The raves for Nomadland at the Toronto International Film Festival have resparked excitement for Chloé Zhao’s next movie, the Marvel franchise hopeful The Eternals. That discussion, in turn, has raised the open question (including here in The A.V. Club comment section) of whether a big superhero movie is really the best application of this particular filmmaker’s perspective, talents, and sensibilities. Zhao can, of course, do whatever she wants with her career, and who knows, maybe she’s made an artful and even somehow personal film under Disney’s supervision (though what we know about the studio’s micromanagement of the process doesn’t bode especially well for the latter possibility). Perhaps the larger point here is just that it’s a little disconcerting to see acclaimed independent filmmakers jump so quickly into the mega-budget blockbuster game. Call it snobbery if you must, but that’s generally not a realm where big ideas and big artistic gambits flourish. Not anymore.
That said, there are some independent filmmakers who maybe really should just go Hollywood already. Today, I’m thinking specifically of Kornél Mundruczó, the Hungarian festival darling whose first five features all premiered at Cannes. Mundruczó sometimes tackles heavy themes (he directs theater and opera as well as movies), yet he’s increasingly done so with a showboating flair that seems better suited to the multiplex than the art-house. His last movie, for example, was Jupiter’s Moon, a heavy-handed take on the Syrian refugee crisis that doubled as a kind of stealth superhero story with big, virtuosic action scenes and winding, elaborate Steadicam shots. He’s now returned, three years later, with his first film in English, the domestic drama Pieces Of A Woman (Grade: C), and while the content is intimate, wrenching, and possibly personal—it’s based on a play by Kornél’s partner, Kata Wéber, who also wrote the screenplay—it’s still (over)directed like a damn action movie, to the point where the actors often seem to be competing against the camera moves.
That’s especially true, perhaps, of the centerpiece sequence, an unbroken 23-minute oner that proves that the Alfonso Cuarón hero worship of Jupiter’s Moon was not a passing phase. Pregnant executive Martha (Vanessa Kirby) bellows and writhes through a home birth in a Boston apartment, construction-worker husband Sean (Shia LaBeouf) at her side. Something goes wrong, the midwife (Molly Parker) is blamed, and after the late arrival of a title card—an emerging trend at this TIFF—the film settles into the aftermath of tragedy. Pieces Of A Woman unfolds over the year that follows, as these expected parents’ grief is compounded by or misdirected into alcoholic relapse, infidelity, money problems, familial strife, and other melodramatic developments.
The problem isn’t all in the execution. Though Mundruczó and Wéber (who share a “film by” credit) have opened up the material—the play was two long scenes, each its own act, both run through here in a single take—they haven’t used the change in medium to zero in on the day-to-day nuances of Martha and Sean’s ordeal. The film keeps skipping forward in time, dropping back in on the characters every few weeks, but it never alters its strategy of loudly announced turmoil; every scene of this movie is cranked to 11, either in concept or staging. There’s a hint of a fascinating conflict concerning funeral arrangements, but the movie resolves it quickly and moves on. One might be tempted to praise the filmmakers for sidelining the criminal trial coming together on the plot’s margins… that is, until, nope, we’re suddenly watching a bombastic courtroom drama, too, complete with eleventh-hour speech.
Kirby won the Best Actress prize at Venice a couple days ago, and she’s by far the most recommendable element of the movie—not just for her bravura simulation of someone going painfully through labor but also for making some sense of the tangled mess of emotions Martha carries around like a surrogate child. All the performances are solid, in fact; the supporting cast includes Sarah Snook, Benny Safdie, and the always reliable Ellen Burstyn, who gets a showstopping monologue during the other extended keep-the-camera-running passage. But everyone here is stuck in a movie that never lets its emotions breathe, in no small part because its director insists on gussying up a small character drama with plus-sized gestures, like the close-ups of people’s hearts pounding in their throats during confrontations or a Sigur Ros needledrop (which should really be illegal at this point). Somebody hand this guy a big budget and let him loose on a story with no subtleties to smother.
There are times when the behavior in Pieces Of A Woman borders on the unbelievable. (It occasionally takes “everyone grieves in their own way” too far.) But the film looks like a model of psychological realism compared to Preparations To Be Together For An Unknown Period Of Time (Grade: C), the second feature by by Lili Horvát, who served as casting director on Mundruczó’s White God. Her premise is certainly grabbing: Two decades after moving to America to further her career, fortysomething neurosurgeon Márta (Natasa Stork) returns to her native Budapest—in part, we quickly learn, to start a relationship with the fellow doctor, János (Viktor Bodó), with whom she’s fallen in love. But when he’s a no-show at their predetermined rendezvous point, she finds him at the hospital… only to discover that he appears to have no idea who she is and no memory of the plans they made two days earlier.
Did Márta fabricate the connection (and conversations) with this man in her head? Or is János playing some strange game? Preparations inspires intrigue, then curiously squanders it. It’s forgivable that the film isn’t interested in immediately solving the mystery of this unusual encounter. What’s less easy to accept is how promptly Márta drops it too, even after she begins working with János. The film seems to fancy itself an enigma about the human mind—irony alert, even this trained doctor of brains can’t solve the mystery of her own! But what Horvát has really offered is a maddening anti-drama, raising a question and than studiously downplaying its importance to the story or characters. One is left to grasp at possible metaphorical straws (is it about how you can’t go home again, or maybe the gaslighting women endure in professional fields?) and, finally, to admire the almost trollish audacity of its final shot, when Horvát outright winks at how much she’s just left us hanging.
That’s nothing, though, compared to the violation of audience comfort zones Mexican director Michel Franco performs in his new movie, New Order (Grade: B), which is mysterious only perhaps in its ultimate motives. The film is a brisk, brutal culture-war thriller that envisions a Mexico City in the throes of massive protests and demonstrations. Which, of course, makes it inherently timely, though Franco—director of such squirmy feel-bad provocations as After Lucia and Chronic—expresses nothing so clear and simple as solidarity. The film, in fact, unfolds chiefly from the perspective of the 1%, personified here as a wealthy family throwing a swanky wedding reception that’s violently disrupted once armed protestors hop the walls of the estate.
Franco likes to toy with sympathies. His ominous opening act acknowledges the family’s thoughtless privilege without reducing them to caricatures; an inciting incident involving a former employee looking for help with a medical bill strikes that balance perfectly, betraying the family’s reluctant, qualified altruism even as the bride/our nominal heroine (Naian González Norvind) unconditionally tries to help. We can understand why a reckoning might be coming for these people, but that doesn’t make it pleasant or righteously satisfying to see it happen. Likewise, while it’s hard not to abstractly empathize with the revolutionaries (pointedly dark-skinned and indigenous, while the family is light-skinned), New Order doesn’t give them backstories or even characterization; we see them as the family does: hostile strangers storming the castle, like the enemy army of Assault On Precinct 13.
Maybe the film is intended as a prophecy: This is what’s going to happen if income inequality is never addressed and those at the top keeping hoarding it all for themselves. But, again, Franco is too much of a button-pusher to let his audience feel good about the idea of overthrow. His vision of class revolution is disturbing, not inspiring, and his violence is harsh and stark, especially once one of the characters falls into the clutches of the coup and is systematically brutalized for the sins of their tax bracket. The film may upset and incense multiple sides of the political spectrum: those who see protestors as dangerous chaos agents and those who might be offended by a depiction of them that risks reflecting those fears. Ambivalence aside, it works as a kind of gripping apocalyptic horror movie. There are no zombies, but the rich get eaten.