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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Toxic masculinity meets queer desire in arresting...

Screen Grabs: Toxic masculinity meets queer desire in arresting ‘Femme’

Plus: Strikingly original 'La Chimera,' Woody Allen's all-French 'Coup de Chance,' Michael Snow tribute, more.

Hate crime laws are among many protections one can safely expect to get rolled back to the Stone Age if you-know-you reclaims the White House later this year. For US viewers that lends even more tension to the discomfiting UK drama Femme, incoming at SF’s AMC Kabuki 8. As Aphrodite, Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett from 2021’s Candyman remake) is the imperious and splendiferous star of a London gay nightclub’s elaborate stage show. But that confidence gets shaken to the bone when, stepping out to buy a pack of smokes between acts in full drag, Jules is savagely beaten by a gang of loutish “lads.”

Forcing himself to go out weeks later, still traumatized, he’s stunned at the bathhouse to spy his primary assailant Preston (George MacKay) cruising there. What’s more, that volatile closet case, not recognizing Jules out of drag, is clearly interested in his erstwhile victim—who lets himself be taken home for a tumble.

“Seduction Is Revenge,” Femme’s ad line says. But while Jules does have retribution in mind—it would be easy to destroy prickly Preston by exposing his secret life to homophobic mates—the film’s queasiness goes deeper. Co-writers-directors Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping probe the discomfiting dynamic between the two young men, in which rough sex takes the form of a familiar reactionary fantasy, with Preston the verbally abusive dominant top treating his serial shag like a “little bitch.” What disturbs is that we aren’t sure to what extent Jules is actually enjoying this very twisted relationship—it obviously works for him on some basic level, even as he plots a dangerous vengeance and continues to deal with PTSD.

A major plot hole here is why Jules apparently didn’t go to the police in the first place, after a beating so brutal he required an ambulance. After all, Preston and his pals could have been readily identified on the corner store’s surveillance camera footage. But it’s easy enough to give that logic gap a pass given the power of the film’s ambivalent tensions, and of its very strong lead performances.

Considerably lighter in tone is La Chimera, also opening at the Kabuki this Friday. (It expands to the Rafael Film Center on Fri/12.) This latest from Italian writer-director Alice Rohrwacher of The Wonders is a playfully unclassifiable narrative that begins with Arthur (Josh O’Connor) returning to Italy’s central-western Lazio region in a foul mood—he has evidently just finished a jail stint his fellow lawbreakers managed to elude. They are tombaroli, thieves who illegally search out and sell ancient Etruscan artifacts buried in long-forgotten tombs, whose location the archaeologically trained Englishman somehow susses through sheer instinct (and a divining rod).

Having taken the fall for their last score, Arthur is glad only to see local grand dame Flora (isabella Rossellini), an operatic voice teacher—though after a while he’s also drawn to her new student-slash-servant Italia (Carol Duarte). Soon, however, he is caught up again in the same old skullduggery of robbing graves for historic treasure, trying to evade both the police and a considerably better-funded rival gang.

La Chimera has plenty of mysteries, or rather things the script simply doesn’t bother explaining. Rohrwacher doesn’t exactly clarify things with a directorial approach that tosses in slow-mo, fast-mo, different film stocks, and other arbitrary gambits—even a sequence in which characters snarl at each other like animals. (I wasn’t even clear the action was meant to be set in the early 1980s until I read that later on.) All this might have come off as insufferably mannered. But instead the effect is rather bracing, at times goofy, straddling the seemingly improvisational and magical-realist.

So few movies feel this original in concept and execution. While you might emerge somewhat baffled, La Chimera is so unpredictable, its gaps and flaws ultimately feel an organic part of its seriocomic singularity. It’s like a travelogue dream from which you wake uncertain about what you just experienced, yet somehow refreshed.

To a point, infidelity is the only “crime” committed in Coup de Chance, which may be opening locally this Fri/5 (Bay Area venues were unconfirmed as of this writing), and will be released to VOD/Digital platforms a week later. This is reportedly Woody Allen’s 50th directorial effort, and his first in French—not just set in France (like Midnight in Paris), but with exclusively French characters and dialogue. However you feel about him in the wake of various scandals, rumors, and accusations from 30-odd years ago, this latest is easily his best in a decade or more. It would be a good one to go out on—after all, he’s 88, and most of his recent work has been, well, tired.

Not that the new film (whose title translates as Stroke of Luck) is any masterpiece. Coming from another talent, it would seem solid enough if unremarkable. For Allen, though, it’s a near-peak in the realm of relatively serious melodramatic intrigue that he’s already approached several times, sometimes well (Crimes and MisdemeanorsMatch Point), sometimes badly (Cassandra’s DreamWonder Wheel). It shares with the latter misfires some stilted dialogue that might’ve come out of a 1930s stage play—but even that stuff sounds better spoken in French with English subtitles, by actors very good at striking a naturalistic tone.

Fanny (Lou de Laage) has rebounded from a disastrous first marriage to a very secure, comfortable second one with wealthy financier Jean (Melvil Poupaud). She’s quite aware of being viewed as a pretty younger “trophy wife,” though there is no doubt he truly loves her. Yet some gap in Fanny’s life begins to ache when, walking to her job at a Parisian auction house one day, she’s accosted by Alain (Niels Schneider)—an old schoolmate who was too shy to admit his crush on her then, but as a successful writer has few such qualms now. As they begin meeting regularly for lunch, she finds him attractive, charming, fun, persuasive, and sincere.

Fanny resists temptation… until she doesn’t. But her guilty secret does not escape the awareness of possessive Jean, who’s hyper-sensitive to his adored wife’s moods. And Jean is not a man who can take such things lightly. More, he is—like Jay Gatsby, name-checked in the script—a man whose fortune is reputed to have roots in underworld connections, with one business partner having died an all-too-convenient “mysterious death.” He does, in fact, “know people”—the kinds of people you would not want on your tail.

As before, Allen evinces no real instinct for suspense, or ingenious plot twists; it’s a measure of Coup’s overall strength that one particularly improbable turn at the end doesn’t sink it. But his primary emphasis is psychological, on the workings of desire and guilt, morality and amorality among figures both bound to and conflicted with one another. (Eventually they include Valerie Lemercier as Fanny’s mother, who assumes an amateur detective role in the later going.)

While this isn’t a particularly profound film, it has an engrossing surety of plot and pacing this writer-director hasn’t managed for a while. Though there are no bravura performances as in some Allen joints, the Gallic cast is expert, their breeziness downplaying occasional elements of creaky contrivance. Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography is luminous as ever, albeit not so picture-postcard as to detract from what’s at heart a deadly noir potboiler. And the soundtrack is happily full of vintage jazz tracks from Nat Adderley, Modern Jazz Quartet, and others.

Going forward, we’ll be a little more crunched for column space, so only passing mention can be made of some other significant openings and events this week. In an auteurist vein, there are three: The arrival at the Roxie on Sat/6 of Turkish slow-cinema titan Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Winter Sleep) nearly 200-minute About Dry Grasses; this Thurs/4 at The Lab, an SF Cinematheque tribute to the recently deceased experimental giant Michael Snow, including his most famous (and/or infamous) work, 1967’s Wavelength; and on arthouse streaming platform MUBI as of Fri/5, French absurdist writer-director Quentin Dupieux’s new Yannick, a 67-minute comedy in which the performance of an uninspired stage farce gets interrupted by one mightily disgruntled audience member.

Last but not least, there is Remembering Gene Wilder (opening Fri/5 at the Opera Plaza and Rafael), a fond documentary tribute to the beloved comic actor—one of whose greatest roles was as the man in love with a sheep in Woody Allen’s 1972 Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex. When it played the Jewish Film Festival last summer, we wrote about it here.

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