Two Saturdays ago, I went with Rebekah of Happy Postmodernists to our local arthouse theater. We saw two movies, both fantastic, and you should go see both of them as soon as you can. The first was Winter’s Bone, the second film from director Debra Granik. It’s a disturbingly realist mystery set amidst the backwoods of Missouri, where 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) must find her meth-dealing father or risk losing the house where she cares for her two younger siblings and catatonic mom. This material could have made for a sappy melodrama, or maybe a pedestrian thriller set in Deliverance country. Instead, it’s a starkly observational masterpiece, ably meshing the perilous investigation and moral uncertainties of a film noir like The Third Man with the everyday drama of raising children and surviving without a reliable income.
The style of Winter’s Bone is just extraordinary: it’s moody without being overwrought and suspenseful without being manipulative. Through Granik’s lens, rural Missouri is a dreary, desolate place, but always totally believable. And while many of the characters may be addicts or pathetic rednecks, they’re always discernibly human; especially memorable are Ree’s loose-cannon uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) and Merab (Dale Dickey), the grimy matriarch who obstructs her search. Although they may live in barely habitable shacks, snort coke, and speak with molasses-thick drawls, the country dwellers of Winter’s Bone retain a past and a sense of belonging. In one particularly poignant scene, Ree and her siblings page through an old photo album and see Teardrop and their father as children. It’s details like this that root the film deep within the Dolly family, whose blood is shared by many of Ree’s potential enemies.
At heart, Winter’s Bone is a movie about a place, a people, and most of all a girl burdened by her diseased lineage and bravely facing a painful future. With its teenage detective, Winter’s Bone will probably earn comparisons to Rian Johnson’s high school neo-noir Brick. But as Rebekah and I concluded, Brick‘s delicious novelty and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s deadpan performance are totally blown away by the laconic but unrelenting power that Jennifer Lawrence brings to Ree. Winter’s Bone is as sharp and harrowing as its title, and in its best moments, its story acquires a semi-mythical quality, as if Ree and Teardrop were characters from forgotten folklore buried deep in America’s heartland. I hope to write more about Winter’s Bone later (and see it again!), but in the meantime, take my advice: it was very, very worth the $9.
The second half of our double feature was, in terms of style and content, on the opposite end of the spectrum from Winter’s Bone. While Ree & co. were so destitute that the idea of a sex life was out of the question, the Recchis in Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love take sensuality and eroticism as givens. The film is a luscious, sweeping melodrama about a dynasty of Milanese industrialists led by the sturdy Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and his wife Emma (Tilda Swinton, who also co-produced), a Russian émigré. But as corporate dynamics start to shift – Tancredi’s father retires and the son Edoardo steps up to help manage the company – so do the family’s emotional balances, and soon Emma flings herself into an explosive liaison with Edoardo’s best friend, a skilled chef named Antonio.
However, any given plot development in I Am Love is less important than the fleeting emotions and sensory experiences that set it in motion. No pleasure is too small for I Am Love to express cinematically, and taste and touch are given just as much emphasis as sight. Emma’s first real awakening comes when she bites into Antonio’s exquisitely prepared prawn, and the world literally darkens around her as she feels it against her tongue. Later, her orgasm receives just as much attention, as it’s accompanied by shots of the surrounding countryside, a swell of John Adams’ minimalist score, and a cut to the London skyline. The ecstasies of food and sex are manifested through the most lavish visual and musical analogues possible, and it’s to the movie’s credit. Fuck the misguided 3D that’s plagued theaters (and ticket prices) this summer; I Am Love‘s resiliently traditional photography really does pop off the screen.
The broad, magnificent brush strokes that fill I Am Love‘s canvas leave little room for interpersonal intricacies, which is a shame; Rebekah and I were both disappointed that the movie didn’t delve further into the relationship between Emma and Edoardo (and the significance of the ukha, an emotionally fraught, translucent Russian soup). But the film, unsurprisingly, does an enormous amount with body language, conveying enough for a whole conversation with a single motion of Tilda Swinton’s hand. Turning individual sensations into panoramic landscapes, I Am Love is a triumph of expansive artistry that’s even more enthralling on the big screen.
So if you’re in the mood for a great movie experience, don’t settle for whatever bullshit’s just been released (and besides, I Am Love has more to say about eating, praying, and loving than a million Julia Roberts movies). Instead, run to your nearest theater that’s willing to show subtitled films, and watch either Winter’s Bone or I Am Love! One’s a chilling, brutal document of poor midwestern life; the other’s overflowing with fine Italian food and Tilda Swinton’s nipples. Both unquestionably have my seal of approval, and are movies by and about fascinating, well-written women. Take your pick.