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The Young and the Restless

Is this desire? A lucky couple (or "lucky couple"?) in 'Married at the Mall'
Melody Gilbert

Back when The Blair Witch Project was all the rage, film critic Amy Taubin cried foul in the Village Voice. Why, she wondered, did the movie's doomed protagonist have to be a woman film director? Even if the choice was a simply functional one, it seemed a chilling comment on the sorry state of women filmmakers, who are at the helm of less than eight percent of Hollywood features. Seeing Blair Witch's headstrong, high-strung Heather get cruelly punished--seemingly for her ambition and her willful curiosity--was the scariest part of all.

But, of course, women need to keep going into those woods--some with an agenda, some with open curiosity, some with a story to tell, some with a storyteller to find. That spirit of adventure seems to fuel Walker Art Center's latest "Women With Vision" series, whose subtitle this year is, appropriately, "Restless Age." Showcasing the work of women who go into the filmmaking forest for different reasons, and live to tell about it, the films in this three-week festival (which starts Friday) range from Melody Gilbert's Married at the Mall, a documentary about weddings at the megamall, to music docs such as former Modern Lover Beth Harrington's Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly and Lynne Stopkewich's Lilith on Top; from the French psychocartography of Anne Fontaine's The Way I Killed My Father and Marion Vernoux's A Hell of a Day to Marie Mandy's Filming Desire, a multilingual pastiche of interviews with women directors on the evergreen topic of the camera and female sexuality.

Yes, you heard it: Female Sexuality. Last weekend I happened to catch Eve Ensler performing The Vagina Monologues on HBO, and when it was over I noticed that Real Sex was doing a bit on male sex dolls--which I, like the rest of you(!), have been obsessed with ever since that whole Jude Law/A.I. thing. So I'm watching this, and the very serious and committed male artist/dollmaker was very proud of himself for having rigged a way to make the doll ejaculate. I'm thinking, Wait a minute--why does a woman need that? And then, before I can even huff derisively, there are three focus-group models getting it on with the doll, doing everything to it except what you might expect a real woman, alone and off-camera, to do! I feel queasy. Have we devolved to the point where a woman might buy a sex doll simply to practice pleasing men? Oy. Is this desire?

To the rescue comes Marie Mandy's Filming Desire: A Journey Through Women's Cinema (screening Wednesday, March 20 at 7:00 p.m.). Hearing real women talk about female pleasure, and about the exciting and problematic relationship of women to filming and being filmed, at least reestablished for me that there is some intelligent life on the planet. Indeed, it's a thrill to hear art-film grande dame Agnès Varda discuss her French New Wave classics (e.g., Cleo From 5 to 7), and Cannes darling Jane Campion (The Piano) talk about her own "obsessive," near-cubist approach to emotionality in cinema. Mandy weaves other comments from filmmakers Sally Potter (Orlando), Deepa Mehta (Fire), and Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl) with scenes of sex, sweetness, and showdown, establishing the myriad ways of defining (and divining) female desire. The film is an especially worthy reality check after all the hype over Amélie. Cute flick, that one, but let's be honest: With its quixotic dream-pixie who just wants to return some mystery to life, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's feel-good movie is a work whose eyes are bigger than its heart. And the heroine's desire, while winsomely evoked, still seems a bit male-defined, n'est-ce pas?

 

In some ways, Marion Vernoux's A Hell of a Day (Saturday, March 23 at 8:00 p.m.) is a sort of anti-Amélie. Another in an apparent spate of coincidence films (e.g., Lantana, Vanilla Sky), it hinges, uniquely, on the pathos of pedestrian tragedy while still achieving a dreamlike flow. (Think of it as a less-abstract Chungking Express, with Jane Birkin giving a fabulous performance as an aging professional who longs for a spin on the brink.) Another French entry, Anne Fontaine's The Way I Killed My Father (which opens the festival on Friday at 8:00 p.m.), is a more subtle rumination on the perennial Oedipal clash of father and son. An elderly doctor who abandoned his young sons years before returns to France from Africa under mysterious circumstances, reentering his children's lives and forcing them to deal with their anger and vulnerability. His elder son, a successful doctor to the rich (played with cold menace by Charles Berling), seethes as his father's presence unglues his careful constructs, including his tenuous, unfaithful relationship with his sad-eyed socialite wife. Fontaine uses clever devices, such as the younger brother's bittersweet comedy-club monologues, to question the nature of the parent-child bond. As the father, Michel Bouquet brings an Old World charm, otherworldly calm, and seeming lack of guilt to his performance, creating the quiet tension at the film's center.

Also questioning procreation and its impact on selfhood is cyber-theory performance artist Lynn Hershmann-Leeson, whose Teknolust (Saturday, March 9 at 8:00 p.m.) is as much about form, symbolism, and emotional energy as it is about anything like what we usually call "a story." With hilarious nerd-in-the-headlights delivery, Tilda Swinton stars as Dr. Rosetta Stone, the lonely creator of three clone-replicants (also played by Swinton). Her creations are color-coded friend/child surrogates that the doctor keeps in isolation while working as a research scientist. Problem is, the replicants need testosterone. Uh-oh. This means that one of them, Ruby, has to go out and have sex with human men, and save saving the condoms to make tea. (Ewwwwww!) But really: Don't try to follow the plot, or you'll miss all the good stuff--like the way Ruby makes her victims "cuddle" so she can assign them a barcode, or the violence in the air when one of the replicants decides to speak her own "encrypted" language.

Hershmann-Leeson plays with the idea of adjustment, highlighting the awkwardness of humans in what ought to be their comfort zone. Lots of the action takes place in cyberspace, and the Web design work, high-def videography, and meticulous post-production needed to bring this off are not in vain. Ruby's Web site is beautiful, and it's a true pleasure to watch a computer screen that's not emanating dangerous-looking horizontal waves. The triumph of the film, though, is the sweet energy between Swinton's Ruby and her first real-world friend/lover, a copyboy named Sandy (played to shoe-gazing, Kurt Cobain-meets-Crispin Glover perfection by Jeremy Davies). The fact that the plot culminates with a relatively facile note (The real world may be messy, but at least it's real...) only highlights the sense that "how things end up" may not be as meaningful as the process.

Speaking of trial and error, the series' annual "Girls in the Director's Chair" sidebar--featuring work by girls and women between the ages of 9 and 19--contains at least two locally made standouts. (Both screen in the shorts program on Saturday at 7:00 p.m.) Directed by Sayer Frey (whose Eileen Is a Spy began its long local life at an earlier "Women With Vision" fest), the deeply funny and affecting "Swimming Alive" is a study of impasse, featuring a man and woman discussing her refusal to take off her favorite bathing suit. (It's a wear-the-same-swimsuit-every-day-thing--you wouldn't understand.) And Emily Goldberg's "Venus of Mars"--the seven-minute trailer for her work-in-progress documentary--offers a quick glimpse into the private life and het marriage of transgender rocker Venus of All the Pretty Horses. The film is a real-life ode to the joys of treating desire as a creative experiment, with courage and a sense of humor.

Another look at local relationships, Married at the Mall (Saturday at 9:00 p.m.), aims to answer the question, So who gets married at the Mall of America's Chapel of Love? The answer: a young farm-town couple who equate the event with big-city adventure; an older couple finding love late in life; two locals who decide to remarry after sharing a house for nine years in a blissful state of divorce; and a young cross-country-trucker pair stopping off the highway to make it official. Interviews reveal whimsical kitsch seekers as well as locals who feel a real spiritual connection to the place. If you're looking for a chance to cringe at crass materialism, you won't find it here. Ironically, a mall wedding, amid the garish trappings of American greed, actually emerges as less commercially driven and obscenely spectacular than your standard suburban event. In the church of capitalist excess, these ceremonies are small, sweet, and somehow incredibly lonely. They have that hopeful yet infinitesimal feeling of proposals announced during the seventh-inning stretch. Of joy accompanied by a creeping sense of dread. True love it may be, but one of the things director Melody Gilbert seems to have discovered is that, hey, no one ever said that foraging through the woods was gonna be a picnic.


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