Cuties

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I don’t know the director’s intent, but Cuties, a French coming-of-age film, was sad and disturbing. The heroine, 11 year old Amy has come to Paris with her mom and two younger siblings. Her mother is devastated to learn that her husband, who’s still back in Senegal, has chosen a second wife. It hits Amy hard, but her reaction is far more self-destructive than she knows.

At her new school, Amy becomes obsessed with joining a mean girls clique, who’re preparing to dance in an upcoming competition. That sounds a bit harmless, though sacrificing your self-respect to befriend people who mock, humiliate and hit you, is not a good choice. I cringed when the girls kick out their lowest status member and Amy strives to get accepted by a group of misguided, powerful jerks.

Amy and her new “friends” get way over their heads in social media and sexy dancing.

SPOILER ALERT

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Crazed Fruit

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When I picked Crazed Fruit (1956) out at the library, I had no idea what it was about our who the director, Ko Nakahira was. Until recently, the only directors I knew were Ozu and Kurosawa. I’ve learned Japan has produced many masterful filmmakers.

Crazed Fruit takes place in the late 1950s when Japan is getting prosperous, at least the elite are. The main characters are two brothers from a wealthy family. The brothers, Natsuhisha and Haruji, spend their summer with their fellow rich kids gambling, smoking, drinking, fighting and going after girls. Another occupation is complaining about how their college professors know nothing and how their futures are meaningless. While it’s becoming an economic wonder, Japan doesn’t offer any outlet for their passions.

When the brothers arrive at the train station en route to their pal’s summer house, they see Eri, a beautiful, alluring young woman. Haruji, who’s the young, innocent brother, is smitten, but his brother, who’s quite the lover boy, pulls him away so they can hurry over to their friends.

The next day while out on a boat, they notice a girl in the water. It turns out to be Eri. Soon both boys are smitten and don’t really care or, in the case of Haruji, know, that Eri’s married to a much older, prosperous Western man.

Haruji innocently courts Eri, who always has an excuse why she can’t be picked up at home. The scenes with Haruji and Eri are tastefully sensual. The camera captures their desire as they lie next to each other sunbathing on the rocks by the sea in a way that’s exquisite. It’s a much more compelling than any sex scene I’ve seen in 10 years or more. Nakahira is a master, who deserves to be studies by every filmmaker and film lover.

Soon Natsuhisha becomes obsessed with Eri. He finds her house and sees her husband. He promises to keep her Western husband a secret from Haruji if Eri will have sex with him. She agrees. Eri’s character is hinted at rather than well defined. She’s a mystery and unlike other characters. She’s insulted and angry, but also willing. Natsuhisha exudes animal chemistry and she finds him more than satisfying in the bedroom. Eri seems to want to keep her three men, to keep those relationships separate, but to keep them. Of course, this is impossible

The film, which is based on a novel by Ishihara, broke new ground in depicting sensuality and the abandonment of traditional morality among rich youth. At the time, though people’s own mores had changed, film had not. Japanese films tended to uphold traditional morals. While the tragic ending in Crazed Fruit certainly doesn’t promote the lifestyle or choices of the idle rich, it did shock the elders at the cinema.

Crazed Fruit was conceived and produced to be a low budget, teen flick that would cash in at the box office. The story, in Nakahira’s hands, is a beautiful classic.

The Criterion Collection offers two thoughtful essays on Crazed Fruit. The commentary by Japan film expert Donald Richie greatly enhances the film as he explains the social context and context of this film within Japanese filmmaking.

 

Elizabeth Rex

The Chicago Shakespeare Theater‘s Elizabeth Rex is strong, witty and thought-provoking. Written by Timothy Findley, Elizabeth Rex is a hypothetical look at what might have transpired the night before the Earl of Essex‘s execution. Findley plays with the fact that Elizabeth went to see a Shakespearean play the night before the Earl of Essex, who plotted to overthrow the queen, was executed. Findley’s what if’s are:

  • What if the queen and Essex had an affair? According to the Windy City Times review, they didn’t.
  • What if Elizabeth at age 70 had insecurities about her femininity since she had to wield power as a woman in a man’s age?
  • What if she spent the night in the company of Shakespeare’s actor’s who’re cooped up in a barn near the theater due to curfew restrictions? (Couldn’t the queen waive them or get everyone to a more commodious venue?)
  • What if one of the actors was a gay man dying of pox with insight into gender?
The questions are fascinating. The acting was strong; dialog full of repartee; and the costumes gorgeous. From the time the lights went up energy level was full speed ahead and I was transported to Shakespeare’s ribald, trenchant, lively world. The Queen surprises Shakespeare’s troupe with a visit hoping for a diversion from Essex’s impending execution. What she gets is a questioning and prodding from Ned Lowenscroft, an actor who plays strong lead women with great veracity, we’re told. (We just saw him act in one scene and I didn’t find him particularly convincing as a woman. Some kabuki actors are better and I know they’re men too.)
Much of the play’s energy comes from the sparring between Queen Elizabeth and Ned, who spar. Ned feels he can teach the queen how to be a real woman, i.e. forgiving and emotional. The Shakespeare and the actors were secondary figures, entertaining, but not in the lime light, which was fine. The troupe all seemed to feel the Queen should pardon Essex. What I felt was missing was a voice, a genuine voice that sided with the Queen. Essex did try to seize London and lead a rebellion. No one in this troupe  agreed that “off with his head” was a smart move. It seems to me in any gathering of more than 5 people, there’s bound to be a wide range of opinion.
The first act was swift and engaging, except for an interlude with Ned’s pet bear. I’m not sure what the purpose of that was. A stab at comic relief? It didn’t work for me.
The second half lagged slightly as the play didn’t cover new ground. Ned still urges the Queen to forgive her former lover, and he reveals more about his dearest lover who gave him the pox, i.e. syphillis, the story was interesting, but I don’t want the most powerful parts of a drama to be exposition. Some of the most interesting parts of the play were retold rather than dramatized.
All in all, if you’re looking for a lively, well acted play, if you want to consider some Elizabethan hypotheticals, go see the engaging Elizabeth Rex. After seeing the play I did wonder how plausible it was. Would Elizabethans think or speak of gender in these ways? It would be interesting to find some articles on that. I don’t suggest this as a fault but rather a springboard to deeper study.