Review: ‘Casa Susanna,’ starring Katherine Cummings, Diana Merry-Shapiro, Betsy Wollheim and Gregory Bagarozy

November 26, 2022

by Carla Hay

Susanna Valenti (sitting in the front, on the floor) in an archival photo featured in “Casa Susanna” (Photo courtesy of PBS)

“Casa Susanna”

Directed by Sébastien Lifshitz

Culture Representation: The documentary “Casa Susanna” features an all-white group of people discussing Jewett, New York-based Casa Susanna, a popular gathering place for transgender women and cross-dressing men from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s.

Culture Clash: The transgender women and cross-dressing men who frequented Casa Susanna had to hide their true selves during a time in America when trans women, drag queens and male transvestites could get arrested for dressing as women.

Culture Audience: “Casa Susanna” will appeal primarily to viewers who want to know more about a specific transgender community gathering place that most people are not widely aware of in LGBTQ history.

Diana Merry-Shapiro in “Casa Susanna” (Photo courtesy of PBS)

From the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, a bungalow camp/rural resort named Casa Susanna in the Catskills city of Jewett, New York, was a safe haven for members of the LGTBQ community who wanted to dress and live as women, regardless of the gender identities of the people who were at Casa Susanna. The documentary “Casa Susanna” tells the history of this resort from the perspectives of two transgender women, who frequented Casa Susanna, and two cisgender people, who had family members with strong connections to Casa Susanna. It brings a noteworthy spotlight to a meaningful community-gathering place for transgender women and cross-dressing men. There’s respect given in the documentary, but viewers will sense that more of Casa Susanna’s individual stories could have been told.

French filmmaker Sébastien Lifshitz, who has directed numerous LGBTQ-focused documentaries and narrative feature films, directed “Casa Susanna” with the tone of trying to make the movie as personal as possible, rather than being a comprehensive historical film. Lifshitz’s previous movies about transgender people include the narrative feature film “Wild Side” and the documentaries “Bambi, A French Woman,” “Little Girl” and “Bambi.” His previous movies have taken place in France or Algeria. “Casa Susanna” is his first movie that’s set entirely in the United States.

“Casa Susanna” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival and has since made the rounds at other film festivals in 2022, such as the Toronto International Film Festival and DOC NYC. “Casa Susanna” won DOC NYC’s U.S. Competition Grand Jury Prize in 2022. In awarding the prize, DOC NYC’s 2022 U.S. Competition jury issued a statement that says, in part: “‘Casa Susanna’ is a beautifully crafted film featuring hauntingly exquisite archival footage. Both cinematic and intimate, it offers a unique way into the trans experience by contrasting nostalgic and past stories through contemporary characters. This approach allowed us to understand how laws and perspectives have changed over the years.”

It’s a great way to describe the movie, but “Casa Susanna” isn’t without some flaws, such as how the documentary doesn’t offer any perspectives on what transgender people of color experienced as guests at Casa Susanna. The documentary also doesn’t address why only two former Casa Susanna patrons were interviewed for the movie. Viewers can only speculate why. Many of Casa Susanna’s customers and patrons have no doubt passed away, but many were still alive at the time this documentary was filmed. It’s why having only two former Casa Susanna patrons interviewed in the documentary makes it look like the filmmakers didn’t do enough to include interviews with more former Casa Susanna patrons.

However, the good news is that the people who are interviewed in the documentary are thoroughly engaging and tell compelling stories that will give viewers an idea of what Casa Susanna was like from transgender and cisgender perspectives, even if the interviewees can’t tell the entire story of this special place. “Casa Susanna” also has some great scenes where the interviewees go back to the former site of Casa Susanna and have heart-to-heart conversations with each other that are exclusive to this documentary.

These are the four people who are interviewed in “Casa Susanna”:

Katherine Cummings, a transgender woman born in 1935, was a frequent patron of Casa Susanna from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. Cummings was born in Scotland, was raised in Australia, and lived in Canada (mostly in Toronto) when she would go to Casa Susanna. During her previous life living as a man named John, Cummings was married to a woman and had three daughters during this marriage. (Cummings passed away in 2022. The documentary includes an end credit stating, “In memory of Katherine Cummings.”)

Diana Merry-Shapiro, a transgender woman born in 1939, grew up in a conservative farming community in Iowa but has spent much of her life as a resident of California or New York. She was a frequent patron of Casa Susanna in the early-to-mid 1960s. Just like Cummings, Merry-Shapiro previously lived her life as a cross-dressing man (she used the name David), was married to a woman, and had gender affirmation surgery after the marriage ended in divorce. After her gender-affirmation surgery, Merry-Shapiro married a man and became a homemaker, but that marriage also ended in divorce. Merry-Shapiro then became a computer programmer who had a long career at Xerox when she was living in California. She and her third spouse, a woman named Carol, live in New York City, and have been married since the early 1990s.

Betsy Wollheim, born in 1952, is president, co-publisher and co-editor-in-chief of Daw Books, a New York City publishing company whose specialty is science fiction. She is the cisgender daughter and only child of sci-fi author Donald Wollheim (also know as Doris Wollheim), who presented himself as a cross-dressing, cisgender man. Betsy says that her mother not only knew before the marriage that Donald wanting to dress as a woman but her mother also usually went with Donald to Casa Susanna. However, it was a family secret until Betsy’s widowed mother was on her deathbed and told her.

Gregory Bagarozy, born in 1951, is the cisgender grandson of Marie Tonell, the cisgender woman who co-owned Casa Susanna with her spouse. Bagarozy tells the story about how Tonell used to own a wig shop in New York City, where one of the shop’s customers was an immigrant from Chile named Tito Arriagada. Tonell quickly figured out that Arriagada was a cross-dresser, she completely accepted it with no hesitation, they fell in love, and they got married in 1958. For years, Arriagada (who was a radio announcer) lived separate lives as a man and as a woman named Susanna Valenti (Casa Susanna’s namesake), but eventually lived life openly full-time as a transgender woman. (Valenti and Tonell are now deceased. They sadly died a week apart from each other in November 1996.)

All of this background information unfolds throughout the documentary in memories and anecdotes shared by the interviewees. Not surprisingly, Cummings and Merry-Shapiro have the most interesting stories to tell, since they were actually part of the Casa Susanna community. Bagarozy and Betsy Wollheim were children when Casa Susanna existed, so they only have second-hand knowledge of what it was like to be in this adult environment. However, Bagarozy and Betsy Wollheim both say that they found out later in life that many of the Casa Susanna regulars were people they already knew as friends of their respective families.

Cummings says that she remembers Casa Susanna as a place of “total freedom” to be who she was at the time, which was someone figuring out which gender to live as permanently. In the documentary, Cummings says from as early as she could remember, she never felt quite right living as a male. Cummings remembers being 5 years old and loving the feeling when her older sister would let Cummings wear her clothes. Cummings says that going to Casa Susanna was a “necessity” because “I needed to know what it was like to live as a woman for an extended period.”

Merry-Shapiro talks about childhood memories of being in the third or fourth grade and praying that she would wake up as a girl. “It was a secret that I had,” Merry-Shapiro says of this feeling. “I kept thinking that I would grow out of it. It never did go away.” She also talks about being fascinated with news about actress Christine Jorgensen, who became America’s first famous transgender woman when she had gender affirmation surgery in 1952. However, Merry-Shapiro remembers being afraid to talk to anyone about it, because she knew people in her community would shun or bully her for being interested in transgender issues.

When Merry-Shapiro was an adult and eventually came out as a transgender woman, her mother (whom Merry-Shapiro describes as “a serious Lutheran”) was much less accepting than her father. One of the most poignant scenes in the documentary is when Merry-Shapiro tearfully describes what happened when she visited her parents for the first time after having her gender-affirmation surgery. Still, her father’s acceptance only went so far. Merry-Shapiro says of her parents’ overall attitude: “I was an embarrassment to them. It was just as well that I disappeared.”

“Casa Susanna” gives detailed descriptions of the secrecy involved in Casa Susanna’s history. Because of homophobic laws and beliefs in society, Casa Susanna (which was originally located on a 288-acre property and later relocated to a 188-acre property) started off being marketed as an entertainment destination where heterosexual couples could go to watch shows featuring “female impersonators.” In those days, being a transgender woman or a drag queen was acceptable as entertainment, but not as a way of life.

According to the documentary, these “female impersonators” were really transgender women, drag queens and transvestites who already considered Casa Susanna a community gathering place but went along with the idea that they could also be part of the Casa Susanna’s entertainment for paying customers. The bungalows were where visitors and semi-residents stayed at Casa Susanna. Although Casa Susanna publicly presented these entertainers and other cross-dressing guests as heterosexual men, Bagarozy says that it’s highly unlikely that most of the people at Casa Susanna were heterosexual men.

Bagarozy comments on the transgender women and cross-dressing men at Casa Susanna: “These people were major film directors, attorneys, airplane pilots—all sorts of professions where people reached the pinnacle of their careers. They risked a lot for doing what they wanted to do.” Bagarozy adds, “It’s not like they wanted to be [pinup model] Bettie Page, or someone like that. They wanted to be an acceptable person of the female persuasion in society.”

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, identifying as any sexuality that wasn’t heterosexual was dangerous and (in many places) illegal in the United States. And that’s why Casa Susanna could not advertise in mainstream media that it was a place for transgender women and cross-dressers. Therefore, the community that grew from Casa Susanna mainly heard about it through word of mouth.

However, a lot of credit for creating awareness about Casa Susanna is given to Tranvestia magazine, which was founded in 1960, by a scientist named Virginia Prince, who was a transgender activist. Prince also created the Foundation for Personality Expression (FPE) for transgender people. Cummings says in the documentary that Prince got the idea to launch FPE at Casa Susanna, where Prince was a regular visitor. After Casa Susanna relocated to a smaller 188-property, it stopped offering “female impersonator” shows and became only a business of resort lodging.

Bagarozy paints a rosy picture of Casa Susanna’s transgender and cross-dressing people, whom he remembers as being cheerful and friendly to him when he was a child. He also acknowledges how rare it was to have a grandmother who was immediately accepting of having a transgender spouse. By contrast, Bagarozy says his mother Yolanda, who was Tonell’s daughter, never approved of Tonell’s marriage and Casa Susanna.

Although Casa Susanna was a happy place where people could be themselves, the reality was much bleaker for people who had to hide their true selves in their everyday lives. Cummings and Merry-Shapiro say that they struggled for years with shame, confusion and indecision over whether or not to have gender affirmation surgery. Cummings says she came to the decision to have the surgery because too many of her transgender friends were committing suicide, she didn’t want to die that way, and she wanted to be happy as her authentic self.

Cummings and Merry-Shapiro both admit that the women they were married to during their Casa Susanna years were okay with cross-dressing (and often accompanied them to Casa Susanna), as long as Cummings and Merry-Shapiro identified as cisgender men who just happened to dress as women in secret. Merry-Shapiro’s first wife Julie knew about Merry-Shapiro’s fashion preferences before they got married, when they were college sweethearts. Cummings’ then-wife didn’t find out until about a year after they were married, and the wife eventually didn’t want to go to Casa Susanna anymore.

Cummings and Merry-Shapiro say that their respective marriages eventually fell apart when Cummings and Merry-Shapiro decided they wanted to live openly as women and eventually have gender affirmation surgery. Cummings says that while one of her daughters completely accepts her as a woman, her other two daughters chose to remain estranged from her. The documentary doesn’t mention if the two estranged daughters made peace with Cummings before she died. Merry-Shapiro does not have children.

Merry-Shapiro and Cummings both say in the documentary that they have no regrets about having gender affirmation surgery. “I felt marvelous,” Cummings says of how she felt after getting the operation. “I felt for the first time in my life, I was the real person, that I had discarded bits of me that weren’t necessary, and I had gained bits of me that were [necessary].”

Merry-Shapiro says that she got her surgery with the help of a friend/benefactor named Gloria, who offered to pay for this medical procedure and went on a road trip with her to Mexico, where the procedure was done, because it wasn’t legal in the U.S. at the time. Merry-Shapiro admits, “That is a very isolating experience for any human being, I think, when who you are is against the law. There’s still a little bit of anger in me, even now, that I had to leave the country to have the surgery done.”

Donald Wollheim and his wife stayed together until he died, but daughter Betsy isn’t so sure if it was a marriage that ever had romantic passion. She says in the documentary that she was very surprised to read in her father’s memoir that he was in love with his wife. Betsy comments, “I knew he loved my mother deeply, but I didn’t see the ‘in love’ part.” She says that her parents would send her away to summer camp as a child when the parents would take their secret trips to Casa Susanna.

Betsy also remembers that her father had a favorite women’s nightgown when she was a child, but it wasn’t until she was about 12 years old when she really began to understand that her father was a cross-dresser. She describes how on Halloween Eve in 1964, her father wanted to dress as his sister for a Halloween party. He spent about five hours in the bathroom getting ready. She recalls thinking that he looked “very ghoulish” with all the makeup on, but she was suddenly struck by being fully aware for the first time that her father was “really into this [cross-dressing]—I just didn’t know to what extent.”

As for Donald Wollheim’s sexuality, Betsy says that all she knows is that her father was a “very isolated introvert” who “had no relationship with women until he met my mother.” She adds, “His childhood was very complicated and gothic,” because Donald Wollheim’s urologist father, whose specialty was in treating sexually transmitted diseases, taught his children to have a fear of the human body and spreading germs.

Betsy also shares painful memories of her father being verbally abusive to her, which she says got worse when she reached puberty. He would tell her she was ugly and wrongfully accuse her of being a liar and a fraud. She says it took her years to understand that her father was projecting a lot of his self-hatred onto her, considering how much he wanted to look like a woman. Betsy also says that even though her father could be cruel to a lot of people, she’s convinced that he was never cruel to his friends at Casa Susanna, which she believes is the only place where he was truly happy.

“Casa Susanna” has several photos of people at Casa Susanna in its heyday, but it’s also mentioned in the documentary that people at Casa Susanna were very cautious about who was taking photos and where these photos might end up. Cummings says, “We were all a little bit paranoid of: ‘Who’s going to find out? Am I going to lose my job? Am I going to lose my family?’ Which is what happened back then.” The documentary doesn’t mention Robert Swope and Michel Hurst’s 2005 photo book “Casa Susanna,” which inspired playwright Harvey Fierstein’s 2014 Broadway play “Casa Valentina.”

Even though “Casa Susanna” offers a very limited number of perspectives, it’s a documentary that still gives a vivid portrait of a community of people who found each other and thrived in a society that wanted this community to hide in shame or be punished. It’s an inspiring story about human connections and camaraderie that made a lasting and positive impact on people’s lives. But it’s also a sobering reminder that homophobia causes human rights violations that are still going on today and aren’t just history from a past century.

The PBS series “American Experience” will premiere “Casa Susanna” on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,’ starring Nan Goldin

November 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

A 1970s photo of Nan Goldin (pictured at left) in Boston, with her then-roommate Bea, in “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed”

Directed by Laura Poitras

Culture Representation: The documentary film “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” features a predominantly white group of people (with one African American and one Asian) discussing the life and career of New York City-based artist/photographer Nan Goldin, who became an activist speaking out against the wealthy pharmaceutical Sackler family’s role in creating the opioid epidemic in the United States.

Culture Clash: Goldin (who is a recovering opioid addict) led protests and boycotts to remove the Sackler family name from prominent buildings, to have Sackler family donations rejected, and for the Sackler family to be held accountable for flooding the marketplace with prescription opioids, while also using her art and celebrity to express her greatest passions. 

Culture Audience: “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in learning more about Nan Goldin and how artists become activists.

Nan Goldin in a 1978 self-portrait in “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” (Photo by Nan Goldin/Neon)

The documentary “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is a fusion of a revealing biography of photographer Nan Goldin and an impressive chronicle of her activism against pharmaceutical moguls, especially Purdue Pharma’s Sackler family, whom she blames for the opioid crisis. Goldin is very candid about being a recovering opioid addict and about other struggles in her life, including her mental health issues, her turbulent love life (such as being a domestic violence survivor of an ex-boyfriend), and her still-unresolved turmoil about the suicide of her older sister Barbara. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” which was filmed mostly from 2017 to 2021, shows what happens when an artist does more than just talk about making a difference in social justice issues but actually becomes an agent for change in these issues.

Directed by Laura Poitras, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival, where it became a rare documentary to win the Golden Lion, the festival’s top prize. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” has since made the rounds at several other festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival, New York Film Festival, the Austin Film Festival and DOC NYC. It’s a documentary that covers a lot of issues, sometimes in a way that’s jumbled and messy, but no one would ever describe Goldin’s life as neat and tidy.

Goldin, who was born in 1953, is the narrator of the documentary, which jumps around in the timeline of her life story. Goldin has a gravelly voice that comes from years of smoking cigarettes, fast living and surviving traumatic experiences that would kill many other people. She comes across as jaded but hopeful, world-weary yet determined to fight for the causes that mean the most to her. The scenes of Goldin being an activist are interwoven with her telling stories about her personal life.

“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” opens with a visually striking scene of a Goldin-led protest at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City on March 10, 2018. In this scene, dozens of protestors have gathered in a museum atrium to throw empty prescription bottles in a water fountain while chanting, “Temple of money, temple of greed!” and “Sacklers lie, people die!” The atrium is in a section of the museum named after the Sackler family, the wealthy American clan that owns Purdue Pharma and Mundipharma. Purdue Pharma is the manufacturer of OxyContin. The protesters have gathered to demand that the museum remove the Sackler family name from anywhere in the museum.

The protesters lie down on the floor to represent the people who died from overdoses of OxyContin and other prescription drugs. As far as the protestors are concerned, any the Sackler family’s donations and philanthropic actions are tainted by “blood money” generated from the millions of lives destroyed by addictions to OxyContin and other opioids manufactured and marketed by the Sackler family’s pharmaceutical businesses. The protesters are eventually escorted out by the museum’s security personnel, but the documentary shows what eventually resulted from these kinds of protests.

In 2017, Goldin and some of her colleagues founded Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N.), a group dedicated to preventing and reducing harm from prescription drug addiction, as well as shaming the greedy people who over-sell and over-prescribe these highly addictive drugs to vulnerable people. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” documents how P.A.I.N. staged protests at museums in various international locations, including the Louvre in Paris; the Victoria & Albert Museum and the National Gallery in London; and the Guggenheim in New York City.

P.A.I.N. put pressure on these museums and other institutions to refuse donations from the Sackler family and to remove or prevent the Sackler name from anything associated with these institutions. This activism created worldwide awareness about the Sackler family putting the Sackler name on philanthropic causes, in the family’s attempts to deny or avoid responsibility for the opioid crisis. Goldin comments in the documentary about the Sackler family: “We will target their philanthropy. They have washed their blood money through the halls of museums and universities around the world.”

The U.S. government’s legal prosecutions of certain members of the Sackler family have been well-documented, but “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” puts a spotlight on Goldin and P.A.I.N.’s grassroots work in getting this prosecution to even take place. This behind-the-scenes look has the added benefit of Goldin’s participation, because her narration gives a very personal and touch that would be missing if she had not been actively involved in making the documentary. Goldin and Poitras are among the producers of “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.”

Early on in the documentary, Goldin comments: “It’s easy to make your life into a story. It’s harder to sustain real memories. The difference between the story and the real memory: The real experience has the smell and is dirty and is not wrapped up in simple endings. The real memories are what affects me now. Things can appear that you don’t want to see. You’re not safe.”

In “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” Goldin dredges up a lot of unsafe memories, beginning with her childhood, which she describes as living in a “claustrophobic suburb.” Goldin was born in Washington, D.C., but spent most of her childhood living in the Boston suburbs of Swampscott and Lexington in Massachusetts. Her father was Goldin’s father worked in broadcasting and was the chief economist for the Federal Communications Commission. Her mother was a traditional homemaker.

Goldin’s older sister Barbara, who was seven years older than Nan, was a lesbian and was shamed by their parents about her sexuality. It was during a time when homosexuality was considered a mental illness, so Barbara was forced into a psychiatric institution for a certain period of time. Goldin believes this institutionalization caused further damage to an already mentally fragile Barbara, whom Goldin says had depression and anxiety. Goldin remembers that their mother used to say about Barbara’s sexuality: “Don’t let the neighbors know.”

Goldin shares fond memories of Barbara, whom she considered to be more of a mother figure to her than their own biological mother. “Barbara had a wildness to her,” Goldin says. “You couldn’t hold her back … She trusted me with all of her secrets.”

Goldin also remembers Barbara’s talent for playing classical music on the piano. “You could always tell how she felt by how she played,” Goldin says. “I felt very close to her, but she was in and out of institutions for most of her childhood.”

Tragically, Barbara committed suicide in 1964, at the age of 18. Goldin says with some bitterness, “I heard my mother say, ‘Tell the children it was an accident.’ She didn’t want us to know the truth. That’s when it clicked.” Goldin says in the documentary that Barbara probably wouldn’t have committed suicide if Barbara had a support group for LGBTQ teenagers and other young people. Those support groups didn’t exist in most places in 1964.

By the age of 13 or 14, Goldin left home. At 16 years old, she was enrolled at Satya Community School in Lincoln, Massachusetts, when a school employee introduced Goldin to photography. Thus began Goldin’s lifelong passion for telling visual stories through photos. She began documenting her life in photos, long before it became a common way of life for people in the era of the Internet and social media.

By the time Goldin was in her late teens, she was living in Boston as part of an avant-garde artist scene that she chronicled in her photography. Long before drag queens became part of mainstream media, Goldin had a particular affinity of taking photos of drag queens and transgender women, many of whom were friends of hers. In the documentary, Goldin talks about being in awe of a transgender woman named Bea, who became Goldin’s friend and roommate. Goldin’s first solo exhibit in Boston was in 1973, when she was 20 years old.

Goldin eventually relocated to New York City, the center of the art world in the United States. Life wasn’t glamorous at all in those early years when she was a a struggling artist. Goldin talks about living in New York City’s seedy Bowery district and having a drug-fueled lifestyle that included abuse of cocaine and methamphetamine. To pay her bills, Goldin says she became a nightclub go-go dancer then later became a brothel prostitute.

Goldin says, “Sex work is one of the hardest jobs you could ever have.” She also mentions that she wanted to talk about her past as a sex worker in this documentary, in order to get ride of the stigma and shame that is often associated with sex work. Eventually, Goldin became a bartender at the women-controlled nightclub Tin Pan Alley, whose owner hired people who wanted to transition out of sex work. Author/playwright Darryl Pickney says that Tin Pan Alley was very racially integrated and cut across social class boundaries.

One of the people in the New York City art scene who had a bg influence on Goldin was Cookie Mueller, whom Goldin describes in the documentary as “the center of downtown life. “The mid-1980s was when I was closest to Cookie.” Their friendship changed somewhat after Mueller married Italian artist Vittorio Scarpati in 1987. Tragically, Mueller and Scarpati died of AIDS-related illneses, just two months apart in 1989.

The documentary includes footage of Goldin’s activism in AIDS causes, including working with fellow activist/artist David Wojnarowicz. They were both heavily involved in the AIDS activist group ACT Up. In the documentary, Goldin describes Wojnarowicz as “my spiritual guide, my political guide.” (The 2021 documentary “Wojnarowicz,” directed by Chris McKim, has more information.)

Goldin and Wojnarowicz worked on an AIDS-themed artist installation that was scheduled to be at the Artist Space Gallery in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood from November 1989 to January 1991. However, the National Endowment of the Arts controversially cancelled its grant funding for the project after getting pressure from conservative religious groups. Goldin says of the AIDS installation: “It was about the loss of community and trying to keep people’s legacy alive.”

She describes her history of drug abuse in matter-of-facts terms. Goldin says that she went to rehab for the first time in 1988. For a period of time that she does not fully disclose, she says she was addicted to OxyContin, a drug that went on the market in 1996. Goldin says that she is now clean and sober, but she firmly believes that she and an untold number of OxyContin addicts were deliberately not properly informed by medical professionals about how addictive OxyContin is, because too many people were and still are getting rich from OxyContin sales.

Goldin, who identifies as queer, also opens up about her love life. She talks about being in an abusive relationship with a man called Brian, whom she says she dated from 1981 to 1984. “I fell in love with him,” Goldin comments. “We had very good sex, and that can keep people together for a long time. And then, we started fighting.” Their troubled relationship included domestic violence.

Goldin describes a trip that she and David took to Provincetown, Massachusetts (a popular vacation spot for LGBTQ people), and jealousy issues arose because Goldin says she fell in love with a woman during this trip and photographed this woman constantly. Goldin, who does not name the woman, describes her as an “oddball” who would wear pearls at the beach. Goldin says about the early-to-mid-1980s: “It was a time of freedom and possibility. That’s when I did my first slide shows.”

Although Goldin’s career was on the rise in the early-to-mid-1980s, her relationship with David wasn’t getting any better. Goldin says that David broke up with her because he found out “I’d been with this girl.” (Goldin does not name this other lover.) She goes on to say about David, “He punched me in the face repeatedly.” To add insult to injury, David burned a lot of Goldin’s photos.

Most victims of domestic violence would hide this abuse, but Goldin made the very bold and unusual decision to do a photo exhibit showing her bruised and battered face from the injuries that David inflicted on her during this vicious attack. These photos were included in her ongoing photography collection “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” which started out as a slide show exhibition and film in 1985, and then became a published book in 1986.

More than 700 photos are in “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” which Goldin describes in the documentary as “the struggle between autonomy and dependency.” “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” includes many samples of Goldin’s work over the years, including photos from “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”; “The Other Side,” a photo collection of drag queens from 1992- 2021; and “Sisters, Saints and Sibyls,” a photo collection from 2004 to 2021. The photos showcase Goldin’s penchant for documenting herself and other eccentrics in ways that can be gritty, glamorous or both.

In the documentary, Goldin gives a reminder that back in the 1970s and 1980s, she got a lot of resistance to her art because of sexism. She says many people told her, “Nobody photographs their own life.” And it was even rarer for women to want to make a living from this type of photography. Goldin says for some people who were born after the 1970s and 1980s, “It’s hard to understand that could’ve ever been radical.” Long before Instagram was even invented, Goldin was ahead of her time.

Because “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” weaves in and out of telling Goldin’s stories about her personal life and her activism, the film editing sometimes gives the movie a rambling tone, but it never derails too far off course. One of the documentary’s highlights is a videoconference call in which Goldin and other people affected by OxyContin addiction confront David Sackler and his aunt Theresa Sackler (two of the Sackler family defendants named in many lawsuits) to give a victim/survivor statement. Even though the Sacklers were not allowed to respond to these statements during this conference call, it’s a powerful moment that contrasts the Sacklers’ emotional aloofness with these survivors’ emotional pain.

Goldin, who has never been married and doesn’t have children, has this to say about her personal life: “The relationships that have mattered the most to me for probably my whole life have been my friends.” The documentary gives the impression that most of Goldin’s closest friends are also her P.A.I.N. colleagues.

Some of the P.A.I.N. members interviewed in the documentary include P.A.I.N. deputy Megan Kapler, artist Maria Berrio, P.A.I.N. deputy Harrison “Harry” Cullen and psychiatrist Annatina Miescher. The documentary includes a segment about how some of the P.A.I.N. activists believe that they were stalked and spied on by people hired by the Sackler family. Kapler shares footage of an unidentified middle-aged man who followed her and photographed her without her consent. He also staked her out in his car outside of her home.

Other interviewees in the documentary include Ad Hoc Committee of Accountability attorney Mike Quinn, who does a lot of pro bono work for P.A.I.N.; Robert Suarez of the Urban Survivors Union, a non-profit support group for drug addicts; Artforum International magazine editor-in-chief David Velsaco; TruthPharm executive director Alexis Pleus; set designer/interior decorator Noemi Bonazzi; actress Sharon Niesp; writer Patrick Radden Keefe; and actress Maggie Smith.

“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” also shows the next big initiative for P.A.I.N. is removing the stigma of doctors treating opioid addicts who are in clean needle programs. And one of the final scenes in the film shows P.A.I.N. raising $35,000 for Urban Survivors Union to purchase a machine that gives drug users an analysis of the content in their drugs. This machine does not encourage drug use but is aimed at preventing deaths when people unknowingly ingest drugs with lethal content.

People who know about Goldin before seeing “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” might not be as surprised by her unique personality, her artistic talent and her unwavering commitment to the causes that she cares about the most. However, what will resonate with viewers the most is how someone who has experienced as many highs and lows as Goldin has can take those experiences and turn them into something positive that can help other people. No matter what type of backgrounds that people have, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is an inspirational story that shows the true meaning of persistence and hope.

Neon released “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” in New York City on November 23, 2022. The movie’s U.S. release expands to Los Angeles and San Francisco on December 2, 2022, with more cities added on December 9, 2022.

Review: ‘The Inspection,’ starring Jeremy Pope, Raúl Castillo, McCaul Lombardi, Aaron Dominguez, Bokeem Woodbine and Gabrielle Union

November 18, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jeremy Pope and Raúl Castillo in “The Inspection” (Photo by Patti Perret/A24)

“The Inspection”

Directed by Elegance Bratton

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2003, on Parris Island, South Carolina, and briefly in New York City, the dramatic film “The Inspection” features a racially diverse cast of characters (African American, white, Latino and Middle Eastern) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Based on a true story, a 26-year-old African American gay man enlists in the U.S. Marines to escape from homelessness, and he has to deal with rampant homophobia and bullying during his boot camp training. 

Culture Audience: “The Inspection” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Jeremy Pope, Gabrielle Union and well-acted dramas about LGBTQ people in the U.S. military.

Bokeem Woodbine and McCaul Lombardi in “The Inspection” (Photo by Josiah Rundles/A24)

Even when “The Inspection” becomes a little too repetitive in its drama, the movie shines brightest where it matters the most. Elegance Bratton tells a very authentic, heartfelt story of homophobia that he experienced inside and outside the U.S. military. The movie is based on Bratton’s real-life triumphs and traumas during his boot camp training in the U.S. Marines. There have been other movies about LGBTQ people who tried to hide their sexualities in the military, but “The Inspection” is a rare movie were the gay protagonist in the military is an African American cisgender man.

Bratton wrote and directed “The Inspection” as a semi-autobiographical film where the protagonist goes through many of the same things that Bratton went through in real life. Several characters are based on real people, while some characters are fictional. “The Inspection” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival and its U.S. premiere at the 2022 New York Film Festival.

The movie takes place in 2003, during the era when the U.S. military banned any sexuality that isn’t heterosexual, but there was a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it came to disclosure of the sexualities of people in the U.S. military. In the beginning of the movie, Ellis French (played by Jeremy Pope), who prefers to be called French, is a 26-year-old homeless man. He lives in New York City, and he has been homeless for about 10 years. When he was 16 years old, his very homophobic mother Inez French (played by Gabrielle Union) kicked him out of their home because French (who is an only child) is gay. All of this happened to Bratton in real life, as he has said in many interviews.

French has no other relatives he can turn to for support. He never knew his father, who abandoned Inez when she was pregnant with French. French has a tight-knit group of friends, many of whom are also openly queer, but he’s become tired of having an unstable and dangerous lifestyle on the streets. It’s mentioned at one point in the movie that some of his friends have died from violent crimes, while others have died from AIDS, and others are in prison.

French doesn’t want to end up in any of these situations. His mother Inez works as a corrections officer at a prison, and she already thinks that French is a major disappointment. French does not want to risk doing anything that could further alienate his mother. French goes to his mother’s apartment unannounced to ask her for his birth certificate. Why? French has decided that he’s going to enlist in the U.S. Marines to receive training in a career so he won’t have to be homeless anymore.

Inez and French have been estranged for years, but French never stops wanting his mother’s love and acceptance. When he shows up at her door, she’s not happy to see him, because she knows he’s homeless. Inez immediately asks French, “Are you in trouble?” Inez mentions that she’s been getting “notice to appear” courtroom documents addressed to him in the mail. He tells her about his life as a homeless person: “You have no idea how hard it’s been … Something has to change.”

When French tells her the reason for the visit, Inez laughs at the thought of French committing to something as demanding and strict as the military. She is also skeptical that French will be able to hide the fact that he’s gay. “What about your lifestyle?” she asks, as an indication that she thinks homosexuality is a choice.

At first, Inez doesn’t want to give him his birth certificate, but she eventually does when she sees that French is serious, and he’s not going to change his mind. Even though the vast majority of “The Inspection” takes place during French’s training on Parris Island, South Carolina, he continues to make attempts to connect with his mother in New York. His attempts are usually rejected.

When French is at his former home with his mother, she tells him exactly what she thinks about French: “I made peace with losing you.” When she gives him the birth certificate, Inez tells French: “This piece of paper is all I have left of the son I have birth to. If you don’t come back, consider this birth certificate void.” There are indications that Inez has misguided hope that somehow, being in the military will turn French into a heterosexual.

French is so determined to leave his homeless life behind, before he leaves for boot camp, he gives his cell phone to an elderly homeless man named Shamus (played by Tyler Merritt), who was French’s friend on the streets. Shamus, who calls himself an “old queen,” comments to French about French’s enrollment in the U.S. Marines: “You don’t have to do this. You can be anything you want to be.” French replies, “You and I both know that’s not true.” Shamus adds with stern words of encouragement, “I better not see you back here.”

French’s boot camp training is depicted exactly how you think it will go, based on how boot camp has been portrayed in many other movies and TV shows. There’s the shouting, macho drill sergeant, who uses his superior position to bully new recruits, especially those he thinks are the weakest emotionally and physically. This cruel tyrant is named Laws (played by Bokeem Woodbine), who constantly hurls abusive insults and who looks the other way when his underlings physically assault each other in their attempts to impress Laws and each other.

Laws, who is in his 40s, served in Operation Desert Storm. He the type of drill sergeant who snarls at his underlings: “I hate recruits, but I love Marines.” Later, in another scene, Laws says, “We don’t make Marines. We make monsters.” Although “The Inspection” has many emotionally raw and realistic-looking scenes, the movie occasionally falters with these types of corny statements from Laws.

Even though the U.S. military has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 2003, Laws breaks that policy by yelling at French in front of his fellow recruits: “Are you now or have you ever been a homosexual?” French is afraid of “outing” himself, so he shouts back, “No, sir!” It’s a lie that will eventually be exposed.

In addition to having a mean-spirited drill sergeant, another predictable aspect of “The Inspection” is the protagonist having a jealous rival, who is also a bully. His name is Harvey (played by McCaul Lombardi), who is very competitive and wants to be the “alpha male” of the recruits. Harvey expresses his homophobic views early on in the boot camp process. There are also big hints that Harvey (who is white) is racist against people who aren’t white. Harvey’s ego gets even more inflated when Laws appoints Harvey as the squad leader of the recruits.

At first, French thinks he can hide his sexuality, in order to avoid homophobic bullying and possible expulsion from the military. When the other recruits talk about their girlfriends and wives, French pretends that he has a female love interest too. The “special woman” he’s writing letters to is really French’s dismissive mother Inez.

French’s secret about being gay is eventually revealed when he and several other recruits (ncluding Harvey) are in a public shower. French starts thinking of a sexual fantasy about a good-looking drill sergeant in his 40s named Rosales (played by Raúl Castillo), who is Laws’ second-in-command. And the next thing French knows, his fellow recruits have noticed that French has an erection. French makes a half-hearted attempt to deny that he’s gay, but the secret is out. It gives Harvey and the rest of the homophobes even more of a reason to target French.

And so, for most of the movie, French is either shunned or abused (including beatings) by Harvey and some other recruits for being gay. Laws finds out and does nothing to stop this cruelty. In fact, when French tries to stand up for himself and threatens to report this abuse, Laws lets it be known that he hates snitches. Considering that Laws will be the one to decide which recruits will graduate from the training program, it puts French in a very precarious and vulnerable situation.

There are some bright spots to French’s traumatic and bleak experiences as a bullied recruit. He befriends another “outsider” recruit named Ismail (played by Eman Esfandi), who is harassed and insulted for being of Middle Eastern/Islamic heritage, during a time after 9/11 when hatred against Middle Eastern and Islamic people was encouraged in the U.S. war against Iraq and Afghanistan. Ismail is one of the few people who’s willing to stick up for French when things get very rough.

Another recruit named Castro (played by Aaron Dominguez) doesn’t really befriend French, but Castro doesn’t fully participate in the bullying against French either. Castro is someone who “goes along to get along” and tries to stay under the radar and not alienate anyone. But there’s a pivotal scene in the movie where Castro is forced to take a side, and he has to make a decision that will test his ethics and show his true character.

The person in the Marines who has the biggest emotional impact on French is drill sergeant Rosales, who is battling some personal demons of his own. Rosales wants to be a friendly mentor to French. However, French is sexually attracted to Rosales and wants a physically intimate relationship with him. Rosales is in a troubled marriage to a woman and is conflicted about his own sexuality. You can probably guess what that means in terms of the movie’s plot development.

French is often underestimated as being a “sissy,” but he proves to be a resilient and physically adept recruit who’s a fast learner. As his skills improve in the boot camp challenges, so does his confidence. And that’s a problem for Harvey, who doesn’t like to see French excel. Harvey is a stereotypical “villain” in this movie that doesn’t give him much of a backstory.

“The Inspection” greatly benefits from having a very talented cast, with Pope, Union and Castillo giving the standout performances. Their respective characters are also the best-written in the movie as fully formed human beings, instead of shallow stereotypes. Even with all the blood, sweat and tears that French experiences during boot camp, Pope’s soul-stirring performance never lets viewers forget that French’s real heartbreak comes from being rejected by his mother.

Union doesn’t have very many scenes in the movie, but when she’s on screen, she brings depth to her Inez character. Inez has self-righteousness about her homophobia because Inez genuinely believes that French’s sexuality means that he’s doomed to be in hell on Earth and elsewhere. Her anger toward French has other reasons too: As a single mother who had financial struggles in raising him, she somewhat blames him for giving her a harder life than she thinks she deserves.

Castillo’s Rosales character doesn’t talk much, but Rosales does a very credible job of expressing Rosales’ inner turmoil. Rosales is a good listener and observer who, unlike Laws, has a compassionate side. One of the best scenes in “The Inspection” is when Rosales asks French why French puts up with all the abuse he’s getting in boot camp and why French wants to be a Marine. This scene is partially shown in the movie’s trailer.

French candidly replies, “I’ve been raising myself since I was 16. My mom won’t even talk to me, If I die in this uniform, I’m a hero to somebody.” Although the story in “The Inspection” is mostly limited to French’s boot camp experiences, the movie shows some hints that French is a talented camera operator—a foreshadowing of Bratton’s future career as a filmmaker. In real life, Bratton got his first experiences in filmmaking as a camera operator in the U.S. Marines.

“The Inspection” doesn’t have a lot of dazzle or artsiness in the movie’s cinematography because this emotionally gritty film doesn’t need it. This is not a movie where people should expect to see a lot of insight into anything other than the world as French sees it in this specific period of his life. Viewers will feel his isolation in the midst of being surrounded by people.

This movie isn’t about how U.S. Marines prepared for war in the Middle East in the early 2000s. It’s about how people can be at war with themselves and their insecurities. “The Inspection” has moments of despair and hope in telling this memorable story. The movie also effectively shows how sometimes a person’s biggest strength is having nothing left to lose.

A24 released “The Inspection” in select U.S. cinemas on November 18, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on December 2, 2022.

Review: ‘TÁR,’ starring Cate Blanchett

October 9, 2022

by Carla Hay

Cate Blanchett in “TÁR” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“TÁR”

Directed by Todd Field

Some language in German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Berlin and New York City, the dramatic film “TÁR” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some Asians) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An internationally famous classical music conductor finds her life spiraling out of control when her past actions come back to haunt her. 

Culture Audience: TÁR” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Cate Blanchett, writer/director Todd Field and well-acted movies about powerful people who experience a scandalous fall from grace..

Cate Blanchett and Nina Hoss in “TÁR” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

Cate Blanchett’s riveting performance in writer/director Todd Field’s “TÁR” makes it a psychological minefield of a drama. It’s an absorbing portrait of someone intoxicated by her own power and facing a reckoning that’s as unwelcome to her as a nasty hangover. Blanchett’s Lydia Tár character is a classical music conductor who has reached the top of her field, which makes her public downfall such a disastrous mess. Viewers can decide for themselves if this downfall could have been diminished based on how it was handled by the movie’s central character.

“TÁR” is Field’s first movie as a writer/director/producer since his Oscar-nominated 2006 drama “Little Children,” another movie about how a woman is affected by a sex-related scandal. Whereas “Little Children” told the story of a private citizen in a suburban U.S. neighborhood, “TÁR” is about a public figure who is an internationally famous entertainer. “TÁR” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival in Italy and subsequently had premieres at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, and the 2022 New York Film Festival in New York City.

In “TÁR,” Lydia fits every definition of a type-A personality who’s an overachiever. The movie’s opening scene takes place at The New Yorker Festival, where writer Adam Gopnik (playing a version of himself) is interviewing Lydia in a one-on-one Q&A in front of the audience. It’s a laudatory interview, where her accomplishments are listed like badges of honor: She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University. Lydia is also a piano performance graduate of the Curtis Institute, and she has a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Vienna, specializing in music from the Ucayali Valley in Eastern Peru.

At one time or another, she has been a conductor for all of the “Big Five” American orchestras: New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra. Lydia is a rare entertainer who is an EGOT winner: someone who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. She considers herself to be a New Yorker, and has a home in New York City, where she still visits on a regular basis. However, for the past seven years, Lydia has been living in Berlin, because she has been a conductor for an unnamed German orchestra.

Lydia, who describes herself as a “U-Haul lesbian,” lives with her German domestic partner Sharon Goodnow (played by Nina Hoss) and their adopted Syrian daughter Petra (played by Mila Bogojevic), who is about 6 or 7 years old. Sharon is a violinist in the German orchestra that Lydia conducts. It’s the first sign in the movie that Lydia has a tendency to blur the lines between her job and her personal life.

Lydia is a loner who doesn’t have a close circle of friends, so Sharon is Lydia’s closest confidante. Sharon knows a lot of Lydia’s secrets. However, Sharon eventually finds out that she doesn’t really know everything about Lydia. Two American men also have an influence on Lydia, and they give her advice, whether she wants to hear it or not.

Eliot Kaplan (played by Mark Strong) is an investment banker and amateur conductor, who has financed a non-profit program called the Accordion Conducting Fellowship, which is led by Lydia. The fellowship gives apprenticeships and job opportunities to aspiring female classical music conductors in this very male-dominated field. Near the beginning of the movie, Lydia tells Eliot during a lunch meeting that she’s thinking that the program recipients shouldn’t just be one gender.

The other man who plays an influential role in Lydia’s life is her mentor Andris Davis (played by Julian Glover), who was her predecessor at the German orchestra that Lydia currently conducts. Andris was the one who recommended her for the job, although it’s made clear throughout the movie that Lydia’s talent is so highly respected and sought-after, she probably didn’t need to a recommendation to get the job. What started out as a temporary job for Lydia to be the guest conductor position at this German orchestra turned out to be a long-term, permanent position.

If viewers believe the narrative that Lydia tells people, one of the reasons why she and Sharon decided to settle in Berlin was to be closer to Sharon’s family members who live in the area. But as the story unfolds, it becomes pretty obvious that Lydia might have had a reason to avoid living in New York full-time. It turns out that Lydia has a “stalker” who lives in New York City.

Lydia’s French assistant Francesca Lentini (played by Noémie Merlant) knows who this “stalker” is, because this person has been sending obsessive and threatening email messages to Lydia. Francesca has permission to access these messages, because Francesca screens Lydia’s mail. Francesca is an aspiring conductor who greatly admires Lydia and considers Lydia to be her mentor.

Over time, based on the way that Francesca acts and what she says, Francesca seems to assume that she will be Lydia’s first choice if any big job opportunity comes along that Lydia can help Francesca get. Lydia expects unwavering loyalty from Francesca, but Francesca expects the same loyalty in return. There’s some sexual tension between Lydia and Francesca that will make viewers speculate if or when the relationship between Lydia and Francesca ever became sexually intimate.

Just like a lot of hard-driving, ambitious and accomplished people, Lydia is a perfectionist who is just as hard on herself as she is on other people. A very telling scene is when she is a guest teacher in a classical music class at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City. The students seem very intimidated by Lydia’s reputation for being merciless in her criticism, but she’s also full of praise for anyone who meets or exceeds her high standards.

During this class session, Lydia singles out a student named Max (played by Zethphan Smith-Gneist) and asks him, “What are you actually conducting?” Max is so nervous in her presence, one of Max’s legs is literally shaking as Max talks to her. However, Max isn’t so afraid of Lydia that Max won’t challenge some of the things that she lectures to the students.

For example, Lydia tells the students any great conductor or musician can find something to relate to in the music of classical icons Johann Sebastian Bach or Ludwig van Beethoven. Max disagrees and tells Lydia and the rest of the people in the room: “As a BIPOC [black, indigenous, or person of color], pan-gender person, it’s impossible to take Bach seriously.”

Lydia tells Max that she doesn’t know what BIPOC and pan-gender means, and her attitude is that she doesn’t care to know. She treats Max dismissively, like an ignorant young person whose opinions matter very little to her, because she’s the more experienced, older person. Finally, a fed-up Max gets tired of feeling belittled by Lydia, and Max walks out of the class. Before leaving the room, Max tells Lydia, “You’re a fucking bitch.”

In response, a stone-faced Lydia calls Max a “robot.” Throughout the movie, Lydia mentions that she dislikes it when people act like robots. During her lunch with Eliot, she says, “There’s no glory for a robot. Do your own thing.” Ironically, when Lydia’s world starts to come crashing down on her, she represses her emotions and turns to rigid routines (such as rigorous jogging and boxing) to cope, and thereby acts very much like a “robot,” in an attempt to tune out her troubles.

Lydia is under enormous career pressure when things start to fall apart for her. The German orchestra is preparing for a Deutsche Grammophon live recording date of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, which will be a major accomplishment in her career. In addition, Lydia is working on writing an original classical piece. However, she seems to be having writer’s block, and she doesn’t really want to admit this problem to anyone.

While in Berlin, Lydia meets a Russian cellist Olga Metkina (played by Sophie Kauer), who is 18 or 19 years old. Olga acts like a star-struck fan with Lydia, who is flattered. Lydia also seems to be sexually attracted to Olga. Meanwhile, Olga seems to be aware of this attraction and makes it clear that she’s eager for any opportunity to work with Lydia.

“TÁR” is fascinating to watch for how it unpeels the layers of Lydia’s contradictory character that is capable of hiding a web of lies and secrets. Lydia can be charismatic and funny, but she can also be ruthless and cruel. She is a workaholic who doesn’t spend a lot of quality time with her daughter Petra, but Lydia quietly threatens the girl at Petra’s school who has been bullying Petra.

Lydia claims to be open to collaboration and hearing different ideas, but when anyone dares to question her ideas or decisions, she gets revenge in passive-aggressive ways. An elderly orchestra member named Sebastian Brix (played by Allan Corduner) finds out the hard way how vindictive Lydia can be. What happens to Sebastian sets off a certain chain events that will accelerate the scandal that could lead to Lydia’s downfall.

In telling the story of this complex person, Field also uses haunting flashback techniques that resemble a fever dream, where Lydia remembers things related to the scandal that threatens to end her career. Lydia also sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night to random sounds, such as a metronome that seems to have started on its own. It further fuels the sense that Lydia is being haunted. How much of it is her own doing? As the tension builds and things get worse for Lydia, the movie’s cinematography (played by Florian Hoffmeister) and the music (by Hildur Guðnadóttir) become more foreboding, creating a sense that the proverbial walls are closing in on her.

The character of Lydia is so well-written and embodied with such realism by Blanchett, people who don’t know anything about the world of classical music might mistake “TÁR” for being a biopic based on a real person. All of the other cast members play their parts well, but the movie would not be as effective without Blanchett’s masterful performance. (Field has said in interviews that he wrote the “TÁR” role only for Blanchett.) It’s the type of virtuoso, top-notch performance that would make Lydia Tár very proud.

Focus Features released “TÁR” in select U.S. cinemas on October 7, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on October 28, 2022.

Review: ‘Bodies Bodies Bodies,’ starring Amandla Stenberg, Maria Bakalova, Myha’la Herrold, Chase Sui Wonders, Rachel Sennott, Lee Pace and Pete Davidson

August 6, 2022

by Carla Hay

Amandla Stenberg, Maria Bakalova, Chase Sui Wonders and Rachel Sennott in “Bodies Bodies Bodies” (Photo by Erik Chakeen/A24)

“Bodies Bodies Bodies”

Directed by Halina Reijn 

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in New York state, the horror film “Bodies Bodies Bodies” has a racially diverse cast of characters (African American, white and one biracial Asian) representing the wealthy, upper-midde-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: During a hurricane, seven people partying in a mansion decide to play a murder mystery game, but then some people at this party really end up getting killed.

Culture Audience: “Bodies Bodies Bodies” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of horror movies that mix raunchy comedy with a suspenseful mystery.

Lee Pace and Pete Davidson in “Bodies Bodies Bodies” (Photo by Gwen Capistran/A24)

“Bodies Bodies Bodies” capably serves up suspense and social satire, despite a few plot holes and an overload of pop culture and slang that will inevitably make this horror movie look very dated. It’s a time capsule of Generation Z (people born between 1997 and 2012) in their 20s, and all the technology that affects their relationships and perceptions of each other. In other words, it’s not a throwback to slasher flicks from the 20th century. This is a horror movie about people who don’t know what it’s like to live life without the Internet, for better or worse. Except for one person, all of the characters in “Bodies Bodies Bodies” are supposed to be in their early-to-mid 20s.

Directed by Halina Reijn and written by Sarah DeLappe, “Bodies Bodies Bodies” had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas. The movie makes the most out of the relatively small number of people in the cast and the fact that “Bodies Bodies Bodies” primarily takes place in one location: a mansion in a remote, mountanous area somewhere in New York state. (“Bodies Bodies Bodies” was actually filmed in Chappaqua, New York.)

In many ways, “Bodies Bodies Bodies” follows the same formula of dozens of other horror movies where young people gather in an isolated area; indulge in sex, drugs and mind games; and are killed off, one by one. However, the movie’s snappy dialogue and a twist ending make “Bodies Bodies Bodies” slightly better than the average horror flick. It isn’t a movie where people are killed indiscriminately, because it’s shown exactly why each person was killed.

The opening scene of “Bodies Bodies Bodies” lets viewers know that this is a very queer-friendly movie, where the sexualities of the characters can be fluid, and if other people are uncomfortable about it, they don’t really care. The movie’s first scene is a close-up of new couple Sophie (played by Amandla Stenberg) and Bee (played by Maria Bakalova) passionately kissing each other. They also tell each other, “I love you.” It’s mentioned a little later in the movie that Sophie and Bee have been dating each other for the past six weeks.

Bee and Sophie have almost opposite personalities: Sophie is a risk-taking extrovert. Bee is a cautious introvert. Sophie and Bee are about to take a road trip to the aforementioned remote mansion to party with some of Sophie’s friends who were her schoolmates in high school. Sophie has known a few of these friends before they were teenagers. Bee is very nervous about this trip—and not because she will be meeting Sophie’s friends for the first time.

Bee has some other social anxieties. Bee is an immigrant from an unnamed Eastern European country and comes from a working-class background, while Sophie is an American whose family is rich. (Bakalova, the Oscar-nominated actress from 2020’s “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” is actually from Bulgaria.) Sophie is openly queer. However, Bee is also not completely “out of the closet” as a queer woman. Many of Bee’s family and friends don’t yet know that Bee is queer and dating Sophie.

Sophie’s got her own issues. Conversations in the movie reveal that Sophie is a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. When she was a student at New York University, Sophie had at least one overdose and mental breakdown. She has also spent time in drug rehab and psychiatric facilities. It’s never mentioned if Sophie graduated from NYU, but it’s implied she probably dropped out of college because of her personal problems. Sophie doesn’t appear to have any life goals at the moment except to try to stay clean and sober and enjoy life as much as possible.

The mansion is owned by the parents of spoiled and obnoxious David (played by Pete Davidson), who is yet another stereotypical stoner that Davidson seems to play in his most recent movies. Before Sophie and Bee go to the mansion, Sophie tells Bee that David was Sophie’s “pre-school boyfriend, before I realized I was a raging dyke.” No one’s parents are seen in this movie, but it’s mentioned that all of Sophie’s childhood friends come from affluent families.

Because of his abrasive personality, David is someone who has friends who don’t really like him, but they tolerate him because he’s generous when it comes to partying and sharing some of his wealth. Just like Sophie, David doesn’t seem to know what he wants to do with his life, and his family is rich enough to financially support him. David is the type of braggart who has to prove to everyone that whatever they can do, he can do better.

When Bee and Sophie arrive at the mansion, the small party is in full swing in and around the swimming pool. Sophie is warmly greeted by everyone, while Bee shyly offers a party gift: homemade zucchini bread. The other people at the party (except for Sophie) think this gift is very unsophisticated and old-fashioned, and they react with either rude haughtiness or amusement. Sophie tries to make Bee more comfortable, but Bee can immediately sense that she will have trouble fitting in with this group of bratty snobs.

The other people at the party are David’s insecure girlfriend Emma (played by Chase Sui Wonders), an actress who’s been in a relationship with David for the past six years; free-spirited but flaky Alice (played by Rachel Sennott), a podcast host who likes to wear glow sticks as jewelry; scruffily handsome and goofy Greg (played by Lee Pace), who is in his 40s and is having a fling with Alice; and brooding Jordan (played by Myha’la Herrold), who has unresolved romantic feelings for Sophie. Jordan is the only one in the group who is not part of a couple, so her “romantically unattached” status affects some of the tensions and jealousies that happen later in the story.

Some viewers might not like how long it takes for “Bodies Bodies Bodies” to actually get to any horror. The first third of the movie is really about showing the dynamics between these seven people when they’re partying and trying to prove to each other how “cool” they are. Alice met Greg on the dating app Tinder, and they’ve only known each other for less than a week. David is threatened by Greg’s physical attractiveness, so David attempts to demean Greg’s masculinity by trying to make Greg feel “old” and out-of-touch.

A hurricane quickly forces the party to go indoors, where there’s the inevitable electrical power outage, so that people can’t use their phones or WiFi service. No electricity also means that much of the movie is dark and shadowy, except for lights from candles, flashlights, cell phones or Alice’s ever-present glow sticks. Sophie notices that Jordan has been flirting with Bee. And so, as a distraction and in order to liven up the party, Sophie tells everyone that they should all play a game called Bodies Bodies Bodies.

Bodies Bodies Bodies is a murder mystery game, where slips of paper are distributed to all the players. The player who gets the paper slip marked with “x” is the designated murderer, who has to “kill” as many of the other players as possible. The potential victims can hide wherever they want to avoid being killed. Someone can win the game in one of two ways: By being the first potential victim to prove who the killer is, or by being the killer and getting away with all of the murders. And because “Bodies Bodies Bodies” is a horror movie, the killings turns out to be real.

A potential outlier in the story is a character named Max (played by Conner O’Malley), another friend in this clique, who was at the party the night before. However, no one really knows where Max is during the killings because he left the party the previous night, after getting into a fist fight with David. (It’s why David has a black eye.) The reasons for this altercation are later revealed in the movie. Max is not seen for most of the movie, but his name comes up multiple times in the increasingly paranoid and frantic conversations, and as the body count continues to pile up.

With a soundtrack that’s heavy on electronic dance music and hip-hop, “Bodies Bodies Bodies” wants to have a very “of the moment” vibe to convey a pulse-pounding nightclub of the early 2020s. But at this party, people’s pulses are pounding because they’re terrified that they’re trapped in this mansion with a serial killer on the loose. The hurricane outside wouldn’t put off some people from trying to get away by car. But it should come as no surprise when “Bodies Bodies Bodies” has a horror movie cliché: a car that won’t start when people want it to start.

“Bodies Bodies Bodies,” which has good performances all around from the cast members, is at its best in revealing of some of the secrets and lies within this group of characters. The arguing can get a little tedious and annoying, but not so grating that it overtakes the movie’s horror angles. That’s because there’s enough comedy in the dialogue in the movie’s self-aware way of showing that these self-absorbed and sometimes-cruel characters mostly deserve to be mocked. Bee is the only one who seems to be immune to the group’s ridiculous ego posturing and whiny antics, but she’s no angel either.

Some of the plot developments in “Bodies Bodies Bodies” are a little on the implausible side. On the other hand, it is very believable that people in a panic can do a lot of things without thinking logically. People will either love or hate the ending of “Bodies Bodies Bodies.” Regardless of how viewers feel about how the movie ends, “Bodies Bodies Bodies” offers some sly commentary on some people’s preoccupation with creating lives and images on the Internet that are often quite different from reality. This preocupation can lead to misperceptions and manipulations that can be their own kinds of horror stories.

A24 released “Bodies Bodies Bodies” in select U.S. cinemas on August 5, 2022. The movie’s release expands to more U.S. cinemas on August 12, 2022.

Review: ‘Petit Mal’ (2022), starring Ruth Caudeli, Silvia Varón and Ana María Otálora

July 29, 2022

by Carla Hay

Ana María Otálora, Ruth Caudeli and Silvia Varón in “Petit Mal” (Photo by Sara Larrota/Dark Star Pictures)

“Petit Mal” (2022)

Directed by Ruth Caudeli 

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Colombia, the dramatic film “Petit Mal” features a cast of Colombian female characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Three queer women—who are in a three-way, live-in relationship—navigate the shifting dynamics of their relationship when one of the women goes away on a work trip.

Culture Audience: “Petit Mal” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies about LGBTQ relationships or polyamory where the stories are more about being mood pieces than having a lot of dramatics.

Ana María Otálora, Ruth Caudeli and Silvia Varón in “Petit Mal” (Photo by Sara Larrota/Dark Star Pictures)

The occasionally tedious drama “Petit Mal” is an intimate and proficiently acted character study of what happens when three women in a polyamorous relationship together navigate the changing dynamics of the relationship when the “alpha female” goes away for a business trip. “Petit Mal” (which means “little evil” in French) is an interesting mix of not only being ambitiously artsy with its intent in showing a complicated relationship, but also being unpretentiously minimalist in how the movie was cast and filmed. Viewers expecting a movie with more drama and action might be disappointed, but the emotions in “Petit Mal” always look authentic. “Petit Mal” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

Written and directed by Ruth Caudeli, “Petit Mal” features just three people on screen as the main characters. All three protagonists are queer women in their late 20s or early 30s who are in a three-way romance with each other. They live together (with five dogs as pets) in a middle-class house in Bogotá, Colombia. The house seems to be in a somewhat isolated wooded area, because neighboring houses are not seen in any of the scenes that take place outside.

Caudeli has the role of Laia, the “alpha female” of this trio. It’s obvious from the first 10 minutes of the movie that when the three women are together, Laia is the most dominant one, but not in an overtly bossy way. Her dominance is shown because Laia is the one in this ménage à trois who is at the center of all the affections, as if her two girlfriends care the most about making Laia happy, more than anyone else in this relationship. (“Petit Mal” is reportedly inspired by Caudeli’s own real-life polyamorous experiences.)

Laia is also the most confident and assertive of the three women when they’re together. It should come as no surprise when it’s revealed later in the movie that Laia is a movie director—a job that requires strong leadership skills. There are many signs that Laia thinks she has total control in this three-way romance. However, that self-assurance is tested when she temporarily goes away from home to direct a movie. Her work trip is to an unnamed city, where she has to take a plane flight to get there and back to Bogotá.

Anto (played by Ana María Otálora) is the woman in the relationship who is the most sensitive. Later in the movie, when a thunderstorm hits the area, Anto has a panic attack because of the sights and sounds caused by the storm. Anto is also most likely to be the “peacemaker” and “nurturer” to smooth over any arguments that happen. Anto’s job (if she has a job or a career) is not mentioned in the movie.

Also in this relationship is screenwriter/editor Martina (played by Silvia Varón), nicknamed Marti, who’s editing a documentary tentatively titled “Throuples, Dogs and Boxes.” And yes, the documentary is about this three-way relationship. Martina is the person in this threesome who seems to be the most diligent about planning and having things going according to a schedule. For example, she expresses some worries about not being able to meet the deadlines for this documentary.

During the movie’s opening scene, Laia, Anto and Martina prepare a barbecue meal together in their backyard. Observant viewers will immediately notice these women’s personality traits and how they affect this ménage à trois. Laia does some of the cooking, but she lets Anto and Martina do most of the work. Laia also shows them how she wants certain things done in this food preparation. All three women kiss each other, but Martina and Anto kiss Laia as if she’s the center of their attention.

Later, when they’re all inside eating the meal they’ve prepared, Martina asks (maybe because she wants this information for her documentary): “What’s the most difficult thing about having a throuple?” Anto replies, “Spending time together equitably.” Laia answers, “Jealousy.” Martina offers her own thoughts: “Three is not balanced. There are always two or one.”

Martina’s comments foreshadow what’s to come later when Laia goes away for the directing job. Anto and Martina, who act more like rivals when Laia is with them, find out they actually get along better with each other when Laia isn’t there. It leads to Anto and Martina become closer and more affectionate with each other, which Laia can sense, even though Laia not there in the house to see it firsthand.

There are other jealousy issues too. When Laia is away, Martina notices on social media that Laia and a man in Laia’s film crew have been flirting with each other. When Martina angrily asks Laia about this flirtation, Laia insists that she and the man are just friends. Martina is so upset that Laia has to calm her down. Viewers can only speculate why Martina has this mistrust.

Viewers are also left to speculate how and when Laia, Anto and Martina decided they would be in a three-way relationship together. However, conversations imply that it was probably Laia’s idea. The dynamics of the relationship suggest that Anto and Martina fell in love with Laia separately. And then, rather than Laia choosing one over the other, they decided to have a three-way relationship instead. That’s why it catches Laia off-guard when she notices that Anto and Martina have become closer when Laia is away.

Even though Laia, Anto and Martina are adults, the movie shows that they all have childlike, playful sides to their personalities. For example, they occasionally like to wear matching onesie pajamas (resembling wooly animal costumes for children) when they cuddle in bed together. And in an early scene in the movie, they play a game where they try to guess a word that one of them is thinking, based on one hint.

The direction, writing and editing of “Petit Mal” present the story as a cinéma vérité documentary or a video journal, rather than as a movie that has big melodramatic moments or important life lessons. For example, viewers won’t get any information on the backstories of Laia, Anto and Martina. Any previous romances they might have had with other people are not mentioned. In other words, “Petit Mal” is very much about the present lives of the protagonists.

Some of the movie’s scenes show everyday activities and mundane conversations inside the house. But underneath the surface is a question that’s not necessarily said out loud: “How will this relationship change when Laia is away and when Laia comes back?” “Petit Mal” doesn’t offer easy answers. The movie leaves it up to viewers to decide if this throuple is “three’s company” or more like “three’s a crowd.”

Dark Star Pictures will release “Petit Mal” on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘Benediction’ (2021), starring Jack Lowden, Peter Capaldi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeremy Irvine, Kate Phillips, Gemma Jones and Ben Daniels

July 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jeremy Irvine and Jack Lowden in “Benediction” (Photo by Laurence Cendrowicz/Roadside Attractions)

“Benediction” (2021)

Directed by Terence Davies

Culture Representation: Taking place from the 1910s to 1950s, primarily in England, the dramatic film “Benediction” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one African person) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: During World War I, British soldier Siegfried Sassoon becomes an anti-war objector and a poet, and for years he hides his homosexuality, including by getting married to a woman. 

Culture Audience: “Benediction” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in true stories of British gay men in the 20th century.

Kate Phillips and Jack Lowden in “Benediction” (Photo by Laurence Cendrowicz/Roadside Attractions)

Well-acted but slightly long-winded, the British drama “Benediction” is a compelling biopic that shows how poet Siegfried Sassoon was not only bold and outspoken about his anti-war views, but he was also insecure and secretive about his homosexuality. The movie gives emotionally complex depictions of how fame cannot shield LGBTQ people from the bigotry that pressures LGBTQ people to sometimes lead double lives. “Benediction” is a 20th century period drama, but many of the movie’s issues about homophobia can still apply to many people today. Written and directed by Terence Davies, “Benediction” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

In real life, Siegfried Sassoon had turmoil not just about his sexuality but also about his religious faith and coming from a broken home. Born in Matfield, England, in 1886, Siegfried died in Heytsebury, England, at age 80 in 1967, just one week before he would have turned 81. His father Alfred was Jewish, and his mother Theresa was Catholic. Alfred was disowned from his family for marrying a non-Jewish woman.

When Siegfried was 4 years old, his parents separated. Siegfried (who was the middle of three sons) and his older brother Michael and younger brother Hamo were then raised by their mother, while their father would see them for visits. And then, Alfred died of tuberculosis in 1895, when Siegfried was 7 or 8 years old. Years later, tuberculosis would nearly kill the man who was considered to be the greatest love of Siegfried’s life.

“Benediction” would have benefited from some exploration of Siegfried’s childhood and family background, which undoubtedly shaped the person he became. It would certainly explain why Siegfried wasn’t afraid to go against society’s expectations as a military man who became an outspoken objector against war and against the British government. Siegfried lived during a time in the United Kingdom when it was very taboo for people to be in mixed-religion marriages and for married people to separate. Being treated like an “outsider” simply because of his parents’ marital situation no doubt affected Siegfried in ways that carried into his adulthood.

Instead of giving this backstory, “Benediction” shows Siegfried in two different phases of his life: when Siegfried was his 30s and 40s (played by Jack Lowden) and when Siegfried was in his 70s (played by Peter Capaldi), with the younger phase of Sisgfried’s life getting most of the screen time. This uneven timeline doesn’t ruin “Benediction,” but it does make it more obvious to viewers how the movie under-uses the talent of Capaldi.

“Benediction” opens in London in 1914. Siegfried and his younger brother Hamo (played by Thom Ashley) are visiting a tailor shop together. In 1914, Siegfried was an aspiring poet and a British Army soldier who would later become a second lieutenant and a decorated war hero for saving soldiers’ lives during combat. When Hamo goes off to serve in the British Army during World War I, Siegfried expresses regret at not saying goodbye to his brother. Hamo was tragically killed in the line of duty during the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915.

By 1917, Siegfried became disillusioned about World War I and war in general. The movie shows him writing letters of protest to the United Kingdom government. A scene in “Benediction” shows him reading one of the letters, which says in part: “I believe that war upon which I entered in defense and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest.”

As an example of Siegfried’s willingness to sacrifice his military career for his anti-war beliefs, he meets with an openly gay journalist/mentor named Robbie Ross (played by Simon Russell Beale), who comes from an influential political family, to find out what punishment Siegfried will be getting from the British government. In this meeting, Siegfried is fully expecting to hear that the British military is going to court martial Siegfried because of Siegfried’s public criticism of the British government’s stance on World War I. But to Siegfried’s dismay, Robbie tells Siegfried that Robbie enlisted the help of Edward Marsh, the principal private secretary of then-U.K. minister of munitions Winston Churchill, to get Siegfried honorably discharged from the military for medical reasons.

“You robbed me of my dignity!” Siegfried angrily says to Robbie about not getting court martialed. Robbie says, “Don’t be angry with me, Siegfried. My intentions were honorable.” Despite this argument, Robbie (who is 18 years older than Siegfried) and Siegfried remain friends. Robbie became a trusted advisor in Siegfried’s personal and professional lives. “Benediction” briefly mentions later in the movie that Robbie was also known for his close relationship with gay poet/writer Oscar Wilde, whom Robbie remained loyal to during Wilde’s imprisonment for being gay.

At the time, homosexuality was banned in the British military, and homosexuality was considered a psychiatric disorder. “Benediction” makes it look like although Siegfried might have been suspected of being gay in the military, he was punished more for speaking out against the British government. His military discharge included being sent to a psychiatric hospital for having “psychiatric problems.”

In a dramatic show of his disgust with the British military, Siegfried throws away his military card. At the hospital, he has therapy sessions with a sympathetic psychiatrist named Dr. Rivers (played by Ben Daniels), who says things to Siegfried such as: “It’s not about what I want. It’s about what you think you need.” It’s not said out loud, but it’s implied that Dr. Rivers is a closeted gay man too.

Over time, Siegfried begins to trust Dr. Rivers because he and the doctor are kindred spirits who both have a lot of mistrust of the British government. Siegfried witnesses some disturbing things in the hospital, such as a man screaming out on agony during a meltdown, but Dr. Rivers is able to calm Siegfried’s fears. During his stay in the psychiatric hospital, Siegfried befriends a fellow patient named Wilfred Owen (played by Matthew Tennyson), who is the editor of a poetry newsletter called The Hydra.

Siegfried and Wilfred become great admirers of each other’s poetry. Siegfried is particularly impressed with Wilfred’s poem “Disabled.” It looks like Siegfried and Wilfred are headed toward a romance. But that possibility is interrupted when a chief medical officer (played by Julian Sands) has an angry reaction to seeing Siegfried and Wilfred doing a tango dance together. What happens to Wilfred is shown in the movie.

“Benediction” spends a lot of time depicting the ups and downs of Siegfried’s love life. People closest to Siegfried knew he was gay, but he was still “in the closet” about his true sexuality to most people. “Benediction” implies that Siegfried probably would’ve been more open about his sexuality if there weren’t severe punishments for being gay in the United Kingdom at the time.

Despite hiding his sexual identity from many people, Siegfried had an active social life. The movie shows Siegfried, Robbie and their mutual friend Dorothy Brett (played by Georgina Rylance) being invited to a party by Lady Edith Oliver (played by Olivia Darnley), one of the high-society people who became acquainted with Siegfried because of his poetry. It’s at this party that Siegfried meets celebrated actor/composer Ivor Novello (played by Jeremy Irvine), who is an openly gay playboy.

Siegfried falls for Ivor’s charms but quickly finds out that he’s one of many of Ivor’s lovers who get tossed aside and picked up again, according to Ivor’s whims. In fact, when Ivor and Siegfried hook up for the first time, Ivor’s actor boyfriend Glen Byam Shaw (played by Tom Blyth) walks in on them. Ivor cruelly tells Glen to leave the house keys as a way to break up with Glen in that moment

“Benediction” portrays Siegfried’s on-again/off-again relationship with Ivor as not so much of a romance but more like an addiction that Siegfried finds hard to quit. Ivor is up front with his lovers in telling them that he doesn’t believe in monogamy. And this is how Ivor describes his views about love: “The main drawback about love is that it descends all too quickly into possessiveness. It really is a bore.”

Ivor doesn’t like Siegfried’s friend/mentor Robbie. Siegfried’s mother Theresa (played by Geraldine James) doesn’t like Ivor. Theresa has this to say about Ivor: “He’s amusing but unpleasant.” Is it any wonder that Siegfried’s relationship with Ivor is doomed to fail?

In a scene that looks fabricated for a movie, Ivor’s ex-lover Glen happens to see Siegfried and Ivor break up at a restaurant. It should not come as a big surprise that after seeing this breakup, Glen immediately wants to get close to Siegfried. Glen offers to drive Siegfried to Kent so that Siegfried can visit his grandmother. During this trip, the two men get to know each other better in more ways than one. However, Glen eventually decides he’s going to marry an actress.

“Benediction” portrays aristocrat Stephen Tennant (played by Calam Lynch) as the biggest love of Siegfried’s life. However, Stephen and Siegfried’s love affair is plagued by mutual jealousy. Even when Ivor was no longer dating Siegfried, Ivor seems to still have some kind of hold over Siegfried. And it bothers Stephen immensely. Siegfried also gets jealous of the attention that Stephen gets from other men. This love affair also ends in heartbreak.

In his 40s, Siegfried strikes up a close friendship with a lively and outgoing socialite named Hester Gatty (played by Kate Phillips), despite Hester being 20 years younger than he is. Hester knows that Siegfried is gay. Siegfried also confides in Hester about problems in his love life.

And eventually, Hester proposes marriage to Siegfried, knowing that she will be his “beard,” to cover up the fact that he is gay. Siegfried and Hester get married in 1933, mainly because they want to start a family together. Their son (and only child) George was born in 1936.

Where does the story of older Siegfried fit into the movie? It’s told in the context of an emotionally unsettled Siegfried fighting depression and looking back on his life while deciding that he’s going to convert to Catholicism. Siegfried’s adult son George (played by Richard Goulding) is very skeptical about Siegfried being committed and sincere about being a Catholic. It leads to some father/son conflicts that aren’t very interesting, mainly because viewers never get to see what kind of father Siegfried was to George for most of George’s life.

As for older Hester (played by Gemma Jones), living in a fake marriage has taken a toll on her. The young Hester was hopefully optimistic that being married to her gay best friend would have a happy ending. The older Hester is somewhat bitter because she sees the reality that although she is happy with being a mother, she and Siegfried deprived themselves of living authentically and possibly being in a true romance with someone else. Hester also knows that this arranged marriage benefited Siegfried more than it benefited her.

However, that doesn’t mean Siegfried feels any more satisfied than Hester in how this marriage turned out to be a stagnant relationship. Siegfried and Hester just barely tolerate each other but feel obligated to stay together to keep up appearances during a time when divorce was still a big stigma for many people. Siegfried wanting to convert to Catholicism is an obvious indication that he doesn’t consider divorce to be an option for this unhappy marriage.

There’s not a bad performance in “Benediction,” with Lowden being an obvious standout for his portrayal of the complicated and somewhat unpredictable Siegfried. Irvine also gives a memorable supporting performance as heartbreaker Ivor, who seems to have love/hate relationships with most people in his life. Jones and Capaldi also give admirable and nuanced performances as the older Siegfried and older Hester in the limited screen time that they have.

In a movie about a famous poet, the writing should also be commendable. “Benediction” has snippets of Siegfried’s poetry, of course, but the movie delivers a lot of above-average and snappy dialogue from Davies’ original screenplay. In a scene where Siegfried finds out that Ivor is dating actor Bobby Andrews (played by Harry Lawtey) at the same time that Ivor has been dating Siegfried, Bobby quips: “If you want fidelity, Siegfried, buy a pet.” (In real life, this actor spelled his name as Bobbie Andrews.) Later, when Glen tells Siegfried that he’s marrying a woman, Glen cynically says: “Purity is like virginity. As soon as you touch it, it becomes corrupt.”

“Benediction” unquestionably has high-quality filmmaking, when it comes to the movie’s acting, production design and costume design. However, “Benediction” doesn’t quite have what it takes to win major awards for any aspects of its filmmaking. The biggest issue is that parts of the film tend to lumber and could have used better editing.

There’s also the problem of introducing Siegfried at a later stage of his life and yet not giving that period of his life enough screen time. The movie leaves out huge parts of Siegfried’s life after he married Hester. These omissions just bring up many questions that “Benediction” never answers.

“Benediction” also doesn’t adequately explain what motivated Siegfried to convert to Catholicism at this stage in his life. There are hints that he was ashamed of his sexuality and wanted to atone for it in a religion that condemns homosexuality, but that interior reasoning is never fully explored in the movie. And for a very manipulative reason (which won’t be revealed in this review), “Benediction” fabricates a story arc near the end of the film about Siegfried becoming a widower. In real life, Hester Sassoon died in 1973—six years after Siegfried’s death.

Viewers might also question if “Benediction” glosses over or ignores a lot of the abusive homophobia that Siegfried might have experienced in his personal life. Except for being put in a psychiatric institution (where “Benediction” shows he was treated pretty well and was lucky enough to have an understanding doctor), Siegfried was never imprisoned, tortured, bullied or fired for his sexuality, if you believe everything in this movie. It might be a testament to Siegfried having certain privileges (fame and high-society friends) that lesser-known and less-privileged gay men didn’t have as protection against homophobic cruelties.

Despite these narrative flaws, “Benediction” is worth seeing for a fascinating portrait of a highly talented artist, what he went through in leading a double life, and the price he and his loved ones had to pay as a result. Viewers who are inclined to think arthouse British period dramas can be too stuffy probably won’t like “Benediction” too much. But for people who enjoy or who are open to this type of entertainment, then “Benediction” is a biopic that will satisfy those cinematic tastes.

Roadside Attractions released “Benediction” in select U.S. cinemas on June 3, 2022. The movie was released in the United Kingdom on May 20, 2022, and in Australia in 2021.

Review: ‘Three Headed Beast,’ starring Dani Hurtado, Jacob Schatz and Cody Shook

July 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jacob Schatz, Cody Shook and Dani Hurtado in “Three Headed Beast” (Photo by Fernando Andrés)

“Three Headed Beast”

Directed by Fernando Andrés and Tyler Rugh

Culture Representation: Taking place in Texas (mostly in Austin and briefly in Fredericksburg), the dramatic film “Three Headed Beast” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A bisexual/queer man and a bisexual/queer woman, who live together and are in an open relationship, have their relationship tested when the man seems to be falling in love with a younger man. 

Culture Audience: “Three Headed Beast” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching a boring and pretentious movie that has almost no dialogue.

Dani Hurtado, Jacob Schatz and Cody Shook in “Three Headed Beast” (Photo by Fernando Andrés)

With almost no dialogue except for one pivotal scene, “Three Headed Beast” looks more like a dull, pretentious drama experiment than a meaningful movie. It’s supposed to show how messy polyamory can be, but the movie is a mess of jumbled scenarios. The filmmakers should get some credit for wanting to do something different from how movies are typically structured, but the storytelling is woefully mishandled. “Three Headed Beast” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

“Three Headed Beast” (written and directed by Fernando Andrés and Tyler Rugh) goes out of its way to have no dialogue in the majority of the movie. But ironically, the movie’s best scene is the one with the dialogue. Filmed on location in Texas, “Three Headed Beast” makes viewers try to figure out what’s the arrangement between the three people who are at the center of the story and who are in a polyamorous love triangle.

Peter (played by Jacob Schatz) is a landscaper in his early 30s. Peter lives in Austin, Texas, with 26-year-old Nina (played by Dani Hurtado), who works as a personal trainer in a gym. It’s later mentioned in the scene with dialogue that Peter and Nina have been a couple for the past eight years. They met at a party on the college campus where Nina went to school.

In the movie’s opening scene, Peter is helping 23-year-old Alex (played by Cody Shook) move into a rental home in Austin. The move doesn’t take long because Alex doesn’t have many possessions. As soon as the moving is done, Peter and Alex have sex on a mattress, which is the only thing in the bedroom.

Meanwhile, Nina is seen at the home of a female lover named Angie (played by Sarah J. Bartholomew), as the two women lounge in bed after having an apparent sexual tryst. Nina leaves and goes home, where she affectionately kisses Peter. Now that “Three Headed Beast” has shown that Nina and Peter are both bisexual or queer, the movie keeps viewers guessing about what Nina and Peter’s arrangement is, such as if they’ve agreed to tell each other about their other lovers. At a certain point in the movie, more details emerge about what Peter, Nina and Alex have agreed to in this love triangle.

Too bad the movie takes a tediously long time to get to that point. Instead, “Three Headed Beast” just shows a mishmash of more scenes of Peter and Alex hooking up for some more sexual trysts, usually at Alex’s place; Alex partying with some friends and sometimes bringing home random men for sexual encounters; and Peter and Nina seeming to be bored with each other in a relationship that appears to have hit a rut.

Later, it’s revealed in the movie that Peter and Nina are not married and are not in a rush to get married. Alex, who likes to take photos of Peter when they’re together, is apparently living an aimless existence, since he doesn’t have a job and he isn’t a student. It’s never really explained what Alex wants to do with his life or where he gets money to pay his bills. It’s an example of how a poorly written movie can give a character a lot of screen time and yet give the character so little character development.

Early on in “Three Headed Beast,” it’s shown that Nina is a big fan of a self-help guru named Maria Mendez (voiced by Daniela Vidaurre), who is an author and a podcaster. Maria’s voice can be heard when Nina listens to Maria’s podcast, where Maria gives life advice. Nothing is ever shown in the movie about Nina getting advice from anyone else, since Nina apparently doesn’t have any friends or family members whom she can turn to for advice.

Near the beginning of the movie, Nina is shown excitedly opening a package delivery of Maria’s latest book, which is titled “After Monogamy: Open Relationships in the Modern Age.” It’s supposed to be a novel, but it really looks like a non-fiction self-help book. Nina’s admiration of Maria is seen from a different angle in a revealing scene toward the end of the movie.

Because most of “Three Headed Beast” has no dialogue, communication is mostly done by text messages. But after a while, since no one talks in the movie, everything looks phony. It’s like the filmmakers were trying too hard to be artsy and forgot about making the movie’s characters interesting enough for viewers not to get bored.

“Three Headed Beast” attempts to show realism, but it isn’t long before “Three Headed Beast” starts to look like science fiction. It’s like watching a “Twilight Zone” ripoff where people live in a world where no one verbally talks to each other. And when they do start verbally talking to each other, it’s in a scene in the middle of the movie that’s fairly brief, and then the movie goes back to having no dialogue again.

One of the phoniest-looking sublots in “Three Headed Beast” is how Nina meets and eventually gets involved with a guy in is 20s named Dylan (played by Paul Grant), who seems to be a drug dealer, based on the little information that the movie shows about him. Nina first sees Dylan when she’s visiting an animal shelter, where she is looking at some dogs outside in a field. Dylan is nearby and puffing on a vaping pipe. He and Nina look at each other (without saying a word, of course), and he offers Nina a puff from his vaping pipe. She declines.

The next time Nina goes to the animal shelter, she sees Dylan again, but they don’t say anything to each other, of course. He eventually walks away, and she sees that two marijuana joints have been left on her car windshield. Nina runs to find Dylan (because she seems to automatically know that he put the joints there), and without saying a word, they exchange phone numbers. And you know what that means: Dylan and Nina hook up later for a sexual rendezvous, which turns out to be a one-time fling.

The Nina/Dylan hookup is just more time-wasting filler in “Three Headed Beast.” This filler includes scenes of Nina and Peter played mixed doubles tennis with an unidentified couple, who are never seen again in the movie. And if you think it’s fascinating to watch a monotonous scene of Peter and Alex on a date at Alex’s place, where they binge on home-delivered junk food, dance drunkenly together, and then take a bath together (all without saying a word to each other), then “Three Headed Beast” is your kind of movie.

Through text messages, resentful facial expressions and uncomfortable silences, it becomes clear that Nina has become increasingly unhappy with Peter spending a lot of time with another lover whom she suspects is Alex. She doesn’t want to appear too possessive though, so Nina says nothing in a movie where she’s literally supposed to say nothing for most of the story. Meanwhile, Alex seems to be falling in love with Peter, who appears to be feeling the same way. Alex knows about Peter’s relationship with Nina, but Alex wants to be in Peter’s life more than Alex is now.

It isn’t until the scene where Alex talks that viewers see that he’s not a shallow party boy but someone who’s led an emotionally complicated life. The cast members who talk in the movie do their best acting in this dialogue scene, with Shook as the one who gives the most natural-looking and believable performance. But after this scene, everyone is rendered silent again.

At one point in the movie, Nina and Peter adopt a dog named Rocco from the animal shelter. And so, when Nina and Peter go on a vacation trip to Enchanted Rock in Fredericksburg, Texas, they want to find someone who will look after Rocco and their house during this vacation. You can easily predict who will be asked to be the housesitter/dogsitter.

More information is given toward the end of the movie about why Peter and Nina have ended up where they are at this point in their relationship. But by then, it’s too little, too late. That’s because “Three Headed Beast” treats the characters more like props in a wannabe avant-garde movie than as human beings with fully formed personalities.

Review: ‘Official Competition,’ starring Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas and Oscar Martínez

July 9, 2022

by Carla Hay

Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz and Oscar Martínez in “Official Competition” (Photo by Manolo Pavon/IFC Films)

“Official Competition”

Directed by Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Madrid, Spain, the comedy/drama film “Official Competition” features a cast of Spanish characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An eccentric filmmaker, who has been hired by a rich businessman to direct a movie, takes pleasure in playing mind games with the two famous actors whom she cast as co-stars in the movie. 

Culture Audience: “Official Competition” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas and films that have a satirical “movie within a movie” plot.

Oscar Martínez, Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas in “Official Competition” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

With a total running time of 115 minutes, “Official Competition” drags on for a little longer than it should, but this slightly offbeat comedy/drama has some sharp observations about how celebrities can be coddled and exploited in the movie industry. The movie shows in many acerbic ways how people will enable those with a certain level of fame and fortune to humiliate or bully others, in the name of creating “art.” There are no real heroes or villains in “Official Competition”—just a lot of very flawed and damaged people who have questionable (or no) boundaries.

Directed by Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat (who both co-wrote the screenplay with Andrés Duprat, Gastón’s older brother), “Official Competition” takes place in Madrid, but the themes in the movie are universal to wherever movies financed by wealthy people can be made. “Official Competition” made the rounds at several film festivals including the 2021 Venice International Film Festival (where the movie had its world premiere), the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival and the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. In many ways, “Official Competition” is an incisive parody of rich people who think they can buy their way into artistic creativity and any accolades that come with it.

It’s why wealthy pharmaceutical tycoon Humberto Suárez (played by José Luis Gómez) decides to go into the movie business, shortly after his 80th birthday. Humberto wants his legacy to be more than just his success in the pharmaceutical industry. He wants the glamour and cachet of making a movie with famous filmmakers and celebrity actors.

After his 80th birthday party that was held at his company headquarters, Humberto asks a subordinate executive named Matías (played by Manolo Solo) how people perceive Humberto. Matías replies, “As a man who started from nothing, and today is a leader in the pharmaceutical industry, and feeds almost 10,000 families.”

Humberto says, “I’ll tell you how they see me: as a millionaire with an obscene fortune but without prestige … I want to be remembered differently.” Humberto contemplates either donating to the state a bridge named after himself, or financing a movie. He chooses to finance a movie.

Humberto decides to be a financial backer/producer for the latest movie of the artsiest filmmaker he can find. He wants someone who’s edgy enough to be considered innovative, but mainstream enough that this person is capable of winning prestigious awards. And the person whose name comes up immediately and whom he chooses is avant-garde filmmaker Lola Cuevas (played by Penélope Cruz), who is known for her extreme ways of rehearsing and making a movie.

Lola, who has been making movies since 1996, has a 2015 movie called “Haze,” which is considered her “masterpiece.” One of her quirks is that Lola doesn’t give interviews. Therefore, she doesn’t give a lot of public insight into her filmmaking process. By keeping an aura of mystery about herself, Lola has made herself more in demand to certain people who want to work with her.

Humberto meets with Lola, and he agrees to Lola’s demands that she have complete creative control over the movie. Lola hires the two actors who will be equal co-stars in the film that she’s writing and directing and which Humberto will be financing. These co-stars are Félix Rivero (played by Antonio Banderas) and Iván Torres (played by Oscar Martínez), who are opposites in many ways.

Félix, who is a restless bachelor playboy, is more caught up in being a movie star than in being a serious actor. And he has a filmography of commercial blockbusters to prove it. Iván, who’s been in a stable, longtime marriage, takes the craft of acting very seriously. Iván is famous for being in highly respected stage productions that don’t necessarily make a lot of money but they are often award-worthy. Iván also teaches a college course in acting to eager students who admire him. The only college-age people Félix wants to teach are the young women he takes as his lovers.

In Lola’s meeting with Humberto, she explains the plot of this movie, which is a story about a love triangle between two brothers and a woman who’s a sex worker. In this story, older brother Pedro is “rich and self-confident,” while younger brother Manuel is “dull and introverted.” The movie takes place in 1970, in a country town.

Manuel is driving a car with his parents as passengers. The car gets into a horrific accident that kills the parents, but Manuel survives. An embittered Pedro makes sure that Manuel goes to prison for this accident. (It’s never stated what the crime was in this car accident.) While Manuel is in prison, Pedro lives his life freely, and he starts a romance with a sex worker named Lucy.

Pedro has a successful foundry business, but people in the community are suspicious of how he’s actually made his fortune. Meanwhile, Manuel is released from prison, and he starts having an affair with Lucy. However, Pedro has more money than Manuel. And so, when Pedro proposes marriage to Lucy, she chooses to marry Pedro.

But there’s more drama in this love triangle, because Lucy finds out she’s pregnant. Manuel or Pedro could be the father. The brothers eventually reconcile, but Lola says that there’s more to the story. Viewers of Lola’s movie will have to find out if the child’s paternity is confirmed and what ultimately happens in this love triangle.

In Lola’s movie, Iván has the role of older brother Pedro, while Félix is cast as younger brother Manuel. The movie’s very first “table read” (where the actors sit at a table to read a script together, usually with the director in attendance) takes place in a conference room at the headquarters of Humberto’s company. Lola is at this table read with Iván and Félix as the only cast members in attendance. This table read is the first time that Iván and Félix meet each other and rehearse together.

As an example of their different personalities and styles of working, Iván has already prepared a complex psychological portrait of his Pedro character. By contrast, Félix has no such preparation, because he thinks that his Manuel character doesn’t really have a backstory. During this table read/rehearsal, Lola makes it clear to both of these actors that she has a very specific idea of how they should act out their lines of dialogue. She makes Iván and Félix repeat the dialogue with her suggestions on how to change their delivery until Lola thinks they get it right.

What follows is a series of mind games that Lola ends up playing on these two actors, whom she often pits against each other. And sometimes, she sets up situations where the two actors are pitted against her. “Official Competition” tends to be a little repetitive in showing how all three of these people irritate each other, but the performances remain compelling throughout the movie.

Cruz is the obvious standout, even if her portrayal of Lola sometimes veers into being a caricature of manipulative directors. However, considering some of the wild and true stories of extreme manipulation tactics that some directors have used on cast members in real life, what Lola does in the movie isn’t too far off the mark. The unpredictability of “Official Competition” is almost entirely dependent on the Lola character.

Banderas is perfectly fine in his role as an actor who balances doing big-budget blockbuster movies with “prestige” low-budget independent films. (It’s something that Banderas does in real life too.) Martínez gives the most realistic performance of the three “Official Competition” stars, because many “serious actors” are just like Iván: They think that acting on stage is the real test of an actor’s talent, and doing on-screen work is just filler to pay the bills.

One of Lola’s mind games is to make Iván and Félix rehearse under a giant boulder that is being held over their heads by a crane. It puts Iván and Félix on a nervous edge, but Lola insists that they will have a better rehearsal this way. But surprise! After the rehearsal, Lola reveals to Iván and Félix that the boulder was really made out of cardboard.

Another of Lola’s manipulations includes asking Iván and Félix to bring all of their awards to the rehearsal headquarters. She brings the awards that she has won too, including the Palme d’Or, the top prize for the Cannes Film Festival. During this meeting in a small auditorium, Lola asks Iván and Félix to talk about their awards and what these trophies mean to them.

And then, Lola tells Iván and Félix to sit in the audience chairs in the auditorium. An employee then encases Iván and Félix together in Saran wrap until only their eyes and noses are left uncovered. Having been rendered unable to move, Iván and Félix watch as Lola does something that enrages them, but they’re physically helpless and can’t do anything to stop her.

“Official Competition” shows a constant tug-of-war over power and control, not just for Lola’s movie but also for how the principals involved want to be perceived in life. The name of Lola’s movie is never mentioned in “Official Competition” because the name doesn’t have to be mentioned. The ego battles are not about Lola’s movie but are about the people at the center of the battles and how they choose to handle difficult situations.

“Official Competition” also has sly depictions of nepotism and how sexuality is used as a way to exert power and control. Humberto’s daughter Diana Suárez (played by Irene Escolar), who’s her 20s, has been cast in Lola’s movie in the role of Lucy, the woman in the love triangle with brothers Pedro and Manuel. Diana has very little experience as an actress, and she isn’t particularly talented, so it’s not hard to figure out why she got a co-starring role in this movie.

Lola is a control freak and probably resents being pressured into casting Diana in this role. And so, there’s a scene where Lola tries to exert her power and control in a way that makes Humberto feel very uncomfortable. It happens when Humberto has stopped by to watch rehearsals of the movie.

Lola has placed dozens of microphones on the rehearsal stage to amplify whatever sounds are being made on the stage. She tells Iván and Félix to each take turns passionately kissing Diana, since they are both portraying brothers in love with the same woman. Humberto doesn’t seem to have a problem watching two famous actors passionately kissing his daughter in these rehearsals, as the sounds of their smooching fill the auditorium.

But then, Lola (who is openly queer) tells Iván and Félix that they’re not getting the kissing scenes done in the way that she thinks meets her standards. Lola then steps in and tells them she’ll show them how she wants the kissing scenes done. And then, Lola begins passionately kissing Diana. The two women get so caught up in their makeout session, they begin rolling around on the floor while kissing. This spectacle makes Humberto very uncomfortable, and he quickly leaves the room—just the way Lola probably planned it.

Lola and Diana then being a real-life affair with each other. It’s questionable if this relationship is love or just lust. But the movie makes a point in showing how easy it is for directors to get sexually involved with cast members in consensual relationships. It just so happens that the director in this case is a woman in a male-dominated field, and this woman acts exactly how people act when they use their power as sexual enticement to their subordinates who want some type of career advancement.

Even though Iván and Félix know that Lola prefers to have women as lovers, that doesn’t stop these two actors from sexually flirting with Lola. Félix is more forward about his intentions, by kissing Lola sensually on the neck in an encounter in a dressing room. Meanwhile, Iván tries the tactic of attempting to give Lola a massage. It’s not said out loud, but viewers will get the impression from the way that Iván and Félix are acting with these flirtations that they’re not accustomed to taking orders from a female director, so they try to get some of their own masculine control with Lola by testing her sexual boundaries.

Lola also shows her insecurities in her relationship with Diana, who likes to do aerobic exercises and dancing on social media, sometimes while Lola is watching. When Lola is alone in her bedroom, she’s seen trying to imitate these exercises and dance moves. It’s an indication that Lola might be trying to keep up with the much-younger Diana.

“Official Competition” doesn’t give much insight into Lola’s personal history for viewers to find out if she’s going through a mid-life crisis or if she’s ever found true love. Lola is a loner whose only real constant companion is her assistant Julia (played by Nagore Aranburu), who has to be ready to accommodate Lola’s unusual requests and whims. Observant viewers will notice that Lola has a mostly female crew, which is an indication that outspoken feminist Lola practices what she preaches about female empowerment in the movie industry.

There’s an amusing scene near the beginning of the film, where Félix tells Iván that a woman has been standing outside the building, as if she’s waiting for someone to come outside. Félix makes a bet with Iván that this mystery woman is probably someone who’s dating Lola. As Félix and Iván walk outside and see the woman, Iván casually introduces the woman to Félix. The woman is actually Iván’s wife, Violeta (played by Pilar Castro), a well-known author of children’s books. An embarrassed Félix now knows he made a wrong assumption.

Making wrong assumptions about other people is the catalyst for much of the comedy and drama in “Official Competition.” In a profession (the movie industry) that is all about making people believe what they see on screen, “Official Competition” doesn’t always succeed in making some of these antics and tricks look believable. Where “Official Competition” fares best is in showing the infuriating or funny ways that people in this make-believe profession get caught up in fooling others and themselves.

IFC Films released “Official Competition” in select U.S. cinemas on June 21, 2022. The movie’s release date on digital and VOD is August 2, 2022. “Official Competition” was released in Spain on February 25, 2022.

Review: ‘Anaïs in Love,’ starring Anaïs Demoustier, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Denis Podalydès, Jean-Charles Clichet, Xavier Guelfi and Christophe Montenez

July 5, 2022

by Carla Hay

Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Anaïs Demoustier in “Anaïs in Love” (Photo by Karl Colonnier/Magnolia Pictures)

“Anaïs in Love”

Directed by Charline Bourgeois Tacquet

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Paris and in Brittany, France, the comedy/drama film “Anaïs in Love” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A 30-year-old graduate student, who has a history of avoiding long-term commitments, gets involved in a love triangle where she seduces a much-older man and his live-in lover. 

Culture Audience: “Anaïs in Love” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about people who have messy and complicated relationships.

Denis Podalydès and Anaïs Demoustier in “Anaïs in Love” (Photo by Karl Colonnier/Magnolia Pictures)

The title character of “Anaïs in Love” blurs the lines between being a free spirit and being a selfish flake. Whether or not viewers will like her or dislike her, Anaïs keeps people interested in seeing what she’ll do next. In this comedy/drama, 30-year-old graduate student Anaïs (played by Anaïs Demoustier) is someone who’s still got a lot of growing up to do, but her childlike playfulness is a huge reason why people are attracted to her. It’s a dichotomy that is entirely realistic to the way many people are, but it leads to a very messy personal life.

In other words, don’t expect “Anaïs in Love,” which takes place in France, to be a conventional movie about romance. “Anaïs in Love” (which had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival) is also a reflection of French culture, which tends to have more lenient views than American culture about open relationships, infidelity and non-monogamy. Not too many American filmmakers would want to make a movie about a young American woman who does what Anaïs does in her pursuit of love and sexual relationships.

Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet wrote and directed “Anaïs in Love” almost like an observational portrait of Anaïs, to show without judgment how Anaïs is living her life within a certain period of time. The movie takes place over the course of about one year. In the beginning of the movie, Anaïs is working on her thesis, she’s struggling financially, and the rest of her life is in a state of flux.

The opening scene shows Anaïs restlessly fluttering around her Paris apartment while her patient but frustrated middle-aged landlord (played by Marie-Armelle Deguy) is in the apartment and trying to find out when Anaïs will be paying her rent. Anaïs is two months behind on her rent, and she’s currently unemployed, but she tells the landlord that she’s getting unemployment benefits and might be getting a job with her thesis supervisor. After a few minutes of Anaïs avoiding the subject of paying the rent, it becomes obvious that Anaïs is one of the people who talks quickly with a big smile on her face, pretending that everything is okay, when everything is not fine at all.

In between rambling about things other than when she’ll have the rent money, Anaïs tells the landlord that she and her boyfriend Raoul have recently made a change in their relationship. Raoul used to live with Anaïs and helped pay the rent, but now he has moved out for reasons that Anaïs won’t tell the landlord. All that Anaïs will say is: “Raoul and I haven’t really parted. We just don’t live together right now.” Later, viewers find out that the landlord’s son knows Raoul.

As a distraction, Anaïs quickly changes the subject to talk about the landlord’s love life. “How do manage, after centuries with your husband?” Anaïs adds, “Do you think I have a problem? That I don’t know how to love? If I was in love, really in love, I’d be happy to see the other person every day, morning, noon and night.”

And then Anaïs asks the landlord if it’s “normal” to want to sleep in the same bed for years with the same person. The landlord, who is visibly uncomfortable with where this conversation is going, says to Anaïs: “There is no normal. We do what we can with what we are.”

Keep in mind that all the landlord wanted to do was find out when Anaïs would have the rent that she owes. Instead, Anaïs bombards the landlord with a lot of personal information about herself and a lot of borderline intrusive questions about the landlord. After a while, viewers will notice that Anaïs has a tendency to “overshare” about her personal life with people she barely knows, so she asks questions with no tact when expecting other people to “overshare” with her.

It’s the first clue that Anaïs doesn’t really care about personal boundaries. She says whatever is on her mind, even if she sees that it causes discomfort to other people. Over time, viewers will see that Anaïs applies this attitude to anyone she finds sexually attractive. She will express that attraction to them, regardless if that person is in a committed relationship or not. When she wants to start a sexual relationship with someone, she doesn’t really care if it might hurt other people.

Anaïs is also one of those people who always seems to be running late. People who are chronically tardy often can be considered irresponsible, but many people who have a bad habit of being late also tend to be narcissists who don’t respect other people’s time. They often like the idea that when they show up somewhere, they might have kept people waiting. People who usually show up late also want to give the impression that their lives are so busy, they’re doing people a “favor” by spending time with them.

One evening, Anaïs goes to a cocktail party in an upscale apartment, where she doesn’t really know anyone, but she’s at this party out of obligation to her parents, who know the party hosts. Most of the people at this somewhat stuffy party are at least 25 years older than Anaïs. One of the party guests is a book publisher named Daniel Moreau-Babin (played by Denis Podalydès), who is a 58-year-old divorced father of an adult son.

Anaïs and Daniel first see each other in the elevator on the way to the party. And when they’re inside the party, Daniel and Anaïs start a conversation with each other. It turns out that Anaïs and Daniel are indirectly connected. Anaïs’ younger brother Balthazar (played by Xavier Guelfi) is engaged to a woman named Rebecca, who attended the same college as Anaïs. Daniel is the book publisher for Rebecca’s father, who is an author.

Daniel mentions that the spouses who are hosting the party have downsized to this apartment, after living in a big house for years. Anaïs says that there’s no such thing as having a house that’s too big. This domestic arrangement leads Daniel to talk about his personal life. Daniel tells Anaïs that he and his ex-wife were married for 12 years until he decided to break up with her because he felt he outgrew the marriage.

Daniel has been living with a 56-year-old successful writer named Emilie Ducret (played by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) for the past 12 years, but he says their relationship has now gotten too routine and stale for him. Daniel wonders aloud to Anaïs if 12 years is the maximum length of time that he can be in a committed relationship. He tells Anaïs all of this personal information while looking at her in a way that makes it obvious that he’s attracted to her.

Anaïs picks up on the attraction right way. And so, it should come as no surprise to viewers that the next time that Anaïs sees Daniel, it’s for a secret tryst at his apartment, where they have sex for the first time. It’s obvious why Daniel is interested in hooking up with a younger woman who’s pretty, but what is Anaïs getting out of this sexual relationship? Apparently, she’s having sex with Daniel just because she feels like she can.

But what about Anaïs’ boyfriend Raoul (played by Christophe Montenez), who is close to Anaïs’ age? What is he all about? Raoul says he loves Anaïs, but he remains somewhat of a mystery to viewers. Don’t expect much insight into what the relationship between Anaïs and Raoul was like before he moved out of their apartment.

Anaïs doesn’t tell Raoul that she’s sleeping with another man, but she does tell Raoul a secret that she’s been hiding for weeks. It’s the most obvious life-changing secret that a woman can keep from a man she’s had sex with but isn’t sure how he’ll react if he finds out the secret. Raoul’s reaction to this secret is a turning point in his relationship with Anaïs.

Anaïs and Daniel continue their clandestine affair. Over time, Anaïs sometimes acts very jealous and possessive, as if she wants more of a commitment from Daniel that he’s not willing to give to her. Daniel sometimes call Emilie his “wife,” but he and Emilie are not legally married and are in a common-law spousal situation.

Anaïs doesn’t seem to think too much about Emilie (who doesn’t know about the affair), until Anaïs meets Emilie by chance on a street. When Anaïs approaches Emilie out of curiosity, she pretends to be fan of Emilie’s novels and compliments her effusively. Emilie is polite but seems to be a little distracted because she says she’s on her way to an appointment. What catches Anaïs off-guard is how much she’s attracted to Emilie.

After this random encounter, Anaïs starts to become more interested in finding out about Emilie. She begins reading Emilie’s novels and finds an emotional connection to Emilie through Emilie’s writing. Later, Anaïs finds out that Emilie has decided to go out of her comfort zone as a novelist to adapt an opera called “Knight of the Rose” into a theatrical stage play, because Emilie needs the money. Anaïs’ attraction to and interest in Emilie seems to grow as Daniel and Anaïs quarrel even more, because he’s unwilling to tell her if he will leave Emilie to be with Anaïs.

It leads to a part of the story that is probably the most divisive thing about the movie. Anaïs finds out that Emilie will be a guest speaker at a writers’ retreat in Brittany. And so, Anaïs decides to go to this retreat too (even though she can’t afford it), with the intention of possibly seducing Emilie. It’s basically stalking, but don’t tell Anaïs that, because she thinks it’s a romantic gesture.

Anaïs’ intentions are also very manipulative, because even though she doesn’t tell Daniel about her plans to seduce Emilie, any adult with life experience can see that Anaïs has an ulterior motive of wanting to make Daniel jealous. Anaïs knows that Daniel will eventually find out that Anaïs wants to have a sexual relationship with Emilie. He already seems to sense it because of the way Anaïs has been recently been asking him a lot of personal questions about Emilie.

“Anaïs in Love” is somewhat scatterbrained and unfocused, just like Anaïs, because there’s a subplot to the movie about Anaïs’ family that doesn’t flow as well with the main story. Before going to Brittany, Anaïs spends some time with her brother Balthazar, who has a pet lemur named Gilbert, which provides some comic relief. The main purpose of Anaïs’ scenes with Balthazar is to show that Anaïs feels somewhat insecure that her younger brother has a more stable life than she does.

In a more serious part of the movie, Anaïs visits her happily married parents (played by Anne Canovas and Bruno Todeschini), who tell her some devastating news. Anaïs’ parents are briefly in the movie, but it’s enough time for viewers to see that Anaïs is insecure about being considered a “disappointment” to her parents for not really committing to any job or relationship. Anaïs’ way of coping with this self-esteem issue is to lean into the image that she’s a “free spirit,” even though her arguments with Daniel suggest that she wants more commitment in her life than she’s willing to admit to other people.

But does Anaïs really want a long-term commitment with anyone? Or does she just like the challenge of getting someone who is “hard to get”? Those questions can also apply to Anaïs’ intentions of getting closer to Emilie. Observant viewers can see that Anaïs doesn’t have any close friends. It’s easy to speculate that it’s because she’s wrecked a lot of friendships with her pattern of being a participant in infidelity.

The movie uses Anaïs’ financial problems for some comedic scenes. To help pay for her trip to Brittany, Anaïs rents out her apartment to a vacationing couple (played by Seong-Young Kim and Estelle Cheon), whose native language is Korean and whose knowledge of French is limited. Just like she does with a lot of people she first meets, Anaïs “overshares” by telling too much personal information when she shows the couple her apartment and they decide to rent it. You can bet that something will go wrong in the apartment while Anaïs is too far away to do anything about it.

Anaïs still doesn’t have enough money to go to the retreat for the entire duration. She’s about to get kicked out of the retreat, but she talks her way into staying by offering to do free cleaning and upkeep work on the property to make up for the portion of the retreat fee that she can’t pay. A handyman named Yoann (played by Jean-Charles Clichet), who’s an aspiring playwright, is assigned to be her supervisor. There are a few comedic scenes where Anaïs tries to spend alone time with Emilie while Anaïs hides from Yoann to avoid doing the work she promised.

When it comes to looking for love and sex, Anaïs can be whimsically charming but also frustratingly self-absorbed. A lot of viewers will be turned off by Anaïs’ nonchalant way of disrupting relationships to satisfy her own personal needs. The movie doesn’t try to excuse this awfulness but merely points out that heartbreakers like Anaïs exist in the world. In Brittany’s romantic countryside and beach setting, Emilie’s reaction to Anaïs’ seductive charisma is not surprising at all.

It’s to the credit of writer/director Bourgeois-Tacquet that she doesn’t present Anaïs as a hero or as a villain but as a flawed human being who doesn’t always make the best decisions for herself and ends up hurting other people in the name of “love.” Demoustier, Bruni Tedeschi and Podalydès portray the three people in this love triangle with considerable skill. These three people are presented with options, when it comes to love and sex. However, “Anaïs in Love” asks these provocative questions: “How much of this love and sex really makes them happy? And how long will that happiness last?”

Magnolia Pictures released “Anaïs in Love” in select U.S. cinemas on April 29, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on May 6, 2022.

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