As Sundance 2021 nears its conclusion, here’s another round of swift reviews from the last few days of premieres.
Misha and the Wolves (Sam Hobkinson/ UK, Belgium/ 2021/ 90 mins) is a Holocaust documentary with a difference; one that explores the limits of believability and the morality between commodifying the horrific legacy of the Nazi death camps. In 1988, Misha Defonseca, a Belgian woman living in New England revealed told an incredible tale at her local synagogue. At the age of seven, she took off on foot across Nazi-occupied Europe to try and find her deported parents. She survived by befriending a local pack of wolves, living with them, and therefore avoiding the worst violence of the war. It became a best-selling book in France, and was even turned into a film. But some of the details just didn’t add up.
Hobkinson’s film is very much in the style of The Imposter and Three Identical Strangers, documentaries about the creation of the narratives around their subjects as the subjects themselves. As such, from the way its structured, the twists and turns may not be as surprising as the filmmakers would otherwise wish. Still, this is an incisive and hugely entertaining exercise in the deconstruction of myth, the way we handle trauma, and the endless human capacity to find a quick buck from an atrocity. Undeniably manipulative – not unlike its subject – but slick, fascinating, and disturbing. 4/5.
Trauma also fuels the protagonist Edee in Land (Robin Wright/ USA/ 2020/ 89 mins). Unable to cope around people after a massive personal tragedy, she decides to live off the grid in Wyoming. She buys a little cabin in the mountains, with nothing but tinned supplies and whatever she can forage. This works in Summer, but come Winter Edee’s hubris has dire consequences. Only the aid of Alawna (Sarah Dawn Pledge), a local nurse, and her friend Miguel (Demián Bichir) saves her from a freezing, hungry death. Miguel promises to teach Edee to hunt, fish, and become more self-sufficient, and the two begin to form a tentative friendship.
Land suffers from a few problems. The first is that it’s reminiscent of more dynamic films with similar themes like Wild and Tracks. Wright does what she can in an impressive, largely physical performance, but Edee’s intentional inertia means its drama runs at a constant, low pulse. This leads to the second problem, which feels like way too much of a course correction. After Edee and Miguel become friends and that’s a huge and manipulative leap into melodrama. It’s perhaps evidence of a lack of confidence in the material, but it’s hugely jarring. It’s a shame, as Wright and Bechir have a nice, platonic chemistry even if neither character is defined by anything except their respective pain. One wonders what an Andrea Arnold or a Kelly Reichardt would have done with the material. 2/5.
No pacing issue in Pleasure (Ninja Thyberg/ Sweden, Netherlands, France/ 2021/ 100 mins), a stygian plunge into the LA porn scene that feels like some unholy, fluid-splattered, threesome between A Star is Born, Showgirls, and Gaspar Noé. Astonishing first-time actress Sofia Kappel plays 19-year-old Jessica aka, Bella Cherry, a strident, but predictably naive arrival from Sweden who must navigate the twists and turns and innumerable abuses required to make it in the world of adult entertainment.
Expanding on her earlier short film of the same name, Thyberg has surrounded Kappel with various real-life veterans of the scene for a clear-eyed, and often horrifying picaresque journey. Much exploitation is depicted, but Pleasure is not exploitative itself, given we see everything with subjective immediacy through the eyes of Bella. Much of the graphic material is male – Kappel is shown naked but never involved in anything explicit – and Bella’s journey is anything except titillating. The nasty, grubby side of the business isn’t glossed over. Like eating a burger after seeing a documentary of a slaughterhouse, it certainly makes one question the nature of what you plan to consume. Bella is confident. Until she is isn’t. Bella won’t be exploited. Until she is. She can handle the rough stuff. Until she can’t. However, besides its bold and chilling frankness, structurally it’s familiar fare. There’s the caring mentor figure, sleazy lotharios, the slide to rock bottom. What it does have is that stunning central performance and a weirdly beautiful choral score that adds an ethereal edge to this most earthbound of narrative. 3/5.