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.
All Is Lost opens, following a brief prologue, with an unnamed man in late middle age, asleep below the deck of his sailboat somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean, awakening to find that a wayward shipping container has torn a hole in the boat’s side. That’s only the first of a string of misfortunes to befall him over the course of the next eight days. Watching the film, one casts about for an interpretation that will make meaning out of its series of unfortunate events: is this a twenty-first-century take on the trials of Job? A survivalist procedural? (Like a Hemingway story, it’s told with almost no dialogue.) I found it to be most compelling as a star vehicle for Robert Redford, whose face has grown craggy and weathered with age but whose crystalline eyes are as piercing as ever. Standing at the bow of the yacht, gazing worriedly but somehow peacefully over the vastness of the ocean, his thick blonde hair ruffling in the wind, we’re reminded of his ability to command the screen with his very presence, and we’re struck by the poignant realization that this perfect star, this Hollywood dream, has become an old man before our very eyes. The power of All Is Lost lies in its ability to play on our almost instinctual desire for Redford, our nostalgia for him as the golden boy of 1970s Hollywood, and our reluctance to lose him.
Enough Said, the latest film by writer-director Nicole Holofcener, is comfortably situated within the world of white, slightly insulated southern Californians—a world that Holofcener presents with an ambiguity that can sometimes feel maddening. While it could be argued that she is frequently satirizing her characters’ often staggering sense of privilege (one of them appears to expend most of her mental energy fussing over the arrangement of her living room furniture and complaining about her housekeeper), Holofcener's satirical edge is often so soft that can’t tell whether it's there at all. That edge is also dulled significantly by Holofcener’s reliance on the kind of cheerfully banal incidental music that sometimes makes you feel like you’re watching a Sears commercial.
As I watched the opening scenes of 12 Years a Slave, in which we’re given tastefully composed shots of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup set to lugubrious violin music, I feared that this was going to be an insufferably glossy piece of Oscar bait. So I was astounded to find that it stays true to the letter as well as the spirit of its source. (It’s based on Northup’s own narrative, published in 1853.) Somehow, miraculously, it doesn’t sell out. The events of the narrative are extraordinary: in 1841, Northup, living in freedom with his wife and children in upstate New York, was kidnapped by slave traders and passed off as a Georgia runaway named Platt, whereupon he spent the next twelve years plunged into a kind of living hell, suffering unspeakable physical and psychological trauma at the hands of sadistic plantation owners and abusive overseers. Since Northup survived to write his tale, it’s not giving anything away to say that he eventually escapes the most insidiously cruel of his masters, Epps (Michael Fassbender) by secretly writing to friends in the north and entreating them to come to his rescue.