Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Midwest state in the United States, the sci-fi drama film “Foe” (based on Iain Reid’s novel of the same name) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one black person) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: After an apocalypse has left Earth deprived of many resources, a married farming couple must decide what to do when the husband is selected to live in an outer-space colony populated by humans who used to live on Earth.
Culture Audience: “Foe” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal and the book on which the movie is based, but this movie trudges through a lot of time-wasting scenes and that do a substandard job telling the story.
The pretentiously dull sci-fi drama “Foe” wants to say a lot about humans choosing between living on Earth or living somewhere else, but fails to tell anything substantial about the couple at the center of the story. Good acting can’t save this weak script. This cinematic dud had the potential to be a fascinating character study about a married couple facing a truly life-changing dilemma. Instead, “Foe” is a clumsy slog of disjointed scenes and hollow characters that will leave viewers feeling disengaged and not very interested in what happens to these two discontented spouses.
Directed by Garth Davis, “Foe” is based on Iain Reid’s 2018 novel of the same name. Davis and Reid co-wrote the disappointing “Foe” screenplay. “Foe” had its world premiere at the 2023 New York Film Festival. Although the movie’s relatively small number of principal cast members are very talented (only three people in “Foe” have significant speaking roles), they are limited to a very flawed screenplay that is like a car being stuck in the mud while spinning its wheels. Expect to see many dead-end scenes of marital spats, tentative truces, and then more spousal arguing.
The main location in “Foe” (which takes place in an unnamed Midwestern state in the United States) is the remote and desolate farm property of married couple Hen (played by Ronan) and Junior (played by Mescal), who have been spouses for an unnamed period of time. (“Foe” was actually filmed in Queensland, Australia.) Almost nothing is shown or told in the movie about the personal histories of these two frequently quarrelling spouses, except that Junior inherited the farm, which has been in his family for five generations. Don’t expect to find out how and why Hen and Junior fell in love with each other.
The story takes place in an unspecified time period, after an apocalypse has left a ravaged Earth depleted of many resources. Hen and Junior (who do not have children and do not live with anyone else) do what they can to scrape by in their meager existence. But mostly, they just hang around the house and have tension-filled conversations. Hen is often standoffish and abrupt when Junior shows her affection or when he wants to get sexually intimate with her.
“Foe” begins with the arrival of a mysterious stranger named Terrance (played by Aaron Pierre), who visits the couple’s farmhouse unannounced. Terrance, who wears a casual business suit, tells Hen and Junior that Junior is on the shortlist of a special lottery where Junior can live in another place in the universe where other humans have settled and where there are more resources and a more comfortable way of life. This other place is never named or described, but it’s referred to as “up there.” Terrance doesn’t say who employs him, but it’s implied that he works for the U.S. government.
Of course, the problem with this offer of a better life “up there” is that this offer does not include Hen. Terrance never explains how and why Junior was chosen for this lottery in the first place. Junior refuses to leave Hen, while Hen doesn’t seem to give Junior many reasons to stay, because she is very moody and argumentative with him. Hen also has a nasty temper and will throw things or get violent when she’s angry. Spaceships hover around from time to time, with no real explanation. And sometimes, men in suits randomly show up and try to kidnap Junior.
One of the weird things about “Foe” is that it tries to make it sound like resources have been scarce in this world for many years, but then the movie shows other things that contradict that concept. Junior tells Hen has fond memories of when the farm had livestock when he was a child. And when Terrance comes to visit, Terrance tries to entice Junior to go “up there” because he says people don’t have to worry about having enough food “up there,” compared to on Earth.
But then, there are multiple scenes of Junior working on an assembly line at a chicken processing factory that is filled with skinned and headless chickens. It doesn’t look there’s a food shortage at all—at least not at this place of business. Likewise, Hen has a job as a waitress at a casual restaurant, and there’s no mention of food shortages when she’s on the job. It’s implied that Hen and Junior have been unable to make a living from their farm, so they’ve taken jobs elsewhere.
The movie hints that Hen and Terrance (who always shows up unannounced) start to feel an attraction to each other. Junior predictably gets jealous. This boiling cauldron of emotions would only work well for this movie if it gave viewers reason enough to care about any of these lackluster and uninteresting people. Junior is the only one of the three who acts like he cares about others. Hen is mostly selfish and miserable. Terrance seems to take delight in seeing rifts between the couple, because apparently, Terrance has been tasked with getting Junior to go live “up there,” no matter what the personal cost.
“Foe” is a very dark and dreary movie, not just in its visuals but also in much of its tone and mood. There’s only one scene where there’s a hint that Hen and Junior had a great relationship in the past. They are both outside, when Junior asks Hen not to wear the white shirt that she is fond of wearing. When she asks why, he says it’s because it’s the same shirt she wore when they met, and it reminds him of the time when “we were happy.”
Hen and Junior have no friends or family members in their lives. And so, viewers are stuck watching this couple fight, reconcile, and then fight again. And then, Terrance occasionally shows up to have slow-paced conversations with Hen. This drudgery is the majority of “Foe,” which raises many questions that the movie never bothers to answer. There’s a drastic plot development that’s thrown into the last 20 minutes of the film, but it’s as phony and sloppily explained as the vague “up there” utopia that’s supposed to be the reason for the separation conflicts that could have made “Foe” an intriguing movie.
Amazon Studios will release “Foe” in select U.S. cinemas on October 6, 2023.
The following is a press release from Film at Lincoln Center:
Film at Lincoln Center (FLC) announces the 32 films that comprise the Main Slate of the 61st New York Film Festival (NYFF), taking place September 29–October 15 at Lincoln Center and in venues across the city.
“The unsettled state of the industry is an unavoidable talking point these days, but my hope is that our festival, as it has done through its 61-year history, will serve as a reminder that the art of cinema is in robust health,” said Dennis Lim, Artistic Director of the New York Film Festival. “The filmmakers in this year’s Main Slate are grappling with eternal questions—about how movies relate to the world, about what it means to make art from life, about the most interesting ways to approach the contemporary moment and the historical past—and the answers they have proposed are thrilling in their variety, ingenuity, and urgency. We can’t wait for our audience, so vital to the festival experience, to discover these 32 new films.”
This year’s Main Slate showcases films produced in 18 different countries, featuring new titles from renowned auteurs, exceptional work from returning NYFF directors as well as those making their NYFF debut, and celebrated films from festivals worldwide including Cannes prizewinners: Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall; Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest; Wim Wenders’s Perfect Days; Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s About Dry Grasses; and Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves. At the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival, Angela Schanelec’s Music was awarded the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay and Bas Devos’s Here was awarded best film in the Encounters section and the FIPRESCI prize.
Appearing in the NYFF Main Slate for the first time are Annie Baker, Bas Devos, Felipe Gálvez, Jonathan Glazer, Andrew Haigh, Raven Jackson (an NYFF57 FLC Artists Academy alum), Michael Mann, Rodrigo Moreno, Paul B. Preciado, Wang Bing, and Zhang Lu; additional returning NYFF filmmakers include Lisandro Alonso (FLC 2014 Filmmaker in Residence), Marco Bellocchio, Bertrand Bonello, Catherine Breillat, Sofia Coppola, Víctor Erice, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Agnieszka Holland, Hong Sangsoo, Radu Jude, Yorgos Lanthimos, Kleber Mendonça Filho, Martín Rejtman, and Alice Rohrwacher (FLC 2016 Filmmaker in Residence).
A special addition to this year’s Main Slate is the North American premiere of a newly unearthed and restored short directed by legendary filmmaker Agnès Varda and featuring Pier Paolo Pasolini while both were in town for the 4th New York Film Festival in 1966. It will precede two Main Slate features: La Chimera and Pictures of Ghosts.
As previously announced, the Opening Night selection is Todd Haynes’s May December; Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla is the Centerpiece; and Michael Mann’s Ferrari will close NYFF61. Currents, Revivals, Spotlight, and Talks sections will be announced in the coming weeks—sign up for NYFF updates for the latest news.
All NYFF61 documentaries are presented by HBO®.
The New York Film Festival will offer festival screenings in all five boroughs of New York City in partnership with Alamo Drafthouse Cinema (Staten Island), BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) (Brooklyn), the Bronx Museum of the Arts (Bronx), Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem (Manhattan), and the Museum of the Moving Image (Queens). Each venue will present a selection of films throughout the festival; a complete list of films and showtimes will be announced later this month.
The NYFF Main Slate selection committee, chaired by Dennis Lim, also includes Florence Almozini, Justin Chang, K. Austin Collins, and Rachel Rosen.
Presented by Film at Lincoln Center, the New York Film Festival highlights the best in world cinema and takes place September 29–October 15, 2023. An annual bellwether of the state of cinema that has shaped film culture since 1963, the festival continues an enduring tradition of introducing audiences to bold and remarkable works from celebrated filmmakers as well as fresh new talent.
Secure your seats with Festival Passes, limited quantities on sale now with discounts through August 17. NYFF61 single tickets will go on sale to the general public on Tuesday, September 19 at noon ET, with pre-sale access for FLC Members and Pass holders prior to this date. Become an FLC Member by August 15 to secure pre-sale access.
61st New York Film Festival Main Slate
Opening Night May December Dir. Todd Haynes
Centerpiece Priscilla Dir. Sofia Coppola
Closing Night Ferrari Dir. Michael Mann
About Dry Grasses Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt Dir. Raven Jackson
All of Us Strangers Dir. Andrew Haigh
Anatomy of a Fall Dir. Justine Triet
The Beast Dir. Bertrand Bonello
La Chimera Dir. Alice Rohrwacher
Close Your Eyes Dir. Víctor Erice
The Delinquents Dir. Rodrigo Moreno
Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World Dir. Radu Jude
Eureka Dir. Lisandro Alonso
Evil Does Not Exist Dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
Fallen Leaves Dir. Aki Kaurismäki
Green Border Dir. Agnieszka Holland
Here Dir. Bas Devos
In Our Day Dir. Hong Sangsoo
In Water Dir. Hong Sangsoo
Janet Planet Dir. Annie Baker
Kidnapped Dir. Marco Bellocchio
Last Summer Dir. Catherine Breillat
Music Dir. Angela Schanelec
Orlando, My Political Biography Dir. Paul B. Preciado
Perfect Days Dir. Wim Wenders
Pictures of Ghosts Dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho
Poor Things Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
La Práctica Dir. Martín Rejtman
The Settlers Dir. Felipe Gálvez
The Shadowless Tower Dir. Zhang Lu
Youth (Spring) Dir. Wang Bing
The Zone of Interest Dir. Jonathan Glazer
61st New York Film Festival Main Slate Films & Descriptions
Opening Night May December Todd Haynes, 2023, U.S., 113m North American Premiere
Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a popular television star, has arrived in a tight-knit island community in Savannah. Here, she will be doing intimate research for a new part, ingratiating herself into the lives of Gracie (Julianne Moore), whom she’ll be playing on-screen, and her much younger husband, Joe (Charles Melton), to better understand the psychology and circumstances that more than 20 years ago made them notorious tabloid figures. As Elizabeth attempts to get closer to the family, the uncomfortable facts of their scandal unfurl, causing difficult, long-dormant emotions to resurface. From the sensational premise of first-time screenwriter Samy Burch’s brilliantly subtle script, Todd Haynes (Safe; Carol, NYFF53) has constructed an American tale of astonishing richness and depth, which touches the pressure and pleasure points of a culture obsessed equally with celebrity and trauma. It’s a feat of storytelling and pinpoint-precise tone that is shrewd in its wicked embrace of melodrama while also genuinely moving in its humane treatment of tricky subject matter. Boasting a trio of bravura, mercurial performances by Moore, Portman, and Melton, May December is a film about human exploitation, the elusive nature of performance, and the slipperiness of truth that confirms Todd Haynes’s status as one of our consummate movie artists. A Netflix release.
Centerpiece Priscilla Sofia Coppola, 2023, U.S., 110m North American Premiere
Never has there been a more obsessed-over American pop icon than Elvis Presley, yet no one knew him more tenderly during his superstar years than Priscilla Ann Wagner, whose own story as Elvis’s romantic partner and only wife has rarely been told from her perspective. Director Sofia Coppola, who in her remarkable filmography has so often returned to intimate portraits of women living complicated lives behind closed doors, has found a subject exquisitely tailored to her interests. As portrayed with extraordinary poise and strength by Cailee Spaeny, Priscilla finally becomes the center of her narrative. Coppola follows her love affair with Elvis (an equally revelatory, larger-than-life Jacob Elordi), from her early years as a teenage army brat stationed in West Germany to her surreal arrival at Graceland, which becomes both her home and prison. With her customarily precise attention to texture and detail, Coppola has created one of her most stirring, vivid films, a tribute to a woman who was living in the public eye before she had truly experienced the world. Featuring evocative, moody cinematography by Philippe Le Sourd and original music by Phoenix. An A24 release.
Closing Night Ferrari Michael Mann, 2023, U.S., 125m North American Premiere
Michael Mann (The Insider) brings his astonishing command of technique and storytelling to bear on this emotional, elegantly crafted dramatization of the life of the legendary car manufacturer and entrepreneur Enzo Ferrari at a professional and personal fulcrum. It’s 1957, and the marriage of Enzo (Adam Driver, in an artfully internalized performance) and Laura (Penélope Cruz, a ferocious revelation) has begun to irrevocably fracture as a result of his philandering and the tragic recent death of their young son. Their unsettled domestic world is on a collision course with his work life as Enzo faces a pair of major turning points: financial pressure to increase productivity, which means going against his long-standing desire to only produce race cars, and preparations for the treacherous cross-country open-road Mille Miglia race. Dovetailing these narrative strands, Mann effortlessly shifts gears between elegiac and spectacular, climaxing in an exhilarating and terrifying race across the Northern Italian landscape—a visual and aural wonder of revving machinery against bucolic splendor—that ranks with the greatest set pieces of Mann’s career. Aided by a magnificent cast, which also includes Shailene Woodley, Gabriel Leone, Patrick Dempsey, and Jack O’Connell, and glorious on-location shooting in Ferrari’s hometown of Modena, Mann has constructed a marvel of classical cinema. A NEON release.
About Dry Grasses Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2023, Turkey, 197m Turkish with English subtitles U.S. Premiere
In a village nestled within the wintry landscape of the East Anatolia region of Turkey, an art teacher named Samet (Deniz Celiloglu) is struggling through what he hopes to be his final year at an elementary school. Already tiring of the unforgiving environment, where he has been assigned by the government’s public education system, Samet is further disillusioned and frustrated after a young girl in his class, Sevim, appears to accuse him of inappropriate behavior. The only light on the horizon for Samet is his growing friendship with—and clear attraction to—a teacher from a nearby school, Nuray (Merve Dizdar), a sharp, politically engaged woman unafraid to put the self-involved Samet in his place for his general apathy and narcissism. The latest deeply philosophical drama from Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, NYFF49) is a work of elegant, novelistic filmmaking, rigorously unpacking questions of belief versus action, the tangible versus the enigmatic, and who we wish to be versus how we live. A centerpiece conversation between Samet and Nuray—capped off by a provocative metacinematic flourish—ranks with Ceylan’s greatest sequences, and Dizdar, who won the Best Actress prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, commands every second she’s on screen. A Sideshow/Janus Films release.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt Raven Jackson, 2023, U.S., 97m
One of the most visually striking, profoundly moving American movie making debuts in years, Raven Jackson’s All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is an arresting immersion into a young woman’s inner world, filmed and edited with an extraordinary tactility and attention to the tiniest detail. This impressionistic journey skips ahead and back through decades to tell the story of Mack, whose upbringing in rural Mississippi is touched by grace, dotted with heartbreak, and always carried aloft by the surrounding natural beauty. As she ages, she loses loved ones and gains others, while making decisions that change the course of her life, and that of her beloved sister. Relying on sounds and images to tell her story, and employing minimal dialogue, Jackson has created something breathtakingly quiet and ultimately transporting—a spiritual tribute to the moments, feelings, and connections that make a life. An A24 release.
All of Us Strangers Andrew Haigh, 2023, U.K., 105m
British director Andrew Haigh, whose 2011 feature breakthrough Weekend is among the most widely beloved queer romances of the 21st century, has returned with an expertly modulated, emotionally overwhelming love story suspended in a metaphysical realm. Adam (Andrew Scott), a melancholy screenwriter living alone in a newly built, nearly empty high-rise on the outskirts of London, meets and tentatively begins a passionate relationship with the more extroverted Harry (Paul Mescal), his apparent only neighbor in the building. At the same time, Adam begins another, parallel journey, venturing out to the city’s suburbs to confront his troubled past and perhaps reconcile his unsettled present. Adapted from a 1987 novel by Taichi Yamada, All of Us Strangers is uncommonly perceptive about the desires, fears, and traumas of a specific generation of gay men while extending into the universal—or perhaps the cosmic—in its depiction of familial love and estrangement. And in a quartet of superb performances, Scott, Mescal, Jamie Bell, and Claire Foy pierce straight to the heart. A Searchlight Pictures release.
Anatomy of a Fall Justine Triet, 2023, France, 150m French and English with English subtitles
The winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Justine Triet’s drama is a riveting procedural and a delicate inquiry into the impossibility of an ultimate truth in human relationships. When the husband of famous novelist Sandra Voyter (played by Toni Erdmann’s Sandra Hüller) is found dead on the ground outside their chalet in the French Alps, authorities suspect that she might have been responsible, as the impact and position of his body suggest a push rather than a fall. This leads to a murder trial that puts every aspect of their marriage under impossible scrutiny, and whose outcome might hinge on the perspective of their vision-impaired 11-year-old son. Triet’s fiercely intelligent, emotionally devastating film dissects the ways we create subjective narratives for ourselves and others and questions the insufficiency of language to describe the essential mysteries each of us possesses. At its core is the brilliant Hüller, whose Sandra is articulate, open, and utterly inscrutable. A NEON release.
The Beast Bertrand Bonello, 2023, France, 146m English and French with English subtitles U.S. Premiere
A filmmaker consistently unafraid to wade through the weird miasma of contemporary life, Bertrand Bonello (Nocturama; Coma, NYFF60) works from the outside in, dramatizing the psychological toll of the political and cultural world around us. Here he has created a dynamic and disturbing parable that jumps between three different time periods (1910, 2014, and 2044) to diagnose our acute—and perhaps eternal—feelings of estrangement and alienation. Using Henry James’s haunting 1903 short story “The Beast in the Jungle” as his film’s provocative inspiration, Bonello tells the story of a young woman (Léa Seydoux) who undergoes a surgical process to have her DNA—and therefore memories of all her past lives—removed. In so doing, she realizes her fate has long been intertwined, for better and worse, with a young man (George MacKay). Touching on modern anxieties of AI and incel culture, which may recur throughout history as commonly as love and hate, The Beast, like all good science-fiction, asks essential questions about the ever-shifting status of humanity itself.
La Chimera Alice Rohrwacher, 2023, Italy, 135m Italian with English subtitles
With her customarily bewitching mixture of earthiness and magical realism, Alice Rohrwacher (Happy as Lazzaro, NYFF56) conjures a marvelous entertainment set in a rural Italy eternally caught between the ancient and the modern. Josh O’Connor (The Crown) stars as Arthur, a ne’er-do well Englishman, handsomely rumpled and recently out of prison, who returns to a rural town in central Italy where he hesitantly reconnects with a ragtag group of tombaroli (tomb raiders), for whom he uses his uncanny powers of divination to locate graves that date back to the Etruscan period and teem with antiquities of immense value to collectors and museums. Yet the melancholy Arthur has other ghosts on his mind, including his long-lost love Beniamina, who haunts his memory like her own ghostly civilization. Featuring gorgeous rough-hewn textures from the great cinematographer Hélène Louvart and outstanding supporting work from Isabella Rossellini, Carol Duarte, and Alba Rohrwacher, La Chimera is a dreamlike descent into a majestically tattered world right beneath our own. A NEON release.
Close Your Eyes Víctor Erice, 2023, Spain, 169m Spanish with English subtitles U.S. Premiere
Spanish director Víctor Erice’s fourth film in 50 years, Close Your Eyes is the culmination of one of the most legendary careers in modern cinema, following the masterpieces The Spirit of the Beehive, El Sur, and The Quince Tree Sun (NYFF30). In this elegiac personal epic about time, memory, and, of course, the movies, an aging filmmaker named Miguel (Manolo Solo) is reluctantly pulled back into a decades-old mystery connected to his final, unfinished work, titled The Farewell Gaze. During production, his leading actor and close friend, Julio (Jose Coronado), vanished and was never heard from again; in the process of trying to track him down so many years later, Miguel must come to terms with his own past, his present life, and the irrevocably changed processes of his art form. Featuring captivating performances from a cast that also includes Ana Torrent (Beehive’s unforgettable child star) in a moving role as Julio’s grown daughter, Close Your Eyes is a poignant, summative work that finds original ways to remind viewers of the moving image’s ability to reach across time.
The Delinquents Rodrigo Moreno, 2023, Argentina, 183m Spanish with English subtitles U.S. Premiere
A heist picture unlike any other, The Delinquents upends genre expectations with a gentle yet deftly constructed existentialist fable. Timid bank clerk Morán (Daniel Elías), fed up with his dead-end middle-management job, decides one day to simply walk into the vault, pack a bag with enough cash to cover his salary until retirement age, and saunter out. Knowing he has been inevitably caught on security camera, Morán plans on turning himself in, but not before passing the stash along to his coworker Román (Esteban Bigliardi), now an accomplice who agrees to hold onto the money until Morán gets out of prison. From this gripping premise, Argentinean writer-director Rodrigo Moreno spins an endlessly surprising tale that moves into increasingly idyllic territory, adding layer upon layer to the twinned stories of these two men’s lives, and inquiring what it means to be free in a world of monetary satisfaction. A MUBI release.
Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World Radu Jude, 2023, Romania, 163m Romanian with English subtitles U.S. Premiere
As he proved with his scandalous, scathing political comedy Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (NYFF59), Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude is among the most radical filmmakers working today and one of the few unafraid to diagnose the absurd evils and moral blind spots that make contemporary living what it—unfortunately—is. In his latest film, Jude again explodes conventional boundaries of narrative and form, this time charting a lacerating course through one day in the life of a severely overworked film production assistant, Angela, who drives around Bucharest on her latest gig: filming work accident victims auditioning to be in a safety equipment video for a German multinational corporation. At the same time, the sleep-deprived Angela upkeeps her own side project—a face-filtered, trash-talking, right-wing alter ego with more than 20,000 viewers that serves as the film’s perverse Greek chorus. Intercutting all this with footage from Romanian director Lucian Bratu’s feminist 1981 film Angela Moves On, following the travels of a female cab driver around the city’s same sights and locations, Jude initiates a conversation with his country’s past and present, while engaging in a meta-commentary about the ability of the captured image to exploit, and to contort the truth.
Eureka Lisandro Alonso, 2023, Argentina/France/Portugal, 146m English, Portuguese, and Lakota with English subtitles North American Premiere
The protean Argentinean director Lisandro Alonso (La Libertad, NYFF39; Jauja, NYFF52) continues to shapeshift, delight, and challenge with his marvelous and immersive new film, which takes the viewer on an unexpected journey through three stories set in wildly different terrain, each of them reflecting lives haunted by the specter of colonialist violence. In the first, Viggo Mortensen and Chiara Mastroianni guest-star in a black-and-white neo-Western pastiche following a taciturn gunslinger seeking revenge in a lawless frontier town. In the second section, in a different kind of law-and-order narrative, set during the present day in the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, we accompany a Native American cop (Alaina Clifford) on her nighttime patrols, revealing a community troubled by addiction and poverty, but also, because of the cop’s good-hearted basketball coach niece (Sadie Lapointe), touched by transcendence. Finally, the film travels to the magnificent Brazilian rainforest of the 1970s, where Indigenous workers pan for gold while articulating their dream lives. Cleverly transitioning between segments without hand-holding the viewer, Alonso has created an improbably unified aesthetic experience that leaves it up to us to make the connections among its transient worlds.
Evil Does Not Exist Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, 2023, Japan, 105m Japanese with English subtitles U.S. Premiere
Deep in the forest of the small rural village Harasawa, single parent Takumi lives with his young daughter, Hana, and takes care of odd jobs for locals, chopping wood and hauling pristine well water. The overpowering serenity of this untouched land of mountains and lakes, where deer peacefully roam free, is about to be disrupted by the imminent arrival of the Tokyo company Playmode, which is ready to start construction on a glamping site for city tourists—a plan, which Takumi and his neighbors discover, that will have dire consequences for the ecological health and cleanliness of their community. The potent and foreboding new film from Oscar-winning director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi (Drive My Car and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, both NYFF59) is a haunting, entirely unexpected cinematic experience that reconstitutes the boundaries of the ecopolitical thriller. Intensified by a rapturous, ominous score by Eiko Ishibashi, this mesmeric journey diverges from country-vs-city themes to straddle the line between the earthy and the metaphysical. A Sideshow/Janus Films release.
Fallen Leaves Aki Kaurismäki, 2023, Finland, 81m Finnish with English subtitles
Sweet-souled in story, scalpel-sharp in filmmaking precision, this enchanting love story from Finnish virtuoso Aki Kaurismäki circles around two financially strapped Helsinkians who keep finding and losing one another in a world that seems to be falling apart. Evoking such dark-comic romances from his early career such as Shadows in Paradise and Ariel (NYFF27), the sardonic yet exquisitely melancholic Fallen Leaves devotes its wry, humane gaze to grocery clerk Ansa (Alma Pöysti) and construction laborer Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), who commence an on-again, off-again relationship of extreme tentativeness, while seeking employment and stability. As with the greatest of Kaurismäki’s films, everyday details register as grand, meaningful cinematic gestures. This filmmaker has scrupulously carved another fictive universe out of a handful of specific, vivid locations, yet Fallen Leaves very much takes place in the world we’re living in, which makes its surrender to hope all the more affecting. Winner of the Jury Prize at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. A MUBI release.
Green Border Agnieszka Holland, 2023, Poland/Czech Republic/France/Belgium, 146m Polish, Arabic, English, and French with English subtitles U.S. Premiere
A Syrian family leaves the violence of their country behind, hoping to cross from Belarus into Poland and then onto the safe haven of Sweden. But, like so many lost souls, they end up caught in a political maelstrom, demonized by the Polish government and press and used as pawns in an inhumane, deadly border game. This harrowing, urgent drama from the veteran Polish director Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa; Spoor, NYFF55) constructs an intricate account of the contemporary global humanitarian crisis, expanding out to encompass the interconnected lives of security patrol officers, activist lawyers, and civilians who put themselves on the line for strangers. With the sobering and sometimes shocking Green Border, Holland reaffirms both her unyielding commitment to political filmmaking and the ability of immersive storytelling to illuminate the darkest corners of the world.
Here Bas Devos, 2023, Belgium, 82m Dutch, French, Romanian, and Mandarin with English subtitles U.S. Premiere
Stefan, a migrant construction worker living in Brussels, is planning a trip home to his mother in Romania. In preparing for his voyage, he reconnects with local family members over gifted bowls of homemade soup, interacts with strangers, and discovers a revivifying commune with nature. This all leads him to an unexpected connection with Shuxiu, a Chinese-Belgian bryologist, who’s studying the local moss. The gradual cultivation of this friendship—beautifully performed by actors Stefan Gota and Liyo Gong—motivates this hushed, emotionally resonant film about the power of observation, of people often deemed socially invisible, and of the larger green world surrounding us. In his lovely and tranquil fourth feature, Belgian filmmaker Bas Devos (Ghost Tropic) has created a work that finds transcendence in the simplest human encounters and the most radiant of cinematic gestures. Winner of the Best Film prize in the Berlin International Film Festival’s Encounters competition. A Cinema Guild release.
In Our Day Hong Sangsoo, 2023, South Korea, 83m Korean with English subtitles North American Premiere
For his 30th feature film, Hong Sangsoo has crafted a slippery yet captivating inquiry into the search for meaning, connection, and artistic satisfaction. In Our Day alternates two seemingly unrelated stories: in the first, a disillusioned former actress named Sangwon (Hong regular Kim Minhee) who has left her profession behind and is recharging at the apartment of her longtime friend Jung-soo (Song Sunmi); in the second, a middle-aged poet, Hong Uiji (Ki Joo-bong), who has become a cult figure for a new generation of young readers, is being visited by a student (Park Miso) making a documentary about him and a young man (Ha Seong-guk) drilling him with questions about the meaning of it all—which makes it difficult for the artist to refrain from drinking, even though his doctors have sworn him off alcohol. From these two disparate strands, Hong delightfully evokes a world rich with enigma and possibility, in which the most seemingly minute detail (the whereabouts of a cat, the spiciness of a noodle dish) has outsized repercussions and asking life’s big questions often brings us back to square one. A Cinema Guild release.
In Water Hong Sangsoo, 2023, South Korea, 61m Korean with English subtitles North American Premiere
A youthful trio has convened off-season on the desolate yet beautiful Jeju Island. The director, leading actress, and cinematographer are preparing to shoot a film, yet the subject matter remains unclear. While potential professional and romantic jealousies simmer in the background, Hong Sangsoo instead prioritizes the contingencies of artmaking and inspiration, as the film-within-the-film’s first-time director (Shin Seokho) gradually discovers the melancholy centerpiece of his self-funded passion project. Characteristically small yet enormously touching, Hong’s latest treasure happens upon a simple aesthetic conceit that pays dividends: the image is mostly out of focus, lending each frame a delicate, smudgy impressionistic quality. As the young director’s movie gradually makes itself clear on screen, so does Hong’s vision of the often all-consuming pursuit for artistic meaning. A Cinema Guild release.
Janet Planet Annie Baker, 2023, U.S., 113m
It’s the summer before Lacy (Zoe Ziegler) starts sixth grade, and she is spending the lazy months with her acupuncturist mother, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), in their home in the woods. As the months drift by, the bespectacled, taciturn girl, fiercely observant, watches Janet and three enigmatic adults who drift in and out of their lives, whether romantic interests or reconnected friends. Set in 1991 rural Western Massachusetts, the superb debut film from Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Annie Baker is a work of surreal tranquility that moves at a different, lost pace of life, and which perceives heartbreak just as Lacy is beginning to grasp the world and her place in it. Baker has created a film about a mother and daughter quite unlike any other, heightening the viewer’s senses and expressing oceans of feeling with the smallest gestures. Nicholson and Ziegler perform their roles with an inspiring lack of sentimentality, and the wondrous supporting cast includes Elias Koteas, Sophie Okonedo, and Will Patton. An A24 release.
Kidnapped Marco Bellocchio, 2023, Italy, 134m Italian and Hebrew with English subtitles U.S. Premiere
In 1858 Bologna, a 6-year-old named Edgardo Mortara was seized by authorities of the papal state, taken away from his Jewish parents, and placed in the care of the Church. Believed to have been baptized in the cradle under odd circumstances, the child would be claimed as a Catholic. His mind erased of his family’s religious heritage and beliefs, Edgardo was, unbeknownst to him, at the center of an international firestorm that led directly to the Italian people’s rejection of the Pope’s rule amidst the tumultuous Risorgimento. In this sumptuously mounted film from treasured octogenarian director Marco Bellocchio, the Mortara case becomes an extraordinary, nearly operatic historical drama. Kidnapped is at once a personal, human-scale narrative of a family in crisis, following parents who will do anything to retrieve their child from the clutches of a ruthless theocratic government, and a wide-scope portrait of a country on the cusp of revolution. A Cohen Media Group release.
Last Summer Catherine Breillat, 2023, France, 104m French with English subtitles U.S. Premiere
One of the world’s most consistently provocative filmmakers for nearly 50 years, Catherine Breillat proves with her incendiary, compelling new drama that she is not through toying with viewers’ comfort levels. In Last Summer, Léa Drucker stars as Anne, a lawyer who specializes in cases of sexual consent and parental custody. Seemingly happily married to kind-hearted businessman Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin) with adopted twin daughters, Anne inexplicably finds herself drawn to Pierre’s estranged 17-year-old son Théo (Samuel Kircher) after the boy returns home to live with them. Embarking on a passionate affair with the teenager, Anne all too willingly thrusts herself into a maelstrom of attraction, intimidation, and manipulation. Breillat’s incisive screenplay—cannily altered from the Danish erotic thriller Queen of Hearts on which it’s based—elegantly surveys the situation’s extreme power dynamics while giving the brilliant Drucker the chance to create a character who exists entirely within her own moral boundaries. A Sideshow/Janus Films release.
Music Angela Schanelec, 2023, Germany/France/Greece/Serbia, 105m Greek and English with English subtitles U.S. Premiere
Leading contemporary German filmmaker Angela Schanelec (I Was at Home, But…, NYFF57) is singularly adept at creating dramas of unexpected catharsis via the most oblique narrative strategies. Her latest film, Music, pushes this approach to new levels of emotionality. Using abstract gestures and broad narrative ellipses, yet still managing to plumb the depths of its characters’ complicated traumas, Music tells the story of a young man and woman unknowingly united by the same violent death. Brought together by fate and horrible irony, Ion (Aliocha Schneider) and Iro (Agathe Bonitzer) first meet in prison, where he’s an inmate and she’s a guard; they kindle a romance fomented by passion for classical music and opera, followed by marriage and children. Yet as in all tragedies, the past returns to haunt them. Inspired by the Oedipus myth, Schanelec has created an alternately austere and vivid portrait of grief and redemption through art told with her distinctive compositional rigor. A Cinema Guild release.
Orlando, My Political Biography Paul B. Preciado, 2023, France, 98m French with English subtitles
Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando is both historical anchor and hopeful North Star of writer and philosopher Paul B. Preciado’s first film, a sweeping yet intimate documentary that takes a panoramic look at past and present trans lives. Preciado’s literate, charming conceptual approach casts 26 trans and non-binary people as different versions and evocations of Woolf’s famous gender nonconformist, using the book as a starting point to talk about both the social and metaphorical meanings of transness and how Woolf’s reflections on the body untethered from both time and gender normativity remain radical. Fleet and visually inventive, Preciado’s film is finally a robust polemical inquiry into contemporary trans personhood and political disenfranchisement that points the way toward a possible utopia. Winner of four prizes at the Berlin International Film Festival, including the Teddy Award. A Sideshow/Janus Films release.
Perfect Days Wim Wenders, 2023, Japan/Germany, 124m Japanese with English subtitles
As in his finest movies, Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas, NYFF22) here locates the magnificence in the everyday, casting the incomparable Koji Yakusho as the taciturn, good-natured Hirayama, who goes about his solitary hours working as a public toilet cleaner in Tokyo. Interacting on his rounds with a variety of city denizens whose eccentricities put his gentle nature into even more delightful relief, the middle-aged Hirayama becomes the quiet hero of his own story, doing his menial work without complaint, bemused yet often enchanted at the younger folk orbiting him, and delighted by the natural wonders poking out from the corners of the always changing cityscape. Hirayama is a creature very much of the present, devoted to a daily routine that is nearly monastic—until it is disrupted by someone from his past. Working in concert with Wenders’s documentarian eye, Yakusho, who won the Best Actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, makes his character’s every movement magnetic. A NEON release.
Pictures of Ghosts Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2023, Brazil, 93m Portuguese with English subtitles U.S. Premiere
The life of a true cinephile is one constantly haunted by the dead, as the history of the movies is a corridor of ghosts. Brazilian filmmaker and unrepentant cinema obsessive Kleber Mendonça Filho’s new documentary serves as a poignant testament to the liminal state of movie love, telling, in three chapters, the story of his cinematic world—namely the city of Recife, where his youthful film education took place. At theaters like the Veneza and the São Luiz, Mendonça discovered a popular art form that would change his life; today, with the landscape of the city altering drastically, he surveys its empty rooms now pregnant with memories. This moving and playful film, as much about the architectural and social structures of a city as about the movies that inspire and haunt us, honors the personal spaces that are also the communal lifeblood of our urban centers. A Grasshopper Film release.
Poor Things Yorgos Lanthimos, 2023, U.S./U.K./Ireland, 141m
In his boldest vision yet, iconoclast auteur Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, NYFF53; The Favourite, NYFF56) creates an outlandish alternate 19th century on the cusp of technological breakthrough, in which a peculiar, childlike woman named Bella (Emma Stone) lives with her mysterious caretaker, the scientist and surgeon Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Violently rambunctious, with a growing and unquenchable desire for sexual gratification, Bella turns every social propriety on its head. The shocking truth about her state, soon revealed, doesn’t stop Godwin’s gentle young apprentice (Ramy Youssef) from falling in love with her. After a rakish, libertine lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) whisks her away to see the world, Bella comes to understand her place in it, allowing us to bear witness to her journey of self-actualization. At once poignant and grotesque, Poor Things, based on a 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray, is a punkish update of the Frankenstein story that becomes a deeply feminist fairy tale about women taking back control of their own bodies and minds. A Searchlight Pictures release.
La Práctica Martín Rejtman, 2023, Argentina/Chile/Portugal, 89m Spanish with English subtitles North American Premiere
Leading light of the New Argentine Cinema, Martín Rejtman returns with his first film in nearly a decade (following Two Shots Fired, NYFF52), a shrewd deadpan comedy that provides further evidence that few directors are as adept at dramatizing the absurdity of the mundane. Gustavo (Esteban Bigliardi), an Argentinean yoga instructor living in Chile, has recently separated from his wife, which leaves him essentially without an apartment and complicates keeping his business afloat. Adding injury to insult, he’s dealing with a torn meniscus, a meddling mother, a new client who might be a thief and another who gets amnesia during a session. A flirtation with a former student, Laura (Camila Hirane), brings promise for the future. Directed and acted with wry precision, the entrancing La Práctica is a sardonic yet loving immersion into a world in which wellness retreats and physical and spiritual self-improvement naturally exist side-by-side with romantic and professional neuroses.
The Settlers Felipe Gálvez, 2023, Chile, 100m Spanish with English subtitles
A tale of brutal colonialist violence set against the sweeping, mountainous backdrop of Chile at the turn of the 20th century, Felipe Gálvez’s handsomely mounted, emotionally wrenching adventure plays off conventions of the American Western while becoming its own haunting work of cinematic historical exploration. The film follows the journey of three men—an officer of the British army, a mercenary from the American Southwest, and a Chilean mixed-race marksman and tracker to guide the two outsiders—hired by a tyrannical landowner to scout the boundaries of his vast property and execute a new trade route. The true nature of their dispatch, however, comes into focus: to rid the area of its indigenous tribes. With its evocative period setting and arresting landscapes, The Settlers is a vivid, immersive experience, featuring an indelible final passage that reminds us the past is always present. A MUBI release.
The Shadowless Tower Zhang Lu, 2023, China, 144m Mandarin with English subtitles North American Premiere
A novelist and literature professor turned movie director who has been quietly building an impressive filmography for the past 20 years, the 61-year-old Zhang Lu has now constructed an elegiac film about middle-age—its confusions and complications, as well as its beauty and grace. Set in Beijing’s Xicheng district, The Shadowless Tower (its title referring to a 13th-century Buddhist temple known to locals for its odd shape and noteworthy lack of shade) follows the compelling, distinctly human rhythms of Gu Wentong (Xin Baiqing), an aging divorcé who has abandoned his love of poetry writing to become a food critic. Estranged from his disgraced father (hauntingly inhabited by legendary Fifth Generation Chinese filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang) and only occasionally there for his adorable young daughter, who is being watched by his sister and brother-in-law, Gu feels unmoored from life. When, on a work gig, he emotionally connects with a fiercely independent 25-year-old photographer (the marvelous Huang Yao), he suddenly finds himself confronting his unsettled past and destabilized present. Zhang strikes a delicate balance between abstract feeling and the satisfactions of storytelling in this expansive, uncommonly sensitive portrait of contemporary living and the radiancy that can exist in both the sunlit streets and the darkest margins. A Strand Releasing release.
Youth (Spring) Wang Bing, 2023, France/Luxembourg/Netherlands, 215m Chinese regional dialects with English subtitles U.S. Premiere
The latest epic work of observational nonfiction from Wang Bing furthers the filmmaker’s ongoing chronicle of the economic, social, and personal upheavals happening across a transforming China. Deepening the intimacy with which he captures communities of people living amidst financial struggle and toiling for little money in exploitative conditions, Youth (Spring) is a remarkable account of rural migrant workers employed in textile factories in Zhili, a town outside Shanghai. Over the course of five years, Wang follows various groups of people, most of them in their twenties, as they labor over their clothes-making, interact in the cramped dormitories where they live after hours, bargain (often fruitlessly) for better wages, and create emotional bonds and relationships with one another. As the title suggests, this film is specifically about the lives of the young, forcefully and humanely depicting—with its director’s customary patience and unassuming formal rigor—the consequences of the country’s rapid growth on the minds and bodies of a new generation of workers. An Icarus Films release.
The Zone of Interest Jonathan Glazer, 2023, U.K./U.S./Poland, 105m German and Polish with English subtitles
In his chilling, oblique study of evil, British director Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin) situates the viewer at the center of frighteningly familiar banality. It’s summer in the mid-1940s, and a German family merrily idles by a river. Father Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and mother Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) tuck their kids in bed at night. They entertain family and guests in their vast backyard garden on the weekends. In the mornings, she oversees chores with a cadre of housekeepers and cooks; he goes to work as head Commandant of Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Their domestic life is paradisiacal. Yet over the wall abutting their home, we can see smokestacks, and at night we hear screams and occasional gunshots. Loosely inspired by the 2014 novel of the same name by Martin Amis, Glazer has created a singular, unsettlingly timeless representation of inhumanity and our capacity for indifference in the face of atrocity, filmed and edited with aptly cold precision and punctuated with an ominous score by Mica Levi. Winner of the Grand Prix at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. An A24 release.
Precedes La Chimera and Pictures of Ghosts: Pier Paolo Pasolini – Agnès Varda – New York – 1967 Agnès Varda, 2022, France, 3m French with English subtitles North American Premiere In 1966, two legendary filmmakers, in town for the 4th New York Film Festival, took a walk through Times Square. Armed with 16mm color film, Agnès Varda captured Pier Paolo Pasolini. A year later, she edited the footage and recorded his brief commentary track, discussing the uses of documentary filmmaking, Christianity, and the nature of reality. The elements were only discovered in 2021 and restored by Cine-Tamaris, in collaboration with L’Immagine Ritrovata, to their lustrous expressivity.
Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans, the dramatic film “Master Gardener” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latin people, African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A horticulturist at an elite garden estate gets emotionally involved with the grand-niece of his wealthy employer, while he tries to move on from his criminal past as a murderous white supremacist.
Culture Audience: “Master Gardener” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver; filmmaker Paul Schrader; and solidly acted movies about people seeking redemption through reinvention.
“Master Gardner” has a simmering intensity that show signs of boiling over into an intensely memorable film, but the movie puts restraints on itself. This restraint is not going to satisfy many people who see this movie, which is mostly about two people who are trying to forget their past while they have a growing attraction to each other. Some of the dialogue and scenarios are a little too trite for what this drama is trying to say about redemption, but the story and performances overall have enough to maintain the interest of most viewers. Some viewers might expect more melodrama and more suspense.
Written and directed by Paul Schrader, “Master Gardener” (which was filmed on location in New Orleans) has a trailer that reveals about 80% of the movie’s plot. The movie had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival, before making its way to other film festivals that year, including the New York Film Festival. It’s a movie that falls right in with Schrader’s pattern of directing films about somber male loners who are looking for some kind of redemption. (See 2018’s “First Reformed” and 2021’s “The Card Counter.”)
In “Master Gardener,” middle-aged bachelor Narvel Roth (played by Joel Edgerton) has a solitary and quiet life as the live-in horticulturist of Gracewood Gardens, located on a lavish estate. Narvel supervises a small staff of about four people. His employer is the haughty and demanding Norma Haverhill (played by Sigourney Weaver), the sole owner of the estate.
Narvel is not a highly educated or intellectual person, but he is a very knowledgeable horiculturist. In the beginning of the movie, he’s seen looking at pictures of flowers and gardens in the bedroom of his modest guest house on Norma’s property. In voiceover narration, he recites the differences between French gardens (also known as formal gardens), English gardens (also known as informal gardens) and wild gardens.
In this voiceover narration, Narvel shares his philosophy on horticulture: “Gardening is a belief in the future—a belief that things will happen to plan, that change will come in due time.” Narvel is not someone who is talkative or who shows his emotions easily, except when he’s talking about gardening. It’s his passion, and he lights up whenever he gets a chance to talk about anything related to gardening.
Narvel channels his energy into being the best gardener that he could possibly be. However, as already revealed in the “Master Gardener” trailer, Narvel has a very ugly past: He used to belong to a white supremacist militia group. And he used to murder people just because they weren’t white. Narvel also murdered people in his own white supremacist group if any of them did something that angered him. Narvel’s chest and back are covered with tattoos, including multiple Nazi swastikas on his back.
Flashbacks and current scenes reveal that Narvel ended up becoming a star witness in the prosecution of many of his former cronies in the militia group. As a result, Narvel went into the FBI’s witness protection program, where he got an entirely new name and identity. Narvel’s birth name is briefly mentioned at one point in the movie. The FBI agent who has been assigned to keep in touch with Narvel is Oscar Neruda (played by Esai Morales), who has built a trustworthy relationship with Narvel.
Very few people in Narvel’s current life know about his disturbing past. Norma knows that Narvel is an ex-con, but she doesn’t really want to know the details. Every year, Gracewood Gardens has a big spring charity auction on the premises. One day, Norma tells Narvel that this year’s auction will probably be her last because she’s having some “health issues.” (Norma doesn’t elaborate, and Narvel doesn’t ask for more information.)
Norma does not have any children, so her thoughts have been preoccupied with who will take over Gracewood Gardens if she is dead or unable to oversee the estate for other reasons. She wants to keep the property in the family. Norma tells Narvel that she has invited her estranged grand-niece Maya Core (played by Quintessa Swindell) to live and work on the estate. Narvel has been tasked with teaching Maya how to be a horticulturist.
Norma explains to Narvel that Maya is the daughter of Norma’s deceased niece, who was also named Norma. Norma Jr., who died of a drug overdose, was the daughter of Norma Sr.’s sister Betty. Maya, who is in her 20s, grew up in a single-parent household, dropped out of school. and “fell in a with a bad crowd,” according to Norma. Maya’s father is described as a deadbeat dad, who abandoned Norma Jr. and Maya when Maya was very young.
During this apprenticeship, Maya lives in a small guest house on the property. Norma tells Narvel that Maya will be given a minimum-wage salary and car service. Maya will have to provide her own lunch when she’s on the job. Norma says that Maya will get incremental raises to her salary. Norma is subtly racist and doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with the fact that Maya is biracial. (Maya’s father is apparently African American.)
When Maya arrives at the estate, Narvel is cordial and professional with her. Norma avoids interacting with Maya as much as possible. As far as Norma is concerned, Maya is someone who is “the help,” not a family member whom Norma fully accepts. Norma thinks that Maya needs to earn her trust and at least become a skilled gardener if Norma is ever going to consider leaving any care of Gracewood Gardens to Maya. Norma eventually invites Maya to have dinner with her and Narvel inside the estate’s main house, but control freak Norma has chosen the dress that she wants Maya to wear during this dinner.
Narvel soon finds out that Maya has a drug problem, just like Maya’s mother. Although it’s never shown in flashbacks, Narvel has a history of drug abuse too. He lives a very clean and sober life now, but he and Maya both easily figure out that they’re no strangers to drug use. Maya’s risky lifestyle ends up catching up to her, and Narvel gets involved in her problems.
What isn’t really shown in the trailer for “Master Gardener” is that Maya has been trying to avoid two sleazy drug dealers who hang out with each other. The leader of this duo is Robbie Gomez, nicknamed R.G. (played by Jared Bankens), who was also the drug dealer for Maya’s mother. R.G.’s sidekick is a guy named Sissy (played by Matt Mercurio), who is R.G.’s constant companion. R.G. is very possessive of Maya and is practically stalking her.
Maya was living in a run-down, crime-ridden area before she moved to Norma’s estate. Maya doesn’t tell Narvel the details of her relationship with R.G., but she insists that R.G. is not her boyfriend. Based on the way R.G. is acting, it’s implied that Maya has a history of having sex with R.G. for drugs, but he wants to control her like a possessive lover. And when Maya shows up to work one day with fight injuries on her face and confesses to Narvel that R.G. caused those injuries, it’s also very easy to predict how Narvel will react when he sees R.G. and Sissy.
As already shown in the “Master Gardener” trailer, Narvel gets romantically involved with Maya, but it doesn’t happen right away. At first, he resists Maya’s attempts to seduce him, partly because he doesn’t want to get in trouble for crossing certain boundaries, and partly because he doesn’t want Maya to see his neo-Nazi tattoos. But eventually, Maya and Narvel become sexually intimate, after he tells her that he used to be a racist. This sexual consummation scene is meant to show Narvel completely vulnerable and submissive to Maya, as a way to contrast with the life he used to have as a violent white supremacist.
It’s a complicated situation for Narvel, because he has been having sex with Norma, who considers their sexual trysts as part of his job requirement. It will make some viewers uncomfortable to see the messiness of these boss-subordinate sexual relationships, with big age gaps for these sex partners. However, “Master Gardener” isn’t intended to be a glossy romance story. If Norma finds out about Narvel and Maya’s growing affection for each other, things might not end well for Narvel and Maya. This part of the movie is very easy to predict.
What the movie conveys with considerable autheticity is how lonely and emotionally damaged people find ways to connect with each other. Narvel, Maya and Norma are each struggling with their personal issues. And each person, in his or her own way, is trying to put up a façade of “I can handle it” toughness. Maya and Narvel’s relationship doesn’t come across as “soul mates forever,” but more like, “I want to be with this person at this point in my life, and we’ll see what happens.”
Edgerton’s performance might strike some viewers as being very dull, but it’s actually a very accurate depiction of someone who has had to numb his emotions for a very long time. Considering that Narvel had to completely change his identity, there’s a somewhat silent identity crisis that Narvel goes through in the movie. Maya awakens some feelings in Narvel that Narvel hasn’t had for a very long time. And he’s decided he’s not going to run away from those feelings.
As for Maya, her personality is combination of being street-smart and being immature. Swindell’s performance looks authentic in how she portrays this complex character. The title of the movie is “Master Gardener,” so everything is told from Narvel’s perspective. However, the movie could have explored a little more about Maya and the life she had before she met Narvel. Weaver is solid in her role as prickly Norma, but Weaver has played this type of domineering snob many times before in other movies.
“Master Gardener” has some fantasy sequences involving flowers blooming in a heightened reality that’s almost psychedelic. These whimsical scenes don’t quite fit the gritty tone of the rest of the story. It’s also an uneven film, in terms of how much it wants to reveal about Narvel’s past. Viewers find out if Narvel ever got married or had children before his identity was changed.
The main reason why “Master Gardener” doesn’t sink into complete mediocrity is the principal cast members’ talent in handling their scenes. Ultimately, “Master Gardener” is worth watching as a character study of a violent ex-con who can’t entirely leave his thug ways behind. However, the movie doesn’t have much that’s insightful about the extreme changes in lifestyle and mindset that Narvel had to go through to become a former racist.
Magnolia Pictures released “Master Gardener” in select U.S. cinemas on May 19, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Austria, Hungary, England and Germany, in 1877 and 1878, the dramatic film “Corsage” (based on the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria) features an all-white group of people representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.
Culture Clash: As she nears her 40th birthday, Empress Elisabeth feels neglected by a philandering husband and tries to rebel against a repressive environment that dictates her physical appearance, what she wears, and how she raises her children.
Culture Audience: “Corsage” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of history-based biopics but viewers should be prepared to see a story that is more downbeat than uplifting.
“Corsage” is gorgeously filmed and woefully depressing with glimmers of playful sarcasm about royal culture. Vicky Krieps gives a memorable performance as Empress Elisabeth of Austria, but this drama won’t appeal to anyone looking for a fun-filled story. “Corsage” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, where Krieps won a Best Performance award in the festival’s Un Certain Regard competition. “Corsage” also screened at other film festivals in 2022, including the New York Film Festival.
Written and directed by Marie Kreutzer, “Corsage” takes place in 1877 and 1878, mostly in the Austrian city of Vienna and the Hungarian city of Budapest. Empress Elisabeth, nicknamed Sissi, was also queen of Hungary. The movie, which changes some real-life facts, gives an up-close and sometimes disturbing personal look at the life Elisabeth, who seems to be living a charmed life in the public eye. In private, things are quite different for the empress, who is fretting about soon turning 40, her physical appearance, and her crumbling marriage.
Elisabeth says in a voiceover: “From the age of 40, a person begins to disperse and fade.” (Keep in mind, this is during an era when the average life expectancy was much lower than it is today.) From the first 10 minutes of the movie, it’s made clear that Elisabeth is deeply troubled and has self-esteem issues.
One of the things that she does on a regular basis (as shown in an early scene in the movie) is hold her breath underwater in a bathtub for as long as possible. The first time the movie shows her engaging in this dangerous stunt, she’s held her breath underwater for 40 seconds. She’s clearly not doing this for daredevil fun. It’s an obvious cry for help, because her life is making her miserable.
Elisabeth’s husband Franz Joseph I of Austria (played by Florian Teichtmeister) is inattentive and cold toward her. He seems bored with their marriage. Franz Joseph (who wears a fake beard and a hairpiece) won’t even let Elisabeth eat dinner with him. And when Elisabeth tries to be sexually intimate with Franz Joseph, he’s not interested. Later, Elisabeth sees Franz Joseph being affectionate with another woman. It just confirms what she probably knew already: Franz Joseph has been unfaithful to her.
Elisabeth and Franz Joseph have a daughter together named Valerie (played by Rosa Hajjaj), who’s about 7 or 8 years old, and a son named Rudolph (played by Aaron Friesz), who is in his early 20s. Franz Joseph and Elisabeth had another daughter named Sophie, who died years ago and would have been 22 years old in 1847. As a couple, Elisabeth and Franz Joseph do not talk about Sophie, but it’s implied that Sophie’s death has taken a toll on their marriage. In real life, Sophie died in a fire in 1897, which was 20 years after the story in this movie takes place.
Elisabeth feels so neglected, when she’s in public, she pretends to faint, just so she can get the type of attention that a royal woman would get when she faints. She does this phony fainting after getting out of a carriage during a visit to King Ludwig II of Bavaria (played by Manuel Rubey). Later, she tells King Ludwig II in a private conversation that her fainting spell was all an act. And she shows him how she does it.
One of Elisabeth’s concerns is how she is covered by the tabloid media. There have been reports that she’s been trying to lose weight. These reports are true. “Corsage” has several scenes where Elisabeth’s weight and diet are obsessively monitored by Elisabeth and many of the people around her. Observant viewers will notice that not much has changed with today’s tabloid media outlets, which give obsessive coverage to the physical appearance (including any weight loss or weight gain) of young and famous royal women.
In her spare time, Elisabeth does fencing and horse-riding activities. The movie shows how Elisabeth impulsively orders Valerie to ride horses with her in the early-morning hours. As a result, Valerie gets sick. Franz Joseph blames Elisabeth for Valerie’s illness, and it causes further strain in their marriage. Franz Joseph wants to make Elisabeth feel like she’s an unfit mother.
Elisabeth’s closest confidante is Ida Ferenczy (played by Jeanne Werner), a Hungarian lady-in-waiting for Elisabeth. Elisabeth is also close with another lady-in-waiting Marie Festetics (played by Katharina Lorenz), who keeps meticulous diaries of what her royal employer does. Also in Elisabeth’s inner circle is her hair stylist Fanny Feifalik (played by Alma Hasun), who is in for a shock after Elisabeth cuts off her own long hair during an emotional fit. It says a lot about Elisabeth and that her closest friends were also her servants.
Elisabeth also has some male friends, one of whom becomes her love interest. She and a younger man named Bay Middleton (played by Colin Morgan) have a mutual attraction. Elisabeth’s son Rudolph expresses concern to her that people are gossiping about how much time she spends alone with Bay. Elisabeth also strikes up a friendship with French cinematographer Louis Le Prince (played by Finnegan Oldfield), who makes short films with her. (In real life, Le Prince is considered the “godfather” of cinematography.)
“Corsage” has a very revisionist take on the real Elisabeth’s life, including how she died. The movie portrays her as possibly manic depressive but with a mischievous streak. She likes to flip her middle finger or stick her tongue out at people when she’s displeased about something. And in an era where it was considered not very ladylike to smoke cigarettes, Elisabeth was a chronic smoker.
Under the astute direction of Kreutzer, “Corsage” delivers everything that viewers might expect of a drama about European royalty: sumptuous costumes, luxurious production design, and elite characters talking as if they’re always breathing rarefied air. However, this admittedly stuffy movie can just as easily be a turnoff to viewers who won’t feel any emotional connection to these characters at all. Krieps gives a compelling performance, but Elisabeth’s self-destructive tendencies becomes a bit draining to watch.
One of the movie’s highlights is the musical score by Camille. It’s haunting and enchanting in all the right ways. “Corsage” is a cautionary tale told in an “all that glitters is not gold” manner. It’s a story that is about a specific royal woman, but it can apply to anyone who is living a restrictive and unhappy existence, even if that life might look privileged and wonderful on the outside.
IFC Films released “Corsage” in select U.S. cinemas on December 23, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on February 7, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Portland, Oregon, the comedy/drama film “Showing Up” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: An introverted sculptor artist, who works for an arts college, must contend with a variety of challenges, including a difficult landlord, getting her art ready in time for an upcoming exhibit, her divorced parents and a troubled brother with mental health issues.
Culture Audience: “Showing Up” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Michelle Williams, filmmaker Kelly Reichardt and realistic movies about neurotic people in quirky communities.
“Showing Up” is right in line with writer/director Kelly Reichardt’s pattern of doing low-key movies about people who are emotionally stifled in some way. The last third movie is not as good as the rest of the film, but it’s still a watchable story. Viewers who are expecting “Showing Up” to have a lot of melodrama, suspenseful action or shocking surprises will be disappointed. In keeping with Reichardt’s filmmaking style, “Showing Up” is a movie about people going about their everyday lives and facing challenges that aren’t that unusual. “Showing Up” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and also screened the 2022 New York Film Festival.
Reichardt co-wrote “Showing Up” with Jonathan Raymond after they originally wanted to do a biopic about Canadian artist Emily Carr (who died in 1945, at the age of 73), but Reichardt and Raymond abandoned the idea when they found out how famous Carr is in Canada. Instead, they made “Showing Up” a fictional film about a sculptor artist named Lizzy Carr (played by Michelle Williams), who is not famous and is living a quiet and unassuming life in Portland, Oregon.
Lizzy is a sculptor artist whose day job is working in administration at a small arts college. (The college scenes in “Showing Up” were filmed at now-defunct Oregon College of Art and Craft, which closed in 2019.) Lizzy is introverted and lives by herself. When she’s at home, she prefers to work on her art and doesn’t like being interrupted. Lizzy doesn’t get her art in gallery exhibits very often. And so, the upcoming gallery exhibit that she has is a very big deal for her.
Most of Lizzy’s sculptor pieces are the size of figurines and are often of people sculpted in ragged shapes. Lizzy wants to finish all of her art on time for this exhibit, but several things happen during the course of the story that prevent her for working on her art in the uninterrupted way that she would prefer. “Showing Up” is mostly about how she deals with these challenges, as well as what she learns about herself and her priorities.
In the beginning of the movie, Lizzy is dealing with one of those challenges: her landlord Jo (played by Hong Chau), who is also an artist. Jo has an annoying habit of ignoring or delaying Lizzy’s request to repair things in Lizzy’s rental home. (Jo lives nearby.) One of the movie’s early scenes shows Lizzy becoming irritated with Jo because Lizzy has no hot water for her shower, and Jo has once again been ignoring Lizzy’s requests to fix the shower.
Jo tells Lizzy that Lizzy can use Jo’s shower in the meantime. But that’s not the point. Lizzy is paying Jo rent to have working utilities in the home. Jo isn’t keeping her end of the deal as a landlord. Lizzy comments to Jo, “You’re not the only person with a deadline.” Jo’s replies, “I know, but I have two showers, which is in insane.”
Lizzy’s art in the movie was made in real life by Cynthia Lahti. Jo’s installation-sized art in the movie was made in real life by Michelle Segre. The sizes of art pieces are meant to reflect the different personalities of Lizzy and Jo. Lizzy is quiet and unassuming. Jo is extroverted and likes to call attention to herself.
Lizzy has some other issues in her life. Her mother Jean (played by Maryann Plunkett) is also her boss at work. Jean and Lizzy sometimes have disagreements that on the surface seem to be about work, but they’re really about unspoken resentments that Lizzy and Jean have toward each other. Jean thinks Lizzy is stubborn, while Lizzy thinks Jean is too demanding. Their conflicts aren’t major, but they’re enough to make the relationship slightly strained.
A lot of this mother-daughter friction has to do with how Lizzy has been affected by her parents’ divorce. Jean uses Lizzy as a go-between to communicate with Lizzy’s free-spirited father Bill (played by Judd Hirsch), who is very different from uptight and rigid Jean. Bill has let a random bohemian couple named Dorothy (played by Amanda Plummer) and Lee (played by Matt Malloy) live with Bill in his home, shortly after he met them. Dorothy and Lee, who are from Canada, say they’re just “visiting,” but they haven’t told Bill when they’ll be leaving.
Jean thinks that Bill is being taken advantage of by this couple, because she’s pretty sure these new housemates are not giving Bill any compensation for his hospitality. Because Jean is Bill’s ex-wife and no longer lives with him, she doesn’t have a say on how he lives his life. However, Jean is pressuring Lizzy to talk to Bill about his living arrangement with these two new housemates. Lizzy doesn’t really want to get involved, so she resents that her mother is trying to use her as a pawn.
Meanwhile, Lizzy has a younger brother named Sean (played by John Magaro), who’s been struggling with mental health issues, which have led to him being homeless at various times in his life. Jean is in deep denial about Sean’s mental health issues. Jean thinks Sean is a “genius” who doesn’t need psychiatric help, while Lizzy has a completely opposite opinion.
When Sean has a big scene in a certain part of the movie, “Showing Up” falters because it just looks like awkward slapstick comedy. “Showing Up” loses a lot of emotional resonance in this scene where the movie could have been had its strongest and most meaningful impact. And frankly, it seems like this mentally ill character is just used in the most negative, stereotypical ways, instead of treating this character as a well-rounded person.
Another wasted opportunity was in casting André Benjamin as Eric, Lizzy’s friendly co-worker who is a kiln master at the college. Benjamin shares headlining billing for this movie, but you wouldn’t know it, based it on how little screen time he has (less than 10 minutes) and how Eric ends up being a character who is completely inconsequential to any storyline in the movie. Quite frankly, Eric looks like a token character in “Showing Up,” as if the filmmakers wanted to show the audience: “Look, we gave an African American a speaking role the movie to make our cast look racially diverse.”
“Showing Up” also has a few subplots that might induce boredom with some viewers. Lizzy takes care of a wounded bird with a broken wing, after Jo finds the bird and hands off the responsibility of taking care of it to Lizzy. At least the wounded bird subplot (which is obvious symbolism for how Lizzy feels) actually has a purpose for the story—unlike a meandering and flimsy subplot about Lizzy and her co-workers having to accommodate an artist in residence named Marlene Heyman (played by Heather Lawless), who is diva-like and has many star-struck fans at the school.
“Showing Up” greatly benefits from having talented cast members (especially Williams and Chau), who make the movie’s characters believable when less-skilled cast members wouldn’t have been able to do the same thing. There have been many movies made about mopey male artists who’ve dedicated themselves so completely to their art, it’s affected their personal lives. Not many movies are made about this type of female artist, so viewers might have varying reactions to Lizzy’s less-than-charismatic personality. “Showing Up” is a well-acted story about the reality of most artists’ lives: far from glamorous, struggling in obscurity, and trying to be their definition of personal greatness.
A24 released “Showing Up” in select U.S. cinemas on April 7, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in 2016, in Paris and Saint-Omer, France, the dramatic film “Saint Omer” (based partially on a true story) features a cast of white and black people representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A writer/teacher becomes obsessed with attending the trial of a Senegalese immigrant woman accused of murdering her own toddler daughter.
Culture Audience: “Saint Omer” will appeal primarily to fans of courtroom dramas that reflect larger issues in society.
“Saint Omer” skillfully draws parallels between the gripping drama of a courtroom trial and how mothers are judged by society, when it comes to race, class and privilege. The movie is partially inspired by director Alice Diop’s real-life experiences of becoming obsessed with the case of Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese immigrant woman accused in 2013 of killing her own baby girl by abandoning the infant on a beach at the rising tide in Berck-sur-Mer, France. Diop traveled from Paris to attend Kabou’s trial, which was held in Saint-Omer, France. Saint-Omer is located about 131 miles (211 kilometers), or a four-hour train ride, from Paris. It’s the same plot presented in “Saint Omer,” which was co-written by Diop, Marie N’Diaye and Amrita David.
“Saint Omer” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival, where it won the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize. The movie then made the rounds at several other high-profile film festivals in 2022, including the Toronto International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, the BFI London Film Festival and AFI Fest. “Saint Omer” has been selected as France’s official entry for the Best International Feature Film for the 2023 Academy Awards. “Saint Omer” is also Diop’s first narrative feature film. She previously directed the 2022 documentary “La Permanence” and the 2016 documentary “We.”
“Saint Omer” opens in 2016, with the introduction of a Paris-based writer/teacher named Rama (played by Kayije Kagame), who teaches a film class and is also working on a novel. Rama and her supportive husband Adrien (played by Thomas de Pourquery) are happily married. She is also close to her two sisters Khady (played by Mariam Diop) and Tening (plauyed by Dado Diop) and their mother Seynabou (played by Adama Diallo Tamba), who are all of Senegalese heritage. The only hint of sadness in the family is when the family members look at old home videos and talk about Seynabou’s late father, who unexpectedly passed away of an unnamed illness. It’s mentioned when they watch these videos that he doesn’t look sick in the videos.
Rama’s world is about to be rocked to the core when she becomes caught up in getting the latest news about a 36-year-old Senegalese woman named Laurence Coly (played by Guslagie Malanda), who is accused of murdering her own 15-month-old daughter Adélaïde in 2015, by abandoning the child on a beach during a high tide. Laurence was raising Adélaïde as a single mother. The prosecution says the motive for this murder was that Ph.D. student Laurence didn’t want the burden of raising a child while working on her thesis.
Rama is struck by how much she and Laurence have in common, in terms of being Senegalese French women of the same age and educated with graduate degrees. Rama is also pregnant, but doesn’t reveal that information right away. And just like Laurence’s child, Rama’s child will be biracial, by having have a black mother and a white father.
Rama is compelled to attend the trial every day, so she travels to Saint-Omer by train, and she stays at a hotel for however long the trial will take place. She tells Adrien and her family that maybe the trial could be an inspiration for her next novel. However, it soon becomes obvious that Rama is going to the trial for more than just informational purposes or research. She’s going to see what kind of person Laurence is and how she will be treated by the criminal justice system in this trial. So much of Laurence’s case is subtly and not-so-subtly focused on how Laurence’s race and immigrant status might have affected what she’s been accused of doing.
The majority of screen time in “Saint Omer” consists of the trial proceedings, especially the riveting testimony of Laurence, who essentially tells her life story under questioning. It’s a story of a woman whose life is a mess of contradictions: She sought to gain social-status privilege but was also repelled by social-status privilege. She hates her dysfunctional relationship with her unavailable father, but she also got involved in a dysfunctional relationship with an unavailable older married man, who was the father of Adélaïde. She’s educated about the psychology of people but also ignorant about how she should treat her own mental-health issue of depression.
Laurence’s father Robert is a United Nations translator, who was in a relationship with Laurence’s mother for seven years, but they never married, and he ended the relationship to be with another woman. Robert financially supported Laurence up until a certain point, but he was never emotionally available to her, according to what Laurence says in her trial testimony. Laurence says that her single mother put a lot of pressure on her to succeed. In 1998, at the age of 18, Laurence moved from Senegal to France, because she wanted to get away from her parents.
Laurence’s ex-lover/Adélaïde father Luc Dumontet (played by Xavier Maly) and his wife Cécile Jobard (played by Charlotte Clamens) also testify in the trial. But it is Laurence’s testimony that captivates the courtroom spectators (and the viewers of “Saint Omer”) the most. Rama feels such a strong connection to Laurence, when Rama happens to see Laurence’s mother Odile Diatta (played by Salimata Kamate) randomly outside the courtroom, Rama impulsively strikes up a conversation with Odile and tries to get to know her better.
Malanda’s transfixing performance as Laurence is really the centerpiece of “Saint Omer,” because Rama’s story takes a backseat when the movie focuses on Laurence’s testimony. However, viewers get to see how this trial is affecting Rama when she goes back to her hotel room and has conversations with Adrien about it. Keeping her pregnancy a secret starts to take its toll. Rama eventually reveals in a powerful scene why she kept her pregnancy a secret. Kagame’s performance as Rama is very good, but Rama is not as complex as Laurence.
The underlying tone of “Saint Omer” asks viewers to pay attention to the clues of how people in the movie react to Laurence as a defendant in this case. There’s a stereotype that women who are accused of murdering their children usually have a financial motive, either because they can’t afford childcare or want to get insurance money. Laurence doesn’t fit that stereotype, so it adds fuel to the public’s fascination with her.
Laurence also doesn’t fit the stereotype of an underprivileged, undereducated “angry” black woman who gets accused of a violent crime. There are racial implications in how people react to Laurence’s demure image, eloquence in speaking and calm demeanor when she’s on the witness stand. Does it unnerve people that Laurence comes across as mournful and defeated instead of angry and defiant? And what does that say about how people think black women “should” act in the situation that Laurence is in during this trial?
By extension, Rama feels some of this racial judgment in Saint-Omer, a city that has a large population of working-class white people. How do many of these people feel when they encounter or see well-educated immigrants who are of a different race? The voir dire process shown in “Saint Omer” gives an insightful look into people’s attitudes among the pool of potential jurors before they even hear a word of testimony from Laurence.
The trial in “Saint Omer” is a symbol for larger issues of how the criminal justice system treats people of different races who are accused of the same crimes. Who deserves mercy and redemption? There are no easy answers, but there are patterns to how a defendant’s fate in the criminal justice system is largely determined by the defendant’s race and socioeconomic status. “Saint Omer” is also a thoughtful warning of what can happen when mental health problems go untreated, which is an issue that transcends all cultural boundaries.
Super LTD released “Saint Omer” in select U.S. cinemas for a one-week limited engagement on December 9, 2022. The movie’s release expands to more U.S. cinemas on January 13, 2023. “Saint Omer” was released in France on November 23, 2022.
Culture Representation: In the documentary film “Is That Black Enough for You?!?,” a predominantly African American group of people (with a few white people), who are all connected to the movie industry in some way, discuss the impact of African American-oriented movies that were made from 1968 to 1978.
Culture Clash: Black filmmakers and cast members had uphill battles dealing with racism and socioeconomic inequalities when making movies centered on African Americans.
Culture Audience: “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in cinema history from 1968 to 1978, as well as how sociopolitical issues affected African American movies that were made during this time period.
The title of the documentary “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” is inspired by this catchphrase being said in director Ossie Davis’ 1970 action comedy film “Cotton Comes to Harlem.” It’s a phrase that can apply to the debates and dilemmas about African American representation on screen and behind the scenes, in the art and business of filmmaking. Writer/director Elvis Mitchell gives elegant narration and an informative retrospective in this noteworthy cultural documentary, which puts a deserving spotlight on African American-oriented movies and filmmakers from 1968 to 1978.
“Is That Black Enough for You?!?” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 New York Film Festival) is the feature-film directorial debut of Mitchell, a longtime film critic and historian. As he explains in the documentary, he chose to focus on the years 1968 to 1978 not just because movies from that 10-year time period had a massive impact on him in his youth but also because its the first major renaissance period when movies centered on or starring African-Americans became mainstream hits in the United States and other parts of the world. Through interviews, archival footage and Mitchell’s superb analysis, “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” takes viewers on a journey that is unique, informational and worth watching by anyone who loves movie history.
Mitchell begins the movie on a personal note, by describing how he developed his passion for on-screen entertainment. He says that he and his family would regularly go to the movies when he was growing up. His grandmother, who was originally from Mississippi, was particularly influential on him. She would describe movies as resembling dreams.
From an early age, Mitchell says he was keenly aware of whether or not he was seeing African Americans like himself on screen. He tells an anecdote about how his grandmother wouldn’t let him and other young people in their family watch “The Andy Griffith Show” comedy series, because there were no black people on the show. His grandmother would say about the black people who weren’t part of the American communities represented on screen: “What do you think happened to them?”
As people who are knowledgeable about U.S. history already know, what happened was that it was legal in the U.S. to segregate white people and people of color until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Since movies are often a reflection of what’s going on in society at the time, the origins of African American cinema’s first major renaissance can reasonably be traced back to the effects of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
It just so happens that 1968 was a flashpoint year for African American history that extended to filmmaking. It was the year that civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated, but it was also a year that Sidney Poitier was one of the biggest movie stars in the world and the first black actor to have this type of movie star status. Poitier helped pave the way not just to have international hit movies with a black person as the star but also to create more opportunities for filmmakers who wanted to make movies with a black-majority cast. It was the first time in movie history that movies with black-majority casts would become big hits and/or have an important influence on mainstream culture.
In the late 1960s and through the 1970s, the Black Power Movement thrived and challenged white supremacist racism permeating through all aspects of society. Mitchell comments in the documentary: “Revolt broke out in the movies too.” It wasn’t enough just for African Americans to be on screen, usually in roles showing subservience to white people. There was a movement to have more movies showing the varieties of African American people and communities that exist, including roles where African Americans could be in charge.
Actor/activist Harry Belafonte, a longtime friend of Poitier (who passed away in 2022), says in the documentary that Poitier made a name for himself in the movies by being the only black man among an overwhelming majority of white people. Although Poitier usually played upstanding, professional men, Poitier’s earliest movies were often about him having to assimilate into a white-majority community or society. The tone, whether overt or subtle, was that the characters that Poitier played in these movies had to make white people feel comfortable around him, rather than the character just being allowed to be himself without having to “accommodate” anyone.
Breaking racial barriers can be an achievement that’s diminished if the person breaking the barrier is treated or perceived as a token. Mitchell comments on the type of success that Poitier had with in the first few decades of Poitier’s career: “Unfortunately, he’s the entertainment industry’s reaction to people of color. Black success in the entertainment industry is like finding a $100 bill on the subway: an unrepeatable phenomenon.”
Belafonte says in the documentary that one of the reasons why he stopped making movies from 1959 to 1970 was that these types of Afro-centric movies just weren’t being greenlit by major movie studios at the rate that Belafonte thinks they should have been. And he didn’t want to take the same old racially demeaning roles that were often offered to African American actors at the time. Belafonte comments on how he dealt with racist attitudes in the entertainment industry, “I’m not going to do anything that I didn’t think was worthy of being done. I have a destination that answers your denial of what I could be.”
Fortunately, many African American filmmakers didn’t want to wait around for major studios to offer them opportunities. “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” gives an excellent overview of the African American independent filmmaking community that grew from the late 1960s onward. Many of these filmmakers hired large numbers of black people in front of and behind the camera.
Among the African American filmmakers who get props in the documentary for being directors who hired a lot of black people from 1969 to 1978 are Charles Burnett (one of the people interviewed in the film), William Greaves, Melvin Van Peebles, Stan Lathan (also interviewed in the documentary), Max Julian, Davis and Poitier. Julian is mentioned as one of the few African American filmmakers at the time who owned his movies. The documentary also gives credit to pre-1960s filmmakers who paved with way with African American-majority casts, including Oscar Micheaux and Alice Guy-Blaché.
Poitier made his feature-film directorial debut with the 1972 Western “Buck and the Preacher,” in which he co-starred with Belafonte. In the documentary, Belafonte says he believes that the movie was not a commercial success because mainstream movie audiences at the time just weren’t ready to see a movie centered on black cowboys. To be fair, Belafonte notes that black audiences didn’t really show up for the movie either. He comments that the movie’s adversaries were “black perception of itself and black perception as the world sees us.”
The documentary mentions the 1968 Western “Once Upon a Time in the West” (directed by Sergio Leone) as one of the few mainstream films of this era that actually had a black person in a significant speaking role: the character of Stony, played by Woody Strode. Although some might think of Stony as a black token, this representation mattered to a lot of people. As an example, it’s mentioned in the documentary that Isaac Hayes (who won an Oscar for composing the music to 1971’s “Shaft”) was influenced by Stony when writing film music.
“Is That Black Enough for You?!?” cites director George Romero’s 1968 horror classic “Night of the Living Dead” as the first hit movie to have a black man (Duane Jones, in the character of Ben) starring in an action hero role. Mitchell says in the narration that what was also groundbreaking about the film was that Ben’s race wasn’t the focal point of “The Night of the Living Dead,” because the movie was about people surviving a zombie invasion. Mitchell notes that “Night of the Living Dead” was embraced by a lot of African American militants at the time because of the parallels between what happened in the movie and what was going on with all the civil unrest in America.
Numerous other seminal feature films starring African Americans are mentioned in “Is That Black Enough for You?!?,” including 1969’s “Putney Swope” (directed by Robert Downey Sr.); 1971’s “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (directed by Melvin Van Peebles); 1972’s “Super Fly”; 1972’s “Lady Sings the Blues” (directed by Sidney J. Furie); 1972’s “Sounder” (directed by Marvin Ritt); and 1974’s “Claudine” (directed by Jack Starrett). Impactful documentaries during this era included the 1970 Muhammad Ali biography “A.K.A. Cassius Clay” (directed by Jimmy Jacobs) and the 1973 concert film “Save the Children” (directed by Lathan).
“Is That Black Enough for You?!?” also celebrates some of the breakthrough African Americans who were Oscar nominees from 1968 to 1978, including Rupert Crosse (Best Supporting Actor nominee for 1969’s “The Reivers”), James Earl Jones (Best Actor nominee for 1970’s “The Great White Hope”), Diana Ross (Best Actress nominee for “Lady Sings the Blues”), Cicely Tyson (Best Actress nominee for “Sounder”), Paul Winfield (Best Actor nominee for “Sounder”) and Diahann Carroll (Best Actress nominee for “Claudine”). One of the people interviewed in the documentary is Suzanne de Passe, who became the first black woman to get a screenplay Oscar nomination (Best Original Screenplay), for co-writing “Lady Sings the Blues.”
Other people interviewed in the film include entertainers Samuel L. Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, Laurence Fishburne, Glynn Turman, Zendaya, Billy Dee Williams, Sheila Frazier, Mario Van Peebles (son of Melvin Van Peebles), Margaret Avery, Roscoe Orman and Antonio Fargas. Louise Archambault Greaves (William Greaves’ widow) and “Super Fly” cinematographer James Signorelli also weigh in with their thoughts. Williams comments on his sex-symbol status that he had, beginning in the 1970s: “It was very funny to me. It was something that had never happened to me before.”
Frazier tells a memorable story about how she was initially rejected for the leading actress role in “Super Fly.” She was so hurt by this rejection that she changed her phone number, only to find out a few months later by randomly meeting one of the filmmakers that they had been trying to contact her during those months because they changed their mind. Fishburne talks about how he was originally cast in “Claudine,” but when Diane Sands (who originally was cast in the title role) died in 1973 of leiomyosarcoma (a rare form of muscle cancer), the filmmakers decided to make major recastings for the film.
Mario Van Peebles tells some great behind-the-scenes stories about his father Melvin, who pioneered the marketing tactic of releasing a movie’s soundtrack before the movie. (“Super Fly” used the same tactic to great success.) Mario Van Peebles says that his father used to have a secretary named Priscilla, who wanted to be an actress in “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” but her boyfriend at the time (a member of Earth, Wind & Fire who is not named in the documentary) wouldn’t let her. However, as a compromise, Melvin convinced Earth, Wind & Fire to write the soundtrack music for the movie.
Mario Van Peebles also tells a story about how his father came up with a clever idea to convince nervous white studio executives to distribute the potentially controversial 1970 comedy film “Watermelon Man.” The movie was about a racist white man (played by African American actor Godfrey Cambridge), who woke up one morning to find out that he had turned into a black man. Mario says that before the meeting with the studio executives, his father payed an African American sanitation worker in the building to be in the screening room and laugh at the jokes in the movie while the executives watched “Watermelon Man.” This “one-man focus group” tactic worked, says Mario Van Peebles, who describes this tactic as being “like racial jiu jitsu.”
The “blaxploitation” films of the 1970s (include those made by actor/producer Rudy Ray Moore) have their share of fans and critics. As mentioned in the documentary, the upside to the “blaxploitation” genre of this era is that they were the first major hit films to have African American women as the central action stars, not just as sidekicks or supporting players. Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson are credited with being pioneers for African American female action stars, with Grier’s 1973 film “Coffy” and Dobson’s 1973 film “Cleopatra Jones” mentioned as their most influential movies. The documentary also mentions some of the low points in blaxploitation films, including “Mandingo” and “Coonskin,” both released in 1975.
This era of African American-oriented filmmaking also gave rise to a new wave of African American movie stars who came from backgrounds other than acting. Ross was famous for being in the Supremes and had a successful solo singing career when she landed her first movie star role in “Lady Sings the Blues.” Richard Pryor was a well-known stand-up comedian before he had his movie breakthrough in “Lady Sings the Blues.” Jim Brown was a football star before he launched his movie career, which included action films such as 1968’s “Kenner” and 1972’s “Black Gunn.”
One of the best things about “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” (which has great editing by Michael Engelken and Doyle Esch) is that this documentary doesn’t just spotlight mainstream hits but it also gives screen time to underrated movie gems that prominently feature African Americans. Greaves’ 1968 “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One” is mentioned as an important experimental film from an African American filmmaker. The 1972 drama “Black Girl” (directed by Davis) is described as an often-overlooked African American movie that’s worth watching.
The 1976 musical drama “Sparkle” (directed by Sam O’Steen) is cited as an influential precursor to the “Dreamgirls” stage musical and movie. The 1975 urban drama “Cornbread, Earl and Me” (directed by Joseph Manduke) was influential to 1991’s “Boyz N the Hood,” says “Boyz N the Hood” co-star Fishburne. And before black superheroes got their own movies with 1997’s “Spawn,” 1998’s “Blade” or 2018’s “Black Panther,” there was 1977’s “Abar, the First Black Superman,” directed by Frank Packard.
The commercial disappointment of the 1978 movie musical “The Wiz” is mentioned as the end of an era, because movie executives began to think that African American-oriented movies were starting to become less popular with the moviegoing public. It then became harder for African American-oriented movies to get financing until a new renaissance emerged in the 1990s, with hit films such as “Boyz N the Hood,” “House Party,” “Menace II Society,” “Friday,” “Set It Off,” “The Best Man” and “Soul Food.” If Mitchell or any other filmmakers want to do a documentary about the 1990s renaissance of African American movies, there would be plenty of people who would be interested.
“Is That Black Enough for You?!?” is more than a love letter to the movies of 1968 to 1978 that celebrated African Americans. It’s also a full immersion into a fascinating culture with a narrative that is very thoughtful and almost poetic. (For example, Mitchell has this to say about some of the music of the movies featured in the documentary: “The scores weren’t just textures, but detonation of thought and sound.”) It’s a documentary that gives people a better appreciation for these movies, as well as inspiration and anticipation for any more creativity to come in African American-oriented filmmaking.
Netflix released “Is That Black Enough for You?!?” in select U.S. cinemas on October 28, 2022. The movie premiered on Netflix on November 11, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Seoul, South Korea, from 2014 to 2022, the dramatic film “Return to Seoul” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A 25-year-old woman, who was born in South Korea and was adopted by a white, middle-class French family when she was a baby, impulsively goes to Seoul to find her biological parents and goes on an unexpected life journey in Seoul for the next eight years.
Culture Audience: “Return to Seoul” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in unconventional movies about adoptees looking for their biological parents.
“Return to Seoul” is as wandering and unpredictable as the protagonist’s emotional journey in her search for biological parents. The movie’s ending could have been better, but there is realistic ambivalence in how her search will affect her identity. “Return to Seoul” goes off on an unexpected tangent that might be a turnoff to some viewers, because this plot development doesn’t fit the usual narrative of scripted movies about adoptees looking for biological relatives. However, it’s an interesting and original choice that’s actually consistent with the the protagonist’s unpredictable and rebellious personality.
Written and directed by Cambodian French filmmaker Davy Chou, “Return to Seoul” draws on Chou’s own experiences of having a dual-nationality heritage. The movie’s lead character is named Frédérique Benoît (played by Park Ji-min), but she prefers to be called by her nickname Freddie. She was born in South Korea and adopted as a baby by a white, middle-class French family, who gave her a very good life. “Return to Seoul” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and then made the rounds at several other film festivals in 2022, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. “Return to Seoul” is Cambodia’s official entry for consideration in the Best International Feature Film category for the 2023 Academy Awards.
“Return to Seoul” begins in 2014, when 25-year-old Freddie checks into the hotel where she will be staying in Seoul during her search for her biological parents. She makes fast friends with Tena (played by Guka Han), who is the hotel’s front desk clerk, and Tena’s close pal Dongwan (played by Son Seung-beom), who speaks French and can often act as a translator, since Freddie doesn’t really know how to communicate in Korean. Freddie tells Tena and Dongwan why she is in Seoul. Dongwan immediately recommends that Freddie go to the Hammond Adoption Center, where many South Korean babies and other children were adopted out to parents outside of Asia.
When Freddie checks into the hotel, she says she only plans to stay for three nights. “Return to Seoul” shows that she ends up staying in Seoul for the next eight years. As already shown in the movie’s trailer, Freddie meets her biological father (played by Oh Kwang-rok, in a very good performance), who does not have a first name in the movie. Freddie also finds out her birth name (Do Yeon-hee) and why she was given up for adoption.
Freddie’s biological mother remains elusive for much of the story though, despite efforts to contact her. It’s obvious that Freddie wants to meet her biological mother more than she wants to meet her father. Freddie’s biological father is remorseful and desperate to make up for lost time with Freddie. He lives with his wife (played by Cha Mi-kyung); their teenage daughters Aimee (Song Hae-in) and Cadette (played by ); and his mother (played by Hur Ouk-sook), who all welcome Freddie into their family with open arms.
What Freddie does not anticipate is for her biological father to become almost obsessed with her. He insists that she live with him and his family. And he expects Freddie to have a traditional South Korean life, where he says he can help her find a husband. It’s established early on that Freddie considers herself to be an independent French woman, so her reaction is what you will expect it to be.
And what does Freddie’s adoptive family in France think of her trip to Seoul? When she tells her adoptive mother by a video chat, Freddie mentions that the trip was not planned and that Freddie only went to Seoul because the two-week trip to Tokyo that Freddie had originally planned was cancelled because of a typhoon. Freddie’s mother is the only member of her adoptive family who is shown reacting to the news that Freddie is looking for her biological parents. Freddie’s adoptive mother (played by Régine Vial Goldberg) is accepting of the idea and doesn’t appear to be upset but is curious about how this search might affect Freddie.
There are other examples of how Freddie is the type of person who often acts spontaneously. Early on in the movie, while Freddie, Tena and Dongwan are drinking at a casual restaurant/bar, Freddie impulsively flirts with a table of bachelors. She then invites strangers who are men and women over to the same table to join in on the conversation, and almost everyone gets drunk. Freddie ends up spending the night with one of the bachelors, whose name is Jiwan (played by Kim Dong-seok), and he is almost immediately smitten with her.
“Return to Seoul” takes an unorthodox turn when the movie fast-forwards to 2016, on Freddie’s 27th birthday, where she is in Seoul on a dinner date with a middle-aged Frenchman named André (played by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), who has four kids and is going through his third divorce. The last part of the movie takes place from 2021 to 2022, when Freddie gets involved in some shady dealings with a guy named Maxime (played by Yoann Zimmer), and Freddie’s biological father is still trying to develop a family relationship with her.
As the mercurial and sometimes flaky Freddie, Park makes an impressive feature-film debut in “Return to Seoul.” Freddie is complex in wanting to be strong and independent, but she has moments of vulnerability where she begins to question her identity and she fears if what she will find out about her biological family members will be qualities that she has inherited. And although Freddie never says it out loud, viewers can see that it shakes Freddie to her core to be reminded that she was once an unwanted child by biological parents she never know.
“Return to Seoul” is not a movie that will satisfy people who want a formulaic story with predictable outcomes. What makes the movie worth watching, even though the pacing of the movie sometimes drags, is showing how Freddie is subtly and not-so-subtly affected by the search for her biological parents. She gets more than she wanted and less than she expected in certain ways. What would make someone, who originally planned to stay in Seoul for three nights, end up staying for eight years? “Return to Seoul” is a compelling psychological portrait rather than a definitive statement about one woman’s quest for a deeper meaning to her identity.
Sony Pictures Classics released “Return to Seoul” in select U.S. cinemas on December 2, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Wales, the dramatic film “The Eternal Daughter” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one black person and one person of South Asian heritage) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A screenwriter, who has writer’s block, checks into an isolated hotel with her mother, where memories and family secrets affect their stay at the hotel.
Culture Audience: “The Eternal Daughter” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Tilda Swinton, filmmaker Joanna Hogg and movies with plots that blur the lines between fantasy and reality.
Tilda Swinton is in yet another artsy film that has quirky and neurotic characters. “The Eternal Daughter” takes place at a mysterious hotel. You’re either going to be fully on board with this type of movie, or you’re not. “The Eternal Daughter” made the rounds at several film festivals in 2022, including the Venice International Film Festival (where the movie had its world premiere), the Toronto International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival.
Written and directed by Joanna Hogg, “The Eternal Daughter” has a story enigma that’s very easy to solve. It’s the type of movie where viewers should be up for a ride where a lot of weird things happen. You can figure out early on what’s the root of the problem, and then just watch as Swinton delivers a compelling performance. Swinton has two roles in “The Eternal Daughter,” which is an automatic clue that can answer many questions put forth in the movie.
In “The Eternal Daughter” Swinton has the dual roles of screenwriter Julie Hart and Julie’s elderly mother Rosalind Hart. Julie is working on a movie about herself and her mother. They check into a stately old Moel Famau. hotel, which is a converted country mansion in Wales. (“The Eternal Daughter” was actually filmed at Souton Hall, a 15-bedroom Georgian estate, built in 1714, in Wales.) The purpose of this mother-daughter trip is so Julie and Rosalind can talk about Rosalind’s memories that Julie might use in her screenplay.
The atmosphere is ominous and tense from the moment that Julie and Rosalind arrive at the hotel on a very foggy night. Rosalind’s spaniel dog Louis is also with them. (The dog belongs to Swinton in real life.) The Julie character is supposed to be a version of “The Eternal Daughter” writer/director Hogg. Julie is the same character who was portrayed in her early 20s in Hogg’s 2019 film “The Souvenir” and 2021 film “The Souvenir Part II,” which both had Swinton’s daughter Honor Swinton Byrne in the starring role of young-adult Julie.
The hotel receptionist (played by Carly-Sophia Davies), who doesn’t have a name in “The Eternal Daughter,” tells Julie (who made the hotel reservation) that they have no record of her reservation, and the hotel is already booked up. Julie is understandably upset, and there’s some haggling back and forth before the receptionist finds a room for Julie and Rosalind. As far as Julie is concerned, this trip has gotten off to a very bad start.
The rest of “Eternal Daughter” involves a series of unnerving incidents and encounters that alarm and confuse Julie. At this very depressing hotel that doesn’t seem to know the meaning of well-lit rooms, Rosalind immediately notices she hasn’t seen any other hotel guests. Where are the other guests?
When Julie and Rosalind dine in the hotel’s small restaurant, the hotel receptionist is also their server at the restaurant. It’s another indication that this hotel isn’t as busy as the receptionist wants to say that it is. Why did the receptionist say that the hotel was booked up, when it obviously is not? The only other employee who’s seen at the hotel is a friendly groundskeeper/maintenance worker (played by Joseph Mydell), who also doesn’t have a name in the movie.
During the night, Julie’s sleep is interrupted by the sound of loud banging. When she tells the hotel receptionist about it, she’s assured that this matter will be resolved. But the banging continues. Is this a haunted hotel? If you’re thinking that “The Eternal Daughter” is Hogg’s version of “The Shining,” it’s not.
It’s enough to say that “The Eternal Daughter” is not a horror movie, so viewers should not watch “The Eternal Daughter” with expectations that it will be a scary film. “The Eternal Daughter” is a psychological drama that keeps viewers guessing about what might be real and what might be someone’s imagination. And whose reality is the truth?
“The Eternal Daughter” is sometimes bogged down by some very mundane conversations that Julie and Rosalind have about their family. These discussions are meant to make an increasingly agitated Julie feel a sense of normalcy in this hotel that she thinks is not normal at all. Julie is also feeling a lot of anxiety because she has writer’s block.
People who are looking for an elaborate mystery or non-stop suspense might be disappointed in “The Eternal Daughter.” The movie is really a showcase for how Swinton can convincingly play these two characters who have very different personalities. Julie is restless and on edge, while Rosalind is calmer and more passive. “The Eternal Daughter” is ultimately an intriguing statement on how family memories can shape people’s lives and how important it is to value the people who can share these memories.
A24 released “The Eternal Daughter” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on December 2, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place in 2010, in an unnamed part of the United States, the dramatic film “Women Talking” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: At a patriarchal religious colony, the colony’s women have conflicts in deciding what to do next when almost all of the men in the colony have temporarily left because they are dealing with legal problems related to several of the colony’s men being arrested for drugging and raping the colony’s women and girls.
Culture Audience: “Women Talking” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the Miriam Toews book on which the movie is based; the stars of the movie; and well-acted dramas about female empowerment in oppressive and misgoynistic environments.
“Women Talking” is an accurate description for this tension-filled drama, because most of the movie centers on conversations rather than a lot of physical action. Sarah Polley directed and wrote the adapted screenplay of “Women Talking,” which is based on Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel of the same name. The movie comes across as a stage play in many areas, but it’s a worthy cinematic adaptation of the book, mostly because of the admirable performances from the talented cast members. The pacing is sluggish in some parts of the movie. However, viewer interest can be maintained if people are curious to see how the story is going to end.
The “Women Talking” movie, which is set in 2010 in an unnamed part of the U.S., makes some interesting and unexpected changes to the book, but largely remains faithful to the story’s plot. (The movie was actually filmed in Canada’s Ontario province.) “Women Talking” had its world premiere at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. The movie than made the rounds at several other film festivals in 2022, including the Toronto International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival.
One of the main reasons why “Women Talking” looks so much like a stage play is that the movie is mostly confined to the rural and isolated property where this religious colony lives. Several of the movie’s best scenes take place in a hayloft, where crucial decisions (and several arguments) happen during a crisis that will affect the future of the colony. “Women Talking” is a fascinating psychological portrait of what oppression can do to people and how people can deal with trauma in different ways.
The movie begins with this statement: “What follows is an act of female imagination.” Even if viewers don’t know anything about the “Women Talking” book, the movie tells viewers in the first 10 minutes what the crisis is in this colony. Several men in the colony have been drugging and raping the colony’s women and girls. As a result, most of the men of the colony have been arrested, while the other men who have not been arrested have gone to the city to get the men bailed out and attend to other legal matters.
Before these rapes were discovered, the women and girls who were raped were told that by the men that their assault injuries were the work of ghosts or part of the rape victims’ imaginations. Much harder to explain were the underage pregnancies that resulted from these rapes with girls who were supposed to be virgins. Some of these rapes were also incestuous. Toews (who was raised as a Mennonite) has said in interviews that “Women Talking” was inspired by a real-life Mennonite colony in Bolivia, where several men were arrested in 2009 for drugging and raping the colony’s women and girls.
“Women Talking” never shows these rapes—only the aftermath. It’s a wise decision on the part of Polley and the other filmmakers, because what’s more important is for the movie to show how rape survivors can try to heal from the trauma instead of recreating the rapes in ways that could easily become exploitative. The movie never names the religion of this colony, but it’s implied that it’s an extremist Mennonite community, just like it is in the book.
In this community, the people are taught that the male gender is always superior to the female gender. The women of the colony are not allowed to get a formal education and don’t know how to read and write, whereas the men are allowed to be educated. The colony also preaches that anyone who disobeys what the men want will have eternal damnation in hell.
The women have an emergency meeting in a hayloft to vote on one of three options: (1) Stay and fight; (2) Leave; and (3) Do nothing. The first and second options get the most votes, but the votes are deadlocked in a tie. Most of “Women Talking” shows the women trying to break this stalemate by getting a majority vote for one of the options. Things are also complicated because some of the women have underage sons, so if the women choose to leave, they also have to decide if the boys will go with them.
There are three families involved in this grueling process:
Agata Friesen (played by Judith Ivey), a level-headed matriarch, is emotionally torn because her two daughters have very different opinions about what to do.
Ona (played by Rooney Mara), Agata’s bachelorette eldest daughter who is pregnant by rape, is open-minded, believes in female empowerment, and is inclined to make the decision to leave.
Salome (played by Claire Foy), Agata’s married younger daughter, also believes in female empowerment, but outspoken and feisty Salome wants to stay and fight, because she’s furious about her 4-year-old daughter Miep (played by Emily Mitchell) being raped.
Neitje (played Liv McNeil), Agata’s granddaughter, who is in her mid-teens, is being raised by Salome because Neitje’s mother Mina (the younger sister of Ona and Salome) committed suicide after Neitje was raped.
Greta Loewen (played by Sheila McCarthy) is a soft-spoken matriarch who is inclined to want to leave.
Mariche (played by Jessie Buckley), Greta’s elder married daughter who is sarcastic and cynical, wants to stay, but she is very skeptical that the women could win against the men in a fight.
Mejal (played by Michelle McLeod), Greta’s younger bachelorette daughter, is inclined to stay, and she’s considered the most rebellious and “unstable” of the group because she smokes cigarettes and sometimes has panic attacks.
Autje (played by Kate Hallett), Mariche’s daughter, who is about 13 years old, is the best friend of Neitje.
Scarface Janz (played by Frances McDormand), a stern matriarch, is adamant about her decision to do nothing and firmly believes any other option will doom the women to an afterlife in hell.
Anna (played by Kira Guloien), Scarface’s adult daughter is quiet, passive, and seems to be living in fear of her domineering mother.
Helena (played Shayla Brown), Anna’s teenage daughter, just like Anna, doesn’t say much.
One of the movie’s departures from the book is that Neitje is the narrator, and she is speaking in the future to Ona’s child, who has now been born. Near the beginning of the movie, Neitje says in a voiceover narration: “I used to wonder who I would be if it hadn’t happened to me. I don’t care anymore.”
Only one man has been left behind on the property while the other men are in the city. His name is August Epp (played by Ben Whishaw), a kind and gentle teacher who has been allowed to come back to the colony to teach the boys of the colony. August spent most of his childhood in the colony, but when he was a boy, his parents were excommunicated from the colony for questioning the authority of the colony’s leaders. August helps the women by taking notes during the meeting and doing any other reading and writing that the women might need.
August has an additional motivation to help the women: He’s been in love with Ona for years, but she just wants August as a friend. August stays neutral during the women’s arguments and debates. However, it’s very obvious that he wants to be wherever Ona is.
Also part of the story is a mild-mannered teenager named Nettie (played by August Winter), who likes taking care of the colony’s younger kids. Nettie identifies as a transgender male who prefers to be called Melvin. (Winter is non-binary in real life.) Because this colony is isolated from the rest of society, the colony members (including Melvin) don’t know what transgender means, so many of the colony members treat Melvin as a girl who likes to dress and wear her hair like a boy.
Because this colony is very insular and doesn’t believe in using modern technology or cars, “Women Talking” often looks like it takes place in the mid-20th century. The biggest indication that the movie takes place in the 21st century is when a census employee drives his truck on the road near the property and uses a speaker to remind the residents to take the 2010 census. The Monkees’ 1968 hit “Daydream Believer” memorably plays on the speaker and is heard again later in the movie during the end credits.
The colony’s women hide themselves inside buildings when this census employee drives by, but Neitje and Autje run to the truck to have a friendly chat with the census taker. Things aren’t so friendly inside and outside the hayloft, as the debate continues over what to do, and as time is running out before the colony’s men return to the property. Some of the women think that if they stay, they can demand new rules for the colony, such as the right to be educated and to be treated equally. Others think the women and children are better off leaving and starting a new community on their own.
In this showcase for powerhouse acting talent, Foy and Buckley have the flashiest roles as the women who clash with each other the most. Salome is filled with defiance and rage and shouts things like, “I will burn in hell before I allow another man to satisfy his urges with the body of my 4-year-old daughter!” Mariche raises her voice too, but she also expresses her anger in some “are you insane” expressions on her face that are very entertaining to watch.
Whishaw’s sensitive and nuanced performance is thoroughly believable and sometimes heartbreaking, as August experiences unrequited love. Because he is the primary teacher the boys of the colony (who are all homeschooled), there are glimmers of hope that these boys will be raised to have more respect for women and girls than how they were taught before August returned to the colony. Rooney’s performance as Ona, who speaks in calm and measured tones, is very good, but Ona is often overshadowed by the sassiness of Salome and Mariche.
One aspect of “Women Talking” that might disappoint some viewers is that McDormand is only in the movie for less than 15 minutes. She’s one of the producers of “Women Talking” and shares top billing, but her on-screen appearance in the movie—although effective—still doesn’t seem like enough for someone McDormand’s high caliber of talent. In the production notes for “Women Talking,” McDormand explains: “I did not option the book with the idea of acting in the film, I optioned it because I wanted to produce a film based on the book, with Dede [Gardner, one of the producers] and Sarah [Polley]. But I love Scarface dramaturgically.”
Even with all the friction and arguments between the women, Polley’s thoughtful direction never lets the movie devolve into a “catfight” story. The women might not know how to read and write, but they are very articulate in exposing their wants, needs, hopes and dreams. Luc Montpellier’s brown-tinged cinematography in “Women Talking” might look dull to some viewers, but it’s supposed to be a reflection of the drab existence that the colony’s women have experienced for too long. Observant viewers will notice that scenes that have more hopeful emotions have more vibrant lighting.
“Women Talking” is not a man-bashing film, as some people might mistakenly think it is. It’s a movie against gender oppression and against sexual violence. The villains of the story are not given the type of agency and screen time that other filmmakers would choose to put in their version of “Women Talking.”
“Women Talking” is not the type movie that people will quickly forget after watching it. Whether people like or dislike the movie, “Women Talking” is the type of film that will inspire thought-provoking discussions for viewers. And that’s an indication of cinematic art that can make an impact.
Orion Pictures will release “Women Talking” in select U.S. cinemas on December 23, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on January 20, 2023.