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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Love on the rocks may be the...

Screen Grabs: Love on the rocks may be the least of their problems

Four new movies dissect marriage and romance, from Cannes-winner 'Anatomy of a Fall' to futuristic 'Foe'

Hollywood used to manufacture “mush stuff” by the truckload—a tradition that lives on in big- and small-screen romcoms that are an industry unto themselves. But the dream that True Love lay just around the corner, which audiences long expected to be part of the entertainment package, now seems hokey in any other genre context. Indeed, we more often seem to get a vicarious satisfaction these days from movies that are anti-romantic, dissecting relationships in grisly, gleeful detail as they implode. Marriage Story, one of the best mainstream films in recent years, was in fact entirely about an ugly divorce. in the recent Fair Play, secret workplace lovers never even make to the altar—by their engagement party, they’re ready to kill each other.

God knows modern love was difficult enough before social media entered the picture, raising expectations and lowering discourse to toxic levels. Four new movies provide different dramatic takes on that discord, and let us just say their collective insights are not exactly encouraging. (You might be more cheered by the straight-up creature horror of a vintage John Carpenter double bill, 1982’s The Thing remake and 1988’s sci-fi fascist parable They Live, playing the Castro Theatre this Sat/14.) But they do provide moments of catharsis, not to mention a measure of gloating-at-somebody-else’s-trainwreck satisfaction.

Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall, which won the Palm d’Or at Cannes this year, more or less begins with a death: Returning home from a walk with his service dog, visually impaired 11-year-old Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) finds father Samuel lying in a pool of blood in front of their ski-style chalet in the French Alps, having plummeted from its top floor. Mother Sandra (Sandra Huller) appears just as surprised and distressed by this discovery. But once police arrive, suspicion joins tragedy. Inconclusive autopsy results reinforce doubt: It is unclear whether Samuel (Samuel Theis) suffered fatal head trauma before or during his fall, let alone whether it was an accident, suicide, or murder. We’ve already gleaned that this marriage had… problems.

An hour in, it’s a year later, and Sandra is on trial, with Swann Arlaud as her lawyer and Antoine Reinartz as the prosecuting one. The latter is a smirking character assassin—but as dislikable as he may seem, he makes some valid points, because the more we learn about Sandra, the less certain of her character we become.

Half an hour later, we see her having a blazing argument with Samuel the day before his death (because surreptitiously recorded audio of that fight is played in the courtroom), and an ungodly amount of discord gets exposed. Not least is the fact that both parents are writers, but one was much more successful than other other. The power balance between them is off, yet each side felt wronged. It only heightens lurid public fascination with the case that Sandra’s novels conspicuously take from her real life, making this whole drama seem like life imitating art—perhaps generating fodder for another book.

Despite the volatile emotions at core here, Anatomy of a Fall has a certain procedural detachment that forces us to weigh the accumulating evidence like jurists ourselves. Triet keeps the aesthetics raw enough that we seldom get distracted by “style” from carefully weighing every word in her and Arthur Harari’s very garrulous screenplay. With its exactingly performed if not terribly sympathetic characters and storytelling that’s sharp as a knife’s edge—on which our certainly of guilt or innocence perilously balances—this is a movie that feels slow, almost uninvolving until suddenly you realize it’s got you by the throat. Eventually you realize it’s not really a conventional suspense drama at all, in that how or why Samuel died becomes less important than grasping the fraught vibe between two people whose complexities brought them together as surely as they finally drove them apart. Anatomy opens at SF’s Alamo Drafthouse on Thurs/12.

Marriage in the future is also fucked in Foe from writer-director Garth Davis, It’s based on a novel by Canadian author Ian Reid, whose prior I’m Thinking Of Ending Things was filmed by Charlie Kaufman. Like the 50-year-old Soylent Green, which we wrote about this week, this is set in a world whose resources have suffered the consequences of climatic devastation. Only here, instead of a sweltering, overpopulated NYC, our protagonists are stuck in a sweltering, underpopulated onetime agricultural heartland that by 2065 has been reduced to a dustbowl.

But despite that science fiction framing, Foe is mostly about a dead-end relationship. Junior (Paul Mescal) and Henrietta (Saoirse Ronan) are holdouts, living on his family’s 200-year-old midwestern farmhouse as if nothing has changed—though everything has. (For one thing, there’s no farming anymore, at least none that’s outdoors.) They seem pinned here by a kind of nostalgia, yet neither is old enough to remember when things were significantly different. Isolation and frustration have worn their seven-year wedlock down to a sullen, discordant nub. Sooner or later, you think, one of them is going to leave the other.

Then they get a surprise visit from Aaron Pierre as a government and/or corporate representative who has a peculiar offer, and/or demand. He requires their participation in an experiment that will help create “a new kind of life form,” introducing new tensions into the marriage, which becomes a sort of triangle.

There’s a big twist towards the end here—but strangely it doesn’t really change the central dynamic, which is tediously atonal. We don’t root for this couple: He’s a hostile boor and she’s just dull. The actors fail to drum up any mutual chemistry, though Mescal in particular tries hard—maybe too hard. Indeed, this whole movie is somewhat baffling heavy labor, soporific and sour, visually interesting at times but thoroughly unengaging in storytelling or character terms. You can’t help but think, if this is the humanity that needs saving from environmental catastrophe… well, bring it on. We are done. Foe opens Fri/13 at SF’s Kabuki, Fri/20 at Oakland’s Piedmont.

Not much more cheering in message, though considerably cheerier in tone, is Latvian-raised, Brooklyn-based animator Signe Baumane’s second feature My Love Affair With Marriage, an international co-production that’s loosely autobiographical—and also a cartoon musical comedy. Our heroine Zelma (voiced by Dagmara Dominczyk) is a social misfit who decides at an early age that her best, perhaps only, chance at happiness lays in assuming the stereotypical trappings of femininity to find True Love, meaning a man whose sun she’ll orbit around.

But none of that is easy, or works quite the way it’s supposed to. She falls in love with Sergei (Cameron Monaghan), who proves controlling and unfaithful. Later, she’s found her own path when it gets derailed by the attentions of Bo (Matthew Modine), a Swede who’s nothing like Sergei but has his own issues. This thin learning-to-be-myself story is continually interrupted by intel from Biology (Michele Pawk), which informs us how Zelma’s impulses and decisions are largely predetermined by neurotransmissions and the like. It’s a one-note gimmick that soon grows tiresome.

But overlong, episodic Love Affair is simultaneously goosed by the colorful variety of animation techniques utilized, as well as a song score whose satirical lectures have a bit of a Schoolhouse Rocks! vibe. Like a lot of primarily visual artists, Baumane’s considerable talent isn’t ideally suited to the structural requirements of a full-length narrative feature. Nonetheless, her sensibility is disarming, and this movie is certain to thoroughly delight many viewers where it just sporadically amused me. The director will be present for post-screening Q&As when it plays SF’s Vogue on Mon/16 and Oakland’s New Parkway on Wed/18, further info here.

The least successful of these movies is the one with the biggest built-in cultural cache: Cat Person was inspired by Kristen Roupenian’s short story, which was first published in a 2017 New Yorker issue, then went viral as an all-too-relatable dating horror story for an epoch of primarily online communication. (Its fame was later complicated by the revelation that Roupenian apparently used details of a couple’s real-life relationship without their consent.)

At the core of that discomfiting miniature was an acknowledgement that things haven’t really changed at all: Millennial women are still expected to be “nice,” while men’s frustration quickly turns to anger. Or as a Margaret Atwood quote at the beginning of this film puts it, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” As that quote suggests, director Susanna Fogel and scenarist Michelle Ashford’s feature takes the threat of peril considerably further.

College sophomore Margot (Emilia Jones) is trying to navigate a minefield of modern gender relations, which is not exactly helped when her ex-boyfriend back home excitedly announces he’s now asexual. Working at a movie theater, she sparks with somewhat older patron Robert (Nicholas Braun), though their texting exchanges seem more natural than the face-to-face interactions. A date that turns into awkward pity sex feels like a major mistake later on, between his nagging communications and her roommate’s (Geraldine Viswanathan) tendency to assume the worst. Soon whiny turns creepy; mistakes in judgement are made. Things get hyperbolic in ways that the short story stopped mercifully well short of.

Cat Person is well-made, but eventually so melodramatically contrived, it betrays the complicated issues it intends to probe. There’s lots of “triggering” to no particular point, muddying the realities of Margot and Robert’s (very different kinds of) immaturity with excess gimmickry—brief mind’s-eye fantasies, fears, flashbacks. This movie provided an opportunity to create something simple but nuanced and true. instead, it becomes a showy hot mess, and within its much smaller scale one of the worst mishandlings of a famous literary source since The Bonfire of the VanitiesCat Person is gradually opening in limited theaters nationwide.

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