By Ben Hynes
A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT
Dir. Ana Lily Amirpour
Amirpour assembles a stylish and interesting re-framing of several genres, adopting tropes from vampire films, melodramas, and westerns, relocating them in a fictional Iranian township, Bad City. Shooting in black and white, Amirpour makes visual reference to other films as well; Sheila Vand’s The Girl, for instance, evokes Seberg in Breathless in her horizontal striped top and short pants. A drug dealer in the film’s look seems heavily influenced by Die Antwoord’s Ninja, to uproot any trepidation at backward-looking nostalgia. The film’s imagined setting makes an appropriate location for the referential action to unfold in. In this way A Girl Walks Home… feels of a piece with its dreamy atmosphere and its sometimes abrupt tonal shifts.
Loosely braided together are the stories of Arash (Arash Marandi), a young man whose father is addicted to drugs, and The Girl, revealed to be a female vampire in a veil who sometimes skateboards and listens to new wave music. The plot unevenly moves through its motions, digressing into sometimes compelling moments of romance and humour and, equally as often, sections that meander. Certain aspects of the film loom portentously, but are never marshaled toward anything substantial; interstitial shots of oil derricks working and industrial plants and train-yards gesture toward an amorphous connection to the film’s themes, but never coalesce into anything less superficial than “industry is a vampire”.
Not without its charms, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night presents a style that is at once fresh and familiar, its relative slightness alleviated somewhat by an aesthetic as alluring as a cloud made translucent by moonlight.
LISTEN UP PHILIP
Dir. Alex Ross Perry
Shot on 16mm and largely, at least in the case of its protagonist, in close-up, Listen Up Philip‘s construction articulates a precise flavour of nostalgic male egotism — erudite, brutally honest, narcissistic, literary, and essentially indebted to the work of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Perry’s decision to shoot the film in this manner demonstrates a measure of sympathy with its lead character; the camera’s focus on Philip, his face in particular, replicates the character’s own self-obsession, often lingering on his face even while others are speaking. The film’s dialogue is appropriately literate, often droll and bleakly humorous. Perry replicates this in some of his shot constructions and editing — one edit following Philip’s suggestion that an ex kiss him is particularly hilarious.
Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) is a successful young author on the cusp of greater prominence in the American literary scene. The film joins him prior to the publication of his second novel as his current relationship with Ashley Kane (Elizabeth Moss) dissolves. A meeting with Philip’s literary idol Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce) reveals the character and ideals after which Philip has modeled himself. In beginning and ending Listen Up Philip with these two characters, Perry is able to illustrate a tragedy of solipsism. Zimmerman, in his paranoia and egotism, has built a life without any external connections; Philip, is his idolatry of this man, builds a similarly isolated life, though one contingent on, and thus manipulated by, Ike’s first solipsism.
The tragedy of both characters is that in their ardent pursuit of self-determination both men have denied themselves any sense of meaningful agency. They are successful but lack the relationships or sensitivity to fully contextualise and build on their achievements. Ashley, however, in the film’s middle section, is shown re-building a life after Philip. There is, in this section, a sense of a character who is sensitive to the world outside her own emotional life, and Perry’s camera seems to widen its view accordingly. More generally, this section casts the intense privileges of being white, male, and upper middle class, taken for granted by the film’s other characters, into sharp relief, offering a stronger sense of critical distance.
DEUX JOURS, UNE NUIT
Dir. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
A deeply humane sympathy with the conditions of the working class resonates in much of the Dardennes work. Deux jours, une nuit explicitly engages with the pressures that people are subject to when living under a neoliberal capitalist system. This is a system which generates precarity in order to wedge self-interest between people, dividing allegiances and sympathies in order to maximise its own profitability. Sandra (Marion Cotillard) has returned to work from a medical break to deal with a psychological illness, only to find that her co-workers have voted on an ultimatum given by management: they were to vote for Sandra keeping her job, at the cost of losing their bonuses, or vote to keep the bonus at the cost of her job. After initially losing the vote, management allows a second vote due to claims of tampering. Sandra is convinced by her husband to spend her weekend visiting her co-workers and appealing for their sympathy in this second vote.
The film follows Sandra over the course of the weekend, the film’s simple structure allowing it ample room to investigate the ethical and economic restrictions, and subsequent interpersonal tensions, that a system predicated on precarious labour generates. The Dardennes shoot these interactions in largely medium and close-up, emphasising the intimacy of the conversations while the larger, systemic, implications of the conflicts hang behind the characters. Characters’ reactions to Sandra’s request range from sympathy to reticence to outright anger, each encounter demonstrating a sensitivity to the tension between living within this system, needing to provide for oneself and family, and the impulse toward solidarity in the face of a structure that demands the objectivity of profit above the subjectivity of its workers. Cotillard’s performance is affecting in its depth and the strength of its vulnerability. The film crafts a resolution that rejects any easy answer, but suggests the resigned nobility inherent to solidarity, positing perhaps a position from which a person may move forward.
ADIEU AU LANGAGE
Dir. Jean-Luc Godard
Godard’s latest film deploys 3D technology to continue his exploration of the artifice of the cinema. Godard bifurcates his 3D image twice in the film – rightly talked about endlessly in discussions of it – which follows one character out of frame with one eye while maintaining focus on the other character with the other eye. Where his early destabilisations of cinematic unity were superficial alterations of soundtrack and score, or punning inter-titles, and later explorations of video quality resulted in an impressionistic employment of saturation and contrast in his images, here Godard is able to call into view the process of seeing itself. The stability of the projected image is undermined by the material exposure of seeing as a dialectic process; each eye apprehends a distinct image, both being synthesised by the brain. What one perceives in the cinema — and, by extension, everyday life — is itself a synthetic experience.
Godard structures his film around similarly dialectic oppositions: nature and metaphor, God and language, each articulated in punning inter-titles, i.e., “Ah! Dieu” and “Oh Langage!” He attributes a quotation to Monet that actually comes from Proust, that “one must paint neither what one sees, since one sees nothing, nor what one doesn’t see, since one must paint only what one sees; but to paint what one doesn’t see.” This locates his process of emphasising the artificiality of the cinema in an artistic tradition that attempts to represent the manner in which seeing abstracts what is seen — an exposure of the metaphoric quality of both language and seeing as resolved in representations of God and nature. This dialectic quality of seeing also informs Godard’s extremely intertextual style; the (mis)appropriation and recontextualisation of images, phrases, and ideas can be seen as directly symptomatic of understanding seeing and knowing as dialectic processes.
While these philosophical and structural qualities are potentially profound, the film’s content itself falls back into familiar and sadly misogynistic/colonial tropes. The film deals with a relationship between a man and woman, the man being the font of philosophical knowledge, the woman asserting her only agency as her ability to deny the man and die. The potential misogyny of these interactions is acknowledged by Godard’s decision to stage some of their conversations while the man evacuates his bowels, but this gesture of acknowledgment doesn’t excuse the offense. Similarly, one of the film’s major metaphors engages in a problematic romanticising of native peoples, leveraging a metaphor for the world as a forest that flattens out an understanding of a complicated people to their noble savageness.
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Ben Hynes is a film critic for the magazine.