Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Always Something There to Remind Me:

Edgar Wright is one of our cleverest pop art filmmakers. He’s honed a hyperactive hall-of-mirrors approach in which editing can be half the joke, and blocking builds great gags. That allows his films like zombie yuckster Shaun of the Dead, satiric cop comedy Hot Fuzz, alien invasion lark The World’s End, and video-game-as-metaphor-for-dating rom-com actioner Scott Pilgrim vs the World to get huge laughs as they buzz with hilariously drawn characterizations and a layered and wry referentiality. (Even the less overtly goofy, his clever heist picture Baby Driver,  has a breathlessly edited tempo that grooves and cuts on the beat.) That his movies build snappy plots that click into place just so is icing on the zippy cake. So when he begins his latest film, Last Night in Soho, taking his time introducing sweet, sad Eloise, a young woman (Thomasin McKenzie) leaving her grandmother’s small-town home in order to start fashion school in the big city of London, there’s a slight shock of the new. Here Wright is pushing himself to greater patience in his visual expressiveness, dialing back comedy to dial into a character’s individual plight almost single-mindedly.

Though filled with plenty of excellent actors, it’s a haunted, interior work made compellingly exterior, knocking about one character’s mind as its expressed in her surroundings. She—timid, socially awkward, more comfortable in the trappings of 60s culture she cherishes like an old soul—has a rough time adjusting to college life in the big city. She finds herself escaping loud, obnoxious dorm mates to get cozy in a small room for rent in London’s West End. She likes that Soho atmosphere and the elderly landlady (Diana Rigg) quite likes hearing her vintage vinyls’ melodies floating through the walls. So ensconced in her nostalgia for a time she didn’t even see, Eloise starts having vivid dreams. In them she’s Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy), a blonde bombshell hoping to make it as a nightclub singer in Swinging Sixties London. At first these dreams are a joy, and Wright is sure to make them gleaming in buttery smooth tracking shots with seductive twinkling lights and bustling period detail. You can see why the time looks so appealing. 

As the dreams continue, they start drifting into our lead’s waking life, an increasingly eerie blending of reality and dream, past and present. It has a dizzying mirrored structure co-written by 1917's Krysty Wilson-Cairns, saturated colors from cinematographer The Handmaiden's Chung-hoon Chung, and a constantly flowing stream of music and performance—both on stage and for others’ benefits. This is primo doubling Persona by way of Bava by way of Blowup, to really jam in the sixties cinema references. It escalates as the dreams start to peel back surface pleasures and see the seediness of the underworld underneath—especially a predatory boyfriend played by Matt Smith—eventually becoming a mystery Eloise feels she might need to solve. What she once turned to for comfort has become yet another anxiety.

Wright builds a picture of this porous dream-state by letting superimpositions and reflections become a visual motif. With style and look, the two women even begin to resemble each other. In the first flush of excitement, Eloise changes her hair to match her dream persona. As she begins to suspect she’s not just imagining, but actually seeing a window into the past, and as the dreams become nightmares—and daymares—there’s a clean psychological interest drawn in wondering if these are mere intrusive thoughts and panic attacks, or supernatural visions and visitations. For a young aspiring fashion designer dreaming about a fresh-faced lounge singer, it’s clearly a movie wondering how one constructs an identity in one’s formative years. Placing the film’s suspense in the cauldron of the first few weeks of freshmen year finds a potent fluidity and nervousness roiling under the shock of the new and the comforts of the old. Wright’s velvety pace and sinister underpinnings are so hooked into the leads’ fractured emotional state, and he confidently communicates tons of plot with the slipperiest of camera moves and cleverest of cuts. It leaves a slick unsettled feeling, and lets neither past nor present off the hook.

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