New on Mubi is a weekly series reviewing and recommending the latest films to be selected by the streaming service Mubi. For $4.99 a month users gain access to a new film each day added to their selection. Users then have 30 days to see them before each expires.
Catherine Breillat is an interesting blind spot for me, and likely for others viewers as well, so a double-feature devoted to her is quite a welcome, if obviously disconcerting, distraction. Breillat will devote herself to the sexually explicit in ways that don’t always, or necessarily often, align with female empowerment. There’s something undeniably skeevy about the relationships in many of her films, from the baited statutory rape in Fat Girl to Breillat’s own submission to a man swindling her in her most recent film, Abuse of Weakness. Instead of centering on the obvious staples, though, Mubi’s selected two of her lesser known, earliest films, starting with sexually duplicitous police drama Dirty Like an Angel (1991), where we perhaps see seeds of the provocative work she’d explore further in Fat Girl.
For the majority of Dirty Like an Angel, we’re with Georges Dublache, a lonely, apathetic police inspector who’s nonetheless a blatant misogynist. The plot may be fueled by Dublache’s search for a criminal friend whose dealings have gone violently south, but Breillat is more interested in how Georges uses the situation to supplant his partner Didier’s sexual and marital roles; first with his occasional mistress, then by thrusting himself on Didier’s wife Barbara. It’s rape by today’s standards, and the extreme violation isn’t lost on Breillat, but as the reluctant affair goes on, the camera’s perspective starts shifting in Barbara’s favor. Just as Georges starts reflecting on how his most heartfelt relationship has been with a criminal, Barbara uses his vulnerability to condemn his advances and sexual manipulations. The film’s blunt ending keeps their relationship just as vulnerable, but just as volatile.
Her sophomore feature,Nocturnal Uproar (1979) is a Breillat film of a completely different shade, similar in its focus of female perspective but unusual in the amount of agency she affords that perspective. That is to say there’s nothing seedy about the sexual encounters taken up by Solange, a sexually obsessed filmmaker whom one imagines features traces of Breillat’s own persona. “I fuck whoever,” Solange states early on as an anthem about her sexual life, with her husband close within earshot. None of Solange’s partners seem to blink twice about the variety of partners she takes up. The patriachal and domestic tethers usually tightened in such films are liberatingly slack here. Solange is a wife and mother, but we never even see her supposed daughter, which handicaps some of the film’s intrigue.
Breillat’s biggest handicap, though, is a screenplay rife with contradictions and inane distractions. Every minute or so we’ll hear a character take back something they’ve just said, and while this does work to convey how indecisive Solange and her desires are, it also makes it difficult to trust anything she or her partners say. At a point the the exchanges of dialogue and fluids blur indistinctly into one another, and it becomes difficult to demarcate distinct moments in the film. As Solange tirelessly fucks one boring, pretty white boy after another, one prays that a moment of sexual variety will shake things up, like in Lars von Trier’s sex odyssey Nymphomaniac. When Solange finally gets an advance from a girl, though, it’s shrugged off in a second. For all its sexual curiosity, it’s too easy to shrug Nocturnal Uproar off as well.
While Breillat’s protagonists may be constantly reminded of how impossible it is for them to break through the inertia or inequities of their lives, they still would never cop to being guileless victims of their relationships. This, sadly, cannot be said for the protagonist of Valerie Donzelli’s The Queen of Hearts (2009), a film whose stylistic affections can’t even register as quirky asides since they’re composed so flatly. We open the film with Adele, played by Donzelli herself, helplessly stumbling around Paris, unable to catch a break. She has no real money or friends of her own, and lives off the support of her boyfriend Matthieu (Jeremie Elkaim). When the whimsical opening number ceases, Matthieu dumps her, demolishing what insubstantial life she currently has.
Helpless in the care of her reluctant friend Rachel, Adele kinda sorta tries to rebuild her life, but expresses her hardships in song. Not passionate or coherent musical numbers, though. When Adele breaks into song, it’s thinly written and utterly lacking in rhythm or enchanting choreography. The low-fi aspect of it only excuses so much laziness. Here, too, we see Adele’s sexual life ruled by a hysterically literalized heteronormativity. The men in her life aren’t just practically the same; they’re played by the same actor as her ex-lover. Just when it looks like Donzelli might throw a queer wrench into Adele’s love life, she abandons it. French cinema is littered with queer flirtations that go by unfulfilled, and even when the trope works, like in next month’s devastating Respire by Melanie Laurent, the lack of onscreen representation stings.
Meanwhile the sexiest thing about our next film is a defective neon hotel sign. Possibly the only “political” film Alfred Hitchcock made – don’t hold me to this; I’ve still only seen a measly nine of his films – Foreign Correspondent (1940) is not beholden to the moral or tonal standards of WWII films because they didn’t exist yet. That means Hitchcock can display his same playful energy on an espionage story where an American journalist chases spies and traitors across Europe while trying to stop the war. When freshly elected foreign correspondent Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), print named Huntley Haverstock by his employers, sees a Dutch diplomat assassinated in front of him, JJ-HH becomes caught in a conspiracy to end obliterate any hopes of peace.
There are some suprisingly progressive politics in Foreign Correspondent. When female love interest Carol Fisher (Laraine Day) gives an address to the Universal Peace Party, we see her confident rhetoric flattened both by jeers from her male audience, and a lacking confidence amongst her peers, indicated by patronizing cue cards. She may ultimately, for the sake of the story, be defined by her relationship to the film’s male characters, but there’s a sense of feminist irritation in her character. Most fascinating, though, is how the climax makes the Nazi scheme at the center of the film’s plot immaterial. As war arrives, all are indiscriminately punished by the insurgence of violence. Yet while the film’s coda acts as a period-apt rally cry for America to “keep the lights on”, our sympathies lie not with the comfy Americans lying safely on the sidelines. It’s with the countries falling victim to continental destruction first hand.
Returning to cinema of a more sexually active variety, though some may jest that that’s the only activity to be found in the filmmaker’s work, Vive L’amour (1994) is the first part of Mubi’s retrospective on Taiwanese director Tsai Ming Liang. So if you love slow-moving, dialogue scarce, emotionally oblique Asian films, then boy do we… oh, you don’t. Well some of us do, and by Tsai’s standards Vive L’amour is practically jaunty in comparison to some of his most recent work. As three character find themselves unexpectedly occupying the same hotel room, often unaware of the others’ presence, it’s only a matter of time before the blurred physical boundaries become blurred sexually as well.
Hsiao-ang is a depressed man who’s stolen the key to a city apartment, and spends his stays there tentatively cutting his wrists and getting mighty intimate with a watermelon. Ah-jung is the lover of the apartment’s real-estate agent, Mei. There’s very little that’s certain from there on, but it’s clear enough that Hsiao-ang finds some quiet catharsis in his anonymous intimacy with the duo, but it’s not clear in what way until he displays the subtlest bit of sexual agency in the film’s final reel. I’ll admit to not possessing the club card to Tsai Ming Liang’s fanbase, and this feels typically inaccessible in a lot of ways. Characters rarely obviously emote, and when they do it isn’t always clear why. Some will find that enhances the emotional payoff. Others may find it too much a hindrance.
The meaning behind the set-up of Manakamana (2013), the latest feature film from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, hot on the heels of last week’s Leviathan selection, is more clear-cut because of how organically and patiently the audience is able to glean details from it. A cable car in Nepal goes up to the Manakamana Temple, and then back down, and in the film’s eleven shots we see a new variety of occupants in the car. First an old man and young boy sit next to each other, totally silent. Later a trio of tourists travel up with an adorable kitten in tow. Not long after that, a man and his wife go up with a chicken. At the film’s end, we see them go back down, but the chicken isn’t alive anymore.
In some shots we view indigenous people, traveling to the temple for religious purposes. In other shots we see tourists whose attachment to the temple may just be intrigued sightseeing. As we watch the rides unfold, though, it becomes less important why they’re on this cable car and more important what they’re doing there. In one shot we view two girls sitting silently next to one another, uncertain if they’re strangers or just friends who’ve reached an impasse in their relationship. Tension rises as we watch a woman try to eat an ice cream bar before it melts onto her hands. And directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez even have the lyrical sense to insert a musical break to keep things brisk and entertaining. Manakamana shows a cross-selection of different lives and only ever asks us to look and appreciate them for behaving so naturally and expressing themselves so fully.
For the week’s most aesthetically and romantically rich selection, it’s hard to deny Two Lovers (2008), a truly contemporary film from James Gray that nonetheless brims with crisp period specificity. Of the recurring elements in Gray’s films, from his smoothly varnished classical aesthetic to his focus on stories of New York immigrant families, the one that most often comes to mind is his compassion. Gray has sympathy for an array of variety of devils in his films, from Joaquin Phoenix’s unconvincingly charismatic pimp in The Immigrant to Joaquin Phoenix’s desperate murderer of lawmen and women in The Yards. In general, he’ll make you feel sorry for Joaquin Phoenix at moments when we have every reason to condemn him.
Phoenix’s character in Two Lovers, Leonard Kraditor, is a sweetheart, but the narrative of a guy juggling romances with two different women is one we’re acutely familiar with by this point. We’re used having contempt for the insensitive player, but Leonard’s emotional fragility gives the crisis credence. On the one hand Vinessa Shaw’s Sandra is the kind of loving, healthy presence Leonard needs at this crossroads in his life. On the other, he just can’t help falling for someone as broken and battered as he is, like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Michelle. Sandra’s scenes brim with care and warmth; Michelle’s with blistering, unbridled energy. One nourishes while the other stings, and the latter is always the stronger emotion at first. By the end you don’t want Leonard to be punished for his indecision, and while either choice feels reasonable and in some way right, the one that Two Lovers ends on lends the film a unique autumnal grace, rather than a wintry chill.