No. 24 – For You I Will Fight, White Turnips Make It Hard To Sleep, Baden Baden (Rachel Lang, 2010, 2011, 2016)
The coming of age story is a familiar genre in cinema, but is largely focused on young men growing up in suburban United States. For the past six years, Rachel Lang has been revisiting Ana, the main character of her first short For You I Will Fight, using the same actress Salome Richard, to create a highly realistic exploration of a young woman in Strasbourg. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood might be the obvious comparison, particularly in terms of the director’s longtime dedication to its subject, but typically of the European art house, there is little clear narrative, instead capturing moments in Ana’s life and leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions. Culminating in Baden Baden, Lang’s heroine has no clear trajectory, which is the point somewhat. Just as each film seems to give clues at to how her life might turn out, the next film suggests that she has turned back on herself, or made a different choice. In that sense, it is one of the most authentic depictions of young adult inertia on screen.
We first meet Ana in For You I Will Fight as she goes through training for the army reserves with three other women. She is recovering from a romance gone wrong, and is initially out of place. When asked her reasons for signing up, she speaks haltingly, eventually giving a limp answer about wanting to travel. In contrast, one of her fellow recruits, a young mother, speaks decisively about her motivations. Eventually Ana settles in, and the women form a tight bond – one sequence sees them practise harmonies of marching songs, laughing and winding each other up like any other group of young women, except they are in army fatigues. The short closes just as it seems Ana is finding her feet.
For the sequel, White Turnips Make It Hard To Sleep, Lang doesn’t indulge us with an update on Ana’s army career. It is alluded to once, when Ana defends another girl from some flirtatious soldiers on a train, offhandedly pointing out how their bootlaces aren’t regulation, but does not otherwise silence them by boasting of her own military background. In a sense, it’s a shame, given that For You I Will Fight is such a striking piece and seems very much the beginning of an important period in Ana’s life. But it seems totally true to the character of Ana, whose identity is in transition throughout the series. She often seems to take on the characteristics of those around her rather than define herself by her experiences alone. At first glance, Army Ana stopped existing when she left, but somewhere, deeper, it lingers.
White Turnips… really embodies the themes of the whole series, which will then come to fruition in Baden Baden. Ana, now living at home, travels to Brussels to visit her boyfriend Boris, a relationship she hides from her mother. Their happy reunion crumbles after a fight at a party, and Ana decides she is tired of being long distance. The plot seems deceptively slight. Alarm bells ring at the idea of defining Ana according to her love life, but there is more at work here. Here we see Ana the free-spirit, still fairly passive but gradually finding her voice and ultimately fighting back against Boris’ domineering qualities. By Baden Baden, she will finally come to trust her own will, although it is a bumpy journey.
As with White Turnips, Baden Baden sees an indefinite leap in time with no obvious link to her previous experiences. Now Ana works as a driver on a film set, albeit one with a reputation for being unreliable. Deciding to cut her losses, she extends an airport run by making off with the production car and heading home to see her grandmother. She ambitiously decides to redo her grandmother’s bathroom, despite no DIY experience, while her grandmother goes into hospital and she finds herself juggling her parents, her friends and Boris as she ambles along in her now-familiar haphazard way. Again, the plot is lean and again, gradually, layers reveal themselves, and in particular, in combination with the previous two shorts, connections and correlations appear. The effect is a subtle but devastating depiction of early-twenties ennui, and Ana as a cinematic creation of unusual authenticity.
Her decision to redo the bathroom is as impulsive and ill-considered as her trip to Brussels in White Turnips… and perhaps even her army days. It leads to some of the funniest scenes in the film, particularly involving the hapless Gregoire, a warehouse worker who she somehow ropes into helping her. Her mother is doubtful, telling Ana, “you have to know what you’re doing,” and that “you should at least ask for advice.” (Gregoire agrees.) Ana ignores her childhood friend Simon when he advises her against getting involved with Boris again, listing off compelling reasons – he won’t wear condoms, his art is no good, he doesn’t love her but the idea of her (something Ana previously told Boris in White Turnips… – for all her flaws, at least she’s self-aware). But Ana ignoring sound advice is a recurring theme. The only person who she does accept advice from is Amar, an immigrant builder, who is initially reluctant to get involved in her project due to his own focus and ambitions, but is eventually worn down by Ana’s unusual determination. The bathroom is, however unlikely, a success. Ana reports that her grandmother wants her to do the kitchen next.
The two prior films depict Ana in new situations, whereas Baden Baden challenges her and our expectations by placing her in her hometown of Strasbourg among her friends and family, and yet Ana is equally unmoored in her surroundings. Ana’s meandering is part of her nature, not simply a reaction to a new environment. She is not a certain person. Invited on a bus trip, Simon’s friends perform acapella, recalling the marching songs from the training camp, only Ana now observes rather than joining. She borrows a fancy dress from the wardrobe department for the wrap party, but is clearly ill at ease with the glamour, and it does nothing to create a new version of herself, as the AD still treats her dismissively and lists off her next duties. There are frequent shots of Ana’s POV as she stares over her grandmother’s balcony, the world upside down and unfamiliar, children on scooters playing as though there’s no gravity. Everything about Ana’s world is confusing, and she fights to find some sort of foothold.
Yet we do see a more playful side to Ana in Baden Baden, even in moments of stress. She interrupts her heart to heart with Gregoire to pretend the showerhead is the phone, and poses for photos with the film set’s car that the police force her to return. When Simon loses his temper at her, she teasingly tries to push him into the fridge. It is only with Boris that she is intimidated into silence. She encounters him while taking her friend’s son Pol on a boat trip, and struggles to play along with Boris’ joke that Pol is their son. His reappearance is perhaps the greatest source of tension in the film. Now a smug video artist, he is equal parts charming and cruel towards her, telling her she looks ugly with her new haircut. A later scene finds her hiding upstairs at his parents’ house, ostensibly taking a break but clearly suffocated by him, her nostalgic memories shattered by the real life reminder of his personality.
One of the threads running through the whole series is Ana’s disastrous sexuality – not so much the act itself, but the consequences. The opening scene of For You I Will Fight sees Ana getting an STD test, her judgemental nurse mocking her for imagining her teen romance with her unfaithful boyfriend would last forever. White Turnips… similarly sees her have an argument with a chemist over a faulty pregnancy test. Baden Baden follows a somewhat logical progression where she has an abortion, after a stern and frankly cruel lecture from her doctor. This topic, normally treated with extreme solemnity and, indeed, quite straight-faced here when taken in isolation, becomes almost humorous when we know Ana’s history and repeated humiliations from unsympathetic health workers. But it’s also liberating – would the Ana of For You I Will Fight be able to face the doctor in Baden Baden trying to talk her out of the abortion with the same calm determination? And in the end, Ana finally receives some understanding, as she confides in her friend, Mariam, mother of Pol, who we expect to disapprove as a mother, but instead offers support, kindness and jokes about suppositories.
One of the most impressive things about Lang’s series is not just the world she built, and the connections she draws, but how little fanfare these intriguing links receive. Lang is not interested in showing off her writing dexterity. Instead she handily foreshadows and echoes for the sake of making Ana’s life more vivid. Gregoire appears briefly in White Turnips…, a workmate of Ana’s friend, who mentions he is no good at DIY. They do not recognise each other, just as in real life, people’s paths cross with little impact. But is it coincidence, deliberate, or just a bit of fun for Lang to cast the same actor whose character made such a claim specifically to assist Ana’s construction project? Lang confidently suggests that Ana’s life extends far beyond the edges of the frame.
But if you look too far, guessing ambiguous characters relationships and wondering if references are essential or just examples of local colour, you might miss Lang’s tangled depictions of what’s in front of our eyes. This is displayed most obviously in a striking sequence of a helicopter landing, which pulls out gradually to reveal Ana is in fact watching some of Boris’ mundane video art. Gregoire knows nothing about DIY, despite where he works – he explains he is there to translate for French customers. Ana doesn’t correct her friend’s assumption that she is a drug dealer, to explain why she drives the glamorous Porsche. There is another layer to this as part of an English-speaking audience, where we are at the mercy of the subtitles. The clearest ambiguous translation this unilinguist could pick up is Ana’s cheerful “bye” on the phone to Amar is actually, if translated directly, “bisoux, bye” – adding kisses to her farewell, changing the meaning of their interaction.
Lang weaves a more intriguing thread that runs through the whole series, never openly discussed but compelling nonetheless. Ana’s quest towards adulthood is not necessarily a quest towards womanhood, but perhaps an acceptance of her own gender ambiguity. Visually, Salome Richard is gangly and mercurial; frequently dressed in shorts and vests, and with shorn hair and no make-up, she appears as coltish and unselfconscious as a teenage boy. One scene in White Turnips… sees Ana take off her top in a drunken, post-argument funk and return to the party, but not as a prelude to a flamboyant love scene or traumatic rape scene. Instead she is simply at ease in her own skin, if unaware of her impact on those around her (a naïveté which infects her dynamic with Gregoire and Simon) – but this is not to undermine the hints of her sexual fluidity that flicker throughout the films. The doctor lectures her on when she should be ready for motherhood, but Ana can’t connect. However, this isn’t an angsty exploration of gender issues. Ana is largely untroubled by her indefinite sexual identity. When driving (or speeding) in the Porsche, she sings along loudly and passionately to a punk song on the radio, displaying more joy than we’ve seen in the whole series: “I want to be unisex!” Lang speaks in interviews of how she wanted to depict a genderless character to emphasise the universality of Ana’s experiences, and what a relief it is not to have an everyman, for a change.
The Ana at the end of Baden Baden is at once much changed from For You I Will Fight, and yet still totally herself. Haven’t displayed unusual tenacity in coercing the reluctant immigrant Amar into fixing the final issues with the bathroom, she finally gets him to unpeel some of his own layers to her. Unlike her meandering, artistic friends, Amar is focussed and determined. He works hard on the building site, each day closer to his ambition of joining the Foreign Legion, another link with Ana’s military past. In the final shots of the film, they take a day out together, philosophising over artistic shots of unusual architecture in the countryside. Perhaps his drive intrigues her, or his lack of self-involvement or navel gazing. But Amar is a respite in Ana’s stormy life, and their day out is almost refreshing to watch. It seems cheap to call it a hopeful ending, but it shows Ana’s resilience and mellow attitude. Perhaps she has changed, perhaps the world has. Either way, Baden Baden is a fitting end to Lang’s Ana trilogy, yet Ana is such an memorable character, and so beautifully performed by Salome Richard, that it would be a real shame if this was the last we saw of her. Lang’s next film takes place in the French Foreign Legion. Don’t be surprised if Driss Ramdi’s Amar makes an appearance. For Rachel Lang, the world isn’t quite so big as it seems.
Because I’m nothing if not a monumental messer, I’ve taken a break from the movie writing nonsense to focus on something much more meaningful – a countdown of the best outfits of the year. For a couple of reasons:
- I love lists.
- I love clothes.
- Sometimes people wear capes and I think we need to acknowledge that.
Here are some highlights:
No. 23 – The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014)
I was tempted not to do The Babadook, largely because everything that could possibly have been written about it must have been by now. It’s one of the rare films – particularly horror films – to attain instant classic status. (Whether it stands the test of time remains to be seen – remember how loop-the-loop everyone was over Let The Right One In, as though it didn’t have that CGI cat scene?) But then it was Halloween and it had good reviews and I accidentally bought it on DVD a while back. And, well. Fuck it.
Amelia’s son Samuel is a handful. He was pretty bad before, full of youthful vigour bordering on irritating, but now, after the appearance of a mysterious pop-up book, she suspects he has been possessed by the spirit of its main character, the sinister Mr Babadook. Amelia is haunted by her own spirits, however, as she tries to tamp down her grief about her husband’s death as he drove her to the hospital to give birth. Sam’s very existence torments Amelia, and the summoning of Mr Babadook is just another misery motherhood has wrought.
As Prevenge suggested last week, motherhood is a common feature in horror films – see Rosemary’s Baby, Psycho, The Exorcist etc. But The Babadook explores a more taboo concept, turning mother against child. Even before Mr Babadook gets involved, Amelia is at her wit’s ends with her spirited child, and from the start of the film the audience is poised for the exhausted and harried Amelia to snap. Kent is not afraid to present Sam as an annoying little fucker at times, constantly demanding his mother’s attention and tearing the house up with unintentional carelessness. As unsettling as it is to see a mother driven to extreme levels of resentment and distrust of her own child, we can certainly believe how someone as fragile as Amelia could be driven to violence against Sam’s fervour. Amelia gets no breaks from motherhood – he bursts into her bedroom constantly, she has to peel him off her at his cousin’s birthday party. Once he is removed from school, she has no respite, causing her to fracture further. Meanwhile Sam tells her repeatedly that he will always be there to protect her – an honourable sentiment, but just another example of his suffocating love for her. (Full marks to whoever spots the Oedipal subtext – and note that Robbie, Amelia’s flirtatious co-worker who briefly acts as a father figure to Sam, doesn’t make a reappearance for a happy ending – it remains mother and son only…) But gradually, Kent winds back our assessment of Sam. As Amelia’s behaviour gets more erratic, we begin to view Sam as what he is – a vulnerable child, both terrified of and for his mother.
Amelia is at breaking point from the off, dressed in childlike pink dresses, watery-eyed and drawn. She is isolated and under attack from all sides – Sam’s school, her dismissive employers, fellow parents. The TV is constantly on, bombarding her with violent images, and as the film progresses, she compulsively flicks channels with seizure-like speeds. Her support system consists of her sister Claire, who is tired of Amelia’s inability to pull herself together. Amelia is surrounded by yummy mummys, all flashcards, organic food and silent judgement at Amelia’s failure to conform or achieve their façade of parental perfection. The scene where Amelia and Sam are expelled from Claire’s party is as horrifying as any of the jump scares. They raise pretty little girls. Amelia begs her doctor to give Sam tranquilisers. Mr Babadook is only one of many horrors of Amelia’s situation.
There is some question as to whether Mr Babadook is real. With his screaming fits and nightmares, is Sam as disturbed as the authorities seem to think? Or is Mr Babadook evidence of Amelia’s own breakdown? After all, she was a children’s book author before her husband’s death, and there is the potential for self-fulfilling prophecy when Amelia reads about the forthcoming horrors (not to be detailed, but let’s just say the dog doesn’t make it). Or perhaps in the world of the film, as the final scenes suggest, there really is a spooky-ooky kid’s book that unleashes a demon on its readers. But, overwhelmingly, the film explores the apparition as a metaphor for grief. Kent’s film isn’t particularly subtle with this subtext (if someone as dense as I can pick up on symbolism on the first watch, you know it’s not especially delicate) but it is an interesting perspective for the film to ignore. It’s unpredictable when the film appears to about one thing (motherhood – eek!) and is actually about another (bereavement – eek!), and if there’s a characteristic that should be rewarded in the horror genre, it’s unpredictability. So I didn’t mind being beaten in the face with meaning as it was interesting.
Amelia’s life appears externally manageable, but there are cracks within. She peels the wallpaper, finds a huge hole in the structure. Cockroaches pour out. Her life is full of wounds that no one else can see. “You can’t get rid of the Babadook,” the rhyme goes, and indeed Amelia and Sam don’t, instead keeping him in the basement and cautiously nurturing him. As with grief, if I even need to extrapolate. You don’t get over it, as so many people think (including Claire) – you just learn to live with it. The only real support Amelia receives is from their elderly neighbour, Gracie, who tells Sam about her Parkinson’s and seems relatively serene about the hard realities of life. Gracie is the only person who offers Amelia the space to grieve, acknowledging how hard Sam’s birthday, also the anniversary of the accident, is for her. Amelia sees the Babadook invade Gracie’s home, and yet, Gracie seems unharmed – perhaps because she has embraced death as another part of life.
I can see why The Babadook has been such a success. It has a lot more psychological realness compared to so many horror films – as much of the terror comes from real life situations (Sam’s seizure, multiple scenes where it seems like Amelia will hurt him). And this wouldn’t have the same impact without the script and performances, which ensure we find Amelia and Sam’s circumstances compelling. The design elements too are gorgeous – German Expressionism is verging on a cliché for inspiration, but damn does it look good, particularly coupled with the handmade aesthetic of Mister Babadook’s familiars. In truth, the film is more sad than frightening, which makes it all the more effective – it lingers long after the film ends. Not unlike Mister Babadook himself.
No. 22 –Prevenge (Alice Lowe, 2016)
I saw Prevenge as part of the London Film Festival with a Q&A with Alice Lowe because I lead a hideously exciting life. Horror films often benefit from the shared experience of the cinema crowd, and this occasion, in a crowded Odeon full of Lowe-aficionados, was no different. Alice Lowe occupies a strange position in British culture – you may recognise her from Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, her frequent appearances on The Mighty Boosh, or her most high profile role, as star and co-writer of the dark, strange, humorous Sightseers. Though more likely, you don’t know her at all.
Lowe is at the foreground of the 1970s-influenced cult comedy revival, all English eccentricity, slightly out of step and out of time, defiantly mundane and unglamorous with occasional flashes of gore and folklore – as though their youth was spent flicking between The Wicker Man and Alan Partridge (think League Of Gentlemen, Ben Wheatley, Julia Davis, Matt Berry). Alice Lowe is a favoured collaborator with much of this scene, frequently popping up as grotesques and naifs, performing with a deceptive intelligence and lack of vanity. But rather than being stuck as “the token woman” in these groups, or turning her sensibilities to the mainstream in the mould of Sally Phillips or Jessica Stevenson, Lowe is forging her own path.
Horror and comedy are frequent bedfellows, which is unfortunate because they usually make a terrible mix. The successes (Shaun Of The Dead, The Evil Dead, What We Do In The Shadows) are far outweighed by the failures (Scary Movies, Lesbian Vampire Killers, any Nightmare On Elm Street sequel). Either the attempts at humour castrate the horror, or the horror makes the jokes fall flat, or, more usually, both. But Lowe has been operating in this arena with a deft touch for many years, and her work doesn’t need to hold the hands of the small but passionate following. It’s not necessarily a matter of “getting the joke”, but having faith in the material, which often features hints of the surreal, the uncanny and the ambiguous. Prevenge, Lowe’s directorial debut, is another confident example of her very specific sense of humour and sense of story, darkly funny, surprisingly brutal, and at times psychological and philosophical. Plus it has a catchy elevator pitch: pregnant serial killer.
Of course, that undermines the complexities of Lowe’s film. Lowe plays Ruth, a deadpan, sullen woman who is hearing the voice of her unborn child commanding her to kill. With Lowe’s comedy background, you might suspect a sketch drawn painfully into feature length, but Lowe has made something more unsettling and tragic, both emotionally and physically visceral, but not lacking in dark, laugh out loud moments. The narrative unwinds in unexpected ways, filled with flashbacks and visions, culminating in something between a sensitive mediation on grief and the Alien franchise. It takes its time to reveals answers to its mysteries – why Ruth is killing, what happened her baby’s father, what happens when the baby is born. The film has faith in the audience’s ability to join the dots without spelling things out or a Psycho-esque exposition at the end.
Pregnancy is a familiar feature in the horror genre – either symbolically as a body horror (the Alien chestburster being the most famous example), or as an expression of vulnerability (see Rosemary’s Baby, Inside, Village of the Damned). Usually, our pregnant heroine is being terrorised – in Prevenge, Lowe’s character is the aggressor. Even by cinema’s standards, horror is a male-dominated genre, and the titles listed above are all directed by men. Prevenge demonstrates that a female perspective on pregnancy in horror has been sorely missed. Lowe, herself seven months pregnant during the 11 day shoot, drew upon her own experiences – the unspoken fears and external pressures she experienced, the loss of her own identity, and the shame she was made to feel for expressing that she had other concerns than the supposedly all-consuming business of being a mother.
Even post-partum, motherhood can have a strange performative quality, as parents compete about how much their child is sleeping, the milestones they achieve earlier than average, how quickly they’ve taken to motherhood. In reality this is often a mask to disguise how they are struggling in private. Prevenge subverts this – Ruth tenderly kisses her victims on the forehead after their deaths, and at one point gently guides one victim’s neglected, ailing mother back to bed before doing some light housework that the victim had been ignoring, a perverse display of kindness (which reads as very funny in context). She keeps a “Baby’s first” scrapbook, but it is filled with details of her prey. Similarly, Ruth is playing the grieving widow, but characters allude to her tumultuous relationship. We all perform a role, one way or another.
Ruth’s victims are often wonderfully horrible – populated with British comedy’s favourite grotesques, like Dan Skinner’s slimy pet shop owner and Tom Davis’ odious pub DJ, puking into his afro wig before sticking his tongue down Ruth’s throat. Kayvan Novak plays it fairly straight as a suspicious climbing instructor who repeatedly escapes Ruth’s attacks. It’s easy to stay on Ruth’s side while she cuts down a role call of arseholes. But her other victims seem largely harmless, not least the friendly flatmate of another target who Ruth reluctantly kills to protect her identity. Ruth herself is not someone we celebrate for acting out her revenge fantasies. She is at times barely likeable, but Lowe allows glimpses of humanity and conflict to peer through, rendering her a compelling figure, insofar as we actually get to know Ruth.
She appears in a number of disguises throughout the film – middle class mum, ambitious business woman and aggressive charity worker – but clearly struggles with the role of “mother”. The Pregnancy Industrial Complex insists that motherhood subsumes every woman’s identity, instead becoming a serene, watery-eyed earth mother. Witness Ruth’s primal scream at the yoga class, a scene which comes unexpectedly amidst the killings, and embodies the conflict within Ruth. Pregnancy is hell, and not enough people are willing to admit that. Ruth is more at ease playing her murderous characters, even practising scary expressions in her hotel room, mimicking an old black and white movie.
Ruth as herself interacts most regularly with her NHS midwife, played with incredible sycophancy by Jo Hartley. She is at once patronisingly reassuring, telling Ruth that baby knows best, and coldly threatening, warning Ruth that she will need to contact social services if Ruth keeps having dark thoughts. Everyone treats pregnant women like they’ve lost their mind, slaves to hormones and mood swings, and while we have become marginally more sympathetic towards postnatal depression, there remain embarrassingly low diagnosis rates of prenatal depression, an equally serious condition usually dismissed as the “pregnancy blues” (whatever they are). Ruth is going through a legitimate crisis, but no one believes her. “You have no control over your mind or body any more,” her midwife tells her. And that’s the crux of the film. Lowe has made a funny, dark and surprisingly moving horror, demonstrating precisely the value of new and underrepresented perspectives in filmmaking. Prevenge could very easily have been a hacky gorefest, but Lowe’s intelligent filmmaking has made something much more durable and compelling. Happily, after bouncing around the festival circuit for much of the past year, Prevenge will go on general release in February 2017, though perhaps it would have been better to wait until Mother’s Day.
No. 21 –Viva (Anna Biller, 2007)
So far in this project, I’ve watched some good films, some interesting films, some disappointing films and some legit travesties. Viva is the first film that I really loved. And I really loved it. Like, run out and buy the dvd loved it. Like, drag my boyfriend in from another room and force him to watch clips on youtube loved it. Like, stress about the terrible ineffective ineloquent blog post I’m about to write about it loved it. I’m not sure what I could write that would live up to the beauty and fabulousness of this film. So let’s see how this turns out…
Viva is an extraordinarily dedicated recreation of the 1970s sexploitation movies with a feminist twist. Written, directed and starring Anna Biller, she demonstrates an eye for mise-en-scene that makes Wes Anderson look like an underachieving house painter. Biller plays Barbi, a bored wife recently fired as a secretary for refusing to give it up to her sleazy boss, who undertakes a journey of sexual awakening. Her psychedelic adventures, full of wife swapping, nudist camps and orgies are kitschy more than kinky, and cheeky rather than hardcore, but underneath there’s a chill. Biller’s mission statement is to engage the sexploitation format from a woman’s perspective, with all the dangers that entails. After all, the sexual revolution was far more successful for men than women, who are still fighting the same slut/prude labels to this day.
Barbi is a passive personality, eager to escape mundane suburbia by playing whatever role a more commanding influence suggests. We see her first lounging with her neighbours, blushing as her more daring neighbour Sheila flicks through a copy of Playboy, then talked into a modelling shoot by Mark, Sheila’s lascivious husband. Barbi’s husband Rick is loving but aloof, and often away on business, leaving Barbi to the mercy of her curiosity and attempts to engage wither own desires. Egged on by Sheila, who wants a rich older man who will buy her things, Barbi gradually explores her sensual power, firstly as a model, then recruited as a prostitute, rechristening herself as the cool, confident, liberated Viva.
All of which sounds quite sordid and heavy, but the film is hugely enjoyable. Aside from the look of the film, which is filled with rich colours and extraordinary sets, the film’s dialogue and characters are a frothy delight. Think men in moustaches and speed suits, camp leering at nudist colonies and swinging orgies, Swedish musclemen popping over to borrow sugar and bizarre music interludes dedicated to fine whiskey. Jared Sanford in particular is a joy as the sleazy Rick, all wide eyes and wider lapels. The language is stagey and the acting mannered to the point of wooden, evidence of the film’s dedication to authentically recreating the amateurish sexploitation performances rather than a reflection of the talents of Biller’s cast. There’s little wonder that some people view Biller’s film as a satire on 1970s kitsch.
But there is a more subversive edge to Viva. Dazzled as we are by the look of the film, and the snickering enjoyment of scenes with nudist colonies and camp hairdressers, and the musical number where Sheila frolics with a white horse while shilling whiskey, there are moments – accurate to the sexploitation genre – that turn the stomach of the modern viewer. One encounter sees Barbi drugged and waking up beside another man. Later in the film she is explicitly raped by a partner she has repeatedly refused to sleep with until she is ready, leading to one of the most striking sequences in the film, as the camera’s focus switches back and forth between Barbi’s face and black-red apples in time with her breath, followed by a nightmarish, psychedelic animation of apples and kaleidoscopic imagery, then back to Viva’s face as blood runs down the camera. She wakes up surrounded by naked bodies and leaves, appalled – not what at she did, but that she wasn’t able to do it on her terms. And then the film moves on, and the audience is expected to move on too (as the 1970s viewers would have), but something lingers, not only in us, but in Barbi. None of the men she encounters are any better than her boss at the start of the film. No matter how liberated she is, Barbi is still vulnerable to the whims of men, and their prioritising their own desire over her well-being. Even her husband rejects her after the attack.
Barbi is an unusual character for a protagonist. At first she seems like an innocent, but there’s more to it than that. She has a deliberate blankness (recalling Catherine Deneuve’s character in Belle Du Jour), peacefully existing as a wife and secretary until her husband and boss let her down in different ways. Her attempts at exploring freedom and experiencing pleasure beyond the social norm are similarly disappointing due to the greed of her sexual partners, and so she returns to Rick and their suburban life but now she is cynical and silent, observing her companions with a raised eyebrow and a contemptuous look. Finally we see Barbi preparing for a musical performance, and it’s a celebration that she is at last able to tell her own story in her own terms, but as ever, there’s an undercurrent, as Barbi is fussed over by her male producers. A woman’s sexuality is only acceptable if it can be commodified for the benefit or titillation of men.
All of which makes Viva sound as harrowing a watch as Irréversible. This is entirely untrue. Viva is fizzy and decadent and witty, Biller cleverly playing with irony and meta-humour and just plain silliness. Mark happily exclaims at one point, “there’s never been a better time to be a man,” adding, practically to camera, “enjoy it – it will never happen again.” Rick and Barbi’s biggest fight ends with him flamboyantly, awkwardly exiting with altogether too much skiing gear. And the frequent references to White Horse Whiskey, who is Biller’s 1970s world is clearly funding the film.
Biller objects to the idea that Viva is a sexploitation spoof. We watch with an ironic eye, but Biller in sincere in her love for this era of cinema, its aesthetic and technical styles (the film was made on sound stages with era-appropriate sound recording), and further, Biller is sincere in her concern for Barbi’s journey and her suspicion of the “freedom” of the sexual revolution. Pleasingly, Biller has released her follow-up this year, The Love Witch, an equally lush production with hints of the occult. Hopefully it won’t be so long before Biller makes another film, because we need filmmakers like her. Anna Biller is something special.
No. 20 – The Invitation (Karyn Kusama, 2015)
I find it very difficult to write about things I love. My passion is very ineloquent. I want to be expressive and enthusiastic, but instead it becomes a dull stream of “that was good, that was good too, it was really good.” On that note, please anticipate next week’s film, which I love love LOVED. Now, onto this. Writing about things you didn’t like is far easier.
Karyn Kusama is a very good filmmaker. Girlfight got excellent notices and Jennifer’s Body is hugely underrated. I wish I had watched Girlfight for the first time, or Jennifer’s Body again. But I didn’t. I watched The Invitation. The Invitation is not a very good film. And I really wanted to like it. It had a lot of potential, and it also had Emayatzy Corinealdi, so luminous in Middle Of Nowhere. And I love films about cults, which I understood this to be from the synopsis, though the film seemed to forget it from time to time. We are very forgiving to low budget films starring non-professional actors with people working together, trying their best with limited resources and still making a pile of shit. When a bunch of experienced LA-based movie professionals do the same and fumble so badly, it’s frustrating. So I’m not feeling particularly charitable.
Logan Marshall-Green as Will, looking like Tom Hardy in Khal Drogo cosplay, drives his new girlfriend, Emayatzy Corineald as Kira, who will have no lines until the last 15 minutes, to dinner with his ex-wife Eden and other friends. On their way, they hit a coyote which Will must then euthanize (with a tyre hammer). (Incidentally, this blog post is dedicated to all the wild animals who are hit by cars in films to make a strained metaphor about the driver being like a lamb to the slaughter.) Eden and Will separated after the death of their young son, and Eden has turned to a vague, new-agey movement called The Invitation to help her through her grief, guided by her new partner David. Will is suspicious of the group and their unsubtle attempts to recruit the rest of the guests, and while initially his friends are embarrassed by his hostility, his suspicions about their nefarious purpose is proven correct.
Will has an almost preternatural sense for danger – insisting on walking one departing guest to her car to ensure her escape, arguing about Eden and David locking them in for safety, intuiting their drinks have been poisoned. The film initially does a reasonable job of making his caution seem like paranoia, but the film is too dry for it to be effective. There are too many characters that we struggle to differentiate so it’s hard to understand who’s on Will’s side, who’s angry, who’s a stranger. Lines seem randomly allocated with no thought to vérité or character – one character says he knows a lot of people who’ve done The Invitation, then a few minutes later asks for more information like he’s never heard of it. Tommy and Miguel transpire to be partners, though this isn’t obvious until close to the end of the film. Most of the characters are basically incidental, which is good because none of them stand out in any way, apart from Michelle Krusaic’s Gina who makes a valiant effort to inject some personality into her character. (There’s an examination to be made of Hollywood’s Asian female actresses, who will at some point all play characters called Gina, Amy and May, because creativity is dead.) Gina’s boyfriend, Choi, begins essentially as Poochie from The Simpsons – whenever Choi isn’t on screen, the other characters are constantly asking “where’s Choi?”, building up masses of intrigue about this character who, when he arrives, is…just another guy.
It’s strange looking back at the film. When considering the plot and various elements, it sounds so promising. There are elements that sound so strong as concepts but in practise fall flat – Will and Eden’s bereavement is more meandering melancholy than relevant to the story, intriguing as the idea of the death of a child driving a mother to a manipulative cult may be. The appearance of a mysterious group at the door suggests an interesting sideplot that ties into the (weak) end twist, but the film ends up retaining focus on our dull bourgeois dinner party. There’s huge potential for a horror film based around the cult of wellness and mindfulness, and Karyn Kusama could well be the director to make it. But the script, so first draft-y and, well, basic, gives the film such weak foundations that the rest of the production struggles to overcome it. Just when things look like they might get interesting, the whole things deflates again. It confuses long stretches of repeating ideas and people making small talk for building tension. The last thirty minutes, where action starts happening, displays Kusama’s skill as a director, but the effect is diminished because of what has gone before. One of the significant players is a character we know nothing about and I had forgotten existed, and the villains are so irritating that by the time they start being threatening, they’ve lost their sense of danger. It’s not that the film is bad, per se. Lots of films are bad, and continue to be extremely entertaining. The Invitation is boring, which is unforgivable. Top tip: watch Jennifer’s Body instead.
No. 19 –Foxfire (Annette Haywood-Carter, 1996)
There’s something very appealing about a group of girls. Not in real life, of course. They’re terrifying in real life. But in the media, a pack of feral girls getting up to mischief, stretching the limits of their burgeoning adulthood, scandalising their way out of social expectations of what it means to be a young woman. It makes good TV. I’m talking the Pink Ladies, Spice Girls, the Craft. The car full of maniacs in Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill. Female friendship is a potent force, and teenage girls hold a beguiling power that is often confused with sexuality. It’s not, really. Or if it is, it’s inward-looking, not for the benefit or titillation of anyone outside the group. It’s like they’ve just realised the world is theirs for the taking. And naturally, other people don’t like that.
Foxfire has existed in a couple of formats over the years. Obviously, the book was written by Joyce Carol Oates, an author so prolific that you can be forgiven for never hearing of this particular novel, and in 2012, a more faithful adaption by Laurent Cantet was released, which was very enjoyable. In 1996, Annette Haywood-Carter’s adaptation brought the story out of its 1950s setting (the heyday of girl gangs) and into the grungy, raging against the machine-era 1990s, to apathy and near-silence. In the past few years, the film has experienced a touch of cultish nostalgia, largely based around the early role for Angelina Jolie and, let’s face it, Angelina Jolie’s exposed breasts, though the topless scene in question is not particularly titillating (not that that would prevent the screengrabs of the Messrs Skin of this world). The updated setting works surprisingly well. The post-Riot girl and 90s neo-feminism suits the story, and the violent aspects seem more at home in the contemporary Midwest. There’s still something subversive about a group of 1950s schoolgirls engaging in car theft, kidnap, and gun threats. In the 1990s, it simply seems like an appropriate response to rise up against oppression.
Arty Maddie Wirtz’s life is disrupted by a beguiling drifter named Legs, who poses as a new student and interrupts their creepy science teacher’s class, and his torment of awkward Rita, by freeing the frogs from dissection, a scene which appeared in roughly two thirds of teen movies between 1987-1997 as shorthand for a character’s radical righteousness. The film does occasionally lapse into cliché, and occasionally nonsense (Rita as played by a young Jenny Lewis is supposedly the fat girl, despite…not being any bigger than any other character) but it is sincere. There is something refreshing about a teen move devoid of irony – sincerity is something of a lost artform when it comes to films aimed at a teen audience. (Although I’m not about the watch The Fault In Our Stars to disprove that.) Maddie and Rita encounter Legs in the bathroom, and alongside fellow outsiders Goldie the delinquent and Violet the whore, are convinced to exact revenge on the science teacher for his sexual harassment of Rita, with a plan as complex as beating the shit out of him. After that success, and then suspension, they establish a clubhouse in an abandoned building and share tattoos, booze and frustration at the world.
Their strange friendship provokes anger among the rest of the community, as they are menaced by a group of emasculated jocks and punished by their furious parents. Goldie in particular suffers at the hands of her abusive father, and sinks back into drug addiction. One attempt to escape the jocks’ threats leads to a car crash and Legs being sent to jail, and the whole Foxfire gang drifting apart. When Legs finally returns, she tries to reunite them to help Goldie, and they concoct another plan to kidnap Goldie’s father and hold him for ransom to get her help.
Foxfire is almost good, but weakened by its reluctance to explore its ideas, instead painting in broad strokes. Characters are defined by their types, and never grow beyond that. Their version of fighting the system reads mostly as teen angst, despite the serious topics at hand (including threats of rape, parental abuse, and the school ignoring claims of their teacher’s molestation). The film’s attempts at profundity aren’t really supported by the narrative. It acts as though the girls are fighting for a new world order when really they don’t manage to do much more than stick and poke tattoos and some civil disobedience (and accidentally setting the school on fire). Even the most interesting aspect of the story – that these girls are not friends per se, but outsiders forced together out of mutual desperation, and the tension this creates – is expressed like a brick to the head, with them arguing in one scene and sharing an unspoken link the next. The 2012 film does a much stronger job of demonstrating the gang’s gradual but solid bond, and how the town came to be so threatened by them. The 1996 film is a bit unbalanced, spending more time celebrating Legs’ exotic mystery and her impact on Maddie than building the group’s connection. While Maddie and Legs’ relationship is a vital part of the story (an implicitly romantic dynamic here, though explicit in other versions), at the core is the Foxfire girls, their different backgrounds and different moral codes, choosing to support each other, and the disintegration of that group. In this version, Legs recognises she can not fit in with the gang and drifts back into oblivion, having changed Maddie forever in that symbolic way that the character doing the voiceover is always changed by the mysterious stranger. It’s not particularly new or exciting, but nor is it unsatisfying. After all, it’s always fun to watch a gang of girls tear it up.