Friday, September 18, 2015

Persona is having a moment

The fact that a number of films set in San Francisco should come out the same year, as discussed yesterday, does not seem quite as unusual as the fact that there are a number of concurrent films that are duplicating the essential relationship dynamics of Ingmar Bergman's Persona.

If anything, that should come next year, when the movie celebrates its 50th anniversary. But I guess there's no accounting for when a certain movie starts to really express itself in the artistic collective unconsciousness.

For those who don't know -- and that might have included me before I actually saw Persona last year -- Bergman's film deals, very elliptically (would there be any other way with this subject matter?), with the blending of personalities of two women who are holed up together for a period of time in a seaside bungalow. They are an actress who's lost her voice, and her nurse. It's considered by some to be one of the greatest films ever made. I don't consider it that, but I can't deny that it has a certain elemental power that you just have to see to understand -- to try to understand, anyway.

The same feeling, more or less, struck me when I was watching The Duke of Burgundy on Tuesday night -- only I think I like Burgundy even more than I like Persona. Peter Strickland's follow-up to Berberian Sound Studio (which was my #5 film of 2013) also features two women in a confined space, a comparatively confined space (it's a mansion), though they do also spend time apart and with other women. (No other men, though.) They have some kind of dominant-submissive sexual relationship, though it's not always clear who's the dominant and who's the submissive, and to even get caught up in the fact that their relationship is kinky tends to belittle just how much profound other stuff is going on here. In any case, comparisons to Persona seem obvious, though apparently Strickland was surprised to hear them as that was not what he was thinking of when he made the movie.

The Duke of Burgundy may have been the first of these movies in 2015 -- it was released cinematically in the U.S. way back in January, though not until last week here in Australia -- though it was not the last. Next came Clouds of Sils Maria, in which a fortysomething actress and her twentysomething assistant have some personality overlap as they run lines for a play, which also features two characters about their same ages. Making matters more complicated, the actress actually played the younger role when she was an ingenue, but is taking on the older role now that the play is being revived. Though I didn't particularly care for this movie, and have decided I'm fairly cold on Olivier Assayas in general, it's sat with me enough that I probably need to revisit it. Again, the comparisons to Persona seem fairly obvious, as the film's key moments take place while they are staying together in a remote cabin.

Lastly -- or at least, I think it's lastly -- there is Queen of Earth, which has yet to open in Australia and which is the latest film from Listen Up Phillip's Alex Ross Perry. This film apparently features another two women, this time both young (as is the case, more or less, in Persona), staying by themselves at a lake house. As I understand it, they were once close but have discovered they have grown apart, and the movie becomes a full-on psychological thriller. It's the poster as much as anything that probably makes a person think of the emotional dissolution of a movie like Persona:

So why are all these filmmakers trotting out their influences -- acknowledged or otherwise -- at the same time? And why don't we ever seen any movies where men exchange personalities? Is the female mind considered more malleable, more subject to destabilization? And if so, isn't that kind of sexist? Or is it just that women are more mysterious, which is less sexist but still sort of sexist? Would men blending personalities be "too gay" for us?

It may be no coincidence that these are all males directing females. Could a woman directing men get away with the same thing? If Sofia Coppola wanted to make a movie about two men blurring identities, would we question her authority to do so? Or her motivation behind doing so?

It's just an extreme continuation of what male directors have always done to their female stars, molding them and shaping them and turning them into inscrutable figures. And though I certainly don't want to get on my high horse about gender politics -- especially considering how much I like both Burgundy and Persona -- I do have to wonder.

But wait, there's more! One of the movies I'm most looking forward to later this year is Carol, directed by Todd Haynes, about a relationship (with psychologically bizarre overtones?) between a young department store clerk and an older, married woman. Can this be just a lesbian love story, or will it have to make us question what is reality and what isn't?

Well, I look forward to finding out, anyway.

One side note about The Duke of Burgundy, which I'll throw in here so I don't have to devote a whole post to it: There's a particularly unusual type of service credited in the opening credits. No, I'm not talking about who provided the lingerie, though that's unusual enough. I'm talking about who provided the perfume. That's right, a production element that you could not possibly detect if you tried, and in fact is completely unnecessary even for the performers, was credited. "Perfume by" and then whoever it was. I love the idea that they considered perfume such an atmospheric, essential part of filmmaking that they went so far as to let us know who provided it. I hope that gives you some sense of the type of experience you're getting involved with here.

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