Friday, July 13, 2018

Don't Waste Your Time: Let the Sunshine In, You Were Never Really Here, & Disobedience

Juliette Binoche in Let the Sunshine In. (Photo: IMDB)

As a long-time film critic, I can confess to bringing expectations and biases to the films I see. But I also believe I can be honest in my reactions to preferred filmmakers when their films disappoint me and equally be pleasantly surprised by those directors whose movies I’ve never expected much from. Steven Spielberg is one of my favourite directors but his latest movie, Ready Player One, a loud, empty and dull SF dystopian drama, may be his worst  ever. On the other hand, while I've never been a big fan of Quentin Tarantino, his Inglourious Basterds, a smart alternate-history World War Two drama, marked a leap into maturity and emotional depth for him -- albeit a short-lived one, as the films that followed, such as The Hateful Eight, fell back into his glib, gratuitously violent and profane modus operandi. Of three films I've seen recently, one filmmaker let me down, one encouraged me to come to a negative conclusion about its director, and one confirmed my suspicions about what its director is lacking.

It ought to have been a perfect match-up: sublime French filmmaker Claire Denis (Vendredi Soir35 Shots of Rum) and ravishing French actress Juliette Binoche (Summer HoursClouds of Sils Maria). But Denis’ newest movie, Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur), a putative romantic drama about a troubled woman looking for love in all the wrong places succeeds only in offering up a tiresome heroine starring in an increasingly annoying film. (The accurate English title would be "Bright Sunshine In," which relates to an uninteresting scene at film’s end concerning the protagonist's visit to an unlikely fortune teller, played by one of France’s best-known stars.) The movie begins with Isabelle (Binoche) who is a successful artist, in the midst of sex with her married banker lover Vincent (well played by Xavier Beauvois, the director of Of Gods and Men). Once that’s over, he reveals himself to be an uncaring, loutish brute while, for her part, let’s just say she has issues. She then hooks up with younger theatre director Mathieu (Philippe Katerine) but he’s ambivalent about her. And there’s another guy, an old friend (Alex Descas from 35 Rhums) whom she thinks she likes. Oh, and she has regular sexual relations with her ex-husband Fabrice (Bruno Podalydès). Needless to say, nothing works as she wants.

I have no argument with Binoche's incarnating a screwed-up woman with bad taste in men – they exist, of course – nor do I doubt that, beautiful as she is, her persona would repel many men or allow others to mistreat her. But I can’t imagine that a feminist filmmaker like Denis would push her potential audience away by making Isabelle such an obnoxious, irritating presence whom it is impossible to empathize with or want to try to understand. (Isabelle has a ten-year-old daughter but the girl barely figures in the film and is only glimpsed once in a car which removes one way the movie might allow us to discern her character.) Binoche does her best to try to bring Isabelle to fascinating life but she’s hampered by the awkward writing. (Denis scripted the film with Christine Agnot; it’s based very loosely on Fragments d’un discours amoureux by Roland Barthes.) And by the tedious pacing, which makes this relatively short (under two hours) film seems endless. There are a lot of close-ups; Agnès Godard, who’s shot many of Denis’ movies, fails utterly to bring Paris to cinematic life. Let the Sunshine In is a surprisingly clunky film from Denis, who almost always directs with rare delicacy and tact. Unfortunately, another exception is her 2013 revenge drama Bastards (Les Salauds), which wallows in its nihilism and violence, The one-two punch of these movies suggests that Denis has come undone. Despite its title, there’s nothing bright or luminous about Let the Sunshine In.

Joaquin Phoenix and Ekaterina Samsonov in You Were Never Really Here. (Photo: IMDB)

It’s been a long time since the release of Scottish director Lynne Ramsey’s 2002 film Morvern Callar, a highly atmospheric drama about a young woman (Samantha Morton) whose life is changed when her boyfriend kills himself and she puts her name on the manuscript of his unpublished novel. I can barely recall the particulars of the story, which was subsumed by the movie’s cool look and artsy feel. Her 1999 debut film, Ratcatcher, about a young man’s coming of age was more naturalistic and narratively more interesting, but it's clear from Ramsey’s latest movie, You Were Never Really Here, that she has continued to prefer form over content. Some have bruited You Were Never Really Here  as the Taxi Driver of the 21st century. Comparisons are superficial: compared to Scorsese's indelible 1976 indelible masterpiece, Ramsey's film is a pale and faded facsimile.

Basically, it’s a revenge drama starring the usually reliable Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line, Two Lovers) as Joe, a taciturn hulk of a man who lives with his mother (Judith Roberts) in New York City and spends his days rescuing underage girls across the United States from sex traffickers. When one of those missions in New York goes awry – he saves the girl but then she is taken brutally from him – he vows to find her and get back at the kidnappers and spends the rest of the movie doing just that. That’s really all there is to the tale, which is based on Jonathan Ames’s novel of the same name. Ramsey shoots it in a propulsive, garish manner that is emphasized by Jonny Greenwood’s heavy-handed score, never stopping to showcase characterization or offer an in-depth depiction of the depraved society in which Joe travels.

The movie simply doesn’t have much to say and is content to allow Joe’s brief flashbacks, to a tragic event which occurred during his military stint in Afghanistan and a horrible one he witnessed when he worked for the FBI to substitute for a flesh-and-blood character. By contrast Taxi Driver was smart enough not to make much of Travis Bickle’s Vietnam war experience – it may or may not have damaged him or made him what he was – but peeled his layers away in the voice-overs, when Robert De Niro spoke Paul Schrader’s lyrical, poetic dialogue. And Scorsese’s deft direction cast the Big Apple as another significant character, a dangerous, profane place which both repelled and attracted Bickle in equal measure. There’s nothing like that complexity anywhere in You Were Never Really Here.  The film's view of Joe isn't morally ambiguous, as Taxi Driver's view of Bickle was: he saves the twelve-year-old prostitute Iris but remains a sociopathic presence cruising the city’s streets. In You Were Never Really Here you’re always meant to root for the troubled, suicidal Joe and accept his violence as a necessary evil forced on him by others. It is mostly subdued and not all that believable: Joe carries a hammer but except for when he’s double-crossed and shot, he manages to use it without the bad guys' ever besting him with a gun. Not surprisingly, there’s no frisson here akin to Taxi Driver’s powerful and unforgettable gory climax. And You Were Never Really Here concludes on a comforting, even soothing note. Phoenix can’t do anything interesting with this slim material, other than lash out in anger and evince a bit of tenderness. Ramsey clearly thinks Joe is fascinating, but we don't. She can be said to have stolen the character from Andrew Vachss’s grim Burke novels, which feature a similar protagonist but are redolent with a pungent atmosphere absent from You Were Never Really Here. There are echoes, too, of John Boorman’s Point Blank, but it lacks that movie’s existential tone and jittery angst. It’s more like the banal Death Wish than anything else.

Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams in Disobedience. (Photo: IMDB)

Disobedience, the new film from Chilean director Sebastián Lelio (Gloria), might have made a bigger splash if it were the first major recent movie to deal with the inner workings and attitudes of Orthodox Jews. But coming in the wake of several fine and/or important Orthodox-themed movies, particularly from Israel (Ushpizin, Fill the Void, The Women’s Balcony, Eyes Wide Open) but also from France (Little Jerusalem), the U.S. (Menashe) and Canada (Félix et Meira), it would have to outshine those movies to stand out from the pack. But as in Gloria, about the life of a middle-aged Chilean woman -- which Lelio is remaking this year with Julianne Moore -- Disobedience boasts decent acting but flops in terms of creating a riveting story and compelling background for its characters. (I didn’t make it to his Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman, which made waves with its transgender star Daniela Vega.)

Disobedience pivots on the romantic relationship between Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a British-Jewish photographer now living in New York City, and Esti (Rachel McAdams), an Englishwoman who still resides in London. When Ronit is informed of her father’s death and returns home for the funeral, she is thrust back into the turbulent dynamics of the love affair, which caused Ronit to be permanently cast out by her father, the community’s revered Rabbi, and Esti to retreat into marriage with his favourite pupil and probably successor Dovid (Alessandro Nivola).

Lelio co-wrote the movie with British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, based on Naomi Alderman’s novel of the same name (which has received good reviews but which I have not read). He doesn’t have much of a handle on the inner workings of London’s Orthodox Jewish community; the film moves in fits and starts when it attempts to sketch it in any salient detail. I never got a tangible sense of how things function outside the synagogue, as I did in the films mentioned above. (I would assume some noticeably English characteristics would make it stand out from its North American or Israeli counterparts but I couldn’t spot them in the movie.) That leaves the actors carrying the bag but their parts are sketchily written.

Alessandro Nivola in Disobedience. (Photo: IMDB)

I love Weisz (The Constant Gardner, Denial) and she is good enough in the role of Ronit  but it is one of her least interesting. Other than in the movie’s depiction of her love affair with Esti, we learn nothing about her other than that she has Anglicized her name in New York, is successful at her job and is bisexual. (She has a quick hook-up with a guy in the aftermath of her father’s death.) Her professed deep love for her father is puzzling considering his behavior after catching her with Esti – he says Kaddish (the Jewish mourner’s prayer) for his daughter, cuts her out of his will and not only decrees that that she not be told that he is gravely ill but even ensures that her name be omitted from his obituary in the Jewish press, If the film had at least suggested a scenario akin to Barbra Streisand’s Yentl, wherein the rebellious daughter bonds with her father over their mutual love of Jewish texts and scripture, we might understand Ronit's feelings for her father. 

McAdams (Mean Girls, Spotlight) is also a fine actress but here the problem resides not just in her superficial part but in how she plays it. Unlike Weisz, she is neither British (she’s Canadian) nor Jewish; I always felt she was holding back, too worried about getting her accent right (it’s okay) but more significantly properly essaying the Hebrew words and making the Orthodox rituals Esti observes convincing. Esti is a lesbian, to be sure, but other than in her growing determination to be true to herself, she, like Ronit, lacks layers to her personality. And the pivotal love scene between the two women, which the movie needs, falters as a portrait of deep passion, especially compared to the ones in Blue Is the Warmest Colour and Bound. Lelio’s weaknesses as a director are very apparent here.

Only the presence of Alessandro Nivola as Dovid, who loves his wife dearly but also wants to do right by her, evinces any nuance or complexity. He’s a decent man who possesses some modern, accepting views but also adheres to a religious culture that is still heavily rooted in overbearing patriarchal attitudes. It’s a fascinating contradiction in a film that otherwise never fascinates. (Coincidentally, Nivola also shows up as the governor of New York in You Were Never Really Here but only in what amounts to a mere cameo.) Obviously, the message of tolerance and self-actualization that Disobedience offers, located as it is in a very controlling and often intolerant society, is a welcome, even necessary one – though the Orthodox Jewish community won’t see it as they shun most modern culture. But the movie’s dullness mitigates against its having any real emotional impact. Too bad; its vital subject matter deserves better.

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches film at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute and just finished teaching a course at the University of Toronto's Continuing Education program entitled Sight & Sound: What Makes a Movie Great?, which will he will also teach, beginning in Feb. 2019. He will be lecturing on the films of Sidney Lumet, beginning July 25 at Prosserman JCC.

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