Documentary filmmaker Alice Diop brings an unsettling sense of reality to her first fiction feature, which follows a novelist attending the trial of a woman accused of drowning her 15-month-old child. Based on a real-life incident of infanticide, the courtroom proceedings depicted in Saint Omer borrow from the 2016 trial of Fabienne Kabou, which Diop herself attended. In synopsis, this may sound like a lurid mix of fiction and documentary, but this precise and emotionally complex film, which sprung from Diop’s fascination with Kabou’s trial, does not have the anxiety-stoking energy of a true-crime story. It is so rooted in the point of view of Rama, the writer attending the trial, that I hesitate to describe it as a courtroom drama. The film’s dual focus—on both Rama, the writer, and Laurence, the young woman accused of infanticide—turns the trial into something other than pure spectacle and results in a story that looks closely at the frighteningly powerful bond between mother and child.
You don’t expect a documentary about volcanos to begin in freezing temperatures, but in the first scenes of Sara Dosa’s enthralling new feature, Fire of Love, married volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft struggle to free a jeep mired in icy slush. Farther down the road is a fiery pool of molten lava. Much later in the film, they trudge through the gray ash of a recently erupted Mount St. Helens, a setting that looks cold even though it is baking hot. Both landscapes seem unreal, even with Maurice and Katia in the frame. Their footage is so remarkable that I would have watched a 90-minute slide show of their photographs. Fire of Love is much more than that, but the film and photo archive is at the heart of the story, and it’s where Dosa looks for clues as she tells the story of the Kraffts’ career, one that was inseparable from their romantic partnership.
In recent years, female filmmakers have been carving out a space for themselves in the American West, redefining a genre and a place that is has historically been depicted as the terrain of lonely male cowboys and vigilantes. There have been period pieces like Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, and Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff and First Cow, as well as contemporary stories set in the west, such as Chloe Zhao’s The Rider and Nomadland, and Reichardt’s Certain Women. These films bring a new realism to the western as they widen the lens to center female characters and to incorporate themes of friendship, romance, and community.
Petite Maman, Céline Sciamma’s fifth feature-length film, following 2019’s critically acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is a time travel story that reminded me of one of my favorite movies from childhood: Back to the Future. Aesthetically, the two have very little in common—one is an art house movie with unknown child actors, the other a somewhat goofy studio feature starring Michael J. Fox—but at the narrative core of both films is a deep psychological wish that many children harbor: to know their parents when they were younger. In Back to the Future, a teenage Marty McFly accidentally travels back in time to meet his parents at the beginning of their high school romance. In Petite Maman, eight-year-old Nelly stumbles into a kind of woodland passageway through which she can visit her mother’s childhood and play with her mother as an eight-year-old girl. In this alternate reality, Nelly also interacts with her maternal grandmother who, in Nelly’s present-day timeline, has recently passed away.
Breaking the Rules of Time Travel: A Film Review of Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman
A title card at the beginning of Iuli Gerbase’s debut feature, The Pink Cloud, informs viewers that its screenplay was written in 2017, and that it was filmed in 2019. What follows is a movie so in tune with the events and moods of 2020 that you would be forgiven for finding this level of prescience impossible to believe. The premise is simple: a toxic pink cloud formation suddenly appears in the sky. Its vapors are deadly, killing people after ten seconds. With only a few minutes of warning, an unnamed Brazilian city is locked down. People are ordered to go indoors immediately; if they are not at home, they are to go into the nearest building, whether it’s a bakery, a grocery store, or the apartment complex they happened to be passing by. Giovana and Yago, the couple at the center of the movie, are on the balcony of Giovana’s apartment when they hear the news, recovering after a late night of partying. We quickly learn that they don’t know each other well; they are waking up from a one-night stand that has been extended indefinitely.
Through a Pink Cloud, Darkly: A Review of Iuli Gerbase’s The Pink Cloud
In Amalia Ulman’s debut feature, El Planeta, which she wrote and directed, Ulman and her real-life mother (Ale Ulman) play a mother and a daughter awaiting eviction. Ulman’s character, Leo (short for Leonor), has returned home after the death of her father, whose sporadic alimony payments barely supported her mother when he was alive. Leo is jobless and so is her mother, María. The two women spend most of the film in their narrow galley kitchen where the sunlight is abundant, and they aren’t tempted to waste money on electric lighting. Their refrigerator is empty, save for the tiny slips of paper María places in the freezer, each one bearing the handwritten name of an enemy. Atop the refrigerator are multiple glasses of water, which have something to do with María’s witchcraft—a practice that seems more like a distracting hobby than a coherent belief system. Leo sews bizarre yet fashionable clothing by hand, having sold her sewing machine for cash. They drink coffee, cook pasta, and, when they are really hungry, dress up in designer clothing and run up large bills in restaurants and stores, promising to pay later or claiming that Leo’s boyfriend is a local politician who will pick up the tab. They live in Gijón, a small city on Spain’s northern coast, a place hit hard by the global recession, with shuttered shops and empty tourist districts. It’s no wonder these two women are more at home in their delusions of grandeur.
I didn’t have much awareness of overnight childcare centers until I watched Through the Night, a documentary about a married couple, Deloris and Patrick Hogan, who run Dee’s Tots, a 24-hour daycare in New Rochelle, New York. Sadly, I don’t think my ignorance is unusual, and is likely shared by the many members of Congress who have consistently declined to fund public childcare, even after the pandemic revealed how necessary it is to working parents. Although not overtly political, Through the Night is quietly radical as it shines a light on the work of caregiving. It’s highly skilled labor that is essential to the health of children and families, yet childcare workers are often overworked and underpaid. To the extent that the government has childcare policies, they are designed to fit a model of a nuclear family with one stay-at-home parent. Director Loira Limbal shows the reality: many parents (usually mothers) are raising children on their own, and their jobs do not offer the pay, benefits, or flexibility to accommodate child-rearing.
In Tara Westover’s bestselling 2018 memoir, Educated, a wildly intelligent young woman finds herself stuck working in her family’s junkyard, unable to leave her isolated Idaho town even as she longs to go to college. Public school is forbidden by her fundamentalist Mormon father, so she is homeschooled with her siblings and forced to scrap metal in illegal and unsafe conditions. Westover’s gripping story of escape captivated readers across the country, and I found myself thinking of it as I watched Nicole Riegel’s directorial debut, Holler, which concerns a young woman facing similar challenges.
Early in quarantine, I subscribed to the Criterion Channel with the optimistic thought that I would have more time to watch old and obscure movies. But it took me a while to turn away from the news and Netflix’s latest offerings. At some point, however, a nostalgic desire for the past crept in. I started perusing Criterion. Losing Ground wasn’t the first thing I watched, but it was the movie that got me hooked on the channel, for the way it brought me into what felt like a lost world.
The plain title of Kelly Reichardt’s eighth feature film belies a richly–detailed period piece set in 1820s Oregon Territory. But before immersing you in the past, Reichart opens in the present, with a shot of alarge industrial ship making its way down the Willamette River. Along a piece of undeveloped shoreline, a woman and her dog are walking when the dog’s playful digging uncovers a human skull. Curious, the woman continues digging to reveal two full skeletons lying next to each another. As is typical of a Reichardt movie, this action unfolds wordlessly but with attention to the sounds of the natural world: the chirping of nearby birds, the dog’s panting and scuffling paws, and the river flowing by. This quiet, observational approach makes the discovery of two skeletons feel interesting, rather than ominous. However, I must admit that what I found most arresting about this scene was a lightweight pink scarf that the woman was wearing tied around her neck in a loose bow. It was the only warm color in a scene dominated by grays, blues, and greens, and as the woman’s scarf fluttered in breeze, I felt that it, as well as the skeletons, had a secret meaning.
My question about the scarf was partially answered in the next scene, a close-up of dirty hands plucking mushrooms from a damp forest floor. At first I thought we were keeping company with the same woman who had exhumed the skeletons, but as the camera panned out to reveal the forager’s identity, I realized we had fallen back in time. The forager was a man with a scraggly beard, rumpled hat, and old-fashioned menswear made of sturdy brown cloth. Around his neck was a red kerchief so faded and dirty it appearedpale pink. This echo in costumingand gesture not only helps to connect the characters across time, but is also a gentle suggestion that our way of life might be more connected to the past than we realize.