A Beastly Cinephile

Bitch, a dark comedy playing at the Cinémathèque this week, is an important film about our culture today, but it also brings to mind world cinema from fifty years ago that first brings people into Facets for the first time.

There’s a lot going on in Bitch (2017) and that’s probably its main flaw. It’s hard to walk around all the topics it does in 96minutes in a way that’s circumspect. It’s ostensibly a dark comedy, a great option for turning a mirror on modern life, but it never fully realizes that potential. Not to give too much away but the film is allegorical and relies on a heavy dose of magical realism to work. So it bites off more than it can chew.

The sort of “too bad” fact of the matter is that Bitch tackles huge segments of modern societal problems, particularly a look at gender roles, and it’s using every cinematic tool available to do it, but it doesn’t find constancy in its approach even as it shuns consistency for good reasons.

The result can be some abrupt tonal shifts which are at first incredibly irritating but also part of the bigger machinery at work here. A jump from even the darkest family comedy to pure horror is jarring, but it’s clearly evoking the social anxieties that are at the center of the experiences this film is most thematically concerned with.

So here’s a film that’s thoughtful but still falls a bit short of the mark. That’s too bad because this would be the worst kind of film try and put in a thumbs-up or thumbs-down box and what’s more this is my kind of film.

Bitch is a film I’d seek out. It’s a little puerile, really dark, smart as a whip, and isn’t about to explain itself. To talk about a pretty varied and raucous film though, I’d like to focus on two things. First how it is important to understand the sort of cinematic elements this film uses to extend its themes across a broad swath of society. Second, the personal attraction toward this film which is anecdotal, but has a lot to do with why I journey to the Cinémathèque as often as I do.

The Blueing of America

So the scope of Bitch is broadly societal, it’s all encompassing. A sort of minor indication of this fact is the subtle prod in the art decoration at the HGTV or Pinterest inspired blue-gray, washed-out decor. There’s a pretty subtle glass backsplash and a not so subtle Target brand affirmation board on display in the background throughout. Bitch skips over the granite countertop in the first frame and goes straight for a soft dismissal of decorative driftwood shelving as the bane of contemporary interior decoration that it is. And this film is right about that kind of detail, it’s a blight on design. Complicity in the blue-gray home decor movement is perhaps indicative of more nefarious complicities in life.

The point is that if you’re planning on selling a house in the next fifteen minutes, according to Time you can probably add about $5000 of value to it by painting your bathroom “Siberian Ice” so that it looks like every other house on TV today. That’s a disappointing fact. It’s maddening that this Pinterest inspired living seems like something we have to do that we don’t pick for ourselves.

This approach hits hard because it has this sort of colorful blemish element. To really push this speculation far, in the case of a film like Bitch, casting a wide reaching perspective over its themes, the blue-gray home decor is the pallid look of an American lupus infection. It’s long seemed to me that the blue-gray look, while eye catching and calming in a faux mediterranean fashion, will probably have all the attraction of a carpeted bathroom in ten years.

How much do you like this color?

The most fun parts of Bitch are the moments that take these sorts of broad social signifiers to heart and smear their absurdity on the audience. These aren’t the moments of discomfort which are also important to Bitch, it’s not looking into the animal elements of people, it’s a subtle absurdity that permeates every moment of this film.

Why Am I Here?

So a lot of the absurdity of Bitch comes from this incredulous point of view it takes about, say, why we behave with propriety wherever we go. It’s far from the first film to take that cynical look at society. It’s also far from the first film to make that connection through a transformation into and proximity with animals. But it stands out to me because this is the specific cinema that drew me to Facets in the first place.

Sometimes you really need to lay your hands on a film that doesn’t seem to exist. This was the case for me in high school when I had to do a report on Iranian New Wave cinema. Needless to say, it wasn’t obvious where I was going to find The Cow (1971) except at Facets. That was my introduction to the Vidéothèque as an important film resource.

The Cow is an extraordinary film about a man who transforms into a cow. It’s a favorite of mine for its frank yet mystical look at bizarre transformations. On the one hand, this is a movie about a man, Hassan, who turns into his prized cow, his most valuable property in rural Iran. But like great cinema, the completely factual synopsis wont capture what’s at work in a movie like The Cow.

Moreover, this was a movie with cinematic ideas which I found profound from the first moment. A lot of what The Cow but also Bitch in its way produce in images on screen stick in my head. They galvanize an idea of what exactly is available to see at Facets in addition to what’s possible in cinema.

For instance, the opening sequence of The Cow is fairly abstract and blends the physicality of a man and the cow. The rest of the film is more in the tradition of cinéma vérité which makes Hassan’s specific transformation all the more peculiar and visceral. Looking back on this film now, even as it presents the fantastical as fact, there remains a profound level of superstition in The Cow. I’m not over that film, and I can’t help but think of it when I watch Bitch and not just for the various similarities.

The abstract title sequence of The Cow is vastly different than the look of the rest of the film. Together these visual elements create an important thematic component to this niche film.

In point of fact, these couldn’t be more different movies besides the obvious and my experience of finding them in the same place. There’s little else to say for these films, they’re separated by time, country, language, and even their less superficial themes. Even so these are the films I walk in the doors at Facets specifically to watch.

Author: Peter Hogenson has been writing about film for ten years, most recently as a student at the University of Minnesota and as the Editorial Intern at Facets.

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