Tag Archives: Mia Wasikowska

Madame Bovary (2014)

If the new film by French American expatriate Sophie Barthes is a rather dull movie, it is also an effective deconstruction of the middle-brow English costume drama. The Merchant Ivory film, she suggests, is often just another expression of the consumer society. Thinking about luxury goods, and big budget films, financed on credit can even tell us about the process of reading and writing fiction.

First the bad. Mia Wasikowska and Ezra Miller are both far too young and inexperienced to play Emma Bovary and Léon Dupuis. The rest of the cast is competent, but nobody stands out. Even the excellent American actor Paul Giamatti seems flat and uninspired. At times, he reminded me of a high-school drama teacher walking his students through the readings of lines he knows they won’t understand for another 5 or 10 years. Wasikowska, who was an excellent Jane Eyre, at least knows when to give up. Halfway through the movie, she quite literally just stops acting, gives up trying to channel Emma Bovary’s emotions, and accepts the idea that she’s basically just a “model” in a film by the late Robert Bresson.

Now for the good. You can “act” Gustave Flaubert’s lines as badly as you want. They were still written by Gustave Flaubert. Sophie Barthes, like Mia Wasikowska, knows when to give up, to get out of the way of the story, and let it tell itself. While the setting, the cinematography, and the costume design all shout out “Merchant Ivory,” Flaubert’s attention to “le mot juste” is fundamentally different from Jane Austen’s or E.M. Foster’s. It’s no accident that Karl Marx’s daughter was one of Madame Bovary’s earliest translators. Jane Austen’s novels are a harsh attack on her own family within a larger conservative project. A Jane Austen heroine is a member of the lower gentry who marries rich. Emma Bovary, on the other hand, marries an oafish country doctor. Instead of moving into Mr. Darcy’s castle, she takes up residence in a modest house in provincial Yonville, a small town in northern France. Quickly realizing how dissatisfied she is with both her husband and her modest station in life, she buries herself in romantic novels.

Sophie Barthes’ deft creative choice is to downplay Emma’s reading to concentrate on her spending. Flaubert was making a conservative, and sexist, critique of “woman’s literature.” Popular novels seduce silly young girls away from their husbands, and leave them stranded in a world of romantic fantasy. Barthes’ film, on the other hand, focuses on the nexus between consumer spending and bad fiction. These days Emma Bovary would probably be reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Mia Wasikowska is Barthes surrogate inside the novel. As she fills her husband’s modest provincial house with luxury goods neither of them really need, she wrecks his credit. Sophie Barthes, in turn, spends millions of dollars of her investors’ money costumes and period décor, her sumptuous Merchant Ivory set pieces becoming the cinematic expression of Emma Bovary’s corrupt, petty bourgeois imagination. Mia Wasikowska’s horrible, tone deaf piano playing, a leitmotif which reoccurs throughout the film, is a powerful expression of creative anxiety. “Do I sound like that?” Barthes seems to be asking. “Have I spent all this money only to prove that I’m an incompetent artist?”

It’s fun to speculate on how different Barthes film would have been if she had cast the more sensual Dakota Johnson instead of the prim, severe Mia Wasikowska. Wasikowska portrays Emma Bovary with an American accent so it’s not much of a stretch. But I think Barthes has made a deliberate creative choice. Henry Lloyd-Hughes, the actor who plays Charles Bovary is 28-years-old, young, fit, handsome, nothing like the oafish provincial doctor of the novel. It’s not that much of a stretch to imagine a young woman falling in love with him. But the marriage is loveless, sexless. Charles has little inclination to sleep with his wife, even on their wedding night. She even has to ask him to remove her dress. “I can’t do it myself,” she says testily. The problem isn’t that Charles Bovary is unattractive, Barthes is telling us, but that middle-class marriages are doomed, almost from the beginning.Without the possibility of romance, sex becomes just another boring, daily chore.

Yonville is actually an attractive little town, lush, green, covered with ivy. But it’s soulless, lifeless, like an American suburban without TV or the Internet. The parish priest, for example, is more interested in running the church’s preschool than he is in hearing Emma’s confession. He quite literally doesn’t understand the difference between material goods, and spiritual uplift. “If you have bread and a good fire,” he says. “You have everything.” Most of the women are uneducated peasants, most of the men dull, sexist, petty bourgeoisie.

Taking the place of the church are consumer goods. Monsieur Lheureux, the local merchant, becomes, not a father confessor, but a tempter and a seducer. “ Money should never be a problem,” he says, “only a solution.” It almost sounds like something Don Draper would come up with. Soon, he has her deeply in debt. She turns to sex, something Barthes has already made clear she doesn’t particularly enjoy, having affairs, first with Rodolphe Boulanger, a selfish aristocrat sleeps with her the way she buys luxury goods, and then with Leon Dupuis, a callow law clerk who imagines he’s a great romantic poet, but abandons her the moment French provincial society shows even the mildest disapproval. She tries to convince her husband into opening a practice in a larger city, but it doesn’t work. Charles Bovary is a barely competent country doctor. When a local pharmacist pushes him into attempting an innovative surgical procedure on a stable boy’s club foot, he botches the operation, and destroys, in turn, the poor young man’s foot, and his own practice.

After Monsieur Lheureux “writes off “ the bad debt, bill collectors start dunning the young couple for money. Mia Wasikowska, a 25-year-old actress who looks even younger, becomes the face of the heavily indebted millennial generation. She’s a young woman who’s barely out of her teens, but with the amount of money she owes, she has no more future than a senior citizen. Rodolphe Boulanger, her rich boyfriend, won’t bail out her the way Christian Grey is willing to help Anastasia Steele. “I don’t have the money you need,” he says, then repeats, with increasingly bored frustration, no more sympathetic to his lover than a bill collector would be a complete stranger. “I don’t have the money you need.” In the end, Emma Bovary is denied the release, even of the kind of cheap melodrama she would read in one of her romantic novels. Attempting to seduce Monsieur Lheureux, offering herself in exchange for debt relief, he scoffs at her in contempt. She’s not worth the 10,000 Francs she owes, and he’s not interested, even if she were. He’s the cold, impersonal dramatization of a credit card company, not a silent movie villain twirling his mustache in anticipation of deflowering an innocent young maiden. Finally, she realizes she’s come to the end of the line, that the only way out is to kill herself. She drinks arsenic, runs out into the woods, and dies in excruciating pain.

What other choice does capitalism give us these days?

Tracks (2013) and Wild (2014): Two almost identical films that have almost nothing in common

Tracks and Wild have such similar plots, and were released so close to each other, that it makes me wonder if the United States and Australian film industries had some kind of a wager. “Who can make a better film about a young woman who attains literary success after a confrontation with the wilderness?” A closer examination, however, reveals that while they may have a similar outlook on gender and personal identity, they have a profoundly different approach to storytelling.

I first decided to check out Wild after the online tabloid Gawker (the NY Post for the millennial generation) published a hit job on Reese Witherspoon.

http://gawker.com/wild-is-a-bad-movie-and-reese-witherspoon-is-bad-in-it-1671296641

I have no idea why Leah Finnegan at Gawker has a grudge against Reese Witherspoon, but her review of Wild is so gratuitously vicious that it only served to pique my curiosity. Could if really be that bad? It’s not. Leah Finnegan is so in love with the “edgy” sound of her own voice, she tells you little, if anything about Reese Witherspoon’s performance or Jean-Marc Vallée’s film. Her review isn’t film criticism. It’s masturbation.

I haven’t read the memoir by Cheryl Strayed that Wild is based on, so I can’t tell you how faithful the movie is to the book. But the film works on its own terms. Wild establishes its feminist tone right from the beginning. The recently divorced Cheryl Strayed is checking into a motel. It’s 17 dollars a night for a single guest, more for two people. The clerk can’t quite believe that Strayed is travelling alone. Does she have a boyfriend coming later? She doesn’t.

What Strayed does have is an enormous backpack. A substance abuser, sex-addict, and alcoholic with a mother who’s recently died from cancer, Strayed has decided to get her act together by hiking the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail. The backpack, which is almost as tall as the 5’2” Witherspoon and which Strayed has stuffed to capacity, clearly represents the burdens of civilization. She can barely get it over her shoulders. When she does, she can barely stand.

Reese Witherspoon’s struggle with her enormous backpack is probably the strongest image in Wild. Rarely do we see a film about going into the wilderness that so vividly expresses the idea that leaving civilization is a dirty, physically painful, exhausting experience. You don’t just pick up one day and leave your comfortable suburban home and become Leatherstocking from Last of the Mohicans. You break toenails because your shoes are too small. You get sunburned. You don’t have access to a bath or a shower. You miss little things like the taste of Snapple, or of being able to walk into a store and browse the makeup counter without the clerk telling you that you stink.

Strayed’s discomfort with nature is also Wild’s biggest weakness.

Cheryl Strayed is no Edward Abbey. The wilderness was a path to her becoming a successful writer more than something she genuinely loves. Strayed strikes me as a typical suburban American too fond of suburban American comforts ever to be genuinely at home on the Pacific Coast Trail. Wild works as a narrative of personal discovery. A major theme in Wild is how the female gaze perceives men, and Reese Witherspoon is very skillful at expressing the state of mind of a woman alone on a potentially dangerous quest. An early encounter with a middle-aged man Strayed perceives as a rape threat reveals him to be nothing of the sort. A later encounter with a genuine would-be rapist becomes all the more chilling because we are aware of how being alone in the wilderness strips you of your normal defense mechanisms.

The problem is that Strayed is so concerned with her personal quest that nature gets swallowed up by her character. There are no striking images of the Pacific Crest Trail in Wild. The camera never stops to linger on a snow-capped mountain or a patch of wild flowers. Wild’s supporting characters aren’t particularly memorable. Would be rapists become nice guys. Nice guys become would be rapists. An ex husband shows up just to get a tattoo with his ex-wife. There are no fascinating eccentrics. Just about the only animal we notice is a rattlesnake, and we only notice him because he blocks he heroine’s path. Wild, in other words, is a film about a trek into nature that doesn’t have much to do with nature. When it ends, we get the sense that Cheryl Strayed enjoyed having hiked the Pacific Crest Trail more than she enjoyed hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.

If Wild works best as a narrative of personal transformation, Tracks works best as pure cinema. If Wild is a writer’s film, Tracks is a photographer’s film. Strayed, a Gen Xer writing in the 1990s, is comfortable with the idea of putting herself at the center of the film. Robyn Davidson, on the other hand, seems reluctant to tell her own story. Mia Wasikowska, an actress who bears a striking resemblance to Davidson herself, like Reese Witherspoon, is a small, blond woman alone in the wilderness, but the resemblance ends there. Davidson, an Australian not an American, a woman from a culture much closer to its own frontier, settler roots is determined to speak of herself, not as a woman, but as an individual. Davidson may be a feminist in real life, but the movie doesn’t dwell on the problems of being a woman. The the biggest rape threat in Tracks comes in the form of three charging feral bull camels Davidson takes out with three clean head shots from a bolt action sniper rifle.

Mia Wasikowka’s Robyn Davidson is a less fully realized character than Reese Witherspoon’s Cheryl Strayed, but that, paradoxically, is part of the film’s strength. Tracks, unlike Wild, liberates us from the individual’s personality and allows us to see nature itself. Where Strayed goes out into the desert so she can write. Robyn Davidson writes so she can go out in the desert. Davidson is an intelligent, but not a particularly likeable young woman. She pitches a story to the National Geographic so successfully that the magazine sends her thousands of dollars and Rick Smolan, her own personal photographer. But she’s so rude to Smolan that it takes every once of Adam Driver’s goofy persistence to make it believable that he wouldn’t just throw his hands up and leave.

It doesn’t matter. Wasikowka’s Robyn Davidson is one more eccentric in a cast of eccentrics. She’s unpleasant, but she’s also believable. This is exactly the kind of woman who would try to lose herself in the Australian outback. There’s Kurt Posel, a surly German camel wrangler who takes Davidson on as an intern, then tries to cheat her out of her salary, three wild camels. There’s a fascinating old couple Davidson meets at the end of her journey, two ancient people who look as if they had been living in the Australian outback before there even was a British colony in Australia. There’s the aboriginal elder who accompanies her through a sacred patch of land. Davidson doesn’t need a guide. But women aren’t permitted to travel on sacred aboriginal grounds without male accompaniment. There’s Diggity, Davidson’s dog and best friend. Above all there are the camels, Dookie, Bub, Zeleika , and Goliath. Most of us have seen photographs of camels, but Tracks actually makes us look at them, see them, huge animals that, at times, seem like a holdovers from an earlier geologic era, closer to small dinosaurs than to horses or dogs.

In the end, however, what both films have in common is how they dramatize, whether consciously or not, just how alien white European settler colonials appear in North America or Australia. Mia Wasikowska’s Robyn Davidson bonds with aboriginals. She even physically attacks a tourist who insults her guide. But Davidson, for all of her ferocious identification with the aboriginals against settler colonial society, doesn’t stay in the outback. She goes back to civilization, and literary celebrity. There no native Americans at all in Wild. The genocide in North America is complete. Strayed hikes the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail. Except for one obnoxious black journalist from a newspaper called The Hobo News, she sees nobody but white European Americans.  Strayed can’t go back to nature because nature because there is no nature. There’s a trail. There are trees. There are mountains, but there’s no genuine wilderness.

We don’t learn what happens to Davidson’s camels at the end of Tracks. I suppose they ended up on a camel farm back in Alice Springs. I’ll have to read the memoir. But we do know what happened to Cheryl Strayed’s backpack. What it represented, civilization’s baggage, went right back up on her shoulders as soon as she had to worry about getting a job and an apartment.

Tracks (2013)

“Aboriginal and Torre Strait Islander viewers should exercise caution when watching this film as it may contain images and voices of deceased persons.”

If Tracks is not he first film ever made to contain a “trigger warning” alerting Australian aboriginals to a dramatic recreation of people who might have already died, it’s the first one I’ve ever seen. The “deceased person,” the father of the explorer Robin Davidson, who appears to her periodically through her one-women trek across the Australian desert, is not portrayed as an obviously malevolent ghost. But he is. The more the heroine of Tracks tests herself against the pitiless heat, distances, and isolation, the more the memory of her mother and father puts her life at risk.

When Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska), a 27-year-old woman from an educated, middle-class family, moves to Alice Springs, a frontier town in the Northern Territory, she has a plan. Sick of the malaise of her “class, generation, and sex,” she intends to train three wild camels to carry her gear and her belongings, then simply walk to the Indian Ocean. Why? “Why not?” she answers.

Needless to say, training three wild camels, is a daunting proposition. Camel wrangling isn’t something they teach in girl’s schools, even in Australia. Davidson, however, is a particularly determined young woman. She couldn’t care less about physical comfort, money, possessions, or conforming to society’s expectations. She apprentices herself to two ranch owners, doing free menial labor in exchange for the three camels. The first ranch owner, a surly German immigrant, cheats her out of her wages. The second, an Afghan immigrant, is an honorable man. He not only gives her the camel he promised her. He teaches an important lesson that will later save her life. Davidson, unlike Chris McCandless from Sean Penn’s film Into the Wild, is well-prepared when she begins her journey into the wilderness. But she still needs money.

Eventually, on the strength of her letters, National Geographic agrees to stake her to $4000, quite a bit of money in 1977 for an unknown young woman with a plan most people considered suicidal. But it’s not that simple. Davidson may have got the $4000 dollars based on her literary ability, but it comes with a catch, a photographer named Rick Smolan, Adam Driver from the TV show Girls. Smolan is a likable enough guy, but he’s also a talkative sort, not really compatible with prickly loner like Davidson. Davidson hates being photographed. What’s more, Smolan falls in love with Davidson, so his gaze is not only invasive and objectifying, it’s sexual, invasive, and objectifying. While it’s true Davidson does like Smolan enough to sleep with him — he does drive 1000 miles out of his way to make sure she has enough water to finish her trip alive after all — she doesn’t want him “framing” her trip with his camera.

Photography, an art form that was born during the industrial revolution, has also, paradoxically, been associated with the wilderness. Some of the greatest photographs ever taken, Ansel Adams’ portraits of Denali and Yosemite, Galen Rowell’s photos of Tibet, were taken by men who considered themselves outdoorsmen first, photographers second. What’s more Davidson, and Mia Wasikowska — who’s the daughter of a Polish photojournalist — are well aware of the contradictions. Half the reason for Davidson’s cranky personality, as least as played in the film, comes from her awareness that as badly as she wants to get away from civilization, she knows she can’t. As Smolan says, it’s the eternal problem for explorers. In order to get out into the wilderness, you need money. In order to get money, you need connections.

What’s more, in order to enjoy Tracks, a fairly slow moving film, you need to enjoy looking at two things, Mia Wasikowska and camels, neither of whom is native to Australia. As Davidson explains, there would be no wild camels in Australia had it not been for the British Empire, which imported them into Australia before it’s system of railroads had been built. That they thrived in the Australian desert when they were no longer needed, became, is part of the paradox. The camels are the best possible way for Davidson to escape civilization. But the only reason they live in Australia is civilization.

Davidson, in effect, becomes, through her trek, a native Australian, a white aborigine. But she’s also a colonizer. Wasikowska, a dead ringer for Davidson. In spite of her decidedly non-Anglo-Saxon name, she looks stereotypically English. Dressed in white, or in flannels, with her sun-bleached hair and pale, then sunburned skin, she summons up the image of the British Raj in India. The movie goer becomes Rich Smolan, the photographer who annoys the hell out of her. Don’t photograph me. Stop looking at me. Don’t objectify me. But how can you not? Convince yourself she’s not beautiful? Walk out of the movie? Start a Twitter hash tag calling for the cancellation of the white girl “appropriating aboriginal culture.” Obviously not. The act of watching a film means to objectify.

Into the Wild’s Chris McCandless made no attempt to prepare for his journey, to train himself to survive in the wilderness. He saw going to Alaska as living out a dream he read about in Tolstoy and Thoreau. And he died, alone. The last image we have of McCandless is a selfie. There was no Rich Smolan to bring him water or take his photograph. The only way to leave society completely is to die.

Tracks, a far more progressive and anti-racist film than Into the Wild, is redeemed from being yet another ode to English pluck and grit by the way Davidson survives. She may resent Smolan’s pretense and consider herself a loner who hates people, but she genuinely respects the aboriginals. Indeed, Davidson flees to the wilderness to escape her, bad, white parents. She survives because of good, non-white surrogate parents. Davidson’s mother hanged herself when she was a little girl. She’s haunted by the memories. Davidson’s father, for reasons its difficult to guess at, had her dog euthanized after her mother’s death. As Davidson goes deeper and deeper into the desert, becoming, in effect, more aboriginal than English, she also becomes more vulnerable to the images of her dead parents, those very images the “trigger warning” at the beginning of the film warned Aboriginal Australians about. Her most faithful companion in the desert is her dog, Diggity. When Diggity finds a can of Strychnine hundreds of miles away from where a can of Strychnine should be, and dies, Davidson loses her mind. Diggity’s death triggers the memories of her parents she came into the desert to escape. She walks around without her clothes. A huge snake coils itself around her neck when she’s asleep. The journey starts to become a nightmare. Nevertheless, the lessons she learned from the Afghan camel herder, and an aboriginal elder who briefly serves as her guide through a forbidden sacred landscape, help her survive. “If you see a charging bull, camel, just shoot him,” the camel herder tells her, “don’t hesitate.” The aboriginal elder warns her not to butcher a dead kangaroo. It’s forbidden to women, a sexist reason, certainly, but one that saves her life at the end of the film when she attempts to eat the rotting, and surely poisonous, carcass of a long dead kangaroo. She’s internalized the elder’s warning so well she pulls back at the last moment.

By the end of the film, Davidson has exorcised her demons. She can admit she’s glad to see Smolan. She needs people. She needs society. She reaches the Indian Ocean. Thálatta! Thálatta! Θάλαττα! Θάλαττα! The sea! The sea! She dives into the water, a joyous expression on her face. Chris McCandess would die in the Alaskan wildness, his only monuments an abandoned bus, a selfie, and a book written by someone else. Davidson would go onto write her own book, to tell her own story.

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

The Kids Are All Right is the story of a straight man and his dick who both blunder into the lives of a lesbian couple and their two kids.

The straight man, Paul Hatfield, Mark Ruffalo, is a successful restaurant owner in his 40s who, years before, had donated sperm to a sperm bank for 60 dollars a pop. Dr. Nicole Allgood, Annette Benning, and Jules Allgood, Julianne Moore, are an affluent couple who live in the Venice section of Los Angeles. One day their two kids, 15-year-old Lazer, played by Josh Hutcherson, Peeta from from the Hunger Games, and 18-year-old Joni, named after Joni Mitchell and played by Mia Wasikowska, decide to contact the biological father they’ve never met. The results are more interesting than anybody would have guessed.

I decided to watch The Kids Are All Right when I realized that most of the films I’ve reviewed on this blog were directed by men. The Kids Are All Right, directed by Lisa Cholodenka, who made the classic High Art, seemed like the perfect way to eat my feminist cultural vegetables. The problem is that it was such a good movie, simultaneously respectful of the lesbian subculture and politically incorrect, that I enjoyed it perhaps just a little too much. Let’s just say that if a man had directed The Kids Are All Right it would have been a lot more controversial than it was. I’m a little afraid that if I write honestly about the issues it raises I’ll get a Twitter hashtag calling for my cancellation.

Where is the dividing line between gay and straight? Are gay men ever attracted to women? Are lesbians ever attracted to men?

The Kids Are All Right entertains, then dismisses the fantasy so many straight men have about lesbians, the idea that they can be converted. Nicole and Jules at first glance seem like the perfect couple. Their house could serve as the model for a photo shoot on affluent, liberal California. There son is intelligent,sensitive, and athletic. Their daughter is a straight A student headed for a college that, in the film’s closing scene, appears to be Stanford. But something’s missing, some masculine energy, some “other.”

Lazer, the son, doesn’t quite get bullied at school, but his best friend is indeed that, a bully. Joni, the daughter, the pale, intense Wasikowska, who looks like Jules but acts like Nicole, is all too believable as an honors student who doesn’t have any fun. She has a boyfriend she plays Scrabble with. How he feels about her is anybody’s guess. They certainly don’t sleep together. Her best friend Sasha, Zosia Mamet from Girls, is constantly telling her to get laid. Eighteen isn’t particularly young to be a virgin. But being an 18-year-old virgin with two mothers is more confusing than being an 18-year-old virgin with a mother and a father.

Jules and Nicole, two middle-aged lesbians who should have much more clarity about their identity than a 15-year-old boy and an 18-year-old girl, seem just as confused. They have sex to beefcake, gay male porn. Nicole is a successful physician, and a very believable one — she interrupts sex to take calls from patients — but she’s also a borderline alcoholic, a tightly wound, hypercritical overachiever. Jules is more relaxed, but she’s also a woman who’s never had a real profession or career, a perennial ne’er do well who’s currently making a half-hearted attempt to get a landscaping business off the ground.

Paul Hatfield, played by Mark Ruffalo as a charismatic, west-coast hipster Guido — if The Situation from Jersey Shore moved out to LA he’d probably look like this by the time he gets into his 40s — blows in like a breath of fresh air. He meets Clay, Lazer’s friend, actually his bully, and quickly sizes him up. Clay’s an asshole, Paul says, something that’s more than confirmed when he tries to push Lazer into torturing a stray dog. Laser, thanks to his newly found, adopted, but actually real, biological father tells Clay to fuck off. Paul gives the repressed Joni a ride home on his motorcycle. That, in turn, causes a fight between Joni and Nicole, who doesn’t want her daughter riding a motorcycle, or, for that matter, having any fun whatsoever. Joni, like her brother, finally stands up for herself.

But teenage kids break away from ill-chosen friends and fight with parents. That’s part of growing up. It’s no threat to anybody’s family. Jules is another matter. Even though she’s been in a relationship with Nicole for decades, there are times when she doesn’t seem to know if she’s actually gay or straight. Her marriage with Nicole is so far from perfect it almost seems like abuse. Why hasn’t Jules ever had a career? Why can’t she get her landscaping business off the ground? Why is Nicole always drinking? Why are they always fighting about it?

The Kid’s Are All Right’s  crisis comes when Paul, who’s well off, decides to become Jules’ first client, to hire her to landscape the back yard of his house in Echo Park. Paul, we learn, as charismatic and attractive as he may be, is not as happy as he looks on the outside. Even though he can get all the sex he wants — The waitresses who work at his restaurant make passes at him. He doesn’t make passes at them. — he’s pushing 50 and has never had a wife or a family. When he meets Lazer and Joni, there’s an instant bond. They’re his biological children. He’s proud of them. He wants to be part of their lives, and he seems well on his way to doing just that. But then Jules seduces him. It’s perfectly consensual. But it’s Jules who makes the first move?

Jules’ seduction of Paul is more straight man’s nightmare than fantasy. Paul wants to be a husband and a father, but, up until now, he’s been nothing more than a sperm donor. One of the film’s strengths is the way Cholodenko suggests that very attractive, very promiscuous men will never be anything more than sperm donors. Sleeping with as many women you can, depositing your seed in as many places as possible, might just be a biological imperative, but it’s not emotionally satisfying. “I don’t want to be that unmarried, 50-year-old guy who’s just hanging out,” Paul says to one of his waitresses, even as she’s making  a pass at him. “I want to have a family.” Sadly, at the end, Paul is in fact that unmarried 50-year-old guy who’s just hanging out.

Jules is a lesbian like a vegetarian who occasionally backslides. Her diet may consist almost exclusively of plant food, but every once in awhile, she slips and eats meat. Jules is genuinely gay. She’s a lesbian not a bisexual. She’s mainly interested in vagina. But every once in awhile, she just gets a craving for dick. Paul Hatfield is nothing more than a junk food binge she later regrets, a pint of Haagen Daz or a bag of McDonalds french fries, both of which seem like a good idea before you eat them, but only wind up making you sick. The Kids Are All Right may be a comedy, but it points to a future where men are relegated to the sidelines. Paul works as a sperm donor, an occasional father figure, someone who might be fun to have around — He’s a straight man who can appreciate Joni Mitchell — but, when he gets out of line, they push him out of the family. “You’re an interloper,” Nicole says. “If you want a family so bad, build your own.”

The Kids Are All Right is a comedy, not heavy social commentary, but I couldn’t help but think of Hannah Rosin’s article “The End of Men.” It’s set in a world where there don’t seem to be any soul crushing dead end jobs, where the sun always shines, where teenage girls always get straight As and go to Stanford, and teenage boys are not only good at sports. They do the right thing and stand up to the bullies. But men almost feel superfluous. Even Paul, the film’s representative straight man, is a sensitive guy who owns an organic restaurant. The only working-class man we meet, Jules’ Latino assistant, gets fired on a stupid whim. Jules feels guilty about it, but, unlike Paul, she doesn’t pay any price for her bad behavior. She merely shrugs it off, and vows to do better the next time. Most of Paul’s employees at his restaurant seem to be women. Joni’s boyfriend may or may not be gay. When Nicole and Jules drop her off at Stanford, there doesn’t seem to be anybody else on campus. The Allgood family is a universe unto themselves.

What all this means to Laser when he grows up and wants a family of his own is anybody’s guess.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)

One of the best films of the 1990s was Dead Man. With its gorgeous score by Neil Young, and spooky performance by Johnny Depp, Jim Jarmusch’s black and white masterpiece went back to the site of the original sin, the genocide of the native Americans. Only Lovers Left Alive, which stars Tom Hiddleston as a brooding musician, shows us the inevitable result.

Whatever you call it, Dead Couple, Dead City, or Dead America, Only Lovers Left Alive takes place in a graveyard. The lovers, Swinton and Hiddleston, are not in fact, technically alive. They’re a pair of highbrow vampires who live in the hollowed out, abandoned city of Detroit, a beautifully filmed necropolis that symbolizes the rotting corpse of the United States of America. Adam and Eve — yes, that’s what Jarmusch names them — are alive only in the sense that they embody the remnants of civilization in a country full of zombies, which is what Adam calls humans. Adam and Eve don’t feed on humans. They bribe a corrupt doctor at a local blood bank, but they’re not exactly what you would call “good vampires” either. They’re effete snobs, worried that the supply of blood is being tainted by processed foods and environmental devastation.

The film opens in a luminous, ethereal Tangiers, where Eve has “lived” during a long separation from Adam. Her companion, a man named Christopher Marlowe, John Hurt, sells her bottles of fine blood, and speaks with the kind of poetic wit you might expect from another famous, Elizabethan playwright. Jarmusch is a Shakespeare Truther. Back in Detroit, Adam lives in a dilapidated old mansion, the J.P. Donaldson House in Thrush Park, and a drives vintage a sports car powered by technology invented by Nikola Tesla. He has an unlimited supply of money, a recording studio, and a loyal employee named Ian, a human who helps him collect vintage guitars. One day he asks Ian to buy him a 38 caliber bullet made from the densest wood he can find. After Ian acquires the bullet, and Adam puts it in a revolver, which he points at his heart, we realize that he’s contemplating suicide. So, apparently, does Eva, who jumps on a plane, and goes back to Detroit to join her centuries old lover.

Only Lovers Left Alive suffers in comparison to Dead Man mainly by the virtue of its not having an original score by Neil Young. Adam is a brilliant composer who, 200 years before, ghost wrote adagios for Franz Schubert but we really have to take the film’s word for it. The soundtrack is competent but uninspired. But it really doesn’t matter. Only Lovers Left Alive is a visual, not an aural movie. We suspend our disbelief because Adam looks like a young Trent Reznor and has a cool British accent, and because he consorts with Eve, Tilda Swinton doing her best impression of a female version of David Bowie’s Thin White Duke. They both look like members of a superior race of beings who dropped out of the sky, certainly more believable as a pair of angels than Damiel and Cassiel from Wings of Desire. Adam’s recording studio, full of reel-to-reel tape recorders, ancient Marantz tuners, and the above mentioned vintage guitars has all the archaic chic that a great filmmaker can bring. When Adam and Eve go for a drive in Adam’s Tesla powered car, we can only marvel at Jarmusch’s visualization of Detroit. If you like action scenes or genuinely witty dialog, you’ll probably come away from Lovers Left Alive feeling somewhat underwhelmed, but if you can appreciate good cinematography you’ll probably watch it through twice, or even three times. If you’re a fan of Detroit “ruin porn” you’ll probably wish you could blow up each individual frame, print it out, and hang it in an art gallery. The night photography of Only Lovers Left Alive might just surpass the famous black and white cinematography from Dead Man.

Midway through the film, Ava, Eve’s little sister blows in from Los Angeles. Eva, a sociopathic little imp played by Mia Wasikowska as a sort of Buffy the Vampire, vampire, not vampire slayer, is centuries old, but she looks, and acts, more like 19 or 20. Unlike Adam, who looks to be about 35, and Eve, who’s about 50, Ava doesn’t carry herself with a heavy, brooding aura that come from contemplating the wisdom of the ages. She wants to taste her sister’s supply of high-quality blood, not like an aesthete wants her fine wine, but like a heroin addict needs her fix. She’s not a beautiful angel fallen from the heavens like Adam and Eve but a real vampire with a lustful, obsessive desire that hides behind the persona of a flirtatious party girl. Poor Ian, Adam’s lackey, never sees it coming. He has no idea his employer’s a vampire, or that the pretty young woman in the dark sunglasses, and the bright, floral dress is so dangerous.

After Ava murders Ian for his blood, Adam and Eve realize they have to leave Detroit, lest the cops start snooping around the old mansion. They dissolve Ian’s body in a vat of hydrochloric acid — a surprisingly powerful scene that makes us feel the impact of the poor young man’s death — and jump on a plane to go back to Tangiers. But things have changed. Christopher Marlowe is dying. Tangiers is just as beautiful, but Adam and Eve are no longer just cultivated visitors. Ava’s careless, cruel murder of Ian has brought out the vampire in them after all. Hiddleston and Swinton are now white, malevolent, Aryan invaders in a brown, Muslim city, a toxic presence who have sprung from the rotting corpse of the American empire, and are now ready to feast on an innocent people abroad. The final scene, where they come upon a beautiful young man and woman, a pair of tawny, dark eyed, Middle-Eastern lovers may not be quite as shocking as anything in a film like Interview With The Vampire, but it’s a promise of horrors to come.

Western civilization, having destroyed its own ecosystem, has become the flesh eating virus of Anglo-American imperialism.

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.

Jane Eyre (2011)

After watching Lupita Nyong’o win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for 12 Years a Slave, I became more intrigued than ever by Michael Fassbender’s terrifying, yet understated performance as the drunken, superstitious plantation owner who keeps her character Patsey as his personal, sexual chattel. More specifically, I remembered that he starred as Edward Fairfax Rochester opposite Mia Wasikowska in Cary Fukunaga’s filming of Jane Eyre. Since I missed it back in 2011, and since Mia Wasikowska’s performance as Jane is considered one of the best ever, I decided that I would finally get around to watching it. What would a comparison of the two performances tell us about sex, class power, and race?

In 12 Years a Slave, Fassbender plays a man who has complete power over a black woman. In Jane Eyre, he plays a very similar man who has a great deal of power over one white woman, Jane, and total control of another, his first wife Bertha Mason. Literary critics often use Bertha, who is a creole from Spanish Town in Jamaica, to discuss Charlotte Bronte’s views on race and slavery. Except for a brief appearance halfway through the film, however, and a very intriguing moment where Jane appears to draw her as a black woman, Bertha plays such a small role in Fukunaga’s film that she barely registers as a character. Nevertheless, Fukunaga’s version of Jane Eyre is such a well-made film, such a rich, well-acted dramatization of sexual politics between a powerful man and his employee, that I’m surprised it hasn’t garnered more attention. One only has to compare it to the 1996 version, and observe William Hurt’s wooden Rochester and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s altogether too open and expressive Jane to appreciate Fassbender and Wasikowska in their roles.

Michel Fassbender doesn’t quite fit the description of Edward Rochester. He was only 32 when they shot the movie. He’s 6 feet tall, but he’s rather slim and refined, not quite the man Jane describes in the book. “My master’s colorless, olive face,” she says, “square, massive brow, broad and jetty eyebrows, deep eyes, strong features, firm, grim mouth,–all energy, decision, will,–were not beautiful, according to rule; but they were more than beautiful to me.” In a purely physical sense, Javier Bardem would have been a better choice, but his pairing with the very delicate, very young — she was 21 when they made the movie — Wasikowska probably wouldn’t have worked in the post-feminist era. It would played a bit too much like one of those old photos of a middle-aged farmer and his barely out of her teens wife. What’s more, Michael Fassbender is subtle enough to translate Rochester’s domineering personality into the kind of man who commands through sarcasm and verbal agility rather than than physical swagger or an outright authoritarian appeal to rank and privilege. His performance makes Rochester’s exchanges with Jane an intense battle of wits between two equals deeply in love with each other rather than a creepy father figure hitting on his daughter’s nanny.

Mia Wasikowska is almost perfect as Jane. There are times when she seems almost plain. At other times, when the light hits her the right way, she looks a bit like Jean Seaberg or a young Chloe Sevigny. Wasikowska, who’s an Australian of Polish descent, seems to have put as much work into mastering a 19th-century Yorkshire accent as Fassbender, who was born in Germany. Not being English myself, I have no idea how authentically they sound like a man and woman in the north of England in the 1830s, but it works dramatically. Indeed, the film is so carefully shot, the cinematography so subtle, and Fukunaga so skilled a filmmaker that physical types are used to build individual characters. One scene in particular, where Jane is eating breakfast with her cousin St. John Rivers and his sisters Mary and Diana, stands out. St John Rivers, played by Jamie Bell, and Mary and Diana, played by Tamzin Merchant and Holliday Grainger, have long, severe faces, and blue eyes. They’re very typical Anglo Saxon types, lit in order to play up their spiritual kinship to their puritan forebears in the early Victorian era. Wasikowska has soft, expressive features and large brown eyes, the kind of face you might see in a painting by Vermeer. St. John, Mary, and Diana feel trapped in the English middle-class. Jane appears deeper, more soulful, mellowed by hard won experience.

Jane Eyre has overcome the harshest, most severe, most puritanically sadomasochistic childhood. When the film opens, Jane, played at age 10 by Amelia Clarkson, is living in the grand manor house of her aunt. She’s being stalked by her cousin John Reed, a weak soft, yet sadistic little bully who slams her head up against a doorknob, and draws blood. Reed, who knows he’s his mother’s favorite, doesn’t expect Jane to fight back. When she does, knocking him to the ground and pummeling him until the servants pull her off, she’s immediately punished, locked inside a room until she knocks herself out against a wall in the pure terror of isolation. She’s then sent to a “charity” school that almost makes Dotheboys Hall from Charles Dickens look like the Sidwell Friends School. Here she undergoes more bullying, this time by adults, but has her spirit rescued by another girl named Helen Burns, who sneaks her bread when she’s being punished and convinces her to love her enemies and act in a Christlike manner. Helen dies of tuberculosis shortly after Jane arrives but she’s made her mark. Indeed, it’s no accident that Freya Parks, the actress who plays Helen, bears a striking resemblance to Mia Wasikowska, and that Amelia Clarkson looks nothing like her at all.

Jane emerges 10 years later, not only an accomplished artist and teacher, but a young woman certain of her identity and at peace with herself. She’s taken on some of Helen Burns’s spirit of Christian love and forgiveness. She’s mastered her anger.

Grow up Jane, or, rather, to be more accurate, a very young adult Jane takes a job at Thornfield Hall as governess to Mr. Rochester’s daughter. Supporters of charter schools take note. If it were 2014, Jane Eyre would be a professional, an elementary school teacher with health insurance and a salary, a member of a union. But this is the 1830s and a female school teacher was little more than a nanny, a domestic, an Au Pair. Jane complains about never having seen a city or talked to men. In 2014, she’d have her own apartment, or, if it were New York, at least a share in one. She’d talk to men in bars, in museums, and at concerts. Most of them would probably be more or less her own age. But at Thornfield Hall she falls in love with a man in his 40s because he’s the first man she meets who isn’t a monster. That he’s Mr. Rochester, and is in fact a monster, if an admittedly sympathetic one, says all you need to know about the world the ideologues of charter schools, libertarianism, and unregulated capitalism want to return us to.

Fukunaga’s movie, in fact, reads Jane Eyre as a practical utopia, a world where a young woman with no status or independent income can somehow enter into a courtship on a more or less equal basis with an old member of the ruling class. Indeed, this is a very romantic, very heterosexual reading of Jane Eyre. Mia Wasikowska may be only 21 and look only 16, but her character is as much the sexual aggressor as Fassbender’s Rochester. When they meet, the sight of her so startles him and his horse that he’s thrown to the ground. The horse, unrestrained male sexuality has overcome the social isolation he’s been locked up inside by virtue of his having locked Bertha, his mentally ill first wife, up in the attic. Later, when Bertha tries to murder him by setting his bed on fire, and Jane rescues him, we see that if the horse is male sexuality, then fire is female sexuality. Jane is part Bertha, part passionate animal, but she’s also part Helen Burns, part Christian saint who sublimates the fires of her lust into love and spirituality. Mia Wasikowska is in fact so good as Jane Eyre her performance comes close to overpowering Fassbender’s Rochester. When they are reconciled at the close of the film, when she, newly rich from an inheritance given to her by an uncle who made his fortune in Jamaica, and he, blinded after his wife makes another attempt to murder him, the power dynamic seems to be all on her side. Rochester is no longer an intimidating patriarch, but a pale, thin, broken man. Patriarchy, Charlotte Bronte implies, imprisons men as much as it imprisons women. Jane, mousy, outwardly submissive, self-effacing, has so mastered herself and her emotions that she’s fulfilled the prediction in the gospels that the “meek will inherit the earth.”

It’s just too bad that Fukunaga didn’t explore Bertha Mason or the source of Jane’s inheritance in more detail. Surely Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey was living a hell on earth somewhere in Jamaica, her unpaid labor making it possible for Mia Waskikowska’s mousy little governess to get her 20,000 English pounds.