Terence Davies’ literate, articulate take on the private life of Emily Dickinson has some rough early scenes but is elevated by a great central performance and the director’s responsiveness to its every mood. As the posthumously celebrated American poet, Cynthia Nixon gives a performance of sustained sublimity. She plays Emily as a passive observer of life, but her powers of observation make her come alive, and there’s beauty to her spirit. Her almost trembling admission of familial love suggests a rather frightening depth of feeling. Too sensitive, too soulful for her time (for any time), she begins to suffocate. This is a psychological study on how deeply sensitive natures self-destruct. Too often—from Hawthorne onwards—we get to see the American Puritan as a prejudiced fraud; as a moral hypocrite whose sense of superiority shields him from judgment. The tragedy here is how greatness deteriorates and turns on itself; how this intelligent, rebellious, freethinking woman is undone by the purity of her vision. Hypocrisy and moral chastisement disgust her, yet she is transformed into the most stringent moral overseer of all: an embittered, paranoid judge of vice and virtue. Human nature cannot meet her standards so she punishes it at every turn. Nixon’s performance reveals the ugliness, the rage, the agonizing moments of lucidity. Isolated and unsung, she finds transcendence through her art, but it’s a meager comfort. Even with its flaws, this is as incisive a character study as you can hope for—and a rarely seen slice of the American spirit.
Dir. Martin Scorsese / US / 2016
SOME SPOILERS AHEAD:
For about an hour and a half, the film looks like a masterpiece and often feels like a masterpiece. The trailers made it seem like Scorsese was channeling Kurosawa, but the early images of boggy fog-shrouded Japan have a much closer kinship to the greatest Japanese film poet of all, Kenji Mizoguchi, and his masterpiece, Ugetsu. And now Scorserse, driven by a love of the source material and a fascination with the subject, uses Japan to expand his idea of Christianity. The early scenes are Scorsese’s best work in exactly 40 years. They contain at least three great movies at once, none overshadowing the other. There is the spread of Christian piety among the Japanese peasants, which is the closest thing to revolutionary fervor these people have ever known. There is the folly of the Jesuit padres, who denounce the silence of God in a land that knows no real silence of its own; that is in fact bursting with life, with Prieto’s cinematography suggesting a kind of pantheistic elemental force enveloping these strangers. And in the great, furtive sequences in the caves, the villages, and the hideouts Scorsese evokes what primitive Christianity must have looked like in the first two or three centuries after Christ, when it was still a religion of rebellion. The Jesuits understood the original power of pre-Roman Christianity and sought to rekindle it, and Silence recreates this state of ecstatic Christendom, its aura of holiness. (What could be more revolutionary in Hollywood?)
But this great expansive picture becomes stunted in the movie’s second half. The film begins to look inwardly, meaning we get too close a look at Andrew Garfield’s face, his conscience and tortured soul in a string of unimaginative claustrophobic sequences that go on for too long and often feel dead. And so the limitless possibilities of the first half are reduced to theological abstractions (platonic God vs. nature), debates on what does or doesn’t grow in Japan and the Christian take on suffering. The problem isn’t just that what is said isn’t very interesting, but that it robs the film of revelations that should and could have happened organically. The movie becomes so lucid about its ideas that it kills them. There’s little mystery left to the film when it approaches the tortured final sequences with Liam Neeson’s character and God finally decides to speak (He should’ve stayed silent; there’s too much voiceover as it is.) What the movie gains in conceptual clarity, it loses in stature. The Japanese Ugetsu didn’t just expose the link between nature and spirituality: it went further by showing that the world of the senses is haunted. The idea that the Jesuits in Silence find God by denying Him—that is, by renouncing the martyrdom at the core of Christianity—is extraordinarily powerful and suggestive, but it has only a conceptual effect. The revelation is lacking in spirit.
Even with these flaws, Silence is in another league from virtually anything that came out last year, and in a different universe than the La La Lands of this world. It’s masterful in a number of ways. (Adam Driver does fascinating work as one of the Jesuits; Issei Ogata is great once more. And Rodrigo Prieto outdoes himself as a cinematographer.) Its fervor and ambition are exciting and genuine, and these are qualities that have been nearing extinction for a while now. As for Scorsese, this is his most epic work to date. Only Taxi Driver stands taller overall.
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.
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 on 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. 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.) As the head of a videogame company, she demands that the rape scenes featured in the games be more “orgasmic”. She nurtures violent, taboo sexual fantasies involving her own rapist. 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. 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—neither feminist nor victim—is very much after her own pleasure. 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.