Plein Soleil (1960)

I am going to preface this by saying that yes, the primary reason I watched this film was to admire the impeccable beauty of Alain Delon. Every article I read mentioned his perfection at least once in some format. However, I also wanted to gauge how much French I could understand, and Plein Soleil (also called Purple Noon) seemed to fit, complete with gorgeous Italian scenery and Nino Rota’s alluring soundtrack.

Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s acclaimed novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, the film follows Tom Ripley, an American in Italy trying to persuade his wealthy friend Philippe Greenleaf to return to San Francisco and take over his father’s business. Philippe has no intent to do so, and begins to become increasingly tired of Tom’s presence. Tom, who is poor himself, devises a plan to kill Philippe and assume his identity.

I first found it a bit incredulous that Tom could carry out this deed in such a calm demeanor—you don’t expect a sociopath to look the way he does. The only indication of his duality is the subtle, and perhaps subconscious manner in which his eyes flit here and there, in an ever-so brief moment of contemplation. Tom’s ability to evade suspicions and live comfortably in the shoes of another man is captivating—he almost makes it look easy, and we cannot comprehend how he is simultaneously tense and at ease.

It’s a story of envy, deceit, and murder concealed in a picturesque world. There is not much fast-paced action in the film, and yet before we know it, we have followed Tom’s every footstep and grown accustomed to the darkness in his eyes. In the final scene, he is lying under the plein soleil in a state of euphoria—it is only a matter of time before il est couvert.

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Portrait of Jennie (1948)

There is something so mesmerizing about watching old golden age films like this—it’s as if I’m being transported back to the black-and-white mystical era, unfamiliar even when set in the familiar New York City. You know, when the actors have that ethereal, hazy glow emanating from their faces that is so characteristic of 40’s film.

Portrait of Jennie is a lesser-known product of classical Hollywood cinema, starring Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones, who were both in their prime back in the day. The film is unconventional in that it opens with a philosophical narration introducing the premise and preparing the audience for what they’re about to see.

“Since time began man has looked into the awesome reaches of infinity and asked the eternal question: What is time? What is life? What is space? What is death?

Out of the shadows of knowledge, and out of a painting that hung on a museum wall, comes our story, the truth of which lies not on our screen but in your hearts.”

In this supernatural love story, Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) is a struggling artist living in Depression-era New York City; he paints landscapes but hasn’t found much success in selling them. One evening, he meets an old-fashioned schoolgirl by the name of Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones) in Central Park. She is sweet yet mysterious, seemingly vanishing in plain sight after the two have a conversation. Eben is fascinated by Jennie, and sketches a portrait of her (his first one) that immediately sells to the gallery owner (Ethel Barrymore). The two meet again periodically over the course of a few months, with Jennie growing from a child into a young woman before every encounter, which inspires his next painting of her. They eventually fall in love, despite the fact that the enigmatic Jennie disappears every now and then, before it is eventually revealed, much to Eben’s shock and disbelief, that Jennie died years ago in a storm. He embarks on a journey to save her, and finally uncovers the truth about the beautiful, elusive subject of his portraits.

Portrait of Jennie is a reminder that above all, love is timeless and transcendent. Every so often you meet someone who is utterly captivating, someone you want to hold onto forever. And even if you lose your grip, that memory stands the test of time. Eben’s did, in the form of a portrait in a museum, where it can be admired forever.

A Clockwork Orange: Music and Violence

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I recently finished reading a copy of A Clockwork Orange, the masterful yet controversial novel by Anthony Burgess. Brilliant? Yes. Unsettling? Highly.

When Alex is captured for his crimes, he is chosen to undergo the Ludovico Technique, a treatment meant to modify behavior. Alex is forced to watch extremely graphic and violent films while being injected with a nausea-inducing drug, so that he eventually associates violence with a feeling of sickness. Alex is a firm believer that free will should never be compromised, and when the Ludovico Technique renders him unable to choose violence, Burgess asserts that Alex becomes a mere “clockwork orange,” or something that is seemingly human yet mechanically controlled by a greater State. As an unintended consequence of the procedure, Alex loses his ability to enjoy listening to classical music. In addition to the Technique taking away freedom of choice—a fundamental human trait—it has also stripped Alex of his love of music.

“The question is whether such a technique can really make a man good. Goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.”

While I was quite appalled by the more explicit and gruesome elements of the book, I was equally disturbed by the role of music in inciting torture. How can something that represents the purest form of humanity be used as a weapon? Classical music is an escape; Beethoven, in particular, uplifts and inspires.

“But it’s not fair on the music. It’s not fair I should feel ill when I’m slooshying to lovely Ludwig van and G.F. Handel and others. […] I shall never forgive you, sods.”

It becomes clear early on that our central character Alex is a fervent admirer of Beethoven (whom he affectionately calls Ludwig van). He particularly enjoys listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which can be interpreted as alluding to themes such as universal brotherhood and freedom of expression, according to The AtlanticThis would be fitting for Alex, seeing that he bands together with his brotherly “droogs” in wreaking havoc everywhere.

Yes, listening to Beethoven incited in Alex an insatiable desire to destroy, but it also made our protagonist human. Depriving him of his joy of music was saddening to me, and though I don’t fully sympathize with Alex (unlike many critics), I felt incredibly sorry and disgusted with the fact that the mere sound of music blasting through the walls drove him to near-suicide. In the end, the Ludovico Technique rendered him more inhumane than before by taking away both his moral choice and musicality.

“And then there I was, me who had loved music so much, crawling off the bed and going oh oh oh to myself, and then bang bang banging on the wall creeching: ‘Stop, stop it, turn it off!’

“I was like wandering all over the flat in pain and sickness, trying to shut out the music and like groaning deep out of my guts, and then on top of the pile of books and papers and all that cal that was on the table in the living-room I viddied what I had to do. . .and that was to do myself in, to snuff it, to blast off for ever out of this wicked and cruel world.”

Phantom Thread (2017): Food as a Weapon

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Breakfast – the most important meal of the day!

**contains spoilers.

For starters, I feel so conflicted about this film. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is an exquisite yet strange, twisted story about the complex interrelationship between love and power. Set in 1950s London, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a fashion designer engrossed in his work when a young woman named Alma (Vicky Krieps) enters his life. Their relationship turns quite…toxic. This film is terribly profound and thought-provoking, and I found myself staring at the end credits in disbelief, trying to process what I just watched. Is it masochistic? Feminist? Personally, I would have preferred a different ending, but I will proceed to talk about one of the more brilliant themes in the film.

Besides the expected stellar performances by Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Lesley Manville, there is another star of Phantom Thread that deserves more credit, and that is the food.

The food in Phantom Thread is a not-so-subtle metaphor for control and dominance. It indicates the complete and unabashed surrender of power over from one person to the next. In one of the opening scenes, Reynolds, his sister Cyril, and his soon-to-be-ex lover are seated at the breakfast table. Reynolds is clearly irritated with the gooey pastry that the young woman has prepared, and that mistake in his simple morning delicacy is enough distraction to throw off his day. We don’t think much of it at first—he’s just your typical whiny grand couturier.

When Reynolds dines at a local café, he becomes immediately enchanted with an awkward young waitress named Alma. He begins to order an intricate array of items, only to take the paper Alma is writing on and ask her if she can remember everything. Hint, hint—she can and she proves it, to Reynolds’ delight. And we begin to decipher the intelligent nuances that PTA has introduced: Alma foreshadows her means of control in a note that states: to the hungry boy.

Alma soon moves in to the House of Woodcock, and her toast-buttering mannerisms at the breakfast table, which would slightly irritate the average person, send Reynolds in a fit of rage. He cannot stand the incessant crunching sound of the knife scraping against the toast, and abruptly leaves, slamming the door behind him. Again, his entire day is ruined, and he fails to concentration on his dressmaking. Alma, however, doesn’t necessarily change her ways. Somewhere in the workings of her mind, she is processing the obsessive, commanding nature of her partner.

In a pivotal moment in the film, Alma sends away Cyril and all the seamstresses in the house for the evening; she cites her plans to surprise Reynolds with a home-cooked dinner, and have a night for just the two of them. The ever indignant Reynolds is not appreciative, however. His asparagus was cooked with butter, not his preferred oil, and he is bitter about the dinner as a distraction from his work. Alma retaliates and explains her concern over Reynolds’ lack of attention to their relationship, to which Reynolds thinks it’s an ambush: “Are you sent here to ruin my evening, and possibly my entire life?” Perhaps. All of this over some asparagus!

And then we arrive at the gripping journey to the climax. Alma deliberately poisons Reynolds’ tea with some poisonous mushroom, and in turn, he is bedridden. At this point, Alma fully understands her potential for power and control, for an ascension to dominance over her lover. She doesn’t play the role of quiet muse or damsel in distress. Reynolds’ temper doesn’t faze her in the slightest. Instead, Alma has used a mushroom to render her “boss” completely powerless and submissive to her care. After Reynolds recovers, he becomes utterly infatuated and asks to marry her—in effect, falling in love with her all over again.

When this poisoning occurs a second time in the form of a mushroom omelette (with loads of greatly detested butter), Reynolds finally comprehends what Alma has done as he chews. She has turned the kitchen into an arsenal, and the food into a weapon. She acts wisely, though, feeding her husband just enough to almost kill him, thus compelling him to submit once more to her power of healing. And what’s more, Reynolds deliberately swallows, in what can be interpreted as a parallel act of slight defiance to match Alma’s and a preservation of his own ego. It’s a back-and-forth handling of power, told through food. Alma has found her weapon, and she is not afraid to use it. “I can stand endlessly…no one can stand as long as I can.”

Lady Bird (2017): The Ending

**contains spoilers.

Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut Lady Bird is by far the most personally relevant film I have seen this season. Saoirse Ronan plays the titular character magnificently, and the story is in essence an authentic depiction of the complicated roller coaster relationship between a mother and her daughter. The more I think about it, the more this film resonates with my life. Lady Bird is honest in every way—it asks the tough questions and it connects. And although films should be a momentary escape from reality, sometimes the most impactful are those that are the most real.

Like the character Lady Bird, I am a senior in high school, I am applying to college, and I have lived in the same small town my whole life (which I would also like to get out of for once—East Coast, please). But unlike her, I don’t go to Catholic school, I would probably never dye my hair red, and I certainly didn’t apply to any colleges in secret. However, what stands out the most to me is her self-confidence. Lady Bird believes she can take on the world and thus fiercely and impulsively carves her own path. She wants to go to New York, so she goes to New York. She has full faith in herself and she’s not afraid to reach high. And that’s what’s so admirable.

Up until the final scenes in the film, we are focused on Lady Bird. But once we see the montage of Marion driving through the streets of Sacramento intercut with flashbacks of Lady Bird driving a similar route, it becomes apparent that the film is equally about the mother’s journey. How two strong personalities clashed and reconciled, how the bond between a girl and her mother may twist and turn but never break. At the airport, Marion doesn’t get out of the car to say goodbye to Lady Bird—I first thought this was simply an extension of the silent treatment from earlier, but it is in fact because Marion doesn’t want Lady Bird to see her tears. The simultaneous pain of saying goodbye to your child paired with the hope of seeing her succeed in the real world is rich in meaning and the backbone of this film. They both have so much to learn from each other in this everlasting love story.

I am so thankful for my mother, and I am so thankful this film came out when it did—the pivotal year I leave my nest of adolescence. Lady Bird is a testament to the three female powerhouses Greta Gerwig, Saoirse Ronan, and Laurie Metcalf, as well as mothers and daughters everywhere.

“Mom, did you feel emotional the first time you drove in Sacramento? I did and I wanted to tell you but we weren’t really talking when it happened. All those bends I’ve known my whole life and…stores and..the whole thing. But I wanted to tell you…I love you, thank you.”

Call Me by Your Name (2017): A Portrait of Intimacy

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Truce?

Armie Hammer, who plays Oliver, stated in an interview that the three words he would use to describe the film are sensual Italian summer. And that’s exactly what it is.

Call Me by Your Name (dir. Luca Guadagnino) is set in the tiny town of Crema, Italy in 1983. Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a seventeen-year-old boy, lives with his family when an older graduate student named Oliver comes to stay for the summer. The two develop an affection for each other, and their relationship soon blossoms.

The acting, the script, Sufjan Stevens’ music, and the gorgeous cinematography of northern Italy are all flawless within themselves, but underneath all of that is a stunning portrait of intimacy and realism. I hesitate to even write this because I don’t want to alter the film’s truth. The audience is simply watching two people fall in love over the course of six weeks, and it almost seems like we are intruding on this private life. The interactions between family and friends are quotidian and authentic; there is not a hint of artifice anywhere in this film. There are times when the camera cuts quickly and quite randomly to the next scene, but this is because we as the viewers are peering into Elio’s cherished memories, and some memories are fleeting. We are not really watching a movie; we are watching life as we know it.

Timothée Chalamet is a revelation on-screen. Even without saying too much, his mannerisms and expressions confess all. Elio may be precocious, but his human feelings toward Oliver are visceral and profound, something so uniquely special that only Chalamet could bring to the table.

Besides the incredibly poignant ending scene (which I think alone merits Chalamet the Oscar), one of the most touching moments in CMBYN is Michael Stuhlbarg’s monologue. Stuhlbarg plays the professor father of Elio, and in the final moments of the film, he speaks personally to his son, in the way any loving, earnest father should. I liken this speech to Robin Williams’ park bench scene in Good Will Hunting (and not just because of the beard). Both are honest mentor figures who just want to see you grow, to embrace yourself, to be guided into the world knowing who you are.

There is so much more to say, but I don’t want to give away too much that happens in the film. If I could only use three words, Call Me by Your Name is beautiful, heartbreaking, and sincere. And you should definitely go see it.

What’s in a Name? An Analysis of John Proctor

There is something vaguely therapeutic about signing a name over and over again, and I often find myself repeatedly writing my own in messy cursive. We all do it occasionally, whether it be your name or that of someone you love.

This got me thinking—why, exactly? Why fill a page with these presumably meaningless scribbles, instead of, perhaps, saying the name again and again? Why does such a monotonous action provide comfort?

I immediately thought of John Proctor in both Arthur Miller’s play and in The Crucible (1996), which I watched last year in class. In the film’s climax, Proctor (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) is coerced into writing a confession in order to save his life after he is accused of witchcraft. The judges insist that the paper with Proctor’s signature be posted publicly on the church doors as proof, to which Proctor breaks down and tears up the confession. DDL’s impeccable and agonizing delivery of one of the most well-known lines from the film cements the hard-to-watch scene:

“I have given you my soul; leave me my name!

When asked why he refuses to hand the document over, he screams, “Because it is my name!” Proctor has given the court his suffering and pain, and he is ultimately willing to give his entire life away. What he cannot bring himself to relinquish is his signature, the last remaining symbol of honesty and purity in his life. Proctor would rather be publicly hanged than have his name be plastered for everyone to see. Both actions are physical representations of Proctor, and highly visible—the villagers of Salem will still know Proctor is guilty regardless of what he does. But, as Proctor explains, he cannot have his family name be tarnished once again, and he cannot have his sons bear the punishment for their father’s sins.

A name transcends time and a name carries through generations. A name, not a face, is the first thing that is brought up when talking about someone, and given time, names rather than faces remain in people’s memories more often than not.

People are an embodiment of their names. We address each other by name, we respond and react to a name, we feel more than just a personal connection to our name. By tearing the confession, Proctor was able to reclaim his good name and preserve it, which evoked tremendous relief and granted him everlasting internal peace. We are not ourselves without our name.

John Proctor, an honest man indeed.