Heart of Glass

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby


by Karina Wolf

At times she is repulsive. If the appeal of an actor begins at the encounter of her human form, Isabelle Huppert, arguably France’s most masterful and compelling actress, can put off.  At first, perhaps, it was a question of age.  As a young woman Huppert was a rose gold blonde, freckled, pale: she appeared to live at a different resolution from those around her.  In itself, this distinction is an advantage for a star: in any frame, the eye is compelled by her presence.  But unlined, her feline face—the staunch brow and cheek, the graceful mouth, the clear green eyes that take in everything but reveal little—can make her emotions feel recalcitrant, her reserve willful or arbitrary. With age come stakes; the heft of a tendency becomes hardened, a quality transforms into a handicap. At 64, Huppert’s face is as stunning as it’s ever been, but it’s as if years have cut away frivolity. Her neutrality now conveys the most subtle temperatures of discernment and of compulsion. Isabelle Huppert is foremost an actress of maturity.

The most instructive introduction to her work is Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, a breakthrough film though decades into her career that brings her passionate temperament in conflict with the terminal dilemmas of middle age. The drama follows the affair between Erika (Huppert), a repressed conservatory instructor, and Walter (Benoît Magimel), the pupil with whom she engages in an obsessive, sadomasochistic affair.  Overwhelmed by desire, Walter forces Erika from a bathroom stall and embraces her, the culmination of an inexorable attraction. In his arms, limp, Erika allows herself to be held, revealing nothing of her own feeling. It is a powerful non-behavior, an existence through non-existence. Repeatedly Walter attempts a sexual encounter; Erika participates and then refuses to give in to the desire she seems to feel. The scene is a counterpoint to the minutes-long kiss in Hitchcock’s Notorious, where the British director interrupts an embrace with whispered dialogue to subvert censors and to raise the audience’s erotic temperature. Here the odd coitus interruptus compels the characters; frustration brings Erika and her audience a grim fascination. She agrees to be involved with Walter but only under conditions requiring her own degradation, which she will describe in a letter. Later, on the street, a passerby slams into her, and resolutely in character, Huppert is thrown back. Her body is outside her control, an automaton. Haneke’s film isn’t supernatural, but it feels like a thriller: Erika would appear to be possessed.

Huppert’s character becomes more disturbing the more we follow her; she finds herself the sole woman among a half dozen men at a porn shop. In a private booth, she watches hardcore films and reaches for a discarded tissue, containing the previous occupant’s ejaculate, holds it to her face and inhales. For the duration, her face is watchful, open, neutral. She might be compelled but she is not exactly excited. She might be learning arousal, as Zizek asserts, or, in the truest sense of perversion, her desires might express themselves only in elaborately redirected behaviors. This blankness, this doll-like stance is what perhaps has obstructed Huppert from being attractive in the sense that a star is normally attractive. A star’s charisma draws a viewer into the subjectivity of a role and leads her through a story. For much of her career Huppert does not attempt to draw in; merely, supremely, she embodies. She behaves with the reflexive ugliness of the unwatched.

“It’s being aware of what it is to lose oneself, just before you abandon everything.” Erika describes her favorite composer, Robert Schumann, who battled mental illness, but the narrative is clearly a message about herself.  In The Piano Teacher, sensuality is exclusively the domain of music. As with many Huppert characters, Erika holds a tenacious grip on the unhappy world she inhabits; the precipice beyond her considerable defenses is terrifying.


Isabelle Huppert’s star is inextricably connected to the work of several directors, beginning with Claude Chabrol, for whom she played Violette Noziere (1978), a woman convicted of killing both her parents. Chabrol’s career began alongside French New Wave colleagues Eric Rohmer and Francois Truffaut, but Chabrol’s tastes adhered more strictly to genre, deepening the definition of mystery and noir rather than hybridizing it (as perhaps Truffaut did). In his leading lady, Chabrol recognized an artist who paints with a similarly bloodied brush. For Huppert is a thematic rather than a chameleonic actress. She has, for example, played a title role in Jean Genet’s The Maids and a principle in Chabrol’s La Cérémonie—both parts based upon the case of Christine and Léa Papin, French maids who brutally murdered their employers. She returns to and elaborates upon certain emotional defenses: repression as protection, perversion as empowerment, murder as agency.

When asked if she had a role model, Huppert has said outright that she has none. She grew up outside Paris and had seen few films before she began acting as a teenager. In this sense, among others, she is an actress of instinct and self-creation. She certainly has craft but is loathe to talk about the genesis of a character. She speaks about a role as an experience, in the French sense of the word, connoting an experiment. She learns through doing, and thereby bypasses judging her characters. “In fact, I never say character, I say person,” Huppert has protested, as if the reminder of the fiction estranges her from commingling with the role.

All the same, Huppert is a remarkably nuanced interview subject, gamely loquacious, even flirty, strikingly attentive. She understands the purpose of press: not only to sell a particular film but to seduce the audience. She plays with the conflation of performer and fiction, knowing that an essential component of her specific success is the link between the living person and the acted role. How does Huppert the woman bridge the transformation to the extremity of her imaginary characters? Is it punishing to live these fictions; or, conversely, does she contain so many characteristics of these contradictory women that they are merely extensions of herself? In other words, is Huppert more of an actress or more of a star?

Perhaps because of the longevity of her career and her precocious capacity for dramatic roles, Huppert has been contextualized as a French Meryl Streep. But the comparison is an injustice to both. While Streep has broadened her oeuvre with forays into comedy, Huppert has doubled down as femme fatale, even when her films are not strictly speaking film noir. Consistent with noir’s dark angels, her characters’ domestic needs are often negligible, living outside of marriage and motherhood. Their emotional and libidinal appetites are satisfied in grapples for power.  As provocative as these parts are, the roles are not gratuitous. Huppert turned down Michael Haneke’s thriller Funny Games in which two men capture and torture a family, saying that the film’s violence was more conceptual than dramatic. She was not in tune with terrorizing an audience instead of telling a story, a distinction that suggests that despite the extremity of her roles, Huppert is more actor than provocateur. In this sense she may be closer in craft and in taste to Nicole Kidman, another redhead whose physical presence and finely tuned froideur make her excel as a psychologically nuanced anti-hero. One can also put forth a case for Huppert as auteur, since a Huppert role confers the tension of unchecked transgression, as distinct as the alien authority imparted by Tilda Swinton, or the glamorizing spell of Catherine Deneuve, or the emotional floridity of Juliette Binoche.  

Huppert was close friends with Natalie Sarraute, whose seminal nouveau roman Tropisms and fictionalized biography Enfance define a narrative self in nearly preconscious rushes of dialogue. Huppert, whose characters are pointedly precise in gesture and feeling, is nonetheless an actress minted in deconstruction.  Every Huppert scene is about a multiplicity of feelings and desires, about disconnected pieces of a woman cohabitating uneasily. “I don’t think I ever played a bad woman, I played women in bad situations.  But conversely, I like exploring monstrous situations.  Monstrosity as something normal, something unrecognizable.”


Huppert is a kind of siren. Seemingly any director will do anything to cast her. When Michael Cimino was fresh from the success of his five Academy Award wins for The Deer Hunter and planning the period western Heaven’s Gate, the director looked at every A-list actress for his lead. Huppert’s English was not as supple as it is today, but Cimino demanded that she play the prostitute who enchants Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken. Cimino’s insistence on casting Huppert was one of the earliest signs of trouble for the production (its pointillistic depiction of the Old West led to budgetary excesses that helped to bankrupt United Artists). Huppert has been notably miscast in other English language productions, in offbeat comedies (such as Hal Hartley’s Amateur and in David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees) and in dramas where she’s cast as the powerful mother to a starring actress (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Dead Man Down).  But the misfires always seem to be a misconception of production rather than performer. Huppert can also be the key to a director’s rebirth, as in the case of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle.

Elle begins swiftly with a home invasion and rape. Huppert’s Michele would normally be called the victim; a masked perpetrator leaves her violated and bloodied on her dining room floor. Without conforming to the conventions of a vengeance drama, Michele is not remotely a victim. She gives no evidence of an urge for retribution in a legal or an extra-legal sense. She brushes up the broken glass, disposes of her torn dress, and orders sushi. She lies in her bath, contemplating the bloom of blood floating above her body.  But when the rapist continues to contact her, Michele employs a coolly improvisational bravado to best him on his perverse terms. Huppert has admitted she likes to snoop and to unearth, to peek behind doors at dinner parties. In Elle, we witness the result of that curiosity, as Huppert employs a woman’s most contradictory, even pathological urges as weapons against violation. About her Oscar-nominated role, she has said, “[Michele] is prototype, a new type of a woman. She’s a post-feminist character, building her own behavior in space.  She doesn’t want to be a victim no… she’s the result of men’s failure.”  And though Michele remains something of a mystery in the film—it is unclear whether her psychology evolves or remains unchanged as she continues onward to new chapters of complication—here at last we find Huppert in a role that reaches out to an audience. Her Elle is not to be emulated, but the character has humor and power, an amorality that is loathsome and admirable.  She is a bit of a scoundrel; she is a survivor.  As Huppert has said, “In reality, people are never to be reduced to one definition… Life is not one genre.”

Karina Wolf is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She has written copy and essays about food, fashion, film and art. She is the author of the children’s book The Insomniacs, and she lives in New York City.

Time is Part of the Work: An Interview with Agnes Varda

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby


by Aaron Stewart-Ahn

I am at the beach with Agnès Varda. I’ve made an audio recording of it, but sometimes our words are washed out by the low roar of waves and wind hissing over the sand. Playing it back, trying to recall the moment, I can faintly hear her say:

“I live in Paris… But my mind is always… (she giggles) Near the sea. Very often. It’s my favorite landscape. Above all.”

There are photographers everywhere these days, and they’re all around us, but for the first time that day Agnès asks politely, humbly if I’ll take a photograph of her. So I do. It’s a nerve wracking thing, taking a photo of someone who was a photojournalist in Cuba and China in the 50s & 60s, a woman who helped create the bedrock of independent filmmaking with some of the greatest French actors, redefined documentary filmmaking, and is now a globally renowned visual artist. My hands are a little shaky at first, but she knows how to direct, steadfast and commanding. She likes to call the sound a camera shutter makes “clack” and so, clack, clack, the 35mm photo is taken, waiting to be developed over time.

As I pull the camera viewfinder away I see Agnès’ wonderfully serene, somewhat mischievous face, and yet the sky and the waves are divided by a sharp, straight edge. Because we are not at the seaside, we are on the fifth floor of a building on the Upper East Side of New York City, the Blum & Poe art gallery, and this beach is a work of installation art she has created, Bord de Mer.

“In my imagination, the sea invades everything,” she says. “It’s between reality and imagination. And I do it the way I feel.”


It cannot be stressed enough that Agnès Varda is a monumental filmmaker. Her influence cannot be overestimated, and yet is still often underreported. Before she tells us in her own words, let us consider: Agnès Varda was born in Brussels in 1928. During World War II her family moved to the South of France, partly in Sète, a seaside town. She studied art history at the Louvre, but at night took classes on photography.

In another room of the gallery, we are looking at the very same prints Agnès made in 1954 when she exhibited her photos on window shutters and ladders in the courtyard of a building on Paris’ Rue Daguerre. I don’t mean to be impolite when I note that Agnès is 88 years old, I mean it with admiration, and her memories are full of startling asides.

“I put fliers up in my bakery, my butcher, maybe twenty shops nearby… I just gave my neighbors a little flier. And some people came. Among my neighbors, I must say, there was the painter Hans Hartung and the [legendary photographer] Brassai, who lived on the next street. I took a portrait of Brassai on film, later.”

She has lived and made films on that street ever since, sometimes quite literally: in her film Daguerrotypes (1975), she documents the lives of the workers in the local shops and cafes she once left fliers in. She even bought a hardware store seen in the film, which she later converted into her film editing studio. For a while she sold DVDs of her movies to visitors from around the world through the window, living out a daydream, she says, of being a shopkeeper.

“So they are the exact prints I showed in 1954. I shouldn’t have done it, but when I found them in a box, they were so badly preserved that I threw two away. I don’t even remember which ones. So I don’t give value to my own work. As it’s just a memory of my work. But now it’s valuable. It’s funny for me.”

Agnès was quick to embrace digital filmmaking and was a pioneer in using it for documentary filmmaking. I ask her if she is still taking photographs on film.

“When I started to make a lot of films, I stopped taking photos. Even when I went on trips, I can’t believe it, like when I went to Mexico, but I wouldn’t take my stills camera. But I started to take photos again, after 2000. So I have recent photos. Something I do now is I join silver prints, with silver negatives, and on the side of a triptych I do photos with digital and color. I like to reconciliate black and white and color, the past and the present, the digital and the authentic. It’s like trying to make everything simple for me. It’s not ‘that time’ or ‘this time’. It’s mixing time and technique.”

One haunting photo of a man and a boy, taken on a beach in Calais in May 1954, Agnès would make a film about forty years later (Ulysee), tracking down the subjects and discovering the history of their lives absent in the photograph at first glance. This is a recurring idea in her work, that beyond the representational space of a film frame, an edit, a single image, a gallery space, there is an outside world only implied or imagined or rendered as unknown history.

“That’s the beginning of my history. These exact prints, what they call vintages now. For me, it’s just my work. But now it has the value of time, the fact that it’s hand-made.”


photo by Aaron Stewart-Ahn

photo by Aaron Stewart-Ahn

Walking into another room of the gallery, Agnès smiling, we encounter the unlikely sight of a greenhouse full of sunflowers and the grounded hull of a boat, at least in handmade miniature. Upon closer examination their form is slightly ethereal, somehow capturing and holding the light in the room, because these maquettes have been made out of prints of super 8mm film. One of her most highly regarded films is a film about recycling, The Gleaners & I, a documentary about the lives of people who forage for leftovers from fields and markets, and their similarities to artists.

“Not only because of The Gleaners & I, but I was always interested in how we can recycle things. And what happened is: we used to show films on print stock. Like in the theater. They came in ten metal cans, which had the reel of film. And then the projector was showing the reel, the 35mm print. And it’s changed. Now it’s DCP, it’s a little cassette, it’s dematerialized.

So we have all these prints. Nobody wants to show them now. And no one wants to store them, and they ask me to pay to destroy them. So I thought, hey, I want to recycle them. I decided to make shacks, to make houses out of my old film prints. They became like ribbons, making the walls. I started to build houses, shacks, with real 35mm film prints.”

The first one she made was a life-sized shack she called Ma Cabane de l’Échec, or, My Cabin of Failure (the French word for failure sounding very much like shack), made up of 35mm prints of her film Les Creatures, starring Michel Piccoli and Catherine Deneuve, which Agnès is quick to point out unsentimentally was “a flop”. Another shack was constructed in Los Angeles, built from a 35mm print of her film Lions Love (... and Lies) which she also describes as a flop, but adds, “It was something that told very well Hippie Hollywood and film…what was happening in 1968 and 1969 in Los Angeles.”

During those years Agnès lived in California while her husband, Jacques Demy, worked on Model Shop, his English language film for Columbia Pictures, a follow up to the international successes of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort—which it is fair to say were the La La Lands of their day.

“Damien Chazelle says he owes a lot to Demy. And he came to Paris and he came to our house, which is where I lived with Jacques, and he was touched to tears that he was near a man he admired. It means there’s a transmission of love for film, of love for people. We learn from other people, they way they speak to us, the way they tell us stories. It’s a world of cinema, a world of artists, where we may have a little room and real reason to be there.”

Meanwhile, Agnès went to Oakland on the weekends, and made a short documentary about The Black Panthers, filming most of it herself with a 16mm camera. French TV broadcasters asked for the film, but rejected it on the grounds that it might stir too much righteous anger in the populace, which is astonishing once you watch it, because it’s a remarkably sympathetic and empathic record of 1968 to watch in our time of Black Lives Matter.

The Los Angeles My Shack of Cinema now resides in the collection at LACMA, a monument and home to her years in California. Agnès started to have smaller versions made.

“Since it is difficult and expensive to do the big ones, I start to make maquettes. This one is the film Le Bonheur. The film starts with a lot of sunflowers. So I imagine a greenhouse where they grow sunflowers."

photo by Aaron Stewart-Ahn

photo by Aaron Stewart-Ahn

"I bought many many little boxes of Super 8, and had a Super 8 camera, and we projected the film and filmed it again. It’s a joke in a way.

Another film I made was in 1954, it was called La Pointe Courte, and at the end of the film, the couple on the beach they find a boat like this. And the relationship is finished.”

As I examine the two models, I notice that the maquette with its celluloid walls looks different in this room depending on the light, whether it’s night or day. In The Beaches of Agnès, the incredibly moving documentary memoir she claimed would be her final film, Agnès sits within the large shack, its walls glowing as only film prints can, and says “What is cinema? Light coming from somewhere captured by images more or less dark or colorful…. In here It feels like I live in cinema. Cinema is my home. I think I’ve always lived in it.”


Invariably, in these social media times, an iconic photograph of Agnès often appears whenever we attempt to reckon with the canonical suppression of the history of women filmmakers. But the full story of Agnès’ first film, La Pointe Courte, isn’t told nearly as often as that image is seen, and it’s remarkable.

In 1954, 25 years old and having (she swears) only seen a handful of films, Agnès returned to the beaches of her adolescence, in Sète, to take some photographs for a friend who could not visit. And, for the only reason in the world that motivates certain filmmakers, she was seized by an intense need and longing to make a movie there. She started by forming a production co-op under the name Cine-Tamaris (which she still uses to this day). Co-ops were a way of circumventing the rigid hierarchies and apprenticeships and licensing of filmmakers that had become standard in Post-War French filmmaking, leftover rules from the Vichy Occupation. Agnès, in the spirit of independent filmmaking and blazing a path for others, simply went around those rules, and, literally unlicensed, gathered together a shoestring budget mostly made up of inheritance money. The cast (including a then unknown 25-year-old named Phillipe Noiret) and crew rented a tiny house and ate meals and lived there together. Once shooting was complete, though, she needed to edit it.

Agnès had heard about Alain Resnais from reading Andre Bazin, so she wrote a letter to him. He came to the lab to watch her rushes. Fastidious and precise in manner, Resnais viewed two of her nine hours and said nothing, only telling her later that evening over the phone that he couldn’t edit her film, because it too closely resembled his own research he was doing into filmmaking. She says she cried then; it was a bad portent. He did give her some technical advice and assigned her the laborious and arcane task of preparing the physical film rushes to be edited.

Ten days later she called him, and when Resnais heard she’d done all this complicated work, he said, “You’re crazy. I’ll edit the film” in exchange for lunch money every afternoon. Working on the edit, he remarked on how she’d borrowed elements from both Visconti and Orson Welles. She informed him she’d never seen their films, so he suggested films to check out at the Cinematheque. She kept returning to that cinema to watch more and more films and eventually, she says, “I got the disease”.

Now finished, La Pointe Courte screened to a small crowd at Cannes, paid for by Agnès’ mother. And then it sat around for a year. Finally, a programmer named JL Cheyard gave it a two week run at Le Studio Parnasse, the central hang out for Parisian cinephiles with its mix of eclectic programming, which defied the cinemas along the Champs Elysses. François Truffaut wrote that Studio Parnasse was the best programmed theater in all of Paris at the time, and Cheyard would host discussions with the audience after screenings debating the films, invariably comprised of many leading critics and filmmakers.

And so Agnès watched one evening, anxiously, from the projection booth as people like Marguerite Duras, Chris Marker, and Truffaut himself came in to watch her movie. After it screened, the reaction was mixed. Truffaut stated it was fake and seemed puzzled, while Marker defended it, making an observation about the connection of its two lead characters to metal and wood.

Agnès says of that moment, “My heart began to beat”. This was symbolism she never thought anyone would ever discover, let alone discuss out loud. Truffaut gave the film a middling, confused review (funnily enough, he steals Marker’s observation without crediting him). It’s an interesting read now, because so many things in cinema recur and repeat to new generations, and Truffaut’s reaction is something we still debate about cinema, as written in his 1956 review:

It is difficult to form a judgment of a film in which the true and the false, the true-false and the false-true, are intermingled according to barely perceived rules.

La Pointe Courte never made its money back and never received a proper release. It is now rightly argued to be the beginning of the Nouvelle Vague, in the same way that Visconti set off Neorealism. A mix of documentary and fiction, of non-actors and movie stars, with experiments in time, real and non-real, its aesthetics presaged the obsessions of the French New Wave by several years and its spirit and ideas directly influenced many of her peers.

But the film ultimately languished in some obscurity, until Criterion made it available again decades later. Agnès wasn’t able to make another narrative feature for seven years. It’s been suggested this was a kind of industrial punishment for refusing to adhere to the filmmaking system of the time (I take note that the only other woman directing narrative features at the time in France was Jacqueline Audry, who came up as an apprentice). In the meantime, like other French female filmmakers of the time (Nicole Védrès, Yannick Bellon), she directed short documentaries and found another calling, one she would often return to, if not outright master, throughout her career: the Left Bank style film essay form and documentary.

In 1962, she would direct the wonderful Cleo from 5 to 7, which would finally grant her the international recognition and audience she deserved; although she notes that it's always difficult for daring filmmakers to find money to make their films. At last, she had opportunities to direct more feature films, like Le Bonheur and Vagabond.

And that image of Agnès, behind the camera, would persist to this day.


“All images are questions. if you look at everything, a painting, an image, you can question… The way you look at it, what it brings to your mind, if it reminds you of something. My god. It does something. You could get that from one image, and there are so many. So you have to choose.

A snapshot is a real mystery. Because you do them in the street somewhere and really each time when I look at them I say who are they? From where are they coming? Why are they together? Maybe they hate each other, maybe they love each other. It’s even - in a magazine when they show all these things about war, about peace, about people in the streets, even you see them in demonstrations, I am always questioning: who are they?”

A lot of the art you’re making asks the viewer’s imagination to be a participant…

“Well I ask people to participate, because an image you know… If you close the light, and you all go out, an image is nothing. It’s nothing. If nobody looks at an image it’s a dead piece of paper.

One viewer is enough. Somebody looks at the image, one viewer is enough. Two or three is fine. A thousand is, you know, in a film if you run the film in an empty theater, it’s nothing. But one spectator is enough.”

So what about our modern culture of photographs and videos? Last night at your art opening everyone was taking photos constantly of everything.

“Well that’s interesting, cause you know when I was young it meant something to have a camera. It changed so much that now not only people start to have cheap cameras, but they all have smartphones and people do photos all the time. And it’s interesting because most, when they do selfies, they want to prove to themselves they were there.

It’s interesting because it’s saying “I need proof in my life”. When I am traveling, or I meet someone, people say “can I take a picture with you” like this [she mimes standing next to her and making a selfie]. And it has been studied by sociologists and historians because it’s something very new in civilization, that not only images are everywhere and easy to make, but we want to have memories of ourselves. So people do that.

When at the time, when I was young, people would bring a child to a photographer. And the child would be on a shiny pedestal, and the baby lying on its belly, or sitting, very posed, and it was an act, you know?

I even made a short film about it called Ydessa. And at the time, in Germany, before the war, they would always take a teddy bear with them and go into the studio with the teddy bear. The child or the couple would pose. It was like an art that would last for their whole life, they would have a photo. But the questions in this film are everywhere eight years later.

It’s very democratic in a way but still, some people now think of photos differently. And a lot of people are on Instagram and they put a lot of images, beautiful images, private images. They're beautiful. I look at a lot of Instagram pictures of people I don’t know. And I say, “Oooh he went there and did that, or she did this?” A woman that I knew, but I lost for years, and suddenly there are images of Mexico - she must have been traveling there. She’s in Mexico! Oh! And then she is back.

So it’s like in a way it becomes transparent. Like you leave information about yourself. Like all this Twitter and Facebook. Do you use them?”

Yes. Do you?


I saw a beautiful photo of you by the artist JR on Instagram.

“Right because we’ve done a film together, we just finished now. It will open in June in France. We got along very well. We really did a good job of documentary filmmaking.

We went to the countryside and met people in villages. The title in French is: Visage Villages. We met people, listened to them, and I took photos of them, and he enlarged them and made huge images out of them.

And we met people who spoke beautifully to us. It was like taking gifts of things we were seeing. So it’s a documentary but made by both of us. The joke is it’s both of us: we only have 55 years of difference.”

So it’s a documentary about making art?

“Yes, it’s about art, how do we perceive what is happening to us, what is happening to the people we meet. I got very excited to make that film. And the editing I got very precise, like I do in editing. That’s more my thing. But we agree on everything. We chose the music together.

He’s a very interesting artist. He did one work in New York City where he made a 150 foot tall image of an immigrant (20 year old Elmar from Azerbaijan) on the ground in a huge public space in the middle of New York [outside the Flatiron building].

For me it was very touching, because at the same time he is making a statement for immigrants, but people are stepping on it. So it’s the doublethink we all have about the problem, we all want to think about immigrants, we have compassion, but we don’t take them home.

Now in the last two years, we have been facing so many crises. The migrant crisis, all over the world, it’s not new, it has always existed, but in the last two years it has become so important.

We don’t know how cinema can capture… There have been documentaries going to Calais, filming the people in the water being saved… How can cinema even help the situation?

photo by Aaron Stewart-Ahn

photo by Aaron Stewart-Ahn

Sometimes I think in a selfish way, you know, we cannot grab all the misery and carry it in our bags.

Sometimes I feel we have to do what I feel I have to do as an artist. To do things. Maybe sharing with people. Sharing emotion, sharing information. But, I am just, too… I cannot change the world. I can only change some relation between some people in the cinema. It’s a very modest work. Touching very few people. I mean it’s, we have no possibility to do much more than the very modest work of artists. That’s the way I feel.”

Did you have any strange experiences at the airport coming into NYC?

“No. It was the usual line to show your papers. I’m in a way lucky or not lucky cause I don’t walk very well, so I have a wheelchair, and for the wheelchair we have another line, and it’s 15 minutes instead of one hour and 15 minutes. It’s a good day to be old.”

There is a problem that we are making documentaries—maybe it’s their form, or approach—that are not changing anything. You mention you always have to find “a way of telling it” for your films so they do not misrepresent people.

“I like to make films about people who aren’t spoken about.

What I think is because I know… The way you are involved in what’s happening in the world is relative. Because I cannot make a change about the desires of millions of people that want to move.

I’ve been hurt, in the heart, just by watching these images when they are on a boat and they die in the ocean and sometimes they are saved. But we cannot save them. We cannot go and take another boat and save three people and give them food and bring them home.

So we are assisting as a terrible spectacle all the hunger and migration in the world.

So I say, as artists, you can only do what we know how to do, which includes friendship, sharing, transmission.

And the documentary we made with JR was happening during the attack at the Bataclan, and the attack on Belgium. We were in the middle of it, and we went there. And we filmed things, but we won’t use [that footage].

We cannot solve the problem. We can just speak with other people in the country, people who look for peace, people who look for sharing. Because… The lack is that, it’s there. We have to share with people, share words, share time. And if the film reflects that, it’s a drop of… Friendship and compassion in the world.

That’s all we can do. That’s all we know how to do. And I try to do it well so the documentary is well done, not so much with technique, but with how it really approaches people. And approaching people is already one step to peace. Listening to them. Giving time like I did for the Gleaners, listening to the Gleaners. I made a film about squatters, about widows. Listening to people who nobody listens to is a step in understanding in the world.

It’s like nothing in a way, the world is cruel, and chaotic. But I have decided, especially aging, to try to spend good time with people. I cannot change a life. You know in the country they have big problems with Europe, with farmers, and people who grow food? And nothing can help them because Europe is fine, but not fine, it’s so complicated.

So we try to speak to them, listen to what they do, how they do it. But we cannot change law, commerce, prices, the crisis of people closing their shops and little shops because they cannot compete with corporate supermarkets. We see that. I’ve seen the world change so much since I’m young. But you know, on another side, I’ve been through the Bomb, the War, The Holocaust. What happened in my life has been so horrible, that sometimes I say, “Maybe it’s not so bad now”. But then you see the migrant crisis.

I shouldn’t speak about that now. It makes me feel bad.”

I’m sorry.

“Well no, you know, it’s for you. I’m becoming boring.”

Not at all. Young people right now in the US are thinking about resistance and what that means. Which means something enormous for you over the course of your life. I’m curious when you were working on really radical work like Black Panthers and Far From Vietnam. When you were younger did you feel that art could change the world?

“I changed in that… I became convinced things could change. I fought a lot as a Feminist, because we succeeded with a lot of marching and writing and screaming to change the world so people could decide if they want children or not. I mean, it seems simple to say that, but birth control was an incredible step in society.

Can you imagine for all these centuries that women just had to accept it? My grandmother had twelve children. Things have been so radically different that the fight of women all over the world, and American women have been fighting for that so strongly also, and I have been accompanying this too.

And I remember we had problems in France, I don’t know if you know that, like we had a 17 year old girl put in jail for having an abortion, and we had to go the Palais Justice, the court, and scream and make manifestations and sign petitions, and we fought until the law changed, until birth control and abortion were legal. And still now there are people fighting against it. In America you have a problem about regression about abortion. It’s terrible. Abortion is not a good thing, but it gives women a choice.”

[Agnès was one of the signatories of Simone De Beaviour’s Manifesto of the 343, which fought for women to have the right to abortion in France and in doing so put all its signatories at risk of criminal prosecution.]

“The feminist movement, I have been very much involved in. And people ask “are you still a feminist?” Yes! More than ever. Because it’s going back sometimes, even now.

But in the world of cinema, at least in France, we have a lot of women directors arriving, and not only directors, directors of photography, sound mixers, producers. Just in the French cinema week here today [Lincoln Center’s Rendezvous with French Cinema in NYC] we have at least five women directors who came with films.

And I said to women when I started: learn. Learn the camera, learn sound, learn electricity, learn editing. And at least in our country, in France, we have an incredible amount of women working in the film industry. And writing film and directing film.

It doesn’t mean I love them all. In the same way I don’t love all men’s films, or young people’s films. But they have the opportunity to show it and to be in the world of cinema, and with the possibility of equality. I know a lot of Women DP who are chosen by men directors. So things have changed on that level. It’s little, but it’s important.”

Who are the French women directors whose work you admire?

“Celine Sciamma, Patricia Mazuy, Emanuelle Bercot, Maïwenn, Sandrine Veysset, Claire Denis, and Katell Quillévéré.”

Is there anything about France that you think has attributed to increasing the number of women writing and directing?

“Well because, in the art world, France is very open. It used to be that the pay of the women was less than the pay of men, in factories, in other work. But not in the cinema. We have this union who give us union wages. You can be white or black or a woman and you get the same money for the same work. In the factories not yet, women’s work is still fighting for equality.

How did we get talking about all this? Let’s go to the seaside… Forget about all the struggles…”

photo by Aaron Stewart-Ahn

photo by Aaron Stewart-Ahn


In the hallway of the gallery, on the way to Agnès’ beach, are three photograph portraits of herself as she grows older.

“I have a formula: I switched from old filmmaker to young visual artist. Because people want definition. You are this or that. And I like to feel that I’m everything. I’ve had three lives: as a photographer, a filmmaker, and as a visual artist.

I am in time. I’m old. I’ve been crossing time for years. I love the idea that even with a bad memory I can pick something which is years ago or someone I met years ago and I am here, and I enjoy it.”

In the 1950s Agnès was filming and taking photographs in China and Cuba. I ask her if she’s returned to either country recently.

“Yes I went [to Cuba] once, when I did Jacoqut Des Nantes [her film about her late husband Jacques Demy], but I don’t feel like going back. I knew it when it was so beautiful, when it was so… People were so excited, there was a real revolution you know, and I could feel people happy for the change, but then it has changed so much it became something else that I cannot cope with. So I keep my memory and my film. But it’s dated. It’s 1962, 1963 that’s it. The same way I filmed the Black Panthers, and two years later they were in pieces. Film sometimes is just very dated, and it’s interesting, because even in Cleo to 5 to 7, there is a radio that gives the news, it’s interesting to know that everything is written in precise time.” 

Recently, she traveled to China with her films and art. A young film student pointed out that Cleo From 5 to 7, which she says takes place in exact, real time, has a mistake: a jump of 4 seconds. She admitted he was right, and he said, “Don’t make me believe time is perfect, you made one jump.”

“Cinema language accepts that you go from one place to another. You see them in a house, packing their luggage. Then they are on a train. You accept they went from the house to the train. There’s a gap in time. Sometimes you can put the time, shut the time together and hey, that was before and it’s still alive. So the past doesn’t mean so much to me because it’s always there, here. Not as a memory thing, but making it alive again. Not crying. The past is there, you take it, you bring it on the table, it’s here. It’s still alive. And I have a bad memory, it’s ok. What comes up, I grab, and other times it goes back into the sea.”


And so there we are, on Agnès’ beach, before I take the photograph.

“Sit if you can. It’s so peaceful. It’s better to be quiet.”

And we do.

“This is the representation of my favorite landscape in the world. The seaside. A quiet. No tempest, no sailing, no swimming, no boat. Nothing. Just the quiet. But I chose three ways to represent it. One photo. But it has movement in it. Wind on the foam. The photo becomes cinema. And then you have sand. Sea sand. The three representations for me compose what I feel. I hope you like it. It’s interesting. If you give yourself time to sit here, time is part of the work. Time of watching, and time of image, and where we are, becomes part of the art. Because a little piece of reality for me implies reinvention.”

A few days later I find out that Agnès has sold her editing studio of thirty years, the former hardware store she's known since moving to live on Rue Daguerre in 1954, in order to help pay for her new film, Visages Villages.

I ask her one final question: In all your work as a photographer, as a filmmaker, as an artist, what have you come to discover is the difference between media and memory?

“I don’t know, because you can see in your own life and use your memory to remember what you have. That’s not my point. My point is to get a piece of the past and bring it into my life of today.

So I don’t have the feeling that I wish to tell you my memories. I’ve done that in some of my films. What I do now, is always: make it alive now. I’ve been loving the seaside since I’m young. And it’s set where I did my first film, La Pointe Courte. By bringing the sea into a new medium, into the art world, it makes it alive. It’s not my past. I don’t care so much. I’ve been through a lot of things in my life. What I love is to make the now and here very important. That’s how I stand life.

It’s sharing what I do with people. My work is to propose, to propose the notion, to propose surprises, my view. That’s life. That’s what we call… The artist.”

And after another while passes, listening and watching the sea, she kindly asks me to take a photograph.

This conversation was edited for differences in language and for clarity. A few of Agnès’ words were taken from her public talk at the French Institute Alliance Française for context and insight. Invaluable assistance on French film history was provided by Ivan Čerečina. Research on La Pointe Courte was greatly aided by Agnès’ discussion with Rachel Rakes at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2015.

Aaron Stewart-Ahn makes films and loves cats, bicycles, and films. 

Ghost in the (ScarJo)

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby


by Zosha Millman

Into every generation, an “it girl” is born.

One girl in all the world, the chosen one—at least, that is, for a little while. She’s unconventional, but something about her won’t allow Hollywood to dismiss her right off the bat. For a short time she’s even able to defy the box that actresses are often lumped into for their age. But eventually, one way or another, all “it girls” come and go, cycled out by the public, the press, or the studio system as a whole.

Scarlett Johansson, who went from up-and-comer, to Hollywood it-girl, to sultry muse, to sci-fi action heroine, was one such girl. Looking at her, it’s clear why. Watching her act, it’s clear how. But seeing the roles she picks carries a method to it; a distinct and developing consciousness about her femininity and how it’s wielded in the world. And luckily for her, genre films were picking up what she was putting down. In many ways, her latest film, Ghost in the Shell, is a further extension of what Johansson’s career has long been veering towards all these years. But, in one whopping way, it is not.

Part of the Johansson career trajectory for years has been as a girl with a certain quality that sets her apart from the crowd, while still managing to remain conventionally attractive. She could be wistful, sardonic, yearning, or curious, but she would always be beautiful—even as far back as her “breakout” role in 2001’s Ghost World. As one half of the frosty, holier-than-thou duo killing time during the summer after high school, Johansson’s Rebecca is a girl too smart (or at least too detached) to really meld with her high school’s social scene.

It was a delicate balance for her to strike; Rebecca was the more approachable, conventionally attractive of the Ghost World duo, something Enid (the other half) notes. The role required Johansson to be sardonic, but also a bit open. Even as Enid (and the narrative of Ghost World) call for it to be clear that Rebecca has good looks that at least conceal her laconic nature, Johansson also has to play it with the aloofness of someone blind to what she’s lived with her whole life.

It’s here, then, that Johansson started showing herself as the sort of person who could do just that, getting reviews that pegged her as an actress to watch, one whose “sensitivity and talent belie her age.” And very quickly she was able to parlay that into two key roles that would take her from teenager to young woman, focusing a film's entire narrative around her: Lost in Translation and Girl With the Pearl Earring.

“...they give me an opportunity to use a kind of nuance that just comes from the expressions in your eyes.”

Both of these roles required Johansson to communicate a lot with very little; she stares pensively past the camera, towards action she is excluded from. Each requires her to be muted, almost plain, but still exude an ineffable, alluring quality.

Lost in Translation, in particular, struck the cultural zeitgeist. Though it's clear that Johansson isn’t yet radiating at the same wattage as co-star Bill Murray, her youth allows her access to a quieter perspective—not confident, but certainly curious. And while the cultural narrative around Johansson would continue to shine ever brighter from this point on, highlighting her sex appeal, Lost in Translation remains mostly detached from that. She works, in the movie, as a woman who is not yet quite aware of her place in the world.

But, of course, that doesn’t mean the world was unaware of her. The Johansson femininity, especially in those early years—with her deep, Bacall-like voice; the figure; the face—was inextricable from its effect on men. It happened platonically for Murray in Lost in Translation, romantically for Topher Grace (In Good Company) and Bradley Cooper (He’s Just Not That Into You) later on, and artistically in The Girl with the Pearl Earring.

© Dreamworks

© Dreamworks

In 2005, the narrative evolved. Johansson started working with Woody Allen, and the characters she played for him often had a new sense of self-awareness about their looks, and the effect of those looks. Allen and Johansson only worked together on three films in as many years—and it’s arguably not the best Johansson has ever been—but their collaborations would leave an indelible mark on her career. Perhaps it was working with an auteur like Allen, who has elevated so many stars to “legit” actors over the years. Or perhaps it was in the way Allen’s roles for her—and comments about her, calling her witty while still being “sexually overwhelming”—played up the notion of Johansson as a sensual star.

Match Point, Scoop, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona each pull at Johansson’s womanly allure in different ways, but perhaps the most overt is her first Allen film, Match Point, in which Johansson plays a woman who drives Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) crazy, even as he can’t fully give himself to her. Johansson’s Nola bemoans that she’s the sort of girl men lust after wildly, but never love. She’s not classically beautiful like her sister, Nola tells Chris over drinks. “What I am is sexy.” The entire narrative of Match Point—all the Allenesque curlicues, antics, and nihilism—hinge on Chris finding Nola exactly that. She needs to have the power to allure and ensnare, but not to keep.

It was the first role Johansson would take that would not just call upon her increasingly minted sultry image, but would also transition her into someone who was (at least somewhat) aware of its effect. Her characters were no longer women whose sexuality could be ignored by anyone, including herself.

"As I get older, I feel like just by nature I have a more colorful array of opportunities to choose from. As I grow more confident as an actor and a person, I feel more confident in stretching myself as an artist and working on things that are challenging and I haven’t done before, and taking risks and being sort of content with the outcome, no matter what, just knowing I took a risk."

Match Point marked the beginning of a new chapter for Scarlett. Suddenly the archetypal Johansson role veered closer and closer to some sort of incarnation of the femme fatale. Her roles in The Spirit, He’s Just Not That Into You, Don Jon—even her introduction into the Marvel Universe in Iron Man 2—all traded on her sex appeal. Though critics would note that Johansson seemed to alternate between roles that asked everything of her and almost nothing (her gum-smacking transformation as Don Jon’s New Jersey siren compared to the relative fluffiness of The Nanny Diaries), the women she portrayed were always conscious of the world.

Even Marvel’s Cinematic Universe complicated the narrative a bit: Though Black Widow’s skin-tight outfits caused a ruckus, Black Widow’s place within the MCU offered Johansson the opportunity to wrestle with femininity and power, “playing against type” as an ass-kicker who looked like eye-candy. She also embraced doing her own stunts as part of her role, adding action star to her resume in the process.

Although Johansson would continue this duality of light roles intermingled with more serious work (as well as fulfilling her Marvel obligations, sprinkled out over a 20-year schedule), the women she portrayed began to get further and further away from women at all. Suddenly, Johansson seemed far less interested in being female than in asking complicated questions about femininity, the kinds of questions that only sci-fi could answer.

“The rules don’t necessarily apply to these characters because they’re not even human. That has allowed me to step back and really examine human behavior in a way.”

Lucy takes a normal woman and turns her into an omnipotent being (but not before giving Johansson the opportunity to showcase her action prowess), gaining powers from the drugs left in her body against her will. Her uses only Johansson’s trademark voice, casting her as an all-powerful AI program that starts up a relationship with a man who ultimately feels threatened by all that she can accomplish without him. Under the Skin recruits Johansson to play an alien whose human form is used to seduce men into the void, flipping the script on rape culture.

© StudioCanal

© StudioCanal

It’s a far cry from the terse teenagers or yearning young women of Johansson’s early work. But as Johansson’s career has progressed, she’s matured from meek, conventionally attractive girl to sultry seductress. Though the mileage on her roles varies, she seems to return to roles which more closely scrutinizing what it means to be a woman in a man’s world. And over the years she’s moved from being the subject of men’s lust beyond being an active party in it. She owns the power her sexuality holds, harnessing it for herself and her own needs.

Under the Skin called for her to be full frontal, and yet it barely made headlines. Her body had been of much scrutiny and discussion for the bulk of her professional career (not to mention drawing the attention of malicious hackers who released private cell phone pictures only two years prior), but the level of detachment and confidence she displays in Under the Skin removes any sexuality from the scene. Her seduction has transcended just her beauty; it’s intelligent and mysterious.

As Johansson’s gotten older, and moved to a stage in her career where she can afford to take a few more risks, she’s done so in a way that increasingly seems to detach her from the confines of a normal human being. As she twists and examines her own body, its power over others, and its reflection of who she really is, she seems to move closer to using her body as a tool—disassociating with it entirely in order to examine its power.

It’s the perfect mental framework for tackling a character like Major Kusanagi—except for one very important, very key fact: Major is Japanese.

The concept of a cyborg has been present in fiction for centuries. We can see the roots of it in the gothic genre, with the “automatons” (typically some sort of supernatural homunculus) of the nineteenth century, transgressing bodily boundaries in ways that would later become key to cyborgs, AI, and their ilk. Their very existences wrestled with rebellion against pure humanity, eventually giving way to the disruption we nknow in more modern examples of cyborgs in the 1900s.

These androids—in programs such as Metropolis or Astro Boy—would advance these figures relatively quickly. Almost overnight the concept of augmented humans went from ab-human to evolved human, with monstrosity traded in for (or in tandem with) cyborg powers that go well beyond the human. They would expand their scope in many ways over the latter half of the 20th century, crossing genres, politics, and movements. But at their core they remained a cipher for the fluctuating relationships between humanity, technology, and politics.

It was onto this stage that Major Motoko Kusanagi stepped all those years ago. Ghost in the Shell—first a manga in 1989, then an anime and TV show—would use the cyberpunk genre to explore the intersection of gender politics and cybernetics. From the very first scene (“There’s static in your brain.” “Must be my time of the month.”) Major is set up as a sort of post-human woman, challenging and advancing our concept of humanity.

Though plots vary from adaptation to adaptation, the basic setup of Ghost in the Shell follows the members of a special operations task force that delves into corrupt officials, companies, and cyber-criminals in a cyberized, near-future. Major, the woman who heads up the organization, is in fact a human brain in a cyborg body.

Much like Jessica Rabbit, Major’s not an actual anime pin-up figure, she’s just drawn that way. In fact, her disassociation with her own body and its humanity is an undercurrent of the series. Unlike many of her colleagues (and all of her readers), Major’s body is all robot. The only thing human about her is her brain—the soul or “ghost” in the cybernetic shell—but even that she can’t be certain about. That spirit is what is said to be the true source of her personhood, and yet Major expresses doubt that she can ever be certain that part of her is human as well.

Ghost in the Shell director Mamoru Oshii holds the viewer’s gaze over and over again with Major’s body. She frequently disrobes in front of others, and expresses no shame around it. Like Johansson in Under the Skin, she projects an almost clinical sense of her body. She removes the illicitness of the gaze on her, instead eschewing modesty for a body she feels no ownership over.

Whether the anime delves too deep into sexualization is in the eye of the beholder, but it’s certainly implied that Major has no problem with it, even as it disquiets those around her. In the end, as her dilapidated cybernetic body lays next to the female cybernetic body of “The Puppet Master,” Major’s partner Batou takes care to cover Major’s bare chest but not the Puppet Master’s. There’s nothing on the outside that separates one pair of cybernetic breasts from the other; it’s Major’s “ghost” that makes her a person, and thus, deserving of human decency, at least, in Batou’s eyes. Though Major sees very little difference between her own body and other cyborgs, her friends clearly project Major as a “her” and not an “it.”

In many ways, that sort of transcendence is what many feminists fight for. Major is a living embodiment of the possibilities of cybernetics: Her shell goes beyond bodily limitations, rewriting and reworking the potential of her life. She shrugs off the social requirements of her body.

Who hasn’t dreamt of something like that?

To women the possibility of not feeling wholly responsible for their body is a fantasy unto itself. Before we get to our jobs, before we walk out our front door—hell, before we even leave our beds—our bodies are subjected to all kinds of scrutiny and expectations. The tendrils of those expectations wind their way around a life in ways you would never expect. Every woman I’ve met knows she wields power. All of us are just filtering it through the eyes of those around us.

© Paramount Pictures/Dreamworks

© Paramount Pictures/Dreamworks

The work of Ghost in the Shell, as well as Johansson’s body of work, often forces the viewer to confront what they are projecting onto women’s bodies. Both Major and Johansson have deliberately constructed images, but they also both play with and destroy that very construction. Cyborgs afford the possibility to take all the militarism and patriarchy that’s been shoved down our throats and truly subvert it. Their very existence transgresses all the established boundaries we have for human nature, and yet their consciousness defines it. And Johansson has similarly proved herself as an actress capable of loosening the grips of reality and society in order to expose them.

The problem is, that’s not all there is to Major’s story. That same allure of cyborgs and their promise to free (or at least complicate) our social norms don’t remove the social norms we’re currently living in. More specifically, it doesn’t remove the context of when a (white) studio system mines a narrative for its gems. Ghost in the Shell’s aesthetic is more than cyberpunk—it’s rooted in Japanese culture.

Ghost in the Shell’s live action adaptation is so tangled up it seems hard to believe it came out on the other side. Johansson’s Major is ultimately revealed to be truly Japanese, having the ghost of a young runaway being forcibly implanted into a shell for the sake of scientific development. It reaches for the lowest hanging philosophical fruit in the Ghost in the Shell franchise and literally appropriates the soul of another culture to justify Scarlett Johansson’s presence (left unspoken: how a white woman was supposed to blend as a member of a covert police force in the heart of Tokyo).

Had the movie seemed to have the wherewithal of life in any other respect it could almost be read as an intentional commentary on whitewashing beauty standards, but there’s nothing nearly so complicated about Hollywood’s version of Ghost in the Shell. There’s no reason for Johansson to be the star of this vehicle. With almost every speaking role given to a white person in the heart of Tokyo, the story has been morphed into a futuristic American society that borrows heavily from Japanese aesthetics. That is to say, it posits that a Japanese-dominated future is cold, clinical, and foreign, catering to Western superiority (as social scientists have framed the mentality in the past: “‘they’ are barbaric and ‘we’ are civilized; ‘they’ are robots while ‘we’ remain human”). What’s worse, it does all this under the guise of a social victory, for “women.”

But Scarlett Johansson is not all women. In fact, most of us are not Scarlett Johansson. Having a franchise with a female protagonist is rare, but having a franchise with a Japanese female protagonist is even rarer. To say that Johansson is the only one who could’ve played this role is a farce; there are plenty of Asian American actresses who could have lent their considerable talents to this role, with or without a resume like Johansson’s. She may be “one of the best actresses of her generation,” adept at pushing the boundaries of womanhood, but she is not in a position to push the boundaries of race.

Scarlett Johansson clearly has more interesting things on her agenda than being a sex symbol. But it’s important that her advancement is not seen as the only way forward; it is just one brand of feminism among a thousand. Feminism’s victories—at the box office or elsewhere—should not and cannot come at the expense of other marginalized people. Anything else is just hollow—a shell.

As for Scarlett, she’ll no doubt get another chance to prove herself. Though she doesn’t have another starring role on the books yet, Marvel’s vast and seemingly infinite schedule should afford her the chance to wipe the slate clean and find a new vehicle. The live action Ghost in the Shell misstep notwithstanding, she’s certainly found a pathway out of the cycle of the “it girl.”

As for Major, well, she’ll always have Tokyo.

Zosha Millman is a producer at Seattlepi.com by day, and a writer of pop culture things by night and other times around day. You can always find her in Seattle, and you can frequently find her on the internet, including at Pulp Diction, the movie review blog she started with friends.

"Sexuality is complicated, Honey”: The Works of Lisa Cholodenko

© Focus Features

© Focus Features


by Oliver Picken

When trying to talk about Lisa Cholodenko, her most recent feature film, The Kids are All Right (2010), is inevitably the easiest place to start. Most people have heard of it, if only vaguely, and some know that it was the first mainstream, filmic representation of a two-mom family. While Kids is an easy introduction to Cholodenko, it is in many ways a misleading one. Of course, the film does raise the issue, so central to Cholodenko’s work, of alternative arrangements of desire, but it does so in a way that is arguably the most moralistic, some have said conservative, of her oeuvre. Her earlier work—High Art (1998) and Laurel Canyon (2003)—deals with sexual dissidence in a fashion that has less recourse to mandated narrative and morality. While these movies explored and suggested the possibility of new forms of desire, relationships, and society, Kids seems to fall back on rehearsed scripts and roles. Throughout Cholodenko’s work there is an obsession with tropes and positions against which her characters chafe. Her previous work, most notably High Art, was received warmly by a radical gay movement (while being underappreciated by more mainstream audiences); Kids was dealt the opposite fate. While Rotten Tomatoes scores Kids at 93 percent (in contrast to High Art’s 73 percent or Laurel Canyon’s 68 percent), it was explicitly rejected by queer academic circles that had broadly appreciated her previous work. Cholodenko’s ambivalent relationship to the conventions of narrative has been a feature of her work, a constant push and pull that she explores, rages against, and is herself captured by.

If we look at Cholodenko’s work, especially High Art, as related to the New Queer Cinema movement (for an encyclopedic chronicle of the movement and its modern day iterations see B. Ruby Rich’s book), we can see how her work has changed. “Queer,” in this context, is a concept forged in the 1980s—a convalescence of activism, artistry, and academia—against the AIDS crisis and a society ambivalent to the horror of the disease. While any brief summary would be futile, it is a concept typified by rejection of societal structures; it is a disorder that rejects strict codifications and alignments of sex, gender, and sexuality that open new possibilities in their discontinuities. New Queer Cinema took these values forward with a confrontational narrative style that rejected the presentation of non-straight characters as a threat to be overcome, or, in more liberal representation, as restricted to “coming out” narratives. Instead, it embraced an existence that was defiant to norms and modes of living, and asserted a radical self-determination.

High Art follows young photography magazine assistant editor, Syd (Radha Mitchell), as she drifts from her boyfriend towards an affair with enfant terrible photographer Lucy (Ally Sheedy) and her world of heroin, hedonism, and queer kinship. This new world represents a radical break from the petit bourgeois norms that defined Syd’s life up until this point. It is a world that encapsulates the defiantly “anti-social” stance of the queer position in the spirit of, for example, Zoe Leonard. Cholodenko is explicit in the queer, radical lineage of the film, linking Lucy’s girlfriend Greta (Patricia Clarkson) to Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Greta repeatedly reminisces about collaborating with the late “Old Queer Cinema” director. Perhaps the most obvious homage High Art owes to queer art is to the work of photographer Nan Goldin (on whom Lucy is based) complete with her recurrent themes of heroin use and exploration of queer spaces and communities. The film’s frames drip with Goldin’s distinctively sensual, saturated red palates, dominant in Lucy’s apartment, and in contrast to the insipid blues of the apartment Syd shares with her boyfriend. The two apartments, both in the same building, impose a visual logic upon their inhabitants that echo their colour palettes. The sterile, pastel backgrounds of Syd and James’ rooms pick out the couple, usually separated, in static, portrait-like frames. They are trapped by these frames in their mandated proto-domestic and atomised roles as they sip nightly cocktails and stilted conversation. For Lucy’s apartment, Cholodenko uses a constantly moving camera to frame the revolving door of guests, and blurs the boundaries between characters as they melt into and emerge from the deep-coloured background. This dream-like spatial framing—an effect only enhanced by Shudder To Think’s beautiful and hypnotic score—resists the definite positions and edges imposed on bodies in the world outside it.

Syd’s arc, from a stable, boring relationship with James, to a passionate affair with Lucy, has been read as a coming-out narrative. This lens, however, places Cholodenko’s work within a pre-New Queer Cinema frame of reference, to which Lucy’s milieu does not belong. Instead, we need to see Syd as bisexual. Being romantically attached to a man as we are introduced to her, she is assumed straight, a process that flattens her character’s complexity of desire. Her romantic relationship with Lucy is not accompanied by any great moral struggle or implication for identity, instead it “just is.” Even before Lucy insists Syd edit her submission to the magazine, it seems inevitable from their first meeting that the two will become sexually entangled. Their instant chemistry is catalysed through a haze of cigarette smoke and drug use. Syd’s infidelity, however, plays into the trope of the flighty bisexual, unable to choose a body with which to permanently pair. Syd fulfils this, of course, but Cholodenko is unwilling to condemn her. In a crucial midpoint scene, the subjective camera of a heroin-addled Syd collapses the distance between the two apartments and conflates the bodies of James and Lucy. This allows a visual rendering of a bisexual object of desire as the visual styles of the two bodies and spaces merge. The restless bisexual framing of desire is used to destabilise identity and decentralise sex and gender as sine qua non of sexual partner choice.

In their post-coital state, Lucy finally fulfills her brief for Syd’s magazine. In submitting images of a glowing Syd, Lucy implies a question, later given voice by the austere editor-in-chief Dominique: “Are you her lover?” The question is deceptively complex. Perhaps Dominique asks to understand the “truth” of the photo; perhaps she really asks, having known and assumed Syd as straight, whether she is “now” a lesbian. In this way, Cholodenko acknowledges and rehearses the audience’s assumptions of Syd. We expect a “coming out,” as maybe does Dominique; a confession that will make sense of a subject, and confine her to a monosexual category. Yet Syd is alone at the conclusion of the film, leaving us in flux, “in-between,” with no happily-ever-after, nor reconciliation. We are denied closure, and instead are left with a narratively “unstable” identity of perpetual bisexual becoming.

High Art forces us to explicitly question what we know about a subject based on their desire and their interaction with bodies, themes which Laurel Canyon expands. Here, Alex (Kate Beckinsale) and her boyfriend Sam (Christian Bale) move from Massachusetts, where they have studied at Harvard Medical School, to the titular Los Angeles suburb. They move into Sam’s mother’s (supposedly vacated) house so Alex can finish her doctorate thesis in peace while Sam begins his residency at a psychiatric hospital. The mother, Jane (Frances McDormand), is unexpectedly still at the house that she uses as a studio, recording with a band, fronted by her boyfriend, Ian (Alessandro Nivola), to deliver a long overdue album. In another infidelity narrative, we are offered alternatives to the eternal monogamy mandated by the conventional narratives of cinema and society.

Again, Cholodenko creates two startling opposed spaces: the cold, harshly lit external scenes of a stale garden party in the Boston suburbs, compared to the lush, sun-dappled exteriors of Laurel Canyon. The camera styles repeat High Art’s visual pattern. The two coasts are differentiated, with the East typified by static camera work compared to a fluid West. In the opening scene, Cholodenko provides parallel, stifling shot/reverse-shot conversations—Alex with her mother, Sam with his future father-in-law—as the two are presented with their future selves. The order of this developmental journey is upset by the wild, overgrown grounds to Jane’s house. Here prescribed roles seem to loosen as the bodies of the cast becomes lost in the ferns, and their outlines disrupted by shafts of dappled light.

© Sony Pictures Classics

© Sony Pictures Classics

The water of the pool around which the stage-like set of house, studio, patio are arranged becomes a space of renewal, where newcomer Alex is reborn. Her growing fascination with Ian, her boredom with her work, and her increasingly fractious interactions with Sam culminate in sexual expression (the degree of which is uncertain) between Alex, Jane, and Ian in the pool. Cholodenko’s use of hypnotic, oneiric lighting culminates here to cast the pool as a space of potential, of dreams unbound by convention, where this transgression is not judged but embraced as the action of desire. In a motif that reflects High Art (where a leaking bath results in Syd and Lucy’s chance meeting), the fluidity and lack of definition in water unleashes desire beyond structure.

Transgressive sexuality is a historic facet of the house. Through conversations between mother and son, we understand that Sam never knew his father, and that a string of Jane’s male and female lovers were a fixture of his childhood. While we may accept and applaud Jane’s continued pursuit of emotional, sexual, and romantic happiness after the birth of her son, Sam does not take such a generous view. He resents his mother’s lack of monogamous stability required by his view of what she, in a parental role, should have provided him. He is exasperated, if unsurprised, by her relationship with Ian, a man his own age. Jane’s relationship with Ian is emphatically non-monogamous and undefined. Ian is the anti-Sam, the disorder of his taxonomizing, medical gaze; the lover of Sam’s mother. He is, in a different story, the other corner of a love triangle. Both men lie on the cusp of career success, and vie for Alex’s attention. But this story is more complicated than the narrative Cholodenko writes with reference to. Both men desire Alex, but both men have desire that stretches beyond her, as her desire stretches beyond them.

In the revelation of infidelity, a drunk Sam lashes out at Ian but injures his mother. This prompts not a fracture but a reconciliation that continues as the two talk by the pool the following morning. Sam comes to recognise his mother as simultaneously a friend in a process that begins to deconstruct the boundaries and structures of his world. This is not destructive. Instead, Sam steps into a less ordered world where he may relate to people and not roles. It is against this backdrop that Ian and Alex share an embarrassed smile and talk. This is not a goodbye that would be found in a more typical infidelity narrative. More conventionally the third, irreconcilable member of the couple must be cast out, leaving the pair to their happily ever after. Cholodenko instead embraces a world where the bounds of interaction could potentially encompass friendship, sexuality, and familial ties without the need for labels or structure. It moves towards the queer kinship of Lucy’s flat, where identities, in the sense of role, are questioned and complicated, where (at its most utopian) people can be people and not limited in their relation to others.

The Kids are All Right then seems to undo much of this work, fixing desire into the couple form as the condition of family making. Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) find their domestic landscape disrupted by the arrival of Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the sperm donor for their two children, Joni and Laser (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson). The children, seduced by the same promise of a mythical father as Sam was, contact Paul and invite him into the family unit. In an attempt to build a relationship with the family, Paul invites Jules to landscape his garden and get her business off the ground, which ends with the two beginning an affair. Paul is subsequently cast out of the family unit with no further opportunity to build a relationship with the children. The disorder he brings to the unit must be banished to maintain the family. It is this moral conservatism, as well as the presentation of lesbian desire as automatically superseded by desire for a man that provoked the anger of well-respected queer critics. Recurring points were that this presentation, in fact the first in mainstream film of a lesbian-headed family, recycled tired clichés of lesbianism as temporary and fragile. If, as is implied, the family must cast out Paul to survive. Cholodenko, in exploring the complexity of desire that is not primarily directed by gender, is trapped by common, homophobic social narratives and by the perception of her audience.

© Focus Features

© Focus Features

Seeming to preempt such a response, frustration permeates the film. It is a frustration borne of working within clichés, character arc, and trope already embedded in audience expectation. Cholodenko’s frustration turns to humour using the (assumed) straight male Paul as an audience cypher. He professes to “love” lesbians as an ice-breaker with Joni and describes the children to one of his restaurant employees as archetypes. He reduces them to clichés of a “sensitive-jock” and “whip-smart and super, super cute.” But Cholodenko’s cognisance of perception allows for playfulness. In an abortive moment of intimacy between Jules and Nic, Cholodenko diffuses the (straight) male-gaze that so often subsumes lesbian sex, by having the couple watch gay male porn, draining it of erotic potential. While also serving to underline complexities of sexuality as she has done across her work, this moment acknowledges and subverts her status as a lesbian filmmaker within an aesthetic culture that is assumed to be by and for (straight) men in a way that does not capitulate.

Despite moments of playfulness, Kids feels mournful in a way that neither Laurel Canyon nor High Art, in spite of their heartbreak and tragedy, ever do. There is a sense that Jules and Nic are reaching back to a time before. One of their few moments of cohesion is retelling the story of their first, flirtatious meeting. This is a story told in their “lawn and patio” garden, in what feels like a flattening of their complexity into a white-picket fence domesticity. Even the “fecund” garden that Jules plans for Paul cannot truly recapture wildness. It is a contrived, self-conscious, and ultimately abortive landscape design project that fails to conjure something like the wild grounds of Jane’s house-cum-studio.

During this creative process, however, we find a wild desire that blurs the taxonomy of relationships. Jules and Paul begin their sexual relationship as she enters his home, sweaty from her work. This, however, is also abortive and the garden ultimately fixes in place rather than liberates. Later, as the family eats with Paul at his house, Nic finds Jules’ distinctive hair on the pillows in the master bedroom. The fluidity of desire that brought Jules’ to the bed defines her actions as a part of her remains there. This renders her knowable in her infidelity and Nic attempts to redefine Jules’s identity as a consequence. She asks “are you straight now?” in a question that recalls Dominique’s Syd-directed query. Nic is really asking if she is being abandoned because of a shift in the identity of her partner. Like Syd, Jules cannot answer, because the grammar of monogamy and monosexuality leave her unable to intelligibly articulate the complexity of her desire.

What is offered in Kids is security—the respectable (if non-heterosexual), established (if imperfect) family unit at the preclusion of other modes of being. But, it is a way to crossover from the art-house ghetto of her earlier work. A drive towards respectability might be an important political move to increase societal tolerance. Films such as Kids can loosen and broaden the concept of what “family” can constitute in societal understanding. Clearly in a moment where LGBT films crossing into mainstream circulation are still rare, any representation is important, and perhaps stories more friendly to familiar narratives are how that happens.

Or not; I don’t think Cholodenko would want a fixed answer.

Oli Picken has lived on three continents and doesn’t have an easy answer to the question ‘where are you from?’ He is currently based in his girlfriend’s home city of Manchester, UK. He likes it despite the rain.

He recently completed a Masters Degree in Sexual Dissidence at the University of Sussex, for which he completed a thesis on New Queer Cinema, Sexuality, and Schizoanalysis. He currently works in education and writes when he can. You can find his work here.

United States of Brie Larson

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby


by Bruno Alves

It may seem strange to say it, but Brie Larson is not Brie Larson.

At the age of 6, still living in her native Sacramento, Brianne Sidonie Desaulniers told her mother that she wanted to be an actor. It was her “dharma,” she said, but her mother was not so sure. “She thought that was the most confusing thing,” she recalls, “like I was just repeating something I heard on the TV or a kid said at school.” She kept pushing, though, until her mother relented and promised her that if she took acting lessons for a year and didn’t change her mind in the meantime, she would get her an agent. One year later, the family was moving to Los Angeles, so she could go to auditions and pursue her career. Her French sounding name became a problem, or so she felt from having to constantly correct people’s mispronunciation of it. So Desaulnier turned into Larson, the name of both her doll and the family of her great-grandmother. As for “Brianne,” that was a name she went by only when she was in trouble. Hence, “Brie.”

Brie Larson has since become a star, the kind whose name is now permanently prefixed with “Academy Award winner.” We know her—in the mediated, figurative way we “know” all celebrities—from magazine profiles; E! News; YouTube clips; or interviews, in which she doesn’t speak in press-releasish, the mother tongue of those born and raised in Hollywood. Instead, she betrays her Californian roots by punctuating her sentences with “like” and “you know”, as if performing an unconscious, cool, sun-kissed version of postmodern language subversion—what Joyce would have used instead of “fuck” had he been born not in the gray, rainy streets of Dublin but in a warm, sunny Golden State city instead.

In the years that followed, her career began to take shape: a steady gig on a sitcom, chances to star in Disney movies, supporting roles in Hollywood productions and independent movies, a series of short yet memorable roles in films like Greenberg, The Spectacular Now, 21 Jump Street, and her personal favorite, Scott Pilgrim vs The World.

But it was Short Term 12 that changed her life. “I was emailed the script,” Larson recalls, “and instantly felt it was the greatest thing,” almost “a transcript of something that actually happened.” Short Term 12 tells the story of Grace and her boyfriend Mason, two social workers in a temporary group home for teenagers, and the kids they have under their responsibility. Feeling “unqualified to do it,” Larson applied for three volunteer jobs in similar facilities in Georgia where she was still shooting The Spectacular Now, hoping those jobs would help her get the part. Those applications were rejected, but she got the part anyway—and carried that commitment to authenticity into the role. The movie, she says, is about “the fear of being unlovable,” and yet it’s “a very hopeful film.” That hope springs mainly from her presence in it. The smile on her face as she watches her boyfriend air-drum to some song he’s listening to, or when he hugs a crying kid to comfort him, or when he thanks his foster parents for showing him what it’s like to be loved; or the moment she tells one of the kids that her own father is in jail, or reveals the scars from cutting herself; how she reluctantly brings down the wall separating her from those she means to protect; and especially the look on her face when she and her boyfriend see their yet-to-be-born baby in the ultrasound, the joy palpable in the tears streaming down from her eyes and the hug she gives him, coloring the film with that sense of hopefulness—the sense that joy can be a part of the lives of even the most troubled among us.

Larson loved being a part of it. “I watch the film and I see everything that happened in between every cut,” she says, noting “how bizarre the whole process is.” By which she means, of course, filmmaking itself. “Destin [Daniel Cretton, Short Term 12 director/screenwriter] wrote this thing a couple of years ago, and then on this day at this time with these thoughts and this past experience and these things I hope for, it creates this thing that we all agree on.”

But it also made her famous. “It’s more scary than anything else,” Larson has said. (She likes that her phone hardly has any reception at her wildlife-surrounded house, hidden somewhere in the hills of LA.) The film did open many doors for Larson though: “Until Short Term 12,” she explains, “80, 90 percent of my life was auditioning. It’s exhausting and it’s hard and you’re constantly trying to prove yourself and act like you’re not trying to prove yourself.” Once the movie was released and widely praised, people finally knew who Larson was—and what she could do. Larson was now able to really work; instead of trying to appeal to casting directors, she was able to select her roles, really study them, and give them shape.


In interviews, Larson demonstrates a constant concern with doing things that “feel real,” with being “true” to herself and the “essence” of who she is, with not wanting to be a “commodity of a person.” “I would rather just flip pancakes at Du-par’s,” she promises, “than be somebody I’m not, than be in a movie where I have to play something that I think is a poor representation of what it is to be a human being.” It was for that very reason that Larson abandoned the music career she began as a teenager. She liked writing songs, playing guitar and singing, but she felt her producers and managers were turning her into “a weird character, cartoon” of herself. Watching videos of her performances back then, they look like exactly that—performances; roles she’s playing. “I was so insecure and so hard on myself back then,” Larson remembers. “It was the most terrified I’ve ever been in my life. So I went in the exact opposite way.” (Her role in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World seems almost like her own caricature of the person she saw herself becoming).

It was a fitting coincidence that Larson was cast in United States of Tara, where she would play a young woman looking for her identity—and the daughter of a woman struggling with dissociative identity disorder. “Kate Gregson was me,” she would later say. In the course of the show’s three seasons, her character evolved from a rebellious teenager into a webcam performer known as “Princess Valhalla Hawkwind,” into a flight attendant trying to escape her home, into the actual pillar of her family structure. And like her character, Larson too seemed to find what she was supposed to do, the kind of work that allowed her to become the kind of actor she wanted to be.

Yet there is a kind of irony in someone so concerned with authenticity choosing a career in acting. Why would someone who’s adamant about not trying to “be everything to all people,” someone who’s so “interested in the emotional honesty of things,” choose to live a life for which she must necessarily change her identity constantly? How can you be yourself pretending to be other people?

Larson appears to be aware of the paradox. Like many before her, she sees acting as “a lie to tell the truth.” “I’m a big researcher, and I’m a big memorizer,” she says. “I spend a lot of time researching where this person came from, what even their voice is, how they talk, how they interact with other people, or what their emotions are,” to then get “washed over” by these acquired characteristics, and then combines them with what she draws from her own experiences—“the love you’ve experienced, the love that’s been lost, the travelling, the seeing different points of view” —to use the fictional characters she plays to say something real about both herself and the rest of us.

Consider her Oscar-winning role in Room. She plays “Ma,” a woman kidnapped as a teenager and kept in a shed by her captor, rapist, and father of the boy she gave birth to in that four-walled hell. Preparing for the film took eight months. She researched trauma and stories of real life captive women, stayed out of the sun to change her skin and hair tones, maintained a rigid diet to reproduce the effects of poor nutrition, exercised excessively to make herself exhausted, and cut herself off from the internet, friends and loved ones for a month. “I basically eliminated everything that was pleasurable from my life,” she half-jokes.

The process of shooting the film mirrored the arc of the narrative. In the beginning, it meant shooting in a cramped space with too many people. Larson’s preparation brought up memories of the time she, her mother, and her sister moved to a tiny apartment in Los Angeles, with scant variety in toys, clothing, or food, and only one bed to sleep in. Larson, like her character’s son in the movie, was happy during that time, while her mother—like Ma in Room—was facing the pain and financial difficulties of her divorce while trying to protect her children from them. “My mom created this amazing world, and I never remembered it as being a time when things were tight.” When she remembered and understood the reality of those days, Larson also understood why she felt she knew the story of Room so well.

While shooting the first half of the movie, she felt she couldn’t wait to get out of those constrictive confines, but getting out didn’t make it better. Toronto was winter cold, and Larson had to play it as if it was Akron, Ohio in the summer. “It was so much harder,” she admits. “While in Room”—Larson always refers to the space Ma and her son are trapped in in the same weirdly musical way that the character does—“that was the least emotional” her character was going to be. “It’s not until afterwards, until she’s in a safe space—that’s when the panic attacks, that’s when the anger, that’s when the real depression and the real weight and heaviness and the recognition of what happened happens.”

Larson had prepared herself to get “to the point of, like, madness, insanity, depression—whatever you wanna call these things—and then suppressing it,” so that “the only thing that shows is this little glimmer.” “The thing I always struggled with was that no matter how hard I tried it would always be my face. I would prefer to have Andy Serkis’s career more than anything."

But, as with all truly great actors, Larson’s face is a vital part of her acting ability. Right from the opening scene, Larson shows the frustration on her face as her son throws a tantrum, the desperation of their situation, the pain from her toothache, and yet she displays also—maybe even more prominently—the affection for her child, her love for him, and even the joy of watching him explore their tiny world. Later, there’s a close-up on Larson’s face, as she and her son drive home from the hospital after escaping from their captivity. It’s only a second or two long, but Larson tells us all we need to know. While her son stares in wonder at the outside world he’s seeing for the first time, she’s still in pain, not only from what she went through, but also from the worry about what awaits them: the media circus, the legal hell, her father’s rejection of her son, and herself coming to terms with her tragic past, all these coalescing into a whole new form of captivity she’ll have to endure. All in that one look, that fleeting thousand-yard stare into an unforgiving world.

How can anyone play a person who’s gone through something like what Larson’s character in Room has gone through? How can anyone penetrate the experience of a person who has gone through such a radical horror?

“It doesn’t matter how far I go,” she recognizes. “I’m not even close to touching these girls’ experiences.”

Acting is an empathetic process, and it is also a symbiotic process: The character and the person playing it merge into one another, creating this third semi-real, semi-fictional person that both changes the character from what its author had conceived into a version of the person giving it life, and the actor from what she was before taking the role into the person she grows to be after playing it. After Short Term 12, Larson kept scratching her thumb like Grace did. “If you’re in somebody’s head for 12 hours a day for four weeks, it’s like your brain actually wires itself to start thinking that way,” she explains. But although Larson’s roles inhabit her, she also lends them something of her own.

Shooting Room was, she says, “all about making sure Jacob [Tremblay, her then-8-year-old co-star] was OK.” “We had pizza, talked about Star Wars.” That endearing concern might have been a product of her own experience as a child actor, and Larson says as much: “The main thing I thought about was I remembered the times I was talked down to, and I remembered the times I was respected. Even at 7-years-old, I really, really loved acting and took it very seriously and I wanted people to take me seriously.” (This was something she had already mentioned in interviews about shooting with the younger kids in the cast of Short Term 12). But her focus on how important it was for her that Jacob “always felt he could speak up” might have had to do with something else.

Larson was “incredibly shy” as a kid, “too scared to talk to anybody.” Her parents used to call her “the WB frog,” because “When I was onstage I would do this whole song and dance, but if my parents had a family friend over, I would just go hide in the bedroom.” Even today, she still she’s “not a small talker.” She decided to play Legos as a way to connect with Tremblay because she thought it would be easier: “We wouldn’t have to make eye contact right away.”

If you saw Larson and Tremblay on the Room promotional tour or at award ceremonies that year, then you have likely seen her kneel down to his level to engage with him, hug him, play with him, stop talking to other people because he’s calling for her. “There’s something very old about a child, in the way they don’t dip in all the craziness,” she says. It’s hard not to think that she might find it easier to overcome her own introversion with a kid like Tremblay than she would with other adults. Perhaps there is something about children and interacting with them that frees you, and that brings out that part of you that is eager to connect, to be looked up to because you didn’t look down to, to give love and be loved, to understand and feel understood. When you watch the scenes between Larson and Tremblay in Room, you are seeing the same thing you see when they are talking with each other in a normal situation: two people who feel they are “the same person.” You see truth.


Larson confesses she has “a hard time comprehending that life goes on,” which once again calls to mind the question of acting as a career choice. While shooting a film, actors are thrown into a relatively tight-knit group for a brief period; growing attached, creating ties, forming relationships, and are then forced to abruptly part, knowing those relationships will never be quite the same. But on life goes, indifferent to how we feel about its march, and Larson’s certainly hasn’t stood still. She recently interviewed Jane Fonda for The Edit. Last month, she starred in Kong: Skull Island, her first bona fide blockbuster, and she's set to appear in an upcoming Avengers chapter, as well as in her own starring vehicle as Captain Marvel. Each of these films seems likely to propel her to a whole new level of stardom.

It can be puzzling when truly great actors choose to do movies like Kong or take part in the Marvel universe. Most are quick to say they do it for the money, but there is another, more generous reading of these choices: perhaps they do it for the fun of it. The stunts, the running around, pretending to be the kind of person capable of shrugging off explosions or saving the planet; it all must feel like going back to the playground. Larson, however, offers another explanation: “Bigger movies,” she says, “are in some ways even more important, because they reach a wider audience, they’re highly influential.” She argues, “Why can’t we take the same level of intelligence and craft”—of a Short Term 12, she means—“and bring the same level of artistry and heart to something that’s bigger, that’s gonna be seen by more people?”

The money, of course, does matter, because the bigger paychecks that come with big tent franchises give an actor more freedom to participate in smaller, more artistically fulfilling films. Last month, Larson was in the indie joke-and-blood-fest Free Fire, which, if the trailer is any indication, looks like director Ben Wheatley’s attempt to convince Quentin Tarantino to make Larson his new Uma Thurman. She's also set to star in Short Term 12’s Destin Daniel Cretton’s next film, The Glass Castle, and in the shot-in-India musical Basmati Blues, a project she’s been proudly and glowingly talking about ever since she was promoting Short Term 12.

And perhaps more importantly, she will direct her own movie, Unicorn Store—a project for which she’s been preparing herself for quite a while. In 2012, she and two of her friends shot The Arm, a 9-minute surreal story about teenagers texting too much and falling in love, its editing recalling a French New Wave movie or perhaps an early Scorsese film like Who’s That Knocking At My Door? Larson and her friends took the short to the Sundance Film Festival, and walked away the Short Film Special Jury Prize. The following year, Larson co-directed—this time with Dustin Bowser—Weighting, another short, Godard-like piece of weirdness that leaves you thinking about how a part of your ex can stay with you after a breakup. Unicorn Store will be her first full-length (and on-her-own) directorial effort, but the way it has been described—a “quirky independent comedy” about a woman who moves back in with her parents and encounters “a store that will test her idea of what it really means to grow up”—indicates it will likely stay true to Larson’s distinctive sensibility.

Sometimes, that distinctiveness has made things more difficult for her. Larson went to public schools until junior high, but once it was time to go to high school, she didn’t like the teachers, was picked on, and felt awkward around her peers, so she decided to be home-schooled (“I was the best student, and the worst,” Larson jokes). She didn’t want to be an “Abercrombie & Fitch teenager” back then, in the same way she doesn’t want to be an “Adam Sandler’s girlfriend” actor now. 

At some point during those years, when she was either 16 or 17—she can’t pin it down exactly—Larson remembers watching a DVD of Godard’s Masculin féminin at home, right in the middle of the living room, when her mother came in. “I was trying to explain to her the importance of this film, and how incredible it was that Godard did this thing where, you know, he had this scene planned out, and then Brigitte Bardot walks in, but he didn’t tell the other actors, and there’s a camera on Bardot and Bardot knew what was happening and then you get to see this pure reaction of these people, and she”—her mother, that is—“was like ‘I don’t care.’” Larson’s voice drops to demonstrate the prolonged, drawn-out pronunciation of the o’s and a’s of her mother’s response. “‘I just worked all day. I wanna watch Top Chef, I don’t wanna read subtitles, I don’t care about what’s happening in France and the revolution in the 60’s, and the blah, blah, blah and whatever it is you’re talking about. And it’s black and white, I don’t want to work for my entertainment.’ And it was like, I remember being so hurt, and so sad, and I felt so different from my family… but then at the same time it was like a great lesson, that I realized I couldn’t just go around telling people what was a good movie, what they needed to watch. Like, I learned very quickly that I just liked what I liked and I didn’t need to force my opinions on anybody else, and you know, just go in my room and take off my angst on my guitar and try and tune out the sounds of Top Chef.”

This story brings to mind something Larson said in one of the interviews she gave while promoting Room. After the film was released, she had people coming up to tell her—to confess, really—things about their childhood the movie brought up within them. “Watching Ma, who they see as me being the vessel of, being so vulnerable and open, they immediately feel comfortable opening up.” Many told her the film “reminded them of being a kid making their first friend, the first time they felt comfortable, you know, asking a friend to come over, and that really, like, broke my heart, because I remember that. You know, the nervousness of being a kid, and not being sure if, you know, they wanna come over and play? And also, people who had troubled parents, maybe a mom who had mental issues or depression, and I never saw the movie from that side of it, but that was also a really interesting thing to hear about.”

Maybe this, beneath all the people she pretends to be for a living, including the public version of herself we get to see and thus think we somehow know, is who Brie Larson really is: someone a little bit different, who has always felt different from other people, but who still feels it's vitally important to understand them—those other, different people—and even more so, to connect with them in some way. And through the movies—watching them, reading about them, talking about them, making them—Larson has found a way of doing exactly that.

Bruno Alves lives in Caxias, Portugal, but sometimes wishes he didn’t. He writes for the Portuguese website O Insurgente, a column for Lisbon's Jornal Económico, and for a few other places now and then. Bruno welcomes both writing job offers and insults at alves.bm@netcabo.pt, and you can also find him on Twitter.