I wrote a piece on Nymphomaniac (2014, Director’s Cut, Vol. I and II) and on what it means to be “A Radical, Vulnerable and Agentic Body.”
Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film Youth (2015) has at least one or two too many characters and scenes.
This may be my own personal bias because I don’t think I’ve ever liked Paul Dano as an actor, but his character and all of his scenes could have been omitted from this film. That would’ve actually made the film stronger.
I don’t think this vain/vapid/disgruntled actor played by a very actor-like actor is all that substantial. His presence adds nothing to the picture. His character’s thoughts and commentary do nothing for the movie. I was never once moved, amused or pleased by Dano’s character, Jimmy Tree. But this is almost always the case with Dano in movies for me.
When I first saw Dano in Little Miss Sunshine (2006), I was mostly confused; I didn’t know whether I liked him or was impressed by him, but turns out, it was neither; my initial instinct was correct: I was merely confused by him.
His acting is very confusing to me because he acts so hard; Dano works so hard in the pictures but it’s precisely that which displeases me; he tries too hard to act, and this effort is all too apparent to me as the viewer; his acting is the type that I see in plays. Perhaps Dano belongs to the live theater. For the screen, it is too exhausting to witness. In fact, it’s humiliating. Discomforting. The excess is discomforting. Like seeing a stranger cry in front of me, or witnessing an orgasm when I shouldn’t be. That kind of discomfort.
Aside from Dano, I don’t understand why there is a Tibetan monk there–a nameless monk (played by Dorji Wangchuk, who, according to IMDb, is also a documentary filmmaker) who doesn’t impress Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine). I don’t get his role or his presence in this movie. It seems completely unnecessary. Seeing yet again another dimensionless Asian in a movie is simply distracting.
Another problem is the character Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea); Sorrentino’s fetishization of a voluptuous woman’s body in this picture might simply be his way of stating what Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) the filmmaker claims: how he is a great “woman’s director.” The only women in this film who have interesting qualities that make them memorable are Lena Ballinger (Rachel Weisz) and the young masseuse (Luna Zimic Mijovic). They have a presence that do not submit to the male gaze or the male patronization, which is refreshing and comforting. Giving Miss Universe a minor moment of triumph to call Jimmy Tree out on his presumptuousness doesn’t justify having her parade around half naked in the opening act and completely naked in the later act. It’s just unappealing. This sort of female body exploitation is just hackneyed at this point, and distasteful.
Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda) is yet another stereotype of an aged actress playing an aged actress (rings a Sunset Boulevard (1950) bell). Fonda’s monologue feels awkward. I’m not sure if it’s the delivery or the writing. (I might have to go with delivery since Lena’s monologue in the mud pack scene with her father is spectacular. It is so long but Weisz is completely marvelous in her delivery and is utterly moving.) But Fonda makes up for it by bringing in a great sliver of a moment when she breaks down on the airplane which I can only wish to have seen more of.
There is a beautifully picturesque moment when Mick stands before a hill and sees all the actresses he’s ever worked with doing their scene and their lines–repeating the same lines over and over–all at once. The colors, the set and the view are very Kurosawan and reminiscent of the opening scene of Dreams (1990), which Kurosawa made late in his career. Mick’s surreal vision in this particular scene is a telling of his impending death but also of all the dreams he had as a filmmaker–the visions he had for each actor and character were in themselves little dreams. Witnessing this before him all at once is like having his life flash before his eyes. This, again, alludes to his oncoming death. I could hear people protest to this interpretation stating that a suicide doesn’t count but I say death is death. Suicide counts. Directors are control freaks; perhaps Mick knew that he had prostate cancer and decided to take his life with his own hands, much like the late Tony Scott.
There are three elements that make this film worth the 2 hours of sitting (it felt like 3 hours because there were so many scenes, and every scene ends on some note of massive profundity that makes it seem as if it’s the last scene of the movie, except that the movie keeps going!–this made the film feel infinitely longer for me):
First is Luca Bigazzi, who also lensed Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (2013) and This Must Be The Place (2011), as well as Abbas Kiarostami’s underwhelming Certified Copy (2010). He ensures that every frame of this film is a poetic jewel for the eye. The film is for the most part set in one resort which could’ve easily become a stale atmosphere but Bigazzi brings warmth, glitz and emotion to geometry like I’ve never seen before. The film is a delight to view from beginning to end because of his artful cinematography.
Second: The composition by David Lang whose music acts as the heart of the film fills the screen with nostalgia and elegance; “Simple Songs” sung by Korean soprano singer Sumi Jo, is cripplingly beautiful. Lang also composed for The Great Beauty and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000).
Finally, Michael Caine’s performance is flawless. With every other character and actor, I sensed at least one moment of disingenuousness, but not at all with Caine, which is a testament to his mastery. He plays maestro, father, friend, mentor, composer, and husband Ballinger with all the sensitivity one could bring to a screen.
I read about female genital mutilation (FGM) in an anthropology class as a freshman in college, and what I recollect the most is that one of the main purposes of FGM is to make sex unpleasant for girls in order to prevent infidelity—essentially, perform a painful circumcision on women for an ideology that suits the dominant group—the patriarch. But notice how in Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade (2004), polygamy for men is the norm at the village in Burkina Faso; women must remain faithful to one man and not enjoy sex, but men can have more than one wife and enjoy sex.
While reading Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus,” I thought a lot about what causes harmful/oppressive traditions and practices to continue in spite of being inhumane. Althusser notes ideology’s “reproduction of production” and the agencies that allow this production to perpetuate. While watching Moolaade, I kept wondering why the male elders in the film persistently remained ignorant to the problems that were arising from the practice of FGM as a ritual for young girls in the village. As Althusser might put it, the male elders’ ideology does not “correspond with reality,” and as agents of reproducing the product of their ideology, they must uphold tradition (protect their ideology) and all of its rituals including FGM. For instance, when news spreads that the girls have run away from the “purification” ceremony, the men simply say that the girls must return to the ritual and have the performance done. When news spreads that two of the girls committed suicide at the well to avoid the circumcision, the men simply move on from the topic and avoid discussing it (meanwhile, the women of the village all gather in the night by the well to stand vigil). When Binetou dies from the performance, the men remain firm in their stance and express no remorse for the death of yet another young girl. While doing so, they cite Allah, and say that a man’s word trumps that of a woman’s, and so Colle must undo the Moolaade. Althusser’s diagnosis of a hurtful practice continuing in spite of its harms would simply be that this village is performing what any other Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) would perform, and that is protecting the actions and agents that produce the State’s ideology by putting it to practice, thus allowing this ideology to regenerate, perpetuate and reproduce.
Jacqueline Bobo writes in “The Color Purple: Black Women as Cultural Readers” that “traditions are made, not born.” Similarly, Althusser argues that ideology is a concept that is universally present in the minds of individuals and as a collective: “Ideology has no history.” If this is true, then it introduces the possibility that a new idea that gets upheld as an ideology can also permeate through groups and enter the collective consciousness to become the new ideology; as Bobo puts it, “When an articulation arises, old ideologies are disrupted and a cultural transformation is accomplished.” In Moolaade, this articulation begins with Colle first claiming a Moolaade for the girls who ran away, and protecting them. Then Colle is beaten in public before everyone in the village including the male elders. The transformation happens in the form of encouragement from the women standing by for Colle, telling her not to give up or fall down; this begins to materialize a new ideology by disrupting the old ideology; the tears shed by Amasatou while watching her mother get beaten is another disruption of the old ideology, where she would have done anything (buy new clothes, get her genitals cut) so that she could marry Ibrahima—a wealthy man of a respected family. This breakdown of the old spirit leading to an awakening for all of the village women is finalized in the film through the death of Binetou, one of the youngest of the group of girls who fled the ceremony.
When the women arrive at the center of the village—at the site of the phallic-looking mosque—where the women’s confiscated radios burn, the women confiscate the Exciseuses’ knives and throw them into the same fire; the women no longer need the radio to inform them of what is right and wrong; they hold that information internally, they have a voice to express what they believe in, and the willingness to put those beliefs into action. Furthermore, when the Exciseuses give up the knives, they become allies with the mothers—even for a moment; the mothers who suffered pain and loss stand together with the women who performed FGM and killed their daughters while upholding an old ideology: “An articulation results from a coming together of separate discourses under certain specific conditions and at specific times” (Bobo, 105).
Althusser says that an ideology “recruits.” Ideology functions through “interpellation” or “hailing.” It catches the attention of the subject through a Subject (mirror effect). In Moolaade, the Exciseuses finally recognize themselves in the mothers who suffered child loss and pain, and most especially in Colle—a martyr figure (like Christ, as Althusser might put it). The women in the village who previously stood with the Exciseuses later come to tell Colle that they “felt the blows” when Colle was being beaten before them, thus hailing them towards a new ideology. This cross recognition leads to what Bobo calls a “cultural transformation.” Bobo is not naïve, though. She says, “[Cultural transformation] is always in the process of becoming.” Ideology—new or old—can only exist when there are agents who keep it in function, and allow it to materialize.
In the second to last scene, when Amasatou tells Ibrahima that she is and always will remain a “Bilakoro,” her stance is as important as Ibrahima’s decision to accept her for what she is without trying to fit her into the outdated ideology—one that silenced and ignored the women’s cries against FGM; the union of these two will put the new ideology into motion through practice. Sembene’s maleness as a filmmaker is important for this film. The two men who express their support of the women’s ideology—Ibrahim and Colle’s husband—do so by physically walking away from the shade where the male elders sit; they each come to terms with leaving behind what ideologically defined their masculinity in order to find union and happiness with the women in their new ideology. This recognition from agents of the patriarch is also noteworthy. This alliance is also part of the articulation that Bobo describes, and part of the unity that must be “strengthened.”
(Originally published on UCLA’s FTVDM Bulletin.)
*There is a new film out entitled Sembene! (2015) which recently played at the AFI Film Festival. Check your local theaters to find play dates.