Tag Archives: women in film

Titane: Movie Review

Here we have a movie that exists within its own logic. Julia Ducournau’s follow-up feature to her debut, 2016 movie Raw dives even deeper into the discoveries of unusual tastes and slathers itself in it as though it were a sow and its playground was a foot of densely packed mud. Many of you will, upon sitting through a screening of Titane, feel repulsed by what you are about to see on screen. I recall that while sitting in the Walter Reade Theater during the screening. of the aforementioned Raw during Rendezvous with French Cinema a solid 25 % of the audience walked out, their faces visibly nauseated. One woman, in particular, was so incensed by the movie she stood up in a fury from her well-placed seat which was the near center of the auditorium, pointed at the screen, and shrieked, “C’est film est merde! Merde!” spat on the floor, and ran out, a contained storm of indignation muttering to herself while we continued to watch the movie, unfazed.

Eh, sometimes shit happens even in Film Societies. People have strong reactions, and Durcounau’s movies are not for the faint of heart. Like Raw, Titane also follows a young woman. However, where Raw was kind of a coming of age, Titane is a little more elliptical. A little girl named Alexia is riding along with her father in his car when she makes the mistake of unbuttoning her seatbelt. Her father, upon trying to get her to put her seatbelt on again, gets into a hrorific car accident. Miraculously, both survive, but Alexia undergoes cranial surgery to replace missing bone and gets a titanium implant. It’s safe to say that she changes dramatically. Years later, a grown Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) works as a showgirl for a car show. When an admirer comes to meet her outside, she responds to his kisses by jamming her rather long hairpin into his neck and holding his spasmodic body until he dies in her arms.

It’s here where Titane the movie rears an extremely bloodthirsty head. Alexia inexplicably and gruesomely dispatches everyone who comes within three feet of her. The ferocity in which she commits these murders is only magnified by how unemotional she is, how disconnected. Adding to this, she starts having sex with what can only be described as a car while sitting in the back seat. What this may imply is left unexplored. In the meantime, Durcournau has Alexia escape from the authorities after she’s demolished the entire cast, and again, it’s not the fact that she is able to do so, but the way she goes about it that makes even this sequence the more disturbing. To make it simple: she sees the picture of a missing teenage boy she vaguely resembles. Because she will get caught looking the way she does, she not just cuts her hair to look like a boy but bashes her face into a sink to deform her nose and avoid detection.

From here on, Titane takes a complete nosedive. I won’t spoil it much — incredibly, what I wrote can only be considered a prologue to the real events of the movie. Titane moves from a woman on the run to a woman living like a man amongst men who display the glaring characteristics of toxic masculinity. At the same time, Alexia’s change into a boy also brings another change within her own body, and it’s one that the movie asks you to believe would happen undetected. However, as the story progresses and its own premise gets stretched out to its extremes, I realized that this is not a regular thriller about a female serial killer on the loose but something else entirely. As strange as this movie already is, Durcournau seems to be trying to tell us that sometimes human connections can arise from the weirdest of places. Alexia, now going by Adrien, seems to relinquish her need to escape and with great resistance settle into someone else’s life, even when she knows she may be discovered at any point. Alexia’s relationship to the man who was the real Adrien’s father (Vincent Lindon, in a balls-out committed performance, equal parts damaged goods and narcissistic he-man) dances the delicate territory of the incestual and the thuggish. It is cringey as all get-out, but Durcournau has her own agenda in mind.

I admire challenging movies. I want to see movies that dare to go to places that most of us wouldn’t. The entire time we follow Alexia on her journey and wonder what’s next. Knowing her penchant for horrific violence from the whirlwind intro, the long pause that follows might be its own mediation on a situation of symbolic gestation (still not a spoiler). Durcournau artfully drops Alexia into the most ironic of situations, and even then all we can think of is, will she escape — and there is that hairpin. We don’t even know how someone like her can have a future, but Durcournau pulls the rug even on her. In the end, once her purpose is complete, it becomes clear that perhaps this was never her story proper, but someone else who needed a son. In this, Titane becomes an exercise in misdirection, and that makes Durcournau’s movie unique.

Herself, a mostyindies review

The topic of abused women has lined the narratives of many films. Lifetime has built an entire empire around women in danger, either from a violent man or a predatory female. Very few, however, tackle the issue from a less sordid perspective such as Herself. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd (The Iron Lady, Mamma Mia!) and written by Claire Dunne, who also stars, Herself is not just a harrowing tale of domestic abuse, but also the quiet, compassionate account of how a battered woman with next to nothing manages to stand on her own two feet rather than be just another number waiting for government assistance.

The concept of a house as a symbol of safety gets a double significance when, on the day of Sandra’s worst fight with her husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Richardson, supremely repulsive and mercilessly violent), she has her daughter deliver a message hidden inside a doll house to a stranger. That message, to call the cops, saves Sandra from a violent fate, but rather than placing her in a safe environment, it also leaves her fairly destitute and humiliated. Finding a decent place becomes a nightmare in the one scene where she enters what is frankly, a shit-hole apartment. She then seeks government assistance to find public housing, which also lands in a thud when she gets reduced to a number and an indeterminate future which Sandra simply can’t hold on to.

Help does arrive from unexpected sources, and then the movie shifts from largely abandoning the terrible shadow of Gary and immersing Sandra in the comfort of good people. For Sandra, it’s a stroke of luck that may sound a bit too pat to believe, but this isn’t a movie about what can believably happen (although I have seen many a story in which people come together from all walks of life to help a person in need). Herself is a movie about a woman refusing to be a battered wife, an unfit mother, and the ultimate victim of a society that already treats women like her as undesirables. Sandra, as low as she has fallen, isn’t about to wait for anyone to resume her life. Thanks to the internet, she finds a tutorial on how to build her own home — her little piece of heaven — and goes after it with a vengeance,

In her first movie in almost ten years since [the aforementioned] The Iron Lady, Phyllida Lloyd veers off into Ken Loach territory to tell a story about the forgotten tinted in hope. She’s not idealistic — images of Gary and a severely battered Sandra peek in through the narrative as a reminder of what the fallback could be, should she return to her past. Also, having Sandra dance a delicate line of diplomacy between the forces would tear her apart from her daughters and the man just waiting, off-screen, creates a sense of constant tension even in the movie’s sunniest sections.

A lesser movie would have gone for a more black and white confrontation between Sandra and Gary. The criminally under-viewed French movie Custody, available on Prime, also focused on an abused woman in a particularly brutal manner, and like that one, Herself deftly keeps the climactic scene off-screen in a way that reminded me a bit of Rebecca (1940). While frustrating, it is a dark turn that the movie must take in order to secure Sandra’s own freedom. In doing so, we don’t get overwhelmed by whatever violence would have taken place, but are horrified at what could have been, the rage that instigated it.

Herself is not a movie I can say I enjoyed — as I said, the off-screen menace remains for most of the movie, and we are privy to see Sandra suffering bouts of panic attacks — but as for a look into the life of an abused woman and how she fights back, it is a must-see.

Grade: B+

Identifying Features, a MostlyIndies Review

Image by Kino Lorber

A mother’s void after losing her son leads her into the unexpected in Fernanda Valadez’s solid drama.

It has been a long-running story tied to Latino culture. Since there was such a topic as emigrating from one’s mother country — be it Mexico, Dominican Republic, or Cuba — in search of a better future, there has been an untold number of illegal entries either by land or by sea. With those entries, many successful, there are always, without fail, the ones that end tragically.

I was lucky to see Fernanda Valadez’s drama of the sordid lives of the forgotten last November at the AFI LatinX Film Festival. Valadez’s story seemed too poignant, too much of an open wound to ignore. I had written some notes about its haunted story and left it at that because I felt it needed another view. When it came out again at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, I jumped at it almost immediately. That already announces how good this movie is, even when it is slightly obscure and with hints of magical realism,

Identifying Features (Sin Señas Particulares) tells the story of Magdalena (Mercedes Hernandez), a woman of no stature and scant education, whose son Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela) goes missing and is presumed dead after an attempt to cross the border and seek a future in the US. Getting next to no help from authorities, relying on hearsay and the kindness of strangers, Magdalena, needing closure, sets out into the unknown in search of whatever happened to her son.

Her search dovetails with that of another young man named Miguel (David Illescas) who was in the vicinity of where Jesús was last seen and is on his way home. As they interact with one another, a vague, tenuous mother-son bond starts to form, and Magdalena begins to wonder if her search may have been not for the son she lost, but a son she could still have.

Valadez’s movie is a shadowy experience. Because it seeks to disclose a system of anarchy that seems to be working in tandem with local officers, a sense of lethal corruption permeates her narrative. No one speaks in a direct way for fear of some unknown, exacting punishment. People who decide to help Magdalena often talk to her off-screen, sometimes in near-whispers. One snippet of information leads Magdalena to the next snippet until she comes face to face with a terrible reality.

Viewers seeking narratives that focus on the lives of migrants will come to appreciate Valadez’s textured mystery-drama and even appreciate its slight deviations into magical realism. I think this is a strong debut feature film and almost wish that Mexico would have submitted this one instead of I’m No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aquí) because of its theme of those who’ve slipped into the cracks of a system that exploits the poor for a few corrupt dollars.

Grade: A

Belated Reviews: Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow

An incursion into existential horror spins into butter in Amy Seimetz’s second feature film.

Nine years ago I came upon a little-seen indie that played at the IFC called Sun Don’t Shine. I knew nothing about the actors (Kate Lyn Shiel and Kentucker Audley) or its director, the also-actress Amy Seimetz. What I do recall is experiencing something close to a noir film disguised in a road movie based in Florida, with the barest thread of a plot — a couple on the run from a crime that continues to stalk them. It was solid while ethereal, with a clear homage to Terrence Malick, which can be a good thing and a bad thing. In her debut movie, Seimetz managed to make what would have been a more brutal story feel almost weightless with fragile performances by its two leads. I liked it and hoped to see more from Seimetz.

Late last year I heard some buzz that Seimetz had released her follow-up, She Dies Tomorrow, and that audiences were polarized. Some praised its atmosphere filled with fear of the unknowable, others were scratching their heads. I held out until I was done with festivals, which was by then the tail end of the year. Walking in, I knew nothing other than the title and that Seimetz was working with a slightly larger cast, many who have worked with her as actors or on Sun Don’t Shine.

What I encountered was a film that announced itself rather shrilly, with Mozart’s Lacrimosa blaring at me with the force of a slap in the face. It is a piece that recurs in several intervals. The heroine of the piece, Amy (Shiel) mopes around languorously, sometimes in dread, sometimes in a fugue state of pitch-black depression. She seems caught in a vortex that she cannot escape. She is absolutely convinced that she will die, tomorrow. Her friend Jane (the always reliable Jane Adams) comes to her succor, to no avail. Then we focus on Jane, suddenly rapt and moody, enveloped in dark colors and perpetually in pajamas. When she crashes her sister-in-law’s birthday party — a party in which the rather outré topic of dolphin sex is the theme of the evening — she virtually stops the party in a manner that would make Debbie Downer seethe with depression and a “Wah-waah.”

It’s safe to say that once Jane leaves, everyone else starts to act as though they’re in the final, downbeat scenes of the most existential nightmare. Are all of these characters, people we barely know, also afflicted with the malady of impending death? When we return to Amy, she is still alive. And then, the movie decides to turn its head away from its J-Horror inclinations in which a terror leaps from person to person, and stops short.

She Dies Tomorrow felt — and still comes to mind — as though in concept, it would have made for a rather surreal entry into nihilism. As it is, Seimetz never develops her concept, or her characters, and lets them carry their non-personas into teary resolutions drenched in regret and ill-earned maudlin. Fear of the unknown, of what lies in the doors into the afterlife, is real and as old as time. It is why the Egyptians made sure to create death ceremonies of their dearly departed. You could even argue that this is why we as a modern society favor exercise and living green, prolong our stay and delay the inevitable.

However, Seimetz, coming out of a horror remake that made her more widely known as an actress, leaves it stillborn. So much could have been developed had she cared more for the terror that knowing your time comes with an exact expiration date brings. Movies like The Ring (both the Japanese and the American versions) took that fear and ran with it. This movie, sadly, deflated before it even had a chance.

Grade: D+