Two new awards-caliber film releases couldn’t be more different. One of hyper-literate in a high-stakes world of drama, gambling, and crime, and another is somber, lackadaisical, and personal, chronicling a summer love that changed lives. One movie has scads of plotting it zooms through with high-powered visuals and voice over, and another luxuriates in the moment, a placidity on the surface interrupted by rising passions. One of these movies I found captivating and the other I found perfectly nice but unremarkable.
Molly’s Game is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, clearly having studied at the altar of David Fincher, and he packs a lot into his 140 minutes chronicling the rise and fall of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic hopeful who found herself running an expensive, private series of poker games. She’s drawn into an unfamiliar world and through her tenacious grit, preparation, and fortitude, she is able to become a fixture amongst the rich. Then the FBI comes knocking and wants to charge her in conjunction with being part of a Russian money laundering operation. Driven by a fierce performance from Chastain, Molly’s Game is a gloriously entertaining movie that glides by. It burns through so much plot so quickly, so much information, that you feel like you might have downloaded Bloom’s book while watching. The musical Sorkin dialogue has never sounded better than through the chagrined, take-no-prisoners Chastain. The snappy dialogue pops, the characters are richly realized, and even during its more outlandish moments, like a surprise paternal reunion therapy session, Sorkin packs multiple movies of entertainment in one brisk, excellently manicured production.
In contrast, Call Me By Your Name is a slower peak into the discovery of romantic feelings between 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Set amid the sunny countryside of northern Italy, the film takes it sweet time establishing the lazy world of its characters and their closely intersecting orbits. I became anxious because the characters kept me at arm’s length, leaving their burgeoning romance to feel distant and tame. I understand the hesitation of both parties and the age difference complicating matters. I understand caution. But it feels like the film is cautious to a fault, to the point that one of them laments later why they wasted so much time. The acting is pleasant if undistinguished. The best scene is a terrific monologue by Michael Stuhlbarg as the world’s most lovably accepting father. For an earth-shattering romance, I too often felt unmoved and restless. If we’re going to spend this much time hanging out with these people we should get to know them more intimately, and not just in the physical sense. I missed the compelling artistic charge of something like a Moonlight. I’m a bit stupefied at all the praise heaped upon Call Me By Your Name, a fine indie drama that, for me, too infrequently delves below its pretty surface into something more substantial.
I don’t know if this recent comparison sheds light on any personal insight, but perhaps I just love big, showy, obvious plot that calls attention to itself, with characters that fill a room, rather than an airy romance that moves at the speed of its own breeze. Anyway you have it, one of these movies makes my Best Of list and the other just makes me shrug.
Molly’s Game: A-
Call Me By Your Name: B-
It feels like the Below Her Mouth filmmakers watched Blue is the Warmest Color and its lengthy, explicit sex scenes and said, “Lesbians don’t have sex like that. There’s way too much scissoring,” and then decided to make their own Blue-style lesbian romance to showcase the frank reality denied to mass audiences. Well, the explicit sex scenes in Below Her Mouth definitely feel more realistic, and they don’t involve even one act of scissoring (just about everything else though). However, they kept the breathy, graphic sex and left behind everything else that made Blue such a phenomenal movie, namely complex characters, an emotionally engaging story, and genuine reasons why these two star-crossed lesbians would be drawn to one another besides the purely physical. To put it simply, Below Her Mouth is inelegant soft-core porn dolled up in indie film dross.
Jasmine (Natalie Krill) is a fashion magazine editor and engaged to her long-time boyfriend, Rile (Sebastian Pigott). Her life is privileged and wealthy but missing passion. This is awakened when she bumps into Dallas (Erika Linder), a love-em-and-leave-em lesbian. Something awakens within Jasmine, who can’t stop thinking of that chance encounter. She climaxes under the running faucet of her bathtub while listening to Dallas work atop a roof, nailing shingles. With Rile conveniently on business, Jasmine agrees to go out for a night with Dallas. They can barely keep their hands off one another, even against the exterior wall of a dirty alley. The two lose themselves in one another for days. Rile accidentally walks in on their activities and Jasmine must decide whom she truly wants.
Since the vivid sex scenes are grabbing all the publicity, let’s discuss them first. Whether it’s a masturbation scene, sex scene, or stripper lapdance, there’s generally something every ten minutes like clockwork, and that’s not even counting the casual nudity of the actors. The lovers get together at the half-hour mark and from there almost half of the next 30 minutes is some variation of the above (I clocked it). So there’s quantity but is there quality? Is the sex erotic? There is a ferocious carnality to it that radiates through the screen and it’s magnified by the kinship of Krill and Linder. They may not be the best actors but they can sell the earthly pleasures like pros. There are multiple instances of the use of a strap-on, which from what I’m told by my lesbian friends is far more prevalent than repeated hard-core scissoring. The sex is lengthy, sweaty, and explicit. I’m fairly certain at one point you see Krill’s inner labia (the movie is unrated, to the surprise of no one). If you’re here for the sex, you’ll leave fairly satisfied.
On the other hand, if you’re here for any other reason or curiosity, Below Her Mouth will leave you cold and indifferent. Because there’s so much sexual congress there’s very little time to get to know either character. Jasmine had a lesbian experience when she was younger that she never got closure from. Dallas has been a “tomboy,” a term she hates, all her life and identified as more masculine than feminine. She also has commitment issues. That’s about it. Neither of those back-stories is worthy of a deep-dive exploration. Without better understanding of the romantic pair we have further trouble identifying why exactly they would fall in love. Blue is the Warmest Color was three hours and explained in great detail why its characters would be attracted to one another and what would ultimately drive them apart. They came across as living, breathing, complicated, flawed, and achingly human characters. The sex in that movie was a bonus to a rich and heartbreaking character study. Jasmine and Dallas exist as ciphers that only exist to lust for one another. These are not interesting people and I think director April Mullen must have realized this. I would feel more passion if I felt more for these people. Even the character names sound soft-core-ish, and that includes Rile, a name I’ve never heard before in my life (#11,580 most popular name according to Baby Center.com).
The dialogue includes some doozies that might just take your breath away, further hampering any connection or engagement with the characters. There are the pseudo-intellectual, laughably poetic lines like, “Have you ever tried to count how many breaths you take in a minute?” There are the clunky, on-the-nose declarations like, “Even inanimate objects aren’t safe from you.” But I think the winner for most groan inducing goes to Dallas’ bit of nonsensical introspection: “I have no emotional stamina for intimacy.” If someone ever says something like that, walk in the other direction.
The acting by our lead couple is rather stilted and unconvincing. I feel like the filmmakers just needed semi-competent actresses that would feel comfortable with the demands of the roles. Linder is a Swedish model making her film debut and she has many roles to go before she becomes comfortable with this whole acting thing. And yet she has a presence that draws you in; perhaps it’s the hunger in her eyes. Krill conversely has a lengthy resume of Canadian TV appearances (Rookie Blue, Wynona Earp). She’s far too emotionally aloof. That could be an acting choice to communicate her character’s funk, but even when she starts to light up from increased interaction with her sweetheart, Krill is flat. I was impressed with Krill’s abs and command of pelvic thrusting, for what it’s worth. Suffice to say both actresses are at their best during their love scenes. I thought the best actor was Dallas’ last ex-girlfriend, Joselyn (Mayko Nguyen, also of Rookie Blue, Killjoys), who has to reconcile that the woman she’s in love with cannot return her feelings. Hers was a character that had the most dramatic potential as presented.
Let’s get to a better question, which is whether or not simply being an erotic escape is enough to justify the film’s validity. Below Her Mouth is one of the few films to have an entirely female-lead crew, which lends it greater credibility with the handling of the subject matter. If you’re looking for a steamy way to pass 85 or so minutes, Below Her Mouth will definitely deliver some desired sensations. There is obvious merit to telling the stories of minority groups that have infrequently seen themselves represented on the big screen with care and normalizing their everyday lives and challenges. The 90s was an explosion of quirky, sexy lesbian indies, mainly rom-coms (Better than Chocolate, Go Fish, Show Me Love, The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love). While those movies broke ground in their own ways with gay voices, they also had the essential elements of story and character and didn’t rely upon a gimmick. People do go to the movies to feel turned on, but if you’re only there to watch the sexy parts, then the characters aren’t people so much as sexual objects for your personal gratification. If the sole purpose of a movie is to titillate then I think you’re in the realm of high-minded pornography. It feels like Below Her Mouth was made for the disposable consumption of the horny. This is a movie that’s only ever skin deep.
Nate’s Grade: C-
What Moonlight achieves is both something different and familiar and amounts to nothing less than watching the birth of human identity on screen. The film chronicles three formative experiences at three different times of a man’s life, each serving as its own one-act play examining our protagonist and his tortured sense of self. The results are breathtaking and deeply immersive, allowing the formation of a human being to take place before your eyes in such magnificent artistic strokes. This is a sensitive, sincere, beautiful movie that serves as an indie coming-of-age tale sliced into three significant parts. I was completely under its sway within ten minutes, finding its perceptive perspective and nuances to be convincingly naturalistic. I felt like I was watching a documentary of a young black man’s life told with ferocious realism, or at least a loosely fictionalized version of a life informed by fully authentic personal experiences. It’s a somewhat ineffable quality for slice-of-life movies but they live or die on whether the film carries an unforced sense of realism, telling larger truths with small details, each piece coming together to make the world and the character feel fully formed. Moonlight pulls you immediately into its orbit thanks to its authentic drama and observations.
The three segments compliment one another as they build toward a young black man’s understanding of his homosexuality. We’ve seen movies before where characters undergo sexual awakenings and from gay perspectives; it’s practically a cottage industry unto itself in independent film. However, rarely have we seen this story from people of color. The expectations of accepted masculinity are entrenched at a young age, where “Little” (Alex Hibbert) is chided by, among others, his own mother Paula (Naomie Harris) for the “swishy” way he walks. It goes without saying that being gay is not exactly widely accepted in the Miami projects of the 1980s. This conflict of what makes a man is wonderfully symbolized with Juan (Mahershala Ali), an unexpected father figure that takes “Little” under his wing along with his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae). The kid wants to know how he can know if he’s gay because it’s certainly something he doesn’t want. Juan doesn’t pressure the boy or make big speeches about what it means to be a young black man in America. Instead, he tries teaching him to accept himself and provides an alternative home that serves as a refuge during his mother’s long absences and crack-withdrawal tirades. There’s a lovely moment where Juan teaches “Little” how to swim, and it’s touching in how recognizably father/son the activity is, how much trust is involved and vulnerability, and how the film doesn’t need to oversell the subtext. Juan definitely becomes the father figure that Chiron lives up to for the rest of his life. This first segment is dominated by their relationship but also Juan’s sense of responsibility. He’s making a living through selling drugs, including to “Little”’s own mother. In a very memorable and heated moment, Paula angrily calls out Juan for thinking he would make a better parent given the moral culpability of his own actions to her habit.
The second segment zooms ahead to when Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is a teenager in high school and subjected to hostile bullying. The schoolyard taunts from his youth have morphed into something more ferocious and toxic, as a collection of bullies torments Chiron and looks to rob him of his personal connections to others. The central focus on the middle segment is about the growing relationship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), the childhood friend who Chrion crushes on. Their closeness takes a leap one fateful night that Chrion will always remember. It’s an awakening and a confirmation of self, and it’s only after having this fulfilling outlet cruelly taken from him that Chiron finally lashes out, with lifelong repercussions. It’s an explosion we can see coming and one that feels fully set up. The second segment feels more familiar because of the age range and it’s the one with the dawning of sexual realization, a story situation we’ve seen before. What elevates it is that it’s a fairly direct carryover from the beginning segment, which means the personal issues have magnified for Chiron. His relationship with his mother has become even more frayed as he’s grown, and what once was name-calling and questions over his maturation has become confirmed. Her addiction has become even stronger and she’s harassing her own son for whatever meager money he’s given from Teresa, his surrogate mother figure. Chiron is struggling to make sense of his feelings in an upbringing lacking support and clarity. You could examine the conclusion of this segment as an empathetic cautionary tale, as we see the years of abuse and measured choices that lead to that confrontation.
The final segment is where Moonlight transforms into a late blooming unrequited romance that should steal your heart if it’s still functioning. “Black” (Trevanta Rhodes) is a fully-grown adult that has seemingly followed in the footsteps of Juan in a life of low-level crime. He’s hardened both emotionally and physically. The muscles will provide an intimidation factor missing during his youth if anyone questions his sexual leanings. He’s burrowed into himself and the role he feels he must accept, but all of that changes the instant he gets an apologetic and searching phone call from Kevin (Andre Holland). Now working as a chef at a diner, Kevin reaches out to his old friend though even he can’t fully explain why. This reawakens “Black”’s longing and he works up the courage to travel back to Miami to surprise the friend who meant so much to him. Their reunion is treated like the culmination of a romance that you may not have realized had you completely. After two segments of setup and years apart, you may find yourself projecting your thoughts to the screen, trying to compel these two men together. It’s an extended sequence that moves at a gradual pace, a fitting tempo for a character racked by insecurities and suppression. By going forward he’s taking a big risk, putting himself out there, and we desperately hope “Black” finds a sense of support. It’s the segment where “Black” finds resolution with the major conflicts that have defined his life, and the climax of the movie is a deeply tender moment where an emotionally reserved man reaches out to another and lets his firmly fixed guard down in the process.
I don’t usually go into such a detailed plot synopsis with my reviews because I like to hit the basics and let the readers experience the story for themselves, but the pleasures and artistic triumphs of Moonlight are in how fully immersed and felt the movie becomes. By telling the story in three noteworthy sections, Moonlight provides an impressionistic statement about the formation of personal identity, specifically a young man growing up black and gay in a hostile environment to both. The movie also blows apart the argument made for 2014’s Boyhood about how truly necessary it was to watch one young actor play the same part for 14 years. Here we have six different actors playing two different characters at three different points in time and the impact is no less great. Here is a movie that doesn’t need a gimmick to have a larger emotional impact on its audience.
Director/co-writer Barry Jenkins has a marvelously fluid and natural feel for his camera, swinging around the parameters of a scene to make the world feel more charged with energy. Jenkins is a born filmmaker and knows how to squeeze the most out of his scenes with gorgeous cinematography and an eclectic musical score that feels traditional with classical orchestration like churning strings layered and rearranged into something arrestingly new and yet still personal. There aren’t many overly stylized choices, rather Jenkins tells his story with uncommon poise and treats one man’s life like an opera, like the greatest story never told on film, like a life of complexity worth the deep dive. There’s a classical lyricism to the presentation that reminded me of the works of Todd Haynes (Carol). There’s one scene where Paula is strung out on crack and finds her son in the middle of a joyous high. Her face fills the frame, absorbing all of Chiron’s world, and her euphoria is inter-spliced with jarring speed ramps in editing, meant to convey the mania and peace that pumps through her veins in this fleeting moment. It’s a stylistic device that isn’t overplayed and has genuine purpose. Jenkins is restrained from self-indulgences and keeps every aspect focused on reflecting the inner life of his lead.
The very talented company of performers makes the movie even more powerful. Ali (Hidden Figures, Luke Cage) is creating serious awards buzz and it’s deserving, though every actor in this movie is deserving of notoriety. Ali plays a man trying to do right by his own sense and he lets you see the troubles that wash over him. Should he insert himself into this young boy’s life? Is he in a position to set an example? Ali has such paternal strength and tenderness while still displaying doubts and regret, hardly deifying this found father figure. Harris (Spectre) is wonderfully horrifying and heartbreaking in her role and has some big moments that convey her given completely into desperation. She’s offended that others would deign replace her but does little to reclaim her title of mother and provider. Holland (Selma) has a world-weary smooth sense of wisdom to him, and his unassuming charisma helps unlock his friend’s true feelings. The three actors who portray “Little”/Chiron/”Black” are each exceptional, giving different performances and interpretations, further supporting Jenkins’ artistic thesis.
Moonlight is a beautiful film told with such delicate care and a resounding sense of authenticity and personal detail. It swallows you whole and leaves you with the impression of a human life observed with tenderness, intimacy, empathy, and grace. It’s about the people and experiences that help guide us onto the paths we take, and while there’s a sense of heartache as we think of what might have been, there’s also the serenity of accepting what has been and what can still be. Jenkins proves himself a superb talent who doesn’t lose sight of his artistic goals with extraneous artifice. There’s a lilting, lovely lyricism to the movie that elevates Chiron’s life into feeling like poetry. This is a life we so rarely get to see given such an artistic and honest examination without condemnation or judgment. It’s the story of a man embracing his identity and overcoming isolation and suppression. This disadvantaged young man is worth your emotions, your sympathies, and your attention. Moonlight is an alluring and heartrending film that manages to be deeply personal and universal at the same time. It’s sublime.
Nate’s Grade: A
I’m glad there’s still a filmmaker at the talent level of director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) dedicated to making genuine Gothic romance with style and reverence. The Handmaiden is a ravishing, enrapturing, and momentously engaging movie with dark delights, startling depths, palpable romance, simmering tension, and high-wire twists and turns that keep redefining the story. The absurdly talented filmmaker takes a novel set in Victorian England and adapts the setting to 1930s Korea during the time of Japanese occupation, a fascinating and little-known time period for a Western audience. A poor orphan Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) is pressured into a scheme to trick the wealthy Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) into being admitted to an insane asylum, her family riches sold. From the opening minutes, The Handmaiden produces immersive drama that pushes the central characters into consistent conflict to achieve their varying goals. They’re constantly at odds with one another and themselves. There’s even tension between those who hold onto their Korean culture and those who adopt the culture of their oppressors, namely Lady Hideko’s perverse and treacherous uncle. Sook-Hee grows an unexpected affection for her mistress, and this includes a burgeoning attraction that the movie communicates with serious sensuality. The passionate lesbian sex scenes are, if anything, a tad restrained from what I was expecting from Chan-wook, and they’re definitely far more restrained and absent the male gaze than the still excellent Blue is the Warmest Color. I felt the same carnal desire the characters were discovering, a feat worth celebrating for still staying true tonally without veering into tawdry exploitation. More than the sex or the top-notch technical aspects, it was the characters that hooked me and refuse to relinquish. The deepening relationships and the subtle shifts of loyalty, perception, and desire make what is essentially a twisty and twisted chamber-play into world-class drama. You think it’s one kind of movie, and then it flips the script, and then it does it again, each time opening wider this mysterious, dangerous, and invigorating world. My one quibble is that the final twenty minutes feels unnecessary and self-indulgent, Chan-wook finally scratching a few violent tendencies he had been keeping as veiled up to that point. The Handmaiden is a ridiculously entertaining movie that is handsomely mounted, wonderfully acted by its leading ladies, and a romance worth losing your self over. Plus, there’s also the sex.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Have you ever watched a movie that was so understated you wanted to jump into the onscreen world and push the characters around? That’s exactly how I felt with Carol, an unrequited lesbian romance set against the closeted and intolerant era of 1950s America. Carol (Cate Blanchett) is a rich wife who meets Therese (Rooney Mara), a department store employee who assists with her Christmas shopping. They are both drawn to one another in the strange way that love works, and their possible relationship could jeopardize Carol’s custody of her young child. Because of the time period, so much of this romantic liaison is internalized and thus we get longing looks, small gestures that are meant to speak volumes, and plenty of starting and stopping, leaving the audience to fill in the blanks. I don’t have an issue with unrequited romances but Carol is one that feels like its entire world, painstakingly recreated, has been placed under glass for study. There’s no passion evident throughout the movie and I was left wondering what exactly Therese saw in Carol and vice versa. Neither woman has a particularly strong personality, though that could be a side effect of having to live publicly as a different person. I couldn’t get into them as characters and so felt little interest in seeing them together, which made the constant circling and nervous indecision even more belabored. Blanchett and Mara are quite good and director Todd Haynes (I’m Not There) handles the material with respectful subtlety, I just wish that Carol could have shaken off some of that subtlety and given me a better reason to care about these women. It’s understated to death.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The French drama Blue is the Warmest Color has been bathed in publicity and controversy ever since its debut at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. It’s a three-hour lesbian romance about sexual awakening and finding a deep human connection, but all anyone wanted to talk about was the graphic sex. The drama split audiences down the middle, with people like Steven Spielberg praising its unflinching examination on the craving and heartache of young love, and others like New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis called the director/writer Abdellatif Kechiche “oblivious to real women.” It’s an impressive film, a rapturous love story for the twenty-first century that defies swift categorization. This isn’t just a gay film. This isn’t just a romance. This is a highly relatable, appealing, and heartbreaking movie of the first-order; however, both the defenders and detractors of Blue have substantial merits to their claims.
Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) is a normal 17-year old girl trying to gather a sense of her self. Her peers are pressuring her to lose her virginity with a popular guy, but it’s another person, a mysterious blue-haired lass, that Adele can’t stop thinking about. This woman, the somewhat older Emma (Lea Seydoux) is an art student and an out lesbian. One night, Adele follows her into a lesbian bar and they strike up a friendship, one that quickly translates into something more romantic. Over the rest of the movie, we cover several years of Adele and Emma’s lives together and learn that each has left an indelible mark on the other, for good and bad.
Let’s tackle the portion that’s gotten the most coverage in the media, the graphic sex sequences that earned the film the rare stateside NC-17 rating. You may have thought 2011’s sex addict drama, Shame, earned its NC-17 rating, but Blue trounces it. Short of unsimulated sex scenes in movies like Shortbus and 9 Songs, I doubt many audience members have experienced sex sequences this explicit and this lengthy (you may start checking your watch at some point). At its Cannes premier, the critical response breathlessly hyped a sexual encounter that went on for 18 minutes. That number may be the total onscreen copulation time; the longest sex scene is seven minutes or so, but you do feel the vigorous extension. Is there a particular reason the steamy sex scenes needed to be this long or this graphic? Kechiche likely wanted to communicate an explosion of immeasurable passion unlike anything Emma or Adele will experience in their lives. But did this need to be communicated with seven minutes of orgasmic fingers, lips, and tongues exploring every crevice of their bodies? Would six minutes of enthusiastic sex prove insufficient? I’d be a hypocrite if I said I found little entertainment in watching Exarchopoulos and Seydoux clinging to one another’s sweaty naked bodies, entwined ever so passionately. I just don’t think the film demanded as much drawn out sex when the drama is this strong.
And that’s the mass appeal blurb when it comes to Blue is the Warmest Color: come for the intensity of the sex, stay for the intensity of the feelings. You will swiftly feel the nervousness and sexual tension that comes from the exploration of attraction. All those high school butterflies come fluttering back. The depth of feeling is easily relatable. The characters are searching for unparalleled human connection but also discovering more about who they are. This is a moving, absorbing, and crushing love story, but it’s just as much about two people falling out of love. That was a major surprise for me. What’s more is that the forces behind their breakup are completely understandable and you can see them coming; at heart, they are two different people that operate in different worlds, and they do change over time. That’s excellent storytelling when one can feel for both sides of a breakup, comprehend how this moment arrived, and looking back, see how inevitable a conflict like this would be. Emma’s sphere of friends is one that Adele does not feel a comfortable place within. Emma worries that Adele needs to find a sense of identity outside their relationship. Adele is still too timid to admit the truth about her relationship with a woman to her colleagues and family. These are major conflicts and they simmer and gestate in ways that feel like real life. Beyond some of the specifics in the bedroom (more on that later), there isn’t a moment that feels unbelievable in the entire three hours. This is a naturalistic love story that unfolds in small waves, allowing us to get to know the characters and their lives.
The two actresses are outstanding and bare much more than their flesh for this film. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux disappear into their characters. These are richly developed characters, and each actress does her best to bring them to startling life. Exachopoulos (who looks like a Parisian Maggie Grace) has so much of the film riding on her 19-year-old shoulders since her character is the film’s major point of view; we often see the world through her perspective. She’s excellent as the curious, anxious, bashful young woman, and her encounters with Emma open her world up, allowing Adele to broaden as a person. She’s still not confidant, given to doubts that Emma seems to lack, but Exarchopoulos convinces you of the difference. Every step along her journey is credible, acted with poise, even the uncontrolled weeping. In a just world, this French newcomer would be up for serious acting award consideration. Seydoux is the more assured character, the one who sizes up her interest, but when hurt, the ferocity of Emma’s fury is staggering. This is not a woman to scorn, and Adele will learn this the hard way. Later in the film, as the history hangs in the air between Emma and Adele, we get a powerful sense of how conflicted both women are, having never turned off their feelings but trapped by circumstance and consequences. You feel each member cycle through the myriad of emotions, fumbling between desire and desperation. The actresses work together beautifully, raising one another’s performance, and giving one another the environment to get truly intimate, emotionally and physically.
Allow me to wade into some awkward territory and address some questions I have with the logistics of the graphic lesbian sex scenes. Now I have never been a lesbian but I am friends with a few, though I have never interrogated them on the subject‘s specifics because, well, that would be weird. With that said, I’m fairly certain that there are several positions and sequences between Adele and Emma that defy reality and, more so, practicality. For the more timid readers, please skip to the next paragraph. Much has been made about the breathy, energetic sexual activity on display, but some of it is just baffling. First off, I’m pretty certain that scissoring is not a terribly drawn out and essential part of lesbian lovemaking. Again, not having the equipment in discussion, I do believe that forcibly mashing one’s gentials, unsheathed, for long periods, against another harder surface is probably asking for some rug burns (I suppose this could work the same way for either gender). Then there are incidents like Emma’s head placement when it comes to performing cunnilingus. Rather than having Adele lie on her back, she instead lies flat on her stomach and Emma shoves her face into Adele’s rear. She doesn’t need to take the scenic route; there is a shortcut that works far better.
There is a larger point in my rehashing of the prurient details in Blue, and that is chiefly that the film is more a representation of a man’s fantasy of lesbian sex. The male gaze, a term referred to often in feminist film criticism, is trenchant in this film. Kechiche’s camera doesn’t just love his two young stars; it fawns over them, lusts over them. The camera is always within inches of Adele’s face, glued to tight shots lingering over Exarchopoulos’s pouty lips. Seriously, the actress has her mouth open the entire movie, her lips forever pillowy, forever pouting. It’s a sensual movie, yes, but does every shot of young Adele need to be so tawny and voyeuristic, her hair always slightly askew in her face, her body positioned just so that her assets are featured? Critics like Dargis are correct about Kechiche’s fawning camera pushing over into the boundary of erotic fetishism. This is where my questioning of sexual positioning comes back; going ass backwards when it comes to cunnilingus (and yes, I will intend that pun) is aesthetically pleasing in a sensuous manner, and that feels like the dictum of Kechiche’s intimate camerawork. It’s heterosexual male pleasure represented on screen, at least in its depiction. Otherwise, with the camera always tethered inches away from Adele’s face, why don’t we remain focused on her face during all this physical pleasure? It can be just as erotic. However, with all that out there, why can’t lesbian sex be given the same ridiculous fantasy depictions of heterosexual sex in the movies? I can almost guarantee that pool tables are not a prime location for indulging one’s urges. And just showcasing lesbian sex onscreen between a committed couple (not just girl-on-girl flings like in Black Swan) and normalizing it, whatever intention, is a virtue.
But it’s not just the sex scenes that could use some judicious snipping; the entire three-hour enterprise could be easily consolidated. The film is replete with loping scenes that sort of drift along, recreating the ordinary rhythms of life rather than the plot beat connect-the-dots we associate with most film narratives. That’s fine, you need time to establish characters and setting, but do we need people interpreting poetry at length and indulging in gender philosophy for minutes on end? Perhaps if I watched Blue is the Warmest Color a second time I’d be more tolerable of the narrative bloat, finding added subtext and metaphor to all those ponderous philosophical discussions over the nature of the self and gender identity. Of course seeing a three-hour movie, again, is going to take a significant time commitment.
Sensual throughout, beautifully developed, richly observed, and brought to life with bristling and audacious acting, Blue is the Warmest Color is a love story that hits hard with emotional force. By nicely realizing the characters, providing them depth and fallibility, we can empathize with them along the different stops of their romantic journey, seeing where each is coming from and understanding the yearning, frustration, and passion. When things are good, there’s a frisson on screen, a palpable sense of desire accentuated by Kechiche’s loving (and occasionally obsessive/fetishized) camerawork. The acting by Exarchopoulos and Seydoux is as raw and fevered as their onscreen lovemaking. I doubt it needed to be a full three hours long, and I doubt the notorious NC-17-earning sex scenes needed to be as graphic to communicate delight, but I’m most pleased that Blue is offering a full movegoing experience, watching the formation of two characters over time and how they change. It’s easily watchable even during its more ponderous, dare I say French-y, sidesteps. The ending is a slight misstep, calling out for greater certainty, but the French title for the film was, Adele: Chapters 1 & 2, the implication being there may be future cinematic adventures that await these people. I don’t know if this will ever come to fruition considering the original graphic novel by Julie Maroh is a mere 160 pages, rather shrift considering the medium, but I can hope. Romances this involving, observant, and intense don’t come around too often and deserve to be cherished. Just consider the sex a bonus.
Nate’s Grade: A
It’s been a while since Hollywood really tackled the AIDS crisis and the prejudices associated with it. Thanks to better understanding and tolerance, and a rise in life-extending drug treatments, AIDS is rarely stigmatized today as it once was, as a death sentence, as a gay disease. It’s faded into the back of most people’s minds. It’s been twenty years since Philadelphia and Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning performance. Has it been too long? The drama Dallas Buyers Club returns to the early years of the AIDS crisis and the ignorance of the age, illuminating a lesser known true story about one of the most unlikely activists to emerge.
In 1985, Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) is a Texas electrician and part-time rodeo bull rider. He’s drinking, snorting cocaine, and sleeping with every woman he lays eyes on. Then one day he collapses and wakes up in the hospital. He’s told he has contracted HIV/AIDS and likely only has 30 days left to live. Ron is aghast, instantly defensive, declaring, “I ain’t no faggot.” Rather than wallow, he fights to live as long as he can, refusing to be part of a hospital drug treatment for AZT unless they can tell him, definitively, he’s getting the actual drug and not the placebo. Ron travels to Mexico and finds a sympathetic doctor with alternative treatments involving vitamins and other natural drugs, none of them illegal, just unapproved by the FDA. Ron returns to the States and runs into trouble trying to sell his wares to the afflicted gay community. Raylon (Jared Leto), a kindly transvestite suffering from AIDS, agrees to help Ron make inroads, for a percentage of the sales. Ron and his unlikely business partner skirt legal loopholes to sell “memberships” into the titular Dallas Buyers Club. With monthly dues, every member gets a dose of attentive medicine, and it’s having remarkable results.
The bulk of the attention Dallas Buyers Club has received is from the transformative performances of its two lead male actors, and they are exceptional. McConaughey (Mud) begins as the sort of character we’ve seen before, the swaggering cowboy who’s a natural ladies’ man, but as his life quickly falls apart and his circle of friends turn on him in gay panic and ignorance, Ron is pushed to the brink. McConaughey’s weight loss, which garnered plenty of ink in tabloids last year, is startling and instantly echoes his character’s dire state. Likewise, when you see a late scene of Leto (Lord of War), his frame is so gaunt, so frail, and so evocative of the few remaining moments these men have left to them. It’s no stunt or gimmick because their performances, even without the weight loss, are enormously affecting and powerful. Both men project a blustery confidence they themselves occasionally buy into, but both men are, naturally, scared witless, fumbling, scrambling against the clock. McConaughey is the strong face, the wheeler-dealer who has to use his live-wire charm and bag of tricks to get the meds. As roadblock after roadblock is thrown his way, we readily watch the toll is takes on Ron, the heaviness of his burden that becomes more about people than money. Leto is the conscience of the film and as he shrinks away, you can’t help but feel the inescapable tragedy. Leto will break your heart. I fully expect both men not only to be nominated for Oscars but likely to be favorites to win.
Despite the strength of those two outstanding performances, the film itself doesn’t measure up in a disappointing number of ways. The script by Craig Borten and Melissa Walleck misses far too many opportunities to round out the characters and the central conflict. The second half of Dallas Buyers Club feels a tad rudderless, and this is mostly because of a general sense of sameness in Ron’s conflicts. He butts heads with the FDA, finds a loophole, keeps going. This pattern repeats but it never escalates until the very end. As a result, the film feels like it’s treading water when it shouldn’t be. The portrayal of the FDA and other antagonists is decidedly one-note, almost to a ghoulishly degree. The movie sets up the piñata of Big Business/Pharma to take easy whacks at a faceless, money-driven entity that put profits before human lives. I get it, but it’s too easy and a movie that gropes for emotional depth should not have to stoop to caricatures of bureaucratic evil. The truth of the matter is that there was plenty of legal intransigence and feet dragging when it came to the response to AIDS, and that’s why it feels almost callously wrong for Dallas Buyers Club to reduce this dramatic point in history, where 95% of people who contracted HIV/AIDS had a month left to live, to an us vs. them/slobs vs. snobs underdog tale. That reductive condensing is a disservice to the real people but also a greater dramatic story at heart here.
I’d also like to note that the characters themselves are lacking. They held my interest, certainly, but what can I say about them? What moments revealed nuance or progression? The character arcs are dramatic with a capital D: homophobic Texas good ole’ boy becomes unlikely AIDS activist and friend to gays. The parameters are clearly mapped out, the start and the finish, but what’s lacking is substantive growth that I can acknowledge onscreen. Beyond the ongoing presence of Raylon, the movie doesn’t provide enough evidence for me to move Ron from homophobe to activist. I think this is due to the script meeting the basic requirements of what it thinks are the big signposts along Ron’s personal journey. So we get a scenario such as Ron refusing to enter a gay bar, then cautiously entering, then feeling comfortable around gay people. I don’t need people to trip over soapboxes to blurt out their inner feelings, their changing perspectives, but there has to be more than what’s presented in the interest of time and narrative cohesion. Likewise, Raylon is portrayed as saintly, your prototypical movie gay man with flamboyance and attitude, and he is certainly charming, but much like the main character in 12 Years a Slave, Raylon is more tragic martyr than fully-realized character. His service to the script is to push Ron forward on his own humanizing arc, and I’ve already stated my problems with that. The remaining characters are underwritten, with the unfeeling Dr. Sevard (Dennis O’Hare) served up as a stooge. Except he’s trying to get a sample size to test a drug’s viability, the same process with all medicine. Yet because he’s looking at the big picture, and lacks bedside manner, he’s the enemy to harrumph. Jennifer Garner’s character is more an exposition spout than person.
Weirdly, the movie drifts into an extended subplot, almost a secondary antagonist after the FDA, against the preliminary AZT drug treatment. This was the first major drug produced to combat HIV/AIDS. It had major backing with huge pharmaceutical industries. Opposition to the conventional norm of the time (AZT is our only medical hope) provides a snug storyline to garner our rooting interest in Ron, but this fight seems too impersonal and one-sided. We’re given reams of stats on the effects of AZT on AIDS patients, presenting a picture that AZT breaks down the patient’s immune system. Dallas Buyer’s Club becomes a sermon against AZT. The movie doesn’t have to be apolitical but it needs to mask its sermonizing or at least be more passionate about its case. Then in the end credits we’re served a short post-script saying that a low-dose AZT, in combination with other drugs, saved millions of lives. After hearing two hours of how terrible and stupid AZT is for treatment, it’s a surprising endnote. Does that justify the doctors that the film so easily vilified?
Ultimately a good film worth watching, I can’t help but continue finding problems as I reflect upon my Dallas Buyers Club experience. If it wasn’t for the excellent acting onscreen, I would have noticed the flaws of Dallas Buyers Club even earlier, but strong acting has a way of being a soothing balm with the deficiencies in a film. The narrative, with easy one-note villains and a runaround of repetitive conflicts, needs more development to match the caliber of performances of McConaughey and Leto. Both men give it their all, breaking your heart in the process, and their performances are even more commendable and impressive when you realize that the film’s characterization is wanting. I feel like the complexity of this volatile time, and Ron Woodroof as a human being and unlikely activist, have been simplified into a rah-rah mass appeal underdog vehicle. I think this does a disservice to the characters and their personal drama, and I wish the filmmakers presented them better as well-rounded individuals rather than tools for the re-education of Ron Woodroof. There’s enough good here to balance out the could-have-been-better, chiefly the power of the central male performances. However, if you want a passionate account of early AIDS activism, I suggest checking out last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague.
Nate’s Grade: B
Despite a slate of quality movies by homegrown filmmakers, Iran is not exactly the most film friendly country conceivable. Governed by a strict set of Islamic moral laws, filmmaking has often been conflated with Western cultural corruption. In 2010, Jafar Panahi, an internationally renowned Iranian filmmaker, was sentenced to six years in prison for nebulous charges of conspiring against ruling forces. He was also banned from making any movies, or even scriptwriting, for 20 years. Just imagine what the country’s moral authority would say about Circumstance, an independent drama about teen lesbians. The controversial movie was filmed in Lebanon and populated with Iranian-born actors living in North America. The movie is, no surprise, banned in Iran.
Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) are two teenage girls living in modern-day Tehran. They are both free-spirited and yearning for the freedoms not afforded under strict Islamic law. They sneak away from their families to go to parties where they drink, smoke, listen to forbidden music, and dance with boys. The two girls’ lives become even more complicated when they start having new feelings for one another. Shireen’s parents are dead and she lives with her traditional uncle, who is looking to marry the girl off. A suitable suitor is Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), Atafeh’s older brother. Mehran is back after an, unsuccessful, stint in drug rehab and looks to stern religion to guide him. Shireen and Atafeh must keep their love a secret or risk losing everything they hold dear.
Circumstance seems, under the circumstances of geopolitical intolerance, to be casually tagged as “that Iranian lesbian movie,” much like Brokeback Mountain was initially dismissed as that “gay cowboy movie.” In a sense the movie doesn’t rise beyond the sum of its parts, but it does portray an intriguing slice of life hidden from mainstream society. You pretty much expect that things are not going to work out for these star-crossed Iranian girls, but that doesn’t stop you from hoping that they’ll beat the long impossible odds (the girls talk about running off to Dubai where “anything is possible”). The character work can be lacking, sadly. The girls will drift from scene to scene, perhaps metaphorically indicating the limited role of women in this strict environment. Then again it could just be a screenwriting deficiency. There’s enough interest in a secret lesbian romance behind the veil, but the story would have resonated greater had the characters been given greater attention. They seem real; there’s little in the film that seems inauthentic. The girls and their lives of limited options feels pressingly real, I just wanted to buy into their romance more. The friendship is there but the establishment of desire is taken for granted. A couple of sequences with roaming hands do not substitute for laying down character work. By the end of the movie, one of them blithely accepts her destiny as an unhappy subjugated bride, while the other escapes for a life abroad with possibility. The emotional impact of the ending is diminished. We feel sorry for them, but do we feel the ache of tragedy? I could not, and the unreasonably abrupt ending left zero in the way of resolution.
If you’re looking to quicken a few heartbeats, Circumstance should do the trick. Naturally a story about two young women falling for each other has a spark of eroticism. Writer/director Maryam Keshavarz offers a welcomed feminine perspective on budding sensuality. Her camera lingers on close-ups of hands, fingers dancing across goose bumped flesh. The film manages to be erotic without dipping into exploitation; there is only the briefest of partial nudity and the girl-on-girl activity is tastefully portrayed. Keshavarz could have pushed further so that the audience would feel the sense of longing that drives Shireen and Atafeh.
The unrequited lesbian romance is practically a genre unto itself in independent cinema. It’s a natural magnet for drama: suppressed feelings, oppressive regimes forbidding the forbidden love, and the spark of sensuality at the bloom of youth. I would argue that 1999’s Aimee and Jaguar is the best unrequited romance of modern cinema, gay or straight. Like Circumstance, that film dealt with a surprising lesbian romance during a time when homosexuals were persecuted (Germany in World War II). It seems given the terrain that you’d expect Circumstance to walk the line between unrequited lesbian romance and coming of age tale. While not as fully convincing about the sickness that first love can develop, like 2004’s teen lesbian romance My Summer of Love which gave the world Emily Blunt, Circumstance does present an interesting story due to the particular hostilities the girls must evade. Iran is a rather hostile place for women of all stripe, let alone ones with homosexual tendencies. This is, after all, the same country whose leader publically proclaimed that Iran did not have one gay citizen. The pressures to conform are omnipresent. Atafeh and Shireen are detained simply for going out late and wearing makeup in public. I wish the film had gone into greater specifics about the dangers the girls faced, rather then operate on the assumption that their actions would easily fall in the “no-no” category. I don’t consider myself a sadist, but more scenes like the police detention would dial up the peril as well as better articulate the impossibility of their romance.
While not living to its potential as an unrequited romance, Circumstance succeeds in other ways, namely as a showcase of the cultural struggles of modern-day Iran. We get an interesting glimpse into the underground youth culture, showcasing a world that fights for existence where young people will risk their lives for a taste of Western or modern culture. The particulars of this underground scene are not dealt with in any meaningful way; the characters just seem to duck into hidden parties and peel off their street clothes. One of the characters in the film states that everything is political, and just by showing the flourishing underground youth culture Keshavarz has made a political statement. I would have enjoyed more examination on this cultural schism. We see friends of Atafeh discussing the finer qualities of Milk in a hidden video store, discussing the relatability of the human rights message. They even plan on dubbing it over into Farsi and attaching it to a bootleg of the Sex and the City movie for maximum exposure. When this youthful rebellion gets uncovered late in the film, Iranian officials blame a widespread conspiracy involving Israel and the United States to weaken Iran. Circumstance oddly steers clear from showing many consequences of being caught. As a result, the hidden youth culture feels too protected from the country’s powerful Morality Police.
The Mehran character is the movie’s biggest stumbling block. He’s supposed to be an antagonist in some respects, though his long creepy lustful stares don’t seem to amount to much. His transition from failed musical student to religion convert is poorly handled. He’s seen smoking hardcore drugs but then it appears that Mehran is never tempted again with drugs. I assume that, as presented, Mehran has replaced drugs with religion (Karl Marx would nod to himself). The film’s conflict between modernism and theocratic rule is minimally addressed. The fact that the father, an affluent, college-educated middleclass secular man who was a rebel in his youth, is drawn back to religion by the film’s end is hard to swallow without more convincing evidence or commentary. The entire storyline where Mehran secretly spies on his family with hidden videos seems completely superfluous. It’s just another way to make the guy look creepy, which is just piling on. The hidden surveillance, the idea that women are always being scrutinized, could make for an interesting addition, but not as presented.
The two female leads, Boosheri and Kazemy, are both lovely ladies, giving tender, emotional, affecting performances. I just wish that Circumstance were less shallow when it came to its characters and specific plotlines. This unrequited romance is missing some necessary ingredients to work as a movie. The character work and plot can be frustratingly shallow at times, and the obvious peril of being young, female, and gay in Iran is too often left assumed. Circumstance is an interesting cultural document of Iran, but as the “Iranian lesbian movie” it fails to stretch beyond this simplistic branding.
Nate’s Grade: B-