Then Playing — Je Tu Il Elle; Dark Places; The Decline of Western Civilization

Je Tu Il Elle (Chantal Akerman, 1974). Esoteric and aloof, Chantal Akerman’s early feature is exactly what I thought all French cinema was like until I actually, you know, watched some of it. Je Tu Il Elle is almost amusing as it skirts self-parody with three distinct segments: the main character (played by Akerman) philosophizes in her bare apartment while gulping down spoonfuls of sugar, hangs out with a truck driver (Niels Arestrup) who picks her up hitchhiking, and engages in highly physical lovemaking with a female friend (Claire Wauthion). Akerman favors long takes and largely static medium shots, a technique that can be seen jointly as a celebration of the frame and defiance against the edit. The film is sometimes hypnotic and sometimes amusingly pretentious as it swoops around its obvious artistry like a magic cloak. Much as I admire Akerman’s firm commitment to challenging, experimental filmmaking, I’d have to nod in understanding at anyone who declared it more test than triumph.

Dark Places (Gilles Paquet-Brenner, 2015). Of the three screen adaptations of Gillian Flynn’s novels, Dark Places is easily the weakest work, maybe in part because it’s the one instance when the author didn’t pitch in on the script. Instead, director Gilles Paquet-Brenner is the sole credited screenwriter. He dutifully transposes the story to the screen, losing most of Flynn’s invaluable tone in the process. The gallows humor is almost entirely absent, leaving Dark Places as nearly indistinguishable from any number of drab, dour thrillers with a true-crime patina. In the film, Charlize Theron plays Libby Day, who survived a mass killing in her rural Kansas home when she was eight years old. Some thirty years later, she’s drawn to reexamine a part of her life she’s buried beneath layers of angry cynicism after being recruited by an amateur sleuth (Nicholas Hoult) who is part of a whole clan of people who obsess over unsolved (or suspiciously solved) crimes in a manner that would seem like convenient fictional invention if not for I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and its ilk. Theron is atypically unable to work her way in to the complexities of the character, and the strong cast around her are similarly adrift, setting up plot points more than playing moments.

The Decline of Western Civilization (Penelope Spheeris, 1981). Forty years after it was filmed, Penelope Spheeris’s documentary about the Los Angeles punk rock scene remains a bracing dram of whiskey laced with battery acid. Hunkering down with several bands plying their abrasive trade on the stages of delightfully dingy California clubs, Spheeris captures a time and place with the relaxed clarity of a curious, judgment-free observer free of an agenda. Unlike other films that purport to capture rock hooligans battering at the walls of genteel society, the footage of bands raging sets and audiences flailing recklessly in response still has the feel of danger unleashed. The Decline of Western Civilization makes the amp-rattling rampage look alluring and alarming at the same time, which strikes me an unassailably accurate.

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