For all the talk this Oscar season about the lack of women in leading roles, I’ve seen several films lately that focus tightly on women. They are not the kinds of movies that show up at the multiplex, of course, and the four I saw most recently are foreign. But they are out there if you look for them.
“Mountain” was a selection of the New Directors/New Films series sponsored by MOMA and the Lincoln Center Film Society that just ended. Directed by Yaelle Kayam, this joint Israeli Danish production has some of the hallmarks of an early filmmaking project, but the sensitive lead performance by Shani Klein and the powerful sense of place hold the viewer’s attention.
A religious woman lives with her scholar husband and four young children in a house on the edge of the ancient cemetery on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Stuck at home when the children go off to school and ignored by her husband, the woman consoles herself with food and cigarettes and late night walks across the tombstones. One night, she sees that a prostitute and her pimps are using the cemetery to do some business. For some reason, she is drawn to them, and begins an attempt to engage them by bringing them food. Kayam never makes this relationship quite credible, but we feel the woman’s desperate loneliness, her sense of isolation and frustration, so perhaps any relationship is better than what she has. Her well-meaning husband’s apathy toward her is palpable; although he tries, he cannot bear to touch her. Their attempts to talk with each other sputter into resentful silence. The only person we see the woman talk to regularly is the Arab caretaker of the cemetery. Both smokers, they share a lighter and make small talk, but when the caretaker comes across the woman crying, cultural and religious divisions prevent him from consoling her. Almost everyone in the film is trapped by circumstances–the woman, the whore, the scholar, the caretaker, even the woman’s rebellious daughter. They are as stuck as the inhabitants of the cemetery.
Crazy Ladies Are So Much Fun
“My Golden Days” may have a male protagonist, but the women in his life consume his memories. This film from French director Arnaud Desplechin received a rapturous review from the New York Times and lots of awards, but I can’t see why. Paul Dedalus, played by Mathieu Amalric as an adult and Quentin Dolmaire as a youth, is a middle-aged anthropologist who is moving back to Paris after a long time abroad. We revisit his early life in three long flashbacks. In the first, we meet his mentally ill mother, whom he despises, and his father, who beats him. We also meet his great aunt, who shelters him when he runs away, and her Russian girlfriend.
In the second episode, we follow the teenage Paul to the Soviet Union on a class trip. His best friend, a Jew, has agreed to help refuseniks by smuggling in some goods and money. The scenes where they break away from their classmates in a museum and find the refuseniks are the most absorbing in the film. Impulsively, Paul volunteers to give his passport to a young Jew so he can emigrate. It’s a heroic thing to do, and Paul is highly pleased with himself. That makes it all the more surprising when we learn that the man ended up in Australia rather than Israel and died. Desplechin seems determined to undermine all of Paul’s memories.
The last episode concerns Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet), a blonde high-school student who Paul falls for hard when he goes home from college to party with his old friends. Although her name and her parents’ shmatta business indicate that Esther is also Jewish, that’s never confirmed. What is certain is that she is aloof, rude, flirtatious, emotionally needy and sexually hungry, the perfect manic pixie girl. How could any man resist? So far, the two most important heterosexual women in the film are crazy and ruinous to Paul. Golden days, indeed. The original French title was something like Three Memories of My Youth–no rosy glow attached.
It gets weirder at the end. Paul runs into an old pal from the neighborhood who was sure he’d never amount to anything. Somehow, he has become a surgeon. He is also the fellow who Esther turned to when Paul broke up with her. As the surgeon, his wife, and Paul are having a drink, the guy asks about Esther, because that’s what anyone would do, right? It’s always smart to bring up your old girlfriend with your spouse and that girlfriend’s ex-lover.
Paul tells his story via voiceover, a technique that emphasizes the gap between what he says and what we see on the screen. Several times he is attacked and beaten, beginning with his father. After each incident, the narrator tells us that he didn’t feel a thing. Meanwhile, what we see is a cauldron of emotions, often out of proportion to events. Paul sees himself as the victim of the women in his life, who are alternately rejecting and devouring. I didn’t enjoy this film, but it is a lesson on the distortions of the male gaze.
Sweet Bean Paste Makes the Doriyaki
While the old lady at the center of “Sweet Bean,” Naomi Kawase’s graceful tale adapted from the novel by Durian Sukegawa, is the soul of modesty, she is also persistent. When she applies for a job at the tiny pancake stand run by introverted Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase), he politely turns her away. But she keeps coming back, urging him to try her “an,” the sweet red bean paste that fills the pancakes. Finally he agrees, and to his surprise, her pancakes are much tastier than the ones he makes. She comes to work early in the morning to teach him the process, which takes hours, and the shop’s sales take off.
For a while, everything is great, but of course problems arise. Sentaro has an unhappy secret, and the old lady has one too. There’s a villain as well, the greedy landlady who owns the stand.
The film’s gentle, melancholy tone makes it seem like a fable, an impression aided by the “magic” bean paste. The elderly Tokue is played with great sympathy and warmth by veteran actress Kirin Kiki, and the other character, a lonely young girl called Wakana, is played by Kyara Uchida, Kiki’s real life granddaughter.
When the landlady discovers that Tokue lives in a residence for lepers, she insists the old woman no longer come to the shop. Business falls off, and finally Sentaro and Wakana go to find Tokue. The film follows the seasons and there are lots of shots of trees in their various stages of bloom. It’s all very Japanese. The effect is sweet and sad, which feels surprisingly satisfying.
“It Makes Me Happy”
Enough with the girls. The jazz trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker is the subject of the unusual and well-made biopic “Born to Be Blue” by filmmaker Robert Budreau. Opening in the 1960s, the film traces a decade or two in Baker’s life, weaving back and forth from his great success in the 1950s to his comeback attempts after numerous arrests for heroin addiction in the 1960s. Budreau combines real and fictional elements in interesting ways,, switching from black and white to color to signal the time shifts, and he gets a powerful and empathetic performance from Ethan Hawke as the musician. Hawke even does his own singing.
Baker was a member of Gerry Mulligan’s quartet before forming his own group, and much later he was championed by Elvis Costello. The film presents him as a good-looking white guy from California who longs to break into the New York-based jazz scene dominated by Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Carmen Ejogo plays the woman who Baker meets on a film set in Italy and follows back to California. Budreau has combined all of the women in Baker’s life–and there were many–into this one figure, and Ejogo does a good job. Baker suffered a brutal beating in a bad drug deal, which knocked out his front teeth. Not great for a trumpet player. Budreau focuses on Baker’s determination to learn to play again and the constant temptation to use heroin. His addiction is not sentimentalized so at times it feels like you’re waiting for the inevitable fall. “It makes me happy,” Chet tells his girlfriend about heroin. Hard to give that up, and Baker never did.