The Tragedy of Macbeth
The Coens excel in films that flaunt a superficial mastery of genre, form, and cinematic grammar, all to arrive at intentionally depleted and exhausted conclusions. Projects either end up in absolute infernos (Barton Fink), or coil themselves so tightly they shatter into giddy cynicism (Burn After Reading), their total command allowing for extreme capriciousness. Joel’s first solo outing is the ultimate act of adaptive mimicry: owing to the sheer amount of interpolation, transposition, and interpretation involved in adapting Shakespeare, Macbeth, the chosen (cursed) source material, still leaves considerable room for authorial ambition.
The Tragedy of Macbeth’s predecessors uniformly exist in their respective aesthetic-thematic vacuums, which occasionally foreground a discombobulating detachment that is somehow overly studious but emotionally underbaked; their approaches fail to furnish the precarious schemes their characters are saddled with. But considering how much mileage a director can derive from Macbeth, the Coens’ preferred method of creative tunnel vision is a welcome diversion from the Bard’s works being bastardized, contemporized, or both. Fiercely aware of various cross-medium considerations, Joel Coen presides over a give-and-take relationship between theater and film. Shot on just one Los Angeles soundstage, The Tragedy of Macbeth replicates set-changes with methods achievable only through the manipulation of the camera, such as an impossibly struck angle craning into a “different” location (a burning letter is sent up into the night sky, and the same star patterns then shine down on Brendan Gleeson’s Duncan), or a subtle deployment of otherwise jovial silhouettes to highlight Macbeth’s (Denzel Washington) lonely hesitation ahead of his fatal first step towards kinghood.
These are polite liberties, which may not even initially scan as such, considering the film’s fidelity to the text. But then, even the varying accents — the dialects Washington and Frances McDormand, as Lady Macbeth, are not consistent with Scotland, or with costars such as Gleeson — are yet another facet of Coen’s inquisitive temperament, as if he were investigating how far Shakespeare’s writing could stretch while still set within the immediate world on the page. The visual design often trades in austerity for expressionistic flourishes, and vice versa (the use of black and white and Academy ratio framing handily complements such multitasking), which places The Tragedy of Macbeth somewhere between Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and even Michael Almereyda — though the Coens’ signature bloodlust, lightly daubed on the canvas, has a welcome sting, even at its most unpleasant.
Given the built-in artifice, The Tragedy of Macbeth is still surprisingly elemental; in yet another rewiring of what’s become Macbeth norm — portraying Scotland as a fetid, muddy landscape of isolation — Coen shapes the soundstage into an arid steppe of alternating desert and forest, where the weird sisters (singularly embodied by Kathryn Hunter, who approaches the role with a polyvocal ingenuity) writhe in the sand, and even the scantest of raindrops ring out thunderously upon stone surfaces (the sound design juxtaposes attendant noises with unconventional sources). Scotland looks as if it’s prematurely decayed, which matches Washington’s fatigued visage and gray hair: Macbeth’s monomania may be archetypally youthful, but its bearer is not. The Tragedy of Macbeth is an old-man film, its reinterpretation of juvenile folly shot through with a visceral fear of aging and bodily disintegration. As Macbeth is such a universally recognizable work, it requires a universally recognized director and ensemble to follow through on such a worthwhile subterfuge.
Writer: Matt Lynch
The central moral dilemma at the heart of Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta — which loosely follows the trials and tribulations of Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira), a 17th-century nun and eventual abbess, whose carnal escapades with a fellow nun led to the stripping of her position — is one of faith, which is rather unsurprising given the subject matter. More specifically, the film concerns belief in the unknowable. With that in mind, claiming it’s about “ambiguity” is perhaps too flippant — besides, that would be far more applicable to Verhoeven himself and his primary interest in this real-world figure. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: it’s better to start at the beginning, since this aforementioned predicament is introduced rather early on when a young Benedetta is able to save her family from a band of oncoming thieves by praying for divine intervention. It does seemingly manifest, albeit in the form of bird shit, but it allows her father to buy her into the esteemed ranks of the Convent of the Mother of God, which ultimately leads to two forms of personal divinity: that her sexual awakening, brought upon by the advances of Sister Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) some years later, and her ascent to canonization after claiming she’s directly spoken with the Lord himself.
The latter of these ecstatic recognitions is what Benedetta is superficially concerned with: the big aforementioned dispute boils down to whether these supposed visions — depicted in dream sequences featuring CGI-snakes being cooly beheaded by the God’s son not named Nas — and brief occasions of supernatural possession and resurrection are all fabrications concocted by Benedetta in order to make a power-grab within the convent. But it’s a question Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke seem strangely uninterested in answering (even up till its shamelessly crowd-pleasing ending, which reverses The Passion of Joan of Arc’s into a revenge fantasy), a bizarre and all too easy choice that allows them to side-step both historical reality and any real dramatic stakes by engaging in mere speculation. Rather, it’s the erotic exploits — including a thuddingly literal “come to Jesus” moment involving a wooden cross that’s altered into a makeshift dildo — that’s foregrounded over this more pressing throughline, a move that reeks of late-period desperation from a horny old man who still has to prove he’s “got it.” While the Dutch agitator has certainly been accused of empty provocation before (usually by critics who fail to read irony), this has to be the hardest he’s tried to rile up middle-aged evangelicals since he got Sharon Stone to [un]cross her legs in Basic Instinct. There are the obvious double entendres and innuendos, which are laid on fast and thick; there’s the predictable revelation that every religious authority figure is a self-serving charlatan; and then there’s the abundant onscreen nudity, which is as liberal as it is lecherous, at least in this specific context, where its usage is meant to transgress rather than explicate. If anything, this is a bit paradoxical given how traditionalist most of the film’s other formal elements are: visually, this is Verhoeven at his blandest and most conservative, operating in a purposely stodgy Euro-art-house mode similar to Black Book and Elle, and one that does this already dry content no favors beyond making the supposed point even more overt. To some degree, this overtness has always been Verhoeven’s biggest problem, but one that the sheer audacity and dizzying glee of his directorial prowess often circumnavigates. Here, he’s far meeker, and certainly won’t be inheriting the Earth anytime soon as a result.
Writer: Paul Attard
The Souvenir: Part II
Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s 1778 painting “The Souvenir,” which captures with Rococo gentility a young woman carving her lover’s initials into a tree, is the central object and metaphor of Joanna Hogg‘s quietly dazzling 2019 feature which shares its title. In it, a young film student, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) receives a postcard-sized reproduction of the artwork slipped under her door by Anthony (Tom Burke) marking the start of their tumultuous relationship. Eventually, the burden of Anthony’s toxicity (magnified by the heroin use which leads to his untimely death) brands Julie, like the carved tree, with a lasting souvenir of their relationship; a young love is curdled into grief. The film ends on a shot of her standing before a large set of soundstage hangar doors, shut earlier but now thrust open to reveal a lush landscape beyond them. Hogg beckons us to exit as well, dropping the credits just as Julie walks out toward an uncertain future, leaving the encompassing pain and tragedy of the present behind her. For all of The Souvenir’s bold stylistic choices — bounding with ease from 16mm to Super 8 to still photography, and back — none approach the audacity of dashing the beautiful precision of this conclusion with a promise (tucked 007-style at the end of the credit scroll) that Souvenir: Part II is on the way.
Surprising at first glance, this decision makes more sense with a grasp of how profoundly autobiographical the film really is and the extent to which Hogg has inserted parts of herself into it. From a reconstruction of her ‘80s London flat to journals and letters used as inspiration, inserted photographs, and footage, its dramatized world is populated by shards and artifacts tethered to a real set of events, a real artist, and a real, tragic loss. Hogg explains in interviews that she had long envisioned the film in two parts, with the second forming an expanded look at Julie as an artist whose work becomes informed by the tragedy of the first. In fact, Hogg’s autobiographical forthrightness in The Souvenir unlocks a new resonance to the themes of absence and loss that pulsate through Unrelated, Archipelago, and Exhibition, her trilogy of features that preceded it.
The trouble with The Souvenir: Part II, however, is that it lacks a driving force, and for the first time, Hogg, a director whose idiosyncratic filmography has been marked by confidence, appears to be grasping in the dark. The result is a protracted epilogue to a film that never needed one, with several distinct ideas moving in several directions and hoping to cover enough ground to create the impression of a whole. The first trails down the trajectory of Julie’s grief, exemplified by melancholy trips to her parent’s villa; the second tracks her artistic process through the development of her student film; the third follows her attempts to reconcile her idea of Anthony with the truth of who he was; and the fourth concerns itself with stymied love affairs and false starts. This may read as robust on paper, but the individual segments feel paltry, no longer intertwined, and instead have the air of deleted scenes from the previous chapter — like an album of B-sides and leftovers from a great record. Julie’s emotional state, which in The Souvenir served as an anchor, becomes more inscrutable, particularly as the focus shifts to her student film: a recreation of her relationship bombastically titled The Souvenir as well. Following the gripping sincerity of the previous film, the decision to double down on this too-clever-by-half meta deconstruction plays like a tactical retreat, an act of emotional disengagement from the heart of the material.
This move sadly undercuts the same vibrant visuals that made The Souvenir feel so rich. The Souvenir: Part II once again has a sumptuous collage of styles, including shifting film stocks and aspect ratios, color and black-&-white, and the culminating centerpiece: a remarkable homage to Hogg’s Powell and Pressburger-indebted student film Caprice (which once featured a young Tilda Swinton in her first role, and now stars her daughter Honor Swinton Byrne). But even this phantasmagoric climax recalling The Red Shoes feels sloppily out of place, mechanical, and untethered from the emotive foundation ostensibly driving it. In an earlier scene, the school board questions Julie’s new script: “Where has that world gone?” they ask, referring explicitly to her abandoning a documentary project in favor of an autobiographical shift. This question lingers in the air here, as we watch the same gorgeously composed images of The Souvenir become so devoid of feeling or power. This aspect becomes most obvious in looking at The Souvenir: Part II’s ending, which reduces Julie to a mere character; her pain, her grief, her creative ambitions all caught in a loop of artifice, nothing but a film within a film. The ending closes on an indulgent reminder of Joanna Hogg’s presence and shuffles off the world of The Souvenir with ironic distance and detachment; a negation of the original ending which had once brandished its fearless sincerity as both sword and shield.
Writer: Igor Fishman
Prayers for the Stolen
Making its way over to NYFF after picking up a “Special Mention” in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section some months back, Tatiana Huezo’s Prayers for the Stolen is the sort of movie that thrives at American and European film festivals, though one has a hard time imagining other contexts in which audiences would eagerly seek it out. Undeterred, Netflix has snatched up the U.S. rights to this title, surely with Foreign Language Oscar aspirations (quite possible knowing Academy tastes), and Prayers for the Stolen will soon be granted a life outside the insular festival circuit where it has been praised.
An unsurprising acquisition, Prayers for the Stolen is shot in the competent-yet-undynamic styling that characterizes all Netflix content (one has to guess that a certain tier of independent filmmaker’s visual aesthetic is now beholden to the streaming service’s approved cameras and capture requirements, whether they officially have distribution with them or not), while offering up a Very Political narrative built atop a neutral, humanist ideology (i.e. nothing). On paper a hard movie to deride, Prayers for the Stolen is set in a rural Mexican town mostly populated by women and girls working in opium fields, the male populace largely departed for better-paying work in the U.S. Preying upon this desperation and vulnerability, the cartel controls the region and its people through terror and dehumanizing violence, committing casual femicide and frequently kidnapping young girls for trafficking. Huezo presents her bleak tale (drawn from the 2014 novel by Jennifer Clement) through the semi-mystified perspective of a pre-adolescent girl on the verge of puberty, her coming-of-age placing her in immediate danger of Cartel victimization, but also inevitably spurring on yearnings for adult freedoms her mother won’t allow. Full of manipulative cliché (we’re there to witness the first time this girl menstruates) and standard loss of innocent-isms, Prayers for the Stolen seems to think that it’s re-empowering its young protagonists by removing them from larger sociopolitical context and instead lasering in on their miseries and lost potential (our lead character is naturally fiery and precocious). Blunt to the point of crassness at times, Prayers for the Stolen pretends to grant access to an overlooked story, but instead of provoking, it reassures, the only conclusion it confidently comes to being “cartels are bad.” A comfortable fit within the xenophobic myopia of the festival purview, Prayers for the Stolen isn’t likely to offer much appeal elsewhere.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
The First 54 Years: An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation
How does one condense over five decades of history into the limited duration of two hours? By making a hacky, talking-head documentary, obviously. But before asking that, another question should be posed: should one condense over five decades of history into two hours? Well, generally speaking, no — they could consider, instead, just writing a book on the subject to better flesh out its arguments rather than streamlining complicated past events into an artistic medium that doesn’t suit that particular mode of functionality. Even the long-winded title The First 54 Years: An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation announces both an abridgment of fact (in a semi-cheeky manner) and the obvious shortcomings implicit in that. Hell, 54 years is already cutting it a bit close given the topic — Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, specifically the Gaza Strip — and director Avi Mograbi oddly begins in 1967 (the Six-Day War) instead of 1948 (the Nakba and Palestine war).
But no matter, as these seem to be regarded as simple trivialities in the grander scheme of things, and offering a straightforward account of events isn’t the primary goal here. Mograbi frames his documentary — also given away in that aforementioned long-winded title — as a “how-to” guide on the basics one needs for conquering any given region, using the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as different “steps” one must take. It’s a deeply wrongheaded approach for this given topic, one that ignores a lot of specific context needed about this land and its people, and one that feels like a flimsy excuse to make a documentary in the first place. Mograbi also makes the bizarre choice to be the central ringleader for his endeavor, speaking directly to the audience in Travis Wilkerson-style 4th-wall breaking monologues, all to articulate really banal insights in a deep, “somber” voice so that everyone is sure to get just how serious things are. He even has one where he’s performatively smoking a cigarette whilst delivering a lecture on “spilling blood,” which he’s clearly doing because he himself has to realize how patently goofy most of these are. His formal approach is equally embarrassing: this is a middle school Prezi PowerPoint being sold as cinematic product, gracelessly edited with map stock images of Israel being utilized as transitional slides and featuring one of the ugliest typeface fonts imaginable to utilize as on-screen text — which viewers are forced to look at for a long, long time, as every interviewee has their name hanging on the bottom of the screen for the entirety of their interview. And speaking of these interviews: for a documentary that aims to shed light on Israel’s atrocities, it sure is telling that not one Palestinian voice is heard throughout, let alone a single woman from either county. Guess more time just had to be dedicated to Mograbi hamming it up for his solipsistic retelling of history, making The First 54 Years not simply a failure in a filmic sense, but perhaps more pressingly, as a historical document as well.
Writer: Paul Attard