At the cross-section of the discursive strategies for human progress born in the fires of the enlightenment, Pietro Marcello's Martin Eden is a rapturous examination of humanity's seemingly eternal struggle, one which firmly revives the period drama through its intoxicating formalism and stunning central performance. The story of a young writer who finds himself stuck between two distinct worlds, unwilling to succumb to authoritative ideals of human progress in which oppression lurks behind the ideals of social, political, or economic change, Martin Eden manages to be intimate yet exhaustive, featuring a sumptuous cinematic language of vitality and romanticism in which one man's ethical conviction leads him down a path of alienation. Intoxicating yet incisive, the true power of ideas is a salient theme which reverberates throughout the film's structuralism and yet the film recognizes the destructive aspects of such power, being confrontational towards vapid notions of utopian political or economic rhetoric. Pulsating with ideals centered around mutualism, libertarian socialism, and anarchism while wisely never being heterodox in approach, Martin Eden's narrative trajectory and denouement posits much of humanity's contentious nature as not only a biproduct of social stratification but perhaps more importantly humanity's hubris when it comes to our relationship with our ecological environment. Incapable or unwilling to accept the destructive nature of humankind's penchant for control, power, or authority over nature, Martin Eden's personal journey of self discovery - class stratification purveyed through a doomed bourgeoisie romance and his rejection of collectivist proclivities centralized power - becomes an astute yet cynical amalgamation of humanity, one in which self-destruction is driven by dogma and hubris - utopian ideas placing too much weight on the ubiquitous nature of unadulterated "good" or "progress" driven by our believe that we can transcend nature.
An affront to puritanical sentiments centered around sexuality and pleasure, Albert Serra latest film, Liberte, continues the filmmakers exploration of the body, delivering a pointed provocation which rejects the diametric Freudian psychoanalysis of mind and body in which the mind must subjugate the desires of the flesh in order to reach enlightenment. Exhibiting the polycentrics of pleasure in which perversion is detached from the pejorative, Liberte provokes and prods the audience's social constructions of acceptability as it pertains to sexuality, exhibiting how perversion itself is in a sense a fabrication, dictated by-and-large by the pressures of respectability politics and a false sense of morality. The setting -desolate woodlands- work in unison with Serra's rich formalist designs, figuratively and literally expressing the nature of such a crude dichotomy of mind and body in which pleasure is pushed into the shadows, subjugated by the authority of the majority due to the false promises of ascetic, intellectual rigor which in turn obfuscates the boundless nature of pleasure, liberation, and experimentation. Taking place almost entirely over the course of one night of unadulterated indulgence, Serra's film could have easily become tedious or felt monolithic but it never does due in large part not its comedic banality which serves as a neutralizing agent for the unease most likely felt by many viewers who aren't used to such unrestrained sensuality. The denouement of Liberte is purely visual yet powerfully astute - daybreak comes, the cascading beams of sunshine bringing the forest to the foreground serves as a symbolic recognition of the performative nature of society in which our true selves are regulated to the shadows due to societal constructions rooted in the authority social acceptance.
A clever, surrealist spin on the battle-of-the-sexes farce in which a lonely woman, while courting a potential suitor, invites the literal devil into her home, Ester Krumbachova's The Murder of Mr. Devil is a striking, outre vision of feminine liberation. Machismo and male chauvinism are heightened and lambasted accordingly, with Killing of the Devil delivering a pointed and potent display of male hubris. There is a directness intrinsic to this film in part to its narrative simplicity, with the film be focused on the courting process using it as a device for its thematic intentions centered around empowerment and liberation. Straightforward but still incisive, Killing The Devil exhibits an understanding of the transformative nature of such societal power when wielded by one faction, displaying through its farce-like construction the deteriorating effects machismo has on femininity, particularly how fragility isn't intrinsic to the female form but a reaction to its allotment as a secondary societal status. Draped in surrealism and art direction which has grown to be relatively synonymous with Czech cinema from this particular epoch, Killing The Devil is a singular formalist construction in which female empowerment is encouraged through surrealist designs.
A deconstruction of one of the grand narratives of civilization - liberalism - Bertrand Bonello's Zombi Child is a provocative and profound experience, one which invokes Haitian pathos and Voodoo mysticism to reflect on colonialism, the global south, and abstract notions of progress. A story of reclamation, Zombi Child is pointed and pedantic from the onset, detailing the ubiquitous nature of liberty, progress, or any ideal when it is implemented in material terms. Clear-cut and resolute in establishing that history itself isn't linear but a constant and continuous struggle between the powerful and the powerless, Bonello's film draws from the life and legend of Clairvius Narcisse to tell a multi-generational story of past and present, with the ties of history reverberating throughout - a reminder that we as individuals in the present are not disparate nor detached from the past. Zombi Child is highly ambitious and while one could certainly argue it becomes a bit unwieldy in its constructional narrative cadence, the film's expansive nature is endlessly impressive, managing to be grandiose and piercing thematically while never obfuscating the intimacy of the main characterization - a Haitian-born teenager living in France. Formalistically, Bonello's film is beautifully rendered, with an aesthetic that injects an atmospheric dream-like quality in certain moments, reinforcing the themes of this film centered around an unjust world build off of exploitation and oppression while also evoking the internal psyche of its central protagonist, a character who doesn't quite fit in due to her own cultural background and unique identity. Through the central protagonist, Zombi Child traverses horror film sensibilities to deliver a poignant study of identity, one in which the implicit ostracization of the outsider is prominently felt. Assimilation is nuanced, and the film wonderfully embraces the strained relationship between one's past and present spatial and metaphysical environments, as this young woman balances these two worlds, each of which via for her identity. While Zombi Child may not be perfect from a narrative perspective, Bonello's ambitious film is one that should be praised, providing a vision of Haitian culture and a sense of liberty which is fundamentally social, one which by-and-large is not confined to any economic or political entanglements.
Céline Sciamma's Portrait of A Lady on Fire is another well made feature by the French filmmaker but unlike her previous work, this film feels far too prescriptive with the film's formalistic and structuralist components largely adhering to what one would expect from a tale of forbidden love set in the Victorian era. A sensual love story, the film lacks an aura of mystery and/or intrigue, feeling almost pedantic in its execution of a story in which repression under the patriarchy and the emotive tentacles of love are explored with meticulous resolve. Arduous yet detailed in profiling the slow evolution of companionship between its two main protagonists, Portrait of A Lady on Fire is exquisite in laying bear some of the intricacies and details of budding love, yet it feels too conventional, too straight-forward narratively and thematically, which in turn leaves the emotional strength of the film somewhat muted due to it feeling inorganic.
An immersive character study in which affect is a palpable force, Anne At 13,000 ft's formalist sensibilities invoke a level of intimacy which is rare to the character study, featuring close-ups and tight-compositions which are effectively embedded into the aesthetic. The central protagonist, Anne, is a kind and empathetic soul, one in which the audience quickly finds themselves enamored by, as the film beautifully and reveals her underlying instability related to her mental health. This instability largely casts a dark shadow over her ability to create meaningful relationships, with the film beautifully portraying how the mundane day-to-day actions many of us take for granted are horrifying and anxiety-inducing for this character. Singular in its vision, this is a film in which observation, the experience, and perceptions of its main protagonist are emphasized over narrative storytelling, providing a portrait of a young, unstable individual who struggles to find solace or support in a society full of neglect. Ambiguous, earnest, and incisive in the film's outright unwillingness to portray Anne's disorder with contempt, Anne at 13,000 ft is a quiet but angry film in its denouement, one in which its ambiguous nature hints at destructive conclusions unless systemic changes are made.
Projecting the Joker motif into a puerile social commentary, Todd Philip's film is an abrasive, thematically incoherent film buoyed by a masterful performance by Joaquin Phoenix. Formalistically the film's sensibilities embrace the early 1980s NYC epoch with an aesthetic which perfectly encapsulates the time-period, a vibrant temporal setting for the prologue of the Batman/Joker ethos to be explored. This aspect of the film is an accomplishment when viewed in this context yet it becomes increasingly at odds with the director's thematic ambitions, ambitions which are transparent in their reactionary nature to a very specific temporal place in contemporary culture. Joker in this sense feels almost at odds with itself, being a clever construction of the Joker ethos but one which is downright insulting when it comes to forming any nuanced or intelligent social critique. These two layers - Joker's origin story vs. social commentary - of course could work together in a different film, yet there is an arrogance to this film's thematic intent that is so juvenile in its understanding of social movements/unrest & mental illness that is downright offensive due to its absolutely absurd portrayal of these two specific issues which affect contemporary society. The film stigmatizes mental illness in a way which intentionally or not suggests it's one-in-the-same with psychosis, while also largely making no sense in its social commentary which I don't even have the energy to detail here for the sake of MY mental health. Simply put, Todd Phillips was trying to be provocative but really it's just insulting to the audience, naive and at its worst, offensive. The irony to me about this film is there is a lot of interesting elements - performance, aesthetic, a clever subversion of the Batman mythos - yet it comes off feeling more like a filmmaker with a personal vendetta, using his platform to whine about the state of society today without even attempting to put any effort into understanding the vast tentacles of social movements, injustice, mental illness, etc, etc, etc.
Almodovar's signature aesthetic vibrancy harmonizes beautifully with narrative and thematic ambitions in Pain & Glory, a rich tapestry of mortality which follows the growing despondency of an aging artist who reflects on his past. A sprawling and exhaustive examination, Pain & Glory contextualizes this man with a narrative that is seamless in its transitions through time and space, never being pedantic to the audience while revealing the vast layers - the letdowns and triumphs- which define his identity and current state of being. Melancholy is a major component of this film and yet there is an ethereal quality to its construction as Almodovar astutely exhibits how pain isn't an adversary of life but complementary, a part of the journey which can also give life meaning - the past and the present both holistically forming the soul of this man. In the film's final denouement, Almodovar reinforces this fact while completely subverting expectations, with Pain & Glory being arguably an ode to cinema (or art) itself, detailing the therapeutic nature of art and personal expression as the ultimate act of autonomy, one in which the individual wrestles with the ontological through creativity.
A post-WWII America historiography purveyed through the exploits of a silent generation aged mob enforcer, Martin Scorsese's The Irishman is undoubtedly one of the filmmakers most ambitious endeavors. Using the filmmaker's familiar mob-based narrative structuralism as an artifice for examining American culture and the shifting dynamics which take place within it, Scorsese's depiction of Post-WWII America finds machismo embedded into any notions of progress. Through the lens of its main protagonist, Frank Sheeran, a mob hitman, the film depicts the debilitating nature such crude dynamics place on the individual and the culture at large. Machismo is presented as a blinding force, a primal intuition which subverts reflection or introspection, serving as a perfect accomplice to the vicissitudes of power which ultimately seek control through authority and the disruption of collective consciousness. Such intrusive forces ultimately subvert and disrupt the empathetic nature of the human condition, and in the case of Frank Sheeran it leads him to a place of alienation from those he loves the most - his family. Frank is a character who is completely blinded by the man he has become, corrupted by this lifestyle in which pride, strength, and aggression are rewarded. This corrosive way-of-life leaves him completely alienated in the end, with his daughter being the whole fulcrum to the emotional and arguably thematic arch of this story - a character who grows up in the shadows of such violence and aggression. Beautifully portrayed by Anna Paquin, this character represents the empathetic nature of the human condition; She represents purity and innocence, and her fear of her father quickly grows into outright disdain, incapable of accepting her father's mindset - one sculpted by such notions of machismo and power. In a sense, Martin Scorsese's The Irishman is the filmmaker's magnum opus, an accumulation of his various gangster films that feels particularly salient due to its introspective mapping of post-War Americana.
An immersive, exhaustive investigation of the carceral state, Brett Story's The Prison in Twelve Landscapes meditative yet tactical, exposing the degradation of a system in which punishment is paramount and rehabilitation is a facade in which little support is allocated. The film's structuralism features a series of vignettes, each standing alone as observant, humanistic exposes into the lives effected by such a system. These vignettes form a holistic whole, detailing the vastness of such a system and how this broad state network effects so many aspects of life through exploitation - the state profiting off the mystery of its own citizens. From prison labor to stop-and-frisk, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes is a calm yet piercing evocation on the state of the prison industrial complex in America
Love of all things cinema brought me here.