THE NIGHT WATCH (2006)

Sarah Waters often traffics in thrilling historical lesbian romances, which is obvious by the names of her earlier novels, such as TIPPING THE VELVET (1998) and FINGERSMITH (2002).

THE NIGHT WATCH (2006) is a bit of a detour, as it’s far more Dickensian — in spirit, not time as it takes place in various times before, during, and after World War Two in London — and far more of an ensemble, which features not only a lesbian couple, but also a straight couple, and one jailed man whose sexuality is slightly more complex. (There are additional supporting characters, but those are the major players.)

If that description sounds maddeningly vague, it’s by intent. THE NIGHT WATCH is incredibly restrained with doling out character particulars, and jumps around in years to intentionally provoke intrigue and drama, but also serves to contrast how these characters have coped with wartime and recovery.

In that sense, it feels remarkably relevant in this age of COVID-19, as you read how the characters shelter-in-place, experience how they put themselves at risk by venturing out into the world, tales of first responders, and the like. More than anything, it’s about living with an invisible threat while also living a hidden life, and yes, it’s just as loaded as it sounds.

While all of the characters are richly drawn, I can’t help but wish that Waters had dialed back the scope a bit, as I found myself drawn to the queer relationships lived by Helen, Kay, and Julia, as opposed to the straight and male romances lived through Viv, Reggie, and Duncan, all of which felt like their relationships were hitting the same notes, but with less-satisfying results.

Regardless, Waters is an expert at balancing literary storytelling while also penning extraordinary steamy content, and it’s worth reading THE NIGHT WATCH solely for the more tantalizing passages and the relationship dynamics that she details.

YOU WON’T BE ALONE (2022)

If forced to describe YOU WON’T BE ALONE, the first film from Goran Stolevski, in a simple log line, I’d say: it’s equal parts Truffaut’s THE WILD CHILD, Virginia Woolf’s novel ORLANDO and Sally Potter’s film adaptation, and Angela Carter’s THE BLOODY CHAMBER and Neil Jordan’s adaptation, THE COMPANY OF WOLVES. (Then again, every single one of those works were very formative for me, so I’m perhaps not the most reliable narrator for this write-up.)

While that may sound very specific, it doesn’t quite do YOU WON’T BE ALONE justice. Set in 19th century Macedenoia, it’s about a young girl promised to a wolf-eateress named Maria (a ruthlessly great Anamaria Marinca) — for all intents and purposes, a witch — by her mother to account for being set fire to at the hands of their community. Her mother then forces her daughter into an enclosed cave for the rest of her youth, in an attempt to prevent the witch from absconding with her and turning her into a wolf-eateress/witch.

Once the feral girl is grown, Maria kills the mother, takes on her disguise, and abducts Biliana (Alice Englert, who also appeared in THE POWER OF THE DOG), predictably changing her into a witch with the hopes that she’d be the daughter she never had.

What follows are a number of physical transformations, of Biliana exploring her humanity but in a rather flailing way, and often being disappointed by the results, all portrayed by depictions of fundamental elementals; hair, water, fire, earth, blood and skin.

It’s a bewildering work, one far more sensitive than I thought it’d be, with a wildly roaming camera that knows how to sit still when necessary. It’s visually astounding while also being quietly desperate; a stunningly heartfelt first film.

Favorites of 2021: Films

Here are my favorite — note, not what I feel are the best — films of 2021, in alphabetical, non-prioritized, order:

BARB & STAR GO TO VISTA DEL RAY

“I miss this sort of comedy, the kind of comedy that doesn’t call attention to its jokes, the kind that’s sharply written and doesn’t meander or rely on extended improvised riffs. It’s tightly wound silliness with a ton of great talent”

“It was a real tit-flapper!”

BENEDETTA

“[U]ltimately this is a human drama, one which showcases how very little has changed over hundreds of years.”

CENSOR

“[A]n extremely mannered film until, well, until it isn’t. Stick with it and it will fuck you up.”

THE FRENCH DISPATCH

A surprisingly sincere triptych from Wes Anderson.

JOY RIDE

“We’re all healing as we (hopefully) come to the end of this awful era, and seeing JOY RIDE under these circumstances was such an immensely enjoyable time, and I’m so happy I could see it with such giving artists.”

THE SOUVENIR PART II

“I can’t recommend these two films enough, but I would suggest watching them relatively close together. I hadn’t seen PART I since it screened in theaters in 2019, and felt like I was missing out on a lot in PART II because, uh, my memory, and the past two years have been particularly harrowing.”

SPENCER

I’ve had the goddamn hardest time getting people to watch this film, solely because of Kristen Stewart, but hell, the way she casts her eyes … I wish folks would just watch the trailer and see her transformation.

“You are your own weapon.”

[…]

“Will they kill me, do you think?”

TITANE

“I can’t remember the last time I so extensively averted my eyes from watching a film. However, those moments are not exploitative — they are meant to be uncomfortable, they are there for a reason. I simply felt that I was able to glean that reason by listening, instead of watching.”

Missed:

  • ANNETTE
  • CANDYMAN
  • CYRANO
  • DRIVE MY CAR
  • MEMORIA
  • NIGHTMARE ALLEY
  • NINE DAYS
  • PASSING
  • PLAN B
  • RED ROCKET
  • SHIVA BABY
  • TEST PATTERN
  • THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH
  • ZOLA

SPENCER (2021)

Truth be told, I signed up for this screening solely because of Kristen Stewart’s depiction of Princess Diana. I’m not one who cares about the British monarchy. I barely paid attention to either the anointment of Diana or her death, although I do vividly remember seeing it in print …because it was being used as kitty litter at the pet adoption agency I visited shortly after moving to Chicago. I had a panic attack when my wife tried to walk me through the primary Harrods shop, back when it housed -all- of the Diana memorials, solely because of how populated it was. I haven’t even watched Pablo Larraín’s initial film in his ‘(doomed) princess’ trilogy, JACKIE (2016). Consequently, I expected to find SPENCER well-made, but not terribly engaging.

I certainly did not expect it to be a brilliant, skewed take on THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER. While I often read a lot of Greenaway influence into works, I think it’s undeniable here, as Greenaway’s film was explicitly about the suffocation that climate invoked, the prison one is placed in when bending the knee, and SPENCER is all about feeling trapped, about being boxed in and unable to breathe, and similarly about obligation and servitude, while also mimicking THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER’s visual tropes, notably making Diana the camera’s magnet, fixated on following her across rooms and through walls, flat-framing her, exchanging Gautier for Chanel, even color-coordinating her wear with the wallpaper and meals, such as the inaugural dish served at the opening of the three day Christmas decadence: pea green soup capped with a white foam, while she’s attired in a pea green frock lined in white. Also, her primary confidant and connection throughout this debacle? The chef; food being her only comfort apart from her sons.

SPENCER is a bold tale, singularly focused on Diana mentally spiraling downward, unfurling, and realizing that she’s rebuking this life, struggling to return home and to her roots. She’s opting-out, but yet is still trapped. It’s a story of acknowledging service, service to one’s family, to one’s nation, and of knowing yourself and unceremoniously rejecting your place in that hierarchy.

I’m on record as being a Kristen Stewart booster but even I was a bit on the fence about having her portray Diana, but she’s a goddamn revelation in the role, all wild, sad eyes and angered and antagonistic in a way I’ve never seen from her. It’s brilliant casting and writing, with deft camerawork, and surprisingly one of my favorite films of the year. Catch it while you can.

BENEDETTA (2021)

(Cinemas) BENEDETTA, the latest from the always inventive and thrilling filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, is based on the true story detailed in Judith C. Brown’s text IMMODEST ACTS: THE LIFE OF A LESBIAN NUN IN RENAISSANCE ITALY. Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira) was pledged to the church by her rich family after a very troubled birth. Benedetta felt that Jesus spoke to her from a young age, and then when she was a youth, her parents paid for her to stay at a nunnery, which according to the film was a slightly disillusioning experience, partially because of the very brusque, practical abbesse Soeur Felicita (the always exceptional Charlotte Rampling) at least until — later in life — a young Bartolomea (a wide-eyed Daphne Patakia) stumbles into the nunnery and Benedetta’s life, chased by herd of sheep and her abusive and rapey father. Benedetta convinces her parents to pay for her to stay there, and she and Bartolomea spiral into a very complicated, charged relationship, with severely uneven power dynamics on both sides.

Apologies for yet another ‘hey I saw an advance screening of this film’ post, but I saw an advance screening of this film a few weeks ago, and it’s the first film I’ve seen in some time to have protestors castigating those walking through the Music Box doors. (Heads-up: I didn’t capture this footage and this isn’t my account.)

The screening was at least two-thirds populated and, if you can attend a nearby screening, are vaxxed, and are comfortable with it, I would suggest attending. The film looks great — although two loud film nerds of a certain type directly behind me complained about the ‘shit CGI’ without realizing that’s part of Verhoeven’s cartoonish violence schtick — but, given the nature of the material, you wouldn’t think that this film is funny, but it is. It’s Verhoeven — it’s irreverent, but it comes from a place of wanting better from people and society. Always has been, hopefully always will be. There’s a purpose behind his cutting humor beyond sugar-coating some rough moments and being clever; it helps to provide insight and flesh out the characters. Consequently, hearing how people laugh and respond to the material in a crowd situation is surprisingly enlightening, although I will note that at least a good third of the laughs were of the nervous kind.

Yes, Verhoeven did take certain liberties — I won’t mention what they are as one is pretty important, one could say the crux of the film — so there is definitely some fictional sensationalism, but ultimately this is a human drama, one which showcases how very little has changed over hundreds of years.

THE SOUVENIR PART II (2021)

(Cinemas) I wrote a bit about THE SOUVENIR (PART I from here on out) a few days ago, in case you missed it. You might want to start there.

Given that I will watch anything from Joanna Hogg, I intentionally neglected to watch THE SOUVENIR PART II’s trailer (PART II from here on out), going in cold. What I saw wasn’t even close to what I thought we would get. I was thinking it would be something along the lines of THE UP series — checking in on the character as they age.

PART II is far more interesting than that.

PART II, an overtly autobiographical piece from writer/director Joanna Hogg, picks up approximately where the first part left off and follows aspiring filmmaker Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) as she tries to process the events of the first ‘film’ of her life (in several ways), while also becoming a more singular being.

I imagine there will be a number of folks who will find PART II to be too inside baseball. (That said, film nerds will eat this up.) Instead of focusing on a realistic relationship melodrama, PART II is specifically about Julie trying to find the images to deal with what she’s going through, and most of that is done through her work on her final student film. There’s a lot of riffing on PART I, there’s a lot of film jargon, and a lot of time spent on film sets and film crew members angrily bickering with each other.

In other words, the narrative propulsion is the polar opposite to PART I, but the center is still the same: it’s all about Julie’s journey, and Hogg handles it masterfully. Just like with PART I, it’s so beautifully and effectively shot — you can tell it’s a Hogg film based on how she frames buildings and navigates interior urban spaces, how she opts to obscure people’s faces more often than not, have them ‘turnout’ or ’turn in’.

I can’t recommend these two films enough, but I would suggest watching them relatively close together. I hadn’t seen PART I since it screened in theaters in 2019, and felt like I was missing out on a lot in PART II because, uh, my memory, and the past two years have been particularly harrowing.

Lastly, Vadim Rizov’s A.V. Club review touches on a lot of film and autobiographical references and riffs I wish I had time to note.

THE SOUVENIR (2019)

(hoopla/kanopy/Prime/Showtime/VOD) I saw THE SOUVENIR during its theatrical release on a sparsely attended Sunday afternoon matinee at the Lakeview Century Cinema, an act only a handful of Chicago folks would do, even in the before times.

THE SOUVENIR is a story from writer/director Joanna Hogg — who also wrote and directed EXHIBITION, which I dragged some folks to a Chicago International Film Fest screening many years ago which I loved, but I’m pretty sure they have yet to forgive me — about a young woman named Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, and yes, Tilda Swinton appears as her mother) who makes terrible relationship decisions that she firmly believes in, but can’t see that they’re awful. Classic youth romanticism. There’s a lot of class work thrown in, commentary about art and film, facets of addiction and the like, but ultimately it’s about her navigating, discovering, reckoning.

Right before the credits rolled, I thought I couldn’t love THE SOUVENIR more, then it closed out with a new Anna Calvi song (see also the previously recommended music video STRANGE WEATHER) and I shivered. Then an older women behind me complained to her companion:

“I don’t know, the whole film was weird. I mean, this song too! So weird!”

Damn right it was, and we need more of it.

Astoundingly, Hogg received funding for a sequel in which Robert Pattinson was to co-star. Then COVID and THE BATMAN happened, but the sequel did go into production — sans Pattinson — and is now in theaters! Give yourself the dramatic double-feature you deserve!

DREAM GIRL (2021)

Reading Laura Lippman’s DREAM GIRL after NIGHTSHADE was a real treat. Both novels are about two successful creatives who believe they’ve lived their lives in justifiable ways, but are often lying to themselves.

Whereas NIGHTSHADE was a suspenseful character drama about an acclaimed artist, DREAM GIRL is a psychological thriller about an acclaimed writer. Gerry Anderson is a successful novelist whose breadwinning accomplishment was that wrote an evocative LOLITA-esque story which, despite pre-dating 9/11, also managed to convey the cultural feelings of a post-9/11 world. It was enormously successful, but he’s constantly hounded about exactly who the titular ‘Dream Girl’, Aubrey, is based on. Gerry consistently replies that she is a complete work of fiction, not based on anyone.

Gerry’s moved from New York City to Baltimore to be with his dying mother but, a few days after he closes on a high-rise apartment, she dies. He takes a tumble down his newly acquired floating staircase which leaves him bedridden and at the mercy of his new assistant Victoria, and his night nurse Aileen. Shortly after, he starts receiving phone calls from someone claiming to be Aubrey, and he starts to wonder if he’s losing touch with reality.

Lippman’s probably best known for her Tess Monaghan detective fiction series, about an ex-Baltimore newspaper journalist turned private detective, but she’s become increasingly known for her one-off novels, such as WHAT THE DEAD KNOW and LADY IN THE LAKE, which are far darker and more self-indulgent. DREAM GIRL definitely fits that mold, as it’s peppered with all sorts of references to old-school noirs and detective fiction, novels like THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, references to her friend and author Megan Abbott (who penned my favorite neo-noir novel QUEENPIN), so many riffs on classic Hollywood and horror films, and even a quick moment with Tess Monaghan herself. In other words, it was tailor-made for me, but there’s also a lot to appreciate about the novel from a structural standpoint. Lippman’s exceptional at setting everything up so that, right before the reveals come, the curtains fall from your eyes, and you can’t help but appreciate the breadcrumbs she’s strewn through the prior pages.

It’s a gripping work, slightly bogged down by the fact that, if you know the works she namedrops, she telegraphs how this will play out. That said, the book has a few more surprises once you get to that point, so you can forgive her for that, and Gerry is an intriguing enough character study to set aside the suspense story itself.

http://www.lauralippman.net/dream-girl