A still from 'Scenes from a Marriage'.
December 4, 2018
By Joshua Ray

Domestic Disturbances

To celebrate the centenary of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s birth, the boutique home video label the Criterion Collection has released a beautifully-curated mammoth box set containing 39 of the director’s features. Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema is a gift from the cinephile gods, and includes a 248-page book with critical essays alongside writings from the man himself. The set comprises 30 Blu-Ray discs that include Academy Award-winning arthouse classics like The Virgin Spring (1960) and Fanny and Alexander (1983), as well as rarely seen gems such as Hour of the Wolf (1967) and From the Life of Marionettes (1980). Uniquely, Criterion has also programmed the release like a film festival, carefully selecting centerpieces and sidebars around his major periods – i.e., early melodramas, experimental 1960s work – and major themes like generational divides, the theater, faith, and marriage. 

Marriage, as Ingmar Bergman and his films would have it, is the ultimate societal bond between two individuals, as well as a cosmic linkage unbreakable by adultery, loss, or even divorce. The Swedish film director was preoccupied with the church- and state-sanctioned institution and its flaws from the very beginning of his career. His international breakout hit, Smiles from a Summer Night (1955), is a sex comedy about societal norms squeezing marital tension to its breaking point when its characters start playing musical beds. Bergman would continue exploring nuptial disharmony, sometimes in the margins like in the psychological drama Through a Glass Darkly (1961), or on a larger scale with a couple caught in war-torn Europe in Shame (1968). 

Bergman would most explicitly explore the subject in the aptly titled Scenes From a Marriage (1973), a six-part television mini-series chronicling the breakdown and dissolution of the relationship of an affluent couple, Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johann (Erland Josephson). The series – and its subsequent theatrical cut – would become another milestone in a career already full of them: a major television event in its homeland that would renew its creator's popularity there and around the world. Scenes had such a significant impact on Bergman's career that the director would return to its central characters thirty years later in what would be Bergman's cinematic swan song, Saraband (2003). The films – including both cuts of Scenes – are appropriately coupled together in Criterion’s new set, providing a glimpse at what a “Bergman Cinematic Universe” might resemble.

Scenes from a Marriage

1973 / Sweden / 283 min. (Mini-Series) or 169 min. (Theatrical Cut) / Dir. by Ingmar Bergman / Opened theatricaly in the U.S. on Sept. 15, 1974

Scenes from a Marriage must be particularly striking for those viewers only familiar with the most recognizable Bergman surfaces: the ones with Death (Bengt Ekerot) playing chess with a Medieval Knight (Max von Sydow) from The Seventh Seal (1957), or Ullmann and Bibi Andersson’s faces melding into one in Persona (1966). Scenes is possibly the director’s most deceptively simple-looking production. Made for television on 16mm film stock in the 1.33:1 square-ish Academy ratio, it features very few of the stylistic flourishes for which Bergman and his frequent cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, had become known. Having previously worked on The Rite (1969) for Swedish television – and being isolated on the island of Fårö, spending time cooped up with the small screen medium almost exclusively – the director knew that the TV would be perfect for the scenarios he had created. 

Scenes is comprised of six chapters largely constructed of medium two-shots and close-ups, a schema demonstrating the shifting power between its male and the female protagonists. The film focuses on Marianne and Johann almost exclusively in spare environments – their home, their respective offices, a country cottage. The setting is so spare, in fact, that their children are only glimpsed once at the very beginning of the film; they are little more than props for an interviewer exploring how the couple “makes it all work.” The feature’s scenarios were partially inspired by a seemingly happy married couple with whom Bergman was acquainted: "I remember they irritated me so intensely, that I once tried to seduce the wife (this is over 20 years ago). I failed, of course, and that made me even more annoyed. I did it in pure desperation, just to bloody well show them. Suddenly I pictured them sitting [on] my old sofa and being interviewed. And I thought: 'Now I'll get them.'"

This act of exploration-cum-revenge fantasy backfired on Bergman as he appears to project his own past marital and relationship failings onto his fictional characters, having recently separated from his longtime muse Ullmann and already remarried. In the major pivot chapter of "Paula" (each part is roughly an hour in length and bestowed with its own title), Johann comes to his wife to not only confess that he's fallen in love with the titular other woman, but that he plans to leave the family behind to stay with her. Ullmann's performance here is a master class in fireworks and subtlety; she oscillates between coy acceptance, explosive panic, and simmering anger. Although they had worked together for almost a decade and Ullmann had become the ultimate manifestor of Bergman's words, the clarity with which the actress betrays the character's mindset must have sprung forth from a raw nerve. 

By the end of Scenes, Marianne is the character who undergoes a complete transformation: from content mother, housewife, and career woman to a divorcee figuring out her new station in life and how to negotiate her ex-husband and the new men in her life. Johann, however, flounders terribly, grasping at any opportunity to knock his life out of balance – whether that be with other women or short-term career changes. His strident attitude towards his work, marriage, affairs, and his future points towards a middle-class malaise that forewarns self-destruction. To this end, Bergman indicated that his purpose in making the mini-series was to explore this exact idea: "The absolute fact that the bourgeois ideal of security corrupts people's emotional lives, undermines them, frightens them." If Bergman was mining Ullman's behavior for her character, it's possible that Johann can be seen as an auto-critique for the director who had cycled through many relationships and two marriages at this point in his life. The candidness with which the filmmaker exposes himself and his own failings is the reason why Scenes from a Marriage remains one of his most relatable and humane works.

Rating: A-

Saraband

2003 / Sweden / 107 min. / Dir. by Ingmar Bergman / Opened theatrically in the U.S. on July 8, 2005

Following major ebbs and flows in both his popularity and critical standing (old hat for Bergman), the director had all but retired from filmmaking, turning in an occasional one-off theatrical production filmed for television. For Saraband, another Swedish telefilm, he would reunite Johann and Marianne, played by their original actors. In a prologue, Marianne – Ullmann nw thirty years older but as glowingly warm and stoic as ever – sifts through pictures from the past, telling the audience in direct address that she plans to surprise Johann in his remote cabin in the woods. Initially, what follows is the expected: The two meet and make small talk, reminiscing about what could have been. However, Saraband subverts its resemblance to a late-in-life work by a director who wants to cap their career with one last treacly nostalgia trip.

Instead, Bergman – ever the brutally honest exhibitor of humanity as its peaks and nadirs – explores the cyclical nature of familial trauma and abuse, focusing on how the couple’s marriage informed the strained relationship between Johann, an absentee father, and his failed musician son, Henrick (Börje Ahlstedt). The middle-aged offspring lives in his elderly father's guest cottage – sufficiently removed from Johann’s house to avoid an unwelcome confrontation – with his daughter, Karin (Julia Dufvenius), a talented cellist who is strung along by her father to keep her close. Similar to Scenes, this film unfolds in chapters that feature every possible pairing between the four lead characters as they attempt to relate to each other, allowing resentments to implode their interpersonal relationships. 

Although Saraband is considerably shorter than Scenes from a Marriage, it still manages to deftly explore three generations of trauma. Here, Josephson’s superb return to the role actualizes what any audience familiar with the previous film could have predicted about Johann’s future. He is a haggard old man whose successes and failures in life have made him unapproachable to those who should be closest to him. When Henrick finally visits Johann, admitting how difficult it was to ask his father for a loan, the older man refuses to hand out any more money, instead taking the opportunity to belittle his already shrunken son. In the next scene, Johann uses his familial power to manipulate his granddaughter away from her father, an act that is at once cruel but ultimately merciful as it becomes apparent that Henrick is physically and sexually abusive to Karin.

Much as Scenes’ aesthetic was informed by the conditions of television production, Saraband was filmed using early high-definition digital cameras. It sometimes looks like the prettiest of home movies, but it also occasionally reaches moments of filmic grace: a shot of Ullmann walking through a chapel as the harsh daylight all but burns a cross onto her body is notably striking. There is, however, an odd dissonance between, on the one hand, Bergman’s mid-century European art film aesthetic and writing style and, on the other, the film’s modern setting and technology. It sometimes makes for an awkward fit, suggesting a work from a filmmaker way past his prime mimicking his glory days. However, this discord does mirror the generational rifts between the film’s family members and Bergman’s own disconnect from 21st-century cinema – a reckoning from an aging man shoring up his legacy. 

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Border'.
November 29, 2018
By Cait Lore

Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me

2018 / Sweden / 110 min. / Dir. by Ali Abbasi / Opened in select cities on Oct. 26, 2018; locally on Nov. 30, 2018

Even in a place as drab as the Swedish customs office, Tina (award-winning stage and screen veteran Eva Melander) stands out. There’s something about this short, stocky woman that, well, just doesn’t look right. Ancient scars trace her outlandishly round, rather puffy face. A gnarly overbite makes it difficult to hide her yellow teeth, and when she sniffs the air, which she does frequently, her upper lip twitches wildly. In her border patrol job, Tina is used to the nasty comments, the impolite stares. Almost nothing comes easily for someone like her. Luckily, Tina has an unusual talent. She can smell human emotions — fear, guilt, shame. She takes pride in her profession, and no one is better than her at (literally) sniffing out contraband. And so, even on the bleakest days in Tina’s life, she has at least some value here, at the border.

At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, director Ali Abbasi’s new feature Border won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section. In its first act, the film presents an inauspicious portrait of Tina’s daily life, oddly reminiscent of Mike Leigh’s miserablist Bleak Moments (1971). However, Abbasi’s film is an adaption of a John Ajvide Lindqvist story, the Swedish author behind Let the Right One In. Fittingly, then, Border is yet another fantastically melancholic take on (in)human cruelty and life on the fringes of society. It’s a film for the wayward wallflowers of the world, the ones that won’t stop talking about Morrissey. 

Who knows if the The Smiths even exist in the dreary world of Border? If only Tina had something — a copy of Hatful of Hollow, or perhaps just a hobby or a friend — to give her some feeling of connection to the world outside of herself. At home, she’s got a live-in boyfriend, Roland (Jörgen Thorsson), who can’t be bothered to think of her. At least he has some hobbies, such as eating cereal on the couch, wrestling with his scabies-infested show dog, and talking to mysterious strangers on the phone. Even Tina’s senile father (Sten Ljunggren), who quite literally forgets she exists, realizes that Roland is using her. She doesn’t mind. It’s better than being alone, she says.

Then Vore (Eero Milonoff) arrives, and everything is suddenly different for Tina. Standing in front of her, in the middle of the Swedish port, is a man with the same physical attributes: the aggressive overbite, the curious scars, the elongated snout. Yet, these cartoonish features seem to rest differently on his face. People don’t laugh at Vore: He’s too sure of himself, unnervingly so, to be the butt of anyone’s joke. When he insists that Tina and her co-worker search him, they don’t say no. And what do they learn? That Vore eats maggots — with aplomb, no less. More startling, however, is a series of realizations regarding Vore’s complex sexual identity. It’s this revelation that really pulls Tina closer to the forthright — if not a little charmless — drifter. What starts as a heady mix of disgust and arousal, soon turns into full-blown romantic obsession.

The titular ‘border’ references Tina’s job and the periphery role she assumes in daily life, of course. However, on a more self-reflexive level, the film seems to be commenting on its ever-shifting relationship with genre. At first it seems to be an ugly duckling story with a social realist edge, only to bloom into a gothic romance, a supernatural horror story, and a Nordic noir. For the most part, Border shifts through these modes effortlessly — quite the feat for a relatively young filmmaker like the 37-year-old Abbasi, here directing only his second feature. However, Border is not without its problems, most of which are confined to the last leg of the film. 

In one philosophically-charged discussion, Vore tells Tina that the “entire human race is a disease”. When he says it, it’s tough for Tina, and anyone watching the film, to disagree with him, even if they wanted to. And here’s where trouble arises: Everyone outside of Tina, including Vore, is obnoxiously cruel. When the noir scuzziness finally rears its ugly head — a pedophile ring is thriving in Sweden, which (of course) only Tina can help with — it all becomes a bit too much. (Unsurprisingly, this plot thread is not a part of Lindqvist’s original story.)

Furthermore, the film’s success hinges on viewer’s believing that Vore is, in some way, a good fit for Tina. It can be a wicked, toxic affair as long as audiences feel their attraction. Melander and Milonoff turn in tremendous performances — not even heavy silicon masks can conceal this — but the actors can only do so much heavy lifting. Vore may look like Tina, and he may be living proof that there are others out there like her, but he also seems to be just as vile and nasty as the rest of the world. It simply too difficult to believe in their romance and the transformative power it has on Tina.

Another 2018 film, Michael Pearce’s Beast, proves it’s possible to strike a balance between toxic personalities and life-changing romance. Vore doesn’t have to be a goody-goody for viewers to get caught up in the romance. What may be going wrong here is in the way Abbasi decided to approach the couple’s sexual encounters. It’s unflinching, almost documentary-like, and, boy, is it ever nasty. Abbasi seems to be well-intended, as this comes off as some sort of political statement; it unapologetically confronts the audience with non-normative sex. In other areas, this bold and uncompromising approach pays off big time. However, by the end of the film, it’s clear that Border is lacking nuance and the sort of tenderness that should be the film’s beating heart. It’s strange to say that a movie about bug-eating, sexually fluid creatures who that can smell emotions is somehow slight, but there you have it. 

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Cait Lore

A still from 'Cam'.
November 29, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Recent Video-on-Demand Offerings in Horror and Horror-Related Cinema

The cream of contemporary feature-length cinema isn’t always found in theaters. These days, smaller and more niche films often implement a same-day launch, simultaneously premiering in a select-city theatrical run and on video-on-demand (VOD) services. Moreover, streaming services are now offering original films of their own. Given the dire and disposable state of the horror genre at the multiplex, these release strategies are particularly suited to reaching a wider, more appreciative audience for cinematic chills. For horror fans in a mid- to small-sized movie market such as St. Louis, online streaming and digital rental/purchase are increasingly vital means of accessing noteworthy features. What follows is a brief assessment of the major new horror (and horror-adjacent) films that have premiered on VOD within the past month.

Welcome to Mercy

2018 / USA / 103 min. / Dir. by Tommy Bertelsen / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Nov. 2, 2018

An occult chiller set primarily in an eerie Latvian convent, Tommy Bertelsen’s Welcome to Mercy is a lazy, muddled horror feature, but at least it’s wily about concealing that fact. Relying on an admittedly evocative setting and familiar demon-possession tropes, it almost succeeds in obfuscating the clumsiness of its storytelling. Spurred by her father’s ailing health, Americanized single mom Madeline (Kristen Ruhlin) returns to the Old World with her young daughter. However, this homecoming unleashes a hibernating unholy power in Madeline, and she reluctantly agrees to a spiritual convalescence at the nearby convent. Cue the confounding flashbacks, Satanic parlor tricks, and nunsploitation eroticism, none of it amounting to much. Bertelsen seems overly impressed with screenwriter Kristen Ruhlin’s plot – which is somehow both trite and confusing – and giddily drapes it with a foreboding that it never earns, even in hindsight. The performances, cinematography, and production design are all solid, but by the time the underwhelming “twist” ending arrives, it’s apparent how gravely the film’s craft has been wasted. Rating: C- [Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Cam

2018 / USA / 94 min / Dir. by Daniel Goldhaber / Premiered online on Nov. 16, 2018

An existential techno-horror meltdown for the current, performative era of the digital age, Daniel Goldhaber’s Cam is centered on full-time camgirl Alice, a.k.a. “Lola” (Madeline Brewer), who live-streams her NC-17 frolicking and edgelord faux suicides to chatrooms of enthusiastic, anonymous viewers. As it chronicles the banal details of Alice’s routine with a stylized, candy-colored eye, Cam initially seems to be setting up a sex worker spin on the “obsessed fan” thriller. In truth, scripter Isa Mazzei – who drew from her own experiences as a camgirl – creates something cleverer and much more unsettling. Abruptly, Alice discovers that she’s been locked out of her account by a doppelgänger who begins climbing in the rankings and siphoning her income. It’s this year’s Unfriended: Dark Web by way of Lost Highway (1997) and Enemy (2013), with a hefty dose of gig economy anxiety. Mazzei and Goldhaber take that heady concoction to some harrowing places, but they ultimately keep the story frustratingly grounded, never fully realizing its nightmarish potential. Rating: B- [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

The Clovehitch Killer

2018 / 109 min. / Dir. by Duncan Skiles / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Nov 16, 2018

Drawing from real-world bogeymen such as Dennis “BTK” Rader, The Clovehitch Killer treats a hackneyed premise – the serial killer burrowed deep into the cozy camouflage of flyover suburbia – with an admirable, unfussy solemnity. Director Duncan Skiles sketches an uncommonly authentic portrait of whitebread evangelical family life around teenager Tyler (Charlie Plummer), whose discovery of an unsettling clue triggers a consuming paranoia that his square, blue-collar father (Dylan McDermott) is the killer who once stalked their small Kentucky town. There’s a measured, modest quality to Skiles’ filmmaking here that complements the veneer of Middle American normalcy – the family game nights and the scouting food drives – which the murderer uses as his hunting blind. Unfortunately, the director and screenwriter Christopher Ford never justify their earnest, ponderous approach to the story or their late-game structural shenanigans with any unexpected swerves or thematic depth. Clovehitch is too predictable to be a compelling thriller, but too hollow to be taken seriously as a critique of middle-class rot. Rating: C+ [Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Wildlife'.
November 21, 2018
By Joshua Ray

The Fire Within

2018 / USA / 105 min. / Dir. by Paul Dano / Opened in select cities on Oct. 19, 2018; locally on Nov. 23, 2018

Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould), pubescent son of Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), stands in the frame of their bathroom door, staringly lovingly and inquisitively at his mother. She’s readying herself to hit the streets of their new hometown, Helena, Mont., to look for work that will pay better than her part-time gig teaching swimming at the local YMCA. This situation has come about because Jerry has just abandoned his son and wife, signing up to fight the wildfires raging in the north – and ignoring his family’s wishes to the contrary – out of stubborn masculine pride. Joe and Jeanette exchange hopeful wishes for the future, with Joe seeking reassurance from the only person who should represent stability for him. Jeanette isn’t quite stable, though, already showing her penchant for irrational outbursts and flightiness. She questions her son’s trust in her thoughts and motivations, and to that he quips, “I don’t know what you’re thinking.”

The line is an encapsulation of Wildlife as a whole. Actor Paul Dano’s directorial debut – adapted by him and actress Zoe Kazan from the Richard Ford novel of the same name – is a quiet and contemplative film about the ultimately futile effort to truly understand another person. Positioned almost entirely from the youngest Brinson’s viewpoint, the film emerges as a carefully calibrated act of observation about observation itself. Dano often confidently rests his camera either directly on Joe or within his range of sight, allowing audience identification with a character who – possibly to the detriment of the film’s thrust, as this is a slow burn – largely remains a cypher. In this way, Wildlife often resembles a narrative culled from its main character’s memories, albeit one thankfully lacking any preening grasp at nostalgia. 

On the contrary, the film is a brutally frank investigation into identity formation and familial influence. Joe, capably played by newcomer Oxenbould, is mostly an innocent and passive bystander in his parents’ volatile relationship. Jerry’s preoccupation with fighting the wildfires stems from the absence of any other purpose in his life. “I got this hum inside my head. I need to do something about it,” he explains to his son as he obsessively watches documentary footage on their half-working television, rhetorically propping up the distant firefighters as heroes. As demonstrated by the family’s constant uprooting, Joe is a rolling stone that happened to gather moss in the form of a wife and son. When he’s fired from the golf course where he initially works, he refuses to return even after his employer concedes that it was a mistake to let him go. 

For Gyllenhaal, an actor who’s bounced from indies to mainstream in an effort for cred and relevancy, Jerry is a character that permits him to negotiate between fragile masculine force and a tender aching for purpose, a kind of amalgamation of his career-best roles in Nightcrawler (2014) and Brokeback Mountain (2005). Jerry’s request for an embrace from his son as he’s being shipped away is played beautifully by the actor, becoming a tragic reminder of Jerry’s need for love – one that is squarely at odds with his quest for importance. When he later finds out what his wife has been up to in his absence, Gyllenhaal becomes unexpectedly frightening, flailing and wailing like a wounded wild animal.

What exactly Jeanette has been up to is the main thrust of Wildlife. If the film can be thought of as mystery expressly about people, Jeanette is its complex puzzlebox center. She’s a former beauty queen – as she often likes to point out – once a young woman of promise who dropped out of college to raise her child. She’s just as stuck between stations as her husband; the sort of woman who might have been classified as a “manic depressive” by a doctor contemporary. The film thankfully forgoes any clinical diagnosis, but the 32 year-old woman does demonstrate wild flights of erratic behavior, a lack of impulse control, and severe bouts of hopelessness. Those symptoms having a meeting point when she drives her son up to the wildfires, not to visit his father, but to see the devastation in which the man has recklessly centered himself. Jeanette is also strong-willed, using charm and manipulation as she refuses to take no for an answer when she’s asking for work at the YMCA. That will is precisely what drives her spiral downward as she allows her family life to dangerously overlap her lascivious activities with a local wealthy older man (an appropriately skeezy Bill Camp).

Casting Carey Mulligan as Jeanette is a major coup for new director Dano. She has steadily become one of the most reliable female actors of her generation, just barely missing resounding recognition for any one of her great performances: Daisy in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby (2013), put-upon Jean in the Coen Bros.’ Inside Llewyn Davis (2014), or her breakout performance in Lone Scherfig’s An Education (2009). Here, the actor’s purposeful speech – an effort to supplant her British accent with a finely tuned American tenor – demonstrates Jeanette’s presentational manner. Mulligan’s performance is remarkably similar to the bolt of electricity that is Cate Blanchett as the titular character in Todd Hayne’s somewhat similar 2015 masterpiece, Carol. Much as Blanchett did with her complex role, Mulligan rarely misplaces a move or a look – save for Jeanette's moments of raw anguish and desperation – her eyes drawing the viewer and the film’s other characters in with the force of a gravitational pull. 

Also similar to Haynes’ film, Wildlife takes place during the middle of the 20th century, and it uses the aesthetic values of that era to its thematic benefit. Joe, against his father’s wishes, gets an after-school job at a portrait studio, and that same style of photography informs the color-drained and shallow-focus cinematography by Diego García – the lenser behind Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s gorgeous Cemetery of Splendor (2015) – as well as giving the film an apt (but possibly pat) resolution about capturing memories. Undoubtedly inspired by its rural Montana setting, Dano’s film is also indebted to pastoral American art, occasionally presenting painterly wide compositions as both an ode to the land and to showcase its oppressively loneliness. Notwithstanding its grand Western setting, however, Wildlife has small ambitions, possibly too small for some viewers. It’s a snapshot of a very specific time during in which a young man reckons with the truth of his upbringing and lineage. In other words, it’s perfect fodder for a green filmmaker to render on a large canvas for his first outing – one that proves supremely successful in this case.

Rating: B

 

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'At Eternity's Gate'.
November 21, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

He Found Creation Slightly More Than He Could Accept

2018 / France, Switzerland, UK, USA / 110 min. / Dir. by Julian Schnabel / Opened in select cities on Nov. 16, 2018; locally on Nov. 21, 2018

Ambitious filmmakers have previously taken the narrative biopic form in some unconventional directions. Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan-themed quasi-fictional anthology I’m Not There (2007) is probably the gold standard for this sort “anti-biopic” – at least in the 21st century – while David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991) mutated William S. Burroughs’ allegedly un-filmable novel into a de facto vision quest into the author’s unsettling headspace. French director Julian Schnabel’s new Vincent van Gogh feature, At Eternity’s Gate, isn’t as daring as those films, attempting as it does a relatively literal-minded representation of the Dutch painter’s subjective, cracked-prism perspective. Still, compared to a crowd-pleaser like A Beautiful Mind (2001), which dubiously conveyed the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia in the argot of a slick espionage thriller, Schnabel’s film is commendably earnest, grounded, and empathetic in its depiction of both mental illness and artistic ardor. While At Eternity’s Gate adheres to the traditional view of van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) as an ahead-of-his-time visionary who suffered under the tyranny of a philistine public and his own disordered mind, the film also lends that narrative a fresh, expressive anguish.

Roughly chronological but pointedly slippery in its depiction of time’s passage, Schnabel’s film focuses on the final two years of van Gogh’s life, beginning with his disillusioned departure from Paris in early 1888, whereupon he relocated to Arles in the south of France. It was there that the painter’s work matured, sharpened, and began to exhibit the characteristics for which he is best known: vivid colors, energetic brushwork, and a heightened fascination with the rural milieu and the natural world. Schnabel presents this period – as well as the artist’s later time at an asylum in Saint-Rémy and later still as a guest of Dr. Paul Gachet (Mathieu Amalric) in Auvers-sur-Oise – as an impressionistic flurry of events. Some of the sequences have a disconcerting intimacy, the camera perched seemingly inches from the noses of characters as they hunch together in urgent conversation. Other scenes, such as Vincent’s wanderings through the fields and forests of Arles, border on the abstract: oneiric flashes of yellow-leaved branches rustling; of ragged boots crunching through dry grass; of the painter’s wide-brimmed straw hat bobbing up and down in the sunlight.

Schnabel and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme employ jittery handheld camerawork, pushing it to such disorienting extremes that the story becomes drenched with a perpetual sense of scattered anxiety. (The motion sensitive should be advised: The shakiest Jason Bourne actioner has nothing on At Eternity’s Gate.) Often, the film literally assumes van Gogh’s first-person viewpoint, peering through a distorted lens at a world that seems alternately enchanted and hellish. At times, Schnabel and his sound team repeat and layer the film’s dialog, suggesting the cacophony of obsessive thought that babbles inside the painter’s skull, haunting him with the words of family, friends, and himself. The feature portrays the creation of specific works – L'Arlésienne, Tree Roots, Portrait of Dr. Gachet, and one of van Gogh’s boot paintings, among others – but it is not really a study of the artistic process, per se. (Stanley Tucci’s Final Portrait from earlier this year provides an instructive contrast, absorbed as that film is with the agony of a single painting’s physical production.) Indeed, Schnabel ultimately lends more attention to the colors, shapes, and textures that inspired the painter than to his acts of creation. At Eternity’s Gate is foremost about van Gogh’s extraordinary way of looking at the world – and the grueling misery that this vision inflicted on him.

Refreshingly, the screenplay by Schnabel, Jean-Claude Carrière, and Louise Kugelberg isn’t particularly interested in providing the viewer with the sort of linear, greatest-hits life story that is so often the default approach of more banal biopics. Not only is the film narrowly focused on the artist’s final two years on Earth, but its loose, fragmented style doesn’t allow for the conventional, this-then-that recitation of Wikipedia bullet points. Rather than attempt to sculpt a glib narrative around real-world events, the writers instead underline the story’s episodic yet unstructured quality, turning the absence of a character arc into a feature rather than a bug. In those scenes where At Eternity’s Gate focuses on specific incidents – as opposed to simply crouching in van Gogh’s cramped bedroom studio or wandering with him through wheat fields – it uses those events to deepen its portraiture of the artist, rather than to advance the plot (of which there is precious little). Ultimately, the film is much less concerned with drama than in conjuring the experience of being Vincent van Gogh, or at least Schnabel’s distinctly 21st-century conception of that experience.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a film isn’t all that interested in educating viewers about the dry facts of its subject’s life, At Eternity’s Gate often assumes that the audience is populated with art history geeks and van Gogh enthusiasts. This turns out to be both the film’s best and worst trait. While it means that Schnabel isn’t obliged to waste time explaining, for example, who Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) is or why he is important, the director can’t resist littering the frame with the arthouse equivalent of Easter eggs. Some of these are pleasantly poetic, such as a shot at the Saint-Rémy asylum that visually paraphrases van Gogh’s The Round of the Prisoners. Others are as jarring as a record scratch. When the artist briefly crosses paths with the bushy-bearded Arles postman and suggests that he sit for a painting, it feels like a gratuitous wink directed at the viewer erudite enough to recognize the subject of Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin. Too often, the film’s heavy-handed allusions feel like inside jokes that have been slipped in solely to flatter its presumably literate audience.

Those same viewers are apparently expected to disregard fact that the 63-year-old Dafoe is playing a man who died at the age of 37. Truth be told, it’s a testament both to Schnabel’s confidence in his supple, bittersweet approach and to Dafoe’s indelible strength as a performer that this historical discrepancy is never particularly distracting. Dafoe’s portrayal highlights van Gogh’s mania, distress, and exhaustion – traits underlined by the actor's sharp, creased features. It’s a role that has previously been filled by no less a rugged countenance than Kirk Douglas (Lust for Life [1956]), but Dafoe makes this iteration of van Gogh wholly his own. With both rawness and elegance, he conveys the consuming paradox of van Gogh’s self-conception. On the one hand, the artist is blessed with absolute certainty about his life’s purpose – to paint, and only to paint. On the other, the sights he yearns to share with the world torment him, filling him with both elation and the blackest terror. “Your vision of the world is quite frightening, isn’t it?” asks a doctor after the notorious episode in which van Gogh excises his left ear with a razor. All the artist’s profound psychological agony can be gleaned solely from Defoe’s shuddering, exhaled reply: “Yes!”

It’s a wrecked and aching portrayal, albeit one that is undermined by the self-satisfied historical hindsight that runs through many of the film’s pivotal conversations. Often, the dialog is less concerned with realism than with scoring points against the benighted 19th-century people who were too blinkered to recognize van Gogh’s brilliance. When an asylum priest (Mads Mikkelsen) disparages one of the artist’s paintings as “unpleasant and ugly”, the viewer is invited to cluck their tongue as the cleric’s provincialism. In the film, Van Gogh himself is prone to dropping Chicken Soup for the Artist aphorisms and speechifying superciliously about his work in a manner that feels conspicuously anachronistic. In these moments, it appears that Schnabel is indulging in a sort of ex post facto victory lap on the painter’s behalf, as though van Gogh’s contemporary, world-wide renown was insufficient posthumous reward for his brief life of misery. While this inclination undercuts the film’s otherwise intense pathos, At Eternity’s Gate remains an aesthetically bracing and ecstatically immersive work of artist portraiture, one centered on a suitably beguiling performance.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Boy Erased'.
November 15, 2018
By Cait Lore

You Were Washed, You Were Sanctified, You Were Justified

2018 / USA / 115 min. / Dir. by Joel Edgerton / Opened in select cities on Nov. 2, 2018; locally on Nov. 16, 2018

Who, exactly, is religious-based gay conversion therapy meant to help? This is but one question at the center of director Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased. Another, for the central character Jared Eamon (Lucas Hedges) anyway, involves his sexuality: Is he actually gay? He tells his parents he doesn’t know for certain, although he does “think about other men”. Jared is willing to give conversion therapy a try, if there’s any possibility it can “fix” these feelings.

Jared’s parents, Marshall (Russell Crowe) and Nancy (Nicole Kidman), are pulled in two different directions. Their paternal instincts cause them to ache along with their son. The Eamon family does not discuss homosexuality as a “choice”, but as an illness or trial that they must be weather together. It’s an important distinction, and not something commonly portrayed in pray-away-the-gay family dramas. However, there’s also the matter of the faith-based reasoning that conflicts with their parental urges. Marshall is a Southern Baptist preacher, after all, and one that spends much of his time railing against eternal sins before his congregation. The Eamons love each other, and they know that compromises must be made, but how can a model Christian family come to terms with a problem like this? 

It’s Nancy alone that takes her son to conversion therapy center Love in Action. She stays at a hotel down the road, while Jared gets oriented with the system. Everyone’s on-board at first, it seems. Most of all Jared, who takes a liking to Love in Action’s director Victor Sykes (played by director Edgerton). Sykes assures the boy and his family that Love in Action will do “right” by Jared. Their success rate is high, Jared’s parents are told, and all they need to do is give the program proper time (and money, lots of money).

However, Love in Action’s road to conversion is paved with the most frightening, maybe even perverse, intentions. As Jared sees it, the organization’s methods, disturbing as they may be, are his one hope at finding communion with his parents and his religious life. Trying to adjust to Sykes’ practices is a bigger challenge than Jared expected, though. The therapy “activities” turn out to be humiliating power-plays between Sykes and his “clients”. For instance, all new clients are required to take a “moral inventory” — recounting their past traumas, as well as their sexual fantasies and practices — and then present it to the group. It’s psychological abuse, simply put, but it’s also an attempt to breakdown Jared’s sense of self, which appears to be the primary goal at Love in Action. Individual clients are targeted through needlessly cruel displays of power. When Jared tells Sykes and his staff he wants to be a writer, they insist on taking his notebooks away. Writing could lead to corrupting influences, they explain, and so could another year of college, they tell Jared’s mother. As Jared’s time in conversion therapy becomes unbearable, his family must together decide how to reconcile their beliefs and their love for their son. 

There’s another question at the center of Boy Erased, and that’s the “what next” question. That is to say, the film is an investigation into adaptation — in the literal sense, considering that Boy Erased is adapted from Garrard Conley’s memoir. In regards to Edgerton’s treatment, however, the narrative is propelled forward by characters’ (in)abilities to evolve and be transformed by lived experience. Here, answers don’t come quick or easy, which makes for a sophisticated, sensitively-drawn investigation of its themes. This approach gives Boy Erased’s actors the room they need to make these roles their own. Crowe and Kidman are as solid as ever, though audience members wouldn’t be wrong if they accused Kidman of playing it safe here. Lucas Hedges’ role is anything but cozy, however. He’s quickly becoming one of the most exciting young actors to watch. Without any big “aha!” moments, Jared’s maturity really creeps up on the audience, owing to a subtle performance by Hedges. 

Not all the characters in Boy Erased areas are as carefully realized as Jared, though. And that’s where the film’s problems — which there are many — begin. Much to the detriment of the narrative, virtually every character outside of Jared’s immediate family is woefully underdeveloped. Take for instance the program’s director Victor Sykes: His real-life counterpart, as the film’s coda reveals, no longer serves as the director at Love in Action, but is now happily married to another man. Given this fact, one would think that Boy Erased would make reference to Syke’s repressed sexuality within the narrative. It only does so, however, by hinting that Syke and his co-workers get some sort of sexual release from their therapy power games. This merely reduces these characters to goofy cartoon villains, which is a shocking oversight on Edgerton’s part, considering how generous and insightful the script is in other areas.

In a year run rampant with culture-war morality plays, Boy Erased should have been a breath of fresh air. This is not one of those milquetoast movies that try to manage a viewer’s radical politics for them. One of the best things about Boy Erased is its steadfast dedication to introspection, for both the film’s characters and its audience. However, Edgerton isn’t interested in fleshing everyone out. In leaving certain characters in the dust, the film fails to ask audiences to get their nails dirty, to sympathize or simply understand how people give in to hate. This results in a film whose various conflicts feel undeveloped, leading to tedium as the running time ticks on. It might be a radically kind feature, but even the noblest of intentions can’t save a film with a serious execution problem.

Grade: C-

Tags: Reviews Cait Lore

A still from 'Widows'.
November 15, 2018
By Joshua Ray

Women at Large

2018 / UK, USA / 129 min. / Dir. by Steve McQueen / Opens in wide release on Nov. 16, 2018

There’s a shot early in director Steve McQueen’s Widows that haphazardly announces the politically subversive nature of this Hollywood-made heist thriller. Following a rally for his program supporting women entrepreneurs of color, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) — the white incumbent alderman for largely black ward on the south side Chicago — berates his campaign manager and girlfriend, Siobhan (Molly Kunz) in the back of their luxury car.

Instead of following the pair into the back of the vehicle, McQueen mounts a camera at the front of the car, showing the city streets as the passengers glide to their destination. At one point during the ride, the camera pivots to the other side of the street, highlighting the socioeconomic gap between the politician’s underprivileged constituents and his own gated mansion just a short ride down the street.

This divide in the urban United States is well-trod thematic territory, but McQueen gives it startling clarity here. It’s so clear, in fact, that the moment removes itself — and the viewer — from the film and becomes an act of non-narrative filmmaking in stark contrast to the largely routine but supremely well-mounted genre fare that surrounds it. To this end, Widows often peddles half-baked political grandstanding, including the egregious inclusion of a real-world fatal traffic stop that otherwise goes without comment.

Bludgeoning the audience with theme was the director’s mode in the morose sex addiction drama, Shame (2011), before he’d win a deserved Best Director Oscar for the more urgent and lean 12 Years a Slave (2013). Widows finds McQueen somewhere in the middle of those two previous works, oscillating between being punishing and transcendent. Here, McQueen doesn’t trust himself or his audience sufficiently to allow the plot’s intrinsic qualities to speak to the racial politics of modern America.

He and co-screenwriter, Gillian Flynn — the writer behind twisty novels Sharp Objects and Gone Girl and their filmic adaptation — update a 1983 British miniseries of the same name to a contemporary Chicago where sociopolitical upheaval is prevalent. Veronica (Viola Davis) is a teacher’s union representative married to big-time crook Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson). Their interracial relationship — paired with Veronica’s wealth that contrasts with the financial struggles of other black characters — is one of the more compelling and sophisticated acknowledgements of racial parity throughout Widows.

The opening shot of the film is a sexy jolt, painting a portrait of Veronica and Harry at the peak of their romantic prime. It speaks to Widows’ canny craft as a thriller that even revealing that much about the film’s opening feels like a spoiler. Mere minutes later, the audience is thrust into a heist that ends fatally for its five male participants, Rawlins included. Their fumble leaves the grieving Veronica on the hook for two million dollars to two-faced politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry, proving versatility in a role very different from those in Atlanta [2015-] and White Boy Rick [2018]). 

Manning’s posse is led by his violent sociopath brother, Jatemme, played Daniel Kaluuya of Get Out (2017). It’s a brooding and intense role; Jatemme initially only looms in the background, letting his older brother handle the manipulation, before eventually engaging in his own fatal mind games. In a sequence as cinematically showy and thematically weighty as the aforementioned car ride, a camera swirls around Jatemme and a couple of criminal low-lifes as they rap for him, just before he suddenly shoots them dead. His sadism is only matched by McQueen’s willingness to linger on it, unnecessarily and tortuously taking it to extremes later in the film with a protracted stabbing sequence in a bowling alley.

Jamal seeks to become the first black alderman of the 18th ward, running against Mulligan, who all but inherited the position from his father, Tom. In that role, veteran actor Robert Duvall does his best scenery-chewing impression of himself against Farrell, who dips in and out of a Chicago accent as shifty as his character’s political dealings. Those two, along with another seethingly gross portrayal of a Chicago stereotype by Jackie Weaver, represent the nadir of the performances in Widows, whose actors either work within McQueen’s modern Hollywood parable or completely against it.

The first half of Widows is filled with backroom political power struggles, and although it isn’t initially clear why or how Mulligan’s re-election bid factors into the botched robbery, Flynn and McQueen begin to intertwine these threads with those of Veronica’s desperate mission to pay back Manning. That mission becomes the main thrust of Widows as seemingly loosely-connected events and people begin colliding like charged particles in an accelerator.

As in Flynn’s previous work, the disparate plotting seems to lack coherence at first blush, but as Veronica discovers that Harry left her plans to a future robbery — one that will allow her to settle her debt and live comfortably again — most of the film’s details gain clarity. Still, Widows is overstuffed with rudementarily sketched characters and comparatively flabby when considered alongside the lean and mean Gone Girl (2014), David Fincher’s adaptation of Flynn’s popular beach read.

The core female characters of Widows, however, are drawn with interest and complexity. As Veronica, Davis lends credibility to the somewhat outlandish plot by carrying herself with both dignity and desperation as she enlists the other widows of her husband’s gang members to help her. It’s a multifaceted showcase for a performer who’s known for her reserves of power. Here, Davis is allowed her trademark snot-nosed wails of anguish, but is also permitted to be a humane superhero figure with a mean, manipulative streak.

The other titular thieves are equally fascinating, pushing Widows in the right direction as a screed against the gender, classist, and racial power imbalances within the United States. Elizabeth Debicki is wickedly funny as second generation Polish emigre, Alice, a woman whose apparent vapidity begins to dissipate when she’s given purpose. Michelle Rodriguez’s Linda is a complex badass, negotiating between single motherdom and her criminal undertakings. Finally, Cynthia Erivo — handily demonstrating that that she has the presence to hang with more veteran performers — portrays quiet powerhouse Belle, a beneficiary of Mulligan’s program for women of color.

The righteous lust and determination with which Veronica and her cohorts carry out Harry’s plan become a fist-pumping act of mainstream feminist gender-flipping. It feels necessary and just after the disappointment of this year’s other female-led heist film, Gary Ross’ Ocean’s 8. That film only hinted at the sociopolitical imbalances that spurned its creation, while Widows illustrates their depth and breadth. In its most dour moments, McQueen’s film crashes with thudding obviousness, but when it reaches supreme Hollywood generic craftsmanship, its message soars.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Black Memorabilia'.
November 9, 2018
By Joshua Ray

2018 / USA, China / 63 min. / Dir. by Chico Colvard / U.S. release date TBA

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

Within the past year, American cities including Baltimore, Md., Austin, Tex., and Durham, N.C., have seen their Confederate symbols toppled to the ground. Statues, plaques, and flags have been removed either by governmental action or by the force of protestors. The erasure of these signposts is an important movement forward for the country to work through its past and present sins of racial violence and injustice — a righteous acknowledgement of support to black Americans. Those opposed to the removals would say this is erasing “history,” ignoring the objects’ purposes as celebratory rather than contextual. 

Chico Colvard’s documentary Black Memorabilia digs deeper into a reckoning with this past, exploring what some might perceive as “smaller” documents of United States’ oppression of people of color: the stereotypes of mammy, Uncle Tom, zip coon, and so on that proliferate through the American popular consciousness via Saturday morning cartoons, antique coin banks, and other seemingly innocuous everyday artifacts. Colvard eschews typical didactic documentary forms and creates a kaleidoscopic tryptic about the power of these ever-present black cyphers — works made by white Americans in order to pigeonhole their black compatriots as lesser beings. 

Memorabilia graciously allows for consideration of this topic from four differing angles, permitting the viewer a dialog with the people central to each part of the film’s three main sections. The film borrows the chapter structure of a silent film for its mode of storytelling. In doing so, Colvard slyly acknowledges the role of his chosen artistic form — cinema — in doling out insidious propaganda. (D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking and thoroughly racist The Birth of a Nation [1915] gets a shoutout.) In further pushing non-fiction limits, a title card boldy defines “hybrid documentary” before the film begins in earnest — the reason for which remains a mystery until its end. 

The “Manufacture” chapter uses first-person narration to tell the tale of a working-class Chinese ironworker, Jian, who makes replications of turn-of-the-20th century piggy banks in the form of a smiling black figure with an unspeakable name. Having inherited the trade from her family, she spends her time iron-casting and painting, stating she sees it as a kind of personal poetry when she looks at her brush strokes in the overdrawn red lips of her black caricatures. Jian acknowledges her own people’s history of subjugation as her family watches a story about Black Lives Matter protests on the national news, seeing parallels between them and people of color in the United States. 

In “Consume”, antiques dealer, Kim lacks any of the guilt Jian begins to exhibit towards the end of her story. She’s a white Virginian who inherited her own trade in dealing with the racist objects of American history: attending roadshows to sell the original knickknacks that Jian replicates. Kim keeps claiming her ephemera is “black history,” choosing to ignore their origins. Colvard doesn’t confront this contradiction, instead allowing black Brooklyn artist Alexandria Smith to discuss her own relationship to the negative representations in the film’s final chapter, “Reclamation". If “Consume” is the most traditionally-told of the three segments, “Reclamation” is a free-flowing personal essay that allows its subject to explore the ambiguity inherent in the use of stereotyped black figures in her own art. 

Throughout Black Memorabilia, the viewer is aware that something within it must be a work of fiction, given its earlier self-identification as a “hybrid documentary.” Colvard reveals the integration in his epilogue, uncovering that a confession by one of the characters was his own act of reclamation and wishful thinking. This turn doesn’t pull the rug out from under the audience. Instead, the director daringly asks them to re-evaluate the feeling with which the disclosure initially struck them, empowering them to reject, reproach, and reclaim dangerous stereotypes of black Americans. 

Black Memoribilia screens Saturday, Nov. 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Missouri History Museum. The event is free and open to the public. There will be a post-film discussion led by D.B. Dowd, professor of Art and American Culture Studies at Washington University, and Vernon C. Mitchell Jr., curator of Popular American Arts and Culture at Washington University Libraries.

Tags: SLIFF Joshua Ray

A still from 'The Sentence'.
November 8, 2018
By Cait Lore

2018 / USA / 85 min. / Dir. by Rudy Valdez / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Oct. 12, 2018

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

Rudy Valdez was working as a New York-based documentary cinematographer when he got the call: His older sister, Cynthia Shank, was being sentenced to 15 years in federal prison. “She went to prison because we’re poor,” Valdez has said in interviews. Indeed, class plays a major role in the specific case of Shank; however, her circumstances also puts a spotlight on a under-reported aspect of the modern American criminal justice system. For over four decades, there has been a rapid increase in women’s incarceration, a phenomenon that largely comes down to policy and practice changes within law enforcement, primarily with respect to the War on Drugs. Rudy Valdez’ new film, The Sentence, puts a face on a national crisis that has languished on the outskirts of public discourse for far too long.

On May 9, 2002, Shank’s boyfriend, Alex Humphry was murdered outside their Michigan home. When police searched the house they found over 40 pounds of cocaine, a cache of illegal firearms, and a king’s ransom in marijuana, packaged to sell. It was the biggest drug bust in the city’s history, and with no perpetrator left alive to prosecute, the authorities threatened Shank with a 13-year sentence, but Shank resisted: “When I first started dating Alex, he didn’t do these drug dealings.” She was insistent that she herself didn’t buy drugs, let alone deal them.

At the time, Shank’s denials were sufficient for the state and federal courts to ultimately drop the charges. However, six years later, after Shank had married and given birth to three children, a federal investigation led to her being charged with four counts of conspiracy. Again, she denied the accusations, this time alleging that she was a victim of domestic abuse; she couldn’t possibly have left Humphry without risking her life. However, under current U.S. drug laws, even individuals in the most peripheral roles relating to narcotics — such as being the abused girlfriend of a highly dangerous drug trafficker — can be held accountable for the entire quantity of drugs seized in connection with a conspiracy. Due to minimum sentencing requirements, Shank was convicted to spend 15 years in prison.

After her sentencing in 2008, Rudy Valdez began making frequent trips home to New York to be with his sister’s family, their parents, and other siblings. In what starts as a personal project, meant for his sister’s eyes only, Valdez records everything that occurs on these trips. At some point, in the 10-plus years he spent capturing intimate family exchanges, Valdez evidently realized that there was a documentary feature somewhere in the hundreds of hours of footage. Audiences are lucky that he did so, as The Sentence offers rare emotional insights into how grief manifests within a family.

At one point in the film, Valdez expresses his doubts about the project. “I don’t know what it is about being behind the camera,” he says, “...sometimes I feel like it’s a coward’s way out.” This is far from the case. The Sentence is the sort of film that can interview a 6-year-old about her newly incarcerated mother and transform it into a revelatory act of courage. The documentary space that Valdez creates for his family affords them the opportunity to “perform” their feelings for each other. Through these moments, Valdez’s film taps into a rare empathetic impulse, primal in nature. It’s a precious human story at the heart of a sociological disaster that spans decades, a tale that only Valdez and his family could tell. That fact alone makes The Sentence worth seeing.  

The Sentence screens Friday, Nov. 9 at 2:00 p.m. at the Missouri History Museum. The event is free and open to the public. Tila Neguse, coordinator of The Divided City Initiative at Washington University’s Center for the Humanities, will be hosting an introduction and post-film discussion.

Tags: SLIFF Cait Lore

A still from 'Chasing Portraits'.
November 8, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

2018 / USA, Canada, Israel, Poland / 88 min. / Dir. by Elizabeth Rynecki / U.S. release data TBA

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

Early in her melancholy, unnervingly personal documentary feature, Chasing Portraits, filmmaker Elizbaeth Rynecki makes a pivotal decision with respect to the artwork of her late great-grandfather, Moshe, a victim of the Holocaust. Working mostly in oil on paper, Moshe Rynecki created striking paintings of intimate domestic and religious moments in Polish Jewish life, realizing everyday scenes in a markedly modern style that reflected the influences of French Impressionism and German Expressionism. Director Rynecki thought her ancestor’s artistic legacy to be somewhat obscure prior to her efforts to uncover more information about Moshe, whose works decorated the walls of her childhood home. When she eventually learns to her astonishment that not only do numerous other Moshe Rynecki paintings exist, but that they are held in high regard by museums and collectors, the filmmaker finds herself at a strategic and moral crossroads. Should she pursue her great-grandfather’s war-scattered works as a descendent seeking their repatriation? Or should she assume the stance of a historian who merely wishes to bring a neglected artist into the sunlight?

Rynecki elects to take the latter approach, and that choice informs the tone of Chasing Portraits. Unexpectedly, however, rather than turning her search into a detached academic endeavor, the director’s decision to abandon her family’s potential ownership claims has the effect of intensifying the personal dimension of her mission. By putting to rest suspicions that she seeks to wrest the paintings from the current owners, Rynecki eschews the legal thriller elements that are often pushed to forefront in stories of repatriated Jewish art (e.g., Woman in Gold [2015]). Chasing Portraits thereby attains a more affecting and emotionally thorny character, as the desire to see Moshe’s lost paintings with her own eyes becomes an end in itself for the filmmaker. This yearning takes on an almost religious dimension as Rynecki winds her way through a labyrinth of fragmentary records and crisscrosses the world, often based on slender clues and vague assurances.

It eventually becomes apparent that Chasing Portraits is not a traditional biodoc-by-proxy of Rynecki’s ancestor, or even a delve into the annals of pre-War Jewish art history. Instead, the documentary is revealed as a fraught procedural about the filmmaker’s search for the physical art objects themselves; about said objects’ meaning (or lack thereof) to the myriad institutions and private individuals who possess them; and about Rynecki’s understanding of her family and her own place in history. The film is accordingly nothing so prosaic as "entertaining" or "interesting" in the manner of many documentaries about historical mysteries. This is a work of sorrowful passion, a pilgrimage to put white-gloved hand to painted paper and thereby achieve spiritual communion with the past.

It’s an undeniably potent approach – and perhaps the only one that makes sense for a tale so entangled with the filmmaker’s own story. Rynecki is commendably open in her voiceover narration about the conflicting emotions she contends with during her odyssey. She doesn’t present herself as a righteous champion so much as a humble seeker, her hunger entwined with questions and uncertainties. At times, the director’s cinematic instincts bend towards the self-indulgent – as when she visits the concentration camp where her great-grandfather was murdered, only to lean distractingly on clichéd visuals – but such minor missteps are counterbalanced by the startlingly honest pathos that prevails throughout the film. Rynecki’s own father is at the center of much of the film’s troubled ambiguity. Good-natured but emotionally walled-off, the man is visibly reluctant to discuss his wartime memories, and the filmmaker wrestles with how far to push her father in the interest of exhuming their family’s history. The director’s fiery investigative instincts are often set in opposition to her empathy, deference, and diplomacy. The film’s self-consciousness about that tension is one of its most refreshing features.

Indeed, what most distinguishes Chasing Portraits is this bruised unease that discolors Rynecki’s ostensibly straightforward story of righteous truth-seeking. It’s discernable in modern Warsaw’s glib fetishization of its decimated Polish Jewish culture, epitomized in the cutesy and faintly anti-Semitic tourist tchotchkes that startle the director when she encounters them on the street. It’s uncomfortably close to the surface in the inexplicable evasions and recalcitrance from one painting’s present-day owner, who seems determined to go to her grave with the artwork hidden away in her possession, unseen even by scholars. It’s these scribblings of imperfect justice and unsettled history that give Chasing Portraits its jolt of credibility, amplifying the power of the film’s achingly personal character.

Chasing Portraits screens Friday, Nov. 9 at 7:15 p.m. at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema. Buy tickets now.

 

Tags: SLIFF Andrew Wyatt