Movie Countdown: #49 – Baby Doll (1956)

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Baby Doll: Excuse me, Mr. Vacarro, but I wouldn’t dream of eatin’ a nut that a man had cracked in his mouth.

Silva Vacarro: You’ve got many refinements.

Baby Doll: Thank you.

Elia Kazan’s hilarious erotic farce about two men (played by Karl Malden and Eli Wallach) squabbling over cotton in Mississippi. Baby Doll (Carroll Baker), Malden’s virginal 19-year-old wife, is at the center of their fight. She hasn’t agreed to consummate the marriage, so she sleeps by herself in her crib. Wallach’s vengeance involves bringing her under his manly spell. The comedy in Tennessee Williams’ screenplay is that Baby Doll is only dubiously innocent. Baby Doll is no good at long division, but she’s great at fighting off the heat with Coca-Cola and sucking her thumb. She giggles for the entire duration of the movie, stuck in a state of perpetual flirtatiousness: the sexually charged pent-up atmosphere feels like Kazan’s version of hell. But this hell, shot in all its sunny glory by Boris Kaufman, is very inviting. The scenes between Baker and Wallach are among the funniest I’ve seen—they play like some perverse deflowering. (Their courting climaxes with a game of hide and seek.) For the two men, Baby Doll is just a test of their virility, but she’s playing a game of her own. They provide her with entertainment. Carroll Baker is amazing in the title role: radiant, wicked and unaware of the camera. This movie has a quintessentially American sense of irony: the very earth seems to be laughing at the characters, down to the extras who mercilessly (and openly) mock Malden from beginning to end. It’s a riot.

Dir. Elia Kazan / 1956 / United States

Movie Countdown: #50 – Breaking the Waves (1996)

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A religious film to rank with Dreyer’s Day of Wrath and Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. God is far from dead in Lars von Trier’s dank, windswept hell-on-Earth landscape. On the contrary, He is alive and kicking and flaunting a perverse sense of humor, speaking so sternly that He sounds rather like a demon. Wondrous Bess (Emily Watson, resembling an ironic Liv Ullmann) is so full of God that she’s stripped the rest of the world of His presence. She’s swallowed Him up whole, and they have the most incredible conversations in long intruding close-ups. (The grainy, filthy cinematography suggests an otherwise godless world. Even the cliffs seem anguished.)

Bess has been taught to see life on earth as a ruin. Life exists to be fled, not to be clung to. Yet clinging to life is just what she does upon marrying the life-loving foreigner, Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), latching on to him gleefully, dangerously. She only ever frees herself from the violence of her affections when communicating with God. Automatically the village becomes distrustful of her and her version of “love.” (The stark, vigilant Calvinist elders seem to have been directly abducted from a Dreyer movie, and von Trier exposes the hilarity of their pretensions without having to force a thing.) When Jan is left physically paralyzed after an accident and can no longer have sex with Bess, he creates a ploy for her to go on living. He demands that she have intercourse with other men. Assuming the role of an unwilling Mary Magdalene, Bess gradually becomes the town’s whore in order to “save her husband,” culminating in her own stoning. (There is, however, no Jesus to stop the mob.) Naturally, she is excommunicated and condemned to hell.

But Bess as presented by von Trier and Watson is no self-sacrificing martyr. She is not Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, purified by the ecstasy of her body and soul’s communion with Christ. Nor is she the witch from Day of Wrath, ravished by an overpowering devotion to the pleasures of life. Bess’ communication with God is rather more pragmatic, more self-serving: God tells her exactly what she wants to hear, feeding her every obsession. As for life, she takes displeasure in a great many things. Her tangible idea of “life” is confined to a single man. It is this “innocence,” this quality of being a little “funny in the head,” that makes her a saint in the eyes of other characters (and part of the audience.) But Bess herself goes through none of the standard religious transcendence. Rather than purity, it is the scope and the single-minded intent of her isolation that render her a mythological character. Her world is closed off to even Jan. Bess’ mind-heaven has real power and we gain entry to it through von Trier’s intuitive use of close-ups (no one since Bergman had extracted more from the human face or shown more interest in it.) And the absurd spark in her eyes is unforgettable, as is her triumph over two thousand years of abstruse theology as she asks the elders, “How can a man love a Word?”

This movie has possibly the worst ending to any great film as church bells ring in heaven, as if von Trier wanted to reassure us that Bess was saved from the fiery pits. But it’s a minor desecration: the movie is a near-masterpiece.

Dir. Lars von Trier / 1996 / Denmark

Movie Review: “Arrival” (Spoilers)

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A cerebral take on what extraterrestrial contact may look like. Director Denis Villeneuve chooses an intimate approach, leaving the usual mayhem and human stupidity that characterizes end-of-the-world scenarios in the background. Amy Adams is our eyes and ears into it all, and she’s rarely been better—her performance has no preconceptions. She plays a linguist recruited to translate the aliens in their magnificent egg-shaped monoliths. Jeremy Renner plays the language-wary mathematician. These aliens (“heptapods”) are the cinematic antithesis of the Xenomorph: they bring about linguistic rapture and a god’s understanding of (non-sequential) Time. They are an idealist’s aliens. The movie is so clever that you almost overlook its essentially religious narrative. It sets up what seems like an insurmountable spiritual crisis and goes from bleakness to hope to ecstasy, culminating in a kind of reverse cosmic resurrection, but it’s constructed in a way that feels new, and there’s blissfully very little of the “love is the universal tissue that hides behind every proton” nonsense of other recent science fiction. This one is stimulating all the way through, and each close encounter is surprising on its own.

Movie Review: Isabelle Huppert is “Elle”

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LIGHT SPOILERS ahead:

Paul Verhoeven’s disarming comedy of horrors opens with the aftermath of a rape. Isabelle Huppert picks herself up from the mess in the floor as if the attack had been inflicted upon somebody else entirely, her bourgeois nonchalance rising intact. She is dissociated from herself to the point of being her own voyeur, transfixed by the riddle of her “empty stare”. She plays with people for the sheer pleasure of taking in their reactions, to test their limits—to see how emotions affect them. She herself is unaffected. Michèle Leblanc is a woman for whom “reality” bears no discernible meaning: when her comatose mother lies dying in the hospital bed, Michèle asks the nurse if it’s possible she might be faking it. (She then plays dead while having sex with her lover, as way of paying homage). She nurtures violent sexual fantasies that involve her own rapist. As the head of a videogame company, she demands that the rape scenes featured in the games be more “orgasmic”. She is only genuinely caught off guard when her sense of virtual reality is threatened. And yet the brilliance of Huppert’s Michèle is that she is entirely free of malice: this may be one of the most innocently amoral characters in recent memory. She is clueless as to how she “ought” to act and react. She lacks the instincts for such things, so she hovers over everything. But there is no grand scheme, no insidious masterplan driving her. She might even be deemed a victim if she had any understanding of what a victim was. Isabelle Huppert gives possibly the best female performance of the decade: a triumph of subversion. A character like this has no right to appear so alive, but Huppert is brutally funny and sexy in the role, as translucent as she is opaque. She avoids turning her into a post-human alien: her Michèle is very much in a searching state. And Verhoeven touches on everything from the death of God to hyperrealism, at times articulating the psychology of sensations that Cronenberg anticipated in “Videodrome”. In all its comic horror, the movie gives birth to a new kind of female character, someone who’s been through all the roles—mother, daughter, leader, provider, victim, perpetrator—and stays a puzzle to herself.