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Archive for May 2016

evolution

No. 11 –Evolution (Lucile Hadžihalilovic, 2015)

At last, a mere five months into my project, I put my money where my blog is and saw a film directed by a woman in an actual, honest-to-God cinemateque. It had additional resonance for me in that it was a film I was planning to see at last year’s London Film Festival, before I decided I was both too poor and too lazy to fight for tickets.(The LFF facebook page will tell you this sort of thing is war.) But Evolution was not the film I was expecting. The vague synopses fail to convey the levels of mystery and Cronenbergian strangeness that the film presents, but that was by necessity. How to describe this film?  “A boy discovers sea monsters, sort of” doesn’t quite cover it. Evolution doesn’t revolve around a mid-narrative twist, but rather every step subverts what you’ve seen before, building up an eerie atmosphere that envelopes you like the seawater that encroaches on every frame. This is an odd one, and all the better for it.

Nicolas lives in an isolated village by the sea with his mother. The other inhabitants are also boys, also living with single mothers, also living oddly sterile, primitive lives – no schooling, no society, no purpose, just days spent on the black sand and in the water. While swimming, Nicolas sees the body of a boy his age, a red starfish resting on his stomach. His mother insists he was mistaken, but Nicolas’ suspicion is piqued. But rather than a murder mystery, we are gradually led down a different path. The audience can notice little things that seem off – Nicolas secretly draws a ferris wheel in a notebook, suggesting a life before the seclusion of the island. His mother routinely feeds him spoonfuls of iodine-blue medicine, insisting boys need it for the illness of adolescence. Nicolas cuts his hand on coral, and is stitched up by a nurse using a fishing hook. Nothing is quite right here. Nicolas sneaks out at night to follow his mother and the other women, all strangely Vermeer-esque and eyebrowless with waxy skin and strange dark eyes, and finds them writhing naked on the beach, limbs intermingling like some great tentacled beast. Then he catches sight of a line of suction cups on his mother’s back. But just as the film seems to go down a body snatchers-esque route (they are like us but they are not us), Nicolas is taken away to a hospital.

At the hospital, Nicolas and his fellow patients endure injections, incisions, and imprisonment, given under no more information than the all-female staff’s assertions that the boys are sick. They are kept in a dark, windowless ward, where water dribbles down the green-painted walls and the boys gradually disappear. The nurse who stitched Nicolas up grows fond of him, sneaking him a pencil and asking him to explain his drawings as the objects are unfamiliar to her. Nicolas tries sneaking out of the ward but his explorations only bring more uncertainty, discovering a cupboard full of sea creatures and embryos in glass jars, the nurses watching footage of a human caesarean section with fascination and confusion, and encountering one of his friends shackled in a floatation tank, something feeding at his abdomen. Then Nicolas’ ultrasound shows a heartbeat.

Women have spent much of the past fifty years rewriting folklore, from the work of Angela Carter and Marina Warner to Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard and Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood. It has even cracked Hollywood to some extent, allusions and reinterpretations like Brave and Maleficient (which was directed by a man so I don’t have the opportunity to tell you what a mess that film is but trust me, it’s all over the show). Hadžihalilovic’s film draws on fairytale tropes – the hero’s deceptive parentage, the dangerous stepmother, curious children in danger – but gradually delves into the realms of body horror. And what is more horrifying to us than the biology of women? Evolution explores the idea of maternity by forcing Nicolas, into a female puberty, perverting the idea of pregnancy, motherhood and the family structure. Or at least it does when you think about it. When you watch it, when the film washes over you like waves, the film is a suffocating, damp nightmare, eerily calm but with a rumbling sense of dread building throughout, until we come to expect a John-Hurt-in-Alien moment, and instead receive something more emotional and delicate. Hadžihalilovic has a light touch, neither seeking to explain much of what’s happening on screen, nor compel the audience to vomit in the aisles. The atmosphere is creepy rather than repugnant, although that does depend on your deep-seated psychological terror of penetration, puberty and pregnancy. You can imagine the fun a horror director might have had with this script, but I’m grateful for Hadžihalilovic’s more ambiguous approach, which made the film more memorable for how it made you feel, rather than what you saw on screen.

 

toucy feely
No. 10 –Touchy Feely (Lynn Shelton, 2013)

Modern American independent cinema had a creative peak a few years back, and has hit a downturn in recent times. It’s become almost clichéd, these tiny, intimate stories of people and lives and deceptively insignificant occurrences, the short story to the studio’s epics, are now familiar rather than fresh. When did I start to roll my eyes at “quirky” rather than recognise it as shorthand for my type of film? (I don’t know exactly, but I can’t help but think Garden State was involved.) Mumblecore transformed so swiftly from the future of independent cinema to a shorthand criticism that we barely had a chance to make up our own minds. And yet the Mumblecore movement – characterised by ultra-naturalistic performances and dialogue, and a DIY, digital aesthetic – has proved more resilient than expected. The movement’s figures have managed to find a foothold in Hollywood, such as Mumblecore’s most iconic figurehead, Greta Gerwig, with a Golden Globe-nominated turn in Frances Ha, and, uhh, the Russell Brand remake of Arthur, and the Duplass brothers’ regular appearances in comedies like The League, Transparent and The Mindy Project. The movement’s characteristics have even slipped into big event films. Every time a Marvel film pauses for some character-building small talk, that’s the independent spirit shining through.

Lynn Shelton has been one of the most productive of the Mumblecore survivors, augmenting her film work with episodes of respected television like Master Of None and Mad Men, yet producing roughly a feature a year. Touchy Feely is initially fairly typical of Mumblecore output, focusing on personal relationships in a lowkey way, before adding a dash of surreal spirituality. Rosemarie DeWitt is Abby, a masseuse who develops a revulsion of human contact, coinciding with her boyfriend’s attempts to propel their relationship into something more settled. Meanwhile her dentist brother (an impressive Josh Pais) appears to display healing powers which boost the fortunes of his failing practise. Then they both take ecstasy. It’s a film full of plot but little action. Even with the high concept narrative, not a lot happens. Shelton now draws enough prestige to attract an impressive cast – Ellen Page, Scoot McNairy, Ron Livingston – but their roles are fairly incidental and I wonder what attracted them aside from the chance to be in a Lynn Shelton film. Only Alison Janney gets to make an impact as Abby’s earthy boss Bronwyn, but then this is Allison Janney we’re talking about.

The injection of magical elements into an almost-aggressively realistic set up is a technique I love, and one that has a lot of potential as a plot synopsis. Though Shelton’s film is as beautifully observed as ever, it skews almost too close to reality, with the characters taking a wait-and-see approach to the bizarre situation, and as such the film seems to stop dead as soon as the set up is established. While it allows for some beautiful shots – Shelton punctuates Abby’s scenes with extreme close-ups of human skin, looking like an alien landscape – the film itself is meandering to the point of feeling like a waste. I wish Shelton’s film allowed itself a bit of the wit and energy that it has in its title.