Thursday, April 23, 2015

Varieties of Romance: Spring, The Duke of Burgundy, and Accidental Love

Lou Taylor Pucci and Nadia Hilker star in Spring.

We’re almost a quarter of the way into what has so far been a pretty quiet year for movies, with signs of life visible mostly in some small, out-of-the-way places. One of the most distinctive (and least-heralded) of recent small movies is the appropriately titled Spring, which at first seems to follow a familiar template for horror movies: a sweet-natured, emotionally volatile young American played by Lou Taylor Pucci who’s at the end of his rope takes off for Italy to try to get his head together in unfamiliar surroundings. He winds up courting a beautiful, mysterious woman (Nadia Hilker) who may just be entrancingly, frustratingly hard to read, or who harbor some dark secret that makes emotional intimacy impossible and physical intimacy even scarier than usual.

It’s hard to describe the movie’s plot beyond the set-up, and not just because of the usual concern about spoiling a movie’s carefully planted shocks. The biggest shock of Spring is that its mechanics as a scare movie gradually take second place to the charms of Pucci’s sensitive performance as a man ready to lose himself totally to a romantic spell and the musky, erotic chemistry between him and the teasing, tantalizingly unknowable Hilker. The directors, Justin Benson (who also wrote the script) and Aaron Moorhead, take their time and give the actors plenty of space, and they don’t hit you over the head with their big metaphor for the dangers of the (sexual) unknown, which is less fascinating than Pucci’s willingness to adjust to anything if it might give him a shot at being with this woman. Spring recalls Louis Menand’s line about Blue Velvet, that the best genre movies are those that are suspicious of the genres they belong to. Spring isn’t in the same weight class as Blue Velvet, but it might just hold its own as part of a Bizarro World double bill with Before Sunrise.

Chiara D’Anna and Sidse Babett Knudsen (seated) in The Duke of Burgundy.

Part of the fun of seeing too many movies in the multimedia age is developing a familiarity with genres of film that most people don’t even know exist. In Xan Cassavettes’s 2004 documentary Z Channel : A Magnificent Obsession, the critic F. X. Feeney reminisces about the kind of movies that the fabled Los Angeles cable channel used to run in its “Nite Owl” slot plotless, badly dubbed softcore flicks from Europe, whose pace and content were perfectly calibrated to meet the interest level of viewers too tired to just go to bed, when there was nothing else on and “some of those girls were just so pretty.” Those of us who were far from L. A. and having to make do with Showtime in the 1980s have similar memories. The British writer-director Peter Strickland gets the look and tone of a perfect Nite Owl just right in The Duke of Burgundy, starring the Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen as a haughty, middle-aged orthopedist and Chiara D’Anna as her mousy housekeeper. Their relationship takes a turn when D’Anna earns herself a scolding for improperly laundering her boss’s sundries, after which Knudsen orders her to massage her feet. From there, it’s a short step to scenes of Knudsen eating a large, butt-ugly cake with a fork while D’Anna lies on the floor, Knudsen’s foot on her throat.

Like Strickland’s previous feature, the mock-‘70s giallo Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burdundy has elements of parody that will be especially effective for the limited audience that knows what the hell he’s parodying, but, like the butterflies that figure heavily in the movie’s visual scheme, it eventually blossoms into its own weird thing. At least one reviewer has boldly stepped up to complain that the movie isn’t really all that sexy, to which I can only say: No shit. This is not a mainstream bondage fantasy, like 50 Shades of Gray; the couple’s sexual games are so private and odd that they can awaken a viewer’s memories of childhood confusion at just what the hell those people think they’re doing. (Despite hints that a third party is going to enter the picture and mess up the heroines’ romance, the spanner in the works turns out to be an elegantly hand-carved wooden box that the housekeeper enjoys being locked inside at night. “Isn’t it more to fun sleep with me?” the mistress asks after awhile, trying not to sound plaintive.) By the end, The Duke of Burgundy is like a Buñuel film in which the perversity turns to something sweet and gentle. What saves it from sappiness is that the perversity is too central to the heroines’ relationship, and to the movie itself, to dissipate completely.

Jessica Biel and James Marsden in Accidental Love.

Recently, a few media outlets ran stories trying to account for how Serena, a $30 million production starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, could have gone straight to VOD services before receiving a very limited theatrical run. I think the mystery of why some movies don’t get theatrical distribution is less vexing than the mystery of why some others do, but in the case of Accidental Love, which has a cast that includes Jessica Biel, Jake Gyllenhaal, Catherine Keener, James Marsden, Tracy Morgan, and Kurt Fuller, there’s no mystery at all: this is actually Nailed, one of the better-publicized of those recent productions so cursed that the director called it a day before filming was completed. Accidental Love, which is credited to “Stephen Greene,” was actually directed by David O. Russell, who started work on principal photography in the spring of 2008; if he’d completed it, it would have only been his second feature (after 2004’s I Heart Huckabees) since bringing down the curtain on the 20th century with his phenomenal first-Iraq-War movie Three Kings. Instead, Russell, who didn’t formally withdraw from the movie until 2010, wouldn’t re-emerge until his comeback movie The Fighter, which was released later that year, and marked a new direction for him away from the strain of flashy, antic satiric comedy that had, to some degree or another, marked all his previous features.

Accidental Love, which was assembled without Russell’s participation and includes scenes he didn’t shoot, isn’t Nailed, but that alternate title is so bad it hurts to type it stars Biel as a clean-cut, all-American roller skater-waitress who winds up with a nail embedded in her head after a workplace accident at a restaurant where her boyfriend (Marsden) is attempting to propose marriage. The uninsured, working-class Biel is unable to find a medical professional who’ll remove the nail from her head, despite the fact that it’s pressing against her brain and causing her to suffer spasmodic episodes in which she lashes out violently, speaks foreign languages, and becomes sexually aggressive. (She also has her first orgasm.) Given that Russell didn’t get to finish shooting the movie, let alone shape the footage to his satisfaction, a case could be made that it would be an act of kindness, or even simple fairness, to treat this bastard version that’s been made available as if it were a cache or private nude photos released on the Internet and just pretend it doesn’t exist. But the basic details of Nailed have been out there for a while, and the movie always sounded so strange that, for us fans of the director, finally getting to see what parts of it look like is like scratching an itch that’s been bugging us for half a dozen years.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Jessica Biel in Accidental Love.
From what’s here, it’s clear that Russell was trying for something even broader than his previous comedies, and also more narrowly focused and less conceptually audacious than any of his earlier movies including his first failure, I Heart Huckabees, which has “brilliant disaster” written all over every frame. The movie, which is based on a novel by Al Gore’s daughter Kristin (who also worked on the screenplay), goes after the policies that have denied affordable health care to millions of Americans with a blunt ferocity that tells you that Russell must have wanted to make a movie that would be seen as seriously trying to make a real-world impact on the issue, like Michael Moore’s Sicko; considering that progress on health care reform in the United States did seem to be a dead issue from the time he made his first feature in 1994 to his beginning work on this one, it’s a real David O. Russell kind of joke that, while this production was stalled out, actual events finally overtook it.

The clearest casualty here is Biel, who used to just look in over her head in her movie roles, but who’s funny, charming, and ready for anything here. She’s said that working with Russell “made me a better actress,” and the proof of that was already onscreen, in the comparison between her embarrassing performance in Easy Virtue, the last movie she starred in before reporting to work for Nailed, and her strong, committed lead performance a few years ago in Pascal Laugier’s horror movie The Tall Man. Presumably, her performance here would be even better if Russell had been able to shoot all of it and shape it to fit the conception in his head, but it’s anyone’s guess whether he’d have been able to complete the movie in such a way that the over-the-topness of much of it, Gyllenhaal’s performance included, would play. By the end, the spoofiness shuts the viewer out and prevents any feeling of connection with the characters and the plight of the uninsured, which isn’t how it used to work with, say, Preston Sturges when he was firing on all cylinders. In the movies Russell has made since then, he’s concentrated more on the characters and building an emotional bond with the audience; this has come at the expense of the high-flying brilliance of his earlier movies, but it also works better for him than I Heart Huckabees. It was evident from that movie that Russell needed a change; whatever Nailed would have been, its tattered remains make it clear that it wouldn’t have been that.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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