by Ken Bakely
Now that we’re about halfway through the year, the time has come to look back on the last six months. This week, I caught up with three critically acclaimed 2019 films that I had not yet seen. Here, you can read my short-ish reviews of them.
Her Smell (dir. Alex Ross Perry)
I’ve always had a bit of a difficult relationship with Alex Ross Perry’s films; his often unsavory characters and loosely structured storylines are dependent on negative fascination from viewers in the place of more traditional appeal. Maybe this is a problem with me, considering that this is more a response of my subconscious desire for particular expectations that an artist is under no obligation to observe, and is probably better off ignoring in many cases, but the effect has long been the same. Perry’s latest work, Her Smell, is in the same vein of many of his earlier movies. However, a stellar lead performance from Elisabeth Moss gives way to Perry’s most fascinating (yet hard to approach) achievement yet. Moss plays Becky, the lead singer of a punk rock band. Her self-destructive behavior, combining substance abuse with increasingly unhinged and aggressive asides, has taken a toll on both her and people in her life, from her bandmates (Amber Heard, Cara Delevigne, Agyness Dean, and Gayle Rankin) to her ex-husband (Dan Stevens), who has taken custody of their daughter in the divorce. Perry follows Becky’s journey not from ecstatic heights to rock bottom, but from rock bottom to the flat-out molten depths beneath the Earth, before her life begins to improve in any way. He frames the proceedings around a series of lengthy scenes that play with almost stage-like rhythm. For better or for worse, the script feels ostensibly theatrical from start to finish. Perry isn’t interested in dialing back: Becky’s downward spiral is presented as cyclone-like as possible. You want to look away.
Within this is some truly fine acting from Moss, who must keep us invested through the harrowing places her character goes. Set over a decade-long period, beginning in the mid-1990s, Her Smell’s punk setting exists in a specific timeframe, but doesn’t do so for the purposes of specific analogues to real events (though it’s not particularly difficult to make strong Courtney Love comparisons, as many have chosen to do) – instead, it’s an important detail for Becky to exist at this time, at this place, in this cultural environment, but also reach forward as a broader and more universally haunting character study. It’s a genuine question if the lengthiness of both the film’s total runtime, and the sprawl of the handful of scenes and setpieces that make up its bulk, can sustain the laser focus that Perry draws to such deeply uncomfortable depths of human struggle. But if nothing else, he shows his strengths as a screenwriter of economy and a director of detail. In the end, it may not amount to as much as the painstakingly thorough buildup may suggest, but my ongoing journey with Perry’s oeuvre continues.
High Life (dir. Claire Denis)
It’s hard to categorize High Life under familiar parameters, which makes it all the more fascinating to watch. Claire Denis hits us with nonlinear storytelling from the start – after the first scene, we know that Monte (Robert Pattinson) is a man caring for a baby aboard some kind of space vessel, and the background which fills in afterwards render the experience increasingly mystifying and enveloping. He is part of a longstanding project through which convicted criminals serve their sentence on the ship. Under the control of supervising scientist Dibs (Juliette Binoche), they are involuntarily subject to a series of crude experiments in the field of artificial insemination, all while hurtling toward a black hole. There’s a whole lot of subtext packed in here on biological autonomy, existential obliteration, and anxiety over the future, and Denis pursues it all, in often the most confrontational always possible. In no way for the faint of heart, the film also may not be for those of a short patience: High Life takes its time in its out-of-order exposition, as the initial crew of prisoners slowly diminishes in number in a series of violent or bizarre circumstances.
But those open to the film’s often abrasive content will find that Denis’s layered, corporeal studies are indelible and vibrantly realized. From the disorienting set design of the spaceship setting itself, designed by the Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, to the variety of shot types and aspect ratios employed by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, High Life is an unpredictable event all to its own. Unpacking the ways that Denis employs underlying themes and ideas is its own pastime; one secondary, but hardly inferior to, the surface-level sensations of surprise and shock that draw us to the movie in the first place. Pattinson, as a lead actor, cements his space as one of the most interesting performers of his generation, proving that while it’s hard to guess where he’ll go next as a performer, he’s certainly not making random or uninspired choices. Perhaps there’s something of a folly in evaluating this film while the initial reactions are still fresh, but there’s something significant to be said about a work that is as densely constructed as this one, and still allows viewers to feel so intensely and with such a manic flow of immediacy.
Us (dir. Jordan Peele)
Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out furthers his reputation as one of the most exciting emerging voices American filmmaking has to offer. With his ambitious commentary on the contemporary and longstanding nightmares of society, Peele’s pursuits are well worth all the acclaim they have received. In Us, he’s even less afraid to go to new places, telling the story of a family overtaken on their summer vacation by a sudden rise of murderous doppelgangers, clad in red jumpsuits. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) has seen this before, in a way: thirty years ago, she was confronted with a girl who looked exactly like her in a carnival hall of mirrors. That memory ensures that though she is just as startled as her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), and children, Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex), the connection that she can draw to her past may prove vital in understanding exactly who these sinister doubles are.
Of course, the value here isn’t so much in worldbuilding or pat answers, but what this setup represents, and Us features some brilliant messaging on social perceptions, reflections of the self, and divisions between classes and groups of people. Peele sees the splintered conscience of a culture in full view, and he spares no effort in confronting us with the stark realities therein. Much like in Her Smell, specific references to settings – the 1990s in Perry’s film, the 1980s in the flashback scenes to Adelaide’s childhood here – occupy peripheral meaning in the moment, but take on substantial meaning upon further analysis. It’s no wonder that Peele chooses to introduce the doubles – which represent, in part, heavy sociopolitical and socioeconomic divisions – in a decade when the gaps of class and wealth began to grow at an outrageous, runaway speed. His movies are noted for the vastness of their symbolism: always deliberate, always widespread, but never extraneous. He drives it further home with a plot twist in the third act that has been the subject of much discussion. While I won’t spoil it here, it may provide an archetypical example of what a great twist represents: it adds not only to the suspense and engagement factor of the film, but enforces the strengths of Peele’s messaging by condensing his thematic approach into a single, unforgettable development. What helps matters further is that it’s centered around a great performance from Nyong’o, whose work is another highlight of an already considerable film.
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