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.

Leviathan, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev (2014)


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LeviathanIn extreme states brought on by one or the other’s villainy, alcoholism, hypocrisy, adultery, or death, the characters in Leviathan talk, rage, and whisper about faith and reason, guilt and forgiveness, love and suffering. Simultaneously with these conversations, the film’s extraordinary cinematography, by Mikhail Krichman, of a peninsula by the Barents Sea, with its wild shoreline, monumental whale skeleton, and ruined church, tells a riddling story of human beings struggling with monsters of oceanic proportions.

Who or what is the antagonist in Zvyagintsev’s contemporary tale of Job? The mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), contends most strenuously for this role, as he pries away the family home from Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), a blameless car mechanic. Vadim, whose whims will not be denied, primes his flunky judges to reject Kolya’s successive appeals to keep his land, as Kolya grows increasingly maddened by the mayor’s greed and his own impotence before the corrupt legal system.

But the mayor and his court have rivals in deviltry in the priest and his Orthodox Church—not the decaying chapel where the boys gather, but a fancy place tricked out in satin and gold. Even the vicious but devout Vadim occasionally doubts himself and turns to God’s servant to guide him. Presiding over a sumptuous table, the priest cites technical reasons for refusing to hear the mayor’s confession and promises not to interfere in the worldly affairs of a defender of the faith.

Neither does reason escape culpability for human suffering. Kolya calls on his army friend Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), now a smart city lawyer, to help him win his case. Dmitriy digs up plenty of mud on the mayor, which he threatens to bring back to Moscow if the court does not desist. Yet, by believing that the facts will triumph over lies, Dmitriy only proves the inefficacy of the human intellect to prevent tragedy. After his near assassination by Vadim’s minions, he leaves town, but not before starting an affair with Kolya’s sad and emotionally exhausted wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova).

Returned home to Kolya and his hurting adolescent son, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), a penitent Lilya stands by the sea, watching a whale breach the waves. Shortly afterward, she disappears. Though it heralds yet another bitter affliction for Kolya, however, the whale is not to be confused in simple fashion with the leviathan of the film’s title. In the form of the giant skeleton on the beach, the whale also aligns with the shell of the old church; with Kolya’s home as it succumbs to the wrecking ball; and with the stricken man himself, to suggest a different order from that inhabited by the mayor, the priest, and the humanist lawyer: An order in which God is not absolved from tragedy.

The Two Faces of January, screenplay and direction by Hossein Amini 


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January 4

Hossein Amini wrote the screen play for Iain Softley’s 1997 screen adaptation of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove, about a man plotting to inherit a fortune by pretending love for an invalid, and his partner, a woman with the foresight of Lady MacBeth. Now Amini adapts as well as directs another novel about a secretive threesome abroad, Patricia Highsmith’s The Two Faces of January. Highsmith’s prose is not as complex as James’, but the Oedipal structure of her tale makes for compelling viewing.

In 1962, a wealthy American, Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen), is sporting his trophy wife, Colette (Kirsten Dunst), across Europe. A young American tour guide, Rydal Keener (Oscar Isaac), offers to guide them around Athens. Chester hires him, although he has already seen the young man cheat his date when paying a restaurant tab. Soon Chester and Colette are wondering, Who is this fellow who claims to be a Yale graduate and the dispossessed son of a rich and terrible father? Whoever he is, he speaks several languages and knows Athens intimately, and Chester can spare the money Rydal skims from the couples’ purchases in the bazaar.

One night a detective comes to the MacFarland’s hotel room and demands payment for a client whom Chester has scammed out of a lot of money—not just a few drachmas tacked onto a restaurant check. Chester punches the detective, planning to flee the hotel while his antagonist is unconscious, but the man hits his head and dies. Chester and Colette, who seems upset but not unduly surprised, call on Rydal to get them out of Athens.

The three become fugitives while Rydal arranges for fake passports and Chester doles out wads of cash. In forced proximity, the attachments among the fugitives proliferate. Chester and Rydal are psychically handcuffed by the murder, to which the younger man is now an accessory. The handcuffs chafe increasingly as Colette begins to turn against her husband for getting her into this mess and toward the handsome and attentive Rydal.

Rydal’s conscious reason for helping the couple escape is that he loves Collette, but infatuation blinds him to a another barely submerged motive. He can punish his implacable real dad by stealing the wife of his surrogate father, Chester, whose crimes tower over his own petty larcenies. Furthermore, like Chester, he cannot resist an opportunity to make money, the riskier the better. The world of the film being Greece, a fateful meeting at a crossroads between Chester and Rydal looks inevitable.

Oedipus is not the only mythical character brooding over the film, however. There is also the two-faced Janus, an image first of the amiable bilking tour guide and then of the hotshot financier murderer. But possibly the most two-faced of the group is Colette (whose name, it turns out, is a pseudonym), giddily attached to her husband’s arm and wallet until the going gets rough. The film works hard to give her victim status, but fails. Perhaps Kirsten Dunst is not a good enough actress to make the character compelling, or perhaps Highsmith, the fox, realized that Jocaste is merely a cipher, currency in the rivalry between father and son.

Only Hipster Left Alive


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Only Lovers Left AliveJim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive mourns the demise of a beautiful scene—a cultured hipster vampire scene that has lasted for hundreds of years. Now mortals—or zombies, as the vampirati ironically call them—are destroying nature, the root of all beauty, and cutting the blood supply with bad stuff. Brilliant and wise vampires, such as the 500 hundred year-old playwright, Christopher Marlowe, are dying of it. And who knows? In this fallen age, maybe vampires themselves are passing tainted hemoglobin for money or kicks.

Secreted away in a velvety-dark mansion in feral Detroit, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) composes experimental music on analog equipment, buys blood from a louche hospital employee, and loads his gun with a wooden bullet to shoot into his own heart when he can’t take the zombies for one more century. His long-time wife, Eve (Tilda Swinton), finds the gun on a visit from her home in Morocco, and pleads with Adam to cheer up. Their love, still passionate, abides separation; time is on their side. That is fortunate, since the nearly-albino Eve loves the hot white nights of Tangier as much as the raven-tressed Adam thrives in the dank urban underbrush.

Less gloomy than Adam, Eve too must face the possibility of expulsion from Eden after her callow younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), shows up at Adam’s house. A modern take on The Big Sleep’s thumb-sucking party girl, Carmen Sternwood, Ava is wont to break into her brother-in-law’s stash, gulping down the blood that her betters sip from sherry glasses–and no wonder, since the pure elixir affects those who imbibe it like a heroin smoothie. One night, Ava brings home an admirer, sucks his blood, and leaves him for dead. Adam and Eve send her packing, but now they too must skip town. After a grueling trans-Atlantic flight without nourishment, the couple are fading by the time they arrive in Morocco, only to find that their connection has fallen through. It looks like the end.

The film’s title has a double meaning. Lovers—that is, the vampirati—are the only creatures left on Earth who are truly alive: to beauty, to nature, to art, to the art of love. What’s more, Adam and Eve, as the blood supply dries up, are virtually the only cool vampires left alive, and perhaps not for long. Charming and visually exquisite, the film is an elegy for a lost sensibility, wrought by a director who once found this world stranger than Paradise.

Night Moves, directed by Kelly Reichardt


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Night MovesNight Moves is a neatly constructed thriller, a swerve toward classicism after Reichardt’s deconstructed Western, Meek’s Cutoff.

Here, the planet is dying—not apocalyptically, but golf course by clear-cut mountainside. The film’s Oregon looks just like the actual Oregon, but, instead of ignoring the signs like the most of us, the film’s young protagonists register each depredation on the trajectory toward ecological disaster. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), who lives in a handsome yurt on the communal farm where he labors, silently grieves for the natural world. He barely speaks to other people. Dena (Dakota Fanning), a therapeutic masseuse at a New Age spa and member of the farm’s extended network, lucidly quotes the statistics and chafes to do something.

Having previously worked together on smaller actions unwittingly bankrolled by her wealthy family, Dena and Josh now conspire to explode a dam that is destroying a river valley east of Portland. Josh believes that this event will make people think, bring them to their senses. What Dena hopes to accomplish is not clear, but in the face of the facts she cannot do nothing.

The two hook up with a third party, Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard, perfectly typecast), an ex-con living in a trailer in the woods and working at one of those golf courses. Older, cooler, and craftier than the others, he loves the land without signing up for any utopian programs. He can live with moral contradictions.

The plan is to load a motorboat with sodium nitrate fertilizer and a timer, stake it to the dam under cover of night, row to safety, and avoid contact with each other for the foreseeable future. After an increasingly breathless series of crises—the feed store will not sell Dena the fertilizer without a Social Security card, a fellow ex-con IDs Harmon at a breakfast joint, a tourist stops to repair a flat on the road above the dam just as the saboteurs start the timer—the deed is done.

This is hardly the climax of the film, however, but merely the catalyst for its real conflict. In true Hitchcockian fashion, the perpetrators show up for work the next day to hear that a camper has been killed in the incident. If they are caught, they will go to jail for life. If they are not caught, they will live with a murder on their conscience, a heavy secret for the young idealists Josh and Dena. They can pull off the crime, but can they handle the subsequent tension? Can they trust each other not to crack?

Reichardt creates complex female characters on difficult journeys, such as the vagabond on her way to Alaska in Wendy and Lucy and the pioneer Emily Tetherow in Meek’s Cutoff (both played by Michelle Williams). While Josh is the main protagonist of Night Moves, Dena’s character depicts the plight of a smart young woman in post-feminist America.

When we first see Josh and Dena, scoping out the dam, we notice that her jeans are tighter than his and that she plays with her hair, the telltale marks of female redundancy beside the self-sufficient male. When she tries to make conversation with her tightly-wound, barely civil accomplice or prepares sandwiches for the team before the big action, she is doing women’s work. When she asserts herself in a disagreement with the condescending Harmon, Josh barks at her to shut up. No matter how keenly competent she is, she will always be a tagalong. What does she have to do to prove herself, blow up a dam?

Gloria, directed by Sebastián Lelio (2013)


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GloriaGloria (Paulina Garcia) believes that love is the anodyne to death. As she stands in a little crowd on a street in Santiago, watching a skeleton puppet’s jerky dance, she makes up her mind to forgive Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), her spineless lover.

Rodolfo is evidently smitten with the auburn-haired Gloria, whom he has recently met at a club and taken to bed. Intimacy involves removing his bellyband, the result of intestinal bypass surgery for weight management. She takes this unromantic development in her stride.

Gloria thrives in love, bungee jumping and playing paintball at the amusement park Rodolfo owns and waxing her legs while singing romantic ballads along with the radio. Introducing him as her partner, she brings him to a small family reunion to celebrate the birthday of her son, a new father whose wife has abandoned him, and to say farewell to her daughter, who is departing for Sweden to be with her lover. As the glasses are filled and refilled, Gloria and her ex-husband laugh together over old photographs, moved by the mingled pain and happiness suffusing the room.

Suddenly everyone realizes that Rodofo has departed without a word, apparently miffed at the momentary straying of Gloria’s attention. She is humiliated and angered by his rudeness and immaturity, refusing to answer his begging messages. Then she sees the skeleton dance and picks up the phone.

To make it up to her, Rodolfo takes Gloria to a seaside resort. It is paradise, until his daughter calls him home to take care of his clinging ex-wife, who has had a minor (perhaps intentional) accident. Gloria begins to pack her bags. No, no, I am not going, he promises her. Perhaps to test his mettle, Gloria strips, rips off his protective bellyband, and mounts him.

At a candlelit dinner that evening, his mobile buzzes. Gloria laughingly lobs it into his soup. He excuses himself to use the restroom and never returns. Devastated but not defeated, she slams down a few screwdrivers and parties the night away, waking at dawn on the beach in somebody’s dinner jacket.

Back in Santiago, she unplugs the phone, vacuums her car, and showers. Then she sets out to the wedding of a friend’s daughter. As if on an intuition, she walks out to the terrace. There a white peacock magestically opens his fan for her. Similar in size and color, with feathers instead of bones, he is the opposite of the skeleton puppet and a sign of life’s wonder. Back in the dining room, Gloria’s friends call from the dance floor for her to join them. She does, at first moving hesitantly, then at last joyously. Life is the anodyne to death.


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