Crimes of Passion

The film makes the perhaps obvious connection between a prostitute providing comfort and affirmation to her clients, and a priest ministering to his flock. Russell must have enjoyed the perversity of the idea – he was the one who switched Shayne's role from a psychiatrist to a man of the cloth. It presented him with an opportunity to explore the way these two broken people feed off the inner lives of the men and women they serve. It's a deeper kind of voyeurism than just a sexual one. Kathleen Turner's China Blue has no personal life outside prostitution. She comes alive when she is transformed into other people's fantasies. 

The Reverend is totally overwhelmed with unwanted sexual thoughts and a fevered desire to purge them from the world around him, and finally – fatally – himself. He identifies China Blue as a kindred spirit, and confronts her with their shared pathology. But while she leads a schizophrenic life as a fashion designer by day and hooker by night, Shayne is a little bit further down the road to total psychosis. On the other end of the spectrum is a boy scout former high school quarterback with a wife and two kids, who remains a romantic at heart. Kathleen Turner's character is caught between the relative normality he offers, and the dangerous escapades of an obsessive sex-crazed priest. 

It's a gleefully transgressive film, and some of the most outré moments (including an S&M-tinged session with a policeman enjoying his own baton) were cut for the theatrical release. The smutty content is offset by Russell's theatrical, campy direction, where the actors are allowed to deliver their dialogue in long takes, as if we're watching them on a stage. The set design isn't as spectacular as in The Devils, but Russell still goes to town on China Blue's hotel room, full of props and pulsing with neon light, and Shayne's serial-killeresque den where religious symbols are pasted alongside pornography and lit up with a thousand flickering candles. The star of the show, however, is Kathleen Turner, who not only nails every bit of innuendo-laden repartee, but subtly conveys the fear and loneliness lurking beneath the bravado and roleplay. 


The Wayward Cloud

So bizarre it almost defies attempts at interpretation. It's a romance without conversation – communication achieved through bottled water, watermelons, food, cigarettes and, finally, porn, which mediates the couple's lovemaking in a disturbing way. The kitch musical numbers are little windows into the soul set against the static shots of dingy appartments and their silent inhabitants. But if the film is supposed to be about the inherent loneliness and alienation of modern life, it takes a great deal of absurdist joy in it. It reminded me a little of Tampopo in its series of loosely unconnected sight gags and focus on food as a proxy for dialogue.

The porn we see being made is ludicrous, and becomes an opportunity for wry jokes rather than titillation. However, the final scene may be designed to shock us out of that complacency. The female porn performer is comatose, and laboriously positioned by the crew in different poses so that the shoot can continue. The lack of consent is unsettling – a stark warning about the danger of treating others as things rather than people. But the sequence is also about how pornography literally comes between the couple in the film. The male porn actor humps a lifeless piece of flesh while looking at the face of the woman he really wants to be with, and she, in sympathy and sadness, starts encouraging his behaviour. But then she is also unwillingly forced into the action – the voyeur is raped as well. Is that an encouragement to the audience to consider the conditions under which their entertainment is made? Or is it just a warning about divorcing and abstracting sex from the lived reality of relationships? Either way, it's a bleak ending to a strange, sometimes ponderous, but often charming study of modern love.


La La Land

Is the final musical number suggesting the possibility that things could have worked out between Seb and Mia if different choices were made? Or is it just an idle fantasy that disregards the obstacles put in the way of the relationship succeeding? The former is the sadder, more regretful ending. The latter is resigned, and ultimately happier. Given the parallels with her own life, it must be Mia's vision we're seeing. The touchstones are the same, only the man is different. And the sequence brushes aside the problem of separation – Seb just is magically able to come to Paris and find success there. Musicals are about externalising the passions and dreams we bottle up inside ourselves – the genre allows them to burst out and change the world around us. La La Land plays with that feeling of possibilities opening up, but it's grounded enough to retreat back into the real world. Some things in life work out, some things don't. The couple achieves artistic fulfilment and success, but not as a couple. 

La La Land uses the tricks of the genre but isn't contained by it. The story isn't just an excuse to move from one song to the next – there's quite a lot of traditional comedy and drama in between. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone probably can't compete with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but they are great actors, and their best work in the film is when they are acting rather than when they are singing and dancing. Chazelle's determination to use long takes to capture the songs is admirable and technically impressive, but for me the songs themselves are unmemorable. They are there to evoke memories of Old Hollywood and how that romanticism is folded into the romance in the film – two retromaniacs finding solace in their nostalgia for forgotten artforms. It's Gosling and Stone's portrayal of that relationship that makes the film work.