IN THEATERS (SF) – “God’s Own Country”

God’s Own Country (2017; Dir.: Francis Lee)


By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, November 10, at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

Postcard-worthy slow cinema from actor-turned-auteur Lee, a bruising but underwhelming love story set amongst Yorkshire sheep farmers.  With his friends all gone off to college, angry young man Johnny (Josh O’Connor) gets stuck assisting his ailing father (Ian Hart, awkwardly theatrical compared to his underacting co-stars) with their failing farm, numbing his pain through alcohol-soaked nights and brisk sexual encounters with anonymous men.  That all changes when handsome, no-nonsense Romanian immigrant Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) arrives on the farm, arousing resentment from the racist townsfolk and simply arousing Johnny.  After a lifetime of abuse from his father, Johnny finally experiences real tenderness with Gheorghe, but his self-destructive instincts inevitably kick in, jeopardizing their relationship.  I liked the love story at the heart of God’s Own Country, but the film is just as plodding and impenetrable in its shaky-cam stoicism as Yorgos Lanthimos’ polar-opposite The Killing of a Sacred Deer was with its antiseptic precision.


Dina (2017; Dir.: Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles)


By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, October 20, at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

The best documentary of the year so far, and also the most touching love story.  Directors Santini and Sickles (Mala Mala) follow Dina Buno, a middle-aged autistic woman with a tragedy-filled past, as she prepares to get married for the second time.  Her music-obsessed fiancee Scott also has autism, and although he lovingly dotes on Dina, he is unable to express his love physically, increasing tension in the relationship as the marriage approaches.  Santini and Sickles shoot and structure the film more like an indie rom-com than a documentary, and while there is a slight touch of Errol Morris-ian anthropological quirk, there is nothing condescending or cruel about Dina.  Instead we get a rich, funny, fully drawn portrait of complex people leading complex lives and dealing with complex emotions, starring characters who display a wide range of abilities and limitations (Dina is sexually mature but unable to hold a job; Scott works at Wal-Mart but recoils from physical intimacy; other friends drive cars and raise children).  There is a rare mix of raw intimacy and artifice to Dina, with obvious camera set-ups and movie-like music cues but also amazing moments of tenderness, humor and candor.

ESFS Festival #5, Film 3 – “My Night at Maud’s”

MA NUIT CHEZ MAUDMy Night at Maud’s (1969; Dir.: Eric Rohmer)


By Mike Dub

In describing Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s, the third and probably best-known of his Moral Tales, it is tempting to use terms that might sound somewhat condescending, or make the film seem trivial.  “Novel,” “refreshing,” even “daring” – they are all words that could dangerously imply that Rohmer relies on a gimmicky approach to tell this personal story of love and temptation.  However, the key to Rohmer’s films, it seems to me, is that he doesn’t seem to see his approach as novel.  The sensibility of this film, in particular, seems quite a natural, even commonsense approach for a director who views cinema as an extension of literature, and philosophy an extension of the soul.

The film follows Christmas week in the life of Jean-Louis (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant), a devout Catholic and grossly intellectual engineer in his mid-thirties.  Like the narrators of previous Moral Tales, Jean-Louis is in love with a stranger, a beautiful blonde he makes eye contact with at church.  He doesn’t speak to her, but he does stalkishly follow her home one evening, realizing, “I suddenly knew, without a doubt, that Francoise would be my wife.”

Later he meets an old friend, Vidal (Antoine Vitez) who, after a hefty conversation about statistics and Pascal, convinces Jean-Louis to have dinner with him and his “friend,” Maud (Francoise Fabian) – he is afraid that if he goes alone, they will make love “out of boredom.”  Jean-Louis goes, putting up just enough of a fight to save face before being convinced.

Rohmer_My_Night_at_Mauds_01Maud is a beautiful, brunette temptress, a woman who talks more freely, though not necessarily openly, than the two men, and provokes them with gentle seductions in between philosophical debates.  At one point, she changes into a revealing nightshirt and crawls into bed, explaining, “I’m a terrible exhibitionist. It just comes over me.”  Later, she informs Jean-Louis, “I’m very hard to please when it comes to men.”  Her bohemian sensuality creates a conflict for Jean-Louis, who feels that he is fervidly committed to Francoise, despite having never spoken to her.  As Maud tries to entice him, Jean-Louis barricades himself from temptation behind an idealistic commitment to the sanctity of love.  “If you’re really in love with one girl,” he explains, “you don’t want to sleep with another.”  His protest is no less heartfelt for its transparency.

The centerpiece of the film, as suggested by the title, is the evening at Maud’s, which takes up about half of the film.  In his review of Suzanne’s Career, Daniel Barnes noted that visual acuity is not Rohmer’s strong suit.  However, with a bigger budget and a more professional crew, the intimacy of the apartment setting relieves him of a certain sense of obligation to visual technique.  In this film, the editing plays a more impactful role, as Rohmer’s camera alternates hanging onto single participants, capturing their faces as they try to distill meaning from their dialogue. 

326My Night at Maud’s is a film full of conversation, mostly weighty discussions about everything from mathematics, to religion, to philosophy, to love.  It is also a film about conversation.  The characters all mean what they say, but they rarely say what they mean.  They use conversation, particularly the long evening discussion at Maud’s, as a means of self-identification, image creation, and not-so-playful verbal jousting.  Meaning must be parsed out through careful examinations of intent (Jean-Louis repeatedly asks Maud, “Are you sure you’re not tired?”).  Arguments must be explained and defended as though out of honor, despite inherent logical flaws that Rohmer is too intelligent to call hypocrisy.  And amid all the self-defining philosophical musing, the greatest display of action occurs when someone leaves – which itself is laden with its own confrontational message.

Through all of this, Rohmer stays respectfully non-judgmental of his characters.  My Night at Maud’s is an odd type of morality play: it is about its characters’ decisions, but it has nothing to do with codifying right and wrong.  “What counts for me,” Jean-Louis says to Maud as he lies draped across her bed, fully clothed, “is not one deed, but an entire life.  Every life is made of whole cloth.”  Their night together will become just another stitch in that cloth, a single moment in which experience was both gained and lost.

February First Love Films (Dub’s Pick)

215px-To_die_for_impTo Die For (1995; Dir.: Gus Van Sant)


By Mike Dub 

Director Gus Van Sant has always been sympathetic to the anguish of teenagers.  With varying quality (anything from My Own Private Idaho to Finding Forrester) his films express the troubles of American youth with great sensitivity.  Therefore, it’s no surprise that in To Die For, based on the true story of an aspiring journalist who coerced a teenage lover into killing her husband, Van Sant’s compassion lies with the boy, and his inability to navigate the waters of his first love.

The fictionalized version of the boy is Jimmy Emmett, played by Joaquin Phoenix in his breakout role (can it be almost twenty years already?), a not-so-lovable loser who falls victim to the manipulations of sexy femme fatale Suzanne Maretto (Nicole Kidman).  Jimmy is even less able to deal with his first love than most kids.  Raised in squalor, he is the product of neglectful parents who would rather spend their time watching evangelists on cable television than engage with their son.  Even more problematic, his intellect seems to hover right around the line of mental disability, Van Sant’s exaggeration of the impaired teenage brain, but only a slight one.

When he meets Suzanne for the first time, it is first love at first sight.  She is married, but her true passion is television journalism.  Trying to use her position as a barely watched local weatherperson as a launching pad to success, she has convinced her station manager to let her film a documentary on the lives of teenagers, which brings her together with Jimmy.  When her husband (Matt Dillon) has ideas of settling down and having kids, she decides that killing him is her only way out, and she seduces Jimmy into helping her.

In films about love, especially teen love, characters are often placed in a hierarchy according to the purity of their feelings.  At the bottom of the chain are those incapable of greater feelings than animalistic lust.  At the top are characters whose attraction is loftier, more poetic.  While his friend Russ (Casey Affleck) only thinks of Suzanne in terms of sex, Jimmy sees in her something more exotic than her sex appeal: “She’s clean.”

The film works as a whole largely because of Nicole Kidman’s excellent performance as a vapid, delusional egotist whose only ambition in life is to succeed on television.  However, the power of Suzanne’s relationship with Jimmy rests largely on the shoulders of young Phoenix, who gives a brilliant, discomforting performance as an unintelligent teenager who is laughably strange, yet sadly sympathetic.  Under the spell of an older, more experienced woman, Jimmy never had a chance.

Many films treat first love as a wistful, sentimental rite of passage that pushes one toward emotional maturity.  Fittingly, To Die For satirizes those tender, nostalgic First Love films.  For Jimmy, love becomes an all-consuming obsession.

However, Jimmy’s love is no less profound for the outcome.  Even long after they have separated, Jimmy still loves Suzanne.  He tells us with great warmth, even reverence, that he dreams about her every night.

The film’s expression of teenage love as a twisted cacophony of raging hormones and emotions is summarized by Jimmy in his opening lines.  Directly addressing the camera in the present day, long after the events of the film have concluded, Jimmy conveys his love for Suzanne in a hauntingly strange elegy.  “I never really gave a rat’s ass about the weather, [but] now… if it rains, or there’s lightning or thunder, or if it snows, I have to jack off.”

In To Die For, first love is not a quaint rite of passage.  It is a dark concoction of confusion, obsession, powerlessness, and sexual manipulation.  However, like so many characters from more nostalgic looks at first love, despite the pain he endures, Jimmy wouldn’t have traded his love for the world.  Of course, that may just be because he’s not smart enough to make the deal.