Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Mother & daughter shine in Lady Bird

Joe gives Greta Gerwig's directorial debut 4 stars

Lady Bird is a slight but admirably delicate film. That it allowed me time to reflect while I watched it suggests that I was less than fully engaged. On the other hand, my reflections were all in its favour. It occurred to me that films about teenagers breaking free from parental restraints are not often so even-handedly compassionate, and convent schools are rarely allowed to appear so benign.

Image result for greta gerwig pictureThough she has a track record of directorial collaborations, this is the first film Greta Gerwig has directed by herself. And it’s a film in which a Gerwig-like role, somewhat reminiscent of Frances in Frances Ha, for example, is played by a younger actor, Saoirse Ronan. I was reminded of another comic auteur, Woody Allen, and it strikes me that the comparison is entirely in Gerwig’s favour. 

Though there are lines in this film that made me laugh out loud (which for some reason I don't often do in the cinema), emotional truth is never sacrificed for a gag. And whereas Allen clung on as juvenile lead for too long and later managed to induce talented actors, such as John Cusack and Kenneth Branagh, to become Allen-impersonators so that he could go on haunting his own films, Gerwig has allowed Ronan to make this part very much her own.

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The heart of the story is the relationship between Christine McPherson (Ronan), who wishes to be known as Lady Bird, and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) who veers between tolerating and resisting her daughter’s whimsical posturing. Christine’s father Larry (Tracy Letts) is warm and emotionally present but struggles to provide for the family and has settled into a more passive role. It’s left to Marion to do the worrying and to berate her daughter when she seems to fall short of her potential. As a mother, Marion has obvious faults. Building self-esteem is not a priority. In one stand-off she asks Christine, in exasperation, if she has any idea how much it costs to keep her. Christine picks up a pen and file pad and demands to know exactly how much, challenging her mother to put a figure on it, so that she’ll later be able to write her a cheque after which they won’t have to see each other ever again. Marion’s response, that Christine will never be able to earn that kind of money, is a characteristic put-down.

Image result for laurie metcalf in lady bird imagesBut the mutual frustration expressed at such moments is the flip side of a powerful bond. The scene in which Marion helps Christine buy a dress from a charity shop for the school prom is moving because it’s multi-layered. Alongside her mother’s clumsiness, we see Christine’s emotional dependence, her openness to advice, for all her stubbornness, and the extent to which her quirky style is an accommodation with the financial reality. Both these parts are wonderfully acted.

The plot, such as it is, concerns Christine’s ambition to leave California and take the more expensive and academically challenging option of a college in New York, a city she has never visited. Meanwhile she must navigate the social complexities of high school life. Her relationships with boyfriends are only averagely disastrous and the mean girls only moderately mean. As for her teachers, I wish I had encountered nuns as gentle as these. And yet I experienced all this moderation as a positive quality, allowing space for the film to explore Christine’s real struggle, which is to find some distance from her mother without alienating her, and to shape a more stable sense of identity.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Phantom Thread haunted by Hitchcock

Jenny finds Anderson's film frivolous but worth 4 stars 

Paul Thomas Anderson's films have often been about struggles for control and their disastrous consequences, as in There Will Be Blood, or The Master. This one is no different except that the struggle is between the pettish, self-absorbed bully,  Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis)  and Alma, the young waitress half his age (Vicky Krieps) whom he picks up when temporarily running away from his life in London and perhaps also from his fierce sister, Cyril, an absolute star turn from Lesley Manville.  It is the 1950s and Reynolds makes showy frocks for rich middle aged women who need to display their wealth at society balls. He secretly despises his clients unless they are young, beautiful and royal. He lives with his sister in his Mayfair atelier where there has been a long line of young women to service his sexual needs. When, inevitably, they bore or irritate him, Cyril coolly sacks them. 

Image resultThis first act is easily the best part of the film. Day-Lewis’s luminous, handsome face is matched by the unaffected smiles of Alma who seems simultaneously plain and beautiful.  Day-Lewis cleverly gives Reynolds a too-careful way of speaking, hinting perhaps at someone whose social origins are more lowly than he likes to admit. I was caught up in the plot here, underestimating Alma, wanting to shout, ‘Don’t do it! He’s far too old for you!’ thinking that we were in for yet another film where the appalling behaviour of a man to a woman is excused on the grounds of his supposed ‘genius’. I should have been warned. Early on in their relationship she tells him confidently that if he thinks he’s engaged in a staring match (he is) she can outstare him – and she does.

Now it gets complicated. Is this film one long secret comedy homage to Hitchcock’s Rebecca? Possibly. Alma was the name of Hitchcock’s wife. The character’s name, Reynolds Woodcock – a joke maybe and a play on Hitchcock? Early on we see Reynolds carefully clipping away nostril and ear hair: his grooming must of course be perfect and there was sniggering all round in the audience when I saw it. Then there is his ambiguous sexuality, where he drawls the claim that is he a ‘confirmed bachelor’, echoing Laurence Olivier’s Max de Winter whose is-he-isn’t-he sexuality was lightly disguised in 1940 along with Hitch getting away with what now seem blatant references to the lesbianism of Mrs Danvers. Lesley Manville as Cyril - note, no effort made to feminize her name - is a shoe-in for Judith Anderson in Hitchcock’s film, same hairstyle, same dress, same scary frown.

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There is the same obsession with clothing and underwear and the same Gothic melodrama. The film also has echoes of Joseph Losey’s gripping 1963 classic The Servant where master and servant inexorably swop roles and in fact Day Lewis’s Woodcock has more than a passing resemblance to James Fox’s Tony.

This film is about co-dependence; it’s about male frailty and the inability of this particular man to love and be loved unless dominated.

It is about the malign influence of a controlling mother. Alma may be young, she may be ‘foreign’ (never explained, though Vicky Krieps is from Luxembourg) but she is definitely in charge.

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The film is glossy, as pernickety in its framing and beautiful close-ups as is its protagonist. Exterior shots are few and far between; instead you get a real sense of the narrowness of the Mayfair townhouse as the staff clop their way up the stone stairs along with the stifling snobbery of that world.

The performances are excellent, the music subtle. If this really is Day Lewis’s final performance, as he has claimed, then he will be a loss: no film actor currently working is as subtle or can convey so much in a single glance.

But in the end, I didn’t care about any of the characters; they all seemed equally preposterous. The claustrophobic silence and sticky atmosphere of the atelier, the hideousness of the dresses and the delusions of the women who wore them, the pointlessness of Reynolds Woodcocks’s work, the silliness of an ending which involves poisonous mushrooms – it all made me feel that the film itself was pointless and silly: too long, a little dull - and not a patch on the masterly melodrama of Rebecca or The Servant.