#130. Belle (2014, Asante)

“I have been blessed with freedom twice over, as a negro and as a woman.”

Belle is much more than the following sentiment, but all the same; Amma Asante’s gratifying yet subversive period piece makes my heart go pitter-patter. Some may scoff at the love story (indeed a few reviews I’ve read knock it down a peg for just that) but what about how sweetly investing it is? The adorable abolitionist with unshakable moral footing (Sam Reid) is so steadfast that he amusingly dips into caricature at times. It becomes part of his charm, as does Reid’s slight woodenness. More importantly, Amma Asante gives a mixed race character the otherwise non-existent pleasure of participating in British aristocratic romance with all the heart-racing and letdowns of love and its foibles.

Belle is inspired by a rare 18th century painting (a rare marker of what could and should be), and the life of its black subject, who is portrayed in the piece with equal height, dignity, and grace to her white counterpart. The film takes on a bit of everything (coming-of-age, race relations, period piece, romance, courtroom drama), a juggling that at times threatens to capsize. Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a biracial aristocrat, allowing her a unique position not only in history but also in film’s depiction of history. She is ‘blessed’ with relative agency through her bloodline and financial independence, but while the white half of her is lauded, the other half of her lineage robs her of standing, saddling her with the self-loathing society embeds in her. She has a place in her family and is genuinely loved by them, but certain basic customs still keep her at bay. Her upbringing quarantines her from her slave heritage; she is an anomaly, with no connection or relation to her blackness, always aware of the ways she is made limited by it, but otherwise kept away from the accompanying culture and systemic atrocities. A lot of Belle is about the title character finding some sense of racial identity in a world that shuns her from doing so.

It’s not just Belle who is restricted. Her cousin and best friend Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon, a favorite up-and-comer) has to barter herself a husband to secure status. The fact that she has no dowry makes her an undesirable despite her standing and revered porcelain beauty. For her, and women in general, there’s also a bartering of flesh. You feel the humiliation and self-worth slipping from Elizabeth as she casts her line out, waiting for some dweeb or scumbag to hook. When Elizabeth and Belle fight, we don’t hate her. We’ve grown invested in their bond and in Elizabeth’s misguided infatuation and her peripheral disquietude. And then there’s our abolitionist who comes from a class lower than Belle or Elizabeth, his occupational drive seen as having a shallow ceiling.

There are a ton of subversive subtleties at work. In case you didn’t get the memo, race, class, and gender constructs are constantly being prodded at. The Jane Austen framework and conventions are used to further engage with obliviously embedded mindsets of racism. It’s a different angle for this kind of historical film, and in some way more complex than depicting the hard-hitting horrors of slavery. It takes the conversation outside the slave experience and more explicitly mirrors the racial politics of today.

This is a historical space where a feisty, playful, astute, contemplative and determined young woman fights to find a place and identity for herself, to embrace her heritage in a world that isn’t ready to afford her that. Somehow Belle keeps from feeling too weighty without ever glossing over its social, racial, or gender concerns. And Gugu Mbatha-Raw is just incredible. I don’t know how else to put it. Anyone who sees this will have her on their permanent radar. Raw flips through Belle’s youthful contradictions and the myriad number of her differing facets (that hey guess what, all young women have! But film rarely crafts or performs them this thoughtfully) with ease.

In some pockets there’s an interesting, for lack of a better word, streak of hesitancy to engage with the more vicarious tropes of period dramas. Belle plays in the same pond its characters do, recognizing that these obstructions are part of what can make period romances, well, so romantic. And for once, changing history to imagine direct historical impact and a conveniently happy bow is a hopeful and earned statement. It’s entirely moving instead of a cop-out. It’s a conclusive statement for Belle being an unapologetically revisionist romance, and by the end I had to wipe a happy tear away.

It’s the Little Things:
Tom Felton. And Tom Felton’s wigs.

Joe Cage Sheridan
#131. Joe (2014, Green)

“Smile through the pain”

Probably, and so disappointingly, my least favorite film of 2014 thus far (granted, I’ve only seen 30) and the second worst I’ve seen from David Gordon Green (I’m a fan). It comes down to the critical difference between letting ‘regional authenticity’ materialize naturally, and using it as your sole playing card for the deluded support of yet another masculine-soaked redemption narrative. Joe is, quite frankly, a barrel of overkill. I felt like one of those damn trees the characters inject with poison. Joe (Nicolas Cage) begrudgingly bonds with a boy named Gary (Tye Sheridan), who is stuck in a hopelessly repellent family situation. And guess what guys; Joe sees a bit of himself in this kid.

It’s a shame about Joe because the two lead performances, particularly their organic chemistry, are very good. I’m not going to play the Nicolas Cage Returns to Acting headline (it’s a reductive and uninteresting way of looking at his career) but yes, this is engaging work from him. Tye Sheridan stands out more though. There’s such a messy and loaded moment that must have been on some level improvised by Sheridan (it’s the standout moment of Joe), where he taunts his father with the drink. Gary Poulter and his story are an uneasy illustration of contradiction. Contradiction isn’t the right word, but I’m not sure what is the right word. Of course Poulter has some serious chops and it’s great that he was given this opportunity to play this character. I realize there’s no solution or responsibility that comes saddled with his casting, but then he’s just released into the last throes of alcoholism, playing out the end of his onscreen character and himself.

The couched hillbilly miserablism is used as a distraction/qualifier to fill out a thin and exhausted story. Not even the sense of hidden humanity that Green is able to peer at can make up for bleak tedium. Men make their living by illegally poisoning trees. There’s a dog named Dog. Lots of visual dog metaphors. Deer are butchered. Joe won’t take his girlfriend out to dinner. There’s a guy who works at a general store and collects war paraphernalia. There are lounging prostitutes. There’s incest. There’s endless mumbling and drudgery. There’s also a scene where Poulter and one of Joe’s employees yell the same things back and forth to each other at an escalating rate, a microcosm representative of the approach to Joe.

Its best moments all feel improvised. Gary asking Joe to buy his truck. The ‘smile through the pain scene’. The snake. There’s a lighthearted touch to these moments the rest of the film could take a note from. Not that Joe needs to be lighthearted. Far from it. I mention these moments because they were touches of texture otherwise missing. It’s as if the actors themselves subconsciously injected a bit of levity into the proceedings.

It’s the Little Things:
-The first shot
– Cage’s delivery of “Kristy, call the cops before someone gets killed. Would you do that for me honey?”
– I will say that the scene the brutal murder of that homeless man was profoundly disturbing. And not in just a shock value kind of way. It had a genuine effect on me in ways few things do. Yes, it’s the kind of unproductive ugly the rest of the film goes for, but it’s also frightening in that you don’t often see murder take place in film with this blend of senselessness and intimacy. I can’t properly articulate it.

#132. Enemy (2014, Villeneuve)

Enemy had been one of my most anticipated films of 2014. I’d read José Saramago’s The Double, which became a favorite book despite its callous dismissal of women. Doppelgängers, bifurcated identities, dream logic, psychological angst, etc. This all screams ‘KATIE’. But I don’t know what to make of Enemy. Much of it feels somehow easy; artificially symbolic and existential. Like Denis Villeneuve looked at a stripped down template of psychological mind-fucks and never followed through with expansion. It has a simple recurring framework; spiders, Toronto as a piss-cream smog factory with an endless emphasis on presence of skyscrapers and criss-crossing wires (webs), music and scale that recalls German Expressionism. Ever notice that a clarinet, if used in a certain solitary way, suggests an off-key almost paranoid melancholia? Well, Enemy understands and makes good use of that. This isn’t Villeneuve re-teaming with Jake Gyllenhaal after Prisoners; Enemy was shot first. This is the re-teaming. Lacking as these two films are, in one sense it’s worth it for the  Gyllenhaal performances, which have double(triple?)-handedly made me invested in his career again.

Sarah Gadon (hello again!) leaves the biggest imprint out of anyone or anything here. Her expressiveness, and the way she shares her secrets and fears with the camera represent the best work I’ve seen from her. Anthony (Gyllenhaal) looks past her constantly, so she carves out a special bond with the audience in these silent scenes. I do like the disbursement and sense of psychological space taking place within the inner. But Enemy’s few developments (there’s a way to do effective minimalism; this isn’t it) are rendered blank because the flow is careless to anything outside conveying monotonous dread. The first meeting between Adam and Anthony is inertly underexplored. It doesn’t release any of its built-up energy. It’s so concentrated on maintaining atmosphere that character becomes background, in a frickin’ doppelganger story, despite Gyllenhaal’s subtle rendering. How do you have a film about identity without, in some way (again, this can do this visually but these are just not enough), foregrounding character? Even its final image is desperate, a last gasp at food-for-though, but the joke seems to be on us.

#133. The Story of Qiu Ju (1992, Zhang)
“He’ll pay. That means you’re right and he’s wrong”

Qiu Ju’s (Gong Li) efforts to be heard are emphasized by sight and sound. Qiu Ju is not made special by the camera. She is not centered visually, always caught in long or medium shots. She also isn’t especially heard, her voice always threatening to be drowned out by those around her. She is compromised or diluted in her own ramshackle environment, and in the big city she is simply overwhelmed. The characters knock about different ideas of justice, none of them particularly fulfilling. There are increasingly comic dead ends as we climb up the bureaucracy, and enter fish out of water territory. There is repetition through the same piece of music, linked with the tiresome act of travel. Qiu Ju chases something that doesn’t really exist. The higher up she goes the more elusive her goals are as well as and the powers that be. Her chiles are gone. And her husband is upset.

The cyclical comic roundabout of the story didn’t engage me; it’s just a taste thing. What I find most interesting is admittedly extratextual; its placement in Zhang Yimou’s career (trading prestige for rural), how China felt about him and Gong Li up to this point, and how this turned the tides. Also, the hidden cameras give us a priceless look at modern day China. It is unprecedented in that way, but not much else.

#134. Hyènes (Hyenas) (1992, Mambéty
“Life made me a whore, so now I’ll make the world a brothel”

I shamefully, but perhaps unsurprisingly, have very little experience with African cinema so I can’t speak to a larger context. Explicitly anti-colonialist, using the cautionary fable to illustrate the slippery slope into superficial Western modernity. Colobaine is in an economic crisis, and all it takes is one person to come in with their vendetta, their goods, their temptations; but change comes with a blood price. The mayor says the village’s decision is not for the sake of money. He uses the values of past wrongdoing as a transparent excuse for turning on their most popular resident. Dramaan Drameh (Mansour Diouf) is literally consumed. The transition from incorruptible to corruptible is a bit forced in its mechanization, point or no. Linguere Ramatou (Ami Diakhate) is transformed into an icon of power, using money for revenge but not as reconciliation for her own experiences. So money doesn’t make up for hardships, but it does sustain bloodlust. She is surrounded by adornments and even a Japanese security guard! The tone is perfectly gentle and lacerating.


2 thoughts on “Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #130-134

  1. I loved BELLE so much and I loved reading your thoughts on it and now I want to watch again immediately. Sigh. Also interesting to hear about ENEMY- I missed both doppelganger films this year but I have felt like THE DOUBLE might be more my thing, so I’ll probably make that my priority over ENEMY.

    Also man I haven’t thought about HYENAS in ages! The script is actually based on a German play, which I read in one of my German classes, so we watched this film in class one day. I remember liking it mostly because the lady was so mean.

    1. Thanks for commenting Alex! I already want to watch Belle again and just swoon over everything about it. I read your review and loved it as well!

      I really need to catch up with The Double. It’s one of my most anticipated films of the year but I like to space those out so I’ve been saving it for a rainy day so to speak (see also: We Are the Best!). The lady in Hyenas is so ruthless and it’s pretty awesome. She will not budge on her proposal and it’s great.

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