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October 2010

Scene4 Magazine - "Get Low" and "I Am Love" reviewed by Miles David Moore - October 2010 -

by Miles David Moore

Two recent movies, Aaron Schneider's Get Low and Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love, feature protagonists who have lived for many years in deeply ingrained patterns of self-denial.  Their circumstances and their ways of breaking out of those patterns, however, could not be more different.  Neither could the cinematic styles of the two directors.

Get Low, based on a true story from the Depression South, could just as well be retitled Get Low-Key. The screenplay by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell begins with by far the most horrific scene in the movie: a backwoods cabin engulfed in fire, and a man, also ablaze, running from it. The story then switches to Felix Bush (Robert Duvall), an elderly hermit in 1930s Tennessee. (The film was actually shot in Georgia.)  Feared and despised by his neighbors, Felix keeps a sign on the approach to his cabin: "ABSOLUTELY NO TRESPASSING—BEWARE OF MULE!"  Felix's deer rifle, however, is a lot more fearsome than the mule.


One day the local minister (Gerald McRaney) drives to Felix's cabin to tell him an old friend has died.  Felix doesn't go to the funeral, but he gets an idea: a few days later, he comes into town and asks the minister to arrange his funeral—while he's still alive, though, so he can hear what the mourners have to say about him. The minister refuses, but Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), the local undertaker, gets wind of the request. Despite the reservations of Buddy (Lucas Black), Quinn's earnest young assistant, Quinn approaches Felix and offers to give him a sendoff the county will talk about for years.  To ensure a healthy attendance, Felix sells five-dollar raffle tickets, the winner to inherit Felix's 300 acres of timberland. Quinn stashes the money in a coffin in his back room.

That's pretty much it as far as plot goes, except for the secret Felix reveals at the end to the assembled crowd at his "funeral." We never find out who wins the raffle. There's a brief confrontation at the beginning between Felix and town bully Carl (Scott Cooper, who appeared with Duvall in Broken Trail and directed him in Crazy Heart).  There's a sneak attack on one of the major characters, but his assailant is never revealed.  There's an abortive reunion between Felix and Mattie (Sissy Spacek), an old flame of Felix's who also happens to be the sister of the great love of Felix's life.  There's a late appearance by a sardonic old preacher (Bill Cobbs) who knows Felix's secret. But the only thing that matters to the filmmakers—and the only thing they want us to care about—is Felix's confession. 

Because it is Robert Duvall playing Felix, we care very much about that confession.  Duvall has played, brilliantly, every conceivable type of character in a career spanning half a century.  Yet he is most famous—justly so—for his Southern eccentrics, whether as rambunctious as Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove or as withdrawn as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird.  (Gus McCrae is my favorite of his roles—indeed, maybe my favorite all-time performance by any actor.  But I also love his Jackson Fentry in Joseph Anthony's Tomorrow, with its superb screenplay by Horton Foote from a story by William Faulkner.)  Judged against these predecessors, Felix Bush is as ornery as Gus, not quite as shy as Boo, smarter than Jackson but every bit as loyal.  Like his Lonesome Dove co-star Tommy Lee Jones, Duvall is one of American cinema's great minimalists; he can play extroverted characters (as he proved in Apocalypse Now and The Great Santini), but the true story of every role he plays is told in his eyes.  In Felix's eyes we see the pain of a man who has lived most of his life weighed down by a tragedy so horrible that it drove him away from human contact.  At the end, as he divulges his secret, it is that pain that wipes away any tendency in the story toward sentimentality.


Bill Murray was a more surprising choice for Get Low than Duvall, but he and Duvall play off each other beautifully.  Unlike Duvall, Murray isn't the actor who comes to mind when you think of a story set in the Depression South.  However, Frank Quinn is supposed to be a city slicker and a con man, settled inexplicably in this Tennessee hamlet and dying of boredom as a result.  "Why is it," he asks Buddy at one point, "that we're in the one town in America where no one ever dies?"  But Quinn also surprises us, in good ways, and Murray is just the actor to make those surprises believable.  In his last several movies—such as Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation and Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers—Murray has conveyed the bewildered sadness of a middle-aged man who has reached an impasse in his life, without knowing how he reached it or what to do from there.  It is precisely this quality that humanizes Quinn.  He has an ironic edge that Felix doesn't, but the pain in his eyes matches the pain in Felix's.  These men, no doubt about it, are fellow passengers on the train of sorrow.


Duvall and Murray are the overriding reasons for seeing Get Low.  Bill Cobbs brings a witty gravity to his role, and Lucas Black has the same fresh, honest likability in Get Low as he had as a boy actor in Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade.  Spacek and McRaney don't have much to do, but it's nice to see them. David Boyd's cinematography, Jan A. P. Kaczmarek's music and Geoffrey Kirkland's production design fit seamlessly into this small, understated film—so small and understated that it would blow away in the wind if it weren't anchored by some wonderful acting.

In I Am Love, however, lush overstatement is the order of the day. From the opening credits, with John Adams' swooping, driving music playing over Yorick Le Saux's images of a wintry, twilight Milan, we know we are in the hands of a director who loves boldness for its own sake and doesn't give a damn if you don't.

The real story of I Am Love doesn't begin until nearly halfway through the film.  Guadagnino takes his time introducing us to the Recchis, a wealthy textile-manufacturing family.  The first half-hour depicts the birthday party for Edoardo Recchi Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti), patriarch of the family, at the home of Edoardo's son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono).  Tancredi's Russian wife Emma (Tilda Swinton) bustles through the house as the guests arrive, making sure the food and wine are ready.  Edo (Flavio Parenti), Emma and Tancredi's son arrives late on his motorcycle, fresh from a race which he lost in a photo finish. 


Guadagnino does a masterful job of presenting the party and the Recchi family.  The Recchi mansion is full of rich, dimly lit surfaces, yet simultaneously cool and distancing.  The same can be said of the Recchis; they are well-mannered, friendly to each other, but in the slightly distant, small-talk way of casual dinner companions.  Also, there are some inexplicable things that happen. Why does Emma look vaguely alarmed when Edoardo Sr. announces that he is leaving the family business to Tancredi and Edo equally?  Why does Antonio (Edoardo Gabbrellini), who just beat Edo in the motorcycle race, show up at the front door with a cake he baked for Edo, but refuse to come in?  And why does Emma retire to her room the minute dinner is over?

The action jumps to spring.  Edoardo Sr. has passed away, leaving the family business, as he promised, to Tancredi and Edo jointly. Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher), Emma and Tancredi's daughter, comes out as a lesbian—an event that seems to intrigue rather than disturb Emma.  Tancredi and Edo debate whether to sell the business to a global conglomerate, and Edo plans to finance Antonio—a brilliant and innovative chef—in his dream of establishing a country inn.  Antonio offers to cater Edo's upcoming wedding, and Emma—accompanied by Edo's fiancée and Edoardo Sr.'s widow—goes to Antonio's Milan restaurant to discuss the menu.  They lunch at the restaurant, ordering Antonio's special tasting menu, and after a few courses have passed, the waitress serves Emma a plate of Antonio's prawns with spring vegetables.

Emma takes one bite—and the movie suddenly comes into focus.

Guadagnino shows us Emma enveloped in light, the dining room around her muted to silence, as she takes bite after enraptured bite of the exquisite dish.  We see that Emma is a woman who has spent her life in total, albeit luxurious, denial, and that in a flash she realizes the man who cooked these prawns is her soulmate.

From here on, Yorick Le Saux's camera, which has kept its distance, zeroes in on every fruit, every flower, every bee. Several critics have compared I Am Love with the overheated romances of Fifties auteur Douglas Sirk.  I would also note similarities with Louis Malle's Damage, another tragic story about transgressive love within a family; with Ira Sachs' Forty Shades of Blue, another film about a Russian woman who has traded her inner self for a life of privilege; and with Francois Girard's Silk, another film that risks a slow, highly pictorial buildup to create an enveloping mood. 


Emma explains herself during an intimate moment with Antonio.  Emma, she says, is not her real name, but the name Tancredi gave her; she has become so divorced from her home country that she doesn't even remember her real name. A speech by a minor character later in the film, expressing his love of the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, underscores Emma's plight.

A lot of people will reject I Am Love as pretentious, self-indulgent, and obvious. (Really, did Guadagnino have to use prawns?  Only asparagus or sausages would have been more blatant.)  I found myself annoyed occasionally, but still Guadagnino drew me into the film's refulgent world.  Whatever else Guadagnino does or doesn't do, there's no question he creates a heightened sensory experience in which the audience—like Emma—risks drowning.  It's intoxicating, but disturbing.  It is particularly disturbing at the end, in which—without giving away specific plot points—Emma has achieved her passion at the cost of everything else. 


In any case, Guadagnino likes to go out on a limb—and, in Tilda Swinton, he has found a star more than willing to go out there with him.  With her great pale eyes and slender, high-cheekboned face, Swinton has a rare gift for expressing desire, and in Emma Guadagnino gives her a character who—once she emerges from her decades-long hibernation—is virtually all desire.  (Swinton's preparation for the role was painstaking; she even learned to speak Italian with a Russian accent, something this monolingual critic would never have realized if he had not read it online.  Swinton and Guadagnino also have fun with their inside joke: Swinton, born in London to Scottish parents, plays the only character in the film who doesn't understand English.)  It's difficult to choose an isolated moment that characterizes Swinton's performance, but the very end—in which she stares at her husband, children and extended family as if they were total strangers—will serve as well as any.  It is a daring performance in a daring movie, and if you're in a receptive mood, you will love both.


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©2010 Miles David Moore
©2010 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Miles David Moore
Miles David Moore is a Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications Inc., the author of three books of poetry and
the Film Critic for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives
Read his Blog


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October 2010

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