Thoughts on Contemporary Cinema
On Thursday evening, I saw Maeve as part of the Cork film festival. This 1981 film was made by Pat Murphy, the Arts Council/UCC film artist in residence for our Film and Screen Media department. The screening was packed with people, including one of my classmates and several of my professors, while the film was introduced by the head of UCC’s Film and Screen Media department, Dr. Ciara Chambers.
In her introduction, Dr. Chambers called Maeve “a landmark film in Irish filmmaking” and cited Murphy’s films on the whole as groundbreaking, beautiful, provocative, and challenging. She also noted that the film asks important questions not only about politics, but “about the way we look at women’s bodies.” Finally, Ciara thanked Pat Murphy for “injecting creativity into the department” and emphasized the importance of events such as this one, which give audiences an opportunity to view and seriously discuss Irish art. Vanessa Gildea, from Women in Film and Television Ireland (https://wft.ie), led the post-film discussion, and called Pat Murphy “a real film hero.”
The film itself was inspiring and certainly a departure from the typical cinematic portrayal of women. Nudity, for instance, is artfully portrayed so as to draw attention the emotional intimacy rather than the sexual spectacle of the characters. Feminism is also directly addressed during the film, with Maeve’s strong socio-political sensibilities and quotes such as, “The time when women were spectators is long gone.” Maeve subtly communicates Belfast’s highly politicized atmosphere during the Troubles by using all of the symbols we’re familiar with--marches, violence, bomb threats, graffiti, and military presence--but goes a step further by intimately conveying what that environment is like for women. Maeve, her sister, and the other women in the film are constantly subjected to physical and psychological violence by men--both those in their lives, and those who occupy their streets.
During the discussion, Pat Murphy directly addressed Maeve’s feminist aspects, citing Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” as a primary source of inspiration. She also talked about her conscious decision to place Maeve, her sister, and her mother at the center of the narrative, and her depiction of the mother as a woman whose voice is constantly drowned out by that of her husband.
Cinematically, Murphy said that she was influenced by figures such as Jean-luc Godard, Bertolt Brecht, and Roman Polanski, pointing out that several images in Maeve are “quotes of his work” in films such as Chinatown (1974). Regarding feminist filmmakers, Murphy discussed artists such as Alice Guy Blaché and Maya Deren, noting that her inspiration came not so much from the films that they made, but the energy that they brought to their art and the fact that there were women making films in the first place.
Because of Maeve’s political implications and timing, Murphy also addressed a great deal of controversy in making and releasing the film. While writing the script of the film, the Troubles in Northern Ireland had inspired a number of biased documentaries by BBC as well as by oppositional groups within Northern Ireland. However, Murphy and her co-producers--Robert Smith and John Davies--felt it was necessary to promulgate a story that could “unpack the events in Northern Ireland” through fiction in order to communicate an emotional truth that the documentaries could not capture. However, the film was released after the 2nd republican hunger strike and the death of Bobby Sands, placing it amid a storm of political upheaval. In fact, Maeve opened the 1981 Edinburgh film festival, after which an interview regarding the film was cancelled because of the controversy surrounding the Troubles.
Finally, Pat Murphy closed off the Q&A by expressing hope in the future of gender equality and female storytellers, particularly in light of the Me Too movement’s power. In addition, she noted that Maeve’s Irish premiere took place at the 1981 Cork International Film Festival, where it won the Best Irish Film Award. To great applause, she said she was “amazed to be invited back,” and I think everyone in the audience left with a sense of both Murphy’s talent and the film festival’s progressive reputation.
On Friday, the 16th of November, I attended a screening of Crystal Swan followed by a Q&A with its director, Darya Zhuk. The first Belarussian film to be put forward for an Oscar in 22 years, Crystal Swan is a tragicomic narrative about a young woman named Velya (Alina Nasibullina) who writes the wrong home phone number on her US Visa application. Because of her error, she is forced to wait each day in a stranger’s home for a call from the American embassy. Meanwhile, the members of that household prepare for a wedding between the eldest son and his girlfriend, resulting in a chaotic dynamic with both hysterical and devastating results.
This is Zhuk’s first feature film, and is based on the coming of age experience of Belarussian women in Zhuk’s generation. In her introduction to the film, she said that she was inspired to tell the story of young womanhood with “the country in flux in the background,” having been particularly struck by the story of a friend who wrote the wrong phone number on her Visa application and therefore had to weather a journey similar to that of Crystal Swan’s protagonist. Furthermore, Zhuk said that she recognizes herself in the main character and that there are certainly semi-autobiographical elements in the film. She maintained that she was able to relate to each of the characters in Crystal Swan, including those who oppose the protagonist, and that in the end she can “still love all of them.” This is certainly evident in the film itself, because even minor characters are portrayed with incredible depth and sensitivity.
Audience members were also struck by the main actress, Alina Nasibullina, who one spectator compared to “a young Cyndi Lauper.” Zhuk also praised Nasibullina, calling her “a dreamer with a lot of personality.” The actress, who had studied art, impressed Zhuk with a unique audition video long after a number of auditions had been held in Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, New York, and Paris. Zhuk said that she suited the character, and ultimately brought a tremendous amount of stamina, humor, and personality to the role. Indeed, Nasibullina’s magnetic performance kept me invested in and sympathetic to her character--even when I disagreed with her actions.
Crystal Swan also boasts impressive visuals, and utilizes a stunning range of colors that jar and soothe the senses in turn. This is supported by the fact that the cover of the Cork International Film Festival brochure is taken from Crystal Swan, which Zhuk calls a “wonderful surprise.” The film received such enthusiastic feedback at the festival that after the screening, Zhuk thanked the audience for its palpable positivity, calling Irish and Belarussian people “soul brothers and sisters.” As if to drive this point home, Crystal Swan went on to win the Cork Film Festival Youth Jury Award on Sunday.
Ultimately, Zhuk’s film subtly comments not only on the challenges that women face in their environment, but also on the crisis of masculinity and the psychological divide between the older and younger generations. Regarding Belarus during this period in time, Zhuk said, “The country was in such flux that I came to think that humor and tragedy could coexist.” I, however, felt that the roots of the story apply to more than just Belarussians. Its frank discussion of escapism, gender and family dynamics, and restless youth are universal. Furthermore, Crystal Swan draws attention to the absurdity of not only 1990s Belarus, but of life itself.
One of the last films I saw as part of the Cork International Film Festival was Jibril, the first feature of German director Henrika Kull. Kull, who was originally trained as a sociologist, decided to make Jibril after researching for a paper about incarceration. She was drawn to film after having completed her studies because she found it disappointing that sociology was “all about data and not so much about the people.” Instead, she decided that making films such as Jibril, which bridge the gap between narrative and documentary filmmaking, would be a more effective way of promulgating the issues she is passionate about.
At first, Kull was primarily interested in the stories of the imprisoned men that she met, but soon she became close friends with a woman who was dating one of the men in the prison. Consequently, she became inspired to make Jibril, which is about a single mother named Maryam who falls in love with a man named Jibril, who is incarcerated.
Jibril is a slow-burning, thought-provoking film that remains sensitive to each character and addresses their conflicting needs with meticulous attention. As a result, viewers gain a strong sense of compassion and understanding for not only the characters, but the predicament they find themselves in. Even minor characters, such as Maryam’s mother and children, are portrayed with great depth and sensitivity.
Kull demonstrated her compassion for her characters when, after an audience member expressed her distaste for Jibril, the director said, “I can understand him really well, but I am sorry if you don’t.” Although Jibril spends much of the film at odds with Maryam, the protagonist, Kull still points out that Maryam also “isn’t too nice” to Jibril. In painting both characters as sympathetic yet fallible and even selfish, Jibril successfully communicates the complications that arise in romantic relationships--particularly those pitted against seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
I was also impressed by Jibril’s depiction of the Arab community in Germany. Too often, Arabs are depicted in an Orientalist manner that makes them out to be terrorists or helpless refugees, dehumanizing them in the process. Henrika Kull, however, successfully depicts the Arab community--particularly women--as loving, intelligent, and funny. While the film subtly acknowledges the tragedies facing much of the Middle East through scenes in which Maryam watches the news, those clips are subtly juxtaposed with scenes from Middle Eastern television shows. This comments on the duality of contemporary Arab media and points out that Arab culture is not confined to war coverage.
Furthermore, the Muslim women in the film are shown falling in love, dancing, listening to music, and laughing with their friends--which departs from the prevalent stereotype of Muslim women being oppressed in Arab communities. Although serious issues such as gender-based oppression, war, and the refugee crisis are certainly important and in need of attention within the Arab diaspora, it was refreshing to watch a film in which Arab identity was not made the subject of the narrative.
On Tuesday, I saw the Irish premiere of Chang-dong Lee’s film Burning at the Cork International Film Festival. The film is based on a Haruki Murakami short story called “Barn Burning,” which, in turn, is based on a William Faulkner story of the same name. Using my knowledge of Murakami’s other work, I sensed that Burning would be complex and thought-provoking.
Burning’s vague, simple title alludes to a theme that is present both literally and figuratively throughout the film. The act of burning itself is ever-present in the film—from Lee Jong-su’s (Ah-In Yoo) memories of burning his mother’s clothing, to his trip to the museum in which he stares at photos of the Korean War, to Ben’s (Steven Yeun) unusual hobby. Haemi (Jong-seo Jeon) also personifies a burning, aimless energy which is manifested most clearly in her fascination with the concept of “Great Hunger,” or a desire to understand the meaning of life. Even the pacing of the film is a slow, constant burn beautifully contrasted by the blues and grays of the chilly Korean atmosphere.
The film certainly stresses this contrast between dark and light, and its cinematography even lingers on the wall of Haemi’s studio apartment as a sliver of sun shines in one spot and then slowly dissipates. In fact, we watch the world slowly grow dark at several points in this film, including Jong-su’s love scene with Haemi, his conversation with Ben about the latter’s strange hobby, and his moment of contemplation as he sits alone in Haemi’s room.
The magical, often uneasy nature of twilight is exacerbated by the near-absurd conversations and actions of the actors, as well as the constant sound of North Korean propaganda that emanates across the border. These audiovisual subtleties maintain the film’s tone of social chaos and give the audience insight into Jong-su’s anxious psyche as tries desperately to take control of the world unravelling around him. Given these details along with Jong-su’s hallucinations and the narrative’s intentional inconsistencies, the audience is left to question the sanity—and therefore the reliability—of the protagonist.
Burning’s impressive sound design was especially evident during the beautifully-framed shots of Haemi dancing. During the bittersweet, humorous scene of her dancing in the restaurant, the sound of Ben’s friends clapping slowly drops out until only Haemi’s progressively off-beat stomps can be heard. Later, when Haemi dances again in Jong-su’s front yard, the jazz music ends just as Haemi becomes self-conscious and depressed, and when the film finally falls silent Haemi coughs and walks out of the frame, pulling the audience from fantasy into reality.
All in all, Burning is about coming of age in a volatile socio-political environment, and touches upon the difficulty and unreliability of emotionally-charged memory. This theme is so present that the concept of memory itself seems to be its own character in the film. Burning is an intellectually and emotionally challenging film complemented by stunning visuals.
On Wednesday evening, I saw Irish director Cathal Black’s (https://ifi.ie/cathal-black) new documentary, Five Red Roses: One for Every Syllable of Your Name, as part of the Cork Film Festival. Black is known for his groundbreaking work in both documentary and narrative filmmaking, including the 1981 film Our Boys.Continuing his theme of exploring subjects that can be divisive or unacknowledged, Five Red Roses: One for Every Syllable of Your Name explores the life of writer, activist, and Sinn Fein leader Máirín de Burca.
During his introduction to the film, Black discussed the inception of the project, and the organic process during which de Burca’s story became a more prominent element of the film over the course of the eight-year project. Finally, Black said, the documentary became a study of de Burca and her experiences, though the film does not cover every element of her eventful life. Such a task, Black pointed out, would require a three-hour film.
In watching the film, I was struck by Black’s unique audiovisual techniques. For instance, he employed voiceover in an incredibly gripping way by juxtaposing it with a variety of still photographs, historical reenactments, and symbolic imagery. One of my favorite sequences in the film was of a house whose lights gradually go out, which plays just as de Burca describes her late-night walks home after Sinn Fein meetings. I was also struck by a scene when de Burca describes the racist language used by her family when she was a child, which is accompanied by shadowy, almost ghostly footage of antique television sets. Then, as de Burca continues to speak, the camera pans up to a group of African Americans dressed in old-fashioned clothing. The actors stare into the camera as though challenging not only the morality of de Burca’s family, but also of the audience and its complicity.
Nuances such as this scene prevent the documentary from treating de Burca as an inhuman hero or villain--a misstep that many biographical documentaries fall into. Instead, the documentary offers a complex view of Máirín de Burca that is just intimate enough for the audience to keep interest, while keeping enough distance to allow us to come to our own conclusions. Black thoroughly explores his subject matter while taking great care to treat its delicate issues with sensitivity. In fact, Black said that rather than the documentary being too political, he felt that de Burca likely found the film “not political enough.” Considering the highly charged energy of the subjects he addresses--including feminism, violence, and the Troubles in Northern Ireland--this impartiality is an impressive feat in filmmaking.
During the Q&A that followed the screening, Black also talked about how difficult it was to make a film about such a complicated subject and time period without turning the documentary into a dry historical piece. In addition, de Burca is a complicated character with “many layers,” so it took a great deal of time and effort to understand and coherently convey her as a character. However, interviews with other activists from the period helped Black because, he said, those stories could “go left or right of Máirín, but they always brought it back to her.” The documentary effectively painted a colorful picture of Máirín and her accomplishments, and fulfilled of Black’s goal of “getting the veins of the story.” Striking, fascinating, and even mysterious, Five Red Roses: One for Every Syllable of Your Name left me inspired and truly lived up to its beautiful title.
One of the first films I viewed for the Cork International Film Festival was Kirill Serebrennikov’s Leto (watch trailer), an ode to the punk rock scene in Leningrad during the early 1980s. The film centers around the real-life musicians Viktor Tsoi and Mike Naumenko, as well as the latter’s wife, Natalya (called Natasha in the film), whose memoirs provide the basis for the script.
Based on my affinity for punk music, I sensed I would like this film and decided to see it the moment I read its synopsis in the festival programme. However, I could never have guessed how much I would love it. While my research indicates that the storyline deviates from what really happened between these people, the narrative was gripping and fascinating even as it moved slower than most mainstream films. For instance, the love triangle between the three main characters never culminates in any explosive argument, fight scene, or intimate encounter. Instead, the film is a contemplation about the nuances and complications that arise in relationships between restless young people who feel out of place. I would hesitate to even posit the love triangle at the center of the film. Instead, the film is about a youth characterized by beauty, melancholy, and yearning.
Similarly, the film also avoids dwelling on the harshness of urban Soviet life. When compared to other films that portray this era and its music scene (such as Atomic Blonde), the Cold War seems relatively peripheral. Instead of the overt verbal references to oppression or the dreary visuals that tend to characterize films about this time and place, Leto focuses on the microhistory of these individuals as they experiment and deftly navigate the limitations of their society. Communism haunts the film without heavily occupying space in it, making Leto relatable to anyone who has ever felt lost and out-of-place.
Visually, the film oscillates between black-and-white and color so as to highlight the sense of nostalgia. At the end, for instance, early scenes are replayed in color and appear to be home videos. The audience is pushed to reflect upon all that has happened since the first time those scenes played, in black-and-white, thus inspiring a deep sense of empathy with the characters. When we find out that Viktor Tsoi and Mike Naumenko die less than a decade after the final scene, we grieve as though we too experienced the film’s events. The sense of loss that accompanies the end of the film relates not only to characters but to the golden, almost magical period Leto depicts.
The film also sits between reality and fantasy, often spiraling into musical numbers of iconic songs such as the Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer and Lou Reed’s Perfect Day. During these numbers as well as other fantastical, unbelievable disruptions to the narrative, characters confront government authority figures, communicate with strangers, argue, and disrupt everyday city life. Then, well into these scenes, a “Cynic” character breaks the fourth wall and tells the audience (sometimes verbally, sometimes with a sign) that “this didn’t happen.” This could be a nod to the alteration of Natalya’s Naumenko’s memoirs, but I like to believe that it is a commentary on the gap between what we would like to do and what we actually do. Leto’s characters live in a confining world and, as members of a radical subculture, they do not always feel that they fit in or can fully express themselves. These fantastical scenes therefore draw attention to their disaffection and to the film’s nostalgic tone. After all, we often remember periods in our lives not only in terms of what happened, but also in terms of how we felt.
On Monday, as part of the Cork International Film Festival, I saw The State Against Mandela and the Others, a documentary by Nicolas Champeaux and Gilles Porte. Fortunately, Nicolas Champeaux attended the screening in order to give a short introduction to the film and a Q&A afterwards.
During the introduction, Champeaux discussed how he came upon the topic of the trial against Mandela and his fellow civil rights leaders during Apartheid in South Africa. Champeaux had been based in Johannesburg with Radio France between 2007 and 2010, and was able to listen to the 256 hour recording of the Rivonia trial, which prosecuted Nelson Mandela and 12 other anti-Apartheid leaders. Champeaux was stunned by the recording and planned to make a documentary about the trial, while at the same time there was a great deal of pressure on reporters in South Africa to interview Mandela and his associates before they died. In mentioning this urgency, Champeaux touched upon the relevance of an Apartheid documentary in contemporary society, observing that “the threat of white supremacy is re-emerging,” and that although Mandela and his associates’ particular struggle has ended, “it’s time for others to pick up the struggle. The children of Mandela benefit from his fight.”
Champeaux, of course, hesitated to approach his subjects by pointing out their mortality, so he waited until the 20th anniversary of Mandela’s release in order to interview them. He soon teamed up with Gilles Porte, who had emailed him with interest on the topic. Regarding the conception of this partnership, Champeaux quipped, “Sometimes if you want to make a documentary film, all you need to do is read your emails.”
Champeaux and Porte felt that the other accused members of Mandela’s circle had amazing experiences, but received relatively little recognition. Therefore, they sought to promulgate these stories by creating a documentary about the common thread of the Rivonia trial, shedding light not only on Mandela’s circle but also on the far-reaching horrors of Apartheid. In both his introduction and his post-screening commentary, Champeaux pointed out the importance of Rivonia as a historical moment. “They took the Apartheid regime on trial in that trial,” he said.
The film itself was a fascinating expansion on the trial, oscillating between actual audio from the event and the personal stories of those involved. Champeaux and Porte even interviewed the loved ones of the accused—most notably Winnie Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada’s former girlfriend, Sylvia Neame. The interviews were especially affecting during the moments in which the subjects listened to the trial’s audio for the first time, stunned into silence, nostalgia, or even tears. On the whole, the juxtaposition of the trial’s audio with the subjects’ reactions added rich, poignant detail to the harsh reality and injustice of the Rivonia trial. For me, Sylvia Neame was one of the most fascinating yet tragic figures in the narrative: She fell in love with a man of color, was forbidden by law to marry him, and was put on house arrest while he was imprisoned for life. Desperately desiring a child, she married another man while Kathrada was in prison, and still was unable to conceive. When Kathrada was ultimately released, she saw him for the first time in 26 years, and he later married another South African activist, Barbara Hogan. “That’s life,” Neame says wistfully in the film. “That’s life.”
The trial’s audio was accompanied by beautiful, seemingly hand-drawn animation which illustrated the events in an emotional, sometimes humorous, way. During the Q&A, Champeaux mentioned the difficulty in illustrating the audio because of the lack of photographs of the trial. Being a self-proclaimed “radio man,” Champeaux admits that he frames films around sound, while Porte frames them around visuals. The two artists came together in creating this animation, which was based on the drawings of the wife of one of the accused men. This animation prevents the documentary from inciting boredom or over-saturation of devastating historical information, yet at the same time its origins ensure visual authenticity. Champeaux told the audience that the animation was split into three categories—courtroom, metaphoric, and abstract—and was meant to both give the audience a sense of Apartheid’s intensity and highlight the outrageously theatrical nature of the trial itself.
During the Q&A, Champeaux also emphasized the sense of urgency behind making the film. He said that as Nelson Mandela and other anti-Apartheid activists died, there was a “real sense of history passing.” In fact, Ahmed Kathrada passed away two months after his interview with Champeaux and Gilles. Champeaux particularly mentioned the tension between urgency and funding, because he and Porte, having nearly run out of funds, had to decide whether or not they would delay their flight in order to interview Kathrada one last time. Champeaux also talked about the time-consuming and expensive nature of animating the audio, which took one week per cinematic minute.
Still, however, Champeaux stressed the priority of shooting the film before achieving total monetary security, implicitly extending advice to all aspiring filmmakers. “If I’d waited,” he said, “I wouldn’t be here.”
Detroit takes place during the civil turmoil of the summer of 1967 which turned Detroit into a war zone. The film is set almost entirely on the night of July 25 and July 26, when law enforcement officers raided the Algiers Motel in search of a purported sniper. Before delving into the horrifying events of the night, the audience is exposed to the unbelievable unrest unfolding in the city. We are also introduced to several characters, including a music group called “The Dramatics” (two of whom become victims in the July 25-26 raid) and a pair of racist police officers who become the main aggressors.
Unlike many films portraying civil unrest, Detroit offers insight into a myriad of perspectives: African American rioters, law enforcement officers, victims of police brutality, grieving family members, and political leaders. The movie also shows the perspectives of white cops -racist and otherwise- and white victims of police brutality. Detroit subtly, intelligently illustrates that rioting and civil disorder are not simple issues. Director Kathryn Bigelow (of Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty fame) finds a variety of ways to illustrate the strong emotions, differences of opinion, and historical intricacies that characterize not only the politics of the time but also the communities involved.
Indeed, Bigelow does this through dialogue, but she more importantly does this through imagery. She transitions between close-up, medium, and long shots to show the agony, horror, and enormous extent of the issues at hand. Her close-ups, which are often of individuals or of intimate shots between characters, are sometimes even more jarring than certain shots of violence because they poignantly convey characters’ deep-seated emotions.
The latter is also a credit to the actors. I found Jacob Latimore’s (who plays Fred) performance of particular note. He conveyed an impressive range of emotion on his face not only during the heart-wrenching raid but in reaction to events throughout the film. He stole the show- transitioning beautifully between fear, joy, hope, humor, and bravery.
During the film, I couldn’t help but think of the classic anti-colonialist film The Battle of Algiers (1966). This film depicts the Algerian struggle for independence, and there is a particular scene in which two white men drive through an Algerian neighborhood at night in order to plant and set off a bomb in a residential area. In Detroit, we are introduced to the primary antagonists, two racist white police officers, while they are similarly driving through a black neighborhood. The scene bore an eerie resemblance to the scene in The Battle of Algiers, and sure enough, the police officers soon shoot an unarmed black male in the back as he ran away. Detroit’s riot scenes also reminded me of similar mob scenes characterizing The Battle of Algiers, including sequences during which community leaders try to assuage citizens’ anger. The hotel in which most of the film takes place also happens to be named “Algiers Motel.” The last detail is based on truth (the entire movie is based on truth), but nevertheless I appreciated the striking similarity Detroit bore to that film. If it was indeed an homage to the classic film, I applaud Bigelow’s choice and think it both poetic and befitting.
However, Detroit was a disorganized film. Before the raid on the Algiers Motel, it is comprised of a motley of scenes of protests, of characters being introduced, and of everyday life. By the end of the film, I understood that these scenes were included in order to provide essential contextual and character background, but while watching I found it difficult to discern what the movie was really about. At times, I got the sense that it was simply a sequence of tear-jerking events meant to inspire empathy in the audience. I strongly believe that these scenes were necessary, but so many characters and so much information was introduced in a choppy manner over a short period of time. I would have liked to see a clearer arc in the rising action, or at least to have been alerted to what information and which characters were most essential to the plot.
The filmmakers did a commendable job in grounding the film, interspersing their own footage with historical photos and videos of the actual Detroit riots in 1967. These details drew attention to the painful reality of the events depicted and to the high quality of work done by Detroit’s cinematographers in recreating the time period. The film also utilized music from the 1960s -much of which was diegetic- but not to excess. Much of the sound in the film focused on the riots unfolding throughout the city, immersing the audience ever further into the setting.
That being said, the events in the film were tragically familiar. We are no strangers to hearing about police officers shooting unarmed people of color, sexually harassing women, or planting evidence at crime scenes. I believe Bigelow was intentional in releasing this film at this particular time in history, and that there is a bold, biting intelligence in her doing so.
One of the first lines we hear a police officer say in Detroit is, “If they’re not resisting, don’t push them.” It’s sad that anyone -especially a law enforcement officer- would need to be reminded of that in 1967, and even sadder that many need to be reminded today.
I was critical of Atomic Blonde before even seeing it because I thought I knew what to expect. Based on Antony Johnston’s graphic novel The Coldest City, this film is about MI6 Agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), who is sent to Berlin just before the fall of the Berlin Wall to investigate the murder of a fellow agent. Subsequently, her superiors instruct her to uncover a missing list of international spies, which includes the identity of the elusive double agent “Satchel.” Upon arriving in Berlin, the icy, collected, and rather glamorous Broughton is forced to work with the unpredictable Agent David Percival (James McAvoy), who immediately chafes at Broughton’s steely composure.
Yes, this movie is perfectly in line with the most foreseeable spy movie tropes: Theron’s character is powerful, sexy, smart, and unbelievably fit. She’s edgy yet feminine, insubordinate yet respected. Broughton, like James Bond, is a consistently overdressed badass who manages to both engage in sex-capades and single-handedly fight off hordes of well-armed men with her bare hands. Soviet/KGB stereotypes also run rampant in this movie, particularly when Broughton’s superiors inform her of her mission and she bitterly whispers, “Soviets.”
Other critics might criticize this adherence to the secret agent stereotype, because in regards to the protagonist’s characteristics Atomic Blonde does not offer anything outstandingly novel. I however, find that this is part of what makes the movie so fun. After all, who would go to see a spy movie about an underwhelming, sexually frustrated secret agent?
Furthermore, Broughton’s character manages to be revolutionary in several ways. Like many of Angelina Jolie’s characters (see: the Tomb Raider movies, Wanted, and Salt), Theron’s character subverts sexist stereotypes that women are inherently weak or that they need men to save or seduce them (or both). Importantly, Lorraine Broughton’s sexuality is also addressed with a subtle complexity completely absent in any action film I’ve seen before. When McAvoy’s Agent Percival first appeared onscreen, I rolled my eyes, anticipating that they would fall in love or lust. Sure enough, they soon shared a scene wrought with predictable sexual tension. However, they never slept together--and that’s very important. I commend the writers for not linking the main male and female protagonists just because they’re there.
When the movie eventually does address Broughton’s sexuality, it does so through flashbacks of a past relationship with the agent whose death she is investigating, and later through sex scenes with French agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella). I was refreshed to see the depiction of a powerful queer female without her queerness being made into the main spectacle. The film also illustrated a level of depth and complexity in Broughton and Lasalle’s relationship that is totally unprecedented in the realm of spy movies.
As far as the film’s editing, its sound production impressed me the most. Atomic Blonde is rife with 80s music to both remind you of the time period and to establish a fun tone that offsets the movie’s frequent violence (think: “Stuck in the Middle with You” in Reservoir Dogs). Much of the music is diegetic--it is coming from radios, headphones, and stereos within the world of the film. Consequently, the music becomes muffled or stops and restarts intermittently. This was a delightful touch, though at times the source of such music was unclear or inconsistent.
The visual editing was conventional and I didn’t note any particularly daring shots. The set, on the other hand, was beautiful in its dimly lit, neon-punk drabness. The filmmakers did a spectacular job of setting the tense, deeply dissatisfied mood of partitioned Berlin in late 1989. I especially loved the gritty details of the scenery and the way the costume designers turned James McAvoy into a walking manifestation of the city’s punk reputation. My chief complaint about the visuals is the incessant product placement via Charlize Theron (Lorraine Broughton wears “Boy” brand. We get it.).
Go see Atomic Blonde. I doubted it would be worth the hype, but it is. Theron, McAvoy, and Boutella deliver powerhouse performances and are invigorating to watch. Boutella (who stars in The Mummy, which also came out this year) especially stands out, holding her own with her seasoned costars. Atomic Blonde is filled with both unexpected plot twists and exceedingly predictable dialogue, but I’m not sure I’d go see a spy movie expecting anything less.