Oscar Redux. Movies reviewed: Girlhood, Duke of Burgundy, Elephant Song

Posted in Cultural Mining, Drama, Elephants, Experimental Film, France, Gangs, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on February 27, 2015
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Do you have the post-Oscar blues? Tired of the same-old, same-old? We’ve got Boyhood, but what about Girlhood? There’s Birdman, but how about an Elephant Song? And how about 50 Shades of Gray… with an all-female cast? This week I’m looking at three new movies, that provide a twist to some you’re more familiar with. I have a coming of age movie from France, an erotic art-house flick from the UK and a psychological drama from Canada.

a8b59ceb4619ab826971f3dcde96647bElephant Song
Dir: Charles Binamé

It’s a Canadian mental hospital in the 1960s. Michael (Xavier Dolan) a patient there is summoned to a therapy session. but his regular doctor isn’t there — he’s missing. In his place is a new face, a certain Dr Green (Bruce Greenwood). He’s read the files and listened to the reel to reel tapes. Now he’s there to set things straight, and has no time for Elephant Song/Melennypsychological games. But games are exactly what Michael loves.

Dr Green is a greenhorn in that office, but Michael knows every nook and cranny. He decides to take the doctor (and the movie’s audience) on a grand tour of his own life, but on his own Elephant Song/Melennyterms. And just outside the office door, always listening, is Miss Peterson, a nurse (Catherine Keener). He reveals his hidden past – he says he’s the son of a famous opera singer who toured the world as a child. Even as he uncovers hidden treasures around the office, which fit together like the missing pieces from a jigsaw puzzle. These include a stuffed animal, a box of treats, and some hidden photographs – that may be related to the doctor’s disappearance.Elephant Song/Melenny

Dr Green is convinced everything Michael says is a lie. He thinks Michael has alterior motives — possibly an escape plan to escape the high security facility. But what about the doctor’s real reason for this question/answer session? And how does Nurse Peterson fit into this puzzle?

Elephant Song is not bad at all. It’s a genuine psychological drama, a chess game between two equal players — sort of like the movie Sleuth, but shot with a soft focus lens. The acting is credible. But the whole film has a slightly clunky, wooden feel to it. It’s like a stage play still in previews that hasn’t yet found its rhythm.

WnmKlv_girlhood_03_o3_8550274_1424455177Girlhood (Bande de Filles)
Wri/Dir: Céline Sciamma

Marieme (Karidja Touré) is a 15-year-old Parisian schoolgirl. She’s shy, neat and conscientious, making sure her younger sisters are fed and put to bed… and careful not to antagonize her abusive older brother. She likes school, and is on the girls’ tackle football team. She keeps her long braids tied back and wears American Apparel jeans and hoodies. She just wants to live a normal life. But everything changes when her guidance counsellor says she’s being channeled to the vocational stream. But why? She wants her bac, she wants a chance at a better life, not cleaning RgwKrK_girlhood_02_MAIN_o3_8550228_1424455174offices like her mom.

It’s like her life is over. Mortified, she runs out of the building, but is called over by some tough girls cutting class outside the school. Lady, Adiatou and Fily (Assa Sylla, Lindsey Karamoh, Marietou Touré) are not like her. They use lots of makeup, have their hair ironed straight, dress in leather jackets, and carry switch blades. They’re a gang of three and want a fourth member to complete their crew. But she’s not like them… is she?

662xyV_girlhood_01_o3_8550183_1424455173Soon enough she’s shaking down girls for cash, going on trips into the city, away from the desolate banlieus. She goes by the name Vic now, short for Victoire. And they get into fist fights with rival girl gangs. The losers are publicly shamed by getting their clothes pulled off in from of a crowd holding up their cameras. The four friends’ rules? Stand up for yourself, don’t let boys push you around, and only do what you want to do, not what others expect of you. But how much of a future does this gang have? Will she fall into organized crime? Drugs or the sex trade?

This is a great coming-of-age story, told from the viewpoint of a young black Parisian woman living in the suburban public highrises. It’s a slice of life drama, not one with easily solved problems. But the cast – all first time actors — is incredible, and the story touching and realistic.

5309faf2-5d03-4414-981b-7e53495d63acThe Duke of Burgundy
Wri/Dir: Peter Strickland

Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is a single woman who lives on an estate somewhere in Europe, surrounded by fields and trees. She has auburn hair, long eyelashes and a severe demeanor. She’s a lepidopterist, and her mansion is filled with items from her collection: thousands of butterflies and moths – including the Duke of Burgundy – all carefully pinned and mounted 81446793-1628-423e-b85d-9d11a95dfbacin glass-covered wooden cases. She’s a perfectionist. Each day she spends her time drawing precise diagrams on white charts and typing her observations using a manual Underwood typewriter. And every so often she ventures outside on her bicycle to give lectures to row after row of smart looking women in smart dresses.

f05dea49-f6b6-4dab-b557-6ff715419284Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) works for her as a maid. She’s late for work and a bit confused about her duties, but Cynthia doesn’t cut her any slack. She scolds her, and warns her to do what she’s told… or suffer the consequences!

But she’s given strange tasks for a cleaning woman, made to crawl around on her hands and knees, while scrubbing the floor. When she asks for a toilet break, Cynthia cruely says no, not until I say you can. Meanwhile she’s polishing Cynthia’s knee-high black leather boots, kneeling on the floor massaging her feet or washing her 5c01d1ab-d84c-4354-ab08-77064e39e976boss’s undergarments… by hand. Though Evelyn always wears a meek and baffled look on her face, she doesn’t seem bothered by her boss’s eccentricities. She almost seems to want to be punished.

What’s going on? And why is Cynthia guzzling glass after glass of water for some unkown future punishment? Soon we discover its all a fantasy — complete with wigs and costumes — a role-playing exercise between two lovers: dominant Cynthia and submissive Evelyn.

And these scenes, down to the tiniest detail are repeated day after day, as almost an exercise in absurdity. These episodes are alternated with love-making in the bedroom at night, discretely shot reflected in convex mirrors, faded triple exposures or shot through tiny peepholes in closed doors.

Is this a parody of 70s soft core porn? Or an homage to it? I’m not sure which, but a director like Peter Strickland would never include footage just for titillation. He’s somewhere between Quentin Tarantino and Peter Greenaway, with a distinctive 70s style. Duke of Burgundy is beautiful to watch and listen to… but it’s clearly not for everyone.

Elephant Song, the Duke of Burgandy, and Girlhood all open today in Toronto – check your local listings. And this weekend lookout for  the Canadian Screen Awards, our own Oscars.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website culturalmining.com.

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