Saturday, January 11, 2014

Caesar Must Die or Frances Ha

The two films mentioned above have several things in common. They’re both black-and-white films with superb cinematography, they’re both “about” art and life, they’re both very good…and I saw them both on the same night.

The contrasts are no less striking, of course. Caesar Must Die takes place in an Italian prison. Frances Ha takes place in Manhattan. Caesar is about middle-aged men suffering the confines of long-term incarceration. Frances is about young women who aren’t always sure where they’re going to spend the night.

But enough of such silliness.

In Caesar Must Die, a group of convicts mount a production of Julius Caesar. They  aren’t professional actors, but their faces are full of emotion and they’re fascinating to watch. The idea of killing someone is not entirely foreign to many of them; they can relate to Caesar’s megalomania and swagger, to Marc Antony’s dissimulation, and to the loyalties and suspicions of conspirators, in ways that many actors perhaps cannot.
The production underscores how good Shakespeare sounds in Italian and how helpful subtitles are when watching any play by the Bard. We see only a highly abbreviated version of the play, which might also be considered a blessing. The film’s brilliant lighting and mis en scene also add  interest.

Frances Ha comes at us from a dreamier and more casual place. Two young women share an apartment. They’re zany, they love to smoke cigarettes and talk, and we might wonder if they're lesbians…except they’re both straight. Frances (Greta Gerwig) is an apprentice at a dance company; Sophie has a plum job at Random House. Frances would prefer to renew the apartment lease she and Sophie share rather than move in with her boyfriend. But Sophie throws her a curve by announcing that she’s moving out because another girlfriend has invited her to share an apartment in a “cooler” neighborhood.

Frances’s downward spin accelerates when she learns that she’s been passed over for her dance troupe’s lucrative Christmas performances. For the rest of the film, we watch Frances floating through the melancholy holiday season, crashing for a few days with some entertaining guys she knows, visiting her parents in Sacramento, taking a spontaneous trip to Paris to visit a friend who isn’t there, and pouring wine at the dining room of her alma mater to earn some cash.

At one point an erstwhile friend tells Frances, “You have an old face...yet you seem very immature.” And Frances’s obliviousness and irresponsibility are a little annoying. But beneath the goofy, klutzy exterior of this “undateable” young woman, we begin to see a harmless buoyancy that’s rather appealing. The film is full of energy supplied by a host of minor characters and also by the vigor of New York City itself, while both the tone and the pacing of the film are near-perfect.

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