Check out my latest review in Provincetown Magazine for John Krasinski’s absorbing horror film A Quiet Place. It’s playing not only in Provincetown, but everywhere, and you simply cannot wait for it to be online/DVD… it demands the cinematic environment.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about the ongoing internal debates I have about why movies matter, why I write about film, why I make films, etc., etc. Just a few days after writing that post I was offered a screener of the new film by Michel Hazanavicius, Godard Mon Amour (a.k.a. Redoubtable). The film is based on the 2015 book Un an Après Anne Wiazemsky wrote about her love affair with and subsequent marriage to one of France’s most famous directors and general provocateurs, Jean-Luc Godard. Their relationship came about in the late 1960s, and the focus of the film is the political upheaval in Paris in May of 1968, leading to the cancellation of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in response to student and worker protests in Paris. It struck me as incredibly serendipitous for me to come across this film at this particular moment, as what emerges through the story is a Godard undergoing a reevaluation of his life, his work, and the meaning (or lack thereof) inherent in making, talking about, writing about, and seeing films.
The film begins with a huge title saying “Wolfgang Amadeus Godard,” cluing us into the geni
us of Godard in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Louis Garrel (son of French New Wave director Philip Garrel) plays Godard as arrogant, self-centered, and rather obnoxious, but at the same time he reveals a deeply committed artist who, like the rest of us, is uncertain about his relevance in the world, vulnerable, and awkward. As he walks in solidarity with student protestors vastly younger than him, he is supportive of them politically and philosophically, but at the same time reluctant to pass the torch. His relationship with Anne (Stacy Martin) is passionate, but at the same time Godard doesn’t really see her for who she is. It is in this context that Godard goes to Cannes at his wife’s urging, although he feels it is ridiculous to go to a film festival when there is violence in the streets, and a revolution is in the making. He goes, but along with several notable directors, shuts down screenings and convinces the jury to officially end the festival several days earlier than planned in the name of solidarity with protestors and, in a sense, an acknowledgement that the festivities do not align with the important debates and issues going on in contemporary French culture.
Hazanavicious, whom I interviewed for Cineaste several years ago in regard to his modern-day silent film The Artist, has a knack for bringing cinematic history to life using a clever interplay between form and subject matter. In The Artist, he told the story of silent actors on the cusp of obsolescence as the Sound Era arrives, and he did so in a silent (except for one part) black-and-white movie. With Godard Mon Amour, again Hazanavicius connects story and cinematic form by creating a movie about Godard that follows the style, idiosyncrasies, and self-referential nature of Godard’s own best known films from that period. For example, in a scene in which Godard and Anne discuss whether or not the nudity in a script she’s reading is justified or simply gratuitous, the two walk around stark naked. It is this kind of self-reflexivity in Godard’s films that really made his work so uniquely “a Godard film.”
Godard Mon Amour feels particularly relevant now in this country even as it is about something that happened 50 years ago on another continent. As we see our own, albeit less dominating, student revolt and watch the astounding responses to it, any thinking artist is wondering about the role of art and cinema in divisive times. With every day bringing forth another horror from somewhere around the globe, another reason to question our work and our futures, Jean-Luc Godard’s concerns have never seemed more relatable than they do here. It’s not only his existential angst that resonates, but also the enfant-terrible arrogance invites some thought about separating great artists from their personalities and whether or not that’s possible.
But contemporary sociopolitical dialogues aside, Godard Mon Amour also succeeds in reminding us what was so endearing about Godard’s work and about the French New Wave itself. There’s humor to it. It’s not all theoretical cinephilia, even as that serves as a basis for much of his work. At the end of Godard Mon Amour I immediately yearned to watch Godard’s films again. Although I adored the last film I saw by Godard, his 3-D Goodbye to Language, it is those earlier, daring films I saw in film school that I craved most. Doing so did wonders for my cinematic soul, and I hope you’ll revisit them as well, especially Masculin Feminin, Pierrot le fou, Alphaville, and of course, Breathless.
Godard Mon Amour opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, April 20, and will open at the Kendall Square Theater in Cambridge, Mass., shortly thereafter.
I did not run out and see writer/director/producer Martin McDonagh’s new film Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri because I knew it had something to do with an abduction of a young girl, and as a parent, I tend to avoid plots like that. I didn’t really read about the film either, just enough to know that Frances McDormand was in it and that it was curiously labeled a dark comedy. This last factor is what got me to the theater earlier today; how could a film about the loss of a child be comic?
Three Billboards accomplishes this difficult feat because it isn’t actually about what happened to the lead character Mildred Hayes’ daughter Angela as much as it’s about what happened to the community around this awful event, and by extension, what happens to communities all over the world in the face of trauma, injustice, and tragedy.
McDormand plays Hayes as a steely-eyed, somewhat frightening, divorced mother trying to make it through each day in the wake of her daughter’s vicious rape and murder several months earlier. Frustrated with the lack of suspects brought in and her sense that the police are too busy harassing African-American kids for misdemeanors to “do their job” and investigate the murder, she takes the odd step of purchasing space on three billboards on the remote road near where her daughter was killed to chastise the police chief by asking why there have been no arrests. When it is revealed that the chief has pancreatic cancer, the town turns on Hayes, seeing her billboards as cruel considering he is on his deathbead.
And in a sense, it is cruel for her to leave those signs up in light of the chief’s devastating illness that will leave his two young daughters fatherless in a matter of weeks or moths. But it is this sort of morally ambiguous circumstance that is piled up in layers throughout the brilliantly constructed script. The characters face tragedy after tragedy, each one responding in the way humans ordinarily do: with anger, violence, and hatred. And time and time again that response leads to further injustices, more pain for someone, and little by little an erosion of the community itself.
I could talk about the strength of McDormand’s performance, the equally solid work of Woody Harrelson as the Chief and Sam Rockwell as a racist police officer, but the weight of the film is carried by its script, which never feels predictable, but ends up seeming very real and very familiar. Police brutality, anti-cop violence, misogyny, racism, the victimization of young women, even the crimes of the Catholic Church are all subjects broached here, but ultimately, I was moved by everything in the story leading to the conclusion that anger in the face of tragedy must be tempered by thought, compassion, and an abiding vigilance guarding our common humanity.
Impressionistic, poetic cinema is rarely set in the gritty reality of life in America’s poverty-stricken neighborhoods. But the new film Moonlight, writer/director Barry Jenkins perfectly captures the loneliness of being in a very different kind of closet than the one we’re used to seeing gay characters step triumphantly out of. Here, the rosy optimism of suburbia’s relative affluence doesn’t exist —not even as a reference point. Here, we look at poverty (always intertwined with race in America), and homophobia within the lives of characters who are rough around the edges but not caricatures or stereotypes.
In Moonlight, we meet Chiron, a young black boy who is teased and bullied by other boys in his Miami ghetto circa mid-1980s amidst America’s War on Drugs and crack epidemic. School-aged Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert), nicknamed “Little” by the others, is quiet, intelligent, and sensitive—all things seen as weird, unnatural, and undesirable, even by his crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris), who loves him fiercely, but cannot express it. He is taken in by the local drug dealer and his girlfriend who give him a refuge when things get to rough. He also has one friend, Kevin, a boy who is also sensitive and intelligent, but not quiet or introverted, and certainly better equipped to fit in with the crowd, for better or worse. These are the people who care about Little.
In part two of this three-part film, we meet Little again, only now he is in high school and people call him by his real name Chiron (Ashton Sanders). Many of his problems remain, and his burgeoning homosexuality becomes more apparent, but the socio-economincs of his life and the fear and weakness of those around him lead him into the system that so many young black men end up in. When he comes our on the other end, we are in part three and his new persona is “Black” (Trevante Rhodes), himself a drug dealer who even looks similar to the one who took him in in his youth. We are full circle.
Moonlight belongs to a new category of cinema that includes films such as Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Below Dreams (which I wrote about in my coverage of the 2014 Tribeca Film Festvail here). I don’t know what to call this yet, but it is a category that is defined by its otherness. The characters in these films are not archetypes representing some subsection of American society, nor are they simple victims of circumstance. The filmmaking style is loose, instinctual, and economical. The films take place outside of the usual settings for American movies, like New York, L.A., or some unnamed, generic suburb. These are places cameras don’t often go, where stories go untold. The filmmakers themselves are concerned with poverty as well as with glimpses of beauty that can occur, even in an impoverished life.
As someone with little obviously in common with Chiron (I am a straight, white woman living on Cape Cod), it is remarkable how strongly connected to him I felt, a marking of the director’s skills in building empathy. Moonlight takes this intense experience and shares it with us in a unique form with expressive acting, sound design, and cinematography, as well as an editing strategy that is directed by the emotions of the main character. I haven’t seen this before, and that in and of itself separates it from most of what comes out in theaters today. So many movies, however different their basic plots, are so similar in approach and formal language that I can barely remember them a week later. Not so with Moonlight, which is a beautiful, tragic film that stays with you. In fact, I look forward to seeing it again to relive that experience of cinematic discovery.
There is a deep sadness throughout all three parts, and the dominant feeling is one of loneliness and isolation, which speaks to the real-life invisibility of gay, black men. We have seen them here and there (notably in the character of Omar in the brilliant cable series The Wire some years back), but it is a largely ignored subset of both the African-American experience and that of the LGBTQ community.
I hope Moonlight will not be pigeonholed into the usual distribution patterns where films with black characters only show in areas with larger black populations and films with gay characters are only aimed at gay audiences. I hope to see it for my second viewing right here on Cape Cod… at a theater near you.