Sound As Vision [EXPEDITION CONTENT]

Expedition Content

Rating *** A must-see

Directed by Ernst Karel & Veronika Kusumaryati

“Imageless” films — which both exist in defiance of and in tandem with their more traditional, camera-photographed cousins — have established a small but notable lineage, and not even exclusively in the realm of the avant-garde. Derek Jarman’s landmark Blue (1993) is probably the most beloved example, with the sole image of International Klein Blue representing its ailing director’s eyesight. Anthology Film Archives is currently running a series which highlights such works, including Movies for the Blind, Volume 2 (1999, Jeff Perkins) and The Disappeared (2018, Gilad Baram & Adam Kaplan); to this series could also be added the borderline case of James N. Kienitz Wilkins’s The Republic (2017), which very slowly shifts from a black screen to a white screen, and João César Monteiro’s Branca de Neve/Snow White (2000), which, partly owing to unspecified filming difficulties, takes place almost entirely in voiceover save for interspersed shots of clouds.

Especially for the examples from before the past decade, however, there is the question of what “imageless” truly means, on the most basic level of form and experience. Even in something like Blue, there is, or at least was, still the sensation of watching a series of projected images on multiple reels, and the inevitable print alterations that occur as a print is run through various projectors over and over. In the present digital configuration, the black “leader” is still a projected image of sorts, as film grain-less as it may be, and the lack of an image may (and perhaps should) cause the viewer’s eyes to wander more towards fellow audience members, emergency exit lights, and the like. “Imageless” films can thus cause an even more interactive experience, without even getting into the sonic possibilities and thematic resonances that each of the above examples invoke.

Into this heady mix of films steps Expedition Content, the first significant salvo in a few years from the esteemed Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, and appropriately credited as being “composed by” Ernst Karel and Veronika Kusumaryati. The choice to craft an “imageless” film may seem especially strange from the SEL, considering that their films have yielded some of the most beguiling visual textures of the century, from the rich 16mm of Manakamana to the wild digital experimentation of Sweetgrass and Leviathan. But Karel — who has sound edited and mixed not only the above films but also for the SEL at large, along with films by Anocha Suwichakornpong, Luke Fowler, Trương Minh Quỳ, and Ben Rivers among many others — and Kusumaryati — a Harvard University Film Study Center fellow — both making their feature directorial debuts, are after something different, and not only because of the near-total lack of conventional image.

For Expedition Content is, unlike most SEL films, a found-footage film, or in this instance a found-recording film, editing together and remixing the thirty-seven hours of audiotape recordings made on a 1961 Harvard Peabody Museum anthropological research trip to West Papua among the Hubula (or Dani) people. Among the participants were the filmmaker Robert Gardner, who made the notable ethnographic film Dead Birds (1963) during the expedition, and, of all people, Michael Rockefeller – son of Nelson and great-grandson of John D., who had invested in oil exploration in New Guinea decades prior – who made the recordings and disappeared later that year while attempting to gather artifacts on the island. Aside from a late, brief flash of Gardner’s footage that lasts about a minute and a half, depicting a dark cave interior along with native villagers and a fire, the only images that appear are a few explanatory intertitles and some interpolations of baby blue leader, which are accompanied by a low tone and seem to presage the minimal number of translations of Dani provided; the rest is pure sound collage.

What predominates then, in the deliberate absence of both image and translation, the Western viewer — bearing in mind that, despite Kusumaryati’s own Indonesian background and dissertation focus upon West Papua’s highlanders, Expedition Content is ultimately an American film and very much aware of that fact — is left to focus on audio as its own form of immersion, and upon the role of Rockefeller and his fellow travelers as interlopers. Rockefeller has a very particularly tentative manner of introducing the myriad audio cuts that Karel and Kusumaryati highlight at the beginning of almost every recording, and the initial irritation eventually becomes a structuring device, a purposeful intrusion that often cuts against the supposed naturalness that the researchers are attempting to capture.

At some points, the beauty and power of what is being captured speaks for itself. The rush of a waterfall, the sonorous communal chanting, private singing; an astonishing amount is contained within Expedition Content‘s scant 78 minutes. But by freely moving across all of these privileged captured moments, Karel and Kusumaryati implicitly make the ethnographers themselves the subject; the black screen allows the viewer to focus on the precarious nature of the recording apparatus itself, all blown out audio and faint whispers, something only highlighted by the inclusion of a few crisp modern recordings of the cataloguers of these tapes.

Immediately after the aforementioned film footage, the tensions simmering within Expedition Content come to a head in the longest piece of continual audio recording within the film, though it is unclear whether it was done accidentally by Rockefeller or not. During a ten-minute tape of a drunken birthday celebration, the researchers speak in blaccents; converse about Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Cannonball Adderley, and Oscar Peterson; and speculate about the possibility of copulating with one of the natives. In an additional touch, Karel and Kusumaryati provide subtitles that compel the viewer to stare at and contemplate the true nature of the ethnographers’ interactions with those they purportedly attempt to understand, casting the previous hour’s recordings in a light that had been latent until this moment of nakedness. By using the traditional means of translation as reinforcement, they are examined with the same unrelenting gaze that they themselves deployed elsewhere.

The brilliance of Expedition Content lies, in large part, in its ability to be so direct, so unflinching in its perspective, while also seemingly refracting its observations through the plethora of direct field recordings. If the opening and ending intertitles confront the political and ethnic issues in a manner uncommon for the SEL — the former implicitly links the expedition with Attica via Nelson Rockefeller, the latter raises the United States and Nations’ ongoing support of the brutal Indonesian colonization of West Papua — that sentiment is bolstered and transmuted by the contemplation that is engendered by the uncommon aesthetic experience. In the same way that, say, Leviathan‘s elemental torrent or Manakamana‘s durational interconnectedness arise moment to moment, Karel and Kusumaryati’s ultimately defiant aims exist within the gap between the researcher’s perspective and the previously undisturbed world, a distinction that becomes only more glaring with each fumbled appellation, each interrupting utterance.

Cinéma Du Look [FRANCE]

France

Rating *** A must-see

Directed by Bruno Dumont

Maybe the best scene(s) of France — not La France, though Bruno Dumont doesn’t attempt to hide the national implications of the film, literally making the first shot a view of a French flag — comes early in the film, as the amusingly named France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux) is shooting one of her many news reports in a war-torn country. After conducting a translated interview with one of the loyalist fighters, she essentially directs a smattering of B-roll: a reverse shot with her issuing questions straight-on into the camera against a different background, a shot of another soldier instructed to walk past the camera, and a series of miscommunications with soldiers, attempting to get them to act heroic. After this jumble of moments, the next scene shows the end result, a genuinely rousing expression of solidarity that concludes, tellingly, with a close-up of France. While the temptation to connect this with an exposé of the journalistic process or, especially, filmmaking in general, is quite strong, the impact of the sequence, apart from the minutiae of interactions that take place — including a selfie taken by the first fighter and the general spectacle of watching Seydoux in a troop transport — lies in the synthesis, in the gulf between different manifestations of appearances.

I will freely confess that my firsthand knowledge of Dumont’s work is limited to the Quin/Coin duology, which I have a strong fondness for, and Jeannette, which I found so mindnumbing that I haven’t seen its counterpart. But France evidently marks a departure for the director, who made fairly austere and rigorous works for about the first decade and a half of his career, then began making much more overtly comedic works beginning with P’tit Quinquin (2014) and Slack Bay (2016). While even those works took place for the most part in rural areas, this film firmly situates its home turf in Paris, and specifically in the most elegant arrondissements of the city. Everything, as befits a film at least in large part about the media, is hyperreal: France and her husband and son live in a ludicrously large and high-ceilinged modern apartment that looks lifted straight out of Saint Laurent, car ride scenes are rendered with too-large rear projected images, and the cinematography is glaringly bright; even bombed-out ruins are shiny and digital, something that the shifts to lower-quality news camera footage can only do so much to overcome.

From these layers of artifice comes an unexpected anchoring force: the visage of Léa Seydoux, which would seem almost too perfect in this setting — and buffeted by the colorful array of attire she wears — to convey a host of emotions, each more complex and profound than the last. But France spends something like a fifth of its not inconsiderable runtime to simply sit and stare at her face. It’s uncommon for a film that’s otherwise this glossy to spend the contemplation that’s apparent here, with so many moments where the conversation or surrounding context will seem to drop out and Seydoux’s face — which at turns throughout the film is inscrutable, mischievous, anguished, and nearly every other emotion under the sun — will undergo a series of minute transformations. Such movement amidst restiveness forms something of a manifesto for this film’s intentions: to turn the gaze of fame and sensationalism back upon itself, a set of reflections that produce unexpected changes.

As I said before, I haven’t seen Dumont’s actual rendering of the trial, but it’s irresistible to see France as another, modern iteration of Joan of Arc, here spun out not into issues of life and death — that comes for other people — but into questions of morality and belief, though of a much more worldly pattern and through often hilariously absurd moments. The close-ups are certainly suggestive, but it comes forth even more fully in the rapid back-and-forths of emotion and interactions, sometimes almost too pointed in their intention but each palpably registering, thanks to Dumont’s willingness to sit with the moment. Everything rests upon a sequence of gaps: between the glamor of France and the dire situations that she puts herself in, in an almost competitive desire to push her coverage into uncharted waters; between the malicious intentions of a journalist and his apparently genuine adoration; between the seeming unseriousness of France with the scrupulousness and insight of her reporting.

Perhaps most boldly of all, France appears to recognize the limits of the transformation that traumatic events can provide within the modern world. The characters, including France, generally retain their general outlines, their convictions as can be rendered on a multitude of two-dimensional screens: a television, a smartphone). But Dumont shakes them, at least for a time, making sure that the gravity of the world can exert its force in both the most expected and unexpected of circumstances, one drawn-out shot and rupture at a time.

Away With Language [DRIVE MY CAR]

Drive My Car

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Hamaguchi Ryūsuke

The depiction of the creation of art is certainly nothing new to film, and has yielded both some transcendent works and some profoundly mediocre movies. But something that continually eludes the grasp of all but the finest of cinematic artists is the capture of that most intangible yet essential of elements: inspiration. Whether bestowed by the muses or birthed by external forces, it emerges without warning, upsetting the artist’s entire worldview with the force of their expression.

In his own unassuming, humble way, Hamaguchi Ryūsuke has joined those select few with Drive My Car, his second truly great film of 2021, and a giant step forward in his ongoing synthesis of various influences to create something entirely his own. That he has blown up the forty page Murakami Haruki short story of the same name into a three-hour epic is one thing, but his care on all levels — the script co-written with Oe Takamasa, the purposeful direction, and most of all the extraordinary feats of casting — yields something altogether more complex, emotionally direct in a similar way to his previous film, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy yet tied up in the narrative and emotional reverberations across that most typical of surrogate families: the theater troupe.

Drive My Car finds its pater familias in Kafuku Yūsuke (Nishijima Hidetoshi, a regular in Hamaguchi’s mentor Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s films), a theater director/actor whose signature style involves staging classic plays with actors speaking their own native languages — examples in the film include Indonesian, German, Korean, Mandarin, Thai, and, in one of the most galvanizing touches in recent memory, Korean Sign Language. A forty-minute prologue, set two years before the rest of the film, quickly establishes the elements that continue to permeate throughout: his love for driving his bright red Saab 900, his cosmopolitan engagement with the theatrical world, his daughter’s early demise, and most of all the mysterious, erotic relationship he has with his wife Oto (Kirishima Reika). She is the focus of the film’s first shot, a hazy nude silhouette against the sunrise, narrating a story about a young girl who habitually enters her crush’s house. As the film relates, this mixture of eros and inspiration is crucial to her creative process, as sex — with either Kafuku or the coterie of affairs that she embarks on, which unbeknownst to her he is aware of — sometimes triggers a dreamlike series of recollections that her partner memorializes for her. She is also involved in Kafuku’s own creative process, recording the other roles of plays that he is acting in to help him internalize the rhythm that forms the bedrock of his productions.

The tape of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which Kafuku plays over and over, reciting to and against while in that Saab, ends up being the last tangible vestige he has of Oto: she dies unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage, and the grief and unresolved tensions inherent to their relationship enter into the swirl of emotions and relationships to be elaborated upon. Two years later, Kafuku is invited by a theater festival in Hiroshima to direct Uncle Vanya, and learns that, due to the rules of the contract, he is not allowed to drive his Saab during the residency. His assigned driver is Watari (Miura Tōko), a taciturn young woman with a prominent scar on her left cheek, whose driving allows Kafuku to enter a state of bliss and concentration in his car that he has never felt before. The gradual growth of their relationship, as they open up more and more about their pasts of grief, trauma, and loss, intertwines with Kafuku’s production of Uncle Vanya, as he enlists, among others, Takatsuki (Okada Masaki), Oto’s final lover and a notorious playboy, to play the much older role of Vanya; and Lee Yun-a (Park Yu-rim), a mute Korean woman, to play Sonya.

Drive My Car‘s mystery lies in its sense of balance, its ability to juggle all of these already myriad relationships mentioned above and the numerous other connections that Kafuku — and, by reticent extension, Watari — form with the company at large. For this is a true ensemble film, and one that understands that a transcendent moment of connection, within a group of people that requires it for both artistic and personal reasons, can arise between any pairing and within any moment, whether it be a charming dinner — featuring one of the cutest couples in film history — a fraught, emotionally and temporally taxing car ride, or a reconfigured rehearsal in the sunlight that adds new depths to relationships only hinted at before.

Rehearsals, as might be expected by the Rivettian label that has been, rightly or wrongly, ascribed to Hamaguchi, form a significant chunk of Drive My Car‘s non-car driving scenes, but their nature, and the back-and-forth that Kafuku has with his actors, goes far beyond simple questions of duration. In keeping with the rhythmic sense that Oto’s tape provides, the actors are instructed to speak slowly and without emotion, internalizing both the text and the reactions from their fellow players, so that it has formed a bedrock that blocking and motion can build upon in emotional terms. In explaining why he has refused to play Vanya, as he did just after Oto’s death, Kafuku explains that Chekhov brings out the reality of a person’s soul, extracting all that is hidden and buried, and that quality comes through forcefully in the many tape scenes in the car. Each extract is deployed judiciously, often seeming like Oto — or any number of other characters — is talking directly to Kafuku through Chekhov, while at other times embodying Kafuku’s perspective, hinting at inner fonts of rage, insecurity, and distress that he can’t permit himself to express.

Nishijima’s performance acts as a perfect channel for these mixed feelings, precisely because so much about it is simultaneously fixed and shifting. Sometimes within the same shot, his face appears to change age, with the slightest movement able to embody a cheerful youth or a wearied maturity, and his emotional range occupies that same continuum. Such a quality meshes beautifully with Miura’s role, especially as she becomes more and more prominent through the final hour, which breaks from the theatrical setting to embody a flight into the unknown, a space for pondering and emotional excavation that zeroes in on the most guarded feelings of two broken people. Her contribution rests in that stoicism, borne from the experiences of someone well beyond her years, an exterior that seems almost impenetrable until what first seems to be an unusually direct and standard — for Hamaguchi — scene of emotional catharsis, the third-to-last sequence that might well be the last lingering moment in a far lesser film.

That is where the last two scenes come in, and especially Park’s role. Kafuku and Watari’s relationship gradually becomes mapped onto the Vanya and Sonya relationship, and Hamaguchi brings it full circle with the second-to-last scene, performing the final scene of the play with Kafuku as Vanya. Lee emerges as a central character, embodying the hope and optimism that, as in Uncle Vanya the other characters can’t quite bring themselves to fully believe in, and so much of that comes through the particular nature of the sign language, the physicality of it and the duration that it invites. As the actors become more and more familiar with the text and she is translated for less and less, the performance seems to reach across into the viewer, a direct communication to the camera that emphasizes each stroke and motion with a deliberateness that transmutes the already considerable emotional catharsis of the play.

And if that weren’t enough, Drive My Car offers a final coda, set in another time and another place. The precise meaning of it is purposefully elusive, radically reconfiguring the accumulated objects present throughout the film to provide another form of catharsis entirely. Hamaguchi understands in his bones the interplay of emotionality and mystery, the weight that he must give to each character and their hopes and dreams, embodied in so many manners: even the score, a supremely pleasant and relaxed jazz score by Ishibashi Eiko, casts an entirely different light on the driving scenes, inviting a new sense of contemplation. Drive My Car marks out that space for thought, for pondering, and in doing so crowns the ascension of one of the 21st century’s finest filmmakers to date.

Rude Awakenings [BAD LUCK BANGING OR LOONY PORN]

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Rating *** A must-see

Directed by Radu Jude

Though I’ve now seen four of his features, I can’t claim to have a strong knowledge of Radu Jude’s career: he has directed somewhere in the neighborhood of eight features, including at least two found-footage documentaries, two fiction films before he first made the slightest of marks stateside with 2015’s Aferim!, and I haven’t gotten around to Uppercase Print, which premiered last year and seems to be a somber affair. Nevertheless, Jude’s shift to outright satire, as filtered through his distinctive sensibilities, is shaping up to be one of the most pronounced and productive career pivots in recent memory, in a similar manner to Bruno Dumont’s. Not to say that something like the pictorial Scarred Hearts doesn’t have a charge of its own, but his aesthetic seems both refined and amplified when applied to the present moment. My favorite of his films, “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History As Barbarians” (2018), opted for a dialogue-filled, sprawling approach to its collision of present recreation and the lingering specters of past state violence.

The delightfully named Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn goes for something more and less focused for Jude, while extending the sexual provocations in that film into outright text. Its protagonist is Emi (Katia Pascariu), a respected teacher at a prestigious Bucharest secondary school, who becomes embroiled in controversy when a sex tape she makes with her husband is uploaded to PornHub through unknown means. Said sex tape is presented in full, seemingly unsimulated detail at the very beginning of the film before the title card, which categorizes what’s to follow as “a sketch for a popular film” with an epigraph from the Mahābhārata. Such an trifocal volley — obvious provocation, poppy aesthetic, and serious intellectual references — typifies Jude’s approach throughout the film: this is willfully crass and hilarious, but an urgent anger undergirds nearly every moment, a plea to examine perspectives and politics inherent in the everyday.

Indeed, Bad Luck Banging takes place across three parts of mostly equal length, each of which approaches the central conundrums raised by this sudden intrusion of private intimacies into the public world in very different ways. In the first, which takes place across the span of an afternoon, very little in obvious narrative terms occurs: it is made clear that the sex tape has already leaked and that Emi is due to be examined at an impending parent-teacher conference. But aside from a visit to the headmistress and a few phone calls with her husband, the film merely observes Emi as she walks what feels like the entire breadth of Bucharest, navigating a city in the throes of the mid-pandemic: masks are everywhere, and the corresponding etiquette is beginning to break down. Shot, like the rest of the film, in Scope, the camera pans across numerous incidents of arguments and rancor, intensified by the pandemic: a woman yelling at another woman paying with food stamps in a checkout line, only to suddenly tell the cashier to put her mask up; a driver practically running over an irate pedestrian; even Emi gets her own scene, heatedly arguing with a truck driver who has parked on the sidewalk.

The overriding impression is of a realization that things are as normal, despite the pandemic, with the streets, stores, and restaurants remaining as busy as ever. Jude’s pans especially serve to emphasize so much commercial detritus: a woman in a TikTok shirt, Emoji Movie backpacks, slot machines, numerous advertisements for real estate agents and a billboard for chocolate inscribed with the phrase “I Like It Deep.” The fiction even appears to rupture for a second, as an elderly woman strolls up to the camera and utters the phrase “eat my cunt.”

Bad Luck Banging then mutates in its second part, “a short dictionary of anecdotes, signs, and wonders,” which as might be expected covers an array of louche, horrifying, and unexpected entries, accompanied by equally unexpected illustrations formed principally from found footage and objects. These can take overtly Romanian forms: the former dictator Ceauşescu (whose ghost haunts the majority of Romanian New Wave films), the celebrated national poet Eminescu. But more often, they follow more general concepts, marching from A to Z, containing everything from “Nature” and “History” to “Blonde Jokes” and “Social Distancing.”

A brief explanation is proffered alongside the entry in the English subtitles, and here an almost schizophrenic attitude is adopted: the entry for “Aboriginies” describes them as persons of little worth, while “The Romanian Orthodox Church” is condemned for its complicity in the dictatorships, complete with a video showing nuns singing a Fascist Youth song. Numerous contradictions and perfectly unpleasant moments abound: “Blowjob” — accompanied by, of course, unsimulated fellatio — is noted as being the most looked-up word in the Online Dictionary, with the runner-up by “empathy”; “Efficiency” is simply represented by a pan from a funeral home to an emergency room; “Family” solely relates the statistic that six out of ten Romanian children are subject to domestic violence. This second part registers as both a stopgap between the two overtly Emi-related sections (though she makes a brief appearance, under “Close-Up”) and an extension of the overall challenge that Jude puts for the viewer, a synthesis in intellectual terms that is perhaps a more adult version of Emi’s own challenges for her students.

Those challenges form a large bulk of the final section of Bad Luck Banging, as what begins as a discussion of Emi’s fitness as a teacher in light of her indiscretion spirals in to a referendum on all manner of issues: the sanctity of institutions, the limits of education and grades, the responsibility of parents, the Holocaust, and even whether blowjobs and whips are part of normal sexual behavior. Jude keeps bouncing between the parents, who come from different strata of Romanian upper-middle-class life — an army officer, a belligerent pilot, an officious mother who shows the entire sex tape in full twice, a priest, precisely two people of color — and the headmistress and Emi. It remains contentious but funny throughout, full of interjections crass and insightful alike, including two separate instances in which Emi and a sympathetic man quote extensively from studies on their phones that cut against the traditional views of teaching, with him stressing the institutional aspect and her the benefits of memorization.

All the while, the night grows darker and the color gels increase in intensity, until the climactic vote, at which the film splits again into three separate possibilities. It’s crucial that, even though in one of them Emi is allowed to continue as a teacher, she never truly triumphs, at least in the eyes of the most vocal participants. Her autonomy, insight, and awareness are supported by her vociferous rebuttals, but in a society as fractured by history, nationalism, and a plague as Romania, only a certain transcendence can give satisfaction. Jude’s great achievement lies in his deconstruction of this society, so horrifying that it becomes funny once again.

Corrupted Memories [PROCESSION]

Procession

Rating *** A must-see

Directed by Robert Greene

Full disclosure: I am a friendly acquaintance of Robert Greene.

Over the course of about a decade, Robert Greene has cultivated one of the more nervy and bold oeuvres in American documentary filmmaking. Since Actress (2014), a portrait of actress Brandy Burre that openly embraced the fuzzy lines between common and quotidian notions of performance, his work has proceeded within fascinating, deliberately uncertain areas. Kate Plays Christine (2016) enlisted Kate Lyn Sheil to play Christine Chubbuck, who died by her own hand on live television, in a fictional film-within-the-film, in the process capturing all the simmering tensions and misgivings about such an endeavor. Such issues of filmic representation were rendered on a much larger scale in 2018’s Bisbee ’17, tackling the implications and ideologies of an entire city on the anniversary of the infamous Bisbee deportation.

Now, with Procession, Greene has created something like a hybrid of a hybrid, in both scale and filming style. The documentary’s concerns are certainly of a national, even international nature: child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, as reflected by the traumas of six middle-aged men in the Kansas City area, and there’s a concrete nature to Greene’s reportage that hasn’t been present in his past work: chyrons and intertitles are used at key junctures throughout, and there’s a topicality that dredges up history in a much more overtly sensitive area than the slightly buried stories in his past works. But this also becomes perhaps even more intimate than its predecessors, in no small part because of the conceit: Procession is pointedly credited as “a film by” the six men at its core — Joe Eldred, Mike Foreman, Ed Gavagan, Dan Laurine, Michael Sandridge, and Tom Viviano — and follows a form of drama therapy that took place from 2018 to 2020, in which the men would write and direct short films that represented their own experiences of abuse as a way to come to terms with the horrors that continue to haunt them.

These scenes, interspersed through Procession and arriving with greater frequency towards the close, effectively act as the means for these closed-off men, who appear to have never met before their first meeting, to both draw closer to those who have suffered similar experiences and to open up, to literally externalize their nightmares. But they do not form the bulk of the film, and largely for the better, as Greene spends a purposeful amount of time with each man, often placing two or three of them in conversation on specific missions, often involving journeys to the sites where the abuse happened. Laurine, who previously served as a location scout and set worker on films and commercials in the Kansas City area, often facilitates these trips, which provide substantial amounts of catharsis and relief.

Such catharsis, as Greene recognizes, doesn’t necessarily mean definite, lasting change, much less justice under the eyes of man, not even the Pope. An undercurrent of rage and despair — especially in the time given to Foreman, embittered from the partiality shown by purportedly independent review boards — runs through the film, and the information doled out about each man remains, understandably given the size of the cast, as minimal as possible: Eldred’s prosthetic limb is pointedly unremarked upon, no questions of sexuality are raised, and domestic situations or predilections — like Foreman’s nightly ritual of blasting The Who and rocking back and forth on his couch to drown out his thoughts — arise without warning. Part of the way through, Viviano reveals that he has deliberately abstained from making a scene of his own: though he acts as the pedophile in a number of the sequences, his level of comfort has not arisen to being able to even explain his experiences. While he is able to provide in his own way, helping to realize these other men’s visions, he has only a limited recourse.

Similar transferences of reckoning take place throughout Procession, in no small part because of the casting of the men in various roles of abusers and enablers throughout the shorts. Gavagan, who explicitly references the opening of All That Jazz in his segment, notes that he cast Sandridge as the priest because they had similar experiences of abuse; Laurine mentions that in scouting for the lake house that Eldred was raped in, he was able to put aside his own lake house traumas. But the effects of recognition are never far away, largely because this sort of endeavor forces this sort of confrontation (with reasonable barriers): Eldred, who was able to walk upon the steps of the house that haunted his nightmares for decades, begins shaking uncontrollably while watching a scene that he wrote; Laurine, in searching for his own house of horror with his brother, explicitly denies that he has found the site despite all evidence to the contrary. At the same time, these moments are counterbalanced by moments of joy, even levity — Gavagan swings on the church bells that used to hold him aloft as a young boy, and in general the relations between the men remain remarkably intimate and accepting.

And it is in the short films, and in their striking presentation, that Greene finds his most delicate balance, embodied in the young actor Terrick Trobough, who plays each of the men as a young boy in the shorts. He is cast by the men in a deliberate gesture to show the universality of their experiences, the shared damage that has been done to them, and in the process he acts as a kind of projection: at least a few of the men say that talking about their experiences makes them feel like an adolescent again, and in Foreman’s segment — a particularly forthright scene in a studio space that allows him to say what he was unable to say to the independent review board, complete with shadowy lighting and a constantly dollying camera — and in Eldred’s second scene — a reading of a letter he wrote to his younger self, which closes the film — the men appear alongside him, a particularly pointed illustration of the harsh, lingering effects of institutional exploitation and blindness. Trobough’s resilience and general amiability act as something of a light in what could be a suffocating darkness, a hope for the future. Procession thus emerges as a new kind of dedication, as a space for expression and exploration that refuses to shy away from the mixed, often bruising emotions that result from excavations of the past, at once both universal and specific in the most salient of ways.

The Beautiful Gaze [WHAT DO WE SEE WHEN WE LOOK AT THE SKY?]

What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Alexandre Koberidze

It is tremendously difficult to make a successful feature film that consists more-or-less solely of optimism. Partly due to the demands of narrative, and in large part the more visibly perilous state of the world, there has been a shift towards, if not cynicism, then an ambivalence that reflects society on the edge, whether it be in the apocalyptic superhero films or the much smaller yet equally precarious works on the festival circuit.

Enter What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?: a two-and-a-half-hour romance-turned-city-symphony that is filled with nothing but compassion for its characters, their fellow dwellers, and the space that they live in. Aside from the pivotal turn of fate that forms what little conventional story there is, and certain allusions to disasters just outside the camera’s point of view, Alexandre Koberidze’s second feature — after the three-and-a-half-hour, Sony Ericsson-shot Let the Summer Never Come Again — is content to survey the simple pleasures in life: reading, beer, filmmaking, and most of all association football (soccer), which is tantamount to sacred tradition in the city of Kutaisi, Georgia. And yet, Koberidze’s sheer exuberance of expression and invention makes this far more than the placid or dull observation that such a description might suggest: this is a thoroughly alive film, moving through the everyday with an irrepressible energy.

To say that this is a plotless film wouldn’t be accurate, however. What We Do We See may diverge almost entirely from its inciting incident, but it relies on it — in a manner not too dissimilar from the hammock cinema of Apichatpong — to give it its shape and ultimate resolution. In the opening twenty minutes of the film, Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze), a pharmacist, and Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze), a football player, literally bump into each other on their way to their respective professions; upon meeting a second time at night, they agree to meet each other the next day at a new outdoor café, and leave without exchanging means of communication — while the film appears to take place in the modern day, there are no cell phones, and apparently only a few televisions in the whole city.

The next time the two of them speak takes place a full hour and twenty minutes after this first interaction, and in the meantime everything has changed: due to a curse cast by an “evil eye,” the two of them have been given totally new appearances — and are now played by Ani Karseladze and Giorgi Bochorishvili, respectively — and have lost the ability to perform their professions. While both of them show up to their rendez-vous, they fail to recognize each other — despite Lisa, in the first of countless whimsical touches, being warned of elements of this curse by a seedling, a surveillance camera, and a drain pipe. The two of them subsequently take jobs working for the café owner, she at the ice cream machine and he at an amusing series of carnivalesque games, including a pull-up bar that nets anyone who can hold on for two minutes a prize.

From what might be a slowly deflating balloon in lesser hands, What Do We See truly develops into a study of the most pleasurable sort, all purported digressions which in actuality function as the lifeblood of the film. This is heralded, as in many of the great portraits of community, by song, courtesy of a group of teenagers sitting at the café at that night when Lisa and Giorgi both make and miss their meeting. The camera pans across, often catching a person who is merely listening, at the periphery of the conversation and revelry, another lonely soul like the two would-be lovers.

To recount the bounties of What Do We See would take a much longer piece than this, but aside from the delightful framing device of the World Cup, with Giorgi’s favored Argentina and Messi as the focal point, it is worth emphasizing the role of the narrator, which appears to be directly from Koberidze’s perspective. First emerging as a handy, voluble expositor of the narrative events, especially ones taking place just offscreen, he morphs into something of a tour guide for Kutaisi, introducing the viewer to the various denizens, human and not: the dogs of the city are recurring characters, and of course they also love football, down to favoring specific venues to watch the World Cup. And even more winningly, Koberidze treats the secondary characters with a watchful interest: the café owner, a profit-minded but fair man; a filmmaker looking to photograph couples to complete the five-year filming of her amusingly named project Stray Dogs Caressed by the Wind; and various other characters, some only glimpsed as recurring threads throughout the film; indeed, there is a paucity of dialogue; the majority of talking is likely relegated to the voiceover.

What persists strongest in What Do We See is Koberidze’s inflection of the seemingly mundane. Even the central twist is downplayed as much as possible: there are no investigations by Lisa or Giorgi’s family or former employers, and after a few inquiries everyone they interact with simply accepts them as who they are, with no name or prior history required. Koberidze’s style — and, it’s worth noting, his brother Giorgi’s pleasingly multivalent score — thus exists in the moment, malleable and open to whatever the scene or sequence requires: a Bressonian close-up here, an extreme wide-shot there, a raucous montage over here.

Said montage takes place just before the Part 1/2 dividing point, and represents perhaps the film’s most inventive — save the utterly delightful exhortation to the audience just before the curse occurs — and soaring moment: it consists solely of slow-motion shots of children playing football accompanied by the 1990 FIFA World Cup anthem, simultaneously seeming to conform to and defiantly move away from notions of screen action and sports filming. It is totally unclear who is on what side, and the sequence ends with a truly sepulchral series of shots as the children watch in awe as the ball soars into the air before landing in the river that runs through Kutaisi. The narrator’s voice comes in after this, discussing the problems that the world is facing, but even he is befuddled by the events of the film at the end, acknowledging the limits of his perspective. No matter: what lingers and moves is the experience, the meandering yet thoroughly energizing tributaries that exist along the way.

Shouts and Murmurs [THE FRENCH DISPATCH]

The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun

Rating *** A must-see

Directed by Wes Anderson

As it turns out, everything I had written about the omnibus film a few weeks ago is applicable to Wes Anderson’s latest film, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, though not as overwhelmingly as one might think. Instead of operating in a neat, three-part structure, the film more-or-less sprawls into irregularly shaped sections: a brief introduction, the preposterously named Herbsaint Sazerac’s (Owen Wilson) brief bicycle tour of the even more preposterously named Ennui-sur-Blasé, and a final coda wraps around the three features that form the core of the film.

This doesn’t mean that these sequences are superfluous, or devoid of a similar amount of interest. One of Anderson’s great strengths has been what some might uncharitably regard as a flattening of local color and detail into a series of tableaux; however, there’s a wondrous sense to how quickly and carefully The French Dispatch establishes Ennui. It immediately gets to the heart of, if not necessarily an actual French city, then an American idealization of France outside of Paris: small yet tightly-knit, romantic where it counts, but also rundown, in rapid change, openly situating the sex workers and pickpockets as something to essentially be taken for granted. This romanticized view is left largely unchallenged during the course of the film: strife, danger, and desire are always around the corner, and in its own way, the film achieves a certain unity in its steadfast, charmingly simplified view.

The French Dispatch, however, aims for something messier and more complex than unity. The three parts all have to do with art and creativity in different realms — painting, politics, and cooking respectively — but the way that they unfold results in an uneven set of approaches, though for better or worse the momentum of each segment is fairly self-contained. Much of this comes down to issues of presentation, as each story, despite the article framing, is narrated by Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, and Jeffrey Wright in starkly different ways. All linearly told, both Swinton’s freely disjunctive art lecture and McDormand’s terse diary nevertheless offer something more herky-jerky than the astonishingly mellifluous recitation of Wright’s memorized article.

This isn’t a problem, per se, and it can be readily chalked up to the different styles of the writers within the magazine’s stable. But it marks new territory for Anderson, which is at once welcome and something of an unsteady endeavor. More than any of his other films, this meanders and places odd, unexpected emphases on scenes that act more as illustration or elaborations, isolated little bits that serve individual, often secondary characters than an appreciable sense of the world/city of Ennui. Even the single-night narrative of the third story finds an ultimately arresting beat, in which Saoirse Ronan’s dancer-turned-kidnapper has an exchange with the police commissioner’s son, in the process making way for one of the film’s relatively few color shots.

Those color moments form something of a backbone for the film, a continuing device that almost never loses its potency; it’s amusing to see Anderson work predominately in black-and-white, almost as a dare to himself or to the innumerable video essayists who focus on his palettes. Indeed, some of the most surprising uses of color come in the first segment with Benicio Del Toro’s unconventional painter — the unabashedly modern art’s resemblance to Honoré de Balzac’s Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu, and perhaps Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse, is perhaps the film’s most elegant Francophile reference.

Those bursts of inspiration emerging from a pleasurable, if mildly enervating surface seem to typify The French Dispatch‘s modus operandi; there’s little of the historical sweep and resonance of The Grand Budapest Hotel, but its ultimately small yet thorny approach lends itself to some beautiful moments all the same. The final story’s denouement, returning the focus beautifully to Wright and Steve Park’s immigrant chef, captures the prevailing spirit of so many lost people within the film, both French — the surprisingly intense characters embodied by Léa Seydoux and Lyna Khoudri, whose French subtitles accumulate with a considerable force — and all the American journalists, a motley collection that nevertheless comes together as a family, working towards a common goal.

Tales of Experience [WHEEL OF FORTUNE AND FANTASY]

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Hamaguchi Ryūsuke

The omnibus structure, as deployed by just one (or two) filmmakers, has seen something of a resurgence in recent years. 2018’s La Flor (Mariano Llinás) and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel & Ethan Coen) both utilized this conceit to fascinating and rejuvenating ends, with the former in particular using the multiple stories as a reflection of its deliberately protracted and endlessly generative production process. It’s no accident that genre and, more obviously in the case of Ballad, storybook framing are central to the conceit of these two films: it’s a handy way to connect what might otherwise be seen as disparate stories, and to give them a clarifying purpose that is then elaborated upon and deepened in the actual films.

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke has opted for a similar model of storytelling with his first film released in 2021, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. Hamaguchi, whose meteoric rise in the span of just three (or four) feature films beginning with Happy Hour (2015) — after a lengthy incubation period in cultural institutions — has him poised at the highest echelons of the film festival world, professes little anxiety when it comes to the influence of his forbears: he has explicitly said that the three-part structure of Wheel comes from Éric Rohmer’s Les Rendez-vous de Paris (1995), another single-director omnibus film. Likewise, given Happy Hour‘s mammoth five-hour running time and lengthy performance sequences, critics have cast the phantom of Rivette over Hamaguchi’s work. But a better place to begin reckoning with Hamaguchi’s work might be his moderately overlooked Asako I & II (2018), still his best film to date and a miraculous evocation of the glories and tribulations of modern love. Adapted from a novel, it finds its inspirations and intricacies from within its generic conventions, lingering on the moments in between in order to create a better understanding of the world.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy functions in a similar way, taking as its genre of choice a particularly quiet and concentrated version of the woman’s picture, which Hamaguchi explored in a different manner with Happy Hour. Over the course of its three stories, which each present a slightly modified version of a codified structure, Hamaguchi follows three women and their interactions with others that hinge as much upon the interventions of the outside world as their own concerns and histories. Numerous connecting threads emerge, starting with the structure: the first segment contains two long conversations followed by a coda, the second has two short conversations with the same man as bookends to one long interaction with a different man, and the third focuses more-or-less entirely on a single day spent with another woman. But the throughlines run deeper than that: the age of the main character increases with each segment, going from the mid-twenties to early-forties; each protagonist becomes more and more visibly lonely or unsure of herself; technology is only invoked when absolutely necessary (in the middle segment), in favor of a focus on speaking.

It is in the realm of dialogue and especially reaction that Hamaguchi thrives, and what draws him in many’s eyes close to the realm of Rohmer and/or Rivette. The first story, in which the protagonist remains largely silent during the first conversation and then explodes into a volley of words in the second, is exemplary of this; her dawning realizations and hairpin turns of emotion fold directly into the oblivious yet transfixing retelling of a magical night that her friend is relating. Likewise, the professor in the second section manages to convey arousal, trepidation, and wonder all at the same time without letting one sensation predominate. Balance and recognition of the possibilities that each character in a conversation can provide remains key; just because one character in any given moment is pensive or silent does not dictate what their future actions might be. This isn’t to say that the characters exhibit uncharacteristic behavior; the essence remains the same, but Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy‘s figures are sketched to be as complex and multivalent as any characters in recent fiction, in large part because the scenarios are so quietly odd — in a manner similar to the central conflict in Asako I & II — as to allow them to bounce off each other in unexpected ways.

That level of surprise, of course, also extends to the interventions of chance, which take the form of interruptions, unanticipated encounters, and even a computer virus that remakes the world in the third segment. Though thoroughly logical, they remain unexpected, both in their masterful deployment at key junctures and in their unfixed purposes, often serving to either bring together or tear apart the protagonist and her scene partner. Hamaguchi is frank, if not quite unsparing in his recognition that the world often cannot accommodate the fantasies of one individual, though it’s well worth noting that said dreams are often knotted themselves, compromised by each person’s own doubts and worries.

This growing disquietude comes to the fore in the third and greatest segment; while the previous two resembled something more akin to a Rohmerian moral tale, and all three possess a directness of emotion that was downplayed in Happy Hour and Asako this third segment uses it towards evermore mysterious ends. A tale of mistaken identity and thwarted reunions that then morphs into a stunning set of twinned confessions and reconciliations, its distillation of decades of irresolution into one afternoon would be unfathomable apart from Hamaguchi’s sense for conversation, and the dynamics of each scene. Often shooting in long shot as the two women talk to another, he carefully portrays the shifts in posture, the particular timbre of their voices, letting the scene unfold with a quiet precision. Each story ends with a distinct manner of grace, no matter the seemingly temporary defeat each woman has been dealt. But it is here, in this chance encounter, that Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy finds its most salutary acceptance, through a bond forged by speaking and listening.

Dots and Rays [THE VELVET UNDERGROUND]

The Velvet Underground

Rating *** A must-see

Directed by Todd Haynes

Ranking the level of subjectivity across various artistic media might seem foolish. After all, the entire goal of art is to connect with an individual or collective, and no particular person in either area will have precisely the same viewpoint or reaction to a work of art. But I’ve always felt that music, especially in recorded form, has an even greater susceptibility to subjectivity than, say, film or literature. The lack of visual stimuli encourages people to experience music in a much wider array of settings and circumstances, and associations and moods seem to crop up with every song listened and relistened to, over and over again.

This is a roundabout way to say that Todd Haynes’s first documentary The Velvet Underground seems targeted at a specific audience — one which I feel very much a part of. Not necessarily for the obsessives, those who have hunted down every bootleg and knew about the Primitives beforehand, but for those who have nevertheless been deeply molded by one of the most influential and groundbreaking acts in modern music.

As a reflection of this seismic impact, Haynes continually expands outwards his seemingly unlimited range of archival material. The opening moments themselves provide a bounty of colliding sources: a Baudelaire quote in combination with John Cale’s keening viola, which explores the whole stereo range, before cutting to a Winston cigarettes advertisement that segues to Cale’s appearance on the game show I’ve Got a Secret, which then explodes into a montage of Warhol screen tests, a brief glimpse of Empire, Cronkite’s announcement of JFK’s assassination, and a man being interviewed about his heroin usage, among many other assorted moments.

While all of these retain obvious relations to the sociopolitical climate in which the Velvet Underground arose, the thrilling nature of The Velvet Underground arises in no small part because it evokes a more phenomenological approach to the experience of history and culture, as well as a certain familiarity with modern art and especially avant-garde film of the 1960s. It’s one thing to evoke the aura of Andy Warhol and the Factory, but it’s another entirely to throw in extended passages of Jonas Mekas, Jack Smith, and Shirley Clarke works amid the collage of more recognizable and/or fashionable artists.

Mekas, to whom The Velvet Underground is dedicated, looms large and generously over the proceedings: it’s quite possible that he has as much or more footage than Warhol does, considering the amount of his signature blurry, sped-up handheld that registers in the first third of the film. The film possesses few moments as uniquely thrilling as listening to a contemporary interview with him, less than a year before his death, which is mixed alongside “European Son,” as the viewer watches in Chelsea Girls-inspired split-screen his footage alongside his Warhol screen test, before, in tandem with the song’s plate-shattering moment, the film splits into a twelve-screen kaleidoscope of New York City art, eventually changing into a bevy of Warhol screen tests.

While talking so much about the artists who surrounded the Velvet Underground might seem counterintuitive, it’s a testament to Haynes’s aims that the Velvet Underground hardly feels diminished in the slightest, though predictably Lou Reed and Cale are highlighted much more than Sterling Morrison or Maureen Tucker, though the latter gets some of the best interview moments. Rather, it’s a reflection of the way in which Reed especially, due to his demise and lack of interview footage, is evoked by the work of other artists. His introduction, juxtaposing stock footage showcasing the average American family and his especially intense screen test, introduces the same, almost unnerving pace that the film typically holds fast to, something akin to the drone that typified Cale’s music as developed with La Monte Young. The screen test itself only lasts four minutes, but played in full it takes on an uncanny effect when the viewer is juggling a constantly shifting screen on the left and a number of different voices on the soundtrack, including the almost spectral voice of Reed. The sequence seems to stretch to nearly ten minutes, such is the nature of Reed’s shifting melancholy, and that tone and aim of continual experimentation remains for a good long while after.

Haynes’s stated aim of only interviewing people who were alive and present during the Velvet Underground’s heyday produces fascinating results, in no small part because he holds off on designating explicitly who, say, Allan Hyman or Thomas Freeman are outside of context clues. Of course, more recognizable and delightful subjects, Amy Taubin and Jonathan Richman especially, abound, but there’s a pronounced sense of a tapestry being assembled. It helps that there’s a great aesthetic unity in the interview scenes that avoids being monotonous in the style of a lesser documentary: Ed Lachman’s Academy 35mm goes a long way to making the shots more lively.

However, what stands out most strongly as the film enters its last third or so and focuses evermore on the band, is the relative paucity of discussion of the actual music. Of course, the music is, if not a constant presence, then deployed frequently and prominently — a lesser director than Haynes would choose a much more obvious introduction to White Light, White Heat, my favorite VU record, than the thrillingly jarring “I Heard Her Call My Name,” though he leaves out my favorite VU song “The Gift” — but little time is spent discussing it once the Velvet Underground forms, and almost none in the actual studio, though the last two-thirds is ostensibly structured around the four albums, which progressively receive less and less time. Rather, much more space is given to the tours and shows, to the particular experiences that could not have been witnessed by the vast majority of viewers.

While that might rankle some — and indeed, it’s possible to imagine an even stronger and longer version of The Velvet Underground that does “justice” to the Doug Yule era — that in and of itself is a sign of Haynes’s true aims: to provide a resurrection of the sensations, attitudes, and promises of the ’60s NYC scene. It is very much the work of a fan, of someone in love with not just the brilliant and daring music, but also the whole vibe. It’s also to his credit that he chooses such a simpatico, dense mosaic of images to pair, and that there is something of an odd modesty, if not humbleness to Haynes’s approach throughout. Rather than issue a series of hosannas from the 30,000 people who started a band — Richman is excused due to sheer exuberance — he goes back to the original sources, to the personal elements that meshed so well with the technical skills and social factors to produce a fount of inspiration that might never be matched. The Velvet Underground were completely, thoroughly unique, and in its own way, The Velvet Underground stands on the shoulder of giants to capture even a little bit of that glory.

Same As the Old Flesh [TITANE]

Titane

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Julia Ducournau

Going strictly by the marketing and discussions that have surrounded Titane, one would think it impossible to sense a whiff of ambivalence or equivalence in the film or in Julia Ducournau. Already predestined to be enshrined as a take-no-prisoners whirlwind of sex and ultraviolence, it has been seized by hyperbole and outrage even more forcefully by the social media apparatuses than the average arthouse sensation. But as is so often the case, the most buzzworthy aspects of the film, its explicit provocations, have overshadowed the actual progression of the film.

It isn’t just that Titane is half gleefully gonzo body horror and half tender, unconventional family drama, though in pure runtime that might be the case. Ducournau gets through the bulk of her kills awfully quickly, frontloading most of her most outré, non-vehicular-pregnancy related material into something like 30 minutes. Additionally, calling it a breathlessly-paced thrill ride isn’t a terribly fitting description either: the first kill is as much focused on an almost clinical process of cleaning up as it is the hairpin in the head, and an equivalent amount of time is spent on Bertrand Bonello — basically a sight gag for the small percentage of people who know his directorial oeuvre — heating pasta as it is on the succession of murders in the house, as memorable as the image of a stool leg through someone’s face might be.

That still leaves at least an hour, and the vast majority of that is taken up by much subtler, tender, and thus less marketable elements. It’s well worth noting that much of the true parallels, genderfluidity, and even pain could have been conveyed without recourse to a serial killing spree or car-induced pregnancy. Alexia could simply have needed to go on the run for some impulsive crime, devised the same scheme to disguise herself as Adrien, and needed to do the same painful breast and stomach bindings. This feels especially relevant because of the fundamentally mundane yet deeply perverse nature of Vincent’s own body issues: a man on the opposite end of the age spectrum, subjecting himself to rituals of externally-induced regeneration and degradation equivalent to the virtual mask-wearing and performance that Alexia is enacting on a more overt basis.

Indeed, many of Ducournau’s most memorable images and moments — a talent which, from my hazy memory, she has improved upon considerably from Raw — don’t stem from its explicit body horror at all. The looming shadows in the parking lot, a few scenes of group dance that then shift focus to Alexia, and most of all fire — Titane is certainly explicit in drawing parallels between father and surrogate son, and one of the most effective lies in the almost holy, all-consuming way in which fire is featured and adapted throughout the film: a curling and implacable element, which is never shown truly extinguished on screen.

Vincent Lindon embodies that sense of a man being eaten alive by his obsessions and past so well, and more than any other element in the film, he displays that quick-witted, unpredictable range of emotions that Titane can sometimes lack. The dinner scene in which he attempts to get Alexia to talk, begins dancing with an amusing levity, then fights her in a manner that straddles the line between violence and play, succeeds precisely because Lindon is able to turn the somewhat abstract way in which his — and every other character, including Alexia — character has been written into a source of tension; instead of falling back on it as an excuse to exude menace 24/7, he takes his time to skillfully modulate his presentation, even within such a short span of time.

In contrast, Agathe Rousselle, while ably embodying the blasé, rebellious sociopath of Titane‘s first part, struggles some with the plentitude of ciphers placed upon her by Ducournau. Is Alexia actually a true serial killer prior to the beginning of the film? Is this really her first time with a woman (in one of the more effective graphic scenes, despite or perhaps because of its more typical outré nature)? Such questions ultimately aren’t important, and it’s a relief and something of a revelation when she transforms herself into Adrien and consequently settles into a much quieter, much more creepily compelling mode of performance. Of course she looks like herself when she was a child, getting that all-too-important metal plate put into her head, but the potential head-slapping obviousness of such an image is outweighed by its effectiveness on a purely photographic level, and her body movements and trepidation act as a perfect sounding board for Lindon’s stolid, outwardly assured persona; the clash between his established stardom and her screen ascension alone provides for a compelling throughline.

So it really is a true shame each and every time Titane cuts back to another scene of Alexia scratching away at herself, leaving deep scars, or leaking motor oil from her orifices; there’s even a very late recapitulation of car sex that feels thrown in entirely at random, perhaps in an attempt to remind the viewer of what the film had been up to before it plunged into more interesting and knotty territory. The pregnancy element seems to come and go whenever Ducournau feels that the viewer might be losing interest; something like twenty minutes go by at one point before a squeamish person would feel compelled to cover their eyes. Far be it from me to claim that a film like this is being unrealistic or not beholden to the rules that it has set for its world — this is, after all, a film that more-or-less begins with erotic dancers being mobbed by fans asking for autographs — but this is more a question of what the film is actually trying to say, whether it be regarding gender, sex, family, meat, and metal.

Without going into each element specifically, there is an incoherence that seems unproductive in all respects except family, which remains productively muddled to the very final image. Despite his statements to the contrary, Vincent’s level of dedication to his son despite the eventually-obvious nature of her deception remains in constant motion, hinging in the last scene on the statement of names, the interpretation of certain actions; the gender-bending here feels vital as well in further confusing the lines of performance and perception. Where the film falls is in trying to collide these thought-through, small-scale but graspable ideas to the plotline of a person being distended by an automobile fetus, which ostensibly remains one of the two driving elements of the entire film.

If I was being uncharitable, I’d say that Titane almost felt like it was initially conceived along similar lines as my hypothetical retelling of the second part as its own film, free of such fantastical elements, given the amount of time and care put into the interactions between Rousselle and Lindon. After this initial draft was written, whether from internal or external pressures, Ducournau could have lost her nerve and decided to add in this early bout of violence as a means of grabbing a wider audience’s attention and to sprinkle in bits of body horror throughout to avoid a sense of alienation on the part of gorehounds and the like.

Given Raw and her statements, this is unlikely to be the case, but it’s hard not to note that Titane ends in exactly the most logical manner that it could, with a final set of actions that could have easily be pulled off without the need for metal prosthetics. If the ending — effective, emotionally visceral, and genuinely moving as it is — is so legible in its intent, so removed in all the senses that matter from the surface provocations that have dominated the conversations surrounding it, might it not be the case that this purportedly out-of-this-world work bears a marked resemblance to the quiet dramas that it tries so hard to distinguish itself from?