Friday, May 9:
I made it to three films yesterday – two documentaries and one narrative – all of them interesting in very different ways.
Actress (Robert Greene, 2014)
Brandy Burre – best known as Theresa D’Agostino in Seasons 3 and 4 of the HBO series “The Wire” – is the subject of this fascinating and visually lo-fi profile, and both she and director Robert Greene (Fake It So Real) were in attendance for the post-screening Q&A. The film follows Burre as she struggles to reconcile her post-Wire life as a mother (she moved to Beacon, NY, with her partner Tim to raise a family) with her continued desire for a creative outlet. According to her, she had grown of the constant rat-race auditioning process and, at the time, had looked forward to a break from her career. As the film begins, however, she has grown restless, both in her small town and in her relationship. A loving mom, she nevertheless longs for more.
Early on, the movie raises questions about its own intentions and artifice. Is Burre performing for the camera? Is she using the film to jump-start her acting career? Is she manipulating the director (a friend and next-door neighbor)? Is the director manipulating her? Interestingly, Robert Greene raised most of these issues, himself, during the Q&A, saying that he had wanted to make a film that would cause the audience to ask these very questions and wonder as to the veracity of what is on the screen. What is documentary truth, after all? As Greene mentioned, Robert Flaherty staged almost all of Nanook of the North, and when we think of great later documentaries like Grey Gardens and American Movie, we remember how part of their charm is the constant guesswork to determine how much is performance and how much is real (whatever that means). It is no coincidence that Greene’s previous film was about the world of professional wrestling!
In any case, I think Greene and Burre succeed in their intentions, and leave you deeply emotionally involved in the actress’s life, even as you ponder its authenticity.
Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger (Joe Berlinger, 2014)
Joe Berlinger (Under African Skies – which I saw at the 2012 Maryland Film Festival) has made a far more conventional documentary, complete with well-lit and staged talking-head interviews, that leaves no doubt as to its intentions. Nominally about the infamous Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, its real target is government corruption. Yes, Bulger is a very bad man, but he was aided and abetted by agents within the FBI and possibly the Department of Justice – at least according to the filmmaker, who takes the side of Bulger’s defense team. These lawyers are not trying to prove Bulger’s innocence – which Bulger, himself, does not claim – but rather the fact that he was never an FBI informant, and that money paid to agents by Bulger was for them to allow him unfettered control of Boston’s underworld. It’s a complex and very dense argument, and the film is frustrating at times because Berlinger does not always maintain strict control over the many divergent threads to the story. But what comes through, and powerfully so, is the outrage and hurt of Bulger’s many victims, including that of a man named Stephen Rakes, who opens the film with an interview about Bulger, and then is mysteriously killed halfway through the story.
As a piece of investigative reporting, it is suffused with the power of its own convictions, and seems to build a strong anti-government case. I have no idea how much of the case it makes is actually true, but the pain of its many human subjects is never in doubt.
Abuse of Weakness (Catherine Breillat, 2013)
French director Catherine Breillat (A Real Young Girl, Romance), who suffered a debilitating stroke in 2004, has now made a film based on the experience of that stroke, her recovery and subsequent relationship with a con man who took much of her money. The movie was presented by filmmaker John Waters, who chooses one film every year to screen at the Maryland Film Festival, and who described to us how he once met Breillat in Paris. Though neither of them spoke each other’s language, they had a wonderful meeting of minds. I bet! They are each, in their own unique way, enfants terribles of the cinematic world.
Abuse of Weakness features a mesmerizing central performance by Isabelle Huppert, who plays Maud – the Breillat stand-in – with conviction, humor, strength and pathos. We believe in her paralysis, her weakness, and her strength. When, at the end of the film, she confronts her family to admit to her reckless financial giveaway to con man Vilko (a very good Kool Shen, normally a French rapper), her confession, “C’était moi, mais ce n’était pas moi” (“it was me, but it wasn’t me”), reflects both her continuing defiance in the face of her handicap and a grudging admission of weakness. Only an actress of Huppert’s power could pull of that duality.
Breillat has always been interested in the intersection of female desire and danger, and here she manages to evoke both without resorting to her occasional over-the-top explicit quasi-pornography. It’s a genuinely moving film, although the many plot ellipses may frustrate some viewers. Go see it when it finally gets a proper release in the U.S.