Parting Glances, by Bill Sherwood


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While the central plot of Bill Sherwood’s one movie, Parting Glances, concerns the relationship between the bookish Michael (Richard Ganoung) and his hunky lover, Robert (John Bolger), its heart lies in the bond between Michael and Nick (Steve Buscemi), a charmingly mordant rock’n’roller with AIDS.

The dialog in this early example of independent American cinema is a bit stiff in parts—none of the players had much big screen experience—but Buscemi’s brilliance as a character actor, a curious meld of James Dean and Bugs Bunny, infuses the project with a lithe, low-key, comic poetry akin to the vibe that Jim Jarmusch was inventing at the same time. (And it didn’t take long for Jarmusch and Buscemi to find each other.)

Parting Glances takes place on Robert’s last night in New York before flying to West Africa, where he has accepted a two-year work assignment. Over the course of the evening, which involves a dinner with his boss, a roll in the hay with Michael, a fabulous going-away party thrown by their painter friend Joan (Kathy Kinney), and a workout at a disco, the lovers reveal their affection for each other but also their very different temperaments. Nick’s illness becomes a litmus test, with Michael making pit stops at Nick’s apartment to cook for him and bring him records (he is turning this gaunt, leather clad rocker into an opera fan) while Robert stays away from the doomed man, defending his cowardice by insisting that Nick knew about AIDS and continued to live dangerously. Robert is running, from Nick and AIDS and from other things as well.

The film supports both the sweetly sardonic Nick and the slightly nerdy Michael, the Midwestern boy with a moral compass. Michael defies certain stereotypes of gay representation in being playful, thoughtful, and average-looking, while at the same time adored by his friends and pursued by the youngest and prettiest boy at the party. He and Robert are both somewhat compromised by the need to make a living: Michael is editing the novel of an acquaintance with no talent, while Robert works for Cecil (Patrick Tull), an insinuating, old-school queen resembling Gomez Addams. At the same time, their world is rich in both love and friendship, a richness that romantic commitment will not diminish to a vanishing point.

Sherwood, who himself died of AIDS four years after the film was released in 1986, executes a neat sleight of hand in Parting Glances: the prospect of Nick’s disappearance hurts hard, even as the film often feels like a light-footed sprint around the fountain.

Mia Madre, Directed by Nanni Moretti

While directing a film starring “Barry Huggins” (John Turturro), a showboating American actor who can’t remember his lines, filmmaker Margherita (Margherita Buy) spends as much time as she can with her mother, Ada (Giulia Lazzarini), a former Latin teacher who is hospitalized with a failing heart. Margherita deeply loves the agreeable and intelligent Ada, and cannot accept that soon her mother will die.

Still she pushes on with the film, coaching the incorrigible Barry on the set by day and spending exhausting evenings drinking with him at his insistence. Meanwhile she and her former husband are co-parenting their lovely daughter, Livia (Beatrice Mancini). If Margherita decides to end a relationship with a smitten lover, who can blame her? She has enough on her hands.

Inevitably, Mia Madre evokes 8 ½, Fellini’s classic portrait of a director (Marcello Mastroianni) who has lost his way, aesthetically and morally, while making a film that grows more chaotic and meaningless by the day. Margherita, too, has lost faith in her vision. Her film concerns a massive factory layoff and consequent occupation by distraught workers. Yet she abhors political rhetoric and urges her actors not to identify with their characters, but to “stand beside” them. No one knows what she means.

While Fellini’s antihero hoists himself on his own petard, however, betraying his elegant wife (Anouk Aimée) with his kittenish mistress (Claudia Cardinale), Moretti’s Margherita seems unfairly judged by her maker. In a film about the making of a film about the importance of work to identity, coals are heaped upon her head for her selfishness in adhering to her vocation. Ada reveals that young Livia has recently experienced her first heartbreak over a boy—and Margherita never even noticed. The jilted lover tells Margherita what a horrible person she is (for dumping him!) and the film gives him full support.

Most insulting, Moretti casts himself as Giovanni, Margherita’s brother and maddeningly perfect counterpart. When Margherita brings take-out to the hospital to spare Ada from institutional food, Giovanni is already there, serving her with homemade pasta. While Margherita scourges her crew with screams of “Cut! Cut!” in the service of a product of her own imagination, Giovanni quits his high-paying corporate job to devote himself, it is implied, to “real life.” Even Barry, Margherita’s accomplice in the delusional world of artifice, is able to get real and boogie down with the crew, while she looks on, arms folded across her chest.

If Moretti’s intent was to create a self-reflexive image of the egocentric auteur—as Fellini does in 8 ½–he errs by identifying himself body and soul with the simpatico Giovanni. Instead of a frank but empathetic depiction of conflicting duties and the terror of aesthetic fragmentation, the film weighs in as a conventional portrait of the woman artist as narcissist and control-freak.


Mountains May Depart, Directed by Zhangke Jia (2015)


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The title of director Zhangke Jia’s latest film,  Mountains May Depart, suggests that the most solid and permanent-seeming features of a landscape will change over time, and may entirely disappear. By implication, even people blessed with beauty and loved abundantly may be left alone and without bearings. By enduring such changes while remaining emotionally vital and psychologically balanced, Zhangke’s protagonist, Tao (Tao Zhao), offers a pattern for an unexpectedly sad yet beautiful life.

The story is told in three chapters several years apart. In 1999, the lovely young Tao sings and dances in traditional New Year’s celebrations, trailed by her suitors, Liangzi (Jing Dong Liang) and Dollar (Zijian Dong). The former is a close friend of Tao and her father, who together run a convenience store. (Tao’s mother, presumably dead, foretells future absences.) Dollar, as the name implies, is a precocious entrepreneur.

Joyriding about town in Dollar’s big car with both swains, treating them equally as chums, Tao does not tip her hand. Impatient with her discretion, Dollar makes vague plans to disable his rival with dynamite. Tao discovers the explosives and makes  him detonate them in a frozen river. The image of the blast recurs several times in the film, associating the entitled bully, Dollar, with China’s multiple industrial disasters and catastrophic engineering of the Yangtze River. The story of Tao and her friends parallels the tale of China’s heedless modernization.

Finally, Dollar warns Liangzi to forfeit Tao or lose his job at the coal mine. Liangzi refuses and is fired. But the harder blow falls when he sees Tao in Dollar’s arms at a nightclub. He leaves the city to begin his years as an impoverished itinerant worker.

Tao has, of course, chosen the wrong man. By 2014 she and Dollar have divorced and he has taken their son, Jinsheng, to live in luxury in Australia. When Tao’s beloved father dies, she insists that the boy return to China for the funeral. Tao and Jinsheng, virtual strangers, relate clumsily to each other, as he Skypes with his father’s mistress and Tao reels with grief for her father. At the funeral, she pushes the child to his knees to pray for the departed. But she also cooks trim, plump dumplings for him, the first he has ever tasted. By the time they have begun to warm to each other, Jinsheng must fly back to Australia. They never meet again.

Liangzi, too, has married and born a son, but he seems to take no joy in them, as they move exhaustedly from town to town, seeking work. Mining has ruined Liangzi’s lungs. When the family lands back in his home city, his wife seeks help from Tao, who brings money to Liangzi’s bedside. They do not talk about what might have been. Romantic regrets would trivialize the tragedy that his life has become.

In 2025, Jinsheng (Yi Zhang), who has grown up in Australia speaking English, tells his Chinese language class that he has no mother. Truly, he lacks not only a mother—Dollar’s mistress has evaporated—but a mother tongue and a homeland. And he is soon to cast off his father as well, after enlisting his teacher, Mia (Sylvia Chang), to translate as he tells his boorish parent that he is quitting college. The conversation goes nowhere, except to intensify Jinsheng’s infatuation with the elegant, sympathetic older woman, who is obviously, except to him, a mother substitute.

Herself embroiled in a nasty divorce and far from her home in Toronto, Mia begins an affair with her pupil. When he is taken for her son by a sales clerk, however, Jinsheng recoils. Foreseeing the inevitable, Mia delicately breaks off the affair.

They are all alone. In China, Tao makes dumplings for no one, yet fleetingly senses the presence of her son, perhaps a telepathic perception of his longing for her, and smiles. She takes her dog to the beach. The dog is a golden retriever, possibly the third she has owned over the course of the film, and an emblem of her faithfulness to life. Unleashing the dog, she performs tai chi on the rocks. Somehow, loss has failed to blow up her soul.



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Anomalisa 2Michael Stone, the aptly named protagonist of Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman’s animated drama Anomalisa, is greying at the temples, but he still has not learned the essential fact about himself: that he is incapable of intimacy. This lack of self-knowledge has enabled a long career of breaking hearts, as he has striven to overcome his loneliness by having affairs.

The inability to love is not in itself a crime; it is a shortcoming, perhaps a tragic one. What is culpable is ignoring the evidence in the shattered lives around oneself. When Michael, a charismatic speaker, lands in Cincinnati for a presentation on customer relations (!), he phones a former lover to meet him in the bar. When she arrives, she tells him she spent a year in bed after he left her, flattened by the shock and hurt of his sudden disappearance. This does not stop Michael from hinting that perhaps she would like to come upstairs to his room. She would not.

He has better luck with Lisa, a customer relations specialist who has traveled to Cincinnati to hear him speak and is staying at the hotel. Convinced that she is unattractive because of a scar on her temple, which she hides behind a curtain of hair, Lisa is tickled pink by Michael’s attentions, and willingly enough goes to bed with him, expecting nothing more.

To Michael’s credit, he is keenly sensitive to sound; in the first sequence of the film, he negotiates the airport in earbuds, listening to an aria sung by Joan Sutherland. Except the voice is not Joan Sutherland’s, but the monotonous male voice in which everyone speaks in Michael’s world.

Anomalously, Lisa speaks like a woman, a vulnerable human being open to happiness, a person who can be thrilled by scrambled eggs for breakfast. When he hears her voice, Michael is smitten, or thinks he is. The morning after their tryst, he astonishes her by saying he wants to spend the rest of his life with her, that his wife and son are nothing.

At that very moment, the spell is broken. Suddenly he cannot abide her table manners, or anything about her. It is over before it has begun.

Lisa, whose soul is full, will recover, but this episode would appear to be Michael’s last delusional attempt to become a real boy through the enchantments of romantic love. After a disastrous, rambling presentation at the customer service convention—a classic crack-up scene—he flies home to his wife and son. She tells him she does not want him to leave. He answers, “Where would I go?”

It is a question he needs to answer. They would both be better off if he took an apartment somewhere and found a job in a music store. Perhaps he could adopt a dog.

Michael’s character is voiced by the marvelous David Thewlis and Lisa’s by the ever-susceptible Jennifer Jason Leigh. The characters are embodied by puppets that show the seams between their parts, suggesting the fragility of their identities: a chunk of Michael’s face falls off during his breakdown at the hotel. Lisa’s scar, like her voice, signals that she is made of flesh, that her substance has remained organic, unlike the others in Michael’s world, who are calcified by pain and boredom. Or at least that is how he perceives them.


Victoria (2015), Directed by Sebastian Schipper


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Victoria 3Victoria (Laia Costa), who has failed to make the final cut in music school in Madrid, is now steaming lattes in Berlin, her dream of playing concert piano stopped cold. Coming out a of club one night near dawn, she meets Sonne (Frederick Lau), Boxer (Franz Rogowski), Blinker (Burak Yigit), and Fuß (Max Mauff)—no, not reindeer, but Berliners with no particular place to be.

A tour de force, Victoria’s 138 minutes were filmed in one shot in real time, but director Sebastian Schipper’s manipulation of duration during the shoot is anything but metronomic. While Victoria and the young men loiter on the streets, she on her bike and the gang milling about her, time expands to fit the slow sorting out of relationships. Sonne, a swain in clown’s clothing, steadily and ardently seeks Victoria’s favor. Blinker concedes the contest by dubbing her “Sister,” a term affectionate but not romantic. The intense quasi-skinhead, Boxer, shows off by bossing around the others. Fuß’s birthday celebration has left him too tipsy to compete.

The young men’s clubhouse is someone else’s rooftop, where they bring Victoria to smoke, drink, joke, flirt, and confide. She unnerves them by swinging her legs over the side of the building. Victoria is up for anything. When the hour approaches for her to open the café, Sonne accompanies her. There is a piano in the café, and she plays for him. They recognize a seriousness in each other that makes them reluctant to part ways as night turns into day. The spell is broken, however, when Boxer arrives, demanding that Sonne help him return a favor for a man who protected him in prison.

Four men are needed for the job—a bank heist—but Fuß is too drunk to be of use. Boxer becomes hysterical. If he doesn’t deliver, he is in big trouble. As time accelerates under pressure, Victoria and Sonne’s competence in an absurd and dangerous situation emerges. Sonne steadies himself to be the frontman; Victoria, behind the wheel of the getaway car, deals with Boxer’s aggression and Blinker’s cocaine-induced panic attack. The heist goes off without a hitch. Flush with cash and adrenaline, the four barge into a club—they never close in Berlin—hugging, dancing, drinking, mooning. Victoria and Sonne kiss for the first time.

In the greatest crime stories, the deed itself is only the beginning, as the often-amateur perpetrators face the consequences, whether guilt, mutual mistrust, arrest, a life in hiding, or a bloody shootout. This is also the case with Victoria and the four young people at loose ends in Berlin whose 138 minutes together have attained the gravitas of a lifetime.

Phoenix (2014), Directed by Christian Petzold


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The Galatea Phoenixof modern Pygmalion stories takes on, not only flesh and blood, but also a will.

In Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, Nelly Lenz (the magnificent Nina Hoss) is released from Auschwitz in the care of her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf). Nelly’s head is completely bandaged as the result of gunshot wounds. In Berlin, a plastic surgeon offers her a new face—he can make her look like a movie star—but she insists that he reconstruct her features as much as possible to resemble her old self.

Lene offers Nelly a chance to begin a new life in Israel with their post-war reparation payments. But Nelly, who only survived the camp by fixating on her reunion with her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), is not ready for renewal.

Lene works in a records office, registering the names of people exterminated by Nazis. While Nelly was incarcerated, without news of the outside world, Lene learned the fate of all their friends—who perished and who collaborated. She knows that Johnny was imprisoned and released days before Nelly was caught. One day she sees him slip into the stacks, only to be chased by a worker. Leafing through the file he has dropped in haste, Lene further discovers that, before Nelly’s arrest, Johnny obtained a divorce. She warns Nelly that Johnny is a traitor, but to spare her friend, who is already severely traumatized, she does not tell all she knows.

Before her arrest, Nelly sang and Johnny played piano in nightclubs. Now she prowls the nocturnal streets of a demolished Berlin with a little revolver, a gift from Lene, in her handbag. She finds Johnny soon enough, busing tables in a café. He does not recognize his glamorous former wife in this emaciated, grey-haired, bruised and broken creature. Yet he can see enough of a resemblance to suggest that they scheme together to claim Nelly’s reparation money.

Perhaps Johnny loved Nelly, and betrayed her only when faced with his own destruction. Attractive, pragmatic, he has made his compromise and lived. He can hardly expect or wish ever to see Nelly again.

In order to be close to him, Nelly agrees to the scheme. Calling herself Esther, she allows him to refashion her as a dark-haired beauty with a confident walk. He does not ask her to attempt to sing.

To test her disguise, Johnny arranges a gathering in a beer garden with old acquaintances. She arrives at the assignment with something besides a gun in her handbag: the divorce papers, left to her by Lene, who has committed suicide.

The old acquaintances accept her as Nelly. Stunned at their willingness to believe that survivors leave Auschwitz wearing lipstick and high heels, and possibly wondering what role these people played during the war, she barely speaks. When they have finished their welcoming speeches, she suggests that she and Johnny perform one of their old numbers, Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low.” No doubt wondering what Esther can be thinking, but unwilling to challenge her in public, he sits down at the beer garden piano and begins to play.

Esther’s voice, at first a whisper, gains resonance as she sings. Astonished, Johnny stops playing and looks up, seeing for the first time what she has, literally, up her sleeve: a camp serial number.

Director Petzold wrote the screenplay of Phoenix with his mentor, German media artist Harun Farocki, who was born during the war in a part of Czechoslovakia annexed by the Third Reich. Before his death in 2014, Farocki worked with Petzold on five films, including 2012’s Barbara, also starring Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld.

The Wolfpack, directed by Crystal Moselle (2015)


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Wolfpack 1Far from being raised by wolves in the wild, the seven Angulo children—six brothers and a sister– were brought up by Hare Krishnas and movie DVDs in a small apartment on Manhattan’s lower east side. This intensely inbred and mediated life produced both trauma and brilliant creativity.

The siblings’ father, Oscar, feared for their safety were they to leave the apartment for the drug- and crime-logged streets. He also dreaded their contamination by materialistic values. A visionary and a tyrant, he sired his own commune with his oppressed wife, Susanne. Like her offspring, Susanne was kept locked in the apartment except, for medical appointments, for almost two decades. Oscar, who refused to work as a form of social protest, went out only to bring back food. Director Crystal Moselle tells this story in her documentary, The Wolfpack (2015), suturing years of home movies to interviews with family members today.

The parents named their children Bhagavan, Govinda, Jagadisa, Krsna, Mukunda, Narayana, and Visnu. Oscar wanted more children, but mercifully Susanne entered menopause before the apartment could grow any more crowded and the genetic material any more fragile (Visnu, the youngest and a daughter, is mentally disabled). The names are a clue to the family’s intertwined identities. In the Hindu pantheon, Visnu (or Vishnu) is also called Narayana, and has four arms. Two of the Angulo brothers, Govinda and Narayana, are fraternal twins. Amid all this doubling and splitting, could Oscar even tell his sons apart—all tall, thin, olive-skinned, with waist-length black hair they were forbidden to cut? Were they unique individuals to him, or projections of his own self-fashioning as a utopian patriarch?

By the time Moselle met the brothers on one of their early ventures outside of the apartment, the regime had begun to deteriorate. Mukunda had driven in the thin edge of the wedge by escaping one day while his father was food shopping. The young man drifted hesitantly along the street in a papier-mache mask until taken by the police to a mental hospital. After his return a week later, the six healthy teenage boys realized that nothing could hold them, not even Oscar’s fear or their own. Their adored mother quietly rooted for them to go out and have a good time.

The huge irony is that Oscar’s experiment did not entirely fail. While the boys admit to feeling awkward in social situations (not to mention their resentment toward their father), they are on the whole sensitive, intelligent, well-spoken, and emotionally intact, with a great capacity for affection toward their mother and sister and for sheer joy in the brave new world they are discovering of urban riverfront and upstate apple orchard. They are more mature and likable than the average American teenager. And most amazing, they are feverishly, stylishly, ingeniously creative.

The drug Oscar fed them to keep them in lotus land was movies. The boys spent days crammed in front of a small TV, watching films by their heroes, Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan, learning the scripts by heart, and reenacting scenes with handmade costumes and props. The duct-taped guns looked so good that once someone watching from the street called the authorities, who burst into the apartment and cuffed the entire family. When Moselle first encountered them, they were dressed alike in black suits and shades, as if they had escaped, not from their claustrophobic digs, but from Reservoir Dogs.

The visual artist Christian Boltanski has written that he and his siblings lived in their parents’ apartment until they were adults, all sleeping together in the same room and locking arms when they ventured out into the city. Similarly, extreme constraints have generated art in the case of the Angulo brothers. While Moselle’s film does not follow each one as they begin to individuate (subsequent media coverage indicates that the younger boys have changed their names and are playing rock and roll), the director does choose to end the documentary with the making of a film within a film—s short directed by Mukunda featuring each of his family members in a fantastic mask or make-up representing an emotion. Susanne, for example, wears a mask of terminal anguish; Oscar sports a third eye on his forehead; and Visnu holds up a huge grin. The visuals are flat-out brilliant.

And another character has joined the scene–a young woman in a red dress who gestures flirtatiously to the viewer. Fair-skinned, blonde, and female, she is very other to the Angulo boys. She represents the world.

La Sapienza, directed by Eugène Green


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La Sapienza Characters While not simple opposites, the two masters of Italian baroque architecture serve as dialectical energies of mind and body spiraling to a grand height in director Eugène Green’s 2014 film La Sapienza.

Fierce rivals, Francesco Borromini (1599 –1667) and Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 – 1680) were born within a year of each other. Two of their most famous Roman churches, Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and Bernini’s Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, anchor the same street, the Via del Quirinale. While Borromini wrought the more inventive buildings, Bernini excelled at both architecture and sculpture. For this reason, and for his greater sociability, Bernini won the commission to design the baldachin of Saint Peter’s Basilica, while the melancholic Borromini eventually ended his own life.

The design of Borromini’s San Carlo, a complex pattern of ovals, crosses, octagons, and hexagons, culminates in a lantern at the top of a dome illuminated by windows unseen from below. Bernini’s Sant’Andrea al Quirinale also employs hidden light sources to dramatize the ascension of the dome to a climactic lantern. But while Borromini reaches apotheosis through mathematical elaboration, Bernini embodies it with images of the saint in painting and sculpture.

Green’s film, itself a cerebral structure, climbs from the turgid purgatory of its characters’ mental and physical maladies into a welcome sense of wholeness and levity. These characters, Alexandre Schmidt (Fabrizio Rongione), an architectural historian; Aliénor Schmidt (Christelle Prot), his wife; Goffredo (Ludovico Succio); an architecture student; and Lavinia (Arianna Nastro), his invalid sister, meet by happenstance in the town of Stresa, on the Gulf of Borromeo (Borromini may be its namesake). The Schmidts have stopped here on the way to Rome, where Alexandre, who seems to have nothing left to say to his wife or to the world, hopes to be inspired to complete a book. On a silent walk by the bay, they encounter Goffredo supporting the fainting Lavinia. Aliénor immediately comes to their aid, dispatching Alexandre for the car.

Delaying their journey until they have news of Lavinia’s recovery, the Schmidts dine with Goffredo, who is as dynamic as his sister is frail. Perhaps out of mischief, perhaps out of wisdom—la sapienza—Aliénor suggests that she stay behind with Lavinia while her glum, laconic husband continue on with Goffredo. What an educational opportunity for the young man to accompany the learned professor to the great architectural shrines of the Baroque! And besides, the intuitive Aliénor foresees that the frisson of traveling with an unwanted companion, one who contrasts vividly with him in age and temperament, will goad her spouse into an emotional response and perhaps a reopening to experience and to her.

The gentlemen go to Rome, where Alexandre leads Goffredo on a spectacular tour of the churches. Impelled by his Italian manners in spite of himself to act as a guide, he describes with increasing warmth the structures’ varied methods of ascent to the light. A kind of talking cure and role reversal take place, with the novice Goffredo assuming the position of listener and healer and the expert Alexandre, that of an analysand articulating himself into being. Green tells this story through a cinematic survey of the buildings, with their metaphorical resemblance to the edifice of thought. If, as Goffredo insists, architecture is about light, so is film.

Meanwhile, while male intellects soar, Aliénor and Lavinia do their own talking, at first in bedside visits, and, as the girl’s health improves, on sunny patios. Their conversation, too, traverses silences and revelations, particularly of Lavinia’s mysterious illness, a shadow that throws into relief Goffredo’s brilliance. Lavinia believes that an unknown calamity threatens her beloved brother, and that by being sick she absorbs that threat into herself. In this interlude of his absence and her friendship with Aliénor, however, she recognizes that she herself is the cloud over Goffredo’s future, for his love for her binds him to her side, emotionally if not always physically.

La Sapienza DomeBy its conclusion, La Sapienza has vaulted to a happy ending, one suggestive of a Shakespearean romance, in which the two sufferers find ease and can express love for their partners—Alexandre by embracing his wife, and Lavinia by releasing her brother from their bond.

Two Days, One Night, directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne


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Two Days 1Sandra (Marion Cotillard) has returned to work at the factory after a bout of depression to discover that her position has been eliminated. Her boss, M. Dumont (Batiste Sornin), has found that he can manage with sixteen workers as well as with seventeen. To shift the blame off himself, he gives Sandra a chance to save her job. If she can convince her co-workers to give up their bonuses, he will have enough money to keep her on the payroll. A devilish proposition among people who have been short on funds their whole lives. Today is Friday; the vote will take place on Monday.

Two Days 2Sandra’s husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), understands without saying that Sandra must rise to this challenge, not only to save her paycheck, which the family needs, but to regain her will to live. Thin, with circles under her eyes and a perfunctory ponytail, Sandra wants nothing but to crawl into bed and pull the covers over her head. From moment to moment cajoled and encouraged by the tireless Manu, she does not hide her despair, her mortification at having to ask others to sacrifice for her, her dread of their resentment if she prevails and they lose the bonuses they have been counting on for home improvements, their kids’ education, the rent. Manu has much to put up with, but to the Dardennes’ credit the movie allows him a quiet heroism without heroics. The focus remains on Sandra’s plight.

For two days and (part of) one night, bolstered also by her righteous friend Juliette (Catherine Salée), Sandra makes the rounds of her co-workers’ homes, asking if they will vote for her to keep her job. The question poses a crisis, not just for Sandra, but for the others as well. Few are so heartless as not to feel the difficulty of her position; few have the luxury of giving up a bonus. A husband and wife, a father and son, argue bitterly over which way to turn. Immigrants confess their fear of getting on the wrong side of the boss who has engineered this farce. The final vote, however it turns out, will divide the workers, fracture their solidarity, as M. Dumont undoubtedly knows.

In her frail state, each “no” returns Sandra to despondency; each “yes” fills her with the gratitude only the desperate can feel. She is the sensitive instrument through which the Dardennes allow us to perceive a social injustice softened by acts of decency. Yet, to the Dardennes, as to the great humanists of French literature, Sandra is not merely an instrument. She is also a person who must decide whether to exist—not just on the factory floor, but in the world.

Play (2011), directed by Ruben Ostlund

Play 1Although Swedish director Ruben Ostlund spoke candidly about his films at his recent appearance at the Walker Art Center, the films themselves shift perspectives, providing slippery viewing. Perhaps this is because Ostlund himself struggles with his take on the social construction of conflict—between men and women, between black, white, and Asian teenagers. His ambivalence sometimes seems like a cop-out, but at the same time makes the viewer assess her own emotional reactions to the situations on the screen.

In his break-through film, last year’s Force Majeure, Ostlund exposes well-off, family-centered masculinity to humiliating tests, revealing his male characters’ human frailties in spite of their performance of reasonableness and capability. In a final scene, however, he complicates the gender critique when his main female character, frightened out of her wits by a precipitous alpine bus ride, momentarily sheds her responsible maternal persona.

In Play, a group of adolescent African immigrants prey on their middleclass peers, conning them out of cell phones at the mall. In the film’s prolonged central episode, they entrap three boys, two white and one Asian, for a day of endless tram rides, feints, threats, embarrassments, and, finally, robbery. Significantly, this entrapment is accomplished without a weapon, and the only one who gets physically hurt is a black kid who doesn’t want to play.

The director emphasizes the passivity, even complicity, of the victims of the bullying. Sullen and frightened, they nonetheless ignore opportunities to be rescued, as when they are offered refuge in a café until they can contact their parents, but instead go back outside to continue the confrontation with their tormentors. Does Ostlund intend this scenario as a metaphor for how immigrants are hustling decent Swedish folk, who are too hamstrung by political correctness to protect themselves and their civilization? For most of its duration, the film opens itself to this interpretation.

But wait. As in Force Majeure, Play includes a final table-turning scene. Two white dads descend on one of the troublemakers at a bus stop, while their own sons cower behind a building, and take back a cell phone by force. They may be in the right, but they kind of act like jerks, as noted by two white women who witness the incident and upbraid them for manhandling a young immigrant. Unlike their own sons, who seem to wish their dads would just let it go, the black kid puts up a fight, swinging at the dads and squawking about his poverty and innocence, exploiting the rhetoric of liberal whites.

Ostlund, at least at this early point in his career, seems to be more interested in tracking Foucauldian power maneuvers in complex social situations than in distinguishing the oppressors from the oppressed. His thought-provoking films, accompanied by beautiful, cool cinematography (here by Marius Dybwad Brandrud), are well worth ninety minutes of squirming.