Sundance: Sex, death and real estate

Nicole Holofcener's edgy, delicate "Please Give" and Gaspar Noe's hallucinatory "Enter the Void"

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published January 23, 2010 7:58AM (EST)
Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet in "Please Give"
Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet in "Please Give"

PARK CITY, Utah -- I've seen two terrific movies here today that exist in wildly different aesthetic universes, although they have oddly similar philosophical preoccupations. Both of them deserve more focused attention than I am likely to deliver in my current underslept condition. I saw a third movie that wasn't so great, and before and between and after those screenings I and everyone else at Sundance have been battling the treacherous, near-whiteout conditions of a Utah blizzard in January.

After emerging from Nicole Holofcener's "Please Give," an edgy, somber, beautifully written Manhattan fable of guilt, shame, infidelity, death and real estate, I got to dig my cute little rented Hyundai out of a snowbank on a Park City back street, which was no doubt good exercise but felt like a scene from a very different kind of movie. At one point in "Please Give," a memorably misanthropic, foulmouthed and borderline-slutty character named Mary (played with a marvelous lack of inhibition by Amanda Peet) tells her ailing grandmother, "Things don't get better. They only get worse." This is true enough when you're talking about a 91-year-old woman's circulatory system and vision, which is the ostensible subject of Mary's diatribe. But is it true, I asked myself, with those gorgeous huge snowflakes dropping on top of me and the ski slopes of Park City apparently hanging illuminated in midair above me, is it really true as a general principle?

I'm not actually sure that's what Holofcener thinks, in fact, although it seems to be a sentiment she sympathizes with, at least to a point. Mary belongs to a distinctively New York social network that's on the verge of implosion, thanks to a set of factors that should be familiar to Holofcener's viewers by now: capitalism, middle age, sex, good intentions. Mary's plain-Jane sister Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) is the principal caretaker to their grandmother, who has become the tenant of the couple next door, Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt). They are quite literally waiting for Granny to die so they can knock down the interior walls, double the size of their apartment and live in near-suburban luxury with their acne-ridden teenage daughter (Sarah Steele).

Kate, who is in some sense the story's central character -- certainly Keener gets the most screen time -- is plagued by unmanageable, almost pathological guilt, not just about waiting for the old lady to buy the farm but about anything and everything. She gives $20 bills to homeless people, tries to volunteer with seniors and disabled kids (but ends up weeping in the ladies' room instead) and feels tormented about the business she runs with Alex, which involves buying furniture from estate sales for relatively little and then reselling the better pieces at a ridiculous markup. Of course, it's also possible her bad vibes emanate from a more intimate source, such as her poisoned relationship with her daughter, or the fact that Alex has been visiting Mary at the spa where she works for a little one-on-one physical therapy.

Holofcener is frequently understood as a director of "women's films," and to some extent she embraces that role: She opens "Please Give" with a hilarious and startling montage of naked breasts, in all imaginable shapes and sizes, being squished into a mammography machine. (Rebecca is a medical technician at an ob/gyn clinic.) But she's light years away from Nancy Meyers, thank God. Holofcener has no interest in punishing or even judging Alex for his infidelity, for instance. Kate is losing her shit and no fun to be around; in the immortal words of Donald Rumsfeld, stuff happens.

I see Holofcener as something closer to a younger, female-centric Woody Allen, meaning that she's a social satirist whose essentially dark vision is cloaked (sometimes thinly) as comedy. "Please Give" is a bit more conventional in presentation, and perhaps a tad less ruthless, than her last black-comic foray into upper-middle financial and sexual anxiety, "Friends With Money." But she remains a dramatist of unusual gifts, unmatched in American cinema at the moment, finely attuned to the mystery and terror that lie just below the surface of affluent modern existence.

French visionary director Gaspar Noé's "Enter the Void" is also obsessed with mortality, and expresses the ephemeral beauty of family life with even more tenderness than "Please Give." Beyond that, it might as well come from a different planet, one drenched in powerful hallucinogens, and along with them colors and shapes that don't exist in Holofcener's world. In fact, as its title suggests "Enter the Void" isn't exactly set in this world. Its main character is a young American drug dealer in Tokyo named Oscar (Nathaniel Brown, whom we hear but rarely see), who is shot and killed by police in a nightclub men's room early in the film. We watch most of the movie through his eyes, alive and dead, as he soars above Tokyo's streets, clubs and brothels, viewing our earthly existence through an increasingly distorted lens, as if suspended irresolute between his former life and whatever somethingness or nothingness lies beyond.

There's no way to summarize the paranoid, terrifying and surpassingly beautiful lysergic odyssey between life and death on which Noé takes us, except perhaps to explain that he has said his principal influences here are Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" and the "Tibetan Book of the Dead," and by God, he has the verve and the special-effects budget to pull it off. In previous hotly-debated films like "Seul Contre Tous" and the reverse-chronology rape-revenge saga "Irreversible," Noé has combined a dazzling visual imagination with what seemed like a juvenile desire to brutalize the audience with acts of traumatic violence. There are certainly some shocking and grotesque images in "Enter the Void" -- if there were a rating more restrictive than NC-17, Noé would earn it -- but they feel like essential parts of the mind-bending whole.

This movie isn't for the faint-hearted on several levels -- the version I saw here ran 156 minutes, although I understand IFC will be releasing a shorter Noé-approved cut, and there were more than a dozen walkouts during the press screening. But if you have the stomach and the endurance,  it represents a revolutionary break from ordinary movie storytelling. There are characters besides Oscar in "Enter the Void," including the damaged sister (Paz de la Huerta) he promised he would never leave and various disreputable Tokyo friends, acquaintances and lovers, and all these people's actions do add up to a narrative of a sort. But Noé has here completed a journey he began with "Irreversible," a film in which you could first see his desire to dissolve the distinctions between past, present and future, between happening and not-happening, between the physical landscape and the mental one, between life and death.

So when Oscar is not flying through the walls, roofs and clouds of Tokyo, observing the consequences of his death, he is reliving his parents' horrifying death many years earlier and his childhood separation from his sister, recycling the events that led to his own murder and creating scenes that could not have happened and others that never will. He briefly comes back to life, as a zombie who has lost the power of speech, before realizing that he can't come back -- his body has been cremated. (I can't explain Noé's dream logic any better than that.) This is a daring, thrilling, awful and wondrous film that pushes so hard at the medium's boundaries it sometimes becomes exhausting. With this movie Noé jumps to the front rank of mindfuck acid-trip filmmakers, right next to David Lynch, and I wandered out afterwards into the snow feeling dazzled, dizzy, exhausted, grateful.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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