What is the role of “transgressive” art in an ostensibly liberal society? Or, to put it another way: In a cultural context where the top prize of the world’s most prestigious film festival can go to a movie where a woman fucks a car — twice — and where no image, however outré, seems incapable of being assimilated into the dominant lines of discourse, what is the place of personal belief and aesthetic conviction? How is one to approach a film like Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or–winner Titane?
Despite a prologue that links a young girl’s traumatic auto accident to sexual compulsion, however, it should be said up front that Titane is not ultimately concerned with fetishistic obsession — which means that it only superficially resembles David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996). Its signal motif has to do not with desire (at least not primarily), but modification: how one should respond to the overlapping forces that seem to bear upon one’s very flesh, how one should assimilate (or reject) the various demands that eventually come to feel like unwanted but unignorable foreign bodies. Ducournau’s savvy script foregrounds this clearly. Years after that initial crash, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) dances nightly at an auto-themed club, displays conspicuous interest in the various “modifications” of her sexual partners (particularly the nipple-piercing of a would-be girlfriend), and also casually murders them with an iron hair-pick. After a particularly conspicuous set of killings that force her to go on the run, she tries to disguise herself as a long-lost missing person: a young man who turns out to be the son of Vincent (Vincent Lindon), a roided-up fire chief attempting to stave off the realities of his ever-advancing age.
The relationship that eventually develops between the two — which cuts meaningfully across lines of gender, sexuality, and normative societal expectation — is comprehensible to no one but themselves, and it’s not meant to be, Ducournau being more interested in heavy pile-ups of texture and sensation over any sort of causal logic or narrative coherence. But all the same, this folie à deux becomes the clear center of Titane, the locus of the film’s sundry oppositions: masculinity/femininity, man/machine, blood/oil, flesh/metal, and the like. Entirely unafraid of cliché, Ducournau takes each of these paired fixations to their extremes, all while pushing Titane to a climactic point of reconciliation, effectively fusing the film’s disjunctive moving parts into the image of a small, cyborg infant (the product of Alexia’s unexplained, apparently immaculate conception). And just as the automobile is in cinema a metonym for various histories and discourses of gender, sexuality, violence, and desire (a lineage that Ducournau is only too familiar with), so this part-mechanical Messiah becomes a veritable symbol of the film itself — a symbol, perhaps, of the future.
But this is where Titane seems to break down — or anyway lays bare its limitations. For while there is something admirable about Ducournau’s brash attempt to reconcile opposites, the value of doing so is no higher than the perceptiveness of the diagnosis and description of the paired poles — and Ducournau reveals herself to be, in the end, content to trade only on cliché. Structurally, Titane depends on pitting two obviously unappealing extremes against each other while sliding toward a final, implosive synthesis. So however well-engineered, its supposed shock cannot go beyond the assumed terms of the dialectic. The question we started with, then, is perhaps something a false conundrum — for it assumes transgression on the moral rather than the imaginative level. But what we find, watching films such as Titane, is that anything genuinely transgressive tests not instincts of the censor, but the very bounds of the conceivable. And however skillfully Titane may be said to short-circuit the former, it does not, ultimately, challenge the latter. It is a failure of imagination — which means that it is, in a crucial sense, really no challenge at all.
Writer: Lawrence Garcia
The Power of the Dog
The narrative of The Power of the Dog is folded in half: two brothers who each dominate one half of the film, two ways of seeing (which do not necessarily correspond to said protagonists), and a set of visual rhymes. Among the keys Jane Campion leaves out in the open for viewers to pick up and use for reading her film is a spectacular landscape shot of mountains, or, rather, men looking at mountains. In the first of these shots, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) reads the mountains for revelatory meaning, his methods obscured to his gang of cowboys. He goads them into paying closer attention and enjoys their bafflement. When the image recurs, it is with Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the son of his sister-in-law (whom he at first refuses to acknowledge as family) by his side. He is, at this point, playing the part of dominant master to Peter’s novice. As he prepares a lesson on the play of light and shadow on the peaks before them, Peter stops him short: He can already see the image — a barking dog — they appear to hide.
At the risk of being reductive, the play of power across the film can be summarized as follows: Phil lords over the simpler characters, who haven’t had to build themselves up as he has (he’s a college-educated cowboy who plays the variable parts of impresario, botanist, menace, king, and schoolboy), and this stature both allows him to see (and at first, resent) how Peter has his own intense dedication to craft and vision, while missing the ways in which Peter diverges from his own knowledge. This dynamic of talent and power makes the film very easy to read as a “triumphant comeback” for Campion after a decade of well-made television: There are echoes here not just of The Piano, but also of her entire body of work.
But it’s worth elaborating a little more on that structure: the relationship between Phil and Peter only emerges in the film’s second half, standing in deliberate, shadowy relief to the flimsy, bright drama of the first. In this initial set-up, George (Jesse Plemons), brother of Phil, like a kindly Kane begins a courtship with barkeep Rose (Kirsten Dunst). He thinks she possesses many talents. He believes that his love for her allows him to see things that she herself cannot, and so he marries, he thinks, a woman with whom he can work, play, dance, and talk, as well as someone he can regard in a fine, comfortable home playing a piano for rich, distinguished guests. The particularity of his vision is unconvincing, particularly to Rose, who cannot suppress her habitual perspective formed by years of work cleaning, serving, and putting up with unwelcome customers.
What does this gambit accomplish? It means that at first we get Campion executing competent set-ups of stilted dialogue, overemphasized beauty, and one-note bully tactics from Phil’s posse. (One scene, involving some mockery that tips toward cafeteria-style intimidation, is probably one of the worst of Campion’s career.) Yet the second half reminds of how Campion has consistently worked at a high level of metaphorically underlined sensuality. The director, or perhaps the ’60s novel that provides her source material here, feels the need to give a brief history of homosexual shame and desire in order to establish the dynamic that takes over her film, but because of The Power of the Dog’s structure, it arrives as a welcome realignment.
Yet whatever strength this morphing narrative possesses can’t allay the questions Campion chooses not to address: Rose’s unsatisfied spiral, the relation of the two brothers, George’s would-be social ascension in 1920s Montana, all richly detailed and suggestive, then left to twist in the wind. When a film entertains ideas in this way, it is often said to be better for not satisfying every direction it could take. Still, it would seem that the way this film is organized leaves it ample room to disappoint and defer, in order to make up in brief moments of iconographic pleasure and intrigue what it otherwise is careful to waste.
Writer: Michael Scoular
Rob Savage burst on to the scene last year with the surprise success of Host, a 60-minute horror film shot during COVID lockdowns that transpired entirely via Zoom. It was a clever use of the suddenly ubiquitous Screenlife genre, and genuinely scary, showcasing Savage’s gift for precise framing that concealed as much as it revealed. Savage has returned with DASHCAM, a larger, more ambitious feature that expands on Host in every way, although not always for the better. In a brief video introduction at DASHCAM‘s premiere, Savage explained that his cast and crew embarked on this film with only a rough outline, improvising and fleshing out scenes on a daily basis as they shot them. There is indeed a loose quality to the film, as we follow Annie (Annie Hardy) on a visit from L.A. to an old bandmate living in London. “Visit” is maybe the wrong word; actually, Annie is fleeing her roommates and the stringent COVID protocols in liberal L.A. She is in fact a MAGA chud, incessantly complaining about mask mandates and claiming that COVID is a hoax to her legions of online fans (whose comments are constantly scrolling along the left side of the frame throughout the film, like a distaff, terminally online Greek chorus). Her friend Stretch (Amar Chadha-Patel), now a DoorDash-type delivery guy who lives with his liberal, vegan girlfriend, reluctantly lets Annie back into his life, only to watch her livestream her pro-Trump rants while insulting his significant other and picking fights with workers who ask her to mask up.
These early passages are, frankly, a chore, as Savage attempts to surf the zeitgeist and imbue the film with a certain kind of topicality. But Annie is aggressively unpleasant, despite some indications that she’s just a troll and might not actually believe the nonsense she’s spouting. Either way, it’s a lot to demand from an audience (which is obviously part of the point, but to what end?). Still, Annie can be funny and occasionally even charming, and the chemistry between her and Chadha-Patel goes some ways towards papering over the general distastefulness (the duo’s improvised freestyle raps are also pretty funny). Fortunately, this is a horror movie, and things soon take a turn for the bizarre. After arguing with Stretch’s girlfriend and getting kicked out of their house, Annie steals his car and phone; as a lark, she winds up accepting a delivery gig on Stretch’s behalf, presumably for the lulz. But when she arrives at a seemingly abandoned restaurant, someone begs her to transport a sick old woman for them. Thinking that her livestream audience might enjoy such a strange detour (and thanks to a wad of cash foisted upon her), she agrees and gets the woman into the back of the car, but there’s clearly something wrong with the lady. At this point, DASHCAM threatens to turn into a zombie movie, as the old woman begins spewing bodily fluids and attacking everyone in sight. But Savage has something else in mind, and the second half of this (very brief) feature expertly accelerates into an all-out assault, as Stretch tracks down Annie and gets involved in her misbegotten adventure. The pair are constantly set upon by the woman, who exhibits powers beyond what we’ve come to expect from a typical zombie scenario. There’s also a stranger who’s following them for some unknown reason, and who is perfectly willing to shoot first and ask questions later. It’s absolutely wild, becoming increasingly frenetic and, it must be said, exceedingly violent.
Visually, Savage is trying to thread a tricky needle between Screenlife aesthetic, first-person POV shots, and the more familiar found-footage tropes (DASHCAM occasionally resembles a Blair Witch sequel). It’s a cacophony of competing visual stimuli, occasionally headache-inducing and frequently devolving into digital smears and patchy frames. But Savage still has a keen eye, slowing things down just enough to sell a jump scare or give a good glimpse of a gory gag. DASHCAM isn’t subtle, exactly, but there are a few goosebump-inducing moments in between the carnage. As Annie and Stretch run for their lives, the political commentary fades away and the film transforms into grueling survival-horror. Maybe that’s Savage’s point after all — when you’re being chased by an unkillable supernatural force, we all just want to get through the night alive. It’s entirely possible that audiences will reject this film wholesale; it’s already proved incredibly divisive on social media and amongst critics. But if you can roll with the first half of DASHCAM, there are ample rewards awaiting the patient viewer. Much like the recent The Sadness, there’s a bitter anger on display here that’s ultimately bracing in its bluntness. The world sucks, try to survive it.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
When contemplating filmmakers who would attempt to tackle a low-key relationship drama like The Wheel, Steve Pink is probably not the first name to come to mind. Granted, the man did help to co-write two of the defining comedies of the late-’90s/early 2000s — Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity, respectively — but he is probably best known for helming Hot Tub Time Machine, a film more famous for its ridiculous title than anything of note therein. He also has the not-bad Accepted and better-than-expected About Last Night remake under this belt, so perhaps all of the jokes and ridicule are undeserved; one stupidly-titled project does not a filmography make. If anything, The Wheel proves that Pink does indeed possess some range as a director, reigning in his usual schtick for an occasionally thoughtful portrait of one young couple attempting to tackle their severe marital issues during a weekend stay in the mountains. Walker (Taylor Gray) is puppy-dog sweet and loyal to a fault; Albee (Amber Midthunder) is cold, sarcastic, and lacking in anything resembling empathy. The two will attempt to reach some sort of middle-ground through a self-help book that requires them to address seven essential questions regarding their marriage, although the answer seems rather obvious: they were too young when they got hitched (“We were 16. It was Texas.”), and now, eight years later, they are forced to confront their childhood stupidity. Meanwhile, the couple’s marital woes force their temporary neighbors and the owners of the cabin, engaged couple Carly (Bethany Anne Lind) and Ben (Nelson Lee), to take stock of their own relationship issues, as their seemingly idyllic union starts to show cracks.
The Wheel is a film that strives for realism when it comes to its central couple, yet it’s that same authenticity that makes for such grueling company with these folks. Within the first ten minutes of the film, Albee is described by various people as “a dick,” “a bitch,” and “an asshole,” and yet these descriptors still don’t do justice to just how unpleasant this particular character can be, and what a chore it is to spend time in her presence. There is, naturally, a tragic backstory, one that is laid out fairly early, but the character is presented as so merciless and cruel that empathy proves nearly impossible. Walker is fairly bland, for his part, and the character is blandly rendered and barely compelling, while the entire subplot with the neighbors feels superfluous at best, existing only for cheap irony — first-time screenwriter Trent Atkinson should have gone for a two-hander here. But then something rather surprising happens in the last act of The Wheel. Employing an eight-minute long-take on the titular carnival ride, Walker and Albee are finally forced to confront their various issues, leading to tear-stained admissions and expressions of fear and guilt that wouldn’t feel out of place in the later chapters of the Before trilogy, and these two-dimensional characters finally begin to click into focus. Does the actual ending hedge its bets? Perhaps, but it feels notably more earned than in other films of this ilk, and the fact that this sequence is likely to ping-pong a healthy number of viewers between tears and smiles in under a minute is certainly an accomplishment. Backed by sturdy, no-frills direction, The Wheel proves that Pink is capable of more than just frat-boy hijinks. The ride isn’t always smooth, but the ultimate destination suggests that Pink may still yet be worth following to future destinations.
Writer: Steven Warner
At the risk of painting with too broad a brush, Sébastien Pilote’s traditional treatment of Louis Hemon’s Maria Chapdelaine is a headline for all the typical faults of Quebecois cinema: gratuitous, dispassionate, reverent, and very well-made. Adapting a settler narrative from the turn of the 20th century, Pilote charts a path into this classroom classic that’s decidedly at odds with its logline: A young woman of marriageable age (Sara Montpetit) is visited by three suitors — woodsman François (Émile Schneider), local farmer Eutrope (Antoine Olivier Pilon), and landowner Lorenzo (Robert Naylor) — each of whom promise her a different future. Perhaps it isn’t wrong to call this a grand narrative of social change, but grand narratives of social change are not all created equal.
Pilote has no taste for melodrama, and never tries to get inside Maria’s head in the way the fantastic vignettes of The Fireflies Are Gone did. In Pilote’s adaptation, Maria hardly speaks 200 words the entire film. She is a demure, unquestioningly subservient character. She is Pure of Heart. Pilote tracks her romantic longing through unfeeling cutaways (the occasional glance, the suggestion of a breath subtly taken away), these being cutaways because most of the time here is spent chronicling the demanding clearcut of the acres around the Chapdelaine residence: the chores and wind-down at dusk, the low-lit family dinners, and the rising to do it all again. One could say that in this dedication to realism, Pilote avoids any charges of presentism. But his alternative, a hands-off distance from these colonial archetypes, is merely the other side of the coin: both approaches close off anything resembling a narrative or ideological complication. Among the classes of novel adaptations, there are those that illustrate and those that organize details according to a purpose that belongs to no book. And across nearly three hours, Pilote unfailingly illustrates the way in which, as in the visual metaphor he chooses to speak of Maria’s heart, a new card disappears into an old deck.
Writer: Michael Scoular