Wednesday, March 19, 2014

An Ode to Cronenberg by Way of Saramago

(Denis Villeneuve, Spain-
Canada-US, 2014, 90 mins.)

If a reporter were to ask random people on the street to name the individual who scares them more than anyone else in the world, they would be likely to receive a wide range of responses, from movie monsters to brutal dictators, but it's unlikely that anyone would point to themselves and say, "Me." Yet that's the premise with which French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve begins this psychosexual thriller, a loose adaptation of José Saramago's 2002 novella The Double.  

A bearded Jake Gyllenhaal, who appeared as a dogged detective in Villeneuve's suburban-set Prisoners, plays both of the central characters, starting with Adam, a disheveled history professor in Toronto (for once, the city plays itself). He has a decent job and a pretty blonde girlfriend, but something isn't quite right; he has trouble maintaining focus in class and his relationship with Mary (Beginners' Mélanie Laurent) seems a little perfunctory, though it's hard to say if there was ever any real heat there.

One afternoon, a colleague recommends a local comedy he thinks Adam might enjoy--and the guy definitely looks someone who could use a laugh--but it has the opposite effect. While watching the video, Adam spots an actor in a bit part that looks exactly like him, and becomes obsessed.

He starts by figuring out the actor's name, and then he poses as Anthony to get more information about him. It's clear, at this point, that Adam has crossed a line, but he can't seem to help himself. He calls Anthony to ar-
range a meeting, but gets his pretty blonde--and pregnant--wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon), on the phone instead. Since the men share the same voice, Helen thinks Anthony is playing a trick on her. Though her husband is initially reluctant, he eventually agrees to meet his doppelgänger. 

Villeneuve opened the film by depicting a private sex show in which a naked woman threatens to crush a brown recluse with her stiletto (for better or for worse, it plays like an outtake from Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut). Once Adam discovers his double, the spider imagery intensifies. Though the director and co-writer Javier Gullón added the creatures to Saramago's text, it works, not least because the special effects are convincing. 

Much of the rest of the film, however, feels more like an ode to the body horror of David Cronenberg, though some of these similarities may be more coincidental than not. Nonetheless, Villeneuve didn't just shoot in Toronto, he used locations that appeared in Stereo and possibly even Crash. He also called on Gadon, who appears in Cosmopolis and his son Brandon Cronenberg's first feature, Antiviral. Then again, it only makes sense to dip into Toronto's talent pool when filming in the city.  

There's also the distinctive look of the film—cold and clinical—and the tone—so humorless that it's humorous (DP Nicolas Bolduc created the washed-out palette in-camera rather than through post-production).  

Then there's the concept of doubling which powers Dead Ringers, though Villeneuve never reveals that Adam and Anthony are long-lost twin brothers, but he leaves the possibility open, since they both have a scar on their abdomen. As with Jeremy Irons before him, Gyllenhaal has to pull off two roles or risk sinking the film. He does, and that helps to keep it afloat. If anything, he gives a better performance(s) in Enemy than he did in Prisoners in which he played an intriguing, if underwritten character. 

[spoiler space]

Not to give too much away, but I think the solution to the mystery lies in Cronenberg's adaptation of Patrick McGrath's Spider, in which Ralph Fiennes sees a whole lot of things that aren't there. The very title of that book and film seems like a dead giveaway, particularly in light of Enemy's surfeit of spiders, but Villeneuve's bizarre Walker Brothers-scored ending is tantalizingly inscrutable. As a longtime Cronenberg fan, I should probably be offended, except the Torontonian has been moving away from body horror for awhile now, so it was actually kind of enjoyable to see someone else pick up the mantle--at least for the length of one film

Enemy opens at SIFF Cinema Uptown and Sundance Cinemas on Mar 21. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear Has a Sting In Its Tale

Vic + Flo / Kimstim Films
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear / Vic + Flo Ont Vu un Ours
(Denis Côté, Canada, 2013, 95 mins.)

Seattle filmmaker Robinson Devor has described his second feature, Police Beat, as a “blue and green noir” (as opposed to his period debut, The Woman Chaser, a full-on black and white effort).

I recalled that term while watching Denis Côté’s Vic + Flo Saw a Bear as the Québécois director is up to something similar in his seventh feature. 

After serving time for a crime that Côté neglects to disclose, 61-year-old Victoria (Pierrette Robitaille), a tall woman with a penetrating stare, leaves prison only to find that her Uncle Émile, who's now confined to a wheelchair, isn't in the best condition to receive house guests. With nowhere else to stay, she moves into his bungalow. As a mute, Émile lacks the means to say no, but he gives no indication that he wants her to leave.

Vic, Guillaume, + Flo / Kimstim Films
Guillaume, a parole officer (Goon’s Marc-André Grondin, virtually unrecognizable with a bald pate), checks in on Vic twice a week. He's pleasant enough, but she lies when she says that her brother, Yvon, still inhabits the house, which abuts a neglected sugar shack. Yvon's presence represents a condition of Vic's parole, but he's just left town with his new lady love.

Vic's lie seems likely to backfire, though Côté, who directed the tonally analogous Curling, keeps things more matter of fact than portentous--not counting the jungle drums, but he keeps even that effect to a minimum.

Vic's bisexual girlfriend, Florence (Romane Bohringer from The King Is Alive), soon joins the mix--as with Yvon's lady, Flo appears to be several years her junior. Guillaume continues to pay surprise visits, and puts things together quickly enough, but opts not to report any improprieties. 

Though Vic tells Flo, "I'm old enough to know that I hate people," she gets along well enough with Guillaume and Marina (Marie Brassard), a flirtatious local, though Nicholas (Olivier Aubin), a neighbor, doesn't believe she's taking proper care of Émile, and lodges a complaint with social services. At this point, Côté also introduces an African American gentleman who has a way with guns and guitars. The feeling that this community is about to collapse on itself grows every time someone new enters the scene.  

Should they stay or should they go? / Kimstim Films
The relationship between the two women shifts when Flo's shady past catches up with her. If Vic doesn't make a few changes to her living situation, she threatens to hit the road. And even if she does, Flo still might flee, since she expresses more affection towards Vic than passion, but where I expected someone to shoot or get shot--Checkov's Gun and all--Côté heads in another, more metaphysical direction. Still, the impression of a noir transferred from the hub-bub of the city to the quiet of the forest remains. And in this forest: there are hunters and there is prey.  

It pains me to say it, but I didn't really like the ending, which recalls Curling to some extent, except Côté isn't going for "likability" (and I haven't yet caught up with his previous film, Bestiaire). In this instance, however, he presents two endings which play alongside each other: the thing that happens and its aftermath, but it's actually rather generous of him, since you can take one and leave the other, or ponder the way they work together. In either case, he ensures that viewers considering a trip to rural Quebec will think twice--if they don't change their plans altogether. 

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear plays the Northwest Film Forum through Mar 20.