Capsule Review: The Hole

Written by Michael Clawson

90/100

On the cusp of the new millennium, two neighboring apartment dwellers, one living above the other, seem to nearly drown in their loneliness. They’re essentially the last ones in their complex; everyone else has been driven out by evacuation orders as an epidemic, the so-called “Taiwan fever,” rages throughout the area. A never-ending torrential downpour keeps them inside, their curiosity towards each other and longing for companionship growing with every passing day. A hole in the man’s floor/the woman’s ceiling, caused by a plumbing issue, becomes a kind of passageway, one for both the tangible and intangible. They might not have much for entertainment, but at least the man and woman have cinematic memories to escape into, represented by magical little song-and-dance interludes; it’s like Tsai lifted the sequences straight out of a classic movie musical and restaged them in this dilapidated apartment complex. That last gesture, the simple offering of a glass of water—so moving. No one knows how to end a movie better than Tsai.

The Hole Trailer

Capsule Review: Saint Maud

Written by Michael Clawson

80/100

A shaken young nurse shrinks in the corner of a dark hospital bedroom, blood dripping from her hands, a dead patient splayed out on her back on the cot. The grim opening scene and one jolting, gruesome flashback later on concisely replace exposition that might otherwise have spelled out the original cause of Maud’s trauma-induced delirium. Which is to say that I like the tightness of Glass’s storytelling, even if it did leave me with a less than completely satisfying sense of who Maud really is or was prior to her lonely descent into psychotic religiosity. Channeling Polanski’s Repulsion, Glass roots us in Maud’s crumbling headspace with ruthless commitment (here and there, she does get carried away with her expressive film craft), while Morfydd Clark excels in balancing the tragic dimension of Maud’s arc with its more immediately horrifying elements. All together, pretty thrilling, finely executed psychological horror.

Saint Maud Trailer

You can listen to Michael Clawson and Taylor Baker discuss Saint Maud in further detail in Episode 105 of Drink in the Movies.

Episode 106: SXSW 2021: Violation / Here Before / Language Lessons

“I selfishly like a lot of first-time directors because they over-prepare, they’re super eager, and there’s very little ego.”

Mark Duplass

Links: Apple Podcasts | Castbox | Google Podcasts | LibSyn | Spotify | Stitcher | YouTube

This week on Drink in the Movies Michael & Taylor discuss their First Impressions of: Oxygen & Every Breath You Take and the SXSW 2021 Feature Films: Violation, Here Before, and Language Lessons.

You can read Taylor’s Reviews of Violation, Here Before, and Language Lessons.

Streaming links for titles this episode

Violation is currently available to stream on Shudder

Here Before and Language Lessons are currently seeking distribution and are not yet available.

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire: A Collokino Conversation hosted by Jim Wilson

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Directed by Céline Sciamma, 2019

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Jim Wilson: Michael, thanks for doing this with me again. How have you been doing?

Michael Clawson: Thanks for having me back for another Collokino! I’m doing well, spending much of summer here in Seattle as I usually do… inside, watching movies, and wishing my apartment had air conditioning (that’s an aspect of theater-going that I’m missing more than ever). How are things with you?

Jim: Great, thanks. Enjoying another hot and dry Colorado summer, and watching more movies than should probably be allowed.

With the third edition of Collokino, I’m breaking my own loose rules and having you on to talk about a film that I chose, when it’s the guest who’s supposed to choose (so maybe I’ll put you in the host seat a little). Ever since watching it the first time back in March, I’ve been longing to write or talk about Céline Sciamma’s absolutely incredible film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but I’ve failed over and over again to put together a review that satisfies me. I notice that most reviews for it never get close to doing it justice, as if there’s something about the review format that neglects it, or can’t contain it. That’s why I thought it would be a good idea, or at least a pleasant challenge, to give it a look in a more casual, conversational format instead. Would you be so kind, fine sir, to give a brief synopsis of the film and your first impressions? This is your second watch of Portrait, is that right? Streaming, or have you picked up the disc?

Michael: Even if it is against Collokino guidelines, you didn’t have to twist my arm to get me on board for talking about this one. I saw Portrait towards the end of last year, really enjoyed it, and watched it again recently on Hulu. On both occasions, I was enraptured by Sciamma’s craft, the romance, and the relationship between artist and muse that the film explores. With that, a synopsis:

A gorgeous romantic drama set in 18th century France, the film begins in a classroom, where Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is teaching a small group of young women to paint. Mid-lesson, she stops. She’s noticed a painting she did some time ago sitting in the back of the room, apparently pulled out by a curious student. Composed mostly of dark greys and blues, it’s of a lone woman in a moonlit field, the base of her dress aflame. The sight of it floods Marianne with memories that form the remainder of the film. In flashback, Marianne arrives on the rocky shores of Brittany, where she’s been commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who’s returned home from a convent after her sister’s death. Héloïse is to be married to a Milanese suitor she’s never met, and in defiance of this unwanted future being thrust upon her, she has refused to pose for other portraitists. Marianne thus begins the portrait in secret, pretending she’s been hired simply as a companion to Héloïse, but stealing glances at her for later reference on their regular, often silent but charged walks along the shoreline. As the painting comes to life, so too does an attraction between Héloïse and Marianne, and who’s gazing at who evolves.

How would you characterize the development of Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship, in terms of either their desire for each other or their statuses as artist and muse? If that question points you in a direction you don’t want to go yet, maybe start by sharing what you responded to, or found compelling, in a more general sense.

Jim: And that’s exactly why I asked you to set it up, lol. You do that really well.

Sure, I’d love to talk about the development of the relationship between Héloïse and Marianne. Adèle Haenel, in an interview included on the Criterion BD (it’s a beautiful thing) talks about three stages in the evolution of the characters, which tracks with the stages in the evolution of their relationship. In the first, she describes the bodies as angular, the faces as masks, with no warmth between them. In the second phase, which she calls intermediary, cracks appear in the masks, there’s a little intimacy, and some warmth is starting to peek through. In the third phase, which she calls the hottest, the bodies are loose, voices are spontaneous, and emotions are strong. I would simplify that, and describe the three phases in the development of the relationship between Héloïse and Marianne as illusion-liberty-love. Marianne performs an illusion, which Héloïse at least senses, which keeps her closed and distant. When illusion is replaced with honesty, the film reaches its apex, right around the one-hour mark, with the liberating middle section, followed by the romantic final section. I’d love to cover all three of those phases, but would first emphasize a crucial point between the first and second phases, when the veil is first lifted from Marianne’s deceit.

Héloïse is looking at Marianne’s first painting of her, the one she does on the sly. It really is terrible, how Héloïse is depicted as an adult-sized little girl, all of her angles rounded off, which is a criminal thing to do to the visage of Adèle Haenel, whose angularity and larger-than-lifeness is what makes her so beautiful. When Marianne explains that the portrait is stylized to conform to certain conventions, Héloïse furrows her generous brow and asks “You mean there’s no life, no presence?” Marianne explains, “Your presence is made up of fleeting moments that may lack truth.” And there the conceptual bomb is dropped. Héloïse snaps back “Not everything is fleeting. Some feelings are deep.”

What Marianne is doing is advocating for an aesthetics of essence, the idea that all people can be reduced to some basic kernel of humanity, which can be captured in graphic representations of people. Without getting into the philosophical weeds of it, suffice it to say that it’s an idea which everything about the film then roundly rejects. Marianne has it exactly wrong. It’s the fleeting moments that tell the deepest truths, as the film, and she, learns to illustrate. What’s distinctive to any human subject, including deep feelings, is what makes that individual person utterly unique. The worldly Marianne, an unusually empowered woman for her time, is being schooled by the provincial Héloïse. Héloïse may be of aristocratic birth, but she’s a rough stone compared to Marianne’s polished rock. Héloïse commands the aesthetic core of Portrait. There’s a purity of heart with her, as cold and jagged as it may be, that has the power to reconfigure Marianne’s deeply rooted ideas about what is and isn’t acceptable.

So that’s a start to talking about the development of Héloïse’s and Marianne’s relationship. As to your question about artist and muse, I think again to what Haenel said on that very point, that there is no muse, that once the work of the painting truly commences, following the scene described above, it is an entirely collaborative effort. Héloïse and Marianne work together, side by side, to create the portrait, which is one of the film’s loudest political messages, about how autonomous women are naturally collaborative.

Michael: Oof, yeah, the first painting is not a satisfying one. Héloïse appears docile, doll-like, and the look of contentment on her face contradicts the intensity and anger we’ve seen behind the real Héloïse’s eyes up to that point. We’ve watched Marianne steal look after look at Héloïse, only for her to disregard the severity she’s witnessed in Héloïse, and instead appeal to what convention tells her a husband expects to see. “I put it the way it is”, Héloïse says earlier in reference to how she describes her impending marriage to a stranger. The first painting doesn’t depict Héloïse as she is, so it’s really no surprise when she looks at it and asks “Is that me?”

I like the word “illusion” to describe the initial phase of the relationship, because I think it speaks not only to Marianne’s deception and the wall it puts up between them, but also because it applies to what frustrates Héloïse about how other portraitists, and Marianne at first, render her with their art. The illusion is dismantled as their attraction to each other grows, because desiring someone compels you to really look at them. The more they know and understand each other, the better and more truthful the art they create together. I love both Merlant and Haenel, but I’m particularly knocked out by how Haenel embodies Héloïse’s softening over time.

Prior to them opening up to each other, I think Marianne, in an unconscious way at least, mistakenly conceives of herself and Héloïse as artist and muse, since that’s a relationship that implies a one-way gaze, and Marianne doesn’t realize Héloïse is looking back at her. Once Marianne realizes she too is being looked at, the idea of them as artist and muse falls away.

Want to tell me more about the three phases you’ve identified: illusion, liberty, and love?

Jim: Actually, that’s a good point, that in the first stage, Marianne is having some kind of an artistic epiphany, though she has no clue yet what it means, or how to express it. That’s what Héloïse’s contribution ultimately teaches her. But yes, at that early point, Marianne is seduced by the impression of Héloïse as her muse, though that is, like so much in the first phase, an illusion.

I love the middle, liberating segment of the relationship, and the film, because it is the freest space, and because it brings to the center Sophie, the housemaid. Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) isn’t given nearly enough attention by fans and critics. Without her, the film would fail. Her unwanted pregnancy leads Portrait to its most touching and funny moments. The three of them cooking, playing cards, reading and discussing Ovid, attempting various folk methods of abortion, attending a festival, and finally completing the abortion, are the truly most beautiful and lasting moments of the film, acute episodes of freedom and self-discovery.

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After the abortion, while Sophie is still weak and recovering, Héloïse has the idea of commemorating the tableau of the abortion, which we’ve just witnessed, into a painting, and assembles Sophie, Marianne, and the props to make it happen, thereby recording an event always erased or avoided from much of documented history. Recall that during the actual abortion, Marianne looks away, cringing, until Héloïse insists “look!” Héloïse is profoundly moved by everything she experiences, though her cynical and embittered perspective tempers her passions. Liberated by those same experiences, she begins to express herself, to assume what agency she can, with the inspiration Marianne and Sophie award her (Héloïse’s muses). Héloïse’s anger fuels so much of her own awakening, which in turn inspires and instructs Marianne (Marianne’s muse). It’s my vote for the film’s most poignant moment, the triumph of sisterhood, as it were, under such difficult circumstances.

I feel like I’ve dominated too much of the subject space here, Michael. Tell me about what matters to you about Portrait; specifically, generally, what is this film for you?

Michael: I’m with you, Portrait was one of the most discussed movies of 2019 (rightly so), but Sophie and the abortion sub-plot seem to have more often than not gone unremarked on, so I’m glad you bring it up. I love Bajrami’s impassiveness, and how despite Sophie being a particularly vulnerable character, Sciamma resists the temptation to turn her into an object of our pity.

All ideas aside, though I’ll turn back to those shortly, the movie wouldn’t matter anywhere as much to me as it does were it not for its ravishing form. I love the rugged coastal setting and the pronounced sound of the crashing waves, the contrasting crimson red and emerald green dresses, the POV shots of Marianne’s canvas as she’s painting. One of my favorite details is how Sciamma brings her camera around corners: there’s the shot where the camera drifts down the stairs and turns to show us Héloïse for the first time, though she’s cloaked and facing away, and there’s a smooth curve the camera follows around a rock wall on the beach when Marianne follows Héloïse into an alcove for their first kiss. Claire Mathon’s cinematography is a huge factor in the film’s success for me.

Another aspect I love but that has already been discussed to no end is the absence of men from nearly the whole movie. It’s great! Cinema has given us more than enough stories about gay couples confronted in obvious ways by intolerant men. Portrait implicitly recognizes the transgression in Héloïse and Marianne falling for each other, but instead of exploiting intolerance for cheap pathos, Sciamma confines it to the background, and instead foregrounds female solidarity, art, and love. It’s very refreshing.

One thing I haven’t seen talked about as much is how the film touches on the relationship between art and memory. It is, after all, framed as a relationship remembered from Marianne’s perspective. I was struck by the dialogue that comes towards the end, when Marianne sketches a small drawing of Héloïse to keep for herself, and then sketches herself in Héloïse’s book. “You can reproduce that image to infinity,” Héloïse says. “After a while, you’ll see her when you think of me.” Altogether, I hear the movie saying that if visual memories can fade and be replaced by the images we create, the pursuit of truth rather than adherence to established artistic norms is only that much more essential.

I’d be curious to hear your take on how the Orpheus and Eurydice myth fits into the narrative, but take us any direction you’d like from here.

Jim: Full agreement on all those points. On the subject of art and memory, Sciamma said it herself, “Art consoles us from lost love.” As you point out, the film is Marianne’s memory of the time spent with Héloïse, a memory sparked by the painting her student uncovers at the beginning, which you describe, a memory that relieves her of her initial sadness. The keepsake paintings Marianne makes for each, the painting of Héloïse that Marianne sees in the gallery, all serve to soften the grief of their lost love. And maybe most powerful of all instances of art consoling the memory of lost love, is the long take of Marianne watching Héloïse react to the Vivaldi number in the end, a piece Marianne introduced her to during their time together. It’s a really stunning bit of performance from Haenel, as she passes through several emotional states, ultimately smiling through her tears at the memory of that magical time in Brittany with Marianne. It gets to me just thinking about it. I think it’s arguably the most important emotional take-away from the film, the imperative of art as a means to capture the permanence of love in the hearts of those who struggle to find comfort when it’s lost. Knowing that Sciamma and Haenel themselves experienced something similar together only makes it all the more compelling a point.

In an interview with Céline Sciamma included on the Criterion disc, she speaks at length about the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Evidently, she included it in the script at the very end of the writing process, because she wanted something for the three women to talk about during that crucial liberating middle section. Since it’s a myth often discussed in feminist circles, as it may suggest the lethality of the male gaze, she went with it, and ultimately found that it fit perfectly with the other themes of the film, especially the centrality of looking, which is something I’d like to come back to. As Sciamma further explains, it serves also as something that can be discussed, debated and theorized about endlessly, with any perspective as valid as any other. Does Orpheus make the poet’s choice, or the lover’s choice, is it maybe Eurydice who commands him to turn around, is it about a loss of faith, is it inevitable, is it a way to share a final farewell? All of the options create a conceptual tension that is very useful to the texture of the film. Personally, I recognize it as a practical device that works in all of those ways, though I’m less taken by its importance to the real gravity of Portrait, which for me remains thoroughly grounded in the evolution of love through art, and the dynamics of the gaze, of looking and seeing.

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I like your observations about the cinematography, which reminded me of another point Sciamma makes about why she chose to shot the film digitally – to provide the high-resolution richness that practically explodes off the screen. What other visual elements of the film did you enjoy, whether costumes, hair, the plain interior settings, or Sciamma’s really unique approach to period details?

Michael: As you talk about it, I feel the self-discipline I’ve practiced in waiting to make my next Criterion purchase is slowing breaking down…

I’m kind of relieved to hear you say that the inclusion of the myth isn’t of huge importance to you. It’s detail that’s ripe for discussion, which I like and have mulled over plenty, but I’m in the same boat. Other aspects of the film, most of which we’re already talking about, have more resonance for me.

The digital look is really interesting. I don’t think I would describe this movie as a particularly transportive period piece, but I don’t mean that pejoratively. Where other filmmakers might apply aesthetics that would either heighten our sense of the story as a memory or as one from over two centuries ago, maybe with the use of ellipses or a grainier look, the digital images have a real immediacy to them because of their clarity. Combine that with how pristine the wardrobes are and the stylishness of the relatively minimal production design, there’s just a feeling of the “now” in the film’s construction. Which I think really works for a film whose themes are as relevant as ever. Social and artistic convention of 18th century France informs what literally transpires, but I don’t think it’s a movie that’s strictly about the period it’s set in. The ideas about art and forbidden love transcend the time period.

If I may share one thing I didn’t care for: I could have done without the shots of Héloïse in her wedding dress, luminous in the castle’s dark halls. For me, they’re just a little on the nose in visualizing how the inevitability of Héloïse’s future keeps sneaking up and tormenting Marianne. Hopefully I didn’t just destroy my chances of being invited back for another Collokino.

That last shot really is stunning. It’s as if Héloïse relives the whole relationship in that short span of time, experiencing that rising wave of desire all over again. She’s so overwhelmed she’s nearly gasping for air. Both Merlant and Haenel really nail the breathing these women do when they’re around each other. The rise and fall of their chests always speaks to the charge between them.

Care to expand on the notion of “looking” that you brought up?

Jim: Surrender to the Criterion Temptation, dude. Trust me, the Criterion BD of this, the whole presentation, is more than worth it.

The apparitions of Héloïse in the halls in her wedding dress are just another expression of the Orpheus-Eurydice tale, though it’s not Hades who steals Héloïse from Marianne, but a Milanese nobleman (the difference being <cymbal crash>).  We’ve agreed it is not the film’s strongest suit, so your good standing in the Collokino rolls remains unblemished. For now.

To get to the stuff about looking, I’ll start with Sciamma’s mise-en-scene. During my last watch, I became fully aware of how much the film is built on a method of composition that Sciamma is deliberately crafting in every frame. I don’t think of Sciamma as a formalist, per se, but here she is literally and formally composing this film as a tableau, or a series of tableaux, in both the English language sense of a graphic arrangement, interlaced with the French meaning of, among other things, a portrait, or a painting. It is, of course, a film about an artist and the portrait she paints, a technique that Sciamma is mimicking in cinematic form. She assembles a fastidious arrangement of graphic signs and applies them to characters testing their own limits of self-determination, through signals, subterfuge, and sincerity.

Neither realism nor naturalism, nor any other method of representation, describes this. Realism is reserved more for the period details, where the stark minimalism of the physical spaces, the clothes, and the food, make convincing historical, and geographical sense. As for character representation, it mimics the montage quality of memory; the characters are usually still, or walking slowly (after one initial mad dash). Mostly what they do is look at each other, and talk to each other in straightforward declarative sentences, and ask basic questions they, and the viewer, want answered frankly. It’s almost like a series of still shots, gorgeous, sensual shots of hair and faces and eyes and hands and paintings, of sea, air, earth and fire, but static at first, sans any reaction. It’s an overwhelmingly powerful cycling of images and atmospheres that hangs more heavily over the film the more you watch it. It’s a visual film about looking, regarding, seeing, not talking, even less moving, just watching, observing. It’s something both Marianne and Héloïse say to each other often throughout the film, “regardez” or “regarde moi”. Look at me.

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You said it yourself: “desiring someone compels you to really look at them”. In the critical middle section there’s another portraiture sitting, during which Marianne describes to Héloïse some of her telling gestures, clearly pleased, if not a little smug, with her powers of insight. In turn, Héloïse commands Marianne to come to her side and asks her what Marianne thinks Héloïse sees when Marianne is studying her. Marianne’s smugness evaporates. The scrutiny of looking is not one way, not restricted to a single perspective, but is dynamic, recurrent, and complementary. The subjects of their gazes – one another – change with this scrutiny, becoming fuller, more complete, and more worthy of love. By looking, they recreate each other and themselves, and draw each other more thoroughly into being. The triptych exchange of glances during one of their earliest walks, when Marianne and Héloïse steal glimpses of one another, is a breathtakingly remarkable encapsulation of the looking theme, and one of the coolest shots I’ve ever seen in any film. It’s such a critical and central theme, to me, that “regarde moi” could easily be the film’s subtitle. Portrait is all about examining its characters as they regard each other, and create art and love from what they see.

Though I could happily go on talking about this amazing film forever, I suspect we should start wrapping it up. Anything more you want to add, Michael?

Michael: I think those points are great ones to end on, they get at the heart of what I really like about this film. You mentioned that you think many reviews have failed to do this film justice. I’d never be so bold as to say, “We’ve done it!”, but I think we’ve covered a lot of ground using this format. And since it was a great pick, I think you’ve retained the right to break Collokino rules again in the future and choose films for discussion.

Jim: Well, I don’t know if we’ve done anything, but I do feel a little unburdened. This will forever be a special film for me, and one I’m always eager to talk about.

I do want to take the opportunity to promote the films of Céline Sciamma and Adèle Haenel. If you’re a fan of Portrait, do not miss Sciamma’s other three features, Water Lilies, Tomboy, and Girlhood. She is, I think, one of the most gifted directors working today. She’s a remarkably sharp storyteller with the heart of a philosopher. As for Haenel, there’s a pretty rich range of cool films she’s been in, starting with the just-mentioned Water Lilies, Sciamma’s debut feature, with a then-amateur Haenel, a coming-of-age masterstroke you won’t soon forget. Her performance in Bertrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance earns her my eternal respect. Look out for her, too, in a great German film, alongside Lars Eidinger, called The Flowers of Yesterday. I’m also particular about In the Name of My Daughter, if only because she plays opposite Catherine Deneuve, to whom Haenel is uncannily similar in temperament, and because I love that cross-generational thing.

That’s all. Thanks for doing this, Michael. It was a blast.

Michael: I’ll second your promotion of Girlhood and House of Tolerance, and add the others you mention to my own watchlist. Thanks Jim!

Portrait of a Lady on Fire Trailer

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is currently available to rent and own digitally from most major providers and to stream on Hulu.

You can connect with Jim Wilson on Letterboxd, as well as review his entire list of Film Conversations.

Goodbye First Love: A Collokino Conversation hosted by Jim Wilson

Goodbye First Love

Directed by Mia Hansen-Løve, 2011
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Jim Wilson: So, I’m kicking off my film conversation blog by discussing with my friend Michael Clawson Mia Hansen-Løve’s 2011 love story Goodbye First Love. It tells the story of Camille (Lola Créton), a 15-year-old girl in Paris, who is deeply in love with the slightly older Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky). Camille describes herself from the beginning as a “melancholic”, and it’s clear that she seems as motivated to wallow in the dark waters of her own fears as much as she’s inclined to bask in the sunshine of her affections for Sullivan. Sullivan’s planned trip to South America with friends is fueling Camille’s despondent tone, but there also seems to be something deep and immovable about her forlorn behavior. When Sullivan leaves, Camille falls into a deep malaise, and Hansen-Løve’s direction mimics the dull routines of her life, displaying a repeating loop of daily activities, the focal point of which is a bank of mailboxes in her family’s apartment building, where Camille returns again and again, anticipating another letter from far-away Sullivan.

Michael, I know you’re a big fan of Hansen-Løve and have seen more of her titles than I have, though I think we share a mutual appreciation for her 2016 film with Isabelle Huppert called Things to Come. I love her attention to apparently random details, by which she makes clear the emphasis she places on the intermediate moments of everyday life. I was particularly taken, at the very beginning of the film, with the great care she gives to filming Sullivan as he takes off his gloves, gathers some coins and purchases a pack of cigarettes from a cute little wall-mounted vending machine, but then the flower he buys next from a street vendor is only hinted at. What elements of Hansen-Løve’s style stand out for you in this film?

Michael Clawson: It’s true, I have a real fondness for Hansen-Løve, and I think Goodbye First Love is my favorite of hers. It’s been several years since I first saw the film, and one element that had escaped my memory is the brisk, elliptical editing scheme, and how Hansen-Løve uses it to repeatedly skirt melodrama and instead, as you say, emphasize the everyday. In that same vein, the structure is such that key moments in Camille and Sullivan’s relationship occur off-screen: we meet Camille and Sullivan after she’s already fallen completely head over heels for Sullivan, and also after he’s already decided to leave her for South America. Considering how utterly devastated Camille is about Sullivan’s leaving, we can only imagine how upset she was when he actually broke the news to her. I like how Hansen-Løve is more interested in the suggestiveness of “in-between” moments, rather than the most dramatic ones. Even what we do see of Camille, as overwhelmed by heartbreak as she is, is played with some understatement, rather than as a series of really emotional highs and lows. 

You also mention Hansen-Løve’s attention to detail. I was most struck by that aspect of her style when Camille and Sullivan take a trip to her family villa in the countryside, just before Sullivan leaves. I love how gracefully Hansen-Løve evokes the feel of the surrounding area and the landscape. The warmth of the sunshine, the wind in the trees – all the sensory details that Camille will forever associate with this indelible relationship come through Hansen-Løve’s elegant compositions. 

How did the movie play for you this time around? What struck you as interesting, or affecting?

Jim Wilson: Oh, I really loved it this time around. This was one of those films I watched early on in my submergence into French cinema, when I still didn’t have the proper understanding, or really contextualization, to fully appreciate it. Watching it now, it’s pure poetry.

I love your point about everything that happens before the story even begins, and what kind of emotional upheaval has already happened. That’s great story-telling, what’s left to your, the viewer’s, imagination.

 Like I said, I really keyed into Camille’s naturally melancholic nature, just as she knows it to be, and how that naturally frames all of her experiences in life. I can relate to Camille, because I’ve always been like that myself, always looking for some dark cloud to go cower under. The really moving import of this movie is how she comes to live with those parts of herself that are always at war, at least for the time being.

Camille becomes an architect over the, what is it, seven, eight-year course of the story? Or an architectural student, anyway. In a scene from one of her architecture classes, a fellow student reads a quote about the need for houses, and some obscure dilemma between art and architecture. “People seek to maintain their comfort,” she says, “They hate whatever wrenches them from their certitudes, whatever bothers them. This is why they love their houses, and hate art.” I don’t think this is meant as an indictment of Camille as a philistine, but it does a beautiful job of anchoring Camille in a powerful personal connection with her chosen profession. Architecture is a sheltering permanence that, when done well, provides comfort. But it may also filter out difference, and instances of spontaneity. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I love how Camille doesn’t have to become some revised, updated version of herself to move forward. She doesn’t really change at all. She’s just more capable of managing the emotional landscape that’s always challenged her. I think of Adele in Blue is the Warmest Color, honestly, an intensely intimate romantic who, like Camille, kind of learns how to outgrow her own obsession, though it will always be there. There will never be a time in Camille’s life when the appearance of Sullivan won’t stir up deep emotions.

Talk on that a little, and then tell me what you think is going on with Camille and Lorenz, her Norwegian teacher/lover, a relationship that develops as Camille pursues her career as an architect. I think she respects and admires him, but not sure if she really loves him, at least not in the way she loves Sullivan. Is that the point, to illustrate how Camille compartmentalizes love, or powerful emotions, or have I taken the wrong fork?

Michael Clawson: Camille becomes more securely herself – that’s a great way to put what happens. She doesn’t try to put the past behind her or reinvent herself to overcome the heartache, but instead comes to accept the permanence of the memories she has with Sullivan, and the longing that might always be stirred up when she’s reminded of him. It’s not a movie about falling in love or being in love, but the lasting impression that really falling for someone for the first time leaves on us. I like the comparison between Adele and Camille, and their shared romanticism. In the scene just before the one you described, Camille’s professor looks over the architectural model she’s built, a mock college campus, and knocks it for being impractical. The same idealism that makes her think students wouldn’t mind an absurdly long walk between their dorm and their cafeteria is the same idealism that probably had her thinking she and Sullivan would be together forever. It’s adolescent naivete, but Hansen-Løve in no way holds it against her.

I agree that Camille isn’t deeply taken with Lorenz. I get the sense that similar to how concentrating on architecture helps to divert her attention away from her melancholia, a relationship with Lorenz feels like a step forward away from the relationship she still misses. Her affection for him is genuine – he’s much more than just a distraction – but the relationship is important mostly insofar as she’s learning that she could be happy with someone else. Lorenz may or not be the guy for her. I’m guessing he’s not.

I’m not quite sure how the timeline lines up with actual events, or if it does at all, but in light of the film supposedly being autobiographical, I think Lorenz might be a stand-in for Olivier Assayas, who Hansen-Løve was married to for a period of time. The age gap between Camille and Lorenz certainly fits.

Other thoughts? Other aspects you found appealing, or not so much? Also, your familiarity with French cinema runs deeper than mine. You mentioned Blue is the Warmest Color – any other films or filmmakers that come to mind as relevant points of comparison?

Jim Wilson: I’ll address that last bit first, then move on. To be honest, Michael, a great deal of French cinema reminds me of Goodbye First Love. The better question is what French cinema doesn’t resemble GFL? And I say that with boundless affection for French cinema.

In the end, the film’s motif, the straw hat Sullivan gives to Camille early on, floats down a lovely summer river, a gentle farewell. They’ve tried one last time to recover their affections, but it’s as hopeless as it’s ever been. I see the film like a memoir, probably a thickly-veiled tale of Hansen-Løve herself, and, as you point out, her relationship with Assayas. Camille’s intensely personal excursion is clearly more than a screenwriter’s invention. It feels very real.

My leading questions aside, what makes this a five-star film for you? What do you most love about it?

Michael Clawson: I don’t rate it five stars because I think it’s a “perfect” film by any means, but what I love about it overpowers aspects that aren’t worth as much. It’s partly a confluence of aesthetic choices that I love, from the score, which is nostalgic but not overly sentimental, and which seems to gently push the story forward, to the simple, understated beauty of Hansen-Løve’s eye for things. Beyond those more superficial pleasures, I simply would be hard-pressed to find a coming-of-age film that I think better captures the wistful feelings that follow from your first real break up, and how difficult navigating heartbreak can be when you’re young. And not only that, but Hansen-Løve does it without romanticizing Sullivan and Camille’s relationship, or succumbing to cliches. I think Créton does a phenomenal job of bringing specificity to Camille – every one of her tears feels so real and true – while remaining just indecipherable enough that we have room for speculation as to what she’s feeling, and can fold our own experiences into hers. And the ending, which you already mentioned, I find absolutely exquisite. 

Jim Wilson: Yeah, I thought some of the music was really interesting, not stuff that’s trying to evoke a particular emotion or communicate any overall tone, but accompanies Camille and Sullivan, like a companion.

I did want to bring up one other thing about architecture as it fits with Camille. During a scene where Lorenz is lecturing the class, he brings up memory as an important thing that architecture ideally needs to incorporate into a structure. I like to think that really sank in with Camille, and it’s through architecture that she finds a means by which to locate and cope with her memories of Sullivan.

I can’t agree with you more about Lola Créton’s performance; she’s so effortlessly natural. You of course know of her performance in Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air, and I’ll further point out another role of hers in Claire Denis’s Bastards. It’s a smaller role, but she plays a girl who is deeply traumatized, and she’s so convincing as someone with a lot of buried horrors, without speaking much at all.

Is there anything more you want to add before we wrap up this first Collokino colloquy?

Michael Clawson: I haven’t seen Bastards, but you saying that Créton doesn’t speak much in that role makes me think again of the scene where Camille’s professor critiques her model. I don’t think Camille says even a word in response to him! We just watch her subtly react to what he says – she lightly shrugs, smiles a bit, etc. I love watching all those little gestures. 

Thanks for hosting the discussion, Jim! I love this film, and, as always, really enjoyed talking through it with you.

Jim Wilson: My pleasure, Michael. We’ll do it again soon.

Goodbye First Love Trailer

Goodbye First Love is currently available to rent and own digitally from most major providers.

You can connect with Jim Wilson on Letterboxd, as well as review his entire list of Film Conversations.

Stray Dog

Written by Michael Clawson

80/100

On another in a long line of sweltering summer days in post-war Japan, rookie cop Murakami (Toshiro Mifune), exhausted from a night without sleep, boards an uncomfortably packed city bus after leaving the gun range, and upon deboarding, realizes his colt has been pickpocketed. On foot, he chases after the man he suspects is the culprit, but loses him. Murakami is an honest, upright new recruit, so he immediately reports the incident to his chief, who isn’t anywhere as concerned as Murakami is about there being one more gun out there amid the general public. From the chief’s perspective, the difference is marginal, but to Murakami, it’s devastating. Any blood drawn by the gun will be on his hands, and the guilt bearing down on him is as oppressive as the brutal seasonal heat.

Initially, Murakami seeks out the thief on his own. A colleague helps to lead him to the realization that there might have been an accomplice, and sure enough, when Murakami sifts through mugshots of previously booked pickpockets, he recognizes a woman from his miserable bus ride. He tracks her down and tails her around the city in one of two extended montages in which Kurosawa dexterously condenses action down into a suspenseful string of shots. The second such montage comes shortly thereafter as Murakami puts on dirtied up civilian gear and prowls the backstreets and alleyways of downtown, hoping he’ll be approached by a pistol dealer. Murakami picks up a trail that looks like it could lead him to the thief, and joins up with the more experienced officer Satō (Takashi Shimura, another Kurosawa regular) to see the trail to its end.

The colt does indeed inflict harm before Murakami is able to retrieve it, and that only strengthens his single-minded determination to find the criminal. But how much violence or illegality is he really preventing even if he does get the gun back in his holster before it’s been emptied of bullets? With his obsessiveness, it’s as if he thinks all crime and wrongdoing rested squarely on his shoulders, and there’s something heartening about his optimistic albeit naive thinking that he alone can prevent so much suffering. The culprit, after all, turns out to be a desperate veteran, only one of many in the aftermath of traumatizing war. A commentary on the social ills of post-war Japan thus lies beneath what on its surface is an expertly crafted film noir.

Stray Dog Trailer

Stray Dog is currently available to stream on the Criterion Channel

Family Viewing

Written by Michael Clawson

80/100

Atom Egoyan’s strange and fascinating sophomore feature Family Viewing premiered in 1987, two years before the watershed for independent film that was Sex, Lies, and Videotape‘s debut at Sundance 1989. Family Viewing might not be anywhere near as well-known or historically consequential (I haven’t heard of it being considered as such, at least), but the themes it probes clearly echo those found in Steven Soderbergh’s first film. Released at the height of the VHS era, both movies reflect the technological moment in which they were born, and meditate on how the creation and consumption of moving images might inform how intimately we connect and relate to each other (or fail to). That said, where Sex, Lies, and Videotape contains warmth and sensuality, Family Viewing is dark, uncanny, and sometimes almost comically absurd, with a faint current of sadness running beneath its surface.

18 year-old Van (Aidan Tierney) lives in a condo with his father Stan (David Hemblen) – their rhyming names fits with the movie’s overall peculiarity – and Stan’s girlfriend Sandra (Gabrielle Rose). According to his dad, Van’s mother deserted them when he was young. The movie opens in a nursing home where Van regularly goes to visit his maternal grandmother Armen, who has lost the ability to speak. It’s at the nursing home that Van meets Aline (Arsinée Khanjian, who Egoyan went on to marry and cast in many of his films), a phone sex worker whose mother shares a room with Armen.

At home, Van argues that Armen ought to be living with him and his father, an idea that his dad doesn’t entertain. Scenes at the condo are shot as if we were watching a sitcom, and deliberately rigid acting by Tierney, Hemblen, and Rose reinforces that feeling. While the emotional distance between Van and his father seems vast, Van is close with Sandra to an eyebrow-raising degree; their faces come so awkwardly close to each other when they talk, it’s as if they’re on the verge making out. We come to learn that Stan has a lust for making sex tapes with Sandra that verge on sadistic, and is taping over home videos from Van’s childhood as he feeds his habit.

Van and Aline become more involved with one another after Aline leaves town for a stint with a client; in an unsettling sequence seen through the eye of a surveillance camera, we watch her engage with the client in a hotel room. Aline’s mother passes while she’s away, and Van takes it upon himself to see to her burial, while also devising a scheme that allows him to bring his beloved grandmother into his care. The film then morphs into something of a thriller after Stan catches wind of his son’s maneuvering and hires a PI to track Van down. The movie’s lurid streak crests when Van discovers something disturbing on his dad’s dirty home videos.

To swap Sex, Lies, and Videotape out for a completely different point of reference, Family Viewing’s odd and troubling vision of emotionally empty domesticity sometimes brought David Lynch’s Rabbits to mind. The cool temperature does rise a bit by the end. It looks like Aline, Van, and Armen might be on the brink of becoming a makeshift family, one with genuine feeling exchanged between its members.

Family Viewing Trailer

Family Viewing is currently available to stream on Kanopy

Episode 103: 1921 Retrospective: Orphans of the Storm / Destiny / The Phantom Carriage

“I am profoundly fascinated by cruelty, fear, horror and death. My films show my preoccupation with violence, the pathology of violence.”

Fritz Lang

Links: Apple Podcasts | Castbox | Google Podcasts | LibSyn | Spotify | Stitcher | YouTube

This week on Drink in the Movies Michael & Taylor discuss their First Impressions of: Cherry & Pelé. Then they look back 100 years to three 1921 Feature Films: Orphans of the Storm, Destiny, and The Phantom Carriage.

Streaming links for titles this episode

Orphans of the Storm is currently streaming on Kanopy and Prime Video

Destiny is currently streaming on Kanopy

The Phantom Carriage is currently streaming on Criterion Channel

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Episode 102: Abbas Kiarostami: Certified Copy / Close Up / The Wind Will Carry Us

“I’ve often noticed that we are not able to look at what we have in front of us, unless it’s inside a frame.”

Abbas Kiarostami

Links: Apple Podcasts | Castbox | Google Podcasts | LibSyn | Spotify | Stitcher | YouTube

This week on Drink in the Movies Michael & Taylor discuss their First Impressions of: Waiting for the Barbarians & The Book of Vision and the Abbas Kiarostami Feature Films: Certified Copy, Close Up, and The Wind Will Carry Us.

Streaming links for titles this episode

Certified Copy is currently available on Criterion Channel

Close Up is currently available on Criterion Channel

The Wind Will Carry Us is currently available to rent or purchase

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The Wait (L’attesa)

Written by Michael Clawson

50/100

Just after experiencing a devastating loss, Anna (Juliette Binoche) hosts Jeanne (Lou de Laâge) for several days at a Sicilian villa as they await the arrival of Giuseppe, Anna’s son and Jeanne’s lover. They spend their time meandering the grounds and dining well together as Jeanne grows increasingly suspicious of Giuseppe’s absence and Anna waits to share with Jeanne the true reason for her grief.

“L’attessa” (aka “The Wait”) is the feature directorial debut from Piero Messina, who clearly prefers dialogue to be sparse and for imagery to tell much of the story. He leans heavily on Binoche’s ability to communicate emotion with facial expression and body language and tries to amplify dramatic moments with musical crescendos. Suspense is built on multiple fronts: the audience is probed to wonder about the true whereabouts of Giuseppe, his and Jeanne’s history, and when, if ever, Anna will bring Jeanne out of the dark about what so intensely upsets her.

Binoche and de Laâge do more than enough to lend credibility to their interactions, but the film is dripping too profusely with contrivances to maintain a comfortable level of drama. At one point, we see Anna attempt to squeeze every last drop of air from an inflatable pool toy, as if the effort from doing so will allow her to shed the burden of her grief. It’s reminiscent of Messina’s effort to inject feeling into every frame, so much so that the experience is nearly stifling.

The Wait Trailer

The Wait is currently available to stream on Prime Video and Kanopy