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« 25th Anniversary: Quiz Show (1994) | Main | Emmy Creative Arts Winners 2019 »
Monday
Sep162019

TIFF Quickie: Crazy White Women!

by Nathaniel R

For this last batch of short TIFF reviews, let's look at three films about mysterious and/or psychologically complex female characters. The post title was glib but the films aren't. 

DISCO (Jorunn Mykelbust Syversen, Norway)
This puzzling drama centers on a champion dancer whose mom and step-dad run some kind of evangelical church. Apparently in Scandivania -- as with America -- conservative faith movements are on the rise. Syversen shows empathy for her characters but chills it with a clinically detached rhythym to the cutting. The lost protagonist Mirjam (Josefine Frida Pettersen) has mysterious physical troubles and vacant psychology that can bring flickers of Todd Haynes' Safe (1995) to mind.

Syversen's strongest skill seems to be in observational mode. In one escalating series of scene at a Jesus camp the choices in camera distance are particularly compelling. In medium shot we observe a group of boys being told to breathe quickly in and out of paper bags to drive out the demons inside them. Cut to a long shot as we watch them comically pass out as they hyperventilate. This is a followed by a not at all comical baptism that is shot more like a drowning. Despite Syverson's obvious skill and a tight running time (94 minutes), Disco is far too repetitive and its point of view remains as opaque as Mirjam's psychology. It's not enough, always, to merely observe. C

EMA (Pablo Larraín, Chile)
The first image is a startling one: a still working traffic light engulfed in flames...

That's as good an encapsulation of a warning about the movie you're about to see as could have been dreamt up. The dancer Ema (a disturbing Mariana Di Giorama) and her choreographer husband Gaston (dependably terrific Gael Garcia Bernal) gave up a child they'd adopted just before the movie begins. They are haunted by their actions even if the child was clearly a Bad Seed. Ema is so disturbed that she wants the boy back no matter the cost but the closer you get to her the more sociopathic she herself seems. Though the plotting can feel like a series of sick jokes stretched out to feature length, the sound and performances and the cinematography in particular (incredible work from Sergio Armstrong) all mesmerize.

Ema was recently passed over by Chile when it came time to name their Oscar submission. It's easy to see why even though the film is very strong. At this point Pablo Larraín is the single best director working entirely in the milieu of unpleasantness. Which is to say that he continues to make movies entirely about truly awful people (The Club, Tony Manero, Ema) or hermetically sealed-off / doomed people (The Club, Jackie, Neruda) and yet the movies always fascinate, no matter how much your jaw gapes in horror at the protagonists or their circumstances. At this point his warmly enjoyable if still politically fiery No (2012) is looking like the biggest anomaly in his filmography. B+

INSTINCT (Haline Reijn, The Netherlands)
DUTCH SUBMISSION FOR THE OSCAR RACE.
Carice Van Houten stars and stuns as Nicoline, a troubled psychotherapist working in a rehabilitation program at a prison. She's the new person at work and the only member of the staff to think that the violent sex offender Idris (disturbingly hot Marwan Kenzari) is not sufficiently rehabilitated. Her co-workers want to grant him unescorted leave on the simplistic grounds that he is a) charming and b) the most cooperative of all inmates. The therapist and inmate lock heads almost immediately neither buying what the other is selling, but both instantly determined to be the top in this power struggle.

The actress Haline Reijn, Van Houten's best friend and Black Book co-star, has crafted an unsettling provocation for her directorial debut. On a high-concept level it sounds reprehensible (psychotherapist gets way too involved with sex-offender patient) but it's too interested in the psychology of both predator and prey to accept easy dismissals that might make us comfortable. If Instinct were more titillating the storyline might also fit neatly into the 90s erotic thriller subgenre where fucked up women and dangerous men (or vice versa) regularly rutted. But Reijn is a confident director, rarely letting you enjoy any moment at face value. Even one "light" consenting adults scene when Nicoline takes a handsome coworker (Pieter Embrechts) home goes from fun to queasy once you've stuck with it for too long, marked every incompatibility, and considered how Nicoline might see him as an extension of or alternate to Idris who he coaches at the prison's gym. Houten gives a performance of such aggressive and bold precision that even the way she moves differently and looks or doesn't look at her partner in her two primary sexual encounters reveal her inner demons. Maybe there's three too many close-ups of Van Houten's alarming blue eyes but here we can forgive Haline Reijn her indulgence - we can't stop staring at them either. B+

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Reader Comments (4)

Every I read about Ema sounds incredible. I do hope it gets international distribution.

September 16, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBJT

Netherlands had a shortlist of 9 films but chose Instinct which was NOT on the shortlist. Does anyone know why this happened? Maybe they meant a shortlist of 10 films?

September 16, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBette Streep

I was keen to see Marwan Kenzari in something else after ALADDIN and I love Carice Van Houten so I hope INSTINCT gets some sort of release in Australia before too long.

September 16, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

Go parasite and Driver .

September 17, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJavier

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