There were always two. Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Two masters with wildly different approaches to their art. Together they created one of the greatest empires of artistic expression in movie history, but it’s been Miyazaki who has garnered much more attention. It’s not for lack of merit; by my estimation Miyazaki has made several classics without a single bad film to his name. His films have numerous entry points to viewers of any age. His stories tend to have the sweep of fairy tales and epics; they are compulsively watchable and easily accessible without any dilution of his vision. His films are international box office hits that have garnered him roomfuls of awards.
Takahata? He’s more of an enigma. The same year Miyazaki debuted My Neighbor Totoro, perhaps his first film to achieve significant global recognition, Takahata gave us Grave of the Fireflies. The films could not be much more different, save for being about young siblings. Totoro is a delightful family fantasy that occasionally dips into moments of sadness that anyone can relate to. Grave of the Fireflies is a harrowing, headlong plunge into the despair of war. It flaunts the conventional wisdom that animated films shouldn’t tell realistic stories. Takahata still imbued the film with a touch all his own. His sense of pacing is impeccable; he gives the story room to breathe around the tragedy. We cry out of empathy, but we don’t feel pummeled with nihilism, as can happen with films this bleak. He was absolutely the right director for this story; he just happens to be an animator.
As Miyazaki continued to make inventive fantasies, Takahata seemed to do… whatever he wanted to do, without much rhyme or reason. His next film was perhaps his best: the plaintive, bittersweet Only Yesterday, about a woman in her late 20s who reminisces about her childhood as she casts an uncertain eye toward the future. His follow up films, Pom Poko and My Neighbors the Yamadas were zanier, more comedic fare; I haven’t seen them yet, but from what I know about them they are a massive departure from Grave of the Fireflies. His style is famously deliberate; he finishes films when he wants to, at his pace. In the essential documentary Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Miyazaki- a relentlessly hard worker0- openly complains about Takahata’s slow pace of filmmaking. Again, these two men seem to differ in every aspect of their approach.
Here, then, is something of a surprise: after all these years, Takahata has made a fairy tale. And what a tale it is. The Tale of Princess Kaguya has some of the hallmarks of Takahata’s other films. The constant tone of bittersweetness. A theme of a central character trying and failing to find a place that can be her home. But there is a deep feeling of ancientness to this tale, a sense that Takahata is lovingly rendering a tale that has been passed along for centuries. Indeed, the story the film is based on originated in the 10th century. The Tale of Princess Kaguya doesn’t simply feel timeless; it feels suspended in time.
The film opens with a bamboo cutter finding a tiny girl inside a bamboo stalk. The girl turns into regular-sized human baby, and he and his wife decide to raise her. The girl grows quickly, and the man wonders if his adopted daughter is fated to live a greater life than he can provide cutting bamboo. When the same bamboo stalk that birthed her spills gold and fancy robes, he takes that as a sign from heaven. He moves the family into the city; with his new riches he tries to have his daughter embrace nobility and find a rich husband. She takes on the name Princess Kaguya.
Studio Ghibli’s trademark has long been an astonishing attention to detail, no matter who is directing. At first, The Tale of Princess Kaguya looks like a departure from that trend. The edges of the screen are often unfilled; at times there is more negative space on the frame than ink. It’s jarring at first, but it’s also in keeping with the concept of ma, so essential in Japanese art. Miyazaki once described ma as the moment in between two hand claps. Yasujiro Ozu, perhaps the greatest Japanese filmmaker, regularly included silent shots- a tree, or clothes hanging from a line- in between scenes (Roger Ebert loved to call these “pillow shots”). Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday are both quite spacious in their narratives, taking the time to look at the world around the characters before moving on with the story. Fairy tales like Princess Kaguya don’t usually have the luxury of that sort of patient storytelling. Almost every scene in Princess Kaguya advances the narrative to some degree. It’s a surprisingly rich tale, and its 2 hour and 18 minute runtime flows by unnoticed.
My point; the negative space of the film’s opening is Takahata’s hook for the audience. Once we grow used to it, he can manipulate space to fit his narrative needs throughout the film. There is an incredible scene about halfway through the movie where Kaguya, overhearing a conversation where a group of men crassly demand to see her, grows overwhelmed and bolts from her new palace home. In the palace, every corner of the screen is filled and detailed the way we expect from a Ghibli and Takahata movie. And it’s suffocating. Kaguya sheds her robes and explodes down the road outside,and the world opens up again. By the time she reaches the woods, the art style becomes sketchy, aggressively spare, and the effect is liberating. Back in her visual element, Kaguya can be free, if only for a moment.
This is not the sort of film where further explanation of the plot would do anyone any good. It’d be like trying to tell a campfire scare story at breakfast before anyone has had any coffee. The visuals here aren’t simply style for its own sake; they are an essential aspect of taking in this story. And, well, they are gorgeous in their own right. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a fitting cap to Takahata’s enigmatic career. For his last film he reached back in history and folklore and found a story he could tell better than anyone had before. Yes, it’s been told for centuries. But it was always meant to be told like this.
Empathy is important. That’s not a statement many would disagree with. But think for a minute: how often do you not really abide by it? How often do we presume the worst about perfect strangers, to judge them for bothering us and nothing else? A person who takes too long at the ATM is clearly an inconsiderate asshole, not someone harried and flustered by the very fact that they’re holding up a line. A terse waitress is unprofessional and mean, and not simply at her wits end after a long day with little sleep. A friend who doesn’t immediately respond to a text is flaky, not genuinely busy with worries that supersede your conversation. Everyone has moments like these, myself included. We pick and choose when to walk in someone else’s shoes. It’s easier not to be curious.
Stories about empathy fascinate me because they have to, by design, be curious. They have to be about human beings and why they do things, not simply the things they do. I have often described horror as my favorite genre because, well, I love scary things. But horror is rarely described as a genre that relies on empathy. But… well… isn’t it? Horror movies essentially rely on the audience being scared for the sake of the characters. Most horror films get this wrong. They aim to shock, not stoke empathy. The best ones are often those that go out of their way to get the audience to relate to the characters’ feelings, to have more investment in the film than startled responses to jarring stimuli. In recent weeks I’ve seen two films; It Follows and Under the Skin; that burrowed into my mind and never left. They unsettled and intrigued and hypnotized me, and they wouldn’t have done so without their deep wells of empathy.
Under the Skin* takes the most original approach to a story about empathy that I’ve seen. It isn’t about a human being at all, but an alien who kills people. Why? To understand them. As the film progresses, she learns empathy. And as in real life it’s not always pleasant.
*Some might object to my calling Under the Skin as a horror film, but I think it clearly contains horror in its multitudes; horror is a much broader and more varied genre than many give it credit for.
A cursory look at the plot of Under the Skin makes it sound like a sleazy exploitation film. An alien played by Scarlett Johannson picks up men, seduces them, and then kills them. But what a strange, hypnotizing story lies within. The pulpy veneer vanishes in the opening moments, as Scarlett Johannson’s nameless character undresses an apparently dead woman’s body on a stage that consists entirely of a white void. She changes into the woman’s clothes, and finally stands over the body, regarding her face. She sees a tear roll down the woman’s face. She studies it, her face blank, and she moves on. She goes around Scotland picking up men and luring them to a dark room where they sink into black liquid, where they are suspended for… well, the purpose isn’t clear, but there’s a rhyme and reason to it. A man on a motorcycle follows the woman around, cleaning up any evidence of her actions. The moment we see the fate of the men under the liquid is horrifying and raises as many questions about these odd aliens as it answers.
The woman eventually has an encounter that is… different. She can’t shake it the way she usually does; she gains a desire to actually understand what is to be a person, instead of experimenting from afar. Her efforts to engage in human behavior make up the second act of the film. Some of the moments are oddly touching, while some are deeply disturbing. The woman learns the scope of human behavior first hand, both good and bad. We’ve seen material like this before in movies, but never from the perspective of someone trying earnestly to learn empathy. It’s jarring in its simplicity. By the end I was shaken, not just from the events on screen, but because I found myself wanting this character to succeed, for everything she’d done to amount to something. And then I remembered that she was, in effect, a serial killer at the film’s outset. And then I remembered that she was, from her perspective, a researcher, not actively doing wrong. And then I realized that director Jonathan Glazer had, in making a film about a character learning empathy, also made me deeply empathize with her. Under the Skin isn’t a film that makes you feel good, but there’s something astonishing about it. It’s like looking down and realizing you’re walking on a high wire.
It Follows is much more a traditional horror film than Under the Skin. Directed by David Robert Mitchell, its story is an inversion of one of the most well-known horror tropes: death by sex. Slasher films, starting with Halloween, established the trend of characters dying shortly after having sex. It was a sort of weird, toxic brand of hypocritical puritanism within the genre; offering women’s bodies up for titillation and then immediate slaughter. It Follows appears to be a clever nod to the trope on its surface. It’s about a slow-walking, shapeshifting demon who relentlessly pursues its target until they have sex. Then it pursues their partner until they pass it on; otherwise, it kills them and pursues its previous target again. The film’s protagonist is Jay (Maika Monroe), a college student whose first sexual encounter with her new boyfriend leaves her running for her life.
The portrayal of the demon is both a nod to and a twist on classic horror movie killers. Michael Myers popularized the slow-walking, relentless killer. However, the shapeshifting nature of the killer in It Follows prevents it from taking on any larger-than-life image. Most slasher movies turn their killers into icons. It Follows leaves its killer perpetually in the background. As a result, we’re forced to focus on Jay, and it’s here that its sendup of the slasher genre reveals its depths. Most horror films provide numerous bodies for the killer to slaughter, and one screaming girl who makes it to the end. The characters are archetypes and cardboard cutouts for a reason: the action is the point, and the director’s skill is what makes the film scary. Many good horror films fit this bill. My favorite horror film of all-time, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is not a showcase of deep character writing. And although It Follows won’t remind anyone of a Richard Linklater film, it does force us to spend ample time with its main character as she reckons with her horrifying fate.
It Follows teases an exploitative premise and ends up being about just how nightmarish this scenario would be, and how arbitrary and unfair it is for Jay to go through it. The film could have branched into many other directions with its premise; Mitchell chose the correct one to make the most narrative impact. In a genre that usually cares so little for on-screen victims, he forced us to reckon with the experience of being chased by an unstoppable killer. Perhaps the end result is less scary than it could have been, but it is also much more gripping.
Last year I praised The Babadook for its resemblance to how real nightmares feel; less out and out “scary” than filled with dread about things we realize are beyond our understanding. Most horror movies only ask the audience to play along. But the best ones demand a closer sort of engagement to the material; if you watch passively, expecting aggressively shocking imagery, you might miss most of the movie.
The Witch is somehow an even more evocative, rich experience than The Babadook. It is the sort of film that envelops you, like a dream where you close your eyes and still see as clearly as you did before. It works so well because the fears it evokes come from places deep within just about anyone. I can’t say I’ve ever been chased down a dirt road by a man wielding a chainsaw, but I have stood on the edge of a treeline and wondered what secrets lay further in the dark. As the family at the center of The Witch comes apart, it begins not to matter whether or not they are being stalked by actual witches; I began to believe that anyone in their situation could completely unravel.
The film opens with a man named William (Ralph Ineson) being exiled from a Puritan community somewhere in New England. He and his family eventually settle in a clearing where they build a cabin and attempt to farm. He and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) talk openly of sending their oldest daughter, the teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Jones) away to work as a servant as soon as she is old enough. Pragmatism trumps family bonds in their situation, and Kate seems to care little for Thomasin as it is; she openly prefers her other four children; Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), and the infant Joshua. Thomasin works hard and seems to at least have the affection of her father, but early on it feels like little provocation will set this family against itself. William is deeply prideful, and Katherine is openly resentful that the family moved from England. Caleb is hitting puberty and grapples with the awakenings that come with it. Everyone grapples with their austere religious beliefs that seem to bring none of them any peace of mind.
As I said about The Babadook, there is already a lot in this premise to make for a compelling story without any horror elements. There is a memorable setting, well-defined characters, and plenty of conflict. Director Robert Eggers begins to sprinkle diabolical elements on like spices; the film’s transition into horror is so deft that we barely notice it happening.
It begins when Joshua disappears as Thomasin is watching him. Again, the scene plays out like a nightmare, but not necessarily as supernatural one. Anyone can relate to the cold terror of suddenly now knowing where a baby is. Joshua’s disappearance hardens Kate; she blames Thomasin for losing him and William for moving them out into the wilderness in the first place. The twins goad Thomasin, and she silences them by claiming to be a witch (a moment of teasing with profound consequences for Thomasin). William desperately clings to his belief that if he works hard enough he can provide for his family out here, even as it’s clear that he’s in over his head. At this point The Witch is already a nightmare. And then the film cuts to a gut-churning sequence of a woman in the woods slathering herself in a baby’s blood.
The Witch is the sort of film that a horror nut might easily be disappointed by. If you want a story strictly about witches making lotion out of babies, then no, this is not that sort of film. It is the sort of film that punctuates realistic tragedy with evidence enough that a malevolent hand is at play. These characters are already without much hope. If they are at the mercy of witches, the possibilities are too upsetting to imagine. Eggers also allows his actors to carry much of the film. He’s not manufacturing scares; he lets the actors react to the situations they confront as people might. Again, it’s not scary in the traditional sense, but is deeply unnerving. Ralph Inseon is particularly good in this film. He plays William as a man whose love for his family can be overpowered by his need to prove to himself that he is a provider. He is perhaps the last character to acknowledge the possibility of witches, despite being deeply pious. When he begins to suspect that Thomasin is a witch, the fact that he has turned is itself terrifying.
The Witch is a difficult film to review. It is more about what it does to the senses that what happens in the plot. Most horror films are roller coasters, their stories on a predictable track. The Witch is a nightmare. It doesn’t hold you by the throat so much as linger in the back of the mind, asking you to second guess everything you see. It’s no surprise that the film settles on Thomasin as its protagonist. She might seem like a passive character at first. Anya Taylor-Joy plays her with wide-eyed earnestness. Her wants are simple (her mother’s approval; her family to not die one-by-one; to not be hanged as a witch) and one by one her avenues of hope are closed off. It could be the woods. It could be witches. The film’s finale is as wicked as it is surprising. If nothing else it provides Thomasin with an earned payoff for going through hell.
The arbitrary rules of high society have long provided ample fuel for artists. The people who have the most, who have the most influence in the world, can exist in bubbles labyrinthine in construct.
The Rules of the Game is a fitting title for this film, which was directed by the legendary Jean Renoir. It’s about people who cannot, or will not, sort out their feelings about one another healthily. By the end of the movie, no one his happy and someone is dead. Why? Because everyone is playing by the rules.
Two sets of rules, really. The aristocrats, who go to absurd lengths to maintain a sense of decorum at all times, and their servants, who are more open and honest among each other but who adhere to a rough facsimile of their bosses’ behavior.
Similarly to my last Blindspot film, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Rules of the Game is primarily about jealousy, and how people handle jealousy when they can’t express such emotions openly. Like the best comedies of manners, it assembles a large cast of characters and lets them loose with one another. This is an energetic film, and Renoir’s confidence in his narrative in infectious.
The first act is dedicated to letting us get to know the cast. The film opens as Andre (Roland Toutain), a pilot, arrives in France to a hero’s welcome after beating Charles Lindbergh’s record time in flying across the Atlantic. He is greeted by his friend Octave (Renoir) who informs him that the woman his former lover, Christine (Nora Gregor), is not present to witness his arrival. Andre is dejected, and given the chance to make a statement about his achievement on radio, he all but cries into the microphone like a boy spurned by a prom date. Christine is married to Robert (Marcel Dalio), a wealthy noble. Robert knows about Christine’s previous affair with Andre and her friendship with Octave that teeters on the edge of platonic. He doesn’t seem to mind, perhaps because he is sleeping with Geneviève (Mila Parély). They live on a large estate, and are tended to by a large host of servants. Most prominent in the story are the married couple Lisette (Paulette Dubost) and Schumacher (Gaston Modot). Lisette tends dotingly upon Christine, and it’s more than hinted that she loves Christine more than her husband.
I think that’s everyone? Good. After this long sequence of introduction, everyone listed above gathers at Robert and Christine’s estate for a weekend of hunting, drinking, singing, and dancing. The party is a mammoth work of brilliance by Renoir. From a bird’s eye view, you could easily think that not much happens over the two days we spend at the manor. The characters hunt, drink, sing, and dance. But Renoir’s camera is far more a snake than a bird. It wriggles through the crowd and shows the characters at their weakest moments, when they still can’t say how they feel but betray themselves in ways that a less delicate eye than Renoir’s might miss. In on scene, Robert unveils a new toy of his, an enormous music box. As the music plays, the camera pans across the music box to Robert’s face, which is overjoyed. It’s an extraordinary shot, highlighting the both the absurdity of his lifestyle and, well, how infectious any sort of childish joy is.
The Rules of the Game tells its story like that, in flashes where characters let their guards down and reveal more to Renoir’s camera than they ever would dare if they knew we could see them. Not that it matters; the party’s guests are at times so absorbed with the goings on that they wouldn’t know or care otherwise. At one point, a jealous husband chases a man who has been flirting with his wife through the manor with a gun. Even as he fires shots most of the guests are too busy with their drinks and music to notice.
This is a fascinating, funny, deeply engaging movie that I want to see again. Renoir packs so many details into every shot that I want to see it with my eye on the background. The Rules of the Game is one of those titanic films whose reputation as one of the all-time greats precedes it to a daunting degree. I’m happy to report that it more than lives up to its reputation.