I chose Paula Hernández, a random choice ... I've seen three Lucrecia Martel movies, wanted something new. The Sleepwalkers doesn't seem to have gotten much attention in this country ... only a few reviews are online, and many of those are in Spanish. The film was submitted as Argentina's entry in the International Feature Oscar category (the winner was Another Round, a good movie with one great scene). Paula Hernández has escaped my attention for no apparent reason. The lead actor, Érica Rivas, is known in Argentina but, like so much connected with The Sleepwalkers, not much is known about her in America. Wikipedia shows the absence of information: the pages on the movie, Hernández, and Rivas are short, and Ornella D'Elía, who plays one of the title characters and is the second most important person in the film, has no Wikipedia page at all.
The plot, about a family where sleepwalking is apparently passed on genetically, is OK. Everything leads to a crucial event that you can see coming, but you want to be proven wrong. When it turns out you are right, it's heartbreaking.
It's not a great movie, but it certainly deserving of more attention than it has gotten. It's another good example of the wonders of a Challenge ... you see movies you would have otherwise missed. Based on what I've seen, the person to watch for is Lucrecia Martel ... La Ciénaga is especially good.
Argentina, 1985 is a tremendous re-creation of a critical moment in the history of Argentina, the Trial of the Juntas against the recently deposed military dictatorship of the country. Director Santiago Mitre, writer Mariano Llinás, and all of the production crew took great pains to give their film a documentary feel, replicating the history by shooting in some of the same locations in which events occurred. They also subtly incorporate actual footage of the trial, unobtrusively adding to the impression that what we are seeing is what really happened.
This only goes so far, because the acting is so strong, not because the lead, the always excellent Ricardo Darín, is an exact copy of prosecutor Julio Strassera, or that the acting in general carries the same documentary feel we get from much of the film. In fact, the contrast between the actorly performances and the more straightforward representation of facts adds an interesting tension to what we are seeing. We admire the work of Darín at the same time we admire the work of the real-life Strassera.
The film itself is a standard courtroom drama. It's well-done, but not necessarily any different from a dozen other films set in courtrooms. But the real-life stakes of the trial make for something more vital than, say, To Kill a Mockingbird. And when Darín gives Strassera's closing argument (almost word-for-word with the actual statement), his abilities as an actor, combined with the dramatic impact of Strassera's words, leave most other movies behind, courtroom drama or not.
Happy Together is the 6th Wong Kar-wai feature I have seen (he has ten to his name, along with a segment in an anthology film). I think of him as one of my favorite directors, although in an erratically-updated Letterboxd Directors list (I last added to it last December), Wong is only ranked at #50. In the complicated system I came up with, Wong is punished perhaps too harshly for Fallen Angels, which I didn't care for (although I can't even remember seeing it, to be honest). Still, Wong has given us one all-time classic (In the Mood for Love, the first great film of the 21st century), and another that has rewarded multiple viewings (Chungking Express). Wong like to work with people he has been with before, and Happy Together shares with those other two films a star (Tony Leung), a cinematographer (Christopher Doyle), and an editor (William Chang). Leung has in fact been in seven Wong films, while the other main actors have also done repeated work for Wong (Leslie Cheung in three and Chang Chen in four). Wong must bring something special to the table for so many actors to want to work with him time and again, given that the productions for his films are rarely easy. For one thing, Wong isn't big on scripts, which I would imagine keeps the actors on their toes. (This was Chang's first film with Wong, and his part didn't even exist when filming started.)
Happy Together was made just before the Handover of Hong Kong. Wong filmed in Argentina, and the location gives the movie a different feel from other Wong films. There have been many attempts to interpret the film as directly commenting on the Handover; I don't feel knowledgeable enough to offer my own. Instead, I see the film as the story of a gay couple who fall into the "can't be with you, can't be without you" trap. It's easy to see why they are together. It's also easy to see why they continually break up. In fact, the repetitious nature of their relationship means eventually the film loses fire ... there's only so many times we can see them fight, split, and make up before it becomes a bit boring. Chang's insertion into the story (Leslie Cheung was unavailable due to a concert tour) helps by interrupting the repetition.
The film looks great, of course, with the shots of Iguazu Falls defying belief. #332 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
I should note I watched the recent restoration, which is a bit different from the original. Wong described the restoration, which extended to several others of his films:
During the process of restoring the pictures that you are about to watch, we were caught in a dilemma between restoring these films to the form in which the audience had remembered them and how I had originally envisioned them. There was so much that we could change, and I decided to take the second path as it would represent my most vivid vision of these films. For that reason, the following changes were made....
During a fire accident in 2019, we lost some of the original negative of Happy Together. In the ensuing months, we tried to restore the negative as much as we could, but a portion of it had been permanently damaged. We lost not only some of the picture, but also the sound in those reels.
As a result, I had to shorten some of Tony’s monologues, but with the amazing work of L’Immagine Ritrovata, we managed to restore most of the scenes to better quality....
As the saying goes: “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
Since the beginning of this process, these words have reminded me to treat this as an opportunity to present these restorations as a new work from a different vantage point in my career.
Having arrived at the end of this process, these words still hold true.
I invite the audience to join me on starting afresh, as these are not the same films, and we are no longer the same audience.
The Headless Woman (2008) came between the other two Lucrecia Martel movies I have seen (La Ciénaga (2001) and Zama (2017). Of Zama, I wrote that "its pleasures have less to do with narrative thrust and more to do with the feel of each scene" and "Martel isn't really concerned with audience ease." It's not that her films are impossible to grasp, but she does require you to meet her more than halfway.
The most intriguing mirror of The Headless Woman comes from the 1962 B-movie Carnival of Souls. Martel has cited that film as an influence, and there have been some good analyses of The Headless Woman that take off from that point. (Check out Catherine Grant's video essay "The Haunting of The Headless Woman".) Both films begin with women in auto accidents who spend most of the rest of the film confused about, well, everything. María Onetto, who plays Vero, perfectly shows us the character's befuddlement. She's helped by Martel's script and direction ... Martel is not someone to present the audience with obvious points we can center on. Odd camera angles, where the characters are just off-camera, help us feel Vero's unsettling experiences. (Martel also uses a lot of static camera shots, which give us time to gather information off the screen.) Vero eventually seems to reconcile herself with whatever happened, although I found her revelations less impressive in that by that point, I was too unsure of what I was seeing to trust my sense that Vero had moved on.
The Headless Woman always keeps us in its world on a scene-by-scene basis. But, as with her other films, you can't count on an easy narrative. #650 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. #68 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.
Lucretia Martel takes her time between fiction features ... Zama was her first in nine years, and only her fourth since 2001. But she's busy ... between 2001 and the present, she has also made more than half a dozen shorts and a feature documentary. Zama was highly anticipated.
I wrote about her La Ciénaga,"You need to settle into its rhythms, you need to accept that Martel isn't going to hold your hand, but there's a difference between wanting the audience to be uncomfortable and making a movie that did not connect with an audience. Scenes begin and end in the middle, you aren't always immediately sure where you are, but you aren't lost." Much the same could be said about Zama.
It helps to approach Zama without trying to squeeze it into pre-conceived notions. The more you try to figure out what is going on, the less you'll get out of the movie. Which isn't to suggest Zama is too obscure for enjoyment. It's just that its pleasures have less to do with narrative thrust and more to do with the feel of each scene. The title character is an official functionary somewhere in Argentina. He wants to leave ... he spends much of the movie trying to facilitate his release ... his desire is understandable, but Zama becomes something of a comical figure because his hopes are never going to be fulfilled, and at times, he seems to be the only person that doesn't realize this. The arc of his story is probably the easiest thing to latch onto, but Martel isn't really concerned with audience ease. Meanwhile, the subject of imperialism wavers between text and subtext, as the nobility exists on the backs of slaves it barely acknowledges.
Zama is comical, although his trials finally become too extreme for us to laugh at. And life for the slaves is not funny at all. Martel effectively blends subtle commentary and absurd bureaucracy, all the while condemning the ruling class for their perfidies. It's a fine movie for a patient audience. #61 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.
End of the Century features a slight story that sneakily turns into something else. It takes quite awhile for anyone to speak ... my wife noted that it didn't seem to need subtitles, and the first time someone says something, it's "Kiss", which is helpfully subtitled as "Kiss". After that slow but not boring beginning, End of the Century turns into something of a rom-com, with more rom than com. It's pleasant, and co-stars Juan Barberini and Ramon Pujol are well-matched as the potential couple. Barcelona makes a nice setting for it all, and while I've only been there once, it seemed to me that Lucio Castro (who directed, wrote, and edited the film) chose to feature less-familiar places.
And then ... here I need to offer a spoiler warning, although as is my usual, I'll try to avoid being explicit ... we learn something startling about the two men, and Castro instantly takes us back in time 20 years (without anything specifically telling us he has done this). It's jarring at first, but we quickly settle into the "new" time frame. Mía Maestro (The Strain) turns up and is a strong addition to what is now something of a threesome.
Just as Castro blends 2019 and 1999 without quite drawing attention to itself, he presents sexuality as a blend that doesn't quite draw attention to itself. When we first meet the men, they jump into bed, but both seem to have had a relationship in the past with Maestro's character, and Castro doesn't make a lot of this. There is nothing transgressive about anyone's behavior, they just are.
But Castro isn't done surprising us, and at this point, I don't need to avoid spoilers, because I'm not sure myself what happens in the final section of the film. This is usually a sore spot for me ... I don't like confusing narratives for the most part ... but it all works as part of an examination of love and memory. I may not know what "happens", but I get a lovely sense of how people experience their lives. Real life doesn't always make sense, either, and memories are always questionable. Castro has given us an impressive first feature.
La Ciénaga is a damp movie. You get sweaty just watching it. It represents Lucrecia Martel's artistic rendition of her childhood. Wikipedia offers this description of the film's background:
Lucrecia Martel's screenplay for the film won the Sundance Institute/NHK Award in 1999; this award honors and supports emerging independent filmmakers. The jury suggested she re-write the script to follow a more traditional structure around one or two protagonists, but she chose instead to retain the script's diffuse nature.
Martel has said in media interviews that the story is based on "memories of her own family." She has also said, "I know what kind of film I've made. Not a very easy one! For me, it's not a realistic film. It's something strange, a little weird. It's the kind of film where you can't tell what's going to happen, and I wanted the audience to be very uncomfortable from the beginning."
La Ciénaga is believable in a way that might suggest realism, or at least a form of magic realism (Martel and her film are from Argentina). But it is neither. It's realism with a twist ... the situations are recognizable and seemingly mundane, but Martel presents them in an off-center way. That awards jury knew what they were talking about. They were wrong about what La Ciénaga needed, and Martel didn't fall for their suggestions. But if she wanted to make a more straightforward movie, a traditional structure would have helped. It's just that she wasn't interested in that structure.
You can overstate the oddness of La Ciénaga. I expected something like Un Chien Andalou, but it's not nearly as obscure. You need to settle into its rhythms, you need to accept that Martel isn't going to hold your hand, but there's a difference between wanting the audience to be uncomfortable and making a movie that did not connect with an audience. Scenes begin and end in the middle, you aren't always immediately sure where you are, but you aren't lost.
And the lack of audience comfort mirrors the discomfort of the characters. The adults drink to escape their boredom, the kids run around trying to make something out of their boredom, and the Amerindian servants are looked down on by the grown-ups and loved by the kids. No one is happy, although most of them aren't exactly sad, either.
Martel makes great use of sound. At times, La Ciénaga plays like a horror movie ... sounds, many of them from nature, constantly lead us to expect something ominous is about to happen.
"La Ciénaga" means "The Swamp", and that accurately identifies the milieu in which these characters exist. There is a filthy swimming pool that serves a reminder of this, although the metaphor is perhaps a bit too on target. But overall, Martel's first feature is confident and promising.
The Secret in Their Eyes. A movie for grownups … do I sound like a crotchety old fool when I say that? It doesn’t seem to have any special effects (a scene at a soccer match is remarkably filmed, though, and might be helped out a bit by some lab work … on the other hand, there’s a rear-projection shot worthy of Hitchcock late in the film). The plot, which bounces back and forth between 1974 and 1999 or so, requires makeup which, since the actors are not the same age, means that some of them get the tricky makeup in the 1974 scenes and others in the 1999 scene. What is most important, though, is that the actors, all of them excellent, make you believe. A rumination on passion and memory that never stoops to nostalgia, it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film last year. (Giants fans may be thrown off for a bit when a character turns out to be named Pablo Sandoval.)
Pierrot le Fou. Is it just me, or has Jean-Luc Godard’s reputation taken a big hit since his glory days in the 50s and 60s? It’s not just that critical opinion of his post-60s films was mixed at best … I can’t speak to that, since I haven’t seen anything later than Weekend (1968). No, I’m talking about people reevaluating movies they once loved, and finding them lacking. Roger Ebert is a good example. When Pierrot le Fou was first released, Ebert gave it 3 1/2 stars out of 4, saying of Godard that “if he is not the greatest living director he is certainly the most audacious, the most experimental, the one who understands best how movies work.” On the film’s re-release 40 years later, Ebert’s rating had dropped to 2 1/2 out of 4, calling it “the story of silly characters who have seen too many Hollywood movies.” Pierrot le Fou gives us an idea of what Bonnie and Clyde might have been like if that film’s producers had followed through on their attempt to get Godard to direct. #92 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time.