December 27, 2005

Brokeback Mountain

Directed by Ang Lee Starring Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Williams

Reviewed by Martin Tsai


This synopsis gives away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

In the summer of 1963, Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist find employment respectively as camp tender and sheepherder on Brokeback Mountain north of Signal, Wyoming. Jack gripes about the commute between the campsite and the herd miles away, and having to sleep out in the cold in order to prevent coyote attacks. After trading jobs with each other, taciturn Ennis and gregarious Jack also start swapping life stories. One night Ennis gets too drunk to head back to the herd, and a sexual affair between them begins.

They part ways at summer’s end and reunite four years later. Ennis has tied the knot with sweetheart Alma and fathered two daughters. Jack has moved to Texas, married a wealthy businessman’s daughter, and had a son. When the two men finally meet again, Alma inadvertently catches them passionately kissing but keeps it to herself. After Ennis rejects Jack’s idea of them running a ranch together, they begin trysting several times a year.

Ennis grows increasingly distant from his family, and Alma ultimately divorces him. Responsibilities of family and work also keep him away from Jack. When his postcard to Jack unexpectedly returns with “deceased” stamped on it, Ennis speaks to Jack’s wife Lureen for the first time. She tells him that Jack at age 39 died in an accident, although Ennis imagines that homophobes murdered him. Hoping to carry out Jack’s wish of having his ashes scattered on Brokeback, Ennis visits his friend’s parents. There, he learns that Jack had a relationship with another man.


Homosexuality has been an implicit theme in many westerns, such as Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock (1959) and Blake Edwards’s Wild Rovers (1971). As critic J. Hoberman pointed out, the genre is a particularly “homosocial” one that customarily excludes women. This boys-club mentality and the oft-resulting queer subtext are also prevalent in buddy-cop flicks, war films and movies about organized crime. Women’s interference spoils the loyalty and bond among men.

Brokeback Mountain isn’t the first “gay western” as many critics dubbed it, if it’s even a western at all. It doesn’t have genre staples such as a mysterious stranger riding into town, six-gun banditry or a corrupt sheriff. The film is only groundbreaking as the first mainstream feature to depict cowboys – icons of masculinity, solitude and frontier Americana – engaging in gay sex.

Both Annie Proulx’s 1997 original short story and the faithful screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana pointedly broach homosexuality and sexism in the western. This strategy of perverting a genre by making the latent conventions more explicit previously garnered critical acclaim for another Focus Features release: With Far From Heaven (2002), Todd Haynes tackled homosexuality and interracial relationship subtexts in the 1950s Douglas Sirk melodramas.

Highlighting the western’s inherent sexism, the women of Brokeback serve only as accessories. Doomed gay lovers Ennis and Jack each take a wife to conform to societal norms and then neglect them to pursue an illicit affair with each other. But the film is sympathetic only toward the plight of its protagonists, and it largely glosses over the women’s sufferings. Despite its embrace of homosexuality, the film’s surrender to sexism reveals a troublingly regressive social agenda: Men without their women can do just fine on their own.

McMurtry and Ossana aren’t any more generous to the female characters than are their husbands. Both wives are caricatures. Ennis’s better half Alma personifies “long suffering” and turns a blind eye to the affair. Jack’s aloof spouse Lureen is only concerned with the family business. A montage of the men’s parallel lives during their time apart cruelly juxtaposes Jack’s bull riding with Ennis sexually penetrating Alma’s bum. Ennis’s two daughters serve to exacerbate his domestic troubles as infants, but once grown up they inexplicably morph into a composite character with the younger one vanishing entirely. The screenwriters have treated the women as afterthoughts.

Despite his foreign and American indie credentials, the film’s director Ang Lee is no auteur. The only discernable common thread that runs through his filmography is a tendency to exploit exotic subject matter and make it palatable to the mainstream. His Asian features (Eat Drink Man Woman, 1994; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000) mostly aimed for a Western audience, just as his gay-themed films (The Wedding Banquet, 1993; Brokeback) primarily targeted heterosexual viewers.

Focus Features is marketing the film as a timeless love story, with the poster evoking that of Titanic. But Brokeback never explains how Ennis and Jack’s animalistic lust evolves into a love that would first endure four years’ separation and then prompt them to risk their respective family lives.

Lee employs a spatial symbolism that ultimately proves to be reductive. Exteriors here represent the liberation of human emotions, while interiors denote repression and domestic burdens. Ennis and Jack can give in to their hearts and be themselves when surrounded by the digitally-enhanced sweeping sky and austere slopes, because that’s where men get to be men. Their lives are unfulfilled outside their natural element. Domesticated men – such as Jack’s condescending father-in-law and Alma’s electric-carver-using new beau – lack integrity in contrast. The motif finally becomes laughable with the lovers’ mementoes ending up literally inside the closet.

© Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

December 01, 2005

The Holy Girl

Directed by Lucrecia Martel Starring Mercedes Morán, Carlos Belloso and Alejandro Urdapilleta

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

“It is a tale about good and evil,” writer/director Lucrecia Martel said of The Holy Girl in the film’s press notes. “Not about the confrontation between good and evil, but about the difficulties in distinguishing one from the other – a story about the dangers of differentiating good from evil.” Expanding upon that theme, she fittingly constructs a murky limbo between religion and science, physical and spiritual, institution and instinct, purity and corruption, fact and rumor, thought and action, public and private, comedy and tragedy, as well as heaven and hell. From people to places to events, everything about the film is obstinately ambiguous and invites a wide range of interpretations.

In the opening scene, teenage heroine Amalia (María Alché), her best friend Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg) and other students attending a Catholic class are rapt by the hymn recital of their teacher Inés (Mía Maestro) as her devotion overwhelms her to the point of tears while pleading “What is it, Lord, you want of me?” Inés instructs her pupils that God gives each person a sign indicating his or her vocation. “He calls us to save and be saved.” When asked how one can recognize that sign, Inés impatiently retorts “You can’t confuse ugliness with beauty, horror with happiness.” We soon find Amalia standing in a crowd right across the street from the classroom and fully immersed in watching a theremin performance, while the ordinary looking middle-aged man behind her nonchalantly opens his jacket, tucks his hands inside his pant pockets and does a little frottage against her – the obscene touching is in curious contrast with the no-contact musical instrument. Answering what she naively assumes to be God’s call, impressionable Amalia makes it her mission to save the sinner Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso).

A convention for otolaryngologists is underway at Amalia’s family-run hotel, and Dr. Jano is one of the delegates in attendance. Amalia secretly confides in Josefina about her newfound vocation and begins stalking the doctor, even willfully positioning herself for more frottage when she again notices him in the street performer’s audience. But he is more interested in a possible fling with Amalia’s mother Helena (Mercedes Morán), a former diver with a slight hearing problem who vamps about all day like a socialite. He offers to diagnose Helena and indulges her acting bug by inviting her to star in the centerpiece skit at the conference. When Dr. Jano’s family later joins him at the resort, it’s inevitable that all hell will break loose.

Set in her native Salta of northern Argentina, both Martel’s feature debut La ciénaga (2001) and The Holy Girl revolve around Chekhovian rundown countryside estates and crumbling small communes as well as address the decadence of middle-class values. Her every detail seems to convey anxiety simmering just beneath the surface. The shallow depth of field – which she attributes to her myopia – creates an exquisitely textured vision as if capturing the humidity in the air. A palette of rusted brown and cool turquoise hues filters the view. Martel has said in an interview elsewhere that scenes to her are akin to memories. Habitually eschewing the establishing shot, she immediately thrusts viewers into the midst of a situation in which the location and the action sometimes remain hazy. She frequently allows reactionary shots to linger before revealing the action. Fragmented frames cut off faces or isolate random body parts to focus on microscopic gestures, expressions or details such as a sliver of shaving cream left on Dr. Jano’s neck. Viewers can’t get a sense of the spatial grounding – they may get the impression that the religious classes and the soundproof booth which doctors use to assess Helena’s hearing problem are somehow situated inside the resort. While her method is disorienting, it effectively weeds out the contextual trivia and heightens the emotional core of every scene.

Martel also achieves disorientation through thematic ambiguity. Through its complex characters and vaguely defined scenarios, the film juxtaposes contradictory concepts and ideas. Religion and science are yin and yang forces at work, with Inés and Dr, Jano respectively as their imperfect embodiment. Josefina blathers about Inés possibly having pre-marital relations, and Dr. Jano gives in to his primal instincts. Amalia mistakes the biological urge of raging hormones for divine calling. Even the sexual harassment/abuse that sets the plot in motion involves a conflicted predator and a willing prey.

The family hotel makes an intriguing setting, as public and private spaces are constantly converging and becoming interchangeable. Dr. Vesalio (Arturo Goetz) casually strips nude in front of temporary roommate Dr. Jano despite the fact that they hardly know each other. Amalia wanders into Dr. Jano’s room on another occasion rummaging around, rubbing his shaving cream onto her own collar and inhaling deeply as if in momentary ecstasy while a maid is right there busy at work. Intimate moments often meet with interruptions or reticence – such as phone calls from the wife of Helena’s ex-husband constantly disrupting the courtship between Dr. Jano and Helena, or the doctor reflexively withdrawing his hand when Amalia reaches for it inside a packed elevator. Personal lives become public spectacles as gossip travels, and a liaison results in the downfall of Dr. Vesalio and a young pharmaceutical lab representative. So it’s not surprising that Josefina eventually uses Dr. Jano’s interference with Amalia to deflect the attention of her mother (Mónica Villa), who has barged in and caught Josefina and her cousin Julián (Leandro Stivelman) sexually in flagrante.

Characters’ roles and relationships in the film are often deceptive. Devoted matron Mirta (Mirta Lubos) thanklessly slaves at the hotel, while proprietor Helena lounges about like a guest. Mirta meddles with Helena’s personal affairs as if she were her mother. Freddy (Alejandro Urdapilleta) at first seems like Helena’s old flame when he slinks into her room asking to spend the night, but it turns out that they are in fact siblings. Josefina mocks pre-marital sex, yet allows anal intercourse with Julián so long as he doesn’t talk during the act. What transpires between Amalia and Dr. Jano also isn’t clear. His behavior indicates a history of abuse, yet he promptly rejects her when she seeks more than just fondling.

While molestation is the most controversial topic at hand, the film doesn’t necessarily portray Amalia as a victim nor Dr. Jano as a monster. She masturbates in bed presumably thinking about him. His flirtation with Helena also further suggests that he may not be a child molester. “To be defined as a victim is the worst abuse a woman who has been abused can receive. That may seem a callous thing to say, because there are women and children who have suffered terrible abuses, but there’s something about the category of victim that takes away power,” Martel said in an Artforum interview. “One shouldn’t take power away from an individual with a word or a definition.” Viewers still won’t be able to get past the fact that Amalia is gullible and that Dr. Jano takes advantage of her, but at least his sympathetic portrayal encourages us not to quickly dismiss him.

Martel’s statement about the branding of victims actually hints at the moral of this tale. It is very much about victimhood, just that the scandal itself is the victimizer here. Rather than condemning molestation, she frowns upon the public’s eagerness to judge and denounce when nothing is in black and white and all is shades of grey. The relationship between Amalia and Dr. Jano poses the questions: Does desire equate to guilt, and does repression equate to innocence? Regardless of the answers, Amalia’s good intentions will ruin Dr. Jano’s reputation and Josefina’s phony concern for her will likewise lead to Amalia’s fall from grace all because bystanders are quick to judge. The film ultimately comments on the Catholic guilt complex, which aims to elevate human existence yet unwittingly causes ostracizing, hypocrisy and torment. Its emphasis on the lack of distinction in everything – especially between holiness and sin – underscores the unfairness of moral and behavioral standards that the church imposes. Reproduction is a primal instinct and sexuality can certainly be interpreted as part of God’s design, yet Catholicism has traditionally associated all but marital sex with guilt and shame.

The film’s depiction of religion and sexuality is reminiscent of Breaking the Waves in that sexual awakening can be a calling and faith can inspire vocation and sacrifice in a carnal fashion. But while a miracle transpires at the end of Lars von Trier’s allegory, Martel’s film resolves on a cynical and grim note. One definitive aspect of The Holy Girl is the brilliance of its ending, which traces the fuse burning all the way down without showing any explosive fireworks. As a witch hunt begins to spread like wild fire within its final minutes, the film leaves viewers with anticipation of the worst to come. If it weren’t for the queasy feeling we get from this, it wouldn’t have been apparent that Martel is actually taking a stand amidst all this perplexity. Yet she defies expectation by not showing the nasty confrontations and broken hearts. It simply halts while still in a blurry state of uncertainty.

Too much ambiguity is not necessarily a good thing. Minor details in the film could frustrate moviegoers even after repeat viewings. Some may not perceive much of the comedy despite the fact that parts of it are indeed hilarious – such as characters misinterpreting a naked man’s accidental fall onto the balcony as a miracle and confusing the sound of theremin with God’s beckoning, as well as Amalia’s classmate’s ad nauseam retelling of a story about a car going over a bridge. Casual moviegoers seeking entertainment will likely find it way too elusive, and it’s unfortunate that this thought-provoking commentary about the pitfalls of mass hysteria actually fails to speak to the masses.

© Copyright 2005 Cineaste. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.