Before City of God there was Pixote, Héctor Babenco’s stark lucid account of Brazilian youths growing up in squalor in the 70s. It chronicles the life of 10-year-old Pixote and his companions, from repression and jail time to pickpocketing in Rio to close encounters with prostitution and death. Babenco makes the audience feel the urgency of the present time the way the characters experience it: with the past being too shameful to speak of and the future non-existent, the present, for all its terror, is all that’s left. As the world crumbles all around them and the kids lose respect not just for the lives of others but for their own, the movie’s vitality risks becoming jarring if not outright cruel. But it quickly becomes apparent that the full immersion in the amoral present they share is the closest thing they’ll ever know to redemption: it’s where their camaraderie, their symbiotic relationship with each other, even their shifting sexual confusion are built. And though the movie is clearly an heir to the great neo-realist films of the 40s and 50s, it goes deeper than them. It touches on forbidden, wordless things. When Pixote meets the volatile prostitute Sueli (Marília Pêra, superb) and discovers she’s had an abortion, he is horrified. She feels judged and lashes out at him in a rage, but he’s horrified not for her but for himself—his entire orphaned existence coming into focus. The relationship that builds between the whore-mother and her adopted children is monstrously, inexplicably rich. The very protagonists can’t figure out the nature of it, so they just go through it blindly, until their roles become so confused that they devour each other. For Pixote, it’s a return to the womb from hell. In the movie’s best scene, he goes to the prostitute’s bed looking for a mother’s embrace. She tentatively takes on this role. But Pixote is no child and never was. Retreat to innocence is impossible, and he is vomited out one final time. Alone, he isn’t just worthless: he’s not even alive. The film goes beyond surface moral and social indignation. This is an artist’s statement. Yet no matter how hard the implications this movie has a pulse like few others, with the natural energy of the places and the actors giving it its incomparable freshness.
Dir. Héctor Babenco / 1981 / Brazil
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
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 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.