Anthology films are almost inevitably destined to mid-range status as a collection. Gathering multiple filmmakers of sharply divergent styles from around the globe to re-imagine their films’ collective themes will always result in something anachronistic. To its credit, though, Madly assembles its group of short films with a rare tonal consistency, keeping the viewer on edge throughout as the idea of love is tested in shocking, somewhat disturbing ways. Though the coherence and potency of the six directors’ independent visions tends to vary, none of them are even slightly applying themselves to a conventional romantic framework.
Besides the simplified core theme of love, the only connective tissue holding these disparate shorts together are a The Forbidden Room aping opening titles sequence and transitioning montages of the international locations each short was set in. Given each segment tends to leave the viewer in a woozy atmosphere, a little palette cleanser is either a refreshing relief or a repeated obstruction of the film’s overriding tone. It’s hard to say if the order reveals anything in particular about these films or their similarities, but there’s some logic to the film’s structure. The first two shorts are the most unnerving and upsetting. The following two are the most comically appealing. The final two feel the most cathartic and streamlined in charting the collapse of one relationship and the birth of another.
First up is Indian director Anuraq Kashyap’s Clean Shaven (D+), about sheltered Indian woman Archana’s struggle to make sense of her relationship to the two men in her life: her conservative husband Sudhir, and her younger neighbor Allwyn. When the latter impishly awakens her sexual curiosity, Archana’s true degree of liberty, or lack thereof, start to emerge through the confiscating dimensions of her apartment complex. Less a story of romantic affirmation than of independent upheaval, Kashyap struggles to define Archana as an individual striving to meet her own needs and desires. Too often held in relation to the boys in her life, the ambiguity the film leaves her with is more frustrating than exciting.
It’s a prime mindset of confusion, though, to enter into Australian actress Mia Wasikowska’s Afterbirth (A-), a psychically frayed maternal study that bears unsettling narrative similarities to another recent Australian study of motherly love turned monstrous, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. Whereas Kent’s disposed to clammy whites and oily blacks, Wasikowska uses deeper, amber tones in depicting the psychological detachment a new mother feels towards her child. Kathryn Beck plays up the discomfiting whimsy of a mother struggling to see her kid as a human being. It’s Wasikowska’s showcase, though, melding Richard Ayoade’s precocious framing sensibilities with Lynne Ramsay’s unnerving sensuous detail into a nonetheless singular voice. Resting cat faces will never appear so innocent again, and after her equally fascinating Long, Clear View in 2013 Aussie anthology The Turning, one hopes she doesn’t wait long to graduate to feature filmmaking.
There’s less cloistered intensity in Sebastian Silva’s queer NYC slice-of-life Dance Dance Dance (B-), imagining the isolation of a young subway car performer over one rough night. When Rio abruptly comes out to his parents as gay, his night becomes an insecure search for some kind of belonging. Loose, free-form, with an amusing comic energy to it – the common patriarchal leverage of religious text against homosexuality is given a spry gag rebuttal – it nonetheless raises more socio-economic anxieties than it resolves. I suppose that’s the point, as Silva’s direction never attempts to clean up the rough edges of abject lives.
Right at midpoint is the film’s most bewildering, impishly delightful digression, Sion Sono’s Love of Loves (B). If you know Sono, you know you’re in for something gleefully brazen in its sexual exploitation, yet oddly empowering towards its objectified women. Here we see an ostensibly reserved family fall under the spell of a local sex club, one by one submitting to its profoundly erotic atmosphere. With such insurmountable communal pleasure, it’s hard for the audience not as well. While its ending strikes an odd note of ignorant male ownership, it’s still a more ludicrous delight than its more subtly composed kin.
Not that subtle is quite how I’d describe Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal’s The Love of My Life (B-) – much sexier sounding under its Spanish title, as Bernal noted before the screening. Starting at the disconsolate end of a relationship, we backtrack to its vivid beginning, an intoxicating dance filled oner that breezily captures the rapturous excitement of passionate romance. It’s not until the moment a baby steps into their lives that the spell massively collapses. Bernal may leave things on a confounding note of ambiguity, but he’s clearly got a flair for sumptuous, naturalist composition.
After a quintet of films by expanding or emerging artists, it seems appropriate that Madly should end on its lone debut film, English singer Natasha Khan’s (known by her stage name as Bat for Lashes) I Do (C). Given her background, lyricism is to be expected, as is presentational flair. Those are I Do‘s primary virtues, livening up an odd wedding day storyline whose confluence of fatherly and husbandly love should elicit skepticism from audience members. That said, it’s a visually ripe debut, and as heartening a suggestion of a more lush future in the medium as any of the fascinating, subversive capsules here.
Bottom Line: As scattershot as could be expected, anthology film Madly exudes a distinctly dreamy tone and sumptuous visual texture across six bewildering shorts.