Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Duke of Burgundy


Grade: 96/A

The Duke of Burgundy is the unlikeliest love story to hit the screen in years, and one of the most beautiful. The plot, about a lesbian S&M relationship, sounds targeted to male viewers’ more prurient interests more than it sounds like a romance. But the film is never sexy, exactly, nor is it about sex. Director Peter Strickland (whose Berberian Sound Studio unnerved without ever showing the lurid violence expected from the giallo movies it paid tribute to) makes The Duke of Burgundy less about the salacious elements at play and more about the feelings and motivations behind them.

The film’s opening deliberately obfuscates those motivations, introducing Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) as a maid to the severe Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who immediately rebukes her for her lateness. Evelyn quietly goes about her duties, sweeping the floor, polishing Cynthia’s boots, hand-washing her underwear. When Evelyn makes a mistake, she’s punished with (off-screen) water-sports. The next day, the sequence repeats. Cynthia and Evelyn love each other deeply, but this elaborate submissive-dominant ritual wears down on one of the parties, who does this only to please the woman she loves.

Saying too much more would do a disservice to the film, which gradually reveals the particulars of their relationship and the great lengths Evelyn and Cynthia go to in order to express their affection. One of the two needs this in order to be sexually satisfied. The other can only do her best to tolerate it. On the flipside of the coin is their interest in entomology: one is an expert in Lepidoptera, or the study of butterflies. The other is not. The first owns a gorgeous collection and attends multiple lectures. The other also attends, but she can barely keep up, asking irrelevant questions and giving incorrect answers. The first constantly plays recordings of butterflies humming, which annoys her partner. It’s a terrific parallel, illustrating the trying but inevitable process of lovers having to take part in interests that aren’t always shared.

Both actresses give moving, multilayered performances; D’Anna (who appeared in Berberian Sound Studio) is appropriately timid and unassuming in their sexual games, but her frustration with her partner’s interests is palpable, as is her humiliation when one moment goes too far. Knudsen is even better, displaying a deep fear that she’s slowly losing D’Anna. There’s a mid-film scene in which one woman masturbates the other under the covers while whispering sweet little nothings (or, rather, dirty little nothings) into her partner’s ear. She struggles to say the things that turn her lover on, fumbling to sound spontaneous and never saying anything with conviction. It’s a perfect encapsulation of their relationship, both in and outside the bedroom, as they both strive to keep the other happy while worrying that it’s not enough.

Strickland pays tribute to the kind of arty softcore films made by Jesus Franco and Tinto Brass in the 70s, complete with a dreamy score by British alternative duo Cat’s Eyes and an opening sequence that credits perfumists and lingerie makers. Remarkably, though, Strickland never eroticizes their encounters so much as he romanticizes them, viewing the more outrĂ© elements from a distance while showing boots or soaking pairs of panties in loving close-up, turning them into odd but strangely believable expressions of love. Cynthia and Evelyn’s kisses and embraces, meanwhile, are handled delicately, sometimes through superimpositions, as if they were too romantic to show, while their insecurities are communicated in an homage to Stan Brakhage’s avant-garde classic “Mothlight,” conflating sexual inadequacy with inadequate interest in the other partner’s field. It’s a highly aestheticized movie, but Strickland’s aims are in line with those of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Michael Powell or Douglas Sirk, a kind of emotionalism through artifice. With The Duke of Burgundy, he reaches their level.

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Friday, January 16, 2015

Blackhat


Grade: 65/B

Blackhat tests the limits of one’s auteurism like no movie in some time. It’s a Michael Mann film through-and-through, but it abstracts his archetypical professionals to a level that makes 2006’s Miami Vice look like a John le CarrĂ© adaptation. It uses the same digital aesthetic he’s utilized since Collateral, but it’s even rougher and grungier than Public Enemies. Its plot is ludicrous, but Hitchcock’s old derogatory line about “The Plausibles” comes to mind. And while the film’s script doesn’t always do justice to its premise, Mann remains so skillful at filming action and process that it often doesn’t matter if it doesn’t add up to much.

Filling in the role of the quintessential Mann professional is Thor star Chris Hemsworth as Hathaway, a “blackhat” hacker furloughed from prison to help American and Chinese authorities catch a cyber criminal who’s attacked both the U.S. stock market and a Chinese nuclear plant. The team includes no-bullshit leader Barrett (Viola Davis), Chinese military officer and old MIT friend of Hathaway Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), and Chen’s sister Lien (Wei Tang), who immediately connects with Hathaway. The group goes around the world, from Chicago to L.A. to Hong Kong, on the hacker’s trail, but he’s always a step ahead with hired goons ready to meet them.

Again, there are implausibles here – the U.S. releasing a convicted hacker to find another is absurd, and Hathaway is the most ripped, macho hacker in the history of the world – but it’s more essential that the film keeps moving and Hemsworth is charismatic enough a movie star to carry it. On the latter front, the film comes up short. Mann’s heroes have always been taciturn fellows, but he benefits from casting stars that are sensitive enough to convey volumes of emotion with just a glance (James Caan, Tom Cruise, Robert De Niro, Jamie Foxx, Colin Farell). Hemsworth, not a naturally expressive performer, can’t manage this, so most of his romantic or emotional scenes come off as recitations and poses.

Moreover, Blackhat is spare on a character level even for a Mann film. Backstories are largely dispensed with, and the dialogue that’s there is serviceable at best (Mann seems to acknowledge this in a post-lovemaking scene that shows Hemsworth talking about his father, only to cut away, suggesting that dialogue is secondary to image). It’s a film that wants to build its character relationships with glances and its story with forward momentum. That’d be fine if the cast was in sync – it works for Wong Kar-wai (who Mann seems to be emulating on a sensual level more and more), and it worked for Mann in the wildly underrated (if cultishly adored) Miami Vice. Here, there’s not much chemistry between Hemsworth and Tang, nor do his scenes with Wang give any real lived-in sense of history between the two. Only Viola Davis manages much with her threadbare character (whose one bit of backstory is best ignored), turning every side-eye and curt reply into a case for her as Mann’s next great lead (if he wasn’t so focused on brooding tough dudes).

Very little of it matters while it’s happening, though, because whenever the film is moving, it’s largely a blast. Hemsworth’s reeled off delivery kills most of his emotional scenes dead, but it’s suited perfectly to any of the scenes of him sorting through code or hacking,. These bits move so quickly that it doesn’t particularly matter that it’s conforming to some of the same movie hacker stereotypes that usually prompt derisive laughter. It’s not important that he’s convincing as a hacker, but that he’s convincing as one of Mann’s professionals, one who’s always moving forward and adapting, and one who’s not going to double-cross the government that jailed him because it’d be decidedly unprofessional.

Stuart Dryburgh’s rough-hewn cinematography isn’t going to be for everyone, and it’s sometimes actively distracting in dialogue-driven scenes. But Mann’s visual tics of shallow-focus close-ups against dark backgrounds or cool-looking heroes strutting with a bright sky behind them is cinema at its most sensuous, giving the film the kind of mythic existential punch that the director favors. His meticulous sense of place and procedure is hard at work, too, particularly in a breathtaking pair of sequences where Mann takes us inside a hacked circuit as it starts to go haywire, looking like the Stargate sequence from 2001 turned into a technological hell.

Mann also remains one of the best directors of action alive, always maintaining clarity and precision even when the camerawork is messy. A fistfight in a Korean restaurant (the reasons aren’t really important) pulls back and cuts to a shot that looks like it was on a cell phone; the raggedness of the image is jarring, but there’s a thrilling immediacy to it that’s hard not to be shaken by. A later gunfight in a yard full of shipping containers juggles shots of our heroes, the task force accompanying them and the people they’re chasing with an astounding mix of kineticism and spatial awareness, all while drowning out the sound with the (purposefully) near-deafening sound of gunfire. Again, the film’s assaultive elements are all purposeful, putting us in the same chaotic frame-of-mind and physical place as the protagonist without sacrificing coherence.


Whether Blackhat ultimately coheres or lingers as anything more than an entertaining thriller that capitalizes on modern fears is a bit more up in the air. Mann envisions a digital world that’s less a prison than an unruly, ungovernable realm that can tip the outside world into chaos at any moment, but he populates it with figures instead of people, actors instead of characters. His most passionate fans have already hailed it as a triumph of avant-garde action filmmaking and an early contender for the year’s best. Not really, but it’s a pretty engaging minor film from a major filmmaker.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Here’s a collection of writing I’ve done for other sites, including Indiewire, The Airspace and The Post and Courier.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.