Women's Work

Back when Kathryn Bigelow was having, or about to have, her historic victory as Best Director on Oscar night, we were hearing some dire statistics about the percentage of female directors in the grand total. Seven to nine, as I recall, was the most commonly cited percent of them, but two to three was the direst. It raised my consciousness for the next little while. I cannot know for sure how those figures were determined, whether or not they included every straight-to-video action film or every subterranean porno, but a standard stipulation seemed to be “top-grossing films” or “major Hollywood releases.” I can in any case say with some measure of accuracy that of the couple of dozen films I have seen over the past month, give or take, no fewer than six of them were directed by women — among them Julie Anne Robinson’s The Last Song, Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways, Shana Feste’s The Greatest, and opening locally on Friday, Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give and Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard. And that’s not even counting the female co-director on the animated The Secret of Kells, Nora Twomey, though it is most definitely counting the transsexual Kimberly Reed of the documentary Prodigal Sons. Those are mainly indies, plus one import, but movies are movies, I’ve always felt. And the movies I actually see are statistically more germane than the entire pool or exclusively the top-grossers. (Is the right to direct Clash of the Titans a thing worth fighting for?) The sampling of the last month or so still falls a long way short of fifty-fifty equality, but it’s a sight better than two against ninety-eight or even nine against ninety-one.

Please Give is easily the best of the bunch, and its feminine sensibility asserts itself instantly in the opening credits with the educational parade of anonymous breasts of all shapes, sizes, and ages undergoing their recommended mammograms. The radiology technician (Rebecca Hall, from Vicky Christina Barcelona), a passive and service-oriented type with little life of her own, lines up in one circle of characters together with her looser, “prettier” sister and roommate (Amanda Peet), an unnaturally tanned facialist at a day spa, and their live-alone crabby granny (Ann Morgan Guilbert) on her last legs: “I’ll save it for a special occasion,” she musters up in gratitude for a birthday nightie: “Too fancy to sleep in.” An intersecting circle, or intersecting triangle, is formed by the family in the apartment next door to the old lady, owners of both apartments, waiting patiently for their neighbor to die so that they can knock out a wall and remodel. The husband (Oliver Platt) and wife (Catherine Keener, Holofcener’s perpetual right-hand woman) run a profitable business as estate liquidators, more bluntly capitalist buzzards, the wife looking for a way to ease her liberal guilt besides handing out bills willy-nilly on the street (failing in her tryout with handicapped kids by melting into tears at the sight of them), the husband developing a roving eye as soon as he meets the tawny facialist. The third and final member of the household is a chubby fifteen-year-old (Sarah Steele) with bad skin and a bad self-image. I have no hesitation in stating that Holofcener (Friends with Money, Lovely and Amazing, Walking and Talking) brings more to this project than Bigelow brought to her Oscar-winner, more that she alone could bring, more than mere convention and cliché. Something of a Nora Ephron without the same craving for popularity, Holofcener is a fount of sophisticated, tart, facile, casual, and, not necessarily all at once, trivial observations on her chosen sphere: the de rigueur autumn-in-New-York activity of “going to see the leaves,” the shade of hair dye expressively labelled “menopausal red,” the awkward height advantage of Hall over her prospective new boyfriend, the knotty muscle definition of the toned hottie who has stolen Peet’s old boyfriend, the plug for organic Yogi Tea. And the like. All of that sort of thing — and there’s very little of any other sort of thing — could appear inconsequential except for the cumulative sense of being in the flow of life, noticing the world around us, reacting to it, grappling with it. That’s no small exception: a movie, to put a finer point on it, that makes you feel alive.

Catherine Breillat, the director of Bluebeard, and before that the assorted sexual provocations of Fat Girl, Romance, and (too hot for San Diego) Anatomy of Hell, is a name likely to strike terror in the hearts of filmgoers far more than that of George Romero, let’s say, or Dario Argento. But where the 19th-century setting and idiomatic Romanticism of her last and best film, The Last Mistress, imposed some restraint, some decorum, the fairy-tale genre and Renaissance trappings of her latest one impose additionally some actual chasteness, some starch. True, the physical and generational disparity between the delicate child bride and the mountainous serial wife-killer (a disappointing Bluebeard, more of a realistic Graybeard) injects a strong dose of unsavoriness, and the forbidden chamber is a gruesome sight, albeit no match for the shivering chicken with its head cut off. (Oh, those French!) Yet the general effect is of something exsanguinated, embalmed, stuffed. Shot in a plain, austere, matter-of-fact style, the film amounts almost to a documentary on the artifacts of olden days: clothes, kitchen implements, furniture, with a splendid harpsichord as centerpiece. And the difficulty of stretching out to feature-length a faithful adaptation of a three-page opus by Charles Perrault manifests itself in nonstop dragginess. One device to aid in the stretching is a framing story in which an autobiographical “Catherine” tortures her older sister with a re-reading of the dreadful tale, but even though we can sense what Breillat is getting at, we do not remotely experience the danger of fiction. (For that, and with a similar deployment of two young sisters, let me recommend yet again The Spirit of the Beehive.) The only terror apt to be inspired in this instance is the terror of tedium.

Babies, timed for Mother’s Day, is a kind of nature documentary that looks at the human species the way another documentary might look at apes: a human-nature documentary, if you like. The French filmmaker Thomas Balmès follows four newborns from far-flung corners of the globe — a Namibian, a Mongolian, a Japanese, and an American — from birth to rubber-legged ambulation. There is no commentary (nor are there subtitles for foreign tongues), so that we’re left to draw our own conclusions. Inasmuch, however, as the evidence is highly anecdotal and arbitrary, any conclusions are probably better left undrawn. While there is plenty to compare and contrast, there’s no apparent didactic agenda, no recommended do’s and don’ts of parenthood, simply, as in a nature documentary, this and that, one thing and another, what and how. The this and that, the what and how, often divide themselves inevitably into considerations of haves and have-nots, and the well-off Japanese and American infants tend to join forces in redundancy, to cut down the variety. (How about a Latin American or a Middle Eastern?) The Namibian mother alone gets treated to some National Geographic-style nudity, whereas the hot-tubbing American is permitted to preserve her modesty; and when the Namibian baby leaves a smear of poo on mother’s knee, the cleanup is managed with a corncob. (What? No pre-moistened antibacterial towelette?) Nothing messier than that occurs, and the procession of Kodak Moments adds up to little more than a glossy coffee-table movie or glorified home video: a rooster hops up on the bed with the Mongolian, and a goat sneaks a sip from baby’s bath water; the Namibian notices analytically that her older brother has a peepee where she has none; the petulant Japanese girl’s tiny tantrums in a roomful of toys are intercut with the Mongolian happily playing with a roll of toilet paper (conclusions?). Each of the newborns also has a cat in the house, adding to the entertainment value, excepting the Namibian, who has less entertaining dogs. At well under an hour and a half, the film won’t wear out its welcome.

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