Three weeks…three really weird films from Netflix focused on three (or more) psychologically disturbed women.
Where do I even begin? Let’s start from the beginning.
The Skin I Live In – Pedro Almodovar
Remember the episode of Seinfeld where George was dating the woman who looked like Jerry and Kramer was far too eager to diagnose the “perverse sexual amalgam” and “George’s man-love for a she-Jerry?” Ah, funny stuff, right? Good times. Good times. Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In is kinda like that episode of Seinfeld only imagine George is a renowned plastic surgeon (played by Antonio Banderas) with a deeply personal motivation for creating the perfect skin-graft for burn victims and his girlfriend is the man who raped his suicidal daughter whom against which he holds a fetishistic vendetta. Wait…what? No…that’s not right.
Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In is like David Lynch’s Lost Highway re-imagined by a hysterical Spanish woman with a gender-identity crisis. Yeah…that’s it…that’s the ticket. Or maybe not.
Almodovar is a director who when told, “Don’t go there, girlfriend!” he said, “To hell with you! I already went there. And I carpet-bombed the place. And I mailed back the pieces to you so you could cut yourself. And we all looked FABULOUS doing it!” As such, his films are always interesting and perverse but more often than not simply shock you (seriously, how sick was Bad Education?) or bore you to death (I fell asleep during Talk to Her, Volver….and oh, what the heck was the name of that last one with Penelope Cruz where she played an actress?). Only once could I ever say I was fully engaged and entertained (All About My Mother)…until now, and I’m kinda embarrassed to admit it because The Skin I Live In is one sick, sick film. But it kept my attention. I loved it for its Twin Peaks-ian opening credit type-face and pulsating score. I loved it for its slick, glossy, Euro-trash vibe and quasi-futurism. I loved it for the laissez-faire treatment of the major plot twist and subsequent denouement.
Hmmm…maybe The Skin I Live In is the hot-blooded Latin version of Olivier Assayas’ dubiously French Demonlover? Or maybe it is what is, which is a perverted psychosexual fever-dream of one sick puppy who has an amazing sense of fashion and aesthetics. Yeah…that sounds about right. Enjoy it at the peril of your own psyche.
Martha Marcy May Marlene – Sean Durkin
Elizabeth Olsen gives a bravura performance as a young woman who escapes from a dangerous cult only to have to now traverse the emotionally troubled waters of reuniting with her estranged older sister in Sean Durkin’s slow-burning and innocuously creepy debut film, Martha Marcy May Marlene. It’s kinda like a folksy, American riff on a Bergman film. It’s also probably the second best psychological drama/character study to emerge from 2011 following Take Shelter.
It’s not the type of film for everyone as it offers no real answers to the questions it raises and features an abruptly ambiguous ending (that I really appreciated), but it’s worth checking out for Olsen’s performance and its effectively accurate look at how longing for protection and a family structure can lead troubled minds to dangerous places that engender fear and paranoia. There’s also one amazing scene where the cult leader (John Hawkes) is playing his guitar in the breezy twilight on their secluded farm and dedicates his song to Marcy May (Olsen). The camera lingers on her face in the seated crowd of minions, and then lingers on Hawkes singing, and then on the trees swaying in the background…and you totally “get” why she wants to be there, but you sense that danger underneath. It’s a dreadfully beautiful thing…and Durkin makes master use of the natural surroundings, the dark wooded hills and mountains and lakes of Upstate New York. It’s one of my favorite places on earth…and Durkin used it to give me the chills. Martha Marcy May Marlene will not be soon forgotten.
A Dangerous Method – David Cronenberg
Like Almodovar, Cronenberg is a twisted individual whose films are always interesting but rarely any good and often quite boring (Spider was insufferable). He’s the one director in history who managed to un-direct a film with his minimalist style that resulted in the waste-of-time that was A History of Violence. And, like Almodovar, there’s only been one time he truly engaged and entertained me…and that was with Eastern Promises.
Which is why I was so pleasantly surprised by A Dangerous Method. Who knew that when strapped with a period-piece Cronenberg would apply such a meticulous attention to detail? Visually it’s a beautiful and haunting piece of work to watch. Sure, it’s a fairly by-the-numbers look at the early days of psychoanalysis and much of the talk amongst Jung (the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender) and Freud (Cronenberg favorite Viggo Mortensen) comes across as psychology 101. And, yes, Keira Knightley overacts to within an inch of her life (complete with bad Russian accent) as the hysterical woman Jung treats, makes his lover, and then watches become a renowned psychoanalyst herself. But, when Cronenberg dives deep into the sexual repression of the early 20th century and really gets into the psychosexual bodice-ripping stuff…man, this little period-piece is quite the piece of entertainment.
So in the end, all three of these films rife with varying degrees of weirdness, surprise, delight and disgust, paint a troubling picture of the “hysterical” woman – long a favorite fodder for art and film. But maybe it’s the men/directors diagnosing them who are the most troubled?
I’ll leave it for you to decide. I’m off to see my therapist after all of this!
Written by David H. Schleicher