Articles by

<Ela Bittencourt>

05/18/15 12:40pm

  Piotr Szulkin’s Apocalypse Quartet
Showtimes throughout May at the Spectacle Theater

Polish filmmaker Piotr Szulkin, currently the subject of a four-film retrospective at the Spectacle Theater in Williamsburg, is sometimes labeled as an Eastern European Ridley Scott. The parallels between Szulkin’s films and Scott’s, particularly Scott’s 1982 classic Blade Runner, abound. Both filmmakers elevate the sci-fi genre, and both, watched some twenty years later, are an uncanny mix of futurism and gothic retrograde (old-fashioned fans whirring in Blade Runner, grainy television sets in Szulkin). There are key differences, however. Scott’s film, swathed in purported darkness, still conveys how precious it is to be human. No matter into what ecological or geopolitical decadence our world descends, our memories and innate capacity for love redeem us, enough for the powerful Replicants to want to imitate us. Szulkin’s world, by contrast, contains no mutants aching to rise to our psychological apex. It is the humans, rather, who invent escape routes—distant planets, which promise cleaner air and freedom from corrupt politics, but which, inevitably, are shams, i.e. propaganda invented by governments to control us. In this sense, the Szulkian world is a ruthless matrix, a prefabricated brain-in-a-vat experiment, with no promise of moral vindication.


02/20/13 4:00am

Directed by Gregory Kohn

This movie features so many ingredients also present in one of last year’s foreign gems, Oslo, August 31st, that it’s hard not to see it as a Scandinavian-American transfiguration, if not a direct transplant. Take Northeast’s main character, Will, a young man safely grown out of his college dorm but with no adult credentials: no job, no aspirations, no steady girlfriend. Will’s whispery looks, though considerably healthier, recall his Nordic counterpart’s, and he sure has a similarly sleek way with girls. Then there is the loving portrait of Brooklyn, with all the hipster parties that feel only a step removed from Oslo’s own careless boozing. There is the magic of fleeting encounters, the parade of bed scenes in which you sense the key connection might be made, a personal, emotional breakthrough attained. Much of Oslo’s magic depended precisely on the possibility of a connection: the chance turnaround in a young man’s life, which might prove to him that his life was yet worth living.

But broad-stroke similarities between the two films are ultimately deceptive, for under Oslo’s studied cool there was the splintering psyche of its main character, a recovering but slowly unraveling drug addict. Oslo suggested that youth itself was a kind of addiction, and that letting go of it, its idealism and bold sense of no compromise, might just be too high a price for some. Northeast, unfortunately, does no such thing. Will’s peregrinations through the borough are not rich evocations of his childhood, nor do they point to his future—his journey never amounts to more than a loosely strung series of encounters. And while there might be some epistemological value to faithfully portraying one man’s relative thoughtlessness with little buildup, and in spite of all the sympathy we might extend to an arch-representative of the latest lost generation, Northeast never finds enough direction, or gathers enough oomph, to leave a lasting impression.

Opens February 22

09/12/12 4:00am

In Praise of Love (2001)
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
September 15, at the Museum of the Moving Image, part of the J. Hoberman-curated Film After Film series

In the Jean-Luc Godard biography Everything is Cinema, Richard Brody traces a fluid meshing of life and art in the lives of the French New Wave filmmakers. Godard’s film In Praise of Love builds on that intimate history— befittingly, since the film is about histories personal and political, for the 1968 generation more seamlessly connected than we have experienced since. Made in 2001, the movie opens with a recollection of a romantic encounter at a political demonstration. “Do you remember the words?” a male voice asks off-camera. Memory’s timeline expands, backward and outward, as the action moves forward: a young man, Edgar, wishes to make a film as he recovers from a painful breakup. In his peregrinations through Paris, Edgar meets producers, intellectuals and friends. Joycean in ambition, the journey is carefully modulated, as mise-en-scène is bared, actors’ roles assigned, directions given, and the past, shot in diffused color, set in contrast to the stark present, shot in black-and-white.

Godard’s tone is markedly literary, with chapter titles and quotes from famous authors, which can feel at times like Western Civ 101. The film’s intense intimacy, on the other hand, with little to no exposition, is akin to following a close-first-person unreliable narrator. It’s quietly sensual but claustrophobic, and at times quite distant, throwing viewers into a world whose signifiers resist decoding.

Godard’s love for the movies goes hand-in-hand with his distaste for present-day Hollywood, which he condemns for mining History for sentimental blockbusters, catering to an audience that lacks a real sense of History. The latter accusation is trite, a willfully inaccurate portrayal of America; it too had its 1968. The former, with the mentions of Spielberg and of the Holocaust, feels like a swipe at Schindler’s List. Against the rush to flatten and to aggrandize, Godard offers a vision of history that is intransigently personal to the point of being solipsistic. His film is an artful transmutation of solipsism: in one scene, as Edgar, the aspiring filmmaker/writer, gets dressed to leave, an image of a foaming sea is superimposed. This vision of hallucinatory beauty, of time, memory, surging towards us, is followed by the opening line: “Do you remember the words?” the male voice asks again. For all its meta-hypereloquence, In Praise of Love shows with haunting visual simplicity how, in time’s detritus, between what’s lost and what remains, youth and old age, an adult consciousness is forged.

08/29/12 4:00am

Dogville (2003)
Directed by Lars Von Trier
Friday, August 31, and Sunday, September 2, at Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “50 Years of the New York Film Festival.”

In this blistering moral fable by Lars Von Trier, a spoiled young woman flees her gangster daddy only to fall prey to Depression-era small-town America. If we are alone in the world, the riches-to-rags Grace is doubly so; she denounces power and privilege, and so becomes easy prey. As the town folks begin to feel at risk sheltering her, they channel their resentment by turning her into an abject slave, running the gamut of psychological, sexual and physical abuse.

The stark, claustrophobic studio set, where buildings are suggested by chalk outlines, produces chilling effects, such as when Grace is raped in seclusion, but since there are no actual walls, the whole town seems to know, and not care. Von Trier’s dramatic technique may be Brechtian, in turns coolly analytical and sardonic, but Grace is not: at first as sentimental as Tom, the amateur philosopher who uses her to test his ideas on charity, she is pathetic in her martyrdom. Grace seems to believe that the evil inflicted on her results from people’s weakness, and so must be forgiven and endured, a moral verdict she then reverses, opting to annihilate the village in a godlike gesture. Nicole Kidman’s Grace is a pouty anemic up to this point, yet her self-awareness suggests that she knows she was putting on an act, accepting ugliness as beauty, and apathy as strength.

In spite of incongruities, Von Trier’s evisceration of enlightened humanism can feel refreshing. Nor is he wrong to point the finger at America as prone to moral exceptionalism. And while his Nietzschean impulse to demask virtue as self-interest stops short of generating fully fleshed characters, his sly humor and touches of lyricism make for addictive, if often creepy, viewing.

08/08/12 4:00am

Meet the Fokkens
Directed by Gabrielle Provaas and Rob Schroder

This new documentary by Gabrielle Provaas and Rob Schroder feels like a sex comedy, harnessing humor’s potential to disarm viewers. The 69-year-old Fokken twins, dressed identically in purple berets and sleek black boots, are first seen walking the canals and streets of their native Amsterdam, shopping and greeting friends. They are robust, garrulous blondes with husky voices and easy smiles, which suggest that this could be a film about aging graciously while preserving a joie de vivre. Since Martine also buys a box of condoms, and stops by her sex booth in the Red Light District, prostitution emerges as the heart of the sisters’ story, but we don’t learn immediately how these two got into the trade, and are instead treated to lighthearted dialogue in which they reminisce about the “cruiseshipfuls of men” they’ve served in almost 50 years.

By withdrawing the backstory, the filmmakers play on our expectations: don’t we secretly hope that a film about prostitution will subvert the usual grim scenario in which sex workers are oppressed? The brash Fokkens seem to fit the bill of sexually liberated, independent women. Martine, who is still in the business, is brazen about her corporeal assets and, in spite of her ample figure, remains undaunted by the slim young girls across the alley. She appeals to men who are either older and seek women their own age, or who need a domineering figure for a masochistic act. It is reassuring to hear her describe some of her clients as kind, gentle men seeking affection, though this doesn’t always jibe with the image of her wielding a wood plank or a whip. That sex work takes extraordinary affection and compassion seems to be the overall message of the film, which is oftentimes refreshingly matter-of-fact and, in the scenes shot in Martine’s cubicle as she’s working, pretty funny in its crude demystification of sex.

But just as we accept the reassuring tale of mutual benefits, which makes sex work look like yet another profession, a more disturbing thread emerges: Martine and Louise have been undone by love. Louise had her first baby young; the girl ended up in foster care, while Louise’s husband, who from the start showed a frightening propensity for violence, forced her to quit her job at a factory and take up prostitution. From here on, the comforting story of sexual liberation unravels: the husband turned pimp is the familiar figure of a ruthless sex boss. And when the two women defy their pimps to open their own brothel, the government shuts them down. Its rationale is not completely clear, and neither is the reason why Martine followed in her sister’s footsteps, but it all seems to boil down to the inevitable conclusion that Amsterdam’s sex trade, for all its lawfulness and organization, is a more genteel version of a sex mafia. This means unequal terms dictated to women, a situation which is unlikely to have improved over the years, as Dutch women plying the trade have been increasingly replaced by even more politically disenfranchised counterparts from pooper parts Europe and beyond.

The grim aspects of prostitution are marginal to the documentary, but they form a looming shadow, against which the two sisters avow their solidarity. The sight of these two frolicking in the snow, like jolly grandmothers, is touching, but the journeys down the memory lane have a dispersing effect, making the film seem a bit long and unfocused. Ultimately, it’s Louise’s angry outbursts, when she confronts her daughter’s forgiving stance towards the father who abandoned her, and whom Louise holds responsible for forcing her into the trade—“he beat me into it,” she says—that resonate the most. A prostitute’s sexual freedom is a fiction; though this isn’t news, the film confronts the issue with rawness and panache.

Opens August 8 at Film Forum

08/08/12 4:00am

Ricky on Leacock
Directed by Jane Weiner

British filmmaker Richard Leacock, who passed away in 2011, had a hell of a life. As told in Jane Weiner’s informative, if frustratingly hopscotch, documentary Ricky on Leacock, his ingenuity, cool-headedness, and can-do spirit made him a natural film pioneer. Leacock made cinematic history: rubbing elbows with John F. Kennedy and India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and spending three months with the Ku Klux Klan, all after getting his start in the biz as cameraman for the legendary director Robert Flaherty.

It was on the set of Flaherty’s Louisiana Story, shot in 1946, that Leacock learned to discover images, letting go of the script in favor of reality. His mission would become to build a camera portable and affordable enough to wrestle filmmaking from the hands of the big studios, for which he felt profound contempt. Leacock finally said goodbye to the nightmare of few-hundred-pound equipment when he co-invented a Super 8 sync-sound camera. The rest, as they say, is history: using a handheld allowed him to shoot Primary in 1960, the first truly intimate portrait of an American president, of which Leacock said, “I sat in the corner, I never moved, I never talked, I was just looking.” The atmosphere was so cozy Jacqueline Kennedy broke into a whisper, shy of the Peeping Tom. The film did not find immediate admirers in America, but at the Cinémathèque Française it was hailed as the best thing since the brothers Lumière.

“Just looking” became Leacock’s motto, and his method would be known as “the living camera” or “direct cinema,” so new and intoxicating was the idea of showing reality with dialogue and spontaneous action, rather than via a painstakingly followed script, megawatt lighting and heavy-handed narration. At times, such as in 1961 with The Children Were Watching, which told the story of the only white woman who took her kids to a desegregated school in the South and whose house was besieged by a racist mob boycotting the school, the fly-on-the-wall approach conveyed claustrophobic tension perfectly; images and direct sound did all the work. At other times, the open-ended, no-commentary approach had undesired effects—Leacock’s anti-Ku Klux Klan film, Invisible Empire from 1965, was embraced by Klan members as useful propaganda.

Not all of Ricky on Leacock is as fascinating as the stories behind the original footage. Weiner seems star-struck, and treats viewers to too many chats over home-cooked dinners and film-award ceremonies. The latter might have been needed to bolster a lesser-known figure, but with Leacock, whose groundbreaking movies speak for themselves, are fillers. Nor is it clear why the film’s timeline must jump around so much, distorting any linear sense of Leacock’s artistic and technical development. Leacock sounds daintily Woody-Allenesque when he declares, “I just love Paris,” his adopted home in retirement, and radiates breezy charm in every shot. But his portrait feels a bit bloated, even for a life so genuinely charged with adventure—not to mention offering essential lessons in the history of documentary filmmaking.

Opens August 10 at IFC Center, part of DocuWeeks 2012

07/25/12 4:00am

The Trial (2011)
Directed by Gerald Igor Hauzenberger
Wednesday, July 25 at Anthology Film Archives

Animal rights activists will go far to save the life of a farm pig or a chicken, but as told by Gerald Igor Hauzenberger, in his recent documentary The Trial, animal protectionism is a passion so all-consuming it can change, and perhaps even derail, your life. The Austrian activists he follows, including scruffy-looking, soft-spoken Martin Balluch, hang banners on farms using banned battery cages. But what gets them into trouble is protesting outside a luxury fur store and monitoring huntsmen.

Among those unnerved by the VGT, or the Association Against Animal Factories, are members of Austria’s political elite, including the Ministry of Justice. And so the activists soon face an absurd scenario: their civil disobedience, including sit-ins and leaflet blitzes, is flagged as a high-profile crime, or “psycho terror,” and treated under an anti-terrorist law. Never mind that no actual crimes are proven, or that the marches are registered with the authorities; the fox-loving vegans must face the ugly truth: Austria, for all the civility of its cops, or the gentility of its legal experts, still boasts many riffle-bearing, huntsman’s ball types who won’t hesitate to put a small group of politicized intellectuals and artists under surveillance. The group’s members are followed, their homes searched, and their phones wiretapped. It also apparently takes a large number of Austrian troopers to arrest one activist sleeping in his bed, with his wife and terrified child present.

The harshness of these tactics resonates at a time when Americans also worry about our government’s legitimizing intrusions into privacy, including recent reports of police gaining access to cellphone logs, without warrant. The Austrian example shows the state’s inherent capacity to terrorize, under flimsiest of pretexts. On the other hand, the movie does bring up some questions: A farmer may be reported by activists for violating ethics or industry standards, but he seems to be within his rights to complain of banners being hung from his roof. Did the activists reach out to the legislature or enforcement agencies before venturing into direct action?

Hauzenber doesn’t contextualize, and so leaves us with a romanticized portrait of lonely crusaders with moralizing hutzpah, but little room for polemic. The dramatic procession of red-paint smeared activists with pig masks and crowns of thorns, carrying crosses, is the case in point. Is shock the only therapy? The activists may find their society too apathetic to engage otherwise, but none of this is proposed, or problematized in the movie.

Which is not to say that we don’t end up rooting for the underdog. The movie gets bogged down in the ins and outs of the titular trial, with too many interviews of increasingly despondent defendants, but it does make a point that their livelihoods are deliberately undermined, after months of unjust jail time and almost two years in court. The real weapon wielded against them is not so much judicial or political—the prosecutor seems to know he has no case—but economic. The monetary compensation for their humiliation is so small, the General Secretary of Amnesty International Austria calls it a joke. Still, soon after the trial, Balluch is back in the streets, where he locks himself inside a metal cage, with a giant pig float hovering in the background. He now has some sympathetic followers who recognize him from television, and so seems content to restart his “psycho-terror” campaign.

07/11/12 4:00am

Farewell, My Queen
Directed by Benoît Jacquot

Staging the drama of the French court at Versailles in 1789 as a suspense movie is pretty gusty, but the gamble almost pays off in Benoît Jacquot’s new film, Farewell, My Queen. We know that heads will roll, of course, but this doesn’t make watching the machinations at the royal court, or the schadenfreude surrounding Marie Antoinette in her final days, any less delicious. Based on the novel by Chantal Thomas, the film shows the escalating terror after the storming of Bastille, as seen through the eyes of Sidonie, the Queen’s young new reader. Sidonie, played by Léa Seydoux (who seems perfectly suited for the part), is cool, haughty and absolutely devoted to Marie Antoinette. “Without the Queen,” she says, “I am nothing.” So are the embroiderers, the ladies in waiting, the chief librarian, and hundreds of court workers. All these roles are so exquisitely played they overshadow the rather tame romance at the film’s center, between the Queen and Gabrielle de Polignac, who is said to be the Queen’s favorite, and whose life she will try to save, by sacrificing Sidonie’s.

Jacquot is skilled in building psychological tension: the camera follows Sidonie closely, sometimes from the back, shaking, to the anxious soundtrack by Jacquot’s longtime collaborator, composer Bruno Coulais. The scene in which Sidonie must fetch Gabrielle, and finds her naked and drugged on opium, is sweetly sensual, as is the one in which she must strip naked, under the Queen’s tellingly lingering gaze. Jacquot treats the seductiveness of power literally, and Sidonie’s adolescent crush on the queen borders on carnal lust. It is a pity then that so little time is devoted to Sidonie’s arch-competitor when it comes to vying for the Queen’s affection: Gabrielle, played by Virginie Ledoyen, is ultimately no more than a stick figure, reduced to strutting her goods and sultrily lounging about. In contrast, all the cinematic rapture is showered on Sidonie. In one particularly evocative sequence, she startles, realizing she has fallen asleep in Versailles haunted courtyard: It is as if the royal court were a dream, and she a brief visitor in it, waking to a nightmare. In the most claustrophobic takes, the French nobles are shown wandering the palace dungeons in their nightgowns, like confused madmen. Sidonie herself, during her carriage ride when she barely evades the angry mob, is like a patient who comes to the brink of madness before she regains her senses.

If there is one central weakness in the film, besides the sketchy treatment of the Queen’s lover, it is Marie Antoinette herself. Her blue-blooded persona is so far-removed from us it is hard to watch her hoarding jewels, or writhing in passion, without grim satisfaction. Sofia Coppola’s answer to the audience’s dislike was to infantilize Marie, transforming her, in Marie Antoinette, into a fashion icon and lost party girl: she might have been dimwitted when it came to politics, economy or managing a domestic budget, but at least she had good taste in shoes. German actress Diane Kruger gives us a more grown-up queen, who may be incapable of being truly honest with anyone, least of all with herself, so well she’s perfected her mask. And while Kruger is strangely stiff at times, interpreting the royal title as a kind of straightjacket, she is more convincingly imperial, and in turn, more impenetrable, and icier. It might be that Marie still waits for a true incarnation, but Jacquot’s pushing her beyond likeability is refreshing, reminding us that not all royalty must be loved, or even admired.

Opens July 13

07/10/12 4:00am

Premiere Brazil! 2012
July 12-24 at MoMA

The tenth installment of Premiere Brazil! shows Brazilian filmmakers looking to understand and to preserve the past, while existing in their country’s rapidly changing present.

The Last Cangaçeiros focuses on Brazil’s social bandits, or “cangaçeiros,” a group that emerged in the late 19th century in the northeastern part of the country. Their chief, Lampião, who was ambushed by the police in 1938, has been immortalized by Cinema Novo filmmaker Glauber Rocha, and is often described as a Brazilian Robin Hood. In this gripping new documentary, Wolney Oliveira presents Durvinha and Moreno, one of the last of Lampião,’s group. As the two nonagenarians reveal their past, Moreno’s faith in the spirit of the cangaço remains unshaken. But Durvinha gave up her babies to priests, unable to care for them in the desert, and lost her lover, also a cangaço, in a shootout, and so speaks bitterly about the heavy price she paid for defying the law. Oliveira includes the archival footage originally shot by Benjamin Abrahão, a pioneering Arab-Brazilian filmmaker, who had unprecedented access to the bandits, documenting their grooming routines and posing them for photos in elaborate, Indian-inspired outfits. The myth of dashing bandits, out-daring, outsmarting, and out-shooting their opponents, is contextualized by the testimonies of the ex-militia who hunted them, by historians, and by the women kidnapped in girlhood to be bandit brides, bringing an important period in Brazil’s history vividly, and at times humorously, to life.

A more intimate reckoning with the past takes place in Look at Me Again, a documentary road movie, by newcomers Claudia Priscilla and Kiko Goifman. Silvyo, about to undergo a sex-change operation, travels through Southeastern Brazil, to meet the daughter she gave birth to before starting hormone therapy. Silvyo’s brazen, folksy humor and garrulous personality help frame this story as a picaresque adventure and a journey to self-realization, but the painful reunion with the estranged adult child brings the present into direct conflict with the past.

The past also haunts the coolly stylized Heleno, a feature about soccer player Heleno de Freitas, directed by José Henrique Fonseca. To emphasize memory’s pull, Fonseca structures his narrative in flashbacks, frequently cutting away from Heleno’s final days in a psychiatric clinic, ravaged by untreated syphilis, to the egotistic brawls and profligate lifestyle that cost him his chance at representing Brazil in the 1950 World Cup. The black-and-white cinematography evokes the glamour of the bygone years, inflecting the present with a fluid, hallucinatory cadence of dreams.

The dream-like quality is also manifest in Eryk Rocha’s Passerby, in which a 68-year-old retiree, Expedito, passes his time by walking the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Rocha’s vision is nearly subcutaneous, so closely does he film the details of women’s bodies, to communicate Expedito’s rapturous looking. Shot in black-and-white, the lyrical odyssey features a soundtrack in which construction noise, street music, Expedito’s breathing, and the radio he listens to on his headphones comprise an opus of transitory sounds. In Rocha’s telling, Rio both intrudes in its residents’ lives and alienates them. Expedito’s loneliness amidst multitudes is all the more poignant since among many beautiful faces, he searches for a resemblance to his deceased wife. And since the past is intimately tied to the present, carnality and other fleeting pleasures are linked to mourning: like the forever changing Rio, Expedito experiences moments of renewal; but his celebration of his boisterous city is bittersweet, since he, unlike it, must come to terms with his mortality.

In Songs, renowned documentarian Eduardo Coutinho also strikes a reflective note, showing how a person’s intimate memories can be encapsulated in a single song. Coutinho’s interactive approach, coined as “cinema conversation,” is rooted in Brazil’s powerful oral traditions, in which ordinary stories are mined for universal truths. The single prop in Songs is an interviewee’s chair, installed on a darkened set. Coutinho’s raspy chain-smoker’s voice is heard off camera, as he asks brief, direct questions, leaving most of the talking to his subjects, whose stories revolve around the constant themes of love, heartbreak, and survival. Songs adds a new element—the interviewees sing their favorite songs on camera—but the film’s power springs from Coutinho’s time-tested ability to stage a unique experience in front of the camera, with individual stories rooted in the personal past, but recreated in the present as singular performances that reflect, and give meaning to, a culture, and a people.

06/13/12 4:00am

The Woman in the Fifth
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

There are moments in The Woman in the Fifth, the latest feature by My Summer of Love director Pawel Pawlikowski, that feel like homage to Roman Polanski. The two Polish extracts—Pawlikowski has been living in England for many years—share a keen sense of the uncanny and a knack for communicating psychological terror. In Pawlikowski’s claustrophobic new film, the carefully woven fabric of reality seems to be on the point of tearing at any moment, recalling Polanski’s Repulsion. It is a pity then that Pawlikowski abandons his quietly haunting impressionism in the film’s more literal second half.

The Woman in the Fifth stars Ethan Hawke as Tom, an American expatriate who arrives in Paris to care for his daughter. The connection between the elfin child and Tom, an unsettled professor and novelist to whom Hawke lends his scruffy looks and generation-X angst, is undeniable. It provides for some touching moments, including Tom’s letters, in which he imagines a virgin forest where father and daughter may be reunited. But if Tom’s imagination is ostensibly fueled by love, it is also populated by darker shadows. From the start, there are worrisome signs in this coming-home fable: Tom’s wife has a restraining order against him. Explaining her need for protection she alludes to his stay in a mental institution. And so the psychological puzzle begins: We can never be sure to what extent Tom is aware of his violent humors. His character is one of contradictions, between a mopey one-hit-wonder, and a haunted, potentially dangerous, or at the very least fractured mind. We watch him lose his footing in reality one halting step at a time.

It doesn’t take long before peculiar coincidences pile up. Tom, robbed on a bus of all his possessions (rather conveniently), ends up living in not-so-bohemian squalor, and working as a night watchman for a shady Middle Eastern hotel proprietor. There are strange going-ons on the job, and unwelcome tensions at the hotel—between Tom and his loud, unhygienic next-door neighbor, but also Tom and the hotel owner. By the time a gruesome murder is committed, Pawlikowski’s crafty, at times laborious meshing of outer and inner worlds will have completely eradicated our ability to name the real perpetrator, with any certainty.

Accompanying Tom’s unraveling are two hapless amours: one with a very real Eastern European waitress, played to perfection by Joanna Kulig as a poetry-struck ingénue seducing Tom with a tome of Norwid, deep cleavage and Polish lullabies; and another, quite imaginary, played by Kristin Scott Thomas. Unfortunately, Thomas’s prodigious talents are underutilized, perhaps because, unlike Tom who is a maze of conflicting impulses, her character, Margit, is not a person but a paper-thin figment of the imagination: a femme fatale with a tragic story, who offers herself as a muse but indulges Tom in suicidal fantasies. To Margit are assigned some of the most strained scenes—her bathing the boyish-looking Hawke in a bathtub, or snuggling in his arms as she professes her complete faith in his genius, would be ludicrous, where it not for Thomas’s seamless fusion of motherly and predatory instincts.

Ultimately, the film’s central handicap lies in personifying and so externalizing Tom’s torments. Making Margit a symbolic figure stretches the story’s logical and psychological believability. The intricate balance is thrown off by too many arduous embraces; in the scenes with Margit they are really a heavily allegorized flirtation with madness. And if Tom is our doomed man—he makes a Faustian gambit, escaping his destiny but only by paying the highest price—the path he takes to the grand finale feels too portentous.

Opens June 15