Le Petit Soldat (1960)

Back in the Bush years, when there were still contentious debates about torture and water boarding, I went to an anti-war demonstration in Washington near the Capitol. A crowd had gathered around a group of people in orange jump suits. They had a long wooden plank, a towel, and a big plastic container of water. One man lay back on the board. His companions stuffed a rag in his mouth. Two more held him down, and they poured the jug of water over his face until he came up, frantically gasping for breath. After I took a few photos, I moved on, thinking I had seen nothing more than performance art. Later, at home, after I browsed the Internet, I realized that I had indeed seen performance art.

But I had also witnessed a genuine water boarding.

Jean-Luc Godard, in his second feature, Le Petit Soldat, does something very similar. Banned in France for most of the early 1960s, and effectively banned in the United States and the rest of Europe — The French government threatened Godard, a Swiss citizen, with the loss of his visa if he released the film internationally — Le Petit Soldat contains an extended torture sequence that includes a real water boarding. Michel Subor, who plays the hero Bruno Forestier, also, it seems, allowed himself to be handcuffed to a sink and burned with a thick book of matches. You can see him wince when the flames touch the palm of his hand. Whether or not the electric shock is real is anybody’s guess.

Le Petit Soldat is a flawed movie, but there’s no question that it was a courageous decision for the young Godard to risk his commercial viability in order to include a piece of anti-torture performance art in his second film. Set in 1958, Le Petit Soldat relocates the Algerian War to Switzerland. Bruno Forestier, a 26-year-old French photojournalist and deserter from the French army, arrives in Geneva to photograph Veronica Dreyer, Anna Karina in her first role. Forestier works for the French Information Agency. Dreyer is a fashion model, and a Danish citizen of Russian descent. She’s a sullen, high-maintenance beautiful woman. She doesn’t give up information easily. In a long interview — we’re never explicitly told if Forestier has been assigned to interview Veronica Dreyer or just photograph her — Forestier takes hundreds of photos while he coaxes her out of her shell. Eventually they sleep together.

Little known to Veronica, Forrestier is a member of an underground right wing political group that’s been heavily involved in a terrorist war that’s been raging in Geneva over the previous few months. He’s been assigned to, or, to be more accurate he’s being coerced into killing a pro-Algerian radio host. Forestier has a past as a right wing assassin, but his heart’s not really in it anymore. After a few halfhearted attempts to shoot the radio host, he gives up, convincing his fellow French terrorists that’s he’s unreliable, perhaps even a turncoat. They start to harass him. They steal his car, crash it into another car, and report the accident to the Swiss police. They follow him. They threaten to get him kicked out of Geneva and sent back to Paris, where he’s likely to face charges for deserting from the army.

Forestier’s comrades on the French right are, in fact, such a hostile group of “friends” that, two thirds of the way through the film when he’s kidnapped by a group of Algerians, held in a motel room, and tortured over the extended, famous sequence, it takes awhile to figure out they’re not his fellow French nationalists. This is probably intentional on Godard’s part. Yes, the Algerians quote Lenin and have a beatnik looking young woman as their secretary. The French nationalists blow their horns three short beeps plus two long, code for Algeria will stay French, but there are no clear boundaries in neutral Geneva.

After Forestier escapes from the Algerians, we learn the most startling secret of all. Veronica is involved, in some way, with the NLF and the radio host he has been assigned to kill. We never learn exactly what Veronica does for the Algerians, but, when Forestier’s comrades find out, it’s her death sentence. They think she can give them information about the Algerians they think Forrestier is withholding. Like her lover Bruno, Veronica becomes a torture victim. Unlike Bruno, she fails to escape. She dies off screen in the last minute of the film.

The first two times I saw Le Petit Soldat, I found it fairly tedious. Veronica is so obviously not a terrorist, or even a political ideologue, that it’s almost impossible to believe that the French would actually believe she knew anything. It seemed an unnecessary detail to give the film an unhappy ending, as contrived in it’s own way as a Hollywood film with a happy ending that comes out of nowhere. But when you understand the internal logic of Le Petit Soldat it makes a lot more sense. Jean-Luc Goddard met Anna Karina shortly after his first film Breathless rewrote film history. Goddard was no longer just a Swiss film student who wrote for Cahiers du Cinema. He was a rock star. Suddenly, women like Anna Karina were his for the taking.

If we should ask ourselves how much of the torture in Le Petit Soldat is real, we should also ask ourselves how much of the love affair between Veronica and Forestier is a thinly fictionalized roman a clef about Godard’s own relationship with Anna Karina. Veronica is initially shy and standoffish. It’s Karina’s first film. She’s nervous about acting. Veronica is nervous about the interview. Forrestier the photojournalist, in effect, becomes a stand in for Jean-Luc Goddard the filmmaker.

Godard sets up a parallel narrative between sex and torture. Bruno Forestier is a lover, not a fighter. The Algerians kidnap him, subject him to water boarding and electric shock, but he tells them nothing.

On the other hand, Forestier, the obscure little French photojournalist, gets Veronica to open up simply by talking. It’s a tedious melange of philosophy, aesthetics, theories about painting, and music.But it works. Forrestier is that rarest of all men, a pretentious grad student who talks a Vogue cover girl into bed. Surely, Goddard is implying, love is better than torture. Culture is better than terrorism.

Indeed, when Forestier talks about why he’s proud to be French, it has very little to do with political or military power. The French have great poets and philosophers. That’s why he’s proud to be French, not because they run Algeria. Forestier’s attempts to shoot the pro-Algerian radio host explore the idea of culture vs. terrorism in even more detail. Every time he gets close, every time he gets a clear shot, someone moves in front of him. If these scenes are hilarious, it’s not because Godard finds murder funny. On the contrary, Forestier is a street photographer, not an assassin, the gun a camera, not a 45 automatic. His clumsy attempts at assassinating the radio host become a cinematic metaphor for a man with a Leica, or a Nikon, trying to capture the “decisive moment.”

Does Le Petit Soldat succeed on its own terms? Is it a good film? Probably not.

But I don’t think Godard cared. Fresh off the success of Breathless, he sidestepped the idea of the “sophomore slump” by making an explicitly political film. Success came in the form of de Gaulle’s heavy handed censorship. Godard, who was politically suspect on the French left, had positioned himself as a leftist radical with genuine credibility. That’s pretty meaningless in the United States of 2014, but in France in the 1960s, it meant something, as Jean-Pierre Melville would later find out when his great Army of Shadows was attacked as propaganda for Charles de Gaulle. Le Petit Soldat as an inferior film to Army of Shadows, but, as performance art, as a provocation, it probably worked better than what I saw at the Capitol back in 2007.

A Generation (1954)

A Generation was the second feature length film of the Polish director Andrzej Wajda. Unlike Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows, which is a polished masterpiece of world-historical significance, A Generation is an apprentice work. It’s an ideologically confused jumble of messages wrapped up in a film that, while showing flashes of brilliance, often strains credibility, relies too much on ham-fisted melodrama, and concludes on a note far too personal for Nazi-occupied Poland.

As isolated as the Polish cinema was from the west in 1954, it’s clear that the 26-year-old Andrzej Wajda was thinking along the same lines as Nicholas Ray in Rebel Without a Cause. Stach Mazur, played by Tadeusz Łomnicki, who bears some resemblance to James Dean, is a street punk living in Wola, a rough working class suburb of Warsaw. It’s 1943. Wola, which would, only a year later, be the sight of one of the worst massacres of the Second World War, is still intact. No group of people could be different from Melville’s high-bourgeois rebels in Army of Shadows. Yet Mazur and his friends still act out a ritual of patriotic rebellion by stealing coal from German supply trains heading east. When one of them is killed by a German sniper, Mazur concludes he’s probably getting too old for an aimless existence as a petty thief and gets a job at a small factory as an apprentice carpenter. There he meets an older worker, who gives him a basic less in Marxist economics.

“You work six hours for the price of two,” he tells the younger man.

Anybody who wants a short lesson about surplus value could do worse than watch A Generation. But it’s not the idea of alienated labor or even the German occupation that pushes Mazur to join the resistance, it’s a pretty girl, Dorota, played by Urszula Modrzyńska. Dorota, who’s a member of the Armia Ludowa, the Communist Party’s “People’s Army,” and not, significantly, the London-backed Home Army, appears one day at Mazur’s Catholic school. She gives a fiery speech, tosses a handful of Communist Party leaflets in the air, extorts Mazur and his fellow students to resist the Germans, and vanishes. It’s love at first sight. Mazur is now determined to find out who Dorota really is. That means joining the resistance, and, in turn, the Communist Party.

Jean-Pierre Melville has remarked that for him, as a Jew, it was not an act of courage to join the French Resistance. He was already on the death list. It would have been pretty much the same for a Pole on the outskirts of Warsaw in 1943. The idea of joining the rebellion to impress a girl is perfectly believable in James Dean’s California, or even, perhaps, in Poland in 1980, but, in 1943, in Wola, it’s a heavy handed melodramatic narrative forced onto a far more fascinating history. Nevertheless, you can see exactly what Wadja is trying to do. Stalin had died in 1953. Wadja had graduated from the Łódź Film School, where he learned a more western style of film making than was usually taught in the Eastern Bloc at that time. A Generation was his chance to break away from the “socialist realism” that was dominant, even required under Stalin. So he made a film that was, on the surface, pro-Communist, but, in its aesthetic choices, looked to the west, to Italian neo-realism and American “troubled youth” melodrama.

If Wadja turned out, later in his career, to be an anti-communist, then he, like John Ford in Grapes of Wrath, is a conservative who knows how to lay on the communist propaganda with shovel. It’s 1943. The Jewish ghetto is about to be liquidated. The Communist resistance, unlike Mazur’s employer, who’s a member of the nationalist Home Army, intends to run guns and food to the Jewish resistance inside the ghetto. When Mazur’s boss chuckles that “the Yids are rebelling at last,” Mazur stands up and gives his version of the “first they came for the Jews” speech. One by one Mazur’s friends fall trying to help the Jews in the ghetto. In the film’s best known scene, one of Mazur’s friends is trapped by the Gestapo at the top of a a spiral staircase and, after shooting it out, falls to his death. Mazur’s older Marxist mentor is last scene entering the sewers, preparing to die with the Jewish uprising, the fiery blond Dorota is taken away by the Gestapo, and, presumably, either shot, or sent to a concentration camp.

With this kind of propaganda, I’m sure Wadja could have slipped any kind of formal experimentation by the censors in Communist Poland. A generation as a clear message. The Communist resistance helped the Jewish uprising. The London-backed Home Army sat it out and laughed at them from the sidelines. Wadja’s next film, Kanal, would have a very different message, that the Soviet Union stabbed the Home Army in the back in 1944, perhaps reflects the confidence he felt only a few years later that Stalinism wasn’t coming back.

But even in A Generation, Wadja ends on a personal note. In Melville’s Army of Shadows, the French Resistance members who are tortured to death by the Gestapo are unambiguously heroic. Even resistance members who are unintentionally compromised have to be killed in order to protect the network. For Jean-Pierre Melville there is no life outside of the resistance. For Wadja, however, even though the Nazi occupation of Poland was far more severe than the Nazi occupation of France, resistance doesn’t mean suppressing the individual. Indeed, in the final shot, Mazur puts his head down and cries, too distraught over Dorota’s execution to go on. He’s no longer interested in being a member of the rebellion. He’s not a soldier but a lost youth, a “rebel without a cause.”

Note: A 22-year-old Roman Polanski makes a brief appearance as one of Mazur’s friends. He looks more like 16. So if you want to see Roman Polanski when he was still young enough to date the kinds of women he likes to date, here’s your chance.

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

Why do you go to see a particular movie, or a particular series of movies? Is it the actor, or is it the director?

I will often make an effort to familiarize myself with an “auteur’s” body of work. Back in 2011, I worked my way through almost all of John Ford’s films. I watched Eisenstein’s over the Winter. If I could get copies of Robert Aldrich’s entire body of work, I probably wouldn’t leave the house until they all got repeated viewings. I’m planning to start in on Kurosawa sometime over the Spring.

But, like most people, I’ll often go to see a movie because I like a particular actor. I’m not saying anything new, of course, since, in fact, it was the Hollywood studio system that created the audience for “stars.” Nobody went to see John Wayne in Stagecoach because he was John Wayne. But John Ford certainly cast him, and Jimmy Stewart, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence because they were John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart.

Mike Leigh is an established British filmmaker with leftist politics and a signature improvisational style. He traditionally begins his projects without a script and works with the actors to develop their characters as the film progresses. Happy-Go-Lucky, his 2008 comedy about a London primary school teacher and her ongoing struggle to learn to drive is a good example of Leigh’s strength and weaknesses.

Happy-Go-Lucky is a defense of the British welfare state against neoliberalism. Leigh doesn’t wear his leftist politics on his shoulder, but it’s clear he thinks that socialism is a good thing. Sally Hawkins, who recently had a major role in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine and minor but vivid appearances in Jane Eyre and Never Let Me Go, plays Pauline Cross, or “Poppy,” a London primary school teacher. The public school system couldn’t have a better spokeswoman than Poppy. She’s not only upbeat. She’s a force of nature. Whether it’s a cranky book store clerk, a mentally disturbed homeless man, or a little boy in one of her classes, a bully she suspects of being abused at home, Poppy will attempt to rescue any person in distress. She’s a veritable superhero of kind-hearted good cheer.

Then she meets her match.

If some of Mike Leigh’s weaknesses as a a filmmaker are on display in Poppy’s interactions with her friends and family — they can get long, weighted down by regional accents, and boring — then his main strength comes into focus when Poppy meets Scott, played by the comedian Eddie Marsan. Happy-Go-Lucky is basically a star turn by Marsan and Sally Hawkins, to brilliant actors who go hilariously toe to toe after Poppy’s bike is stolen, and she decides that, instead of getting another bike, she’ll learn how to drive. Scott, her driving instructor is everything she’s not.  An uptight, angry little man with bad teeth, hilariously wrong opinions on everything, and a tendency to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation, Scott is a working class version of Basil Fawlty, a caricature of a right-wing British crank. Anybody else would have run away screaming five minutes into the first lesson, but not Poppy. Like any other damaged soul in London, Scott can be redeemed.” One can imagine a UKIP meeting full of nasty little men like Scott. Anybody else would have run away screaming five minutes into the first lesson, but not Poppy. Like any other damaged soul in London, Scott can be redeemed.

And yet he can’t.

Scott hates black people. “They stink,” he growls, referring to a previous driving student. “Lock the door,” he warns Poppy when two black men ride by on bikes. “There’s two of them.” We don’t have to read Poppy’s mind. Her students are mostly black, and her physical therapist, a calm, highly competent professional, is also black. One of Poppy’s best friend’s is black. Happy-Go-Lucky is a celebration of multi-cultural London against fascists like Scott, yet, just to condemn Scott as a fascist, would make Poppy something less than the liberal ideal she is. Scott’s a puritan. He hates Poppy’s boots. “Those boots are inappropriate for driving,” he says. “You should see them on the dance floor,” she responds. Scott’s like an 8-year-old boy who hates girls because he likes them. He clearly hasn’t gotten laid in awhile, and thinks Poppy is leading him on. “Get your hand off the gear shift,” he shouts, imagining, perhaps, she had just reached out for an entirely different gear shift. Scott is an Alex Jones style conspiracy theorist. He knows that the Washington Monument measures 666 feet tall from the top to the foot of the basement. He sees the public school system as a conspiracy by the Illuminati to crush independent souls like his. Even his method of teaching driving is based on the idea that the two side view and rear view mirrors represent a triangle made up of three fallen angels. “En Ra Ha,” he says invoking their names, “En Ra Ha. Stay focused on En Ra Ha.”

“If that’s the eye of Lucifer I don’t think I want to look in there,” she says, barely able to control her laughter.

But Scott’s a lost cause. When Poppy starts dating a handsome social worker who she had called to help her examine the little boy she thinks is being abused at home, Scott loses it. He starts to stalk Poppy. She sees him near her apartment. He runs away when she says hello. On their next driving lesson, he accuses her of trying to seduce him and almost runs the car off the road. She steals his keys and tells him she won’t let him continue to drive in the state he’s in. He chases her around the car until she threatens to call the cops. It’s a stalemate. Poppy’s found the one abused soul she can’t reach. Leave him to UKIP and the BNP.

“Same time next week,” Scott says after he’s calmed down.

“Sorry Scott I can’t,” she says, admitting defeat.

Scott is, perhaps, a better example of Leigh’s actor-centered approach to film than Poppy is. On the page, he reads like a monster, but Eddie Marsan is such a good actor he actually starts to make us see things from his point of view. Perhaps Poppy is “tempting” him. Perhaps “multiculturalism” is ruining England. Perhaps public school system did crush his soul. Marsan conveys not only Scott’s bigotry but his obvious psychological distress. Scott isn’t just a racist. He’s a man in pain, someone who’s deeply unfulfilled because he can’t accept the modern world. Whether it’s Poppy’s cheeky attitude and her boots, or black people with the audacity to ride bicycles through “his” city, Scott, like an American tea bagger, wants his country back. Yet he’s not getting it and, indeed, he never had it. Scott would have been just as unhappy shoveling manure for some great Lord back in the 19th Century as he is living in modern London. Sadly, for him, he can’t see it, and even more sadly, for all of us, politically, his side is winning. Poppy is only a fantasy. In the real world, she’s probably burned out, overworked, and hates her students. But Scott’s the real thing. If you want to know what the guy typing all in capital letters at your local newspaper website looks like in real life, watch Happy-Go-Lucky.

Attack (1956)

If Robert Aldrich’s loosely fictionalized account of the Battle of the Bulge is less well-known than it should be, then it owes part of its obscurity to his deeply cynical views about the United States Army’s officer corps. That many of the rank and file soldiers almost certainly believed right along with Aldrich that they were being led by cowards, rank incompetents, and outright criminals did not matter at all to representatives from the United States Defence Department. They took one look at the script and decided Aldrich couldn’t even look at Army Signal Corps combat footage. He had to make do with what he could, shooting the film in only thirty-two days on the back lot of RKO studios with a small cast and budget and only a few pieces of military equipment, including two tanks he paid for out of his own pocket.

Nevertheless, Attack not only contains a signature early performance by Jack Palance. It’s one of the great films about the Second World War. After looking at the ponderous, cgi-laden dreck Fedor Bondarchuk crapped out about the Battle of Stalingrad, I’m tempted to say that Robert Aldrich got lucky. When the army cut him off, that meant he had to depend, not on gadgets and cool military hardware, but on great acting and a corrosive, tightly written script. Robert Aldrich is proof that you can keep your integrity and still come out with a great work of cinematic art.

My fellow Gen-Xers might remember Attack when they used to show it on television in the 1970s. It’s the film where Jack Palance gets his arm crushed by a tank. It popped up again in the late 1980s. I saw it at Lincoln Center. It took a ridiculously long time to get released on DVD, partly, I suspect, because Steven Spielberg is so clearly in Aldrich’s debt and Saving Private Ryan is so clearly an inferior movie. It was never, as far as I know, released on VHS. Even though it’s now widely available, it’s still rarely seen. If this review does anything, I hope it gets people to stick Attack in their Netflix queue or stream it off of Amazon for $2.99.

Eddie Albert plays Captain Erskine Cooney, the son of a small town southern judge. He owes his rank as the commander of Fox Company, not to his own abilities, but to his father’s political connections. The elder Cooney is the boss of the local Democratic Party machine. Colonel Bartlett, an excellent Lee Marvin,  Erskine’s battalion commander, who’s from Cooney’s home town, has political ambitions after the war.

If the high command of the company and the battalion is a network of southern good ol boys, the rank and file soldiers and junior officers represent the working-class and liberal north. Lieutenant Costa, Palance, is an eastern European from Western Pennsylvania. Lieutenant Harry Woodruff is an every man and the voice of reason. Private Bernstein is witty and cynical. “You have to apologize to your arm when you salute that guy,” he remarks about Captain Cooney. Sergeant Tolliver, played by Buddy Ebsen, is a working-class Kentuckian.

Attack opens with Lieutenant Costa’s platoon pinned down on a hillside, under attack by German troops. His men fight bravely, but Cooney panics and freezes up under pressure. He fails to send reinforcements, and 15 of them are killed.  Costa vows that if it happens again, he’s going to shoot Cooney himself, to “frag” him as it would later be called in Vietnam. His friend Lieutenant Woodruff does exactly what every member of the Democratic Party says Edward Snowden should have done. He goes up the chain of command and tries to let his superiors know that Cooney is an incompetent and a coward and likely to cause more unnecessary deaths if left in command. It’s useless. Colonel Bartlett knows Cooney is unfit to lead troops in combat, but in order to protect his political career, he has to protect Cooney. “Don’t worry,” he tells Woodruff. The war’s basically over and there’s little chance that Fox Company is going to see any more action. Woodruff leaves Bartlett feeling relieved. Costa is not so optimistic.

Costa proves to be right. At the very moment Woodruff is leaving Colonel Bartlett, the Germans launch their massive counter attack, and what will eventually become known as the Battle of the Bulge is under way. Fox Company occupies an unnamed city in Belgium near a small town named La Nelle. Since La Nelle is at the center of an important crossroad, Bartlett orders Cooney to take and hold the little town until the 10th Armored Division can get into place. If La Nelle falls, the Germans get the crossroad, and, perhaps, cut off the whole battalion. Woodruff suggests they attack the town from both sides in company strength. Cooney, who’s been heavily drinking over the past few days, is afraid to go in himself. He orders Costa to take 40 men into La Nelle and hold a farmhouse in the center. Costa knows he’s being ordered on a mission likely to fail, but he has no choice. He follows orders. He also warns Cooney that if he gets cut off and loses any men because of the captain’s incompetence that he’s going to come back to the city and murder him.

Costa’s mission fails. The town is not deserted, as Cooney believes, or, at least, wants to believe, but occupied by German infantry. Only Tolliver and Bernstein make it back to the city, which is now under full scale attack by an SS Panzer Division. Cooney is greatly relieved to find out that Costa, who has gone missing, is probably dead. Colonel Bartlett, who knows that Cooney had refused to reinforce La Nelle and got Costa’s platoon massacred, orders him to hold the city. If he doesn’t, Bartlett says, he’ll make sure he winds up in Leavenworth. It’s clear to everybody by now, especially Woodruff, that’s exactly where he belongs.

To Woodruff’s horror, however, Bartlett leaves Cooney in command. His political career still depends on Cooney’s father. Woodruff takes over command as Cooney continues to drink and collapses into a self-pitying mess. Even worse, Bernstein breaks his leg. If he makes it out of the city, his wound sends him back home to the United States, but if he’s captured by SS troops it almost certainly means he gets sent to Auschwitz. Costa, meanwhile, is not dead at all. He’s come back to murder Cooney, exactly as he promised, but Woodruff stands in his way. Just then a Germany tank begins an attack. Costa runs outside, and disables it with a bazooka. Woodruff and two of his men hammer together a makeshift stretcher in order to help evacuate Bernstein. In the film’s most famous sequence, a second German tank attacks. Costa’s bazooka jams, and the tank traps him in a door frame, crushing his arm. We go back to Cooney and Woodruff. Cooney has had a psychotic breakdown and wants to surrender to the Germans. Woodruff tries to convince him that the Germans don’t even know where they are, but Cooney is hearing none of it. He’s perfectly willing to let a wounded Jewish soldier go to Auschwitz rather than fight. Costa returns, his arm mangled, near death. Only the strength that comes from hate, the sheer determination to kill Cooney, has allowed him to make it back. He dies before he can carry out his promise, but his sudden, startling appearance prevents Cooney from alerting the Germans to their presence, and saves Bernstein’s life.

Then Woodruff shoots Cooney dead.

Woodruff, being a by the book junior officer but a perfectly honorable man, intends to turn himself in for murder. But Bernstein and the other soldiers, believing Cooney deserved to die, each shoot him in turn, making it impossible for Woodruff to know who killed him. The 10th Armored Division, along with Bartlett, finally seize the crossroads, driving the Germans back and putting Bernstein and the rest of Fox Company out of harm’s way. Bartlett, who easily figures out that Fox Company had “fragged” Cooney, says he’ll cover up for Woodruff if Woodruff agrees to lie and say Cooney died a hero. Barlett is still determined to preserve his political career at the cost of the army’s honor. A medal for Cooney will put him in good with Cooney’s father. He thinks he’s got Woodruff where he wants him, that Woodruff will chose personal gain over the truth, but Woodruff’s had enough. As the movie ends, he calls the general staff and makes his confession. He will go to jail, but, the movie implies, he will also stop the cynical Bartlett’s political career in his tracks.

It’s easy to see why the army refused to cooperate with Aldrich. This is about something more than just an incompetent company commander. Aldrich is very clearly implying that a network of southern good ol boys dominate the officer corps and put politics above their own men. Fox Company is not only 200 American soldiers in Belgium. It’s a symbol of the United States as a whole. Aldrich clearly believes that the war against Hitler was necessary and that the rank and file soldiers were doing their best, even while being incompetently led. But he also implies that the army, that American politics as a whole, are rotted through and through.

From 1941 to 1945, from the botched invasion of Italy to the ludicrously delayed invasion of France, to the disastrous stalemate in the Hurtgen Forest, to the failure to bomb the Nazi death camps, the American effort in Europe might best be described as a series of fuck ups by incompetents in a thankfully peripheral area of the war. What was waiting at home was even worse. Taft Hartley, the Red Scare, segregation, the American people were being betrayed as surely as Lieutenant Costa’s platoon was stabbed in the back at La Nell. But the United States Army, and Hollywood, wasn’t ready for this kind of sharp, critical look at American politics and the war in Europe. The United States was run by a clique of good ol boys who wanted propaganda, not art. Too much depended on the idea that the United States Army, not the Soviets, beat Hitler. A dominant American victory over evil, not a floundering incompetent assist for the Soviet Union, was needed as the foundational myth of the new American superpower.

It would take Vietnam for the truth to finally break through to the larger public, but Robert Aldrich already had it on screen in 1956.

Stalingrad (2013)

Before an American goes to see Stalingrad, there are a few things he should understand.

The Battle of Stalingrad was, by far, the most important battle of the Second World War. The invasion of Normandy, Midway, and the Battle of Britain were all side shows. At Stalingrad, 850,000 Germans were killed, missing or wounded. 1,120,000 Russians were killed, missing or wounded, and almost a half a million were killed outright. By contrast, only 291,557 thousand Americans died over the entire course of the Second World War.

Fedor Bondarchuk, the director,  is the son of the great Soviet film director Sergei Bondarchuk. His mother is the famous Russian actress Irina Skobtseva. He studied under another major Russian director, Yuri Ozerov. Bondarchuk, in other words, is Russian cinematic royalty. Just think of him as the son of someone like John Ford or Cecille B. DeMille. If anybody should have been able to make a great film about the Battle of Stalingrad it should have been Fedor Bondarchuk.

So what went wrong?

If you look at the box officer numbers, absolutely nothing. Stalingrad was a big hit in Russia. So far it’s made close to 70 million dollars. It didn’t win any Oscar nominations but it did get reviewed in the United States. It got a much wider release in Germany. It’s been praised for its use of CGI and IMAX 3D technology.

Fedor Bondarchuk doesn’t look back at his father’s movies, but to Steven Spielberg and Saving Private Ryan. Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1970 film Waterloo wasn’t a great movie, but it still managed to convey the epic sweep of Napoleon’s 100 Days. The elder Bondarchuk, having tens of thousands of Soviet army soldiers as extras, recreated Marshall Ney’s cavalry charge, the last march of the Old Guard, Wellington’s infantry squares, and the fight over the farmhouse at La Haye Sainte with some degree of historical verisimilitude. His son, on the other hand, relies too much on CGI, slow motion, and special effects. Waterloo gave me an idea of what it was like to serve in the Duke of Wellington’s army. Stalingrad makes me feel like I’m in a video game.

Stalingrad, like Saving Private Ryan, uses a framing device. We begin, in 2011, in Fukushima, Japan. A Russian relief crew has found a group of Germans — yes Germans not Japanese— trapped under a house that’s been brought down over their heads by the earthquake. It’s going to take awhile to get the Germans out, so one of the relief workers, a man born in 1943, begins to tell the story about the Battle of Stalingrad. We never find out about how the Germans feel about it. Would you tell a story about the Battle of Gettysburg to a group of trapped southerners?  Well, I might if they were black southerners. If the Germans were members of the Communist Party or even socialists, I might tell them about Stalingrad and about the socialist triumph over fascism. But that’s not what we get.

If the Soviet Army was fighting against fascism in 1942, and if at least some of the soldiers had a personal commitment to socialism, we see little of that here. Bondarchuk films most of Stalingrad as the story of the iconic Pavlov’s House, which, not incidentally, is the site of a genuine historical event where a group of Soviet soldiers held a block of apartment buildings against overwhelming odds. We meet a group of Russian, Russian not Soviet soldiers, a handsome square jawed young infantryman, an angry, but decisive captain, a sharpshooter, a wisecracking hayseed who’s almost certainly based on Private Daniel Jackson from Saving Private Ryan. We also meet Hauptmann Kahn, a German officer in command of the troops trying to capture the house the Russians occupy. What we don’t get is any sense of the real Pavlov’s House. The Soviet infantrymen at Pavlov’s House held it against all odds because they knew they were fighting for socialism against fascism. So what are this film’s Russians fighting for? If not socialism then at least democracy, right? Or one another? Is this one of those war films where a group of infantrymen know the war is futile but make a brave stand anyway? No, it’s clear that these 5 Russians soldiers are fighting for Russian against German nationalism, to save the Slavic race against the genocidal Nazis. That would be OK except for one thing.

Stalingrad has the most retrograde sexual politics of any war film I’ve ever seen.

(I’m not exaggerating that for effect, and I’ve seen a lot of war films.)

Bondarchuk’s infantrymen are fighting to defend a fetus.

As the relief worker at Fukushima tells the story, we learn that his mother, Katya, a 19 year old woman played by an actress named Maria Smolnikova — who looks very much like a Slavic Juliet Binoche — was trapped in the house when the Russians took it back from the Germans.If the mission of the Americans in Saving Private Ryan was to save Matt Damon’s square jawed Aryan rifleman so he could go home and build America, here it’s to save Katya from hordes of marauding Germans. “Saving Private Katya” would have been a better title for this film than “Stalingrad.” We never learn which of the 5 infantrymen got her pregnant, but it was certainly one of them. The baby in her womb becomes the symbol of the future of Russian nationalism and the Germans, in a sense, a horde of abortionists.

To give Bondarchuk his due, his metaphor works better than Spielberg’s. Spielberg may have a better sense of pacing, more skill in putting us in the boots of an American soldier storming the beaches at Normandy than Bondarchuk does at putting us inside Pavlov’s House. Spielberg may not have used slow motion blood splatters or flying karate chops, but the mission of the American soldiers in Saving Private Ryan never made any sense to me. The United States was under no existential threat in the Second World War. The Germans could have driven the American army from Europe and the American people would barely have noticed. So why all the fuss about saving one American private? Just because was Matt Damon? At Stalingrad, on the other hand, the stakes were much higher. If the Soviet Army had lost that would have meant the enslavement and eventual extermination of the Russian people. Mother Russia would have ended up as a footnote of history exactly the way native Americans have. Five Russians fighting to save an unborn Russian from hordes of marauding Germans at the very least makes dramatic sense.

The problem is the way Bondarchuk relegates women to the status of brood mares. In Land and Freedom, Ken Loach’s anti-fascist movie about the Spanish Civil War, women fight alongside men as equals. In Stalingrad, they sit around being pregnant. There’s also an ugly subplot about the German officer Hauptmann kidnapping “Masha,” a blond Russian girl and keeping her as his concubine. This of course is history. It actually happened. The German army wasn’t exactly delicate about helping themselves to Russian women on the eastern front. But Bondarchuk doesn’t frame the story as a vile German fascist and misogynist imprisoning an innocent woman the way Spielberg does, for example, in Schindler’s list. “Masha,” played by Yanina Studilina, like Embeth Davaditz’s Helen Hirsch is a rape victim. So why does Bondarchuk (and his Russian soldiers) treat her as a collaborator. Indeed, when the Russian sharpshooter shoots her through the head and snarls “German whore” the only thing we’re supposed to feel bad about it is how Hauptmann lost his Russian fuck doll. The whole narrative arc is patriarchal, and, dare I saw, fascist.

Indeed, the point of Bondarchuk’s film is to steal the Battle of Stalingrad for Putin’s retrograde sexual politics. I hated it. But go see it if you want to look squarely into the eyes of contemporary Russian chauvinism.

A Serious Man (2009)

A Serious Man, the Coen brothers exploration of their Jewish roots, opens in a snow covered shtetl in Eastern Europe. An unnamed man returns to his wife and tells her that an old acquaintance named Traitle Groshkover helped him get home through the blizzard. He’s invited him in for some soup. The wife is horrified. Traitle Groshkover has been dead for three years. The man her husband invited over for soup is a ghost, a dybbuk, and to invite a dybbuk inside their house would be to curse their family for many generations.

The screen goes dark. We hear music, Somebody to Love by the Jefferson Airplane. We find ourselves in Bloomington Minnesota in 1967. Lawrence Gopnik, a mathematics professor lives in a sterile, dreary middle-class suburban neighborhood with his wife, his teenage daughter, and his 13-year-old son. I was alive in the 1960s, but they were before my time. I came to consciousness in the 1970s. When I see a film like American Hustle, I immediately think of my childhood, but my images of the 1960s are largely second hand, film, documentary, and magazine retrospectives. I tend, therefore, to have a romanticized view of the whole decade. The 1960s, as portrayed in A Serious Man, are probably more true to life. Most Americans lived in sterile, dreary suburbs like the Coen brothers’ Bloomington. Woodstock was a far off romantic ideal.

In A Serious Man, the 1960s are there, but they hover around the margins. There are TV shows, a son who smokes too much marijuana, a sexy neighbor who talks about “the new freedoms,” a rabbi who solemnly intones Jefferson Airplane lyrics to a Bar Mitzvah boy, but not much real history. A serious man takes place in 1967, but it never mentions the Arab Israeli war or the recapture of Jerusalem. The 1960s become instead a symbol of the larger American culture that threatens, or perhaps promises to undermine the identity of Eastern European Jews in the United States.

If the Coen brothers have a less than romantic view of the 1960s, they have a completely jaded view of American Jews. Indeed, the sterile, dreary suburban block where Lawrence Gopnik owns a house is re imagined as a continuation of the shtetl in the United States. The shtetl in A Serious Man is not not the sentimentalized shtetl of Fiddler on the Roof, but a corrupt, narrow minded, mean spirited little ghetto that, in some ways, justifies the charges that the Coen brothers are self-hating Jews and anti-Semites. The Coen brothers have made cynical movies before, but their characters in A Serious Man have a physical and moral ugliness they don’t have in The Big Lebowski or Inside Llewyn Davis. Nobody in A Serious Man is as cute as Cary Mulligan or as cool as Jeff Bridges. Indeed, the Jews of Bloomington Indiana are even more physically unattractive than the Jews of the film’s prelude’s shtetl. Jews, the Coen brothers seem to be saying, got even worse when they came to the United States.

Nevertheless, the hero, Lawrence Gopnik, while he may not be particularly heroic, is a sympathetic character. His, unattractive, wife is sleeping with a family friend. His daughter steals money from his wallet. His son is a pothead. A Korean student is blackmailing him into giving a passing grade. Arthur, his unemployable brother is sleeping on the couch. For Lawrence Gopnik, the only thing that could possibly be worse than his dreary suburban existence is losing his dreary suburban existence. That happens when his wife announces she wants a divorce. He moves into a motel. Then we find out he he might just lose his job. The tenure committee is getting disturbing reports about his “moral turpitude,” although we’re never quite sure where they’re coming from. It’s not the Korean student. Arthur is being investigated by the police for gambling.

For Arthur, a mathematics professor and, one would assume a rationalist, science provides no explanations about why his life seems to be falling apart. Neither does religion. One rabbi after another proves more useless than the one before. The Jewish community in A Serious Man, the Coen brothers hint, is corrupt, morally bankrupt, like Lawrence on the verge of destruction. Does it matter? Arthur gets his house and family back after his rival is killed in a car crash. But keeping the woman he’s married to seems as bad as losing her. He finds out he’ll probably get tenure. His son aces his Bar Mitzvah, even though he’s stoned through the whole thing, but, since he’s had to pay a lawyer 3000 dollars to keep his brother out of jail, he gives into the temptation to keep the bribe money the Korean student offered him. Not only has he lost his moral integrity, he’s set himself up to lose his job sometimes in the future.

In the last scene of A Serious Man, a huge tornado approaches the city. Lawrence’s doctor calls. He won’t tell him what the problem is, but it sounds menacing. Earlier he had gotten a chest X-ray. Could it be cancer. As the tornado bears down on the local Hebrew school, and an elderly rabbi can’t quite seem to figure out how to get the children into a shelter, we sense the approaching apocalypse. But what is it? Is it destruction? Or is it simply assimilation?

Frances Ha (2012)

Frances Ha is Inside Llewyn Davis with a cuter star and a happy ending.

Frances, played by writer Greta Gerwig, may not have a cat, but she’s a struggling artist in New York City. After accidentally dumping her boyfriend with a Freudian slip — He wants to move in together. She doesn’t. — and after her roommate and best friend announces she’s moving in with her fiancee, Frances, like Llewyn, finds herself adrift. She quickly finds another situation with a pair of rich hipsters, but it’s 1250 dollars a month. What’s more, like Llewyn Davis, Frances, an aspiring dancer, is not going to conquer the world overnight. She’s 27. Her friends are all getting married or moving on with their careers. She’s still a apprentice dancer with a small dance company. Then she isn’t. The director of the company likes Frances, but doesn’t quite think she has enough talent.

Unlike Llewyn Davis, who really doesn’t seem to like being a folk singer very much, Frances actually likes being a dancer. She may not be an overwhelming talent, but, she loves to move for the sake of moving. When asked by a benefactor to play a folk song, Llewyn Davis bursts into spasms of rage. I do not perform on demand like a circus monkey, he said. When asked by her roommates to dance, Frances is overjoyed. She’ll dance anytime, anywhere, for anybody. There’s a 20 second stretch towards the halfway mark that’s a sheer joy to watch. Frances is running along Catherine Street in Chinatown to the sound of David Bowie’s Modern Love. Greta Gerwig is a tall, lanky actress who seems to bounce when she walks. When she runs, she almost seems to fly. Just about the only movie I can think of that’s ever captured youthful energy and the sheer joy of being physical quite so well is Breaking Away with Dennis Christopher. Like Dennis Christopher’s 19 year old bicycle racer coasting through the Indiana woods, running a red light, or racing a truck along the Interstate, Frances knows that what makes you free is to occupy your own body.

Frances Ha is worth watching for those 20 seconds alone.

(Just a note: Frances Ha running through Chinatown to the sound of “Modern Love” has been almost entirely copied from a 1986 French film by Leos Carax called Mauvais Sang. Shame on you Noah Baumbach.)

There’s also the gorgeous black and white photography. I don’t know if Frances Ha was shot on digital or with old film stock, but every frame looks beautiful. Greta Gerwig is not only an appealing actress and a talented writer, she’s director Noah Baumbach’s girlfriend. The camera loves her. I’ve seen Greta Gerwig interviewed on television, and, how best to put it, she’s cute both nothing special. But Frances Ha allows us to look at her through the eyes of her quite obviously smitten boyfriend, one who’s also a brilliant cinematographer. Greta Gerwig is OK. I dare anybody, male or female, not to fall in love with Frances in the first 20 minutes of the film.

I said male or female because Frances, while straight, has a long term platonic love affair with her roommate and fellow Vassar grad Sophie. They talk so much about being lesbians not having sex it serves to obscure whether or not they really do have any romantic feeling for each other. People talk so as not to understand. But it’s clear that Frances and Sophie feel deeply for each other. Indeed, Frances getting fired at her dance studio and Sophie going off to Japan with her rich boyfriend — a Goldman Sachs banker — is the double hammer blow that strips her Frances of her youthful identity.

Since Frances is in her late 20s, a loss of identity is expressed as anxiety over aging.

“Are you older than Sophie?” a passive aggressive little yuppie hipster chick asks.

“We went to college together,” Frances responds. “But I’m a few months older.”

“I mean a lot older,” her antagonist says. “You look much older. You have an old face. Only you’re less grown up.”

Ouch. We never quite understand why this other woman feels so much passive aggressive hostility towards Frances, but it’s a perfect expression of late 20s angst in only a few lines of dialogue. Frances is a young, beautiful, vibrant woman, but she feels old. She even asks her room mate if she looks old. Well, he says, 27 is old. But it’s not. Frances isn’t worried about slowing down physically. She’s worried that her social status isn’t where it should be. She’s worried that, as she pushes 30, she should be further along in her career than she is. Late 20s angst is all about your social body versus your physical body, about how your social body, economic worries, routine, friends, competition for status makes you view your physical body through a distorted lens, makes you feel old when you’re young, makes you long to fit in when you really just can’t.

That’s another thing Frances has in common with Llewyn Davis. They both, at times, want to fit in, but know, deep down inside, that they can’t. Inside Llewyn Davis is a much angrier movie. The physical, in Inside Llewyn Davis, is full of wrath. A blizzard in Chicago, an unwanted pregnancy, a strange “well-dressed man” coming out of the shadows and beating Llewyn to a pulp, the only refuge outside of society is what you create. That’s what dooms Llewyn Davis to what’s almost certainly going to be a lifetime of unhappiness. Llewyn Davis has vibrant, rebellious soul but he doesn’t have the talent to make it known and it only expresses itself at odd moments, a cat that keeps escaping, odd spasms of rage that rip through the phony world of early 1960s folk music, a self-destructive downward spiral.

Frances is just as much an unintentional rebel as Llewyn Davis, but she’s a happier, more likeable person. Llewyn’s rebellion is always bitter. His anger makes him an outcast. For Frances, on the other hand, it’s her joy in living that makes her, if not exactly an outcast, then at least a bit of a weirdo who doesn’t quite fit into the world of passive aggressive New York hipsterdom. She challenges a friend to a “play fight,” and almost knocks her out. She dangles herself over the subway platform and almost touches the third rail. She hilariously derails the conversation at a dinner party full of stuffy WASPs by talking about her perfect romance.

“I’m really stoned, aren’t I,” she says as she realizes people are looking at her curiously.

I don’t know if Llewyn Davis’s anger makes Inside Llewyn Davis a better movie. But I do know that the one thing I didn’t like about Frances Ha was the happy ending. I suppose it’s disappointment that even so likeable a misfit like Frances decides to make her compromise with the adult world, to accept an offer of a day job while working on being a choreographer in her spare time. Her first production goes well. Her friends show up, drink wine, and applaud. The director who fired her from her apprenticeship, the one who gave her the office job, tells her she liked it. You get the sense she did.

But we’re disappointed. Inside Llewyn Davis ends with the appearance of a young Bob Dylan. We know the 1960s are coming. That rebellious anger just may amount to something after all. If Llewyn Davis hangs on maybe he can go on to protest the Vietnam War or register voters in the south, or at least sing for people who register voters in the south. Frances Ha ends, on the other hand, with Frances becoming just another journeyman (or woman) culture worker in hipster New York. She’ll go to parties. She’ll get into debates about Girls and Breaking Bad, She’ll get married, have kids, hire a nanny, and buy her food at the Park Slope Food Coop.

Couldn’t she have occupied Zuccotti Park instead?

Love Streams (1984)

I have a pretty simple metric to judge how much I like a film. How many screen shots do I take? How does it look frame by frame. Do I think the actors have interesting faces? Do I like the film’s lighting? Does it have one or more particularly striking images that work as still photographs? For Love Streams, John Cassavetes acclaimed final movie, I set a record. I took no screen shots at all.

Love Streams is poorly lit, visually unimaginative, and badly paced. It’s over 2 hours of mostly drab, unattractive people speaking in cliches. Oddly enough, however, I still recommend that everybody see it at least once. In some ways, Love Streams broke my metric. That I was at times bored silly by the whole rambling mess doesn’t mean that it’s not an important film. It’s full of psychological insight. It asks important questions about the purpose of cinema. Cassavetes is the most Whitmanesque of filmmakers. He gives his voice to damaged people. He puts their pain and loneliness at the center of his creation.

Robert Harmon, Cassavetes, is a writer, and, apparently, a very successful one, who lives in a big, rambling house in Los Angeles. He’s also an alcoholic and a sex addict, spending a lot more time drinking and hiring prostitutes than he does writing. His sister, Sarah Lawson, played by Gena Rowlands, in the middle of divorce proceedings, can’t quite let go of her husband. She was a 13-year-old daughter who chooses to stay with her father. She has no career or, for that matter, any visible means of support. Nevertheless, she’s independently wealthy, free to travel where she wants and drop in on her brother any time she chooses.

That’s pretty much it as far as plot goes.

Love Streams might best be thought of as a series of vignettes held together by a character study. The strongest part of the film, to my mind, comes when Harmon’s ex-wife comes to his house with their 8-year-old son. Does she want money? Harmon asks. No. She just wants him to babysit for the weekend. Why? Her motivations are never explained. Perhaps she just wanted her son to get to know his biological father. Harmon agrees. Chaos ensues. After his father takes him into the house, he introduces him to a gaggle of hookers — I think they were hookers — he’s hired for the weekend. The women fawn over the little boy. He runs away, taking off down Laurel Canyon so fast Harmon has to jump in his car to chase him down. As Harmon and his son start to bond, Cassavetes explores the difference between an adult and a child, how difficult it is for some men to interact with their children. We also begin to see Harmon’s milieu from the little boy’s perspective. Who are these crazy, out of control adults? Adults who damage children psychologically, Cassavetes implies, aren’t necessarily bad people. Sometimes they’re just people who aren’t perceptive enough to realize that children see the world very differently from the way they do. That Harmon understands this, that he even lectures his son about the differences between a man and a boy, in no way absolves him from the charges that he’s a bad father. Indeed, after Sarah blows into town, giving her brother a useful house sitter, he takes the boy to Las Vegas, a trip he had already planned, and leaves him alone in a hotel room while he goes out partying.

After Harmon drops his son back off at his mother’s house, where he’s beaten to a pulp by her new husband for reasons that are, once again, never entirely explained, the focus of the narrative shifts back to his relationship with Sarah. If Harmon never quite learned to distinguish between adults and children, we have (up until now) had an equally difficult time figuring out who exactly Sarah is. Harmon’s been involved with so many women, and Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands look so different, that we hadn’t realized they were brother and sister. Robert and Sarah, the film hints, never quite established themselves as individuals. They’re stuck inside a destructive cycle of psychological incest. If Sarah can’t quite let go of her ex-husband, follow the advice of her therapist and get herself in another sexual relationship, it seems to have little to do with the husband. He’s a colorless, insignificant character who barely registers. Instead, Cassavetes implies, Sarah is on a downward spiral because she’s stuck in the same family dynamics that turned her brother into a drunk and a sex addict. What are they? We never find out. Love Streams has no neat resolution, no sudden twists or revelations. Sarah just crashes into her brothers house and continues her downward spiral.

Does it work?

As a character study it probably does. As a film, I found it tedious, badly paced, and, at times, a crushing bore. My main criticism of the last hour of Love Streams is that, unlike the shorter narrative arc involving Harmon and his son, the second half of the film gives us no perspective outside of Sarah and Robert. They talk. And they talk. Then they talk some more. Sarah goes to a small farm and comes back with a small menagerie of animals. The man driving them all home in a Taxi cab doesn’t seem to notice that he’s transporting a crazy woman and a small zoo. Sarah goes bowling. She takes a drunken flop, one of the many drunken flops the film puts on screen. She picks up a man. We don’t learn very much about him. She comes back home. She and her brother talk some more.

It’s boring. At least I got bored. Had Cassavetes kept the focus on Harmon’s relationship with his son, had he established the little by as the film’s moral and emotional center, I think it would have been a better movie. That doesn’t mean you’ll agree. Indeed, I wouldn’t be writing about Love Streams at all if I didn’t think everybody should see it at least once. This isn’t a Batman film, the kind of cultural dreck that pollutes the discourse. It’s rarely seen independently funded movie made as a labor of love, not to make money. So get a copy of the film and make up your own mind. Love Streams is a deeply personal experience.

Stoker (2013)

Stoker, Park Chan-wook’s loose remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt is one of those movies you’ll either love or hate. If you’re looking for Hitchcock’s straightforward mystery tale, and clean, spare black and white aesthetic, you’ll probably find it a pretentious, confusing mess. If you keep in mind that Stoker is not a realistic film, but, rather, a series of tightly focused images strung through a superficially realistic narrative anchored by Mia Wasikowska’s portrayal of one very strange 18-year-old girl, then it becomes a powerful meditation on sexual abuse and social isolation.

Stoker might best be described as Hamlet meets Alfred Hitchcock. 18-year-old India Stoker, Wasikowska, lives on a beautiful estate out in the country. This isn’t middle-class suburbia. It’s one of those gorgeous exurban palaces surrounded by a generously forested countryside that we all dream about. For India, after she learns about her father’s death in fiery car crash, it becomes an affluent hell. India’s mother, a middle-aged but carefully preserved Nicole Kidman, plays Gertrude to India’s Hamlet. Evelyn Stoker, who looks nothing her daughter, is a tall, fair, suburban housewife with bright red hair, and a vain, clueless narcissism. When India’s uncle Charlie, Matthew Goode, shows up the day after the funeral, we quickly realize that he’s going to be the film’s Claudius. He easily seduces Evelyn, then sets his sights on India.

A negative review in The New Republic remarked that Mia Wasikowska, at 24, is probably too old to play an 18-year-old girl. She’s also too beautiful and too composed to play an abused 18-year-old in a completely realistic way, but, under Park Chan-wook’s stylish direction she embodies the idea of an abused 18-year-old girl. If Mia Wasikowska’s too old to play an 18-year-old, she’s ridiculously young to have mastered acting so completely. With her lank dark hair, sullen expression, and refined, precise way of speaking — an Australian accent with all of its Australian intonations carefully removed — there’s a murderous rage in the way she walks, the way she slouches, even the way she chews her food.

Matthew Goode doesn’t look like an abuser. Handsome, well-dressed, socially adroit, he’s the last man we’d expect to see on “To Catch a Predator.” After Charlie Stoker moves in with India and her mother, we can see that India doesn’t buy his act for a second.  But that’s the point. Charlie wants India to hate him. He enjoys it. It’s a game. Watching her squirm under his relentless, overbearing stalker’s game of seduction, confirms how much power he has.  The goal isn’t just to abuse her. It’s to rattle her just when she should feel most confident, to transform her instincts for survival into self-destructive incompetence.

During a pouring rainstorm, for example, India is getting ready to go to school. She reaches for her umbrella. “Better take your umbrella,” he says before she can pull it off the wrack. She decides that if Charlie suggested she take the umbrella that she won’t take the umbrella. She goes outside and gets so drenched she has to go back home. Charlie is in India’s space so relentlessly, he’s not just a stalker and a seducer. He’s the personification of sexual abuse she’s internalized in her own mind.

Soon India, like all abused children, begins to “identify with the aggressor.” Whether or not India is a violent sociopath at heart, she’s angry and resentful at her mother. After Charlie kills an older woman to cover up his tracks, she doesn’t expose him. Hitchcock’s Charlotte Newton tries to expose her uncle Charlie immediately. Once Charlotte realizes her uncle is a serial killer, she’s terrified of him, but certainly not attracted to him. With India, it’s different. Charlie empowers her even as he seduces and abuses her.

Early in the film, we see her being harassed by some bullies in an art class. She ignores them, but we can see that her body language indicates paralysis, not unconcern. Later, she sharpens a pencil and stabs the same bully in his hand, drawing blood, allowing her to break out of the introverted rage that’s imprisoned her. Whip Taylor, a “nice guy” who had earlier stood up for India, expects sex as a reward. She halfway agrees then pulls back. He tries to rape her. Charlie, who is predictably following India, saves her. He ties Whip up, and lets her kick him in the head. When Whip breaks loose, he tries to rape her again. Charlie murders him. My daddy can beat your daddy up. He can also break your neck.

Later, we see India in the shower masturbating to the memory of Charlie killing Whip. This is probably the moment that people who hate Stoker will decide to walk out. If you see the violence as realistic, you’ll probably walk out too. India’s lack of affect at what she witnesses would, in reality, mean she’s got post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s possible, but it makes her character almost beside the point. It would render her completely passive just as the story is building to its climax. On the other hand, if you see the violence as the warped fantasy of an abused girl, it all makes sense. The imagery becomes richly expressive, a hyperrealistic look into the mind of a closed-off 18-year-old.

What’s real and what’s fantasy is best left to the viewer’s judgment. After India, stabs the bully in the hand, and draws blood, she brings the pencil home and starts to sharpen it. It’s certainly possible that a high school girl can stab a bully with a sharpened pencil, and even draw blood, but it’s not terribly realistic just how much blood she draws, and how bright, and deep red it stays after she brings it back to her bedroom. Indeed, there’s so much blood in the final half-hour of Stoker that Wasikowska’s character from Only Lovers Left Alive, should think about migrating films.

India’s last act of violence is so gratuitous it seems almost surreal. Yet somehow, it works. India may not be among the undead, but she’s a vampire nonetheless. Small, very pretty young women have rarely been as terrifying as this. Nobody in his right mind would be afraid of someone like India Stoker, but, as Park Chan-wook suggests, if she had the power to genuinely express what’s inside of her, we should be. She’s killed her creepy uncle, but, in the end, he’s taken her over. She’s become her uncle.