6. The Handmaiden
How I watched it: At Secret Cinema, when it was actually secret! Although I guessed it from the poster artwork.
[BIG FAT SPOILERS]
The Handmaiden is a film about colonialism, the male gaze and abuse but it is also a super fun erotic thriller. An adaptation of Sarah Water’s Fingersmith with the setting changed to Korea under the Japanese occupation in the 1930s. The Count, a con man, enlists Sookee to become a maid for the rich lady Hideko, who lives under the ‘protection’ of her uncle and stands to inherit a large sum of money when she marries. A large amount of double crossing ensues, told in three parts, but the plan changes when the two women fall in love.
I watched this again recently, and its interesting contrasting this film against Portrait of a Lady on Fire (which probably maybe definitely would have made this list with a little bit more time to sink in) A film where lesbian romance is seen entirely through the female gaze (there are almost no men in the entire film) and it feels like suddenly being able to breathe. The women in that film are still at the mercy of convention and patriarchy but it is shot with a freedom we still rarely see. In the Handmaiden, the sex scenes in particular are shot entirely like a lesbian porn film but it works because it underlines the patriarchal structure of the system these women are trapped in and because we as women have, to some extent, internalised the male gaze. That sounds like a bad thing, but its fun to use the tricks that have been used against us on ourselves. The most important thing being that here, unlike so many other times, the lesbians win.
How I watched it: I don’t think this got a release in Australia, or if it did it was very limited, so I probably downloaded it, before streaming was normal.
How do you run a campaign against a dictator? How do you prevent people voting against their own interests, just because they are scared? Use hilariously naff 80s imagery to make it seem fun is No’s answer.
By 1988 Pinochet had been the dictator of Chile for 15 years. Increasing international pressure caused him to call a plebiscite to be kept in power. We follow an advertising exec, René (Gael Garcia Bernal), as he uses playful advertising language to try and dispel fear around voting NO, recognising that hope is the best way to motivate people. Shot on 80s vidoetape, the film looks like the 80s and mixes in archival footage, reminding us that we watched history play out on TV in the same way we now watch it play out on our phones. This was the first time I remember seeing a woman who was an activist represented, as Rene stays home to look after his son, whist his ex partner gets thrown in jail for protesting. As we enter into a decade where protest and pressure is going to be extremely necessary, its a reminder that whilst the consequences are incredibly serious, rebellion doesn’t have to be.
How I watched it: On my own on a cheap grey Monday at Picturehouse Central.
A looming grey sky fills the screen. You hear a disembodied sneeze, once, twice, as the camera shakes each time. The title of the film appears.
Kirsten Johnson’s documentary is a documentary about documentaries. A camera operator on docos for years, she has got through old footage, removed it from the film it was shot for, and shown the ways in which filming those experiences affected her. It’s a beautiful disproving of the idea of the neutrality of documentaries, and not only how filming affects the lives of those being filmed, but how what they are recording affects the documentarians.
There is no narrative structure at all. Occasionally title cards come up showing the project and a year. Some are long sequences. One clip, from a Laura Poitras film, is a usb stick being thrown in a cement mixer, with no further explanation. We experience Johnson as a voice behind the camera, but we get a feeling for her physicality through the way the camera moves, and we see a flash of her in a mirror, just once. In Nigeria, we follow a nurse trying keep a baby, one of newborn twins, alive, when we know she doesn’t have the right equipment. A little later, we see home footage of Johnson’s own twins.
Its about the structure of memory itself, how we experience things, how we remember them and how we reconfigure our experiences to make stories out of them. It spoke deeply to me because it felt like a jumble of moments and themes and motifs and truths, which is how my brain thinks. Even though the film has to be linear not in structure, but in time (because its a film, and films have to take 90 minted and time runs forwards) the structure circles back. A story doesn’t have to have a beginning, a middle and an end. A story is the connections you make in your brain.
3. Leave No Trace
How I watched it: Streamed it one evening.
The longer I live in a city, the more I cry when I see movies that involve people who live in tandem with the landscape. I don’t know what I was expecting when I started Leave No Trace, but I found something that was deeply, deeply empathetic to it’s characters.
Ben Foster is so good that a scene where he pats a horse made me bawl. It’s about how nature can help us heal, but also about how hard it is for us to live in a system that doesn’t value people. I watched Captain Fantastic the other night and felt much the same pull. Capitalism doesn’t care about your mental health. Are their other ways of living that we are missing? It unveiled a deep sense of grief for the ways that society as we have built it keeps people in boxes, and what that means for those on the margins that can’t participate in it. I feel that deeply, but also I can’t build a fire without matches.
2. Mad Max Fury Road
How I watched it: Twice, at the cinema
If this is what happens when society finally collapses, I am on board. Narratively, we go one way, and then turn right round and go straight back. But in between? There are real effects (instead of CGI), editing by Margaret Sixel that actually allows us to see the action and a man playing a guitar on the back of a truck that produces flames (This same man applied to be Australia’s Eurovision entry this year in a move I am eternally grateful for).
After two years in England there were home comforts; the call of ‘fang it bro’, the Australian crow sound effect. But there was a leading lady with no hair and a disability that was never explained or given back story as a reason why she was ‘broken’ – as someone who was born with a deformity it felt like the movies had been refreshed. I’ve never tried crack but I assume it’s much like the part when Max can’t take the shot and Furiosa takes over?
1. Call Me By Your Name
How I watched it: At the London film festival, 2017. Came off a night shift and went to a morning showing with my cardigan wrapped tightly around me and a roll of sweets in my pocket. Walked around London in a daze afterwards.
I love this film so much? I love this film so much. “Oh”, I thought, watching it. “This is a very handsome film but I feel like I’m admiring it rather than feeling it”. And I felt like that for about three quarters of the way though. Then all of the emotions hit me at once, around the time Michael Stuhlbarg makes a speech about pretending not to love so as to not feel anything at all – I was ruined.
I’ve been a Luca Guadanigno fan since 2011’s I Am Love, and adore his visual, senses-based storytelling. It is already transcendent, but when Sufjan Steven’s Futile Devices kicked in I didn’t quite recover. It is one of the only films I’ve seen which is unashamedly bisexual, but never makes a big deal of it. I saw it two years ago and I still don’t know if I can answer the questions it asks. I’ve been checking that clock. “Is it better to speak or to die?”
I honestly dunno babe.