Rarely, if ever, have I been so perplexed by a film’s critical accolades as I am by those bestowed upon Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. In step with the central protagonist’s self-indulgent quest for amorous fulfillment, Fellini slogs through a seemingly interminable sequence of disjointed episodes, drily recycling hackneyed interpretations of love, God, and death that never gel into a coherent story—let alone come close to deserving the film’s hallowed “work-of-art” reputation.
Like his previous films Winter Light and The Silence, Ingmar Bergman’s haunting—if sometimes pretentiously abstruse—film Persona superficially appears to reject the idea that God has a hand in human affairs. At this point in his career, the great Swedish director seems to be inclining instead toward an atheistic worldview in which his characters attempt to make sense of the harshness of reality, including death, mental illness, and the presence of evil. But Persona, a story of identity crisis from the perspectives of two women whose paths in life are temporarily intertwined, is much more than an exercise in such nihilistic futility.
The first few minutes of Lars von Trier’s genre-defying film Melancholia do what so few films in recent memory have done: celebrate the unexpected. A woman in a bridal dress? Birds falling slowly to earth and horses collapsing on their rear ends? A dark planet drifting through space? The “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde playing in the background? And it’s all shot in super slow motion. Later on, these seemingly disparate elements will begin to make sense, but they ultimately leave the viewer in a state of quiescent post-contemplation, never clarifying their intentions with semaphores.
There’s a moment in Richard Linklater’s mildly diverting—though grossly overtouted—magnum opus Boyhood that aptly serves as the point of departure for my critical reaction to it. It’s photography class, and slacking high schooler Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is frittering around in the dark room instead of buckling down and honing his craft, a fact that his snitty teacher accosts him about. Sure, the guy’s a scruffy-bearded, sanctimonious pusbag, but even a douche can be right sometimes.
The subject of the sumptuously photographed and artfully directed French film Renoir is not immediately apparent from the title. One might expect a biopic about Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet), a key figure in the French impressionist movement. But the film has almost as much to tell us about Pierre’s son Jean (Vincent Rottiers), a skilled artist in his own right who would go on to become one of the world’s most influential movie directors by creating such critically acclaimed classics as Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game. No matter. Renoir is less about artists than about the muses who inspire them.