Thursday, February 10, 2022

Taking Direction: PARALLEL MOTHERS

One of the great pleasures of seeing a new film from a director who has done good, distinctive work over many decades is the comforting feeling of knowing we’re in familiar, reliable territory. Ah, one can think, here’s that recognizable style and those usual preoccupations, done up in their confident aesthetics and in their pleasurably recognizable rhythms. So here’s Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers. The latest film from the great Spanish filmmaker is another of his intricate narrative designs that plays out so easily one can still be surprised by its emotional impact despite recognizing its moves. It stars Penélope Cruz—whose expressive features graced a half-dozen of his films—and has other frequent collaborators in supporting roles. It’s set in plush Madrid apartments painted with deep reds and blues and greens, decorated with artful textures, vintage photographs, vinyl records, and jamón on the counter. It flows with the usual sumptuous string score from Alberto Iglesias. It concerns itself with: birth and death, mistaken identity, miscommunications, mothers, daughters, sex, family secrets, fallible men, and things long buried or repressed resurfacing. It is, in other words, an Almodóvar film. For all the familiarity of the surface appeal, it also has the beguiling narrative propulsion, pulled along by powerfully underplayed melodrama, with which his most effective films work best. Watching it, one wonders what will happen next, and how the characters will react, not in an edge-of-the-seat way so much as the deep well of feeling and humanity that comes from closely observed curiosity and earnest empathy.

Here, in delicately doubled parallel narratives that draw closer, separates and draw close again, Cruz plays a single middle-aged photographer whose affair with an anthropologist is the cause of an unexpected pregnancy. She decides, given her age and prospects, to have the child. He doesn’t want to be involved, which is fine by her. She ends up, nine months later, sharing the maternity ward with a teenager (Milena Smit) whose pregnancy is similarly shrouded in the unexpected and the unspoken. They agree to keep in touch. As Almodóvar follows these new mothers, the story develops with complications both normal—women recovering from birth, navigating new living arrangements, rebalancing a career (or adolescent desires to strike out) with their familial obligations—and dramatic. The plot ultimately hinges on a couple paternity tests, dark secrets, some held too long, and others not long enough, and, finally, one big devastating turn. There’s high drama here, or at least potentially. (Almodóvar even provides a running subplot of Cruz’s search for a mass grave in her small home village, where her grandmother long claimed her grandfather was buried during the Spanish Civil War. Talk about drama!) And yet the actors present these turns with such ease and naturalism, speaking in soothing soft tones and melodic warmth even as they might be evading or obscuring their true feelings. The movie sets its enormous emotions on a soft simmer, letting the full weight of its heaviest moments push down unexpectedly in the design.

Similarly, Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a work recognizably his own, with a design that is its own reward. It might even be doubly familiar (or triply) to anyone who’s seen the 1947 Tyrone Power-starring adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel. It’s a noirish carnival con man picture, relishing the seedy inner workings of the freak show atmosphere. Del Toro usually works his affinity for misfits, monsters, and castoffs. See it expressed in the likes of Mimic, Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth and his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water—a real monster mash of a filmography, always asking, who’s the real freak here? In this new film, that kinship finds, in some ways, its most human expression amid the dusty tents and flickering flames of its disreputable environment. Here’s a film that looks unflinchingly at a geek in the old fashioned sense of the term, a desperate man biting the head off a live chicken for a paying audience, clenching his teeth to slowly separate vein from muscle until the neck snaps. The film wonders what kind of a life takes someone to that moment. To answer, Del Toro, with co-writer Kim Morgan, finds a winding road through eccentric characters and blustering schemes. It’s a big cast—Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman, and Dave Strathairn, among others—of carny types, each given loving attention to the art of their grift and graft. It unfolds the ecosystem of the traveling show so patiently and in such detail I was reminded of Ricky Jay’s histories of magicians. The people in this movie are living on the margins, but there’s some kind of mad skill to what they do wrapped in the soft deception of audience appeal. They, like the film, and like a key image in the film, are a loaded pistol in a purse.

At the center is a charismatically recessive movie star performance from Bradley Cooper, one of those magnetic work of gestures and implication that’s compelling, and then only grows in power when he doesn’t speak. He simply exists, first as a lost man stumbling into this world, and then as a figure of increasing power within his person as he turns on the charm and shines up to move in fancier circles. That gets Cate Blanchett and, later, Richard Jenkins involved as high society becomes the scene of a newer, edgier, more personal con. No more swindling quarters out of gullible folk; it’s time to put on more elaborate faux-psychic charades for the high-rollers. The trick of the movie is how easily it moves between these early-20th-century spaces—the rural outskirts and the electric urban interiors, Dust Bowl chic and Art Deco glamor—with a consistency of tone and style. Here are damaged people damaging people, but their wounded souls are attracted and repulsed by the endeavor, and each other. The movie follows suit. It takes grand delight in the low pleasures of its population, and sinks ever deeper into the melancholic romance and eerie despair, both of which are all part of the game, too. It’s not dissimilar from an Edward Hopper painting in its look and feel some of the time—figures of loneliness in the vastness of (retro) modern life. If the movie sometime feels long, it’s because Del Toro can’t pull himself out of these scenes in these visual spaces with these complicated stock of characters; they’re too well-inhabited and handsomely dressed in sets expertly designed. I didn’t mind spending that time. These days, when movies can often feel so impersonal and bland, to groove on a distinct style and mood can be a tonic.

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