Then Playing — Born in Flames; Beau Travail; First Cow

Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden, 1983). Lizzie Borden’s riveting experimental film is set in a fuzzily defined near future following a revolution that presumably created a more equitable society. Instead, women are still regularly belittled, persecuted, and attacked, and different factions of feminists put further acts of insurrection in motion. Borden employs footage of real protests and uses fictionalized media reports — including fiery radio broadcasts by the burgeoning rebel leaders — to tell her story of impassioned agitation. Borden brings a thrilling rambunctious spirit to the film that simultaneously meshes with and overrides the amateurish aspects of the film’s craft. Born in Flames is a pointed, grand piece of independent filmmaking that remains resonant decades later.

Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999). Taking a loose, interpretive pass a Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, French director Claire Denis makes a film with an acute awareness of the treacherous terrain of ritualized masculinity. The narrative embeds with a Foreign Legion troop in Africa, moving with an almost hypnotic attention to the way the characters interact with one another and their surroundings. The main driver of the plot is the ill feelings — perhaps jealousy, perhaps rage over repressed ardor — that well up in one of the leaders (Denis Levant) as he interacts with a new recruit (Grégoire Colin), leading to abusive behavior. The actors are firm and focused, but it’s the imagery of Denis that bends Beau Travail into the realm of the rapturous. She caps the film with a dance sequences that is an astonishing study of the human figure, cutting against the space around it like an electrified switchblade.

First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, 2020). As she did with the exemplary Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt sets a fiction in the barely tamed West of the first half of the nineteenth century. First Cow is set in the Oregon Territory, where Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) befriends King-Lu (Orion Lee), quietly bonding over the way they both feel uncertain of how to make their way in the rough world. A former orphan who shuttled between small-scale, temporary occupations his whole life, Otis has a facility for baked goods, and the duo take advantage of an unguarded milk cow on a nearby property to get a key ingredient for oily cakes, which they then sell at the nearby town. Adapted from a novel by Jonathan Raymond (Reichardt co-wrote the screenplay with the author), the film offers a sharp consideration of the embedded, unyielding class structure that serves as the foundation of the country. Otis and King-Lu can strive for greater opportunity and show the fortitude and ingenuity (if aided by a bit of agriculturally based petty larceny) to build their own opportunity, but they are ultimately there to be used and discarded by moneyed interests. As usual, Reichardt brings a depth of feeling to her storytelling, making a film that is piercing, resonant, and marked by modest, casual beauty.

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