Women in the Arts. Films reviewed: Wild Nights with Emily, The Souvenir, Mouthpiece

Posted in 1800s, 1980s, Addiction, Drama, drugs, LGBT, Movies, Poetry, Romance, Toronto, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 7, 2019

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Spring festival season continues with the Toronto Japanese Film Festival which starts today and the Italian Contemporary Film Festival beginning on Thursday.

This week I’m looking at three new movies about women in the arts. There’s a poet in New England who can’t get published, a filmmaker in Sunderland who can’t finish her movie, and a writer in Toronto whose mind is torn asunder.

Wild Nights with Emily

Wri/Dir: Madeleine Olnek

It’s the 1860s in Amherst Massachusetts. Emily Dickinson (Molly Shannon) is an unmarried woman who rarely ventures outside. She has everything she needs her big wooden home. She can wear the same white dress every day, listen to piano music, and bake shortbread, which she gives to the local kids who gather outside her window. And whenever a thought occurs to her she scribbles it down on a scrap of paper. But these are more than random thoughts, they are poems, and ones that flout conventional writing. They don’t have titles, they don’t rhyme and they’re written in free verse (before that term even existed).

That’s what she does during the day. Night time is whole other ball game. You see, far from reclusive and repressed, Emily Dickinson has a passionate ongoing relationship with her sister in law, Susan. Susan (Susan Ziegler) is a childhood friend who married her brother Austin, but has a sexless marriage. Instead she shares her bed with Emily. And much of Emily’s poetry consists of love letters sent to Susan. But despite all her efforts, just a handful of her poems were published during her lifetime. Instead they were gathered together by her brother’s mistress Mabel (Amy Seimetz).

Wild Nights with Emily is a historical comedy, but it’s far from a spoof. It’s a meticulously reworked view of Emily Dickinson. It restores her same-sex relationship that had previously been expunged and erased – literally – from her original manuscripts. The actual handwritten poems appear on the screen in this movue, at times word by word. While at times the film has an academic, PBS feel to it, and the acting is somewhat mannered, I liked it anyway.

It manages to render her wonderful poetry to the big screen while keeping a light and irreverent tone.

The Souvenir

Wri/Dir: Joanna Hogg

It’s the early 1980s in England.

Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a well-to-do young filmmaker in her early twenties. She’s smart and cute with an asymmetrical boyish haircut. She’s trying to shoot her first movie in the northern port of Sunderland. She observes all, quietly taking snapshots and recording film footage all around her, presenting her plans to the profs and producers she has to deal with. And she rents out space in her beautifully mirrored whitewalled apartment. But when she meets Anthony (Tom Burke) her world changes.

Anthony is older and more worldly than Julie, a louche dandy into velvet robes and pocket squares. He’s tall, pale and speaks in a blasé, elongated drawl. He gives her gifts of scanty lingerie and garters that fit his fantasies. They escape by train to Venice for sexy romps among renaissance frescos. She’s in his thrall.

But something is not quite right. She comes home early one day to find a stranger wandering around her home. Anthony is in constant need of cash. And unknown burglars ransacked her apartment stealing her jewelry and movie camera. Something’s off about Anthony. Hmm… worldly, pale, intense, elaborate clothing, secretive. Is Anthony a vampire? Nothing so exotic. He’s just a run-of-the-mill junkie, and threatens to pull her into that world. What will happen to their relationship? And will Julie ever complete her film?

The Souvenir is a beautifully shot, well-acted, semi-autobiographical drama. It incorporates long takes of natural scenes, uses mirrors and reflections, great period costumes and a nice eighties soundtrack. It combines Joana Hogg’s older film work and photos with new footage. So why don’t I like it?

It could be the genre – I’m not a great fan of addiction movies. Or it could be the endless conversations about nothing in particular. Or the lack of humour. Or the overly-restrained dialogue. But my main problem is it’s boring. While I can sympathize with the main character, there just isn’t enough going on. The filmmaking scenes and cuts to the movie-within-the-movie detract from the main story… which isn’t all that interesting to begin with. Two hours of nothing, however well executed, is just too long.

Mouthpiece

Dir: Patricia Rozema

It’s winter in downtown Toronto. Casandra (Amy Nostbakken, Nora Sadava) is a 30-year-old punk. Her idea of dressing up is a black sweater without moth holes. She greets her dates with a snarl and tells sex partners she isn’t into comitment. She works as a writer/bartender. But when her mother (Maev Beaty) dies suddenly from a stroke she is faced with her hardest piece ever… She has two days to write a eulogy for her mother’s funeral. Can she overcome her guilt, anger and self doubt in time to give a sweet heartfelt eulogy? Or will the upcoming funeral turn into the fiasco that everyone dreads?

Mouthpiece sounds like a conventional drama, but it’s anything but. Cass is played by two women simultaneously, noticeable only to themselves and the audience. The two halves of Cassandra’s soul sleep together in spoon fashion, share a bath and keep each other in check. But when there’s a crisis or internal debate all breaks loose, with the two Casses wrestling, punching and shouting, doing practically anything to get the other side to shut up. It’s a constant pas de deux, at times moving in absolute symmetry, or scrambling and climbing over each other like puppies.

Mouthpiece was originally a stage play written and performed by the two Cassandras, Nostbakken and Sadava. This explains their flawless fluidity of movement, their perfect give and take as the two sides compete and coalesce into one soul, movement that only comes from repeated performances. And as a movie, Rozema manages to capture a closeup intimacy you might not catch on stage. Mouthpiece works perfectly on the screen as a beautiful, funny and moving film.

Mouthpiece and Wild Nights with Emily all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And The Souvenir playing as part of a Joanna Hogg retrospective with TIFF Cinematheque.

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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