Film & TV

High Fascist Models

August Diehl in Young Karl Marx
Romanticized rebellion threads through The Young Karl Marx; Double Lover provides an antidote to Millennial sexual confusion.

There’s a phantom thread in The Young Karl Marx. The film’s triumphal climax shows the writing and publication of The Communist Manifesto in 1848, with Marx (August Diehl), his wife Jenny (Vicky Krieps), and Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske) formulating and revising the famous opening line, “A spectre is haunting Europe.” They try out “bogeyman,” then “spectre,” but the word “phantom” is not just a matter of semantics. Cosmopolitan filmmaker Raoul Peck dramatizes the phantom thread that weaves, unseen, through so much of Millennial culture.

Peck’s bio-pic could be retitled “Karl Marx, Superhero,” because it essentially follows the origin-myth pattern of comic-book movies. That’s not a put-down, when you realize that Peck, who coauthored the screenplay with Pascal Bonitzer (a major collaborator of André Téchiné’s, Claude Chabrol’s, and Jacques Rivette’s) intuits the popular, serious regard for Marx’s ideas and historical personage in this undisguised lionization. Think about why it took so long for filmmakers to declare their loyalty.

As Peck’s most accomplished filmmaking so far, this follows his highly praised documentary on James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, in which he made strategic use of another cultural figure’s biography. It was clear from that doc’s reception by the media and the motion-picture Academy that its political sympathies and implicit urge to revolution had zeitgeist appeal. The Disney-Marvel fantasists now luring audiences with Black Panther, as with other comic-book origin stories, may be crudely commercial exhibitionists and not politically conscious, but Haiti-born Peck is a political sophisticate. Here, he works in the mode of conventional leftist sentiment familiar from the legacy of European filmmaking, but that is beyond rhetoric-stunted Americans. (The problem with I Am Not Your Negro is that it was rhetorically obvious as well as specious — yet it was the movie that Black Lives Matter adherents were surprised to discover they were longing for. And Peck more than obliged.)

The film’s standard, reverential bio-pic style suggests an Official Version, or primer, yet that’s also a matter of the filmmakers’ sympathies aligning with today’s cultural drift.

Peck showcases the cavalcade of destiny after the Industrial Revolution: Marx meeting Engels; their match of political intellect and practical experience; one’s bohemian struggle and the other’s bourgeois alienation; the confluence of the two men’s political and literary ambitions. The film’s standard, reverential bio-pic style suggests an Official Version, or primer, yet that’s also a matter of the filmmakers’ sympathies aligning with today’s cultural drift. Cinematographer Kolja Brandt evokes Vittorio Storaro’s halation work on Reds. But this movie is more focused than Reds, with none of that trashy, distracting Hollywood romanticism. Famous names pass through: Bakunin, Weitling, and with Olivier Gourmet making the strongest impression as the bearded, spectacled Proudhon.

When Communism’s dynamic duo are told, “You have put Hegelian dialectic back on its feet,” Peck and Bonitzer flatter the poli-sci students Warren Beatty wouldn’t risk addressing. Even sex is politicized deferentially: Hannah Steele as Engels’s consort Mary Burns is a free-love firebrand, while Krieps, so off-putting in Phantom Thread, almost redeems herself as Marx’s bourgeois, hypocritical mate. A slightly repellent life force, Mrs. Marx desires rebellion: “I want to see the old world crack. We’ll overthrow it!” No longer posing as a high-fashion model, as she did in Phantom Thread, Krieps now plays a high fascist model. And Marx concurs, saying, “The world must be transformed.” “Transform” being a code leftist word of the past eight years.

The Young Karl Marx is the real Reds (Marx and Engels urge European dissidents in the League of the Just to change into the Communist League, hoisting its first scarlet banner), and rebellion is the film’s real romance. Rebellion is the phantom thread deviously embroidered in Millennial culture.

***

François Ozon’s moral compass zigzags wildly in Double Lover, the first good movie of 2018, as he presents Chloé Fortin (Marine Vacth), a young Parisian woman whose unaccountable and overwhelming physical discomfort might be more than psychological.

Seeking to understand her inner pain — Ozon satirizes the conscientious self-examination that’s almost unheard-of this millennium — Chloé goes down the maze of psychoanalysis, falling in love with and then marrying her therapist, Paul Mayer (Jérémie Renier). Her instability increases (“I want to stay weak, keep hurting while you stay strong”) after she inspects his mysterious past and encounters his estranged — and dangerous — twin brother (also a psychoanalyst and a sadist).

The “double” theme, a horror-film staple, sparks Ozon’s teasing associations to other movies, including Brian De Palma’s naughty forays into sexual titillation (which, oddly enough, also revealed his innate social satire, a reflex of his cultural awareness). Double Lover compounds film and social awareness through intoxicatingly smooth segues between Chloé’s distress, her fantasies, and her surreal life discoveries; we are seduced into almost palpable intimate confession and sexual exhibition. The first therapy session is a De Palma–worthy montage of split-screen interfacing. It is the film’s aesthetic climax even though Ozon’s later, more explicit sexual graphics attempt to go further and literally deeper (including sex-toy reverse role play, a fluttering labial examination, dissolving from Chloé’s vulva to her startled eye). But the purely cinematic pantomime of person-to-person intimacy is a memorably powerful exploration of the intricacy of trust, and that’s the film’s political trump card.

Ozon steadily improves and refines his filmmaking style. Double Lover’s plot (from a Joyce Carol Oates potboiler) isn’t as satisfying as Ozon’s recent films Young and Beautiful, In the House, The New Girlfriend, and Frantz, or his comic-spiritual masterpiece Ricky — all works in which his minor-league provocations showed impressive stylistic authority. But Double Lovers stays fascinating even as it turns the work of Ozon’s masters (De Palma’s Sisters, Buñuel’s Belle de Jour) inside out.

Vacth’s model-girl sensuality presents a challenge to the pink-pussy-hat era in which feminist panic ironically suggests lost confidence. Casually strutting through an art gallery, where Chloé works amid outré erotic sculpture, Vacth makes a vibrant spectacle of gender mystique while Renier, with his flat-nosed resemblance to Ringo Starr, enacts a dual role that is a matching essay on phases of masculine erotic threat. So even when Double Lover becomes silly and Oatesian, it works as an antidote to the preposterous cultural deceptions of Paul Thomas Anderson’s unfortunately popular Phantom Thread, which seems to contribute to our culture’s current gender confusion. Anderson’s plot inverts Hitchcock’s Vertigo, turning the Millennial audience in on itself because it swallows Anderson’s nihilism without Ozon’s audacious humanism.

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