I find the films of Nicole Holofcener riveting and grating in a way I have a hard time articulating. Think of Lovely and Amazing (2001), about that family of women so crippled by their distorted views of their own bodies; or Friends with Money (2006), in which the radical differences in income between old friends function as a social poison; or her most recent Please Give (2010), which examined death and belongings. This director plays her characters’ foibles for laughs for a while, then keeps pressing on that sore spot until it bruises. I kind of love it, even when it hurts.

Enough Said is easily her funniest and most sweetly romantic film. But beware for the part when it hurts.

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Aside from keeping her bickering friends Sarah (Toni Collette) and Will (Ben Falcone) company — and serving as a kind of moderator between them — Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) seems on the surface to be just fine. Her massage therapy business, which requires her to lug her collapsible massage bed from her car into clients’ homes, is doing pretty well. Even if it’s a job full of ordinary annoyances, Eva’s sense of humor functions as a nice deflection away from any real feelings she might have about it.

On the surface, anyway. Holofcener wants you to keep watching, to pay attention to Eva — because there’s more going on than it might appear. Especially on the topic of her daughter going away to college at the end of the summer, as we come to see.

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It comes as a surprise, then, when we realize in the film’s second act that she is starving for someone new to help her feel more secure. Not necessarily a man, but she agrees to go out with the wry Albert (James Gandolfini) nevertheless. She’s more enthusiastic about her glamorous new client Marianne (Catherine Keener), a poet for chrissakes who owns the most beautifully well-appointed home Eva has ever seen.

In the meantime, she also receives surprising comfort from her daughter Ellen’s best friend Chloe (Tavi Gevinson). Whereas Ellen is starting to pull away — that inevitable period of the summer when college-bound kids start to imagine their new lives away from their parents — Chloe pulls close to Eva, almost replacing her own mother.

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Not that Eva’s dates with Albert are inconsequential. Despite all the obvious reasons not to like him — he’s a really big guy, not her type at all — he genuinely makes her laugh, disarming her of the usual defenses. She grows visibly more relaxed around him, and although she’s clearly surprised to find herself liking him, those dates with him just work.

One of the things I find so beautifully romantic about this film is how Eva laughs with Albert. You can see the relief there, together with the fact that she’s disarmed by how well they get along.

But because she’s a little bit discombobulated, she can’t help but doubt how much she likes him. No matter how she feels when she’s with him, we can feel her holding herself back. Is this the fate of middle-aged divorcés, that experience triumphs over hope?

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In a beautiful moment, Eva and Albert lie in bed together, ready to go to sleep contentedly, and Eva says, “I’m so tired of being funny.”

Maybe she lets herself fall so much under the spell of Marianne the poet because starting a new friendship with a woman lacks the scariness of dating a man. Marianne is just so impressive, with her mane of beautiful hair and her serious nature and the way random people come up to her and tell her how much her poetry means to them.

She’s also not funny at all. When they become confidants and learn about one another’s relationship issues, it feels so intimate. Marianne seems to want to push directly to something real. Eva just doesn’t realize yet how much it might hurt when she mimics her.

Film Review Enough Said

 

Holofcener writes funny dialogue without it seeming fake or knee-slapping high-larious; it’s the kind of humor that feels real. In fact, besides the beautiful acting job by Gandolfini as Albert, I’d say that the very best thing about this film is its dialogue and what it conveys about relationships between people.

Seeing this film makes me want to scream: this is why we need films by women writer-directors, because they often have a gift for conveying how dialogue between women is the very connective tissue of life.

So you’ll forgive me when I also say I didn’t love Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

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It kills me to say it. When Seinfeld went off the air, I mourned for the loss of Louis-Dreyfus’ Elaine Benes. I still haven’t seen Veep, her HBO series, but I already know I’m going to like it.

Not that she channels Elaine here — there is no “get out!” — but in this more subtle, big-screen comedy/romance, the actress chews the scenery too much. Or, to be more precise, I liked her a great deal but she always threw her face into one more comic contortion than I could stand. I wanted her as an actress to stop it — to stop being a great small-screen comedian and let her normal face carry the scene. Perhaps this is simply a matter of taste — perhaps other viewers will find her utterly adorable — but it was almost always a shade or two too cartoonish for me, and I’m sorry (and surprised) that Holofcener didn’t edit it out.

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So I was glad to have other characters to appreciate — not least was Collette’s actual Australian accent and her awful treatment of her husband and housekeeper. Collette has found a nice way of moving back and forth between TV and film work, clearly mastering the micro-expressions required for the latter while also keeping up the chops it takes to succeed in broader comedy.

In the end, this is truly an achievement for Holofcener as well as for Gandolfini. Even if he hadn’t died so recently and so much too early in life, it would be hard to watch the film without marveling at how delicately he embodies this other role far beyond the mob boss world in which we know him best. Here he’s self-conscious, almost gallant, in his appreciation for Eva, and his determination to maintain his own self-respect. The film may offer us characters whose defenses block them from moving forward in life. But it also allows them to glimpse what hope might look like, and to offer them the possibility that they can drop their defenses, their experience, and open up to something else.

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Living outside of New York, LA or Chicago means I haven’t had the chance to see a lot of this year’s critics’ picks for best film, like Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, Mike Leigh’s Another Year, and Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. Even given those gaps, however, I want to make an argument for Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone as the year’s best film and as the right film for the award during a hard year of financial crisis and jobless recovery.

I could have chosen a film that exemplified the movies’ capacity to tell great stories that take us outside ourselves to that place of pleasure and wonder. Winter’s Bone might not have been so feel-good, but it was just as great a tale as Toy Story 3, True Grit, The Kids Are All Right, or The King’s Speech.  It made a better and more unpredictable thriller than Black Swan or A Prophet, and much, much better than The Ghost Writer, Shutter Island, and Inception.

In my mind, its real battle is with David Fincher’s The Social Network, a battle it will surely lose. The Social Network benefits from a timely story, massive ticket sales, an all-star directing/writing/production team, and — let’s face it — the focus on dudes and those epic battles involving testosterone and enormous sums of money that make voters for the Academy cream their pants. In contrast, Winter’s Bone has a little-known female director and co-writer, an unknown female lead who doesn’t prettify herself, and an all-poverty setting in the Missouri Ozarks where meth dealing and squirrel-eating are ways of life. The film appeared in theaters all the way back in July rather than late this fall. In short: no matter how much it might be the better film, or at least just as good as The Social Network, Winter’s Bone doesn’t have a chance.

But here’s why we should vote for it: because it tells one of the real stories of 2010: of poor people clinging on by their fingernails. It doesn’t have lines like “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” (And here I’m thinking about how much I objected last March to the fact that Sandra Bullock beat out Gabourey Sidibe for best actress — a choice that reveals our determination to feel good at the movies.) The story it tells — of a teenaged girl trying to keep her family together with a roof over their heads — doesn’t distract us from our own problems, sure, but that’s why the film’s terrific storytelling and perfect cast are so crucial. The fact that she succeeds in the end makes it even more appealing for our troubled times than the deeply ambivalent conclusion of The Social Network.

I have other reasons for pushing the film. In the wake of Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Director win at the Academy Awards for The Hurt Locker, 2010 turned out to be a comparatively great year for female directors — with Nicole Holofcener, Lisa Cholodenko, Coppola, and Granik releasing top-notch films. But unlike last year, there’s little grassroots movement to push female-directed films into the top level of competition for an Oscar, no matter how superior their films might be. For me, the battle isn’t won until women are nominated more often, and when women directors get nominated for films that have women in them. (Just like it was great in 1981 to get the nation’s first female Supreme Court justice with Sandra Day O’Connor, but even better when Ruth Bader Ginsberg brought a feminist consciousness to the Court in 1993, a choice that truly benefited other women.)

  • Best film:  Winter’s Bone
  • Best director:  Debra Granik for Winter’s Bone
  • Best female actor:  Kim Hye-ja for Mother (Korea, dir. Bong Joon-ho)
  • Best male actor:  Colin Firth for The King’s Speech
  • Best female supporting actor:  Dale Dickey for Winter’s Bone
  • Best male supporting actor:  Matt Damon for True Grit

I have more to say about what a great year it was for interesting female parts and terrific female acting — my choices for best actress and supporting actress were really hard to narrow down, whereas Firth simply has no competition for best actor. But that’ll wait till another time. In the meantime I’m going to keep arguing for Winter’s Bone, and I hope you do too.

So I got into an argument with colleague about the books he’d assigned to his graduate students.  I took the position that having them read only 2 books by women out of a list of 13 was a pretty low number (and that zero books by people of color was likewise a problem) — and argued that as our grad students are fairly evenly divided by sex and increasingly diverse by race we should show them more of the varieties of academic writing.  He got defensive.  He fired back that he’d chosen books, not authors; that he’d chosen them for high quality and subject matter; and that there weren’t enough good books by women on the subjects he wanted to change the syllabus.  His defensiveness got us nowhere:  he left the conversation utterly convinced that he’d done no wrong and that I’d accused him of sexist bias, and he is no sexist.  It seems to me that in discussing male domination of the arts — filmmaking, authorship, prizes, criticism — we need to set a few ground rules.

This attitude is all over the place, isn’t it?  There’s no problem, it’s just that women aren’t good enough.  We hear that “The Daily Show” has only one or two woman writers out of 15, and we’re assured that this isn’t so bad — and inevitably someone suggests that it’s because male writers are funnierWhen the Cannes Film Festival featured zero films by women directors this year, the author Bret Easton Ellis explained that women can’t direct — while others sidestepped and reminded us that Sofia Coppola’s new film won at Venice.  When Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner complained about the hyperbolic praise being heaped on Jonathan Franzen this summer to the exclusion of women writers, they were accused of being jealous and bad writers.  Suddenly Larry Summers’ famously offensive claim that women academics just aren’t as good as men in math and science — a claim that lost him the presidency of Harvard but didn’t hurt him in White House circles — seems utterly mainstream.  To respond to such charges by 1) denying male domination of the arts, or 2) insisting that it’s warranted via some kind of ahistorical, if not biological, superiority sends us back to the vicious circle.

I was delighted to see the (male) hosts of the Chicago podcast Filmspotting call out the male domination of the film industry recently.  They noted it’s not just that men dominate in directing, producing, and getting great roles; men also dominate the worlds of film criticism, film podcasting, film blogging, and film theory, thereby contributing to what we might call The Franzen Effect of limiting attention to a very few films.  (For example, who’s heard anything much recently other than hype for new movies by David Fincher and Ben Affleck?  When was the last time Richard Brody of the New Yorker said anything about a woman on his film blog, The Front Row?)  Yet in the weeks since, the Filmspotting podcast has lapsed back into its unselfconscious focus on men — celebrations of the films of Robert Duvall, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, American hit-man movies, “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” and so on.  Consciousness-raising is great, but it amounts only to lip service if you don’t walk the walk.  As film drawing queen Lisa Gornik puts it:

So here are my thoughts for getting out of those vicious circles and starting conversation in the right direction:

  1. The stats are clear:  stop denying that the male/female ratio in film directing, producing, and screenwriting is radically out of whack. 
  2. The fact that men dominate the criticism racket matters to the question of how more women might succeed in filmmaking.
  3. The exceptions to the rules — major attention to films by established directors like Sofia Coppola, or to a popular screenwriter like Diablo Cody — don’t necessarily signify any measurable change the statistics or in general for most women trying to get films made.
  4. Find ways to celebrate both big successes by women filmmakers (like Lisa Cholodenko’s big summer success, “The Kids are All Right”) but don’t make commercial success the sole goal. 
  5. In the end, what we all want is for women to make whatever kinds of movies they want — whether it’s films about men like Kathryn Bigelow’s “Hurt Locker” (2009) or stereotypical rom-coms like Nora Ephron’s “You’ve Got Mail” (1998). 
  6. That said, with the big critical success of films this summer like Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” and Nicole Holofcener’s “Please Give”  we can glimpse how having women at the helm can lead to great parts for and compelling stories about women that don’t get cordoned off as “women’s films.”

In the end, that pretty much summarizes why I have a dog in this fight.  I’m not involved in filmmaking in any way aside from being a fan.  But the problem of the radical underrepresentation of women in filmmaking is a highly visible and influential microcosm of a larger problem for women making it in creative and professional worlds.  Just as I don’t want my grad students coming of age believing that only white guys write the “best” academic books, I want to see more films in which female characters have complex thoughts and lives that don’t revolve solely around men.  The problem is, to achieve it requires pushing back at men’s defensiveness and the pugnacious claim that the creative and academic works by men are better than those by women.

Of course, I didn’t change my colleague’s mind about putting more books by women on the syllabus this fall.  But I’m enough of a chess player to see this as one play in a long-term strategy.  We’ll see about next semester.

The movies are no place for angry women.  And I’m not just speaking of characters onscreen; female writers and directors can’t be angry, either.  We’re very clear on this:  men can get angry and get even, but women can’t behave in any way that might stop us from thinking they’re sexy — and dang, girls, anger is a real buzzkill.  Now and then one of them slips through in disguise, though.  I’m thinking here about Nicole Holofcener’s “Friends With Money” (2006) and “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” (1996), a great BBC adaptation of the Anne Brontë novel.  Earlier this summer I overdosed on 19th-c. novels, but it’s hard to stay away when it comes to the Brontës, especially if one has watched this great YouTube video 23 times:

The Brontës were pissed off, and “Tenant” — which tells the story of a young mother who’s escaping her abusive husband by hiding in a remote Yorkshire village — might be the angriest of all their novels.  The producers couldn’t have found a better lead than Tara Fitzgerald, whose fierce face and husky voice (and those severe 1850s up-dos) epitomized the character of Helen Graham.  Her husband wasn’t just a philandering, drunken, abusive beast who despises her; he also tried to raise their son in his image.  Her disillusionment with him makes her ever more willing to express her strong opinions when she’s chit-chatting with her clueless new neighbors, who find her child-rearing practices alarming:

Mrs. Markham:  “He’s a boy, my dear.  You don’t want to spoil his spirit — you’ll make a mere Miss Nancy of him.”

Rev. Millward:  “True virtue, my dear lady, consists in a conscious resistance to temptation, not ignorance of it.”

Gilbert Markham:  “Teach him to fight, Mrs. Graham, not run away.  If you want him to walk honestly through the world you mustn’t try to clear all the stones from his path.”

Helen Graham:  “I shall lead him by the hand till he has the strength to go alone.  I cannot trust that he will be that one man in a thousand and have that strength and virtue as a birthright.”

Gilbert, teasing her:  “You do not think very highly of us, then.”

Helen, growing exercised:  “I know nothing about you.  I speak of those I do know.”

Gilbert:  “Is it not better to arm your hero than to weaken him with too much care?”

Helen, angrily:  “Would you say the same of a girl?  Must her virtue be tested in battle?”

Rev. Millward, pedantically:  “I should say not.  A woman’s virtue is her modesty; a man’s, his strength of will.”

Gilbert, more seriously:  “I would wish a woman’s virtue to be shielded from temptation.”

Helen, furiously:  “Why?  You would have us encourage our sons to prove all things by their own experience, while our daughters remain in ignorance until it is too late?”

Gilbert, confused:  “Too late?”

Helen, with finality:  “I tell you, Mr. Markham, if I thought my son would grow up to be what you call a man of the world, I would rather that he died tomorrow.”

Not knowing Helen’s true situation — that her own ignorance led her into an impetuous marriage to a self-indulgent, selfish man — her neighbors first disapprove of her forthrightness, then gossip that she’s having an affair with her landlord. 

So how did Anne Brontë sneak this one by her readers (and the BBC by its viewers)?  By hiding the tale in the Trojan Horse of a romance.  And damn, if you’re going to create a Trojan Horse, get the actor Toby Stephens to play the infatuated Gilbert Markham.  He’s the son of Maggie Smith, eminently watchable as an actor, and so ridiculously pretty as to look almost cruel but for the auburn whiskers and freckles (and yes, he played Jane Eyre’s Rochester a few years ago).  Lesson:  if you’re angry and want to make a point about women’s subjection, it’ll go down easier if you create a hot, sensitive guy who’ll serve as our heroine’s reward when she comes out the other end of her miserable marriage. 

Okay, that was the 19th century; what about the 21st?  Sure, rape-and-revenge movies keep popping up (like Jennifer Lopez’s “Enough” of 2002), but I want to talk about a different kind of female anger.  The question that’s rattled around my brain since seeing Holofcener’s “Friends With Money” — which I think of as a perverse retelling of “Sex and the City” — is why Jane (Frances McDormand) could direct her rage in the most petty ways at everyone around her, while the far more oppressed Olivia (Jennifer Aniston) couldn’t express it at all.  Unlike their 19th-c. ancestors, these women don’t suffer from all-powerful husbands and fathers — in fact, they’re not entirely sure what they’re suffering from.  Jane, a crazily wealthy clothing designer, gets mad at everything but none of it really matters, like when someone steals her parking place.  She doesn’t stop to think why she feels so angry, but the most vivid symptom of this rage is that she stops washing her hair — making one of those Holofcener moments onscreen that remains on your frontal lobe for weeks afterward.  In the evening she returns home to her husband and goes through the motions.  Is the writer-director Holofcener trying to tell us that women can’t deal with their own anger?  If so, why doesn’t she show us that women’s anger isn’t always directed at the mundane?

In contrast, Olivia has lots of reasons to be angry, but she opts for passivity.  She quit her awful teaching job a while ago and now suffers the indignities of cleaning other people’s homes.  As if that weren’t bad enough, she’s the only one of the four friends who isn’t married, leading the others to set her up with truly awful blind dates — like Mike (Scott Caan), a personal trainer, who not only dresses her up in a French maid’s outfit during one of her work days to spice up the sex they have in other people’s beds, but convinces her to share her income with him (because he “helped”).  Her passivity is punctuated by the tiniest of rebellions — amassing dozens of samples of face cream from cosmetics counters, smoking a joint at night, and dialing the number of the married man who abruptly dumped her years ago.  Why doesn’t Holofcener let Olivia express rage?  Is this contrast of the two characters intended to show us the range of vague dissatisfactions in women’s lives?  Or is it because Jennifer Aniston is such a totem, an actor who vacillates between the lachrymose and rom-coms, never tackling a more interesting range of complex emotion? 

I wish I could say that Holofcener was even angrier than the Brontës when she made this film, because at times you sense it.  But she, too, ultimately tries to tidy up the story by stifling their real problems inside the Trojan Horse of a tacked-on resolution at the end.  Jane finally articulates her sense of futility and washes her hair, and Olivia goes on a pity date with an overweight, penny-pinching, unattractive client only to find him refreshingly kind, sweet … and rich!  The weak, strange concluding scenes in the film — so eager to reassure us that the future will be better than the past we’ve witnessed — make for a modern twist on the Brontës’ use of romance to sugar-coat their messages.

What Holofcener has really put her finger on is a new Problem That Has No Name.  But because she can’t name it, her slapdash resolution can’t work; Anne Brontë had the great benefit of being able to name her problem.  Now that we proclaim women to be equal to men, feminism to be dead, and all our female characters to be mild-mannered, what happens to women’s anger?  The four women in “Friends With Money” see their anger misdirected, turned into an strange kind of comedy, and diluted with the need for an ending to the story.  I guess that Problem will just continue on undiagnosed, quietly eating away at women who don’t feel they have a good reason to be angry.

Just two days ago I speculated that Nicole Holofcener’s directorial modesty might be one reason why American critics feel the need to tell us that her films aren’t just “women’s films.”  After watching Lucrecia Martel’s debut film, “La Ciénaga,” I’m convinced.  Compared with Holofcener’s quiet gaze, Martel has an extraordinary vision that appears from the film’s very earliest moments, as in her third film, “The Headless Woman” that I liked so much last month.  It’s no surprise to find that all three of Martel’s film were recently voted to be in the top 10 of all Latin American films made in the 2000s.  “La Ciénaga” (“The Bog” or “The Swamp”) was #1.

This film would never, ever, be voted the best film of the decade by U.S. critics, simply because of its subject matter:  laissez-faire parents, children run amok, racist bile spewed against the family’s Indian servants, and languid sexuality within and amongst this extended family.  It opens in a steamy Argentinian summer, with dark clouds overhead; thunder seems to threaten in the distance throughout most of the film.  Inside the family’s country house, children and teenagers lie together in beds, napping agitatedly in the heat.  Outside, the adults sleep on chaise lounges next to a fetid, dirty pool (one of the several “swamps” of the title); they’ve been drinking all day.  We see one woman’s hands shakily pouring herself yet another glass; it’s a notably bloody red wine.  As she slowly moves around to collect everyone’s glasses, we hear them crash and break on the cement beside the pool.  The middle-aged Mecha (Graciela Borges) has drunkenly fallen on the broken glass and is covered with blood, yet no one seems to notice.  This is not the vision of family that Americans prefer to see.

Yet what we see through Martel’s eyes is the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie satirized as masterfully as Buñuel did.  She has said that she based the film on memories of her own family’s summers together.  It has the dreamy, disconnected, aural feel of a family gathering, to be sure; but there is no nostalgia here.  Those dark clouds, that thunder in the distance:  the film almost feels like a horror flick, with danger always just around the corner.  All the male cousins under the age of eleven roam through the mountains with rifles, always coming as close as possible to shooting one another; they’re covered with old scars and fresh gashes, and one of the boys is missing an eye from an earlier accident.  (“When Joaquin goes to the mountains, I’m frightened for his other eye,” his mother Mecha says fecklessly, unconvincingly, to no one in particular.)  The littlest girls perpetually appear with makeup smeared all over their faces, having been doing who knows what, and the older girls drive cars without licenses at the express wish of their drunken parents.  While the adults accuse their Indian servant Isabel of stealing (and being dirty, refusing to answer the phone for them, living like animals, eating dirty fish…), their daughter Momi seeks from Isabel all manner of attention — maternal, physical, vaguely sexual love.  It’s the same dark humor that Holofcener displays in her films, and it’s directed at many of the same targets:  the boredom, banalities, and transparent hypocrisies of the privileged.

Martel eschews background music or a soundtrack in favor of developing a layering of sound, glances, and conversation, all brilliantly edited together in her scenes.  Take the one in which the heavily bandaged Mecha lounges in her bed, sunglasses on as she nurses another hangover, while her cousin Tali (Mercedes Morán) sits and chats with her; slowly the bed fills with girls.  This was so believably one of those idle conversations amongst middle-aged women that I almost felt its rhythms from memories of family reunions during my childhood.  The two older women chat about the appearance of the Virgin of Carmen on a water tank in town.  “She said it was incredible,” Tali reports about another cousin.  “She was transformed.  She phoned me in tears. ‘You have to see it to understand, Tali,’ she said.”  As the younger girls watch their mothers with that mix of curiosity and boredom, throughout this conversation Mecha’s handsome teenaged son José (Joan Cruz Bordeu) skirts the room after his shower, standing shirtless before the bathroom mirror as his pubescent cousins sneak long looks at his lean, tattooed torso.  As the older women talk about the Virgin, José takes advantage of being the only man in the room by hamming it up a bit for the girls’ benefit, appearing as a kind of male god to them.  He clearly enjoys their admiration, and will continue to enhance it almost to the point of impropriety — sneaking into one cousin’s shower, or dancing seductively with Isabel, the servant, at a club.  Only later, on reflection, does the viewer recognize what a brilliantly complex scene this is, with the meandering chit-chat, the girls’ searching looks at their mothers or the beautiful José, the tangle of subjects and themes, the sense of risk.

And then there’s the loneliness.  Despite the perpetual tangle of bodies, they each feel adrift; think of the scene of the bleeding Mecha lying in glass surrounded by her unwitting husband and friends, or the deludedly hopeful faces of people on TV who have flocked to glimpse the image of the Virgin of Carmen on the side of a water tower.  Tali’s youngest son frets that he will be attacked by the urban legend of an “African rat” his cousins have described to him — a huge doglike creature with two rows of teeth — none of the adults bothers to disabuse him of this fear.  No wonder that Martel has indicated that, for her, the film is about abandonment.

It is Martel’s mastery in storytelling and editing (and this done with only a modicum of film-school training) that turns a lazy family summer into a metaphor for the corruptions of Argentine society; she has explained in interviews that despite its highly naturalistic, almost blasé conversational rhythm, the film was tightly scripted. (Even before it was complete, the film won Best Screenplay at Sundance back in 1999, which permitted her to complete the film and obtain further funding.)  Asked at a recent forum in the San Francisco area how she does this, Martel used the example of long phone conversations with her mother as a source for the oral structure of her films:

After 40 minutes of talking on the phone — in which she and her mother discuss everything — Martel still doesn’t know what her mother is trying to tell her.  But when the conversation is over and Martel asks herself what it was about, she comes to a gradual understanding of how all that has been said ties together.

Considering the worldwide successes of other Latin American directors — most notably Mexican directors Alfonso Cuarón (who directed the very best of the Harry Potter films, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”), Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro González Iñárritu — the writer-director Martel can’t be far from similar recognition.  She’s already received virtually every Latin American film award, as well as prominent nominations and awards at Cannes and the Berlin Film Festival.  The Academy Awards is one of the only major institutions to stiff her for a nomination.  Nothing about her filmmaking indicates a modesty that will keep it hovering around the dreaded “woman’s” ghetto.  Martel is a force to be reckoned with.

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?”