Why mood-over-plot films like The Wonders and female filmmakers like Alice Rohrwacher stand out

Baradwaj Rangan

June 04, 2018 15:36:59 IST

Alice Rohrwacher won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes, this year, for Lazzaro Felice (Happy as Lazaro). Her earlier feature, Le Meraviglie (The Wonders), won the Grand Prix at Cannes, in 2014. But she seems fairly unknown outside the hard-core cinephile crowd – which is what I was getting at, in last week’s column, when I said the golden age of art-house cinema, one where general audiences at least knew the important names even if they were not interested in watching the films, may be behind us. But there’s probably another reason Rohrwacher hasn’t broken out beyond the festival circuit. The critics’ ratings at the Rotten Tomatoes page for The Wonders stands at an impressive 95%, and one of the critics who fell in the other 5% is Colin Covert, of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. His summary: “This may be the best non-prescription sleep aid on the market.”

I love the film, so it’s always interesting to read the reviews from those who hated it – or at least, had problems with it. (“What didn’t they like?” is always more interesting than “Let’s see all the ways this critic agrees with me.”) Variety gave a meh-ish review as well, but before we get to that, let’s look at the film, which centres on Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), the eldest daughter of hippie parents, who cling to the old ways of life in the midst of increasing modernisation. Their farm, which includes a honey-producing unit, is defiantly old-school.

Two events disrupt this way of life. First, the arrival of a German boy named Martin (Luis Huilca Logrono), whom Gelsomina’s father, Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), takes in partly because he needs a farmhand, partly because he desires a son, and partly because of the childcare money that comes with Martin. (The boy is overseen by a delinquent rehabilitation programme.)

And two, a talent contest, in which local farmers will compete to have their products featured on a television show. Wolfgang is at first reluctant – how can any self-respecting hippie be a part of anything as crassly commercial as television? – but he ends up on the show and sort of sums up Rohrwacher’s approach. When asked to describe his product, he’s lost. “It’s honey,” he mumbles. “Natural, and... virgin... It’s natural, we don’t... We don’t add anything to it...”

A few months after the Cannes screening, when interviewed by Sofia Coppola for the New York Times, Rohrwacher said The Wonders was a hard film to pitch to funders: “It’s more about mood, which isn’t an easy thing to communicate. I put together visual references — photographs, paintings — that expressed the kind of atmosphere I wanted the film to have.”

Rohrwacher’s filmmaking is like Wolfgang’s honey: natural and virgin and pure, and she doesn’t add anything to it. The themes – offbeat family, talent contest – may make the film sound like Little Miss Sunshine, but that’s a more obviously entertaining film (and there’s nothing wrong with that), where the talent contest provides the climactic “high,” while The Wonders is more about scenes like the one where Gelsomina and her sister play with a shaft of sunlight streaming through the barn. (You can see this bit in the trailer above.) Gelsomina extends her hand towards the light, the way we’d test the temperature of water in a shower, and then she orders her sister: “Drink.” The younger girl obediently cups her palms and lowers her face to the light, as though she were... drinking. A few minutes later, the scene shifts to the seaside. Another younger sibling cups her hands and gathers foam from the waters. If asked to explain why these scenes are so magical, you’d mumble like Wolfgang at the contest.

Some people (like that Minneapolis Star Tribune critic) will say all this is too precious, or even pretentious. In a superb piece in the Telegraph, titled The Top 10 Most Pretentious Films, Anne Bilson said: “But ‘pretentious’ is a word that now appears to have expanded from its original definition to mean, among other things, ‘snobby and intellectual’, or ‘black and white, with subtitles’, or ‘I don’t understand it, so it’s tosh’. The charge of pretentiousness is most frequently levelled at films that don’t conform to a conventional narrative structure.” She goes on to list a bunch of “pretentious” films, and her description of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is hilarious: “Sean Penn glumly remembers his parents and childhood in sunny Texas. There is classical music. Epic meditation on life, love and the cosmos, or glorified life insurance commercial?”

But in a world increasingly filled with thunderous Marvel movies, the evocative, wispy nothingness of a film like The Wonders – where mood matters more than plot – is, at least to some of us, an escape.

The Variety review complained that “the pic has intermittent rewards yet isn’t weighty enough to justify a Cannes competish slot,” but a commenter refuted this point [sic]: “I believe, it’s the little films like these that should have a world wide spotlight. It’s movies like these that make us question so much about ourselves and others, and through these questions we can begin our journey.” And to the point in the review that some parts cry out for clarification, the commenter said, “The entourages of ones life, ones family requires no explanation. The explanation only quenches the thirst of the curious, those who seek comfort within that which breaks their conventional ideas.”

Films like The Wonders face another problem. They get pigeonholed as a “woman’s picture.” In a Film Comment interview, when the “is it autobiographical?” point came up, Rohrwacher said, “What’s really laughable is that even if I were to make a film where people are mowing each other down left and right with machine guns, and I had one scene of a leaf falling from a tree, the critics would say it had a delicate feminine gaze and was a very sensitive picture. I think there is this desire to identify only one quality of womanhood and of being feminine as being feminine out of all the things that are being found. That is what’s happening with this film, this attempt to find this one female aspect to the film, when in fact everything is female... And since the traditional role of women is to be at home and to wash dishes and to talk about the family, then instantly the father is identified as my father, the mother as my mother – the type of questions you wouldn’t ask of a male director.”

This is true, but it’s also reflective of the fact that there are so few female filmmakers around. So while no one bats an eyelid about the machine-gun mayhem in a Michael Bay movie, extensive action scenes in a Kathryn Bigelow film seem... discordant. They stand out, in terms of attracting a particular kind of commentary. They shouldn’t, but they do – even if we don’t balk at a male filmmaker handling a female-oriented subject. This situation will change when the number of female filmmakers increases, when they are no longer an exotic species, a minority. The day will come.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

Updated Date: Jun 04, 2018 17:34 PM