Three movies this week confront our inner dictator. The most obvious is Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation (Bacalaureat), in which a middle-aged Romanian doctor, Romeo (Adrian Titieni), compromises himself as a husband, father, and citizen. He enters the subculture of secret deals and deceit to guarantee that his daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) passes her high-school exam and wins a scholarship to a British university.
At a key moment, Romeo tells Eliza: “Sometimes in life it’s the result that counts. We raised you to always be honest, but this is the world we live in. And sometimes we need to fight using their weapons.” Romeo’s parental advice reflects the corruption of our era. Mungiu puts global conflicts in personal, self-justifying terms and, like politicians and their party surrogates, seems too at ease with the apparent need for compromise. His drily observant style imparts a moral lesson about apathy, a lesson that is not far from propaganda.
Mungiu’s cynicism is highly favored on the international film-festival circuit, including distributors and critics who hailed his 2007 abortion tract, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. The gatekeepers of today’s self-justifying film culture extol Mungiu’s “truth” as their own. Whether delving into abortion or the rigging of class advantages, Mungiu combines scenes of daylight paranoia with film-noir suspense. It’s a vision that contemporary film culture readily recognizes and rewards.
Graduation virtually mirrors the current political hysteria evident among film folk, as in recent bookings of Michael Radford’s dismal rendition of Orwell’s 1984 — moviegoers are meant to screen it as part of their “day of resistance” (for illiterates, presumably). It’s become hip in today’s film-culture gulag to praise movies that affirm Europe’s collapse into nihilism: Michael Haneke’s Caché and Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (which also starred morose, pot-bellied Titieni) are clear influences on Graduation. Romanian imports of the past decade depict an inescapable, post-Ceausescu heritage of unavoidable pessimism that has become entrenched. In Graduation, a hospital colleague says, “It’s too late for us.” Romeo asks his long-suffering wife, “How did we become such enemies? Can you remember?” Our film gulag has taken this banality to heart.
Mungiu’s moralism is like that in Death of a Salesman: It rationalizes and sentimentalizes common corruption. When accompanying his daughter to a police station, Romeo’s reflection in the one-way mirror puts him into the line-up of rape suspects (one swarthy, probably Muslim). It’s too-obvious symbolism. Romeo refuses the chance to correct his mistakes. A coworker advises, “Errare humanum est, as the Romans used to say.” But Mungiu prefers a guilt-ridden vision. Had Graduation been conceived as Cheating, it might be a worthy response to these times.
The male and female protagonists in The Assignment, the new genre movie by Walter Hill (director of The Warriors and 48 Hrs.), represent genders at war — yet both characters are on the same side ideologically. Hitman Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez) glories in his masculine ability to kill and fornicate, but he becomes the victim of mad Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver), who, with equal insensitivity, abducts Frank and performs sex-reassignment surgery on him. It’s revenge for Frank’s assassination of the doctor’s mob-tied brother.
The destinies of Frank and Dr. Kay are intertwined through flashbacks that play with the audience’s expectations about gender and genre. The apparent simplicity of Hill’s lurid narrative contains complexity. The Assignment deliberately evokes low-budget B-movies (a film-noir view of the world), but Hill satirizes that form as well as our once-trite, now over-complicated ideas about male and female social identity. Hill’s use of comic-book-panel transitions announces the film’s brash perspective.
This trickery gives The Assignment political daring that has stirred controversy among commentators who are agitated by any depiction of transgenderism that does not conform to politically correct dictates. The film’s key anti-PC line comes when Frank accepts his fate: “I was gonna be a chick — except in my head.” Instead of giving Millennials the heroic gender transition that they demand, Hill insists that we think deeper — perhaps about the media’s popularizing of sex reassignment and the painful complications that such a choice entails.
Frank’s dilemma raises the question of whether sexuality is ideologically enforced or is a mere conceit based on what’s fashionable. Is Frank really a woman? Is Dr. Kay merely a monster? The Assignment’s themes rise above our current political and cultural confusion. No wonder Hill’s film went through several different concepts and titles: from Tomboy to (Re)Assignment to The Assignment. Will any other movie present comparable complications this year?
Hill’s game is an acquired taste. He first explored this story as an experimental graphic comic, partly because Hollywood’s pulp-based action-movie genre had lost its moral bearings after Tarantino. Hill’s cinematic flair — kinetic style connected to moral exploration — was established a full decade before Pulp Fiction eradicated morality from genre movies. Contemporary filmgoers (Tarantino’s kids) are unaccustomed to the philosophical inquiry that is part of The Assignment’s terseness and audacity. Hill first evinced these qualities in Hard Times (1975), The Driver (1978), The Warriors (1979), The Long Riders (1980), Southern Comfort (1981), and several other action films that displayed visual richness and existential pith.
When Dr. Kay tells Frank, “I’ve liberated you from the macho prison you were living in,” she indicts B-movie heroism while also questioning patriarchy. Dr. Kay flatters herself by advising Frank, “You’ve been a very bad man, this is your opportunity for redemption.” Her self-deception echoes the narcissism of classic, self-righteous movie villainy. Neither radical nor conservative, Hill holds both sides of the transgender controversy in suspense: PC righteousness vs. fundamental biology. What an adventurous ploy for our ongoing, mind-blowing human drama.
Are you fed up with contemporary political discussion and argument that diminish your beliefs and intelligence? Weaver’s Dr. Kay embodies that anxiety. Doggedly intelligent Dr. Kay might be the ultimate Sigourney Weaver androgyne role. She plays with masculine and feminine prerogatives in ways that would honor Jean-Luc Godard’s 1966 Masculin Féminin, which analyzed sex and political roles. She also elaborates on her Ripley character in the Alien films (which Hill produced) in ways Hollywood has been too cowardly to explore. Dr. Kay’s rebuff to the prison authorities who straightjacket her (“None of you are worth my time”) also works as Hill’s defense of his own career: a proud artist’s reproof to cultural small-mindedness. Weaver plays the strongest of all the manly female characters in Hill’s filmography.
The Assignment is less thrilling than Hill’s career comeback Bullet to the Head (2012). The Assignment’s imperfection cannot be overlooked: Actress Michelle Rodriguez doesn’t achieve Frank’s androgynous potential. Her full-frontal nude strut is as phony as Mark Wahlberg’s rubber phallus in Boogie Nights, and she portrays Frank’s machismo with the same sullen sneer that reviewers foolishly equated with Brando in Rodriguez’s debut film, Girlfight (2000). Scenes with a working-class nurse (Caitlin Gerard) make Rodriguez’s acting limitations painfully apparent. Frank should have been as fascinating as the cross-gender characters in Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In, Brian De Palma’s Raising Cain, or Hill’s plastic-surgery classic Johnny Handsome, in which Mickey Rourke movingly portrays a man whose facial reconstruction reveals the good or evil potential in those around him. As bold as The Assignment is, Hill nonetheless must struggle with Hollywood’s sexual sanctimony.
An early candidate for worst film of the year: Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal. This feminist sci-fi is a tribute to misandry. Anne Hathaway plays Gloria, an alcoholic lout who blames all her problems on men. Since childhood, she has displaced her dissatisfaction onto a Godzilla-like monster. It’s a psychotic self-projection that imitates her grade-school sandbox antics in the streets of Seoul, South Korea, killing innocent citizens because . . . well, men are bad. Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) is the latest victim of Gloria’s man-hatred (she even attacks him physically as if feminism endorses assault and battery by women). All this movie lacks is handing out pink pussy hats to brain-dead ticket-buyers.