Sex, beauty and role play at IFFR 2016

Last year, I participated in International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Trainee Programme for Young Film Critics. It was my first visit to a film festival outside the UK and it opened up a world of cinema I’d yet to see at that point. Going back this year has been a very different experience, not least of all for navigating the programme without the structure of jury screenings to attend. When faced with a programme as massive as IFFR’s, it can be daunting to know what to see. I took the opportunity to see some celebrated work by established directors (Ben Rivers, Lucille Hadzihalilovic, Laurie Anderson, and Whit Stillman) and was drawn to new work by female filmmakers considering issues of representation, compliance, gender, and sexuality.

Melisa Liebenthal’s Las Lindas, which had its world premiere screening in the Bright Future section, is an autobiographical essay film, focused on her adolescence and that of her friends, how they developed into young women and the societal expectations they felt to be attractive.

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Las Lindas (The Pretty Ones)

Chronicling the shifting loyalties among her school friends, Liebenthal explains how, between the ages of 9-12, she and her friend Camilla were very close, slightly apart from a group of girls they would later bond with, who referred to themselves as the ‘Little She Stars.’ The ‘Stars’ were popular, confident and close with the boys from their class. By contrast, Liebenthal states that, ‘at the age of 12 I decided to stop smiling in photographs.’ A montage of pictures attests to this, with Liebenthal seen at the beach, or a museum or with family, each time with the same half blank, half serious expression. The smile is this director’s first target for critiquing the conditioning of young women to be compliantly attractive to men. “You’re prettier if you smile” – and other persuasion tactics – are here identified as absurd but extremely effective manipulations, seen in the countless photos of smiling girls shown, that contrast with Liebenthal’s straight-faced rebellion.

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The young Melisa Liebenthal

It’s an entertainingly frank, clear and witty self-portrait that neatly places the filmmaker’s own experience within the context of wider issues around gender inequality, relying more on personal testimony than statistics or academic theory. Liebenthal’s willingness to expose her own insecurities, her inviting self-awareness, combined with editor Sofia Mele’s efficient handling of each sequence, make Las Lindas not just a film every teenager should see, but a thoughtful and worthy contribution to the essay-film genre.

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Actor Martinez l-r: Mike Ott, Arthur Martinez, Lindsay Burdge, Nathan Silver

In five years, prolific American director Nathan Silver has made six feature films and five short films. I saw Stinking Heaven at IFFR last year, where the director has been well featured over the years. That film looked at the use of role play as therapy in a communal living situation, and with his new work, Actor Martinez, Silver has teamed up with co-director Mike Ott, to take the concept of role play as far as possible. Seen in the film as themselves – or versions of themselves – Ott and Silver follow actor/full time computer repairman, Arthur Martinez as he goes about his daily life; you might call such scenes documentary. Arthur also performs as himself in scenes constructed by Ott and Silver, and the three of them hold auditions for the part of Arthur’s love interest. Actor Martinez frequently works with set ups and reveals, between what is presented as ‘document’ and what is play, even its two directors set up scenes where they read lines as themselves, playing almost Machiavellian overlords to Arthur’s life. The latter complains consistently that the experience is ruining his life, and that he no longer knows what is real and what is play, and appears to evade revealing his ‘true’ self to his tormentors, who, frustrated, push the limits of what is tolerable not only for Arthur, but for his co-star, Lindsay Burdge. What is ultimately ‘actual’ and what is constructed remains a puzzle that Ott and Silver clearly want their audience to enjoy trying to solve.

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Maggie Siff in A Woman, A Part

Also interested in role play, is Elisabeth Subrin’s A Woman, A Part, which had its world premiere at the festival. Maggie Siff (Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy) plays Anna Baskin, an actor who takes an abrupt leave from her successful TV role to go back to her old apartment in New York. There she meets up with two friends with whom she once collaborated in the ‘90s; Kate (Cara Seymour, American Psycho, The Knick) who is less than happy to see her, and Isaac (John Ortiz, Silver Linings Playbook) who welcomes her, but isn’t altogether honest. The three friend’s fractured relationship then becomes the film’s focus, with as much time spent on Kate’s internal struggles – showcasing Seymour’s incredible performance – as Anna’s journey back to stability. A Woman, A Part is perhaps flawed in not allowing enough of the comic moments its cast are clearly capable of delivering, but it’s refreshing to see an adult drama where the protagonist’s lives feel authentically written, they have real flaws, which mean you can’t like them all the time. Each of them is still trying to find their role, and seeing the process of them push each other is often very thoughtfully done. Still, the ending is perhaps too neat for all that’s gone before.

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I saw two very different approaches to female sexuality in Nicolette Krebitz’s Wild and Anna Biller’s The Love Witch. In the former, writer/director Krebitz extracts a compelling performance from her lead, Lilith Stangenberg as Ania, a young woman who one day sees a wolf in the woods near her apartment and becomes obsessed with capturing it. Much is made of Ania’s sad and repetitive life, and her introverted personality, enhanced by a palette of grey blue and her somewhat girlish clothes, all the more to demonstrate the change that affects her when she and the wolf become housemates. There’s a level of absurdity to some sequences, notably when Ania’s sexual fantasies play out, but this seems to come more from a knowing sense of humour than unintentional clumsiness. Stangenberg’s performance remains one of conviction, and very much carries the film to its inevitable conclusion. Krebitz is playing with the theme of the instinctual, wild woman supressed by the expectations of the patriarchy, and she does so with a kind of gleeful wickedness that is actually, a lot of fun.

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Samantha Robinson as Elaine and Jeffrey Vincent Parise as Wayne in The Love Witch

Fun, also is The Love Witch in which writer/director/editor/producer Anna Biller (who also did production and costume design) has created a present-day scenario where young lovelorn witch Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is intent on embodying the ultimate male sexual fantasy. Using the aesthetics of 1960s sexploitation cinema and shot on 35mm, Biller envelopes the viewer in a completely realised, technicolour world, at once removed from, and inherently familiar as, ‘real’. Real in the sense that Elaine’s entirely constructed femininity, functioning to give pleasure to the men she gives her love potion to, is only a slight exaggeration from the everyday standard of beauty with which women are still conditioned to comply, as is demonstrable from Las Lindas.

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Elaine with Laura Waddell as Trish in The Love Witch

Despite Elaine’s layers of artificiality and obliviousness, Biller is sympathetic to her brainwashed central character, making clear that it’s the men in her life who have led her to follow this path, and who will, finally and tragically, oppose her. Along the way, the sheer beauty and level of attention to detail in The Love Witch is stunning, and Robinson’s performance shows an astonishing commitment to the physicality of the role, which requires great restraint and poise (utilising her background in dancing). The Love Witch was a particular highlight of IFFR 2016 – a gloriously seductive feminist work, and a distinctly pleasurable viewing experience.


Also seen: Heart of a Dog, Laurie Anderson
The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the two Eyes are not Brothers, Ben Rivers
A Woman, A Part, Elizabeth Subrin
Strange Love, Natasha Mendonca
Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman
Evolution, Lucille Hadzihalilovic
Sixty Six, Lewis Klahr
History’s Future, Fiona Tan
Arianna, Carlo Lavanga

My week in film: Beyond the Lights, Brooklyn and Joy

Viewed this week, three films about female lives that in different ways present the difficulties of balancing a personal and professional life.

Gina Prince-Blythewood’s Beyond the Lights went without a cinema release in the UK last year, despite its excellent cast (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Minnie Driver, Danny Glover) and pertinent plot – it concerns a young R&B singer struggling with fame and self-perception – and critics felt that this might be due to an expectation of the audience’s racial bias, among other reasons (The best films you won’t see in cinemas, Telegraph). Now on Netflix, the film is well worth seeking out. Mbatha-Raw plays Noni, coached by her mother (Driver) from a young age to succeed at all costs in the tough music business, who is on the brink of releasing an album that will ‘change everything.’ Clearly unhappy with the enormous pressure, after an awards show, Noni attempts suicide but is talked down from her hotel balcony by the police officer (Nate Parker) assigned to her. What follows is Noni’s uncertain navigation of her future – everything has changed for her, but her mother/manager ignores her internal struggle.

Minnie Driver and Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Beyond the Lights isn’t without cliché, its bodyguard/singer central pairing is very familiar, but what’s refreshing is the way Prince-Blythewood creates a world for her authentic characters that feels utterly convincing and deeply sympathetic to Noni’s journey towards emancipation. Taught at a pivotal, early stage in life that only winning is of value, regardless of what is costs, Noni must learn to value herself first, instead. Mbatha-Raw’s performance is immensely affecting, as she balances Noni’s public and private personas with skill.

Another enjoyable performance is at the heart of Brooklyn, now nominated for three Oscars (Best Film, Best lead actress*, Best adapted screenplay) and six BAFTA’s (Best film, lead actress, supporting actress, best screenplay, best costume design and best make-up). Adapted by Nick Hornby from the novel by Colm Tóibín, the 1950’s set Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), who moves to New York from Ireland to work, leaving behind her sister, Rose and mother. Eilis, at first homesick, eventually settles into her life working at a department store, taking night classes in accounting and living at Mrs Keogh’s (Julie Walters) boarding house, all arranged by Father Flood (Jim Broadbent). Eilis even falls in love, with Tony (Emory Cohen), and their tender romance is the final element that will bond her to her new home.

Emory Cohen and Saoirse Ronan

Again, it’s the expectations of others that Eilis must rebel against. When drawn home, it appears to Eilis that the life she never thought she’d have in Ireland might be possible after all, and director John Crowley makes much of her homeland’s charms, just as her friends and relatives appear desperate for her to stay. As in Beyond the Lights, it’s the search for freedom that is essential to the character. Though both films have romantic elements, neither Noni or Eilis are motivated entirely by their relationships with men, rather it’s their desire to discover a life that will be true to their own ideals and values that drives each narrative.

In David O. Russell’s Joy, with Jennifer Lawrence in the title role, the struggle for financial success plays a greater part in the story, where Lawrence’s divorced mother of two pursues her dream as the inventor of a self-wringing mop. Living with her permanently bed-located mother and her ex-husband and father in the basement, whilst maintaining a job as a travel agent with an unreliable car, much is made of Joy’s chaotic life. Like David Lynch before him (but with half as much style), Russell uses the camp of soap operas as an analogue for Joy’s messy life, where the stakes are high and a large cast of characters are all invested in the outcome of her invention.

l-r Edgar Ramirez, Elizabeth Rohm, Dascha Polanco, Isabella Rossellini, Robert De Niro Jennifer Lawrence, Diane Ladd

There’s lots to enjoy here- Virginia Madsen’s affectionate performance as Joy’s mother Terry, the lolloping pace, which seems to progress the film’s plot in spirals, and of course, just the presence of Isabella Rossellini. There’s something a little bit bonkers about Joy, too though, and not in a way that feels purposeful, as was the case with the delightful and thoughtful I Heart Huckabees. It’s an American Dream tale after all, and the many set-backs Joy faces feel somehow artificial, (but maybe that’s the point) as though she must overcome an ever increasing number of hurdles in order to truly appreciate being able to have power hair and wear a power suit and be the entrepreneur her granny always knew she would be. Where Joy fails and Brooklyn and Beyond the Lights succeed, is in giving a sense of who their central characters are, rather than just being an accumulation of personal struggles.

Also watched: Slow West (John Maclean), which was somewhat unconvincing.

LOCAL/LOCALE season at EFG: Tired Moonlight

The final screening in the mini season LOCAL/LOCALE at Edinburgh Film Guild is the UK premiere of Britni West’s Slamdance award-winning Tired Moonlight. Set and shot in West’s hometown of Kalispell, Montana, Tired Moonlight uses mainly non-professional actors and a ‘documentary’ approach to capture the atmosphere of this simultaneously ordinary and special place. The director went back to Kalispell over the summers of 2012 and 2013, working from an 80 page script but with the flexibility to allow the performer’s own personalities and experiences to influence the film’s direction.

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Liz Randall as Dawn and Rainleigh Vick as Rainy

The film’s main characters are the poet Paul Dickinson, who plays himself and whose writing features in the film, and Dawn, played by Liz Randall, a woman who lives alone. Dawn’s ‘small’ story is essentially about the new connections she makes, first with a four year old girl and then with Paul, and Tired Moonlight relishes the awkwardness and vulnerability of opening up to others, within the a setting where it might be assumed that everyone knows each other. tired moonlight2Beyond this central conceit, West’s method while shooting was to allow the town to guide her in terms of what was important to portray, just as can be seen in the work of Miguel Gomes, in last week’s EFG screening Our Beloved Month of August and Arabian Nights. Says West; ‘We would see what was happening, who was around, try and figure out if there was something more interesting that we should be focusing on. It was loose, but also held together by this thread of my experiences, care for the environment in which I grew up, and love of the people I was working with and meeting along the way.’* tired moonlight5Shooting on Super 16mm, cinematographer Adam Ginsberg (Stinking Heaven, Nathan Silver, 2015) captures the beauty in the landscape and the small moments between people, making Tired Moonlight’s sense of place so evocative. The result of this looseness and beauty in shooting, the affection for the location, and a narrative lead by ‘real’ people is a film that succeeds so well in describing the experience of living in Montana, without treating those who do as curiosities.

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Paul Dickinson

Tired Moonlight screens at 7pm on Sunday 6 December. If you’d like more information about the whole mini season check out the EFG page here, or the other programme notes here on Cinematic Investigations, listed below.

Sunday 8 November: MAN OF THE STORY (KATHAPURUSHAN). Adoor Gopalakrishnan/India, Japan/1995/102/Malayalam with English subtitles.

Sunday 15 November: WHITE COAL. Georg Tiller/Austria, Poland, Taiwan/2015/70 min/English and Chinese with English subtitles.

Sunday 22 November: ALLUVION/EVERGREEN. Alluvion/Sasha Litvintseva/UK/2013/31min. Evergreen/Sasha Litvintseva/UK/2014/50 min.

Sunday 29 November: OUR BELOVED MONTH OF AUGUST (AQUELE QUERIDO MES DE AGOSTO) Miguel Gomes/Portugal, France/2008/147 min/Portuguese with English subtitles.

Sunday 6 December: TIRED MOONLIGHT. Britni West/USA/2015/76 min.

*Britni West, Press Notes for Tired Moonlight