LFF 2020: Shirley (2020)

The director of Madeline’s Madeline, one of my favourite films of a couple years ago, is back with another film, this time about the horror author Shirley Jackson, with a bravura performance from Elisabeth Moss. Hopefully this means it gets a bit more widespread acclaim, because I think it deserves it, not that it’s always easy to watch, given the mind games going on amongst the protagonists.


Director Josephine Decker has made some of my favourite films of recent years, developing a distinctive, corporeal and impressionistic aesthetic. It feels a little different here, presumably because she’s working with a different cinematographer from her earlier works, and so this feels a little more classical than her erstwhile experiments in trying to get directly inside someone’s head. It’s still stylish in evoking a mid-20th century New England setting, and comes across at times a little like Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, and while that film had its psychosexual overtones, Shirley really pushes hard into some dark territory in essaying the relationship between the titular writer and a young woman whom she at first fears her flirtatious and philandering academic husband has his sights set on. Things develop into a four-way entanglement between these two couples, all of which is brought out ultimately by the committed performances of the ever-mercurial Elisabeth Moss as Shirley and Australian actor Odessa Young as her protegee of sorts (plus of course Michael Stuhlbarg, who really makes the most of his beard and his paunch to create a memorable professor).

CREDITS
Director Josephine Decker; Writer Sarah Gubbins (based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell); Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen; Starring Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Friday 9 October 2020.

Her Smell (2018)

Another late entry for possible inclusion on my ‘best-of-year’ lists, as I try to catch up with things I’d missed (in this case, largely because it was dumped straight to VOD platforms at some point this year without any festival or cinema screenings in the UK), is also surely a contender for worst title of the year. It’s the latest from Alex Ross Perry, the auteur behind the self-loathing men of Listen Up Philip (2014) and the Bergmanesque chamber drama Queen of Earth (2015), both also starring Elisabeth Moss in key roles. It deals with a certain brand of self-destructive rock star behaviour (seen also this year in Vox Lux, and a few years ago in Beyond the Lights), and channels a kind of 90s energy that suggests to me that it is, subtly, a period piece (I don’t think it anywhere makes it clear when it’s set, but I’m assuming in the 2000s). Anyway, it looks fab and it’s a lot funnier than you might expect. I’d have loved to have seen it on a big screen.


A messy psychodrama such as Alex Ross Perry now has form for making, but I think this may be my favourite of his. It’s certainly got a rawness to it, perhaps only sharpened by flirting with the danger that is inherent in trying to cinematically recreate music of the past (in this case sort of pseudo-Hole 90s woman-led rock music) in a way that doesn’t come across as embarrassingly off-key. For the most part, Moss and Perry pull it off rather well, but this is a story that focuses on Moss’s Becky Something as performer, pulled apart by the industry (personified by Eric Stoltz’s indie label boss; nice to see him on-screen for the second time after so many years), the demands of fame and performance, just barely holding it together. Becky’s problems run much deeper than drinking and drugs, of course, but those are catalysts to some epic disintegration in the first half of the film, which leads into reflective scenes towards the end. Still, even when it all seems to come together (beautifully, climactically so), it’s still always kinda falling apart, but in a way that feels earned by the ensemble. The title sits somewhat weirdly, but the loving recreation of 1990s and 2000s album art in the end credits is wondrous.

Her Smell film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alex Ross Perry; Cinematographer Sean Price Williams; Starring Elisabeth Moss, Agyness Deyn, Eric Stoltz, Dan Stevens, Gayle Rankin, Virginia Madsen; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Tuesday 30 December 2019.

Us (2019)

The big UK cinematic release in a couple of weeks is It Chapter Two (and the earlier film is being re-released today ahead of that), so to cap a week of horror films on my blog, here’s a review of one of the bigger releases earlier this year whose title also involves a pronoun (though it obviously also plays on the abbreviation of its country of production).


Peele’s first film Get Out was both elegant in its satirical targets, and deeply creepy in the way it unfolded, and I certainly can’t deny his skill at harnessing the horror form. There are lots of shots that are striking in both the way that they are framed, and also in the technical bravura in which performance, camera and score are brought together. Yet I was left feeling that this second film was a little less elegant, especially in some of the way that the mirroring of the title and the setup was resolved towards the end. Whatever my misgivings in this regard, Lupita Nyong’o is fantastic: everyone is quite right about this, and she’s one of my favourite actors anyway. Somehow her eyes seem particularly enormous, and make her seem that much more vulnerable when events take their turn, even if her character is probably the strongest one amongst the family.

In terms of its thematics (which I shall not of course get into details about), I think Peele has put a lot in here to tease out the double-bind of (specifically American) materiality and imperialism, and there’s quite a bit of play around the rise of the subaltern, little hints tying in slavery as well as carceral capitalism, with prisons and schools being repeated reference points — stuff that will only become apparent on re-watching, and may yet further improve my opinion about the film. There’s also a sort of racialised double-consciousness around middle-class identities being enacted — although, this being a Jordan Peele film, it feels refreshingly free of othering tropes around having a Black family at the heart of the film (and Peele has specifically disavowed in interviews that this film is ‘about’ racism). It’s also likely there are deeper, more resonant aspects of this film which escape me; I very much like and admire it, though.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jordan Peele; Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis; Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Elisabeth Moss; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 22 March 2019.

Queen of Earth (2015)

Generally, I’m quite sceptical about films made by men about women’s experiences. There’s very much an arthouse tradition — perhaps going back to the Hollywood “women’s pictures” of the 1930s, but primarily derived from Ingmar Bergman — of this kind of tear-stained melodrama, of women pulling themselves and each other apart psychologically. Woody Allen took up that tradition in the 1970s, and this new film from young New York-based filmmaker Alex Ross Perry seem to take it up too. Indeed, in many ways, it comes across as almost a throwback to the 70s, with grainy stock, murky close-ups, and of course Bergman-esque psychological torment aplenty. With unadorned actors attacking the script, this is a different beast from the director’s earlier film Listen Up Philip (2014), even as it seems to be capturing the same kind of lost spirit of writer-director filmmaking. Nevertheless, whatever my reservations, Elisabeth Moss is undoubtedly terrific as Catherine, a woman coming apart at the seams — she may not be likeable, but you get the sense that she’s had a lot to deal with — not helped by her friend Ginny (played by Katherine Waterston). In its effect, it’s almost a psychological horror film, once you factor in the steady alienating thrum of the score, and it gives further evidence of Perry’s talent.

Queen of Earth film posterNEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Alex Ross Perry; Cinematographer Sean Price Williams; Starring Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Thursday 7 July 2016.