My Favourite Films of the Month: September 2023
Force Majeure (2015)
Ruben Östlund’s filmography is known for lampooning social norms, cultural elitism, and extreme wealth. Force Majeure most prominently tackles the former, as a nuclear family’s accepted dynamic is shaken after a fleeting moment of danger in which Thomas, the father, acts in a way that calls into question his role as a patriarch and as a man. The family drama is set in the awe-inspiring French Alps, the majesty of which only makes the man-made complications at the centre of the film seem all the more tedious and unimportant. In the end, Thomas’ “redemption” comes from the surrender of his wife, herself facing a crisis of identity and unable to prioritize herself over the needs of her family. Unapologetically Nordic in its blunt humour and minimalist style, the film is a perfectly paced and sharp-witted consideration of gender expectations in the 21st century and the cold plunge of facing one’s true nature.
My rating: 8.5/10
The Girl Can't Help It (1956)
Director John Waters, a.k.a The Pope of Trash, cites Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can't Help It as a key inspiration for his own body of work, a filmography that crudely mocks gender and takes the limits of social acceptability to task. Having now seen the film myself, I understand this inspiration completely. Really, is there much difference between Jayne Mansfield and Divine? Both made careers out of exaggeration, specifically amplifying the attributes and physical features of the female human, playing not women but “women”.
The film follows in the tradition of Pygmalion: A down-on-his-luck musical agent is paid big by a mob-boss to turn his moll girlfriend into a star, even though she has no interest in doing so and decidedly cannot sing. Consciously or not, the film makes allusion to the extreme degree to which the movie studio's shaped, molded, renamed, and styled their stars beyond any personal recognition, a transformation that essentially defined the career of Jayne Mansfield.
Mansfield was one of a number of actresses signed by studios in the 1950’s to directly compete with Marilyn Monroe’s star-power at 20th Century Fox (such as Mamie van Doren and Diana Dors) who despite their platinum blonde hair and whispery voices were never able to fully emulate Monroe’s natural onscreen presence. In an attempt to recreate Monroe’s enviable curves, Mansfield is put in a (literally) breath-taking corset and undergarments that sculpt her body into something totally non-human, closer to a cartoon drawing of herself than anything of flesh and blood. While a compelling subject for a film studies essay on feminism, the female body, and camp, the film earns points for being genuinely funny. Tom Ewell works perfectly as the everyman absolutely helpless to Mansfield’s feminine allure, a role he would essentially recreate the following year in Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch alongside Monroe. While the plot in question is fairly thin and predictable, the film becomes something spectacular with the inclusion of lightning-hot musical performances by Little Richard, Fats Domino, Abbey Lincoln, and Gene Vincent.
My rating: 7/10
The New World (2005)
It is no surprise that Terrence Malik’s cinematic take on the relationship between the English colony of Jamestown and the Powhatan people was not a box-office hit at time of release in 2005. The film, like many by Malick, takes its time to worship nature and place it upon a divine pedestal above the mortal activities of humanity. It is a patient film, allowing (or maybe to some forcing) the audience to sit with its characters in moments of silence and thought. Despite his commitment to an authentic portrayal of the time period (at times to a point of transportation), he takes some liberties with the central plot. Historians know that there was no romantic relationship between the child Pocahontas and the explorer John Smith, but Malick places the two in an imagined fantasy of intense understanding and trust. The viewer soon learns what the story is really about, not the English exploring the Americas but Pocahontas discovering the English, both fearing and imagining the mystery of that “new world” across the water. A stunning feat of production, cinematography, and direction, the film is masterfully led by Q'orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas, who at only fourteen during filming convincingly and honestly portrays the experience and growth of a woman at the centre of one of the most familiar (and misunderstood) stories of American history.
My rating: 8/10
The Kennedy Trilogy (1960-1964)
In the then-revolutionary style of cinema verité, Robert Drew recounts the brief presidential career of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in three short films. The first: The Primary, follows Kennedy & co. during his campaign in Wisconsin for the democratic presidential nomination. His opponent Hubert Humphrey has the upper-hand as the senator from Minnesota. Kennedy, with his funny accent and sharp dress, might as well be a foreigner in America’s heartland. Drew plainly shows the techniques, strategies, and methods used by politicians to gain the support of voters, methods which in comparison to today’s political landscape are refreshing and honest. Moreover, the film, perhaps without even trying, shows us that special spark that made the young senator from Massachusetts a star, and helped create the legend as we know him today.
The second film in the trilogy, Crisis, spotlights Kennedy’s brother Robert during a crucial period of his career as Attorney General, that is: the integration of the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. Alongside the national awakening to the morality of civil rights, we witness the miles and miles of red tape that tangle what should be a simple question of right and wrong into a web of bureaucracy. These men want to do the right thing, even if it takes time and strategy. They hope to avoid arresting a sitting American Governor (the steadfast George Wallace) and are limited in their ability to nationalize the Alabama Guard. Never lost in this fray is the experience of black students Viviane Malone and James Hood, whose education serves as pawns in this political chess match. The film serves a compelling portrait of the memory of RFK as a driven family man with a moral compass.
In Faces of November, Drew represents the funeral of JFK through the solemn faces of his mourners, both the American public and his family. One cannot help but feel a shudder at the site of Jackie’s stoicism, or heartbreak as little Caroline Kennedy is held by her uncle Sargent Shriver. Statue-like soldiers fight back tears while the public weeps. The devastated faces of all sorts of Americans help to fully convey the overwhelming sense of loss felt by the whole country. Dazed citizens move about like ghosts who are lost in the world of the living, silently grappling with the shockwave that took years to finally settle. Drew mutes any dialogue or spoken word to illustrate the event’s unbearable silence, calling to mind Russian writer Maxim Gorky’s 1896 assessment of the new technology of cinema:
“Last night I was in the kingdom of shadows, If you only knew how strange it is to be there. It is a world without sound, without colour. Everything there — the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air — is dipped in monotonous grey. Grey rays of the sun across the grey sky, grey eyes in grey faces, and the leaves of the trees are ashen grey. It is not life but its shadow. It is not motion but its soundless spectre.”
My rating: 10/10