The Origins of Imagination in Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander
January 2, 2019 12:22 am
What do we need to procure a powerful imagination? A childhood steeped in traumatic events, emotionally supportive family members, being exposed to various quirky people, enriching early experiences, long hours of solitude…. Ingmar Bergman in Fanny and Alexander, his ode to the origins of imagination, suggests that all of the above is true. Bergman’s semi-autobiographical farewell gift to cinema is a reflection on what nourished his imagination to create decades of outstanding cinematic work.
The first half of Fanny and Alexander is a series of anecdotes told from the perspective of Alexander (Bertil Guve) and his sister Fanny (Pernilla Allwin), and depicts a childhood that is well protected and crowded with family on the one hand, and is also detached and chaotic on the other. Family routines are woven with religious themes; a wealthy, almost decadent upbringing is balanced with equal treatment of the staff; the chaos of a night of celebration is spotted with unexpected liaisons. Amidst all the joy and chaos Alexander hides under sheets and tables, playing make-believe games and seeing statues come alive in what we can only assume to be the fertile soil of a safe environment from which to dream.
The ideal of a childhood responsible for fuelling Alexander’s imagination is one filled with art. The rich colors and images of Alexander’s home and family life come from paintings, antiques and sculptures, furniture, rugs and tapestries. The scenes featuring various eccentric members of the family and the Christmas dinner they share are filmed in glorious wide angles as if desperate to encompass as much of the beauty and warmth as possible, still more goodness spilling out of the edges of the screen.
Fanny and Alexander’s father, Oscar (Allan Edwall), manages a theatre and both Oscar and their mother Emilie (Ewa Froling) act in the family’s stage plays. Alexander’s proximity to the most dramatic of arts of its time is another source from which he dreams. But the lifeline to his imagination is briskly cut off when Alexander witnesses his father’s quick decline and death in terror.
This event marks Bergman’s transition to the next half of the film. Oscar’s reappearing ghost is not enough to comfort Fanny and Alexander as they dread moving into the home of their mother’s new husband, Bishop Edvard Vergerus’s (Jan Malmsjo).
Vergerus’s home is barren, grey, cold and his family’s manner is stoic and void of any affection and love. Vergerus’ children from his previous wife drowned, a bad omen that influences Alexander’s darkening tales of isolation and death.
It is interesting that Vergerus’s objection to Alexander’s imagination increases as Alexander embellishes his tales with horror elements. And the harsher Vergerus’s punishments get the more Alexander’s magical thinking inspires the supernatural elements in the film. The innocent wonder of the moving statue and the friendly ghost of Oscar in the first half ripens into the kind of magic that influences the events in Alexander’s life, blurring the line between reality and fantasy.
Following Fanny and Alexander’s rescue from Vergerus’s house, Alexander re-enters a life of art and imagination, but this time that life and the characters that inhabit it school Alexander in the art of using his imagination. In conversation with a puppet that claims to be God, Alexander is told, “different realities surround us existing alongside each other.” Later, Ismael (Stina Ekblad), another strange character living in the house that hosts and protects Alexander and Fanny from their stepfather, tells Alexander that there are no boundaries between people, even people’s minds. “People flow seamlessly into each other.” This gives Alexander the permission to imagine and actualize Vergerus’s horrific death. With the power of his imagination he is not only freed from his stepfather but also from the clutches of a stale and deprived life where imagination is forbidden.
Alexander wants to punish God, if God does indeed exist. The question of the existence of God is a recurrent dilemma for Bergman and Fanny and Alexander elusively but tenderly reveals Bergman’s spiritual evolution, that there are no boundaries between things, and therefore all is possible, all is God. The film is told from the perspectives of generations of people, men and women, rich and poor, ghosts good and evil, angels and monsters. Fanny and Alexander stands as a fairy tale of sorts, and yet Alexander’s childhood feels starkly real, his imagination reflective of a child’s candid reality. We’re gifted with a hypnotic epic picture from Bergman, at once captivating and freeing.
— This article was published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on December 19, 2018
Thirst: Marriage as Poison and Cure
October 21, 2018 9:38 pm
With Thirst (1949), Ingmar Bergman, a visionary master of cinema, made his first contribution to the exploration of marriage — a topic he would return to most memorably in Scenes from a Marriage (1974). It is often argued that Thirst’s imbalanced and loosely connected storylines and intermittent flashbacks muddle the overall effect of the film, but the individual scenes stand as brilliant musings on relationships between men and women. Pieced together from a collection of short stories, the disconnectedness of the narrative can be excused. As an early example of classic Bergman themes and aesthetics, Thirst is an interesting piece to analyze due to its raw examination of the nature of men and women as two emotionally distinct species.
The film’s opening shot is of a river abundantly flowing and swirling away from us. Raoul (Bengt Eklund) walks out of the water, followed by his lover Rut (Eva Henning) struggling to stand up. Raoul goes back to help her — the first of several man-rescues-woman moments in the film. Their romantic outing continues with Rut’s discovery of Raoul’s marriage. Raoul wisely points out, “a man my age who isn’t married with kids is a failure, but it’s nothing we can’t work out.” This opening sets the stage for a series of dialogues exploring men and women’s place in relationships. Thirst often portrays men as arrogantly dominant and women capable of seeing the absurd truth of how they’re treated but instead of asserting themselves are driven to hysteria.
After suffering an abortion that leaves her infertile, Rut feels embittered by her painful relationship with Raoul. She marries Bertil (Birger Malmsten) and swiftly develops a thirst for alcohol and insistence on stirring up trouble. Most of the film focuses on Rut and Bertil’s train journey across war-torn, poverty-stricken Europe (an apt backdrop to a tumultuous marriage) and her constant attacks on her husband.
As Rut’s nervous breakdown ebbs and flows, Bertil recounts the story of Arethusa. Arethusa turns into a freshwater spring after fleeing from the river god Alpheus and the lustful Alpheus pursues her despite the impossible union of their waters. Bertil concludes “Two sexes can never be united, separated by a sea of tears and misunderstandings.” Rut and Bertil’s marriage is a prime example of the impossible union of the two sexes. In Bergman’s imagery their waters never mingle. Rut is a jittery, cocky, provocative, depressive woman circling Bertil like a shark and Bertil, though steady and numb, dances around her fluctuations, unsure as to whether he should submit or dominate, embrace or leave, love or hate.
In another storyline, Viola (Birgit Tengroth), a recent widow, Bertil’s ex-lover and Rut’s old friend from ballet school, battles with depression in her psychiatrist’s office. The long dialogue between Viola and her psychiatrist Dr. Rosengren (Hasse Ekman) is a terribly on the nose but nevertheless incredibly revealing battle between the sexes. Rosengren denies Viola’s grief over her deceased husband and demands that she fall in love with him despite being married himself. He asserts, “Come away and break up a marriage. Do something worthwhile. Help yet another sleepwalking couple wake up from their illusions.” He also accuses Viola of never having loved her husband and sugarcoating her marriage now that it’s over.
In this unusual doctor-patient exchange Bergman suggests perhaps that a happy marriage is an illusion women cling to because they have a tendency to want things to survive rather than to perish. He also philosophizes on marriage as an institution based on an idealistic and unattainable union. This view may have some merit, but what’s interesting is his portrayal of Rosengren, which he uses to demonstrate the absurdity of men’s assumptions of what women need and how men can heal and rescue them. Unashamedly Rosengren expresses his own childish demands by attempting to persuade Viola of her presumed lacking: “Just be normal, don’t hold back… You need someone. Otherwise you’ll perish. Cry to me… Let go of your own self. Give yourself to me and I’ll deliver you.”
Increasingly comic in his desperation Rosengren continues, “I’ll carve out your real self. I’ll plow your virgin soil… I’m God’s representative on Earth.” Viola’s retort is equally hilarious: “You will not plow my soil!… You shouldn’t be treating people! I won’t be coming back. I’ve discovered I’m well.” Hopeless now, Rosengren delivers the final verdict on Viola: she will no doubt find herself in an asylum, as she is incurable. As heavy as this dialogue is and as much as it violates the rule of “show, not tell,” its over-the-top quality is what makes it work so well. Through dialogue, Bergman speaks to the tragic truth of how men viewed, and might still view, women and how it only makes sense that women were (and, perhaps, still often are) perceived to be destined for nervous breakdowns, depression, or at the very least loneliness.
Thirst’s exploration of loneliness is best personified in the character of Valborg (Mimi Nelson), who after suffering through relationships with men has become a lesbian and hopes to make a romantic connection with Viola, who rejects her coldly. Valborg is not only a loner as a woman surviving in a man’s world, but she’s also alienated as a lesbian. Her refusal to be associated with men is experienced as a solution to a problem, but it brings another layer of pain, a closing of doors in the search for love and comfort.
In his tri-layered tale of lonely women, Bergman presents a widowed woman, tormented and ridiculed; a gay woman, destined for misunderstanding and loneliness; and a married but unhappy woman, infertile, alcoholic, furious, unloved. In a harrowing scene Bertil knocks down Rut with a bottle, fulfilling Rut’s earlier prophetic judgment of men: “There isn’t a man who hasn’t brought ruin to a woman, one way or another.” A quiet relief comes to Bertil and the audience alike, until a new day begins and with regrets and longing they embrace. They are each other’s poison, but as aptly stated in the film, “hell in marriage is better than hell alone.” After what we have seen in Thirst, I predict it would be hard to agree with this statement, but for the famously melodramatic Bergman, a bad marriage still trumps loneliness.
— This article was published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on October 3, 2018
Finding Connections in Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Red
September 3, 2018 7:12 pm
Three Colors: Red (1994) is not only the last film of brilliant Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski’s acclaimed Three Colors Trilogy, but also his farewell gesture to the art of cinema. It is fitting that a film marking the end of a great cinematic career should be about connection, truth, fate, disappointments, and passing of lessons learnt. The compassionate, naïve, and optimistic Valentine (Irène Jacob) and the jaded and cynical retired judge Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant) are two halves of the same apple, that is to say, two opposing sides of the aging filmmaker Kieslowski.
Out of compassion for a dog she ran over, Valentine delivers the wounded animal to its owner, Joseph Kern, an ex-judge spying on his neighbors’ phones. From then on Valentine’s world opens up to new and controversial ideas about life, love, privacy, truth, and justice. Kern proclaims there is more truth to be found in people’s secrets than in courtrooms. He laments the only reason people do good deeds is out of guilt, that true compassion doesn’t exist, and love is borne out of an inherent selfishness.
Valentine is repelled at first by Kern’s self-righteous ideas about invading people’s privacy to learn their secrets. She clings to positive expectations of people, an attitude which has survived a heroin-addicted brother and a jealous and demanding, but absent, boyfriend. She lives a life of impending disappointments and yet attributes love and optimism to all that happens around her. To reveal Valentine’s condition, Kieslowski often shows her alone in her apartment, waiting for phone calls, slipping or tripping, struggling with breathing through ballet postures, “hoping for peace and quiet.” Kern teaches Valentine from his vast experience what people can really be like, opening her eyes to secret truths about them. Valentine’s youth, and the naive optimism that comes from her youthful disposition, obstruct her from seeing life as it is.
The judge reveals to Valentine that his career was practically a sham, a string of mistakes and near-misses. Who’s to decide who’s guilty and who’s innocent, who will turn out good and who will not? Valentine’s initial judgment of the judge wavers. She loses her pride and learns humility. She begins to see that one cannot judge another based on what they do, that fate is malleable, and life changes directions by moments of chance. As Valentine’s youthful rigidity softens, Kern enlivens and garners hope for that same changeability. He begins to live out a missed opportunity that could change his life forever, through Valentine’s life still full of possibilities.
Meanwhile, Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit), a young judge whose life echoes Kern’s life so closely that he might be interpreted as Kern’s doppelganger, is betrayed by a woman who offers personalized weather reports by phone. Despite her prediction, a sudden turn in the weather almost kills Valentine and Auguste in the same ferry ride, once again asserting the unpredictability of life. The accident kills over a thousand passengers, but only Kieslowski’s main characters from the Three Colors Trilogy survive it. As demonstrated by the highly anticipated union of Valentine and Auguste, Kieslowski ends the trilogy with a note of compassion and hope for a new life with new possibilities.
In Kieslowski’s hands the crime of invasion of privacy turns into a meditation on connections between lives and choices, a bridge into a theme often found in his work: shared experiences, the smallness of the world, the mysteries of chance and fate. Kieslowski’s camera conveys the same theme cinematically. It wanders through the streets and apartments, settling on characters as if by chance. The camera movement feels like a breeze, as if to question “what is life?” Kieslowski depicts life like a loose cannon, taking this road and that, “so why not another?” it seems to be asking. All it takes is a look in another direction, an impulse, a signal from a quivering radio frequency, and life can be transformed forever.
The color red – with its many opposing symbolic meanings – saturates the screen, seen on objects, clothes, images, lights, dotting with precision every corner of the screen. Red means love, life, anger, caution, passion, life, death…. The color’s many meanings and contradictions denote the infinite potentials of a young woman’s life versus the many lessons to be learned from an old man’s life albeit its now limited possibilities. The color red is a fitting tie between all the characters of the trilogy and all the themes of Kieslowski’s artistic legacy.
Kieslowski was all too aware of the filmmaker’s position as a god of some sort, an all-seeing authority dictating the audience’s gaze, opinions and even feelings. In his last film, a judge, no less, is portrayed as one who has given up on delivering judgments, a judge who has accepted the impossibility of judging people and life. In his farewell film, Kieslowski entrusts his wisdom of a full life with the character of Valentine and his audience. He ushers her and us into a life of possibilities filled with infinite links and connections.
— This article was published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on July 13, 2018
The Fits: An Allegory for a Distinctly Feminine Metamorphosis
May 15, 2018 10:39 pm
Adolescence is a time of transition. Childhood slowly recoils in a cocoon and adulthood looms, almost threatening the child away. In Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, it is a transition so severe that it’s hard to know just what is about to emerge out of the cocoon and just what of the child will remain. The Fits is not only an allegorical poem about coming-of-age, but also a tale of becoming-a-woman. In the film, as in life, every girl goes through their own version of “the fits” to take their first step into adulthood (or more accurately, womanhood) seemingly unscathed, but forever changed.
From the perspective of Toni (Royalty Hightower), the film tirelessly juxtaposes the presence and gestures of boys and those of girls. Even Toni’s full name, Latonia, symbolizes her state of limbo between boyhood and girlhood. While “tomboy” Toni is partaking more actively in the boys’ world–wearing a sports bra, practicing boxing, training with her brother, surrounded by sweaty boys who eat pizza out of the box like hyenas–she’s intrigued by the girls’, perpetually lured into her nature as Latonia.
The world of girls is revealed evocatively. As Toni tests her feminine intuition, she observes an almost tribal dance-off among the girls–a sight she finds unsettling. The girls are fiercely competitive and daring, intimidating forces to be reckoned with. Toni drags her feet in her grey hoodie, while she’s practically showered by an army of bouncing girls explosive with loud shrieks and flashy outfits, boisterous laughter and chatter. Their abundant femininity is an onslaught.
The unique metamorphosis of girls becoming young women is brilliantly represented by an apparently contagious disease spreading like wildfire among a group of female dancers, who practice a powerful dance routine across the hall from an all-male, testosterone-pumping, tellingly disease-free boxing gym. The appearance of “the fits” evokes mass psychogenic illnesses where people mirror each other’s symptoms in a group. Numerous dance-off scenes where dancers mirror and outdo each other’s performance pepper the film to support such interpretation and help us make sense of the epidemic.
Beyond the fascinating connection between a psychogenic illness and girls growing into femininity, I can’t help but see the parallels between the seizures and the experience of menstruation that dominates the mood and behavior of girls in this age group.
When the seizures begin among the girls, it is clear that it’s an inevitable, distinctly feminine event that sets the boys and girls farther apart. Right after the first incidence of “the fits,” Toni’s brother warns her to not be like the girl who had the seizure: “she’s the craziest.” Then he goes on to boast about busting another athlete’s nose, showing off his opponent’s blood on a white towel, echoing the menstrual blood.
If the mysterious seizure symbolizes the sufferer’s inevitable transformation into womanhood, then the image of the bloody towel and the male warning that follows it suggest “the fits” is a metaphor for menstruation – an event traditionally associated with fear, shock and embarrassment. The male equivalent to this transformation is expressed as pride and achievement as evidenced by drawing of blood from an opponent. The interplay of what it’s like to be a girl as opposed to a boy is revealing.
As Toni nears her own version of “the fits,” she goes through other tribal rituals. She receives a tattoo from other girls, she finds her hands and nails smeared or painted with glittery nail polish, and she pierces her ears—another bloody tradition. These signs of transformation put more and more distance between Toni and her brother and the boys in general. One of them says in passing: “you’re one of them now.”
The scene on the bridge shows this shift beautifully. Toni runs up the stairs of a bridge where she often trains with her brother, but now she is alone. Her boxing moves soon give way to her dance routine, accompanied by the ritualistic sound of girls’ rhythmic clapping. Her familiar masculine way of being dissolves into an equally fierce but conversely feminine new persona. Her satisfied smile hints at where Toni feels she now belongs.
As Toni begins to feel more and more isolated from the other girls and weighed down by the imminence of “the fits,” her seizure-immune masculine side protests and resists. Her nail vanish chips away, her ears get infected, and she bounces basketballs off the wall and seeks solace in a punching bag. But by now she’s removed enough from the world of the boys that she can only watch them from afar. Much like the anticipation of menstruation among girls at this age, she begins to not only dread but also long for “the fits,” which she now realizes will be her key to finally and truly belong to her own tribe.
Once Toni also crosses that threshold into womanhood to the lyrics, “Must we choose to be slaves to gravity? Shouldn’t we be light, shouldn’t we be treasure,” the girls dressed in their sparkling costumes perform their dance routine with pride. They dance in all the major locations of the film as one body, one tribe, and one pride. Once “the fits” are behind them, and their femininity is no longer a source of fear but a source of joy, the girls glow with unprecedented power and light.
— This article was published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on April 9, 2018
Catching a break on a Paper Moon
March 29, 2018 4:39 am
Hopes and dreams are a significant part of who we are as human beings. Peter Bogdanovich’s Depression era comedy/road movie Paper Moon artfully reflects that human need for dreaming. Ryan O’Neil’s Moses Pray and Tatum O’Neil’s Addie make a pair that brightens the sullen backdrop with their determined expectation of good things to come. Addie’s cunning ideas and sharp attitude are just what Moses needs to survive the hopelessness that surrounds them. Despite the comedic buddy-movie sensibility of the film, Paper Moon focuses our attention time and again on the melancholy symbolism of a paper moon the duo delicately balances on as they go through their adventures.
When Paper Moon opens, life feels bleak. The landscape is dismal. Addie’s mother has just died. Moses’s desperate attempts at conning widowers for small profits halt as he attends the funeral. The eagerness with which Addie’s relatives unburden themselves of the newly orphaned girl represents the dominant mood. This is a world where even a nine-year-old girl needs to fend for herself.
It is significant that a funeral opens the film, sending the message that nothing lasts. As Addie smokes away her troubles in motel rooms, we are merely in an intermission before the next thing runs out on the couple. Sometimes it’s money, sometimes it’s a car, and sometimes it’s a companion that is lost. The temporariness of everything else is ironically what gives birth to a bond between the two misfits—the only one that promises permanence. On the surface, what holds them together is Moses’s two hundred dollar debt to Addie, but in truth it is their reliance on each other to keep their hopes and dreams afloat.
Trixie Delight’s (Madeline Kahn) appearance in the film threatens the fine balance between Moses and Addie. A perfect match for them, Trixie means competition to Addie. She’s a prostitute also looking for her lucky break, which she hopes to be Moses. Just as Addie plots to get rid of her, Trixie opens up to Addie about her true intentions. Her submission to failure is heartbreaking as she begs Addie to give her a break: “…if you wait it out a little, it’ll be over, you know. I mean, even if I want a fella, somehow I manage to get it screwed up. Maybe I’ll get a new pair of shoes, a nice dress, a few laughs. Times are hard.” Addie recognizes Trixie’s implausible, paper-thin dreams and lets her enjoy her brief moment.
The deputy that catches the duo for bootlegging, their most profitable venture yet, begins his interrogation with “Just when ya think ya got it made… Just ain’t made, is it?” Despite Moses and Addie’s comic disputes and amusing getaways, Paper Moon is imbued with cynicism. It keeps circling back to the same message: However hard you try, you’ll never get it made.
László Kovács’s cinematography echoes the tentativeness of achievement of money and success in Paper Moon. The depth-of-field of Kovács’s black and white photography makes every corner of the frame look in focus. The flat and crisp images invite the audience to pay attention to everything. As a result, the main characters on the screen are just as important (or unimportant) as the supporting characters, the set design, and even the surrounding landscape. By projecting a glasslike, fragile world, the extreme depth-of-field not only reduces the characters’ significance, but also gives the visuals a paper-like quality that accentuates the vulnerability of the characters’ goals and emotions.
The actual image of the paper moon appears at a carnival scene where Addie badly wants a picture of herself and Moses seated on top of the moon. Moses is too busy to grant her wish. Addie walks away from the booth deeply disappointed, saying, “He’s not my father.” Addie’s photograph sitting on top of the paper moon alone becomes her emotionally charged parting gift to Moses in the finale. Having been dropped off at her aunt’s house, the gift represents her relinquishing her biggest dream, that of belonging to him as her father. It is the image of lonely Addie sitting on a paper moon that softens Moses’s resolve to leave her behind. That and the fact that his car won’t start, which makes a meaningful comic reference to the pattern of things falling apart around them, conversely working to their advantage at last.
Roads are natural staple images of road movies. In the final image of Paper Moon, the road that leads to nowhere on the infinite Kansas landscape is photographed statically from behind Moses and Addie’s car. It is one of the few occasions in the movie where the characters face away from us. The image of the winding road leading to the unknown is a fitting one that marks the unknowability of Addie and Moses’s future. But fortunately for them, they are armed with their dreams, even though we know those dreams are barely clinging to paper moons.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on January 29, 2018
Beat Sheet: Screenplay Breakdown of Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
January 18, 2018 7:39 pm
Every year I deconstruct my favorite screenplay of the year in a beat sheet format developed by Blake Snyder. This year it happens to be Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which just won the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay and is a strong candidate for the Oscar in the original screenplay category among others. Enjoy!
Mildred (Frances McDormand) spots three deserted billboards as she drives along an empty road. A light bulb goes off in her head.
Mildred buys advertising space on all three billboards. This is the catalyst for action mainly for the police officials she’s targeting, but it also marks the start of Mildred’s journey into reaching out to the authorities and the public with her pain.
The billboards are unveiled, as is the story behind them. The various reactions to the billboards set up Mildred’s friends and foes as well as her personal motivation and goal. Her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) is one of the few people whose opinion and feelings matter to Mildred, but even Robbie’s disapproval doesn’t stop her. While Mildred’s colleague from the gift shop (Amanda Warren) is her only supporter, her adversaries are many and furious. The main target for the billboards is Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), whose terminal illness accentuates the conflict between the characters, but it is Dixon (phenomenally portrayed by Sam Rockwell) who takes it to heart and will have the longest distance to go in his transformation.
Throughout the film the biggest debate is about whether the billboards will stay up or not. Can Mildred be convinced to take them down, or not? First the legality of the billboards is questioned, and then Mildred’s resolve is tested by the police and the locals. Willoughby’s attempt at reasoning with her hits a dead-end when he figures that Mildred had already known about his cancer, but doesn’t care.
The billboards are the source of a battle of wills between Mildred and pretty much everyone else, and it looks like Mildred will win.
The last effort to get Mildred to take the billboards down comes from the moral beacon of the town, the priest. He says, ‘No one’s on your side about this.’ The central conflict of the story is alluded to: we will be exploring the possibilities of whether Mildred will succeed in pulling people to her side to bring justice to a now disregarded horrific crime. Will the police and the public get over their shame and discomfort to finally face the reality that such vile crimes are committed amongst them.
Mildred’s goal is not solely and simply forcing the police to solve the crime, but to remember it, face it, and do something about it, in their action and in their hearts.
Break into Two
Mildred coolly and beautifully reacts to the priest. The gist of it is ‘Get the f**k outta my kitchen.’ We now know that if this is Mildred’s response to a priest, the billboards are here to stay.
Willoughby on the other hand, having received his own ‘catalyst for action’ to solve the crime in his few remaining days, lashes out at his doctor for comforting him at Mildred’s expense. Willoughby is taking none of it, because he knows that as crazy as she is, Mildred is right and he now knows what to do. Both Mildred and her adversaries move into their second act of growth.
Fun & Games
Willoughby tries to make it right by giving the case another shot before he dies. Mildred responds to and deflates the increasing pressure against her and the billboards. In a beautiful and tragicomic one-two punch Mildred injures the town dentist and Willoughby coughs up blood into Mildred’s face during her interrogation. They may be on opposite sides of an argument but in this scene they share an intimate moment acknowledging each other’s suffering.
This is also the section where we go deeper into Mildred’s personal demons. Her guilt around what’s happened to her daughter (Kathryn Newton) and how her desperation for justice is mixed with her need to do right by her daughter. Her sense of failure crystalizes in her exchange with her ex-husband (John Hawkes). One more dimension is added to her guilt when she finds out her daughter wanted to move in with her father to get away from her and if she had she might have lived.
As Willoughby finds his own answer to his dilemma by plotting a premature but dignified exit, Mildred hits a peak point in her journey when she lets down her guard, addressing a fawn that symbolizes her daughter. We ask: Has she done the right thing by opening this can of worms when the case has little chance of being solved? Was it worth turning everyone’s lives upside down, letting the pains of the past resurface and dig deep into their hearts?
There is a dance that happens between Mildred and Willoughby and Dixon throughout the film. Willoughby fights her but he feels for her, even agrees with her. His parting gesture expresses his faith in the possibility of goodness in the world. He has manifestly joined Mildred in her quest for unification against rape and violence.
Mildred’s dance of compassion continues with a much different version of Willoughby in Dixon. Dixon, suffering from a slow-burning moral compass, questionable intelligence and typically male anger, is infuriated by Mildred’s position. It takes longer for him to unite with Mildred, but with Willoughby’s help he recognizes the goodness in himself that will move him closer to her.
It is in Dixon’s transformation that Mildred’s internal journey lies and it is in the B Story between Mildred and Dixon where the theme of the film is discussed.
Willoughby kills himself. As a result Mildred’s doubts and guilt about the billboards reach a new height. She now has to face a town outraged by Willoughby’s suicide, which they naturally view to be Mildred’s fault.
Bad Guys Close in
As a response to Willoughby’s suicide, problems escalate in Ebbing at a fast pace. The suicide has done no favors to Robbie’s already vulnerable position at his school. Dixon throws the ad agency guy Red (Caleb Landry Jones) out the window for putting up the billboards in the first place. On top of his grief over Willoughby Dixon loses his job, his one reason for leading a decent, lawful life. A creepy guy (Brendan Sexton III) threatens Mildred’s life when he walks into the gift shop claiming to be responsible for her daughter’s violent death. Willoughby’s widow (Abby Cornish) brings Mildred a letter from her late husband, further clenching Mildred’s heart.
Willoughby’s letter is a relief from the increasing tensions of the story, but it does nothing but further raise the stakes. Willoughby has done a good deed by renewing the monthly rent for the billboards, but this only results in somebody setting fire to them. The fire represents the culmination of conflict around the billboards, which will in turn give birth to Mildred’s most vengeful retribution yet.
All is Lost
Assuming it was the police that burnt down the billboards, Mildred sets fire to the police station. Little does she know that Dixon is in the building receiving words of wisdom from Willoughby’s letter, marking the beginning of a shift in his journey.
All is lost for Mildred as she realizes that in her rage against violence and injustice she almost killed Dixon and she now faces potential jail time and, most importantly, the loss of her battle.
Dark Night of the Soul
Thoroughly bandaged and imbued with Willoughby’s faith in him, Dixon makes amends with Red in the hospital. He’s no longer a brute, but a victim.
Mildred in her own way uncharacteristically softens when she goes out on a date with the town midget James (Peter Dinklage). She even shows signs of coming to terms with her ex-husband’s infidelity when she wishes well on his new relationship, advising him to treat her well – a common decency she herself didn’t receive.
Break into Three
The billboards go back up! The war is still on. In the meantime, as foretold by Willoughby, Dixon overhears the confession of a brutal crime against a woman. He may no longer be a cop, but he has a chance to make things right by Mildred after all.
Dixon’s potential offender turns out to be not the man who killed Mildred’s daughter. But, driven by the purposelessness of his life and his newly acquired taste for justice, he suggests to Mildred that they go after this guy anyway. He may not be the guy they’re looking for but he’s still a vile criminal, who’s ought to be punished. Mildred agrees.
Mildred drives along the billboard road with Dixon shotgun, going after revenge and justice. They know that neither of them is likely to pull the trigger on the guy, but that’s not the point. Mildred has succeeded in her feat: she drew attention to an unacceptable crime, fuelled the hearts and minds of the police and the public to stand against crime against women. And most importantly, she now has the support of Dixon, her unlikely partner in doing the right thing against all odds.
What Have You Done to Solange?: Tracing the imagery of violence and eroticism in our collective psyche
October 9, 2017 6:25 pm
Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done to Solange? is a prime example of the 1970s giallo films where murder mystery often driven by sexual themes meets psychological horror. No wonder the popularity of gialli eventually gave birth to the American slasher movie: the core of this peculiar subgenre consists of gory violence powered by voyeuristic fascination and a basic whodunit plot shadowed by the gruesomeness of the central crime. ‘Solange’ showcases the elements of giallo in many ways and succeeds at expressing, and even exploiting, the societal obsession with sexual violence directed toward women.
‘Solange’s opening is a telltale sign that a sexually obscure series of crimes is about to unfold. An Italian teacher, Enrico Rosseni (Fabio Testi) and his high school student Elizabeth (Cristina Galbo) frolic on a boat when Elizabeth witnesses a crime where a man attacks a woman in the woods, penetrating the victim’s vagina with a knife. Unable to concentrate on fulfilling her companion’s erotic expectations, Elizabeth is met with accusations of making up excuses to avoid sexual intimacy. While assuring us of Enrico’s innocence of the crime for plot’s sake, this opening draws a suggestive parallel between young women’s romantic escapades and bloody violence rooted in sexual revenge. This proves to be an interesting combination, as the film goes on to explore young women being punished for sexual exploration, which eventually results in Solange’s (Camille Keaton) mental illness.
The association of female sexuality with brutal violence is a theme typical of gialli. In ‘Solange’ some of the murder sequences are shot from the point of view of the killer, putting us in the position of the mysterious man in the black gloves. Gialli are understandably accused of being ‘exploitation cinema’ as they provide voyeuristic access to women’s private lives and evoke identification with the experience of killing, which typically takes the form of punishment. While it’s easy to interpret the connection between women and violence in a film like ‘Solange’ as exploitation, it is also possible to see gialli as a reflection of the male psyche and an artistic expression of feelings of guilt and shame surrounding sex, an experience shared by men and women alike.
In ‘Solange’ young women are portrayed with a combination of sweet purity and bubbling, almost aggressive sexual curiosity. As Elizabeth and her friends transition into womanhood, they carry the essence of childhood along with an eagerness to transform into sexual beings. A pivotal scene in the film shows Solange being forced by her girlfriends to abort a pregnancy. They had shared a sexual adventure and now Solange has to pay for it with a painful, invasive procedure.
Somehow the abortion leads to Solange’s regression into an infantile mental state. Aside from the lack of logic in this—logic is not the strongest attribute of the genre—it is interesting that the punishment for an arguably premature experience of sexuality should be a return to infancy. It’s as if the film conveys a subconscious message here: if you do a deed out of step with your age, you might just entrap yourself in it. As Solange remains trapped in trauma-induced childhood innocence, her girlfriends go on to pay for their transgression by knives to their genitalia.
There is a sense in which the film speaks for the society’s intolerance for women’s sexual freedom. Despite the lascivious use of violent imagery to shock and entertain, ‘Solange’ displays undertones of our subconscious fear and guilt surrounding sex. The most striking example is the murder of Elizabeth. Because she remains a virgin, she escapes the usual knife-to-the-vagina penalty. Instead, she gets strangled naked in the bathtub, i.e. in her cleanest, purest form, as a red towel wraps around her legs giving the impression of blood gushing out from between her legs. Elizabeth is silenced for her testimony to the murder, but she is symbolically punished for her desire for Enrico, despite the fact that it never came to fruition. In ‘Solange’, women are not only subject to punishment for their actions but also for their desires. Coupled with the oppressive discipline of the school, tantalizing images of girls showering together peeked at through a hole in the glass, the film reflects on a so called ideal treatment of women and then shatters it mercilessly in an attempt to mirror our prejudices against women.
In the tradition of most gialli What Have You Done to Solange? suffers from incoherence in plot structure (Solange and her story only becomes central to the ongoing conflict in the last third of the film), lack of motivation for the protagonist to pursue the killer, awkward dialogue and unrealistic performances. But what it lacks in these domains it makes up for with its bold camerawork, slick production design, suggestive editing and artistic style.
No doubt the film succeeds in the realm of pulp horror pictures, but it is interesting to look more deeply into the genre’s popularity and interpret the sensational imagery of violence and eroticism, searching for its counterpart in our collective psyche.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on September 26, 2017
Room for Cinema in Agnes Varda’s La Pointe Courte
July 29, 2017 11:02 pm
Influential French filmmaker Agnes Varda’s debut film La Pointe Courte (1956) is a great reminder to modern cinephiles what film-viewing experience can be. Following the footsteps of Italian Neorealism and in the wake of the French New Wave, La Pointe Courte serves as an amalgam of the kind of films that transformed our understanding and appreciation of film language and aesthetics. It not only represents a major step in cinema history, but is also a refreshing viewing experience for the modern moviegoer who is accustomed to conventional plot and character development and an easily discernable protagonist.
La Pointe Courte differs from most mainstream films in a few ways. First, it has two storylines that don’t connect by a cause-and-effect relationship. One storyline witnesses local fishermen’s struggle against the government inspectors who threaten their livelihood by placing restrictions on their fishing zones. The string of impersonal documentary-like scenes of fishing, sharing mishaps with inspectors and ordinary familial events is intercut with a more personal narrative where a married couple questions their love for each other. The couple has intimate dialogues that are specific to their innermost feelings and philosophical ruminations on love and marriage, using the fishing town as an agent of change, which first agitates their romance, then replenishes it.
The film is also inventive in that Varda uses entirely different visual styles for filming the two worlds. She evokes the Italian Neorealist tradition for the fishermen, where non-professional actors are filmed living their ordinary lives almost in real time with seemingly little manipulation from the filmmaker. This documentary-style allows these sections of the film an unsentimental reality. Even the death of a child becomes a commonplace event in an unchanging world that’s only marginally disturbed by government officials. Varda skillfully mirrors the Neorealist concern with social and economic issues of working class people.
On the other hand, the couple’s world is highly stylized. Varda’s choices of uncertain, downbeat music, meticulously composed mise-en-scenes, symbolic inserts of images that intensify the couple’s dialogue and the choice of expressive settings are the foreshadowing elements of the French New Wave’s way of experimentation with the film form.
For instance, the couple’s walk on the beach or through town in lengthy tracking shots are intercut with static shots of crabs, a dead cat, eels caught in a net, a fork in the road, train tracks to match the tone and content of their conversation. As they speak about their failing marriage and how difficult they find it to relate to their love for each other, they’re inside the skeleton of an old wooden boat as if inside a womb, out of which their relationship will be reborn. Another noteworthy aesthetic choice is the unnatural framing of the actors’ merging faces. Varda’s compositions precede that of Ingmar Bergman’s stylistically influential Persona, filmed a decade after La Pointe Courte. Varda’s visual style is clearly an inspiration for the developing aesthetics of European art house cinema.
Varda interlaces her seemingly disparate storylines and visual styles in a way that draws attention to a major distinction in social and behavioral norms in French society. In contrast with the slow, flowing scenes of townsfolk’s daily struggle and acceptance of what they have and have not, the couple dissect and question their thoughts and emotions in a cryptic language, in discord with each other and their environment’s rhythms. Varda depicts a modern, urban couple moving around in a world they don’t belong, while life flows around them free of existential crisis. Their landlady’s statement, “They’re always talking; they mustn’t be happy,” sums up this distinction.
The intellectual, overwritten dialogue, coupled with erratic editing and an expressive music score sets the couple’s scenes clearly apart from the townsfolk’s. Varda, without seeming to do so, elicits commentary on life’s ironic contrasts with images, sounds and editing –the great weapons of film language– while remaining equally distant from both of her storylines.
From a modern perspective it is a hard task to enjoy a film like La Pointe Courte. It is remarkably slow-paced; performances are blunt; the plot is hardly engaging and the structure is fragmented. However, Varda’s invitation to step in and feel the film, as opposed to merely consume it, is a priceless gift for the modern film lover. Simply observing the ebbs and flows of a slice of life in a town called La Pointe Courte, and absorbing Varda’s artistic vision through images and rhythms is enough to appreciate what cinema has to offer.
–This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on July 23, 2017
Swept Away: Lina Wertmüller’s Maze of Sex and Politics
July 20, 2017 12:57 am
Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away is at once outrageous, weird and guiltily seductive. As the poster suggests we’re in for passionate love and sex on a beach. The affair’s unlikely pair of counterparts are a rich socialite, Raffaella (Mariangela Melato), and a communist deckhand, Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini). The pointedly ironic mismatch, namely the rich girl vs. poor boy tale, seems at first to be the basic premise of the film. But soon enough, Wertmüller’s unapologetic boldness in handling her material makes the film truly stand out. The film has four distinguishable chapters that differ drastically in tone and content, and provide evidence of Wertmüller’s unique storytelling technique.
Wertmüller paints this simple tale with a raw, flawed, hard-to-pin-down approach. The 45-minute introduction sets up the political opinions of the two leads in a cumbersome, simplistic, repetitive series of scenes. We are asked to sympathize with the benign and comic Gennarino and share his resentment toward the rich yacht guests, the outspoken and spoilt Raffaella in particular. This comedy sketch-like opening paints a black-and-white picture of politics. The rich and the poor are stripped out of context and reduced to parroting very basic views of what it means to be rich and what it means to be poor. The rich are tyrannical, self-indulgent and rude; the poor are powerless, envious and resentful. While the film could do with more complexity and depth in its portrayal of political views by adding more context and backstory for the two leads, its lack of dimension brings a naivety and cartoonishness that lighten the mood and increase the power of the brutishness that is to follow.
After finding themselves shipwrecked, the primitive island life sucks them in; the power roles are reversed. With money taken out of the equation, the poor communist Gennarino suddenly has the upper hand. The social structures built around the class struggle are at once laid bare and ridiculed. Gennarino is savvier at hunting for food, building a fire and finding shelter and uses his capability as currency against Raffaella. He mercilessly exercises the privileges of his newfound status in his instant kingdom. Raffaella’s obeisance is not enough; she has to serve him and submit to his supremacy if she wants to survive. Primitive life apparently calls for primitive relationships. Money is replaced by survival skills; the fascism of the rich gives way to the fascism of the capable. Wertmüller suggests, in no uncertain terms, that even the poor will turn tyrannical when he holds the power; it is human nature.
If the opening chapter on the yacht gave us a watered-down version of fascism, the second chapter on the island reveals the fascism that resides in all of us. The third chapter turns our attention to the sexual tension between the castaways, and it is sex that finally brings complexity to Swept Away, filling its dull politics with conflict, giving them stakes and sophistication. The face of fascism once again changes: it leaps from fascism of the powerful to fascism of the male, and both kinds apparently look the same.
In the third chapter of Swept Away, Gennarino takes one step further in his insatiable desire to overpower Raffaella. In a near-rape scene, he attempts to conquer her body, but the catch is that he wants her to beg before he’s willing to bestow her the honor. Here things get increasingly murky. When Raffaella was the one in power, Gennarino loathed her and revolted against his position, but when the power equilibrium shifts and she is demeaned and forced to beg, she begins to enjoy it.
Primitive conditions first showed us that nature strips us of our class and enforces equality and cooperation upon our relationships. But now, Wertmüller dares to imply that once the woman loses her artificial power (one that comes with money and social status), she would surely come to appreciate and even crave her subordinate position. That her nature is, in fact, submitting to male power and brutality. Raffaella eventually chooses her privileged old life over a life with Gennarino on the island, but it is with great sadness and regret, as if she’s going against her true nature to fit back into her social role as a socialite.
The sadomasochistic relationship that develops between Gennarino and Raffaella is loaded with potential subversive readings. But if we take this couple as an individual entity, and not as male and female archetypes, then we can ease into accepting the strange possibility of Gennarino’s preposterous demands and Raffaella’s exaggerated willingness to become Gennarino’s slave. Just as the passionately intertwined mass of limbs we grow accustomed to watching, we also learn to see sexiness in the aggression and beauty in the haphazardness.
The last chapter of the film has a melodramatic tone that has an altogether different vibe than the rest. Civilization sweeps Raffaella off her feet despite her resistance. Gennarino and Raffaella know deep down that she would fail in her devotion to Gennarino once they’re back to the realities of a capitalist society. But, Gennarino takes yet another unexpected step and tries to win back Raffaella’s heart by buying her a diamond ring – the ultimate capitalist gesture. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work. Raffaella is too caught up in her life to return to Gennarino, but she has also learned that love cannot be bought.
At its core, Swept Away is a film about simple dualities of rich vs. poor, man vs. woman, communist vs. capitalist. It starts out with a basic premise and takes us through the murky waters of desire, power, ego and love. If only for the nonchalant outrageousness of Wertmüller’s cinema, Swept Away is worth a look from today’s increasingly complicated perspective on feminism and politics.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on June 2, 2017
Aliens and Women in Robert Zemeckis’s Contact
April 20, 2017 6:33 pm
Robert Zemeckis’s Contact is a rare science fiction movie about humanity’s first attempt at making contact with the Extraterrestrials. The film’s representation of aliens is in many ways unique, but it’s Zemeckis’s approach to yet another underrepresented and often misunderstood species that makes the film exceptional, namely the terrestrial woman.
Twenty years after its release, Contact remains an outstanding depiction of not only a woman scientist, but one who is bright, strong, passionate, ambitious, stubborn, daring, unapologetic and -lo and behold- single and not looking. Ellie, portrayed by one of the ‘90s’ fierce female leads, Jodie Foster, succeeds in her fight against an army of men whose main objectives are to shape her into the scientist they are comfortable seeing – not one that wastes her potential on a laughable pursuit as discovering aliens. Since her work is ultimately funded by her male colleagues, she depends on her relationships with men to persist in her scientific goals. And somehow, remarkably, she hangs in there long enough to get the men’s attention.
Ellie’s fascination with Extraterrestrials has its roots in her deep-seated feelings of loneliness. As an 8-year-old she asks her dad if they could talk to her deceased mother via radio signals. Her desire for traveling into the heart of an abyss in search of the unattainable is somewhat romantic, if not melancholic. Herein lies Ellie’s inner conflict: she’s a scientist who only believes in the provable, tangible reality, primarily concerned with gathering empirical data to prove we are not alone in the universe. However, her desire comes from a place, not reason, but of love and a longing for existential truth. Ellie, as a female hero, is a complex amalgam of an unshakeable realist and the hopeful romantic, which makes her even harder to stomach for her male counterparts.
Ellie’s inner conflict is put to the test by her relationship with God and religion. Despite her academic qualifications and personal discovery of the alien signal, she is severely interrogated based on the male perspective that a representative of humanity must believe in a conventional understanding of God and faith. And what that conventional understanding teaches is that male superiority and domination is a natural truth in the patriarchal social organization. Ellie’s very being, regardless of her religious beliefs, complicates and challenges that assumed dominance.
Never mind all that she has accomplished, in the eyes of her male counterparts, she has already failed the test. This unexpected blow to her goal of travelling to a distant star comes from a place of rigidity, intolerance, and stern didacticism – presented as primarily male attributes in the movie. Even though her underlying goal is ‘connection’ – a most Godly notion demanding spiritual communion over an inert acceptance of God, she is reprimanded for her lack of blind faith. While her nemesis is celebrated for his faith in something he’s not even seeking to connect with, Ellie is rejected because she chooses to reach for and commune with God keep searching.
When Ellie finally gets a chance at making the journey to the star system Vega, her meeting with the Extraterrestrials is one that ironically requires reliance on personal, visceral experiences, rather than tangible evidence. In Contact, the alien species proves to be a shape-shifting yet comforting presence. They download Ellie’s memories and appear to Ellie in the form of her father and in a setting that is familiar and special to her. Contrary to the way aliens are typically represented in the movies, either as grotesque, threatening monsters or big-eyed, charming, wise messengers, Contact offers a truthful, honest and compassionate being that remains unknowable. Zemeckis seems to believe that since all we have about aliens are theories and speculations, humanity is not yet ready for them, and he presents us with a plausible picture as the beginning of what is likely to be a long conversation.
Though Ellie comes away transformed from the experience, back on Earth, things have not advanced very much. Strangely, the very men who had no trouble believing in a grandiose idea of God without any direct or indirect experience, have trouble believing a woman’s word that she has made contact. They want proof; they blame her for hallucinating, dreaming, and even fantasizing as a result of her personal losses. She is no longer a cold scientist, but a delusional woman. The antagonistic forces modify their attack tactics, but one thing remains unchanged: Ellie is not to be heard.
In Contact, women and aliens are rejected, feared and unwelcome. Ellie has more in common with aliens of Vega than with the men of the Earth. The film makes a final point that proves Ellie’s experiences in Vega were true, after all. Ellie never gets to find out about this proof. She doesn’t need it. She will continue her exploration of the unknowns of the universe, not with faith imposed on her by others, but with a ‘sense of adventure’ all her own.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on April 8, 2017