on: Zola / Passing / Titane

It’s been a long time, and I have had next to no time to write, so I’m just posting some quick thoughts on three interesting female-fronted (both in front of and behind the camera) films that I’ve managed to see in the past month or so. My much lengthier review of Last Night In Soho will drop on the weekend


Ordinarily, it would be yet another sign of Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy for a movie to be based on, of all things, a Twitter thread. However, Janicza Bravo’s second feature film is full of interesting stylistic choices and directorial flair, digging into the racial and gender politics of Zola King’s viral Twitter thread to deliver a surprisingly nuanced take on the underbelly of sex work. Taylour Paige plays the titular Zola, roped into a road trip to Florida by Stefani’s (Riley Keough’s) promises of easy cash working the strip clubs, until it is made clear that Stefani and her roommate/pimp (Colman Domingo) have a much bigger plan in mind to make money.

There is a touch of the Lynchian to Bravo’s direction, from the self-consciously artificial composition of shots to little background splashes of the bizarre (1) to even the lighting, which shifts from the harsh Florida sunlight in day to a suffused neon haze at night. The choice to film in 16mm lends the film a scuzzy dirtiness that really works in tandem with the madcap zaniness of the plot, making @zola feel almost like an exploitation film watched during an acid trip. Beyond the general vibe, Bravo uses every weapon at her disposal to turn the movie into one of the purest exercises in style I have seen in a while – split diopter shots, lengthy tracking shots, and a goddamn penis montage are all present in @zola, and the best thing I can say is that this stylisation elevates the movie instead of simply being a distraction.

It also helps that the performances are uniformly excellent, led by an all-time great one by Riley Keough. To put it bluntly, Keough is doing blackface in this movie. Stefani, with her long acrylic nails, braided hair, and blaccent that could cut through steel, is a cultural appropriating she-devil who wears blackness when it suits her and drops it for a ‘who-me’ white-girl innocence once she is in trouble. And boy oh boy does Keough commit hard to the role. It is an extremely brave performance, brilliant in how she fully inhabits an infuriating and irritating character to the fullest, and it is no coincidence that the film suffers once Stefani is sidelined in the plot.

Which brings me to that weak-sauce ending, which is a thorough disappointment considering how great the preceding 90 minutes were. @zola just … ends. Like, not even in a deliberate anticlimax. It just cuts off, which is strange considering the original Twitter thread had a hell of an epilogue. It is a very strange creative decision, and one that really harms the overall quality of the film. Nonetheless, @zola is well worth the watch for its canny read on cultural appropriation and sex work, as well as its great performances and bravura style.

Final Verdict: Recommended.


Set in 1920s Harlem, Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut tells the story of Irene (Tessa Thompson), a black woman who lives in a state of relative domestic bliss, which gets upended when she encounters Claire (Ruth Negga), an old acquaintance who is now ‘passing’ as a white woman. Based on the novel by Nella Larsen, Passing is a finely poised, delicate film, one that invites the viewer to empathise with its protagonists while keeping them at arm’s length, almost as if to say that there will always be a limit to how much we can understand the travails of mixed-race women in that time period.

Part of this distancing is Hall’s decision to film the movie in a 1920s appropriate style, from the 4:3 aspect ratio and lush black-and-white photography (successful) to Dev Hynes’s tinkling jazz piano score in the background (less successful, it got a bit much after a while). Beyond that, this is a movie where people do not say what they really feel, with Thompson in particular communicating Irene’s turmoil through side glances and the smallest changes in expression. This opacity is more of a feature than a bug though, as the film makes clear just how precarious the position of both protagonists are thanks to their race – Irene’s middle class domestic comfort is jolted by the external spectre of racism and the internal fear of adultery, while Claire’s desire to reconnect with her roots brushes up against the very real possibility of being outed to her racist husband (Alexander Skarsgård).

As such, this is the rare melodrama where barely any sparks fly, a film of deep emotional conflict that is barely witnessed but keenly felt nonetheless. The lead actors are quite superb, with Negga particularly impressive as the vivacious Claire, conveying with nuance and sensitivity the character’s loneliness and yearning through her seeming shallowness. It is a pity, however, that more is not done to dissect the twists and turns of the characters’ strange relationship, with this being perhaps an issue of adaptation – it’s much easier to go into a character’s head in prose compared to film.

Nonetheless, there is more than enough in Passing to make it a movie worth your while. It deals with a refreshingly unique topic with subtlety and grace, and features an excellent pair of lead performances. Hall’s direction is steady and even-handed, and there is plenty of promise in this debut to look forward to the future of this filmmaker.

Final Verdict: Recommended


There has never been a Palme d’Or winner quite like this one. The Palme, which is the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival (and possibly the most prestigious film award in the world), has gone to films as varied and eclectic as Barton Fink, La Dolce Vita, and The Third Man. There is no ‘Palme Bait’ in the same way there is ‘Oscar Bait’ (2) and the Palme has never shied away from controversy (Fahrenheit 9/11), violence (Pulp Fiction) or explicit sex (Blue Is The Warmest Colour). But still, there has never been a Palme winner quite like this one. A brief plot summary would go like this. Alexia (Agathe Rouselle) is an exotic dancer who writhes on top of cars by day and fucks them (yes, I do mean that literally) by night. Oh, and she’s also a serial killer. After discovering that she is pregnant with the car’s baby (and bleeding motor oil), she murders a household of half-naked people and flees into the night. She then disguises herself as Adrien Legrand, a young boy who disappeared a decade ago, and is unquestioningly accepted as Adrien by his father Vincent, a firefighter captain who injects himself with steroids and leads a fire station where the firefighters homoerotically dance with each other while bathed in pink light.

So … yeah. Oh, did I mention that Titane also has approximately two or three of the most painful body horror scenes I have ever experienced, including one where Alexia breaks her own nose using the corner of a sink? This is not what most would expect from the term ‘award-winning French movie’, with Julia Ducournau’s sophomore feature owing more to the tradition of the violently nasty ‘New French Extreme’ horror movies like Martyrs or Inside rather than the classic arthouse film. However, it would be a mistake to claim that Titane aims purely to shock its audience – rather, I would say that Titane aims to shock its audience into realising its ideas, because boy does Titane have a lot to say about the male gaze, the female body, familial relations, and the gendered expectations within the patriarchy.

Now are any of Titane‘s points coherent? That’s a lot harder to parse through, and I suspect I will need a second viewing to give a definitive answer to that. This is in contrast to Ducournau’s first feature Raw, one of my favourite films of the 2010s and a film that felt a lot more in control of its central metaphor. Titane is a far more ambitious film than Raw, and Ducournau’s immense talent is evidently abundant in it, from her uncanny skill at increasing tension to unbearable levels before releasing it in a quick moment of violence, to a spectacular opening shot after the main credits tracking Alexia in a continuous long take as she prowls across the car showroom to her object of desire. This ambition however, seems to dilute whatever Titane‘s central message is, and her ideas, while excellent, add up to less than the sum of their parts.

Still, Titane is a stunning, bracing work of auteurist originality. Nobody, and I mean nobody is making shit like this, with the closest comparison I could come up with being 80s Cronenberg in its fusion of body horror and heady philosophy. And if Julia Ducournau becomes the 2020s version of 80s Cronenberg, then we are all in for a sickening (and excellent) time. This is one of the few filmmakers working today that I am ride or die for. Whatever insane, twisted shit Ducournau releases, I’m up for it. This is daring, disturbing, provocative filmmaking that excites, disgusts, and challenges in equal measure, and even if she cannot quite hit the heights in Titane that she is aiming for, Julia Ducournau already separates herself from 99% of other filmmakers by even attempting the flight.

Final Verdict: Hard to say. Highly recommended if you can stomach some very nasty violence and some batshit crazy plot developments, stay far away if that’s not your thing.

  1. Like a little person lounging near the pool at night or a man playing steel drums in a lobby lounge to no one in particular
  2. For clarification, this means a middlebrow movie (often a biopic or ‘based on a true story’) feinting at a deeper issue without ever tackling it with nuance or intelligence. It will have big names doing lots of ‘ACTING’ and conclude in a way that encourages the continuation of the status quo or allow the viewer to pat themselves on the back for ‘how far we’ve come’. It will look handsome and do nothing interesting. It will suck.






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