Award season in the film industry has come and gone. During January and February, films with Oscar buzz are released in Irish cinemas. But of course, if a film has been greatly acclaimed, it is likely that it might not live up to an audience member’s high expectations. I have been thinking about the films I feel this way about. In particular, I am interested in discussing the films that I understood were good films when I saw them, but I would be lying if I said I thoroughly enjoyed watching them.
Take Roma, for example. Until Green Book won Best Picture at the Oscars, most pundits would have expected Roma to take home that prize. This would have been a very significant win. No foreign language film or film distributed by Netflix has ever won the award. Roma’s win would have made a strong political statement; a Mexican film would have won in a country where Trump is the president. Roma’s portrayal of an Oaxacan indigenous woman, Cleo, as its protagonist is something that is rarely seen on screen. Cleo works as a maid for an upper-middle-class white family in the 1970s; a time when there was great political turmoil in Mexico. The discomfort with this representation is potent in Mexico as the film is causing many to reconsider the way in which its indigenous people are treated.
Roma is important and timely, but it is also a well-crafted film. The performances are excellent, and it is beautifully shot; Alfonso Cuarón was the first director to ever take home the Best Cinematography award at the Oscars for his efforts. There are many things to like about the film including its primary focus on its female characters. Although I can recognise the brilliance of these aspects, I did not love Roma as I thought I might. Sometimes it was difficult to remain engaged because of the film’s slow pace. It is a film that is primarily interested in capturing the atmosphere of the setting rather than thrilling the audience. That said, exciting things definitely occur in the film, but Roma is certainly not tightly plotted. The viewer understands the tumultuous state Mexico is in because of how the city streets are piled with shouting crowds and there are bomb attacks even in hospitals. However, very little background information is given, and I longed to learn more. I also found it frustrating that although the family who Cleo works for clearly love her, she is overworked, it is lucky that she manages to celebrate New Year with her friends instead of looking after the children. I wanted her mistreatment to be explicitly addressed in the film.
Similarly, I did not connect with Phantom Thread as I thought I might. This film was released last year to much acclaim, but I only managed to see it recently. In this period drama, Daniel Day Lewis plays the talented and demanding fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock. Vicky Krieps plays Alma, who is initially his muse but as the film unfolds, it becomes apparent that she is not a meek woman Reynolds can easily manipulate. I thought I would adore this film and what is especially frustrating is that I can appreciate much about it. There are two main female characters in the film; Alma and Cyril Woodcock, Reynolds’ sister and I did adore how tenacious and powerful they both were. The dialogue is excellent, often hilarious, and dramatic; here are a few examples:
“Were you sent here to ruin my evening and possibly my entire life?”
“Don’t pick a fight with me. You certainly won’t come out alive.”
The cinematography is crisp and lovely to look at. I like how it spins the trope of the older man and his young, beautiful and eager muse on its head. And yet? I did not love this film. Even though I understood that the film’s content was good, and I liked the themes it explored, it did not emotionally resonate me. Similar to Roma, I wish the film had more of a plot; it was difficult to discern with clarity what the message of the film was because of this lack. Additionally, it was not always easy to understand what exactly the impulses of the characters were, Alma befuddled me the most.
Both of these films are subtle; they do not give you easy answers and I did struggle with that. Roma is a slice of life film and it does not fill in the gaps for you; the filmmakers likely hope that you will read up about the history alluded to after finishing the film. It was not always easy to understand the characters’ motivations in Phantom Thread but perhaps the film-makers are giving the audience room to make up their own mind about their inclinations. They feel like films that need to be thought more about and perhaps more viewings are necessary to better appreciate them. I did not love these two highly lauded films and admittedly, it does make me wonder if I might lack in the intelligence to understand them or if this somehow proves that I do not have good taste in film. What I must remind myself of is that art is subjective, and it is healthy for a diverse range of opinions on a film to exist. I might come to appreciate these films more in the future after subsequent viewings and even if I do not, it is important to be comfortable with your own individual taste in film, regardless of the buzz surrounding them.
By Brigid Malloy – Film Writer