Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Swagger

Swagger is a title you earn - and if Olivier Babinet's documentary, about children in an underprivileged cité just outside Paris, amply deserves its name, it's less for the attitude on display amongst the kids themselves, and more for the reckless, thrilling, way over-board filmmaking that Babinet chucks at his otherwise minor project. This is a film that cocks about town, strutting, preening, feeling itself. It's a film to make you chuckle with its chutzpah, its brazenness. There's a great deal of sensitivity and delicacy here too, but it's vastly outdanced by the fun-size wallop of Babinet's aesthetic - and there is something beguiling, unerringly touching, at the idea of bringing such big means to a small documentary about the dreams, hopes, loves and sadness of disadvantaged children. 

Babinet worked with the children on a filmmaking workshop for a year, as part of a project to teach them about cinema. He also interviewed them - and the film is composed of one-on-one interviews with the youngsters, interspersed with weird, dreamlike, fantasy sequences. After a strange opening at nighttime, where the camera flits among the tops of the high-rises, filming the zone like a sci-fi land at rest, we meet the gang as they introduce themselves to camera: Mariyama, Elvis, Paul, Naila, Regis, and a whole load more. The tone is set: odd, buzzing, fantastical visuals; a pulsating imagination - and then tender, naturalistic, artlessly seized candour. For the rest of the film, Babinet will use his subjects' startling, strange, enchanting confessions, to create luridly conceived set-pieces that metastasize the ideas of the powerless and unlistened-to into bold, entrancing visions. 

Even when Babinet's camera is at rest, he manages to throw some pop at the screen - Naila is filmed in a backdrop of candy Technicolour in a stairwell, as she empties her funny mind out to camera, disserting on Mickey Mouse and how frightening he is; on white people; and on her dream of becoming an architect so as to stop babies from falling to their death in inner-city high-rises. Paul, dapper and shy in a sharp black suit, is filmed against a lush dark blue; Régis sits in a deserted locker-room. Everywhere you see Babinet's music video-maker's touch, in the slightly too glossy, but still inviting plasticity of these interviews. 

Babinet then devises riotous sequences in between these talking head segments, ranging from a disquieting surge of drones hovering over the projects like a dystopian nightmare, to a sort of jailbreak scene when two kids ring a fire alarm bell in a corridor and escape through a hole in a wire fence into a Pasolini-like field of long brushy grass where a camel is tethered to the ground. The viewer rushes with the boys in a flurry, the hand-held camera keeping the beat as they leap and skedaddle out of the building, before the camera rises in a swoonsome movement once they've made it through the fence, to encompass the whole surrounding environment, signalling a burst of delicious freedom. Or Babinet gifts Paul a Jacques Demy-like dance sequence where he skitters through a disused marketplace and out along the abandoned concrete walkways of his hometown, freed from some of the cares he has shared to camera, the fear of rejection, the shame of his father's mental illness. As Céline Sciamma did in Girlhood, Babinet grants his subjects the chance to be seen as they wish to be. 

These are children who have never met a white person; these children of immigrants talk of 'French-born' people as of another species, so fully ghettoised are they in their suburb. They talk calmly of dealing being a job that you can do. They tell of a schoolmate who was shot. Many of them have never been to Paris. All of them long for great wealth; some dream of being President. The great power of Swagger is that it extracts these wholly astounding nuggets without ever dwelling on their potency or underlining the tragedy of these lives. On the contrary, Babinet loves and celebrates these people, gives them time and care, frames them well, and lifts them. 

Speaking of which: no article on Swagger can do justice to the film which does not spend some time on the film's clear star turn (and someone who, in my view, is one of the great LGBTQ onscreen characters of all time): the great, delightful, scenery-chewing, perfectly named Régis Marvin Merveille N'Kissi Moggzi. Obviously afforded extra screentime in light of his charisma, Régis burns up the screen as he talks about his love for his mum, with whom he talks about make-up and fashion; or about his love of the soap opera The Young and the Restless; or about the dreadful fashions sported by his classmates; or the time someone stepped to him and he fought them and won. Régis, a fat, black, funny, stylish, screamingly camp, seemingly perfectly happy, balanced and accepted teenager from an underprivileged background in a social housing development in France in 2016, is nothing less than the most positive and galvanising depiction of an LGBTQ person I can think of in recent times. From the moment we first see him, sewing at his table at night, to the scene when he struts through school wearing a fur coat in one of Babinet's punchy imaginary sequences, via a scene where he adjusts his bow-tie in a mirror before the camera pans out of his window to film the building from a great height, ten floors above ground, Régis is a star - but more than a star, he anchors the film, gives it further pizzazz. He is the only teen mentioned by any of the other kids, and when he's named it's by a straight boy, who cites him as an inspiration. 

Régis has swagger in spades; Paul has some of it too; Naila has also. Swagger, don't forget, is attitude to wear like a new shiny coat over torn or dirtied rags; swagger represents the act of papering over inadequacies, of shining a light to detract from fears or misgivings. The swagger of the children in Swagger - and the swagger of Swagger - is there in the act of taking some of our time to ask us to believe in the dream. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

A Fantastic Woman

"A Fantastic Woman" is a terrible title. In Spanish, where the phrase is much more idiomatic, the title apparently plays - certainly more clearly than it does in English - on the idea of the fantastical woman, and of the fantasised woman. Both notions are interesting, and key to understanding the film, which, in its brash and expressionist mode, riffs on those concepts in an endearingly head-on, mulish way. In so doing, the movie offers up a bracing, heroic portrayal of a transwoman in combat, but it also ends up fetishising her gender identity, making for an ambivalent depiction.

The film centres - quite literally so, in the sense that it places Daniela Vega wham-bam in the middle of its frame - on Marina Vidal, a transwoman whose older cis-male partner, Orlando, dies suddenly one night, leaving her homeless, without any legal claims to mourn him, and at odds with his transphobic family. Throughout the film, as Marina fights to get her dog back, attend her lover's funeral, and be recognised in her gender identity by his kin, Sebastian Lelio presents her as a kind of gunslinger in a Western, in a series of face-offs against various foes, standing up for what she knows is right. In between these bouts, Marina is shown jabbing a punch-bag, or walking alone, presented in long backwards hand-held shots that frame her determination and make her a hero. While she is banished to the margins of the world she exists in, in this film she commands the centre-ground, ceding on-screen territory to no-one. 

There is, though, a queasiness in the discrepancy between the way other characters view Marina and the way the film presents her. The film rightly lambasts its secondary characters for deadnaming her, misgendering her, or reducing her to her physicality. In their brutality, Orlando's family treat Marina like a monster, at one point kidnapping her and strapping her face together with tape, in an act that functions as a degradation but also, clearly, as a belittling comment on the way she is seen to have created herself a new physique. The tape, roughly stretched across her face, turns her nose up and squashes her features, making a monster of her. 

At the same time, the film performs a not wholly dissimilar exercise in the way it presents Marina as a magnificent beast. In an extraordinary scene (which, in a scarcely believable coup de theatre, nods to Jurassic Park (!)), Marina climbs onto the roof of the car belonging to Orlando's family, crashing and stomping above the people trapped inside it, like a vengeful monster. It's a positive depiction for sure, glorying in Marina's indefatigability, her resourcefulness, her self-belief - but it's still the other side of the same coin. It objectifies and sensationalises Marina's physicality, making her a species of creature. Marina is never dehumanised, in part because of Daniela Vega's controlled, enigmatic performance, but Lelio's film is so expressionistic, so full-on, that its candid acts of valiance make an object out of Marina's resilience. 

We see this too in the way the film presents Marina's nudity, which ties in to the film's work on the fantasised being and the fantastical being. In one measured, disquieting scene, a female doctor asks Marina to strip in order to take photographs of her body as part of the investigation into Orlando's death. A male doctor is also present, which introduces a level of discomfort into the interaction. The doctors are unyielding, and Lelio's camera doesn't blink: the full tension of the moment is sounded, so that we feel how othered and objectified Marina is; how she isn't allowed to present herself on her own terms. There's sensitivity there, but a touch of prurience too: this accords with how brash the film is in general, how overt and generally full-blooded it is, in its script and its visual cues. But in a later scene, where Marina's (partial) nudity isn't imposed on her by one person, Lelio seems to be playing games, which sensationalise Marina's gender for the viewer. 

In this scene, Marina has to find out what Orlando had left in his locker at a male sauna he patronises. To this effect, she must go to the sauna herself; therefore, in a scene that is uncomfortable because of the way it presents a reversal of 'passing', she has to present as male in order to enter the building. Tricked out in just a towel across her waist, with her incipient breasts registering only as a 'male' chest and with her hair tied backwards, Marina manages to enter the building unperturbed. But this scene, which Lelio after all devised, has a somewhat leering tone, a rather jesting flavour, revelling in Marina's liminal aspect, and using her physicality as a plot point or ploy. 

Marina's descent into the depths of Orlando's sauna, to recuperate a secret that he had left behind, plays I think on the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, a fantastical woman of legend and her departed lover. There is much in the film that pertains to the register of hell and devils: Marina's dog is called Diablo, and scene after scene shows her descending from a point of height - to help her lover after he has fallen downstairs; driving into an underground car-park to do battle with Orlando's ex-wife; visiting the sauna below ground. There's a preponderance of red, too, in many of these scenes, playing on a register of the infernal. In the end, Marina sees a glimpse of her dead lover, Orlando-Orpheus, before he disappears from view. In the sauna, the near-naked Marina-Eurydice is clearly passing through a land that is not hers, that is ruled by other people; there are codes and instructions for her mission into this Hades. This adoption of the legend serves to champion Marina, but I think it also robs her of agency and plays too strongly on her physical presentation. 

Ultimately, A Fantastical Woman is an unendingly bold, combative, interesting, often visually marvellous film, pulsating with ideas - and its odd, unsubtle, often cheering, sometimes clunky discourse on its protagonist, is one of many aspects to crunch over in one's mind long after the lights have gone up.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Lady Bird

Two scenes show you the mettle of Lady Bird, display exactly what the film is made of. In the first of these, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) wakes on her birthday, to find her father bringing her a cupcake with a candle in it. Greta Gerwig's camera - grainy and companionable - pulls in, right up close to the central character, drawing morning heat from Lady Bird's just interrupted slumber, delighting in the texture of her undone hair, and dwelling with a measure of sweetness on her blotchy adolescent skin. Such a scene would pass without comment were it not for how unusual it is in a cinema industry where young women routinely wake up with a face full of slap, arching their sexy backs, etc etc. But Gerwig knows her character so well, is so kind and honest in the view she trains on her, and brings such sensitivity to bear on this hopelessly questing girl, that it feels of a piece with the film.

A second, fleeting moment that drew my attention: in New York, having finally evaded the cloistering Sacramento of her youth, Lady Bird crosses a sunlit street in Manhattan, filmed at a distance, slightly from above; nearby, another young woman, an extra who graces the movie for all of one second, runs past her with a folder of papers in her hands. It may sound preposterous to have alighted on this moment, but I don't believe I've seen an extra running before, when in my normal life I run to get to places all the time and see people hurrying all around me. In instructing this young actor to run, Gerwig not only shows what care she gives to the world she is drawing, and with what pains she evinces a tangible authenticity from her performers, but gives her film a welcome freshness, something jumpy and winsome; there is real pleasure to be drawn from looking at her movie.

 Gerwig's subject is ostensibly hoary and boring: the American high-school movie; the coming-of-ager; the misfit who goes to prom. We've seen everything in it a hundred times, from its laughable sports teacher to the roll-ups-smoking cool kid, from the forbidding mom with a heart of gold to the moment the protagonist learns she's got into her university of choice. How, then, does Gerwig's film feel so different, so new and easy? In part it's that she's so confident in her voice, and that her plain, serviceable directing style marries with her script so well. 

There's something still of the Baumbach influence in her screenplay, not least in the characters' quirks and the somewhat startling way they have of stating their intentions or their personality upfront. This trait is reminiscent of Yorgos Lanthimos' writing, in a way: it's disarming and fairly modern, and makes the characterisation teeter on the brink of caricature. Gerwig certainly deals in types, but she also finds a way, through her direction of actors, to steer her types into different, surprising territory - or to give them a singularity in their voice or mannerisms. And her personal experience, her eye as a still young woman, enable her work to feel free of the mockery and facility that has infected Baumbach's recent films (not least Mistress America, which Gerwig co-wrote). On the contrary, because Gerwig attempts so little with her filmmaking, the script is allowed to sing, and there is even something in the film that exalts her characters. Part of the trickery is that, afterwards, you can't really remember what was so enrapturing: was anything here stark or memorable, did it hit me in any way? No - but while it was happening I was acquainted with these people, I heard them and knew them. 

Two things confirm this purity of purpose, this courtship of what is real & alive. The costumes in Gerwig's film are so perfectly devised, so beautifully true for each character. In a coming out scene where one character cries on the shoulders of another by the bins outside a cafe, almost the most touching thing was the disastrous length of his bootcut jeans, flopping over his shoes as he leans in for a hug. Lady Bird's long, flattening shift dresses perform the same job, as do her bell bottoms at the end of the film when she is becoming a woman in New York, which are on the very verge of coolness but, in the end, not at all there. These are the touches of someone who knows her character inside out, who remembers feelings and smells, who is able to share with us every aspect of a person's existence in a way that just fits, that is somehow heady in its veracity. 

The other aspect of Gerwig's film, returned to again and again, in a way which marks it out, is money - the way Lady Bird and her family have none, and how it sets them apart. In another movie less at pains to convey that want, we might get a few lines from the central character about wanting to afford more things - but in Lady Bird, this need, the financial precarity, is a whole system, informing the very story of the film, giving impetus to the action, and manifesting in various, distinct narrative threads, from Lady Bird's parents' jobs to her choice of college via her relationships with other kids at school. 

Money is in the language of the film, in the shabby setting of Lady Bird's house and the vulgar pretensions of the people whose company she aspires to, in her prom dress and her school grades, in asides from her mother about her own upbringing. Everywhere this asperity is felt, this fear of slipping through the cracks or not making it; everywhere this is seen, which peculiarly marks Lady Bird out, not just as an honest film, but as something richly conceived, which perceives the full socio-cultural compact of its microcosm, and which views its setting with a dry, critical eye rather than with hackneyed nostalgia. 

All of this is played with fervour and delicacy by the cast - Gerwig's work as an actor must have helped her secure these sensitive portrayals - to an extent that overrides the film's handful of flaws, such as its tendency to overstate, especially in its final scene which takes an emotional misstep. It will be interesting to see Gerwig invent more stories, to see her carry her original voice over to other projects, and grow as a filmmaker so that - hopefully, and quite naturally - her lexicon expands beyond the beautiful, breathy intimacy on display in this tiny, inexpensive, well-meant, endearingly badly wrapped Christmas present of a film.