Jake Gyllenhaal and Catherine Keener in Lovely and Amazing

The Criterion Shelf: Four Trilogies

Bil Antoniou reports on four trilogies by four filmmakers featured on the Criterion Channel.

The Criterion Channel has put together small collections of films by noted filmmakers past and present, choosing three each to represent the essence of their work.  Here they are in no particular order:

 

THREE BY NICOLE HOLOFCENER

With the success of her sharp and shrewd debut Walking and Talking, Nicole Holofcener immediately established herself as having a knack for capturing the joys and dangers of modern-day female relationships, always including the genius of Catherine Keener in her explorations. Beyond Criterion’s offerings, also check out her episodes of Sex and the City and her 2013 film Enough Said. (And read the That Shelf interview with Nicole Holofcener while you’re at it!)

 

Lovely and Amazing (2001)

Nicole Holofcener’s masterpiece, populated by complicated women who are notable female anti-heroes. Brenda Blethyn is the mother of three daughters, two adults (Catherine Keener, Emily Mortimer) and one adopted ten year-old (Raven Goodwin), and sets the pace for their insecurities when she undergoes a simple, outpatient liposuction procedure that inevitably turns into massive hospitalization for blood poisoning. Keener is the one-time high school homecoming queen who is now a housewife and unemployed, Mortimer is a burgeoning film actress who is subject to all the physical scrutiny that comes with trying to make it in her business, Goodwin is an emotionally damaged girl whose entire life is spent being criticized for her weight and sloppy eating habits. Their lives head from bad to worse until threatening to completely explode. They’re headstrong and independent and yet cannot seem to escape their own vulnerabilities as subjects of popular culture.

 

Friends With Money  (2006)

Four women–three wealthy and successfully paired and one an unmarried former teacher who gave it up to be a maid–interact as their lives go haywire and their friendship stands as the sole saviour of their sanity. Catherine Keener (who is, as usual, brilliant) plays Christine, a screenwriter can’t seem to get onto the same page with her emotionally absent husband and creative partner (Jason Isaacs). Successful fashion designer Frances McDormand‘s Jane is in a rut that is showing itself physically in her unwashed hair. Joan Cusack’s Franny, married to a millionaire, has no idea what to do with all her money without feeling guilty about it. They’re all concerned about Olivia (Jennifer Aniston), a pot-smoking house cleaner who has run out of reasons to treat herself well and is in a destructive relationship with Mike (Scott Caan). Nicole Holofcener’s superb pacing keeps it believable and entertaining throughout, with only a far-too-abrupt ending and the unevenness of Cusack’s conundrums compared to her co-stars keeping it from being on the same level as Lovely and Amazing.

 

Please Give  (2010)

Rebecca Hall is excellent as a health care worker who takes care of her mean, cantankerous grandmother while her callous sister (Amanda Peet) just waits for her to die. Their grandmother’s apartment is owned by their neighbours, two vintage furniture dealers (Oliver Platt, Catherine Keener) whose daughter is having some serious issues with puberty. Keener’s flaw is her constant desire to give money to anyone she sees on the street, as anyone with even a slightly tragic story touches an abyss of guilt inside of her that she cannot control. The interactions of these characters (and a few more, including a lovely Lois Smith as one of Hall’s patients) make for the kind of hard-edged but emotional experience that Holofcener does so well, her protagonists crashing into each other without any apologies or excuses. Their flaws are never grating, as each character is imbued with as much sympathy as conflict.

 

THREE BY GREGG ARAKI

His films are often harsh and uncompromising but also full of youthful vigour and joy (and, now in his sixties, they still are), and Greg Araki’s earliest work captures the vibrancy of the alternative L.A. Scene in the late eighties and early nineties. Criterion’s trilogy of films covers the two best works that established him, as well as the later literary adaptation that reassured us that even with his maturity into bigger leagues, he still wasn’t compromising his fascinating, sharp edges. Readers can also check out Kaboom and White Bird in a Blizzard on other platforms.

 

Mysterious Skin  (2004)

Two boys grow up under the shadow of looming childhood trauma. One had a sexual affair with his baseball coach when he was eight years old. The other had a blackout for five hours as a child and is convinced that during that time he was abducted by aliens. They were on the same little league team and, now grown up, one becomes a reckless hustler (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) while the other (Brady Corbet) makes friends with an another “abductee” much to the chagrin of his mother. Araki remains faithful to Scott Heim’s superb novel, fleshing it out with dramatic compulsion even at points when the structure is more feeble than the novel’s was. Its more gruesome segments are presented with unflinching honesty, but its touching moments are also given effective treatment.

 

The Living End  (1992)

When a young man finds out that he is HIV positive, his frustration leads him to hop into his car and head in no particular direction. Along the way, he picks up a young hitchhiker, who is also positive, and they hit the road in a Clyde and Clyde style journey in search of search of adventure. This film is graceful and wry even at its most pessimistic, full of humour and pathos and two very endearing characters. Araki would later hit an off-putting level of bitterness in films like The Doom Generation and Nowhere, but here the rebellion is as enjoyable as it is sexy.

 

Totally F***ed Up  (1993)

Araki’s follow up to The Living End is a sexy, funny and appealing look at a group of young people in Los Angeles, meant as a queer response to the John Hughes films of the eighties. At the centre of the cast is James Duval as a lonely young man who experiences the pangs of romance, while his friend group includes a gay couple on the skids, a lesbian couple who are preparing to have a baby, and a young man whose sexual identity is confused by his sexual activity. It has a tragic ending but it’s not told tragically, nor is its conclusion as didactic as the message that inspired it. Araki gives all the characters a sense of courage and humour to go along with their ability to struggle against the odds.

 

THREE BY JACQUES RIVETTE

Like Louis Malle and Agnès Varda, Rivette is a member of the French New Wave whose best work came later. He continued a habit of majesty and mystery into his final years with the likes of Va Savoir and The Story of Marie and Julien. It’s hard to pare down his incredible oeuvre to essentials, but Criterion’s three selections at least show him at his most daring and provocative in three distinctly different eras of his career.

 

Paris Belongs to Us (1961)

Rivette’s debut is often credited with the responsibility (alongside Bonjour Tristesse and Elevator to the Gallows) of leading the Nouvelle Vague. The weighty but enigmatic plot centres around a dull young woman with very little discernible personality named Anne, whose evenings with her friends eventually reveal a mystery. A Spanish activist whom she’s never met has gone missing and so has a piece of music he composed, one which her theatre director friend Gerard would like to use in his newest play. Anne tries to get information out of her Marxist American ex-patriate friend Philip, as well as the missing fellow’s girlfriend Terry, but all of them stay clammed and drop hints about the forces that did away with their friend, forces that are still at work and could hurt Anne if she continues to pursue her investigation. The story reveals itself quite mildly over drinks in cramped apartments and shouted from stages to fauteuils during theatre rehearsals, a long and drawn out tome that was probably an intellectual stimulation at one point but is now merely a historical curiosity.

 

Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)

Rivette’s masterpiece centres around the two women of the title, who become friends thanks to circumstance. After one hears the other tell of a mysterious mansion that has strange hauntings occurring within it, they each visit it over and over again. Every time they emerge unable to remember what happened until they reconstruct their experience. Piecing together the various strings of melodramatic story that occur within the alternate reality they discover there, the ladies begin to suspect that a little girl might be in danger, so they embark on an adventure to save her. The ample running time allows for two highly charismatic actresses to explore every manner of whimsy on their way to the completion of their quest. Rivette’s film has influences of the inane and downright comical that give it a deep human touch.

 

La Belle Noiseuse (1991)

The old joke of arthouse films is that they’re often like watching paint dry. Rivette’s exploration of the nature of artistic creation provides exactly that, and disproves the idea that it could be a bad thing.  After Emmanuelle Béart reluctantly agrees to pose for painter Michel Piccoli’s attempt to resurrect a project he long ago abandoned, they spend endless hours in his studio. He scratches away with his drawing utensils; she uncomfortably poses nude. Their conflict is sublimated into his attempt to go beyond mere representation and actually capture a human experience on his canvas.  For four glorious hours, we watch as these two bandy about fascinating ideas, among them the possibility that there is no act of creation that can be done alone, and what role past relationships and regrets play in how we see the world today.  A challenging film, but not for a second boring–every moment of it feels intellectually stimulating and satisfying.

 

THREE BY DIANE KURYS

She began her career as an actress, but with her directorial debut it was clear that Diane Kurys was going to make big waves as a filmmaker. It’s been a while since she has been discussed with the fervor that her early career brought to her, but Criterion’s choices from her filmography encompass three period pieces, two of them masterpieces taken from her own biography.

 

Entre Nous (1983)

One of the very best films to come out of France in the eighties, and a masterpiece for director Diane Kurys. Just after the second World War, two women (Isabelle Huppert, Miou-Miou) are married to husbands because of circumstances other than true love. They meet at a school pageant and become best friends, eventually realizing that there is much more love between them than with their men. This does not go down too well with their spouses. Huppert’s (Guy Marchand) reactes quite violently. Miou-Miou’s (Jean-Pierre Bacri) descends further into his selfish existence. Stunningly photographed to look like a film from the period it depicts, this features a top-notch performance from Miou-Miou (who sheds her sex kitten image without the slightest sign of effort) and one of the most vibrant and exciting turns by the always incomparable Huppert.

 

Children of a Century (1999)

Juliette Binoche is excellent as George Sand in this soapy drama, which focuses on the author’s tempestuous relationship with Alfred de Musset (Benoît Magimel). The two lovers try to excel at their writing while also surviving their dangerous feelings for each other. Sand abandons family life to follow Musset around until his destructive treatment of her convinces her to go home and leave him for good. (But does she?) Beautiful costumes and sets, plus Diane Kurys’s insistence on keeping the dramatic presentation real are assets to the production, but the script is laden with doomed love-affair clichés.

 

Peppermint Soda (1977)

Kurys responds to The 400 Blows with a perfectly hewn coming-of-age tale of a girl on the precipice of womanhood who has trouble keeping herself in line. Frequently rebellious at school, rarely responsible at home, Anne is the frustration of her older sister and a consistent worry for her single mother (a radiant Anouk Ferjac). Beautifully photographed by Philippe Rousselot, Kurys’ debut is a masterpiece of vibrant images and warm humour. She has a sharp eye for the small moments that make up the character’s trajectory into maturity. She captures bits and pieces of interactions with others and creates a world for Anne out of the mosaic of bits and pieces she picks up from others and her own experiences.

 

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