Therese and Isabelle

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Therese and Isabelle

Directed by Radley Metzger (1968)

Therese and Isabelle is a charmed erotic gem, an adaptation by Radley Metzger of Violette Leduc’s novel of the same title. From the moment the film opens, with older Therese walking on the campus of her past, about to tread on all kinds of emotional layers and sexual awakenings, memories, and shrieks of pleasure, one can be reminded for a moment of Cléo, in Varda’s film Cléo 5 á 7 (1962), traversing Paris, on her avenues of self-transformation in real time. Therese moves through a more contemporary multi-layered time, her sense memory of her past unfolds into the actual scene she is recalling, as she promenades slowly, each step its own gesture, its own mind-field, bringing her story to life as it once happened. Therese and Isabelle centers around the two young women coming together as lovers in ecstatic intimacy in their girls’ school environment, coming to terms with their sexual appetites in a taboo setting. In gorgeous b/w cinematography and editing, the camera leaps gracefully from older Therese walking as if to absorb every cell of her environment as she once knew it, to the actual scenes in which she lived that same environment, filled with every bit of memory intact. Perhaps no other scene in cinema exists like the one in which Therese reaches her first orgasm solo in her convent-like cell of a room. Unlike the immense suffering in Jeanne’s tear-streamed face in Carl Dreyer’s Passion de Jeanne D’Arc (1928), Therese’s face streams tears as she pleasures herself irrepressibly.

The thick, immediate friendship between Therese and Isabelle, their erotic fireworks and panting trysts not withstanding, calls up a film that came later-Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974). A pair of opposites they are, and yet so enamored of each other that you can’t help but feel their chemistry in its many forms. It is a pleasure to see a film in with complete point of view from the two young women characters solely, specifically Therese’s, and from the point of view of their desire, in 1968. There is no other focus but theirs, hers, and this is consistently held. When a strapping young man enters in, he is only brought in for Therese’s experimentation and for her to resist his overused charms-he is dispensed. Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966) also springs to mind, but there is no relentless irreverence here, though there is rejection of the male lover, the stepfather, and school authorities. Not least, one may think of Chantal Ackerman’s Je, Tu, Il, Elle (1976). We begin with Therese, who then meets her reflection in Isabelle, then the male would-be lover, then reverts quickly back to Therese as her “elle.” Ackerman and Metzger both allow the space of limitless erotic female indulgence that makes these filmmakers so delicious to watch.

The film is very moving, in its way with time, and with the complete space Metzger gives his characters, their interior life, and their relationships to each other and to the environment they inhabit. One senses that everything has been felt between Therese and Isabelle.

(Having to leave this film early for a work commitment was one of the hardest moments ever departing the cinema before the credits rolled).

Obvious Child

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Obvious Child (2014)

Directed by Gillian Robespierre

In the beginning, oversharing comedian and romantic heroine Donna, played to the nines by Jenny Slate, stages her bit on “the human vagina”.  She had us at hello.  When Donna proceeds to get dumped and drunk by her loser boyfriend, Gaby Hoffman provides solace as her very supportive friend/reality check, a fireball when she gets going. That she is also Donna’s roommate and best friend is less believeable (though this is the GIRLS era). Jake Clancy comes along as the young fraternity guy stud who isn’t so likely to be in the next borough hanging out with super saucy comedy girls. Thankfully he doesn’t want to sleep with Donna’s mother (that would be The Graduate), though he is an admirer of hers. Instead he’s content to try on the mother’s bright orange crocs in the hallway, and then take the daughter out for a dinner that only makes Donna clam up further about the fact that that she is pregnant with his child, made on their drunken one-night stand. Unlike Knocked UP, they actually like each other from the start. The only conflict is the pregnancy itself, how to talk about it, how to deal with it, and then negotiate real feelings around it. There is hardly ever a happy ending around this subject matter in life or in film, so this is one is refreshing, in terms of its focus on a woman’s empowered choice, and the romance potential. Like but unlike Juno, the girl’s gotta do what she must do, the right thing at the right time. This time she involves her audience, her best friends, and finally her studmuffin in the process of coming to terms with it. It is fun, hilarious, and amusing, and it packs enough punch and circumstance to carry it as a film that might more likely be a series. The rotating sets are a little limiting, for example, Donna cornered in pre-stage anxiety in the unisex graffiti bathroom at the club, or at her apartment, or at her parents. If it seems a bit slight in scope, the original humor knocks it out of the park, and the relationship between Donna and her mother, played by Penny Draper, is moving (if comparable to the likes of Lena Dunham and her mother in Tiny Furniture). Obvious Child is a sweet and savory delight, with the subject of abortion to ground it. Its heart of humor saves the characters from what could be their worst selves. The “obvious child” (great song by Paul Simon) may eventually be lucky enough to have this pair, who may finally settle in together. One might find wet eyes at the end, however unexpectedly.

Mr. X directed by Tessa Louise-Salomé

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Mr. X

a vision of Mr. Leos Carax

directed by Tessa Louise-Salomé (2014)

It came from a dream…”   -Leos Carax

Tessa Louise Salomé’s documentary of the films and charaXter of the enigmatic and elusive director Leos Carax, reveals Carax as a Third Man, with just enough streetlight to glimpse him the way he would want to be seen.

With its mobile of images spinning eerily by Gael Rakotondrabe’s enticing score, Louise-Salomé goes around the map where Carax has ventured to date in his five feature films over the last twenty years. The underpinnings of Caraxian cinema: it comes from instincts, dreams, imagination, life, casting. Louise-Salomé allows Carax to narrate these ideas directly, and through his writing, literally on the screen, which is a winning element. Her compositing, for example, of actor Denis Lavant as a young man flickering in the upper left hand corner of the screen, while contemporary Lavant gives frank interview portraits, adds to this mobile world of work, where the past and the present collapse and collide to immerse our senses fully in the integrity of Carax’s films. Lavant is generous in speaking effusively and honestly about his longtime role as Carax’s doppelganger, fracturing director and actor together as one person. Carax speaks of Lavant’s energy shot through each film. The actors from Lovers on the Bridge, like phantoms or puppets cast onto the Pont Neuf Bridge facing the Samaritan building, is just as iconic a memory as the view King Kong imprints on us from his point of view of the Empire State Building.

Louise-Salomé restricts any kind of exposé or even day in the life of the director; he is seen from angles, with his dog, wearing a mask, in a film by Harmony Korine. Plenty of mystery remains of cinematic life to come. Carax resembles a rockstar, or a variation on Godard, with his cropped spiky hair, tinted glasses, facial hair, and an expression like he’s treading time. For Carax, so much is revealed in the art, and the making of the art. When Carax is directing, he is in his element. He hints that his cinema could be a form of autobiography. Kylie Minogue, featured in Holy Motors (2014), describes the pensive stance Carax takes while working, and how much is being considered in each of his steps and pauses. Thankfully there is a future with Carax, since this documentary only marks the in and out point of his work to date. X is the unknowable integer-there is a limit to what can be glimpsed. The poster of the back of Carax’s head is apt for that which comes directly from his pineal gland, his dream/imagination life, for the clues and images on which to build films.

Louise-Salomé depicts Carax in his commitment to a realm of imagination in cinema that makes one swoon, vibrate with ecstatic energy, spawn goosebumps. Carax’s kinesthetic sense of the outer reaches of human experience with his chosen actors is unique, except maybe in theater, performance art, or dance. Louise-Salomé gives interviews with critics Richard Brody and Kent Jones, who praise the director’s cine-poetic risks. The sheer operatic skill of Carax’s range within each of the five films covered, elevates and thrills, encore une fois, those moments of momentum that build to a crescendo, like the fireworks/drunk/dancing scene between Binoche and Lavant in Lovers on the Bridge, or the orgasmic waterskiing scene in the same film, compared to a master painting by Carax editor Nelly Quettier.

Louise-Salomé includes Carax’s working relationship with his early cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier (they were inseparable on set), who made an immense contribution to Carax’s cinema. Just think of the art direction, the wildness, and the close-ups in  Mauvais Sang. Probing into the three-year making of  Lovers on the Bridge, with its entire reconstruction of the Pont Neuf in another location, and the money involved, Louise-Salomé provides shadows and hints of other difficulties and losses. Louise-Salomé glints over the complexities of making Pola X. She does not delve into Carax’s relationship with either Binoche or Golubeva. Only Binoche’s sister, Marion Stalens, a still photographer, appears to discuss the earlier films with Binoche.

One may be left wanting to know the name of Carax’s dog, or maybe even left wanting to hear Carax call his dog. One is still left to wonder about this “neighborhood voyeur” (Mauvais Sang). Louise-Salomé has marked up the map perfectly, giving a true sense of the world Carax creates from, even if not the complete Carax. There is direct access to his treasures through the films. One might wish to see more of Carax in conversation with someone on set, or even some more personal details, but Louise-Salomé lets Carax appear and reappear through the images in his work, and lets his persona, too, flicker.

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Grisaille by Ed Bowes

999506_10101627611300803_2138441423_nGrisaille refers to a painting executed in monochrome or almost monochrome, usually shades of grey.  The screening of Grisaille I saw was saturated in color, which, it is said for painters, makes more demands on the artist.  The film opens with a Robert Duncan passage.  There is writing by Bowes, poet Anne Waldman, Gertrude Stein, and others, spoken by five women actors, or models, in the sense of Robert Bresson’s actor as model.

Bowes is doing something daring, regarding these five. The women are to be regarded, beheld, whether their eyes are open or closed, whether what they are regarding is open or closed, such as a book.  The frame stays open to their presence, never too long, though often longer than usual.  These visages and created images are each a remedy for the mind.  We pause with them, revel with them, in a sensual, contemplative, aesthetic way.  This is not distracted filmmaking.  It is precision artmaking.  There is a narrative somewhere, and it is almost unconscious, perhaps part of the remedy.  The presences of the women almost halt us into a different sense of time and space.  They hold the space, frame, position, terra firma; they stand in as sacred, iconic, angelic figures, almost knowingly, but are free of any such imposition. They read, sleep, exist, speak, perceive.  Together, as an ensemble, they create a new “space” for contemplation.  They are variations on a theme; studies in persona.  Are the characters resemblances of people the filmmaker has known, loved, admired?  Or are they presenting current unique qualities or values that Bowes would like to distill and share?  If we peer at them, they are peering back, indirectly, internally shaping our view of them, and perhaps ourselves, unselfconsciously.

Almost every image is a screen test of sorts.  Each woman is positioned at great ease, yet there is suspense; they are gestating, evolving in time, providing melody, their faces positioned at angles, close-ups, moments held and revealed.  They are within a span of time, there to emit their essence as a way of being.

Shadows and light morph.  Our intimacy with the actors is juxtaposed as if live paintings are mixed with other actual paintings, drawings, and (very few actual works of) grisaille.  Live eyelashes, lips, skin, voice are etched onto screen.  All is raw, beautiful, impermanent. A fetching image of a woman with a crow appears to inform the preceding and following images of real women in real time.

The recurrences of the actors, paintings and sketches, plays of light and shadow, images where not expected, are pure Bowes, though one might think of Godard as a compañero in some of these forays.  With subtler methods of impression and impact,   Bowes drives his own particular poetic sequence, study, sketch, rumination, tableaux, position, edit, allegory, metaphor, story. There is sound: seamless narrations of poetry and music that add poetic context and emotional tones.  I could imagine the film with different variations of the same music, or perhaps even without it.

The beauty of this film is a tonic on one’s inner nature in its colors, light, pauses.  Emotional layers surface and surge, surface and surge:  eyes, sight, mood, lingering states.  I have seen excerpts of other Bowes films where he transcends with never before seen imagery, whether in cine-poem, or transcending the frame with the poet Akilah Oliver reading.

Grisaille is almost like several dreams you wish you had.  It is more in sync with real time, yet simultaneously illusory; full of color, light and shadow, not a wash, not shades of grey, more in the way of Woolf’s Moments of Being (here, women actually being). The film evokes and demands an intuitive response throughout, so I didn’t have to think mentally.    I was restored by the view, as if I’d taken in something pure for the soul, something between art and the best interstices of human nature.

Tripping: Selections from ND/NF: Upstream Color dir. by Shane Carruth

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UPSTREAM COLOR

Shane Carruth  (USA)

“They could be starlets” is repeated as if a poem, finding a transcendent moment in an otherwise creepy story.

Upstream Color is very much part of a shift to post-2012 in how it breaks into a sci-fi reality most have never considered. Does it have an ethos? Does it need one? Is it just an experiment?

Amy Seimentz is our Juliette Binoche, naked in her role throughout, as her character is drug-raped and then made to go through a series of training experiments, only to give away her money and identity as she knew it. As drugged Kris, she is also not unlike Edie Sedgewick, who gradually re-emerges as an empowered Kris. Carruth as the director/actor/everyman here works, but I am also conscious of him as the actor in the lead role. It makes it harder to get swept up in his character, but Seimentz’s Kris sweeps you up plenty.

A review by way of a riff:

We have the potential for soul mates.

Love is re-orientation.

Emotional/biological lives may entwine in the form of swine.

Hands can penetrate another reality.

There is a wholistic reality and a skewed one.

There may be wormholes under your skin.

Things naturally move upstream.

Human nature revisits itself.

Carruth’s use of Thoreau’s Walden as a device makes for coincidences.

As a director, Caruth says he was “tripping” on Walden.

The characters are tripping on Walden, as they are busy re-humanizing/re-integrating/recalibrating their disorientation.  Carruth says  he is interested in “personal narrative removes”  and what that does to the characters. The characters have to process their reality constantly.

There is a blue to yellow revelation.

Production value/design is styled to match the currents in each section of the film.

Carruth often chooses microscopic views that show  just what is in the frame.

Carruth does it all, sound recording, mixing and re-mixing and recreating natural sound.

There is a constant and consistent micro/macro level to the unfolding of the storyline, and this is one of the tropes that really works, along with the thing  that makes its way under Kris’s skin.

I am quite moved by my own disorientation and queasiness, as if we all have to reset ourselves to move forward in the new multi-layered dimensions of our time on earth as we know it. It got beneath my skin.  I want to spend more time with Carruth, Thoreau, and what might be starlets.

Tripping: Selections from ND/NF 2013: TOWHEADS dir. by Shannon Plumb

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TOWHEADS

Shannon Plumb  (USA)

As mother creator, Plumb’s Penny already has superpowers, but she feels like a failure as an artist. Penny faces the futility and humility of being a mother living in Brooklyn with her two kids and unavailable husband.  Like Gena Rowlands, she shines continuously. Plumb can take any moment and turn it around to comic space and personal triumph;  “I Love Penny” instead of “I Love Lucy” . The challenge:  she can’t get out from under her role as wife and mother, nor rehearse her ideas or gain an audience. She works against the threats of loss of identity via play. She acts out when her sense of power seems lost in the world; using an unspoken “as if”, she encounters  the mundane by countering it character-“on”. The normal world, the promise of the win, the championship, is the storyline. We don’t have a trophy mom, but a mom who wants her natural birthright as an artist. Her kids are also her trophies. One of them gives her the hint to get superpowers: overcoming the fear of just doing “it”. The discovery of what “it” is leads the story.  Along the way, we are privy to the process of Penny’s daily development as an artist (or regression), which confirms that truth is stranger than fiction.  Penny’s transition out of stagnation, her challenge to get into characters, her surrender into motherhood, her development as an artist, her toil, her resolution/touchdown, is nothing other than a heroine’s journey.

Stylistic details are never lost on Plumb, like leaving a big tag on her character’s hipster coat. Physical gags are big: keeling over,  tripping oneself, silent film gags, Keaton, Chaplin. Changing identity, disguise, Cindy Sherman, audacity/tryouts for your own part, your own life’s stakes, is all included.

Plumb’s directorial approach is akin to Miranda July, and the French directors Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Noemie Lvovsky in self-creating a self-consciously winning comedic edge. Like the self-styled characters in those films, Plumb’s Penny is “not playing”, really not playing (plenty of winks), yet totally playing it up.  She is subversive, both as Plumb and Penny, with a madcap relationship to the camera. Her raison d’etre:  BEAT THE ODDS.  There is a continuous business of relating to the environment, whether a pole-dancing lounge, or her secret artist space where she locks herself in.

Anyone will break into an irrepressible grin on their face at some point whether they have children or not, and will also take profound delight in Penny’s parade of spontaneously created characters. Penny overcomes the sad oppression of her situation by getting into character and transcending reality.

Plumb terrific.