Now that the Oscars are over, I know we’re supposed to let sleeping dogs lie and put 2017 behind us, but I just had, you know, a couple more thoughts about a couple more films. Indulge me, please.
THE FLORIDA PROJECT
You know what? I really don’t feel like totally re-litigating this film, so let me just point you to my initial review. You can decide for yourself if I’ve been fair to it or not.
But I do want to say something about Sean Baker, and why I think his films don’t work for me. In Tangerine, and now again in The Florida Project, some critics have given him credit for ‘highlighting a disadvantaged segment of society,’ but I really don’t see any evidence of that. It seems to me that Baker’s M.O. definitely involves choosing a disadvantaged segment of society, but then asking himself, ‘What’s the craziest right-wing fantasy version of these people?’ For Tangerine, he probably read this essay about the ‘Four Ps’ of negative trans representation and thought to himself, ‘Yeah! I gotta use all of them!’ So we get farcical psycho prostitutes whose entire sense of being is apparently intertwined with their wigs. Oh, but it’s okay, because Baker cast actual trans women, right? So it’s far more woke than Dallas Buyers Club! Please. This is what happens when you mistake appearances for what something actually is.
For The Florida Project, Baker has chosen poor people as his target. He has nothing to say about any of these people, but the most frustrating thing about watching a Sean Baker joint is that you can tell he thinks he has something to say. The characters in this film—which, you may have guessed, takes place in Florida—are sometimes too poor to afford food, and they live within sight of the big castle that looms over Disney’s Magic Kingdom. DO YOU GET IT??? THEY’RE POOR AND THEY CAN SEE THE MAGIC KINGDOM AT ALL TIMES BUT CAN NEVER GET THERE BECAUSE THEY’RE POOR!!! WHAT A METAPHOR! Please. It’s simplistic to the point of being embarrassing.
Again, I really wonder if he thought to himself, ‘If I were Dinesh D’Souza, how would I make a movie about these societal leeches?’ By concocting boring, lazy stereotypes about them and gawking at them for two hours. And that’s all he does. That’s his thing. People appear to be mistaking this for empathy, but I don’t see him at all as an empathetic director. He’s certainly a nonjudgemental one, but that’s just because he has literally nothing to say, ever, about his subject matter, positive or negative. Or does he? Show any of his films to your average Fox News viewer and their response would probably be, ‘I was right about those people all along!’ Which would honestly be fine, if he were embracing the conservative interpretations of his work like Eli Roth seems to be, but Baker claims to be a liberal. So he’s either this generation’s Alan Parker, or he’s just a hack. (Or both.) Either way, I don’t know if I can ever subject myself to another one of his anti-films.
THÉO AND HUGO
Théo and Hugo thinks it’s representing something realistic about Gay Issues in the Current World, but it’s just as phoney-baloney about sex as your average network TV drama. I mean, just look at the Big Sex Scene that opens the movie. It takes place in a sex club, which directors Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau light in oversaturated reds and blues, having learned the wrong lessons from Nicolas Winding Refn. A bevy of the sorts of men you’d probably expect to see in a seedy, sticky sex club all grope and flail about each other. That is, until Théo sees Hugo. They gravitate towards each other, and when they start going at it, an angelic white light pours down from directly above them, and the camera circles round and round the table upon which they fuck.
Let’s ignore the fact that the directors stole this sequence from a(n also French, also gay-themed, better acted and directed) film called Grande École. It’s a howlingly blunt and inept way to indicate a Strike of Love Lightning, a Clouds Parting and Angels Singing moment. As I already mentioned, this sex scene is unstimulated, but the directors didn’t get the note that hardcore ≠ truthful. Any ‘truth’ the sequence might have had is undone by the glaringly artificial way the directors chose to shoot it. It’s a bizarrely expressionistic moment in a film that flatly (and boringly) plays everything naturalistically for the remainder of the runtime.
The next act of the film takes place in a hospital. Théo was stupid enough not to insist upon a condom while getting fucked in a sex club. So Hugo, who is HIV positive, insists that Théo get immediate treatment. That Théo seems entirely blasé (or perhaps plain ignorant) about possible exposure doesn’t make him seem enlightened; it makes him seem, as played by Geoffrey Couët, mentally unrobust. At least Hugo recognises that, while HIV is not the death sentence it once was, it’s still a virulent disease you’re better off not having. So we in the audience get to watch in basically real time while the pair sit in the waiting room, see a doctor, and have the doctor explain exactly what medication Théo is going to need and exactly how he needs to take it. The film’s shift into Health Class Documentary mode is so clunky, the sequence seems imported from a different work—namely, a health class documentary.
As does the last act of the film, which involves the two men walking around a deserted Paris in the early hours of the morning talking, à la Before Sunrise. It’s not exactly like Before Sunrise, though; Richard Linklater knew that if you were going to make a film consisting of two characters talking, they’d better be interesting people and passable conversationalists. Théo and Hugo don’t have much in the way of inner lives, and consequently hearing them prattle on for an extended period of time tries one’s patience. François Nambot almost succeeds in making Hugo interesting, but the filmmakers clearly cast Geoffrey Couët for his willingness to display his penis, rather than any acting talent. It doesn’t help that the film has no idea where to go once the men leave the hospital, or how to end.
Look, I understand Théo and Hugo’s critical plaudits. I know that in the age of Donald Trump, there are critics out there who will highlight any minority story, and one so graphic has mislead many into thinking there’s something stunning and brave about it. But cinema has told straight love stories for over a century without gigantic closeups of quivering vulvas, and if the filmmakers here were trying for some kind of gay In the Realm of the Senses, or even a more dignified Taxi Zum Klo, they’ve failed miserably. Ultimately, the film is entirely braindead, and the truth is you’re liable to see better acting, lighting, and chemistry between the leads in a Sean Cody video.