The art of making "vagina movies"

"Please Give" director Nicole Holofcener on the tricky business of telling stories that happen to feature women

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 29, 2010 5:55PM (EDT)

Director Nicole Holofcener attends a news conference promoting the movie "Please Give" at the Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin February 16, 2010. REUTERS/Thomas Peter (GERMANY) (© Thomas Peter / Reuters)
Director Nicole Holofcener attends a news conference promoting the movie "Please Give" at the Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin February 16, 2010. REUTERS/Thomas Peter (GERMANY) (© Thomas Peter / Reuters)

Nicole Holofcener's prickly new comedy "Please Give" opens with a montage of breasts. Serious breasts. Breasts, breasts, breasts. It's way more breasts than you're likely to see in a porn film, and to dramatically different effect. Old, young, large, small, conforming to conventional beauty standards or not. One of Holofcener's central quintet of characters, an awkward New York single woman named Rebecca (played by the English actress Rebecca Hall) works as a mammogram technician, which provides an ostensible reason for the panoply of flesh. But I think it's meant to be confrontational on a number of different levels.

Although I think Holofcener is among the finest dramatists working in American movies -- a crafter of comedies that get under your skin, after the fashion of Chekhov or Bergman or Eric Rohmer or mid-career Woody Allen -- she has the reputation of an upscale chick-flick director, a creator of "vagina movies" (in her phrase). This goes back to her 1996 debut feature "Walking and Talking" and its 2001 follow-up "Lovely & Amazing," both of which did indeed focus on female relationships. So the mammography montage is a double-edged metaphor. On one hand, it's shoving some female-centric cinema right in your face. On the other, it suggests a spirit of ruthless, uncomfortable, naked examination. (Never having had a mammogram, I have to go on reports that it isn't a pleasant experience.)

In "Please Give," gawky Rebecca and her brassy, profane, compulsively salon-tanned sister Mary -- a show-stopping turn from Amanda Peet, alternately hilarious and vulnerable -- become oddly enmeshed with their grandmother's Manhattan neighbors, the wealthy antique furniture dealers Kate (played by Holofcener muse Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt). You see, Alex and Kate have bought the elderly Mrs. Portman's next-door apartment, and are letting her live out her days as their tenant, with the obvious expectation of doubling their living quarters once she departs for the Great Beyond.

This is a common enough New York real estate transaction; it's not as if Kate and Alex are planning to rub the old lady out in order to get their chubby, acne-ridden teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) a bigger bedroom. But as Holofcener put it in our conversation, it seems weird and unseemly even if it's not exactly wrong. As a seriocomic portrait of depressed, overcaffeinated, too-rich New Yorkers -- obsessed with real estate, the prices of secondhand tchotchkes and not missing the upstate "leaf-peeping" season -- "Please Give" is a companion piece of sorts to Holofcener's "Friends With Money," which pursued similar quarry in the sunnier, more horizontal spaces of Los Angeles.

"Please Give" might be a funnier, spikier, more ungainly vehicle than "Friends With Money," but whether you like her movies or not it's a great mistake to dismiss Holofcener as a superficial chit-chatter or a female director who is somehow restricted by her gender. Although I haven't heard her phrase it this way, her movies are about the difficulty of living a decent, moral life under late-stage consumer capitalism. That's a problem that affects everybody. If Holofcener's central characters tend, more often than not, to be upper-middle-class or rich women in big cities, that's because those are the people she knows best. Henry James -- another point of comparison, now that I think about it -- didn't write stories about the poor and oppressed of the world either.

I won't claim total impartiality with respect to Holofcener -- we've corresponded a little by e-mail and she's contributed a few short pieces to Film Salon. But our acquaintance is entirely professional, and when we got together for a chat in her New York hotel room this week (just before the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of "Please Give"), it was only the second time we'd met in person.

Nicole, you have this image, which maybe isn't something you created, or you intended, as a female director who builds these interesting female characters and makes films about women's lives as they progress through the world or whatever ...

By women, for women, about women, with women. Like, it's just a big vagina movie. And you can just put it in a drawer and close it.

Well, yeah. It seems like an oddly reductive view. With this film, maybe you're going directly at that, because this is a film about a family and about living in New York and maybe about the weird issues upper-middle-class people have around money and real estate. It's not necessarily about women.

But people put this in that category as well. No, I'm not trying to do anything except tell the story that interests me. It just happens that these people are women, or more characters in my movies are women, and it's the same thing when people want to call me a female director. I'm just a director. I can't deny that my audiences are definitely more female, but I think that's partly because people call them women's movies. There was one magazine that called this movie a "bitchy chat-fest chick flick." And it was a positive review! Like, what guy, and what intelligent woman, would ever go see that? It's frustrating.

I found the Oliver Platt character, the husband in this family, especially interesting. If you were the stereotypical "women's film" director, you'd have punished that character for what he does, for cheating on his wife with a beautiful, younger woman. Your attitude is more neutral, more nuanced. Life goes on and there's no major blowback for him, but a lot of stuff happens under the surface.

Well, I think his own punishment speaks for itself. You know, what happens with his daughter [who discovers the affair] is probably, to a father, the worst punishment he could get -- much worse than the wife finding out. I'd written many scenes where he does get his comeuppance and they do have it out. But they seemed too on-the-nose, and like I'd seen that scene a million times. When I took it out, it seemed right that maybe they will discuss it one day -- maybe Kate does know, maybe not -- it seemed more realistic. I think a lot of people probably have affairs and they never get talked about, even if the spouse kind of knows.

I love Oliver's character as much as the female characters, and they do some crummy things too. I wasn't in it to make a villain out of him or anybody. In my other movies, too, even though people often say that I treat the men badly, that I don't care about the men, that's not how I feel.

Well, I've often told people that I thought you were the new Woody Allen, like maybe the Woody Allen of 20 or 30 years ago, and they sometimes act like I'm crazy. And that's a lot about the gender stuff. Nobody was going around saying that "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" and "Hannah and Her Sisters" were just movies for Jewish men from New York, simply because that's who the director was.

It's so true, "Hannah and Her Sisters" has so many women in it and sisters and nobody's calling him a female filmmaker. Or that it's just for women. It's so true. Woody's movies completely inspired me as a viewer. I loved them so much, and they were so much about women.

Maybe those movies have been tainted, at least for some viewers, by extraneous issues.

Yeah. If you go back and look at his older movies, how can you not fall in love with them? I guess everybody thinks of him in a certain way now.

Yeah, a slightly creepier way.

I was talking recently about how I knew him when I was a kid. My parents knew him, and he would treat me like he was the uncle or something. There was some snickering in the audience: "Oh yeah, I bet he did." No, it didn't happen that way. He used to hit me on the head with a newspaper like I was the dog. He was that kind of joker.

So you grew up in New York? I didn't realize that.

Just till I was 12, but it had a very deep and lasting impression on me, I'm sure.

You seem to have this interesting bicoastal chronicle going here. You've done a New York movie and then a few movies in L.A. and now another New York movie. Did you intend to make another movie about real estate, after "Friends With Money"? Or is it just accidental that you've had that theme two movies in a row?

No, it was an accident that I realized as it was coming out, and I just let it happen anyway. I thought, "Oh, I've done this. Oops!" With the same actress [i.e., Catherine Keener] -- even with a similar name. She's Christine in "Friends With Money" and now she's Kate. All these things are very, very obvious, but I felt I was entertained enough by the apartment situation to keep it. I thought, "OK, I'm not done with whatever this buffoon is doing, real-estate wise." But I don't want to do it again. I don't want to rip myself off.

So you're not doing a real estate movie set in Dallas or Chicago next.

Right, I wouldn't know what to say.

The young girl in "Please Give" -- Abby, played by Sarah Steele -- is really a special character, and a special actor too. She feels so piercing and so emotional. I guess you must identify with all the people in your movies, but I felt tremendous emotion coming through that character. Were there elements of you in what she's going through?

Yeah, definitely. I mean, I don't have a teenage daughter. I have a teenage niece, and some of that was drawn from her and the fights she has with my sister, which are comical because they're so brutal. But I had the zits, that was me, and Sarah does not have any zits. She wanted to hear all my horror stories and right before that scene where she's sobbing, she said, "Tell me what happened to you, tell me why it was so traumatic," and I told her all about being teased and the names I was called and the painful doctor's appointments and all that stuff. Then I said "Rolling" and she burst into tears -- it was amazing. She was channeling my pain. She really could understand it. So to some extent it feels like me up there, that's definitely accurate. It was very personal.

Thinking about the setting, and the central couple -- they're so closely involved with death. They buy dead people's furniture, and they're waiting for an old woman to die so they can get her apartment. It's very specific to Manhattan, or at least I think it is. People in L.A. or other cities probably don't hang around waiting for people to die so they can get their apartment, or their stuff.

No, but there's this one house that I have my eye on in Venice! I can't afford it. I know these people, and I'm sure they'll leave it to their kids. There's an older couple living in it and one day they're going to sell it and it's on a double lot and it's a real wreck, so I imagine that maybe I could get it. But only in New York, that I know of, can this kind of thing happen frequently. I know a few people who've done it or are going to do it, and people tell me after they see the movie: "Oh, I'm doing this, or my neighbor's doing this." And it's not like you're not killing anyone. It's just weird.

That's exactly the word for it. It's weird and distasteful, but it's not really wrong. It reminded me of the fact that people dislike vultures, meaning the actual bird, even though a vulture is performing a very useful service and isn't killing anything. If anything, we should hate hawks and eagles because they go around killing cute little animals. Vultures never do that.

It's so true. When I look up and I see vultures I think, "Listen, you fuckers, go away -- he's not dead yet." Which is exactly what I called my movie when I was writing it: "Not Dead Yet." Because they felt like vultures, but it's true: Vultures don't kill.

In your mind, is this movie set maybe two years ago? Because it feels like just before the recession hit. If you were setting this movie right now, the real estate question would be very different, and Alex and Kate's business would be different.

No, it's too based on personal experience. At the time that a friend bought an apartment this way, that was just before the real estate crash and the economy got so bad. I'm so not a person who takes the temperature of the political climate and writes about it. But sometimes I get lucky! Like my mom was just telling me that she read an article about compulsive tanning, and that there's a problem out there, people are becoming addicted to it. I didn't know. So, I'm a genie.

For me, things aren't honestly that different. I think people should admit it if it's not that different. I mean, my income fluctuates every year anyway, so it's like I might have a little less this year, it's true, but that's because my kids are in private school. Or I might be working a little less, so definitely my salary went down. But is it going to affect my lifestyle in a huge way? No. That doesn't mean I'm not aware of this stuff. I hope that doesn't sound like I'm an asshole.

I didn't imply that you were.

OK, good.

I loved seeing Amanda Peet in this movie, who's more known as the sexy, funny girl in guy-oriented movies. She's really funny here too, but she's also up to the challenge of playing this woman who leads with this really strong persona, but with a lot more complication and turmoil than you can see on the surface.

Good. I felt she was capable of that. She's auditioned for me before and did a beautiful job. It just wasn't the right part at the right time. I knew she'd be right there. I mean, my heart breaks every time I see her in my own movie, so I'm very happy I cast her, too.

The relationship -- if you can even call it that -- that she has with Oliver's character was painful. You're right, he isn't really enjoying it that much. In theory he should, he's getting laid with a hot younger woman and all. But he's slightly too smart of a guy to just be getting off on that.

Right, he feels so bad about himself for doing it. And she's such a specific type of girl. I mean, I think it's helping his ego, possibly for five or 10 minutes, but that's about it. And she doesn't look like she's having much fun, either. They're both too depressed to be getting a lot out of this.

This could be said of your work in general, but this is not the movie to see if your meds are not working right.

Clearly mine were not when I was writing it. I've upped them, I've tripled them since that! Good advice! That should be on the poster: "Don't see this if you're on the wrong meds."

We should make clear that it is very funny. It got a lot of laughs at Sundance. And seeing it with a New York audience [at Tribeca] should be great. They'll get all the jokes.

I know, I think so. I hope so. I mean, one article was written by an L.A. critic asking, "What's Nicole Holofcener's obsession with the leaves?" I was like, "No, no, no -- that is so wrong in so many ways." People from L.A., you know, don't have a strongly developed sense of humor or irony. They're stupid out there.

It's true that everybody in New York has a relationship to the leaves, pro or con. Which is a very Woody Allen kind of observation! My mother-in-law comes up from Virginia every year to go to upstate New York and see the leaves.

Does she stay at a B&B?

No, she bought a little house up there. Come up and see the leaves!

Fuck the leaves. Fuck you and your leaves!

 "Please Give" opens April 30 in New York and Los Angeles, with national release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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