The truly beautiful ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ (2010)

Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams is an ode to the Chauvet Cave in France, a cavern that harbors prehistoric art. Herzog narrates the film in his raspy voice, nearly whispering with reverence. The interviews, the light on the walls, and Ernst Reijseger’s gorgeous, sacred score all attempt to convey the significance of this discovery. The devout tone might strike some as too serious, but, as the movie unfolds, one understands why the filmmakers are struck with such awe.

The movie is not without its mischievous moments. Herzog concludes the film with crocodiles and interviews a wide range of experts, from paleontologists to a perfumer. The interview subjects reflect on the the remarkable preservation of the art, the meaning of this finding, and the scientific challenges involved in studying it. Herzog also makes clear how difficult and unusual it is to film in the Chauvet Cave, a delicate site that has been preserved for thousands of years.

The cave itself is a work of art, a glittering cavern that resembles an alien world. Animal bones and archaic footprints litter the floor, and marvelous illustrations line the walls. These artists painted about thirty thousand years ago, a time when mammoths, horses, lions, and rhinoceros lived in frozen France. They incorporated the contours of the walls into their drawings, which strike archaeologists as spiritual representations with mythological implications. Herzog takes time to film these stunning images with and without commentary.*

Those who created these pictures lived in a very different world, yet their compositions remain so vivid. They were initially thought to be fake. Those who study the cave describe its profound effect on their psyches and suggest it’s as though these ancient ghosts are reaching out to us through the paintings. They have left a metaphysical indent. Prehistorian Jean Clottes says that the term homo sapiens, the man who knows–we don’t really know much, Clottes smiles–is a less appropriate name for humans than homo spiritualis.

Cave celebrates this cathedral of creativity and invention, as mysterious as it is moving. It is a communication with ancient culture, a connection to ancient being. The film urges the audience to feel wonder. Faced with such a magnificent demonstration of human development and expression, how could we feel anything else?

*The pacing reminded me of the similarly slow but beautiful Russian Ark, a movie that takes viewers through a dream of human history in a single, uninterrupted shot. That movie is also available on Netflix streaming.


The Imposter (2012): A spooky tale of impersonation

The Imposter is a chilling documentary about a young man who claims to be the missing child Nicholas Barclay. A few years after the thirteen-year-old Nicholas disappeared from San Antonio, Frédéric Bourdin showed up in Spain, claiming to be Nicholas and telling a horrific tale of kidnapping and torture. His hair and eyes were the wrong color, he was years older than Nicholas, and he spoke with a French accent. Bourdin came up with explanations for everything and successfully hoodwinked the Barclay family and a number of officials.

The filmmakers employ somewhat gimmicky but still effective reenactments and interview Bourdin, members of the grieving family, and several officials involved in the case. A compulsive con artist and identity thief, Bourdin comes across as open and engaging, though he claims to feel isolated enough and to dislike being touched. He thinks tactically rather than morally, considering what others will think of him rather than how they feel. He claims that he created countless personas (the numbers range between the dozens and hundreds) by the time he was twenty-three because he craved acceptance and felt uncomfortable with his own identity, one that lacked love from the beginning.

The gripping film falters in lending credence to Bourdin’s allegation that the Barclays killed Nicholas themselves. There is no evidence against them, and their accuser is a pathological liar. However, an investigator and an FBI agent become suspicious due to the shocking fact that the family welcomed someone who was clearly an imposter into their home. When first informed that Bourdin is not Nicholas, the sympathetic but possibly dysfunctional Barclays actively refuse to face the truth.

We never know what happened to Nicholas. The soundtrack, which includes 16 Horsepower’s cover of “Wayfaring Stranger,” is appropriately haunting. It is terrifying that master manipulators like Bourdin exist, calculating how their behavior can influence others at every turn. Just as baffling is what grief and denial can do. As Bourdin did not have a specific motive for what he did (he was not a spy or a terrorist, as one investigator thought–why else would he assume an American identity?), the Barclays likely didn’t accept Bourdin as Nicholas to cover up foul play. Their response to Bourdin was bizarre, but hardly a sign of guilt or of being anything more than the irrational beings we pretend we are not.

Deadpool (2016)

The Marvel comic book character Deadpool developed from a villain into a popular antihero. After a brief appearance in the film X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the eagerly awaited Deadpool movie has been a hit with both audiences and critics. The film’s hilarious marketing campaign pushed the character’s playful self-awareness, attracting fans as well as those interested in something different from the usual superhero fare. While the film is a mixed bag of juvenile humor and graphic violence, it has something most viewers can’t help but respond to: energy.

Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), a wisecracking mercenary and former member of special forces, falls in love with the lovely prostitute Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Through a series of holiday sexual liaisons, they realize that they are a perfect match. Unfortunately, doctors diagnose Wade with terminal cancer, and he takes up the offer of a mysterious man who claims to be able to help him. It isn’t giving too much away to say that a cure comes, but at a price. The private company turns Wade into the deformed, slightly more insane, and nearly indestructible Deadpool.

Deadpool’s abilities include possessing great taste in music (the exuberant soundtrack includes DMX and Salt N Pepa) and breaking the fourth wall. He speaks to the audience and makes references to Ryan Reynolds and superhero movie franchises. The opening credits attempt irony by playing a romantic song during a freeze-frame image of a violent scene but actually succeed at humor in replacing names with labels like “A British Villain” and “An Overpaid Tool.”

It feels pointless to criticize the film’s humor for poor taste since it prides itself on being offensive. The comedy is crude but not exactly subversive. One of the only people of color is a blind black woman who is the butt of several jokes. The movie is slightly better about misogyny. Fully-nude women dance away at one strip club, but Vanessa, while gorgeous, is also a believable match for Wade. The other female characters, though still attractive, are super-powered muscle rather than vapid eye-candy.

In terms of violence, there are threats of rape and careless mentions of molestation, blood and broken bones. This “hero” doesn’t think twice about chopping up enemies or even himself to get his own way, spewing out a stream of pop cultural references and insults all the while. Deadpool, who hates the word “superhero,” is both grating and entertaining because he is madcap id.

Deadpool kicks off a rather dark year for superheroes. Batman and Superman aren’t getting along. Neither are Iron Man and Captain America. The X-Men face a mutant named Apocalypse, and the Suicide Squad comprises a team of unreliable villains forced into government servitude. It is doubtful any of the films will be as violent as Deadpool, a rare R-rated comic book film. Its excellent editing keeps the story clear as it flashes between past and present, and the tone remains consistently irreverent though its scenes shift from revenge, to romance, comedy, and horror. Some will find the movie aggressively unpleasant and tediously self-satisfied, while those who enjoy the action, laugh at the jokes, and can stomach the violence will consider it a rousing good time at the cinema.

Room (2015)

In Room, five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) describes the very small world that he and his mother share. It is easy to give too much away, so I’ll start by saying his story could be considered a metaphor for the prisons we all live in, from incapacitating pain to immobilizing anxiety. It is also about how wrenching and wondrous it is to have one’s eyes opened to the wide world. Though at times powerful, Room ultimately falters because it comes from a hypothetical rather than visceral place.

Too vague? Here is a little more detail: Jack’s mother Joy (Brie Larson) has been held captive in a shed for seven years. Extreme isolation and daily sexual abuse drain her, but she creates a home of sorts for her son, who was fathered by her captor. Jack has never left Room, as he calls it, and is unaware of the outside world’s existence. Joy raises him with remarkable patience and creativity, only occasionally lapsing into anger or despair in his presence.

Further spoilers follow: after a daring if improbable escape, the two are rescued. Jack’s shock at discovering a new life is the film’s strongest moment, and the second half of Room shows Jack’s emergence into the world as well as Joy’s struggles with returning to a form of normalcy. Jack must somehow adjust to this second birth and Joy to life after seven lost years.

Emma Donaghue adapted the script from her book, which I haven’t read, but I am familiar with director Lenny Abrahamson’s wonderful Frank (2014), a comedy that manages to examine mental illness, creativity, and fame. Room shares some of that film’s whimsy in spite of its content. Because the harrowing subject is from Jack’s innocent perspective, the tone is less heartbreaking than hopeful. Stephen Rennicks’s soundtrack suggests a magical tale of discovery and has moments of inspiration, but its sweeping strings and piano music can be cloying and too sentimental in the context of such a stark situation.

Inspired by the Josef Fritzl case in Austria, alongside several other kidnapping cases, Donaghue also drew from her experiences as a mother. Her background in historical fiction prepared her for the research needed to tell such a narrative. She wanted to move away from the “saccharine and the judgmental” view of female victims and to shift focus from the victimizer to the survivors. This is a story of mother and child and how one can find freedom in limitations.

Donaghue penned this with memories of motherhood in mind, but she chose to tell it from the child’s perspective and indicated it would be too depressing and perhaps even salacious to write it from Joy’s view. On top of that, she cited John Fowles as already having written so well as both the young female prisoner and male kidnapper in his book The Collector (1963). Donaghue blessedly made a point to keep Joy’s kidnapper “Old Nick” at arm’s length so as not to give people like him any more attention than they already receive, though surely his figure would loom much more largely in the minds of his victims than he does in this film.

In his review, Ed Whitefield points out that drama is “not in a child’s lack of understanding but an adult’s fully cultivated, stark awareness of their situation and the likely horrors to come.” It is the tension between the knowing and the innocent perspectives that creates poignancy and even dread. Taika Waititi’s Boy (2010), for example, a very different movie about an exuberant eleven-year-old, mines humor and tragedy from the distance between the child’s fantastical view of his father and his negligent father’s actual virtue.

Jack’s disillusionment is not so acute. He has a difficult time relinquishing the fictions he believed about the world, but he is young and malleable. Still, it seems as though the film does not want to dwell on how painful this reawakening would actually be. Imagination is portrayed as a beautiful coping mechanism that allows Jack to thrive in Room. Other films such as Tideland (2005) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) also feature children who escape their hideous reality through their imaginations, but they demonstrate that, no matter how necessary, there is an ambiguous aspect to these fantasies. Some may never escape their dreams.

Though Jack can barely speak or process the overstimulation of life outside Room, in Room, he is emotionally and verbally ordinary. Even with the influence of a fuzzy television and a longsuffering mother like Joy, it is hard to believe that Jack would complain about not having candles on his birthday cake or bound with enthusiasm around his home, as any “normal” boy would. Jacob Tremblay is adorable and sometimes remarkable but occasionally obnoxious in his unrealistic precociousness.

Elisabeth, Fritzl’s daughter and victim, pulled out chunks of her hair while trapped in her basement. She and her children suffered severe physical and mental impairments. Children, even when raised in isolation, have a survival instinct that can be attuned to the pain of others. Jack is wary of Nick, and the second half of the film delves more into how Jack and his mother’s experiences have stunted them, especially Joy. Still, without more information about her experiences and thought processes in Room, Jack’s relative equanimity seems improbable.

As important as her character is, Joy’s voice is lacking. Joy, played so well by Larson, plays a crucial role in raising Jack and keeping the two of them alive until she can no longer cope, but we don’t know how she developed Jack’s educational regimen or got through her regular assaults. The focus is on Jack. A comically insensitive television interviewer doesn’t question why Elisabeth didn’t leave or fight back, questions many victims hear. The interviewer instead implies that Joy is an inadequate mother.

A doctor tells Joy that the most important thing she did is not escape or keep the two intact for all those years, but save Jack while he is “plastic.” It is his integration into the outside world that is most important, not his mother’s reintegration. Questions of motherhood hit Joy hardest. Her individuality and needs are addressed but from Jack’s point of view. If Joy is first and foremost a mother to Jack, we need to have her voice as a mother to balance Jack’s, if not instead of his.

The Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015) gives its heroine Kimmy, who was kidnapped and assaulted for years, like Joy, a voice. It takes a comedic bent, and does not attempt to be as realistic as Room. Australian horror film The Babadook (2014) examines the way a mother-son relationship can be imperiled by unresolved trauma. That mother is longsuffering and is not cooped up with him in a tiny prison, but she still feels suffocated by her child.

Room is memorable, disturbing, and, at times, thrilling. In spite of the story’s verisimilitude, Room betrays its origins as a novel rather than a memoir. Donaghue uses her imagination to depict Joy’s and Jack’s traumas, but, though full of accurate psychological details, it doesn’t quite ring true. Jack’s story is worth telling—a child is raised in a horrific environment by a resilient but imperfect mother, and the most difficult part of his existence is leaving all that he knows. However, tales like Jack’s and Joy’s are not allegories. They are living nightmares that have happened and still happen. The writer, director, and certainly the actors tell their story with sensitivity and invention, but a darker take is needed to make a story like this “inspirational.”


The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

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There is no dialogue for the first five minutes of The Young Girls of Rochefort (Les Demoiselles De Rochefort). A troop of showmen disembark at the color-coordinated seaside town of Rochefort and dance as they construct their traveling fair. The town’s inhabitants disparage the kind of men and women who can be found in such a provincial place, but the festival weekend reveals an assortment of personalities and sensibilities. What the array of characters share is a yearning for love. (Shocking in a French film, I know.)

Les demoiselles are a lovely pair of fraternal twins, Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) and Solange (Françoise Dorléac, who sadly passed away the year of the film’s release). They long to move to Paris and make it big as a dancer and composer, respectively. Meanwhile, they have to deal with their mother (major movie star Danielle Darrieux), who spends her days running a fry shop, their little brother Booboo, and potential lovers, including the flirtatious duo who run the carnival (Americans George Chakiris, of West Side Story, and Grover Dale).

A host of familiar faces, including Jacques Perrin and Gene Kelley (!), sing and swoon to Michel Legrand’s jaunty music and director Jacques Demy’s witty lyrics. The most memorable pieces are “Chanson de Maxence,” a mournful and fanciful ballad about a woman Maxence has never met, and Solange’s dramatic piano composition. While not all the lyrics are sung as they are in Demy’s previous film Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, the sheer number of musical numbers can be exhausting for the casual musical fan.

During the carnival itself, the pastel-hued dream of Rochefort is splashed with red, perhaps hinting at the grisly murder that takes place off-screen. Don’t worry–the film’s breezy tone continues uninterrupted. Characters merely gossip and shake their heads at the crime. However, mini-revelations and moments of thwarted fate create genuine moments of amorous suspense.

This film is not for those who dislike musicals or love stories, though these romances aren’t quite love stories. These characters fall in love at first sight, if not earlier, leaving more room for fantasy than romantic narratives. The candied (rather than wholly nourishing) Young Girls of Rochefort is as light, silly, and appealing as its airy vocals.