What I love about Mulholland Dr. is its full commitment to and immersion in this world of chaotic femininity that almost seems to loop and has no beginning, middle, or end. It’s my favorite film, and I think it’s the best film about actresses and being an actress. How Lynch destabilizes the idea of what a realistic character is—I find that more true to the chaotic emotional reality that the film is trying to convey than something more linear. This film just plucks away at something deep and dark in the back of my monkey brain, and I can’t get enough of it. The way he uses mood and sound, and the way he has nightmarish visions and images, like the lady behind the dumpster—he just lets that hover over the film and you feel like you’re going to see her again but you never do. I know there have been criticisms of the way he portrays women, particularly white women, and white people. People critique the lack of diversity in his films, and I understand why, but I almost feel as though ideas like whiteness and femininity are characters in his films that he explodes in the way I believe they should be.
Full disclosure: Lena is one of my best friends, but this was a film that I latched onto and loved long before I even met her. I see it as The Graduate for my generation of girls. The first time I watched it, I felt so dragged and so seen, as though my post-collegiate neuroses were just laid bare and my illogical chaotic feminine misbehavior just strung up for everybody to see. Dead-end jobs, complicated mother-daughter relationships, complicated sister-sister relationships: Dunham explores these things with a mix of levity and fearless vulgarity that makes her work feel so true and so to the gut.
Clouds of Sils Maria
I always come back to this idea of chaotic femininity or chaotic femme. It’s a discourse I have with some of my nerdier friends, like a standard for representations of women that we gravitate to and are driven crazy by. What Assayas does in this film, with the layers of fiction and reality, and representation of representations of representations, is similar to Mulholland Dr.: he interrogates this idea of the actress and the very idea of a character, and leaves you with a queasy feeling about what it all adds up to. What I love about this, particularly as embodied in Juliette Binoche’s performance, is the idea of a woman who is resigned to a downfall and is just fascinated to see how it all plays out. What is this thing that leads women with stable socioeconomic circumstances and certain amounts of privilege (in this case, fame and fortune) to self-destruct? It’s an endlessly fascinating question to me, and I love the way this film explores it. I also immensely enjoy seeing American stars like Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz in this complicated, dark, serpentine French film. Those are some of my favorite performances by each of the three women. I love films about actresses; they always hit me right where it hurts.
Andrea Arnold’s films in general, and particularly this one, just feel so real. They gaze at women living on the outskirts of society, behaving outside conventional morality, without seeming sensational. The way the camera follows its protagonist in this film is so gentle and so unlike the cinematography in films with similar subject matter that are trying to give a piercing revelation of what it’s like for women in desperate circumstances. In Arnold’s film, no matter how deep into the pits we go, I never feel like I’m watching poverty porn. I feel like I’m watching flawed characters play themselves out to their logical conclusion.
What is it about horny rich people misbehaving in the countryside that is just an endless source of cinematic gold? I love the way this film, whether wittingly or unwittingly, portrays the abjection of the desire and romantic practice of a man who seemingly has it all figured out. He’s in his last summer of freedom before marrying himself off, and he’s misbehaving with these teenage girls—but you don’t for a second disbelieve the subjectivity of these girls. In fact, you end up getting sucked into their relationships with him. This film gets under the skin and into the nooks and crannies of what we do when our passions are high and we’re very bored. It’s a little pervy, and we can question the age differences and the ethics of what’s going on sexually and romantically, but I think the film questions them as well, and we’re able to see strange desire from multiple angles. It just washes over you and you understand it. It’s very French in that way.
What can I say about Julianne Moore other than that she is a queen and a goddess and I love her. This film is so unsettling, and I find it hard to describe because the monsters and enemies are invisible. What is leading this woman who is technically fine, technically well-off, technically clean, and technically shouldn’t have anything to worry about down this spiral of sickness and paranoia? I often feel that way about myself when I’m dealing with existential crises of my own. I count my blessings, but I can’t get away from, at certain points, this feeling that something is wrong, and this film hit me right there. Haynes was ahead of his time in creating that sort of ominous, intrusive, odious ambiance without beating you over the head with outright horror or contagion, or all of the easy ways to get you to feel scared. It’s all that isn’t being seen in the film that is scariest.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
I’m always fascinated by what girls do with their trauma. Laura Palmer is a girl who is caught up in some bad shit and is a victim of sexual abuse. She understands, in some way because of her trauma, that she can never be this clean, perfect girl that everyone thinks she is, and instead of succumbing to self-hatred internally, she externalizes it and seizes control of her narrative as a bad girl, as a dirty girl, always choosing her path to destruction and chaos, which I find perverse but also can’t tear my eyes away from. The way Lynch bridges fantasy and reality and uses supernatural forces to symbolize trauma feels like a more accurate representation of the chaos that trauma wreaks in somebody’s mind and body than a cold, hard naturalistic portrayal. I love that he was able to circumvent TV censorship and really show what was going on in the dark.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
What I love most about this film is its scale, its claustrophobic shots, its intensely glamorous women coming in and out of a single room, and its acute exploration of a single woman’s downfall. We’re seeing a pattern here in these movies; I struggle with anxiety, I struggle with depression, I often feel crazy dealing with my own emotions and the emotions of others, and I am continually fascinated by cinematic representations of women dealing with the same things. Petra von Kant scrapes at the bottom of what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a successful woman, what it means to be a woman in love and have all of these things and yet feel worthless. It’s also about a life in fashion, which is something that I’ve lived. There’s just a tension in that film between interiority and exteriority, embodied so well by those hyper-stylized shots and the cinematography. The film articulates a very specifically feminine kind of anguish that Fassbinder captures so well.
There’s no film like it. It’s a mixed-media film that blends animation with real time, and absurd comedy with deeply real horror. It’s just super fun and almost like Dada. It just makes you laugh when you’re probably not supposed to and makes you scream when you’re probably supposed to be laughing. I love things that are both terrifying and humorous, and that film is just a ride unlike any other. It’s so vivid and well designed and visionary. It’s a perfect midnight movie—not unlike Assassination Nation.
Pier Paolo Pasolini
Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom
I didn’t know there were films that represented the things represented in this film. I didn’t know you could do that. People didn’t think you could do that when this film came out. I always ask myself: how macabre can we go, how graphic can we go, how dark can we go. And the commitment of these actors to the horror that they’re subjected to in this film—you can’t fake that stuff; it’s happening. This nudity is happening, this scatological stuff . . . I don’t know how much of that stuff was happening, but it’s just pure terror and pure excess. There’s also something unwittingly seductive about the beautiful, heightened elements of the film. There aren’t many films that communicate the dangers and trespasses of fascism better than this one. The terror is not in some externalized war story, it’s something that is very domestic and very tangible. You can’t forget a film like Salò, and the shock and the horror of it make such an effective medium for its serious political themes. I think it kind of shares that with Assassination Nation.
Jonathan Lethem’s Top 10
Winner of a 2005 MacArthur Foundation Fellows Program genius grant, Jonathan Lethem is one of America's premier contemporary writers. His works include the novels The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn.
Dennis Lim’s Top 10
In the spirit of a double-feature series at Film at Lincoln Center currently underway, the venerable institution’s director of programming has put together ten pairings that highlight thematic and stylistic parallels throughout our collection.