For The New York Times, I reviewed the new movie “Crown Vic,” directed by Joel Souza. You can read the review here: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/07/movies/crown-vic-review.html.
I guest-hosted a special two-part episode of The Film Comment Podcast, dedicated to a pair of Indian filmmakers: Bengali maestro Ritwik Ghatak, and Tamil writer-director Vetri Maaran. For the first half, I was joined by Moinak Biswas and Richard Peña, the co-organizers of the recent Ghatak retrospective at Film at Lincoln Center. In the second half, I chatted with R. Emmet Sweeney, who wrote a feature on Vetri Maaran in Film Comment‘s November-December 2019 issue. First posted on Film Comment on November 6, 2019.
One could draw a straight line from Gerwig’s dancer-heroine running (and skipping, and twirling) through the streets of New York to Bowie’s “Modern Love” in Frances Ha (2012), to Jo running euphorically through the same city, in another time, in the opening scenes of Little Women. This latest film seamlessly continues the preoccupations of Gerwig’s previous work, which includes directing Lady Bird and co-writing Frances Ha and Mistress America (2015): the terrible intimacies of sisters; the complexities of mothers and daughters; and the existential lives of women in states of becoming, their realities hopelessly exceeded by their own desires. These protagonists are all caught up in an ineffable sense of want—to be someone else, to be somewhere else—that slowly, through and with the other women in their lives, sharpens into a bittersweet understanding of who they are and where they belong. Here, the modest settings and contemporary, urban characters of the earlier films are reimagined within the grander, weightier frameworks of history and literature. The becoming of the characters in Little Women is also the becoming of an era, a canon, and a kind of womanhood.
Gerwig brings these ideas, big and small, into fluid conversation as her film approaches one odd contrivance of Alcott’s novel: the marriage of Jo—who for most of the film aspires to be a spinster all her life, as Alcott in fact was—to the middle-aged German professor Friedrich Bhaer. It’s the plot point that seems most ill-suited to adaptation in 2019, but Gerwig turns it into one of the film’s most original and modern sections. She addresses the sellout artifice of Jo’s marriage head-on through a negotiation scene between Jo and her editor on matters of pay, copyright, and gendered expectations in popular literature. It’s a moment that nimbly layers the text of the novel, details of Alcott’s life and career, and meta-reflections on Gerwig’s own place as the latest director to adapt a much-mined book, into an extraordinary palimpsest of our evolving notions of authenticity and ownership.
Gerwig grounds the intellectual and historical scope of her film in a sincere regard for her characters as real people and the settings as real places, not artifacts or archetypes of a different time. Her actors embody that same sincerity in gentle, loose performances, nestling into roles that seem cut to shape for them but also demand a certain self-awareness. Ronan amplifies the vulnerable recklessness of her character in Lady Bird, brimming with purpose and anger and tenderness; Emma Watson fits the part of the prim, elegant Meg, vain yet wise and kind; and Timothée Chalamet, far softer and more sheepish than the Lauries of previous versions, is deftly convincing as a charming companion but unserious match for Jo. (Louis Garrel is also especially welcome as a younger, more affable version of the stuffy Professor Bhaer.) It’s Florence Pugh as Amy, however, who emerges as the true standout: she persuasively transforms the book’s slightly shallow second-fiddle character into the most clear-eyed among the sisters, her coming-of-age fostered by the compassionate insight of Laura Dern’s Marmee and the stern but necessary cynicism of Meryl Streep’s Aunt March.
That these actors are all stars, rising or already part of the firmament, means that they each feel as singular as they’re meant to be, as individuals finding their distinct paths through history. And yet the film’s energy derives from their warm and crackling interplay with one another—a feat as much of directing as it is of acting. Gerwig and her collaborators, DP Yorick Le Saux, composer Alexandre Desplat, and editor Nick Houy, animate Little Women with a precise sense of rhythm: its characters run and dance and skate and chatter through scenes that speed and slow and tumble into each other. Few adaptations of Little Women—and indeed, few period dramas—have felt as alive, immediate, and fleet-footed as this film, a work overrun by feeling and yet structured by ideas.
In early October, I met up with Gerwig in New York to chat about Little Women, in a conversation as lively and full of revelations and references as her film.
I mean, it’s incredibly strange and beautiful that all these different women [feel that way]. Have you read the Neapolitan quartet, by Elena Ferrante? Little Women traces through that, too. I almost dropped the book while reading it. I was like, “Of course this is her book.” And it’s certainly not because Jo marries Professor Bhaer. That’s not why we love her and that’s not why women who wanted to be writers have flocked to her.
Not in the hopes of meeting an older German professor who gives them scathing feedback.
Who doesn’t like what they’re doing. And makes Jo use the word “thou.”
Did you also have the experience of reading it young? Was it a book that signaled to you who you were in the world?
I did not read it [at first]. It was read to me by my mother. So I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know who the Marches were. I always knew who Jo was and who her sisters were. It was one of the books I had in my bookshelf and I was a re-reader, so I read it lots and lots of times. Before I wrote the script, probably the last time I read it all the way through was my mid-teenage years—14, 15. When I read it in my thirties, it was a vastly different experience. But when I read it as a child, it’s hard to say… I don’t know if I was like Jo and that’s why I loved her, or if I made myself like Jo because that’s who I loved. Did I want to be a writer and then find this character? Or did that character make me want to write?
That’s fascinating, because I think that’s a recurring theme in a lot of your work—people trying to live up to certain intellectual or literary or cultural ideals, and not knowing where that desire comes from or whether it’s genuine. There’s this line in Mistress America that I love, where Tracy says, “I know what it is to want things.”
I haven’t watched that movie in a while, but I remember that line now that you’re saying it.
I don’t know who wrote it. Whether you wrote it or Noah.
It sounds like one of mine. [Laughs]
That line has always stayed with me because it captures what that film, Frances Ha, Lady Bird, and now Little Women are all about—they’re films about yearning, but not quite knowing what the object of your yearning is.
This sort of inchoate desire, or desire that doesn’t have an object, is interesting to me, because I think it’s so much a dimension of what it is to be an ambitious woman. Because, for every other moment in human history, [that ambition] had nowhere to go, at all. And we’re just now getting the chance to put it somewhere other than marriage. But even marriage, as a goal, as the sort of Jane Austen marriage plot, is [fairly modern]… I mean, really, the idea that women weren’t property is new.
So while making Little Women, the one thing I kept thinking about was the ending. This thing that all these luminous women [who were inspired by Little Women] don’t love is that she ends up with Professor Bhaer. I wanted to construct a movie where, when Jo gets that book at the end and holds it, you are getting the satisfaction of something that you didn’t know you needed to see. But as soon as she gets it, you think, “I needed it and I didn’t know it.” To me, that is the desire incarnate, the desire fulfilled. I think that it’s funny that all these women love the book because obviously there’s this divergence: Louisa May Alcott didn’t get married and didn’t have children, and Jo does and she stops writing at the end of the book, because she felt like what she was writing was bad.
What is the phrasing in the book? She “corks up her inkstand.”
But as [Louisa May Alcott] keeps writing books, like Jo’s Boys and Little Men, Jo becomes more like Louisa. Girls are let into Jo’s school [which she opens with Professor Bhaer], and she starts writing again, and she writes a book like Little Women. So I kind of collapsed the ending that way. This difference between what Jo does and what Louisa actually did is this chasm, and I think on some level all these women who read Little Women did know that she’d actually done that, they knew about the doubling, that she’s Jo and Jo is her but there were [still] these differences.
So maybe all these women who grew up reading the book sort of knew it was a contrived ending.
Yeah! In the movie, I always knew that I wanted the ending to lead you there and then say, why is it that you need this? Or why do you want this? Someone said at some point, “When Professor Bhaer shows up [at Jo’s house], it’s like deus ex machina”—and it is deus ex machina, that is what it is, he just shows up. In the book, he just appears! He doesn’t need to appear. And also, there are so many things in the book that I didn’t have time to explore. There’s someone at Jo’s boarding house, a woman that she’s friends with, who’s not married, and who’s her best friend and takes her to concerts and stuff, and you think, wait, is that secretly you, Louisa? Who’s this woman?
Alcott has said things that sound like she might have been what we think of today as queer.
Right. I didn’t want to assign anything that felt too modern to her but… there’s lots of stuff. I mean, the thing she said, “I have half a mind to think I’m a man born into a woman’s body.”
And “I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls.” You don’t know exactly what she meant by “in love.”
Right. I mean, the passion she felt for her sisters was not sexual, but she felt a possessiveness and anger that they couldn’t stay in their female utopia for their entire lives.
And that’s exactly like Frances Ha.
Yes, it is. For me, I don’t have to go far—I love my group of female friends, I write movies about not wanting to disrupt that, whether it’s sisterhood or mothers or friends. But in any case, I just knew I could not do the ending just as the book [did]—especially because Louisa didn’t really want to end it that way, and she really did think Jo’s true fate should’ve been as “a literary spinster with books for children.” And so I thought, I can’t in good faith do this ending, number one because it’s not in me, number two because she didn’t like it, and if we can’t give her an ending she would like, 150 years later, then what have we done? We’ve made no progress.
The distance between life and fiction is moving to me in general. With the Marches, they’re the genteel poor, while the Alcotts were wretchedly poor. They moved something like 30 times in Boston when she was a teenager because they kept getting kicked out of places because they didn’t have enough money. Louisa and her sisters and her mother did grueling work, and none of that’s in the book, because that isn’t what was going to sell. So it was all of the good things [of their life] wrapped up in something she wishes she had, and I find that difference very moving.
How did this movie come about?
I knew that there was a desire with Amy Pascal and Sony because it’s been 25 years [since the 1994 version], and a lot of young women don’t know what this book is. This was before I directed Lady Bird, but I had written the script for it, and I heard from my agent that people were meeting about Little Women. And I said, oh you have to get me a meeting. I have to write and direct that film. And he said, no studio is going to hire you to direct a film when you haven’t directed a film. And I was like “That’s semantics! I’m on my way!” So I went in and I had this very clear idea. To me, it was so clear that the book was about women, art, and money. The emotional core about sisterhood and family was true, but there was this other very nuts-and-bolts side of it, which was equally emotional. The first line of the book is “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents. It’s so dreadful being poor. It’s not fair that some girls have lots of pretty things and other girls have none at all.” And I was like, “This book’s about money.” And Louisa’s life, as it turns out, as I did my research, was also about that. A lot of the lines I give Louisa—or Jo/Louisa—are from [Alcott’s] letters, from her diaries, from her writing. When Jo says in the film, “I can’t afford to starve on praise,” that’s from her. She was making economic decisions constantly.
The unromanticness of her writing, the mercenary way in which she approached it as a job, feels so romantic today. She sold her stories to make a living.
Yeah, like, what sells? And Little Women did sell out in its first printing in two weeks, and she did keep the copyright because she knew to, and she also got 6.6 percent of the profits, because her publisher didn’t think that people would buy it. I also thought each of the girls’ pursuits aren’t “adorable”—they’re big and serious. All the chapters of Amy in Europe realizing she’s not a great artist, they’re amazing. As I dove in, I realized that the moment when May, who’s the Alcott sister Amy is based on, was in Europe, was exactly when we saw the very beginnings of modernism in art. Cézanne is painting, Manet is painting, and to go to Rome and see the Old Masters and think, no, I’m not going be that, and then to go to Paris and see people who are starting to use paint as the subject itself, and realize you’re not doing that either… that’s a crisis of faith, if that’s what you thought you were meant to do.
So I had all these ideas. And the thing that I read that articulates that idea—“women, art, and money”—the best is Virginia Woolf ’s A Room of One’s Own. Which everyone remembers as [high-pitched voice] “To write you need a room of one’s own.” You think of a garret and a little cozy fire and you’re wrapped in your shawl and you’re alone and you’re writing. But what she actually says is you need a room of one’s own and money. Because she was asked to speak on why there are no great women writers, and she said the question isn’t why are there no great women writers, the question is: why have women always been poor? Because women have always been poor, not for 200 years merely, but since the beginning of time. And she said, “Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom, and intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry.” How could you possibly? If you don’t have money, you can’t write poetry.
I felt like that idea is being expressed both through Louisa May Alcott and through Jo, and I wanted to make a movie about that. And the other thing, when I started writing, I started looking at the two parts of the book as two separate books. The girlhood part, the first half, was Christmas to Christmas, 1861 to 1862—that was the first publishing. And then the second book, Alcott joked, should’ve been called The Wedding Marches, because she had to marry them all. Suddenly there were all these things I felt were mirrored in each other, the biggest one being Beth and her illness. To me it’s the fairy tale versus what life is. In the first book, she gets sick, then she gets better, and in the second book, she gets sick and then she dies. And it was that doubling that made me think, well, what if I could layer these two things on top of each other, because in my experience of a lot of fiction about women, there’s this sense that all the adventures happen when you’re a girl or a teenager, and as soon as you become an adult, it’s all over, and it’s not that interesting. And I cannot have that be the story we’re telling young women. I felt like I wanted to give the March women back what they had as girls. That felt to me like part of the task of this film, because I can’t tell you how many women are like, “I only read the first part.” If the thing we’re telling girls is that once you become an adult, it’s all over, that’s not good enough, because then there’s nothing left to desire, there’s nothing to look towards. If there’s no bravery and ambition and scope once you’re an adult, if it all existed as a girl and then you put away your childish things, it just feels not right. So I wanted to ground it in adulthood.
God, this is cosmic!
I know. I had my chart read against Louisa’s…
I mean, we’re not going to get married, we’d make a terrible marriage match. Apparently we had a lot of similarities, but hers was more lonely. Because she was ahead of her time. I always think she kind of pulled us into the 20th century, in many ways.
You’ve made this book feel very contemporary by digging into the real history of its publication in the 1800s. The conversation Jo has with her publisher at the end of your film, negotiating royalties and copyright, sounds like things we’re talking about in 2019, about women and authorship and ownership.
Since we shot that scene, there has been all this stuff about how Taylor Swift doesn’t own the masters to her recordings, and now she’s re-recording because she wants to own them, and I was thinking, who owns the art? Who’s profiting off of it? I felt the edge of that question and I found so much in Louisa’s story, and I wanted to see that. But the same thing happened to me with the language: people say to me, oh, it sounds so modern.
I thought it sounded looser than the book.
Most of it is from the book, though, almost word for word. I wrote extra stuff, but a lot of the lines that strike people, like Amy saying “I want to be great, or nothing”—that’s from the book. Marmee saying “I’m angry nearly every day of my life”—that’s from the book. Even all the things they say on Christmas morning, which are such famous lines that you could recite them all, like “We can make our little sacrifices, and ought to do it gladly”—I just had an idea of them being said so quickly, just thrown off like sisters’ talk.
It’s in the delivery.
A lot of it’s in the speed, which was very choreographed. I didn’t just have them do it quickly or talk over each other. When I wrote the script, I employed this technique that a lot of playwrights use: you have a line and then you insert a slash where the next person is meant to start talking.
Yeah. You have this slash and then the line keeps going, but the next person has already started their line. So I organized the script that way, and it was a lot of rehearsal. We would actually start it slow and then speed it up to choreograph when the lines would come in. We’d do the lines slowly and then you’d point at someone and their line would start, and then you would point at someone else and their line would start. It was this handoff. And we choreographed the scenes slowly, too, of moving through the rooms. The way I shotlisted it was I wanted everything to be swirling all the time. I didn’t want Steadicam, but I did want just a dance floor so that the camera could be on a dolly the whole time. And it was this slow building of the speed, so that by the time we got to it, they could do the Christmas morning in 20 minutes, just running, and it was amazing.
How do you intuit the right pace? In both Lady Bird and Little Women, rhythm seems so paramount to the filmmaking. Everything’s always flowing.
I don’t know. But I will tell you with Lady Bird and with this, the first note I always get from someone is “slow it the fuck down.” I don’t know where the rhythm part comes from, but if it doesn’t sound right to me, the whole structure falls apart. I think some of that is from theater, because in film, you can establish rhythm from editing, but in theater, you can only establish rhythm through language, so I think I still have that sense of wanting it to sound correct. I know it when I hear it, and when it’s wrong, it’s like someone I don’t know is touching my belly button.
That’s not from the book, right?
Well, the speech Jo gives is from another book Alcott wrote. I believe it’s Rose in Bloom: “Women have minds, as well as just heart; ambition and talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying love is all a woman is fit for.” But then I added “But I’m so lonely.”
Was that from her chart?
[Laughs] No, I’d written a draft of this screenplay before I made Lady Bird. But once I made Lady Bird, finished it, edited it, and brought it out into the world, actually the day after the Oscars, I put all my research for Little Women in the car and I drove to this cabin in the woods. It’s almost like, for me, to be a writer-director, you have to know the whole thing in such a deep way. It has to be so real to you that it can’t not exist. Because you have to get everyone dreaming the same dream you’re dreaming. You need to believe in the reality of it, and for some reason, it’s something I do alone. So I was going through my research and I’d written that down out of the book, and I just… I was alone, and I heard Saoirse saying it in my mind, and then I heard her say “But I’m so alone.” I heard her weeping the whole time while she was saying it. And then I remember the moment on set when she said it, and I think I was crying because she just captures the whole feeling.
That line is also emblematic of how you make the film feel very immediate and present, but you also commit to its time and place with sincerity. I think period films sometimes struggle to achieve that balance. Were there certain films or texts that helped you figure out your approach?
I had my list of films. What I was very nervous about was that I didn’t want to make a period piece that felt nailed to the floor. That always happens, you can almost feel how expensive the lighting kit was. And you feel like you can’t move or breathe. I wanted it to feel light on its feet without being messy. I wanted it to feel like it was doing a very quick dance. And part of the reason I wanted to work with my cinematographer, Yorick [Le Saux], was because of this incredible movement [he achieves] behind the camera. You feel something restless behind his camera.
He seems to have a sense of the internal rhythm of each shot.
I Am Love [which Le Saux shot] is extraordinarily gorgeous, so I knew that he wasn’t scared of beauty, that he allowed himself to photograph things that are beautiful. But you’d be surprised—some filmmakers, some cinematographers, don’t want it to be too beautiful. I love his ability to embrace beauty in that way. Also, he has something that feels like he can both execute something and improvise at the same time. Like Carlos, the Assayas movie, it just never stops moving. If he made Carlos and I Am Love, well, my film is something in the middle of that. I just felt like the way to make it the most fresh was to keep it classical. The way to make it feel alive is to truly believe in the time. That’s why I didn’t want anything heavy about it.
I looked through a lot of paintings, photographs, a lot of research, to find what felt completely modern, because any time people live, it’s the most modern people who have ever existed! I can show you these wonderful photographs—I don’t know if you know this British photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron? She photographed women in the 1860s, and you will not believe these photographs, they just look like people you know. This is in the barrels of the research I was going through… [Scrolls through her phone and shows me a portrait of a young girl]
This is like an Instagram photo!
I know! And she looks so angry! Look at this face, she’s so annoyed.
And in those films, it’s really about capturing a sense of movement and dynamism. The fact that these people ran, and—
The running… Louisa May Alcott ran, and I kept coming across this in research, and I thought, “They must mean something different. They must not mean running.” And apparently they did mean running. She has journal entries where she says things like, “All I was able to do today was go for my run and write,” and I thought, what in the world? But apparently, she would tuck up her skirts and go running in the woods.
Which is an image we rarely see in the more traditional period films.
Yeah, exactly. Other films I looked at: Fanny and Alexander, because it’s a ghost story, and because it’s so great. The entire graduation sequence in Heaven’s Gate, where they all waltz in that giant courtyard, they just seem like teenagers. I made everyone watch all this stuff. McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the way people talk sounds like the way people talk, it doesn’t sound so precise. The Story of Adele H., also Truffaut. Esther Kahn, the Desplechin movie about theater. The Dead, the John Huston movie, because it’s about recapturing something that’s gone. Weirdly, Meet Me in St. Louis, because I love Minnelli and it’s this idea of, what’s the idyllic version of childhood like? And the beginning of Gigi, before he sings “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” the French promenade—that’s what we based the opening scene with Laurie and Jo on, strangely. Gigi. Lots of French films and musicals.
The way it’s edited, the film really feels like it’s set to music and movement.
When I talked to Alexandre [Desplat]—I had a lot of French collaborators, Yorick, Alexandre—I said to him that in some ways, what we see in this movie is a musical without songs. And he did such a marvelous score, so beautiful, and when it ends, when Jo has that wonderful look on her face [when she sees her book in a shop window], and we cut to black, there’s these last two notes. I had explained a feeling to him, which was: I wanted to give it back to the audience as if to say, “And now, you.” What are you making, what book are you writing, what song are you going to sing? And then he came up with this little end, which I thought, wow, that’s exactly what I meant. It’s amazing how much of filmmaking is on faith. I didn’t know what the music was going to be, and he had me show the film to him silent.
I can’t even imagine the movie silent, because of how much it feels set to the music.
Well, he watched it silent and I felt like… a horrible pain. But then he heard it! That’s what extraordinary about composers, they can hear.
Did you re-edit anything in response to the music?
Very little, because he wrote to the cuts that I felt were right. Working with a composer is like having a garment made for you—it looks great, you’ll never look better than when you buy something made for you. I remember when I talked to him initially, before I’d even shot anything. He’d read the script and he said, “The important thing to remember in cinema is, time only ever moves forward.” So even as you go back, you’re only ever going forward. And I thought about that a lot as we were shooting, that it is always advancing.
I wanted to ask about one more thing. Alcott grew up around Emerson and Thoreau and all these Transcendentalists, and she saw a kind of a compromised idealism around herself, these utopian communities that failed her father and her family. There’s a line in Frances Ha about Thoreau and Walden Pond—
Oh yes, there is! He lived five minutes from his mom’s house.
And he would go there to get supplies!
You know, you’re the first person who’s ever mentioned that and I was wondering if anyone would, because I don’t know if you’ve been to Concord, or been to Walden Pond, but it’s right there. He really makes it sound in the book like he’s far away. But his friends are a 20-minute walk away from him. I walked from my house in Concord to Walden Pond every weekend. It’s not that big a deal. I mean, I love Transcendentalism, I love Ralph Waldo Emerson, his work is incredibly dense but also fascinating and brilliant, and Thoreau, even though he’s a complainer, is brilliant also. But I am interested in the ways in which those things don’t really work for women. Or families. Every time I read Thoreau talking about how he’s going to build his hut and grow his peas and live off the land, I’m like, what is your wife going to do? Oh no, you didn’t have one, and you don’t have children, and this idealism about living at one with nature actually leaves aside the care of the family.
Which is what happened with Bronson Alcott, Louisa’s father.
Right, he brought them to live at Fruitlands, the vegan commune, where we actually shot. It’s where the little yellow house that Meg and John live in is. And we shot in Bronson’s schoolhouse, that he taught in. But this sort of “man alone with nature” thing doesn’t make sense in terms of a family, and it’s something I’ve thought about a lot. And the astonishing lack of understanding of what it takes to take care of a family is notable to me.
When you premiered Lady Bird at NYFF [in 2017], I asked you a question about the line in the film about love and attention, and you said you got it from Simone de Beauvoir. That made so much sense. It made me look at the film in a different way.
I think what I enjoy about being a fiction filmmaker and not having to write academic texts is I get to play with these different ideas from different angles. I don’t have to settle on an answer. That’s what I did love about going to school, and what I’ve missed sometimes, certainly when I was acting. There’s an itch I have to satisfy, that I can satisfy by writing and directing. This particular project was so satisfying to me in all the research and all the figuring out of how to make it, finding these puzzle pieces that fit—even the little things that no one will notice. When I was figuring out how I was going to weave this story this way, I suddenly noticed that when Meg goes to Vanity Fair, they call her Daisy, and later, she calls her daughter that, because it’s the last time she felt free. Doesn’t that just kill you? I felt that kind of satisfaction of things that jump out at you, that I would feel sometimes when I wrote papers. But luckily, unlike with papers, [with movies] I don’t have to fully answer everything. I can just enjoy the view of a neat thought.
First published on Film Comment on October 7, 2019.
The new film Bacurau centers upon the residents of a remote Brazilian village who gradually discover that they’re being hunted by a group of Western tourists. Part class-warfare satire, part thriller, the movie gripped audiences at the New York Film Festival and it marks a major achievement by its directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles.
In this episode, FC Editor-in-Chief Nicolas Rapold joins FC Assistant Editor Devika Girish in a conversation with Mendonça Filho and Dornelles where they discuss five key scenes from the film. These include the opening scene, which takes us via drone shot and truck drive into the film’s remote setting; a psychotropic interlude in which the residents of Bacurau dance the capoeira in preparation for battle; and finally a climactic action sequence that occurs in a local museum. They also discuss a memorable exchange between Udo Kier, who appears here as the icy-cruel leader of the mercenaries, and Brazilian acting legend Sonia Braga, who plays the village matriarch. Listen ahead for details on the making of each scene.
First published in BFI on October 4, 2019.
Kleber Mendonça Filho’s genre-bending third feature Bacurau, co-directed with his longtime production designer Juliano Dornelles, draws from a wide range of inspirations: the history of the Brazilian Sertão, the Vietnam war, 70s Hollywood movies.
But the film’s Black Mirror-esque premise of western tourists hunting Brazilian villagers for sport – and of the villagers fighting back in grand, gory style – emerged from an unlikely setting: a film festival.
In 2009, Filho and Dornelles presented their sci-fi mockumentary short, Cold Tropics, at a festival, where they ended up watching several ethno-documentaries.
“Some of them were all right, some were well-meaning. But we just couldn’t take the way they looked at ‘simple’ people – the other – from far away places,” Filho told me during a conversation at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. “That’s how Bacurau began. We thought we would write a film about great people from far away places.”
This emphasis on the act of looking – on how movies shape the perception and social position of the marginalised – sets Bacurau apart from the two features Filho has made in the intervening years. Both grapple with the lopsided socio-economic relations of contemporary Brazil: 2012’s Neighboring Sounds is a gradually twisting drama about the wealthy residents of a seaside apartment complex and their servants; in 2015’s Aquarius, a middle-aged woman (played by Brazilian legend Sonia Braga, who appears in a wonderfully eccentric cameo in Bacurau) stands up against corporate developers who want to tear down her historic home. Departing from the social realism of these films, the self-reflexive, pastiche-heavy Bacurau takes on the tropes of classic Hollywood westerns and thrillers – and turns them upside down.
“I think it’s basically the same film over and over again,” Filho said of his three features. “They are all under siege. But this one of course, is very clearly a siege film – it’s almost like cowboys and Indians, except the cowboys are the Indians, and the Indians are the cowboys.”
These subversions are rooted in actual history. The fictional village of Bacurau, set in the hinterlands of Brazil’s arid north-east, is based on a quilombo: a settlement (and site of resistance) formed by escaped African slaves in the 1600s. But the film updates the traditional quilombo to a more eclectic community of outcasts. Bacurau is made up of white, indigenous, and black people; gay and trans folks; doctors, prostitutes, teachers, pansexual gangsters, and even a bard.
“We’re dealing with archetypes, because we’re doing a genre film about a village that resists,” said Dornelles. “We talked about Asterix, the comic book series a lot – that’s where the bard comes from. But of course, we needed to be very honest with the representation of that kind of place, so we also used a lot of people from nearby villages. They understood the story that we were wanting to tell. It was like they knew that type of situation.”
“We found amazing people who had never been to a movie theatre,” added Filho. “One of the guys who ended up in the film makes a living digging wells and finding water. He uses a stick shaped like a Y, and he also has an iPhone. That weird mix was fascinating for us.”
Part of the pleasure of Bacurau is to see the villagers use that mix of tradition and tactical sophistication to outwit the westerners. In the first half of the film, which unfolds like a sci-fi thriller, the tourists send a UFO-shaped drone to recon the village, shoot up Bacurau’s water-tank with machine guns, and wipe out the power in the area with a snazzy device. But their military-grade gadgetry is no match for the grit and resourcefulness of the Bacurauans, who draw from their long history of rebellion and resilience for their bloody response – literally using the weapons hung on the walls of the village museum.
“That comes from, for example, what happened to the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1980, or the United States in Vietnam,” said Filho. “There are many moments in the script when we felt the film was a war film, not a western. It really has the psychology of a war film.”
A line in the film makes this connection explicit. When two of the western tourists come across a row of bloodied clothes hung out to dry at the outskirts of Bacurau, they exclaim, “Fucking savages!” – a direct reference to Apocalypse Now (1979).
“That’s from Robert Duvall’s Captain Kilgore, when he decides he wants to surf,” Filho said. “But there’s a problem, there’s a village on this wonderful beach. So what does he do? He takes 20 helicopters and bombs the shit out of the village. Then there’s a reaction, a ground-to-air missile from the Viet Cong, and it hits a helicopter. And Kilgore says, ‘Fucking savages.’ And he’s the one attacking the village!”
Bacurau invokes several other Hollywood movies, in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The village school is named after ‘João Carpinteira’, aka John Carpenter, whose original composition, ‘Night’, is used in a key scene, while the film’s pulp aesthetic – CinemaScope photography, split diopter shots, vintage dissolves and wipes – recalls thrillers and exploitation films from the 70s and 80s.
“We are cinephiles, and we love American films” said Dornelles. But Bacurau’s references to American cinema go beyond mere homage – they’re deployed towards a sharp, parodic critique of American culture and policy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the casting of Udo Kier as the proto-Nazi leader of the western mercenaries, who proudly proclaims his immigrant roots in America.
According to Filho and Dornelles, Kier’s character was inspired by Die Hard (1988). “Look at Alan Rickman’s character. ‘Hans Gruber.’ Come on! Hans Gruber?!,” Filho laughed. “He’s a very interesting character, you can’t take your eyes off him. But Hans Gruber? He doesn’t even speak German, and he’s [supposed to be] German. So [I thought], yeah, we can do the same in this film.”
Another character in Bacurau, almost caricaturish, is a gun-crazy American who talks about wanting to shoot up a mall after being divorced by his wife. “We thought that it would be fair to have these American characters,” said Filho. “Especially when you look at the history of American cinema, the way it has represented other cultures is very problematic.”
But Dornelles added that he doesn’t see the film as anti-American. “I think it’s anti-gun culture, more than anything else. They are not only Americans – there are Russians, a British guy. The main issue is that they’re white men from the northern hemisphere.”
The film’s underlying narrative of corrupt officials selling their people out to western capitalists hits even harder in Brazil, where the mere existence of the film feels like a political statement. The country’s right-wing government, led by president Jair Bolsonaro, dissolved its Ministry of Culture in January and recently froze all funding for ANCINE, the national film-TV agency. The state has also personally targeted the politically outspoken Filho, demanding that he return the state funds used in the production of Neighboring Sounds seven years ago.
Nevertheless, Bacurau has enjoyed great success at the box office – especially in Brazil’s north-east, where the film is set. “I think the whole atmosphere is really feeding into the dystopian nature of the film, and people are recognising it. The film establishes a very strong dialogue with reality,” Filho said.
One of the key moments in the film has proved eerily prescient. During a geography lesson, the local schoolteacher realises that Bacurau has suddenly disappeared from the online map. “We have a digital life and we have our physical life. Bacurau, of course, continues to exist physically, and when [the teacher] pulls down the paper map [in the classroom], they’re still there. But to the outside world, they have become extinct. I find it a very scary and cynical idea, which happens all the time in the world today.”
Strangely enough, months after Filho and Dornelles had shot that scene, it became a reality in Brazil.
“In March, we were going to France for post-production, and a friend sends us a link to a newspaper, where [it says] the government decided to erase this grid within a protected Brazilian indigenous area. That was the beginning of the crisis that we are seeing now with the burning of the Amazon.”
“It happens almost every week that some moments in the film, some scene, becomes a mirror image of what is happening in current affairs. We have the museum in the film, and we have our National Museum that, one year ago, burned down. We have many such examples.”
But Filho cautioned against reading Bacurau “like a news piece” on Brazil. “It’s not,” he said. “It’s cinema.”
Every year at the New York Film Festival, Film Comment puts on a slate of special events, including public talks and a screening presentation. Our first NYFF talk this year was titled State of the Nation, a wide-ranging conversation about the complex interplay between politics and cinema. How do filmmakers grapple with the challenge of portraying current events and recent history on screen? And how successfully are movies reflecting the political complexities of a fast changing world? FC Editor-in-Chief Nicolas Rapold sat down with a variety of voices to discuss these questions from different angles: Scott Z. Burns, writer-director of The Report and writer of The Laundromat; Jamsheed Akrami, professor at William Paterson University, director of Friendly Persuasion: Iranian Cinema After the 1979 Revolution, and author of our Jafar Panahi interview feature from our March-April issue; and Devika Girish, Assistant Editor of Film Comment.
First published in Film Comment on September 24, 2019.
Lina from Lima (María Paz González, 2019)
This year’s Toronto Film Festival featured a special tribute to the female filmmakers of history: Mark Cousins’ 14-hour documentary series, Women Make Film, traced the trajectory of cinema as seen exclusively through the work of women directors. Torn between a thousand options in my four days in Toronto, I couldn’t quite eke out time for Cousins’ omnibus (or judge, for myself, the irony of a male director helming a series about women’s auteurship), but I caught several titles at the festival that I imagine will find a place in the series’ future installments: bracing, inspired films by up-and-coming women directors from all over the world.
Many of these were screened in the festival’s Discovery and Contemporary World Cinema (CWC) sections, which boasted commendably high percentages of women directors: 54 percent in the former case and about 40 percent in the latter. (For the complete TIFF lineup, the number came out to 36 percent.) But numbers, PR-friendly as they are, only tell part of the story—they need to be backed up by the qualitative, hard-to-measure effort of seeking and supporting genuine talent and giving women the critical consideration that they, too, deserve as artists. This is where TIFF seems to have gotten it right. As with any large lineups, both Discovery and CWC featured films of varying strengths, but they spotlit enough robust work by nearly unknown female directors to offer a rebuttal to anyone who worries that gender parity requires a concession of quality, or that there just aren’t enough women making good movies.
To me, the more revealing TIFF statistic is the fact that this year, the festival also achieved parity among its programmers, ensuring that the bid to diversify the lineup went much deeper than simply hitting a number; it included an effort to expand the fold of people whose tastes and connections decide which films enter the festival pipeline. As programmers Dorota Lech (Discovery) and Kiva Reardon (CWC) confirmed to me in conversations after the festival, the high percentage of women in their selections was both an accident and a given. An accident because they operated with no predetermined quotas or metrics, choosing strictly based on quality; and a given because their choices reflect their own backgrounds and philosophies as women passionate about women’s stories.
“I was surprised myself that we landed with this number and how natural and easy it was,” said Lech, who was appointed the lead programmer for the Discovery section only last year. “I am a woman, I have a Master’s in Gender Studies, I live in one of the most multicultural cities in the world. What the program looks like is how I see the world.”
Reardon, who is also the founding editor of the recently shuttered feminist film journal cléo, added over email, “The different backgrounds of the programming team means we’re always looking to redefine what is deemed as ‘best’ and ‘essential.’ What stories have been overlooked, called ‘small’ or ignored? Usually ones by women.”
What’s striking about both Lech’s and Reardon’s programs is the sheer breadth of countries from which they managed to source films by women. Discovery, for instance, features women-directed features from more than 15 countries, including Antoneta Kastrati’s harrowing Zana, the first film from Kosovo to ever be screened at TIFF. Lech said that this was the result of a sustained effort on her part to visit and scout films in countries from where filmmakers are often unable to travel to markets like Cannes and Berlin. In the last few years, she has visited Cuba, Brazil, Chile, Kazakhstan, and Iran, amongst other countries; it was at the Cinema Vérité documentary festival in Tehran that she met Mahnaz Mohammadi, the director of Discovery selection Son-Mother. Reardon, who has been programming African and Middle Eastern films across the festival’s sections for the last three years, emphasized that the Arab world has an abundance of women making films, although they are usually overlooked in the mainstream canon. Her finds this year included Tunisian filmmaker Hinde Boujemaa’s Noura’s Dream, another excellent Discovery entry, which Reardon first encountered in a pitching platform at Egypt’s El Gouna Film Festival two years ago.
Comets (Tamar Shavgulidze, 2019)
Lech specializes in cinema from Eastern Europe—an area where she said it’s harder to find female filmmakers, unlike in the glory days of early Soviet cinema. But some of my favorite films in the Discovery lineup hailed from the region. One of these was the wonderfully strange Comets: a narrative shape-shifter about two women who reunite long after their truncated teenage romance and confront the the pull of long-lost possibilities. The second feature by Georgian filmmaker Tamar Shavgulidze, the film consists for the most part of gentle, probing conversations set in a sunlit yard—first between a mother and a daughter, and then between the mother and her former lover, who returns to town after decades of living abroad. Shavgulidze builds a tense, tender waltz out of these exchanges, interweaving the characters’ questions and recollections and longing-ridden glances with snatches of flashback, until Comets dissolves into its masterstroke of a finale: a La Jetée-esque sci-fi film-within-a-film that says aloud everything that the women have been unable to say to one other. Mesmerizing in its minimalism and its hushed voiceover full of melancholy, that final sequence turns Comets into a gorgeous piece of queer meta-text—a testament to cinema as a repository for repressed desires.
Zana (Antoneta Kastrati, 2019)
Zana, the debut Kosovar film at the festival, also fulfilled the titular promise of the Discovery section. Since Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, the publicly funded Kosovo Cinematography Centre has been supporting a nascent national cinema, much of which contends with the war that, just two decades ago, killed more than 13,000 civilians and displaced over a million Kosovar Albanians. Zana unfolds in the shadow of the same events, delving deep into the psyche of a woman unwilling, yet pressured to conceive again after losing her daughter in the war. But the film is also inflected by the personal experiences of director Antoneta Kastrati, who lost her own mother and sister in the violence. Now based in L.A., Kastrati has built her repertoire with several documentaries and shorts, often in collaboration with her cinematographer sister Sevdije. Zana is her fiction feature debut—and a remarkably assured one at that, signaling a director with a knack for austere visual storytelling.
Set in the countryside, Zana plays with the conventions of classic pastoral horror to etch out a haunting afterimage of the trauma of war—as borne, particularly, in the bodies of women. Pale, PTSD-stricken Lume spends most of her days tending to household chores and farm-work. Her routine is frequently interrupted by ominous visions that, chillingly, are almost impossible to distinguish from the actual vestiges of the war: the corpses and animal skulls she hallucinates are no less terrifying than the bullets she finds buried in the soil or the ghastly VHS tape she discovers of her daughter being dug up from the ground (which her mother-in-law has saved “in case of a trial”). Lume’s desperate need to grieve, with both body and mind, is somehow illegible to her mother-in-law, who parades her around to witch doctors and healers seeking a cure for what she assumes is infertility. Hewing close to Lume’s perspective and employing an unnerving, disjointed editing style, director (and editor) Kastrati creates a genuinely confusing sense of reality, with lead actress Adriana Matoshi bending the film around her with a magnificent performance of embodied grief. Her Lume reminded me of the PTSD-afflicted women in another TIFF selection: Kantemir Balagov’s post-WWII drama Beanpole, which screened in CWC, also explores the terror and promise of childbirth after the annihilation of war. Unlike Balagov’s film, however, Zana offers us no historical distance: the recency of the events that frame the film—and Kastrati’s tight, genre setup—ensure that we can feel the horror of it all in our bones.
Son-Mother (Mahnaz Mohammadi, 2019)
Son-Mother is another bleak, exacting drama about a woman’s lack of choice in a patriarchal society—a subject director Mahnaz Mohammadi knows all too well. A documentarian, actress, and activist, Mohammadi was banned from leaving Iran in 2011 after the release of her feature doc Travelogue, and then imprisoned for two years in 2014 for her political activism. Son-Mother, her first project since being released from prison, has a more humanist focus than her documentary work; à la Ken Loach, Mohammadi closely follows the tribulations of a helpless soul caught in the ever-more-insidious ways of the system. In the first half of the film, titled “Son,” widowed factory worker Leila (Raha Khodayari) struggles with a Sophie’s Choice-esque dilemma: the kindly bus driver at her factory has made her an offer of marriage, promising to support her and her children, but on one awful condition—that she send away her 12-year-old son Amir (Mahan Nasiri) until the driver’s teenage daughter is old enough to be married. Leila spends much of this first half adamantly rejecting his advances, until the risk of losing her factory job amid a brewing strike crumbles her resolve. She reluctantly sends Amir away to a school for the deaf, and the film segues into its second section, titled, “Mother.” The miserabilism of the first half gives way to something more like a thriller here as Amir tries to convince his schoolteachers of his deafness while also plotting his escape.
Written by Mohammed Rasoulof (A Man of Integrity), the script turns increasingly melodramatic as it proceeds, but the formal economy of Mohammadi’s direction compensates for the excesses of the writing. Even before we learn of the bus driver’s proposal to Leila, the situation is laid out for us in a quiet, triangular exchange of gazes between the two of them and a nosy coworker, relayed through the rearview mirror of the bus. Amir’s fate is conveyed through a similar choreography of gestures: Leila’s friend takes him out to a boat and instructs him to simply “not hear”—and immediately, the sound recedes from the scene and the camera zeroes in gently on the boy’s face as he internalizes the command. Nasiri is precocious in a granular, nearly wordless performance, while Raha Khodayari is reminiscent of Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night, her face weary with sorrow and exhaustion but never losing its touch of defiance.
Mariam (Sharipa Urazbayeva, 2019)
In contrast to the heavier subject-matter and genre mechanics of these films, Mariam and Lina from Lima offered gentler, more modest narratives about women rediscovering themselves in the absence of the men in their lives. In Mariam, Sharipa Urazbayeva’s true-to-life debut feature, a woman living in a remote village in the Kazakh steppe is forced to fend for herself and her kids after her husband suddenly disappears. Initially fazed by the slow-moving police and a confounding bureaucratic system, Mariam (Meruert Sabbusinova) soon starts to find little joys in life without her husband—until, of course, he returns, forcing a reckoning upon her. Urazbayeva employs a formal device that has now become something of a docu-fiction cliché: long, static medium-shots of a character at the margins of society, tending to daily chores. (I was reminded of Wang Quan’an’s Berlinale entry Öndög, a similarly glacial, observational drama about a reclusive woman in Mongolian steppe.) The film is enlivened, however, by the procedural rhythms of the plot and non-professional Sabbusinova’s beautifully acted—or, given that this is the actual story of her life, reenacted—journey of coming into her own.
In María Paz González’s Lina from Lima (also a debut), the protagonist, a Peruvian maid who works for a wealthy family in Chile, comes to terms with a different sort of separation. Back home in Lima, her teenage son grows distant from her and her ex-husband moves on with his new family, while she remains stuck in her life of invisible immigrant labor. But Lina (Magaly Solier), like Mariam, finds many little escapes in this life of solitude, which Gonzalez brings to life as glitzy musical interludes. It’s a lovely mix of poignancy and playfulness that stays endearingly low-key, the film’s sparse production balanced out by the infectious charm and wide, expressive eyes of its heroine. Like most other women-directed films I saw at TIFF (including Mati Diop’s Atlantics and Ina Weisse’s The Audition, discussed at length elsewhere in FC), Lina from Lina allows the woman at its center to command and truly own the frame, adding to the festival’s dazzling array of not just female filmmakers, but also performers and characters.
First published in Film Comment on September 18, 2019.
Terminal Sud is a political ghost story: a slice of urgent French minimalism haunted by the specters of Algeria’s past. Following 2015’s Story of Judas, which retold the final days of Jesus of Nazareth from the perspective of Judas Iscariot, Algerian-French filmmaker Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche returns with another bold experiment with history. Opening with the frisking of a busload of travelers at a military checkpoint, Terminal Sud appears to be set against the backdrop of the Algerian civil war, but the film’s modern, French setting and ambiguous dialogue make the context pointedly unspecific. Instead, the atmosphere Ameur-Zaïmeche evokes of repression, surveillance, and torture lend the film a depressing universality: “Everywhere in the world today, we see Brownshirts and hear boots marching on the ground,” the filmmaker said in our interview.
Ameur-Zaïmeche draws us into this neither-here, nor-there world through the eyes of a doctor (Ramzy Bedia) who insists, even amid death threats and murders, on an unflinching, humanist commitment to his job: he treats the wounded, no matter who they are or which side they represent. But as the need for self-preservation starts to collide with the doctor’s allegiance to his profession, the film posits a larger ethical question: is it morally defensible—or even possible—to be neutral in times of violent sectarianism?
Terminal Sud follows the contours of a thriller, with the stakes getting progressively higher, but Ameur-Zaïmeche and DP Irina Lubtchansky (daughter of the great French cinematographer William Lubtchansky) conjure the film as a kind of quiet, unnerving poetry. The action is rendered in a series of exquisitely composed, fragment-like scenes, dappled with shadow and light and grounded in a thick bed of street sounds (which the director told me are drawn from various cities of the world, enhancing the film’s palimpsestic sense of time and place). Scenes of brutality and terror intertwine with moments of languorous mundanity, painting an affecting portrait of people trying to grind on with their lives even in the most unlivable times.
Film Comment spoke with Ameur-Zaïmeche at the Toronto International Film Festival last weekend, where the film screened in the Contemporary World Cinema section after premiering at the Locarno film festival in August.
The most striking thing about Terminal Sud is its abstraction: it’s unclear when and where exactly the film is supposed to be taking place. But there are also specific references to Algerian history and you indicate in the credits that the film was shot in the South of France. It’s an interesting combination of abstraction and specificity.
We shot in France. It’s a French film, completely produced by French organizations like CNC and Arté and with regional funds from Pacard, Languedoc-Roussillon. We were designated by those agencies, who support French cinema, to make this film in France with public monies. I mention this because every film has a time and place connected to it, especially when public funds are involved. But Michel Foucault’s ideas of heterotopia and heterochronie are also inherent in the production of this film—it really captures the power of cinema to respond to the cruelty of our times, one that doesn’t just concern the country I’m from or France, but the world in its entirety. Everywhere in the world today, we see brown shirts and hear boots marching on the ground. This is a world of reactionaries. What should the film industry do at this time? Should we just entertain and divert? Or should we master the art [of cinema] and its power? That’s the question I pose in making this film.
More specifically, why did you want to make an Algerian story set in France?
I was born in Algeria, but I was two when I left. I grew up in France. I was a student at the time of the events [referenced in the film.] The electorate in Algeria was disenfranchised and I felt powerless to respond to this act of the government. The worst was the confiscation of voting rights, which came like a prairie fire sweeping through many countries in the world [whose effects] we still see today. Even this year, we’ve seen that Moroccan dissidents have been imprisoned for dozens of years and subjected to torture. People in Morocco feel powerless because even though everyone knows about it, no one can do anything about it. Nothing is new on this front. It’s the same in Pakistan, in India, with Kashmir.
It’s interesting that you mention Kashmir—your film actually reminded me of an Indian movie named Haider, which is an adaptation of Hamlet set in Kashmir. In the film, Hamlet’s father is a Kashmiri surgeon, and militants barge into his home one night and force him to operate on their wounded leader, which leads to the Indian army kidnapping and torturing him.
Wow, there’s not much imagination to my film! [Laughs]
It made me think about how doctors are such excellent characters through whom to explore a civil conflict. Their jobs require a kind of unbiased, disciplined humanism, which can be morally complex during times of war.
Doctors are the first to confront physical and mental suffering. They must do so despite physical and emotional hardships, and despite people being broken by their experiences. The doctor has to keep going forward and support the notion of civilization. The hospital [in the film] is a place for asylum, for refuge. It is a safe space, which is at the same time completely run-down and falling apart. It’s a house of cards, essentially. In the end, I pose the question to spectators and citizens, to what extent are we just going to sit here and not do anything about it? At what point should we jump in and start reacting to these situations and trajectories we see play out in the film? The doctor finds himself plunged in a climate of absolute terror every day, but when his own life is in danger, maybe that’s the thing that will move him to action.
What do you mean by “move him to action”?
When he takes the gun out of the glove compartment and shoots [the soldiers], that comes at a point where he’s been tortured and the friends who save him bring him to a place where he communes with horses and sees nature around him. When he decides to take the gun out of the glove compartment, he makes a choice. Is he going to sit down and be tortured again, after being menaced by oppressive forces, or is he going to fight back? What would you do in his place, at that moment?
Are you trying to say that the neutrality of a doctor is impossible in this kind of society? Or is it morally indefensible?
I believe our neutrality is becoming more and more amoral and immoral. How much longer are we going to live with smoke and mirrors around these situations and not face them head-on? Everything around us is to be doubted for its veracity. The film is very dark and obscure in that way, but it is punctuated by rays of light where you can see that there is hope for the world.
And what are those moments?
The flamingos at the end, the horses who surround the doctor in a waltz that heals him from his torpor, those points of connecting with nature.
The film is tough to watch, but also incredibly beautiful to look at in terms of how it’s shot and framed, with delicate use of light and shadow. What was your aesthetic approach to the film? How did you reconcile it with the film’s themes?
We always put the violence off-screen. We never see blood splashing over.
I agree, I don’t mean that it aestheticizes violence, I just mean that every single frame and shot is beautifully composed. I’m wondering how that aesthetic of beauty fits into the politics of the film.
The aesthetic fits the politics because it uses all the suggestive powers of cinema. That’s why I believe in film as a major art form, because we can harness the power in beautiful images to still communicate things that are heavily political. The aesthetic component of the film follows; it’s secondary. We’re not looking to make beautiful or subtle images. That’s how they come to us in the capturing and telling of the story. We simply adapt ourselves to the constraints of the resources in making the film. What we were really working at was capturing small mosaics of images, fragments of reality, that could then be built into the story we had at hand. We used the “brute force” of documentary fragments to transform the film into a fictional, impressionist painting. My process is to work on that line between documentary and fiction, inspired by Éric Rohmer’s shooting process. To work with the real and fit it into the narrative—not to rebuild the narrative towards reforming the real. We are not looking to make a beautiful film, but making the best film that we can in completely aleatory circumstances.
What do you mean when you say you employed a documentary mode? Was that in terms of the actors, the situations, or the locations?
We were in a real, closed-down hospital in the most disaffected neighborhood of Nimes, but with actors. We were building situations inside real locations that we imagined would be true to the situation. We had to improvise the set dressing or production design from one day to the next. It wasn’t complete improvisation, but it was elaborated in minutiae, as each detail was added to make [the settings] look more authentic. The hospital was actually shot in several different locations. For the cemetery, we just dug several graves in a garden the night before shooting. So, each day just gave us enough time to set up the next day.
It’s like anything can be anywhere in your film: a cemetery can be in a garden, and Algeria can be in France.
[Laughs] We were blessed with the warm, golden Mediterranean sun. But it’s still a French-language film, so it could be Algeria from the past, or France in the future. Or another country of any sort.
How did you work with your cinematographer, Irina Lubtchansky, to develop the look of the film?
It’s very simple. We didn’t come to the film with any kind of planning or expertise. We, the director and the cinematographer, are running after the film, finding what suits it best. We imagine ourselves as explorers in the Amazon, looking to see where the next step is. We’re like wildlife documentarians. We discover places, landscapes, faces, and bit by bit, we get close to their hearts.
Another striking aspect of the film is the ambient sound. You often enhance it so that the dialogue is enveloped by the sounds of the city, the trash being collected, of people going about their day. How did you develop the sound design for the film?
Our friend Nikolas Javelle, the sound designer, had already recorded street noises in Cairo and other oriental and Middle Eastern towns. He used congested town backgrounds, which all came from his pre-recorded library of sounds. We were in Marseilles with one sound sample; Beirut, Rabat, and Cairo were all covered as well. So even when nothing is happening, we have the background noises of helicopters and klaxons from these different cities. In Marseilles, for example, there’s a lot of honking of horns.
Why did you choose to fill the film with that kind of amplified ambient sound? What was the effect you intended?
To add to the confusion of time and place, so that the spectator should feel disoriented and anxious about all these sounds of congestion and chaos. We also used Swedish lullabies in the film in two places to open up the universality of the film. We could’ve stayed within the norms of North African folklore or Provencal cultural traditions, but we want to think outside the French-Algerian axis. So in the musical terrain, we opened the door to another dimension of contextualizing the film, and also reinforced the notion of being unstable in our place and time and culture.
There’s one particular scene that I found especially moving. The protagonist and his friend Mo are sitting on the sidewalk as the trash is being cleared off the street, and while they’re talking about what’s happening to the world around them, they burst into peals of laughter over a silly joke. It’s a brief, tender moment of normalcy.
We shot that scene in the poorest, most populous neighborhood of Nimes, just at the end of a market day. It was the first time we had seen that space and the giant street-cleaner that sucks up the trash, all the leftovers of a super-abundant society and all the abandoned vegetables, and the vacuum cleaners would [emit] billows of smoke as they passed through the dust. So, in this hyperrealistc moment, we installed two completely invented characters on the bench, just talking about completely unrelated things. We filmed them really tight, the shot is close on them, and the moment breaks into a real release from their captivity in the space as they tell a joke and laugh. It’s after a threat was made to the doctor, so it’s a liberation for him to laugh. And the joke they made at the end, about the six-kilo telephone, was completely improvised.
I guess it helps that your lead actor is a comedian!
Yes, he’s very well-known as a comedian in France. And of course, his role in this film as a doctor is completely the opposite of his public persona.
As the film goes on, you feel more and more suffocated—and then that last shot, of the glittering ocean, comes as a reprieve, as the doctor finally gets on a boat to escape. Did you always want the film to end on that note of optimism?
We didn’t know if he would escape. It was only while we were making the film that I decided that he would. In the first draft, we ended the film with him in the middle of the desert, alone and abandoned after an accident. Then we discovered the countryside, the Camargue, and we said there’s no other way to end the film but on the open sea. It was a gift of God that the light landed like that on the wide open spaces of the sea, that are sparkling with hope.
Is that why you knew wanted it to end it there, with a gesture of hope?
It’s because we had no choice. The adventure of making the film proposed to us this optimistic scenario. That ending imposed itself on us. A film is like a wild animal. You can’t tame or domesticate it, but must learn to live with it on its own terms.
The image of the sea is especially resonant with today’s refugee and migrant crises.
Of course. We’re in a country here, in Canada, that’s full of immigrants, that’s made up of immigrants. Humanity today is like so many skylarks, circling around.
But that makes me wonder about the hopefulness of the end. The protagonist is on the boat and he’s smiling in relief, but I’m thinking: what happens next? In today’s world, the ocean has its own bureaucracy. People who set out into the sea to find freedom are denied it more often than not.
We can never know what will happen next; death can happen at any moment, but we must accept this aspect of unknowability in our daily life. Even if we are predestined to a certain life, we can make something other of it. We can go somewhere else, take another course. That’s what the doctor decided to do.
You mentioned Rohmer as inspiration for the film. Were there any other films or filmmakers that have inspired you?
I’m at heart an anthropologist, as a filmmaker, and my first influence was Jean Rouch. When I was a kid, I watched Ciné-club in France, which had a well-curated selection of films from all cultures. But they also showed F.W. Murnau, John Ford, and Jean Renoir.
First published on Firstpost on September 13, 2019.
Most of Noah Baumbach’s films can be described, in one way or another, as “marriage stories”: his scripts are often set in the margins of marital or romantic strife, burrowing into the cracks that develop before, after, and around a souring relationship.
In his masterful The Squid and the Whale, two young boys come to terms with the acrimonious separation of their parents; in While We’re Young, the nostalgic allure of youth tests a midlife-crisis-ridden marriage; both Margot at the Wedding and The Meyerowitz Stories feature a divorcee (or an about-to-be divorcee) caught in a complex, anguished nexus of familial dysfunction.
This makes Baumbach’s latest film, Marriage Story, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, both familiar and new. It’s the story of two New York artists (autobiographical archetypes that Baumbach frequently satirises in his work) undergoing a divorce. But this time, Baumbach steps away from the sidelines and enters the fray.
Marriage Story unfolds right in the middle of a marriage as it falls apart, zeroing in on the two people caught up in it and the havoc the process wreaks on their perceptions of themselves. The result is a film that’s more focused and raw than any of the writer-director’s previous work, but also much less complex and layered. The meandering asides, hyper-specific neuroses, and unsaid resentments through which Baumbach’s characters typically reveal themselves are substituted in Marriage Story for the simpler, broader strokes of shouting matches and heartfelt letters.
Charlie (Adam Driver) is the director of an avant-garde theater company in New York; Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is an actor in his troupe. Their careers have grown together over the years, although who benefited from whom is a bone of contention. Now, Charlie’s Male Genius reputation overshadows Nicole, who comes to realize that she’s put her own dreams on hold to help realise her husband’s. When she receives a lucrative offer to do a TV show in Los Angeles, where she’s originally from and has always wanted to live, Charlie responds by ridiculing her (“I don’t watch TV,” he says at one point while watching TV) and refusing to leave New York. It serves as the push Nicole needs to realise that it’s time to leave and start her life anew — to “have a piece of Earth that’s finally mine,” as she puts it in a bravado monologue.
By the time Marriage Story begins, all this is already in the past and the separation has been initiated. The subject of the film isn’t why they’re parting, but how, exactly. How do they protect their sweet, but demanding 7-year-old son, Henry, from the drastic changes that are bound to ensue? How do they divide their lives across two far-apart coasts? And most significantly, how do they reconcile the fact that they still genuinely care for each other with the realization that they make for a deeply unhappy couple? Charlie insists upon the fantasy of an amicable breakup, navigated with therapists instead of lawyers, but Nicole realises that extricating her life from Charlie’s requires a more clear-eyed and unsentimental approach. She fires the first shot, hiring celebrity lawyer Nora (Laura Dern) to fight her case.
Marriage Story hunkers down on what Baumbach has described in interviews as the “divorce-industrial complex”—a dehumanising bureaucratic process which reduces something as intimate as a separation into a series of arbitrary rules and exorbitant courtroom battles. Late to the game, Charlie is forced to confront the confounding nitty-gritty of divorce law. Since Nicole files for divorce while in Los Angeles, Charlie can only contest her in the same city. If Charlie doesn’t visit Los Angeles often, he looks like a neglectful parent, and if he does visit, he weakens the case to move his son back to New York. If he doesn’t respond in 30 days, he concedes by default; he also has to pay 30% of Nicole’s lawyer fees. Most insidiously, he can’t use any lawyer Nicole has already consulted — and on Nora’s orders, she meets with eleven of the best to ensure that she has the upper-hand.
Not only do these legal back-and-forths form the most insightful parts of the film, but they also yield some of its best performances and lines — especially from Charlie and Nicole’s lawyers. Alan Alda plays Bert Spitz, an elderly lawyer who impresses Charlie with his ability to bring genuine empathy to the divorce process. Alda is gentle and firm in the role, gracefully delivering some of the film’s most profound aphorisms (“divorce is like death without a body”).
However, as the fancy Hollywood lawyer Nora, Dern is the true scene-stealer of Marriage Story — she is both tender and sharklike, evoking the best of her performance in Big Little Lies. In an unforgettable scene, she lets loose a diatribe about the unfair judging of mothers in divorce cases, castigating God as the ultimate absent father; “He didn’t even do the fucking,” she says.
Charlie and Nicole claim that their marriage has always been bad — then why do they insist on being so good to each other? Where do their affections stem from? We never truly grasp their story beyond the broad contours of a domineering male artist and a muse-cum-wife struggling for independence. When they go at each other’s throats, it’s the cliched complaints: you never loved me, you rushed me into this, you used me, etc. It feels like a template of a disintegrating marriage, designed to be broadly relatable, rather than the nuanced, eccentric, even rancorous portraits of relationships (romantic or otherwise) that we’ve come to expect from Baumbach.
More troublingly, the script seems to give Nicole the short end of the stick. We dwell in Charlie’s world, seeing him in all his faults and virtues: he is woefully oblivious, so adamant to have his way that he can’t even acknowledge that his son is actually happier in LA. And yet, he’s a wonderfully caring father, a great boss and director to his theater troupe, and a self-made man whose abusive childhood has made him stubborn in his desire for a certain kind of family life. With Nicole, however, there’s much left unexplored.
It’s never fully explained why she so wants to move to LA, what her ambitions are, or what influence her TV actress mother — who dotes on Charlie, much to Nicole’s chagrin — have had on her. The film makes the same folly as Charlie: it refuses to consider Nicole beyond her grievances with him, effectively reducing her to an extension of her husband.
Marriage Story is nevertheless an intensely watchable film, whether due to Driver and Johansson’s earnest performances and onscreen charm, or Baumbach’s ability to capture urban spaces (New York and Los Angeles, in this case) with evocative detail. But it’s also a slight and sometimes bland film, whose protagonists never truly get under your skin. Ultimately, the film is more compelling as an account not of love, but of its absorption into the language of law — i.e, as a “divorce story” rather than a “marriage story.”
First published on Film Comment on September 11, 2019.
For our second dispatch from the not-yet-frozen tundra of Toronto, Film Comment Editor-in-Chief Nicolas Rapold welcomes back Devika Girish (FC Assistant Editor) and programmer and critic Abby Sun for a rundown of highlights including Lina from Lima, Just Mercy, Synonyms, Terminal Sud, Blood Quantum, and Simple Women.