There’s a kink for every taste among this weekend’s new releases. A Norse god-hunk who swings a big hammer (Thor: The Dark World). A French schoolgirl who takes a crash course in lesbian love-making (Blue is the Warmest Colour). And Harry Potter graduating to gay sex as Allen Ginsberg (Kill Your Darlings). The best of these movies is by far Blue is the Warmest Colour, which restores the reputation of the French movie as cinema’s existential frontier, a promised land of art, sex and romance. The new, improved Thor has the head-banging appeal of heavy metal. It’s a comic book extravaganza that will be best appreciated by fanboys, but is likely to catch a wide swath through the box office. And Kill Your Darlings, led by Daniel Radcliffe’s gutsy yet unlikely portrayal of Ginsberg, dramatizes a real-life literary intrigue that is both sordid and sophisticated.
Thor: The Dark World
Despite the subtitle, this second installment of Marvel’s Thor is not especially dark. Despite the Sturm and Drang of its heavy-metal thunder, and the odd weight of its over-qualified cast, Thor doesn’t take itself seriously. It serves its power-chord chaos straight up, with plenty of breathers for self-deprecating humour, which only underscores the fact this superhero franchise is a joke, even when it’s trying not to be.
Still, it’s hard not to muster some affection for a comic book movie that actually tries to be comic. Unlike Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Dark Knight trilogy and Man of Steel, it has a superhero who is utterly lacking in inner torment. Thor has no twisted origin story, no secret identity. The dude is just an armoured naif of a Norse god with a crush on Natalie Portman. At one point, he reminded me of the enforcer played by Seann William Scott in the hockey comedy Goon.
Chris Hemsworth doesn’t have a lot to work with in the title role. He’s saddled with the superhero equivalent of a professional wrestler—hurling around that dumbbell hammer of his, which flies right back into his hands like a blacksmith’s boomerang. You might never guess that there’s a decent actor behind the beefcake, unless you saw him as the debonair Formula One driver in Rush, a performance that suggested he made a good James Bond. But Hemsworth does the job as Thor without looking too bored, while surrounded by some talented actors who seem to be having more fun than he is.
Portman (Black Swan) brings a deft romcom touch to her Lois Lane role as Jane Foster, the astrophysicist who makes Thor go weak in the knees, with Kat Dennings (2 Broke Girls) showing surprising wit as her kooky assistant. Tom Hiddleston steals every scene as the thunder god’s dastardly brother, the imprisoned Loki. Unlike Thor, he actually gets to have a character arc (spoiler alert), as he gets paroled from cosmic purgatory to join in an unholy alliance against the more unequivocally evil Malekith, leader of the dark elves, who’s portrayed with satanic verve by Christopher Eccleston. And Idris Elba proves that just because you’ve been Nelson Mandela (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) that doesn’t mean you can’t play a bit part as a divine sentry guarding the bifröst bridge—the rainbow thingamajig that leads from the gods’ kingdom of Asgard to the mortal world.
Much of the action takes place in supernatural Asgard, a feat of vulgar art direction and digital decor. It’s the kind of larger-than-life man cave where Rob Ford might feel at home. I found it hard to maintain interest, but perked up every time Thor beamed himself down to Earth in a corridor of white light to consort with the goofy mortals. The earthly action takes place in London, where Jane and her assistant run into an escaped blob of dark matter, while Stellan Skarsgård contributes an amusing sideshow as a mad scientist who likes to get naked while tripping over the terrible secret of the universe.
A mongrel mix of mythology, science fiction and tomfoolery, Thor: The Dark World plunders from both Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings with Viking abandon, though it lacks the pedigree of either. It’s the trailer-park trash of comic book blockbusters. All the Norse Gods, even Anthony Hopkins as the eye-patched Odin, look like they’re on a reunion tour with a Scandinavian hair band. I didn’t understand, or care, what was going on with the plot. It’s more tangled than the lyrics of a Rush song. All I know is that it’s got something to do with cracking the cosmos wide open, which is not a good thing. This kind of cosmology is an acquired taste. Personally, I’ve never been able to get beyond Ghostbusters, which taught us the No. 1 rule to avoid rupturing the space-time continuum: don’t cross the streams!
Blue is the Warmest Colour
Since I first saw it in last May in Cannes, where Steven Spielberg’s jury gave it the Palme d’Or, Blue is the Warmest Colour has been the subject of endless debate. As a lesbian love story directed by a man, it has been categorized as a textbook example of the “male gaze.” Julie Maroh, author of the graphic novel on which the movie was based, said shortly after its premiere that the film’s treatment of sexuality verged on pornography. By the time Blue resurfaced at TIFF, its two stars, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, contradicted the image of filmmaking harmony that they projected in Cannes, complaining that the film’s French-Tunisian director, the soft-spoken Abdellatif Kechiche, was a tyrant on the set. Seydoux went so far as to say she felt like a prostitute while shooting the film’s long and graphic sex scenes (though, just to be clear, the sex was simulated).
Like Spielberg’s jury, I loved the film. But now that’s it’s finally being released almost six months after I saw it, in light of the controversy, I thought I should see it a second time. And my opinion remains largely unrevised. I still found the film captivating, and its three hours flew by. I know this sounds suspect—another male critic gobsmacked by a sexy French movie that dotes on two lovely young women. Though the media has fixated on the film’s erotic quotient, notably one notoriously long and explicit sex scene, most of those three hours are devoted to emotional intensity, intellectual chat, and cultural observation, not sex. And even if the movie’s two stars had a rough time on the set, that doesn’t diminish the extraordinary power of their performances.
Blue is the story of a sexually confused 17-year-old schoolgirl named Adele (Exarchopoulos) who comes of age by falling for an older woman, a painter named Emma (Seydoux) who’s in her final year of art college. Adele adores literature, especially Marivaux’s La vie de Marianne, and the uncultured boys who swing into her sexual orbit just aren’t doing it for her. The moment she catches a glimpse of the blue-haired Emma, it’s the proverbial coup de foudre that she’s read about in novels.
This intimate epic unfolds in graphic detail, both erotic and emotional. One of the reasons it caught fire in Cannes is that it goes where mainstream cinema has not gone before. With all the sex, cigarettes and discussions of Sartre, there could not be a more archetypical French film, yet it feels fresh, breaking free from chrysalis of cliché to take lyrical flight. Along the way there’s an incidental critique of homophobic bullying when a cruel classmate taunts Adele as a dyke. And there’s a class-conscious portrayal of the two lovers’ families, which is somewhat literally spelled out by their culinary habits. (Adele’s folks gorge on pasta while Emma’s parents initiate their daughter’s young lover into the sensual delights of raw oysters and fine wines.) There’s as much food as sex in the movie—eating doubles as an obvious metaphor for carnal pleasure as well as a cultural signifier of class attitudes. There’s also a lot of beauty in Blue, and I’m not just talking about female pulchritude—even if Kechiche does compose his sex scenes with the eye of a painter assembling nude models like so much Lego. Yet even that makes sense, given that Emma, who beguns her seduction by drawing Adele, is “objectifying” her from the word go.
The first time I saw the film, I was so pulled in by the story, and the performances, that I was barely conscious of the filmmaking, aside from the fact that much of it was shot in luxurious close-ups with a rhythm of kinetic vérité. On second viewing, the director’s “male gaze” tropes were more glaring. And the sex scenes, which were simply startling the first time around, seemed jarring, because they seem much more artificially composed than the rest of the film. As an exhaustive survey of positions and possibilities, they’re almost dutifully comprehensive—as if the movie is trying to make up for lost ground in the limited canon of lesbian love stories.
Portraying sex on screen, and pushing the acceptable limits, is always a dicey business. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Unfortunately, the controversy that has engulfed Blue thanks to its prominence as a Palme d’Or winner, may overshadow its beauty and brilliance as a love story. Many a viewer may find the movie just too damn long at three hours. Had it fallen into the scissorhands of Harvey Weinstein, I’m sure he’d have cut it down into a more digestible product. But what’s remarkable about this cinematic landmark, far more than its erotic value, is how it magnifies glancing moments of thought and emotion that don’t even get the time of day in more conventional movies.
Kill Your Darlings
Daniel Radcliffe seems to be working overtime to erase his image as Harry Potter, having tackled diverse and ambitious roles in three movies that premiered at TIFF in September. Kill Your Darlings is one of them. Writer-director John Krokidas makes his feature debut with this noir drama of sex, lies and murder, which is based a true story. Set in 1944 New York, it revolves around a trio of men destined to become literary legends—Allen Ginsberg (Radcliffe), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster)—who become involved with a charismatic young iconoclast named Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) and his gay lover, an older man named David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall).
The story starts out to be a portrait of the artist as a young man, as Ginsberg, the budding poet, is seduced by Carr’s indolent beauty and his Rimbaud-like spirit of poetic rebellion. They meet as classmates at Columbia University. But as Ginsberg is falls under Carr’s spell, he’s also drawn to the edge of a sinister intrigue that will end in murder. Carr is enmeshed in a creepy relationship with Kammerer, who writes his essays in exchange for sexual attention. And while Kammerer is obsessed with his young lover, Carr treats him, and much of the world, with cavalier contempt, an proto-rock-star bravado that masks the fragile psyche of a damaged child.
With his delicate features, Radcliffe seems a poor facsimile for even a young Allen Ginsberg, but he brings conviction to the role. He throws himself into the gay necking scenes as if undergoing his own actorly rite of passage. Though he has the lead role, the movie really belongs to DeHann (The Place Beyond the Pines, Lawless), who gives an incandescent performance as an artist without an art, a troubled young man burning up in the atmosphere of his own delinquency.
The film captures the accelerating pulse of a nascent literary scene that is not even close to being a movement. Unlike On the Road, which took on the impossible task of trying to embody the explosive spontaneity contained within Kerouac’s novel, it has a much tighter narrative agenda, as its race to liberation is complicated by a nasty crime of passion. The movie is not terribly satisfying. We get a sense that it just circles of a story that holds deeper secrets. And its attempt to link its story of murder and emotional blackmail to Ginsberg’s creative epiphany is specious, to the say the least. The movie’s best moments are purely fictional: strangely enough, those are the moments when the characters don’t feel fake.