Monday, 10 September 2018

ALLURE (2017)

Allure is the cinematic debut of Canadian photographic artists Carlos and Jason Sanchez, working here as a fully-fledged feature writer-and-directer team.  The brothers design images for their gallery-exhibited photographic work that function within photojournalistic parameters covering natural disasters or human interest stories that one might find in a glossy magazine. In fact, the brothers meticulously stage all the images and incidents depicted in their work and approach all their subjects like a film script, building sets and employing actors in an effort to make the physical and emotional content of the work seem more convincingly authentic. They have even been known to exhibit what appear to be movie stills that, in fact, come from Hollywood films that exist only in the Sanchez brothers’ imaginations. By mimicking the visual techniques, codes and signifiers marking out various genres of publically consumed image making, including photo-realism and movie stills, their photographic representations automatically suggest in the viewer’s mind a reality beyond the picture frame that we know does not really exist for the imagery it depicts. As a result, their photography can achieve a strange hybrid resonance, almost Lynchian in the way it manages to displace the concept of the ordinary within apparently naturalistic settings. The images are artificial reconstructions of authenticity, often containing confounding details that really shouldn’t be there. A favourite device is the staging of a domestic scene that at first glance appears to be quite innocent and ordinary -- even banal-looking – but which conjures all sorts of odd or disturbing narrative possibilities in the viewer’s mind the more carefully the image in question is studied.

Given this tendency to approach photography as though they were auteurs in charge of directing a scene (the brothers’ gallery shows are routinely described as ‘cinematic’ by art critics), concocting images capable of sustaining sophisticated narrative threads, it’s interesting to see how differently the brothers approach image-making when they are overseeing an actual movie. Their art normally exploits the fact that a single image can sit within a particular genre, inform the telling of a story and suggest an entirely fictional world. But a film obviously depends on an extended series of inter-related images flowing one to another to make sequences and scenes in combination with the spoken word and other kinds of diegetic and non-diegetic sound; the single composed shot is available within that framework as one particular tool that can be used in conjunction with a great number of others. Allure works as a low-key relationship drama with erotic overtones, and the visual presentation the Sanchezes arrive at through their collaboration with cinematographer Sara Mishara is relatively unobtrusive and naturalistic. However, they take full advantage of the emotional engagement and viewer investment it is possible to create only when working with a fully committed actor whose performance holds nothing back. Rather than concentrate on the purely visual to create the resonating and ambiguous effects for which their photography has come to be appreciated in contemporary art circles, Allure (previously titled A Worthy Companion for its premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival) sees the Sanchez brothers significantly expanding their palette to exploit the unique possibilities that cinema brings to the table when it gives itself over to performers and actors who are able to work the material to create sophisticated, complex characters with ambiguous motives and conflicting drives and aims. 

Evan Rachel Wood is the active ingredient here: a dynamic but sensitive combustive element whose performance ignites inside the film and allows the Sanchez’ brothers to apply their subtle, detached, naturalistic yet rigorously formal visual approach to content and subject matter that many will find shocking and upsetting. They manage this without losing the humanity and emotional fragility at the heart of what could have become a mere stylistic exercise in cinematic transgression. 

That said, the brothers’ talent for scene-setting, for creating a whole milieu out of a judiciously judged use of location with careful lighting and the thoughtful placement of objects and people within a scene etc., is as evident from the start as it has been in all of their previous photographic works: throughout the picture a drizzly, leaf-damp, autumnal suburban landscape entering the frosty prelude before the darker days of winter, is presented as a deadened hinterland full of anonymous rented hotel rooms, generic office workspaces and blank house interiors which are isolated cocoons of emotional manipulation: prisons of domesticity and unvoiced familial trauma. Wood plays Laura Drake: a deeply troubled twenty-something of retro-grunge musical tastes and ‘emo chick’ clothing, who works as a cleaner for her lean-framed, nervously twitchy father William (Denis O’Hare), who he runs his small mobile house cleaning business for middle-class districts of Montreal. The provocative opening scene of the film introduces Laura hazily waking up in some drably lit, seedy rented roadside hotel room to engage in rough violent sex with a blindfolded stranger (Jonathan Shatzky), who can’t rise to the occasion when confronted with Laura’s angry indifference, and can’t take the slaps and punches she dishes out as she rides him ferociously -- as if attempting to obliterate the horror of some past traumatic event by re-enacting a version that puts her in control of it. The scene is extreme yet ambiguous because we can’t quite tell if Laura is a customer, a client, a victim or an aggressor. 

These kinds of distinctions will prove difficult to formulate for all the film's relationship depictions. The screenplay peppers the dialogue with allusions and references that suggest something untoward may have occurred between Laura and her father in the past, and the awkward body language and dysfunctional interactions between them at work certainly suggest as much. But even when the script appears to be forthcoming about these supposed events, there is always a large degree of uncertainty present because of the web of manipulations and dependencies such ‘revelations’ have as their context. 

There are hints that Laura tends to get herself involved in illicit, destructive lesbian relationships with women she’s met through her cleaning work, some of which involve her stalking those she has become attached to. It is even hinted that her father knows about what goes on during her clandestine hotel rendezvous with strangers and that he ‘cleans up’ for her when things go wrong. But  this is mainly suggestion or insinuation; the film is never one-hundred-per-cent clear on the precise nature of the relationship between Laura and William, but there is enough information by the end to indicate that there has been a fundamental struggle going on inside the former for self-definition and independence, stifled by the guilt and regret William feels for something he has done to her in the distant past. 

There is one other equally fraught parent-daughter relationship depicted in the film: sixteen-year-old Eva (newcomer Julia Sarah Stone) is a student of classical piano, whom we first meet on-screen when Laura is engaged to clean for her divorcee mother Nancy (Maxim Roy). In these initial scenes, the Sanchez brothers use a handful of cinematic techniques to imply the distant relationship that exists between Eva and her mother. For instance, they use a shallow lens depth so that the camera focuses exclusively on Eva practising in the living room, while what’s going on behind her (which involves Laura being given her cleaning instructions by Nancy out in the hallway) remains completely out of focus. The camera shifts its focus just long enough to catch Laura noticing and taking an interest in Eva from behind as she passes the room.

 As she practices, Eva is shown to be a person who is isolated in her own headspace, slightly removed from her mother’s immediate concerns which are focused on preparing to move in with a new boyfriend and his young son. Playing classical piano appears to be something Eva does to please her mother rather than for pleasure; a classic case of the parent living out her own failed dreams by proxy through the activities of the offspring, while requiring an impossibly high standard be maintained to achieve the level of success she deems appropriate. The harsh regime of constant practice cuts Eva off from the life of an average sixteen-year-old girl growing up in a prosperous but ‘dull’ city such as Montreal. But it does keep her close to her mother, which is its main function for the daughter. However, the coming move threatens all that -- and promises to produce a fatal rupture in an already fairly dysfunctional and strained state of affairs. 

One early scene, shot at some distance from behind, has Eva playing the piano alone inside the otherwise empty house, pouring her feelings into an emotional, non-classical recitation, becoming so lost in the undulating melancholy of the piece she is playing that she does not notice her mother has come home and is quietly walking up behind her. When she feels her mother’s hand lightly rest on her shoulder, Eva instantly stops the melody dead, then starts playing again -- but this time taking up a dizzyingly fast and complicated fugue by Bach which sounds robotic in contrast to the simple but heartfelt piece she had been playing to herself before. Sacrificing your own desires for another then being disappointed by their lack of ability to reciprocate with the kind of sacrifices you require from them in return will become a key emotional leitmotif that informs all the events to come. Events set in motion when Laura turns up at Eva’s house to clean and finds she has walked in on the tail-end of an almighty bust-up between mother and daughter, culminating in Eva refusing to move house and Nancy reminding her daughter, before storming out, that until she is eighteen she has no choice in the matter.  

The build-up to this moment has been marked by Laura’s quiet but determined attempts to befriend this young girl while her mother has been preoccupied at work, the two being regularly left alone after Laura finishes her cleaning shift at the house. The implication is that the young woman is attempting to facilitate a much more intimate relationship with Eva than the girl’s age legally allows. She manoeuvres herself into becoming Eva’s link to the outside world, as they bond over the music of Nirvana (Laura clocks a Kurt Cobain poster on Eva’s bedroom wall) and Laura introduces Eva to marijuana cigarettes. There is the queasy taint of a paedophilic grooming process about the methodical manner Laura goes about the business of gradually ingratiating herself, inch-by-inch, into this much younger girl’s affections. Yet such is the evident hollowness and frustration of Eva’s relationship with her mother -- who remains inattentive and blind to her daughter’s need to develop her own independent personality and discover her own interests and desires -- that one cannot help relating to Eva’s willingness to grasp the apparent escape route being offered by Laura, even though the older girl’s motives seem more than a little bit suspect.

Eva’s big argument with her mother makes it very easy for Laura to convince the emotionally upset and angry teen to leave home and come and live at her house without telling her mother where she has gone. As we watch Laura’s orchestration of this highly dangerous situation, the film becomes ever more uncomfortable to watch: we see Eva gaining more confidence from being free of her mother’s unhealthy control, and engaging in more of the kinds of activities a girl of her age would normally be experiencing, while Laura gets to present herself as a sisterly mentor figure. But at the same time, Laura is spiking Eva’s soft drinks with vodka, choosing which clothes she should wear and clearly attempting to manipulate her into adopting the role of a girlfriend rather than a younger sister. Julia Sarah Stone, physically very slight and winsome-looking, is a twenty-three-year-old playing a vulnerable sixteen-year-old here, but if anything she looks a good deal younger than her character is supposed to be in the film -- thus adding even more, as this relationship develops, to a sense that these two are embarking down a very dark path. When Eva is filed as a missing person with the police and an officer comes to interview Laura at her work’s offices, events take an even more pronounced turn for the worse and the relationship becomes openly abusive and manipulative. First Laura locks Eva in a room all day to make sure she’s not seen by neighbours and preventing her from phoning home to reassure her worried mother while Laura is at work; then she tries to make Eva feel guilty for the fact that she has to be locked up in the first place -- which Laura puts down to Eva’s reckless disregard for the knowledge that Laura would go to jail if anyone found out what she has done. Laura characterises what has now apparently turned into a prospective kidnapping and false imprisonment charge (leaving aside her plotting to corrupt a minor) as a sacrifice she has made on Eva’s behalf, which Eva doesn’t appreciate because she has so thoughtlessly neglected to consider what Laura had to put at risk in order to provide this opportunity for her to live the life of ‘freedom’ she now enjoys.

Even more shocking is that this argument resonates enough with Eva for a form of co-dependence to develop between the two girls that eventually becomes so all-encompassing it makes it very difficult to tell who is really in control of the situation: thanks to her manipulative spiel, it at first appears to be Laura who holds all the cards: she sets herself up as Eva’s ‘suga mama’ and the younger girl willingly submits to the restrictive terms necessary for preventing her discovery as a lodger in Laura’s home. But soon, any kind of assertion of independence or any interest Eva takes in any other person, even a playful friendship with Laura’s disabled brother Benjamin (Joe Cobden),  results in Laura falling prey to jealous sulks and violent rages that escalate in intensity (“I say what you can and cannot do!”), followed by hysterical bouts of apologetic self-recrimination and violent self-harm. This is the paranoia of someone who has at last found another person that they can manipulate easily enough to be able to create the façade of a normal relationship that mimics the kind they’ve always been seeking, and which they feel they desperately need in order to feel complete, but who at the same time realises that the object of their obsession could, for the same reasons, just as easily fall under the influence of someone else, too. It is a realisation that makes Laura uniquely vulnerable to the threat of eventually losing Eva to another, and this knowledge induces in her feelings of inadequacy and rage that increase the likelihood of exactly that situation occurring.  

For the most part, the Sanchez brothers allow this relationship study to play out in naturalistic terms that echo the understated visual style they generally favour throughout. Their attention to the composition of their images often sees them adopt a frame-within-a-frame aesthetic choice that utilises doorways, mirrors and windows to suggest multiple simultaneous frames of reference, a subtle visual code for the way in which Laura and Eva can be viewed to have created their identities through mutual identification with the image of the other, in Laura’s case, by manipulating the younger girl with the aim of creating a self-image that Laura wants to see reflected back in Eva’s interactions with her. The music functions in a similar ambiguous way, with many of the apparently non-diegetic cues used by Montreal-based musician/composer Olivier Alary that define the emotional temperature of the relationship, suddenly becoming diegetic when we see Eva playing them on the piano in the scene following their audio introduction. These compositional and editing choices create a distancing effect: the sense that we are looking in on events from without, attempting to assess the constantly shifting nature of what we are seeing and hearing, and frequently finding our natural prejudices and sympathies vacillating accordingly. By the end, the power positions in the relationship seem almost to have been diametrically swapped around, like they’ve fallen out of one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s spellbinding female-centric melodramas. Despite a growing intimacy, Laura’s preference for rough sex forces her back to the twilight world of shady encounters in cheap hotel rooms where a violent incident leads to a major shift in the focus of the drama’s relationship narrative: Laura takes on the role of an abuse victim rather than that of an abuser; someone who now needs active care from Eva as the latter finds herself forced to outgrow many of the adolescent rites of passage her association with Laura had been helping to precipitate in her. 

However, this, too, is another disguise of sorts, allowing for a fabrication that is also an obfuscation to be made of painful familial secrets from Laura's past. The Sanchezes allow themselves only one ostentatiously abstract image during all of this: a shot of Eva floating in a dark, formless watery void that recurs several times in the second half of the film before it is revealed to have been a flash-forward to a scene that takes place at the very end, when the girls are visiting an indoor swimming pool at a crowded public baths and there is a sudden, unexplained power blackout. This episode seems to have a metaphorical importance to the story, conveying the girls’ sundering with a Lynchian sense of strangeness, and an atmosphere similar to the kind the brothers have frequently been able to capture in their photographic work. Allure is a powerful, provocative study of isolation, obsession, unhealthy desire and unstable identity, anchored by a frighteningly convincing performance from a fierce and diamond-hard Evan Rachel Wood. Newcomer Julia Sarah Stone is perfectly cast to lend solid support in what is, for most of the run-time, a virtual two-hander and American Horror Story’s Denis O’Hare is quietly, unassumingly riveting as Laura’s tortured father. Allure is a promising debut. 

This film is now available on DVD in the UK from Eureka Entertainment.