LOVING HIGHSMITH has a running time of 83 minutes. It was released in the USA last year and is playing BFI Flare 2023.
Friday, March 24, 2023
LOVING HIGHSMITH is a fascinating but ultimately frustrating documentary about the enigmatic and spiky American author Patricia Highsmith. I have long loved Highsmith's books and the various film adaptations they have spawned. There's something curiously liberating and absurdly funny about her amoral criminal protagonists, not least the charismatic psychopath Tom Ripley. Set against these dark, disturbing crime novels, we then had the subversive romance of Carol, or The Price of Salt, in which a rich 1950s housewife finds a fulfilling happy ending with a young shopgirl. They don't suffer, they don't regret, they don't die. They live happily. One struggles to reconcile the two novelists and the many Patricia's. Is she a courageous and admirable figure - an undeniably important writer - the life of the party - fearless in her love life? Or is she a mean, alcoholic, anti-semitic misanthropist?
Vitija approaches Highsmith through her family and love life. We meet some of her family living in contemporary Texas, who speak of the buttoned up nature of life in the South of the 1950s. It seems incomprehensible that this literary woman grew up in the family of a rodeo-announcer! But what a fucked up childhood she had. Her mother divorced her father before she was born and apparently tried to abort her by drinking terps. Young Patricia was so aghast at being gay that she tried to sleep with men and conversion therapy. Per her lover and fellow author Marijane Meaker, everyone did, because of the endemic bigotry of the times.
Of all the interviews it is Meaker who is the most astute, and the most fascinating, depicting the lesbian underground scene in New York and the many reasons why Highsmith would've written The Price of Salt under a pseudonym. This is interspersed with archival footage of Patricia as well as Gwendolyn Christie reading excerpts from her diary, further explaining how career-ending writing a "gay book" might've been.
In addition to Meaker, we meet some of Patricia's lovers from her self-imposed European exile. Tabe Blumeschein and Monique Buffet are fascinating for the insight they show on life in 1970s and 1980s queer Europe, but I just didn't feel like I was getting at the core of who Patricia was. Maybe one cannot without really immersing oneself in her voluminous diaries. And maybe even then you would come against a kind of wall of subterfuge and unwillingness to allow emotion and vulnerability to penetrate. My abiding feeling finishing this documentary was one of a supreme artist but also of an emotionally thwarted life. They really do fuck you up, your mum and dad.
WHO I AM NOT is an intimate and heart-breaking portrait of two intersex people struggling to find a place in contemporary South Africa. It is directed by Tunde Skovran with empathy, economy and a quiet but powerful voice.
The first protagonist is Sharon-Rose Khumalo, whose chromosomes say she is male, but who presents as female. In fact, she presents as "hyper" female, becoming Miss South Africa. She is self-aware that her desire to be publicly acknowledged as a beautiful woman could be the result of trying to prove something to society, and to fight against the biological reality that she can't conceive. At the end of the film she courageously pronounces herself to be a woman, in a moment that's meant to be cathartic, but given all we have seen her struggle with in terms of infertility, it seems a tragic or compromised victory at best.
The second protagonist is Dimakatso Sebidi, whose chromosomes say they are female, but who presents as intersex and who resists society's attempts to pin them into one box or other. Their journey is embedded in that of their family, and the desperately sad cloud of mystery surrounding surgeries their parents subjected them to at birth. Through the course of the film, we see Dimakatso actually find out the facts of their biological reality and chromosomes, and have to come to terms with the fact that there are some things they won't ever know. The most poignant conversation is with their father, who asks for forgiveness for the surgeries, arguing that he was just trying to do what was best.
This conversation brings us back to the fact that contemporary South Africa is a country where religious belief is still common and profoundly impacts people's view of sex, gender and acceptance. It's telling that Dimakatso's father asks God to forgive him, leaving a disenfranchised Dimakatso to ask about their agency in forgiveness. I also found it fascinating to interrogate how people come to turns with those born intersex: if God creates all, didn't he also create the Intersex? If they are an abberation, then God is fallible. The religiosity extends to everyday interactions. A small business owner explains to Dimakatso that he can't employ them because how would he refer to them? They answer, just with our name. This is clearly something he can't wrap his head around and he rejects her job application while wishing her a "blessed day".
WHO I AM NOT has a running time of 105 minutes. It played SXSW and BFI Flare 2023.
Thursday, March 23, 2023
I am obsessed with books, podcasts and films about summitting Everest. I am the obverse of an action-adventure extreme sportsperson and maybe that's why I find the psychology of needing to pit yourself against nature fascinating. What drives these people to go into the "death zone", where life cannot be sustained without supplemental oxygen, in such numbers that they cause contagion on the slopes, litter it with refuse, and ultimately - tragically - dead bodies?
FINDING MICHAEL is the latest addition to this body of work and takes a new angle of focussing on what happens to the families left behind. In this case, that of Michael Matthews, who perished on the way down from the summit, twenty years ago. His little brother's interest is piqued by a photo sent to them in 2017, of a body that could be Michael. Should he go at great expense and danger, leaving behind his wife, children and newborn baby, to try and get the body back?
The journey is one of discovery but not in the way we think it will be. The brother, Spencer Matthews, who was only ten with Michael died, is discovering the kind of man his brother was, and the journey he went on. We see a stunning trek up to base camp, we visit the same temple where Michael and Spencer take blessings, and camcorder footage from his fellow climbers on his way up. Some subtle and sensitive editing puts the two journeys side by side.
There are three almost unbearably sad moments in a very sad film throughout. The first is when very early on at base camp, the sherpas tell Spencer that the photo isn't of his brother at all, but of an Indian climber. But they send up climbers and drones anway to comb the slopes. The second moment was when Spencer looked at the last photo taken of his brother, already struggling for oxygen, already dying, just before he started to climb down. The last was when Spencer diverted resources from finding his brother to helping bring down the body of a dead sherpa so that his family could have closure, and seeing their wailing grief.
The journey is worth it for Spencer's greater discovery of his brother but comes at a cost: reopening the wounds of grief of his mother and sister. It's also somewhat problematic to me that he is willing to pay people to put themselves in danger on the small chance of recovering a dead body. And yes the resources are then diverted to help someone else, but only on the conditional that Michael is not found. It made me wonder in what sense both summitting on commercial climbs, and then the entire project of this film was one of wealth and entitlement. And yet one supposes that the industry - and employment - exists because of these people.
At any rate, I really enjoyed the film: it was both moving and thought-provoking. The cinematography is very special - with beautiful vistas of the mountain - and the way in which the editors step through the process of going up for lay-people to understand was really well done.
FINDING MICHAEL has a running time of 100 minutes and is streaming on Disney Plus.
Theatre and cinema writer-director Christophe Honore (MA MERE) returns to our screens with a deeply personal, heartfelt and affecting retelling of the loss of his father and the impact this had on him as a young gay man.
The film opens in contemporary rural France with high-school student Lucas speaking not quite to camera as an unreliable narrator of his own story. We later find this is part of a therapy session. He describes his final trip to boarding school with his father, played courageously by Honore himself, who we come to realise probably committed suicide by driving his car into oncoming traffic. Very quickly, the father is dead, and we see the rest of the film unfold in grief and trauma.
At the start of the film, Lucas is an out gay schoolboy with an active sex life. But when his father dies he decides to close off all feelings and live for physicality and the moment. He goes to Paris with his elder brother Quentin and develops a crush on Quentin's room-mate Lilio. He also flirts with religion, indulges in a random hook-up for the first time (nicely inter-cut!) and flirts with sex work in a kind of twisted act of protection for Lilio.
Clearly he is acting out, and struggling to come to terms with grief and his own sexual power as a near-adult. It's a lot and when the waves finally break the ramifications are severe and sensitively handled.
There's so much to love in this film. First and foremost, newcomer Paul Kircher's magnetic central performance as Lucas but also Erwan Kapoa Fale's heartbreakingly sensitive turn as Lilio. I love that Honore depicts gay sex beautifully and openly, and also that he depicts the love-hate of siblings so authentically. Vincent Lacoste is fantastic as big brother Quentin. I really felt like I knew this trio and felt invested in their lives.
But there are things I didn't like in the movie too. I didn't like that the opening therapy scene carried on into voiceover over the immediate reaction to the death. I found it mannered and distracting rather than elucidating. I think Honore means it to be mannered: he's making a point about a disjointed, fragmentary and contradictory narrator. Fine. I just could've done without it. I also didn't like what felt like a forced focus on the mother (Juliette Binoche) late in the film. It felt as though Honore had to give her one big scene to get her to do the film.
That said, this remains one of the most beautifully told and affecting movies I've seen in a while, and well worth seeking out. I can't wait to see what Paul Kircher does next.
LE LYCEEN has a running time of 122 minutes. It played Toronto, San Sebastian and London 2022 and BFI Flare 2023.