Fantastic Planet [1973] – An Uncanny Reflection on Human Condition

                                            Roland Topor, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Fernando Arrabal, in the early 1960’s collectively formed ‘Panic Movement’ [named after Greek mythological god ‘Pan’ – God of nature & wild]. Influenced by Salvador Dali, Antonin Artaud, and Luis Bunuel, the trio did surreal performance art to provide a counterpoint to the increasing mainstream spin on surrealism. Most of their theatrical works were deemed ‘shocking’. While Jodorowsky and Arrabal started to work on feature-films (from late 1960’s and they dissolved ‘Panic Movement’ in 1973), artist Roland Topor wrote the novel “The Tenant” (which was made into a movie by Roman Polanski). 

                                       Around the time 'Panic Movement' was initiated, in France, animator Rene Laloux, who went to art school to study painting, took a job in a psychiatric institution. In the early 1960’s, he hosted series of creative workshops, including painting and puppetry, and also did experimental animation short with the interns. They were made just with moving paper cuts, although these shorts won prizes at festivals. In 1964, Laloux made contact with Topor with whom he made two shorts – “Dead Times” (1964) and “The Snails” (1965). By the late 1960’s, Topor and Laloux decided to work on a full-length animated feature, based on dentist-turned-sci-fi-writer Stefan Wul’s novel [“Oms en serie”]. Since there weren’t many full-length animated films were made in France at the time, they started their project in the great Czech illustrator Jiri Trnka’s studio. In Prague, Trnka is known as ‘Walt Disney of Eastern Europe’ though there is no similarities between their works.

                                           Roland Topor created the designs; Laloux took the direction part; and the Czech team made drawings for the actual film. Alas, the production went to inanimate stage due to Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia and the subsequent censorship. Moreover, they ran out of funds. Eventually it emerged safely from the blistering communist censors and the film was screened at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival. Rene Laloux’s trippy visual experience titled “La planete sauvage” aka “Fantastic Planet” went on to win Grand Prix Prize at Cannes and also got nominated for the ‘Golden Palm’. The trouble this film ran into during Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia made many to read it as an allegory of Soviet Union’s cruel treatment of its satellite states. While it could be interpreted in many different ways - from political to theological - “Fantastic Planet” is basically a cautionary tale of (our race’s) thoughtless violence and stresses the need for individuality.

                                             The mesmerizing cut-out tableaux, the twisted creatures and landscape gained the ‘cult status’ and continues to revered among devotees of mind-expanding substances (‘psychedelic’ is the word often thrown in relation to the film). The story is just rehashed version of biblical story ‘Exodus’. A baby Om (humans) named ‘Terr’ is rescued and grown as a pet by 100 feet tall ‘Draag’ leader’s child [named Tiwa]. The intelligent, grown-up ‘Terr’ steals the simple device of knowledge from ‘Draag’ to find a place among the wild ‘Oms’. After facing near-extinction in the hands of draags, Terr eventually leads the downtrodden ‘Oms’ to a new land. The film opens on a sinister note as we see a woman, dressed in rags, clutches her small baby and runs through strange, desert scape. A giant blue hand blocks the woman’s path, which is revealed to be that of a ‘draag’ child’s. Three draag children are just playing with the female ‘om’ and they accidentally kill her.

                                             Draag’s are giant creatures, living in a planet called ‘Ygam’. They have advanced technology and are often engaged in hallucinatory meditation sessions to expand their spiritual knowledge across realms (draag’s souls float around as little balls in space). As much as they exhibit logic and reason, they also have emotions. Like our human parents, draags too insist on the need for learning and succumb to the children’s desire to have a pet. The pet in this case are actually tamed, inferior human-like race. Despite the showcase of intelligence by ‘Om’, the race is considered inferior and often referred as ‘vermin’. The draag girl Tiwa loves her pet Terr in the same way we love our pets. She inflicts casual torture upon her 'pet'. This casual cruelty contrasts significantly from their teachings, search for inner peace and technologies, pretty much like our own apathy. Like the humans’ inferior treatment of fellow humans, the draags feel no emotion in mistreating the ‘Om’. In the Draag council, there’s proposal for ‘de-omisation’ (read it as ‘genocide’), which has obvious parallels with the many human-led massacres. Apart from the satirical and allegorical portrayal of ‘draags’, the Oms are also handled in an even-handed manner, painted with their own superstition and ignorant attitudes.

                                                 Those who are expecting a thoroughly entertaining animated fare would feel disappointed by the film’s flat narrative tone. In fact, there’s less dynamism when compared with Jan Svankmejer’s works. Since the creators were much interested in designing their vision, not much focus is given to apt narrative beats. But, what’s fascinating about “Fantastic Planet” is the imaginative visual surrealism, which reminds us of Bosch as well as Dali’s paintings. Terr’s journey into the Ygam’s weird landscape is filled with interesting creatures and wild plants that are alternately haunting as well as funny. The gleaming crystal outgrowths, the multi-limbed foliage, huge trees with vacuum-like openings, giant insects and the various eroticized landscape imagery - phallic & vaginal structures - invokes a ghastly as well as mirthful emotions. 
                                              The hand-drawn lines provide incredible and intense sense of detail, transcending any accusation for datedness. Rene Laloux directorial approach is that of a stationary observer, which escalates our interpretation with familiar horrors. Of all the sensational images, one of the most unforgettable visual from the film is that of encased ‘draag’ soul attaching itself to headless naked bodies, marooned at Ygam’s moon, to make a elegant waltz. In other words, it could all be termed as ‘a marvellous mind f**k’.


                                       While “Fantastic Planet” (72 minutes) is largely known for the fanciful, psychedelic designs, its true appeal lies in the meaningful way it questions our apathetic ways. The rich tapestry of images insists on the cardinal rule for survival – peaceful co-existence.  


Hunt for the Wilderpeople [2016] – A Warm and Rollicking Journey

                                            The joys and pains of being a misfit is the central theme of New Zealand film-maker Taika Waititi’s beguiling comedy/dramas. Waititi, son of a painter, had drifted between creative professions of acting, photography, writing, music, and finally settling on directing. One of his early short films “Two Cars, One Night” (2005) earned him an Oscar nomination. He soon launched his directorial debut “Eagle Vs Shark” (2007), casting fellow New Zealand comedian Jemaine Clement (known for TV series “Flight of the Concords”) as the socially awkward protagonist. It was a wry comedy with a tone that’s similar to Jared Hess’ “Napoleon Dynamite”. He followed it with sharp coming of age tale “Boy” and then collaborated with Clement to make the energetic vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows”. The nuanced comedy, showcasing the odd-ball vampire's slice-of-life gained cult standing among the fans of this sub-genre.  Waititi’s latest venture, based on Barry Crump's book 'Wildpork and Watercress', titled “Hunt for Wilderpeople” (2016) is a much more sophisticated film in terms of budget & visuals, as he confidently breathes in an eccentric rhythm. The tone undulates between smashing comedy and sensitive drama. Although the tone isn’t perfectly balanced at times (as it becomes too goofy for its own good), the marvelous audiovisual elements plus a fantastic cast transforms this film to be one of the best feel-good movies of the year.  

                                               The film opens on the greeny mountainous New Zeland landscapes and an arousing choral chant fills the soundtrack. A police car cruises through the rugged terrain and we see the glimpses of character sitting on the back seat of police vehicle. The car stops at a farm and the camera slowly introduces the hero of this tale: a troubled 13 year old pudgy boy Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison). The comically stern social worker Paula (Rachel House) with a interpretative motto “No Child Left Behind” drops off Ricky at the latest in a long series of foster homes. She warns the new foster mother Bella (Rima Te Wiata) about the assortment of mischief the boy is capable of. Bella bestows unconditional love on Ricky, which pales in difference when compared to her husband Hec aka Hector Faulkner (Sam Neill), an illiterate, cantankerous bushman. The stoicism Ricky gained by getting ricocheted from foster home to another, breaks up in front of Bella’s compassion. The childless ‘aunt’ lets Ricky run away, climbing the steep hills, close to the farm and advises him to be back for breakfast. Ricky has acquired the taste for hip-hop music. He is embroiled with pop psychology that his ambitions are to become a ‘gangsta’ as he already feels like an outlaw.

                                                Bella has outfitted Ricky’s room with variety of books, a hot-water bottle and toy animals. They both bewilderingly observe each others' talents. Ricky has the knack for saying expressive haiku – like ‘Kingi, you wanker’, while aunt Bella flaunts her butchering knife to slaughter a wild pig. The boy slowly comes out of his shell after aunt gives the first birthday present he ever received: a farm dog which Ricky names ‘Tupac’. Hec just keeps his distance, answering in monosyllables or just glowers. However, the prospect for Ricky achieving a steady life is prematurely killed with a sudden tragedy. The ensuing events make Ricky and Hec to run into the hills. The duo end up camping in the bush for a longer time than intended as a simple misunderstanding turns them into fugitives (a crazy national manhunt is set off and news media concocts their own version). The misfits argue about several things from poetry to processing difficult emotions. The adventure makes them to meet up with charming individuals like a chatty teenage girl (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne) and madcap ‘Psycho Sam’ (Rhys Darby).

                                               Waititi’s movies strike a chord with us because of his emotional honesty that withholds existence’s fuller spectrum of joy and tragedy.The mixture of distressing elements alongside humor is achieved with a delicate emotional balance. The other vital ingredient of Waititi’s stories is the New Zealand brand of humor, which like the Eastern European humor designs comedy out of the mundane, boring life elements. Director Waititi’s deadpan montages are perfect example for his trademark dry comedy (which also reminds us of Edgar Wright’s visual comedy style). While he finds room for compassion and humor in the grimmest of scenarios, the director never belittles or caricatures the characters. The absurd humor which raises the misfit characters’ falsified notions do get a bit tiring or repetitive, but we don’t loss the well-crafted emotional connection. Waititi often kind of over-writes things which makes certain comedic exchanges as part of some other unrelated skit. For example, there’s a sequence where Paula and Ricky argues about their likeness to ‘Terminator’. But, what keep the film from straddling too much are the taut visuals. You may not need an introduction about the picturesque, ‘majestical’ landscapes of New Zealand, although what need to be mentioned are the innovative visual gags. In the montages, we see the camera moving from left to right, unfolding all the actions happenings in the dense forest. The movements in time and space are merged with a single shot. It’s as old a method as in the 360 degree photographs, but here the visuals well serves the narrative as the moving frames are diffused with little gags. The astute direction also helps in the emotional scenes. While the writing calls for over-the-top sentimentality, the camera sensibly keeps a distance. Look at how Waititi frames the film’s most tragic moment. He only uses a medium shot and obscures the crying face from our view. Then, there’s the fire-camp scene, when the shot lingers on Ricky’s face as he uses cryptic words to convey the tragedy that befell on his best friend Amber.

                                                 Waititi’s extended scenes of absurdist chases didn’t engage me very much, but the comedic gold, in terms of writing is the episode involving Darby’s ‘Psycho Sam’ aka ‘Bushman’. He adorns his head with tin-caps to stop government guys infiltrating his mind, since his aspiration is to love outside the world of ‘form-fillers’. Of the recurrent themes Waititi explores, the most I like is the way he treats hyper-masculinity (“I come from a country whose idea of masculinity is quite extreme and I've grown up around a lot of that energy, I've been part of that a lot. And it's very draining, it's quite tiring trying to be macho” says Mr. Waititi). It’s shown as contortion of reality and as a toxic fantasy. Ricky fancies a thug life (aka skux life) to forge a career in drug-dealing and to eventually have a Scarface-style shoot-out. While in reality, he is not capable of being that worst or emotionally insensitive. This central conflict is etched with a fine dose of humor in Waititi’s previous three features too. It’s also commendable to see a modern day comedy that relies less on crudeness or insult. Of course, there are few ‘fat’ jokes, but they are like good-natured poking rather than being a cruel blow. The performances aren’t certainly polished, although it’s definitely touching. Dennison does a fine job of making Ricky likeable as well as little annoying. He is really good at tapping onto Ricky’s profound emotional depths. It’s been a long time since we saw such a warm, understated performance from Sam Niell.


                                                      “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (101 minutes) is an amusing and poignant adventurous tale set in New Zealand’s hinterlands. ‘I watched Ricky’s skux life/ it was majestical/ I loved it’ (thanks for bearing my own haiku).   


A Brief Introduction to the Cinema of 'Denis Villeneuve'


  “My job is very fragile. There’s no insurance. I never know the next morning what I’m going to do. As long as they allow me to make movies there, I will. But it’s one movie at a time. I’m making every movie like it’s my last one, because you never know. I only believe I’m making a movie when I put my eyes behind the camera.”

                                                        ---      Denis Villeneuve

                                          I don’t believe in words that are alleged to be prophetic. But, I can’t stop wonder how apt the name was for the first film competition Mr. Denis Villeneuve decided to participate. It’s called “Destination World Race” aka ‘La course destination monde’. May be he destined to transcend national boundaries to make movies that raced around the world. Now let me not get ahead and make a myth out of Villeneuve’s staggering rise to be one of the important, contemporary film-makers.   Born on October 3rd 1967, in Quebec’s southern-side suburb, Trois Rivieres, Denis Villeneuve abandoned science major at college to pursue interest in film studies. He enrolled at ‘Universite de Quebec a Montreal’ and at 1990, he made his first documentary short with Stephane Thibault for ‘Destination Worldrace’ under the tittle ‘La Course Europe-Asie). This short movie series (1988-99) presented by Radio-Canada had participants traveling alone around the world to make 4 minute movies. On the year 1990, Villeneuve won the first prize in this competition. This early victory pushed him to make similar low-budget, minimal running time projects. In 1994, he wrote and directed his first short film titled “REW-FFD” (1994). In 1996, the budding film-maker got a meaty chance to direct a segment in anthology of short films called “Cosmos”. It was a showcase for young Canadian directors’ talent and Villeneuve made the tense segment titled “Le Technetium”.

                                          In 1998, he decided to make his first feature film August 32nd on Earth. The film was about a woman named Simone, a fashion model, whose life goals changes when she miraculously survives a car accident. She is now obsessed in giving birth to a life (to have a baby) and seeks the help of her best friend Philippe. Despite bizarre nature of plot outline, this film was an impressive effort for a first time film-maker. It was a deliberately elusive work of a woman’s self-discovery (the remarkably arresting performance of Pascale Bussieres was another strong aspect). The film was also screened at 1998 Cannes Film Festival and received glowing reviews. The follow-up feature film Maelstrom (2000) was equally elusive and confirmed that Villeneuve is Canada’s burgeoning film-making talent.  The marvelous French-Canadian actress Marie Josee Croze played the central role of a depressed, substance abusing woman named Bibi, who falls in love with a man whose father she believes to have accidentally killed (a hit-and-run case). The bizarre & distinct aspect of “Maelstrom” is that it is narrated by a fish, waiting to be cut off on a butcher’s block. There was a narrative and visual maturity Villeneuve gained in this second film itself, which continues to marvel us till now.

Pascale Bussieres in "August 32nd on Earth"

                                          Denis Villeneuve took a 9 year gap before the release of his acclaimed drama Polytechnique, based on the shooting at Montreal’s Poly-technique School on December 6th, 1989 which claimed the lives of 14 women. One of the prominent works Villeneuve made in his 9 year hiatus from film-making was the 11 minute short Next Floor (2008). Based on the original idea bestowed by Pheobe Greenberg, the place of action in this short film was a banquet table. There were quite a few moments in “Next Floor” we are left to watch the events unfolding with bafflement and an open mouth. It was a vivid portrayal of how over-consumption and uncontrolled appetites would forever take control of our senses. Villeneuve’s “Polytechnique” left out all the uniquely weird narrative & visual techniques to incorporate a very minimal, but powerful visual style. This film swept seven major awards (including Best Picture) at the Genie Awards – the Canadian equivalent of Academy Awards. Marc Lepine, the shooter at Poly-technique School, specifically targeted woman, noting down in a letter that woman (& feminists) had robbed him of opportunities to lead a better life. But, Villeneuve doesn’t turn into a poster boy for ‘feminism’ or shove in loud messages through ‘Polytechnique’. The way he visualized the impact of violence and how his frames lingered in many of the film’s distressing unspoken moments must be lesson for film-makers trying to portray real-life morbid events on-screen.

A still from one of distressing sequence in "Polytechnique"

                                           In 2010, Villeneuve returned with a tale of a woman tracking down her mother’s horrific past. It was the film you could say cleansed any doubts in the mind of movie-lover about Villeneuve being one of the excellent film artists. The film was titled Incendiesand deemed to be one of the best films to come out of Quebec cinema. “Incendies”, in many ways transcended the set of limited themes dealt in Canadian films. It was said to be rare effort from a Canadian film-maker to transcend national borders or detach himself from national belonging, in order to make a universally acknowledged anti-war tale. The beauty of “Incendies” lies in the way of how Villeneuve diffused his favorite, pet theme of ‘female condition’ into this gripping drama. I mean, we usually see a wronged man gathering up the courage to face what undid him. In “Incendies” an old woman does that by compelling her daughter and son to make a trip across the afflicted past. But, unlike a wronged man’s usual cinematic intention to wreak havoc, this woman character doesn’t want to twist the knife inside. She just wants to obliterate the evil in a man’s soul by showing him unbridled love.  I never knew that a simple act of reading a letter at the film’s climax would provide to be such a cathartic, powerful moment. A letter to uproot the deafening silence [“I say that you story begins with a promise that will break the thread of anger”, what an unforgettable, resonating final words in the film!].

A still from the heart-wrenching climax in "Incendies"

                                            The great success of “Incendies” naturally gave Villeneuve the chance to be part of big-budget Hollywood productions. Most of the emerging film-makers by cutting corners often get crushed by the Hollywood machine. When Prisoners made in 2013 with star actors Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, I didn’t have much interest in it. It was the first time Villeneuve to not have female protagonist (script was not also written by him). Nevertheless, Villeneuve used the highbrow technical prowess of American movies to make a moderately profound and immensely entertaining crime/mystery. This film marked the director’s first collaboration with ‘Master of Light and Shadow’ Roger Deakins and musical composer Jonas Jonasson. Despite the intricate script structure, “Prisoners” was pretty much a whodunit thriller. A kind of film you don’t re-watch when its suspense elements is uncovered. But, thanks to Deakins and Villenueve’s technical mastery, this film could be re-watched just for those impeccable frames of menacing, rain-drenched, wintry landscape alongside the faces of grieving, furious men. May be it was Villeneuve’s involvement that vividly brought out the despair of women characters (played by Maria Bello and Viola Davis) due to male violence.

                                             Before shifting to Hollywood to make “Prisoners”, Villeneuve was already embroiled in the making of twisted psychological thriller Enemy (partially based on Nobel Prize winning novelist Jose Saramago’s “Double”) with Jake Gyllenhaal. The film got released after “Prisoners” and got mixed reviews due to its hard-to-crackdown narrative and thematic structure. The mysterious nature of “Enemy” not lies in the set of activities done by characters, but it’s all entangled within symbolism, which doesn’t have much of the cinematic logic. “Enemy” tells the tale of a history professor Adam Bell leading a dull life, coming across a person who looks just like him. Bell’s obsession with the other person derails his life as well as that of the women close to them. Villeneuve uses the thriller framework in “Enemy” to metaphorically explore the twisted notions of masculinity (about how it finally hinges on the prospect of ‘sexually conquering women’). It is also a film about ‘self’ or inquires on ‘what makes an individual?’ If depicting the female condition, exploring the position of women in the society plus reflecting on the cyclical nature of violence are some of the director’s favorite themes, the other predominant theme in his films are the presence of some form of doppelganger or a dichotomy (which you could find in abundance in the works of David Lynch and David Cronenberg).

Denis Villeneuve and Jake Gyllenhaal in the filming of "Enemy"

                                                The duality is not just the usual cinematic good and evil one. The duality exist with in his protagonists – be it the obsessive, suicidal protagonists in his first two Canadian movies or in the loving-dad-embracing-violence characterization in “Prisoners”. Even wen Villeneuve doesn’t pen the script, he chooses to zero-in on this feature of dichotomy & duality. In “Enemy”, this theme was pretty much obvious, but it was subtly ingrained in the visuals of his poetic tale of evil Sicario(2015). Thanks to Roger Deakins, the duo once again designs an atmosphere that is drenched in dread and duality. You see that brooding aerial shot, moving through the landscape of one of the peaceful cities on Earth (El Paso, US) to one of the most violent cities in the world (Ciudad Juarez, Mexico), laying within few kilometers. With Johann Johansson musical score throbbing in the background, you get to witness one of the most visually complex scenes in contemporary cinema, as the American convoy from Texas passes Mexican border to escort a prisoner back to their country.

                                             Apart from the elegant visualization of the geographical dichotomy, Villeneuve through Tyler Sheridan’s script, focused on the dualities existing within human mind. It’s an aspect in the narrative, which makes the actions of particular characters totally unpredictable. Both Emily Blunt who plays the protagonist Kate Mercer and the magnificent actor Benecio Del Toro keep their words to bare minimum and express their dual nature through remarkable emotions. With “Sicario”, Denis Villeneuve also once again got the chance to employ female characters as his protagonist (after “Incendies”). In an interview, Villeneuve stated that he was drawn to this script mainly because it featured a female lead (writer Sheridan was previously advised to change his lead into a male by Hollywood studios). Whenever you think about tale of drug cartel, you visualize men and their struggle against the ‘powers to be’. And, whenever we hear that a film has a female lead, somehow we grossly relate it to the bland term ‘chick-flick’. But, here is a sensible film-maker working within the reach of mainstream, trying to engage wider audience by infusing something potent and original female characters. Here is a film-maker traversing through different genres, Hollywood studios are throwing at him, but still he is able to make his own distinct path.

Emily Blunt as Kate Macer in "Sicario"

                                            I am now eagerly waiting for his critically acclaimed hard sci-fi thriller Arrivalstarring Amy Adams in the central role (based on Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life”, which I tremendously liked reading). With the Blade Runner Sequel in making, Denis Villeneuve will be one of the most vital film-maker you got to watch out for in the next decade or two. He boasts the dream of adapting Frank Herbert’s hard-to-adapt sci-fi epic “Dune”. I think Villeneuve has the superior skills to succeed with such an adaptation (if it happens).

                                           Here’s my personal ranking of Mr. Villeneuve’s films. It’s very much a subjective endeavor. So I hope that the commenters will convey your own ranking rather than decrying at mine.  

1.       Incendies (2010)

2.       Polytechnique (2009)

3.       Enemy (2013)

4.       Prisoners (2013)

5.       Sicario (2015)

6.       Maelstrom (2000)

7.       August 32nd on Earth (1998)


    An excellent video essay on Villeneuve's oeuvre:


F For those who have missed watching Villeneuve's marvelous short film "Next Floor":

   A movie essay breaking down the tense 'convoy scene' in "Sicario"

   My previous write-ups on Denis Villeneuve's movies:


The Fits [2015] – An Intricate Indie Gem

                                            In Peter Weir’s enigmatic masterpiece “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (1975) and Carol Morley’s alluring drama “The Falling” (2014), the central subject has been some form of psychological outbreak (or mass hysteria) which has led to disappearance, fainting spell or seizure epidemic among adolescent girls. While these films brooded upon the mystery, it didn’t deliver any exact answers as the narrative treats the transcendental occurrence as an allegory for teen or preteen angst. Carol Morley in a long article in the ‘Guardian’ discusses what made her choose this particular subject. She explains how this bizarre event has actually happened/happening all over the world, the spell mostly experienced by young school girls.  The director of “The Falling” cites the book ‘Mass Hysteria in Schools’, which details the similar cases around the world since 1566. From a remote town school in Northern Colombia to schools in Belgium, and Japan, hysterical blackouts, fainting and seizures have been reported. Psychologists have flown down to these parts, while the water supplies to canteen’s coke machine are blamed as the primary causes. There was an even a British Medical Journal titled “Chronic Epidemic of Hysterical Blackouts in a Comprehensive School”. These episodes are now generally called as ‘mass psychogenic outbreaks’ and prominent psychologists call it: ‘part of human condition, which rises from need for a sense of belonging and connection’. 

                                          Are these behaviors, among girls approaching puberty is an escape from peer pressure or tensions of surrounding atmosphere? I mean a young, gifted girl is in constant negotiation with her identity and body. The young female is figuring out who are they & what they want as some form of opposing social context is pushed upon them. May be it’s best to allow the qualified people to provide an answer to this mystery, since I seem to ruminate on this subject in the most boring manner. Let me get to the reason I am writing this review. Former NYU film student Anna Ross Holmer’s “The Fits” (2015) is yet another distinct film that zeroes-in on the wave of out-of-body fits among an isolated group of young black females. Anna states that she stumbled upon the idea for this film when reading a book on medieval history, in which a long passage is devoted to convulsive fits that afflicted entire townships. Like the two movies, I have previously mentioned “The Fits” too doesn’t fit into the narrow label of ‘coming-of-age’. Part of the reason is that the film avoids the bear traps which come along with such themes. It could be seen as a nuanced study of the physical and emotional transitions experienced by an 11 year old girl. In its minimal 69 minute running time, “The Fits” keeps the grown-ups out of the frame (both in metaphorical and literal sense). The silent, brooding black faces of a pre-teen girl is at perfect focus, giving us a sense that we are not just peering at her face, but also at her perplexed search for inner identity. 

                                            Right from the first frame, where Anna Ross Holmer’s 11 year old protagonist Toni (Royalty Hightower – what an apt name for a girl who offers a towering performance), practices her sit-ups, we witness an atmosphere that is cleanly demarcated by gender boundaries. Toni is in a boxing gym with her elder brother Maine (Da'Sean Minor). While not being a sparring partner for her brother, Toni peers through the glass window of another big hall in the school, opposite the gym. In that hall, the school’s all-girls dance team ‘Lionesses’ practice their rapid dance moves. Both sides involve physical self, although the dancing is more a group activity (“Stop thinking like an individual and start thinking like a team” says the dance coach) than showcasing individual bravado in boxing. Wearing a grey hoodie uniform of boxing gym, Toni watches in awe at rhythmic clapping and moves of few alpha females in the team. There’s a beautiful shot of Toni, slowly walking with grey hoodie covering her head in a narrow corridor, as other girls in glitzy dance suits run around her, showcasing her feelings of isolation. But, Toni isn’t bullied or ostracized as we usually see in films dealing with these subjects. Toni just doesn’t look like the girl who is into dancing. She strikes friendship with a energetic kid Bianca aka Beezy, who takes one look at Toni’s strong arms and shoots up a nickname ‘Guns’.  

                                            There’s no documentary-like portrait of the inner-city community. We hear Toni’s brother mentioning about their working mother (may be a single mom) and on other fleeting occasion, we hear that Beezy is with a foster mom. The entire narrative unfurls in the dressing rooms, dance halls, gyms, and in some dilapidated neighborhood areas that we don’t get a full sense of who Toni is or what she wants. By keeping away the adult or the atmosphere riddled with grown-ups, director Holmer is able to solely focus on the girl’s inner emotional issues. As Toni tries to be part of the tournaments-winning dance team, the first of epidemic seizures afflicts the Lionesses team’s captain ‘Legs’. Soon, the other leading dancers of the team fall into similar kind of spell. The hysterical outbreak actually makes the young girls to exhibit desire for experiencing such a spell and to be one of the pack.  This puts more burdens on Toni’s already pressurized feelings regarding self-identity. Of course, the premise doesn’t offer any answers (and even its questions are little opaque) or heighten the dramatic quotient to incorporate cliched ideas. Just sit calmly and peer at the walls that around Toni that create, reinforce, and caves in as she learns the ebb and flow of her new social world. 

                                           “The Fits” will be definitely disliked by those expecting a plot to be narrated than merely suggested. The abandonment of straightforward storytelling method to include series of evocative, transcendent images will test the patience of viewers, despite the scant running time. I do think that the script (by Saela Davis, Holmer & Lisa Kjerulff) is sometimes too elusive to become disengaging. But, for the most part I was enamored by cinematic poetry (especially the last fifteen minutes was visualized in a graceful manner) and by the unusually vibrant presence of Royal Hightower as Toni. The journey of Hightower who makes the baby steps in dance to evolve being a refined dancer serves as a parallel for her nuanced emotional turns. It is a treat to watch her stoically peering right back at us or when she fiercely jabs at empty spaces. The other marvelous female cast belongs to talented dancing outfit from Cincinnati known as ‘Q-Kidz Dance Team’. Cinematographer Paul Yee and director Holmer often places Toni in bare setting that offer perfect symmetry. The visual compositions are interested in capturing the movements, not just the dance moves, but also motions of girls running down the corridors or when the swarm of confused girls gathered around a girl writhing under a seizure spell. Fascinatingly, these movements don’t ogle on the girls’ physicality and even the dance movements are filmed in an elegant manner that’s missing in all those music videos. At the end of the film’s striking denouement sequence, the question that will linger is that what caused this weird epidemic. As I mentioned, there are no answers, but looking at the smiling face and flawless dance moves of Toni, we can understand how we all want a group to belong or be part of, however strange the ritual of passage is.  


                                             “The Fits” (72 minutes) is an idiosyncratic indie cinema that’s a pleasure to watch, even though the quaint narrative becomes increasingly opaque and inscrutable. The physical and emotional passage into puberty is dealt here with thoughtful visuals and very less words.  


Gaslight [1944] – An Engrossing Melodramatic Thriller

                                            The 1938 play by British playwright Patrick Hamilton known as “Gaslight” led to the formation of term ‘Gaslighting’, which from then on is used in clinical and research literature of psychiatry field. Gaslighting is known as a type of psychological torture, where the victim is perfectly manipulated so as to question their own sanity. This systematic manipulation of the mind was immortalized by the adaptation of play in 1944, starring cherubic Ingrid Bergman. Before the American film-maker George Cukor’s adaptation, British film-maker Thorold Dickinson made the film on same subject with Diana Wynyard playing the central character. Its success led Hollywood studio MGM to buy the remake rights and a clause insisted to destroy all versions of Dickinson’s version. However, the British director saved a print and donated to BFI and the institute’s National Archive later digitally remastered the British version. George Cukor’s version gained immense critical acclaim (Bergman won first of her three Oscars) and a good box-office run. Although over the years, the 1944 version is decried of its classic status, by citing plausibility issues and by calling it a ‘travesty’, I feel that it still remains as a rich, intricate study of an emotionally torturous marriage. As David Melville in the ‘Senses of Cinema’ article (titled ‘Madman in the Attic’) says, “The playing of Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman maps out the mechanics of torture and ecstasy, dominance and submission, with a clarity that the makers of The Night Porter (Liliana Cavani, 1974) or The Story of O (Just Jaeckin, 1975) could only dream of”.

                                             Nominated for seven Oscars, “Gaslight” is one of the best film-noir/melodrama of the 1940’s. Critic Emmanuel Levy states that “Gaslight” belongs to string of paranoid thrillers made in 1940’s, where rich younger woman are threatened or driven to insanity by their middle-aged husband. From Hitchcock’s majestic adaptation of Daphne du Maurier novel “Rebecca” to Anatole Litvak’s “Sorry, Wrong Number”, the women’s residing place itself is transformed into a cage of terror by their ‘beloved’ husbands. Apart from Bergman’s heart-rending performance, “Gaslight’s” classic status hinges upon impeccable art direction (for which the film won an Oscar) and set decoration. The sets reminds us of silent expressionist era films (from Germany 1920’s), where stifling closed spaces creates more paranoia. The film opens with a shot of flickering gaslight on Thornton Square, London. This later becomes a symbol for the heroine’s dreadful mood –which incites doubts on her rationality (manipulated to perfection by her victimizer). In the first scene, young Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) stable life in Thornton Square is extinguished due to the murder of her guardian & Aunt Alice Alquist, a legendary opera singer. The murderer isn’t found and young Paula is sent to Alice’s master in Italy.

                                       Ten years passes by and the angelic Paula is in love with a man named Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer). She gives up her singing lessons and the aspirations to be singer to marry the man. After enjoying their honeymoon in Italy, Gregory talks about his desire to live in a fine house in London. Although Paula wants to severe the ties with her aunt’s home (which she has inherited), the love she has for husband make her to move to the old, Gothic house. Through brief close-up shots, focusing on Anton’s eyes, director Cukor hints us about the husband’s greed and hidden hideous nature. Tension slowly starts to build as Paula begins to misplace or lose things. The hiring of young, cheeky maid Nancy (Angela Lansbury) adds up to Paula’s unrest. In a nuanced manner, Gregory continues his well-thought out campaign to make Paula believe that she is forgetful and eventually insane. The man who swept her off feet becomes the man who wants to drive her out of mind.

                                          In the ‘Senses of Cinema’ article on the film, great analysis has been done about the narrative’s inherent erotic nature. Paula, while slowly submitting to Anton’s psychological tortures, continue to remain under the man’s spell, which has ample sexual implications. As critic Melville points out in a passage, “Boyer parts the floating gauze curtain of the room where they have spent their wedding night. Bergman lies motionless on the bridal bed, her arms spread in a crucified pose. We wonder, just for an instant, if she is dead. Her bridegroom seems capable, quite literally, of fucking her to death. Once we return to London, it is clear Boyer uses sex to intensify his control over her – withholding his favors whenever she shows signs of independent life.” Apart from Anton’s cruel treatment, his flirtation with young Nancy (who responds in a brash manner) adds up to Paula’s psychological pain. Angela Lansbury, in her first ever movie role (she was working as a cosmetics girl), is said to be of the same height as Bergman. In the first introductory scene of Nancy, she is dressed up in rich, elegant clothes like her mistress. But, her lewd manner makes Nancy look like an unrefined imitator of Paula. The sexual threat Nancy withholds brings up an intricacy to the emotional torture (inflicted upon Paula) rather than plainly relying on unsubtle cruelty of husband Anton.

                                          The script crafted by John van Druten, Walter Reisch and John L. Balderston is more convincing and engaging than the British version, as there was stronger (may be not strong enough for some) motivation behind Anton’s actions in Cukor’s version. Scenes of courtship between the two main characters are also absent in the British version. While the former movie adaptation, designed the character of detective as old, awkwardly comical man, in the Hollywood version, it was played by Joseph Cotten (which allows room to plant insidious doubts on Anton’s mind and also gives a possibility of romantic relationship at the very end). The humorous nature of British detective is transformed into a minor supporting character of old, nosy Miss Thwaites (played to perfection by Dame May Whitty). Although the film’s scenario is easy to guess (and it has been replicated in many other films), “Gaslight” haven’t lost its luster, thanks to a remarkable performance from Ingrid Bergman. Her fragile psyche, the unbearable suffering on-screen and the final, fitting emotional burst is so compelling to watch (Bergman also deserved an Oscar for her delightfully nuanced performance in Hitchcock’s “Notorious” (1946) – she had a ghoulish husband in that film too). She conveys the film’s campy, melodramatic notes with great elegance. It is astounding to witness the way her mood wavers like the dimming/illuminating gaslight in a scene when Anton alternately accuses and delights her.   


                                            “Gaslight” (114 minutes) may seem a bit creaky when compared with profound, contemporary psychological thrillers. But Ingrid Bergman’s performance as a frail woman succumbing under emotional strain and the expertly crafted claustrophobic atmosphere still maintains the film’s classic status.