White Bird in a Blizzard, 2014

Gregg Araki is one of my favourite directors, and has been since I discovered his work in my late teens (or early twenties). I prefer his films on the more bizarre end of the spectrum (Nowhere, The Doom Generation, Kaboom, etc.), but I still love his less strange films. So, I was excited when White Bird in a Blizzard was announced. The premise sounded interesting (I love mysteries!) and it was going to star Eva Green? How could that get any better. It wasn’t well received, but Araki’s films rarely seem to be (except maybe Mysterious Skin) and his work falls definitely in the Love or Hate category (or, perhaps, ‘get it’ or ‘don’t get it’). I think it’s hard to explain to those who don’t ‘get’ Araki’s work, why his films are so enjoyable and so great. (Maybe someone else has the capacity to describe their appeal beyond flailing and gushing, but I sure don’t).

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So I went into White Bird with caution, but I shouldn’t have because I loved it. It’s not surprising – usually when it comes to my favourites I’m rarely disappointed. I’m not particularly discerning or critical, especially when it comes to both mysteries and movies about teen girls. The story centres on Kat Connors (Shailene Woodley), whose mother, Eve (Eva Green), goes missing when she’s seventeen years old. The story is told in scenes from the present day (1988), flashbacks of Eve’s earlier life narrated by Kat’s voiceover, before taking us forward to 1991, with still no word of Eve’s whereabouts.

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It’s photographed beautifully, has a dreamlike quality to it, and the soundtrack is superb (as always). Araki definitely knows how to make a stylish film. I love that he is equally capable of crafting the absurd atmospheres of Nowhere and The Doom Generation as he is something less ‘out there’, but equally surreal in its own way, as White Bird.

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The performances were all fantastic, particularly Shailene Woodley and Eva Green (who always steals the show IMHO).  Eva Green really was the highlight of the film, playing bored, and deeply unhappy, housewife Eve, without being a cliche. Chris Meloni was really good, too. The changes in his character were so subtle. I like that the tone of the film was really different to most mysteries. It wasn’t particularly creepy, or unsettling in an overt way, and the sense of loss is quite subtle. The mystery itself is not particularly substantial, nor did I find it overly shocking, but that’s fine. The rest of the journey made up for it, for me. It’s not an edge-of-your seat thriller but I found beauty in its quietness.

There is definitely a distance, perhaps even a coldness to Woodley’s character, but as someone who finds it difficult to connect on an emotional level (to other people, anyway, no issues connecting emotionally to films or fictional characters), I didn’t see that as a bad thing. And with the way Eve treated Kat, it’s easy to see why she would block the way her mother’s disappearance affected her, just brushed it off as another ‘crazy’ thing her mother had done. (Instead of accepting it as a painful experience that actually happened to her).

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Once again, I’m fairly certain I’m in the minority with loving this film, but I’m OK with that (I’ve recently realised I have a tendency to fall for films that were panned by audiences and critics alike). But, as much as I loved this, I really do prefer when Araki goes for anarchic and absurd.

Morgiana. 1972

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After watching and falling deeply in love with The Duke of Burgundy, I decided to seek out some of the films Peter Strickland cited as influences for his film. The first (and still, to date, the only) I watched was Morgiana, a 1972 Czech Gothic thriller, directed by Juraj Herz, about a woman who jealously plots the murder of her better liked sister (both roles played by Iva Janzurová). I should preface this with two things: writing this was very challenging for me as I find movies like this tend to be outside my comprehension in any kind of ‘academic’ way; I’m not familiar enough with films of this ilk. But I loved it and wanted to write about it.

Morgiana is a histrionic fairy tale, a fevered dream set in an unspecified European region, brought to life with lush colours and delightfully gaudy sets and costumes. It opens with sisters Klára and Viktoria being instructed by a lawyer on the contents of their recently deceased father’s will: each sister gets one of his properties.

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Klara inherits the airy, pretty estate but Viktoria gets a supposedly haunted manor. This sets the tone for the two sisters’ personalities and how they are received by others. It is evident from the outset that Viktoria is jealous of Klára, who is easily amiable, cheerful and well-liked by everyone. Viktoria is the polar opposite of Klara, manifested in their equally different looks.

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Both women appear virginal but where Klára is ‘pure’ in the fashion of a fairy-tale princess, akin to Snow White, Viktoria is ‘repressed’, petty and jealous. She is more like the evil virgin queen, ice cold and remote with a deep mean streak (albeit more nervy than any evil queen). We see this in a scene where Viktoria sneaks up on some of her servant girls, bathing in the ocean, carefree and scantily clad, and gleefully throws a rock at one’s head. It’s interesting to think that’s it not just a matter of the virgin/whore dichotomy but that ‘virgin’ women are presented in different ways: it is either a virtue or a sickness.

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It is a testament to Janzurová’s acting and Herz’s editing that I often forgot that Klára and Viktoria were played by the same actress. I found the editing and some of the camera ‘tricks’ to be quite interesting, if disorienting, such as filming from Viktoria’s cat’s (the eponymous Morgiana) point of view at times. The first time it happened, I immediately knew the camera had taken on the point of view of a cat, not only from the eye level but the movement which couldn’t be anything other than feline.

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The creepiness of Morgiana is more often in the dreamlike atmosphere and intense score (by Lubos Fiber) than in actual content. (Although a woman plotting to murder her sister isn’t exactly not creepy). It is more a psychological exploration than a straight-up horror. Even Viktoria seems a reluctant murderess at first, when she uses the slow-acting poison she procured and immediately tries to get Klára to drink from a different glass. However, once Klara does drink she seems gleeful but nervous. She retires to her own estate, where she becomes increasingly paranoid, going so far as to test the poison on a dog (and then not knowing if the dog, a servant’s son or her own beloved cat drank the concoction).

As Klára descends into illness, she begins to hallucinate another version of herself, in a flame-red dress (reminiscent of Viktoria’s red nightgown), who is more like the petty Viktoria than the amiable Klára herself. Mirrors are just one of the motifs used to hint at a fragmenting personality and unsettled psyche (apparently Herz originally wanted the film to end showing that both sisters were just aspects of one woman’s split personality, but couldn’t because of the censors at the time). There are also some kaleidoscopic scenes, that look like a 3D film viewed without glasses, that Klára sees in her fevered state.

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The 1970s does Edwardian costumes were swoon inducing and that OTT makeup was to die for. (Pardon the pun).

There was one scene that reminded me a bit of Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (a scene where one of the sisters is running along some stairs or a road by a beach or similar that reminded me of the repeated scene in Meshes). I’m not sure that this was an intentional inspiration for the film, but I’d only watched Meshes recently, so my mind made the connection. The dreamlike quality of Morgiana fits well with the actual dream represented in Meshes, though.

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The make-up of my teen goth dreams.

There is another beautiful, mesmerising scene in which Viktoria is looking through an old trunk, and she pulls out all these gauzy, delicate dresses, letting them float about her as they drift to the floor. The chiaroscuro lighting lends an eery atmosphere, as the dresses become ghostly forms. Strickland lifted this scene to great effect for The Duke of Burgundy.

Morgiana is a strange film that had me captivated throughout the entirety of its running time. It’s definitely one that I want to revisit and think about some more, in the future.

 

Getting to know you

Around this time, last year, on Tumblr I reblogged a post that suggested making a list of the top 10 films that, right now, would let someone get to know you. ‘not necessarily your ten favorite movies but the ten movies that you, as a person existing currently, feel would help people get to know you’. You can see what I posted back then here.

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Red Desert (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964)

I’ll admit that, while I love the idea, it’s a little abstract for my general way of thinking. While there is a great deal to learn about someone from their interests, I tend to struggle making the connection of what exactly it is I can glean from it. So, my way of choosing films was perhaps different than how others chose films. (Then again, it may not have been). For instance, I mostly chose films that had characters I thought reflected aspects of my personality or to whom I felt a deep connection (other films, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, were chosen because I’ve loved them for so long I felt they left an indelible mark on me).

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Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962)

But I love making lists, especially ones that challenge me, so I thought it would be interesting to revisit it. Most of my current choices are the same, so this post may be redundant but I did swap out The Philadelphia Story for Stoker, and removed The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I spent a long time thinking about what I would change, but I honestly feel like I’m in such a similar place, now, as I was last year that there isn’t much point changing most of them.

Red Desert (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964)

Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)

Muriel’s Wedding (PJ Hogan, 1994)

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012)

Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)

Muriel’s Wedding (PJ Hogan, 1994)

Muriel’s Wedding (PJ Hogan, 1994)

Les Amours Imaginaires (Xavier Dolan, 2010)

Secretary (Steven Shainberg, 2002)

Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962)

Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (David Mirkin, 1997)

Stoker (Chan-wook Park, 2013)

Stoker (Chan-wook Park, 2013)

Stoker (Chan-wook Park, 2013)

I was going to write a little from each film about what I connected to, and why I picked it, but I feel like it’s more interesting to let them speak for themselves. I will say that I think these films say that I’m still feeling a bit lost and uncertain about life. And maybe that I find it difficult to connect (to others). This is a far more personal post than I am accustomed to, but I just liked the idea so much, and I felt like I needed to revisit it. It would be interesting to see what others would choose!

The Duke of Burgundy, 2014

*Review originally posted on letterboxd and expanded for my blog.

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Written and directed by Peter Strickland, The Duke of Burgundy (2014), is an erotic melodrama which centres on the relationship between Cynthia and Evelyn, a lepidopterist and her younger lover. Taking visual and atmospheric cues from gothic horror and other films of the ’60s and ’70s it is a lush and romantic (and Romantic) film exploring the tensions between the two lovers as Cynthia is unable to satisfy Evelyn in the way she wishes to be. It is set in an indeterminate European town (in what could be any time), and populated entirely by women.

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I had been in a strange, dreamy mood, after finishing a particularly haunting book, and this turned out to be the perfect movie to watch in that state. It is one of those films that seems to seep right into every pore, leaves you dazed (and I shall stop myself before I get too…poetic about it all. I have a tendency to do that, as evidenced in my Superman Returns review). I went into it not knowing very much, which I don’t always like, but it worked well for me this time. (I’ve tried not to give too much away in this review).

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It’s a beautiful, sensual film and it moved me deeply. Maybe one of the most romantic and believable films I’ve seen in some time. It manages to explore what is still an unconventional relationship to many in a way that is not shocking but still revelatory. I felt completely immersed in the film but there was still a slight sense of removal watching it all unfold. I have to admit, I haven’t seen a lot of films that deal with BDSM in a relationship but I thought this did so well and respectfully. I think it was the first I’ve seen that showed that the scenes were actually negotiated (or, at least, requested) in advance.

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The visuals are stunning; I’m a sucker for mirrors/reflections, distorted and refracted images, etc., which can be overdone but Strickland utilised these tricks well. The crisp colours, perfect costumes and picturesque settings rounded it out nicely in creating the atmosphere.

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Oh, and I have to mention the score/soundtrack by Cat’s Eyes. It is exquisite. Especially the pieces with the harpsichord and that dreamy (there’s that word again!) sighing/chanting. I’ll shamefully admit, I don’t often pay the most attention to scores, but I’ve been listening to this one on repeat since I watched the film a couple of nights ago.

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The two lead actresses (Chiara D’Anna and Sidse Babett Knudsen) were great, particularly Knudsen, who played Cynthia. Her insecurity and fear of love slipping away was eloquently acted. Evelyn had the sense of a petulant child about her at times, which worked well, but you see her tenderness too.

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It is a film I can see myself revisiting in the future (probably multiple times) and would highly recommend. I’ve added the trailer below.

Further reading:

Peter Strickland: six films that fed into The Duke of Burgundy at BFI

Designer Spotlight: Eiko Ishioka

Picture heavy post.

A lot of my ‘reviews’ focus quite a bit on costumes, so I thought I would start writing about some of my favourite costume designers. For one, it will give me something different to write about. For another thing, it will make me actually research some costume designers. I can only think of a few off the top of my head – Eiko Ishioka, Colleen Atwood, Edith Head – and as someone who has an appreciation for costumes, it’s about time I start to look at the people designing them, more often.

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As it was an idea I had while watching Immortals (don’t ask how many times I’ve seen that movie), I decided to start with the late Eiko Ishioka, who designed the costumes for that film (arguably the most impressive aspect). She also designed the costumes for one of my favourite movies, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for which she won an Oscar. I’ve mostly focussed on these two films, as well as Mirror Mirror: The Untold Adventures of Snow White, as I’ve shamefully yet to see any others.

Eiko Ishioka was born in Tokyo in 1938. Before costume design, she previously worked in advertising and then in production design, when she worked with Paul Schrader for Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. But it is her surreal, over the top costumes for which I best know her.

1bramstokersdracula03Of course I had to start with this dress from Dracula. It’s so iconic! I remember reading something where Ishioka mentioned she was influenced by frilled neck lizards, which I just love. (Note: I think it was in the video I’ve posted below). As a part-time cosplayer this is on my ultimate dream costume wishlist.

1dracula-movie-screencaps.com-2432 copyLucy and Mina make a stunning pair. Their costumes reflect the differences between these two friends – Lucy is often seen with her hair down and in flowing gowns, her shoulders exposed, even before she starts transforming, while Mina is more reserved and modest by contrast with high necks, rows of buttons and carefully coiffed hair.

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