man who worked at an immigration office with a large sum life insurance. Even though she has an alibi, Park can't shake off the feeling that she is hiding something. It's more of a curiosity than suspicion. It's her beauty, and her foreignness that keeps him interested. So even after she is cleared of any suspicion in the death of her husband, he keeps surveilling her. Since he is seeing his nagging wife only on weekends because of work, Seo-rae becomes his almost companion, even from a distance. She obviously knows that she is being watched and keep their cat and mouse game going.

after she is officially cleared and the death ruled as suicide, for Park, it is over and done with. But for Seo-rae, it is just the beginning in an elaborate game to continue seeing him, at whatever the cost, because she wants to be the kind policeman's unsolved case, getting all his attention, at all times.

In Park's hand, our mundane everyday technology - smartphone, smartwatch, Bluetooth, etc., becomes something sensual, ASMR and highly hypnotic.

Once again, being a suspect of her 'next husband' murder, it culminates to Seo-rae meeting with Park on the top of a mountain. It's snowing, and their faces only illuminated by a headlamp, Park experiences Scotty's 'green dress' moment in Vertigo. Only it's the heroine who is actively making Scotty reaching ecstasy, in her own volition.

Decision to Leave's intricate plot, clever wordplays, sheer amount of visual details might be way too much to catch all in one viewing. It's so impeccably crafted and executed, yet relatively down to earth, huge thanks to Tang Wei's turn as a seductress. It's the most romantic film I've seen this year.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Heartbreak Hotel

Hotel du Nord (1938) - Carné Screen Shot 2022-10-12 at 8.20.01 AM Screen Shot 2022-10-12 at 8.22.17 AM Screen Shot 2022-10-12 at 8.23.15 AM Screen Shot 2022-10-12 at 8.23.49 AM Screen Shot 2022-10-12 at 8.24.18 AM Screen Shot 2022-10-12 at 8.24.53 AM Screen Shot 2022-10-12 at 8.25.10 AM Young lovers, Pierre (Jean-Pierre Aumont) and Renée (Annabella), had it with life of poverty and made a suicide pact and checks in Hotel du Nord, a charming working class hotel alongside a lively canal. After shooting Renée in the heart, Pierre chickens out and flee the hotel with the help of one of the lodgers there, M. Edmond (Louis Jouvet), a cynical pimp who lives with his gal Raymonde (Arletty). Pierre soon turns himself in, confessing his crime to the police. Renée survives her injuries and confronts Pierre, for she is still in love with him. After Renée comes back to the hotel and gets a job there, Edmond is smittened by her presence. Perhaps it's her deathwish that draws him in. He calls off the trip with Raymonde and dumps her, to which she bitterly reminds him that there are gangsters (his former associates) after him. Edmond and Renée decides to go off together overseas to start anew, but at the last minute, Renée chickens out and comes back to the hotel, because she still loves Pierre. Edmond, knowing full well that coming back to the hotel is his demise, comes back during the Bastille Day celebration where the sound of firecrackers will overlap with gunshots.

Hotel du Nord is a typical fatalistic love story that was prevalent in the 1930s French cinema and synonymous with Poetic Realism. The set and production design inside the studio is impressive, so is the atmosphere it creates for poor working class neighborhood filled with cab drivers, cops, house painters, street urchins, pimps and whores. There's even a character who sells his blood for living. There's a casualness in Hotel du Nord - amorality is given - a husband is ok with his wife being asked to go out by a womanizing cab driver, homosexuality is out in the open, prostitution is just a profession.... People hook up and break up on a whim and pledges their love as if it is as easy as blowing their noses. Are these doomed lovers an omen for the upcoming world war? I ponder this because I know that the French New Wavers hated and rebelled against these canonical films from this period. But there was Vietnam and France's involvement in Algeria and Indochina before that before the emergence of the New Wave. I might have to dig deeper into this.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Building Memories

Aftersun (2022) - Wells Aftersun We all know that our memories are subjective. Our brains tend to obscure, distort and falsify as well as highten, protect and heal, depending on how you want to remember that moments or person in your life. Scottish newcomer Charlotte Wells's staggering achievement, Aftersun, is a poignant and deeply personal examination of those memories, told in a small, family vacation travelogue.

Going back and forth with Hi-8 handicam footage shot by both father and daughter and film, Aftersun plays out like a family vacation home movie - a young father (Paul Mescal) and his 11-year old daughter Sophie (Francesca Corio) are in a resort in sunny Turkey. Mom's at work and couldn't come (the reasoning behind this is little fuzzy), so it's an opportunity for them spending a short time together. After a little snag at their hotel - he reserved a room with two beds but there is only one bed, they settle in and have great time hanging out at the pool during daytime and at the outdoor cafe at night. They are a jovial pair, always laughing and having the grandiest time.

There are some unexplained details through out - Dad has a cast on one of his arms, flashes of an older woman that dad confronts on the dance floor in the resort, like dream sequences that later reveal their meanings. Young people remark if they are brother and sister, since dad looks so young. Dad just shrugs it off while Sophie takes it as a compliment in her 11-year old mind.

Dad and Sophie obsessively watches the video footage they shot in their quiet times, rewinding through the pixelated images of their happy days, as if they will discover some details they have missed, or there's going to be some kind of indication or clue to something that is different than the overly happy experiences that they are having.

Things take a slightly different tone when Sophie loses her diving goggles, an expensive item dad bought for her in one of the boatride excursions. She apologizes again and again profusely, in which always cheerful dad comforts her that it's not important. He dives deep in to the water retrieve them and we cut to the next scene. From then on, there are glimpses of unsettling, unexplained moments popping up - dad gets moody and not talkative, at night, while Sophie is giddily watching the video footage they shot, dad removes the cast in his arms painfully in an in camera split screen shot, Sophie witnessing grownups making out in the shadows, dad refusing to sing the bad rendition of REM'S Losing My Religion at a outdoor karaoke...

Surely there are other significant moments of growing up - the first kiss with the boy who play arcade games next to her, drinking beer with older kids at the billiards table, etc.

By the end, we realize that the vacation was the last time they saw each other. And Sophie, now some twenty years later, trying to recount her relationship with her father: the ideal father, the good memories and how we all want to suppress bad memories and remember only the good moments, forever.

Wells, with the help of Mescal and Corio, builds a touching tribute to a father-daughter relationship. Aftersun will make a great double feature with Chantal Akerman's News from Home.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Familiar Ghosts

The Eternal Daughter (2022) - Hogg https __cdn.sanity.io_images_xq1bjtf4_production_25e9d3aa5b338cb55e5a31c542f1257d2e185161-5760x3840 A big black sedan rolls in the foggy English countryside. The sun is setting. Ominous flute piece is playing in the background. The car finally pulls up to a grand manor at dusk. If it weren’t for the car, you'd think of the opening sequence of The Eternal Daughter as the start of a Hammer Horror film or an adaptation of a Henry James novel. We are introduced to a mother, Rosalind, and daughter, Julie (both played by Tilda Swinton) and Rosalind's dog, Louis. They are arriving late to check in and the curt, young receptionist (Carly-Sophia Davis) has no records of them reserving the specific room on the second floor. After much polite haranguing, the receptionist relents and the mother and daughter finally settle in to the room they wanted. This is not a good start for the stay Julie was hoping for.

It is slowly revealed that Julie is a filmmaker working on a project about her mother and the grand inn they are staying in was once belonged to Rosalind's family. She has a lot of memories spending time in the place. Julie timed the visit as Rosalind's birthday and early Christmas celebration and mom seems pleased and sad at the same time. Julie wants very much to connect with her mom and please her but doesn't really seem to know how, other than superficial level. She is also at a loss on how to proceed with her project. And there is some supernatural occurrence in the manor that interferes with her work as well. Julie hears noises at night and can't sleep. When complained to the receptionist, she was told that the room above her has been vacant. Julie sees a ghostly figure at the windows while walking the dog outside. It also seems unusual that there are no other guests in sight other than her and mom. They dine alone and joke about sampling every meal on the menu in their stay.

Using the gothic horror trope, Joanna Hogg creates yet another meta-auto fiction about her own complicated relationship with her mother. Hogg's yearning for connecting with her mother through making a film about their relationship and feeling guilty about it at the same time, using the same actress playing those roles is in tune with real life mother-daughter team (Swinton and Rose Swinton Byrne) in Souvenir playing mother-daughter. Eternal Daughter takes the step further, yet getting no clear answers on finding out more about her own mother or closure of some kind she longed for. And that frustration is all illustrated in the film. After all, many of Victorian ghost stories are manifestation of repressed emotions and feelings. Swinton is glorious in a dual role in her white wig, pretty much carrying a conversation with herself. It is a subtly devastating performance - in many of the film's close-ups both as a mother and daughter, she conveys that nervousness of not trying to hurt one another, or in this case, herself, in that educated, polite British way. Hogg aces again.

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Stupid Brave

Pacifiction (2022) - Serra PACIFICTION - TOURMENT SUR LES ILES (2022) Lush in its widescreen presentation, Albert Serra's Pacifiction is perhaps the most cinematically ambitious film I've experienced in a long time. Thoroughly absorbing from beginning to end, its 2hr 45min runtime is completely justified in my book.

Rotund Benoit Magimel (The Piano Teacher) plays a sleek French High Commissioner named De Roller on the French Polynesian island. I'm convinced that all hunky sharp featured young French actors would eventually hit middle age and end up looking like Gerard Depardieu, without fail. He has to navigate through the angry locals, outside interests, a Navy commander and his marauding troops, to find out whether there is any truth to an international conspiracy that they, whoever they are, will be resuming nuclear bomb testing in the South Pacific.

De Roller, sweating profusely in pimpy white suit and loudly flower patterned shirt hanging out in his hotel resort and clubs, thinks he is wheeling and dealing, making deals to prevent, in the name of the Republic, what’s coming. It’s a glamorous game. At one point one of the character says it's like a James Bond movie but without all the explosions and action and stuff. But they don't get far. The suspects are too tight lipped and not easily swayed by all De Roller offers. You feel that there is a futility in his actions. That he is in way over his head. That whatever it is, is beyond his scope. Where are these men taking local prostitutes out on a boat in the middle of the night? Are there nuclear submarines lurking under the turquoise water? With this thin narrative, Serra paints his own Hearts of Darkness with big brush strokes.

Pacifiction is not dissimilar to Claire Denis's White Material or her most recent Stars at Noon, when it comes the hubris of White colonialism in its misguided superiority complex, and manifest destiny. But Serra's narrative scarcity makes Denis's films feel like reading a dense instruction manual for a washing machine by comparison.

But what's offered in Pacifiction is its grand scope and risk-taking in cinematic filmmaking, much like braving the unrelenting massive waves in the film - the surfing competition in real time with actors actually braving the choppy water, wakes your cinematic senses and wonder; the scene is so unbelievably stupid brave and stupid dangerous, you wonder out loud if this spectacle was meticulously organized or improvised on the spot (the after screening Q&A indicates the latter).

As the wild goose chase ensues for another two hours after the surfing competition scene, you are hooked, as if hypnotized by all the colors and beauty that only South Pacific can offer.

The cold war is never over in the minds of white colonizers. It's a dated stupid game they play, even in paradise. Yet as the world is hurtling towards the global climate catastrophe and a possible nuclear war, Pacifiction doesn't seem too far-fetched or too fictional. I loved every minute of it. It is undoubtedly my favorite film of the year so far.

Compulsion to Create

Showing Up (2022) - Reichardt Showing up Michelle Williams plays Lizzy in this wry comedy about perseverance of artists and their compulsion to keep on creating, directed by Kelly Reichardt (First Cow, Certain Women). Showing Up is as guileless and minimalistic as usual with all Reichardt’s films and conveys so acutely what it is like to be middle-aged working artists who struggle with self-doubt, professional jealousy, social ineptness, etc., yet keep chugging along, because creating art is the only thing they know.

Lizzy is a frumpy sculptor who works at an art college in a woodsy small-town Oregon. She has a new art show coming up at a small gallery in town but having a hard time concentrating on her work, because life keeps getting in the way – her landlord Jo (Hong Chau, Watchmen Series), who is also an artist and preoccupied by her 2 upcoming shows and keeps delaying fixing the boiler. Lizzy's cat is intent on destroying everything she owns, her divorced parents are always pestering and ever so slightly trying to undermine her achievements in that typical parents' way.

We are introduced to a smalltown art community that exists in every quaint college town where everyone knows each other – Lizzy’s mom is also an administrator at the college and shares an office where she also works. There are annoying colleagues who are less than cooperative at sharing the workload and others she has hots for but won’t reciprocate her feelings back, and even worse, sleep with her nemesis number one, Jo.

Many films on art and art-making, the centerpiece is usually the art itself. In those films, we are reminded of the transformative power of art and the suffering the artists must endure to produce such sublime masterpieces that inspire us all. In Reichardt’s film the art itself is secondary. The perserverance of their creators is.

Williams embodies this down and out creative person without all the backstories written down for her. It’s in her dour mannerisms. It’s in her unsmiling expressions. It’s in her pair of white Crocks and her baggy sweatpants. It’s in her stares of envy when she sees Jo’s large installation pieces.

Andre Benjamin is great as a hunky colleague from the school, so is Judd Hirsh as somewhat famous artist dad who is very supportive, so is Maryann Plunkett as judgmental mom. Hong Chau shines as Jo, a self-confident talented artist who is better in every department in life than Lizzy. But however different they are, at their stages in life, there is a mutual admiration for their craft because no matter what, they share the same compulsion to create.

Unlike the cynical satire of Art School Confidential or Ghost World, where every art school cliché is closely examined and made fun of, Showing Up is stripped down to concentrate on the act of creating. When we were young and in art school, we all thought that we were going to be a famous artist someday, having our work shown in New York galleries and become rich and famous. Some of our peers did become successful in their careers, but most of us didn’t.

As we grow older, us creative types take day jobs to make a living, and do our art on the side. We discuss and lament about not choosing the more lucrative professions, whatever that might have been. We lament about us getting close to making it. But as luck would have it, we didn’t while others did. There’s certain melancholy associated with that. But we don't dwell on that anymore. Life goes on.

Showing Up is emblematic of small pleasures we get from our creations that success doesn’t measure in fame and fortune. It’s self-satisfaction of showing up every day to your studio (or basement, or shed, or garage) and create.

This perserverance manifests itself in the form of a pigeon who was attacked by Lizzy's cat and taken in first by Jo, because of course, she knows how to fix the broken wing of a pigeon, then handed down to take care of by Lizzy, who secretly feels guilty. But the bird wouldn't die! And finally flies away at Lizzy's art show opening night.

Funny and light yet packed with so much daily life wisdom with great, natural performances by everyone involved, Showing Up continues to showcase Reichardt as a unique voice in American film scene.

Fallen Maestro

Tár (2022) - Field Tar I’m sure parallels between conducting and directing was not lost in Todd Field when he conceived the idea for Tár. With the film, he breaks 16 years hiatus after critical success of his dark suburban melodramas (In the Bedroom and Little Children), and proves himself to be a maestro, by directing, producing, and writing the film about the famed conductor, getting great performances out of great international talents. I’ve been closely following his career trajectory as he was supposed to adapt and direct Jonathan Franzen’s Purity as a showtime miniseries, since book has been my favorite of the last decade. And I was sad to learn the news when it didn’t materialize. But with Tár, he presents himself incontrovertibly to be Hollywood’s best kept secret.

Talking about gender equality in the face of sexual misconduct in the social media era, Todd Field's biting and grandiose character study Tár is at once current in its sexual politics and old fashioned in its rise and fall narrative of its subject. The film's astute observation of today's social climate and brisk pacing reminds me very of David Fincher's Social Network (but not its Adderall induced choppy editing). But unlike Fincher's precisely timed zeitgeist Facebook saga which was geared mainly toward millennials, where everything felt like kids-playing-in-adults’-clothes, Tár, heavily relying on the strength of Kate Blanchett's towering performance, feels very much a grown-up film.

Lydia Tár (Blanchett) is first seen nodding off on the private jet. Someone's recording her with their phone while texting. These first frames of the movie sets the somewhat ominous tone of what’s to come. Maestro Tár is one of the select few EGOT- Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards recipients, and a resident conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. She divides her time between New York and Berlin, gives interviews, teaches at Julliard, drives her kid to school, takes meeting with her mentor and fellow conductors in fancy restaurants and hotel rooms. She is preparing the live music recordings of the much coveted piece within classical music circles, Mahler's 5th Symphony.

Field is quick to establish the ecosphere of the famed figure’s lifestyle - a Porsche, a private jet, a big cement architectural house in Berlin where she shares with a famed violinist Sharon (Nina Hoss, Barbara, Phoenix) and their adapted pre-teen daughter Olive. The lengthy TV interview she gives in the beginning also greatly reveals her public persona - a well-educated and well-traveled woman and how she broke the ceilings of white male dominant conducting world and how she learned to appreciate music from her mentor Leonard Bernstein. But perhaps being modest, she doesn't see herself as a trailblazer. 'Being a woman' was neither disadvantageous or beneficial to her success.

Another revealing, lengthy scene takes place at her Julliard classroom where she teaches young students. She mercilessly scolds a young man, who identifies himself as an BIPOC LGBTQ, for refusing to play Bach because he sees Bach as a white male misogynist who sired 20 children from several different women. She makes a point that but it's not the musician's private life but the music he produced that matters, which transcends gender, political, cultural, and even temporal boundaries.

It takes a long while, but the elegant, graceful, and glacial façade of Lydia sees little cracks appearing. There’s an early indication that Lydia is suffering from paranoia. She can’t sleep easily in neither of her houses – the big house she shares with Sharon and the small dilapidated flat she kept since her early Berlin days for work, and/or for secret rendezvous, because she hears noises in the middle of the night. She feels the presence that some one is watching her. She hears unseen woman screaming for murder in her jogging route in the woods.

The arrival of Olga, a young Russian Cello protégé, and Lydia's favoritism toward her also raises few eyebrows among the orchestra members. Surely young Olga is very talented and deserves the spot as a new cellist in the orchestra. But her incredibly obvious and almost creepy affection on display irks even her most ardent supporters, including Sharon, who stood by her all these years. Is Lydia’s self-deprecating U-Haul lesbian joke just another façade? Her trusty assistant Francesca (Nóemie Merlant, Portrait of a Lady on Fire) is unhappy with how Lydia handles the suicide of the pupil, whom they both obviously had affections for. After finding out Francesca still corresponded with the girl prior to her death, Lydia passes her up as her assistant conductor. Francesca soon disappears without any notice.

In the center of it all, is Blanchett in her blistering and physical performance. It’s a showy and hammy role specifically written for her by Field. Lydia Tár is just as much a juicy role for an actress to play as Daniel Plainview is for male actors. It’s a role that requires confidence and authority that no other actresses in her generation possesses. Blanchett is particularly suited for the role specifically because she was never young in her film career. It’s because she was always old. She has never been an ingenue. This is why she is perfect as a predatory older woman who can be just as ignorant and arrogant in her behavior as any man in power. It’s also her dedication to the role- learning to speak German, how to play piano and conducting that is truly impressive.

The long epilogue of the film and Blanchett’s performance as she confronts the sexual degradation is heartbreaking.

Field really achieved something remarkable with Tár. It’s one of those big character driven film that is rare to be made nowadays. With its mesmerizing closeups and Blanchett’s commanding performance, the film is spectacular on the big screen. Go see it big.

After Venice and New York Film Festival premiere, Tár opens in theaters this Friday via Focus Features.

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Bodies, Bodies, Bodies

De humani corporis fabrica (2022) - Castraing-Taylor, Paravel de-humani-corporis-fabrica-4 Setting aside the politics of healthcare and its inadequate system, let's consider the frailties of human bodies. And this is what Julien Castraing-Taylor and Verena Paravel are interested in to document, in graphic detail- the blood, guts and no glory. Gaining unprecedented access to 5 hospitals in Paris, we are presented to operating tables, endoscopy, colonoscopy, Ophthalmology procedures, morgues. Tiny cameras in tubes goes in and out of the bodies, exposed human brains, cutting flesh, cesarean sections, exposed, bleeding penis... while doctors and surgeons talk about their daily lives as if the patients they are treating aren't even there. And you ask yourself, why do I need to see this? This is a legitimate question to ask. But this is fascinating stuff.

De humani corporis fabrica is not unlike Brakhage's Act of Seeing with One's Own eyes, where he filmed autopsies in the morgue. Brakhage's idea of showing dead bodies might have stemmed from making the audience confronting the uncomfortable truth that one way or another we all die. That death is part of our life and we don't need to seperate ourselves from seeing the dead and avoid it. It had a death positive intention.

Castraing-Taylor and Paravel go even further with the idea. There is a giddiness in De humani... Cutting out shiny flesh from the body with the help of tiny camera and monitor and doctor's indifference in treating the human body like any other object showcases unprecedented human progress in medicine contrasting with elemental nature of a human body- bag of bones. At times it is triggering, but as with their other films, especially Caniba, the filmmakers push us to an uncomfortable areas to contemplate the body and soul connections. Yes we are basically a bag of bones. As we grow older, our bodies deteriorate. But we got to be more than bags of bones, but are we?

This beats any documentary about debating healthcare with talkingheads.

Monday, October 3, 2022


Saint Omer (2022) - Diop SaintOmer The fascism and hard-right are on the rise all over Europe and the US southern States are rounding up immigrants at the border, and putting them on the planes bound to more liberal north for political stunts, Iranian women are protesting in the streets against hijab laws are where things are at right now, when I seek the context while watching Alice Diop's powerful courtroom drama, Saint Omer. It is a French documentary filmmaker's first narrative feature. Mainly consentrating with African immigrant communities in the suburbs of Paris where she grew up in her documentaries, Diop sets this courtroom drama in Saint-Omer region of Northern France this time. It concerns an insanity defense of a young Senegalese immigrant, who drawned her baby in the sea. Going through the questioning of both a defense lawyer and a prosecutor and testimonies, we see the precarious position the society and the system puts countless migrant women in and demonstrates its effects in sobering ways.

Rama (Kayije Kagame), is a successful author and lecturer. She is seen at the lectern in a hall, showing the footage of women with shaved head in the nazi concentration camp. Her lecture is on Marguerite Duras and her theme of humiliation and the permanent scars it leaves on women. Rama is a sullen and serious woman who has a complex relationship with her Senegalese mother and her large family. Nothing is said outright, but it's her mother's gesture or silence that tells her that however successful she is, she would never satisfy her parent. This is something as an immigrant, I can totally relate to.

For her new book, Rama is following the sensational trial of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanga), a young Senegalese immigrant who is accused of the infanticide of her 15-month old daughter. She is termed as 'Medea' of Saint-Omer, a character in a Greek Tragedy, who killed her own children in a vengeful act against her unfaithful husband. In court, everyone comments that Coly speaks in highly educated French. She is well spoken, calm and doesn't seem to be under the spell or curse as she claimed to have been at the time where she knowingly abandoned her baby on the beach at high tide. It seems out of character since she is a Western educated woman. The prosecution is making the case as a manipulative woman killing her baby because of the baby was in the way of her career.

Yet Coly's journey has been a sad one: just like most of parents who is sending their children abroad, her Senegalese parents' priority was on education. Coly was supposed to study law in France. The pressure of being successful in her parents eyes was enormous while working as an au pair in a foreign country. Through relatives she met a much older white man who promised her financial security. But when she found out she was pregnant, she fell into a deep depression. She abandoned her studies, hid from the world and didn't leave her apartment for months.

Rama, attending the Coly trial everyday for her book research, slowly finds parallel storyline emerging with her own life. Meeting Coly's mother doesn't help the matter. Mrs. Coly's there to support her daughter. She immediately recognizes Rama as a fellow Senegalese and chats up in Wolof. Her judgmental stares is too much for Rama's guilty conscience. But guilty of what? Why her stares make her extremely uncomfortable? Even though her white, good natured husband's consoling that she is not her mother's daughter, what she sees in Colys is too much to bear.

Saint Omer directly addresses the pressures and impossible situations many immigrants and especially migrant women find themselves in, in a foreign country where there is nowhere else to turn to. And the mind plays tricks on you when you are desperate. Irrational becomes rational. For Coly, a bright young woman whose pride is crushed by circumstances and worse, humiliated by her predicaments went into a postpartum depression.

The film doesn't end with the verdict of the trial, but rather, ends with defense lawyer talking directly to the camera/audience and explaining the clinical term, a microchimera, an inter-change of cells between a fetus and its mother that goes both ways. That, in metaphorical sense, all women are chimeras, the mythic monster composed of different parts of the beast. Diop here is making a powerful statement, about the highly patriarchal society, colonialism, racism and women's rights, both subtly and unsubtly. Saint Omer is undoubtedly one of the best films of the year.

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Rum, Sweat and Rain Soaked Love Story in Global South

Stars at Noon (2022) - Denis Stars at Noon Margaret Qualley gives it all in a Claire Denis's Nicaragua set political intrigue, Stars at Noon, based on Denis Johnson's novel from the 1980s. In order to frame this in context, one has to wonder the filmmaker's intent on setting it in the now - during Covid 19 era. The Sandinista Revolution by FSLN versus the US backed Contra made Nicaragua the literal hell on earth in the 80s, which Johnson personally observed to write about, first conceived as a nonfiction then in fictional form.

Some forty years later, Ortega is still in charge as he serves the 4th term as the president, the economy is still in shambles, corruption and military/police oppression on activists are still being widely reported. The US intelligence and international conglomerate operatives are still very much present, and on the lookout for neighboring Costa Rica and other nations in Central America for possible disturbances. As she explored the white privilege and colonialist mentality still present in Africa with White Material, one can read Denis's new film through those eyes - a pervasive influence of the Global North playing out in an old, tired, cat-and-mouse international intrigue set in Central America, John le Carré style.

Qualley plays Trish, a self-proclaimed journalist who might have had noble intentions in coming to Nicaragua, but now marooned in sweltering purgatory with her resources cut off and passport confiscated, survives by turning tricks on a local law enforcement and political small potatoes for any types of favor, influence, money (both cordóbas and dollars), shampoo, air conditioner or just a decent shower. In her tiny bareback summer dress, she is always guzzling copious amount of rum and throwing Karen tantrums when her Spanish fails to communicate. She meets Daniel (Joe Alwyn) at a bar in the Inter-Continental Hotel, the bastion for all the white guests. Daniel says he works for an oil company executive. Giving him a tip that the sleek local interest he was meeting is a Costa Rican undercover cop, she hooks up with Daniel, and together, they move into a squalid motel Trish is staying in. They both know that they are in over their heads in a foreign country and they need to get out the dodge before they get arrested or worse, killed. It turns out the unassuming CIA agent (Benny Safdie) she meets on the road, wants Daniel and offers Trish safe passage to the Costa Rican border.

Qualley's wide-eyed, frizzy haired Trish, spitting out ridiculously hard-boiled noir lines is a revelation. If this film doesn't make her a big star I don't know what will. Alwyn is adequate as a hunky whitebread love interest, just to be dragged around by his nose. And Safdie is fantastic as cunning G-man. Eric Gautier's energetic cinematography skillfully captures the oppressing tropical climate and humidity glistening on Qualley's skin.

Stars at Noon doesn't quite work as a global intrigue espionage thriller, nor does it as a Claire Denis film. It's too old fashioned and plot and dialog heavy. Nevertheless, I can see the merit in Denis's comment on the pervasiveness of white colonialism in Central America where idealism and good intentions has gone to die. But it's an enjoyable ride in that 'rum, sweat and rain soaked, sexy love story in the jungle way' and I don't mind it.