Trash like Red Sparrow, the Jennifer Lawrence spy movie, represents the garbagey essence of most Hollywood movies. What’s worse, the film’s story of a Russian ballerina with the laughable name Dominika Egorova (Lawrence), who is trained as an espionage agent and killing machine, combines shameless prurience and violence. It’s meant to titillate something rotten in the political psyche, like a big-screen dirty dossier.
The fabrications in Red Sparrow bring to mind the exploitation of shameless, ugly political campaigning. Gullible audiences — including those reviewers who naïvely note that the junk novel it’s based on was written by a former CIA employee — eventually convince themselves that the nonsense makes sense, perhaps to satisfy their own vengeful impulses. Hollywood filmmakers don’t normally address this sickness, but Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev does in an extraordinary film with the unlaughable title of “Loveless.”
Since the Soviet Republic became Russia, only six other films from that country have been nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, and the nomination for Loveless is meaningful: It indicates just how foreign movies about moral responsibility have become. Zvyagintsev’s artistry makes him a spy in the house of love. He follows the bitterness between Zhenya and Boris (Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin) as they divorce. But while they’re fighting over the sale of their apartment, an emblem of their economic status, the couple’s twelve-year-old son goes missing. Unable to move on to new, advantageous partners, they stall in their personal “progress.” Zvyagintsev, who favors widescreen vistas to observe exterior surroundings while probing emotionally fraught, intimate spaces, uses his artistry to reveal the entire, morally shaky basis of Zhenya and Boris’s society. It’s an exposé as moving as that achieved after World War II by Vittorio De Sica, with Bicycle Thieves.
Loveless is worlds away from Red Sparrow’s fake Russia (actual locations tainted by dramatic rubbish). It doesn’t help that Dominika Egorova is also the unlikeliest ballerina since hefty Cate Blanchett lumbered around as a dancer in Benjamin Button. Lawrence’s Dominika Egorova (Domineering Egotist) talks with a Russian accent, but she recalls the politically naïve yet cynical American girl Camille Paglia has warned about in our jejune, neo-feminist era: This chick accepts no responsibility for her own provocative behavior (she blames the state’s “whore school”) while using her sexual wiles to her own advantage. The spy-victim characterization is ridiculous compared with Spivak and Rozin’s avid cravings and intense sorrow.
This chick accepts no responsibility for her own provocative behavior (she blames the state’s ‘whore school’) while using her sexual wiles to her own advantage.
The powerful last 20 minutes of Loveless shames all this year’s other Oscar nominees. Against their self-congratulatory PC antics, Zvyagintsev’s seriousness suggests what a Millennial version of L’Avventura might be. Loveless isn’t as great as that Antonioni film, the definitive masterpiece on 20th-century alienation, but Zvyagintsev is as clear-eyed about today’s morally different world and spiritually depleted culture. The double mystery of the broken marriage and lost child — a situation loaded with metaphorical significance about selfishness, isolation, and emotional bankruptcy — gets at the roots of human detachment. Antonioni described his film’s theme as “Eros is sick.” Zvyagintsev doesn’t just repeat that idea but updates a similar condition. His adulterous sex scenes are strikingly corporeal; the sense of physicality leads to the remarkable morgue moment when the lead characters’ mutual hostility breaks down into cathartic grief.
In our current era of film and artistic and political collapse, Zvyagintsev discovers a separate theme from Antonioni: decadence. That is the essence of Red Sparrow, which attempts to disguise its corruption with shallow political savvy. Dominika’s trainer (Charlotte Rampling) advises: “You’ll become sparrows, weapons in a global struggle for power. Every human being is a puzzle of need. You must become the missing piece, and they will tell you anything.” It’s Hollywood’s rationale for selling us anything.
Travis Wilkerson’s documentary-memoir Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? speaks to the progressive audience at New York’s Film Forum through a self-conscious meditation on racism and guilt. Taking the scandal of his great-grandfather S. E. Branch, a white storeowner in Alabama who killed a black man named Bill Spann in 1946, Wilkerson ponders how the crime went unpunished. “U.S. society hasn’t been honest about itself, its abuses, its militarism,” Wilkerson pontificates. His collage-style doc, poised somewhere between shame, apology, and boasting, is a bizarre artifact.
Shame is evident in Wilkerson’s guilt. It’s fashionable to emphasize the flaws in American history — to detach oneself from blame while taking on a self-flagellating (and self-praising) mission of correction. But instead of interviewing family members or police, Wilkerson pontificates, with ruminations and tableaux morts montages of today’s dilapidated South.
Apology is evident in Wilkerson’s revisionist approach to film history — and white liberalism — as self-deception. He centers on the movie To Kill a Mockingbird and its “secular saint” Atticus Finch (actor Gregory Peck seen in reverse-negative) as his symbolic ancestor, “the segregationist, the racist, the bully, the hypocrite.”
Boasting is evident in Wilkerson’s bona fides — his lockstep progressivism. In that vein, he quotes folksinger Phil Ochs’s activist dirge “William Moore”; intercuts the music video for pop singer Janelle Monaé’s lunatic protest anthem “Hell You Talmbout,” which politicizes all black deaths, the facts notwithstanding; superimposes a distorted Billie Holiday “Strange Fruit” clip; and pilfers the Danielle McGuire book Dark End of the Street for the same 1940s Recy Taylor tragedy that Oprah Winfrey recently exploited at the Golden Globes.
Wilkerson’s production company is titled “Creative Agitation,” but his tactics are self-hypnosis; the various methods of media suasion that liberals who dominate pop culture use to convince themselves of their righteousness. As his own narrator, Wilkerson whispers in a conspiratorial voice. It’s self-dramatizing high dudgeon, as when he cries, “Two killings in one store! Just try and tell me that store isn’t haunted!” William Faulkner’s southern gothic took us past superstition collectively, but Wilkerson just says we’re all “mudbound.” But since he does no actual reporting, or muckraking, this film is just muckbound.