Wednesday, December 8, 2021


Ridley Scott is a director of contradictions. On the one hand, he’s one of Hollywood’s last great technicians of human epics. On the other, he’s an aged cynical graduate of advertisement who still simmers in the splash and flash—slick surfaces illuminating a sickness underneath. He doesn’t always hit, but when he does he’s top tier. And he’s always admirable for marshaling enormous technical craft and skill to communicate a vision that’s all his own. His latest is House of Gucci, a story of the fall of a once fashionable family. (In that way, it’s of a piece with his recent All the Money in the World, another true story of a wealthy family in conflict.) For Gucci, the chic, fashionable brand may still be strong, but the founding fathers are long gone, driven out by ego, scheming, and a wicked true crime twist. Scott joins them near the end. He surrounds them with tacky opulence and hollow golden accoutrement.

Maybe it’s the fact the movie was shot during the pandemic, which probably cramped the ability to assemble huge crowds or tons of moving pieces, but everything, from discos to villas to storefronts, seems pinched and empty. We see an obscenely rich family who have walled themselves off from the human element, like the nasty industrialists in Visconti’s The Damned if they had a better handle on some of their morals. (But just some.) There are the wrinkled brothers ruling over the stale roost of a company past its prime—an emaciated Jeremy Irons with a hacking cough, and a bloated Al Pacino delighting in his self-satisfaction—and their inadequate sons, a dweeby pushover with a reedy tone (Adam Driver) and a pompous rolly-polly oaf with a honking accent (Jared Leto cocooned in a fat suit and expansive balding forehead). Scott clearly relishes populating the screen with characters who are caricatures at best, gargoyles at worst. He finds the Gucci family in the late 70s and pushes into the 90s, as the glamorous fashion brand has fallen on hard times. The fact it won’t rebound until none of the above are involved, or alive, is treated as a giddy irony.

This stance is double-underlined by the central figure of this wildly uneven picture: a scheming lover played by Lady Gaga. Done up in Italian drag, Gaga serves up a six-course half-camp meal in which each course is ham. She swivels into every scene like a pneumatic refugee from the Ryan Murphy version of the tale, glowering from under heavy makeup, wriggling into tightly-fitted costumes, and chewing over every sentence like she’s prepared to swallow the scenery whole. Her character is constantly working an angle, using romance as a way up the food chain, and then snapping up the weak wealthy marks around her. Up against the likes of Irons and Pacino, she’s pushy and insistent. Playing off Driver, she’s constantly throwing herself against his comparative naturalism in their high melodrama. Her scenes with Leto play like nothing less than stumbling into the theater department’s two most outlandish students egging each other further over the top.

There’s fun to be had in this swanning buffet of performances, bubbling unpredictably between lively and dead-eyed, but Scott’s material loses track of the plot’s pulse. It becomes a string of handsomely realized empty echoes—a dim tour through a melting wax museum of fashion tycoons and true crimes past. The tone, amplified with pounding pop hits and shimmery gowns yet drug down to earth in dim negotiations and disputes, teeters between gloriously fake and dreary disbelief.  That’s why, no matter how fitfully engaging, it’s hard to get into the larger portrait of systemic capitalist excess, squirmy scheming at the heart of its ladder of success, and delirious drops from the heights of inequity. The whole picture is too sad to be funny, and too funny to be sad.

Far better—sharper, perceptive, and complicated—is Scott’s other period-piece epic of the year: The Last Duel. Instead of shiny surface elegance, it has actual elegance in its design despite some bruising subject matter. Set in medieval France, it’s the story of a rape accusation as told from three perspectives: first the victim’s husband’s, then her rapist’s, and, finally, hers. The intelligent construction doesn’t get lost in the subjectivity of the viewpoints—it’s careful not to make the key details up for dispute—but cleverly draws out the ways in which people can convince themselves they’re the wronged party, no matter the cost. Scott summons an army of craftspeople and extras to populate chilly castles, sprawling manors, and muddy fields of combat, with horses tromping up and down, swords clashing, and ladies’ dresses swishing over the cobblestones. It has the same attention to messy historical detail that made his Kingdom of Heaven and Gladiator, not to mention his debut feature, the similarly downbeat view of chivalrous violence, The Duellists. But because the focus remains squarely on the even messier, and evergreen, human failings and foibles driving the drama, the humanity is never dwarfed by the large scale. It’s intimate and uncomfortable despite the occasional flourishes of fluttering banners and clashing blades.

It helps that the performers are uniformly charismatic, and unafraid of looking pathetic, powerless, or petulant. Matt Damon, constantly small in the frame, plays a frustrated mid-level knight who rides off into battle and expects to be rewarded by the feudal system game by which he’s playing. His younger wife is played by Jodie Comer, who is dignified even in defeat, and rather clear about using her marriage as a way of social currency for her father. She loves her husband, but chafes ever so slightly against the ways her husband’s ego structures her life. Adam Driver, tall and intense in an interesting evil twin to his Gucci performance, is a knight who eventually has his eye on Damon’s wife. The two men are friendly on the surface, fighting together and both under the domain of the king’s cousin (Ben Affleck). That bleach-blonde aristocrat has a libertine swagger and fratty attitude—Affleck brings an oozing charm and nasty privileged self-impressed edge to every line. Driver’s in his good graces, and manages to wheedle some land that was to be promised Damon. This sets off a tense relationship that eventually culminates in the central crime, and Damon’s demand for a duel to the death. According to the court, in this case of he-said she-said, it’s the only way to prove his wife’s good word. (The arguments the men in power make to discredit her sound exactly like today’s right-wing talking points on similar matters, right down to the medieval understanding of biology; that it’s plainly presented and allows the audience to draw the connection on its own is a sign of the movie's subtly.)

Written by Damon and Affleck with Nicole Holofcener (that expert dissector of social interactions stewing in money, jealousy, clout, and pettiness with the likes of Please Give and Friends with Money), The Last Duel becomes a wide-angle lens that nonetheless focuses tightly on actions and consequences. It’s a surprisingly lively experience for such dour subject matter, skewering the pathetic squabbles and scrabbling for power amidst the men even as it understands their frustrations, and empathizing with the quiet dignity of the woman who recedes into the background despite being the ostensible focus. The overall Rashomon effect of the separate but complimentary and contradictory tellings, without an interlocutor to guide us, returns to the beginning of the conflict thrice. The build up to the crime is enhanced by the empty spaces that are fleshed out each time through. For the crime itself, at first it is merely recounted, but later seen twice, each intense, tactful and impactful. The first two times, the film pushes right up to the brink of its climactic duel before skipping back to tell the whole thing from next point of view. The screenplay is sharply balanced to bring us deeper into clarity.

When Comer steps into the lead for her section, the one that finally leads into the final fight, we’re explicitly told it’s “the truth,” and the sad thing is that it matters little to the outcome. Here’s a society in which choices are constrained, when people suffer under powerful men who protect their friends and allies at the expense of those deemed lesser than, and the inequalities of class and gender dictate so much about who is believed and whose control is maintained. In the end, the duel is the only thing giving Damon a chance to win some honor back (although, he’s warned, if he fails, he wife will literally be burned as a liar). What no one much seems to care about is the truth, the woman’s perspective, as she’s left to suffer in silence (that’s even the advice she gets from her mother-in-law in a clenched scene of matter-of-fact confession) and hope the right man is killed.

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