Day three of my odyssey through the recently-released Almodovar Collection. Today we look at Pedro Almodovar’s fifth film Law of Desire, my review of which can be found over here at FilmJuice.
It is easy to see why Law of Desire would have been considered a breakthrough upon its initial release. Aside from being celebrated by the Spanish film establishment and being far more technically proficient than Almodovar’s earlier works, Law of Desire is one of the first Almodovar films to draw on autobiographical detail and break with the Sirkian tradition of using straight women as proxies for gay men.
The academic Jose Arroyo’s introduction implies that because the personal is braver than the fictitious and making films about gay men is braver than making films about women, Law of Desire must — by definition — be a braver and more substantial film than any that Almodovar had previously attempted. While I lack the theoretical tools to delve too far into this issue, it does strike me as quite interesting that film about the life of a wealthy, successful gay man like Law of Desire might be considered inherently braver than a film about a working class woman like What Have I Done to Deserve This?
Privilege theory argues that all individuals are embedded in matrices of oppression made of the different elements of their socially-constructed identities. The matrices range from those applied to wealthy, straight, white men (who are least oppressed/most privileged) all the way down to disabled, queer, mentally ill Black and Minority Ethnic people (who are oppressed and disadvantaged by almost every aspect of their identities). One unfortunate thing about the structure of Privilege theory is that it is very difficult to avoid falling into the trap of playing oppression Top Trumps and placing people in hierarchies according to how oppressed/privileged they happen to be. Once you fall into this trap, you’re effectively indulging in the liberal equivalent of ranking people according to their cranial capacity as you’re assuming that it is possible to make meaningful and objective generalisations about whose words should carry the most weight and thereby wind up reifying and reinforcing a set of arbitrary social hierarchies. For the record, I don’t think Arroyo does fall into this trap but I think viewing Law of Desire as a more important film than What Have I Done This? based on its subject matter does shine an interesting light on how the cinephile community construct ‘quality’.
I think this issue is particularly relevant to Law of Desire as while the subject matter may be more directly personal than in Almodovar’s earlier work, the film itself winds up being one of his more generic offerings to date:
“Another thing that distinguishes Law of Desire from some of Almodóvar’s earlier films is that while his fifth film does include a strong female character, that character is forced into the background by a gay man. This turns out to be rather unfortunate as while Carmen Maura is superb as the passionate and conflicted Tina, Poncela’s Pablo comes across as little more than a generic creep whose refusal to take responsibility for his own sexual desire results in the death and suffering of those around him. Part of the problem is that while Pablo is said to have been modelled on Almodóvar himself, Almodóvar struggles to imbue him with much substance beyond the kind of helpless passivity required to oil the narrative mechanism of a Hitchcockian thriller”
FilmJuice have my review of Diemo Kemmesies’ almost silent film Silent Youth.
It would have been easy for Silent Youth to come across as either a dry technical exercise or an incomplete proof of concept; Little more than seventy minutes-long, the film is best understood as an exploration of how a romance might evolve in the absence of spoken cues. However, while that description may invoke memories of weird experimental works like Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence, Diemo Kammesies’ first film is actually a really quite affective and effective love story involving two young men who are too terrified to speak about what they feel, let alone who they are.
Silent Youth is a beautifully shot film that positively revels in its long silences. However, despite shifting from one pregnant pause to another, the film never feels repetitive as each of the silences reflects a different mood and another stage in the boys’ burgeoning relationship. Sometimes the silence is framed with sunlight and uncut grass in a way that evokes warmth and lust, other times the silence finds Kirill leaning back into a darkened corner as a means of capturing a momentary panic over the decision to have sex with a man. Despite this being his first feature film, Diemo Kemmesies’ direction is subtle but assured and the performances he coaxes from his actors are nothing short of mesmerising.
My review points out that Silent Youth can be seen as an art house film that makes use of storytelling techniques developed in the era of silent film but — on a more visceral level — this is a film about living in the shadow of homophobic violence and finding a way to reveal your feelings to another person without getting your head kicked in. Kemmesies establishes this fear of homophobic violence quite early on when Marlo’s love interest talks about being stripped naked and beaten up during a visit to Russia but while that fear is never again alluded to, it does explain why Marlo’s lover is definitely the more cautious of the two.
The fact that I didn’t initially pick up on this subtext says something about the lightness of Kemmesies’ touch but it also says quite a lot about yours truly: I can completely understand being reluctant to express one’s interest in another person for fear of being rejected and spoiling a potentially rewarding friendship but fear of being physically attacked either for expressing an interest or rejecting one is definitely outside of my lived experience. I guess this would be one of those ‘check your privilege’ moments then…
When has Werner Herzog ever made a film that couldn’t be summarised as a journey into the abyss? Early feature films such as Even Dwarfs Started Small and Aguirre, the Wrath of God seem to revel in the existential savagery of the world while more recent documentaries such as Grizzly Man and Happy People: A Year in the Taiga serve as reminders that the world has little time for the collection of bourgeois conceits that we dare to call a civilisation. The question is never whether Herzog will turn his film into a meditation on the savagery of the world, but which tone he will select as a means of approaching it:
Sometimes (as with Encounters at the End of the World and The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) he is a whimsical fantasist who recognises that silliness is the only possible response to a world so cold and drenched with blood.
Sometimes (as with Fitzcarraldo and Little Dieter Needs to Fly) Herzog is a humanist who marvels at our human capacity to overcome the savage injustices of life.
Sometimes (as with Nosferatu the Vampyre and Aguirre) he is filled with bitterness and cynicism by nature’s ability to dissolve humanity’s finest dreams.
If becoming a cinematic auteur requires a director to develop a recognisable sensibility and carry it with them from project to project then Werner Herzog must be considered one of the most prolific and versatile auteurs in cinematic history. Regardless of whether he is producing documentaries or feature-length narrative films, Herzog is one of the brightest jewels in the crown of world cinema but he is also starting to get on.
Back in the early 2000s, a string of moderately successful films provided the veteran director with a level of visibility that had long since been denied him. Thrust into the spotlight and transformed into a celebrity, Herzog made the most of it by adopting the engagingly self-parodic persona of an austere German filmmaker who muses on the savagery of the world with his tongue planted squarely in his cheek. Long-time fans would not have been surprised by this development as Herzog has always had a fondness for deadpan satire and self-mythologising (the documentary My Best Fiend is at least as full of made up crap about Herzog as it is of stuff about Klaus Kinski). The problem with this moment of visibility is that while it evidently made it much easier for Herzog to secure funding on his next project, it also encouraged him to remain Herzog the whimsical fantasist who undercut his meditations on death and destruction with talk of depressed penguins and mutated crocodiles. Given that Herzog was now reaching 70 and more visible than ever, I was concerned that the whimsical Herzog might become a permanent fixture. Would the bitter and humane Herzogs ever return or would it be nothing but dancing souls and iguanas on the coffee table until the end? Clearly, I needn’t have worried as Into the Abyss is a documentary that shows us an entirely new Werner: Herzog the humane socialist.
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