Our Terrible Joy: from NYFF 61 (cont.)

photo: courtesy of NYFF

The final installment of BWDR at NYFF 61, following Fran Hoepfner’s full field report. Stay tuned for my accompanying conversation with Fran for the podcast. 

And please be advised that spoilers for plots, images, and ideas follow. 


Priscilla (Sofia Coppola)

Bare feet with toes painted Tippi-Hedren-coral step slowly over a thick, pink carpet: baby steps. Like the opening credits of Lost in Translation (2003), which introduce Scarlett Johansson’s Yale grad Charlotte by way of her butt, Coppola’s latest also begins with fetishistic reverence for feminine display, unable to help itself from doing what it wants to critique. Priscilla luxuriates in its subject’s iconicity—the mid-wing close-up of her signature liquid liner is equivalent to the Barbie teaser’s arched bare foot—yet highlights the conditions of control and manipulation responsible for producing her image. An analogue to neglected wife Charlotte adrift in Tokyo, well-furnished and adjacent to glamor but morbidly lonesome, Priscilla-the-woman (Cailee Spaeny) grows wary of la vie en rose even as Priscilla-the-film remains, perhaps like us, a little bit enchanted.

Priscilla is interesting insofar as, on an idea level, it flirts with bold-type terms in today’s critical discourse: the courtship and marriage to Elvis (a baritone Jacob Elordi) sees Priscilla groomed, gaslit, even love-bombed. But the film’s perspective on these horrors is no more complex than a bog-standard Lifetime movie. As usual, Coppola’s insights are more delicate—when Priscilla Beaulieu is an Air Force teenager in Wiesbaden, Germany, straining against her parents to see Elvis off-base, she’s emboldened less by his passion than by his alleged confidence. His mother has just passed, she explains: “He trusts me.” 

If there’s anything Coppola’s films understand—through the lenses of privilege and whiteness—it’s girls: girlish accouterments, girlish dreams and desires; both the currency of girlhood and the costs for those most winningly endowed. Girls don’t always or only dream of being beautiful; even young Priscilla can see that youth and beauty are too fleeting and subjective to sustain long-distance love between a cultural god and a mortal. What guides the hand to write romantic equations in looping cursive on a school notebook is the fantasy of trust, of being the one for whom Elvis leaves the party.

For his part, Elordi imbues Elvis with the accessible magnetism of a quarterback, even doing a spot-on Jake Ryan lean when pressed to pick Priscilla up for dates himself. That evening at the movies, he mutters along beat for beat with Bogie in John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953). It’s all pretty charming, even as the first act plays like a period episode of To Catch a Predator. When Priscilla moves to Graceland while still finishing high school, I felt myself simultaneously creeped by the paternal handoff from father to boyfriend (what could be more conventional?), yet swept up in needle-droppy casino and arcade montages as romantic as they are narcotic. Priscilla is best when it’s sensual, not didactic, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t do both. Effectively adopted at 17 by her boyfriend, Priscilla is given the gift of a toy poodle. She’s delighted to find him staged outside in a tiny white picket padlock. The parallel of her captivity with his—of her black choker “leash” with his little collar—is unmistakable, as is the correlation of Graceland with a chilly if palatial mausoleum, especially when the king is away.

Later, after they marry, we get an odd montage of Priscilla and Elvis spending seemingly days on end in bed, where time’s passage is marked by trays of room service-style meals delivered and removed. In the world of that room, Priscilla seems to come of sexual age, playing dress-up as a maid or a schoolgirl in opaque stockings; we see the Polaroids they take of each other arranged in stylized flat lay compositions. Coppola has a peerless eye for proto-Tumblr aesthetics—retro yet modern, sexy yet coy, and eminently digitally quotable by screenshot or GIF. But style-as-strategy works best when you don’t ask what else is happening. What exceeds the room but breaches the frame—like Elvis’s longtime cook Alberta Holman (Olivia Barrett), whose disembodied hands lower and remove the passing trays—and who will screenshot this? 

Without longing for it, one wonders what an even weirder Priscilla might have been. There are whiffs of Pablo Larraín’s surreal approach to biopic here, which doubtless owes to Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006), both of which conjure Barry Lyndon (1975). As an adaptation either of life or Presley’s 1985 novel, Priscilla is—to borrow the word Spaeny used in a press conference—“impressionistic,” but it’s also very literal, less about the depths of interiority than interiors: littered night stands and mantel figurines, pearl-handled revolvers and pills.

L’Été dernier (Last Summer, Catherine Breillat)

photo: courtesy of NYFF

Watching Priscilla and Last Summer back-to-back made for an uncanny age gap double feature, and I was doubly compelled by the critical propensity to laud both marriage stories as “brave”—the former by featuring Elvis’s episodic violence toward Priscilla, and the latter by depicting Anne’s (Léa Drucker) chaotic affair with teenage stepson Théo (Samuel Kircher) without judgment or reservation. Both characterizations miss a mark: with Priscilla, the film is less brave than simply—albeit evocatively—accountable to its source material, and even there Coppola favors restraint. Last Summer is intrepid filmmaking, but less for its subject than its execution, as it articulates Breillat’s charged return to production after nine years away.

A remake of May el-Toukhy’s Queen of Hearts (2019), Last Summer is co-written by Breillat and Pascal Bonitzer. We meet lawyer Anne as she preps a client for court, modeling the calm, unrelenting onslaught one can expect from prosecution. How many boyfriends has she slept with this year? “Seven,” the girl says tearfully. “Is that a lot?” Pas du sujet, Anne responds. No room, or use, for editorializing, simply the facts.

So if one is to evade a guilty verdict, it’s only the facts presented that must be believed. This’ll come in handy when Anne has to determine precisely how to circumvent her life’s collapse. As husband Pierre, Olivier Rabourdin (who, let’s face it, I always remember as the pencil pusher whose wife Liam Neeson shoots in Taken) shows more verve wolfing a bite of casserole than fucking his wife; in their love scene, Anne begins narrating in detail a childhood crush toward a friend of the family whose aged appearance repulsed and enticed her. From the nearness of the anecdote and immediacy of her description, we might imagine they’ve run this script before.

 What Anne could possibly want with Olivier’s son Théo, a lanky self-professed vegetarian who bites into a Big Mac with zeal, isn’t totally the province of Breillat’s film. There’s a little of Joanna Hogg’s Unrelated in their play—Théo ticklingly searching Anne’s arm for the right spot for a stick-and-poke tattoo—and in the bucolic setting, and in the means these characters have to enjoy it. The most “romantic” moment sees Théo, Anne, and her two adopted girls drive home euphoric from swimming at a nearby pond, the moonrise visible from her convertible.

It’s a sort of burlesque of happiness, just as Théo’s erstwhile girlfriend Amanda (Nelia Da Costa) is a caricature of nubility. Ever the extremist, Breillat hammers some points—Amanda is young! Anne is “old”!—while skimming over others, like the details of one of Anne’s ongoing cases, which hovers in the background like a structuring absence: one of several at work throughout the film. There’s an impression that something traumatic may have happened at the start of Anne’s sexual life, even set her down the path toward advocating for survivors of sexual crimes—perhaps also a path toward marrying an older man (“I’m a gerontophile,” she quips in bed). But because it’s Breillat, it’s not hurt people hurt people. At the onset, Anne has more curiosity toward Théo than outright lust, and the film is less about an affair than a marriage. How someone can seem old enough, or too old, only in the mind, and how disgust and fascination sit side by side.

Ferrari (Michael Mann)

photo: courtesy of NYFF

In Michael Mann’s hands, Ferrari is less generatively a biopic—even less so than Priscilla, though it, too, explores an unlikely alliance of expressionism and fidelity—than it is a heist film: combining profilmic and diegetic research, preparation, rehearsal and experiment; building narratively and energetically from multiple directions toward a convergence and aftermath, toward the surety of violence and the tabulation of what’s lost, and, because it’s Mann, the too-late arrival at knowledge that was there all along, that this wasn’t entirely worth it, we could’ve walked away. With Ferrari, Mann confirms he’s the author of what men cannot walk away from, of contaminating, pressurized worlds where obsession and principle conflate. Surely “conflate” is the word for it, from the elemental Latin conflare: to blow.

That doesn’t mean the women aren’t in it. When I think of what’s great about Heat (1995), one thing that bubbles up is this girlfriend montage about an hour in: Vincent’s wife Diane soberly laments loving him despite his negligence; Lillian collects Dennis from work; Neil asks Eady to start over in New Zealand. Three episodes seemingly “between” plot events are linked by their testimony to what really matters: meaning, what these guys have got to lose. For every Mann’s man who ought to walk away from trouble, there’s a woman whose heart breaks whether she stays or goes. What I don’t understand is why I can’t cut loose of you. Here, Diane articulates an abiding question: even if we could rationalize our attachments, our passions, would we be any less at their mercy? 

As wife and business partner Laura Ferrari, Penélope Cruz channels Anna Magnani from her set frown to her broad gait. “But there’s only one Anna Magnani,” my seatmate Chris Knipp (Film Leaf) said as the credits rolled. It’s true, but if there’s an inheritor of Magnani’s earthy seductiveness and volcanic moods, for which the film’s finest engines are little match, it must be Cruz, each of whose thoughtful responses at the post-screening press conference elicited spontaneous applause. Most moving was Cruz describing the process of finding between Laura and Enzo (Adam Driver) “a real love—not comfortable love, not easy.” Not a love fit for the cameras, like that between driver Alfonso de Portago (Gabriel Leone) and actress Linda Christian (Sarah Gadon), nor the calm, sustaining love of Enzo’s mistress Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley), whose first appearance onscreen amounts to a sleeping arm draped over Enzo’s waist. Here, in Laura, is a woman who can’t understand why she can’t cut loose of her husband. Or rather, one who can’t put into words why she doesn’t want to.

The threat of “replacement” hangs over Ferrari: of his cars’ record speed broken by Maserati, of lost son Dino with illegitimate son Piero. For Laura, the discovery of Enzo’s “second” family is as disturbing and surreal as stumbling upon an alternate dimension. Imagine? Just down that road, your wife is happy, your heir is alive. And what is fear of replacement but fear of obsolescence? In this sense, like Top Gun: Maverick (2022), Ferrari is an inverted special-ops team film, a space movie on land. If team films are often about the great sacrifice—culminating in debates over who takes the escape pod and who stays behind to secure some essential thing and careen selflessly into darkness—Ferrari’s logic of radical collision (where the personal and professional are utterly enmeshed) indicates that, for better or worse, the sacrifice has already been made; the sharpest loss, survived.

I don’t want to downplay Ferrari’s simpler pleasures. There’s this great shot of all the barbers in a shop laughing with (and at) their customers that makes you want to pick up your life and move. A postcard’s palette of muted ochres and screaming reds—the reds are different in Modena, Adam Driver told the press. Narratively, Ferrari considers a life through the compression of multiple conflicts in a three-month period in 1957; filmically, it presents these terms in the first half hour with breathless economy. 

But it’s also a grave film to make at any age; at 80, it’s possible Mann has never better understood the gravity of contemplating whether it’s better to be thrown from the car than to be locked in a moving coffin.