Autumn Sonata (1978)

Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata is the troubling drama between mother and daughter, exploring themes of abandonment, resentment, and even hatred brewing over the years.

Ingrid Bergman goes against type in her role as Charlotte, an uninvolved yet overbearing mother to Liv Ullmann’s subdued Eva. Ingrid as Charlotte is the most fascinating thing about this movie, playing a sometimes awful woman who cares little-to-nothing for her severely disabled daughter, who now lives with Eva. Though Eva is not without fault either, when in a moment of vulnerability and revelation is somehow oblivious to the cries of her sister for help.

As the film chugs on, struggle after struggle is revealed, and at times it gets into soapy territory. Despite the narrative, though, the performances feel sincere and it doesn’t approach the over-the-top sensibility American actresses would play this material to.

The filmmaking is interesting as well, particularly the sense of enclosure and framing; the vast majority of the film is indoors, with the action shot with view of molding framing the characters. Not only does this subvert the seemingly picture-perfect lives of two accomplished pianists, but also maintains the constricting feeling that pervades throughout these women’s lives. Without spoiling the ending, the film’s finale, while somewhat troubling, feels true to form and is consistent with the action that has taken place thus far.

I wasn’t in love with Autumn Sonata, though I did appreciate its visual continuity and well-crafted performances to weigh down the narrative material.

“Weekend” and “Looking”: Tragic Love Affairs

Now that the superb first season of Looking has concluded, we can now approach it as a singular, (sort of) complete work. It is so similar in tone and subject matter to Weekend, and of course they are both the brain-children of the brilliant Andrew Haigh, so it’s impossible not to compare the two.

In case you haven’t picked up on it, there’s a great wealth of material to draw on from both these works, so this will likely be the start of a series comparing the two. In order to tether down this can of worms, I’d like to focus first on the love stories these works present.

Weekend is a romantic tragedy due to circumstances beyond the characters’ control. The timing of Russell and Glen’s meeting is simply inopportune, as Glen has already made arrangements to leave the UK for Portland, Oregon to attend art school. Two days wouldn’t be enough time for Russell to drop everything and run away with Glen, nor would it be enough for Glen to justify giving up on his presumed dream.

In contrast, the romantic tragedy between Patrick and Richie of Looking is directly caused by the parties involved. Patrick is at once pushy and uninvolved, and Richie can only take so much of Patrick’s uneasiness. There are no circumstantial, destiny-driven forces at play; this one’s all on them.

It’s important to point out this distinction after the excellent episode “Looking for the Future,” which has been very favorably compared to Weekend; when taken just on their own, Patrick and Richie can make a very convincing couple with real potential. Throw Patrick into the temptations of his everyday life, though, like caving to his friends’ pressure or battling his irresponsible crush on his boss Kevin, and he can’t fight for what he tries to tell himself he wants.

In Weekend, as much as we want the two to find a way to make it work, the looming timeline keeps the clock ticking in the back of our head and we know all along they’ll have to part ways. With Looking, though, without a real time clock (beyond an eight-episode season) and no immediate obstacles in the way, we can’t help but root for Patrick and Richie to make it.

Side by side, this distinct set of circumstances almost makes the failed Looking romance even more heartbreaking. In Weekend, the two men are in love with one another, but it rationally cannot be; in Looking, the two men can be together, and one simply caves out of it.

The romantic tragedies of these works are both moving and thought-provoking in unique ways, simultaneously shaped by their narratives and strengthened when examining them at once.

“Looking” at Richie

So I’ve been saving the best for last… Richie is not only my favorite character on Looking but is probably one of my favorite television characters, period. He is the sole source of wisdom and true compassion in the Looking universe of chaos and often cruelty, and serves as a distinctive foil to the ruthless Patrick.

From their first meeting, Richie is portrayed as good-hearted though naive – relative to the cynics around him, at least. He takes Patrick’s false identity as an oncologist (remember the business card?) as true, a subtle touch of dramatic irony. Sure, he falls for it – but why shouldn’t he take others’ word for it? In a way, his good-natured ways come across as foolish, because those around him are so phony. He falls for the act.

His optimistic outlook does start to crumble, though, that fateful picnic in Dolores Park for Dom’s birthday – his first real meeting with Patrick’s friends Dom and Agustin. This is also one of his first times seeing Patrick interacting with others, whether seeing how Patrick represents himself through the humiliating “gay voice” display, or how Patrick misrepresents Richie to his friends.

This experience, though, toughens up Richie in a really strong and positive way. When Patrick tries to make up for the picnic fiasco by inviting Richie to be his plus-one at his sister’s wedding, the typically kind and easygoing Richie snaps back with an annoyed “I don’t think so,” and getting out of Patrick’s car on the way to the wedding just days later.

Richie’s thicker skin culminates in the season’s strongest, most painful moment. He meets Patrick outside his apartment building, clearly with something on his mind, and lays out everything he’s been going through since the wedding. A character who is in many ways a mystery, who we know solely through Patrick’s association with him, is brilliantly defined through his assertion: “I am this close to falling in love with you, but I’m not gonna do that to myself if you’re not ready. And I don’t think you’re ready.”

Watching this excellent conclusion to season 1, I can’t help but think back to Patrick and Richie’s first date and them dancing in the club. The song playing, Erasure’s “A Little Respect,” chants the chorus “Oh baby please, give a little respect to me,” an interesting framework to view their relationship by. When they meet in the first episode, Patrick does not respect Richie – he isn’t honest about himself, and throughout the season, continues to disrespect and humiliate Richie both to his face and behind his back. In these eight episodes, Richie comes full circle and does what he needs to in order to regain his self-respect.

Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)

The breakout 2013 film Blue is the Warmest Color has been lauded as one of the most passionate, devastating love stories in recent memory. While this epic didn’t blow me away as Weekend did, it certainly was a fascinating, intelligent work that justifies its 3-hour length on an intellectual level, even if not an emotional one. This ambitious work is some parts love story, some parts change-over-time, and mostly a coming-of-age tale of a young woman in modern-day France.

This bulky work is best looked at through its two distinct halves: the first of main character Adele as a high school youth, and the second of Adele as a young woman, having become a teacher and coming into her own. There is a fascinating parallel between the two – Adele seen as a student, learning from others, and then as a teacher herself, passing along wisdom rather than receiving it from mentor figures.

From the very beginning, we get a strong sense of intimacy by the sheer closeness of each shot; each character is right against the camera, making us feel like we are right next to them, nearly feeling their breath. Each character is also shot in isolation, giving one moment (nearly 45 minutes into the film) of two characters in the same shot that much greater of impact.

The love story is a sweet and believable one, as we are drawn to the allure, charm, and intelligence of the artistic Emma just as Adele is. Even their first real meeting, after-hours at a lesbian bar, ties back to Adele’s school lessons of philosophy; earlier in the film, her teacher mentions the struggle between chance and fate/predestination. When Emma asks what brought Adele to the bar, however, Adele brushes it off as “by chance,” though neither Emma nor we believe that for a moment.

The romance that ensues, much like the also-excellent Her, is an insightful, poignant tale of love, jealousy, and obsession. With the lengthy running time a film like this has, we clock in enough time in the relationship to feel the trauma and rough waters that Emma and Adele face.

The brilliant subtext of art and philosophy provides a very satisfying finale to the film. Emma’s gallery of artwork is full of models (all loved ones) in her life, and, even years later, Adele is still part of it. In a similar vein to Her, which argues that our relationships build us into who we are, Blue is the Warmest Color addresses our projected identities and how we share these pieces of ourselves with the world, and embrace these reflections.

All in all, though, I see this movie less of a romance and more of a coming-of-age story. Any young adult goes through an incredibly impressionable period where a singular person, or way of life, can completely transform your way of life and your outlook, and this film puts all of these together into one personification, Emma.

Blue is the Warmest Color is a sometimes joyful, sometimes heartbreaking, exploration of identity and the sacrifices necessary to achieve that.

Gravity (2013)

For as many films as we’ve gotten about space over the years, very few of them are actually about space. The worlds of Star Trek and Star Wars are metaphors representing more grounded themes, and even Aliendirector Ridley Scott described his classic as a haunted house in space. Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, however, is a true space film, deriving its thrills and horrors from the fear of outer space itself.

Gravity has certainly earned much of the praise it has earned. It is rich with dazzling visuals and often terrifying sequences, of Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone barely clinging on to survive. Its strengths, though, come awfully close to being Gravity’s weakness – for nearly an hour we go through conflict-solution, conflict-solution. As thrilling as it is, this movie frequently becomes an exploitative experience.

After the turmoil, though, what lasts is its more long-term storytelling methods. A sense of order is created through key missions (such as approaching the Chinese space station, using escape pods to leave for Earth, etc.), orienting the viewer through what is otherwise a dizzying adventure. This narrative clarity also spills over into the film’s themes of survival and determination, and holding to heart one vision in order to survive.

This makes me question the re-watchability of this film; since so much of its meat is spent on these momentary thrills (however excellently crafted), there isn’t that much emotional punch to invite additional viewings.