The Lure (2017)

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This film is a pretty fun one to explain to your friends: a Polish, horror-comedy musical about Mermaids by a first time, female director. There’s a lot going on in that description and, coincidentally, there is a lot going on in this film. While the modern-day fairy tale explores some very interesting themes and imagery, it has some inconsistencies with tone that remind you that this is the work of a first-time director.

Mermaids Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszanska) come ashore during a bizarre family picnic between Krysia (Kinga Preis), Perkusista (Andrzej Konopka), and Mietek (Jakub Gierszal). After almost luring the men into the water, the family brings the mermaids ashore and to the strip club where they perform as musical entertainment. The owner of the club is excited to have real live, actual mermaids who can perform in the show, and quickly hires them- although their pay goes to the family that has taken them in.

The film is, like most modern stories about mermaids, an exploration of female sexuality, particularly in youth. The film’s obvious parallels to The Little Mermaid closely reflect the Hans Christian Anderson original, but also spend time refuting the Disney animated classic of the same name. The two mermaids are what adds to the conversation- now instead of the “little mermaid” acting in a vacuum, there is a conversation going on between two girls who are in the same situation.

(I hate to use this qualifier but, spoilers ahead.)

On the one hand, we have Silver, who is obviously interested in a conventional, sexual relationship with Mietek. She quickly kisses him, flirts with him, plays the part of the innocent girl who wants to be “taken” by a masculine figure. Time after time she goes out of her way to make herself into what she believes he wants and expects from her. And, if we pay attention to our fairy tales, we can anticipate how well that is going to go for her. Golden, on the other hand, is concerned with two things- herself and her sister. When she is hungry for human flesh, she eats it. She explores her own sexuality and does what she things is fun. She is worried about her sister and always trying to steer her in the right direction. The strength of this character is only highlighted by the incredible performance by Michalina Olszanska, an actress who I will be going out of my way to see more of.

At the end of the film there is a crucial choice that Silver has to make, and one that Golden has repeatedly expressed her feelings on. And when the time comes to make that choice, and Silver chooses Mietek over her sister, Golden is horrified. The film ends with her retreating, alone, to the sea, to see her sister punished for doing exactly what she thought was the right thing. It could not be much clearer that this film is making a commentary on the way women are expected to behave, and how harmful this is to women and girls in a community. In expressing these views, I found the film quite successful.

There are elements in the film that are quite lacking. The character Krysia is a surprising non-entity, when I believe that a stronger presence from her could have brought some glue to the film. The screenplay left a lot to be desired, and there is a strong disparity between the two halves. I will admit to feeling like I was watching tow different movies, and I’m not confident that that is a good or exciting thing. However, I found the music engaging, the performances spectacular, and the consistency of the mermaid lore refreshing. There is not enough use of mermaid symbology in films, and it was wonderful to see someone who took the rules of their world seriously and used the symbols to their full potential.

The Lure is exactly what I wanted and was expecting in that it was bizarre. But it was not the most cohesive film. However, its disparate elements were not enough to cloud my enjoyment of the journey.

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All About My Mother (1999)

allab03hThere are two Spanish filmmakers who have made the largest impact on international cinema, who could be considered the most “recognizable”. The first is the surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel, who made a vast number of films including Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and Viridiana. The other name is Almodóvar. Pedro Almodóvar has caught attention from international film critics and film goers alike since the 198o’s saw the release of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Almodovar’s other credits include High Heels, Volver, The Skin I Live In, and Talk To Her, the final film being one of the rare foreign-language films to win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

All About My Mother is Almodóvar’s 1999 feature, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Feature. The film chronicles the experiences of Manuela (masterfully portrayed by Cecilia Roth) and her experiences in Barcelona after the death of her son. His perception of her colors film, giving the film it’s title, as we learn all of the elements of Manuela’s youth that she kept from her son. Almodóvar weaves us a lush tapestry of characters that explores the many facets of womanhood: Rosa, the troubled nun (Penelope Cruz), an actress in the middle of a run as Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire (Marisa Paredes), and a vibrant transsexual sex worker Agrado (Antonia San Juan). We explore the way these women perform the certain aspects of their life that believe they need to stay alive.

The performances of the women vary from physical alterations to secret keeping. The stars of Streetcar perform their roles in the play, along with the facade of a healthy, fulfilling romantic relationship. Agrado gives a delightful monologue about the amount of plastic surgery she has undergone to become truly “authentic.” It should be no surprise that it is Manuela who performs the most complex and wide array of roles: the first as a surrogate mother to Rosa, and the second (and more relevant) as a woman grappling with supreme loss by caring for whatever lost soul she can find.

Manuela is a strong a central character as it is possible to find. It is almost without choice that she leaves Madrid for Barcelona after the loss of her son, under the guise of telling his estranged father what happened to him. At first, it seems like she is running away from her troubles, from the memory of her son. But the more time she spends in Barcelona, the more we see that she isn’t moving away- she’s moving on. The few moments when she breaks down don’t seem like a moment of weakness, but a moment of relief. Cecilia Roth brings life and energy to the role, elevating an already great film to, as my sister’s boyfriend called it, a “remarkable” one.

One of my favorite things about Almodóvar’s body of work (at least the films of his that I have seen) is his use of other works of art in his films. In Talk To Her, the themes of the film are all laid out to us in the opening moments of the film with a dance choreographed by Pina Bausch. In All About My Mother, there are two works of art that Almodóvar piggy-backs off of to create a rich backdrop of thematic content- the film All About Eve, and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. His use of these two works not only elevates his own film, but the other two. By commenting on the way that these two works of art can effect people (especially women) he is able to add more layers to both of them. He’s not lazily referencing the works as a way to more easily discuss his themes: instead, he uses them to make a much more complex film.

The film ends with a heartfelt dedication “To all actresses who have played actresses, to all women who act, to men who act and become women, to all the people who want to be mothers… to my mother.” Each group mentioned in the dedication is seen in one of the vibrant characters in the film, each of them treated with nothing but love from their director. People make mistakes, people hurt one another, but there are no monsters in All About My Mother. At it’s core, this is a film about personal strength- the strength to move on, the strength to be yourself, the strength to forgive those who have hurt us.

Old and French: Belle de Jour (1967)

Every once in a while you get to discover a classic movie. What I mean by this is exactly what happened when I watched Belle de Jour: I had always known about this movie. I had seen the poster, heard the title, known it to be a classic, even brought it up in conversation, all without knowing what the movie was actually about. I often got it confused with La Dolce Vita, and the two movies are pretty phenomenally different. So, the other day, when I read what the actual plot of Belle de Jour is, I was able to be really really excited about this movie that came out 50 years before I was born. I watched it immediately.

The plot that grabbed me so is a uniquely French story told by Spanish filmmaker Luis BuñuelA housewife who has anxiety about being intimate with her husband begins working at a brothel in the afternoons, before her husband gets home from work. Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) is happily married to her husband, a doctor, Pierre (Jean Soreal). She loves him, she is devoted to him, she cares about their relationship, and yet (or maybe because of all that) she finds it impossible to be physically intimate with him. The two don’t even share a bed.

Séverine is haunted with guilt and pressures based on this anxiety that she has. A friend of the couple, Mr. Husson, is always trying to seduce her, to get her away from her husband for a moment of passion. She is beset by strange dreams where men in a carriage punish her in front of Pierre for transgressions unknown to the viewer. And while her husband is understanding and doesn’t intentionally pressure her at any time, his language implies that he’s not the most excited to be in a relationship without a physical aspect.

And then, compelled by strange intrigue, Séverine finds herself at a Brothel. By even stranger circumstances, she finds herself working there. And then, although it seems bizarre to the viewer and to the woman herself, she finds herself enjoying it. Not necessarily the sex, which the movie never revels in (considering its subject matter and the reputation of the country of origin, the film is rather tame in the nudity department). Under the pseudonym Belle de Jour, she works the early afternoon shift at the house of Madam Anais (Geneviève Paige), and finds herself a sought after client. In this work, Séverine is able to find a low pressure form of physical intimacy that doesn’t include the emotional connection, and which allows her to maintain the emotional relationship with her husband without bringing in the physical aspect that she is so uncomfortable with.

Many of the films themes are discussed through dream sequences and strange conversations. These segments highlight Buñuel’s identity as a surrealist filmmaker– things are just barely stranger than they are in real life. But this is no Eraserhead. There is nothing here that should scare mainstream audiences away. It holds up remarkably well, at times seeming like a film from the last 10 years. The technique is not showy here. What is on display is content, this woman and her relationships, her insecurities and her budding new confidence. People are hurt, people make bad decisions, those decisions are worked through in a very human way. The movie is very grounded and a weird enough to keep it from being another movie about a bored housewife.

The star, Deneuve (who is also spectacular in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, another of the many films I watched trying to find a French movie to write about here) is spectacular in her role. Séverine is a difficult woman to understand, and is often quite chilly to the people around her, but I never found her unsympathetic or unreasonable. There is a good portion of humor to the film as well, provided by Anais, the other women at the brothel, and the patrons.

One of the selling points of the film, I think, is that the audience is never given cause to pity Séverine. We are not presented a portrait of a housewife who becomes a sex worker because of desperation. We don’t ask ourselves, “How could she have fallen so low?” Instead of a picture of destitution, we are given a genuinely interesting story about a woman grappling with a separation between physical and emotional intimacy and trying to keep the two separate in her life. We are witness to her journey without being put in a position to pass judgement on her. And if we were to pass judgement, it wouldn’t matter much- she is on this journey because she needs to be.