John Ridley and Steve McQueen (writer and director respectively, and no I’m not going to make any sort of joke about how great McQueen was riding motorcycles away from Nazis—that sort of thing is so beneath me) have achieved two things in their new film 12 Years a Slave: they have created one of the most beautiful films about slavery that has ever been made, while also creating one of the ugliest and most realistic movies about slavery that has ever been made. I suppose one might say that they even achieved a third thing here: they managed to create a film in which these two seemingly opposing aesthetic approaches actually support and deepen each other. Not an easy feat and the main achievement in this often hard to watch biopic of a free man who is abducted and sold into slavery.
There is much to like here. As was said, it’s both beautiful and horrible to look at. And there is some amazing use of percussion and sound in the thrilling music score by Hans Zimmer. The technical aspects of the film, the set design, the costumes, etc., are first rate. In fact, if someone called this movie brilliant, I’m not sure I could really argue the point. It’s quite an achievement and an experience not easily forgotten.
So why, at the end of the day, was I never quite emotionally involved in this story of Simon Northrop, the free man betrayed and bound into bondage? Why did I find myself getting antsy at times (and not during the scenes of violence and degradation the slaves were put through—those were the last places where I got antsy)? And why, oh, why (and I say this in fear of getting condemned to criticism hell forever), why do I prefer Django Unchained?
I think there are several reasons why 12 Years… didn’t quite work as well for me as it did for many, many others. The first is that it didn’t seem to take movies about slavery anywhere that it hadn’t gone before. Well, true, it’s the most realistic and grotesque depiction of that ignoble institution, and must be given credit for that. But is that enough? In the end, does the movie say anything more than, well, that slavery is bad, just as every other movie about slavery has also so said? It may have proven its thesis more than others, but again, I’m not sure that that alone is quite enough. It’s worthy, very worthy, for that, but is it any more than that?
The structure also felt a bit static as well. There didn’t seem to be any real rises or falls to the story. Instead, in many ways, it was just one horrifying scene after another, all pretty much on the same level of tension, with a plot that didn’t really seem to be heading in any clear direction. Of course, Ridley and McQueen were trapped to some degree by the subject matter. How do you depict twelve years of slavery that revolves around someone who has no choice but to be reactive rather than active and still keep the story going forward in an exciting and riveting manner when there is no real end game within the character’s control?
It’s not easy. Ronald Harwood and Roman Polanski had the same issue but were more successful in their movie The Pianist, also a movie about someone so trapped in a situation he could do little but react. I think, though, that what made the difference there is two things: in the Pianist, we were constantly aware of what that character was doing to survive on a daily basis (whereas for Northrop, this didn’t seem as strongly dramatized; in fact, whenever he did do something to try to fix his situation, it often felt like it was more an afterthought thrown in by the writers rather than something integral to the structure of the story).
The second is that The Pianist had a structure dictated by a time-line series of events: Poland before the invasion, the German enforcement of anti-Semitic laws, the Warsaw ghetto, the central character escaping before he could be taken to a camp, his hiding in Warsaw during the war, and then the war ending and his life in Russia. But in 12 Years…, Ridley and McQueen couldn’t quite find the same sort of structure; Northrop is freed before the Civil War, and there wasn’t much difference in one year from the next, unlike in the Pianist (and when a difference, an interruption in the status quo, could be dramatized, like Northrop’s two years spent with a more “kindly” master, Ridley and McQueen leaped over it as it were insignificant).
I also felt there was something amiss in the characterizations. To be ruthlessly honest, I found it rather odd that the white characters were the most complex and psychologically intriguing here. The personas played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson (and even those played by actors like Bryan Bratt in much smaller roles) all seemed to have more depth than the slaves. The main exception to this is perhaps Lupito Nyong’o as the mistress of Fassbender’s slave owner (who plays the part as if her life depended on it; it’s an often terrifying performance), but she has relatively little screen time. In fact, what really surprised me is that in a movie about slavery, so much time was spent on the Strindbergian relationship of Fassbender and Paulson’s characters, a husband and wife who find no end of enjoyment in torturing each other.
And there is that dialog. As far as I can tell, it was well written. That didn’t seem to be the issue. For me (and here in full disclosure I must reveal that my friend who saw the movie with me disagreed most fervently on my assessment), none of the actors ever appeared comfortable with the archaic phrasings and rhythms (it never seemed to roll trippingly off their tongues), unlike, say, the actors in True Grit, who attacked their outdated patois with great gusto, as if to the wild west born, or the actors in Topsy-Turvy, who sounded as if they actually grew up in Victorian London. Everybody recited their lines almost as if they needed at least another week of rehearsal for it to feel natural. And that’s when I found myself getting antsy; when the torture and degradation stopped and I had to actually listen to these people talk to each other for extended periods of time.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Northrop with a great deal of empathy. He is a fine actor and is getting all the praise he deserves for his skill here. But in the end, I never quite became emotionally involved in it the way, I’m sure, Ridley and McQueen wanted me to be. I am more than willing to accede that this is all on me. But as much as I appreciated the experience, and it is an experience that should be experienced, it just didn’t quite come together for me.
Bastards is the new, kinda, sorta neo-noir written by Jean-Pol Fargeau and Claire Denis, who also directed (the two often collaborate on their screenplays). I call it kinda, sorta, because it often feels like an early draft, a movie that hasn’t been fully thought out.
It focuses on two people: Raphaelle, the mistress to LaPorte, a powerful businessman, and Marco, a freighter captain who leaves his post to move into a flat above Raphaelle in order to seek revenge against LaPorte, who he blames for all the problems his family has recently undergone (their daughter used as an SM victim, her vagina horribly injured; his brother committing suicide; and the family business going bankrupt). There’s a ton of potential here and the opening horrifying scenes are appropriately puzzling and intriguing (why are those EMT workers crowded around this building; why is this young woman walking naked down the street in high heels; why is the wife blaming the police for the death of her husband who committed suicide). What more could one ask from a neo-noir?
But about half way through, it feels like the story stopped going anywhere that exciting. And it’s this focus, or what might be more accurately called a lack of one, this splitting of the plot between the two people, that seems to be the chief problem. The whole effectiveness of the story gets muddled because in having the narrative derive from two different viewpoints, the story becomes so split, there’s not enough time to fully develop either character, either through line, until the film seems to be flailing to come together in an exciting and emotionally involving manner. The result is a climax that seems to come just as the story was really getting going, making the whole enterprise meaningless, which was then followed by a scene dramatizing the daughter’s SM experience shot, for some mind boggling reason, as if it were an MTV video. If it all means something, or the finale was supposed to come together in a revelatory way, let’s just say it all escaped me.
The movie stars hang-dog looking Vincent (La Mustache, Mademoiselle Chambon) Lindon as Marco and the handsome Chiara Mastroianni (daughter of you know how and you know who) as Raphaelle. They are both excellent and have a nice chemistry together. The whole movie has an effectively moody feel to it, emphasizing the noir of its genre. It has a fantastic set up. It has every ingredient a film of this type should have. Except the correct recipe for putting it all together.