Monday, April 22, 2024

Fear Itself: THE BEAST

Bertrand Bonello’s The Beast is a nesting doll narrative full of resonances fit for an age of anxiety. He’s done this playfully serious structuring around free-floating modern fears before. His Nocturama is a tensely shaggy hangout with a group of disaffected young bombers hiding out in an abandoned mall after a violent protest—captured by capitalism even in rebellion. His Zombi Child is a boarding school drama wrapped around voodoo flashbacks that tie together into a double-knotted story of immigration and isolation—twice over lost to oneself even as one is drawn even deeper into oneself. The Beast is hooked into a modern sense of foreboding and unease manifesting as eerie stasis and passivity that makes dangers, real or imagined, no less possible. It’s wrapped in a bevy of sci-fi conceits. It’s 2044. Some undefined apocalypse has left the streets of Paris largely abandoned, with stray animals wandering about, and passerby wearing clear air-filtering masks. Léa Seydoux stars as a woman who submits a request for promotion to her Artificial Intelligence overlord (Xavier Dolan’s voice) and is told she must undergo an emotional purging. Hooked up to a pseudo-spiritual machine—a vat of goo and wires that’s one part Minority Report and one part Cronenberg—that’ll prompt her to relive past lives and purge her centuries acquiring human softness.

As it begins, the movie quickly settles into a romantic tragedy straight out of Henry James. It’s a flooded Paris of 1910 where a the owner of a doll factory sneaks up to the edge of an affair with a dashing stranger (George MacKay) she meets at an art show. From the near-future interludes to the birth of Modernism—she sees avant garde paintings and is overseeing her product’s transition from porcelain to plastic—she’s stuck in a period of technological and emotional transition. (It also cues ideas about the creation of art as reflection and population of interior spaces, matched in time with an embodied A.I. “doll” played with impressive impassivity by Saint Omer's Guslagie Malanda.) Seydoux navigates serenely yet quiveringly across times with a slippery double role, playing the subterranean romantic yearnings and curiosities as her stuffed-shirt husband drifts away in favor of a pretty and serious flirt. The movie kicks into even higher tension in its second half as the double role adds a third. Now we’re in 2014 Los Angeles where the period piece stylings are rawer within our modern memory. This section deals with the burbling impending violence of MacKay as a vlogging incel stalker (a sadly familiar type) while Seydoux is now an aspiring actress disaffectedly ensorcelled in the labyrinthine gig economy of bad commercials and empty housesitting, only freed from routine by lonely websites, lonelier pills, and somehow loneliest crowded nightclubs. If the Jamesian story is about the pain of denial and the dangerous sparks of new possible connection, the Hollywood one is about the creeping dangers of the lack of connection.

In each time period, Seydoux and MacKay are on a collision course, sometimes romantic, but always fraught with contemporaneous fears and foibles. What form does society give to its unanswerable conflicts, its grinding prejudices and self-fulfilling prophecies? What, after all, is the beast? (A key line has to be an advertising director on a green screen set asking his actress: “Can you be scared of something that isn’t there?”) Here are two parallel plots that play out back to back, with the futurist frame dance between. Their implications and tensions and uncertainties circle, echo, and collapse. Bonello plays each genre almost entirely straight, but their juxtapositions accumulate and resonate. At times fleeting glitches filter in, lingering oddness even before Josée Deshaies’ cool digital frames might suddenly be pixellating, or skipping, or repeating, but just rarely enough to surprise each time. (Pity anyone seeing it streaming instead of theatrically or on a disc for the doubt they’ll have about whether these intentional choices are wi-fi troubles.) Here, in triplicate, is a woman and a man on a doomed loop of trauma reincarnated. Here, human fears feed human foibles and the inevitable dooms of our own, or others’, making. All one can do is scream as old anxieties are reborn anew and expressed afresh—familiar faces in new forms, every beginning fraught with the knowledge that this, too, shall end.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Point and Shoot: CIVIL WAR

A tense provocation, writer-director Alex Garland’s Civil War has sequences of frightening violence wherein the logic of action movies is turned inside out to make us root for the shooting to stop. Our lead characters are photojournalists courageously and recklessly charging after the action. The bullets fly and we flinch with them as the action charges ahead. We see bloodshed as intimate, personal—bodies hanging in an abandoned car wash, piled in mass graves behind farm houses, pulled apart by machine guns. The movie imagines a near-future America devolved into sectarian warfare, rebel troops amassing outside Washington to take on a fascistic president who has, in his third term, disbanded the FBI and shoots protestors. This isn’t the queasy-making romance of a lost cause, or a wishful thinking, that’s been burbling up with Civil War nostalgia for 150 years. If the United States were actually to fall into an all-out second Civil War it would look like this—balkanized, radicalized, individuated, dangerous and unpredictable. It’d be three backwoods guys with AR-15s guarding their local gas station. It’d be a random militia holed up trying to overpower and execute soldiers. It’d be insurgents storming the capitol.

Garland doesn’t worry overmuch about how we get there. The movie starts years into the conflict as we get the sense the war is drawing close to a climactic point of desperation. Dialogue has some free-floating allusions to past massacres, controversies, and realignments. We get the gist. The screenplay never announces the policy positions of its combatants, although a reasonably intelligent viewer could pin down the overarching particulars of the state of play. Instead, it stirs up its political intensity with immediacy of intent. It communicates clearly and directly, and with great force, ideas about the hell war puts all people through, and of the complicated natures of the specific people who make their mission the witnessing of it. This is a bleak vision of how some people are just waiting for an excuse to revel in chaos, and the movie plays it off with a throughly muddled sense of rooting interests. Of course we want our main characters to survive; that’s movie logic. But by stripping out actual specific policy or parties, we see only the tension between chaos and order. Stopping for speeches or debates that lay out the stakes might serve to soften the walloping dread and loud gunfire of sectarian violence and its rippling collateral damage. It’s a portrait of society in free fall, a little nervous about how plausible it could be.

Garland has often been a filmmaker interested in the fragility of the human body. Look at the time-warping drugs of Dredd or zombified rage that can infect from merely a drop in 28 Days Later. Or see the blurry lines between man and nature in the haunting alien landscapes of Annihilation and between man and machine in Ex Machina. With Civil War, Garland takes that investment in how fragile people are and pushes further into how that fragility is inextricable form the systems and institutions we build. It finds that larger perspective in sticking small and personal amidst the national ramifications. It’s confined to a picture of photographers dutifully witnessing while getting a charge out of following along—and it makes them vulnerable, too. Some (Kirsten Dunst) are disillusioned about the value of their job; her slow bleeding-out of conviction is a marvelously controlled and subtle performance. Others (Wagner Moura) gets a sick thrill out of the danger. Still others (Stephen McKinley Henderson) are tired veterans of the business, while a young newbie (Cailee Spaeny) gets a shock to her system as she enters the fray. All of them are shaken and stretched, with their fragility drawn out to the movie’s sick, cold conclusion that’s as inevitable as its central dialectic: guns and cameras are both point and shoot. The power of a still image is juxtaposed with the moving image—weaponizing a grainy freeze frame silence in the flow of clinical digital filmmaking to feel the etching of history and the foreshortening of context in each stuck frame—as it creates a tension between its creation and the chaos that breeds it. We’re left with the empty pit-of-the-stomach worry, and the wonder at what’s more powerful than fragile people rushing into history with a gun and a camera shooting in tandem—revolution written with or driven by a photo op.