The dirty little secret of criticism is that it’s a form of codified rationalization. We see movies, we have emotional reactions to them like everyone else, and then we consciously or (often) unconsciously construct intellectual arguments to justify those reactions. For example, I was a puddle of tears by the end of Alexander Payne’s latest film, so I find myself much more willing to forgive or overlook the same sorts of condescending moments that irked the hell out of me in About Schmidt and The Descendants. Shot in an anti-lustrous black-and-white that could more accurately be termed gray-on-gray, Nebraska is the story of a father and son (Bruce Dern and Will Forte) who take a road trip from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, in order to collect a $1 million sweepstakes prize Dad won. In reality, Dern hasn’t won anything—what he received in the mail was just a slightly more misleading variation on the classic “You may already be a winner!” pitch—but Forte agrees to drive him there anyway, both to shut him up and to spend some quality time with him. En route, they stop for the weekend in Hawthorne, Dern’s hometown, where they’re joined by his wife (June Squibb) and his other son (Bob Odenkirk) amidst a gaggle of typically Midwestern relatives, all of whom are extremely interested to learn that there’s now a millionaire in the family.
That phrase “typically Midwestern” signifies what’s problematic here, as usual. Payne has repeatedly insisted that he doesn’t intend to mock his characters (and neither he nor his former writing partner, Jim Taylor, penned the script for Nebraska, which is by Bob Nelson), but it’s hard to know what else to make of tableaux in which a dozen craggy-looking men sit staring impassively at a football game on TV, looking as if they’re auditioning for the catatonic ward in a production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Likewise, Squibb is encouraged to overplay her character’s ornery bluntness, at one point lifting her skirt over the grave of a former beau to show him what he missed out on. But the central relationship between Dern’s stubbornly deluded dad and Forte’s passively frustrated son gradually deepens as the movie makes its leisurely way southeast (the movie’s two dumbest caricatures are endlessly amused by how long the drive takes), building to a resolution that’s simultaneously touching and deeply, almost unbearably sad. There’s a sense here of lives largely squandered that feels more genuine than anything in Payne’s last several films (the serious ones—everything post-Election); he finally nails that conflicted tone he’s been after, which might be either optimistic defeatism or defeatist optimism. In any case, my defenses collapsed about two-thirds of the way through, making me susceptible to even the film’s most conventionally crowd-pleasing aspects. Did Payne really do something “right” here that he did “wrong” in The Descendants, a picture that I found phony but that many others consider a masterpiece? Probably not. All I can tell you for certain is that Nebraska got to me. My official, professional judgment is that it’s more truthful, less invested in comic ridicule… but maybe portraits of resigned futility just mean more to me as I get older. Grade: B+
Subjectivity and unconscious bias are on my mind largely because of the other excellent film I just saw, Blue Is The Warmest Color. Written and directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, the French-Tunisian auteur best known in the U.S. for 2007’s The Secret Of The Grain, it’s essentially the distaff version of Behind The Candelabra (minus the celebrity angle), depicting a gay relationship from infatuation to disillusionment. Once again, there’s nothing in this trajectory you haven’t seen many times before: the tremulous first touch, the efforts at concealment, the inevitable cooling of passion, the tearful recriminations, the tender reunion, etc. What makes it special is Kechiche’s attenuated naturalism (the film runs just shy of three hours, covering events that would normally occupy half that time), coupled with performances by Léa Seydoux and extraordinary newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulous that capture these two young women in all their muddled complexity. The extra length also allows for sex scenes that are far more intense, more prolonged, and more graphic than mainstream movies generally allow, which makes them both insanely erotic (more on that below) and uncommonly revealing (in both senses of the word). Most movie sex scenes function like shorthand—a series of socially approved movements and poses that denote an exchange of fluids. They’re as divorced from the narrative as a travel-map montage. When Exarchopoulos and Seydoux make love, by contrast, the act carries precisely the same emotional weight as do their lengthy conversations about art and literature. It’s communion, not calisthenics. Blue Is The Warmest Color is familiar in its broad outline but bracingly specific in its minute details, and it traffics in feelings so raw that they’re almost painful to observe. And it confirms Kechiche, who first caught my eye over a decade ago with the little seen but first-rate La Faute Á Voltaire, as one of the most underrated filmmakers currently working. Grade: B+
But let’s swing back to that faintly moralistic line “It’s communion, not calisthenics.” Part of what troubled me about Stranger By The Lake—a film most critics here like considerably more than I do—is the way that its gay characters compartmentalize lust and affection (for lack of a better word). Indeed, that’s essentially what the film is about. For these guys, the person you want to fuck and the person you want to have dinner with are never the same person. Maybe some of you relate to that. I do not. And my inability to relate very likely has something to do with my relative lack of enthusiasm for the movie. By the same token, do I genuinely consider Blue Is The Warmest Color a better film than Beyond The Candelabra, even though both are very basic bliss-to-dis gay romances? Yes, I do, for the reasons stated above. But does the fact that I’m a straight male who’s indifferent to guy-on-guy action, but who had to keep adjusting his pants during the lesbian picture, factor into that assessment? How could it not? When I admitted as much on Twitter last night, a couple folks took offense, seeming to believe that a critic should be capable of dismissing personal predilections and judging films with robotic objectivity. All I can say is, good luck with that. There’s no science involved here—my reviews and grades are influenced by all manner of personal bias, from “I generally prefer either extreme artifice or extreme verisimilitude” (Candelabra falls in between) to “Louis Garrel annoys the shit out of me.” My goal is to be as upfront about that stuff as I can, so you can compensate accordingly. If y’all still can’t wait to see Only God Forgives after reading my evisceration, I’m fine with that. But you’re nuts.
Tomorrow: For sure, James Gray’s The Immigrant. I’m going to try to get into the 3-D omnibus picture featuring shorts by Greenaway and Godard, though I have a backup plan should I get shut out. (It’s playing in the Critics’ Week sidebar, which doesn’t coddle the press the way the main festival does.) And I really will circle back to Grigris.