TIFF 10 Capsules — Day 6
I would like to see Darren Aronofsky make nothing but movies like this one in the future — direct or indirect or modernized retellings of the canonical works of opera and ballet (Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” in this case obviously). What makes Aronofsky a singular director, if not always a successful one, has been his willingness to take an insane idea to its excessive, lunatic conclusion without a trace of irony or self-protection or self-distancing. He puts it out there, and not always to the best results (the climactic montage in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is just too g-d loud). It’s no accident that his best previous film, THE WRESTLER, deals with an essentially theatrical and ludicrous world, and here he surpasses that. After all, a story line involving a princess turned into a swan who can only be cured by love makes WWE storylines look like neorealism. That’s why I think Aronofsky could make this kind of movie for the rest of his life and I’d probably never tire of it — the whole Western canon in music- and dance-theater doesn’t have a credible plot in it.
Natalie Portman in the lead role as a ballet dancer is being protected by the editing and framing. But she clearly became a good enough dancer to be credible from the waist up, which is all you can reasonably ask a non-balletomane-for-life to do. More importantly, she nails the icy disregard that marred her previous performances, ideal for the perfect “White Swan” dancer who needs to become the “Black Swan,” until the film’s third act literally becomes the story of her own growth as an actress, played for our benefit as it unfolds. She arrives here. Vincent Cassel as the company director has the right mix of greasiness and genuine devotion to the art that makes you wonder whether his crude seduction attempts are really that or artistic strategems (if I were Mrs. Aronofsky, I would not like what this movie may be saying about my Darren in my opinion).
Most importantly, there’s Tchaikovsky. Not only is this the music to his story (obviously), but it’s also the right choice to illustrate Aronofsky’s trippy, nightmarish images and edits. But its out-there Romantic bombast and its brassy bossiness eventually comes to dominate the film until BLACK SWAN becomes essentially a great performance of “Swan Lake” itself. Aronofsky lets it happen, goes with it, until the music structures his own messiness, his own overcooking. But this time, he felt it and it was perfect.
I have to say that I really spent much of this movie actively hating the people onscreen, perfectly enacted though they are by Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman as a couple who lost their son in a car wreck, by Miles Teller as the teenage driver, and by Dianne Wiest as Kidman’s mother. My mind kept wandering to RACHEL GETTING MARRIED, a movie that covers some of the same emotional ground and is set an identical milieu among hyper-analysed rich Northeasterners. Here, instead of Demme’s improvisational feel and range of subjects and emotions, we get material that seemed too one-note and undigested to serve as anything more than Theatrical Thesis Scenes. I was cringing in the two scenes where we see Eckhart and Kidman yell at each other, not because they’re not believeable scenes or there’s anything wrong with what they do (Nicole’s talking on through his yelling, as if in musical counterpoint, is actually quite effective). But it just seemed like the transparent Oscar-bait clip scene that I thought WAYNE’S WORLD had rubbished.
It also didn’t help that I dislike the analytic culture of talking-through-one’s-feelings and support groups and hyper-selfconsciousness. Kidman seems to hate it too, but she does so entirely on its terms and she proceeds through otherwise-psychologized means like the (flatly unbelievable) stalking of the driver. Even the choking back scenes felt like Choking Back Scenes, done with all due deliberate deliberation. (I vastly prefer Leigh’s and Manville’s handling of this kind of scene. Indeed, seeing RABBIT HOLE is one of the things that clarified my thoughts on ANOTHER YEAR.)
But two scenes make me doubt this reaction, which is admittedly visceral and quasi-ideological, and therefore questionable. One involved the great Wiest (have I mentioned that every actor in this movie is awesome) and an extended metaphor involving having a brick in one’s pocket. The other is the closing monolog by Eckhart (have I mentioned that every actor in this movie is awesome) and the accompanying enacted imagery of the couple’s future. They’re both quietly done, Wiest’s character speaks hard-won experience, she recodes an earlier quarrel-yelling scene, and Eckhart ends on … well, let’s just say the two scenes together perhaps even recode the entire movie. I will give it another chance.
Or “TIFF’s Adventures of the Young, Dumb and Full of Cum, Part I” (and much superior to Part II, Gregg Araki’s KABOOM!). Dolan is, based on the combined three films of theirs I’ve seen, an infinitely more mature human being. And HEARTBEATS is a film not about how horny he is, but about what an awkward emotional experience it is to compete with a friend over a love interest. In a gayish TWO ENGLISH GIRLS, Francis (played by Dolan) and gal-pal Marie (Monia Chokri) both fall for Nico (Niels Schneider), who has a kind of Classical Greek beauty that you can see both a woman and a gay man falling for. But Schneider plays Nico as a Narcissus type, enjoying the company and attention of the other two but hardly even noticing them as his Ameneias and Echo. But instead of Echo losing everything but her voice, Dolan and Chokri start to come apart too.
I think Dolan does show off a bit much, and right at the start here he got off on the wrong foot with me, aping Godard with the “interview” technique and the unmotivated jump-zooms in and out. We even get the VIVRE SA VIE shot of two people conversing, seen from behind. Two differences though that make Dolan’s use better than Godard’s — (1) his interview subjects say stuff that is not only funny (the girl in the nerdy glasses was hilarious) but glances off, without being specifically about, the psychological dynamics in the surface-unrelated story; (2) his behind-the-head shot features no talking (i.e., stuff with which to interfere) and lasts long enough to make the point but not long enough to annoy. I also couldn’t help but roll my eyes when he obviously cribbed from Wong Kar-wai the combination of slo-mo and a ubiquitous music cue (here, an Italian version of the Cher hit “Bang! Bang!”). But at least he’s stealing from the best, and makes the slow-walks work as a kind of fashionable face-off. And Dolan lays “it” on everywhere — photographing sex scenes through primary-color filters, acting as his own fashion designer, flash edits of Michelangelo’s “David,” and the rest of the French New Wave bag of tricks.
The things that clinch I KILLED MY MOTHER though as the better of Dolan’s two films are that the stakes turn out a little lower (I can’t say why without spoilage) and that he doesn’t have a lead actress, fine though Chokri is, of the power and ease and brilliance of Anne Dorval. We’re unfortunately reminded of the latter by her one-scene turn as Narcissus’s mother.
There are only two reasons to live, one religious, one secular. Respectively, they are that God commands us to live (or in negative form, “God forbids suicide”), and that others love and need us (and no … the subject and object of that clause are not reversible). But even both those reasons are somewhat conditional. LEAP YEAR is about that fact.
I have to say though, that this is not an easy film to sit through or to like. And not simply, or even primarily, because it has some pretty raw sexual scenes (“raw” is a different adjective than “explicit,” though LEAP YEAR is that too). But also because LEAP YEAR necessarily, given what the film turns out to be about, flirts with really dangerous ideas. At one point during LEAP YEAR, I had mentally written a 0-review, and the director would only have to change a few things in the last 5 minutes to earn it back.
But what makes LEAP YEAR successful, like every work of art, is not “what it says,” but “how it says it.” This is basically a one-set movie with a central character Laura (played with the perfect understated loneliness by Monica del Carmen) and about three or four other persons we see, about the same number of phone callers (we only hear her end of the conversations though), and the same number of neighbors seen/heard through the window. The moment I said “this is a great performance” came relatively late, when Laura hears the doorbell ring and her face lights up like a kid on Christmas morning, which sounds banal I realize, but in context is absolutely unforgettable.
It’s a claustrophobic, lonely, isolating environment, expertly created, sustained and milked. Most of LEAP YEAR consists of quotidian tasks in between which we see Laura tell absurd lies over the phone to cover up her emptiness. The backstory of the relationship with her father, for example (and I’m 90 percent sure I got this exact point from Mike or Noel), is made perfectly clear without ever becoming the central explicit narrative engine. Oh … and there’s a man that she picks up for sex and, eventually, more. She hopes.