No. 18 – Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (Lisa Immordino Vreeland, 2015)
Why have so many of the films I’ve watched for this project been documentaries? The first answer is that I watch documentaries the way some people eat Pringles, slack-jawed and without intention. Another more relevant option is that it is (somewhat) easier to make a documentary than a narrative film. In theory, all you need is a camera and an idea, rather than scene breakdowns, auditions, props, locations etc, etc, ad infinitum. Documentaries don’t have quite the same fight for funding and studio support, since studios tend not to commission documentaries, as much as purchase for distribution after completion, so a production company may take a chance on an “unproven” female director when there isn’t a multi-million dollar budget at risk. (Of course, how can a female director “prove” her financial viability without someone giving her that chance in the first place? When a studio does feel like nurturing an up-and-comer, those chances go to male rookies, like Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings Of Summer to Kong: Skull Island) or Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World). And also Josh Trank, but no one’s using him to prove a point after Fantastic Four.) And even without industry support, what’s to stop a director taking up camera and starting alone, and searching for funding for completion and distribution deals after? So documentaries, with their degree of autonomy, control and relative freedom from the usual budgetary dogfights, are proving a vibrant breeding ground for interesting and diverse female directors.
Of course, another reason could be that the female directors in question actually want to make a documentary. Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s lovingly crafted, vigorously researched Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is a great example, bolstered by the fascinating and headstrong figure of Guggenheim, herself no stranger to doing things just because she wants to. Peggy Guggenheim can be best described as a “bad bitch and no mistake”. Why she does not receive the same appreciation as other #QWEENs is beyond me. I hope it is not that she was no great beauty. Indeed, much is made of Guggenheim’s looks, in the documentary and in her life. She had a nose job gone wrong and has a reputation for catching many dicks that were supposedly out of her league. But if anyone thinks beauty is a requirement to be dynamic, alluring and worthy of iconic status, Peggy Guggenheim proves them wrong. She didn’t need to be gorgeous to become one of the most important figures in the art world. She didn’t even need to be an artist.
Guggenheim was poor in comparison to her billionaire relatives, her father having died on the Titanic, leaving her a relative pittance of some millions. She was considered the black sheep of the family, shaving off her eyebrows at school before moving to Paris at 21 where she became immersed in the European avant-garde and eventually, something like its saviour. Post WW1, Dadaism emerged as a reaction against the grotesque propaganda of the age, and she further turned her back on her breeding to delve into Bohemia, associating with icons like with Man Ray, Kiki de Montparnasse, Ezra Pound and James Joyce. The documentary offers a chronological view of Guggenheim’s life, the personal and the professional, through a trove of recorded interviews and admiring context from contemporary figures from the art world. The first part of the film focuses on Guggenheim as a person – the family tragedies (her beloved sister Bonita dying in childbirth, the mysterious death of her other sister’s children during a nasty divorce) and brutal heartbreaks (she casually dismisses her first husband Lawrence Veil’s abuse as him merely walking on her stomach four times and holding her underwater in the bath, the sudden death of the love of her life, John Holms, for whom she gave up her son to Veil). The second part of the film focuses on her professional significance, completing her evolution from dilettante to figurehead.
The film highlights the difficulties she faced in all aspects of her life, and the battles she fought to get the respect she deserved. In interview clips, she speaks frequently of her insecurities about her intelligence, and we see how she was a sponge to the artistic movements developing around her – cubism, surrealism, Dadaism. Deciding a publishing house was too expensive, she used her inheritance to open Guggenheim Jeune, a gallery dedicated to the work of her contemporaries, providing the venue for the first shows of many of the 20th century’s greatest artists. She exhibited Tanguy, Cocteau, Breton, Dali, Magritte – art that was then outrageous. “Strange art, mirroring herself” as the documentary states. Peggy had no formal training but she was a visionary in the realm of modern art, even in the face of the establishment’s cynicism. Her nemesis Baroness Rebay, the founding director of Guggenheim NY, told Peggy she was collecting trash, and refused to allow Peggy’s uncle to support Peggy’s struggling gallery by purchasing a Wandinsky. One clip shows an interviewer warning her that, when collecting modern art, she might end up with a lot of rubbish. Peggy reacts gracefully, stating it is only a danger if you have no taste. Peggy Guggenheim had taste.
The art world was not the only place that hated the new direction. By the late 1930s, the Nazis were targeting so-called “degenerate art”, starting with a weirdly self-defeating exhibition of confiscated art in 1937. Peggy, having closed Guggenheim Jeune for financial reasons, was planning a museum of modern art in London until war broke out. Instead, her collaborator Herbert Reade sent her to Paris to purchase art as the war was ramping up, when Jewish dealers were leaving Europe and artists were desperate to sell. She struggled to transport her new collection out of Paris, with the Louvre initially agreeing to help but then deciding the controversial modern art wasn’t worth the resources compared to the classics. But Peggy managed. As a Jewish woman, it was dangerous for her to be in Europe at all, but she not only persevered and saved the artwork, she also assisted her artist friends and associates escape the encroaching Nazi regime, helping them come to the US, even marrying Max Ernst.
The film views Peggy as the bridge between European and US modernism, surrealism meeting abstract expressionism, by not only bringing the expat artists to New York, but opening The Art Of This Century gallery – one of the first truly international galleries. Her approach to her space to unique in comparison to the stodgy old world institutes. The gallery itself was like an artwork, designed by architect Frederick Kiesler. The lights flashed on and off, the sound of an express train played intermittently. Critics called it a Coney Island ghost train, which wasn’t meant as a compliment but I would have taken it as one. The art was mounted so it could be touched and moved by the viewer, inciting an intimate relationship with the work, rather than being a distant, removed observer going hmmm. The film uses Peggy’s favourite art to tell her story, the drama of acquiring Brancusi’s Bird In Space, her flirtatious goading Alexander Calder to make her an ornate silver headboard for her bed. Art was not simply a business for her – as Donald Kuspit suggests, art gave a meaning to her life.
For all the criticism Peggy faced, and all her own insecurities about her academic ignorance, Peggy had an eye for the art that would define the post-war period. Her show 31 Women was the first exhibition of exclusively women, including Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning (who Max Ernst met then left Peggy for). For all her intense relations with artistic men, Peggy had a strong sense of sisterhood, giving an allowance to the struggling Djuna Barnes, and letting Maya Deren film in her gallery. Peggy was responsible for giving many significant artists their first show, including Jackson Pollock. She had previously commissioned a huge mural when he was still working as a carpenter, and claimed to have given him a regular income and a loan for a house, but felt he refused to give her any credit for his success. Her impact is arguable, but his is not – Pollock was the first modern artist to be accepted by the artistic establishment, even being named the greatest living artist by Life magazine. Either way, she certainly had foresight as to the direction art was taking.
For all Peggy’s inroads as a woman in an unforgiving industry, her wartime works, and her modern attitude, her bohemian sensuality and sexual openness, she was constantly fighting for credit, against her contemporaries, her critics and herself. She wrote a memoir detailing not only her journey through the war-era art world, but also her liaisons with related figures, leaving critics aghast at her brazen sexuality. She frequently mocks her own appearance (as do the commentators and interview subjects), though the documentary points out that she was considered attractive enough for a Man Ray portrait. Why her face is relevant at all is unclear, aside from the fact that it has become part of the Peggy narrative – rich, ugly but somehow promiscuous. Her contemporaries, and the film itself, find it impossible to consider her according to her achievements alone. One moving scene sees Peggy recall reluctantly aborting John Holms’ child, fearing judgement as she was still married to Veil. When the marriage finally ended, she left her son with Veil, knowing that she wouldn’t be allowed to keep him if she continued a relationship with Holms. For all her strength of character and rebellious ways, she was still cowed by the rigid social constructs as a woman in the 20th century.
Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is a very strong documentary. It does dip in interest when recounting Peggy’s move to Venice, unable to recreate the excitement of her wartime escapades, clashes with the art world as modern art gradually became accepted and esteemed, or even her tempestuous love life. But cinema has always struggled to show interest in a woman over the age of 40. But Peggy herself, such a vivid character anyway, and literally brought to life by a library of film footage and audio interviews, ensures the audience’s attention remains. It is satisfying to see her evolve from an enthusiastic outsider to a respected member of the art establishment herself, by trusting her instincts above the criticism of others. As Robert Motherwell says, you don’t have to paint a figure to express human feelings, and no one lived that adage like Peggy Guggenheim.
This will be my last documentary, unless I find one I have something particularly interesting to talk about. But it’s a solid example to finish on.
No. 17 – The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears (Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani, 2013)
Sometimes when I’m watching films for this project, I’m so inspired that I’m dying to get writing about it. And other times, I struggle to find an angle to drag out a few paragraphs (I’m looking at you, Desperately Seeking Susan). And then there’s The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears, where I need to turn off all electrical equipment and sit in a darkened room for a while, because I have no clue how to write about this film. Though it does make me feel uneasy in a darkened room.
Dan returns from a business trip to find his wife Edwige missing. He asks around the building and is invited to the seventh floor where a veiled woman tells him how her husband also disappeared after being lured upstairs by strange screams and murmurs, then seemingly being murdered, which she partially witnesses by peeping through a hole he had drilled in their bedroom ceiling. Frustrated, Dan leaves and encounters a naked woman called Laura. The next day he is visited by a suspicious police inspector. This is the last point where the film seems to be interested in making any narrative sense. After that, it’s a free-for-all, with acres of possible hallucinations, hidden rooms and mysterious strangers that emerge in a visually stunning kaleidoscope of moments, few of which seem to relate to (what we thought was) the story before it became apparent that the story was not really worth thinking about. This film is to be experienced, more than understood.
The film clearly has its roots in the Giallo movement, even lifting some of its soundtrack from European horror classics. A number of brutal scenes are rendered irresistible by the astonishing production design. Knife wounds and pools of blood become erotic, their beauty almost dissolving the horror. There is a fetishistic aspect to many of the images, a nipple being teased and threatened by a knife blade, the slick leather gloves of the killer, a man’s naked torso being caressed and tortured with broken glass. Even better is the sound design, the metallic vring of knives being traced along their victim’s flesh, the deep squeak of leather, the heavy wooden roar of furniture being dragged across the floors. The woman upstairs tells her story in an eerie croak, the film suggesting she screamed herself near-mute. Dan’s door buzzer rings interminably through one sequence, to the point of audience distress, as he gets caught in a loop and seems to be spying on himself. Voyeurism recurs throughout the film, with numerous shots of eyes peering through cracks or widening in horror. The characters watch and observe each other without making any meaningful connection – Dan’s voicemails to Edwige go unheard. He follows a lead to a man who admits to travelling through the false walls in the building to live in the apartments of tenants on holiday, but will only speak to Dan through a closed door. The apartments are gloriously designed, the best and brightest of 1970s kitsch florals and dizzying geometric shapes, mustards and reds that distort and confuse the eye. We get lost within the apartment as the walls seem to curve, which is appropriate given the number of false walls and hidden rooms revealed throughout the story, and the scenes of characters hiding behind wallpaper or tearing down the walls to get at the labyrinthine space within.
There is no question that the husband and wife team of Cattet and Forzani are stylish, exhibiting impressive knowledge of cinematic history and enough of their own perspective to twist their references into something unique and memorable. But such strong imagery alone becomes somewhat tiresome when the promising narrative dissolves in favour of a succession of striking but eventually repetitive shots. Perhaps this would be less frustrating without the first twenty minutes setting up a genuinely intriguing mystery (Dan and Edwige’s apartment locked from the inside, the tenants who resist answering his questions, the inspector who suspects Dan but reveals that his own wife is missing). Leaving the plot not only unanswered but essentially ignored seems less like a bravura choice than a missed opportunity. It almost seems that the directors were too enamoured by their mise-en-scene to engage with their story, and you can only imagine how incredible the film would be if they had maintained the narrative tension alongside their aural and visual skills. It’s clear that there is a narrative thread in the film, but myself and many more qualified writers are unanimous in their inability to parse the film. The clues are there – something underlying about isolation, with characters communicating by voicemail, speaking through doors, and repeatedly seeming to have a clear connection with each other but refusing to get involved (Dan’s anger at the old woman’s story despite it seeming to provide clues about Edwige’s disappearance, the squatter knowing about the building’s hidden interiors but refusing to assist Dan). Perhaps the walls within walls represent Edwige’s hidden desires, the intrigue of doppelgangers (a threatening voicemail is revealed to be not a man but his wife, slowed down for a deeper tone, and one review counts the appearance of four different Lauras) tying in with her supposed new identity, itself echoes in the drawing of his wife being revealed as a copy of the painting in the infamous Apartment L. There’s no doubt that Cattet and Forzani have something in mind, but their film is too dense to reveal it, and the directors clearly want it that way. Maybe the greatest clue lies in the doubling of the film’s title. In the English version, it’s ambiguous as to whether it means “tears” like crying or “tears” like wounds, though the original French confirms the former. However, the film’s end reveals another new title without explanation – “L’étrange douleur des larmes de ton corps”, or “The strange pain of your body’s tears”. Not that it explains things either.
No. 16 –Marjoe (Sarah Kernochan, Howard Smith, 1972)
Marjoe is bad, not evil, and this unusually structured, Oscar-winning documentary doesn’t need too many stylish techniques to tell his strange, compelling story. Marjoe Gortner – his first name a portmanteau of “Mary” and “Joseph” – was a child prodigy in the bizarre world of Charismatic Christianity, and his parents toured him around the USA showing off The World’s Youngest Preacher to adoring crowds. However, Sarah Kenochan and Howard Smith’s documentary sees Gortner at a much different time in his life, when, tired and cynical, he decides to reveal himself, and the entire Charismatic Christianity movement, with its faith healing and speaking in tongues, as a fraud.
The film begins with Gortner narrating a general overview of his life to date and his early entry into the world of evangelism, as trained by his parents in the overenunciation and rolling Rs of the preacher lingua. He was a controversial figure, performing a marriage ceremony at 5 years old, prompting accusations that the child was a sideshow act or at worst, a grotesque corruption of what Christianity should be. His memories are intercut with footage of him surrounded by the film crew, shaking us out of our expectations of the documentary form, as we see Gortner relaxed, fooling around with the young radicals with long hair and flares, a shooting schedule hastily scrawled on a crumpled page. Gortner briefs them on how to infiltrate a tent revival without standing out too obviously, as the truth becomes clear. Gortner is ready to expose the lie he has been living. Gortner had approached Howard Smith with the idea of a behind the curtain look at evangelicalism, but Sarah Kenochan convinced Smith to attempt the film themselves rather than pass the idea to the more experienced Mayles brothers. Kenochan struggled throughout the production, despite being its driving force (Smith wasn’t a filmmaker but a journalist), as she was dismissed as Smith’s younger girlfriend. If things are bad now, imagine being 25 in 1972 and trying to control a mostly-male crew of hippies and burnouts.
The remainder of the film intercuts between Gortner’s memories, the footage of the tent revival, his conversation with the crew as he outlines the tricks of the trade, and personal footage of Gortner’s non-preaching life, where he looks and acts like any other young, famous counter-culture man in the 1970s, with a string of admirers basking in his glow. Gortner enjoys the attention, or else he is so used to being in the spotlight that his default mode is to command a room regardless of the audience. He is charming, self-aware, arrogant and at times vicious, and yet there is a wall there, even when recounting the horrors of his youth, how his mother would beat him making sure the marks wouldn’t be visible to the press or hold him under water if he made mistakes in his memorised sermons. His façade rarely breaks, and the preacher persona is second nature to him. He easily slips into the dialogue for the camera crew, mocking his own performances and predicting everyone else’s, boasting about stealing moves from Mick Jagger, and showing off for his new girlfriend as he pretends to cast out demons from their labrador. His sermons are learned, not felt – they are just a performance for him, whereas his audience is feeling it so deeply that they believe he can heal their ailments. He describes the secret codes his mother used to guide his sermons, saying “glory be to God” to signal he was running long, and choreographing his routines, opening arms each time he says Jesus, taking an emphatic step forward when he refers to the devil. Gortner seems more like a retired child star than an interlocutor of Christ.
Gortner hates the church, not the people. He relates to the congregations he visits and the joy they feel in his words. He enjoys the singing and celebration of the Pentecostal services, what he calls the “glory je to besus” angle, rather than the fire and brimstone. He says he feels guilty that every time he quits preaching, he returns for one last tour once the money runs out, and the documentary appears to be a deliberate attempt to severe his connection to the Charismatic movement altogether. He sees religion as an addiction, not just for him, returning to the guarantee of money and adulation every few years, but for the worshippers that surround him. He outlines how the church celebrates individuals who have sacrificed to donate money, giving special prayer slips to people who skipped meals so that they can give the money to Gortner or his fellow preachers. But at times his boastful nature overwhelms him, and he lapses into a dismissiveness that verges on cruelty. One scene sees him post-performance, shirtless on a bed counting the collection money, the sound of crinkling notes overwhelming the soundtrack. He laments that he doesn’t earn as much now as when he was an adorable child, and how his mother used to sew extra pockets in his suit for the admiring old ladies to fill with dollars. He mockingly performs the laying on of hands on a pretty girl, and reveals faith healing as psychosomatic, that once one or two people are convinced, other people follow.
At least Gortner is well aware of this hypocrisy. He complains how hard it is to switch between worlds, that people comment on his flamboyant clothes. We see him recline on a waterbed and laugh along to drug references. For all his guilt towards his followers, he has absolved himself of his childhood deceit, since he had no input and no choice. He criticises his father frequently, that they have no relationship, he is distant, and makes no attempt to communicate with his son. These are the only moments in the film where his façade seems to peel away. Late in the film, he attends a service where he is introduced by his father. Gortner‘s demeanour is totally different, sitting stoically as his father recounts a tale of Gortner as a boy, receiving baptism in the bath. Gortner reacts as though it is a typical, embarrassing dad story, but there is a great tension underneath. He has previously revealed to the camera that he never believed in a God. Even as a child, religion was a business.
The film won the Oscar, but it faded quickly from public memory, in case you hadn’t noticed that the Pentecostal movement’s as strong as ever. This is perhaps due to its lack of a release in the South, but definitely not helped by the fact that for a long time the film only existed as a poorly aged copy of a copy of a print. While Kernochan fought for years to be properly credited for the project, it was her temerity that ensured the film continued to exist. After buying back the rights, she was contacted by the Library of Congress who by chance had a pristine copy. Marjoe had risen again.
Throughout the film, Gortner returns to a scrapbook of newspaper clippings of his childhood infamy, maybe showing it off to the crew, maybe nostalgic himself. He explains that his parents earned millions of dollars off his performances, but he never saw any of it. But he says he has let go of bitterness towards parents and his involvement in the Charismatic movement. After all, now he believes in karma.
No. 15 – The Punk Singer (Sini Anderson, 2013)
Women are rarely allowed to just be; they have to explain and justify why they are who they are, in a way that men rarely face. Amber Rose has to justify why she deserves called a whore even though she has built a career off the contours of her body. Hillary Clinton faces taunts about claiming to be a strong woman when she accepted her husband’s infidelity. Rape victims have to explain how drinking to a stupor or going home with a stranger does not permit assault. Kathleen Hanna, face of the Riot Grrrl movement, an opinionated and outspoken woman, in an era and industry who loathed those qualities from feminine lips, faced more than most. It becomes clear throughout Sini Anderson’s documentary, The Punk Singer, that she is no longer willing to play that game. Hanna is no longer interested in explaining.
Not that Hanna is hiding anything, per se. The documentary finds plenty of archival footage and willing talking heads to fill in the blanks in Hanna’s story, and Hanna herself expresses no reluctance to repeat, discuss or reveal when she feels like it. But there is a sense that for a woman of such depth and significance, the film barely scratches the surface. But perhaps after a lifetime of being cajoled by aggressive music journos to justify herself, Hanna no longer wishes to reveal any more of herself than she wants to.
Anderson makes little effort to dig into Hanna’s psyche, happy to let her subject dictate how much is discussed. Not to paint Hanna as a tyrant or Anderson as a patsy, but there is a notable difference between biographical material where the subject is a participant only, and where the subject is actively involved. This may been connected to Anderson’s efforts to complete the film, which included a Kickstarter, a benefit concert headlined by Hanna collaborator Kim Gordon, and eventually Tamra Davis, wife of Hanna’s husband’s bandmate (Beastie-in-law?), signing on as co-producer – clearly there was motivation to please Hanna’s fanbase. And while Hanna herself isn’t credited in the production, she did have unexpected input, requesting that the chosen interview subjects were largely female – which is obviously a relevant decision given Hanna’s background, but it is highly unusual for a documentary subject to dictate who is and who isn’t interviewed. There are moments where Hanna severs discussions and the film moves on, without any attempt at follow up with the other subjects to complete whatever conversation Hanna has left hanging. There is a sense that Anderson may have been overawed by her subject and the pretence at objectivity (so vital in documentary filmmaking) is lost in return for access to Hanna, which is a shame as Hanna is more than worthy of a more transparent exploration.
Of course, that criticism opens up further discussions about why we expect documentary subjects to give up their right to privacy for the pleasure of the viewer. While Hanna’s veiled references to her difficult childhood (she insists she was never raped, but refuses to discuss any further) raise and then frustrate the viewer’s curiosity, why should we be entitled to all the details? It’s Hanna’s story to tell or not tell, even if she did agree to the documentary, and it’s churlish to criticise Anderson for putting respect before traditions of the documentary form. But it is a fine line to tread between respectful film making and propaganda piece, but given Hanna’s years of dealing with the media, and their interpretations, misinterpretations and reinterpretations of her music, her politics and her words, you can’t really blame her for her decision to exert control over her image in a way the media rarely allows a woman or really any public figure to do.
And none of this is to suggest that Hanna is particularly evasive. Indeed, the film’s biggest publicity point was Hanna’s painful honesty regarding her disappearance from the music scene, as she spoke for the first time about the diagnosis of late stage Lyme disease that essentially ended Le Tigre and forced Hanna into retirement. The revelation comes late in the film, and it is shocking, not only to see footage to Hanna, up to this point so charismatic and compelling, looking so physically vulnerable during treatment, but also brought so emotionally low by not only the ordeal of her health problems, but the impact of leaving music behind and isolating herself from her bandmates to hide her illness. The film is deft in tying Hanna’s feminist beliefs to her health problems. Chronic Lyme disease is a contentious issue, with some people suggesting it is a psychosomatic illness, and Hanna likens people’s reluctance to believe her diagnosis with society’s reluctance to engage with feminist issues. As Hanna states so eloquently, “when a man tells the truth, it’s the truth. And when, as a woman, I go to tell the truth, I feel like I have to negotiate the way I’ll be perceived.”
I’m concerned that the harsh tone is disguising my own biases, which is to say I’m a big fan of Kathleen Hanna and her various music projects, and spending time in her company throughout the film is a pleasure. Over the years she has been mocked for her supposed Valley girl accent, which is endemic of the media’s reluctance to actually listen to what she has to say. Even an objective, almost critical documentary would not be able to dim the light of Hanna’s intelligence and principles, which should be inspirational to anyone who believes in gender equality, or, simply anyone moved by the power of music. Anderson’s film features admirers from all eras of contemporary feminism, from Joan Jett to Tavi Gevinson, alongside Hanna’s contemporaries and collaborator, few of whom have had such a consistently combative relationship with the media. But Hanna is an old hand at other people’s attacks, maintaining a calm but bemused tone when recounting the various scorn, assaults and death threats she and the Riot Grrrl movement have faced over the years, buoyed by the strength of her convictions. The only time she seems to waver is when recounting the time Courtney Love punched her, shaken by this unexpected woman on woman violence, perpetrated on a woman who has more for female voices in the music industry than anyone else. But then, as Hanna works on her new band, The Julie Ruin, it’ll take a lot more than the singer from Hole and a touch of Lyme disease to keep Kathleen Hanna down.
No. 14 –Amour Fou (Jessica Hausner, 2014)
For all the vitriol thrown at the monolith of Europe lately, I thought it was worth considering a more positive tradition, of European cinema. The concept doesn’t really exist, when you consider the diversity between auteurs like Spain’s Almodovar, Sweden’s Bergman, and France’s Godard, and yet we all have a clear idea of what European cinema is – character driven, inherently political, often dense and incoherent to the casual viewer, plus subtitles and tits. After a while, you can draw each country’s cinema in broad strokes – Britain’s kitchen sink dramas, France’s nouveau vague, Scandinavian psycho-dramas – though this is reductive once you look in detail (Ken Russell, Jean Cocteau, Roy Andersson). But I don’t have a stereotypical notion of Austrian cinema.
In some ways, Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou is typical of European cinema, sort of. The story is ambiguous, the tone challenging and ever-changing, and it does not make things simple for its audience. Long stretches go by where characters talk about contemporary political details, which may not have even been significant at the time, let alone hold any relevance now. The film even looks like a stage play, the camera still and rarely moving, many shots recalling a Vermeer painting. It’s perhaps most surprising that it’s a historical picture, and based on a true story, albeit one not well known outside of German literature. Though we anglocentric viewers think BBC Sunday nights have a monopoly on historical stories, there is a significant legacy of European cinema looking to the past for its biggest box office success – post-war Germany understandably didn’t want to spend much time watching contemporary films. One of the most successful European films is another Austrian history tale, 1955’s Sissi, starring Romy Schneider. But Amour Fou is stranger, dryer, and holds its subjects in lower esteem. At times, the film almost seems to be a parody of its strange tale.
Henriette is a dull woman, who leads a bland life as a wife and mother in early 1800s Berlin, happy to consider herself her “husband’s property” in the age of politeness. Most people find her silly and uninteresting – her attempts to engage with political discourse at dinner parties are met with a dismissive silence, and her husband and mother dismiss the stories she excitedly recounts. At one party, she meets the author of one of these stories, a gloomy young poet called Heinrich von Kliest, who find her to be a kindred spirit, or at least a malleable one. He is particularly depressed of late because his cousin Marie refuses to commit suicide with him. After a few encounters, Heinrich asks Henriette if she will kill herself with him instead, reasoning that her life is loveless and mediocre, which she denies. Henriette then finds herself similarly infected with melancholy and as her condition fails to improve, her doctor diagnoses her with a terminal illness.
Heinrich’s entire identity is built around his melancholic nature, even rejecting Marie’s offer of a doctor because he boasts his sadness is too great for anyone to help. In contrast, Henriette takes on the identity of other people. Early in the film, she watches a performance by a famous singer, and tells her husband that she pities her for her fame, but later gives an awkward recitation of the same song to the polite bemusement of her audience. She is almost giddy when she first falls ill, finally having the concern of her mother and husband. Henriette’s attempts to assert an identity, even if it is an impersonation of someone else, are constantly stifled either by the men around her – her “decision” to kill herself alongside Heinrich is rejected because it is to avoid a slow death, rather than an overwhelming love for him– or by the bourgeois society she is trapped in, which Heinrich rails against. Their first attempt at their death pact is derailed when, after travelling to a secluded hotel together where he will first shoot her then himself, they encounter an acquaintance who implies that they are having an affair. The suggestion outrages Heinrich, but if they were about to die anyway, why should they care what people would think? But Heinrich is as culpable as the social norms he fights against – the appeal is that he would have such control over a person that he could talk them into death, and furthermore, he is to be the one to pull the trigger.
Usually, this historical romance has been told as a tale of great passion, from the point of view of the famous von Kliest, and this is often reflected in the reviews and synopses of Amour Fou. But Hausner flips the story on its head, portraying the events from Henriette’s perspective, depicting Heinrich as an awkward boob, and suggesting Henriette’s illness, usually accepted as legitimate in the historical records, as psychosomatic. Hausner fights to give Henriette’s story the attention that von Kliest always enjoyed – why should she be an afterthought in her own death? The director massages the details somewhat (though 200 years later, who knows what the details were?), and it plays at times like a cringe comedy, with Heinrich finally accepting Henriette’s offer to kill herself, deciding that her reasons for dying are acceptable because she is still choosing to die with him than live with her husband. Even their love is weirdly asexual – they don’t so much as kiss throughout the film, and Heinrich is mortified to have walked in on Henriette as she changes clothes.
In the background of all this, society argues about the new tax laws, thinking they give the poor and uneducated responsibility that they can not cope with. Similarly, a woman like Henriette is not expected to enjoy great passions. It is Heinrich’s story of a woman being raped and impregnated by a man in disguise who is revealed to be her lover that first transfixes Henriette, the story that her mother and husband mock and dismiss for its excessive emotions. She is clearly striving for something more than her current existence offers her, and it is Heinrich’s cack-handed proposal on the grounds that her life is meaningless that shocks her into melancholy. Believing her to be dying, her husband offers to step back and let her enjoy her “affair”, rather than making any attempt to connect with her. When news of their death breaks, her husband gets word that there was no tumour after all, and Henriette did not kill herself as a result of her sickness. “It was out of love after all,” he concedes. The audience can not be so sure.
No. 13 –The Dressmaker (Jocelyn Moorhouse, 2015)
This is the third film from 2015 that I’ve watched in three weeks, and like Evolution and Mustang before it, the third time a film has been heralded as a triumphant comeback for a female director after a decade’s absence. Press reports attributed Jocelyn Moorhouse’s absence to time off caring for her children while her marginally-more prolific husband and frequent collaborator PJ Hogan continued directing. (Mustang’s Deniz Gamze Erguven and Evolution’s Lucile Hadžihalilovic both pointed out their absence was due to difficulties finding funding – in fact, Erguven was pregnant while she was filming – and this is not only a female issue, as auteurs like Spike Lee and Charlie Kaufman have turned to Kickstarter for funding assistance.) But I have no interest in drawing assumptions about mothers in the workplace. Rather I’ll simply affirm the concept of different strokes for different folks, as neither approach has prevented or any of these directors from making yet another cracking film.
The Dressmaker got something close to a savaging by reviewers – “tonally deranged” according to the good good people at the Financial Times. And I can sort of see why. This is a film people will despise or adore – it’s hard to imagine anyone being lukewarm on this festival of grotesque characters, preposterous twists and, sure, a fairly uneven tone. But that didn’t seem to bother anyone about any superhero movie, and Captain America never looked this good in knock-off Dior.
Tilly Dunnage returns from her international life as a dressmaker, to her grotty Australian hometown, ostensibly to care for her feral mother, but really wants to discover the truth behind her troubled childhood which saw her accused of murdering a schoolmate and removed from her home. Her reappearance initially scandalises the locals until they realise her skill with her Singer sewing machine. She costumes them in glorious and extravagant couture, in stark contrast to the dusty, insular little town and the population’s sordid secrets and hypocrisy. But Tilly’s talent doesn’t ingratiate her back into the community. Instead their shiny new façade convinces the townsfolk of their superiority to the murderess with the crazy mother, who live in the shack on the hill on the outskirts of town. Their confidence increases alongside their cruelty, but Tilly isn’t willing to take it lying down, especially once she uncovers the levels of deception and delusion that led to her ostracisation as a child.
Identity is at the heart of The Dressmaker, not just Tilly’s attempts to reclaim her past, and reawaken the tarnished mother/daughter relationship she left behind. The townsfolk themselves have recreated their history, from the cross-dressing police officer, to the mother of the murdered boy, who is kept in the dark about the details of her son’s fate, and the numerous witnesses who prefer to accept Tilly as a murderer than rock the boat with something so inconvenient as the truth. The film itself lurches between romance, comedy, drama and something akin to Jacobean revenge tragedy. Tilly’s first client is the dowdy Gert (Sarah Snook, who proved in 2014’s Predestination that she’s a master of transformation), who is besotted with the son of an upwardly mobile neighbour, and receives a spectacular makeover. As the film progresses, she becomes the groomed and refined Trudy (while Tilly constantly has to remind people she doesn’t go by Myrtle anymore) and gradually Trudy’s new social standing is reflected in her arrogant, sniffy attitude. It’s hard to ignore the class tensions throughout the film – Australia, like the UK, is built on a series of complex and frankly incomprehensible rules about social standing, what you can achieve, how far you are allowed to rise, and who is never allowed to transcend their past. People who live in shacks don’t get to be treated with dignity, no matter how long they worked for Balenciaga. It’s the old cliché of Tall Poppy Syndrome. When someone from a “low” standing achieves something, it’s not a time of celebration but a time to remind them where they came from, in case they get ideas above their station. The film criticises that attitude through mockery, which is the most powerful weapon to use against powerful people.
I do hate to cheapen this astonishingly informed and academic blog with shallow commentary, but Kate Winslet looks incredible in this film. As it should be, given that she’s a master seamstress with a background in Paris and a stopover with Balenciaga, but really. Half the time she’s on screen you have to remind yourself to listen to what she’s saying. And incidentally what she’s saying is in a pleasing accurate Australian accent. (Winslet has always done well in the southern hemisphere – see Heavenly Creatures or Hideous Kinky for a start.) Sure, there’s a problem where Liam Hemsworth (26), Sarah Snook (28) and Kate Winslet (40) are supposed schoolmates. But by my assessment, all the characters are meant to be 35-ish, so they’re all out of sync, thus cheap shots at Winslet are a bit unnecessary. And regardless, it would be hard to swap any of the cast (even Hemsworth, who is inoffensive in a role of an inoffensive man). It is a distraction, until another horrible character or flamboyant outfit appears, and all is forgiven.
At least the cast, regardless of age, all get the film and know exactly what tone to aim for, even if the audience has to put a bit of work in to catch up. But I always admire a film that doesn’t hold its audience’s hand and trusts you. The Dressmaker is a totally refreshing watch – beautiful with hidden depths, light but with a surprising emotional punch, and unpredictable, cutting like a razor just when it seems like it might lapse into sentimentality. And the clothes. Good Lord, the clothes.
No. 12 –Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)
You wait all year for one female-directed-film-in-the-cinema-experience, then they all come at one go. Or, well, I got to enjoy my second in two weeks with the added pleasure of the woman behind me chatting with her friend and kicking my head throughout. Two female-directed films at the cinema in two weeks might not sound impressive, but think back to 2014, where analysis of UK and US releases showed that female directors worked on less than 14% of films released (even including co-directing with a male collaborator). Maybe things are looking up. Still, by my count, this is only the 6th film this year to receive a UK release. Good thing it’s a wonder.
Lale lives with her four older sisters and their grandmother, who is horrified to hear about their school-end celebrations with local boys. Concerned for their reputations, she beats them then drag them to the doctor for an emergency hymen check. Despite proof of the girls’ “honour”, they forbid the girls from leaving their house, and seek to educate them in the ways of good Muslim womanhood – cooking, cleaning, modest clothing and eventually, marriage – the house becoming a “wife factory” according to Lale. So far, so Virgin Suicides (as many reviews have pointed out). But Mustang is more heavily weighted than its American counterpart – perhaps because of Ergüven’s more realist approach, her skill at burying into the girls’ point of view rather than people watching them, or maybe our sickly awareness that situations like this are really happening to girls who act like girls rather than statues or property.
At first, the girls find ways to survive their summer indoors, adapting their shapeless dresses and sneaking out to attend a woman-only football match. But as the summer ends, the girls realise they’re not returning to school, and their uncle’s terms become ever more extreme. The house is not just locked, but bars soldered on the windows to prevent the girls leaving. Soon, their grandmother is arranging marriages for the older girls, with Sonay demanding to be matched with her existing boyfriend, leaving Selma to take her place with a more conservative family. The double wedding marks a turning point in the film, where the sisters’ joyful collaboration ends and the three remaining daughters are at the mercy of their uncle. The action moves almost entirely indoors as he discovers more little acts of rebellion and takes measures to prevent the girls’ independence, sealing off all remaining escape routes and closing them off from the outside world. As the house empties, Lale starts dreaming of escaping to Istanbul, knowing her favourite teacher has moved there, and finding her uncle’s keys, she tries to work out how to operate his car with little success.
One of the strengths of the film is the universality of the story. Despite being based in a Muslim community in the outskirts of Turkey, the story is sadly familiar. The standards to which girls are held across the world, in secular and non-secular communities, lead to situations of imprisonment (literal, as in this film, as psychological and emotional elsewhere). There are numerous scenes of the house becoming a prison – keys turning in locks, hammers, drilling and workmen, the high walls surrounding the patio, the gaps in windows getting smaller, getting broken up by bars going up, and the girls looking out of closed windows into the world they can’t reach. The audience feels their world closing in. The girls are punished for something they hardly seem aware of – we see them play, we see them in their underwear, they wear makeup and their white school shirts turn see-through in the sea, revealing the modest vest tops worn underneath. These are not provocative girls (not that they’d deserve the punishment if they were) – they are provocative simply because they are girls. The girls’ sex education is a dog-eared book discreetly slipped to the engaged sisters as their grandmother prepares their marital chest. Selma and her husband panic over the lack of blood on their sheets on their wedding night as his parents knock expectantly on the bedroom door waiting to see confirmation of her former virginity, eventually taking her to A&E thinking there is something wrong with her. Selma tells the doctor she has had sex lots of times, but he confirms that her hymen is still intact, and asks why she lied. Selma, who has been quietly desolate since her engagement was announced, and sneaks the dregs of the men’s drinks at her reception, knows that the truth is irrelevant, and all that matters is how other people view her, regardless of how she behaves. Virgin or whore, she remains imprisoned by perceptions.
The film takes another sickly turn as Uncle Erol is revealed to have been raping first Ece, then the painfully young looking Nur. It’s unclear whether this is Erol’s opportunism in an emptier house, or whether Lale, who has been narrating throughout and as the youngest is naturally the most naïve, sexually and otherwise, and has only realised what the night time bed creaking means, after having sneakily read the sex book. While it’s a sad reality for many girls and boys, in Mustang it reads a bit melodramatic, coming seemingly out of the blue. We’re already aware that Erol’s bad news, it just seems like a cheap attempt to ensure no one in the audience has any sympathy for him, and it’s a big subject to just throw in. But it’s a minor complaint, given the ending of the film is so strong, turning into a high-tension breakout. Turning Erol’s scheme against him, Lale helps Nur to lock out her wedding party, turning their prison into their own fortress. While Erol attempts to remove the window bars he spent so long erecting, Lale and Nur race around the house, packing a getaway kit, making a forbidden phone call, and escaping the arms reaching through every window like a nightmarish home invasion. Their escape, as Lale finally manages to drive them away, is proof that the girls’ irrepressibility was never able to be stifled by social expectations, and that even under such extreme duress, they need nothing more to escape to their uncertain future than belief in themselves.