The Films of 2013: Three short takes

Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is The Warmest Color, a nearly three-hour-long French drama sporting several explicit scenes of lesbian sex, belongs to the tradition of erotic European art films like The Silence and The Lovers; like those earlier films, its frisson of naughtiness is off-set (and potentially legitimized) by its intellectual seriousness.  As a depiction of the dizzy sexual passion that characterizes the first stages of a romantic affair, it’s admittedly hot stuff.  But Kechiche is hardly in the same league as Ingmar Bergman and Louis Malle.  Where the first half of this film glides blissfully, the second half plods; youthful energy and erotic possibility give way to boredom and cliché.  Yes, its characters have a lot of sobering lessons to learn, but must the film also teach them to us so humorlessly?  By the end of the film, not only did I no longer care about its lead characters, both of whom had grown vapid and irritating, I was actively looking forward to getting away from them.  

I didn’t see Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers when it played in theaters earlier this year, but I managed to catch up with it on video several months ago.  While it’s hardly one of 2013’s best films, it’s certainly one of its most curious.  That’s due in part to its sly, enigmatic tone, which, to its credit, refuses to instruct viewers about how to respond to it.  Korine’s parable of a group of girls gone wild is not exactly a satire, not exactly a cautionary tale; it’s rather a series of impressions, some surreal, some comic, some purposely stupid, all of which engage “spring break” as concept, fantasy, ritual, nightmare.

As a devoted Henry James fan, I was surprised, intrigued, and a little skeptical when I first saw the trailer for Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s adaptation of What Maisie Knew, in which the setting of James’s novel is updated some one hundred and twenty five years to present-day New York City.  On the whole, though, it works: the plight of eight-year-old Maisie Beale, caught between two equally irresponsible parents—and pulled in various other directions by stepparents and other caregivers—translates smoothly to a twenty-first century where the children of rock stars are likely to spend more time with their nannies than with their mothers.  It helps that the actors, Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan among them, are near flawless, and that the filmmakers have largely given up on retaining James’s famously sibylline dialogue.  They lack James’s courage, though, to render this situation without resorting to sentimentality: this Maisie ends with the idealized fantasy of a new home borne out of the fragments of an old one, not, as its source does, with the image of a child having awakened into the profound realization that she can never go home again.

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