Politics and society are topics often explored in films. Dramas such as The King’s Speech carry enormous historical value, while stories like August Osage County make us second guess our lives and beliefs. Much like writers, filmmakers like to leave an impact on spectators, to make the gears of their brains spin as they make sense of the messages left in between the lines. However, not many films explore the ugliest side of society, the unspoken truths many refuse to acknowledge.
Nocturnal Animals is one such film. Described many times by Tom Ford (writer, director, and handsome vampire/fashion designer) as a cautionary tale about love and committing to someone, the psychological thriller lets out more than it intends to. Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Nocturnal Animals follows Susan (Adams) as she reads a novel written by her ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal) about the dramatic and violent story of a man (Tony, also played by Gyllenhaal) who loses his wife and child in the hands of a trio of lunatic hillbillies.
Catching the movie’s meanings can be difficult to some, but it’s possible to understand its core message right off the bat. As Tom Ford stressed multiple times in interviews, this is a cautionary tale about loving someone and the possible consequences of falling out of love with them. However, this tale involves a number of external aspects that directly influence relationships, such as the ambitions, desires, and dreams of the individuals. Susan’s and Edward’s marriage failed due to their incompatibility, a reason that can easily describe any failed relationship. However, Tom Ford goes deeper into this reason, giving a surprising perspective over society and its demands.
“Enjoy the absurdity of our world. It’s a lot less painful.”
So says Carlos (Michael Sheen) after a brief discussion regarding Susan’s opening night. She is a Texan art gallery owner residing in Los Angeles who has everything most people desire: a big, modern, and beautiful house, a slick and imposing wardrobe, a beautiful husband, status, and, of course, a lot of money. However, she isn’t happy.
The first time we’re introduced to Susan is after the alluring opening sequence. She breathes heavily as her eyes scan the spacious room. The people appearing in the next shot are present to witness the exposition she put together, a curious display depicting socially imperfect women dancing naked. These women rest silently over tables while their videos are showcased in big wall-mounted monitors.
These first shots may be somewhat disturbing to some, and might even make little to no sense; just the kind of thing contemporary artists do that everyone pretends to understand, some would say. However, the scene of Susan taking in the filled room and the context of her exposition are a short and powerful description of the woman.
Susan is gorgeous. She is the kind of person people notice, and not only thanks to her red hair. She looks imposing, and although serious, there’s a certain gracefulness to her every move. Her sad eyes leave a lot to the imagination, and her composure is alluring. Who she presents herself to be is everything kids want for themselves when they grow up. Yet the women lying naked on the lit tables are the opposite. They look gross according to social standards, people whose examples should not be followed. Still, on the videos, we see them either having fun or being strangely seductive.
Susan chose to be someone people look up to, and as we witness later in the film, it made her unhappy. She did horrible things and settled for loneliness in order to maintain her poised appearance. However, just like anyone else, she aspires to be happy, and despite their looks, the women exposed are happy in one way or another. They might be “ugly” on the outside, but graceful on the inside.
The “world” Michael Sheen’s character refers to is the life of a rich person. The quote acknowledges that appearances are everything to them, and while holding up a façade is painful, it’s not as much as not being part of these circles. As the saying goes, money doesn’t buy happiness – but at least you get to be sad in Paris.
“If being crazy means living life as if it matters…”
This line (which ends in “… then I don’t care if we’re completely insane.”) was powerfully delivered by Kate Winslet in 2008’s Revolutionary Road. Directed by Sam Mendes and starring Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, it tells the story of a couple struggling with life in the suburbs, something they despised when young. One day, tired of everything people expect of her, April (Winslet) suggests that they move to Paris, where she can work as a secretary and he can rest, think about what he really wants for his life, and maybe write. It seems like a perfect plan, except that they have two children. Their friends and neighbors don’t react well to their decision, as it goes against everything society entails.
Although the stories of each take completely different turns, Revolutionary Road and Nocturnal Animals have their take on social demands as a common aspect, and both explore it brilliantly. Whereas April attempts to break free from housekeeping and dealing with people she couldn’t care less about, Susan struggles to maintain the duties and relationships expected of her. As April’s ideals have a direct impact on her relationship with Frank (DiCaprio), so does Susan’s and her relationship with Edward.
What we enjoy, the career paths we choose to follow, and whether we prefer cats or dogs are not the details that define us. Our goals and aspirations dictate what we do, how we act, the connections we make, and whether we prefer dogs or cats. The relationship between Susan and Edward doesn’t work because they aspire to completely different things. While he wanted to be a writer and encouraged his then-wife to be an artist, she pushed back by questioning his goals and refusing to be creative, as that wouldn’t get her where she wanted to be.
In a flashback, Susan’s mother (Anne, played by Laura Linney) pins down the exact reason why her marriage with Edward would fail. In her own words, “[…] you are very strong-willed, and Edward, as sweet as he is, he’s too weak for you.” The women further discuss that point, and Anne finishes it by saying “I know you think we don’t care about the same things, but you’re wrong. In a few years, all these bourgeoise things (as you so like to call them) are gonna be very important to you, and Edward’s not gonna be able to give them to you.” What comes next may seem biased and unfair, but it’s a crude description of how society perceives people like Edward: “He has no money. He’s not driven. He’s not ambitious. […] I understand what you see in Edward. I get it. […] He is a romantic. But he’s also very fragile.”
Susan tried to fight her luxurious ambitions by marrying a man who cared not about such trivialities. For him, making a change was more important than keeping up appearances, which gradually led her to passively aggressively encourage him to be as ambitious as society entails.
In the end, Nocturnal Animals is about being careful with who you love, as that relationship can result in pain. However, the nuances of that aren’t so simple. While it’s always important not to lead anyone on, it’s also imperative to know one’s self before committing to others.
Wise men and women will say that it’s important to love yourself before asking someone else to love you. Finding your own happiness is far more powerful than relying on the affection of others to bring you joy. Relationships where one person can only find happiness within their partners instead of with them are doomed from the start. Susan never found happiness, even in the things she sought or the man who craved the same objectives, but she knew all too well what she wanted, and had only to welcome change.
In the end, the cautionary tale of Nocturnal Animals is finding out who you really are and what you desire. Only then can you find someone to be happy with, not someone who can adapt to your needs. Forcing an incompatible relationship may result in deep scars that could’ve been avoided simply by being honest with yourself.
‘The Kingmaker’ is a Probing Look at the Wife of a Despot
The Queen of Versailles, released back in 2012, was one of the best documentaries of the decade. Directed by Lauren Greenfield, it followed Jackie Siegel, the trophy wife of David Siegel, founder of the timeshare company Westgate Resorts. The film depicted the family’s construction of what was to be the largest residential home in the United States, which quickly went awry once the 2008 financial crisis hit their business hard. The documentary showed that Greenfield has a unique gift for understanding the lives and pathologies of the super-wealthy. Seven years later, Greenfield is back with The Kingmaker, another documentary portrait of a rich lady — one who, like Jackie Siegel, also had a cartoonishly evil husband and a weakness for both opulent residences and rare exotic animals.
The Kingmaker is a portrait of Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines from the 1960s to the ’80s. Imelda is known in the popular imagination as the supportive wife of that country’s dictator Ferdinand Marcos, for frequently meeting with world leaders, and for her extensive collection of thousands of pairs of shoes. This one is set on the other side of the world, but is just as instructive, not to mention entertaining.
Greenfield’s film catches up with the now 90-year-old Imelda, and depicts her life today as she luxuriates around her various estates, reminisces about late husband, tells stories about meeting with leaders from Reagan to Mao to Saddam, and pushes the political career of her son, known as Bongbong, who ran for vice president of the Philippines in 2016.
For the first half hour or so, The Kingmaker looks like an attempt to humanize and even rehabilitate Imelda’s image. She opens up about her mother’s death and her husband’s serial infidelities; he claimed he was constantly sending her around the world because he feared a coup, but really it was so he could conduct extramarital affairs.
We start to think this is, if not a puff piece, the equivalent of one of Errol Morris’ docs, where he gives a controversial political figure a chance to have their say while also challenging them.
But eventually things turn, and The Kingmaker lays out that the Marcos family had in fact engaged in massive human rights improprieties, from torturing political dissidents to rigging elections, to a scheme that entailed razing an entire residential area in order to build a zoo of exotic animals which were imported from Africa via bribes. Perhaps it was a clue early on when Imelda revealed how well she got along with the likes of Richard Nixon, Moammar Khadafy, Mao Tse-Tung, and Saddam Hussein.
The Marcos family also plundered billions from their own people, which paid for real estate all over the world, priceless art, as well as that famous shoe collection (The Kingmaker shows, among other things, that the Philippines could really use an Emoluments Clause.) What Imelda has to say now (she only ever refers to her husband as “Marcos”) makes it clear that she was not only complicit in the dictator’s crimes, but continues to defend and profit from them to this day.
And from what we see of the Marcos’ son, Bongbong, he’s a uniquely untalented and uninspiring politician who has inherited all of his father’s corruption, but none of his charisma. The Kingmaker also ties in with the modern-day politics of the country, as its current president, Rodrigo Dutarte, is shown as the true heir to the Marcos tradition, depicted as a Trump to Bongbong’s Jeb Bush.
The Kingmaker also recalls Joshua Oppenheimer’s great 2013 documentary The Act of Killing in the way it demonstrates how national myths are established and carried through the generations. We see schoolchildren reciting why the imposition of martial law was actually a moment of national glory.
Greenfield’s last film, last year’s Generation Wealth, was a big step down, lacking any focus and for some reason concentrating a great deal on people from the porn industry. But The Kingmaker is a return to form for the filmmaker, as it shows she’s honest enough to speak ill of her own subject.
‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past
Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.
After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.
The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.
The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.
However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.
A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.
Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?
The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.
‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.
‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire
Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.
Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous.
This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection.
Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom.
When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness).
These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us.
Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results.
Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.
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