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Anna Biller's THE LOVE WITCH

When I say I’m in love you best believe I'm in love L U V

Samantha Robinson as Elaine (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

You wouldn’t want to mistake The Love Witch for an updating of or commentary on Beyond The Valley of the Dolls. Beyond is a camp evisceration of every sacred Sunset Strip-era trope – groovy language, bell-bottoms, LSD, free love and even rock and roll – delivered in the guise of an exploitation film. Its enduring pleasure derives from the considerable tension between director Russ Meyer’s devotion to exploitation and his apparent lack of awareness that the screenplay exploits his devotion in the service of self-parody.

Anna Biller’s The Love Witch shares with Beyond only naked young women, post-Swinging London Cleopatra eye makeup, a Kodachrome candy-apple color palette, that super-glossy, high-key early ‘70’s lighting and architectural hair. That’s it.

The Love Witch is not an exploitation film. It’s not camp. It’s a witty, endearing, meticulous, double-helix deconstruction and deadpan celebration of the cinematic presentation of gender, seduction, narcissism, self-delusion, love, “love” and naked young women. If it seems for brief moments like an exploitation film, that’s the camouflage Biller wears while hunting bigger game. Feeling Biller tiptoe up to the edge of camp and exploitation – a tightrope she walks with glee – never lessens the contradictory emotions or the political, cinematic and romantic considerations the film evokes in ways you cannot name. Those considerations and emotions never lessen the fun.

Biller triggers your detached intellect even as you immerse in and savor, for example, star Samantha Robinson’s red Mustang convertible, fantastically tacky paintings or honeyed skin. Your interest in the plot matches the director’s. When she vests, you feel the suspense. When she shifts priorities, so do you. For much of the film, plot and ideas interweave and prove equally compelling. After a while, the plot becomes secondary and that’s fine.

Biller’s mise en scene is incantory – it puts you in another state. Or, another world, one entirely constructed by Biller, who made the costumes, built the sets, composed the music and wrote the screenplay. According to an interview in The LA Weekly, Biller took six months to hook a pentagram witchcraft rug because she couldn’t find one she wanted. Her years-long investment in her vision pays off in that each moment and dialogue exchange – no matter how casual the action – seems incongruously crucial.

Anna Biller's handmade mise-en-scene (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Samantha Robinson plays Elaine, a love-starved witch. As she desperately contorts herself into her projection of what every man wants, Elaine’s unaddressed rage at those contortions leads her to create love potions that kill the men she seduces. Or worse – because Elaine accurately manifests their fantasies – the potions reduce them to babbling emotional wrecks. And as soon as a man falls for her or weeps or conveys need, Elaine has but a single thought: “What a pussy!”

The hunter here is rarely captured by the game. And why should she be? The guys revert to children any time they express their precious feelings. Biller shows an impressive grasp of the horror of 1970s men’s hair and beards. The men are off, somehow; they’re all hairy dipshits. Among themselves, the women discuss emotions and desires calmly. Then the guys show up with their insistence on being in charge and it’s clear they’re the lesser beings. Elaine’s self-esteem issues mean she can no more “be herself” around a guy than she can stop fucking down. Because she can’t, when her lovers kick the bucket, she seldom experiences loss.

But when she does, Biller flips the switch. Elaine’s grieving brings forth the primal and chthonic no witch saga can exist without. She creates a totem, a bottle of her urine in which float her used tampons. It’s a measure of Elaine’s tragic cluelessness about the male psyche that she cannot fathom why the (male) cops freak at the sight of such a thing. She attributes their disgust to an irrational fear of witchcraft.

Though she’s been compared to many exploitation goddesses, Elaine strongly evokes Celeste Yarnall in 1971’s The Velvet Vampire, directed by Stephanie Rothman and co-starring Michael Blodgett, the iconic Lance Rocke in Beyond. Elaine has Celeste’s wide, staring eyes, preternatural cool and seductive remove. Biller’s evocation of past low-rent cinema is never smirking or condescending. Quite the contrary. It’s Biller’s sincere love of the genre that make what could be awkward moments genuinely moving.

Elaine and one beau come upon a Renaissance fair. Everyone recognizes their connection. The fair people lovingly clothe Elaine and her guy in gleaming white and marry them in a mock wedding as Renaissance fair-type music plays. It should be unspeakably cheesy. Well, it is unspeakably cheesy because Elaine’s romantic delusions default to cheese. But Biller’s affection for her story and its players turn the scene into an almost heartbreaking metaphor of the distance between our dreams of romance and its reality. 

"Make our dreams real!" (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

The Love Witch opens tonight - November 11th - at, among other venues - LA's NUART theatre, where Anna Biller will hold a Q & A at 7PM.



A Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit: © Arturo Vega/Danny Fields Archive.


As popular music grew from a tail of culture to the dog itself, tales of giants emerged. The giants had atuned ears and, more significantly, money and access to the means of production. When they liked what they heard, the world heard it. Jim Stewart and Estelle Aston, Dave Bartholomew, Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, John Hammond and Berry Gordy, Jr., among others, had money and studios and systems of distribution.

What did Danny Fields have?

Danny Fields had an unerring instinct for the real. Passion recognized passion. Fuck accessibility. Fuck expertise. Fuck good manners. Danny sought blood and soul. If it moved him, Danny wanted to the world to hear it, no matter what. And Danny was never wrong. He never got rich, but he never signed Aerosmith, either. Steven Tyler wore his ornate stage jacket to a post-gig restaurant meeting. Danny took that as a rookie move and wanted nothing to do with Tyler or his band. Of course, the Ramones wore their stage jackets everywhere, but their jackets were cooler. 

Danny spent his formative years becoming an aesthete. Then he became something more rare and valuable: the aesthete who takes action. Danny Fields did not build empires. He built sand castles. And every one collapsed, as sand castles do. But the reverberations of their collapsing changed, as Danny Says will tell you, everything. Of my all-time top four favorite bands, Danny Fields helped discover and promote two. Those two inspired at least 10,000 other bands. Apiece.

 Danny Fields, Iggy Pop, Lisa Robinson, and David Bowie; Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit: © Leee Black Childers/Danny Fields Archive.

Danny Fields snakes like a main cable through the 15 richest, most influential years in white American rock. Every band that seemed too weird, driven and intelligent to even exist – never mind make it; that time proved was decades ahead of its time; there’s Danny, fighting to get them on the radio. And every one of those bands today exerts the influence Danny always knew they would.

Danny Says is a rambunctious, low-budget, loving, companionable ode. Danny Fields deserves the reverent five-star HBO treatment. But a rambling, affectionate, awe-struck tone better suits the subject. The film consists of Danny telling stories and musical interludes. Other people, like Iggy, tell stories, too. Their stories are nowhere near as much fun as Danny’s. Nobody’s stories are as much fun as Danny’s.

Danny a freshman at Penn at 15; Danny at 19 learning how cool functions from Warhol and the Factory gang. Danny introducing Jim Morrison to Nico. Danny signing the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges with one phone call. Danny getting John Cale to produce the Stooges. Danny introducing Iggy to David Bowie. Danny declining to throw away his life to save Iggy. Danny seeing one Ramones gig and instantly becoming their manager. Danny bringing the Ramones to England and inspiring another 10,000 bands. Danny on Robert Mapplethorpe: “Everybody fucked Bobby!” Danny putting heartthrob shots of the Ramones next to David Cassidy in teen magazines.

Danny laughing and smiling, Danny rueful, Danny unpretentious and heartfelt; the coolest guy in any room who long ago dropped any pretense of cool. You know that stupid question: What historical figure would you most like to have dinner with? Now you know.

Danny Fields and Nico; Photo credit: © Linda Eastman/Danny Fields Archive.Director Brendan Toller regards Danny with amazement and delight. Danny Says is inspiring and insanely fun. You can’t wait to hear what’s coming around the corner – the next story, the next deranged incident, the next band that never got over the hump and whose failure broke Danny’s heart. Again.

The limited budget sometimes intrudes. Animation takes over when there’s no archival footage, like when Morrison met Nico and they stood silent, both staring at the same spot on the floor for an hour. The animation is crude, but sweet. There doesn’t seem enough money to buy performance rights; scenes and even still photos repeat. Most regrettably, the brief film of the MC5 makes them looks like clowns. Neither what we do see nor brief contemporary interviews give even a hint of their earthshaking blast. Toller wastes time on wanker John Sinclair, former MC5 manager and founder of the ridiculous White Panther Party. To this party, Sinclair brings nothing, but he’s the only guest who does.

Danny’s former boss at Electra Records comes off self-amused, sophisticated and living proof of how brilliant eccentrics thrive in the music biz. Nuggets compiler, author and Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye describes discovering himself with Danny’s help. Iggy credits Danny for something similar. Danny discovered, against the odds, who he was supposed to be. From that he never wavered.

The final scene is almost unbearably poignant. Early in the film, Danny describes growing up brilliant and outcast on Long Island. He came to New York City, he said, seeking friends. Looking back on his life, he remarks on all the beautiful, smart, cool, insane people who became and remain his friends. “I never thought I’d have any friends,” Danny says.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures




Debts No Honest Man Could Pay

Ben Foster and Chris Pine Photo Credit: Lorey Sebastian

Hell or High Water is a sneaky-profound, accomplished, very welcome resurrection of a favorite exploitation genre that tragically disappeared: the mid-1970’s, widescreen, stick-it-to-the-Man, shoot-em-up with a Message. A bleak revisionist Western, Hell plays – as intended – like a modern country song. But not a cornball Nashville nursery rhyme like something by Toby Keith. At its best, Hell becomes a self-aware, hard-edged lament by Jason Isbell or Sturgill Simpson – a bloody ballad, cadenced and elegiac.

Or, given Hell’s intertwined hope and defeat, it’s pure narcocorrido.* It has all the elements: a good man gone bad for good reason; a bad man who does not want and knows he does not deserve redemption;  a fatherly law enforcement figure whose soul vengeance turns to ice and his “half-breed” partner at home in neither the white nor his native world. Each of their tales fuel a yearning for a lost time and place, a yearning for what coulda shoulda woulda.

The Man getting it stuck to is a Texas bank about to foreclose on the family home of two brothers, Ben Foster and Chris Pine. They set out to rob the bank of enough cash to pay off the mortgage. The bank wants to foreclose to exploit soon-to-begin oil leases; the brothers have to stop the bank, ditto.

Illuminating the theme of disenfranchised working-class whites caught in the cogs of oppressive big business, the brother’s success would bring a double payoff: screwing the bank screwing them and cashin’ in on that oil lucre like the invisible fat-cats who pull the strings that ruined their lives.

 Chris Pine slouches around all monosyllabic gazing sideways into the middle distance, doing his best Chris Hemsworth impression, and it’s pretty good. Ben Foster performs the heavy lifting and so talks non-stop. He occasionally wrecks the taut atmospthere by speaking the film’s themes aloud. At times the two seem like actors who just met trading lines. But at crucial plot moments, their chemistry ignites. Fortunately, their less convincing exchanges come in the first quarter of the film.

The yin to their yang are Texas Rangers, a revelatory Jeff Bridges, accompanied by Gil Birmingham as his wisecracking partner. Insult-swapping cops is an ‘80’s, not a ‘70’s trope, but exploitation demands suppression of male to male affection no matter what the era. Like the bros, the most loving thing the cops can say to each other is: Fuck you. The story crosscuts between the two sets of bros with precision timing and suspense. As in any worthy ballad, rhythm is Hell ’s strong suit.

Hell is men in a man’s world. There is no romantic subplot. Women appear briefly. They’re all so fed up with manly antics they can barely lift their eyebrows in resignation; a Greek chorus of women who find macho posturing tiresome and ridiculous. That's not the usual role for women in a Western, to say the least. Malin Ireland, playing Pine’s former wife, steals every scene with her laden silences. A lesser film would offer hints of reconciliation. But in this hardscrabble landscape, there ain't no do-overs.

 In the most powerful sequence, the brothers race out of a robbed bank to discover exactly what awaited the Jesse James-Cole Younger gang when they emerged from a plundered bank in Northfield, Minnesota in 1876:** an armed populace hype to blow their heads off. Pine and Foster met a pistol-packing Texan in an earlier robbery and escaped as he emptied his clip – even though they made of point of not taking his cash. Hell captures the seething, hair-trigger resentment of disenfranchised flyovers with Conceal Carry permits. It’s a sophisticated irony and a mid-‘70’s flashback that the trigger-happy Texas rednecks can’t recognize the brothers as their potential allies in armed revolt. The underemployed rednecks’ impotent rage makes them rejoice at a chance for legal murder. Their cold-blooded, gleeful fusillade speaks volumes about the contemporary electorate. And about how mid-‘70’s message shoot-em-ups always showed society rejecting their heroes.

The brothers race away from the bank and Hell presents a moment you’ve never before seen in a Western. Instead of horses, the armed posse fire up their pickups and SUVs and give chase. As the brothers return fire, civilian blood-lust explodes. Bridges by this time has his own reason to kill, and his performance becomes astonishing. He’s been mailing it in for a while, but here brings levels of Old Testament righteousness, of mixed grief and triumph, even his long-time fans never suspected he could never pull off. Watching him Ranger and wise-crack and be hard-bitten all over Texas of course brings to mind Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men. Maybe that intimidating example inspired Bridges.

No Country looms large over Hell. Margaret Bowman – the motel clerk who can’t believe Josh Brolan wants more than one room – appears as a tough-ass waitress. She’s funny, but insists the only choice available today is what you don’t want. When secondary characters speak more than one sentence at a time – which is rare – they describes the loss of a cherished status quo. Their language is rueful and clean, Cormac McCarthy Lite. Their tiny speeches never hit a false note; they’re singing three-sentence ballads of defeat. Okay, it’s a message Western; somebody’s got to deliver the Message. 

Hell’s clumsy moments do not overwhelm its grace notes. There are plot-holes as wide as the Texas sky pushed aside by scenes right out of Jean-Pierre Melville. Foster’s best moment comes in a confrontation with a scary Native American in a casino. Foster offends him on purpose, then tries to show their affinity. The Native American, like a prideful gangster in a French Noir, is not appeased. Echoing the women, he’s had a sufficiency of swaggering broke-ass cowboys.

Hell suffers when it hits you over the head with its themes. The posse scene proves memorable because there’s no attempt at commentary. Nick Cave’s score finds the exact tone between pastoral and dread. Unfortunately, every country song on the soundtrack is wrong-headed, too on-the-nose and distracting. The film tries to use the songs to underscore emotion the scenes already evoke. The opening number – a Townes Van Zandt song that sounds nothing like Townes – and the song over the closing credits are the most egregious offenders. Each bad song hurls you out of the story.

At first Bridges was bemused, as was Pine, at what seemed to both a game. Come to the end, and neither’s assuaged the anger that fuels a war between them. The finale is bold and carefully wrought  – a truly great exploitation set-piece. Director David Mackenzie, who showed no fear of ambiguity in his under-seen Young Adam, revels in the unresolved ending. Unresolved because the saga changed Bridges and Pine. Each now sees the other – failed law enforcement vs. homegrown anarchy – as the source of his ruin. There is no simple solution and the film doesn’t stoop to provide one.


Jeff Bridges Photo Credit: Lorey Sebastian



* Like this one from Breaking Bad 

** cf. The Great Smithfield, Minnesota Raid


The Long Riders


Better yet, read Ron Hansen’s Desperadoes



Maïwenn’s MON ROI Good Love Gone Bad  

Emmanuelle Bercot and Vincent Cassel courtesy Film Movement

Vincent Cassel – Georgio – is stylish, cool, unknowable. You know, he’s Vincent Cassel ! Georgio falls for Emmanuelle Bercot – Tony – a shrewd, slightly nerdy barrister. She can’t believe it, but he sweeps her off her feet. Mon Roi – a ­ harrowing, adult masterpiece – tracks their relationship over the years and raises unanswerable questions. Is Georgio a strong-willed, self-directed dude who does things his way and ignores his wife's priorities? Or is he a charismatic sociopath, a lying narcissist and a gaslighting psycho? Is Tony confused, emotionally abused or too bourgeois and inflexible to handle the love of the man who inspires her deepest emotions? Most unanswerable of all: Are any of these options mutually exclusive?

These questions fuel the most insightful, moving and convincing relationship film since Scenes of A Marriage. But Bergman’s Scandinavian Lutheran rationalism could never embrace the self-contradictory, chthonic truth of sustained relationships: that love and loathing combine and intertwine, daily. And that people operate against their own interests all the time, often for a perverse pleasure they can’t even identify. Writer/director Maïwenn presents that intertwining and perversity as the baseline of any great passion.

In Polisse*, Maïwenn’s second film, you can feel her discovering what will be her greatest strengths in Mon Roi. She loves intercutting between interlocking stories. Her naturalist, almost documentary, camera is a heat-seeking missile. She cuts to close-ups only for greatest impact, and holds the most wrenching scenes in extended medium shots. Her strongest visual influence seems to be French director Olivier Assayas (Something in the Air, Carlos, Irma Vep). But he’s only an influence. Maïwenn’s instinctive and original.

She shares Cimino and Copolla's genius for creating credible, lived-in group dynamics among either blood- or work-families. She inspires astonishing, sustained performances that build and develop complexity. She understands – to a degree matched only by English writer/director Joanna Hogg (Unrelated; Archipelago; Exhibition)** – how intimacy ebbs and flows over years or in a heartbeat. Maïwenn captures fleeting but cataclysmic facial expressions and gestures – tiny domestic moments – on which marriages founder or endure. Maïwenn’s cinematic intelligence is on par with her emotional intelligence. Her emotional intelligence is profound. And fearless.

Maybe Maïwenn’s greatest gift as a writer/director is primality – a direct presentation of gut emotions. Her men and women feel before they think. Tony tries to parse her feelings by thinking. It don’t work. Georgio barely thinks; his feelings run him. Their opposite approaches frustrate and bind them in equal measure.

Director Maïwenn, Patrick Raynal and Vincent Cassel courtesy Film Movement

Maïwenn intercuts between Tony as a resident in a physical therapy center – she blew out her knee skiing – and memories of her years with Georgio. At certain points the intercutting and Tony’s systematic healing work a little too hard. We get it: Tony’s rehabbing her knee as she rehabs herself. She revels in pal-time with some young bros getting PT. Being free of Georgio means being free of desire. That freedom is a blessed relief.

Georgio’s moneyed, heedless, capable of great kindness and opaque. He bluffs and lies like Satan. Tony catches him naked in bed with a young model. Georgio not only denies having sex with her, he denies knowing her. And he’s damn convincing. Equally convincing is his volcanic rage when Tony won’t do what he wants. Georgio seesaws between amour fou and cold-hearted self-indulgence. He demands that his suicidal former lover come to live in the home he and Tony share.

Tony never colludes in Georgio’s shitty treatment of her. She’s not a victim, despite his – possibly unconscious – efforts to make her one. She’s smarter than he is and plenty tough. She stands up for herself throughout, even in the face of his terrifying rages. Problem is, Tony’s too damn sane to cope with Georgio’s mercurial, heartfelt follies. And he knows how to make her feel guilty even for refusing to go along with his most nutcase urges. Tony, like us, can’t tell whether Georgio’s deranged or playing her for all he’s worth. Tony finds no clarity, except in bed.

The atomic power of their sexual connection startles Tony and Georgio every time. Their love scenes are too raw and laden to be sex scenes. They’re too explicit and erotic to be love scenes. They’re fuck scenes: human, hot and credible. Nothing harder (no pun intended) to pull off (ditto) in literature or film. Yet, Maïwenn does. Tony and Georgio’s lust never abates, even when they despise each other. The explicit moments reflect and describe different stages of the relationship. Each scene also shows – without underlining or doubling down with dialogue – Georgio’s electrifying, judgment-frying sexual hold on Tony.

courtesy Film Movement

Those scenes may be graphic, but Tony’s luxurious state-run physical rehab center is the truly pornographic fantasy in Mon Roi. Live-in physical therapy, private rooms with TV, one-on-one PT instructors, pools, classes, generous meals, esoteric rehab gear and, most pornographically, a French babe shrink asking Toni in concerned tones why she thinks she fell while skiing! Can you imagine an American insurance provider funding a shrink to ask why you wrecked your ACL? That’s a proper application of taxpayer money! And a much more powerful lust-inducer than either of the stars for all their hot fucking.

In one amusing moment, Tony freaks out on Georgio for wanting to hang only with his “beautiful people.” Georgio, in some shady way, connects to the fashion world. His high-cheekboned crowd is a magazine shoot come to life. Tony thinks Georgio should spend more time with the real people, like her brother and sister-in-law. Maïwenn’s life in the beauty bubble – she’s a former model of dazzling, feral, charisma – may have warped her view of real people. Tony’s brother, though Maïwenn hides him under a series of moronic baseball caps, is Patrick Raynal, a brooding French Heathcliff. Maïwenn’s real-life sister – the ethereal, heart-stopping Islid Le Besco – plays Tony’s sister-in-law. In the silent era, Le Besco’s northern Renaissance face and angelic detachment would have made her an enormous star. Real people, these ain’t.

What makes Mon Roi extraordinary is Maïwenn’s evocation of both romantic partners as equally rich, complex, self-perplexing and compelling. The other characters are sketches, backdrops to the main event, but Tony and Georgio have the breadth of great literary characters and each carries equal weight. It’s something you seldom see and rewards multiple viewings.

 In the final moments, after all the battles – all the coming together and blowing apart – Tony, despite herself, remains enthralled. Thrilled to be free, enthralled for life.

Maïwenn asks without taking sides: Is this the nature of love?

* Amazon streaming

**All on Netflix


It Ain’t All Ambrosia – Gods and Goddesses Cavort in A Bigger Splash

An astute, merciless, Pinterequse duel to the death. Courtesy Fox Searchlight


Vanity Fair only profiles four types of people:

1) Someone young, glossy, gorgeous, mad fuckable, talented, lucky and on the rise. She wouldn’t touch you with a ten-foot pole and her week beats your year. *

2) Someone in the prime of life and career. A gleaming armor of success gilds his wealth, beauty, fuckability and celebrity. His weekend beats your year.

3) Someone in their golden years who either remained successful, gorgeous, fuckable and famous or who lost it all. Whether reminiscing from their cashmere couch or scarfing cat food with their remaining Tiffany spoon, his or her memories of a single glorious night beat any ten years you can barely recall.

4) Any of the above who get their comeuppance/martyrdom by dying/getting killed.**

A Bigger Splash features all four types. And on first viewing, proves as irritating as any Vanity Fair profile. There’s something profoundly irksome about “all this useless beauty,” glamor and privilege. ***

Yet the very aspects of Splash that seemed so off-putting prove to the most fascinating and sustaining. First time round, the mostly naked Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson, Ralph Fiennes and Matthias Schoenaerts prove too distracting. They’re so darn purty! And worldly! And chic! It’s hard to focus on subtext when Swinton does one of her patented, languorous angel/demon/alien pre-coital stretches. Providing more distraction is an unending parade of movie star full-frontal. Ralph Fiennes dick? A gynecological close-up of Swinton from behind? Schoenaerts’ scrotum? All you might want and more. Johnson plays a 17-year old and so appears only naked from head to toe.

Schoenaerts and Swinton are in love. They’re hiding out up in glamly understated villa on the barren, serene island of Pantelleria. Swinton’s former flame and Schoenaerts’ former pal Fiennes shows up, with his maybe-daughter Johnson in tow. Swinton’s a rock star recovering from surgery. In flashbacks of her onstage, she’s a semi-Bowie figure and Swinton – who’s rumored to be considering playing Bowie in a biopic – makes you believe. She makes you believe by never singing onstage, a rare moment of restraint from director Luca Guadagnino. His previous film, the camp, risible I Am Love, suggests that restraint is not in his quiver.

Fiennes is a guy we all know: nonstop energy, unquenchable sex drive, outdrinks/drugs everyone and wakes up un-hung-over and ready to go go go! Produces the Stones and knows a rundown house on a back alley where an Italian granny-lady makes the world’s best ricotta. You know a guy like that, right? Neither do I.

"I'm not fucking my daughter!" Courtesy Fox Searchlight

It’s the performance of the year and of Fiennes’ career. From Schindler’s List to In Bruges, Fiennes played a bubbling volcano, a seething mass of repression. Here, the lava spews. He’s a conniving prick and totally upfront about it. Fiennes’ frantic, scampering dance around the villa gives the Stones’ Emotional Rescue more credit than it deserves, but should win Fiennes an Oscar.

He incarnates this universe of hard-earned license, individuality and id. Did these folks get world famous by being nice? Or putting anyone else first? This is a nest of lovely vipers. I mistook Splash for Bertolucci lite: a stylish, empty wallowing in the haut lifestyle – like Stealing Beauty. It turns out to be something much richer: an astute, merciless Pinteresque duel to the death.

Over love.

Though Bertolucci’s style informs every frame, the characters evoke Chabrol and even Hitchcock. The suspense derives not from the action, but the conversation. You have to pay attention. This sophisticated bunch lives for a multi-layered retort. They hide their venom in verbal cookies full of arsenic; indicating what they mean, never saying it outright. The truth hides in every deceitful word or ambiguous shrug as the non-stop camera whirls to the next exquisite landscape, naked ass or gyrating poolside supermodel. It’s compelling and at times exhausting, but irresistible.

Everyone’s feelings for everyone are complex, and, as Keith Richards told a judge fifty years ago, not concerned with petty morals. Johnson’s constantly cruel – always seeking the most furious response. Swinton’s superstardom’s brought her compassion. When Johnson attacks, Swinton responds with truly moving kindness. At some point, everyone behaves exactly as you thought they never would.

Splash is a remake of the 1969 decadent French nugget la Piscine.**** By ‘69 standards, Piscine’s as explicit and steamy as Splash, with va-va-voomy Romy Schneider languidly strolling naked by the pool or lolling around in bed. There’s one big difference: Alain Delon plays Schoenaerts’ role. Swinton’s nursing Schoenearts as he recovers from a half-hearted suicide attempt. Given Schoenearts’ sensitive reticence, you buy it. But Delon? He’s indestructible. So why title this version with a meaningless Hockney reference? Please see “camp, risible,” above.

The plot slowly emerges through the mists of glam. Fiennes came to win Swinton back. He brought his daughter as a honey-trap for Schoenaerts. That’s how these people roll. Then playtime ends and something terrible happens.

Guadagnino indulges in a deflating Hitichcockian conceit: a dim, fawning cop bedazzled by stardom. It’s the only point Guadagnino pounds with a hammer: the blind love of silly mortals lets the gods soar free. In the final shot, the gods realize they’ve escaped. They did horrible things. They learned unexpected lessons about their own corruption. But their luck held and they love one another all the more. A final, bitter triumphant smile makes all the plot and character elements suddenly cascade into order, like film of a collapsing Lego structure run in reverse. It may take that smile, and the clarity it brings, to realize this is the best film of the year. It only took me seeing it twice.

Uneasy even in mud.  Courtesy Fox Searchlight

 I Am Love was Guadagnino aping Visconti. He sought grandeur but lacked Visconti’s gravitas – who doesn’t? Splash is Guadagnino as Antonioni, finding profundity in the jet set with all their angsty solipsism. For Antonioni, alienation meant stillness. His characters, even when running, so vested in every gesture they seemed in slow motion. Living with their existential pain took so much effort. Not these folks. You can feel them fidget, vibrating with unease. That unease lingers long after the movie ends. Not the amazing clothes or the celestial light or the perverse bonding. What sticks is everyone’s unspoken terror that – despite all they’ve earned and been given – they’re flying too close to the sun.

* Lou Reed from the liner notes to Metal Music Machine

** Thanks Sarahjane Blum

*** Elvis Costello

****Amazon Prime