The Zone (2011)

23 09 2013

There’s a scene in Kentucker Audley’s Open Five 2 (2012) where two characters sit down and edit footage from the first film, Open Five. It’s clever, self-reflexive, but perhaps a bit too inside the head of the filmmaker. Joe Swanberg’s The Zone, which fittingly enough stars Kentucker Audley, runs into the same sort of problem as the previously described scene. Both filmmakers wanted to achieve something personal and arrive on something meaningful about why they themselves make films. However, the process at times feels too self-serving, too aware of its own intended transparency, that I find myself rolling my eyes more than not.

1

A stranger visits a house, then photographs and sleeps with all three of its inhabitants. This is all just the filmmaker’s (Swanberg) work, though. He wants to produce something passionate and meaningful but in the process, he’s afraid that it will have a negative impact on the relationship between two of his performers, Sophia and Lawrence. His concerns are justified as the centerpiece of his film calls for the two of them to be a part of a threesome with Kate. The tensions between shows up in the scenes for their films, but it boils over into their reality as well. With the scene taking such importance, it becomes a struggle for the filmmaker and the cast to keep their cool.

2

The first thirty minutes plays out like an update of Teorema without Pasolini’s (tired) commentary on organized religion. Instead, it’s just sort of forced mysteriousness, though once we discover that it’s a film within a film, it’s possible that the forced feeling is intentional. Perhaps the most frustrating element of this whole exercise is that Swanberg does play it out like a twist. We think we’re getting a film about a stranger sleeping with a bunch of people, and we do get that, but then there’s an entirely different film about the process of filming said film. In perhaps the most eye-rolling of all moves, Swanberg ends the film with another reveal. The film was also a film within a film, thus making the original story we watch a film within a film within a film. That sounds so stupid to write out and watching these twists is similarly enraging.

3

This isn’t a complete disaster of a movie, though. I actually like quite a bit. Swanberg does manage to capture something resembling the great important truth he’s looking for. The aesthetic issues with the filmmaker are perhaps over-documented, but parts of this film look absolutely wonderful. If only he would just make a straight-forward movie with this aesthetic and not the glossy, but casually one found in Drinking Buddies. There is something to at least think about in the shots that are setup to be a part of the film within the film, but then breakdown when one of the actor starts laughing. I’m not sure what there is to be said, except that it’s another example of the filmmaker trying to breakdown the walls built upon between fiction and reality.

4

Swanberg’s interest don’t just lie in this division between fiction and reality, but also in the division between live performance and filmed one. They’re sort of all interrelated concepts, but I do think he’s trying something more than just replicating Cassavetes’ dramatic realities or even Rohmer’s observational studies. This film, more so than any of his other ones, tries to capture the essence of a performance when it actually occurs and does this by not always differentiating between what Swanberg’s character has filmed or what he himself is filming. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, a filmed performance is a reproduction and thus, loses the spontaneity felt when seen in reality. I get the impression that Swanberg is trying to navigate between the reproduction of the performance and the performance itself. I’m not sure I can say he is entirely successful, but I give him plenty of credit for trying.

5

The Zone is also a movie about sex, which I actually think perfectly relates the previous idea of filmed performance vs live performance. Sex is, in a way, something of a performance. Perhaps the conditioning of other films (be they porn or not) has influenced some of these performative elements and Swanberg quietly captures this in a wonderful way. The sex scenes in the film within a film are artfully directed, but almost obnoxiously serious. In contrast, when Sophia films Lawrence jerking off, it’s playful, fun, and even funny. The couple never films themselves having sex explicitly (that would be too on the nose, I think) but their foreplay does feel more accurate than the filmed sex scenes. Additionally, it’s observed that Swanberg (the character) has devoted more time to the two heterosexual scenes because duh, he’s into girls. Thus, so is the camera. The aforementioned filmed jerkoff session is being filmed by Sophia. The camera is into guys now.

6

For someone who is often accused of just filming people talk about their relationships, Swanberg is actually quite heady here. It doesn’t all work and parts of it feel like it’s trying too hard but there is an actually interesting, if not good, meditation on the influence of film as means of reproduction. One could and has accused Swanberg of basically just being horny and spoiled, but he takes this criticism head on. He achingly confesses that he makes film so people will feel less alone. This feels real when he says it, but looking back, he’s playing a character. He’s still looking for truth but he’s doing more than just capturing the mundane. He’s exploring how the mundane functions in relationship to film as medium. I can’t say he’s broken through with a complete masterpiece, but this feels like the most mature, complex, and sincere thing he’s ever done.

7

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Conte d’automne / Autumn Tale (1998)

17 09 2013

One has to wonder if Eric Rohmer worked himself into a corner. After this film, he would not return to his usual territory, at least not superficially. This is the last film of his to all into one of his cycles, and it’s the last film that isn’t influenced by period or overt-genre nods. In a sense, it’s the last film he made that features the iconography that people associate with the director and that’s a bunch of people talking about their relationships or their non-relationships. Rohmer’s consistency and perceived repetitious nature are strengths to me, and the familiarity of Autumn Tale is just as important to my appreciation of it as its uniqueness.

1

Magali, a winemaker, lives alone on her vineyard in southern France. Her friend, Isabelle is trying to get her to come to her daughter’s wedding but Magali is less than enthusiastic. After all, she doesn’t go out much anymore and she’s not exactly comfortable being around a large group of people. Her son, Leo is involved with Rosine if only in technical terms. Rosine is still in the process of closing off a relationship with a former professor, Etienne. Rosine takes a liking to Magali and sees the chance to play matchmaker with Etienne and Magali. Meanwhile, Isabelle herself is busy trying to find Magali a suitor in time for her daughter’s wedding.

2

The film opens in a quiet and remarkable fashion. A series of static shots are placed in between the credit cards in a fashion that does suggest a nod to Ozu’s pillow shots. I’ve hinted at the filmmaker’s connection in the past, but it never felt like one that was exactly visual. Here, though, it is and fittingly, this is easily Rohmer’s best photographed film. It’s visual quality is almost jarring in a way, because breathtaking visuals are not a hallmark of the man’s work. In fact, they’re intentionally uncommon. The poetic potential of cinema risks Rohmer’s insights losing their power. This might seem like a pretty big claim, but the man himself said so as much. Personally, I don’t think anything in lost here, but I wouldn’t argue that this film is one of his most dense works. Sure, it’s loaded with plenty more than most other films, but it’s about par for the course for Rohmer.

3

There is a specificity present in Rohmer’s best films and it is present here, though I guess I connect with it less on a gut level. A Summer Tale and The Green Ray are masterpieces, but I’ll admit that they absolutely benefit from parallels I can form between them and my own life. It’s unfair for Rohmer to be penalized for simply shifting his focus to someone a little older, but perhaps I’ll always be more partial to the those mentioned above. Magali does have something in common with the 20somethings that populate the two aforementioned films: it’s that they’re all alone. Much like Delphine in The Green Ray, Magali is not alone because she wants to be, but instead because conditions are not ideal for her to meet someone. Delphine’s problem is more immediate because it comes from her heart and Magali comes from the fact that she’s exiled herself from most of the world.

4

Magali’s loneliness is the film’s center but the most interesting developments are the ones that happen outside of her isolated vineyard. The most intriguing is the relationship between Rosine and Etienne. They’re no longer together, but that is only because Rosine says so. She is apprehensive to show this in body language. She allows Etienne to touch her passionately, and only pushes him away when he attempts to undress her. She’s “with” Leo now, but she makes it quite clear that she is not interested in him in the long term. Indeed, we seldom see the two doing anything that would suggest an intimate partnership. Rosine wants Magali, who is Leo’s mother, to be with Etienne. This would hypothetically create the weird scenario where her ex could be her father-in-law.

5

Rosine is playful around all men, almost to the point that it’s enraging. Alexia Portal is pretty brilliant here, and it’s easy to see why Etienne would be hung up on her and why Leo would frustrated by her. Her business with the former seems to be unfinished, which would explain why she wants to see him with Magali. She explains that she’ll never be able to love Etienne again once he loves another women, but then also looks forward to the idea of hanging out with both of them. Etienne never really works out with Magali, mostly because she’s too old, but his presence in the film is significant because of how it relates to Rosine. She never admits she still has feelings for her former lover and her upbeat attitude doesn’t allow us to read into her intentionally remaining quiet on these desires. It’s her actions alone that suggest she might be confused about her feelings for Etienne. So often in film the audience is required to read an actor’s body language or notice technical choices to grant access into the character’s true feelings. Rohmer, of course, never allows us such access. That would be too easy.

6

With everything there is to write about Rosine (and there could plenty more beyond the above paragraph) she is nothing more than a supporting character. She gets plenty of screen time, sure, but this is a film ultimately about Magali’s isolation. On the other hand, Isabelle is just as busy finding a suitor for Magali. Thus, Isabelle and Rosine play as parallel storylines and their success and failures in playing the role of matchmaker are different. Isabelle’s intentions seem a bit more honest and transparent, she definitely wants Magali to find a man. However, she makes quite an elaborate construction to get to this point. She puts out an ad, which gets a response from Gerald. The two go on a few dates and Gerald is (understandably) under the impression that he’s dating Isabelle. It’s all just a test run to make sure he’s suitable for Magali. It seems cruel, but things end up rather nice. One moment suggests that Isabelle actually is interested in Gerald, but obviously keeps herself from feeling this because she herself is already married. Like Rosine with Etienne, we never get any lingering shots of Isabelle punctuated with longing music so we really don’t know if she’s upset that she can’t be with Gerald. Again, her confidence doesn’t give us hints into her psyche, we can only observe her actions and try to draw conclusions from that. It sounds corny to say, but the process is not only one of the most rewarding things about watching a Rohmer film but it’s also a lot of fun.

7

For once, I feel the criticism of Rohmer’s lightness actually resonating. I mean, the film “hits” (for lack of a better word) several times and it feels right in all of its observations and it has this type of sting that I associate with the filmmaker. But, on the other hand, it might be a little too unassuming. Unassuming can be used to describe a lot of Rohmer’s work and I would view it mostly as a positive, but in this case, there is something missing that prevents this film from being the amazing experience of a film like The Green Ray or A Summer Tale. If I’ve learned anything about the man, though, it’s that the endings of his films can greatly alter my feelings towards them and again, the ending has great flexibility in how you read it. The quiet sorrow of Rohmer can be viewed long after one has completed the film. That, to me, is a sign of not just a filmmaker but an artist who has left behind something very vital.

8





Drinking Buddies (2013)

16 09 2013

Joe Swanberg is something of a divisive figure in cinema. My reactions to his films have fallen somewhere in the middle of this divide, but I guess I lean more towards the negative side than the positive one. I find the man about as fascinating as I find him frustrating. Certainly, there was a time when the harrowing “emotional truth” drama spoke with me, but I’ve found most of his films to be forcing the point. Drinking Buddies is a departure in many ways. Superficially, it finally gives Swanberg’s film a professional sheen, but just as noticeable is the specificity missing from his characters. He’s gone for something more broad. While both of these would seem to be improvements, they actually work as problems here, yet this is still probably the best movie he’s ever made.

1

Kate and Luke are coworkers at a brewery and the two maintain an innocent yet flirty relationship. This isn’t much of an issue even as both are attached, Luke to Jill and Kate, less convincingly, to Chris. Kate and Luke finally introduce their significant others to each other, and the quartet goes on a weekend camping trip. There, Jill kisses Chris when the two are finally alone, almost devoid of any sentiment. Kate and Luke continue to flirt, but she arrives for work the next day proudly broadcasting the news that she’s single. Jill, meanwhile, leaves for Costa Rica, opening a door for Kate and Luke to finally express the feelings they’ve playfully masked.

2

At the risk of reducing some of characters here, I would argue that Jill and Chris are mostly periphery. Make no mistake, their presence is important because it is their ties to Kate and Luke that provide another obstacle. Like Rohmer, who Swanberg is most close to (not Cassavetes), the tragedy here lies in the sort of societal strings that bind heterosexual relationships from happening and not happening. Kate and Luke would be and should be in love, but that’s never how these work out so instead they playfully work out around their feelings until the point that become unbearable. Their interactions are pleasant enough on the surface (until the end, which I’ll get to shortly) but there’s an aching uneasiness in how perfectly they gel together because they’ll probably never be together.

3

It feels hypocritical to criticize Swanberg for his film looking “too nice” since the aesthetics of his past work has so frequently been viewed as a negative. There’s a generic cleanliness in his frames here, though. He was slowly becoming a minimalist director (perhaps getting closer to Rohmer, again) but he’s hard to separate from say, Judd Apatow here. The artistry in the images is not really the point so I’d argue it isn’t a gigantic demerit but the best moments here are when the camera can rest and do without a worthless steadicam float. Again, I feel like an idiot criticizing Swanberg for the opposite thing I might criticize him for in another film. On the other hand, I think it’s worth noting that this film isn’t better than his earlier work just because it looks a lot nicer.

4

The other big common criticism he is able to get away from here is that his films are too specific, which I think again, might be a problem. Something like Uncle Kent is annoying to me because I feel the rhetoric of Ray Carney and “truth” flowing through every confession about sexual kinks. There’s nothing like that here and I’d argue that Swanberg perfectly captures the interactions of American 20somethings. In doing so, though, his brush is remarkably broad. It ultimately works, but Olivia Wilde reminds me of so many girls she could be any of them and Jake Johnson, equipped with a “cool beard” and everything, can be any dude I know. It’s not these characters feel a lot like people I know, it’s instead that they’re so lacking in anything specific that they probably could be anyone. Considering Swanberg ends the film in a way that is so willfully “open-ended” it might all be intentional. Maybe he knows the audience would want more, and then he’s gone for something a bit more opaque.

5

Swanberg grants us a little more into Kate and Luke towards the end. Luke agrees to help Kate move out of her old apartment and into her new one. Of course, the process is a total disaster because moving is almost always a total disaster. It’s a sequence that feels fresh, if only because it’s such a frustrating exercise that tends to be ignored. However, it’s a perfect point for Luke’s emotions to spill over into the open. Some have said that the scene feels forced, but I’d argue the film builds entirely into his frustration with Kate’s openness. It is part masculine bullshit (he wants to control Kate and prevent her from hanging out with anyone other than him) but the other part of it is he’s in love with Kate. The boundaries of his own relationship make this impossible to communicate in a way that fits into the realm of “reasonable” human interaction.

6

I hesitate to even call this film “good” but it’s definitely Swanberg’s biggest success. He has cleverly constructed a film that is ultimately about just two people who can’t be together, and he has formed it in the mold of a dumb romantic comedy. Chris and Jill aren’t important but their interaction is crucial. They share little to no feelings for each other but act physically on an impulse. They are the antithesis to Kate and Luke who are pretty much in love with each other but their feelings never manifested in the triumphant way we want relationships to play out. There’s problems here, but it does work as a reminder that the perfect romantic relationships that do happen are not only difficult, but are actually minor miracles. Kate and Luke’s non-relationships is, by the same logic, a minor tragedy.

7





Conte d’hiver / A Tale of Winter (1992)

9 09 2013

With as often as I’ve been watching his films lately, I had the feeling I knew all of Rohmer’s moves. This isn’t to say I was getting tired of watching his films or that they didn’t have the chance to surprise me. Rather, I figured I had an angle for the general tone of his work. A Tale of Winter doesn’t exactly betray this tone, but it certainly plays with the cold, hard realism of the filmmaker’s work set in the contemporary world. This is a film that gives us something of a miracle, after all, but give the man credit: he knew how to make such a miracle feel possible and the film doesn’t conclude with an entirely positive or even cathartic attitude.

1

Felicie and Charles share a wonderful romance during a vacation on the coast of Brittany. The vacation ends, of course, and the two go their separate ways. Still, they plan to continue communicating. Felicie accidentally gives Charles the wrong address and the relationship seems to end. The films jumps, somewhat jarringly, to five years later. Felicie has a child, Elise (and one can immediately presume Charles as the father) and is involved with two men, Maxence and Loic. She decides on the former when he tells her of his plans to move to Nevers. Felicie and Elise joins him, but things never really click. She returns to Paris to be with Loic, but she can’t stop thinking about Charles.

2

It’s quite easy to overlook the film’s prologue, which introduces us to Felicie and Charles’ relationship. It’s the sort of thing that Rohmer could leave out entirely, and had hinted at with only Felicie’s words. It’s crucial, though, because the scene itself is so moving when we’re given the context of the film’s present. It’s not just that it establishes this relationship, but it makes one sympathetic to Felicie’s rather grand and romantic sentiments towards Charles. Throughout the film, her conversations about him lead those around her to dismiss her as crazy. They’re somewhat justified in doing so: she hasn’t seen Charles for over five years. Take the perspective of someone talking to Felicie and you can see why she’s hung up. After all, Charles is Elise’s daughter. But because of the formalities of life, the easiest response one could give her is to move on.

3

For a good portion of the film, Felicie is working on moving on. She’s involved with two men and somewhat remarkably, both are conscious of the other. It’s impressive that Rohmer has mapped a space where one of his characters can be a working mother, but still have multiple partners. Of course, having two partners might just serve as a distraction for the one men who she truly desires. She explains to both Maxence and Loic that she’ll never love them the way she loved Charles, but she hopes that she’ll love them enough. She has resigned herself to the reality that seems the most plausible in a film made by Eric Rohmer. It’s one where she’ll never reunite with her true love.

4

There’s an early sequence, when Felicie first visits Nevers, where she mentions that she isn’t religious. This seems like a throwaway conversation, but of course, seldom does such a thing exist in Rohmer’s world. Her atheism contrasts with Loic’s admittedly lapsed Catholicism. However, she has two experience which one can describe as religious. One is a bit obvious, she takes Elise to a cathedral and gazes at the architecture. Afterwards, she has a blowup with Maxence that eventually leads to her leaving him and Nevers for good. On the surface, her explanation for leaving seems to be that she can’t juggle taking care of Elise with working. Relationships are always hard, though and her decision to exit out of this comes from the fact that she doesn’t see it as one worth the struggle. Her experience reintroduced to her the idea that she could still find Charles.

5

After leaving Nevers, she returns to Paris. Although she is now unemployed, the situation is remarkably better because her mother can help take care of Elise. She immediately goes to see Loic and explain to him her new decision. It’s not that she’s decided on Loic instead of Maxence, but that she’s gone back on her initial plan. Loic offers to take her to a performance of Shakespeare’s The Winter Tale. Ever the skeptic, Loic explains to her as being far-fetched, but she agrees to go with him anyway. To keep things brief, the scene Rohmer decides to show is about resurrection. It’s the thing that Loic has, in the previous scene, described negatively as a “fantastic thing” but Felicie is completely caught up in it. On the drive home, the two share a discussion over the scene which underscores Felicie’s newly found faith. She even goes to the point of saying she’s more religious than Loic, an observation on his inability to believe in something miraculous.

6

Loic seems to be the film’s most logical viewpoint, especially when Felicie struggles to be sure of herself. However, his reservations about the “fantastic” are foolish, and Felicie gets her own miracle. She runs into Charles on a bus and the two get back together. She’s been either struggling to block out Charles for the entire film, but the two end up together. It all happens in the blink of an eye. This is how reality works sometimes, though I acknowledge the fact that such a fantastic event can be jarring in Rohmer’s grounded world. Indeed, the couple reuniting is the equal to the resurrection in Shakespeare’s play. The moment is less transcendent for Felicie, though, because life goes on afterwards. We’re left wondering if Charles will fit back into her life. There isn’t a cruel hint that things are going to go wrong, but we’re also not given the satisfaction that the two reuniting suggested in the film’s opening.

7





Conte de printemps / A Tale of Springtime (1990)

8 09 2013

A typical criticism of Eric Rohmer would be that nothing happens in his films. Sure, this seems like a pretty typical arthouse talking point, but even in the scope of the European film canon, his films are especially unassuming. They’re actually more direct than they are obtuse, which probably creates another level of frustration for the viewer. Every film I’ve seen from him can be explained broadly as people talking, which isn’t the most exciting description. But in making films that aren’t concerned with visual poetry, he presents the idea of a text that can be studied for what’s really important: the people in the film itself. A Tale of Springtime is more of the same, but the story feels conscious of its ideas. His other films can give the viewer something new with every viewing, but A Tale of Springtime feels too sure of itself.

1

Jeanne and Natacha strike up a conversation at a house party. The two are drawn to each other, perhaps because they don’t know anyone else at the party. Jeanne explains that she’s lending her place to a friend and laments having to sleep at her boyfriend’s apartment while he’s away. Natacha invites her to stay at her apartment, which has an empty bed because her father, Igor,  is out of town. The next morning, Igor arrives and awkwardly runs into Jeanne. With Natacha’s well-documented disgust for Igor’s girlfriend, her friendship with Jeanne begins to seem more and more like an opportunity for her to play matchmaker.

2

If Pauline at the Beach is a film about learning to lie, then this is a film that more explicitly explores the emotional repercussions of literally lying. The former film is a bit more abstract as the idea is more in lying to yourself, lying about feelings, being willfully delusional for your emotional satisfactions. Here, the lying is more evident, though it should be worth mentioning that it is more about Natacha’s withholding of information. Perhaps that’s not lying, but we still are left to deduce if she intentionally forgets to tell Jeanne about her father coming back with the hope of creating a spark between the two. It’s something of a mystery film that never gets a payoff, which isn’t exactly uncharacteristic for Rohmer himself. Full Moon in Paris has a similar quality, though we eventually get a conclusion that ties the narrative together. Here, it could not be more open-ended.

3

The crux of the film is the relationship involving Natacha and Jeanne. While most of the discussions are about potential romances or romantic relationships already in progress, this is one of the few Rohmer films where the motivation for such love isn’t the central driving force. It’s a friendship film, but it’s troubling in the idea that the friendship might not be legitimate. This sounds kind of corny and perhaps Natacha and Jeanne are still friends even if Natacaha is recruiting Jeanne as a potential stepmom. The film asks the viewer to observe and scrutinize their conversations, which is really the “meat” of any Rohmer film. The big difference here, for me at least, is that I feel like the story is reduced to this idea.

4

This isn’t to say that Jeanne and Natacha aren’t interesting people, and that there’s nothing else to take away from their conversations. Jeanne’s background as a philosophy professor (which comes from Anne Teyssedre’s own life, not Rohmer’s pen) works itself naturally into the director’s typically loquacious universe. This is probably the first time I’ve actually started to believe that the characters are talking too much, if only because their conversations feel a bit too obvious. Natacha’s conversations with Eve when they’re not already arguments, are easy to understand as coming from a place of anger. It’s not a simple film really, but it just feels “easy” (for lack of a better word) within Rohmer’s canon.

5

I want to stress that A Tale of Springtime is still a pretty wonderful film. There’s something to be said about Rohmer’s side-meditations on personal identity. As he did in Full Moon in Paris, he touches on this here by relating it to a person’s place of residence. Once again we have a protagonist that has two apartments, but Jeanne speaks much more negatively of her spaces than Louise in the earlier film. Here, Jeanne utterly detests her boyfriend’s apartment, it’s not her partner but where he lives. Her boyfriend is mentioned passingly and never seen, and Natacha suspects that Jeanne isn’t really attached to him. It’s sort of a brilliant little move. I mean, it’s not as though we are always surrounded by the most important people in our lives, especially during the moments Rohmer finds the most interesting. There’s something to be said about Rohmer’s meditation on the formal nature of human interaction. His insights continue to be stunning, but this film isn’t quite as thick as others. That’s hardly a damning criticism.

6





Life is Sweet (1990)

5 09 2013

Mike Leigh has built his reputation on providing realistic, slice-of-life portraits. I mention this banal phrase, because I feel there’s enough evidence to contrast this claim. Certainly, the filmmaker has the ability to capture fractured moments of truth, but a film such as this one suggests that his character, even if they are interesting, are actually drawn rather broadly. At times, Life is Sweet feels like a sad cartoon. Leigh has found something heartbreaking within these stories, but the characters themselves seem to be missing a depth that would elevate the film beyond just heightened emotional experience. There’s enough interesting things to digest here (no pun intended) but it’s not a harrowing experience like Naked or Bleak Moments. It’s quietly sad movie about loud characters.

1

Nicola and Natalie are twins in their twenties, but they’re still living with their parents, Andy and Wendy  Natalie works as a plumber, and has a generally calm demeanor. Nicola is unemployed, and constantly on edge. Andy is a professional cook, but his personal project is a beat-up fast food van, which he hopes to update and maintain. Meanwhile, family friend Aubrey also has a food project, he’s opening a rather garish French-themed restaurant. Wendy volunteers to help, but Aubrey’s own incompetence suggests that the restaurant itself is doomed.

2

Leigh himself calls Life is Sweet an ensemble piece, and I am inclined to agree, but unfortunately this is where the film runs into some problems. The biggest problem of all being Timothy Spall’s performance as Aubrey. Everybody’s characteristics are heightened here, but even he seems jarringly simplistic. In fact, simplistic doesn’t get to the root of that character’s problem, it’s instead that he feels like a reoccurring character from a sitcom. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem if the film didn’t devote so much time to him. There’s something a little bit sad about him waiting in his own restaurant on opening day, but that seems to come from the context of anyone’s hopes being dashed. He makes such a buffoon of himself, throughout the film and especially following the restaurant’s poor opening that it challenges one’s sympathy. Maybe this is a credit to Leigh, but in reality, it’s hard to not be relieved by his failure.

3

The most frustrating part of Aubrey’s presence is that it takes time away from what actually is a pretty interesting family study. Nicola is drawn a little too thin as a psuedo-activist, but at least she’s given time. Natalie, who seems the most well-adjusted person in the entire film, is given very few moments that flesh her out. Maybe this is what motivates Leigh to spend more time on the rest of the family, but we only get hints about her. We know she’s going to America for vacation and we know she enjoys playing pool. On the commentary, Leigh mentions that her outlook is healthy and this is referring to a conversation she has with Nicola. The implication is that she really is just the “healthy” foil to Nicola, who struggles with an eating disorder. It reduces Nicola too, suggesting that she just needs to “get it together” to be like her model sister.

4

There’s some positives to be found here, of course. I mean, I do think the family itself is interesting enough. Andy is playfully revealed to be a competent and professional chef, somewhat of a twist when the film sets him up as a wage laborer. Wendy has one particularly wonderful moment with Nicola towards the end, and her frustration with her daughter feels like a mother’s frustrating love. Leigh is able to capture isolated moments that feel real and tender, but it feels sort of wrong in the film’s context. For every breakdown Nicola has with her mom, there’s another scene of Aubrey drunkenly knocking things over. Maybe there’s some perverse pleasure to be found in miserable characters making morons of themselves (this is what Leigh’s wonderful Abigail’s Party does) but it comes at the expense of what could be a great family drama.

5

Leigh does provide something vital here, which makes the film worthwhile, but in addition to Aubrey’s hijinx, there is a nagging sensation that the film is weirdly conservative. He’s not a polemic filmmaker, but there’s a tension here that suggests a quiet resignation to neoliberalism. If it’s intentional, it’s brilliant and absolutely heartbreaking. However, the simplistic morality stuff seems too deeply coded into the film to separate it from Leigh himself. Nicola seems to recycle standard feminist and leftist rhetoric, but the humor comes from the fact that she’s just reciting phrases. When called out on her personal politics, she collapses into a ball of rage. The greatest sadness comes from the fact that she’s so frustrated and hurt but can’t articulate herself in an adequate way. It’s played up as humor here, though. She’s passionate about her politics, but the characters ask why she isn’t marching in the streets. The answer is pretty plain and simple: she’s dealing with emotional and mental issues that she refuses to share with anyone else. Maybe I’ve become something of a softie, but Leigh’s dealing with her isn’t as consistently warm as I think it should be. The moment she has with Wendy is fantastic, but it’s hard to forget the rest of the film which usually frames her as foolish. There are some exceptions to this, though, the most obvious example being the scene where she binge-eats and vomits.

6

The “I would have done this” instead is one of the laziest and unhelpful critical routes, but I get the feeling that Leigh would have been on to something wonderful had he eliminated some of the broad humor here. The Aubrey character can exist, but doesn’t need to dominate a section of the story the way that he does. The sisters themselves need more time, if only because Leigh has made them so fascinating with the limited time he has managed to give them. Everything concludes in a weirdly upbeat manner, though the conclusion itself is open-ended enough to suggest that not everything is okay. Still, the jaunty tone doesn’t seem to benefit the film’s best moments, but it does explain its worst ones. Maybe this is why Leigh’s next full-length feature would be his grimmest since his debut. This isn’t a bad film, but it’s one I have to wrestle with in the context of Leigh’s career. I admire it and I still love him as a filmmaker, but it’s not his most essential piece.

7