Violette Noziere: The Teenage Dream

Image result for violette nozière film

The first of many collaborations between director Claude Chabrol and actress Isabelle Huppert, Violette Noziere is a cross between a coming-of age period piece and a film noir told from the perspective of the femme fatale. Anchored by Huppert’s performance as a teenage girl drawn to a dark, seedy lifestyle while dreaming of a bougie, romantic one and the crimes she consummately commits to justify both, the film is a tale of class, moral, and familial betrayal that boasts Chabrol’s trademark use of a sharp cast, loaded silence, and dry atmosphere to leave its audience with a empty but upset feeling in their gut.

The film’s production design and cinematography are traditional and realistic, a visual style that Chabrol favors – stripping back the scale and grandiosity of setting allows for characters to shine, and Chabrol is best when extracting layered, incisive performances from his actors, as seen in Les Cousins and The Champagne Murders. Huppert’s performance as the title character is what colors the film, as you can observe from any poster or still from the film. Her Violette is steely, vampish, stoic, and spiteful, but all these qualities only peek out from underneath the façade of innocent everygirl that Violette masks her desires with when Huppert wants to. Violette’s role as a criminal (prostitute, thief, and murderer, in that order), thanks to Huppert, doesn’t stem from a mustache-twirlingly malevolent place – rather, the bored and bewildered expressions she wears during her passive moments connect her actions to an ennui that’s rooted itself deep in Violette, and the need to bury it drives her, since nothing else in the girl’s environment is half as motivational.

Related image

The characters who act as predator and prey during Violette’s misadventures, also well-performed by the actors and actresses behind them, are Violette’s mother, who serves as the next best thing to an antagonist, due to her suspicions of Violette’s exploits but helplessness to stop any of it, Violette’s father, an ineffectual man who represents everything she hates about their less-than-bourgeois lifestyle (and may be an effective source of trauma, if Violette’s admissions of incestuous abuse are to be believed), and Violette’s lover, a rakish leech who expedites Violette’s descent into prostitution and thievery, if only to help fund his day-to-day comfort. With company like this, the film doesn’t make it hard to empathize with Violette, crime and punishment and all.

More than a sordid crime drama or cautionary tale, Violette Noziere presents its audience with the pyrrhic victory of a coming-of-age story subverted. Violette never quite reaches the heights she dreams of (an expensive lifestyle stimulating enough to erase the boredom slowly weighing her soul down to murderous depths), but she represents a cathartic, youthful desire to violate all the rules you’ve been presented, joyfully and out of spite. Further than that, she manifests the dream of getting away with it all – the film ends with a statement mentioning her eventual vindication (after a shortened sentence) and return to a normal life. Violette may be a murderess who indlged in sex and violence to their violent ends, but she’s somebody that anyone who’s less than mature enough has the luxury of aspiring to be – given they don’t act on those desires the way she skillfully does. But the film, like Violette, coyly refuses to tell its audience to be inspired by her story, hiding in a frame of drab, grey, and lurid content – implying that you are to feel nothing, but giving you just enough of a tale to make you consider what you can get away with.

Suspiria: A Postmodern Classic out of a Modern Classic

Related image

There’s a telling moment in Suspiria’s 2nd act where the invisible line that connects the film to its predecessor seems to be severed – the iconic sequence wherein Olga is savagely destroyed by Susie’s prowess as a dancer, by way of witchcraft. The sequence boasts of the nightmarish giallo bloodlust of the 1977 original, but tonally, the violence doesn’t have the raw cathartic energy of it. The sequence as a spectacle is coldly executed, calculated the way a dancer or camera moves, and creeps under a person’s skin rather than cutting into it, in terms of the bluntness of its horror. These key differences are what make Suspiria 2018 an entirely different beast from its mother, Suspiria 1977 – and the brilliant changes made to the tale work on both narratively enriching and meta levels.

Luca Guadagnino, the director (who was last known for directing Call Me By Your Name, making his choice to direct this remake a turn), believed that his rendition of Suspiria wasn’t an exact remake, but rather a homage to the original and the feelings seeing it incited in him when he was younger. This explains key differences in the styles and atmospheres of both films – Most notably, Suspiria ’77 was shot, filtered, and edited to be as raw and colorful as possible, with an equally overwhelming metal score, while Suspiria ’18 is devoid of any warm or characteresque color, and scored with a somber, primal electronic sound. the He adds to this reimagining several contextual elements that enrich and frame the original story in a more throught-provoking light: the sociopolitical backdrop of Germany’s division (mirrored in that of the school’s matrons), the idea of past trauma shaping or driving a person or an institution (something Dr. Klemperer’s subplot revolves around), as well as the twist that forces viewers to question the film in its entirety in relation to Susie’s status as a meek ingenue.

Both films follow the skeleton of a young dancer (Suzy/Susie) joining a school of dance (Ballet in the original, Modern/Interpretive in the remake) only to find that the school is run by a coven of witches (hag-like as in fairytales in 1977, and unsettlingly realistic and bureaucratic in 2018). What’s refreshing in this update is that the stitches between witchcraft and dance are sewn tighter and are stronger in relation to advancing the plot. Whereas the original Suspiria used the dance school as a front for the evil underneath, this version makes it clear that, in the context of the central coven, dance is witchcraft, whether the girls performing know it or not (as Patricia, then Olga, then Sara, unfortunately find out), with the acts of choreography they work to perfect connecting them to a greater power, the earth they take their strength from, and their own capabilities as women and witches.

Guadagnino’s thematically rich, non-exploitative look at a coven of witches as a microcosm of sociopolitical divisions and how people look to violent, powerful figures for stability doesn’t sound like the Suspiria anyone under 20 grew up with. But his hijacking of a horror story from recent history and inoculating it with a realistic, social horror within reach is what makes Suspiria (2018) the kind of horror film audiences today look to for a satisfying representation of these similarly chaotic times, in the same manner any of the women victimized by the film looked to the revealed Mother Suspiriorum – for justice, or for rest.

Related image

Volver: All About My Mother, Sister, Daughter, Neighbors, et al.

One review of Volver on Letterboxd simply says: “I think men have like… maybe ten lines total in this entire film. I feel refreshed and rejuvenated and ready to give back to the community”. Though intended as a joke, I believe that the line resonates with the main plot thread of the film and where the women in the film go right and wrong in finding their way to building new connections with one another.

Image result for volver

Pedro Almodovar is a director whose trademarks have always been well-written female characters, telenovela plotlines taken to an entertaining extreme, and a tonal mix of snappy comedy and somber drama unique to only him. With regards to these elements, Volver might be considered peak Almodovar.

Volver’s female-centric narrative keeps its viewers in a state of disbelief regarding its treatment of men and how the film smoothly crafts a world where women thrive in spite of them. For a film that begins with a murder and a death, the stakes are kept rather personal for the most part, with the murder becoming a subplot that’s treated more like a nuisance than a major development in the story. The treatment of Paco’s death even comes off as unwitting retribution for the phenomenon of “fridging” in mainstream cinema, wherein a woman is killed off to further a man’s plotline by motivating him with grief. Here, the concept is reversed: Over the course of disposing of his body, his wife Raimunda stumbles on opportunities to begin a new, independent life for herself and her daughter. The men in the film, while posing threats in the past (as is the case with Paco and Raimunda’s father), are inconsequential and easy to handle in the present – the women of the film and their complicated relationships with one another dominate the narrative.

Volver’s great accomplishment is pulling this off without romanticizing the idea of “female relationships”. The relationships between all the women, at least intiially, are fraught with judgment of, and tension with one another. Raimunda and Paula have a typical nagging mother-rebellious daughter dynamic, All the adult women treat Soledad with contempt due to her status as a divorced woman living in the shadow of her imperious sister, and Agustina is desperate for the emotional support of the rest – their only connection being the shared demise of their parents’. Irene’s titular act of returning to the rest of her family, while out of left field, becomes the choice changes all these dynamics for the better. The movie is centered on this untangling of dramatic knots, despite also featuring a murder, subsequent coverup, illegal business practices, and a dark backstory involving incest and arson.

Image result for volver

Volver might as well be called the first great modern female-centric film. It follows a 20th century tradition of well-crafted films about, and for, women such as Terms of Endearment, 3 Women, and 9 to 5. Volver even seems to take plot points directly from these films. However, Volver is original in its kitchen sink approach to women in conflict – these women could be your mother, sister, daughter, etc., and they may hate one another, but despite this, a uniquely female sense of camaraderie is palpable.

Clouds of Sils Maria: An Actress, An “Actress”, & Kristen Stewart

Image result for clouds of sils maria ending

Are celebrities people who truly earn their accolades, status, and our respect? Or are they mostly hollow mythical figures elevated by a less-than-artistic need to seek drama from a public figure? This is one of the questions that Clouds of Sils Maria asks through its central character, Maria Enders, and those around her seem to be a measure of what the answer to that question is, in relation to Maria, her work, and her status as veteran actress and aging woman.

Each woman the film focuses on is indicative of her generation in a professional setting. Maria, of Gen X, is accomplished in her own right, having built a career during a less postmodern, traditional era through breaking through with a modern, efficient style of working, specifically in the area of acting – she manages to balance both a career as a serious theatrical actress, as well as a successful Hollywood actress working in the mainstream (what she must refer to as a well-paying side gig). Valentine, on the other hand, like most millennials, seems to find herself stuck in a job that doesn’t force her to change any aspect of her distinct and youthfully cynical personality in her pursuit of accomplishing her work as an assistant efficiently and tactfully, but seems to demand more of her at a personal cost than any other job might – and she begins to resent the tasks she’s chosen to accomplish more and more with each day that passes. Jo-Ann Ellis, meanwhile, representative of the burgeoning Gen Z, incorporates her personality, image, and youthful potential as a professional tool, which works to her advantage, despite the chaos and judgment that invites.

Image result for clouds of sils maria

While Maria represents a Yes to the 1st question at the beginning of this essay, and Jo-Ann seems to be a Yes to the 2nd, both women display depths that contradict the answers to those respective questions. While Maria is a refined, classically trained, and methodical actress, she is also complicit in creating a dichotomy between artistically sound, “real” actors, and image-based cash cow mainstream actors. Jo-Ann, on the other hand, questions that dichotomy on the basis of her actions. Yes, she is a young woman whose beauty, scandals, and provocative personality are tenets of her celebrity persona, but she proves herself to be an intelligent, cultured, and tactical artist underneath the façade as well.

The film follows Maria Enders at the end of one era of her career, and the beginning of another. Her relationships with Valentine and Jo-Ann mark the former and the latter, respectively, and both force her to come to terms with her views on the craft and business of acting, her status as an older woman in the face of younger generations coming into their own, and what will become of her once she figures out how she’s changed in relation to these things. As for the answer to the question that began this essay, and how the film answers it – Actors like Maria or Jo-Ann either care too much, or not at all about these questions, but what matters in the face of either answer is a need to be relevant, as artists or as living myths.

Image result for clouds of sils maria ending

Heavy Trip: Metal At Its Softest

Heavy Trip’s protagonists are impossibly soft and adorable. For all the odes to Satan they sing and accompany with the raw, threatening sound of pure Nordic Metal, the band is as laughable and foolhardy as their band name, Impaled Rektum implies. However, the film takes on a journey that changes them into the men they want to be, men lauded and vilified for their power as artists, which until the film begins, was trapped as potential in a small town known best for its flowers and livestock – the perfect origin story for a band as hard as theirs. The catch? Their journey is one that makes them twice as soft and deluded. But it’s also one that makes themt wice as lovable as they already are.

Not much can be said about Heavy Trip’s artistic qualities as an entry in the highbrow, intelligentia-controlled canon of European cinema. The film is an approximation of the mockumentary-like Rock n Roll road film subgenre that’s flourished in the mainstream of filmmaking since the time of This is Spinal Tap, a trend continuing into films as recent as Popstar: Never Stop Stopping. However, like another film seen in this class that initially looked like a wrong turn, Good Bye, Lenin!, Heavy trip actually proves European Cinema’s ability to fit into the mainstream without tarnishing the name of European Cinema as we know it.

By taking the adventurous formula of films like Get Him To The Greek and combining it with a look into a group of grim but impossible-not-to-love outcasts as seen in What We Do In The Shadows, and placing this blend into the context of petty, overly-polite Finland, Heavy Trip is able to transcend its status as a slapstick comedy intended to be consumed and discarded by mainstream audiences. The film is a look into a subgenre that is, as presented in the film, smacked with the juvenile labels of freakish or weird and presenting how this manifests in a tongue-in-cheek traditional European setting. If forgettable, Heavy trip is at least lovable for as long as you can stand listening to its upbeat, outlandish sound and story.

Raw: How To Be A Maneater

Raw can be described as “Rules of Attraction, except that the Attraction is Cannibalism”. The film contains hallmarks of all the college “horror” stories before it: It’s a tale of corruption, hazing, and submission to a brand new, soul-crushing norm that highlights how sexuality, hedonism, the need to belong to an exclusive group, and how your given circumstances can work against you are all used to unnerving effect in the campus context. But alongside this all-too-real tradition of coming-of-age films, Raw adds an element of true, outlandish horror: A female-centric cannibalism.

I name the affliction of cannibalism that the characters face in Raw as female-centric due to the affliction’s ties with the main characters’ relationships to their own femininity, as well as how their acting upon it serves as a response to the treatment of women in realistic experiences they go through. Raw is described as a feminist horror story, and the film succeeds in earning that moniker by plot alone.

Image result for raw 2016

Raw juxtaposes Justine’s descent into cannibalism with her ascent into modern womanhood, as prescribed by those around her, the most influential instigator of Justine’s decline being her sister Alexia. Alexia serves as both a beacon and a model for Justine to strive to be. Alexia is a headstrong, edgy survivor who knows how to have a good time and clever enough to get what she wants out of people. But from the start, Justine and her circumstances make it impossible for her to fit in on all accounts without (literally) ripping out a chunk of herself. And so she almost does, but her strongest differentiator from Alexia – her self-control – is what saves her from declining to the state of animalistic indulgence her model of cannibalistic behavior does at the film’s conclusion.

The film furthers its central metaphor by framing the plot around the hazing of Justine and her peers to fit into a heirarchy of unflinching, resourceful veterinarians-to-be. The unertaking of how a social imperative to become a supposedly practical & empathetic caretaker is implemented by way of trauma is a process familiar to med students and women alike. The cannibalistic metaphor also highlights how expressions of feminist behavior are often regarded by those opposed to it as “incisive” – constantly biting into parts of society that are unjust in order to highlight the injustice that calls for a change.

Image result for raw 2016

As its protagonist discovers she must at the end of the film, Raw similarly finds its own way of coping with the ambiguity and unjustified dichotomy at its core – and does so by reassuring its audience that while this demonstration of violence is over, resolution remains open and in what each viewer can imagine. One can only hope that Justine is able to break a cycle on the basis of the character and resolve she displays throughout the film, but as she can see from what her mother, sister, father, and the systems they’ve chosen to be part of can tell her, a woman can only make it so far in a man-eat-man world.

The Edukators: Revolting Against Youth In Revolt

The first hour is an engaging thriller, the second, a slow-burn chamber drama about why the thrill of the first isn’t a sustainable lifestyle. This major shift is The Edukators’ secret weapon, or so it thinks. The Edukators riles its audience by exposing its sharp edges early on in the film – its opening sequence, opening credits, and first act explores the silent rage at the heart of the film and its protagonists, yet by its conclusion, the image we’re left with doesn’t seem to be the knife with which the so-called Edukators cuts into their victims of the 1% with, but the shaky hands holding the blade.

For all its talk of revolution and how the disenfranchised should learn to strike back against their oppressors in the realm of class warfare, The Edukators confronts its audience and leads with the dead end that awaits those who blindly ascribe to the tactics of The Edukators in its first half – You either become a person willing to cross out of morally grey territory to incite the change you want to see, or you become a person who compromises his way into a better life, away from the epicenter of class tension and social divide.

The latter person is manifested in the eyes of the film’s main characters as Hardenberg, former-hippie-turned-businessman and class traitor whose house was the center of action during the heist-gone-wrong at the film’s turning point. Hardenberg, while never coming off as antagonistic during his shared screentime with the Edukators, serves as an antagonist for the characters not simply because of what he does (in Jule’s case), but what he represents for all of them: the idea that youth, activism, and the fight against a corrupt system won’t last forever, and they will have to face the choice of which person in the dichotomy mentioned above they’re going to have to be when their fight ends.

In a fitting twist, the film ends with The Edukators, in the style of the many meddling kids that came before them, get away with it, despite Hardenberg, who in another twist, changes his mind about his experience with the Edukators and reverts to ascribing to the privilege and justice of the system that benefits him while disempowering them. But the same way Hardenberg’s encounter with them haunts him, his own story leaves their pursuit of a new adventure with the underlying question: For how long?

Timecrimes: How To Break Bad In Less Than 6 Hours

Timecrimes should be a film about a mid-life crisis. Its main character is a financially stable, pudgy man in his late 40s with an all-too stable and ideal marriage and home, and its plot points include an off-putting fixation with a younger woman, a number of stylish cars, and the ultimate souring of the main character as a response to the film’s central crisis. That’s what the film is, at its core, and it’s all the better for it. But this story happens underneath layers of horror, thriller, and sci-fi, in that order.

What I find is most sharp and affecting about the film is that in its blend of genres (Horror, Drama, Mystery, Sci-fi, Thriller), it chooses to focus on the drama of the situation the most. We follow the conflicted nature of Hector realizing he’s fated to make a series of downright immoral and unethical choices. This predates a TV series with a similar focus, Breaking Bad, considered by many to be one of the best TV series of all time. The focus on a man “breaking bad” instead of the more outlandish factors surrounding his transformation make the film as compelling as the series (at times, just as horrifying as the series when it wanted to be), and the film boasts the feat of pulling this transformation off in the concise time period of less than 6 hours in this man’s life. 6 hours repeated 3 times, each to its own devastating effect.

This kind of functional examination of time travel in relation to ethics and free will has been utilized in American films within reach of Timecrimes’ release, such as Primer or Looper. Where these films often tackle the larger implications of such time travel (often with plot lines that address some variation of the “What if you went back in time and killed Baby Hitler? Question), Timecrimes decides to keep things personal, and this opens the story up to becoming variations of itself, while sticking to the same skeletal structure of “The misuse of technology = Bad things” that defines the sci-fi genre.

As I mentioned earlier, the film is part-thriller and part-horror as well. While the overall implications of time travel mark the film as sci-fi in nature, each variation of Hector we see, seems to see the story in a different genre. The first, most naïve Hector sees his stretch of the 6 hours as a Horror story – Ogling a woman from afar leads to his stabbing, being chased by a malevolent figure, then having to trust a shady stranger. The 2nd Hector, one now in the know about time travel and its implications, is caught up in a Thriller – tension mounts in his having to fulfill the sequence in the woods his former self had seen and become caught up in. The 3rd and final Hector decides to change this twisty narrative by turning it into a revenge-driven Drama, determined to stop the madness and save his wife.

He succeeds, but the film, overall, is a tragedy with sci-fi elements. His mid-life crisis is one filled with despair, but at least it’s over in 6 hours. He saves his wife, but kills an innocent stranger he knew too well to do so. Timecrimes’ storytelling is effective in that it situates its audience directly with its protagonist – in the worst manifestation of the phrase “so much to do, so little time”, taking us to hell and back in the minimum amount of time it takes to radically change a person.

Trollhunter: Snow PaTroll

Trollhunter presents its protagonists with a set of problems larger than life in a literal sense. This is odd, considering that when one looks at a country’s problems as its defining factors in the modern context, nations in Eastern Europe are often the last which come to mind. These nations often have no pests to show underneath their First World veneer, but Trollhunter takes the visual of an idealistic East European countryside and gives it a supernatural bend to highlight the trouble buried underneath miles of snow.

The threat seen here is in the trolls mentioned by its title, whose presence evoke a small-scale Kaiju-like threat to its main characters, a group of inquisitive college students who are in over their head, but remain loyal to the pursuit of the truth behind the troll problem. The threat is kept a secret by multiple groups working together to perform a bureaucratic burial of the threat these monsters pose. These groups, which serve to be just as antagonistic as the trolls. Having these people serve as co-antagonist to the threat they’re out to reduce gives the film a better allusion to the threat of climate change and those working to bypass the issue rather than address it, as well as a morally ambiguous perspective that conflicts its audience as much as the people holding and in front of the camera we see it through – a feat that’s impressive for a film dominantly comedic in nature.

Trollhunter walks the line between dry & subtle comedy and dramatic undertones without thinking too hard. Yes, this is a story about a comically serious old man hunting fantastical creatures rendered with distracting CGI, but said man’s comically serious nature is rooted in something unspoken, and these fantastical creatures murder one main character and sentence another to a death by rabies, and the film makes these stakes clear. The film is known as a somewhat-parody of The Blair Witch Project, and instead of playing the visceral dramatic performances of the former as comedy, Trollhunter instead flips them into cold, repressed character beats one would characterize as “very East European”.

The film, while not one of my favorites, is distinct in its mix of approaches to the things it dwells on – Norway’s culture (both social and mythological), environment, and the parties that run it (or run it into the ground, as the film tonally implies). The mix of drama, comedy, found footage camera work, and CGI make for an uneven experience, but the film, like its protagonists, earns the right to broadcast the messages it wants to communicate to its audience.

Holy Motors: An Actor Prepares

Leos Carax often presents Paris as a geographical region defined by vast psychological diversity, which allows the surrealism of his film’s plots to suspend their audiences’ disbelief long enough to break them down into accepting the internal logic of the story, which is taken to the extreme here: every 10 to 15 minutes, a new story is being told. What links them all together, is the performance of one man portraying the protagonist of each segment, an eidetic actor known to the audience as Mr. Oskar.

Related image

Mr. Oskar, as portrayed by Denis Lavant, is the kind of actor dreamt of by Acting greats such as Stanislavski, Brecht, or Grotowski – his ability to become any one of the characters he portrays for a living, is the fruit of the methods they devised, and that’s without considering the supernatural aspects of his skill set. As an actor, Oskar displays the capacity to cut through and execute the immersive method of Stanislavski in seconds, create plausible, personal, almost-private interactions with co-actor and audience alike the way Adler stressed, and leave the unsettling, incisive effect Grotowski asks his actors to inflict on audiences with the aid of nothing but their ability as performers. Oskar is what any of these practitioners would consider a “holy actor”, the Übermensch each of their techniques could only hope to turn a man into.

The strongest aspect of Holy Motors, along with what makes it the most insane film in this class’s roster, is its complete devotion to the utter destruction of narrative logic. The film begins with a man’s transformation into an old beggar woman, makes a shift from an episode about a monstrous figure kidnapping a woman and using her as a doll into another about a man giving his daughter a scolding, has its lead character die then come back to life in under a minute, and ends with the revelation that the titular cars we’ve seen the leads ride about on one of can talk, and seem to have lives of their own. More than A Woman Is A Woman, or Persona (which is saying a lot), Holy Motors finds ecstasy in the act of breaking its audience’s logic and notions of linearity, forcing them to give in to the high stakes emotional provocation that the film dispenses consistently. This state of emotional susceptibility is something that an actor also ideally inoculates his audience with, early on in performance.

Image result for leos carax and denis lavant

Denis Lavant is a long-time collaborator of Carax’s, and the real-life subtext of this film seems to be that it doubles as a tribute and showcase for the man who’s helped shape Carax’s body of work, in the same manner that Anna Karina served as Godard’s muse during his peak period, albeit in a more professional manner. Holy Motors’ originality, radically deconstructive narrative, and raw power is anchored by the collaboration between these two men, and the appreciation they have for the craft of filling a role to completion. Holy Motors has yet to be named as an iconic and subversive modern classic, but when that day comes, the people behind it will have most likely moved on to works just as strong, if not madder.