Credit: Emilia Haukka © Aamu Film Company
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

SXSW Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 4: Fucking with Nobody, Witch Hunt, Jakob’s Wife

March 19, 2021

Fucking with Nobody

For her sophomore feature, Fucking with Nobody, Finnish director Hannaleena Hauru opts to play an on-screen alter-ego of herself. Hanna is a filmmaker who, after losing a project to her nemesis Kristian, gets involved in a fake Instagram catfishing scheme with a group of her intellectual friends, collaborators, and family members — most notably, her real-life partner and co-writer Lasse Poser, who here plays the jealous director of the film-within-the-film. Both idea and the intent are loud and clear: namely, to question, examine, and perhaps even eliminate the traditional power structures in relationships, and to find out how contemporary society reacts to romantic meta-narratives in the cyberspace era and how one’s desire can become unquenchable when consuming the details of a public persona’s private life. Here, Hanna pretends to be in an amorous relationship with her gay actor friend, Ekku, the duo constantly posting provocative pictures and sentimental videos of themselves on social media. This concept allows Hauru to craft a satirical, oddball rom-com from the material, the aesthetics gradually becoming nothing less than a never-ending mise en abyme, and the complex narrative functions almost like a matryoshka doll. Expectedly, as the insane gambit progresses, things begin to go more and more out of control, the on-screen crew losing handle of the project. And in this, Hauru is able to embrace the escalating auto-fictional aspects of her personal and professional life and shatter the boundaries between constructed fiction and real-life documentary. And as everyone in this uncanny screwball falls into a web of roleplaying, Fucking with Nobody asserts some profound questions about the relationship between the real and the unreal, and to what degree such an extreme simulacra can substitute for truth.

 Probably more reminiscent of subversive counterculture films of the 1960s than anything else, Hauru utilizes a free-flowing handheld camera, haptically capturing the actors’ bodies, to craft a witty — and frequently discomforting — anarchic romp. Interspersed are personal memories and erotic fantasies that enable viewers to explore the notion of one’s identity among a chaotic array of images, and the film’s sonic flourishes likewise encourage such considerations: Hauru frequently adds a typewriter sound effect to scenes to remind of the film’s meta-ness, while elsewhere she uses rimshots to intensify its parodic mood. Most impressive, though, is that she succeeds at striking a delicate balance between the film’s tender, sensory texture and its bold conceptual mechanisms. It results in an organic equilibrium that lends a spontaneous, even improvised feel that is essential for a film of this sort to work. But while this all works well, Fucking with Nobody’s Achilles’ heel is that it reveals most of its ideas — of sexual insecurity, emotional maturity, the apparatuses of the current film industry — and visual gimmicks so early that it can begin to feel repetitive as it chugs along, even if remaining largely interesting. But, as the film’s last line vividly declares, “This isn’t sex [comedy]. This is a manifesto.” Indeed it is, and one which is willing to fuck with anyone and everyone in both radical and playful ways.

Writer: Ayeen Forootan

Credit: Elle Callahan

Witch Hunt

Timeliness is one of the great current curses of small-budget genre filmmaking. The impulse to tie a film’s premise to current events or ideology certainly isn’t a new trend, and, of course, there’s a rich tradition of horror or sci-fi films tackling issues like racism, anti-communism, religious persecution, what have you. But semi-recently, it seems that what ought to be subtext is now the only text, without a sturdy narrative to hang it on, no substance around whatever metaphor or analogy a film might be pushing. Which brings us to the latest victim, Elle Callahan’s Witch Hunt, the perfect example of an idea with no actual movie behind it. Taking place in an alternate present in which witchcraft (practiced, at least as far as this film depicts, solely by women) is a real and tangible thing that has been outlawed by the federal government via Constitutional amendment. Somewhere in the rural American southwest, Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell) carries on a sort of Underground Railroad for witches, sheltering them in the crawl spaces of her large house until some sympathetic compatriots can come and smuggle them across the border to Mexico. The latest two travelers, Fiona (Abigail Cowan) and Shae (Echo Campbell), are red-headed sisters still reeling from their mother’s recent public execution by stake-burning. Making matters more difficult, Martha’s daughter Claire (Gideon Adlon, recently seen in the equally blunt and useless witch sequel The Craft: Legacy) seems to be coming into powers of her own.

This alternate present isn’t even slightly fleshed-out; certainly we’re all used to dystopian analogies like The Handmaid’s Tale, but it might be necessary to wonder how an entire nation accepts public drowning of teenage girls and burning women at the stake in parking lots as a necessary part of daily routine. Without any sort of deeper understanding of this world, it’s just misery porn. Meanwhile, Witch Hunt is formally indistinct from most modern horror, with placid, symmetrical compositions, and lots of master and two shots. And none of the performances add much nuance to the already blunt proceedings — these “characters” are nothing more than narrative and allegorical pawns. A supporting appearance by Christian Camargo as a federal witch hunter is particularly embarrassing in its attempt to resemble the opening chapter of Inglourious Basterds and the introduction of Hans Landa, insult to injury lurking in the third act of this trifle. Entirely rote, Witch Hunt proceeds exactly as you’d expect with its heavy-handed likening of witch persecution to our IRL systemic, patriarchal oppression of women everywhere, but it offers nothing in the way of actual ideas or even complexity. Subtlety in genre work is frequently an over-valued millstone, but with nothing but overt scaffolding here, there is nowhere for the film itself to actually go.

Writer: Matt Lynch

Jakob’s Wife

The work that made Barbara Crampton an icon is the work she did with Stuart Gordon in outre horror pictures, where she was used as much more than mere sex symbol even while still appealing to legions of horny nerds. Her best performance among these is in From Beyond, in which she both appears in leather dominatrix gear and gets to play the type of unhinged megalomaniacal role usually reserved for her co-star Jeffrey Combs. Despite a rather small CV in the ’80s — though she’s taken on quite a lot of work this century — Crampton is an institution for a reason: she possesses everything you could want in a scream queen, her beauty matched pound for pound by a sharp comic sensibility and unmatched manic energy. At 62 she still has it, too. Her latest film, Jakob’s Wife, also starring (slightly less sexy) icon Larry Fessenden, is at its best when it recalls the energy of those Gordon films and just lets Crampton vamp. Unfortunately, it’s not usually at its best. There’s a perverse gothic sex comedy located somewhere in the film, but director Travis Stevens buries it all under reams of flat, deadening horror comedy with little in the way of tone control.

Crampton’s Anne is the obviously unsatisfied wife of a minister, Jakob (Fessenden), who seemingly only delivers sermons about how husbands are meant to love their wives fully. And he might love Anne with his whole spirit, but he certainly isn’t doing the job sexually. On a visit with an old flame that threatens her marriage, Anne is bitten by a vampire and turned. With the thirst for blood comes a sexual reawakening, completely changing the way she dresses and further exacerbating her unfulfilled desire. Watching this transformation and Jakob’s response to it is the most pleasurable thing in the film, especially when his reaction to finding a decapitated body is pointedly much less severe than his response to catching his wife masturbating. Were this simply a marital comedy about a Reverend and his horny vampire wife trying to work through their animosity, it might have been a pretty good flick, and the few scenes that are exactly this show the promise of something more. Instead, too much of the film is devoted to a plot involving the vampire that turned Anne — disappointingly not even played up as a cuckolding thing — and filled with actors who aren’t nearly up to par with Fessenden and Crampton. Very little of the comedy is memorable or worth more than light acknowledgment, the gore effects are uninspired despite fountains of blood, and no scene featuring two or more characters is better than watching Crampton alone in a room. The final shot is yet a final reminder of what is actually good about Jakob’s Wife — it’s just a shame that the rest of the film is so clueless to its potential.

Writer: Chris Mello

Credit: Leah Purcell

The Drover’s Wife

Adapted from her own 2016 play, itself loosely based on the short story by Henry Lawson (largely considered a canonical text of Australian literature), Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson is the best kind of revisionist western. Lawson’s original story is a kind of paean to the suffering and perseverance of White settlers, with no place for the consideration of Aboriginal peoples, an oversight that Purcell corrects with her story of racist and misogynist violence in 19th-century Australian frontier life. Purcell, in addition to writing and directing, stars as the eponymous Molly Johnson, who as the film begins is heavily pregnant and tending to four children while her husband, a drover, is away on a job. When two British travelers, Nate and Louisa Clintoff (Sam Reid & Jessica De Gouw), stumble upon her home while begging for food and directions to the town of Everton, it kicks off a series of events that lead to a tragic, disastrous conclusion. Nate is set to become the constable of Everton, a lawless place that nonetheless represents the closest thing to civilization in the area. Louisa fancies herself a progressive writer, eager to produce for the town a newspaper touting feminist ideas. Molly feeds the travelers, and then asks them to squire her children to a friend who lives along the way so that she can give birth in peace. After the children and the Clintoffs take their leave, Molly is set upon by an escaped convict, Yadaka (Rob Collins). The two are standoffish at first, until Molly’s water breaks and Yadaka offers to help her deliver the baby. Meanwhile, in Everton, Nate is made aware of both Yadaka’s escape, as well as the fact that Molly’s husband missed the drive and hasn’t been seen by anyone in weeks. 

There’s a lot going on here, as Purcell details the growing bond between Yadaka and Molly, the Clintoffs’ settling into the local town life, Molly’s ancestral lineage, the mystery of her missing husband, and the encroaching threat of the husband’s unsavory friends who are curious as to his whereabouts. Working with cinematographer Mark Wareham, Purcell conjures up barren, foreboding landscapes, a vision of the Outback that might as well be the surface of the moon. Violence lurks around every corner, and when circumstances conspire to wrench Molly’s children away from her, she fights back against ingrained prejudices to recover them, no matter what the cost. At its best, The Drover’s Wife recalls both The Proposition and, especially, The Nightingale, another film that recognizes the shared plight of women and indigenous people under the heel of patriarchal and homogenous White society. It’s not a perfect film; Purcell leans too heavily on an oppressively on-the-nose score, papering scenes with wall-to-wall music that too frequently underlines emotions that will be already obvious to even the most oblivious viewer, and Collins’ unique energy is sorely missed once his character exits the narrative. Still, Purcell is monumental in the lead role, and her vision of a racist, unjust society is still disturbingly relevant in what is a bold, uncompromising work.

Writer: Daniel Gorman

Lily Topples the World

Joining the ranks of Netflix’s We Are The Champions and The Speed Cubers, Lily Topples The World takes a peek behind the curtain of the world of domino-toppling, an art form that is part engineering, part design, and part patience. The documentary, directed by Jeremy Workman, follows Lily Hevesh, the world’s foremost toppler and one of very few women in the field, at the height of her career, with millions of YouTube subscribers, high-profile collaborations, and her own range of high-quality toppling dominoes on the verge of release. 

Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is that it gives its audience exactly what they likely want from a documentary about domino art. The film’s sheer visual spectacle is facilitated by Hevesh’s obviously stunning creations, but Workman’s fluid camera work and birds-eye shots emphasize just how painstakingly intricate and precise his subject’s work is in a way that might be glossed over were it only seen in finished form. On the flip side, Workman’s inclusion of a gut-wrenching moment in which a monumental domino structure topples in an instant, crashing down around Hevesh and her colleagues, satisfies our primal, undeniable urge to knock it all down and effectively emphasizes the stakes of her successful creations. Along with teaching a few domino tricks and showing off the engineering prowess of professional topplers along the way, Workman provides delightfully thorough insight into a niche artform that, apart from perhaps viral videos strewn across social media, most viewers might not even know existed.

Despite its title, Lily Topples The World isn’t overly concerned with competition or pitting Hevesh against such grand nemesis. While it does engage with the racism and sexism she faces as an Asian woman at the top of her field, the film refuses to submit to this as her entire story (perhaps due in part to actress Kelly Marie Tran’s role as an executive producer and her truly awful experiences of both). Instead, not only does the film belie the sort of relaxed confidence that Hevesh embodies at the top of her field, but it also celebrates a spirit of fraternity and all of the people who uplift and help her. In a clever touch, every public figure who appears in the documentary, from Will Smith to John Green, is presented only in the context of their YouTube subscriber count, offering both some loaded insight on celebrity in the internet age, but also emphasizing the commonalities that these different artists and performers share. In depicting the tight-knit community of collaborators and artists that surround Hevesh, Workman presents both a world and a woman that are completely uninterested in conquering — only in toppling.

Writer: Molly Adams

Credit: Allie Schultz

Swan Song

Character actor extraordinaire Udo Kier takes center stage in Swan Song, writer-director Todd Stephens’ affectionate snapshot of “true life icon” Pat Pitsenbarger, a Sandusky, Ohio hair stylist and local gay icon. The film finds Pitsenbarger in the final stages of a fabulous life gone humdrum thanks to old age and failing health. Living out his life in a nursing home, where the only thrill to be found is sneaking More-brand cigarettes, Pat’s long-dormant styling services are called upon once more upon the death of wealthy socialite Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans). A provision in her will states that Pat is the only one allowed to do her final hair and make-up, even though the two had a dramatic falling-out decades before. With the promise of $25,000, Pat makes the journey on foot, encountering all sorts of unique individuals along the way that force him to confront both long-buried resentments and a city he barely recognizes. 

Swan Song is, at its core, a loving ode to Sandusky, Stephens’ hometown and the setting for the majority of his filmography. Filmed on location, anyone familiar with the area will recognize its various streets and storefronts, while newcomers will likely glean a sense of the town’s warmth and generosity as it spills forth from the frame. Kier’s portrayal of Pitsenbarger is equally distinctive, imbuing the character with a quiet dignity that radiates from beneath a larger-than-life persona. Old age may have taken its toll, but even with the occasional limp, Pat is a force of nature that sashays into any room and instantly commands attention, eyes locked on him and him alone. (Admittedly, the lime-colored pantsuit Pat picks up mid-film takes some of the credit.) Swan Song is clearly Stephens’ gay take on, ironically enough, The Straight Story, David Lynch’s gentle yet stirring portrait of Middle America. Stephens, however, is no Lynch. It’s obvious that the director feels great affection for Pitsenbarger, and the film goes to great pains to show how this one man, both intentionally and inadvertently, did so much for gay rights in this small conservative town — and, by extension, men like Stephens — by simply living his life on his own terms, prejudices be damned. Such stories are worth telling because of what they represent to so many whose struggles have long been lost to time’s passing, even as they paved the way for our present. 

But, of course, good intentions alone do not make good films, and Swang Song is a fair bit of mess. For every moment that works — such as Pitsenbarger visiting the grave of his deceased partner for the first time, finding himself overcome with memories of the past — there are three others that fall flat. Part of the problem lies in the fact that many of the individuals with whom Pitsebarger crosses paths simply aren’t that interesting, with the quality of these performances varying wildly and proving sometimes distracting due to the use of local non-actors. It makes the appearance of pros such as Evans, Micheal Urie, and Jennifer Coolidge borderline jarring (although the latter practically walks away with the film in only two scenes, delivering a rare dramatic performance that absolutely rivets). The film is likewise in tonal disarray, whipping back and forth between melancholy and slapstick at a moment’s notice. Perhaps forcing Kier to put on a metal helmet made of an old chandelier, then having it burst into flames, was not the most dignified choice, although expectations should obviously be tempered for the director of Another Gay Movie. Swan Song has its heart in the right place, to the point that criticizing it feels almost like kicking a puppy, but such true-life icons deserve better memoriams than this.

Writer: Steven Warner