NZIFF 2021: Pleasure (2021)

Somehow even amongst the more solidly film festival fare at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, Sweden’s Pleasure manages to stick out, not least because it is very much set in the USA and is about a subject that feels somehow inextricably linked to LA, which is the adult film industry. And yet it’s still a festival film, an arthouse drama, a film that is about people working within that industry without (at least I don’t think) being exploitative or shaming, which most films dealing with the topic tend to do. It’s hardly uplifting, of course, but I admire what it does, though I daresay it will be controversial.


Isn’t it odd the way that films titled for an abstract noun with largely positive connotations often entirely lack that quality (my mind goes to films with titles like HappinessJoy and so forth). Well, it’s much the same here, although to my mind this film at least avoids the pitfalls of being preachy and moralistic. This is a film about Linnéa (Sofia Kappel), a young Swedish woman who travels to LA to get involved in the p0rn industry under the soubriquet Bella Cherry, but the film is not really interested in why she made that choice or about wagging its finger at her for having made it. As far as we see in the film, Bella just wants to do something she enjoys, and while her experiences aren’t uniformly positive, there’s a camaraderie that grows between her and others in the same industry that develops over the film. And though it could be said to sour towards the end, it’s not played for high melodrama or camp (as in, say, Showgirls) but instead is allowed to have a complex emotional range, chiefly expressed in the relationship between Bella, her imperious arch-rival (at least in Bella’s head) Ava, and her housemate Joy (Revika Anne Reustle), who falls lower down the pecking order it seems.

All of the cast seem to be taken from the adult film industry, and in most cases give pretty believable naturalistic performances, even the sleazier agents and directors. And while it is clearly going to be a divisive film, to my mind it doesn’t play as exploitative, but instead has a certain kinship to, say, Sean Baker’s films. There’s a beauty to all this mess, but primarily this a drama charting the messy but often healthy relationships that develop, as well as the pitfalls too. These latter are not exclusively amongst male-dominated sets, but are certainly exacerbated by certain male egos, and there’s a striking contrast made between the carefully delineated consent and constant attention she’s given in a bondage video directed and staffed by women, and a rather more naturalistic depiction of rough sex in a video made by men. Plenty of this is at times quite disturbing, but the film is judicious and balanced in its depiction of a sordid world.

Pleasure (2021)CREDITS
Director Ninja Thyberg; Writers Thyberg and Peter Modestij (based on Thyberg’s short film); Cinematographer Sophie Winqvist Loggins; Starring Sofia Kappel, Revika Anne Reustle; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Roxy, Wellington, Wednesday 17 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Shiva Baby (2020)

Moving into the second week of Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival last month, I went to another fairly commercial film that I hope will be back here on big screens, though it’s already been released in most of the rest of the world. It’s a jolly American indie film with a single setting and that makes the most of its expressive actors.


The lead character Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is a mess, as a lot of people still at university in their early-20s tend to be, but this is exacerbated by the pressure and anxieties of being at a shiva (a mourning gathering) with her extended family and some strained former friends and lovers. In certain ways — the intense anxiety the film captures, by sticking to a lot of close-ups, moving through tight spaces with the threat of elderly relatives jumping out at any moment like a horror film, but most of all from the scraping dissonant score — this reminded me of Uncut Gems, but unlike that film, the cushion of family and the setting means there’s no real sense of physical danger as there is there. Still, there’s very much a sense of things unravelling at every turn, so the fact that it wrings plenty of laughs and humour from this situation is testament to the writing and the performances, from familiar stalwarts like Fred Melamed or the younger newcomers (I definitely want to see more of the actor who plays Maya, Molly Gordon). The characters might be confused and messy, but the film feels carefully controlled.

Shiva Baby (2020)CREDITS
Director/Writer Emma Seligman (based on her own 2018 short film); Cinematographer Maria Rusche; Starring Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed, Polly Draper; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 11 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: @zola (2020)

The first film I saw at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival is probably the most ‘commercial’ of the lot, though it still fits in a lot of darkness to its otherwise gaudily-toned story of… well, of Florida. It’s a setting that’s been done many times before (think Magic Mike for a start), but I can’t deny that there’s an energy to this setting that energises plenty of films, this one no less than any other.


Nobody’s really out there adapting Twitter threads and I can only applaud the ways the filmmakers here find to transfer some of that era-specific energy (Twitter, Facebook and… Tumblr all get a mention, because of course). There are bravura touches (a lot of toilet-focused exposition that’s revealing without being gross), a lot of humour (Cousin Greg!! sorry I mean Nicholas Braun, best known for his role in Succession) and the constant presence of Taylour Paige as Zola, being cool under pressure and rolling her eyes back into her head at Riley Keough’s character Stefani. Keough has played this type before but yet I didn’t recognise her; Stefani feels like a different character and a very specific one. It’s not all jolly laughs — there’s some very credible terror and some nasty men (okay those things are somewhat related) — but it is pulled through by the narrative voice and a sense of self-mythologising that’s ongoing and inherent to the narrative itself.

@zola (2021)CREDITS
Director Janicza Bravo; Writers Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris (based on the Rolling Stone article “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted” by David Kushner and the original tweets by Aziah King); Cinematographer Ari Wegner; Starring Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 5 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 484: Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

I’ve seen this film before, though it took me a long time between first reading about it (when I was first getting into film in the late-90s) to actually getting to see it (in 2007, by the time I’d moved to London, at the NFT). I loved it back then yet in thinking about rewatching it, what stuck in my head was the boring quotidian rituals that Jeanne goes through robotically at home. And indeed the first half of the film is largely just this: her doing the chores, at great length. However, Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte frame and light her home as carefully as a video art installation in a gallery, and there’s still something hypnotic about her actions. Even her welcoming a client into the home is part of the everyday ordinariness — sex work is neither glamourised nor ridiculed, it’s just part of the ritual of her life.

But for all its peculiar fascination, this is just a set up for the drama that takes place when, having become used to Jeanne’s rituals, things start to fall apart. She has a long (for the film) chat with an unseen neighbour outside her door, and then a second client seems to put her off her rhythms. This quickly leads to the rituals of her life, the chores and the busywork she does to keep the home tidy for her and her son, starting to unravel a bit. There’s an obvious feminist message about the toll that this work takes on women’s lives, though for all that happens, it’s not clear that Jeanne ends up in a bad place. That final shot, of her in the dark, the weight of her life seemingly somehow lifted, makes it feel like she has been freed of something, though I concede that perhaps everyone has a different reaction to it. That’s part of the film’s beauty, in allowing those readings, because it does still feel like an open text, that hints at things without playing its hand, and it’s another role for Delphine Seyrig (after Last Year at Marienbad, which preceded this by a few titles in the Criterion Collection) in which her character’s reality seems open to question.

In short, this is a film filled with wonder and misery, which is very much about everyday life, about the mundanity of it all but also about the choices we all make every day in every moment of our lives.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman; Cinematographer Babette Mangolte; Starring Delphine Seyrig; Length 201 minutes.

Seen at the NFT (now the British Film Institute), London, Wednesday 21 March 2007 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Friday 3 December 2021).

Criterion Sunday 473: にっぽん昆虫記 Nippon Konchuki (The Insect Woman, 1963)

I do feel like there was a lot going on in this film that I wasn’t taking in. Partly that’s just the way it tells its story, in little chunks dispersed through time, constantly shifting forward a year or so, constantly moving location, never really settling, like its central character. She is buffeted and moved around as much as Japan is over the course of the time period (from her birth in 1918 to roughly the film’s present), as Japan moves into and out of war, its economy changes, there are changes to social structures, but still this woman (and by extension women generally within society) seemed to receive fairly short shrift. I suppose another key factor is that she’s born poor and must seize whatever opportunity she can, whether prostitution or other unfulfilling labour. It’s far from a rosy picture, but it’s a Japanese one, a story of adversity and struggle for little reward.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Shohei Imamura 今村昌平; Writers Keiji Hasebe 長谷部慶次 and Imamura; Cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda 姫田真佐久; Starring Sachiko Hidari 左幸子, Jitsuko Yoshimura 吉村実子; Length 123 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 24 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 466: 愛のコリーダ Ai no Korida (aka L’Empire des sens) (In the Realm of the Senses, 1976)

Truly, the ‘is it art or is it pornography’ debate is the most boring and irrelevant lines of discussion regarding this film. It certainly does intend to push boundaries, but it’s a film about primarily a sexual relationship, about two people who are inescapably, tragically drawn to one another and so they do spend a lot of their time at it. The filmmaking never feels exploitative though or even prurient, but its clear that as the story goes on and as (in the background) Japan becomes more militarised and drawn towards war, things take on a frantic and slightly dangerous note in their sex. The whole thing is gorgeously staged and filmed, and the leads are compelling to watch, even if they’re just mooching about at home, doing little more than drinking and fvcking, but it’s doomy and evocative, a fascinating way into a peculiar time period where everything looks set to break apart.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Nagisa Oshima 大島渚; Cinematographer Hideo Ito 伊東英男; Starring Eiko Matsuda 松田暎子, Tatsuya Fuji 藤竜也; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 3 October 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 2001).

Criterion Sunday 444: Le Plaisir (1952)

This is a film of three stories, though the first and third are rather brief and function more to introduce and close out the themes of the film, about pleasure of course (the title is clue to that at least), but pleasure as it’s intermingled with various more fleeting things like ageing and death. That first sequence, in focusing on a grand ball, also introduces us to Ophüls’ favoured camera style that loves decadence and the drama of a set combined with the elegant choreography of both bodies and camera in space. That said, for all his gliding camera work, much of it settles down in the longer central segment to deal with a group of women (prostitutes it would appear, not that we see anything so uncouth as coitus) on a group trip to the countryside to celebrate the madam’s niece’s first Communion. In that respect, it already breaks our expectations of prostitutes in film, but the simple bucolic charms of the country and their presence there neatly dovetail with the exploitation (if not unhappiness, so far as we see) back at work. There’s a sub rosa commentary on patriarchal society that runs through all three stories, of an older man desperate to regain his youth (and the youthful affairs that went with it), and an artist who objectifies a model he falls in love with in the third story, along with the women of the central section, free from the tawdry expectations of the men who habitually surround them.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Jacques Natanson and Ophüls (based on the short stories “Le Masque”, “La Maison Tellier” and “Le Modèle” by Guy de Maupassant); Cinematographers Philippe Agostini and Christian Matras; Starring Madeleine Renaud, Jean Gabin, Danielle Darrieux, Daniel Gélin, Simone Simon, Jean Servais; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 27 July 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Monday 28 June 2021).

Criterion Sunday 358: Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1929)

Pandora’s Box is a fantastic film and an enduring screen classic largely for Louise Brooks, who is — and this is a term which may be over-used but is, for once, fairly accurate — iconic here: beautiful, transfixing, making the film twice as good as it already is. She plays Lulu, a woman who uses her abundant charms to win over people but who finds herself nevertheless on the back foot thanks to the constant, overbearing demands made on her by the patriarchal systems of control within her society. It looks gorgeous and it’s never less than engrossing, as she gets into all kinds of trouble, largely coming from her lack of money and education — the film is very pointed about class — and tries desperately, yet with effortless grace, to move away from those forces of capital and control that hold her down.

(Written on 19 November 2017.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director G.W. Pabst; Writers Pabst and Ladislaus Vajda (based on the plays Die Büsche der Pandora and Erdgeist by Frank Wedekind); Cinematographer Günther Krampf; Starring Louise Brooks, Fritz Körtner, Francis Lederer, Carl Goetz, Alice Roberts; Length 133 minutes.

Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 19 November 2017 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, January 1998).

Joy (2018)

Because my Global Cinema series will be covering the country of Austria tomorrow, I’ve done a week of German-language cinema by women filmmakers. The most recent release I’m covering is this film I saw at the 2018 London Film Festival, where it won the main prize. It’s very far from a joyful film, despite its title, and is a tough watch, but is available on Netflix (at least in the UK).


I’m not sure how to feel about this film, but it’s certainly not always an easy watch — there’s no happy ending on offer, despite the title (the name of the central character, played by Joy Anwulika Alphonsus, rather than a particularly defining emotion throughout the film). It’s also not, I would hope, intended to be a film about how it is to be a sex worker but rather presents one particular experience, which is of non-European women (in this case, Nigerian) trafficked into sex work and trapped for a significant chunk of time through mounting debts in a form of slavery. The filmmaker bookends the film with scenes set back in Nigeria, though this is largely an Austrian film from an outsider’s perspective — at least, though, it balances the early scene of juju witchcraft practised in Nigeria with a similarly syncretic religious/pagan folk tradition in the mountains of Austria. It also keeps its focus firmly on the character of Joy, so even when we see well-meaning (white) Austrians trying to help her, it’s clear how ineffectual they are and how impossible it is for Joy to act according to what they consider the self-evidently moral and righteous response. Joy’s story is part of an ingrained and ever-repeating cycle of exploitation and capitalism founded on the inequalities of the world’s economy, so the film recognises all it can do is shine a light on this one immigrant story.

Joy film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sudabeh Mortezai; Cinematographer Klemens Hufnagl; Starring Joy Anwulika Alphonsus, Mariam Sanusi; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Tuesday 16 October 2018.

流れる Nagareru (Flowing, 1956)

I’m finishing off my week dedicated to Mikio Naruse with this 1956 drama, though he kept making films for another decade after this. One of them (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, from 1960) is in the Criterion Collection so will eventually get reviewed here when I get to it in my regular Criterion Sunday feature.


I love Mikio Naruse’s films but I’m also very conscious that I don’t really have the language to describe them, but this was an era when (because there were essentially no women directing films, aside from rare examples like Kinuyo Tanaka, who stars in this film, and Park Nam-ok in Korea) you’d get a whole cadre of venerated older men anointed as being excellent at ‘women’s pictures’. There are barely any men in this film, but there’s still a strong sense that the women we see — from the woman who runs the business (Isuzu Yamada), to her geisha employees, her maid, her daughter (Hideko Takamine), her sister and mentor — are all essentially still powerless in a society that esteems the money of men most highly. Even a drunken family member of a former employee seems to get his way, while the woman who owns the business is having trouble keeping it going. The story is largely told from the new maid’s point-of-view, and Kinuyo Tanaka is just wonderful at giving depth to this middle-aged woman fallen on hard times, but who still has enormous empathy and a remarkable grace in dealing with all the backstabbing and various fallings out. And yet for all this behind-the-scenes drama of the geisha house, it’s still a rather gentle and sweet film — the title suggests the gentle movement of a river, but also its inevitability and unchanging nature — about events which are not particularly gentle or sweet.

Flowing film posterCREDITS
Director Mikio Naruse 成瀬巳喜男; Writers Toshiro Ide 井手俊郎 and Sumie Tanaka 田中澄江 (based on the novel by Aya Koda 幸田文); Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Hideko Takamine 高峰秀子, Isuzu Yamada 山田五十鈴, Mariko Okada 岡田茉莉子, Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子, Kinuyo Tanaka 田中絹代; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 17 February 2019.