31 Days of Cinema 2.0, Day Two: “The Summer of Sangailé”, A Love Letter from Lithuania

Summer of Sangaile

My thoughts on Monsoon Wedding are imminent. I’d like to tell you about this film first.

For most LGBTQ persons today and before, the processes of coming of age and coming out are one and the same. Our current educational paradigm gives disproportionate representation to heterosexuals and straight romances (among other dominating demographics) insofar as to make the very concept of homosexuality an unknown-unknown for most children—so that if a same-sex attraction arises in puberty and post-, it comes as a shock, and seems like a total anomaly. “I thought I was the only one,” is a common refrain in the community. I connect with this because my Asperger’s made me gullible to teachers who associated teenage sex with STDs, pregnancies and general pauperism. I kid you not: I thought I was the only one who masturbated. Literally. The only one. So while most of my peers were either calling bullshit on the system and going their own way (more mature) or rebelling against authority out of spite (less mature), I was only starting to get in touch with myself as a sexual being, just as most homosexuals have to go through an M.O. to get in touch with themselves as homosexual beings. This is why I think I feel particularly strongly about justice and equality for LGBTQ persons. (When I first learned about what homosexuality was, I took for granted that gay men and lesbians could get married anyplace just like straight folks. I did not grasp the revolutionary quality of same-sex marriage until years later.) Yet, it is not enough for us to merely coagulate fictional stories with gay, bi and trans characters. We must give them agency and make them as enigmatic and morally complicated as the best-drawn straight characters—because, of course, they don’t have to be nice for straight audiences—without falling for the stereotypes with which we’ve been conditioned. We must normalize homosexuality so it does not have to be foregrounded, so that it could in some cases be for granted.

Because its two principal characters are lesbian lovers, The Summer of Sangailé has been billed as a primarily lesbian film, and as a weaker Baltic variation on Blue is the Warmest Color. Both labels are unfair. For one, the comparison to Blue is off. Sangailé is half the running time, and where Blue’s camera was handheld and roving, Sangailé is told in the longish, demure, delicately constructed static shots that have become standard in European cinema in the age of Haneke. Sangailé is also the more elliptical film—and, in that way, maybe even the more ambitious and experimental—to the extent that I am not ready to declare that the title character is learning about her lesbianism for the first time during this story. I think the odds are greater that she is settled on being Sapphic, and is merely encountering her first serious adult romance—with a girl selling raffle tickets at an air show. Early on, we see a POV shot of Sangailé (Julija Steponaityte) checking out a girl’s derriere as she strips to swimwear. She later spots said girl humping a guy in the grass, and from her poker face, we get an aura of…well, it’s so nuanced, it’s anyone’s guess. Disappointment at getting interested in yet another girl who turned out straight? Desire for the type of genital pleasure that straight people seem to obtain so much more easily? I’d bet on both. She does have sex with a guy, in the back of a car—but there, a POV shot implies that she derives more rapturous pleasure from the electricity flooding her from the nearby transmission tower than from the penis. (Also, memo to my fellow straights: sexuality is much more protean than you know. I’ve known lesbians who’ve had sex with men, and who are adamantly not bisexual. Because really, what is a penis to a woman but a dildo with a pulse?) The scene of her breakup from him is a smash cut to the same electricity station. She says, “No hard feelings.” He says, “See you,” gets in his car, and drives off bitter, leaving her with her bicycle. It’s so quick, you know it before you register it.

The elisions and caesurae that muddy Sangailé’s sexuality refocus the film on what turns out as its central story. Sangailé has an inclination to become a stunt pilot, but she has two things impeding that: vertigo, and a faint suicidal tendency—she’s self-alienated, estranged from her parents in their own home, and she has a habit of cutting her arms. What makes this film arresting is how those two conflicts play off each other as opposed to how they obstruct her career aspirations. Does she merely want to overcome vertigo so that she can die the epic plane crash death? Can she trust herself to go up into the air without wanting to crash? Is the vertigo a survival instinct that she depends on to live—a contrast to her cutting that brings the life force out from the death force cocoon? Alanté Kavaïte’s direction, Dominique Colin’s camera work, and Joëlle Hache’s editing blend with nary a seam to create startling motifs and counterpoints that reflect Sangailé’s turbulent inner world. Pensive crane shots looking down on urban landscapes from the airplane’s vantage point mirror awestruck angles on high houses, buildings and trees. The former tends towards dizziness, the latter towards stability; Sangailé’s ideal life in the skies remains infected by gnawing acrophobia as the earth remains secure. She must work her way up. Her bedroom is the top loft of her house, her bed perched against the railing over the stairs in an act of Mithridatic defiance. The flat of her art photographer girlfriend Austé (Aisté Dirziüté) is on the top story of her complex. These narrative choices are deliberate; the film’s sense of environment is acute and precise. Where Sangailé is not yet ready to board the plane, cranes and bridges and towers of zigzagging steel beams give her opportunity to practice, while swirls of flower buds and cupcake icing and tulle skirts keep her reminded of the smoke plumes emitted in a barrel roll.

This is an auspicious debut for Kavaité and for all involved, and a criminally underrated one. The critics’ maligning of it as mediocre in the face of the Blue behemoth is mistaken, and I suspect it comes from the notion that if the story were a straight and sterile romance, it wouldn’t receive half the film festival attention it did. (The most grabbing aspect of the film, to me, is that it’s Lithuanian. What do you know about Lithuanian cinema?) A straight story would be a different story. Sangailé and Austé’s romance is organic and invigorating; the sex they have is plausible and filmed purely to convey the rare peace Sangailé gains through it; and where a lesser filmmaker would have tritely paralleled Sangailé’s sexual awakening with her overcoming her vertigo, Kavaité perceives the two as separate if linked. One develops faster than the other. Her falling in love is a stepping stone, if anything, to her being able to fly a plane. This makes for a character with more dimensions. To her, Austé is served as a fascinating foil: a teen-at-heart steeped in fastidious chic, her apartment decked with fabrics, fur, miniatures, mirrors, fashions that she has Sangailé model, and a turntable that acts as a pivot for one of the film’s most evocative shots—where Sangailé’s living space and personality are austere, bare-boned, dry, yet refined and pragmatic. Does Austé help Sangailé realize her potential as a stunt pilot, as the love interest is wont to do in films such as these? Yes, you can count on that—not in the clichéd ways you’d expect to the genre, but rather in unique and uncanny ways that fit Austé’s character, and that don’t always succeed. (Watch her smart, unsentimental reaction to Sangailé’s cutting habit.) This is not a mill-product Sapphic paperback; this is a keen film rich with detail, subtlety and texture. Its best shot—a cloudy sky, which is actually its reflection in a pond—is its most quintessential. Watch this film with care.

Grade: A

31 Days of Cinema 2.0, Day Two: “The Summer of Sangailé”, A Love Letter from Lithuania

31 Days of Cinema, Day Ten: “Je, Tu, Il, Elle”

It opens with a lady in her room. We may not know it, but she is also the writer and director of this film, Chantal Akerman. She writes a script—maybe an epistolary one—and her voiceover narrates it. Often, she writes down stage directions in the past tense and then follows them, as if all her actions were preordained, already past—which, in the sense of the recorded film, they kind of are. Some of those directions are separated by days in terms of what we hear, seconds in terms of what we see, which means that one minutes-long shot may cover hours. Time here answers more to the functions of memory than to forward chronology, and not all that is seen is reliable. Akerman’s room begins as adequately furnished; in a few minutes, all there is in it is a mattress. She eats sugar out of a paper bag with a spoon, which I daresay would be very plausible in Belgium (and France, and Louisiana, etc.) if there were beignets in there, too. She takes off her clothes, lies on the mattress and drapes her clothes over herself. Is she naked or wearing clothes? Is she presentable? How can we be trusted to answer these questions when all we’re given to observe this woman is two-dimensional image and film?

These are the types of facts, inquiries and ambiguities that are at the center of Je, Tu, Il, Elle, a brief film that contributes to Akerman’s minimalist body of work, of which the most famous entry is the epic, near-perfect Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. You have to wrestle with the nuances while watching this. Akerman’s technique is to lull you with long takes and surprise you out of your stupor with environmental shifts that start out small and get bigger. It sounds ludicrous and pretentious, but it is executed without flaw every time. Every turn of the mattress, every crinkle of the sugar bag, every change of lighting and every outdoor noise hold momentum. Even such simple revelations as a sink and a glass sliding door leading outside produce great jolts. Much of her technique torques around a scant use of close-ups and a dependence on wide angles. It is standard for a scene to begin with wide establishing shots and close in on the characters from there, but Akerman remains firmly in the wide perspective, and this permits her to emphasize how different one same room may look from a distinct standing position. The effect is disorienting, labyrinthine. Her camera looks at two walls for a long time, so when it looks at the other two walls to reveal what’s there, you feel it. And when she leaves the room—after half an hour of an under-ninety-minute film—and is next found standing by an elevated highway trying to thumb a ride, you realized that you’ve been played. You were just about ready to spend the entire film in that room, with just Akerman.

Je, Tu, Il, Elle is about the economics of art. Early in life, I was convinced that life could imitate art—that life could be free as art, that my antagonists could be impelled to see the errors of their ways with long and tenacious monologues, that the good guys always won in the end and had to win. Fuck, was I wrong, chiefly on the first point: art has myriad larger social, political and economic concerns nipping at its buds. Most artists starting out, for one, are poor—and Akerman, who was towards the beginning of her career when she made this (in 1976), is honest and vulnerable, perhaps even too much so, about her own destitution. Look at how she writes by longhand and lays each page of her script out on the floor side by side, tacking them down with some sticky substance. I can tell you as a writer that this is authentic. Everything in the film—the grainy B&W, the set designs, the actors’ acting and their bodies—is as stripped down as the title. No more is needed, really. Entire worlds are contained in that quartet of pronouns. People who are only invigorated by Hollywood melodrama are pathetic; this is a thousand times more riveting and more realistic. Using just herself and one room, Akerman demonstrates the difficulty of being an artist, creating genuine art in a Commerce-driven world and dealing with the solitude and dearth of publicity that comes on top of all that.

And that’s just the film’s first third. The rest of the film concerns her joyride with a sexually dubious truck driver (Niels Arestrup, the great French actor whom you may know from A Prophet and War Horse) and her steamy reunion with an ex-lesbian girlfriend (Claire Wauthion), when all manners of pent-up tension are at last released. Is this the film she was scripting in her room, which she is now actively creating and joining? Likely so. The takes here are longer. In one static shot in a restaurant, Akerman and Arestrup eat dinner while watching an American gangster movie on a TV off-screen. We hear the audio from it, in English, and the music and commercial excitement from it is enough to give us a break from the film’s formal rigors. Yet, in making the audience watch an audience of a genre picture, Akerman dares us to face the banality of most cinema, which we can and do frequently consume without concentration, while eating and multi-tasking and often looking away (as the director forces us to do here, placing the TV off-screen)—activities that are ill-advised while watching this particular film. There are some more arbitrary English-language media by way of the truck driver’s radio, and a couple more mundane barroom scenes. You realize what a fascinating time and place ‘70s Belgium/France was, until you realize that you don’t know where we are; it might be Britain, America, Québec. Such is the power of Akerman’s delocalization and destabilization. She brings the driver to orgasm (five minutes, one take). The driver discusses his vast sex life with her (ten minutes, one take). She meets with her ex, and after some Nutella sandwiches, they disrobe and move to the bed for an intense orgy, their bodies slamming against and pressing into each other like rubber before cunnilingus is exchanged (fifteen minutes, three takes). Not a second of this is boring.

Akerman’s portrayal of gender is curious. The masculine (Arestrup) is motional, clothed, talkative, out in the open but powerful; the feminine (her and Wauthion) is static, naked, introspective, sheltered yet—as aforesaid—vulnerable. This parallels the Last Tango in Paris of just a few years prior, and that’s a film of wanton testosterone. Is this another sign of Akerman’s humility? I don’t think so. Another strategy she uses is to only have one person or voice talking during each shot. If there are two people there, one is talking/active, and the other is listening/silent/passive. Even if these shots are meant to be in medias res—which is to say, in the middle of a mutual, two-way, social dialogue—this structure creates and implies a solipsism inherent in all monologue and hence all talk. In waxing rhapsodic, the driver exposes his narcissism, whereas the ex-girlfriend speaks little and the protagonist is virtually only heard in voiceover, in thoughts or in writing. Only through the body and through imbuing it with motion, agency, participation in life and action qua art, Akerman might be saying, can we achieve true, honest communication—and this is part of what makes the third-act Sapphic sex so refreshing. (We need much more female-mediated depictions of sex like this.) Her film only blossoms when her writing/thinking/speaking evolves into movement and action, which fosters conflict, narrative and—ultimately—preserved cinema. She throws all care to the wind and makes her movie and tells her story, in spite of—and because of—her barren poverty. Akerman is fast becoming one of my favorite filmmakers. She is an expert at using the shot to adapt, to relax, to hypnotize viewers; at using the montage to shock; and at crafting subtle, layered, precise, great performances. Je, Tu, Il, Elle testifies to that. It is equally challenging and rewarding; it is masterful.

Grade: A+

The Rest of the Week: Once again, my schedule bedevils me! Today was yet another busy day, which limited me to another shorter film, Close-up. The review on that could not come tonight, as this film was provocative enough to deserve its own post, so Close-up will be covered in depth tomorrow. I should be back on my preplanned schedule after this:
Tomorrow: Soldier of Orange.
Monday: A Woman Under the Influence.
Tuesday: Open Your Eyes.

31 Days of Cinema, Day Ten: “Je, Tu, Il, Elle”