“Messy” Melodrama, by Scott Nye
I can hardly imagine when melodrama hasn’t excited me, nor indeed a time when it hasn’t been casually dismissed; either as an easy shorthand for emotive performance, or as a genre entirely. As the cultural pendulum has swung more and more towards valuing “subtlety” and “nuance”, the genre has been valued less and less. Suddenly we find ourselves over these past two weeks with two significant – for varying reasons – works within it that have been roundly shrugged off or savaged. One is already gone from Los Angeles after a week on a single screen. In an ideal world, films boasting major stars, sensational performances, and period spectacle would command more attention, but alas, Planetarium and Tulip Fever seem destined to go unmentioned in even weekly box office round-ups.
It’s too bad for the former especially, as Planetarium is one of the year’s best films. Rebecca Zlotowski’s third feature deals with two American sisters (Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp) who take their séance show to Europe in the years prior to World War II. In France, they make acquaintance with a film studio head (Emmanuel Salinger) who has such a powerful encounter under their spell that he seeks to see the supernatural event caught on celluloid. In the process, he discovers Laura (Portman) has considerable charisma onscreen, and sets her off on an acting career, while he focuses all his energies (and considerable company resources) on capturing the younger and more supernaturally-talented Kate’s abilities.
The common charge against the film is that it simply takes on too much and mismanages what it has. In The New York Times, Ben Kenigsberg notes, “Planetarium is at least three features in one — a supernatural story, a Holocaust drama and a snapshot of the French film industry in the years leading up to World War II — yet it’s missing some of the connective tissue that would make those movies fit together.” Kenji Fujishima at Paste Magazine writes, “A plot thread is introduced, then dropped, while Zlotowski and cowriter Robin Campillo follow another idea, then another, until they deem it necessary to revive an already introduced thread just to remind us of its existence. The film is an utter mess, in other words, so diffuse that nothing really sticks…”
I will not pretend as though this supernatural/sci-fi/showbiz/pre-war melodrama is not at the least a little scattershot, but I will deny that this is necessarily a flaw. I haven’t see Zlotowski’s first film, Belle Épine, but I was similarly surprised by the ambition in Grand Central, a nuclear-themed romance. Zlotowski clearly has a lot on her mind, and her films reflect a busy, unsettled intellect that’s still grappling with the film as it progresses. This same energy is what made Martin Scorsese’s masterful Silence so compelling last year, and what, I imagine, similarly turned off the great public consensus.
We are accustomed to expect contented films that have a clear theme, or even a message. Increasingly, it has been the unfortunate fate of the prestige art film to come packaged as an essay that readily presents an interpretation of itself as it begins or concludes. In Planetarium, characters suggest theses – that you never know when you’re living right before a war (an absurd thing to say in France in the late 30s of all times and places); that we are haunted not by those we admire, but those who admire us; that our dreams reveal our innermost desires. All would make a fine subject for a movie, but none explain this one. Each are scuttled at one point or another, not because the film is “messy”, but because it resists an easy summation of itself, and of life. I don’t know anyone who walks around with an ordered view of themselves and the world, or who doesn’t go through vast, inexplicable emotional swings almost every day.
We should have more films about that, not resist those few that embrace it. There are several decisions Laura makes in the film that I couldn’t fully explain. What would be the point of watching the film if I could? Much better to be drawn in by Portman, who’s never been bereft of charisma but who’s recent confidence onscreen has been a thrill. To see her strut around the stage in a tuxedo is otherworldly, and she navigates Laura’s contradictions earnestly and without question. The character poignantly reflects the impulsive way people who have had to be responsible their entire lives behave when they get their first taste of true freedom. Her joy in relaxing nude by the sea with a rather attractive man contrasts the mournful phone call she has with the sister she has half-abandoned; who could possibly feel one way about such a moment?
If a scattered film reflects a scattered mind, is there then such a thing as too scattered? Tulip Fever suggests, potentially, yes. Here is a film with a much more coherent narrative – a group of people experience tumult in the years surrounding a boom in tulip fortunes in Amsterdam circa the 1630s – but total insanity of execution. Each scene is a fever-pitch rush to get to the next. Those that are too placid are cut into montage to ensure some form of cinematic busy-ness. The central plot begins straightforwardly, concerning the affair between a once-impoverished society woman (Alicia Vikander) and a young artist (Dane DeHaan) commissioned by her husband (Christoph Waltz) to paint their portrait, and the latter’s desire for an heir, but quickly becomes complicated by the necessity of a properly “big” Hollywood period piece.
While it’s nice once in awhile to have a costumed melodrama not look as though it’s cutting costs at every turn of production, I’m not quite sure we needed a bustling street full of musicians and fishmongers and prostitutes and other 17th-century scallywags every single time the main characters walk out the door. Poor Alicia Vikander probably spent two weeks in production just dodging extras playing drunks. This sense of bustle becomes most amusing when, sent on an important errand late in the film, Zach Galifianakis’s character gets distracted not by the simple offer of a good time with some friends, but by the offer a good time with some friends who happen to be watching an obese man merrily ride a donkey.
The problem of Tulip Fever’s “messiness”, if we can call it that, is not a messiness of thoughts or feelings, but of the desire for sensation, the fear that the audience will not be properly involved if there are not five hundred things going on at a given time. Planetarium gives the sense of an endless train of thought forever expanding on itself and its possible concerns; Tulip Fever merely concocts more obstacles. This is not, however, a wholly unfruitful gambit, as one can only deny the amusement of a randy doctor played by Tom Hollander, the grotesque crowd scenes, or the absolutely-gratuitous sex scenes for so long. It seems to strike different cast members at different times that they have license to do just about anything they want, with director Justin Chadwick (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, The Other Boleyn Girl) unlikely to steer them towards a uniform presentation, which lends a certain sensuality (sexual or platonic) to otherwise-ordinary scenes. This freedom makes it all the more remarkable that this might be Alicia Vikander’s best work yet, given as she is to denying the humanity of a moment for an unmotivated gesture or good old-fashioned scream. She stays true to the tension between fulfilling one’s own desires and feeling genuinely tied to her wifely duties (which her character upholds in no small part due to her husband pulling her from poverty, no small thing that).
Our lives are contradictions – we forever find ourselves unable to fully live up to our values, or promises, or our ideals. We often feel wildly different things about the same subject. The world is not as ordered as we might like it, but movies often give us the illusion that it is. Those few who embrace that chaos don’t always succeed in doing so, but they are far more fascinating for the care to try.