“Please Give” (2010): Self, stuff, guilt
19 June 2010
The fifteen-year-old Abby (Sarah Steele) is at what is called that awkward stage, but watching her in “Please Give” underscores the inadequacies of the euphemism. Her acne is so bad that “it looks like it’s eating my face;” she spends part of one dinner with a pair of panties on her head. She cannot — cannot! — find a pair of jeans that don’t make her look like a sausage. Her mother, Kate (Catherine Keener) is not just woefully incapable of understanding, but preoccupied with her own demons. So Abby determines to fix her acne by having a facial at one of those ubiquitous New York day spas, believably called Skinology. The spa technician, who also happens to be the granddaughter of the bitter old woman who lives next door, begins to work away on her, removing zits from her forehead as the girl squirms and flinches under her probing fingers. “This is a deep one,” the technician warns her, and the audience begins to squirm too. Talk about cringe humor.
The writer-director Nicole Holofcener has a knack for creating funny, excruciating moments like this onscreen that achieve something beyond the literal contours of the story. No one who has seen “Lovely and Amazing” (2001) can forget that primal scene in which the neurotic, unhappy actress (Emily Mortimer), asks Dermot Mulroney to “be honest” in critiquing her body; she stands before him naked, skinny, awkward, hopeful. “Please Give” is preoccupied with concerns exemplified by the pimple-squeezing scene: just as places like Skinology feed off the deluded hopes of those with disposable incomes, Abby’s mother and father feed off dead people: they buy mid-20th century furniture from the middle-aged children of the recently-deceased, people eager to jettison the awful stuff their parents sat on all those years. It is precisely their furniture store’s profitability that has produced Kate’s profound, aimless sense of guilt. But lacking any real outlet for it, she mostly atones by pressing sums of money on the homeless people outside their apartment. Framing the boundaries of the story are questions of self-worth, the specters of death and selfishness, the possibility of joy, and our responsibility to others. Like so many great French films, this one ricochets between these matters without offering simplistic messages or easy resolutions, leaving you to meditate on what you begin to see as profound matters.
The film is nearly stolen by the unapologetically self-centered Andra (Ann Guilbert), who at 90-something still lives as if everyone shares her pre-war ethos. When she opens her birthday present, one of those old-lady pink embroidered sateen nightgowns, she refuses to wear it — or express thanks — because it’s “too nice.” In a moment of one-upsmanship with another grandmother, she brags that people were often jealous of her because she was so smart, trumpeting that “people thought I was a schoolteacher.” Almost immediately thereafter, she pronounces that her granddaughter’s (Rebecca Hall) new boyfriend is very handsome, but too short. (This was such a vivid reminder of my own grandmother’s ugly manner of conversation that I found myself wondering whether everyone knows such a woman, or if I was the only person in the audience who found this dead-on.) Embarrassing, stingy, imperious: she poses nothing but problems for her plain-faced, unhappy granddaughter as well as Kate and Alex next door, who have purchased her apartment and are waiting for her to die before they punch through the wall and create a luxurious en-suite master bedroom. How should they — and we — feel about her? Is Andra a mirror for the unhappy teenaged Abby? A dose of reality for the guilt-ridden Kate? A cross to bear for her granddaughter?
Because Holofcener’s films invariably feature prominent female characters they have often been characterized as “women’s films”; critics occasionally congratulate themselves for proclaiming that she “delves deeper than ‘chick flicks,'” as if she treads the same ground as “Sex and the City 2” (which, hello, was written and directed by a man). For me, critics’ need to mark this distinction — “not just for girls!” — illuminates one of the problems with women in American film today. It’s true that she punctuates her films with set-piece scenes that will hit deep nerves in female viewers, like Abby and Kate having one of those horrible mother-daughter fights as they shop for jeans — of course it’s while they shop for jeans. But I maintain that “Please Give” is fundamentally concerned with profound issues that can’t be tidily dismissed as gender-specific, and if it had been directed by Bergman, Rohmer, or Woody Allen, no one would suggest otherwise. In fact, I think it’s only due to Holofcener’s deep-seated directorial modesty that anyone feels the need to proclaim this “not just” a chick flick. Because she is not willing to swagger her gifts — like so many women who, in Clay Shirky’s terms, refuse to behave as “arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks,” “self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so” — apparently critics feel the need to question whether her films should be relegated to the Lifetime Channel.
It seems apt that I’m also reading Doris Lessing’s Diary of a Good Neighbour right now, a riveting tale likewise concerned with selfishness, moneyed privilege, and caregiving. As in “Please Give,” so many of the novel’s most emotionally fraught scenes occur in the claustrophobic spaces of apartments littered with the material signifiers of our selves. The film and the book pair perfectly, with characters spewing awful statements at one another, interspersed with raw moments in which they try to offer one another something more true and generous. Both ask, does our guilt cancel out our attempts at selflessness? Are there costs in our efforts to create beautiful lives for ourselves — have we become unwilling to see human ugliness and comprehend death?
But Holofcener also wants us to laugh at ourselves and the innate ridiculousness of the Skinologies, our searches for good jeans, our battles with our mothers, and those moments in vintage stores when one says things like, “This is so bad it’s almost good. How much is it?”