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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: 'Simple Passion' is French, explicit, and kind...

Screen Grabs: ‘Simple Passion’ is French, explicit, and kind of meh

Plus: A ludicrous new Woody Allen movie, Poly Styrene's life gets x-rayed, Italian youth speak out

Desire of different types links several new releases, from the carnal or romantic to the yearning to be seen, or to simply have a viable future.

Simple Passion

No expertise in reading symbolism or psychology is required to suss the kind of desire that drives the central relationship in French-Lebanese filmmaker Danielle Arbid’s feature, which premiered at Cannes two years ago. Helene (Laetitia Dosch) is a divorced Parisienne schoolteacher raising a teenaged son, Paul (Lou-Teymour Thion). Aleksandr (former ballet dancer Sergei Polunin), with whom she commences an affair, is a married Russian security at his nation’s embassy—though he’s mysterious enough that she wonders whether he’s really a spy.

Theirs is a strictly sexual relationship, as amply illustrated by a whole lotta lovemaking scenes here. (In fact we rarely see Aleksandr when he isn’t naked, or about to get that way.) Nonetheless, she finds herself fixating on him, even learning Russian in her spare time, then increasingly badgering him for personal life intel and commitments he simply shrugs off. He may enjoy their interludes, but it’s also clear he doesn’t care enough to even get mad at her intrusiveness. Eventually this becomes enough of an obsession that it unbalances other areas of life—her job, her parenting—until some kind of collapse and/or catharsis must be achieved.

Being a very French film, Simple Passion is frank but non-hyperbolic, meaning that the sex scenes are frequent and fairly explicit but not particularly staged to be “sexy.” Yet they are, in a way, all we get: Aleksandr remains a handsome blank, while we find out far too little about Helene. The film allows her some flaws (when her ex-husband briefly shows up, we empathize with his exasperation at her irresponsibility), but no backstory, or really anything else outside the tunnelvision of her torrid affair. Perhaps that was less true in Annie Ernaux’s source novel, published over 30 years ago. But one can only watch so many montages where a protagonist is wandering around in a dazed post-coital glow, even if they’re set to some interesting music (by Suicide, Stan Getz, Leonard Cohen etc.).

The actors are perfectly fine in their sketchy roles, the filmmaking is gracefully crafted. But Simple Passion is the classic case of a movie too invested in depicting sex to manage much of anything else, yet also too self-conscious about being Art to give good sex-flick. Higher-minded yet lacking any real insight, it’s ultimately just an arthouse edition of a cable softcore feature, nominally more intelligent but also less fun. It opens Fri/28 at theaters including SF’s Opera Plaza Cinemas.

Rifkin’s Festival
The protagonists in Passion may seem a bit empty, but they’re not embarrassing, no matter how frequently caught in flagrante. On the other hand, there is something fundamentally embarrassing about Woody Allen’s latest, though it is far from his worst in recent years. Meant to be a charmingly neurotic (of course) comedy about restless hearts, it instead winds up an insufficiently self-aware portrait of people old enough to know better still chasing hotties half their age.

Even laying aside the ambivalent-to-appalled feelings Allen now stirs in many viewers due to what he has or hasn’t done offscreen, it’s incredibly tone-deaf for him to be making a movie in which his alter ego (played by Wallace Shawn, who at 78 is just eight years’ Allen’s junior) chases after a 40-something while the wife who’s two decades younger than him is courted by someone who’s two decades younger than her. It would be one thing if all this pursuit of youth and beauty were the satirical point… but the film doesn’t even seem to notice its gaping generational gaps.

Shawn plays a grumpy American novelist who tags along when his publicist wife (Gina Gershon) goes to the San Sebastian Film Festival to wrangle an acclaimed younger filmmaker-client (Louis Garrel) premiering his new film there. The latter is such a dreamboat that Shawn worries he might lose his wife to him. That anxiety sends him to a local doctor, who turns out to be a female dreamboat (Elena Anaya) conveniently trapped in an unhappy marriage, and is rather unconvincingly charmed by her fumbling new patient/suitor.

Reduced by public disfavor to a less-starry cast than usual, Allen gets decent work from them, though their material is far from first-rate. He also gets the results you might expect from great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, though that only makes Rifkin’s Festival a first-rate visual brochure for San Sebastian that might have been commissioned by its Tourist Bureau. But much of the movie is a thin vehicle for homages to the foreign-film greats that Shawn’s windbag character endlessly compares to arriviste Garrel. He’s the kind of name-dropping bore who thinks “Well, it’s not as good as the best thing of its kind ever made” is a valid criticism he can’t/won’t stop making. Ergo we get scenes mildly parodying Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, Godard, Bunuel, et al, the joke being that the characters in them still natter on like neurotic Manhattanites.

Allen has Shawn admit “Maybe I am a pedantic ass who puts people off with my supposedly high-minded taste”… yet the movie ignores or belittles any other view. By the time it violates its own internal logic to break up relationships we didn’t believe in the first place, the film has simply become more proof that its creator is deeply out of touch, and generating new projects just to keep busy. (I’d say the last time he scored any kind of success was with 2013’s Blue Jasmine and 2014’s Irrational Man, in both cases mostly due to inspired lead performances.) Whether you think he’s to be shunned or has been unfairly maligned, his work hasn’t been relevant or good for long enough that the prolificacy has become a liability. I’ll still be quoting dialogue from Love & Death to the point when I can no longer remember whether I even saw Rifkin’s Festival, And that won’t take long, alas. It also opens at the Opera Plaza this Fri/28.

New Documentaries: Yesteryear’s Punk Phenomenon and Italy’s Future
A couple new non-fiction features restore the focus to youth amongst youth, trying to change things as the status quo falls apart.

Celeste Bell and Paul Sng’s Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche covers the turbulent life and times of Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, the Brixton-raised singer-songwriter primarily known for first-wave English punk band X-Ray Spex, of “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” As a mixed-race frontwoman delivering implicitly feminist and otherwise progressive messages, she was a trailblazer. But she also had significant issues dating back to childhood shunning (her absentee father was Somali, her Scots-Irish mother called a “Black man’s whore”), exacerbated later by drug usage and, as portrayed here, a disillusioning “turning point” when the band traveled to NYC. When she snapped tether, initially misdiagnosed as schizophrenic (then changed to “acute bipolar disorder”), she was placed in a psych ward. A subsequent stint with the Hare Krishnas, marriage and parenthood all failed to steady her life’s rocky boat.

With Passing’s Ruth Negga reading from the late subject’s diaries on the soundtrack, I Am A Cliche is an interesting cultural flashback as well as a grapple with a complex personality. But it suffers somewhat from being made by that subject’s only child, whose first-person narration immediately strikes a victim note. “I wasn’t ready to be the caretaker of Poly Styene’s legacy—I’d just lost my mum…now she’d gone and left me to deal with it alone. Thanks, mum,” she whinges almost straight off. Certainly her mother sounds like a highly problematic parent, to the extent that she even was one. (Bell was largely raised by her grandmother.)

But legitimate as the co-director’s gripes may be, one wishes she’d worked them out in therapy and let someone else weigh her parent’s legacy. While Cliche is worthwhile for punk history buffs and X-Ray Spex fans, it falls overmuch into that almost invariably regrettable territory of Documentary As Glorified Selfie. The film plays theaters (including SF’s Roxie and Balboa) one night only, Tues. Feb. 2, becoming available On Demand next Thurs/4.

Looking forward rather than backward are the protagonists of Pietro Marcello, Francesco Munzi and Alice Rohrwacher’s Futura. These three documentarians, all of whom have also separately made acclaimed narrative features (including Martin Eden and The Wonders), provide an ambitious survey of Italian youth from Palermo to Venice. Still a fairly homogenous population despite immigration being a major issue (the only time we see people of color is at a juvenile center whose residents include refugees), Italy is in political and economic turmoil. Of course you could say “When wasn’t it?” But the film suggests that this generation of teens and young adults face unique challenges, and they know it.

Those issues may be fairly universal ones now, from climate change worries to fears that living-wage jobs (or any jobs at all) will be hard to come by. There are different perspectives on the value (and expense) of higher education, careers, love, happiness, and whether any of those things are even accessible in Italy, where more than one youth says there’s “no future.” Others are more tranquil, but almost no one feels their prospects are better than their parents’ were. Midway through, Futura becomes “the diary of a plagued mood,” as COVID descends.

Comparable to the interview segments in otherwise fictive Cmon Cmon, the film is touching for giving the young a platform to talk about big issues, though of course some are much more thoughtful, articulate or realistic than others. (At one of the more humorous points here, an off-camera director sighs “You all want to be soccer players!”) Every once in a while there’s a face or a sentiment that just captures you with its soulfulness.

Though this pulse-taking may be of primary interest to Italian viewers, it still stirs poignant feelings that life will, must go on—and that what one subject calls “The future [which] is the consequence of our present choices” will also be determined by the choices that we, the prior generations, have already made. Futura is streaming on NYC’s Metrograph Theater “At Home” virtual cinema Fri/28 through Feb. 10, more info here

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