Welcome to another installment of our monthly feature in which a rotating cast of film critics hold forth on the highs and lows of month of moviegoing.
Always at the multiplex, and this year at the White House, January is an ugly and dismaying spectacle. At the movies, it’s Dump Month, which stretches into February: no film with award aspirations will open until the end of winter. But there are exceptions in this dominion of crap, including Behemoth, a lyrical documentary by the Chinese director Zhao Liang. In a series of long takes, Zhao looks concertedly at Dump Country—the open-pit coalmines of Inner Mongolia, a green steppe rendered so filthy, craggy, and abysmal by mining that Zhao’s voiceover borrows from Dante’s Inferno to describe it. Zhao’s preference is to train the camera on a landscape, or a face, or a room, and go on looking until the fundamental topography of his subject is revealed. Gradually apparent are the bleak monotony of the miners’ lives, and the troubling allure of destruction on a gigantic scale (“We will sing of… factories suspended from the clouds by the threads of their smoke,” wrote Marinetti, who wanted to do away with Dante). The camera keeps pace with slow-moving trucks, loaded with coal, and with a horse galloping through the steppe. One shot takes in the boundary between bright grassland and a dark slope of discarded rock, which seems to be pushing forth into new territory. In the dust, the naked child of local farmers plays with demented joy.
Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo, a love story, begins in a subterranean chamber of naked joy: it is a gay sex club in Paris, and all the men downstairs are red-lit and thrumming with intention. Théo (Geoffrey Couët) sees Hugo (François Nambot) across this crowded room, and quickly engineers a meeting, which results in a kiss, even though both are literally having sex with someone else. When the young men finally emerge from the club and bike together into the night, they try to articulate what happened between them—both recognize their encounter as something extraordinary. They piece together a more prosaic story: Théo didn’t use a condom, and Hugo is HIV-positive. Highs of attraction and lows of despair follow, as Hugo and Théo go to the hospital for emergency treatment, run though Paris, and ride the day’s first train, all the while trying to figure out whether they really do fit together. The film is kept buoyant by the giddy attraction between the leads, but co-directors Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau are also artful economizers, folding a Syrian immigrant, a lonely old woman, and tales of gay life in the country and the city into what’s fundamentally a sweet, conventional romance (a relationship that begins with sex and involves a health scare cannot be shocking to college-educated Americans). The film’s French title, Théo et Hugo dans le même bateau, puns on Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating: Theo and Hugo in the same boat.
Early in Celia Rowlson-Hall’s dreamy debut feature, a young woman dressed in an oversize T-shirt and red cowboy boots walks out of the desert, hitches a ride to a motel, and takes a bath. Water is both rare and significant in Ma; characters trudge through sand dunes, watch sand pour out of unlikely places (a painting and a pregnant woman’s dress), and recline in empty swimming pools. In this arid world, a motel bathtub becomes, possibly, the site of the Immaculate Conception; Rowlson-Hall, who plays the desert wanderer, is Mary, and her fresh and largely wordless film is a prequel of sorts to the birth of Christ. The Joseph figure is Daniel (Andrew Pastides), an actor who picks Mary up in his classic car. The destination is something like Las Vegas: a gaudy palace inhabited by showgirl tableaux vivant. Perils include a cast of costumed men (lifeguard, policeman, centurion) who torment Ma, and the idea of sex in general, which in this film is either a furtive, shameful, or violent activity. Rowlson-Hall trained as a dancer, and her film’s best scenes, original and full of verve, are of Ma and Daniel improvising together in a motel room; now they’re animals, now they’re sailing in linens, now they’re airborne; now they’re themselves. The Vegas ending is overwhelmed by a Holy Mountain-style symbolic onslaught, and one misses Daniel, who has reprised his own journey: not because Ma needs a man but because she needs a friend, and not of the soul but of the body, which speaks eloquently.
2. Starless Dreams
In the Iranian documentary Starless Dreams, which had a run at Moving Image, young women have plenty of time to talk and befriend one another; they’re in custody. Given access to a juvenile detention facility in Tehran, director Mehrdad Oskouei shoots the inmates’ interactions with staff. He also questions the girls himself, always off-camera and maintaining perfect equanimity, even as they tell stories that are dire by anyone’s standards. Some were forced to sell drugs by drug-addicted relatives; others became addicts. One was married off early and gave birth to a daughter she hasn’t seen in months. One stole while her husband couldn’t work. One is a patricide, who says her mother and sister also agreed to kill her father, who had become a violent alcoholic. One girl, a runaway, doesn’t want to be sent home: she told her family that her uncle had molested her and the family didn’t believe her. A prison documentary is didactic by definition, but Oskouei avoids sententiousness by intercutting scenes of confession with scenes of singing; he shoots the girls playing in the snow in the courtyard, drawing in their notebooks, interviewing one another, and joking about the government (fairly cautious jokes). Imprisonment begins to seem like a reprieve, the Magic Mountain on which an indefinite, probably unpromising future can be postponed. Shot over several weeks, Starless Dreams ends with a party for the Iranian New Year, Nowruz, celebrated the day spring begins.
1. The Salesman
The Salesman, as noted elsewhere (see link) is a good but flawed movie, made in circumstances of censorship, and taking censorship—internalized censorship, censorship of the self—as its material. Artists don’t really get to choose their material; none of us do. Good artists, like Farhadi, choose how to shape it. Sometimes they are recognized for their achievements; The Salesman has been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars. Farhadi, a citizen of Iran, has said that he will not be attending the ceremony, in protest of the executive order that bars green card and visa holders from Iran and six other countries from entering the United States (now being implemented selectively). This executive order is now part of the material for American directors, and artists, and everyone else.
Dud of the Month: Split
Split is being lauded as M. Night’s Shyamalan’s return to form. Exactly what form does the movie take? Nominally, it’s a horror film: James McAvoy plays Kevin, a Philadelphia man with two dozen personalities, some of which conspire to kidnap three teenage girls and keep them locked up in Kevin’s underground workplace. Kevin’s personalities pay the captives visits, mostly to declaim exposition; Split also gives Kevin a psychiatrist for this purpose. As usual for MNS, the film exists to justify its own ridiculous “what-if” scenario, which rests on the assumptions that (1) gay men are sassy, (2) young girls ought to be undressed, and (3) child abuse is the only way to grow strong. Even the city of Philadelphia turns out to exist only to serve as Shyamalan’s personal Gotham. But it would be boring and ineffectual to condemn Split for its faults, and audiences for its popularity (it has been the top-grossing movie in American for two weeks, but it isn’t like the movies listed above were playing across the US in wide release). Better to diagnose the disease: a failure of the imagination.
Best New Old Movie: Panique
The handsome new restoration of Panique, a 1946 film by Julien Duvivier, also suffers a bit from an overabundance of plot. Duvivier’s film is an adaptation of Georges Simenon’s short novel Monsieur Hire’s Engagement; the film’s Monsieur Hire (the wonderful Michel Simon) is a brilliant lawyer and a part-time mystic; a street photographer and a recluse; a very wealthy man and the resident of a cheap rooming house. Duvivier, who spent World War II in the United States—like many European refugees from the fighting—also takes care to suggest that Hire is both Frenchman and a Jew. It’s this identity, we gather, that most upsets his neighbors in a Parisian suburb: they vaguely suspect him of wrongdoing, frame him for a crime he didn’t commit, and finally hound him to the rooftops, in a truly distressing final sequence. Postwar French audiences were just as displeased with Panique as they had been with Clouzot’s Le Corbeau in 1943. That film was funded by the occupying Germans, but also took as its subject the corruption, small-mindedness and sadism of apparently peaceful communities. Displays of this kind are painful to watch, but can serve as a vaccine, and anyway are currently unavoidable: they’re playing now on every screen you’ll see.