Thursday, April 13, 2017

Quiet Riot

A Quiet Passion (2016) - Davies
a quiet passion
Just like many artists, Emily Dickinson never saw fame nor recognition as a poet in her lifetime. Her poetry and letters were only read and appreciated posthumously, after her death in 1886. Many of her admirers of her work say, not only her intimate poems touched them, but also with unusual punctuation and dashes, her style was ahead of its time. One of her ardent admirers happens to be Terence Davies (Long Day Closes, Deep Blue Sea) one of the greatest living British filmmakers. The nationality of his female subject might be different here, but there are a lot of common themes coursing through A Quiet Passion which his past films also bear - family, struggling within a strict social norm, independence and freedom, isolation and depression.

Born in a wealthy, respected family in Amherst, MA with loving parents and supportive siblings, Emily (played by Emma Bell as younger, then Cynthia Nixon as older Dickinson) grows up to be an honest, smart young woman who can think for herself. She is seen first as a young woman in Mount Holyoke Seminary school, defying the wishes of her teacher with her logical defense to be indecisive in either accepting or denying god. But being a woman of the 19th Century, Emily struggles from early on with her self image, patriarchy, conservative, puritanical society, sexism, the thought of death and immortality.

Davies, an ardent reader of Dickinson's poetry, composed a truly beautiful script here, imagining much of the film's dialog that lends the full view of the complicated poet and the great Cynthia Nixon personifies her in flesh and blood. Even though Dickinson lived most of her adult life in isolation, through her letters and 1,800 unpublished poems, and as we see in the film, she led a quite passionate inner life.

Unlike many fathers in Davies' other films who terrorize the working class families and women, Edward Dickinson, played here beautifully by Keith Carradine, is a learned, dignified man who is a main stable force for Emily to depend upon. Strict but humble, it is his dignity and sense of right and wrong that deeply affects Emily's upbringing. She strikes up a friendship with free spirited Ms. Buffam (amusingly played by Catherine Baily) whose acerbic wit matches her own. They talk about being friends forever but both know that when the time comes, more extroverted Buffam would marry and settle and move away. And she does.

Dickinson briefly romances a married pastor but the bitter experience turns her more into isolation. After their parents' death, Emily becomes more embittered with life, she isolates herself even further, wearing only white and communicates her thoughts mostly in letters. Her devout younger sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) becomes her only source of checks and balances against Emily becoming a bitter, defeated person.

Death and immortality were her big themes in her writing as she was weary of attaching herself to anyone and always worried about everyone close to her leaving. Calling herself nobody, she was aware that her writing wouldn't be recognized by anyone in her lifetime.

Davies succeeds in showing a complicated woman bound by tradition and societal rules. But however tragic and lonely her life was, he also shows us that Dickinson lived the way she wanted to, that it was her own choosing, that she was a thoroughly modern woman, defining the world the only way she knew how. A Quiet Passion is another masterpiece from Davies.

Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema can be found at

Heart Wins Over Brain

Heal The Living (2016) - Quillévéré
A young blonde boy Simon (Gabin Verdet) wakes in the pre-dawn winter morning, kisses his girlfriend who's still in bed, sneaks out of the window that’s facing the ocean in the distance, bikes to join his buddies to go surfing. The whole beginning sequence of Katell Quillévéré (Love Like Poison, Suzanne)'s Heal the Living has a fluidity of a movement and detached youthful spirituality of a Gus Van Sant movie.

The surf and the youthful bodies against the waves are all beautifully captured by her regular cinematographer Tom Harari. And this is what makes the following scene so tragic. On their way back from the beach, Simon’s friend falls asleep at the wheel and the car veers off the road and crashes. The crash is also almost poetically realized: capturing the boys’ lucid stage simply overlaying the image of the waves on the flat surface of the open road and its surroundings. Simon wasn’t wearing a seat belt. He falls into a coma and is pronounced brain dead.

The film is an organ transplant weepy: 'An accident cuts a young man's life short and gives another person a second chance in life' story. We've seen this before, many times. But Quillévéré elevates this Lifetime Network movie of the week premise to a higher level with her strong ensemble cast, including Emmanuelle Seigner, Kool Shen, Tahar Rahim, and Alice de Lencquesaing. She orchestrates them beautifully, as she did with her previous films. As usual she is gifted with making every one of her characters shine.

Based on a bestselling book by Maylis De Kerangal, Heal the Living examines Quillévéré’s familiar territory: the death of a loved one and how it affects the living. Through Simon, one way or another, we see the glimpse of other lives, both professional and private in equal measure.

There is a middle-aged rapping head surgeon (Bouli Lanners), an overworked nurse (Monia Chokri) daydreaming a sexual tryst in a hospital elevator, a good-hearted transplant specialist (Tahar Rahim of A Prophet, The Past) who has a tough job of convincing a grieving family to give consent, a mother of two grown-up sons who needs a heart transplant (Anne Dorval of Xavier Dolan's films)… the list goes on and on.

Then there is the film’s odd couple, French rapper Kool Shen (Abuse of Weakness) and Emmanuelle Seigner (Frantic, Diving Bell and the Butterfly) as the grieving parents of Simon, who are left with hard decisions. And they are improbably fantastic together. Shen’s working class, everyman attitude matches well with Seigner’s soft-featured maternal figure.

It's the space between the brain and the heart that makes us human. That's the space Quillévéré also explores. It can definitely turn corny in less assured hands. But the fluidity of the scenes, accompanied by Alexandre Desplat’s gorgeous score, shows what she is capable of if she has means to realize something more deep and complex through a visual, aural language.

Science has decided that the death of the brain is the end of a person. But it’s the stopping of the heart beat which has more of emotional resonance to us, as it is synonymous with love.

Quillévéré understands those connections and implies that in Heal the Living in a cinematic way. Every movement in the film has to do with being alive. Every stillness implies death. She understands that death is part of life. We lose somebody close and feel like time is standing still -- the camera movement becomes static.

But we go on living again -- and the camera moves again. I thought Suzanne was a flat-out masterpiece, even though it perhaps lacked cinematic flare. Deeply moving and thoughtful, Heal the Living is definitely her most mature work to date.

Heal the Living opens in New York on April 14 at the Quad Cinema.