“First Reformed”: Paul Schrader’s Homage to (or Rip-Off of) Ingmar Bergman’s “Winter Light”

May 14, 2018 § 4 Comments

Paul Schrader and Ethan Hawke at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theater, May 10 2018/Hope Anderson Productions


Spoiler Alert: This review contains plot details
Paul Schrader’s new film, “First Reformed,” is about faith and the loss of it. Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke), the pastor of an austere Dutch Calvinist church in upstate New York, is a man in mourning for his dead son and failed marriage. Spurning the romantic attentions of his ex-girlfriend, Esther, and suffering from a serious illness he’s determined not to treat, Toller subsists mostly on alcohol while going through the motions of his job. Not that it matters, as only a handful of parishioners show up at services. In fact, First Reformed survives only because it is supported by a much larger church whose leader, Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) regards it as historical monument: before the Civil War, it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. As part of his preservation effort, the well-meaning Jeffers tries to minister to the alcoholic and faithless Toller, to no avail.

Ethan Hawke in “First Reformed”


In his journal Toller writes: “I know that nothing can change and I know there is no hope.” Yet both arrive on his doorstep in the form of a young couple who seek his counsel. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant and desperately worried about her husband Michael, an environmental activist who pressures Mary to have an abortion rather than bring a child into a world beset by climate change. Rev. Toller sets out to persuade Michael to embrace life, but instead is quickly seduced by his nihilism. Michael’s suicide propels Toller to greater extremes, even as he embarks on a friendship with Mary that progresses into love.

Paul Schrader, who was raised in a Calvinist church so extreme that he didn’t see a movie until he was 17, knows Christianity’s downside well. So did Ingmar Bergman, whose father, a Lutheran minister, meted out punishments at odds with the teachings of Christ. Set in winter, “First Reformed” reminded me so much of Bergman’s films that I mentioned it to my seatmate, who brought up “Winter Light.” Never having seen this 1963 film, I watched it afterwards and was astounded at the similarities, from the plot to the glasses worn by the lovelorn female characters.

Gunar Björnstrand and Max von Sydow in “Winter Light”


Like Toller, Tomas (Gunar Björnstrand) is the pastor of a small country church with a dwindling congregation. Middle-aged and widowed, he ministers with all the passion of an office worker clocking time until retirement. As does Toller, he mistreats his ex-girlfriend Märta (Ingrid Thulin), who remains desperately in love even as he repeatedly rejects her. Speaking directly at the camera, Märta responds:

I see I did it all wrong….Every time I’ve hated you I’ve made an effort to turn it into compassion….Nothing can save you–you’ll hate yourself to death.

Before he can, however, Tomas hastens the demise of a depressed congregant who, like Michael, comes to him at the behest of his wife. Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) is suicidal because the Chinese have threatened to use nuclear weapons. Instead of reassuring him, Tomas insists on confessing his own loss of faith:

If there is no God, would it really make a difference? Life would become understandable. What a relief. And thus death would be a snuffing out of life, the dissolution of body and soul. Cruelty, loneliness and fear–all these things would be straightforward and transparent….There is no Creator.

With help like that, why go on? Jonas doesn’t but Tomas does, forging ahead with his ministry because the long-suffering Märta shows up at church when no one else does. A single devoted parishioner is enough, apparently.

Though “First Reformed” has a much more tragic ending, its similarities to “Winter Light” are beyond coincidental. At the screening I attended last week, Paul Schrader and Ethan Hawke spoke at length about “First Reformed,” yet neither acknowledged “Winter Light,” much less credited it as source material. Having seen both, I think Bergman’s film is far better–moving, profound and indelible. Schrader falls back on magic realism and violence to drive home the message of “First Reformed.” Bergman, the unequaled master of realism, needed neither.

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Within “Boyhood,” An Equally Compelling Womanhood

July 18, 2014 § 1 Comment

Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater and Ellar Coltrane in "Boyhood"/Courtesy IFC Films

Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater and Ellar Coltrane in “Boyhood”/Courtesy IFC Films

Although nearly a week has passed since I saw Richard Linklater’s moving twelve-years-in-the-making masterpiece, I’m still thinking about “Boyhood.” As myriad reviewers can attest, it is as close to perfect as any film, and so compelling that its two hours and twenty-four minutes fly by.

Yet unlike plot-driven movies, “Boyhood” has none of the conventional elements: no inciting incident, no climax, no three-act structure. (Take that, screenwriting teachers.) Rather, the film is a compilation of many small and large events that in aggregate become something huge: Life. And not just the life of the boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), but that of his father (Ethan Hawke), mother (Patricia Arquette), sister (Lorelei Linklater), and numerous friends and relatives. (Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know what’s in it, don’t read further.)

Arguably, the character who undergoes the greatest change in “Boyhood” is not Mason Evans, Jr. but his mother, Olivia. When the film begins, she is a young single mother of two small children. Her ex-husband has been absent for nearly a year, and she is struggling to make ends meet. Soon after he returns from Alaska, she moves the children to Houston so that she can finish her college degree and better her job prospects. By the time Olivia is in graduate school, she has married one of her professors, creating a blended family with his two children. But when the marriage ends because of his alcoholism and abusiveness, Olivia must move the children again–this time for safety’s sake. By then a professor, she falls in love with an older student, an Iraq War veteran studying on the GI bill. But that marriage founders too, as her once charming new husband becomes a sullen prison guard who drinks too much. At the end, when Mason leaves for college, Olivia is on her own–older, wiser and a little tearful as she faces an empty nest. But there’s never a doubt she’ll triumph over this new phase of life, just as she has all the others.

Three divorces in two decades is a lot to endure, but Linklater never paints Olivia as less than a responsible, loving parent. (The feckless one is Mason, Sr., with his absences and seatbelt-free GTO, though in time he too grows up.) And although Mason once refers to his mother’s husbands and boyfriends as “a parade of drunken fools,” he is unembittered and loving toward her throughout his eighteen years.

Among the many revelations of “Boyhood,” is Richard Linklater’s genius as a filmmaker. Regardless of whether we’ve shared the Evans family’s experiences, he somehow manages to make them familiar–so much so that we feel they might have been ours. In following this ordinary family’s progress through life, he shines a mirror on our lives too.

The Importance of Julie Delpy

May 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

Julie Delpy

Julie Delpy

Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine article on Julie Delpy reminded me of a conversation I had years ago with a friend who worked in the film industry (and still does). This was in the mid-nineties, when Delpy was studying film at NYU, a choice that impressed me. “Ugh, I can’t stand her,” he said. Because my friend was a man who loved women in general and actresses in particular, his opinion–and his inability to explain it–puzzled me. Who wouldn’t love Julie Delpy? I should have been clued in by his gushing enthusiasm for Renee Zellweger, whom he had recently met at a film festival and whose squinty charms were lost on me. If ever there was an anti-Zellweger, it’s Julie Delpy.

Flash forward to last January, when Delpy, now a director as well as an actress, appeared at a Q &A at the Aero in conjunction with a screening of two of her films (“Two Days in New York,” and “Two Days in Paris.”) Having never seen her live, I was struck by how different she was from most actresses I’ve encountered. Part of it was physical: unlike the size-0-with-breast-implants standard type, she was a normal sized woman, complete with hips and a few extra pounds. She also hadn’t made any special effort to dress or make up for the appearance, coming onstage in jeans and a sweater, like most of the audience. But more striking than her appearance was her attitude, which though engaging was utterly free of ingratiation. She was, in a word, herself: funny, opinionated, idiosyncratic and completely lacking in Hollywood pretense. I’ve met a variety of actors over the years, and (with the notable exception of Henry Winkler, surely the nicest and most unpretentious famous man in town), they radiate an odd self-consciousness, as if they’re perpetually watching themselves instead of simply being. That night, Delpy was not only comfortable simply being but–as she told stories about being fired by every agency in town and turned down by Vanity Fair’s Oscar Party for not being a big enough star–clearly unconcerned about others’ perceptions of her.

While there are a few actresses who seem indifferent to public adoration–Jennifer Jason Leigh and Debra Winger come to mind–Julie Delpy is another sort. She’s not aloof or implosive or defiant; she’s simply free of whatever impulse makes most other actresses mold themselves to industry specifications. In the Times Magazine article, she says:

In movies, you mostly see people who make an effort….Am I going to spend two hours at the gym? I can’t do it; it’s excruciatingly boring. I feel like I’m losing time.

In the time she hasn’t lost, Delpy has written and directed five films. Her new movie is one she co-wrote as well as acts in: “Before Midnight,” the third installment of the romantic series she’s made with Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater. Upcoming are two French movies she’ll direct, and two American projects. Yet despite being based in Los Angeles, she still can’t get financing here; instead, she cobbles the money from French companies and various investors, in true indie style. Perhaps if she were more of a player–or male–she’d get studio financing. But then she wouldn’t be herself, which makes the matter moot.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/19/magazine/julie-delpy-dreams-of-being-joe-pesci.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

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