Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon
Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is famous for its portrayal of an inscrutable facial expression, that indelible half-smirk-half-smile that serves as a kind of Rorschach test for the viewing public. It’s appropriate, then, that the name is bestowed upon the main character in Ana Lily Amirpour’s new film Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, a young woman who’s escaped from a psychiatric institution and enters the neon-soaked streets of New Orleans as a blank slate (or a holy innocent). Oh, and she has telekinetic powers which allow her to control the movements of anyone who gets too close to her. It’s an absurd premise, purposefully so, but ultimately an empty one.
The film begins with the at-first-nameless young woman, played by Jeon Jong-seo, writhing in a padded room and clad in a straight jacket. As a nurse callously assaults her, Jeon fixes her with a steady gaze, forcing the woman to repeatedly stab herself with a pair of shears. After making her escape, Jeon first meets Fuzz (a goofy but earnest Ed Skrein, trying very hard to imitate James Franco’s Alien), and then later Bonnie (Kate Hudson doing poor white trash cosplay), a stripper who witnesses Jeon’s unique power and decides she can use the young woman for her own purposes. The relationship between Mona Lisa, so dubbed by Bonnie, and Bonnie’s neglected, heavy-metal obsessed son, Charlie (Evan Whitten), makes up the meat of the film’s narrative, in which Bonnie uses Mona Lisa to help her rob unsuspecting men. There’s also a bumbling cop (a miscast Craig Robinson) who’s tracking the women down after falling victim to Mona Lisa’s powers himself. It’s all certainly of a piece with Amirpour’s other films, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and The Bad Batch, both of which feature women navigating dangerous nocturnal worlds and who are not as helpless as they first appear. But whereas those previous films evoked tried and true genre tropes as a kind of narrative scaffolding (vampiric horror and post-apocalyptic western respectively) with which to hang Amirpour’s more eccentric flights of fancy, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon is a more free-form bit of fairy tale inflected pseudo-realism, chock full of grotesque stereotypes and bad accents but largely taking place in our recognizable world. Nothing much really happens, at least not of consequence. Mona Lisa learns that humanity is flawed, desires escape, and endures mildly mad-cap adventures, like Milla Jovovich’s engineered humanoid in The Fifth Element (one of the film’s many bizarre antecedents).
Credit where it’s due, Amirpour does have a few things on her mind; at one point the police mistake a random Chinese woman for the Korean Mona Lisa, and there’s an emphasis on the particular socio-economic factors behind stripping for a living. But it’s all jumbled together in a mess of clichés and empty symbols in search of deeper meaning. Nicely photographed by cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon nonetheless resembles many current indie movies in its over-reliance on neon highlights and colored filters, and Amirpour’s spastic, roving camera grows wearisome after a while. The filmmaker doesn’t so much deploy technique as slather it on, so that every scene features frantic dolly movements or a wide-angle lens that distorts the frame to no discernible end. The wall-to-wall needle drops grate, too, an aural assault that becomes as exhausting as the film’s ostentatious style (kudos for the High on Fire jams, at least). An English born Iranian-American, and one of too few women working in genre films, Amirpour has a unique perspective on American culture. It’s too bad that here it seems to manifest mostly as a second-hand imitation of Spring Breakers, with a menagerie of colorful freaks that take our tabula rasa protagonist down a boring rabbit hole. There’s no enlightenment to be found, just familiar affectations.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
“It’s your show I’m cancelling, not you,” remarks one character to another in The Accusation, encapsulating, intentionally or otherwise, the thorny politics at the heart of the film. That Yvan Attal’s seventh directorial feature exists in its present form — that is, in its analytical presentation of the moral and judicial arguments of a highly-publicised rape allegation — should come as little surprise; adapted from Karine Tuil’s Les choses humaines, penned in the aftermath of France’s reckoning with its unflattering legacy of sexual harassment and abuse, The Accusation espouses a keen social contemporaneity on the issue, speaking to a generation both empowered by the feminist fight for social justice and embittered by the inevitable backlash engendered as a consequence. Fresh off the #BalanceTonPorc movement that revealed and, in some cases, renewed public activism around the legal quagmire of consent, Attal’s thorough cross-section of French sexual politics may offer on paper the trenchancy befitting of its themes, although in practice its dialectical plea for moderation, no matter how noble its intentions, consigns the film’s ideological balancing-act to textbook exercise.
This exercise demarcates as its subject an evening between Alexandre Favel (Ben Attal, the director’s son), a Stanford scholar and by all accounts a model citizen, and Mila Wizman (Suzanne Jouannet), the daughter of his mother’s boyfriend and belonging to a lower social class than Alexandre. (Alexandre’s parents, though separated, are a power couple; his mother, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, is a radical feminist essayist while his father, a role undertaken by Pierre Arditi, prominently figures as a pundit.) The details of the evening are unclear, but what is known is that both individuals attended a party, had a few drinks each, and then went into an abandoned shed in the vicinity where Alexandre allegedly forced himself upon Mila, coercing her into performing fellatio despite the absence of clear consent — framed from the former’s perspective as the absence of clear resistance. Subsequently, Mila files a police report against Alexandre, setting into motion years of judicial and extrajudicial investigation that irreversibly alter the courses of their separate lives.
That Attal’s film chooses as its source text Tuil’s fictionalised narrative should already clue us in on The Accusation’s relative abstraction; the world that Gainsbourg and Arditi inhabit, for instance, resembles many an ossified stratum of capital, privilege, and opposing worldviews that exist in harmony precisely because of this capital. But one has further grounds for accusation: Attal makes little attempt to chart the aftermath of that fateful evening (which he frequently returns to, by way of frustratingly coy flashbacks) in terms of his characters’ subsequent evolution, opting instead for the safety of political talking-points that just about passes off, albeit clumsily, as thematic synthesis. As a result, one would find greater reward in viewing The Accusation as a litmus test for one’s sexual mores, and less in terms of empathizing organically with its stock individuals, a view especially ironic given the engineered stoicism and pathos on display by Alexandre and Mila respectively. The more charitable might attempt to tease out strands of criticism against bourgeois hypocrisy, exemplified in Alexandre’s parents and their vacillating stances, but all things considered, neither The Accusation’s intellectual nor its tonal drabness does it any favors. If anything, its raison d’etre remains unambitiously instructional, culminating in an extended court sequence deftly lensed with cinematographer Rémy Chevrin’s fluid long-takes, and relishing in the rote unambiguity of its “closing arguments,” dressed up in false nuance.
Writer: Morris Yang
Through a constant fusion of documentary and fictional modes of expression, the 53- year-old Milanese experimental filmmaker and video installation artist Michelangelo Frammartino has so effortlessly and intuitively shaped his very singular cinematic vision: beginning with 2003’s Il dono (The Gift), and quickly perfecting his aesthetic and ontological worldview, perhaps much sooner than one could hope or imagine, in 2010’s highly-acclaimed sophomore feature film Le quattro volte (The Four Times). Nearly a decade since, the 78th Venezia’s announcement of Il buco (The Hole) premiering in its main competition has been nothing less than passionate and long-anticipated for many critics and audiences alike. Once again, Frammartino mainly adopts a radical aesthetic framework in studying the many different constituent parameters of image poetics and poetic imagery. Il buco is, first and foremost, structured around many dualities: fiction and documentary, figure and landscape, man and nature, mysterious and mundane, old and new, terranean surface and subterranean earth, folklore and post-industrial, the rural, traditional lifestyle of Italy’s poor southern villages and the booming economies of its prosperous northern cities, and even more significantly the interplay between different shades of light and dark which accord the film a hypnotic and mystical effect.
Just like Frammartino’s previous films, Il buco takes place within a very peculiar delineation of time, one that appears static and unchanging, yet on the cusp of rupture, preserving a moment and atmosphere existing over the brief course of a few final days or nights; the dawn and dusk of an era. No wonder, then, that this apocalyptic stillness is presided over by the mysterious presence of an old local shepherd, as we see him mostly sitting on an upland ground or standing upon a hill, while Frammartino intercuts the shots in a way that induce a spectacle of omniscience, a feeling that everything on the verdurous Calabrian plateau is situated under the old man’s godlike observation and his sharp, penetrating gaze: cattle that freely roam and graze these vast, unending landscapes, and then later, a group of young Turinese speleologists arriving on site to explore one of the world’s deepest caves, the Bifurto Abyss.
Frammartino’s familiarly patient and slow-paced rhythm works in tandem with this exceptional perception of time and space. Through the lens of his legendary DP, Renato Berta, Il buco depicts the transient and apocalyptic mood of the Calabrian plains with a series of fixed, long shots — for instance, in the tender and barely perceptible movement of floating clouds in the sky, as their shadows hover sedately over the fields. On the land’s surface, everything remains in a state of tranquility and exuberance (just like the old shepherd that, later, peacefully takes his last breath on his deathbed) while on the other hand, during the long sequences where the speleologists struggle to penetrate and explore the strange, abysmal hole, the subterranean world evinces much greater tension, encapsulating a claustrophobic and purgatorial condition that shares some conceptual resemblance with the documentarian output of Werner Herzog.
In this sense, Frammartino’s dialogue- and music-free film, wherein each minor diegetic sound (like the sounds of the cowbells or the dripping waters, or the long pauses of silence) forms a unique ambient soundscape, is all about man’s existence both within and against surrounding nature, whether in the shepherd’s circadian congruence with it or through the ambitious, new-coming youth and their restless, more-or-less futile aims of knowledge and conquest. Put simply, one can see Il buco as a film that slowly manifests itself, in a very rich, poetic, and concise fashion, before the eyes and ears of its viewers, one that taps gradually into our deeper sensorial and intellectual levels with each thoughtful step it takes.
Writer: Ayeen Forootan
Capitalizing on the considerable reputation he’s earned himself at the big international film festivals over the last few years, Radu Jude heads into this new decade with a number of movies already in fest circulation and, based on the reception for his latest feature Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (it won the Golden Bear at Berlinale earlier this year and was announced as a Main Slate selection for NYFF), bound for even greater visibility. Since that film’s premiere back in March, Jude has already managed to get a short into Locarno (Eisenstein homage Caricaturana) and now, a month later, another for Venezia 78.
Plastic Semiotic, this latest film, doesn’t bear too much superficial resemblance to Jude’s recent cinematic ventures, standing out as a new aesthetic direction for this somewhat unpredictable filmmaker. In conversation with Chekov and Flaubert (according to its Director’s Statement) as well as Baudrillard (noted in the opening credits), Plastic Semiotic is essentially a montage of suggestive dioramas, of plastic American toys arranged in a series of increasingly provocative tableaux informed by a four-part structure paralleling stages of human development (childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age). What begins as mostly innocent (domestic scenes of childcare and early social development) eventually turns towards the debauched as the dolls are inevitably positioned and contorted to signify, first, a variety of sex acts, and then murder and war. Of course, even the less aggressive tableaus aren’t totally benign: Jude’s inanimate subjects ultimately serve as commercial products created in response to and as a means of enforcing cultural norms and biases (several of these dolls/action figures are representations of characters from Disney and Illumination Entertainment IPs). His manipulations of each miniature set are slight, shifting the toys between neutral color backgrounds and the occasional action figure set piece (some doll houses, some war time backdrops), paying particular attention to lighting and inserting stock foley and nondiegetic music clips. But the effectiveness of each scene, ultimately, hinges upon the cultural and social significance suggested by each piece of molded plastic, which remain (mostly) physically static so that differences in scale and depiction are accentuated, as are their basis in cultural perceptions of race, age, and gender. Some of Plastic Semiotic’s provocations are more convincing than others (there’s an inescapable juvenalia to a lot of the proceedings that Jude challenges us to accept, which reverberates through the somewhat obvious conclusions the film draws), but there’s an inherent playfulness to the project’s stylistic experimentation that keeps it from tedium.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
As an authentic example of guerilla filmmaking (with its roots in independent rebellion, rather than serving as an Escape From Tomorrow-esque marketing ploy), Sad Film does its best to illustrate the face of a faceless society under dictatorship. Having been sent to Dutch backers for editing, as a rough cut whose original footage was soon destroyed, Vasili’s (pseudonym for an anonymous filmmaker) horror film is situated within the harrowing reality of a Myanmar in the uneasy aftermath of its latest coup. The existence of the footage is a feat in itself: a meta-film birthed from the country’s deterioration. Faces are blurred as filmmakers like Vasili hang onto the stolen chance they have made for themselves at creative freedom. The obscuring techniques grow increasingly creative, from a simple motion blur to full-faced colored masks, and then to conveniently placed flags, and finally, as simple as a sheet of paper with eye holes.
Sad Film’s eyes without a face serve as a clever metaphor of Myanmar’s Tatmadaw (the country’s armed forces) and their totalitarian control. Faces are never blocked in a way that removes their human connection and spirit — Vasili employs either a simple blur, a mask that leaves the eyes and soul clear, or the flag of a country that has expropriated their identities, ambitions, and freedoms. The people of Myanmar may witness the world newly built on their streets, but they may not give voice to the accompanying violence. These wordless visages, as well as the moments of poignancy where Vasili imbues his footage with affecting intimacy, are what separate Sad Film from the five o’clock news stories it otherwise has a lot in common with. Early on we see five lit candles burning away as the filmmaker, blurred, slumps onto the table, having burnt his own candle at both ends. Later, Vasili crawls into a suitcase, not as a human being but as cargo; a symbolic flourish accompanying the filmmaker’s dreams of making films abroad, under a less oppressive sky. What may be the early work of a potentially great filmmaker working outside the bounds of the industry (imagine low-budget, late-era Jafar Panahi) wobbles in consistency as it attempts to balance the urgency of depicting Myanmar’s bloodshed with the filmmaker’s own facelessness — as a filmmaker not even allowed to dream. It’s only in his final speech that Vasili relates his dreams of freedom, not through liberation, but through his own reincarnation, straddling the political bloodshed of a tyrannical state with the personal immediacy of its people.
Writer: Sarah Williams