Should we care about rich kids and their problems? Two new films by two young filmmakers at the New Zealand International Film Festival make a convincing case for ‘cinema of the self’.
It was hard to miss Xavier Dolan at last year’s New Zealand International Film Festival. Still a teenager at the time of shooting, not only did he star in I Killed My Mother, but he also wrote, produced, and directed it to widespread acclaim. A sensation at Cannes, winning three of the biggest awards at the Directors Fortnight, it promised immediate opportunities for the French-Canadian wunderkind, and an ambitious follow-up was quickly set in motion. However, when development of the proposed film (Laurence Anyways, now currently in production) stalled due to lack of financing, a smaller, more inexpensive project was mounted. That film, Heartbeats, is a solid improvement on Dolan’s accomplished, if affected debut feature—a less sulky, less cocksure effort from a filmmaker who, at the time of writing, is a mere 22-years-old. Dolan has plenty of time ahead to refine his precocious talent as an actor and director, and to be sure, the white, privileged hipsters his movies are exclusively populated by, not to mention his own raging hard-on for Wong Kar-wai (namely, In the Mood for Love), are signs of a sophomore at work. But at the very least, Dolan’s movies are a vibrant counterpoint to the drab indie relations of the mumblecore movement, and a few minor irritations aside, what makes Heartbeats the mature offering is its mindfulness of excessive naval gazing, something that I Killed My Mother was wildly oblivious too. Blessed with a newfound self-awareness, it is the brighter, more attractive film, yet one that remains painfully loyal to the confessional aspects of Dolan’s “emo cinema”, for want of a better term.
Ditching the grating video diaries he shot for I Killed My Mother, Dolan instead turns his camera on a number of young subjects, interviewing the would-be lovers about their personal experiences of a failed romance. In between these anthropological asides, the film’s central ménage-a-trois plays out: best friends Francis (Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri) lock eyes on a preening, sexually ambiguous Adonis named Nicolas (Niels Schneider), who they proceed to court simultaneously. Puppy love for this blonde Louis Garrel lookalike (something the film cleverly capitalises on) develops into bitter rivalry and threatens to tear the friends apart, until their advances are rebuffed and they come to realise how much of a pompous ass Nicolas really is. This fact is not lost on the audience, and for all Dolan’s narcissistic tendencies as a filmmaker, the vanity displayed by his characters, with their blinding hipster apparel and self-satisfied posturing, is not without a sense of humour. Never is Heartbeats more entertaining than when it is poking fun at its characters’ preoccupation with fashion and smoking, and as such it would be unfair write the film off for its surface superficiality. Dolan’s youthful overeagerness to impress notwithstanding, the emotional core of his filmmaking is ripe with insecurity and rings true in spite of its many indulgences. That Heartbeats is not about breaking up or mutual love, but rejection, unreturned affection, and irrational matters of the heart, makes it something of a rarity among movies about young adults. In Dolan’s world, uncertainty and ennui belong to a different generation; his peers know what they want, they just can’t always get it, which says a lot about (or very little of) the youth of today.
25-year-old New Yorker, Lena Dunham, has also made a self-confessional of sorts, and although the milieu is as white and as privileged as ever—a roadblock that can make it extra hard to care about the predicament of the characters—what’s absolutely endearing about her film is the extent to which it foregrounds the unflattering aspects of her life. A semi-autobiographical account of Dunham’s post-graduate slump, Tiny Furniture gives precedence to the most embarrassing moments of her early adulthood while strategically concealing the confident demeanor she possesses off-screen. One writer described this trade off as a “clever distortion of reality”, however I’m more of the opinion that the real Lena Dunham isn’t distorted at all, for it is precisely her self-confidence that enables us to see her at her lowest ebb. For instance, regardless of how pervasive the Internet is in our lives today and its erosion of our privacy, it takes a certain type of personality to upload a video to YouTube of oneself bathing under a fountain in a bikini. The clip, which received somewhere in the vicinity of a million and a half hits, is one such Lena Dunham moment incorporated into the film—not as an exercise in titillation, but ostensibly, regret—and is accompanied by some of the cruel user comments that paid particular attention to her disproportionate stomach and breasts. As natural as it is to accept this humiliating anecdote as readymade comedic fodder—just as YouTube has made it routine to laugh at other people’s misfortune—what’s more revealing is the founding of this humour in Dunham’s willingness to bare it all for the camera, and Tiny Furniture is certainly a full disclosure in that sense.
At the start of Tiny Furniture—named after the miniature doll house furnishings that Dunham’s mother (played by her actual mother, Laurie Simmons) photographs in bizarre settings—Aura has broken up with her boyfriend and is ‘slumming it’ at her parents Tribeca loft, having just freshly graduated from Oberlin University (a reenactment of Dunham’s slither back into the real world). Ensconced in New York, she fights with her conceited younger sister (played by her real sister, Grace), gets a shitty day job at a restaurant (a job she actually held down), and has klutzy, unprotected sex with a sous chef inside of a metal pipe on the street (which, all things considered, probably didn’t happen). All of these indignities serve to drive home a particular character archetype steeped in aimlessness, vulnerability, and self-loathing: a role Woody Allen might have once played (and played well), though is more associated these days with an actor of Will Ferrell or Seth Rogen’s lousiness. To Dunham’s credit in approaching this male-centric depiction of dysfunction, it never seems to have been a question of whether she can play the role, but why can’t she? Often seen mooching around in an undersized t-shirt, so her generous belly—mercilessly ridiculed online—spills out into the open, Dunham makes no apologies for her appearance or lack of self-awareness on screen, and in doing so confronts the conspicuous absence of female-driven comedies where the lead actress is allowed to be as whiny, vulgar, and pathetic as the guys in a Judd Apatow production.
If this specific type of sexism remains a black mark on Hollywood, studios are at least taking small steps to remedy the issue: two major comedies, Bad Teacher and Bridesmaids, were recently rolled out as “litmus tests” for the viability of movies in which the female characters aren’t rom-com stereotypes, or worse, Sex and the City knockoffs. Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, released in 2010, deserves to be recognised as a forerunner to this tentative breakthrough: if not for her own modest yet unapologetic exploration of girls behaving badly, then for the underlying commercial sensibility of the film she has crafted at a fraction of the cost. Shot for approximately US$50,000, it has grossed around seven times its budget to date—a profit margin that can be explained in part by its resemblance to a Wes Anderson picture (as opposed to a John Cassavetes one). Its thematic likeness to the mumblecore movies notwithstanding, Tiny Furniture seems determined to distance itself from the casual grunge of the low-budget digital era, and like Heartbeats, is distinguished by its attractive visual style. (It was shot on a Canon DSLR, the current digital rig of choice for image-conscious indie filmmakers.) More to the point, it eschews mumblecore’s obvious trademarks—improvisation and naturalism—for controlled scripting and mannered performances that, while overly muted, are not pretending to be anything else other than for the camera.
Judging by the look and tone of Tiny Furniture, Dunham is reaching for a certain kind of ‘movieness’ that her peers would rather reject, and it’s arguably the harder of the two styles to perfect. Understandable, then, that her film isn’t entirely successful as a functional comedy: the script, striving for Whit Stillman by way of Gilmore Girls, doubtlessly reads fine on paper, yet regularly flatlines when delivered by the cast. The all-knowing dialogue comes across as especially stilted in the opening salvo: upon arriving home, Aura gets into a sniping match with her sister, and they clumsily trade wisecracks, at one point referring to Aura as an “epilogue to Felicity.” As unconvincing and off-key as this introductory scene is, though, the exchanges between the characters eventually settle into a more comfortable rhythm. And in spite of the actors’ self-conscious inflections and stubbornness to play it down (save for Jemima Kerke, who as Aura’s flaky gal pal Charlotte, aims squarely for caricature), the caliber of writing is plain to see.
In a stroke of irony, or perhaps self-fulfilling prophecy, Dunham has since been commissioned by HBO, in collaboration with Judd Apatow, to headline a new comedy series—an exact replication of the career sought by the character Jed (Alex Karpovsky), a minor YouTube star who’s seen loafing around Manhattan and Aura’s bedroom in between meetings with TV producers for a potential pilot he hopes to develop. Television, by contrast, loves female comedians, and Dunham’s writing seems almost better suited to the medium, however given the attention that Tiny Furniture has garnered, would it not be a cop-out for Dunham to abandon filmmaking just as quickly as she found success in it? God knows we’ve seen enough movies about rudderless twenty-somethings, and Dunham’s film admittedly offers diddly-squat on the generational front. But apart from redressing the gender bias, what is unique about Tiny Furniture, and therefore worth expanding on, is Dunham’s ability to couch her shamelessness in humility. “The Fountain” may have been a source of regret for Dunham’s character, yet when examined more closely, the only regret evident is in her decision to withdraw the clip from YouTube (due to numerous unmoderated comments, not because of any discomfort with the clip itself). Dunham and Dolan are annoyingly self-assured for their age, and that makes their films easy to pick on. But their egotism is also calculated in a way that allows them to sharply undercut it on screen, thus winning us over. Scoff as we might at the beautiful faces, affluent surroundings, and listless self-absorption, these rich kids and their films have a hell of a lot going for them.