Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog (2021)
Jane Campion is back. It’s been over a decade since her previous film Bright Star, a nineteenth-century romance of sensual proportions, where the stunning visuals trace the details of its story. Her latest is a slow-building queer Western thriller, simmering in personal aggression and defeat. As the filmmaker journeys through adapting Thomas Savage’s Western novel of the same name, she leaves so many haunting treasures along the way. Reverberating emotion is carefully packed in each and every frame. A moment between two characters sharing a cigarette, made exciting and unpredictable by the power of Campion’s eye. The richness of her storytelling is a feast with lingering leftovers. From the memorable Jonny Greenwood score to the startling accomplishments of brilliant casting, The Power of the Dog has the kind of staying power that warrants several revisits. Benedict Cumberbatch has never been better, Kodi Smit-McPhee commands his scenes, and Kirsten Dunst reminds why she’s one of the most compelling in the game. Campion’s tackling of toxic masculinity and lost souls is an unsettling piece of storytelling.
At the core of this film’s gripping power is the dialogue. In Campion’s adaptation of Savage’s novel, words roll off the tongue and lines are burned into memory. Tension hangs in the air as many of the conversations unfold. I find myself hanging onto every word, as though the source of its threads are being quickly pulled away. Campion amasses a remarkable group of actors to light a fire to each conversation, whether through words or flickers across faces. Take a scene of the character Rose (Kirsten Dunst) playing a newly brought in piano. As she practices one afternoon, she hears the distinct walk and whistle of Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) entering a ranch, owned by Phil’s brother and Rose’s new husband George (Jesse Plemons). A little rusty, just as she starts relaxing into a melody, Phil interrupts with the strings of his banjo every time. No words spoken, but a clear and assured understanding that he doesn’t want her around. In fact her torments her, and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from a previous marriage. He’s had a bubbling resentment ever since George’s announcement of his and Rose’s elopement. The driving force of the film’s plot starts with their dynamic, an unpredictable tornado of fear and thunderstruck awe. Slowly and patiently, the story digs deeper into Phil’s repressed emotions.
The Power of the Dog starts with a large canvas, a vast setting with land as far as the eye can see. But there is more to the story that Campion skillfully draws out with precision. Even with characters, they are introduced so quietly and unassumingly, yet carry a perceptive presence. The story unfolds in a puzzle, becoming more and more intimate when another piece is revealed. Campion brings so much attention to detail; the camera lingers on small moments and create an echo for you to follow later on. It’s an approach that maintains mystery in her storytelling and in the characters. Slowly and steadily, the performances add more pieces to the puzzle that start to crack the foundations they have internalized for themselves. In his best work to date, Cumberbatch carries an aggressive presence throughout. All the while, emotions inch nearer to the surface and he forcefully keeps them in check. It’s a truly fascinating portrayal of a lost soul, so far from that surface and deep within his internalized need to be “tough” all the time. Adhering to strict pressurized rules of behavior. Leading to toxic masculinity that manifests in different ways, as he torments those who are loving, those who are expressing truth in his wake.
Cumberbatch carries the film so strongly, though certainly is not the only performer who flourishes under Campion’s direction. Kirsten Dunst has a quiet staying power in the film. On the surface, not a character with “a lot to do” in the sense that her performance is not particularly action-based in obvious, outward ways. Rose has an internalized slow-build, a rollercoaster devoid of screams, and Dunst plays her exceptionally. Rose finds herself in the company of strangers, and while amongst her new husband George (cue adorable chemistry with Jesse Plemons), she’s not in the position of basking in a honeymoon. Grieving from a personal loss, struggling with her own inner battles, worried for her son (who is on the receiving end of upsetting taunts). Dunst conveys such wonderful range, with such subtly, and a truthfulness that she reveals under the influence. Just as accomplished is Kodi Smit-McPhee playing her son Peter. Also engaging in the sense of mystery around the plot and the trajectory of characters, he does a resonating job. He commands each of his scenes, and in a particularly exciting two-hander with Cumberbatch, makes the sharing of a cigarette all the more riveting to watch.
With a great many Valentines for a slow-building story, Jane Campion crafts a simmering mysterious drama with a precise vision and observing eye. As has become known and expected with her work over the years, The Power of the Dog looks stunning. The accomplished cinematography by Ari Wegner illuminates rich details. The visuals go hand in hand with the story, reflecting shifting perspectives and a setting that grows a little bit smaller as the story progresses. With more intimate scenes, a wonderful ensemble of actors work their magic alongside one another to keep the fires burning. Packed in each and every frame is a desire to revisit them, to bask in the clues Campion so richly shares. Here’s hoping another decade does not pass between her next film and The Power of the Dog.
The Power of the Dog had its world premiere September 10th at the Toronto International Film Festival. TIFF21 runs September 9-18, 2021.
Kristen Stewart in Spencer (2021)
Pablo Larraín and Kristen Stewart work wonders together in Spencer. A portrait of a beloved icon is painted in a thoughtful, curious, surreal way. The film has an abundance of character and wit. The clarity in Larraín’s vision, coupled with Stewart's laser-focused performance as Princess Diana, make for a resonating psychological drama. The story takes place over the Christmas holidays in 90s England, at a point where Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles is crumbling and the world around her grows even more coldly watchful. The film is not confined within a typical biopic structure; rather than land on all the traditional points about a real-life figure, Spencer experiments with style. Stewart delivers her most accomplished work to date as she absorbs the essence of Diana. It’s a brilliantly unexpected performance that reveals more layers of wit, poignancy, and delightful awkwardness as the film unravels alongside her.
Contrasting the pastel palette of the palace is an often spooky-looking exterior, with coats of fog and a haunting depiction of Diana’s old home. With stunning cinematography by Claire Mathon and a rich score composed by Jonny Greenwood, the film looks and sounds gorgeous. Aspects from the costume design to the hair and makeup are subtly done, completely in tune with Larraín's assured vision. Captured at a time when Diana has been in the royal family for nearly 10 years, the film lives imaginatively inside her head as she experiences mental exhaustion, wanting so desperately to break free. Stewart's haunting, playful performance powerfully carries the narrative to fruition. Alongside strong supporting performances by Timothy Spall and especially Sally Hawkins, who shares a delightful scene with Stewart nearing the film's close, the ensemble work like magic. The blend of realism with surrealism gives Spencer a distinct perspective that stands out as its own creation from other portrayals of Diana.
Spencer has its premiere on September 15th at the Toronto International Film Festival. TIFF21 runs September 9-18, 2021.
Ste. Anne (2021) still credit: Lindsay McIntyre & Erin Weisgerber
Manitoban filmmaker and visual artist Rhayne Vermette spends her phantasmic film, Ste. Anne, lost someplace between memory and present tense. She finds a way of capturing and evoking a daydream, feeling her way through which direction to take. Her narrative floats from one train of thought to another, all reaching for the key destination on Vermette’s map: following a woman’s journey from obscurity to home life. As an evening party journeys into late night, word spreads among a Métis community in Treaty 1 territory (Winnipeg today) about the return of Renée. After being inexplicably missing for four years, Renée returns to her daughter Athene - now living with Renée’s brother Modeste and his wife (who sees Athene as her own). Renée’s presence creates a ripple effect among her surroundings, both people and places, as she re-familiarizes herself with a community familiar and faraway. Flung out of a mysterious past, Renée goes on a fragmented journey of piecing back her life. As her memories unravel into fragments, so too does the film itself. Ste. Anne is a beautiful collage of belonging to places and people, all the while being haunted by a community that’s been lost.
Sometimes referred to as subminiature, 16mm film has a home movie-making quality that makes Ste. Anne feel like an intimate piece of art. With a knack for strong visual storytelling, Vermette takes characters and places on a dreamlike journey through space. Not set in space, but there is a planetary approach to the story in that the film moves like that of a planet. Constantly wandering and shifted. Renée appears as a nomadic character, always on the move even when returning to a life of traditional abode. In her return to the community she once left behind, there is a feeling of unease and unpredictability. Tensions arise between her brother Modeste, his concerns grown from Athene being without a mother, and wanting his sister’s presence to be constant. Vermette's hallucinatory approach poses the question of which narrative events are happening in real-time, and which are residue of a memory. Ste. Anne experiments with great ambiguity that puts the narrative off the map, becoming a puzzle to put together. It’s a great parallel to thinking back on a cherished time, conjuring visual bits and pieces with a strong undercurrent of how each one makes you feel.
Ste. Anne has an intensity that comes in waves, from the use of blaring noise to some of the heightened emotional conversations between family members. For each of these moments, there is one of sombre serenity, and one of haunting apparitions. The film is presented in such a way that shows snapshots of a meaningful moment. Vermette's fragmented narrative is a powerful reflection of how memories float in and out of consciousness, often triggered in unexpected ways. Among the most visually striking are the ghostly elements of Ste. Anne. An unforgettable moment features a family sitting around a dinner table, while a lost loved one appears translucent in the background of a frame. One of the more resonating subjects the film tackles is the lingering power of belonging. The knowledge of loved ones gone but not forgotten, that their place is held close to the family’s heart. Vermette's use of a ghostly apparition is a brilliant way to show the reverberating power of a memory; the ease with which people depart, and the memories left behind in the spaces they once occupied so presently.
Vermette's recurring image of a prairie sky, which appears as the first shot of the film, sets a wistful and intense tone that the rest of the story maintains. Ste. Anne is full of snapshot evocative moments, each its own vignette. With a dreamlike setting, the film weaves through echoes of ideas pondering on belonging. Many of the scenes depicting Renée follow her character as she’s headed elsewhere. There’s a rarity to the scenes where she’s stagnant, as though time is precious and she may disappear at any given moment. There’s always a feeling that Renée has one foot outside the door, a sentiment conveyed strongly during the polaroid scene between her and Athene, in which Renée describes land she envisions returning to. So much of the film traces her character in motion, ready for the next step while also acknowledging and reclaiming moments from the past. Interjected throughout are conversations between family members that often start mid-sentence, like being a fly on the wall listening in on intimate connections.
Ste. Anne follows a thread of family matters, how a community are brought together by way of people and places. Sometimes, a moment as simple as sitting around a table and sharing a meal spills into something far more complex given the intimacy of being physically or emotionally at home. Home is a feeling. These emotions extend far beyond a structure to house them all, and Vermette is skillful at conveying how home travels…it’s in bits and pieces, existing not only in people and places but in the sentimental things. In a polaroid of land Renée envisions returning to. In hearing the name of a place alone, like a town in Manitoba called St. Anne. The narrative of the film has an ambitious sense of time, which gives it a blurry setting but it’s an approach that Vermette pulls off in a trance. She moves vividly through many fleeting moments on screen. But however fleeting they are, the film brings forth plenty to stop and ponder on, making the experience of Ste. Anne a mysteriously inviting one.
Ste. Anne had its world premiere September 13th at the Toronto International Film Festival. TIFF21 runs September 9-18, 2021.
Arooj Azeem in Quickening (2021)
The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival is shaping up to be a stellar landscape for directorial debut features by women. From drama to comedy, and horror to documentary, vivid new voices around the globe are bringing forth exciting perspectives on universal themes.* In the intimate coming-of-age film Quickening, Pakistani Canadian writer-director Haya Waseem tells a story of a young woman in suburbia holding onto individuality in the face of societal pressures. From the first frame, Sheila (Arooj Azeem) is introduced in a moment of serious contemplation. Parallel to her frame of mind, the film embarks on a journey where both everything and nothing seem possible at the same time. The butterflies from falling in love, or nearing a first-year school program, feeling a world full of possibility, are met with the finality of expectations faced by young women of colour. Waseem explores the reality of societal pressures from the eye of cultural traditions, where her protagonist’s unfulfilled desire for autonomy has an alienating effect on family and friends.
Arooj Azeem soars in her first film role with a performance of staggering intimacy. Sheila carries the weight of several responsibilities and their waves of emotion. She wants to make her parents proud. She wants to belong, and someone to talk to when she’s going through a heartache or facing a fear. Azeem’s portrayal conveys intriguing insight into the state of her character’s mental health. Accompanied by a sweeping score and striking imagery, Waseem’s film absorbs a quicksand feeling. How quickly people and places can change when yielding to pressure. How suddenly those who rest on a turn of events can get swept away by the mounting tide. Quickening shines with a lucid portrayal of day-to-day family life, and a compelling lead performance of simmering determination.
Quickening had its premiere on September 12th at the Toronto International Film Festival. TIFF21 runs September 9-18, 2021.
*Among Haya Waseem’s stirring voice, here’s a collection of all directorial debut features by women premiering at TIFF21:
Aloners (dir. Hong Sung-eun)
As In Heaven (dir. Tea Lindeburg)
Attica (dir. Stanley Nelson & Traci A. Curry)
A Banquet (dir. Ruth Paxton)
Beba (dir. Rebeca Huntt)
Costa Brava, Lebanon (dir. Mounia Akl)
Farha (dir. Darin J. Sallam)
Murina (dir. Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović)
Neptune Frost (dir. Saul Williams & Anisia Uzeyman)
A Night of Knowing Nothing (dir. Payal Kapadia)
Night Raiders (dir. Danis Goulet)
Scarborough (dir. Shasta Nakhai & Rich Williamson)
Silent Land (dir. Agnieszka Woszczynska)
Silent Night (dir. Camille Griffin)
Small Body (dir. Laura Samani)
The Game (dir. Ana Lazarevic)
The Hill Where Lionesses Roar (Luàna Bajrami)
To Kill The Beast (dir. Agustina San Martin)
You Are Not My Mother (Kate Dolan)
Gong Seung-yeon in Aloners (2021)
In her thoughtful debut feature Aloners, Hong Sung-eun muses on the question of how to live alone and not suffer from loneliness. While there is no definite key answer that applies to all, there is a reassurance to not knowing. There is a specificity to the story of Aloners that makes it resound so deeply on a universal level. In the most meditative and quiet of ways, Sung-eun tells an empathetic narrative of her protagonist’s loneliness. At the center of her film is an observational lived-in performance by Gong Seung-yeon as Jina, top employee at a credit card call center. The job requires practiced and reliable communication, without the need to build personal relationships beyond providing a service. It’s a job that feeds the way she self-isolates as a form of self-protection. The grief she suffers permeates on a daily basis, taking the shape of shutting out the world around her. Underneath the knee-jerk exterior she presents to the world of a person who prefers to be alone, is a person who isn’t so great on her own. The character study that unfolds is a compelling exploration of learning to face uncomfortable emotions. Aloners is a beautifully restrained, assured portrait of grieving the loss of human connection.
Jina’s job encourages her dependence on technology as communication. She constantly has a screen playing; whether it be the late-night bright static of her TV, or a rabbit hole of videos streaming on her phone. The most recent on her playlist is footage from a home camera installed at her late mother’s house, which her father (Park Jeong-bak) now occupies. Instead of visiting her father, she watches him from afar in real-time. Their relationship exists mostly on a digital platform where she can control how much access he has; brief phone calls and ignored messages sum up where the communication stands. Too afraid to admit the reality of her emotions and part ways with what no longer serves her, Jina avoids letting others in. In the process, the world becomes a blur. When she discovers one day that her next door neighbor has been dead inside his home for a week, she claims she could have sworn she saw him that very morning. Aloners conveys a mindset that is not often portrayed with such delicacy and empathy. The protagonist is so utterly relatable in the way her loneliness acts as both a problem and a solution. It’s a mentally draining cycle in which a breakthrough can be difficult to come by. Her days turn into night and back again in the blink of an eye, but upon the news of her neighbour, she begins to reflect on what she’s missing.
The beauty of life is in its unexpectedness, particularly in how a stranger can unassumingly walk into the picture and ever so slightly move the axis of another person’s world. Aloners has a subtle energy, a slow moving narrative that is deeply observational and hauntingly universal in its focus on a relatable subject. Sung-eun reaffirms the power of building relationships in real life. Once jumping over the hurdle of letting someone in, the hope that shines through is a sight to behold. The hope of being understood and heard, of being seen and comforted through your fears of rejection or getting hurt. Aloners is not just about the building blocks of how to get here, it’s not just about reaching out to people and spending time with people. The story also shines a light on the time and energy needed to cultivate a healthy relationship with yourself. Sung-eun makes strong narrative choices in the supporting characters with whom Jina encounters, notably her underperforming co-worker Sujin (Jung Da-eun) who is the opposite of Jina: always wanting to make friends, not wanting to be alone. When tasked with training this girl, Jina realizes first-hand how shutting people out has an effect on others. Their scenes unfold in such an interesting way that traces Jina’s fear of admitting parting moments, and also brilliantly analyzes capitalism. It’s rewarded behavior to reassure an irrational angry caller, for instance, while frowned upon to stand up for yourself and refuse being apologetic. The trajectory of their scenes lead to an emotional climax with understated power.
The fear of saying goodbyes is a mounting one for Jina; never given the courtesy of a farewell in the past, she finds immense challenge in extending the act to others. Met at a point where people had been blurs in the background of her life for so long, the realization she faces in the film is filled with hope. Through a wonderful performance by Gong Seung-yeon, who can speak a thousand words with a glance or a change in posture, Aloners hits close to home as a portrait of solitary existence. Hong Sung-eun has such a clear voice and brings comforting specificity to a subject that can often be intimidating to face alone.
Flora Ofelia Hofmann Lindahl in As In Heaven (2021)
When daring to envision a brighter future ahead, wishing and hoping for all the glorious things that could be, so often the response that brings one back down to earth is “it’s just a dream.” Is a dream really just a dream? Lise (Flora Ofelia Hofmann Lindahl) has an exciting prospect to look forward to: in a family of eight younger siblings, she will be the first to attend school. Lise has in front of her an image that she wants to create. On the verge of womanhood, she is starting to leave pieces of childhood behind for a brand new experience out in the world. That she’s facing such a big realm of possibility gives her the feeling of power, as though she can control anything that comes her way. But when her pregnant mother Anna (Ida Cæcilie Rasmussen) is in difficult labor and has a vivid vision that threatens livelihood, Lise discovers a much greater power in her path: fate. Inspired by Marie Bregendahl’s classic novel ‘A Night of Death’, writer-director Tea Lindeburg tells a resonating story of late-nineteenth-century superstition in the visually stunning debut feature As In Heaven.
Set on a wistful rural farm in Denmark over a century ago, the film moves poetically and rings with contemporary chimes. As In Heaven has the look of a whimsical classic period piece and the feel of a living nightmare. It’s a vivid, modern tale of a teenage girl experiencing budding sexuality, searching for autonomy, and pressured by a community enraptured in anti-science beliefs. In addition to a coming-of-age thread, Lindeburg explores the dangerous impact of letting a vision rule rather than guide. Many of the characters in this film believe in the power of visions and fate, that God has a plan for each and every person, that there is no real way of influencing an outcome when it’s already been decided. Such is the viewpoint taken when Lise’s mother Anna falls ill during childbirth. Having had a vision that the delivery of a boy would be difficult, and that she would die if anyone called for a doctor, Anna is determined to endure the pain. Even if it threatens her livelihood and that of her children. Lindeburg’s powerfully observed story about the horrors women faced in the nineteenth century ring eerily true in today’s age. The film explores the collective thoughts of a community and how they are ultimately detrimental to the protagonist’s future, specifically her independence. Should something happen to her mother, the responsibility to look after the family and tend to the farm will fall entirely onto Lise’s shoulders.
The ominous opening scene, one that showers Lise with a raging red storm, is among the most vivid film imagery in recent memory. The image, along with its contrast to the whimsical farmland, are an instant hook. As In Heaven moves in an assured, poetic way that creates an all-consuming atmosphere. Every little detail melts into each frame. From Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography and Nina Grønlund’s costume design, to Jesper Clausen’s production design, tremendously textured work brings the setting to life. Lindeburg does a wonderful job of establishing a sense of place, not just visually but also emotionally. Lise’s perspective is a guiding force in the story, through which all happenings are filtered as she grows more and more stunned by what she sees. One of the most resonating elements of the story is the expectation and societal pressure on women to follow in the footsteps of their mother, their grandmother, their great grandmother. To carry on their traditions and beliefs, no matter the cost.
The absorbing quality of As In Heaven is a fascinating parallel to how intently the character of Lise absorbs her surroundings. It’s almost as though she is the all-knowing one above, watching over everyone and everything, willing something to happen with all her might. Her hopelessness makes the unfolding of the film all the more tragic. Lise’s attempts to take control of her own life and its trajectory is a waking nightmare. The tremendous performance by Flora Ofelia Hofmann Lindahl is the compass that brings the film together. Lise goes on a compelling journey in the span of a fairly short runtime. The horror quality of the film sees her encounter moments of breathtaking fantasy. As In Heaven is an all-consuming, nightmarish turn of events that takes some time to find a footing but is helped by such haunting imagery. At the core is an intriguing tale about standing on the shoulders of the women who have come before.
As In Heaven had its premiere on September 9th at the Toronto International Film Festival. TIFF21 runs September 9-18, 2021.
Flora Ofelia Hofmann Lindahl in As In Heaven (2021)
Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz in Petite Maman (2021)
Céline Sciamma knows how to pack a punch of emotion in each and every frame. From her coming-of-age drama Girlhood to the hypnotic, smoldering Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma always finds a delicate way to leave a reverberating impression. Her latest film Petite Maman is a subdued gem of a story. Following a girl’s visit to her mother’s childhood home, the story is told from the perspective of Nelly (Joséphine Sanz). Having just lost her grandmother, and while her parents clear out the home, Nelly is often left to find engagement in her own little world. Therein lies an enchanting realm where she encounters Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), a girl her age and to whom she strongly resembles. A friendship is born as the two build a hut in the woods, play make-believe, and simply enjoy each other’s company. The more conversations they share, personal revelations begin to blur the lines between past and present tense. Packing a punch with a fleeting runtime, Petite Maman is a bittersweet experience in which every minute is precious for its characters. As magical as it is melancholy, Sciamma’s story speaks to the delicate threads embedded on the path from childhood to adulthood.
Petite Maman radiates warmth in a cool autumn breeze. In capturing the season and its simple pleasures, like the changing leaves or the comfort of a knit sweater, Sciamma beautifully conveys the emotion behind such pleasures. Autumn is a time of change; new beginnings are on the horizon, and stuff of the past get left behind. The emotional response to change can often be nostalgic, and Petite Maman has that wistful affection. Told from a child’s point of view, the film feels like a wondrous tale that speaks delicately about emotions that are difficult to put into words. Or magical trains of thought that a person may not have another soul to share with. One of the most resonating lines in the film talks of secrets; not all are deliberately hidden, there’s just no one to tell them to. The pang of loneliness that moves through each character manifests on such subtle levels elevated by remarkable performances. Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz deliver such memorable, joyous work that lay at the core of the film. Lingering as well are the gorgeously detailed cinematography by Claire Mathon, and affecting music by Jean-Baptiste de Laubier that hits at all the best moments.
Sciamma’s talents are a perfect match for finding the sweet spot between joy and sadness. Nelly’s mother (Nina Meurisse) is going through a rough time, having just lost her mother/Nelly’s grandmother (Margot Abascal), which emotionally brings her back to when the two of them were distant. The act of clearing her house opens a window to the moments when those spaces were both empty and full. What this film does exceptionally well is convey the powerful sentiment of activities that seem so simple on the surface. Petite Maman is a treasure chest of memories old and new. Sciamma treads the line seamlessly between the past, the present, and the future. Nelly comes from the path behind Marion, and so forth, which the film conveys through minimal heartfelt dialogue. The story traces the beauty and loss of a mother-daughter relationship. Harkening to the wistfulness of wanting to know more about my own mother, and not being able to converse with my late grandmother. Suddenly, children get older, and with that comes wisdom but also a touch of sadness from not knowing then what you know now. Petite Maman takes a nostalgic path, where intergenerational pebbles are left behind as stepping stones for another family member to follow. This gentle tale of women’s connections, through the motions of time, is another absolute winner from Céline Sciamma.
Petite Maman had its premiere on September 9th at the Toronto International Film Festival. TIFF21 runs September 9-18, 2021.
Dobromir Dymecki and Agnieszka Zulewska in Silent Land (2021)
This review contains spoilers.
“It’s broken.” The first line uttered in Aga Woszczynska’s stirring feature debut, Silent Land, holds a clear mirror to a Polish couple’s disintegrating relationship. As the film opens, Anna (Agnieszka Zulewska) and Adam (Dobromir Dymecki) float into the frames of a beautiful holiday rental in Italy. They meddle with household fixtures that need repairing, as though these items have the audacity not to work perfectly for their idyllic vacation. Beyond their temporary interior villa is a bigger problem: the garden swimming pool is empty, and they’ve paid for a house with a pool. Despite the island struggling with drought, Anna and Adam insist their Italian host hire a worker to repair the situation. All the while, the sound of the sea and its picturesque setting fill a backdrop. With confident direction, Woszczynska paints a picture of eerie stillness. Quiet moments of the couple introduce a feeling of serenity, but the more Silent Land lingers on calmness, the clearer it becomes that Woszczynska is summoning a sense of dread. As Anna and Adam wait precisely for the pool repairman to fix a problem they’ve taken so personally, the waves of the sea crash in the distance. Silent Land is a powerfully observed drama of a relationship’s unpredictable nature and unsettling instincts.
The effectiveness of a steady buildup is on full force in Silent Land. Amidst the feeling that unpleasantness is around the corner, the story plays on ambiguity and strikes without heavy warning. But signs are stitched in the moments left unspoken. The quietest moments of Woszczynska’s feature debut are often the loudest, and the ones that leave the most behind to ruminate on. Silent Land exposes the worn out threads of a couple’s seemingly idyllic foundation, and how a single incident unravels their moral compasses. Anna and Adam paint an ambiguous picture of their intentionality from the start; it is through their interactions with others that the couple are faced with each other’s true colours. The most revealing of interactions lies between the two of them and the pool worker Rahim (Ibrahim Keshk). The way in which his character is treated on screen is an unsettling reflection of how the couple sees him: as a nuisance, a threat, a violation of their tranquility.
Though not outwardly spoken, the director and actors convey strong emotions in subtle moments. Whether it be Adam setting an alarm before leaving the house, or Anna making no effort to address the language barrier when Rahim is looking for a hose to fill the pool. There is no real introduction between these characters, just a silent expectation that he is there to do a job, and simply does not exist to them beyond that role. The overall dismissal of him simmers, and creates an emotional punch in the gut after watching him suffer from a poolside accident while the couple are nowhere to be seen. The suddenness of it, the wave of sadness from not getting a chance to know the character, and the anger from blatant nonchalance surrounding the entire incident is deeply unsettling. Dobromir Dymecki and Agnieszka Zulewska play the couple with such stacked layers of self-protectiveness and self-absorption, it’s a wonder if they are even aware of what has happened when the camera cuts to them post-incident. It’s a wonder if they are being honest about what they have seen or heard. Woszczynska maintains a well-paced buildup to this moment, and spends the rest of the film uncovering the fragility of their behaviours.
Interesting parallels between character psyches and settings are drawn in the screenplay, co-written by Woszczynska and Piotr Litwin. The house setting of Silent Land holds a compelling mirror to the couple’s emotional dysfunctions that dwell inside. The house falls apart in ways that appear mundane on the surface, but become almost fateful and betraying later on in the film. The recurring problem with closing the blinds to their windows is a neat parallel, particularly post-incident when the couple can’t shut out their consciences. Woszczynska plays broken house to dark humorous effect at times; as seen in a long sequence of the couple’s gate not opening/closing when they want it to. This house, tucked away and designed as a vacation from reality, isn’t the paradise they expect. Nor does it leave their personal dysfunctions and tensions outside the door. Most interesting about the house is what does end up working: the irony that once the pool is up and running, as per the couple’s request, neither of them step foot inside. Showing their unwillingness to immerse in the truth of their emotions, they would rather drop the entire incident out of veiled comfort and a false sense of security. The film makes strong use of setting as a way of mapping out how the protagonists process their irrational, often insanely unlikeable ways of thinking.
There is a precise look to every frame of this film; with pristine cinematography by Bartosz Swiniarski. So precise and cultivated to the point where all it takes is one single disturbance to shatter the foundation. From that point on, the house becomes unrecognizable in spirit. The characters’ perpetual interrupted bliss makes it so they can never go back to how they were. Woszczynska tells a stirring story of fragility…in relationships, in morality, in deciphering what courses of action to take when met with unpredictability. Much of the story’s conflict comes from watching Anna and Adam address each other’s instincts, with questions of why one said this and why the other said that. The frustration from not having an answer to give is palpable on screen, and drives both characters to a point of unexpected emotional release. Dymecki and Zulewska do a great job conveying how desperately their characters hold onto the idea of security as an outward display. One can cut the tension between them with a knife, but they push through. They drive each other away and make room to return, step and repeat. Regardless of what’s going on, until the bitter end, they consider it more important to act as a united front. It’s a way of thinking that absolves them from wrongdoing, which creates an unsettling experience watching them reassure their way to faux bliss.
In one of the moments where Adam storms off from Anna, he reaches a point of emotional release. Jumping into the sea, laughing his way through the tension that has enveloped their vacation in an ominous postcard. He returns home, wearing the debris of a rocky cliff. As a storm rages on outside the house, one is roaring just as loudly at their dinner table. They cut tension with a knife and wash down their guilt with a glass of red wine. As Aga Woszczynska has so precisely shown throughout her feature debut, the moments of silence speak the loudest volumes and leave behind the most to ruminate on. Making its case for one of the most haunting conclusions of a film this year, Silent Land offers the protagonists no true escape from the noise of their inner voices, no matter how united they appear for dinner.
Silent Land had its premiere on September 10th at the Toronto International Film Festival. TIFF21 runs September 9-18, 2021.
MASUMI in Yakuza Princess (2021)
The Muramasa is a cursed, mysterious samurai sword. The spirits of all those slain by the Muramasa dwell in the weapon, waiting for the next victim to feast on their blood. When wielded, the sword transforms characters into killing machines. It’s an ancient rarity, a curse that imprisons souls and forges interconnected fates. As the tagline of Yakuza Princess goes, every sword has a story, and this film tells one of self-discovery in the hope of belonging somewhere. The film follows Akemi (MASUMI), who lives an unassuming life in São Paulo, Brazil. As the sole survivor of a family massacre in Osaka, in which she lost her grandfather, she finds protection in the form of martial arts training. Akemi’s teacher is a fatherly figure to her, parting words of wisdom to encourage her independence and growth. Suddenly, her world is thrown upside down when mysterious Japanese gangsters are out for her blood. In her search for why she’s being chased, Akemi uncovers a dark family secret and the power of Muramasa, which holds the key to illuminating answers about her grandfather’s death. The story is promising: in the protagonist’s journey through her family’s past, in the veiled intentions of mysterious characters, in the supernatural aura the sword carries, in the neon-lit visuals and action sequences. Yet, the experience of watching the film is surprisingly dull. Far duller than one can imagine from the potentiality of the story. Despite having a promising protagonist, Yakuza Princess is often weighed down by stiff character development, muddled storylines, and unfocused direction.
Directed by Vicente Amorim and based on the graphic novel Samurai Shirô by Danilo Beyrouth, Yakuza Princess has elements of fantasy weaved inside a neo-noir reality. The blend of genres is one of the more effective parts of the film. In the neighborhood of São Paulo, the largest Japanese diaspora in the world, Akemi settles temporarily. She works at a knick-knack store, longing for a change, pondering a move back to Japan, and thinking there has to be more out of life. A connection to the Yakuza crime syndicate and its relentless lieutenants is not what she had in mind. The presence of the Japanese mob, and the introduction to an amnesiac stranger Shirô (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) also tied to the Muramasa in another part of the neighborhood, carries the film down a violent rabbit hole of mysterious intentions and questionable loyalty.
Akemi stumbles on a dubious alliance with Shirô, who appears protective but he doesn’t remember who he is. All he’s told when he awakes from a hospital bed is he had been found with a sword. The meaning of the Muramasa sword drives both characters’ quests in different ways. But his quest is far less interesting, and the film spends a destructive amount of time with him. Not helping matters is a choppy performance by Rhys Meyers, who doesn’t bring much spark to his character. Far more compelling, though not without flaws, is Akemi's journey of self-discovery. The feeling of wanting to count for something and come from somewhere holds a universal power. Also interestingly at play is the role of destiny and its dark side. Caught up a nightmare of someone else’s doing, Akemi is living the consequences of a past that does not belong to her… a past she is being haunted by. The puzzle pieces of her grandfather’s death are imprinted within her. It is the sudden brush with the crime syndicate, led by lieutenant Takeshi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), that illuminates her search for answers.
In the switch between storylines, from Akemi to Shirô and the crime syndicate after them both, the film loses a clear focus and the emotional connection falls flat. The character development isn’t strong enough to weather the shifts from one perspective to another. The film has an intriguing protagonist at the center whose point of view gets sidetracked far too often. In a time when Akemi is searching for her purpose in life, she is caught in a dangerous web, through which she realizes the power within herself to break free from a path that is not hers and create a new path for herself. The film sets up for some emotional moments, but without the building blocks for strong characterization, these scenes deflate on impact. Left behind is a glimmer of promise for what could have been more resonating. One particular moment being the ending, a powerful badass moment for Akemi that should have packed a much bigger punch. While a lot of dialogue feels stilted, MASUMI still delivers a solid performance that helps carry along a film in which a lot of characters are putting on an act. Sometimes this works well, as in the case of Tsuyoshi Ihara’s performance, but for others such as Rhys Meyers, what is meant to be subtly hidden is confusing instead.
The consistency of Yakuza Princess is within the action choreography and neon visuals. The interplay of neon lights and darkness makes for some stunning scenes. Gustavo Hadba’s cinematography beautifully illuminates elements of a darkened frame. There’s also a great element of neo-noir manifested in the form of stylized sets; the film paints a moody setting and leads one down the path where danger is always felt from around the corner. Fast-moving and stylish, with a strong sense of setting, the fight sequences are the moments that inject spark back into an otherwise dull film. Vicente Amorim does not hold back on the violence and gore. These moments carry so much of the energy, leaving an imbalance with the dialogue and characterization. There’s a heaviness to the pacing of the story, and an inconsistency in the direction, that weighs the film down.
The majority of Akemi’s journey in Yakuza Princess sees her follow her grandfather’s footsteps. Who did he know? Which places did he visit before his death? As much as her grandfather wanted to bury his past, the past will still come knocking to the sole survivor of his immediate family. There is a missed opportunity in not establishing a clear focus with Akemi and staying with her perspective throughout the film. When she discovers the Muramasa, the power is literally back in her hands to break from a haunted past and forge a path of her own, separate from the dangerous ties that chase her. Yakuza Princess has promise in the protagonist’s journey and the connection it holds with the ancient sword, but ultimately gets lost in a collection of uninteresting characters and dull storytelling.
Idella Johnson and Hannah Pepper in Ma Belle, My Beauty (2021)
Time. It’s the one thing we can’t make more of. When the passing of time is truly felt, the response can be incredibly emotional…full of longing. Mourning missed opportunities. The longing for a meaningful, everlasting human connection takes on different manifestations in Ma Belle, My Beauty. The debut feature film, written and directed by New Orleans filmmaker Marion Hill, explores the residue of a break up in a queer polymerous relationship. Bertie (Idella Johnson) and Lane (Hannah Pepper) used to live together in New Orleans. After a falling out, Lane disappeared for two years. Bertie got married to their shared partner Fred (Lucien Guignard) and moved to the South of France, where the film is set. Out of the blue, upon Fred’s invite and unbeknownst to Bertie, Lane shows up at their beautiful villa with a front row view to the couple’s fancy new musical life. Bertie is in a rut, creatively and personally. Now with Lane back in the picture, Fred hopes the spark they once shared can reignite her passion as a performer.
Amidst the al fresco dinners and breezy summer vibes is a complicated surprise reunion. Marion Hill captures romantic tension well. She shows the ease with which passionate feelings can be reignited from a single look or a meeting. Ma Belle, My Beauty unearths the emotional baggage of a once hopeful, promising relationship. So much of the film is about yearning. Bertie and Lane, presently on two completely different tracks in life, navigate through the aftermath of a relationship. Pining glances, rekindled admiration, bottled up confusion, and tense conversations map out the fact that these characters have a history. But where the film loses its compelling ingredient is in actually creating and fleshing out a history for the characters. While there are intriguing themes at play about longing for what was lost, not enough time is given to establishing who Bertie and Lane are beyond the relationship that ties them together. Bertie in particular is often trying to carve out her own path, instead of being whoever everyone else wants her to be. Everyone around her seems to want a piece, and the film skirts over crafting a well developed character that shows more insight into her individuality. There are plenty of enigmatic glances with the promise of an elaboration that never really arrives.
The more Hill’s story stretches out, the more emotional investment wanes and the cracks in a promising foundation begin to appear. Longing manifests in different ways; there’s Bertie, who doesn’t feel happy in the situation she’s in. She carries understandable frustration from essentially being ghosted by her partner. She has an intriguing scene with Lane on the conversation of happiness not being tied to her, nor Fred. But there’s a missed opportunity in not delving further into Bertie’s point of view; wonderful as Idella Johnson is playing Bertie, both acting and singing-wise, her character feels underwritten and often in service of other characters. Then there’s Lane, single and reminiscing on the reasons why. She carries a pang of regret from leaving and not keeping in touch with Bertie, thus missing out on life events she otherwise would have been there for. A crucial space the film doesn’t fill is the exploration of Lane leaving; it becomes the source to which the protagonists often return when they find moments of connecting with their past. The film relies a lot on what’s left unsaid between two people, and how this often manifests through physical yearning. Though what’s left unsaid doesn’t always provide an insightful or compelling window into who the characters are. Johnson, along with Hannah Pepper who plays Lane, bring great subtlety and quiet moments of contemplation to life. But their performances ultimately feel inhibited by a screenplay working often on brisk presumptions.
The carefree quality that works to the film’s disadvantage is also what makes it refreshing in other respects. There’s a lightheartedness in Marion Hill’s approach to the story and atmosphere. Ma Belle, My Beauty captures the breezy feeling of summertime. Lauren Guiteras’ cinematography gives a beautiful glow to the film. The soundtrack evokes an easygoing atmosphere, perhaps a little too much in this direction given the dramatic climax that Hill tries to go for. While uneven in direction at times, Hill strongly conveys the feeling of throwing caution to the wind. So much of the film operates on physicality, whether it’s fleeting glances or moments of intimacy. A lot is happening on the surface, without really delving into detail about reasoning. Hill strikes a strong parallel to the character of Lane, described by Bertie as the type of person who will enter someone’s life, mess things up, and leave behind remnants of emotional baggage. Without worrying about the effects her leaving would have on Bertie’s wellbeing, Lane fuels a sense of tension. The space between them only intensifies with the passing of time, and what comes with it is the loss that they’ll never get that time back.
Ma Belle, My Beauty explores the ease with which two people can go in totally different directions when there’s been a distance between them, both physically and emotionally. There’s a refreshing aspect to the way Hill maps out the story, that she doesn’t provide a bowtie ending where all hope is restored and the stars align again. Instead, she poses the question of whether the stars were aligned in the first place. The protagonists can’t simply pick up where they left off, which makes for a potentially interesting narrative that doesn’t get to really soar. So much of the film is spent wondering about the characters’ intentions and finding a way to get to know them better. Left behind is the longing to spend more time with them.