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A Note on Cassavetes, Bier and Crazy Women

It’s Thanksgiving, lets ramble about the movies I’m watching.

Over the weekend/days off leading up to Thanksgiving I watched the movies from Netflix that have been sitting on my TV for about two weeks.  It felt ironic that I watched them just after watching Black Swan because there was a clear connection between them that I will explain now.

First up, A Woman Under the Influence, written and directed by John Cassavetes. What’s the connection, you might wonder, between a cinema verite style drama and a modern sleek thriller like Black Swan? Simply put, it’s the common theme that women are freakin’ crazy.  Nina was stressed out of her mind over just being the prima ballerina? She was acting like she was the first person to ever have the lead in a large production.  The histrionic response leads every rational person to the conclusion, she was freakin’ crazy! And two days after I saw Nina loose her mind, I watched Gena Rowlands loose hers.

If you’ve seen A Woman Under the Influence you know that from the very beginning Mabel is unstable.  Her descent isn’t a far one, but the level of performance from Rowlands is one of the most impressive in modern film.  She would have made an amazing Lady MacBeth.  The scene when Nick is having the doctor come take Mabel is heart-wrenching, beautiful and so real that it people believed it was completely improvised (which Rowlands denies in the special feature interview, claiming you could never improvise that scene and Cassavetes scripted the entire thing).

Unfortunately for the kids in the film, they are screwed whether or not Mabel goes to the mad-house because their father seems equally unstable.  He looses his temper easily, yelling at friends on a trip to the beach, yelling at them for asking about his wife and going from a man trying to convince she needs help to holding her violently telling her that he loves her and would lay down on train tracks for her. Oh, and then slaps her around in front of the kids. The oddly upbeating ending gives the impression that this is somehow just the norm, the new model for an American family. Heart breaking, really.  Falk gives a great performance. Cassavetes was always more concerned with performance over everything else, even judicious editing. This movie could have benefited by having several scene cut short that didn’t help advance the story or exemplify the strong moments of acting.

But move that right into After The Wedding, another drama full of great performances.  Good Friend Taylor has been trying to get me to warm up to Susane Bier for years, and I’ve never really cared for her work.  Brothers? Eh. Things We Lost in the Fire? Contrived drama that is somehow supposed to mean something if we go into a tighter closeup.  For whatever reason Bier thinks that a blank stare in a wide shot is dull but the same stare in an extreme closeup is somehow a good performance.  I don’t care to see an entire scene shot from lower lip to eyebrow.  And just because a movie is full of teary-eyed closeups and silent stares doesn’t mean it’s good. But in the case of After The Wedding, I finally started really enjoying Bier’s work.

Mads Mikkelsen solely carried this picture. If you haven’t seen him in Flame and Citron you need to see that film immediately, it was one of the best from last year. For After the Wedding, Mikkelsen’s performance, character and situation were all captivating.  He plays a man that has dedicated his life to an orphanage in India, coming back to Denmark to simply raise more funds by appealing to the charitable side of a stingy billionaire. But, when he is invited to the wedding for the billionaire’s daughter, his entire life is changed. It’s easily Bier’s best film and the connection to the previous two I watched is this;  Cassavetes has this wonderful mastery of the verite style of filmmaking that must have had a direct influence on the Dogme95 movement in Denmark.  I imagine Von Trier and Vinterberg sitting around drooling over Cassavetes’ Criterion box-set. And Bier cut from the Dogme95 cloth shows her Cassavetes influence in her work.

Check out After The Wedding, very good film.  Rent A Woman Under the Influence only for Rowlands’ performance in the ‘doctor in the living room’ scene.

Currently on this Thanksgiving Day I’m watching Peter Yates’ Bullit with my 5 month old daughter.  We both agree that Yates needed to pay more attention to performance and Jacqueline Bisset was unbelievably gorgeous. Check her out in Day For Night as well.

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