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Hello I Must Be Going

Amy sullen at dinner

In this sweet, small indie, Melanie Lynskey plays Amy, a heart-sick, recently divorced woman who moves from New York back into her parents’ house in Westport, Connecticut, because she can’t fathom where else to go.  She spends three months without leaving the (lavish, waterfront) property, wearing the same frayed shorts and faded red t-shirt, her lassitude emanating from her in funky waves.  But when her father’s potential business deal forces her to shower, wash her hair, and dress for a dinner with his prospective client, she stumbles into an affair with a younger man that renews her interest in her own life and that teaches her a few things about who she really is.

In his New York Times review, A.O. Scott points out that in similar films about men who move back home to reorient their lives, the guys are usually given the benefit of the doubt (see, for instance, Jeff, Who Lives at Home).  Women, no such luck.  In Hello I Must be Going, Amy’s parents and her brother are downright cruel.  They’re derisive about her pain; her mother bluntly and condescendingly suggests that she go on anti-depressants, and they criticize her appearance at every turn.  Though her life has been completely upended by her unexpected and very recent divorce, the general consensus is that it’s her fault she can’t seem to get on with her life.

Rubinstein and Danner as Stan and Ruth

Directed (by Todd Louiso) and written (by Sarah Koskoff) with offbeat humor and confident knowingness, the film sees the blighted world of suburban Connecticut white privilege from Amy’s perspective.  Her parents live in a large, light-filled house made noisy by constant construction work, as they complete their renovations room by room, years after they first moved in.  At the same time, Amy’s father’s precarious financial future means that her parents, Ruth (Blythe Danner) and Stan (John Rubinstein), wander the house perseverating about losing what they have and—god forbid—moving into an apartment together.  The plot turns on Stan’s ability to secure a new client; without the necessary income, they’ll have to sell the house, he won’t be able to retire, and he and Ruth won’t be able to take a much anticipated trip, aptly called Gallivanting the Globe.

Because they’re fairly stereotypical Jewish parents (even though their ethnicity is never expressed, their last name is Minsky), Ruth and Stan manage to make Amy feel guilty, implying that her personal trauma will somehow prohibit this crucial business venture.  When they insist she come to dinner with the client and his family, Amy wears a borrowed a dress and sits sullenly, diffident and vague when asked questions about her life.  The client, Larry (Damian Young), and his wife, Gwen (the always hilarious Julie White), resemble Amy’s parents; they’re wealthy, preoccupied, and superficial, as they skid the surface of their lives with little interest in anyone else’s.

But they bring to dinner Gwen’s young son, Jeremy (Christopher Abbott, recently of Girls), who immediately sees in Amy a kindred spirit.  As she loses her enthusiasm for pretense and excuses herself from the table, he follows her out of the room and after a brief exchange, is bold enough to kiss her.  To her surprise, Amy kisses him back.

Jeremy and Amy relearning to drive

Although she’s in her thirties and he’s still a teenager, Amy and Jeremy begin to see one another, alternating sexual escapades with conversations about their lives.  Abbott plays Jeremy as a sensitive boy coming into adulthood and chafing at the oppressive supervision of a hovering mother who believes his life mirrors her own.  Jeremy captures Amy’s affections and she reawakens under his sexual and emotional ministrations.  They’re warm and funny together, kindred spirits who share an artistic bent—he’s an actor and she’s really a photographer—but feel stifled by the presumptions of their families.

Much of the film’s humor comes from situations in which Amy and Jeremy contrive to keep their relationship secret.  Amy doesn’t want to jeopardize her father’s business deal.  Because his first starring role was playing Robert Mapplethorpe, Jeremy’s mother thinks her son is gay, an assumption she makes with the pride of a knee-jerk liberal.  Amy cuts the power to her parent’s security gate so that its alarm won’t sound when she slips out at night, and Jeremy makes up elaborate stories to cover his time with her.

The baseball beanbag chair

In a happy role reversal, she throws stones up at his bedroom window when she wants to see him, playing the Romeo to his Juliet.  They drive around in her mother’s car, parking by the beach; they have sex in his childhood bedroom, embarrassingly decorated with a beanbag chair shaped like a baseball and a mass of toy soldiers that belonged to a much younger version of Jeremy’s still young self; and they swim naked in his parents’ pool, provoking one of the movie’s funniest scenes when Gwen and Larry return home earlier than expected (because an understudy went on for Patti LuPone in the play they went to see on Broadway).

Caught in the act by the parents

The movie traces Amy’s return to life through Jeremy’s affections.  With no hope for a future together, even though he fantasizes about escaping with her, Amy is free to live in the moment, which brings her clarity about her past.  She stopped working on her graduate degree in photography when she married her husband, David (Dan Futterman), sacrificing her own interests by presuming that a partnership with a successful entertainment lawyer mattered more than her own artistic pursuits.  Her mother chides her for her failure to finish things, even though Amy believes she’s chosen to give up her career to follow the conventionally prescribed path.

When she meets David for lunch in the city, after some time with Jeremy, the older man’s deficits are clear.  He can’t keep his eyes from his smart phone long enough for her to finish a sentence.  And when she pushes him to talk about what went wrong in their marriage, he feeds her a standard line about not wanting to have already arrived at the end of his life so close to its beginning.  Staying with her, he intimates, would have been a kind of settling.  And Amy suddenly realizes that she would have settled, too.

Watching her old slides, Jeremy helps Amy rekindle her love of photography

Nothing in Hello I Must Be Going is surprising (so these really aren’t spoilers).  Stan gets his client and his cash.  But he decides not to retire, forcing Amy to reconcile her difficult relationship with her hyper-critical mother and gallivant around the globe in Stan’s place.  She decides to finish her photography degree by shooting her mother beside rivers around the world (Amy loves to take pictures of water).  She says goodbye to Jeremy, telling him he’ll enjoy Oberlin, where he’s about to go off to college.  And she happily, wistfully takes her life in her own hands as she rides off in a taxi.

The film’s story, rehearsed plainly, is the simple backbone on which Amy’s trajectory is hung.  We still don’t hear enough about women like her, relatively ordinary heterosexual women (despite her privilege and her parents’ wealth) who think they’re doing the right thing when they start relationships that will please their families without really considering if they please themselves.  Even her old high school friends seem more clear-eyed about what love means than Amy.  And they’re all ensconced in traditional suburban marriages, looking forward to women’s nights out once a week when they can get roaring drunk.  Amy’s been buffeted about by other people’s wishes; once she understands what happened to her, she can sort through her own.

Coming back to life, age difference be damned

Louiso skirts the potential ethical queasiness of an older woman’s sexual relationship with a younger man by casting actors who don’t actually look that different in age.  Melanie Lynskey is a young-looking 30 something Amy (she’s actually 36), and Christopher Abbott, as Jeremy, looks well into his 20s, rather than the 18-going-on-19 he’s supposed to play (he’s actually 26).  But a generous suspension of disbelief allows you to enjoy the way the two misfits find and proceed to empower one another.  That Jeremy is supposed to be younger means that Amy isn’t rebounding after her marriage so much as she’s starting over, correcting her course by seeing through the eyes of someone just beginning his own adult life.

Played by the radiant Lynskey, Amy is a lost soul with just enough sense of irony to keep her from being maudlin.  Lynskey’s reactions indicate Amy recognizes that the people who surround her are ludicrous, including her social-climbing, prattling mother (in one of Danner’s less intelligent, less flattering performances), her more sympathetic but still clueless and somehow impotent father, and her selfish, narcissistic brother.

Lynskey’s Amy knows that her life is a muddle and that where she’s landed is not where she wants to be.  She’s forced to come to terms with what she wants, against all the models lined up for her to emulate.  Moved by Jeremy’s just passed adolescent soul-searching, Amy can restart her own life.  And Lynskey’s empathetic, emotionally intelligent, sweetly funny performance of a not-so-young woman rebooting her system resonates with insight.

The Feminist Spectator


Dee Rees’s debut feature film is a terrific study of a teenaged girl who identifies as a lesbian, even though she lives under the heterosexual enforcement of an unhappy mother and a warm but philandering father.

Rees’s semi-autobiographical film does a beautiful job of narrating the double-life of Alike (Adepero Oduye), a very smart high school senior who dresses as a conventional girl under her mother’s disciplining eye, but then changes in the bathroom as soon as she arrives at school into the t-shirt and sideways-worn ball cap of the butch lesbian she knows herself to be.

Pariah is a family study and a coming of age film that illustrates the shifting mores of a particular slice of mostly middle-class African American life. Alike’s sister and her high school peers, for instance, are indifferent to or intrigued by her gender performance, but those of her parents’ generation eye her with antipathy and suspicion.

Her mother, Audrey (beautifully played by Kim Wayans), frantically tries to enforce Alike’s waning heterosexuality, buying her a deep magenta sweater with ruffles down the front that couldn’t be further from her daughter’s self-presentation.

Much to its credit, Pariah is a coming of age story, rather than a coming out story. When Rees first introduces us to Alike, she’s already very clear about her identity, though she’s yet to have sex. Much of the film details her flirtations with other women, including her devastation at the hands of coldhearted Bina (Aasha Davis), a straight young woman who befriends and seduces her, only to dismiss Alike the morning after.

But Alike’s certainty about who she is—and that “God doesn’t make mistakes,” as Audrey claims and Alike agrees, but from diametrically opposed perspectives—drives her toward her own liberation.

Still, Rees details with compassion the enormous costs that remain for these young women. Laura, Alike’s butch mentor through the world of clubs and dating, has been kicked out of her family home and has left school. She lives with her understanding older sister, Candace (Shamika Cotton), both of them struggling to make financial ends meet while Laura studies for her GED.

When a dyke club opens across from a bodega that Arthur (Charles Parnell), Alike’s father, frequents, the male customers eye the women who stop by the store with hostility. One calls out a young woman, who listens to his disparaging remarks and then casually insults him right back, much to the amusement of Alike’s father and his friends.

Although the scene is tense, and pregnant with the possibility for gendered violence, the young dyke saunters out of the store with the upper hand. The tide of public opinion, Rees suggests, is turning.

Alike’s sister, Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse), teases her older sibling mercilessly. But when she crawls into Alike’s bed one night for comforting, as they both listen to their parents’ incessant nighttime quarreling, Sharonda whispers, “You know I don’t care, right?” She isn’t specific, but they both know that Sharonda is talking about Alike’s sexuality.

In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Sharonda bursts into Alike’s room when Alike and her best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), are fitting Alike with a large white dildo and harness. But Sharonda is unfazed and promises not to tattle. This younger generation makes common cause along a set of new sexual mores—Sharonda is eager to have heterosexual sex—against parents who cling to an older notion of sexual and gendered morality.

When she finally passes the test, Laura returns to her family’s home, where her disapproving mother opens the front door warily—and only halfway—listening with stony hostility to her daughter recite her recent achievements and saying not a word in response.  When her mother closes the door in Laura’s face, you can feel Laura’s heartrending loss and humiliation at her mother’s rejection.

Pariah upends expectations by refusing to succumb to genre stereotypes.  For instance, although the bar Laura and Alike frequent is in what Arthur (who’s a detective for the NYPD) calls a “bad neighborhood,” the bar is represented as a place of heightened sexuality, experimentation, and lustful openness, but never as a site of violence or invasion.  The women in the bar create their own space; since the film is set in the present, no police harassment spoils their fun.

Likewise, when Laura and her friends hang out on the piers smoking dope and drinking, Rees construes the public space as open and free, rather than one in which her characters might be victimized.  Laura observes another young woman talking to a john in a car about a potential trick; in a different movie, Laura would start turning tricks herself to help pay her expenses.

But in Pariah, the characters’ grit and dignity insist on hope.  Alike and Laura are smart and capable.  Only their parents’ blindness to a sexual and gendered future in which their choices are acceptable hampers their way.

Because the film is semi-autobiographical, art and creative expression finally free Alike.  Her supportive high school creative writing teacher encourages her to “dig deeper” with her poetry.  After Bina breaks her heart, Alike knows something of love and loss.  Davis plays Bina with a nice balance of cruelty, warmth, and her own sexual confusions.  Her scenes with Oduye, as the two girls are forced together by their mothers and then gradually form their own bond, ring true and complicated.

In the film’s climax, Audrey physically attacks Alike when she admits she’s a lesbian, cutting her cheek with her ring and knocking her daughter to the floor.  But Bina’s cruelty and her mother’s violence only shore Alike’s resolve, and she finds her creative voice.  Her poems express both her emotional pain and her fierce determination and her talent launches her out of her family and into the future.

How lovely to see a film about a young lesbian that ends with a journey toward a life of promise.  It’s worth marking how differently this story can be told in 2012 from the way it was 10, 20, or certainly 30 years ago (think films like Personal Best in 1982, or Lianna in 1983, or even Kissing Jessica Stein in 2001).  And how lovely to see a film about a young lesbian of color instead of the typical young white women moving through this story.

Pariah‘s advertising tag line offers the dictionary definition of the word:  1.  A person without status.  2.  A rejected member of society.  3.  An outcast.  Rees’s film narrates how Alike turns those understandings around one by one.

The actors are uniformly terrific in a cast that should have been honored with one of the many ensemble award acknowledgements going to films like The Help.  Oduye is wonderful as Alike, conveying both her youthful inexperience and her self-knowledge and desire in ways that honor the complex character Rees creates.

Walker, as Laura, brings dignity and depth to a role that could have easily fallen into the sidekick stereotype.  She and Oduye create a friendship layered with loyalty, tinged with lust, and shot through with its own complicated desires, always balancing the power shifts that rock their relationship unpredictably.  Alike, after all, still has parents and a home; Laura has been exiled from a family she clearly still loves.

Pariah’s only less convincing characters are Alike’s parents, who too often seem like vehicles for her story rather than full-fledged people of their own.  Arthur, her father, is successful professionally but unhappy personally.  He’s clearly having an affair and barely tolerates his hovering wife.  Audrey is simply unhappy, and takes out her resentments by berating her husband and too tightly controlling her daughters.  As a mother, she’s a shrewish monster, whose desperate insistence on Alike’s heterosexuality displaces her own failed intimacies.

Naturally, Alike identifies with Arthur, who recognizes his oldest daughter’s sexuality but can only support her tacitly.  He’s too weak-willed to stand up to Audrey, fleeing instead to solace outside his family and letting his daughters bear the brunt of her wrath.  After Audrey attacks Alike, Arthur begs her to come home, but Alike stays with Laura, firmly refusing, until she graduates high school early and rides off to San Francisco to accept a scholarship at UC-Berkeley.

Her relationship with her parents makes Alike’s story conform a bit too closely to the stereotype of the father-identifying lesbian alienated from a malignant mother.  But Wayans and Parnell bring nuance to these conventional roles, representing as they do a way of thinking about sexuality and gender that, Pariah argues, is becoming quickly anachronistic.

When Meryl Streep won the Golden Globe award as best actress for her performance in The Iron Lady, the gracious actor took the stage and acknowledged not only her fellow nominees, but also Adepero Oduye, who wasn’t nominated for a Globe or for an Oscar.

Streep’s gesture was generous and true.  Pariah might still be in limited release, and might never achieve the box office of a bigger film, but as an artistic statement, it’s vivid and important.  The film was nominated for the 2011 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (where Bradford Young won forPariah‘s cinematography) and for various other awards, but escaped notice by the most visible, prestigious committees.

What a shame.  Pariah’s is a story that needs to be seen, heard, and told and told again. Rees’s version is moving, beautiful, and deserving.

The Feminist Spectator

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Albert Nobbs

Albert Nobbs has been Glenn Close’s passion project since she performed the title role in Simone Benmussa’s play, The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs, in New York in 1982.  Her commitment pays off in a beautiful, starring performance in the film she co-wrote and co-produced.  With her small eyes peering out of Albert’s guarded face, Close demonstrates her sensitivity to the emotional nuances of being a woman in the late 1800s Dublin who spends her life living as a man.

Albert Nobbs is based on a novella by the Irish author George Moore.  Moore makes a brief appearance as a character in the film as a guest at Morrison’s hotel, where Nobbs works as a waiter for the preemptory, social-climbing proprietor, Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins).  In Benmussa’s play, Moore narrated Albert’s story, providing a critical frame that guided spectators’ understanding of the compromises Albert had made to enable his own survival.

Here, what we learn of Albert’s past and the reasons for his life-long masquerade as a man come from stories Albert shares with Hubert Page (Janet McTeer).  Page is a housepainter with a similar life, with whom Albert is forced to share his bed for a night at the hotel.  When a bothersome flea forces Albert to strip off his clothes, he inadvertently reveals his female body to Page.

Fearful and humiliated by this exposure, the horrified Albert begs Page repeatedly through the night and the next day not to reveal the truth. When Albert’s whining becomes bothersome, Page puts down his paint brush, closes the door, and exposes his breasts to Albert, shocking him to his core.  Albert is incredulous to have met someone like him, who carries such a deep and abiding secret.  But the two passing women don’t fully share their stories until Albert seeks out Page and his wife, Cathleen, at the flat they share in the city.

Hubert Page, it turns out, fled an abusive marriage by stealing her husband’s clothes and his occupation, reinventing herself as a male house painter to make her way in the world.  She meets Cathleen (Bronagh Gallagher), another woman living alone, and they share a home until people’s gossip forces them to marry.  When Albert visits their cozy flat, it’s clear that Hubert and Cathleen have made a full and rich life together.  Their physical and emotional intimacy is compelling and mysterious to Albert, who can’t quite contemplate a life beyond the structured, impersonal, servile routine to which he’s disciplined himself at Morrison’s.

With Page’s encouragement, Albert begins to dream about opening a tobacco shop finding a companion of his own.  But Albert has lived unemotionally and impassively for so long, he has no idea how to court a woman or really how to interact in more than a professional manner with anyone at all.

In fact, when Page asks the waiter his name, Albert responds, “Albert.”  Page clarifies, “No, your real name.”  After a beat and a swallow, Albert says again, “Albert.”  The wrenching moment underlines their differences.  Page has recreated himself but kept his spirit intact.  Albert has become the surface of his masquerade and can no longer fathom his own depths.

The film, directed by Rodrigo Garcia, provides Albert’s cross-dressed existence with a justification different from Benmussa’s adaptation.  Albert haltingly tells Page that he was raised by a foster mother, whose financial circumstances soured, forcing them to mingle with a rougher crowd than those to which Albert was accustomed.  He relates that as a young girl, he was assaulted by a gang of boys, and soon after, began passing as a male waiter.  The film implies that sexual violence turned Albert toward the gender impersonation that became his life.

By contrast, Benmussa adapted Moore’s story to demonstrate the economic forces that would compel a woman to pass as a man.  In her Brechtian, non-realist and non-psychologized play, Albert’s desperate need for economic survival explains his male attire and his single-minded devotion to counting his tips. He organizes all of his relationships according to financial necessity.

Close’s film, too, captures some of Albert’s Scrooge-like attachment to his coins, which he fingers luxuriously, records precisely in his journal, and buries under a floorboard in his room at the hotel.  When he courts Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), a chambermaid at Morrison’s, he sees her as a partner for his business endeavor and little more, because he can’t conceive of a relationship that isn’t driven by the cold imperative of cash.  But that story about sexual violence makes him seem more a broken soul than someone wily enough to pass as a man to make his way.

Nonetheless, the film is a fine demonstration of gender as performance.  At a masquerade ball at Morrison’s, to which only the hotel’s guests are invited to wear costumes, the inebriated Dr. Holloran (Brendan Gleeson), who lives among the staff, asks Albert what he’s dressed as.  Confused, Albert responds, “I’m a waiter, sir,” to which the doctor replies, “And I am a doctor.  We’re both disguised as ourselves.”  The doctor has no idea how descriptive he’s been.  He finally uncovers Albert’s truth when the waiter dies from a blow to his head, suffered during an altercation with Joe Mackins (Aaron Johnson), the young man with whom he vies for Helen Dawe’s affections.

Mackins provides the masculine sexual energy of Albert Nobbs, and proves the only one at Morrison’s who sniffs something off about Albert.  He tells Helen that Albert smells of money, but he intuits Albert’s lack of desire and his passion only for his cash.  Though the illiterate laborer can’t articulate the problem, Joe is the only one who sees through Albert’s charade.  That is, all except an odd-looking, nameless young boy, a guest of the hotel who stares at Albert wordlessly, and later looks at Hubert Page with the same unsettling, inarticulate knowingness.

But the mores of late-1800s Dublin are so constrained that none of the others would ever suspect that a person who looks like a man in fact is not.  For instance, when Cathleen dies of typhoid fever, Albert and Hubert venture out costumed as women, wearing the dresses that Cathleen made as a kind of tribute to her life.  In their experiment with nostalgia, they look awkward and ridiculous.  Page’s dress is too small for the tall and bulky guy; his long arms stick out of the sleeves and the dress fails to conceal his painters’ boots, in which he lumbers along the Dublin streets.  In his bonnet and skirt, Albert, too, looks silly and strange.

But a man passing them in the lane tips his hat to Hubert and Albert anyway, reading femininity from their dresses regardless of their inadequate gender performances.  As Judith Butler would argue, the surface enactment is enough to signal gender, which for Hubert and Albert, if not for all of us, has no depth anyway.  Watching the film, I had so accustomed myself to Albert and Hubert’s utterly persuasive gender performances that despite what I knew, their outing as women seemed sad and pathetic.

This moment of female impersonation wasn’t part of Benmussa’s play, and makes an uneasy addition to the story.  Close plays Albert in that scene as entranced with his feminine attire, despite his clumsiness with its draping.  Albert and Page walk on the beach in their women’s wear, and Albert suddenly seems to feel free.  His bonnet falls onto his back and he runs ahead of Page, arms stretched out, catching the wind in his hair.

Page looks on, amused.  For him, femininity has long lost its interest or its necessity.  His grief over Cathleen’s death means his feminine impersonation is more about wearing things she touched than remembering his long-cast-off womanhood.  After their brief beach venture, both men return to their workers’ clothing, resuming the costumes of lives they can’t be without.

Close and McTeer are utterly affecting in their performance of the men’s halting friendship. Albert can barely express himself; throughout the film, he casts his gaze down or away, rarely making eye contact. Watching Close slowly move Albert’s eyes to meet Hubert’s is a study in courage and need. And yet what we see is the shadow of a man, whose excitement is kindled not by emotional connection but by the possibility of rearranging her living situation to improve her economics.

Cathleen’s death provides an opportunity for Albert. He suggests that he replace Cathleen in Hubert’s home, so that they can keep their expenses low and live reasonably. Hubert protests, “But I loved her,” an emotion unintelligible to Albert.

Likewise, when he courts Helen Dawes, she’s frustrated and insulted that Albert plans to marry her without even venturing to kiss her. Startled by her complaint, Albert obliges by pecking her cheek, sending Helen running back to the virile if corrupt Joe Mackins.

Albert, in other words, is a bit of a fool at Morrison’s. When he’s not working, he sits on the landing between floors, looking up and down, scheming about his future and making notes about his money. Benmussa’s dialogue notes that Albert is neither up nor down, neither here nor there, a physical representation of his refusal to inhabit binary gender categories. Close sits on the landing in the film, too, but without the critical comment of the play, he seems simply strange.

The film, however, can paint the lives around Albert with richer contrasting detail. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays a viscount who arrives at Morrison’s with an entourage of friends and women to drink and have sex. Mrs. Baker enables their assignations, and their unfettered heterosexual energy permeates the place. Even Mrs. Baker flirts with the doctor shamelessly, though he’s having an affair with another of the chambermaids.

Only Albert has no place in the hotel’s network of sexual intrigue. When Helen finds herself pregnant and she and Joe fight about their future, Albert tries to rescue her by offering to take care of her and the child. For his chivalry, Joe pushes him violently and he falls into the hallway wall, giving Albert the head injury that kills him. He dies alone, his money buried under his floor, where Mrs. Baker finds it and uses it to employ Hubert to paint her entire hotel.

The doctor who finds Albert shakes his head over the miserable circumstances in which people live. Albert’s death inspires him to change his own life; he runs off with his chambermaid and leaves Morrison’s Hotel. Helen has her baby, which she names Albert. And Hubert paints the hotel where his friend died, carrying with him the secret of Hubert’s sex and his own.

The film is smart and sweet, sad and atmospheric.  If it doesn’t pack quite the intellectual and political punch of Benmussa’s play, at least Albert Nobbs lets us watch Close and McTeer in performances that should compel conversation about what it means to inhabit the strictures of gender.  The difference between Close as, for only one example, Patty Hewes in her starring television role on Damages, in which she plays a female lawyer as manipulative shark, and Close as Albert, in his furtive, rigid performance of masculinity, tells us a lot not just about Close’s talent as an actor, but about how masculinity and femininity are always just constructions.

On the other hand, the film’s most wrenching moment is when Albert rips open her shirt to scratch that flea and reveals her breasts encased in a girdle. The way Close gathers her shirt and her covers her breasts, as if she’s trying to make them and herself disappear, illustrates her painful body shame. By contrast, when Hubert unbuttons his jacket and opens it wide to show Albert his bountiful, unfettered breasts, he demonstrates a lovely ease with the contradictions of his female flesh and his masculine self.

Albert Nobbs does a fine job of narrating the gains and losses incurred along the continuum the two characters represent. With its close-in cinematography and Dublin street sets that offer little hint of an “outside” to this late nineteenth century world, Albert Nobbs clarifies how history and society constrain possibilities for gender performance. For that alone, as well as the pleasure of Close’s and McTeer’s masterful performances, Albert Nobbs is an important and worthy pleasure.

The Feminist Spectator

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The Descendants

Writer-director Alexander Payne’s films—if About Schmidt, Sideways, and now The Descendantsare any indication—are sensitive, expressive investigations into white, middle-class, heterosexual masculinity.  George Clooney, recently nominated for an Academy Award for his role, for which he already won a Golden Globe, plays Matt King, a real estate lawyer in Hawai’i whose life falls apart when his wife’s injury in a boating accident leaves her in an irreversible coma.  In the voiceover that frames much of the film, Matt admits that he’s always been the back-up parent to his two daughters, and can’t quite fathom what to do with his family when he’s left in charge.

As his wife lies in a hospital bed kept alive by a ventilator and IV fluids, Matt is called to his 10-year-old daughter Scottie’s elementary school to apologize for the photographs the girl took of her indisposed mother, which she pasted into an album to share at show and tell.  Then he has to bring Scottie (Amara Miller) to a classmate’s house to apologize for more of her indiscretions.  The kid is foul-mouthed and unpredictable; as Matt talks on the phone, he sees her throwing deck chairs into the family pool.  So he wrangles Scotty onto a plane and goes off to the Big Island to collect her 17-year-old sister, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), hoping she can help out.

Instead, Matt finds Alex drinking with a friend, out past her curfew on the grounds of the private school at which she boards.  When he and Scottie bring Alex home, she’s hostile and impertinent.  At her last visit home, she fought with her mom, and doesn’t hesitate to inform Matt that his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) was having an affair.  Matt knows he’s been an inattentive husband and an absent father, but this news unravels what he thought was his safe, secure world.

Clooney is a subtle actor, with an admirable willingness to push beyond his handsome, action-star reputation.  (He’s also very good as a corrupt presidential candidate in The Ides of March.)  Matt’s face and bearing change in small but significant ways when Alex tells him about Elizabeth’s infidelity.  He changes from a smooth public operator to a man humiliated by what he didn’t know about the most intimate aspects of his own life.

This new knowledge unmans him, but it also (of course) humanizes him, and sends him careening toward his own redemption.  In his more feminized role as a cuckold, Matt also gets a handle on his parenting.  He and Alex form a bond over their determination to track down and confront Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), the realtor who was Elizabeth’s other man.

Once the story focuses on finding Brian Speer, The Descendants becomes a kind of intra-Hawai’i road movie, except that Matt and his family fly among the islands to track Brian down.  [Spoiler alertthough nothing in the film is really a surprise.]  They’re accompanied by Sid (Nick Krause), Alex’s the hapless guy friend, whose presence she insists will help her be more civil to her father and her family.  While at first Sid seems a thoughtless, insensitive child—he laughs at her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s and doesn’t seem very sympathetic to Matt’s plight—it turns out that he recently lost his father and proves more emotionally acute than Payne at first lets on.  The foursome slowly, carefully reconstitutes a semblance of family by replacing their grief over Elizabeth’s impending death with their wrath about Brian Speer.

When they find him on Kaua’i, and it turns out Speer has a wife and two small kids.  Their rage dissipates into irritated sorrow, as Matt understands that the man he’s pictured as a mythic monster is really just an ordinary person who made a mistake.  In their climactic confrontation, Matt insists things happen for a reason, but Speer argues that, to the contrary, sometimes things just happen.  Living within that capriciousness is part of Matt’s life lesson, and forgiveness becomes the film’s rather pat, too comfortable denouement.

Elizabeth dies after they remove the ventilator—in accord with her living will.  Matt and his daughters sprinkle her ashes off a canoe they row out to sea, encircling the dissolving ash with their leis as the huge hotels of the Oahu shore loom in the background.  In the film’s last shot, Matt, Alex, and Scottie lounge silently but companionably on the family couch, watching March of the Penguins together as they eat ice cream.  With the stationary camera set in a medium shot, we watch them make room for one another, sharing a blanket and their dessert as they listen to Sydney Poitier narrate the epic story of penguin families and their journey.  The analogy couldn’t be clearer.

Payne contrives the plot to serve Matt’s character development.  As in Sideways, all that really happens in The Descendants is that a man weathers a mid-life crisis and comes out on the other side, knowing himself a little better and becoming more forgiving of himself and his circumstances.  Matt, mind you, has a very good life—his last name, after all, is “King,” and his family owns a large parcel of land on Oahu, the sale of which the whole state is apparently tracking.

When it turns out that the Brian Speer (whose name is also perhaps too symbolic) stands to profit from the sale, Matt waxes sentimental about being Hawaiian (his great-grandmother was an island native).  Against the wishes of his (mostly male) cousins, Matt decides to keep the land (and a beautiful stretch of gorgeous blue-green ocean and pristine sand and dunes it is, too—the film makes Hawai’i look like paradise).

Clooney’s performance is open and moving.  He abandons his movie star glamor to play a man who wears short-sleeved Hawai’in shirts and pastel pants with high-riding waists.  His hair is streaked with gray and his face is lined and worn.  He’s deceived by a man who’s clearly not his kind or dignified equal.  But Speer’s very inadequacies secure Matt’s essential goodness.  His emotions move from rage to forgiveness.  He kisses his unconscious wife’s cracked lips when he tearfully says good-bye, using the occasion of her loss to accept his own failings and become a better man.

Matt and Alex find their new and better selves over Elizabeth’s inert body, talking to her as she lies immobile and unhearing.  Alex, too, rises to the occasion of her mother’s death, guiding her little sister and supporting her dad.  Woodley is terrific as Alex, playing a girl thrust into adulthood perhaps a bit too quickly without a trace of sentimentality.  She’s smart, thoughtful, and always seems in control, registering Alex’s emotion without wallowing.  She matches Clooney scene for scene.

But as in Payne’s Sideways, women are the agents of the men’s transformation in The Descendants.  Clooney makes Matt King appealing enough that the film is a pleasure to watch, but I preferred him in Up in the Air, which reversed gender stereotypes by making Clooney’s character the naïve romantic with unfounded expectations of the woman with whom he’s having an affair.

Too many contemporary films rely on the old (often dead) woman-as-agent-of-man’s-self-knowledge-and-redemption trope.  Just in the recent crop of 2011 fall and Christmas movies, for only two among many examples, Ryan Gosling’s character in The Ides of March has his epiphany when the beautiful, young, naïve Evan Rachel Wood character commits suicide over her affair with Clooney’s presidential candidate-senator.

And in the critically touted Iranian film The Separation (nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award), the wife who insists on divorcing her husband is blamed for the subsequent family tragedies and indirectly for the miscarriage of the woman whom he hires to replace his wife’s domestic labor.  The considerably less privileged woman is also portrayed as immoral, while her husband—despite his tendency toward violence—is redeemed by his grief over his unborn child’s loss.  The pattern persists.

The Descendants is well-written, beautifully photographed, and wonderfully acted, but the story it tells is tired and familiar.  And the woman, once again, has to take it lying down.

The Feminist Spectator

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Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

David Fincher’s tense, moody film adaptation of the popular Stieg Larsson book actually improves on the reading experience. Where the book offered a great story with plodding prose, Fincher’s film cuts the narrative to the bone while staying faithful to Larsson’s plot and characters. The film’s visual style makes it a pleasure to watch, evoking both the cosmopolitanism and gritty urbanism of Stockholm and the frozen, snow-blown north Sweden countryside where much of the central mystery unravels.

For a film that’s in large part about an ace computer hacker, Fincher both downplays and makes visually interesting Lisbeth Salander’s notorious skills, intercutting shots of her snub-nailed fingers flying over her keyboard with those of her intense gray eyes, replete with eyebrow-piercings, peering intensely at the screen. Only sparingly does Fincher use screen shots that indicate she’s reading other people’s email.

The film is a huge improvement over the Swedish version released a few years ago and starring Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth, which I found a more literal, bloodless adaptation. Fincher’s slick Hollywood idioms turn the story into a stylish, fast-paced thriller. In the opening credits (as other critics have noted), the director nods both musically and visually to the iconic James Bond films, a nice intertextual reference, since Fincher’s Mikael Blomkvist is played by Daniel Craig, the latest Bond.

Fincher also judiciously uses atmospheric, nearly Technicolor flashbacks to the Vanger family’s 1960s history, when the family patriarch’s treasured niece, Harriet, mysteriously disappeared. Fincher makes the American adaptation of Larsson’s story more vivid, lending cinematic appeal to the narrative while he moves it smoothly through its paces.

The real revelation in Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander. Nominated for a Golden Globe (which she lost to Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady) and now for a Best Actress Academy Award, Mara deserves the accolades heaped on her performance.  Her Lisbeth is slight but fierce; Mara seems both smaller and steelier than Rapace was in the role, more emotionally fragile but more physically and psychically determined.

In her early scenes in her kindly employer Dragan Armansky’s office (Goran Kisnjic, in a small but empathetic supporting role) and in her first meeting with Nils Bjurman (Vorick van Wageningen), her evil new guardian, Lisbeth refuses to make eye contact.

But when she does shift her gaze to look directly and defiantly at her interlocutors, you see a young woman who’s absolutely in control of her traumatic past (about which we learn very little in this first film of the trilogy).  She’s taught herself a kind of discipline that keeps her highly functioning while letting her passion for vengeance simmer just underneath the surface of her skin.  Those gray eyes become the swing door to a boiler room of the soul, where her rage is stoked by knowing that the social corruptions—most of them gendered—that have kept her a ward of the state since she was twelve continue to structure Swedish life.

On the other hand, if you don’t know her backstory, Lisbeth doesn’t necessarily seem motivated by revenge.  My intrepid film-going companion, Feminist Spectator 2, hasn’t read any of the Larsson books, and found Lisbeth even more fierce and fascinating because she appears brilliant, scary, and tough without being psychologized.

Dragon Tattoo is, of course, just the first in what will be a new trilogy of films based on Larsson’s story.  In this one, all we hear of Lisbeth’s past is what she mutters to Blomkvist when he’s finally gained her trust.  When he asks her why she’s still a ward of the state, Lisbeth admits matter-of-factly that she’s considered criminally insane because she set her father on fire and burned 80 percent of his body.  But since even this tiny, teasing revelation comes relatively late in the film, FS2 says spectators have already come to admire her without needing this justification.

Lisbeth’s sordid history will be fully explicated in the next two films.  Mara, however, plays her with full knowledge of the character’s past and her journey into her vexed present.  Mara’s achievement is to make Salander a fierce, even feminist, character without creating her as a monster.  Sure, all her Goth accoutrements are in place, from her jet-black Mohawk to her kohl-lined eyes to her multiple facial and body piercings, along with her leather jacket, knapsack, boots, and green canvas cargo pants.

Lisbeth smokes like a tough, holding her cigarettes between her thumb and her forefinger and squinting at the ubiquitous smoke.  She wears ratty black t-shirts and sweatshirts with hoods she pulls up to hide beneath.  When Blomkvist barges in on Lisbeth and a one-night-stand she’s picked up at a lesbian bar, her tattered t-shirt reads “Fuck Off You Fucking Fuck” in faded stenciling.  (But he’s undeterred.)  Her neck is adorned with heavy chains and razor blades, the jewelry of a woman who refuses to submit.

[If you haven’t read Larsson’s books or seen the Swedish film trilogy or Fincher’s adaptation, spoilers follow.]

Although Lisbeth is a force to contend with, her new guardian decides he can use his power over her for his own nefarious sexual purposes. Bjurman forces her head into his lap at their first meeting, threatening to commit her to an institution if she doesn’t comply. When she sees him again, required to ask him for money since he’s taken control of her affairs, he rapes her brutally, sadistically enjoying the pain and humiliation he inflicts. But it doesn’t take long for Lisbeth to exact her revenge, forever reducing her rapist to a quaking eunuch.

To Fincher’s credit, the film doesn’t sensationalize Lisbeth. The other characters don’t react to her as though she’s a spectacle, undercutting what might be spectators’ expectations that she’ll create a stir simply by how she looks. Instead, lawyer, Dirch Frode (Steven Berkoff), dispatched by the wealthy Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), treats Lisbeth respectfully, aware of her talent as a researcher and overlooking her open hostility.

Likewise, when Blomkvist peremptorily visits her apartment after he learns that she’s hacked into his computer, he, too, is unfazed by her unkempt appearance and aggressive demeanor. Instead, he insists that she drink the coffee and eat the breakfast he fixes for her while he persuades her to help him find Harriet Vanger’s murderer.

As FS2 points out, that the film’s “good” men react generously to Lisbeth directs spectators to see her magnanimously, too. On the other hand, FS2 continues, Mara is a beautiful young woman, and the camera exploits her small, perfect features, her flawless skin, and her clear gray eyes. That is, despite all her bravado and her frightening accessories, Fincher takes care to on some level glamorize Lisbeth, to keep her safe from the audience’s, as well as the other characters’, antipathy.

Even the police officers she approaches while she’s doing her work seem to find nothing remiss in Lisbeth’s outfit or her bearing. They worry that the information she wants will upset her or they’re annoyed because she expects unusual access and demands too much time. But they obviously don’t see her as a freak.

Nonetheless, she rides a mean motorcycle and wears a fearsome helmet. Lisbeth’s heroism comes from her character more than it does from her actions. When she forces the villainous Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgard) off the bridge on his family’s island, causing his car to overturn and catch fire as he stares out, doomed and helpless in the driver’s seat, Lisbeth watches without remorse.

And what a nice switch to see her rescue Blomkvist from certain death instead of vice versa.  Too often in suspense films like Dragon Tattoo, it’s the woman—however intrepid and smart—who is saved at the end by the man when she finds herself unwittingly trapped in the villain’s house.  InDrag Tattoo, on the contrary, at the film’s climactic moment it’s Craig/Bond/Blomkvist who is trussed up like a bird waiting to be plucked, and it’s Lisbeth whose eleventh hour appearance, wielding a nasty golf club, saves his life.

Lisbeth and Blomkvist simultaneously solve the central mystery of who has been murdering women—all gruesomely raped and slaughtered with references to Bible verses—around the time Harriet Vanger disappeared.  But it’s Lisbeth who tracks the killer to his lair after Blomkvist falls into his trap, and Lisbeth who, once the demon is dispatched, goes on to vindicate Blomkvist’s wrongful slander conviction in the Wennerstrom corporate corruption case that sets Larsson’s plot in motion.

The Wennerstrom revenge subplot of Dragon Tattoo is nearly campy, as Lisbeth sheds her signature style for a Dolce and Gabbana look that one critic rightly called “drag.”  She dons a blond wig and outsized sunglasses, a form-fitting dress and stiletto heels, to move some funds around various off-shore banks, creating a trail of financial malfeasance that bankrupts Wennerstrom, exonerates Blomkvist, and secures Lisbeth’s independent future.

In her drag scenes, Mara beautifully performs Lisbeth’s disdain for her temporary performance of conventional femininity.  When her masquerade is over, she tosses her earrings down an airport sink and throws her wig out the window of a train.  The sequence is a wonderful illustration of Lisbeth’s skill as an operative, but an even better demonstration of her utter aversion for traditional feminine costumes and behavior.

I was actually surprised that Fincher’s film leaves Lisbeth’s feminism so intact.  I found Fincher’s representations of women in his film, The Social Network, misogynist.  Those who disagreed with me often pointed to Mara’s character in that film; she plays Mark Zuckerberg’s smart and cutting but quickly dismissed and ultimately irrelevant girlfriend.

But while women were incidental sexual playthings in The Social Network, Dragon Tattoo is very much Lisbeth’s film.  She’s its moral and narrative center and its keen social observer.  Watch Mara’s ears and eyes perk up when Blomkvist invites her to help him find “a man who kills women” (which was apparently the title Larsson preferred for his first book).

Lisbeth is also the film’s most interesting character study, not because of how she looks and dresses but because of how she reacts to the world around her and then acts.  Mara has little dialogue, but her expressive face and her physical commitment to Lisbeth make her fascinating.  Watch her exit from the elevator where she excoriates the reprehensible Bjurman and leaves him terrified as the doors close behind her.  Just turning her back on her guardian is a moment of utter command, clarity, and complexity.

Lisbeth/Mara also brings Dragon Tattoo a surprising sense of humor.  When she begins working with Blomkvist, the couple hunch over his laptop in the cold cabin Henrik Vanger has provided for him.  She rolls her eyes as Blomkvist slowly pecks at the keys to bring up screen images.  It’s a small but hilarious moment, as Mara gives Lisbeth an interior life lets her drolly, wordlessly comment on her male partner’s technological inadequacies without needing to perform her superiority.

Lisbeth is firmly in control of their relationship.  She initiates their first sexual encounter; she demands that he stop talking until she has her orgasm; she saves him from certain death; and she delivers the goods on Blomkvist’s nemesis, Hans-Erik Wennerstrom (Ulf Friberg), which restores Blomkvist’s reputation.

My quibbles with Fincher’s representation of Lisbeth are minor.  For example, after she’s raped by Bjurman, she stumbles home for the de rigueur victim-in-the-shower scene, where we see her bruises and the blood running from her body into the tub.  (I guess it’s difficult to signify pain in a film without these iconic signs.  Although Mara does an excellent job screaming Lisbeth’s rage as she struggles against Bjurman’s restraints.)   The next time we see her, Lisbeth is in a lesbian bar, where she picks up the (beautiful) woman who Blomkvist finds sharing her bed the next morning.

The juxtaposition of the rape and the lesbian bar scene makes it seem as though male sexual violence has propelled Lisbeth toward sex with women.  Instead, in the book, she has an on-going relationship with a woman that mirrors Blomkvist’s relationship with his colleague, Erika Berger (Robin Wright), and clarifies that one of Lisbeth’s charms is her assertive bisexuality.

Likewise, Dragon Tattoo’s last several scenes focus too much on Lisbeth’s unexpected affection for Mikael.  She tells her beloved former guardian, Holmer Palmgren (Bengt CW Carlsson), who’s in a nursing home recovering from a stroke, that she’s made a friend.  She buys Blomkvist an expensive leather jacket and she rides off to deliver it to him.

Despite her strength of character and insight, Lisbeth is emotionally immature, and hasn’t picked up Blomkvist’s cues.  So she’s devastated when she arrives at the Millennium magazine offices to find the flirtatious Mikael going off in a taxi with Erika.  The film ends on Lisbeth’s romantic disappointment, which undercuts her earlier rejections of heterosexual femininity, especially for those spectators who haven’t read or seen the earlier version of the trilogy and don’t understand—as they say—where she’s coming from.

But still, Fincher and Mara make Lisbeth complicated enough.  That final moment could be read as a strong woman realizing she was about to succumb to sentiment and abruptly choosing not to. (Well, maybe that’s a stretch).  And Lisbeth does seem young.  In comparison, Fincher portrays Blomkvist as squarely middle-aged, and steers Craig far from his Bond action hero routine.  The actor sports an unshaven, grizzled salt-and-pepper chin throughout the film, and rather than leaping tall buildings and consulting cool gadgets, he’s often physically compromised.

For example, when he creeps around Martin’s glass-walled lair in the film’s climax, he’s the one who takes a kitchen knife from the counter, intending to defend himself as ineffectually as a typical female victim in a horror film.  Blomkvist is the one who falls when he tries to run from Martin’s house and who is lured back in to the man’s trap.  As Martin boasts with a sneer, people’s desire not to offend often trumps their instincts for self-preservation. (Skarsgard plays the villain with the perfect mix of unctuous obsequiousness and arrogant pride.)

Blomkvist is the first man who’s demonstrated this self-defeating instinct to Martin.  Blomkvist is a metrosexual intellectual, a not quite effete representative of the fourth estate, and Craig plays him with intelligent bemusement and horror at the grisly murders his research uncovers.  His black-rimmed glasses hang crookedly off his ears instead of over his head, and he pulls them onto his face to peer into documents and computer screens.  Using eyeglasses to signify intelligence is a tired cliché, but Craig at least makes the gesture convincing.

Wright plays Blomkvist’s long-time friend and sometime bed-mate Erika as his intellectual and political companion.  Wright’s beauty is only enhanced by the lines on her face.  The middle-aged couple has a lived-in relationship, even though she remains married to her husband.  Blomkvist and Erika are comfortably established in their lives, in contrast to Lisbeth, who’s still struggling with the tangled tendrils of her past.

Lisbeth’s relationship with Blomkvist might be a turning point.  A scene in which they work together on the bed in a hotel room, with him in a white terry robe and her in her Goth outfit, is a nice moment of intimacy across clear differences.  But she’s still testing new contours for her life, while his are indisputably firm.

It’s a shame, then, that the film’s ending makes Lisbeth seem a jilted lover, when her character is otherwise so compelling, strong and competent.

One last note:  I’m surprised that critics and spectators refer so often to what they consider the film’s extreme violence and sexuality.  While the rape scene is certainly horrific, Dragon Tattoo didn’t strike me as significantly more brutal than any other shoot-‘em up, set-‘em-on-fire action flick.

Does this film seem more extreme because its hero is a woman?  Because Lisbeth neutralizes Bjurman with a stun gun and then tattoos “I am a rapist pig” across his naked stomach?  Because it’s Martin, the male killer of women, who dies in a ball of fire?  Or because it’s Daniel Craig who’s victimized and saved by a woman in the end?  Just wondering.

The Feminist Spectator

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