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20th Century Women

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In an ode to his own mother, who passed away in 1999, Mike Mills (Thumbsucker, Beginners) continues to make personal cinema that is both stylistic and engaging, aided by an a-list cast at the top of their game.

For reasons unknown, Annette Bening missed out on an Oscar nomination for her beautifully truthful, nuanced performance as Dorothea, an incredibly open-hearted but equally flawed human being who has a knack for picking up stray men and women who end up openly loitering in her grand but modest house. These include Elle Fanning’s Julie, the daughter of a single-parent therapist; Greta Gerwig’s Abbie , who has survived cervical cancer; and Billy Crudup’s William, who lives by the New Age life philosophy of 1979 Southern California where most of the story takes place.

Circling the orbit of these characters is Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), Dorothea’s teenage son who juggles the urges of his loins with the sensitivity he has inherited from his mum.

Each character gets their own chapter, flashing back to key moments in their lives. But it’s not your ordinary flashback, these are flourishes that we’ve come to expect from Mike Mills. If you had to compare Mills’ approach to cinema, it’d be his contemporary Spike Jonze – flashy modern stylistic choices but never at the disservice of character.

A performance piece, if there’s a flaw it’s that the film feels flat at times, and struggles to shift gears during its first two acts. But if you stick with it, there’s plenty of reward in this highly personal film for Mike Mills. And as per the title, it’s ultimately a rumination and an affirmation on the female lifeforce, and its evolution throughout the 20th century, something that is incredibly important to acknowledge now more than ever.

 
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The Beguiled

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Sofia Coppola’s career may have all been leading up to this. Her propensity to bring life to period settings in Marie Antoinette, her equally laconic and dreamlike approach to violence in The Virgin Suicides, and her feminist roots that have been fostered in each and every one of her films is all played pitch-perfectly in her new film, The Beguiled. The film is set in a girls’ school in the South during the American Civil War where seven women live alone. One day, one of the students comes across a wounded soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a Yankee and the enemy, who they take in and care for. But the longer he stays, the higher tensions rise as the women’s competing desires begin to boil to the surface.

It is no wonder that Coppola won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival where The Beguiled was in competition for the prestigious Palm d’Or. There is a magnetism to this film that lures you in, scene after scene, deeper into its narrative. Part of this hypnotic quality comes from the cinematography of Philippe le Sourd (The Grandmaster). This is one of the most beautiful films out this year. The girls’ school, a huge estate trapped in the middle of a forest and the Civil War, is shut off from the world. Light attempts to pierce through the trees to no avail. A mystical fog constantly lingers. There is a sense of powerlessness to these women as they watch the distant smoke of battle slowly creeping in around them.

When they come across McBurney, the wounded soldier, they decide to take him in because of their Christian values, but also, though they never say it, because he is so handsome. It’s easy to imagine a different scenario where this film’s story would never have taken place, had the injured soldier been less appealing. But quickly, the girls realise that he is also a charmer and we, the audience, learn he is a liar. Within days he is spinning vastly different narratives to bring himself closer with each girl and woman. The main objects of his desire are the headstrong headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), her naïve assistant, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and the eldest and most troublesome of the students, Alicia (Ella Fanning).

Each actor and actress is perfect in their respective roles, particularly Colin Farrell who hasn’t been this good since his wonderful and yet starkly different role in In Bruges.

This film, like its protagonist, engages in a grand seduction. As the film moves along Coppola coils in, as, little by little, the girls’ original fears of the soldier are traded for lust and with each passing day, they are all falling under his spell. The quips they exchange with McBurney become more flirtatious and hide a deeper subtext, a deeper desire. In terms of pacing, thrillers do not get much better than this. The film is restrained and explosive at exactly the right moments.

But what the film is really about is female power. In a world where they would otherwise be powerless due to societal expectations and due to the expectations they impose upon themselves, these women rise up and face their fears head-on. In the last act of the film, they are truly something terrifying and inspiring to behold.

Lochley Shaddock is a novelist, essayist, film critic and screenwriter/director