I Am Not A Witch

The persecution of witches has played a fundamental role in the development of capitalism over the last four hundred years. It weakens the ability of communities to reproduce themselves by destroying one of their greatest assets – women. And it creates an essential divide in the working class along gender lines, what Silvia Federici calls ‘the accumulation of difference’. The semi-fictional, only semi-serious world of I am Not a Witch (2017) suggests a third role for witches in our globalised world: tourist attractions for curious Westerners.

One of the funniest scenes sees an American backpacker trying to take a selfie with the young ‘witch’ at the centre of the film. This ten-year-old girl - nomadic and alone - was taken to the witch compound after her community accused her of sorcery. Her youth is a novelty, and she has an implacable star that emits authority and vulnerability, which a local politician exploits, taking her around the country settling civil disputes. The sharpest scenes rotate around this pompous governor. Early on, in the zoo-like enclosure, he lectures the captive women, claiming that there is a mutually beneficial relationship between the witches and the state. He bestows the title of ‘civil witch’ on the young protagonist, to quiet exasperation. Some of the other humour is less subtle. A trial scene in which an old man’s phone rings repeatedly during his testimony crudely expects the dissonance between ancient custom and modern technology to be enough for laughs.

The most arresting images all include the group of witches, tethered to giant spools of ribbon that act as mobile prison cells. They sit drinking gin. They work the land. They’re lined up for the amusement of tourists. It’s a powerful metaphor, and one that usefully links the plight of witches to the plight of women more generally. Perhaps first-time director Rungano Nyoni relies on this visual too heavily, but it’s impossible to deny its profound simplicity. The final shot – ribbons twirling in the wind – is strangely peaceful. This is a light film on a heavy subject, but is that a compliment or a criticism?

Logan Lucky

In the cartoonish South of Steven Soderberg’s Logan Lucky (2017), families are known. They have reputations and rivalries; a surname means something. The Logans are cursed. Bad luck stalks them or so their neighbours keep saying. We learn early on that both brothers served in Iraq. The younger brother, Clyde, lost an arm, after following his older brother, Jimmy, to war. So, is this a post-Iraq film? Does it express the cynicism that proceeded another failed adventure on false pretenses in the Middle East? Jimmy loses his job early on, told by his boss that a pre-existing knee injury is an insurance risk for the company. So, is this a post-crash film? Do the characters represent the insecurity and poverty of capitalism in crisis? No and no: this is a heist film. The heist is everything – subject matter, plot and subtext. Iraq and recession are merely the obligatory social issue contexts for the robbery and twists.

Some chapters drag the film down. The boys rob a NASCAR stadium during a race a telling update of the race track heist from The Killing (1956). It’s ingenious in its geographical scope, but some of the NASCAR baggage is grating. The boorish spokesperson for the event’s sponsor takes the film to Farrelly brothers-level comedy. Soderbergh has said he’s ‘obsessed with dreams’, and there are sections that pay homage to this obsession, lost among the slickness and structure. A man dressed as a bear disappears into thin air after delivering some explosives. A thief writes chemical equations explaining his dynamite recipe halfway through the crime. During a post-riot negotiation, inmates demand the last book in the Game of Thrones series (only to be told it hasn’t been written yet). All this suggests a crime fantasy, which would take as its starting point, not goblins and wizards, but the desires and imaginings of those leading desperate lives.

Aside from a few decent gags, delicious casting and some eerie hillbilly settings including a fayre where men munch pig trotters and toss toilet seats the film adds up to very little. I still think Soderbergh is well placed to make a political thriller in the Alan Pakula-style about paranoia and power struggles, fame, money and the White House. He could do it, but he may not think the movies are up to the challenge.

The Killing Of A Sacred Deer

The deer of the title could be the patient killed by Colin Farrell's surgeon in a boozy botched operation, whose heart we see pulsating in the pre-title sequence, all fatty ventricles and oozing tissue. Or it could be the family member who’s sacrificed in the film’s denouement. Who cares? It’s these ponderous questions that will lead many to hate Yorgos Lanthimos’ film its contrived performances, thundering portentousness, and faux-profundities.

If you can get past this moral seriousness, there’s a biting attack on scientism lying beneath. In The Lobster (2015), a reductive attitude to love leads to a dystopian universe, where everyone is forced into couples (the only productive human unit?). In The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (2017), we occupy a world that’s less obviously distinct from our own, but, in look and manner, it’s of a piece with Lobster’s: people communicate in an affectless, stilted way and all the surfaces are clean and modern. In Lobster the simplistic world of reproductive fatalism is punctured by real love, which it can’t contain. In Deer it’s ripped apart by equally primordial emotions: hatred, revenge, and the desire, as expressed by the sinister Martin, for ‘the closest I can think of to justice’. Martin channels these emotions into destructive magic.

The surgeon's quietly crazed reaction to magic his family mysteriously losing the ability to walk  illustrates the misguided arrogance of scientism. He orders tests to be run again and again. He admonishes the system that’s incapable of helping his family. He assumes the inexplicable is psychosomatic. Experts and consultants are summoned. When Farrell realises he must play his tormentor’s game and choose someone to save he goes to the school principal and asks which performs better in class, as if he can outsource a moral dilemma to an specialist with the right data-set. At the moment of truth, Farrell employs chance to avoid making a decision.

Even the couple’s sex life has the quality of a dehumanised experiment. The surgeon's wife (a glacial Nicole Kidman) lies, lifeless, waiting for his touch. She gives the instruction: ‘general anaesthetic.’ In Lanthimos’ wintry kingdom, even desire is calibrated through procedure.

mother!

Metaphors upon allegories upon metaphors. Who is Javier Bardem’s nameless character (credited as ‘Him’), this father/husband/creator/messiah? What does he represent? What is this system of rebirth? Who are these guests? What is this house? It has a beating heart, felt by Jennifer Lawrence’s wife (credited as ‘mother’) in her fits of crumbling margins. There is a furnace, malign yet inviting, that constantly burns. A passage in the basement leads out, but is it logically possible to leave? Some guests go to the hospital but we stay, tethered like a ball-and-chain, with Lawrence. The house bleeds. A vaginal hole opens, closes, then re-opens, excreting viscous blood onto the basement floor. Invasion is replaced with chaos, war is replaced by a unified and terrifying cult, all while the house retains its geography, all movement choreographed to intensify the sense of trappedness.

The film splits into halves. The first is a ‘horror of manners’, where impertinent guests enter uninvited, worship ‘father’ and insult ‘mother’, and sully the house. The anxiety builds, in part, through the increasingly fluid sense of private space, and ‘mother’s’ waning control over it. The second half is a baroque hell much harder to categorise. The deep mystery of the house and the evil that descends upon it provoke so much thought that we may forget to ponder the workaday life of ‘mother’. In this house, like most of the world, the experience of domesticity is the experience of gendered exploitation. Much of the film’s horror comes from what’s commonly called ‘everyday sexism’: in the midst of absolute chaos a man aggressively flirts with ‘mother’, eventually calling her an ‘arrogant cunt’; she is silenced and sidelined by ‘him’ who’s intent on catering for everyone’s needs but hers; the chores – cooking, cleaning, complimenting, encouraging – are relentless and lonely. The film is at its weakest when Lawrence is ricocheting through the explosions and exploitation like a pinball. The most powerful moments come when the form – confrontational, extreme – meets the horror of patriarchal domesticity. The baby dies. Bardem’s cult devours its flesh, while intoning the same platitudes of condolence we heard Bardem recite ten minutes earlier. This is extremity in the service of making a point about banality, specifically the banality of men.

After a period of tight-lipped mystery, director Darren Aronofsky and (his current partner) Lawrence have revealed what lies behind the metaphors and allegories: ‘the structure of the film was the Bible, using that as a way of discussing how humans have lived here on Earth,’ Aronofsky says; ‘the movie is about climate change, and humanity’s role in environmental destruction,’ according to Lawrence. Aronofsky’s also conceded that the film is personal, a portrait of a great artist at work. We should give some weight to this interpretation. Searching for a new project, the director looked to those around him who have paid the price for his ‘genius’: family, friends, partners, those whose love, labour and life-force undergirded his creativity. Then he imagined the dreadful toll of this work. In a way, allegorising this into a film is a great act of empathy and humility. But to encase representations of these loved ones in a tectonic narrative, which shifts according to core principles, rather than will or chance, a cyclical trap that predetermines their outcomes and meanings, is an act of narcissism and cruelty. Aronofsky is guilty of this.

The Florida Project

The hotel at the centre of the Florida Project (2017) is occupied, for the most part, by precarious renters, forced to move out once a month so they aren’t deemed permanent tenants. Despite their transience, the occupants make these rooms their own. When our heroes, Halley and her daughter Moonee, pop by their neighbour’s flat they play at being awestruck. Halley comments on the style: ‘This is fancy! You some interior decorator or shit?’ But part of the brilliance of director Sean Baker’s film is that it denies the private sphere, and understands these homes as more than the extension of personality: they are places of work, paid and unpaid, legal and illegal; a network of mutual support; and a site of danger, play, and struggle.

The majority of The Florida Project takes place in the hotel, and there’s a lot to say about how Baker treats this space. It’s one of the most exciting recent films in its portrayal of people and how they interact with their built environment. Baker has applied the walking approach to the city, which he developed on Tangerine (2015), to a hotel, and he’s imbued this building with the same sprawling possibility as Los Angeles. The post-crash housing crisis crops up when the children burn an abandoned complex to the ground. The crowds gather to watch the flames, cheering. Through an incredible tracking shot, we see the kids running down the corridors, enjoying their freedom, laying claim to their space. There are a few moments when we see the hotel inhabitants as a potential collective, as a body capable of making demands. The electricity trips (the kids’ work) and Baker’s camera retreats to see dozens of occupants coming out of their houses to berate Bobby, the hotel manager.

There are two central adult relationships. Bobby’s strained paternal bond with Halley, and Halley’s friendship with her neighbour, Ashley. The violence of this latter relationship is disturbing and mundane. One retracts their son from the other’s life. In response the other humiliates her at work. So then she’s humiliated for her sex work. This leads to punches. Each knows that what the other values most is their freedom. They know that revelling in those places where their autonomy is compromised the workplace is the cruellest attack.

Mother and daughter, grifting and chancing, quest for luxury. They go to country clubs selling perfume. When they get $400 by selling a stolen Disney pass they go on a shopping-spree, buying impulsively ‘cotton balls? Okay!’ They eat at five-star hotels and give fake room numbers. ‘I love this’, the daughter states simply, as we watch her consume ice cream, waffles, bacon. We stay with her face enjoying the food for a few minutes. Then there is the chimera of Disneyland, which hangs over the film, and which the kids escape to in the last scene. The final moments a shift to fantasy feel forced, but by this point the film has accrued so much good-will that we forgive quickly. Disney represents more than exploitation and capital; it’s the splendour that Halley and Moonee pursue.

God’s Own Country

In the first two minutes of Francis Lee's debut feature we’ve got sick, piss and spit. Five minutes later there’s a rough, dispassionate sex scene in a toilet. Throughout the film animal birth is a running motif, with all the viscera and goo on display. When the two heros first consummate their brooding desire, they’re on the exposed hills, beside a stone hut, muddied and goose-pimpled. There’s a swirl of noises and textures that mix farming with sex, human with animal, desire with disgust. Apart from this, God’s Own Country (2017) is an ordinary movie, a long way from the digressive stillness of, for example, Weekend (2011). But why shouldn’t queer cinema have formulaic, happy-ending love stories, full of redemption and reconciliation? Maybe we’ve had enough of representing misery. And, to the film’s credit, it doesn’t shy from some real parts of Britain: racist, homophobic, tribal.

The film relies heavily on the landscape Yorkshire is gothic, cold and beautiful as well as the lead performers. The lovers are self-possessed Romanian migrant Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) and self-lacerating farmer Johnny (Josh O'Connor). O'Connor is a particular revelation. Despite a rushed ‘maturing’ in the final act, which stretches plausibility and feels cynical, his performance is subtle and moving. He’s guarded, to the extent that smiles have to battle through crinkles of repression and fear. The couple’s second sex scene is an incredible display of overwhelmed desire, an attempt to reconcile tenderness and aggression.