LA Film Fest 2018: Softness of Bodies, by David Bax
Jordan Blady’s Berlin is a place of halogen lamp glow and cigarette smoke haze. It’s evocative and immersive without being especially flattering to the people captured in his frame. All of which makes it the perfect look and feel for his film, Softness of Bodies, an accomplished but uneven work that alternately buys into and punctures the allure of hipster jadedness.
Dasha Nekrasova stars at Charlotte “Charlie” Parks, an aspiring American poet and current broke-ass scumbag living in Berlin. In between attending and performing at live poetry readings in a tiny bar, she steals clothes from the mall and sleeps with her “boyfriend” while his girlfriend is away on business. Early on in Softness of Bodies, she stumbles upon the closest thing to a goal she’s capable of pursuing when she learns she’s a finalist for a grant. The movie’s loose narrative builds toward the reading she’ll have to do and ace in order to secure it.
As Charlie goes about her glamorous anti-glamorous life, we repeatedly find her composing poems, either idly on the train or intently on the mattress she calls a bed. The structure recalls Paterson but, if that’s intentional, Blady is trying and failing to outcool Jim Jarmusch. The rest of her energy is devoted to making sure the people she hates are miserable, like a rival poet (at least, that’s how Charlie sees her) who’s also up for the grant (played by Nadine Dubois) or Charlie’s visiting ex-boyfriend (played by Morgan Krantz). I will admit that my lack of familiarity with poetry left me unsure when or not Charlie’s actually supposed to be any good. In a way, though, the movie works whether she’s delusional about her talents or she’s just a terrifically gifted asshole.
Nekrasova’s most memorable but diciest performance gimmick is her unwaveringly flat, monotone delivery. Matched with her brusque attitude, it’s sometimes funny and sometimes a little too reminiscent of Napoleon Dynamite. It’s least successful when we hear her reading her poetry in her head; these moments veer toward self-conscious 90s indie voiceover.
Softness of Bodies is, I hope I’ve made clear, a difficult movie to like. It’s frequently grating and it can be hard to tell to what extent that’s intentional. But it ultimately rises above its faults by committing wholeheartedly to Charlie’s narcissism. When a friend (or “friend,” as I’m not sure she’s capable of actually seeing anyone that way) opens up about their most dire life problems, Charlie immediately turns the conversation back toward herself, reflexively equating their suffering to her own minor issues. Blady and Nekrasova refuse any temptation to hint at some heart of gold lying under Charlie’s stony facade. Love her or hate her, she probably doesn’t care either way, as long as you’re unhappy.