The Childhood of a Leader, Take This Waltz & Most Beautiful Island
Posted on May 16, 2019
Thirteen films are released every week in the UK on average, that’s more than 650 every year. As a viewer, it can be hard to keep up. And, with blockbusters reigning supreme at the multiplexes, it can be especially difficult to see smaller, independent film releases outside of the main cities. It has become too easy for them to get buried under the weight of multiplying watch-lists.
Once upon a time, I used this blog to review the latest mainstream films (I was reviewing for local newspapers at the time) but now I’d like to look back at the enormous catalogue of thought provoking releases that failed to make it big at the box office.
In this new series – ‘Now Showing’ – I explore the best of these films available online and explore some of the ways that they communicate with us. All of these films inspired me to think about the world differently and I hope that you find them interesting too. Please let me know in the Comments if you’ve seen them before and what you thought.
This week, all three films come from writer-directors who give their stories time to unfold naturally. They are character driven films, anchored by impressive and unidealised performances: some from newcomers (like child actor Tom Sweet, who went on to claim a role in Disney’s The Nutcracker & the Four Realms) and others, like Apatow comedy favourite Seth Rogen, breaking new dramatic ground.
With Vox Lux opening in UK cinemas this month I thought it was about time I caught up with the previous offering from writer-director Brady Corbet, The Childhood of a Leader (2016). I should never have waited so long.
You can sense the wry smirk on Corbet’s face as he divides this slow-burn drama into three ‘tantrums’ that mark the evolution of a young American boy into an egotistical leader of a fascist European state. We first see the boy (Tom Sweet) at a religious service, dressed as an angel. This virtuous impression does not last long. Soon after, he sneaks away to throw stones at the congregation. His parents force him to apologise to the priest and parishioners but their punishments are repeatedly undermined by the family’s housekeeper, Mona (Yolanda Moreau), who gives in to the boy’s demands.
Corbet cleverly contextualises the boy’s fits of temper against the creation of The Treaty of Versailles, whose punitive conditions become a catalyst for the Second World War. The parallels ensure that the complex relationship between discipline and nurture is never far from view. And yet the film’s proleptic title – telling us what will happen before it does – provides a sense of powerlessness and inevitability.
This sense is enhanced by the score’s key of terror and the film opens with a staggering overture. An ominous orchestral piece from Scott Walker accompanies cine-reel footage of Europe in the wake of World War One. Rarely is cinema this instantly gripping. It’s matched by an equally extravagant finale; the camera rolling over and over itself in swirling panic.
Brady Corbet’s debut film is fuelled by our obsession with what makes people who they are. But it is the boy’s family friend, Charles (Robert Pattinson), who lays the blame squarely at our door. The tragedy of war, he says, is “Not that one man has the courage to be evil but that so many have not the courage to be good”.
New things get old. This is the lesson at the heart of Sarah Polley’s naturalistic drama Take This Waltz (2012). An honest and unconventional exploration of the realities of marriage, Polley’s follow up to the Oscar nominated Away From Her has a compelling female voice.
Michelle Williams is Margot, a young woman caught inside a lacklustre marriage to Lou (Seth Rogan). Their love is palpable but Margo’s attraction to a neighbour, Daniel (Luke Kirby), suggests their relationship has lost its spark.
Polley crafts a delightful meet-cute but from here homes in on the agony of temptation. Perhaps the film’s most memorable scene – in which, over a mid-afternoon cocktail, Daniel describes what he would like to do to Margot – is saturated with female desire. Through its authentic female protagonist, Take This Waltz reveals how relationships can change how we see ourselves.
Margot is unwilling to hurt Lou and, rather than depicting a torrid affair, the film focusses on the cracks in her marriage. Polley’s script is brimming with moments of acute emotion, feelings bubbling rapidly beneath the surface but seldom disturbing the peace. In a rare moment of candour, Margot admits how much courage she needs to try seducing Lou. It’s a painful scene, not least because Lou is surprised by the revelation. Polley exposes the most emotionally intimate moments of her characters’ lives. That they are often small and understated – fingers through hair or a silly in-joke – is what makes Polley’s sophomore effort so endearing.
Without ever inviting us to pass judgement on its characters, Take This Waltz, offers a refreshing take on the complex evolution of relationships within marriage. After an aqua-aerobics class, Margot and her friends chat about the merits of ‘new’ relationships; of the ‘spark’. Polley captures the women in the showers, their diverse bodies, old and young, reinforcing the inevitability of age. As the apt Video Killed The Radio Star plays out, Polley leaves us to contemplate the value of the old and the lure of the new.
Luciana, an undocumented immigrant, picks at the crumbling plaster of her New York apartment as she lies in the bath. Cockroaches pour out of the hole and into the tub. It’s just one of the ways Most Beautiful Island taps into the familiar but unpleasant imagery that surrounds immigration, unpicking stereotypes of this diverse group of people as swarming invaders, exotic and dangerous.
This suspenseful psychological thriller from Ana Asensio (who produces, writes, directs and stars) opens with voyeuristic images of women in a crowd. They are tracked by a shaky camera along busy New York sidewalks but their connection to each other is made clear only later, in a sinister twist that plunges the audience into a dark and anxiety filled underworld.
Luciana (Asensio) travels between low-paid jobs that always pay in cash and furtively accesses health care she cannot afford. So when a friend asks her to go to a party where she will earn big money for simply smiling and wearing a little black dress, the offer is too tempting to refuse.
Asensio ekes out the tension, heightening our anxiety with shots of nervous faces and a closed door, as the women wait for their names to be called. What remains inside the dreaded room should remain a surprise. It’s not what you think. And, when the moment finally arrives, the revelation is almost unbearable. The scene is one of nightmarish, primal terror. The voyeuristic camera-work returns, twisting Luciana’s survival story into survival horror.
Luck and karma ripple throughout the subtext: an intriguing thread that Asensio teases and tugs. Luciana’s friend Olga (Natasha Romanova) believes ‘we all get what we deserve’. But this is dangerous thinking that ignores both the frightening element of chance and a perilous, weighted system. By the time Most Beautiful Island reaches its conclusion, life has been reduced to a game of chance: a game that’s ultimately loaded for those living on society’s edge like Luciana. By now Olga’s joke about a missing friend – “New York ate her up” – sounds like a warning cry.
I have already returned to Most Beautiful Island a number of times since its release in 2017. Its unsettling commentary on the exploitation of female immigrants remains fiercely relevant.
Have you seen any of these films? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.