Friday, August 30, 2019

Taking on the Patriarchy with Rage and a Rifle in Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale

Woman, rage, rifle
(Jennifer Kent, Australia, 2018, 136 mins) 

"Women's rage is immense, and there's an ocean of it. It's not hard, being a woman, to find reasons to have rage."--Jennifer Kent to The New York Times

Five years and countless colorful memes later, Jennifer Kent, the Australian director behind The Babadook, turns to a different kind of horror in The Nightingale, her second full-length feature. Instead of the horrors of the domestic realm, she takes on the horrors of colonialism--and all of the racism and sexism that that implies. It's a tall task, but she's up to it. 

Clare (Aisling Franciosi, serial killer-smitten babysitter Katie Benedetto on RTÉ procedural The Fall), an Irish convict in 1825, is serving time for theft in a Tasmanian outpost where she receives preferential treatment from Lieutenant Hawkins (an absolutely terrifying Sam Claflin turning his Hunger Games character inside out). It's a form of slavery as she cooks, serves, and sings for his regiment. They're a rude, crude bunch, and she bears their leers and gropes as best she can, knowing that she has a loving husband and a baby waiting for her in the prison encampment.

Hawkins in full regalia
To Hawkins, Clare is "property," and he treats her accordingly (if the rape scenes aren't graphic, they're painfully raw). Her husband, Aidan (Michael Sheasby), suspects what's going on, but she refuses to confirm his suspicions for fear that he'll do something stupid. She would prefer to keep her head down until her three-years-overdue release. If she makes a single misstep, she could lose everything.

Unfortunately, Aidan's inability to keep his suspicions to himself puts him on a collision course with a man who will stop at nothing to assert his dominance. When Clare's worst fears are realized, and she loses everything, she sets out to take her revenge. She just has to figure out how to get to Hawkins and his men (including Damon Herriman, most recently seen as Manson in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood and Mindhunter) before he reaches his destination, several miles away, towards a promotion that he believes he deserves.

Out of desperation, she joins forces with Billy (Baykali Ganambarr, an untrained actor who is cool where she is hot), an Aboriginal tracker who knows the area. Neither one trusts the other, but she offers to pay him what little money she has. If the British soldiers treat the Irish convicts like the lowest of the low, Clare treats Billy as if he was lower, though his people have suffered even worse losses. The pecking order is clear; and the only thing lower than an Aboriginal man…is an Aboriginal woman.

The Nightingale is concerned with revenge in a way the The Babadook never was, but it's also concerned with motherhood and mourning. Kent just comes at these things in a more searingly direct way in this film. Essie Davis's widow in The Babadook has so much trouble dealing with her grief that it threatens to incinerate everything around her, while Clare doesn't have the time to grieve before she springs into action with rage and a rifle, but it catches up with her as vivid dreams that morph into nightmares.

Her only friend
As she and Billy travel through the woods, her privilege frequently gets the best of her. She wants to control the situation, but she's out of her depth and loath to rely on him any more than necessary. In interviews, Kent has acknowledged surface similarities with Nicolas Roeg's 1971 Walkabout, in which a British schoolgirl relies on a young Aboriginal man for her survival, but this is not that film. If anything, the relationship between Clare and Billy more closely resembles the one between Johnny Depp's accountant and Gary Farmer's guide in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man. The indigenous character is more resourceful than his white companion, but he isn't some kind of mystical being. He's still a man (Kent has cited Fred Schepisi's 1978 The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith as a prime inspiration).

At times, Billy is downright goofy, like an overgrown child. He and Clare see and experience things that would try the hardiest of souls, but not everything is terrible. Though they never get the chance to notice the beauty of their surroundings, Kent (with the aid of Babadook cinematographer Radek Ladczuk) makes sure that we do. And if most of the British people are horrible--Hawkins above all--they meet a few kind souls along the way. In that sense, Clare recalls runaway slave Cora in Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad. As tough and resilient as these young women may be, they couldn't survive without a little help.

The Nightingale, winner of the Special Jury Prize at last year's Venice Film Festival, was the only female-directed film in 2018's lineup. Towards the end of the screening, an Italian journalist, who subsequently lost his accreditation, yelled "Shame on you, whore, you’re disgusting!" He has since apologized, but to say that Kent's film--which is no more brutal than Quentin Tarantino's latest--has unsettled a few viewers would be an understatement at best. As Glenn Kenny noted in his review, "With one angrily shouted word, one awful person proved that the central thesis of the movie, that the world is run by men who hate women, remains absolutely correct."

Set 194 years in what should be a remote and distant past, The Nightingale feels timely in ways that should make all of us uncomfortable. 

The Nightingale opens at SIFF Cinema Uptown on Friday, August 30. Click here for more information. All images from Transmission Films / IFC.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The Loneliness of the Late-Night Call Girl in Alan J. Pakula's Deceptively Chilly Klute

Jane Fonda with Donald Sutherland's Don't Look Now pal
(Alan J. Pakula, USA, 1971, 114 minutes)

"When you're used to being lonely and someone comes in and moves that around, it's kind of scary."
--Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda)

The first time I watched Alan J. Pakula's second feature, Klute, probably on television in generously-edited form, I found it a little too chilly for my taste. I didn't dislike it, necessarily, but I expected a more dynamic performance from Jane Fonda, who had last appeared, quite movingly, in Sydney Pollack's Depression-era downer They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

As struggling actress and more-successful call girl Bree Daniels, she seems considerably older, wiser, and more cynical, and it led to the first of her two Oscars (it seems retrograde, in 2019, to use the term "call girl," but sex worker doesn't seem quite right either; clients really do have to call to book appointments with Bree, a free agent who operates without a pimp).

I don't know if my taste has changed, or if I was paying more attention this time around, but in revisiting the new Criterion Collection edition, I noticed more clearly how form follows function; if anything, a less nuanced performance would've broken Pakula's finely-crafted spell, which benefits immeasurably from Gordon Willis's shadowy cinematography and Michael Small's delicately menacing score (music supervisor Maggie Phillips drew from it for Sam Esmail's Pakula-style Amazon Prime series Homecoming).

There's also a difference between chilly and cool. Klute is a cool film about a cool customer, but it's all a façade. The first in the director's paranoia trilogy with Parallax View and All the President’s Men, it's more of a character study in thriller garb, and Bree’s cool affect is mostly a well-honed act.

Michael Sarrazin and Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)
It's also a film about loneliness, something more closely associated with male-dominated pictures. Bree, who lives in a Manhattan walk-up, mentions "friends" to John Klute (Donald Sutherland), the Pennsylvania policeman who questions her about a client who's gone missing, but it's clear they're all in the past. Her current life revolves around her work and her cat (in the interview with Illeana Douglas in the supplemental features, Fonda takes credit for giving Bree a cat).

Except for a frenzied party scene, which doesn't look like much fun, Pakula rarely depicts her socializing, though she doesn't exactly look unhappy as she unwinds at the end of a long day by drinking wine and smoking a joint while reading Linda Goodman's Sun Signs (a very 1971 thing to do).

So, she isn't completely miserable, but she isn't exactly living either. She’s getting by. When she discovers that Klute has been tapping her phone, she's hardly thrilled, but a believable rapport develops between the two. They're like the loners played by Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard in Blake Edwards' Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but with all of the stardust stripped away.

Klute is lonely, too, though the script provides few details about his past, so it's fortunate that Sutherland is sufficiently skilled to breathe life into this sketch of a character, which Pakula whittled down from Andy and David Lewis's screenplay. We're not expected to wonder why he's lonely, and I never did, though I appreciate the fact that he doesn't say he's single; it's just assumed. By joining forces with this small-town cop to figure out what happened to his colleague, Bree finds a friend, a coworker, and a lover. In the process, she lets down her guard, opening her up to all of the messy feelings she's learned to keep at bay. They make it harder for her to do her job and to stay in control, but they--more than Klute--help her to make necessary changes in her life once the central mystery has been solved.

Fonda and Sutherland in Klute's basement flat
Throughout, Pakula takes care not to judge her for her occupation, though there’s a bit of Buñuelian, Belle de Jour-esque fantasy to her claim that tricking is as much of a compulsion as a means to an end. If things were going better for her as an actress or model, wouldn't she leave the life behind? It seems likely, though she doesn't see much demarcation between the two, telling her therapist (an effectively blank Vivian Nathan), "For an hour, I'm the best actress in the world--and the best fuck in the world."

After she and Klute have sex for the first time, Bree assures him she wasn't faking it (even if she didn't come), but one of the pleasures of Klute is that much of the dialogue is open to interpretation, and Fonda's improvised sessions with Nathan inform our impressions of Bree, who claims, "It's easy to manipulate men." Of course, she would tell Klute he made her feel something for once; that doesn't mean it's true, though we're meant to believe it is. Or that she cares enough about his feelings to tell him a lie that isn't attached to a price point. Though he didn't write the script, it's notable that Pakula told Sight & Sound in 1972, "I also thought of being a psychoanalyst." We're fortunate he chose filmmaking, but that doesn't mean he left all psychoanalytic impulses aside, particularly in regards to Klute.

It's a fool's game to judge the films of the past by the standards of today, simply because they emerged from different circumstances, and while I can understand the desire to declare Klute feminist, I don't think that was Pakula's intent. On the night she won the Oscar, even Fonda acknowledged, "I'm not very happy about what the picture is saying to women, which is if you get a good shrink and a good guy everything will turn out alright, and I don't think that's true." I don't either. But nor is it completely untrue, and Klute operates in that ambiguous space. For a genre film made in 1971, it holds up better than I would've expected, and it's certainly not misogynist, but Pakula never forgot that he was making a movie and not a treatise.

As Bree tells her therapist, "I'm beginning to feel. And I'm just so scared." Klute can try to protect her from the guy who's been stalking her, but she's on her own when it comes to her feelings. The context may be feminist, since she isn't a stereotypical damsel in distress, but it's the universality of that confession that gives this low-key thriller more resonance than most.

Klute is out now in a Special Edition Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. Of all the supplemental features, my favorite is the featurette on fashion with Amy Fine Collins, who makes a case for the outfits in the film as something significantly more than just a snapshot of the things women wore in the 1970s--rib-knit turtlenecks, maxi skirts, and chunky necklaces--but as clues to Bree's character that are every bit as revealing as her therapy sessions.

Images: Library of America and The Boston Globe.