Wednesday, January 14, 2015

"White Bird In A Blizzard"

At first, White Bird In A Blizzard threatens to be another tired indictment of middle-class American suburbia in the manner of Sam Mendes’s American Beauty or Revolutionary Road – both decent films that suffered from Mendes’s tendency to let his indictment of the shallow emptiness and conformism of an idealized American patriarchy override his compassion for the characters living in it. From the moment Brock Connors (Christopher Meloni) walks on his silently imploding housewife Eve (Eva Green) preparing dinner and greets her by proudly presenting the new cooker he won for her, everything that could possibly be said about the soul-crushing falseness of consumerist-patriarchal values has been expressed in a single scene. Fortunately, Gregg Araki quickly evacuates the more obvious heavy-handed societal critiques present within his material in order to mine it from a much richer area: The coincidence of Eve’s sudden disappearance with her daughter Kat’s mushroom-clouding sexuality.

The film is told from Kat’s point of view as she struggles to make sense of both her mother’s disappearance and her own psycho-sexual feelings and desires. Fertile and familiar ground for a filmmaker as in-touch with explosive adolescent impulses and alienation as Araki. Kat (Shailene Woodley) is in a state of continuous outer and inner movement, jumping from her distant stoner boyfriend’s bed to that of the grizzled macho cop in charge of the investigation, always reflecting on how impossibly mismatched her parents were and recalling unpleasant memories of her mother’s growing depression and self-loathing, all the while claiming total indifference towards her absence. A typical Araki protagonist, her persistent preoccupation with sex and her blasé cynicism are as much an armour to protect her against the frightening dangers of her memory and psychological identity’s twin labyrinths as they are an expression of dissatisfaction with cultural American ideals.

Araki’s understanding and empathy speak the language of pop cinema as few other filmmakers do. With help of cinematographer Sandra Valde-Hansen, with whom he had previously worked on Kaboom, Araki makes Kat’s world a visual Jekyll & Hyde; half sensual warm-coloured dream, half ominous shadowy nightmare. The two merge together in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, where Kat visits Thomas Jane’s slobby muscular cop with the intent to seduce him only to find the roles reversed as he voices his guess of her plan, announces its success and slowly works his way towards her in a game of sexual cat-and-mouse where it is unclear exactly who is who. One of the film’s most absorbing shots shows Kat leaving the cop’s bed after hearing his disturbing take on what happened, rising upright with her back to the camera, her black hair blending in with the shadows above as if she too was about to disappear – into darkness, rather than the whiteness that permeates her dreams of her mother.

Intentionally or not, that shot embodies Kat’s subconscious anxiety that the confusion, secrets and frustration she currently feels with herself, her father and her world will turn her into her mother; an anxiety Araki cleverly connects to her mother’s vampiric jealousy (“You looked like I looked when I was you” she blurts in a revealing slip of the tongue) by combining of 1950s home design catalogue compositions with angsty 1980s pop music. Think Freaky Friday on Xanax and Viagra. While Eva Green’s young age – only 12 years separate her from Shailene Woodley – has been cited by some as evidence of miscasting, her performance haunts the entire film despite her lack of screen time. Sporting a husky-voiced American accent that brings to mind Claudia Black’s wonderfully dry turn as world-weary Matriarch Aethyta in the last two Mass Effect games, she looms over Woodley like a spiteful bird of prey that the gods would have cursed never to reach her quarry. Even when her long, lean and elegant features are initially valourized in slow-motion frontal shots, she doesn’t quite seem to belong. By the time she’s externalized her existential discontent and taken it out on her daughter, she’s turned into a Bette Davis-like camp figure. Is there any other living actress capable of throwing such dark-eyed glares of pure contempt?

Not that Green, good though she is, should be the cast member to get the most praise. Shailene Woodley slides into Araki’s world of fear, lust and confusion as if it had been saving her a seat all this time. While not as great, her portrayal of Kat is probably the truest representation of female coming-of-age since Thora Birch in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World. As Kat’s mustachioed balding father, Christopher Meloni slyly sneaks up on the viewer with a deceptively subtle performance that transitions from pathetic self-pity to self-asserting virility with a smoothness that catches the viewer – and Kat – off-guard.

Smartly dismissing the trappings of both suburban melodrama and mystery thriller conventions, Gregg Araki turns Laura Kasischke’s source material into an opportunity to renew his perceptive study of teenage fear and desire by paying particular attention to the delicate transition from adolescence to maturity, and the possible supplanting of parental figures that it implies. Indeed, by the end, as Kat walks out of her old life and into the world of adulthood, there is quite literally nothing left of her mother.

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