A studied behavioral experiment gets the lush cinematic treatment in Ruben Östlund’s icy, darkly funny “Force Majeure”

Written by Daniel Spada

Force Majeure [Turist] (dir. Ruben Östlund, 2014)

Seen at Hamptons International Film Festival on 10/10/14

US (limited) theatrical release: 10/24/14

An avalanche – a visual spectacle most of us are unlikely to see throughout the course of our lives, depending on our fondness of the slopes and our class position. This spectacle acts as the inciting incident of Ruben Östlund’s fourth feature, Force Majeure, collapsing the family unit at the center of the film and leaving some very emotionally unstable “adults” in its wake. The avalanche dually serves as a metaphor for the bourgeois Swedish couple’s matrimonial meltdown and the effortless challenging of gender roles’ basic foundation (not lack thereof per-se, but situatedness). Filled with credible performances and well drawn characters, especially the supporting ones, Östlund’s ideological inquiry is bolstered by an obsessive, formalist attention to detail – frames filled with etched-in meaning and musical cues used to jarringly effective ends.

We understand Tomas as a well-to-do, distracted, work-obsessed father from the first few scenes, in which he sneakily checks his iPhone in bed, and his wife Ebba tells her friend Charlotte at the lodge that they’re there on vacation because Tomas has been working so much. “So now he has five days to focus on his family,” she says. This, however, makes him no more or less an empathetic character. The scene that definitively rules him out as an empathetic character is the one in which, on Day 2, while having lunch with his family at a restaurant overlooking the slopes and reassuring them that the cascading snow they’re seeing is controlled, he sprints away to his safety (not without said precious iPhone), leaving Ebba to wrangle up the distressed kids all by herself.

The pressures of hetero-monogamous familial relationships hang heavy in the French Alps air, as Ebba persistently attempts to figure out her husband’s insistence on their two self-professed differing perspectives regarding the incident. At one point during a dinner with Charlotte and her English-speaking date, he offers the absurd rationale of not being about to run in ski boots. Östlund very cleverly holds the long shot of the both of them for several seconds past the point of excruciating embarrassment when Ebba repeats what he said to the couple. Ebba’s entirely believable patent disbelief and Tomas’ authentic humiliation and discomfort underscore the impressiveness of both Lisa Loven Kongsli and Johannes Bah Kuhnke’s performances.

In a later, private moment between Ebba and Charlotte, Ebba’s dissatisfaction with her current situation hits a peak when she inquires about Charlotte’s sexual escapades (it is important to note that she does have a husband and children). Charlotte’s questioning and challenging of the foundation of human sexual norms is cut and dry. Ebba’s response, however, is not. Her anger is paired with nothing if not a distinct curiosity about Charlotte’s line of thinking (and self-professed actual lived way of life), which regardless of whether it is a put on air or not, deeply rattles Ebba. Ebba is not let off the hook, as she is depicted as a bit jealous of Charlotte’s disposition, but also neither is Charlotte. Her nonchalance is undercut by hypotheticals, the answers to which it is possible even she is unsure although she speaks with certainty.

A key moment comes along after Ebba persists in telling the story, once again, to an old friend of Tomas, Mats, and his girlfriend Fanny. The tension rises as Ebba becomes increasingly emotional about what it means that Tomas ran for his life, and Mats and his girlfriend get more uncomfortable over time. Eventually, Mats begins a tepid but clear defense of Tomas and Fanny comes to Ebba’s comfort (it is unclear about whether Mats actually believes the absurdity that he speaks or just feels bad for Tomas, attesting to the power of Kristofer Hivju’s supporting performance). Fanny then proceeds to tell Mats that she doesn’t think Mats would save their children in a hypothetical situation, while an older generation of men would have come to the aid of their spouses. Fanny understands the changing nature of gender norms and masculinities, just like the genesis of the silly contemporary gendered attachment to such colors as blue and pink, while Mats is overwhelmed by her apparent lack of belief in his ideal masculinity and paternal instinct.

In one of the most entertaining sequences of the film, Tomas and Mats are relaxing on beach loungers and drinking beers after a tough day of skiing during which Mats attempts to purge Tomas’ guilt and shame by making him yell into the snowy void. Electronic dance music playing in the background, Mats encounters a younger woman who tells him her friend thinks Tomas is attractive. A short while later, she returns to recant her statement, saying that she meant someone else. Mats’ initial reaction is disbelief – he thinks they’re kidding around – and then anger, while Tomas stays laying in his chair, clearly a little embarrassed about the mix up. The two of them then proceed to laugh it off, which is what the audience has been doing all along.

In what seemed like a tidy way to end the film, the second-to-last scene offers Tomas a chance at temporary redemption. While an open ending at once seemed likely, the viewer is slammed with an ending that calls for an overall deeper examination into how this vacation has affected everyone involved. Not to offset the serious philosophic base of the film, Östlund’s finely spun yarn is undercut with amusing and humorous visual gags – a child’s toy comes crashing into a serious conversation, while a judgemental janitor appears out of thin air at the most untimely moments. Vivaldi’s “Summer”, used to emphasize the chaos and disorder of the family’s post-avalanche scare state parallels well with the crisp, uniform images of the ski slopes being prepared daily, attracting our attention to man’s need to control nature. When the avalanche hits on Day 2, it almost feels too real, and though we haven’t really been given enough time to invest in these characters, I felt like running for my life, not unlike Tomas. What is certain, though, is that the professional photographs they had taken on Day 1 certainly don’t reflect who they are as people now.

Advertisements

Peter Strickland’s “The Duke of Burgundy” (2014)

By Colleen Rowe

It looks as if colored oils are being splashed and organized into figures on canvas before your eyes. Director Peter Strickland’s full-length Drama, The Duke of Burgundy (2014), is like a homoerotic Baroque painting, with its two female leads, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna, dominating the screen in separate, but conjoined spheres. Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is Evelyn’s (Chiara D’Anna) employer, but their relationship escalates quickly with a peer through a doorknob’s keyhole. Looking in from the outside, Evelyn peers into her ruler’s world: Cynthia’s matured body in lingerie as she undresses in unassuming privacy. Does she know that Evelyn is watching her as her dress slips from her waist, down her thighs…and falls upon the floor like a splash of flowing ink?

And so, the ink dries and the women continue with their master-servant relationship. Cynthia orders young Evelyn to do her bidding, which includes cleaning her boots vigorously, her eyebrows raised almost as high as her expectations. Cynthia’s impatience grips Evelyn forcefully, pushing her into seemingly torturous punishments—at first these inflictions are usually unseen, initially; the bathroom door is closed and there are gurgling sounds of a mouth full of water, Evelyn is choking, sputtering…but somehow loving every single moment of it. If the master had been a man, these interactions would have been looked upon with disgust, and people would shake their heads slightly with immense disdain for the abuser. But, as an attractive, mature woman perpetuating the servant’s liking for her punishments, the audience seemed intrigued, and turned on to understanding the parallel roles that are expected of women. Are these expectations acceptable to condone? Of course not, but they are there.

A male “master” can be more frightening to a woman, because of the power men have tried to hold over women since written documentation was first recorded in the grand scheme of time. There is also the vast history of social inequality between men and women that really taints the filters of perspective while watching this film. In the past, women who were unrightfully enslaved were raped by their masters; an account of this was recorded in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written by Harriet Jacobs, a true story of a young girl who struggled for equality in a world where her race and sex subjected her to the abuses she faced. Jacobs’ written work was influenced by Samuel Richardson’s famous novel, Pamela, also known as Virtue Rewarded. Pamela is a tale with dense misogynistic undertones and a plot that circulates around a male master who follows, confines, and stalks his servant until she finally succumbs to his rule and has sexual relations with him. Yes, her virtue is rewarded in the end. Let us make it clear that any forced sexual relations are abusive, even if they are “achieved” by manipulation.

A woman ordering another woman to do something is more comfortable, simply on the level of an employer/employee relationship, but one should not assume this is the reason why Cynthia’s inflictions against Evelyn, as they pursue a more personal relationship, are somewhat condoned by viewer reactions. It’s because they love each other, and that’s where gender or sex is stripped of relevance here. These two people love each other, and if the master had been a man, in the context that they truly care for each other, the accepted “abuse” would seem less horrible because Evelyn is constantly begging Cynthia to “punish” her. Evelyn, at one point, asks Cynthia to lock her in a chest that is large enough to hold her small frame. Cynthia allows it, but, she is concerned for Evelyn soon after, asking her to come back into the bed. Evelyn proceeds to tell her to leave her in the chest, as if she is enjoying her opaque cage. Cynthia eventually enters a dreamlike state, where she seems to imagine that she opens the chest and all that is left is Evelyn’s rotted skeleton, lying in the same position that Cynthia left her in. This scene is comparable to William Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose for Emily,” in which the character, Emily Grierson, is found out to have been sleeping beside her dead lover for decades, after a single strand of her hair is found on the pillow beside his skeleton. Morosely similar, The Duke of Burgundy uniquely portrays this implied necrophilia in a series of frames that demonstrate a transient passage of time. With shots focused on a clothed female crotch, delving into all-encompassing darkness, and Cynthia’s venture into the woods to metaphorically revive her skeletal lover, lifting her from the chest that has become her casket, they are swallowed into the darkness together.

There are two scenes that are brilliantly paired in The Duke of Burgundy; one takes place at the beginning, where Cynthia reprimands Evelyn for incorrectly washing and tending to her clothing. Cynthia is the master here, her deadpan glare ripping into Evelyn’s timid demeanor with disrespectful loathing. A flicker of hate for Cynthia might rise in your chest, temporarily, during this scene. Her pretentious, lifeless glare is captivating, and you sort of feel like she owns you, too. In a later scene that parallels this, after the relationship between Evelyn and Cynthia has been established through playful, loving nights as they sleep beside one another, and Evelyn’s obsession with gaining new items and wealth becomes a dominant factor, disrupting their connection, the roles are reversed. Evelyn, the now master reprimands Cynthia, the previously glaring, dominant force within the film, and the woman you once hated, becomes the woman you now feel sorry for. With the dialogue and setting matching the earlier scene, Evelyn’s manipulations to rise above her social class have now succeeded, and as Cynthia cries, Evelyn reaches for her, as Cynthia once did, and whispers to her soothingly.

With profound directing, cinematography, acting, and editing leading this film into the depths of greatness, it’s almost impossible to look away as the storyline progresses and you watch the character development escalate.

This film is a work of art. However you paint the picture, after viewing The Duke of Burgundy, you will find your mind to be a color so incomprehensible that you won’t be able to forget what your eyes were just captivated by.

The Duke of Burgundy was a part of the Hamptons International Film Festival 2014 program.

Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler”: the tragedy of a profession

By Jordan Danner

Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film The Wrestler tells the story of professional wrestler, Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), as he attempts to get both his career and life back together.

Like many children of the 1980s and 1990s, I grew up watching the many larger than life characters found in the World Wrestling Federation. The exaggerated violence, the cartoony gimmicks, the “ballet for boys” choreography and other aspects kept me watching every week hoping that the babyface (good guy) would get revenge on the heel (bad guy). The release of The Wrestler happened to come out at a time when the media was shining a light on the dark side of the business. The real-life events of Eddie Guerrero’s death of a heart attack due to a history of drug use and the physical toll of the sport, along with the tragic double murder-suicide of Chris Benoit and his family, attributed to a mix of dementia caused by many years of head injuries and steroid abuse. These issues were all over the news at a time when investigation of steroids in baseball and concussions in football were also being reported.

As the film starts, we are introduced to a photo montage of wrestling magazines, posters and newspaper headlines showing the glory days of Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s career in the 1980s as he feuded with The Ayatollah (wrestler Ernest “The Cat” Miller), reminiscent of Hulk Hogan’s feud with The Iron Sheik. We then flash to the present day and see an aging and broke Randy, dependent on painkillers and steroids to continue wrestling for meager wages as a special attraction at independent shows, while working at a grocery store to make ends meet. This is still not enough to keep him from getting locked out of his trailer for being late on rent.

Despite his hardships, Randy is still a gentle giant that always maintains his sense of humor as he play fights with the children in his trailer park and attempts to court a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), who encourages him to reunite with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). After suffering a heart attack in the ring, Randy is urged by a doctor to retire from wrestling, warning him that his next match may be his last. Randy reluctantly decides to give up on wrestling and work full-time at the grocery store until a promoter tempts him with the offer of participating in a big rematch with The Ayatollah to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their match. Randy decides to ignore the doctor’s orders and pleas from Cassidy and sees this as his one chance to get back on top as the one addiction he has more than the drugs. This is the rush he receives from the fans in the ring.

Aside from Hulk Hogan, one may also see a parallel with the life of wrester Jake “The Snake” Roberts. Roberts was also one of the most beloved wrestlers of the 80s, but descended into a life of extra-marital affairs, alcoholism and crack addiction, with similar appearances at fan conventions and occasional matches in high school gymnasiums as his only form of income. Roberts’ own issues, including with his daughter are shown in detail in Barry W. Blaustein’s 1999 documentary Beyond the Mat, for those that would like more of a back story.

Aronofsky chose to pay great attention to detail in this film, with the business itself. The backstage jargon of the industry is kept as a cast of real-life wrestlers’ (including WWE’s Antonio Cesaro and R-Truth) dialog is improvised and discusses the goings-on of the event and how they plan to choreograph their matches beforehand, along with the unfortunate realization of how little the financial turnout of the event was. Wrestlers such as Bret “The Hitman” Hart and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper even applauded the story and Rourke’s performance, with Piper talking of crying after seeing the film and saying how their story had finally been told. The biggest surprise of this was the approval of Vince McMahon, chairman of the WWE and one known for shying away from controversy in the past after both a steroid and sexual harassment scandal almost lead to the folding of the company in the early 1990s.

I find this to be an interesting entry and one of my favorites in Aronofsky’s filmography, when compared to other films such as Pi (1998) and The Fountain (2006). Despite this film being about professional wrestling, it succeeds in not exclusively being a film for wrestling fans, much like Martin Scorsese’s The Raging Bull (1980), manages to tell a compelling story, regardless of your interest in boxing. Both films portray a story of what affect a life in the spotlight can have on one’s personal life, an affect which all too often has resulted in tragedy.

We’ve Come a Long Way, but We’re Not There Yet

By Roxanne*

The title “Any Day Now” is able to suggest the contention that is present for homosexuals, throughout history and in this film. The setting is Hollywood, 1979. A sex-worker mother is busted, leaving her disabled 14-year-old son to fend for himself in their shabby apartment building. Drag performer, Rudy (Alan Cumming), stumbles upon the situation.

any day now pic 1

Rudy is voracious and speaks his mind, despite social disapproval of his lifestyle.

ANY DAY NOW ALAN CUMMING

His more reserved partner, Paul (Garret Dillahunt) shares chemistry with Rudy while remaining as a strong fatherly character.

any day now 3

It should also be noted that this is the first time a full length movie features an actor with down syndrome, (Marco, played by Isaac Levya) and he is able to provide as much work for the scenes as his more experienced counterparts.any day now 4

Renderings of custody battles have become a staple in film, but Travis Fine’s film, Any Day Now (2012), sets the bar high in terms of teachable moments through social injustices. While Marco’s mother is incarcerated, Rudy and Paul take in the boy and are able to give him an upbringing that some of us couldn’t even hope for. But their happy family is disrupted and cut short, by the resonance of the issue of gay parenting and LGBT rights, which were virtually non-existent at this point in time.

ADN

Although the plot and character development are enough to sustain this film, the film is brought down a notch in terms of visual flair. There is little variation among the scenery and the quality of the HD film is confusing for a retro styled movie.

In the end, it is safe to say that it is not Marco’s custody that is actually on trial, but the homophobia that was prevalent three decades ago.

Everyone Else (2009)

By Colleen Rowe, originally published on Nocturnal in 2010.

every one else pic

In the spring of 2010, I watched “Everyone Else” at the Independent Film Center in the West Village [NYC].

The film depicts a couple on vacation and their wavering emotional consistency within a week. There were no tragic deaths, plots to deceive an unfaithful lover, or detrimental tidal waves that threatened to destroy a major city and the lives that depend on its existence. This film, simply, illustrates the moments of tender playfulness that make up the simplest definition of “love” and the everyday hardships that occur within relationships that are continuously thrown beneath thin, silk rugs, only to be tripped over when aged wine on the top shelf is empty and the after-sex high has sunk below one’s realm of consciousness

The scenes are simple and subtle and completely real. The most powerful aspect of “Everyone else” is the abundance of everyday conversation that makes up the entirety of the film, which also happens to be one of its most realistic components. Although major visual occurrences do shock and intrigue us, it is the words that are spoken to us that continue to live in the cave of our minds as famished, hopeless savages that disconnect the stems of our brain cells, as we think  and think and tear away the remains of our mental health.

I often drift off to sleep with nothing but words in me. They are in my fingertips, my thighs, the space between my nostrils. They shout and repeat and sing me to sleep with sweet melodies and unofficial intentions. These words, nothing but emotions that have been conceptualized and given syllables to hang from. Nothing but words. Nothing but emotion. They sleep with us, watch us make coffee in the morning, and drag us through this thing called “life”. There are some days when I do nothing but think about them.

“My Neighbor Totoro”: the anime that will make you fall in love with anime

By Roxanne*

The 1988 Japanese animated film My Neighbor Totoro is what is considered to be one of Hayao Miyazaki’s best films (not to mention, Totoro is the mascot of Studio Ghibli as Mickey Mouse is to Disney). Studio Ghibli has produced films such as Kiki’s Delivery Service, Ponyo, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle and the famous/infamous Spirited Away (by contrast, My Neighbor Totoro will leave you a lot less confused).

Video Provided by Youtube user: Kevin Chung

The plot centers on sisters Satsuki, (which means May in Japanese) dubbed over in the American version by voice actor Dakota Fanning, and Mei, (the phonetic pronunciation of ‘May’ in Japanese) by Elle Fanning. Firstly, Miyazaki perfectly portrays the whole older sister/ younger sister relationship as the girls vary between playing and quarreling throughout the movie.

The story begins as the two girls and their father move into a new home in the countryside in order to be in closer proximity to their mother who is suffering from an illness in a nearby hospital. One of the most alluring aspects upon viewing My Neighbor Totoro is the rich quality of the scenery, which will have you wondering if you are looking at a children’s cartoon or an oil painting.

The sisters soon find they have magical new neighbors, who are forest spirits that can only be seen by children. Some of the spirits include soot sprites, a ‘cat-bus’, and most notably, Totoro, the King of the forest (who only roars throughout the film, but is interestingly portrayed by the same voice actor who plays Scooby doo.)

One critique would be the limited screen time of the iconic “Totoro.” We only actually get to see him for maybe about a quarter of the movie or so, and he doesn’t show up until half way through the movie. On the other hand, this could also be beneficial. It makes his selective appearances even more special, and you end the movie still wanting more (or wondering where you can buy the plush version).

One of the most memorable scenes is when Totoro and the girls take a ride in the magical cat bus.

It would seem that “My Neighbor Totoro” is geared toward children, but it is more than appreciable for all ages. There are a few dark scenes, one where Mei goes missing, some eerie depictions of their haunted house, and the condition of their sick mother, but nothing unsuitable for children. At the end of the day, this film proved to be a refreshing contrast to the ADD-driven, action packed mainstream movies that are more prevalent today- check it out if you haven’t!

A Journey “Under The Skin” 

By Langston Teijeiro
 
Aliens? Extra-Terrestrials? The Third Kind? The Fourth Kind? Maybe you turn to the Spielberg classic “E.T.” for answers, or to Ridley Scott’s crowning achievement, “Alien,” for a compelling sensation of vulnerability, and helplessness, as I do. Maybe you even look up at the stars? Well, early in 2014, I had the pleasure to sit in a quiet, empty theater for the newest work by Jonathan Glazer, a British director who has led some independent classics such as “Sexy Beast” and “Birth”. Undoubtedly, “Under the Skin” is the Golden Standard of Science Fiction. It gave me chills beneath my skin, despite the fact that one primitive human being booed as the ending credits began to roll.
 
Scarlett Johansson delivers the performance of her career as an attractive being who is physically, emotionally, and spiritually lost on Earth . The film is photographed and shot so eerily, that I began to feel as if the spirit of the great Stanley Kubrick lent a helping hand. This story is best said through the eyes of Johansson’s character, who is clearly in pain, finding her thrill by sexually teasing men and then disposing them into her own fluid. This is an interesting concept, especially since the majority of sexual activity derives from fluids. 

However, by the third act of the film, we realize that her beauty is really only skin deep… and we can feel her torment. The human audience magically finds themselves relating to a character not born in this world, and we begin to pity her. She can’t find peace anywhere, and her beauty is her curse. The film ends as an expose of her repulsive characteristics– her “true” colors are shown.

Langston Teijeiro is a 24 year old screenwriter based out of New York City and Los Angeles. He is currently in the process of planning his first directorial debut (Which he wrote himself) and should begin shooting Summer 2015. He was born and raised in Miami, FL, and graduated from Florida International University in August 2012.