Category Archives: 2015

Into the Forest (2015): survivalist feminist drama

The scene opens with Patricia Rozema’s camera taking a mystical walk through the woods and Cat Power’s mesmerizing voice singing Wild is the Wind, before stopping at a secluded family house situated on the edge of the forest – a house that despite its physical closeness seems to be extremely far from the nature that surrounds it. The family consists of two daughters, Eva and Nell (played by Evan Rachel Wood and Ellen Page) and their widowed father, all of whom seem to be living in a near future that all too much resembles the world that we already live in. Disconnected from the world and nature around and all too dependable on the technology that is micromanaging every aspect of our personal, social and professional lives – this is the future that has already happened, with futuristically designed technology being the only indicator of the film being set in a period that is yet to happen. Each of them seems to be  pursuing their own thing, chasing their own dreams and trying to make the bright future ahead of them (they are living a privileged middle-class life after all) a reality, with Eva trying to make it as a professional dancer and Nell focusing on her education, possibly wishing to pursue her studies in an academic sphere. They know exactly what they need to do, how hard they need to work for it and what reward is awaiting for them in the end. That is until the power suddenly goes out nationwide in what is at first interpreted as a terrorist attack – only that the loss of power does not end up being a simple inconvenience that would last for a few days. Days instead turn into weeks and weeks into months.

When their father loses his life in an unfortunate accident and it starts to become clearer that life with electricity is the thing of the past, girls find themselves completely alone and entirely dependable on themselves – instead of on the patriarchal order that the father (and later, briefly, Nell’s boyfriend) represented so far. However, they (understandably) find it hard to switch their mindset to the new reality in which everything that was once an important part of their everyday life suddenly does not exist anymore and the expression “fugue state” that Nell is learning for her upcoming SAT’s before the power outage, starts to get a life of its own since the girls seem to be unable to let their old, comfortable and privileged lives go. Nell keeps on studying for the exams as if she is still about to finish high school and pursue her education at one of the Universities that she applied to, and Eva practices her dance routine, accompanied by nothing else but the frustrating sound of a metronome, as if the upcoming audition and a professional dance career is still something that will somehow happen.

They’re clearly in denial and they seem determined to keep on living their life as they did before, no matter how much the reality around them has changed. And while they slowly adapt to certain changes, learn to gather food in the forest and chop wood, they somehow still cannot fully acknowledge the permanence of their situation – which, considering how very different persons they are, culminates in quite a few sisterly disputes. It’s not until Nell temporarily leaves, although merely to pick blueberries in the woods, while Eva (alone and unable to defend herself) gets brutally raped (in what is one of the most devastating and powerful scenes in the film) that the two realize just how very important it is for them to stick together and how, no matter how strong and independent they otherwise are, they are completely helpless without one another.

It is only after the rape and Eva’s realization that she got pregnant during it that the fugue state slowly starts to dissolve – but it’s not until she actually gives birth that they fully accept their new reality and find the strength to not only leave, but destroy the life that they once lived (at least what has left of it).

Of course we are all too familiar with dystopian stories that focus on how the end of the world would affect our society as a whole. And it is in this aspect that Into the Forest manages to be a refreshing variation of those all-too-frequent macro-societal dystopian futures. Rozema surprisingly barely mentions the crisis that is going on in the city nearby (and elsewhere throughout the country) – instead, it focuses entirely on these two girls, on two particular individuals trying their best to learn to survive after the world as they knew it suddenly stops existing. But while I admire her intention of analysing how such crisis affects people on a micro level, the characters at times do not feel developed enough for us to contently spend an hour and a half in their company. We hardly learn anything about Eva and Nell that would make us see them as real persons – for which I blame a somewhat clumsily written screenplay (adapted for screen by Rozema herself) that doesn’t manage to portray the sister’s dynamic as well as it could have, despite Wood and Page giving fantastic performances and managing to carry the film forward even when they do not have much to work with.

The Basics:
Directed by: Patricia Rozema
Written by: Patricia Rozema (based on a novel by Jean Hegland)
Starring: Ellen Page, Evan Rachel Wood, Max Minghella, Callum Rennie
Running Time: 101 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 7

The Danish Girl (2015): a dissapointing and conservative portrayal of transsexuality

I did not expect much of this film when I entered the cinema. I thought I knew exactly what kind of misinterpretation of transgendered pioneer Lili Elbe I am about to witness and I was right. However, the film still managed to disappoint, no matter how very little I expected from it in the first place. Do not get me wrong, there is a lot to like here – the cinematography by Danny Cohen is beautiful and Alexandre Desplat’s score is magical, as always. Alicia Vikander also manages to give an amazing performance, but this sadly was not enough to make this film a worthwhile cinematic experience. The biggest weakness was mainly its “all-to-safe” and conservative screenplay, not to mention its false portrayal of what could (and should) have been a story about the brave life of Lili – the first publicly known person who underwent a sex reassignment surgery in 1929. But instead of introducing us to the inspirational life story of Danish painters and spouses, Einar (later Lili) and Gerda Wegener, this film chooses to tell its own version of the story that is only loosely inspired by their real life (even though it gives the impression that it is based on true events). The amount of inaccuracies in the screenplay was unbelievable and downright offensive, and since films are supposed to be much more than just pretty pictures with good acting, The Danish Girl ended up being just another example of a film where style prevails over any kind of substance.

Both Einar and his wife Gerda were fascinating, open-minded and somewhat controversial people who lived in 1920’s bohemian Paris where they both experimented with their sexuality. Yes, both. Gerda was far from a woman who lived in a shadow of her husband’s talent and who would not get her big break until she started to paint her husband in women’s clothings. Apart from her paintings of Lili, she was most famous for her lesbian erotica art – which is why many wonder if she was, in fact, a lesbian herself. If not, she was most certainly a bisexual woman, since she supposedly had many affairs with other women while still being married to Einar. She was therefore far from being a conventional wife who struggled to understand her husband’s transition into a woman. But none of this gets mentioned in the film; probably because of the fact that bisexuality is still considered a taboo in Hollywood studio films.

This is why The Danish Girl ends up being a very conventional love story where Gerda, somewhat supportive, but unable to fully understand her husband’s struggle, gets turned into a martyr who sacrifices her marriage for the sake of her husband’s happiness. While watching the film, you will find yourself more sympathetic towards Gerda than Lili who is slowly coming to terms with her gender and her newly established identity. To make a film about a transgendered person where your main sympathy goes to everyone else but that transsexual person perfectly demonstrates where the true agenda of this film lies, because it is certainly not in representing LGBT community. When the credits finally rolled, I actually began to wonder whether the title The Danish Girl really meant Lili, because it sure seemed more like Gerda’s story at more than one occasion. Not to mention the fact that Lili often came across as an egoistical and downright selfish person who does not care about anyone but herself. There was one particularly problematic scene where Gerda asked Lili if she could speak with her husband, which was a perfect moment to explain that Lili is, in fact, Einar (and vice versa); that they are the same person, that they always were the same person. Instead, she only responds with: “No. Can I help, please?”, as if she is deliberately depriving her wife of speaking to her husband one more time. It is awfully manipulative to portray her like that: this film was supposed to be about her inner struggle and not about the struggles of people around her. Especially when those struggles did not actually exist: Einar lived as Lili for more than 10 years before having a surgery, and in all this time, Gerda and her had a lovely, loving marriage. They lived together as two women for the longest time before their marriage became annulled due to legal issues. After Lili had her first surgery (out of four; the last one in 1931 was fatal), she legally changed her name from Einar to Lili Elbe, and this made their marriage invalidate since two women could not be legally married at the time.

Another problem that cannot remain unaddressed was how Einar first acknowledged that she actually identifies as a woman. When one of Gerda’s models cancelled her appointment, Einar came to pose in her place – and it is in that exact moment, when (s)he puts on women stockings and a dress, that she discovers her true gender identity. Which is, of course, misleading – she was born as a woman and has therefore always identified as a woman, even though everyone else around her perceived her as a man. Did the film tried to suggest that if she would not try those clothes on, she would not realize that she was born in the wrong body? From there on she then starts touching her silk dress in a ridiculously erotic way, as if she did not just realized that she feels much more herself when dressed like a woman, but as if the dress actually, somewhat fetishistically, turned her on. From there forward at least the next half of the film continues in this fashion; as if her dressing up in women’s clothes would be more of a roleplay between Gerda and herself, and not about her actually being a woman born inside of a man’s body. That is until she starts to suffer from monthly nosebleeds and stomach cramps – if she is actually experiencing something as close to a menstrual cycle as a “man” can get, then maybe there really is something more to her dressing up as a woman? Because only after that the film slowly begins to explore the possibility that she actually is a woman and always was a woman: but by that time it is already too late, the damage has already been done.

Just as Jenny’s Wedding earlier this year, this film’s representation of homosexuality and transsexuality feels disappointingly conservative and outdated, not to mention the fact that a transgendered role once again has not been played by an actual trans actor. It is not more than two years since Jared Leto’s Oscar-winning role in Dallas Buyers Club opened up a discourse about the lack of trans people working in film – and yet here we are again, watching Eddie Redmayne dressing up and trying to (unsuccessfully) come across as Lili Elbe, when I am sure that there is more than enough talented trans actresses in Hollywood that would be perfect for the role. It is also somewhat infuriating to see that Redmayne’s performance got him another Oscar nomination. While I liked his performance in The Theory of Everything, his choice of playing Lili in the same physical way as Stephen Hawking felt wrong to me. Everything he did – from his hand gestures and smiles, to his excessive blinking with the eyes, seemed choreographed and forced. There was nothing natural about it; in every scene he looked like he is posing for a portrait, but the most annoying thing was probably the way he batted with his eyelashes as if that’s the characteristic that makes you look the most feminine version of yourself.

The Danish Girl does not even come close to representing trans community; nor does it tries to understand it. All that this film actually manages to do is showing us how trans people are perceived by cisgendered, heterosexual majority. And this is, for me, an unforgivable misrepresentation of a minority that deserved something much better.

The Basics:
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by: Lucinda Coxon (based on a novel by David Ebershoff)
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Ben Whishaw
Running Time: 119 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 5

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015): awakening of female sexuality

“I had sex today… Holy shit.” That’s the first sentence we hear from Minnie, our 15-year old protagonist, who is coming-of-age in a 1976 San Francisco.  And just with that one simple sentence this film manages to completely shift the narrative we usually see in films about teenagers, placing girl’s sexual awakening, her thoughts and desires, at the centre of the story.

When we first see Minnie, she’s confidently walking through the park and she doesn’t have to say anything more than that one sentence. As the camera zooms close to her face, we know exactly what she’s thinking: “I became a woman today. I officially became an adult.” With a smile on her face and with her big, wandering eyes looking at the world as if she sees her surroundings for the very first time, we follow her home, into her room, where she sits down on her bed and starts recording her diary on a cassette player. It is she, and she alone, who is the narrator of this ground-breaking story about awakening sexuality of a teenage girl. Bel Powley, whose portrayal of Minnie is absolutely fantastic, carries the whole film with natural ease and confidence and ultimately gives one of the best (and certainly one of the most important) performances of this past year. It took us long enough, but the film that represents us as we really are, and not as we should or could be, is finally here. It probably goes without saying that it sparked its fair share of controversy – but considering it’s one of the first American films directed by a woman that unapologetically questions the carefully maintained status quo, this really isn’t all that surprising.

If we start to view women with agency – and with needs and desires that are as important as boys’ – it takes heterosexual men out of a position of power. Anytime we talk about women having agency or being the protagonist of a story, that’s threatening the status quo. (Marielle Heller, the director)

True, this film moves in a very greyish moral area, considering it’s about Minnie who starts an affair with her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård’s best role to date) who is 20 years her senior. But there’s a special kind of beauty in this (however problematic) story, because it’s unapologetically honest, real and not at all concerned with how uncomfortable it makes the viewer feel. The film is based on autobiographical novel by Phoebe Glockner and is told entirely from Minnie’s point of view. It therefore doesn’t judge, it doesn’t moralize and it also doesn’t make Monroe a predator or Minnie his under-age victim. The film is set in a groovy, anything-goes 1976 San Francisco, in a household full of smoke, booze and occasional use of cocaine, and considering this social-historical context, it actually makes perfect sense that Monroe is not portrayed as someone who committed statutory rape (even though this obviously was the case). It’s also important to understand that however problematic his character may be, we only see him through Minnie’s big, dreamy eyes, still full of childish wonder about the world surrounding her; the world of sex, lust and love that she is just slowly beginning to understand. She’s smart, funny, honest, vulnerable, curious and flawed; the most real, three-dimensional teenage-girl character that ever graced our movie screens. But she’s also only 15 years old, and this makes her a ticking hormonal bomb, full of typical adolescent insecurities and feelings she doesn’t yet quite understand.

Of course she doesn’t know what she’s getting into when she decides to seduce Monroe. Just as she doesn’t completely comprehend how wrong it is what they’re doing – he, on the other hand, knows they crossed a line and soon starts avoiding her. However, some people can’t seem to get over their problematic age-difference and tend to moralize about how Monroe should be persecuted for having sex with a minor (but then it wouldn’t be Minnie’s story anymore, would it?) – and because of that, they tend to overlook the most revolutionary part of this ground-breaking indie. Things are far from being black and white and not only is she far too smart and complex to be an innocent victim of a sexual predator, she also actually likes sex. She likes it so much that she manages to scare off the boy with whom she hooks up after Monroe starts to keep his distance. Her passion and intensity, her knowing exactly what she wants and how she wants it, turns out to be too much for a teenage boy who was probably raised in a belief that girls don’t even like sex, let alone like it to the same extend as boys.

The narrative I was given as a teenage girl was that boys are going to be the ones who think about sex. Boys are going to be the ones who want to have sex. I think it’s damaging to both sexes that we don’t talk about sexuality as something we are both experiencing equally. (Marielle Heller, the director)

Kristen Wiig does an outstanding job playing Minnie’s boozy and inattentive mother Charlotte, a librarian by day and a tireless party animal by night, who recently divorced Minnie’s conservative step-father (Christopher Meloni) and started living her life as a “liberated woman” of the 70’s. Her narcissistic and hedonistic behaviour seems to be something straight out of Christopher Lasch’s 1979 best-selling book The Culture of Narcissism and while her remarks sometimes seem to be inspired by the ideas of second wave feminism, she doesn’t actually seem able to function without a man in her life. She also can’t seem to break her pattern of dating inappropriate men who bring nothing but chaos into her family life. Even though she doesn’t get much screen time, she comes across as a real, complex and confused human being, full of her own insecurities and inner contradictions – as someone who refuses to be someone’s housewife, but who’s also failing in her role of a mother. As Minnie smartly describes her at the end of the movie: “I always thought I wanted to be exactly like my mom. But she thinks she needs a man to be happy. I don’t. So maybe nobody loves me, maybe nobody will ever love me. But maybe it’s not about being loved by somebody else.” And it’s at that moment that we realize she’s all grown up. She has become a wise, mature and emotionally (although not yet economically) independent woman and a proud feminist who won’t ever allow herself of being defined by men in her life and who will always know that what matters most in life is loving yourself.

Another thing that deserves to be brought up is how smartly the writer/director Marielle Heller avoids portraying Minnie as a sexual object. Even though there is a fair share of nudity in this film, she is never a subject of a (male) gaze – not when it comes to Monroe, and not when it comes to the audience. The only time we see her fully nude is when she stands in front of a mirror, watching and judging herself, trying to figure out if she likes what she sees – she is thus a subject of her own gaze, and all the judging about her being pretty and/or fat is left entirely to her. She is owning every scene that she finds herself in, whether it’s about her lovable, but flawed personality, her hormonal outbursts, her body image or about her sexual experimentation, and she leaves us absolutely no choice but to join her on a crazy ride of adolescent troubles and confusion.

The Basics:
Directed by: Marielle Heller
Written by: Marielle Heller (based on a novel by Phoebe Gloeckner)
Starring: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Meloni
Running Time: 102 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 9

The Lobster (2015): satiric alternate reality and the tyranny of social conformity

The Lobster marks the return of a modern mastermind of everything absurd and surreal, of the man whose  dystopian communities are the quirkiest satirical commentaries of our dysfunctional modern world. His Bunuelian sense of surrealism first sparked my interest back in 2009, when I saw his critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated Dogtooth, and he has been making the weirdest, most bizarre, often uncomfortable, but ultimately very rewarding and thought-provoking films ever since.

The story follows a recently divorced David (Colin Farrell) who, due to his recent divorce and newly established single status, has to check into the Hotel in order to find a new life companion. For he lives in a world where being single is illegal, where people are meant to live in couples and whether their spouse has left them or just recently died, they are obliged to check into a Hotel where they have 45 days to fall in love. Failing to start a relationship with someone in this limited time means you failed as a human being and as a consequence of your incompetence you get to be turned into an animal of your choosing.

Of course Lanthimos drives the whole situation to the most humours extreme, but there are quite a few aspects of our own reality hidden in there. Do we not live in a world where single people are constantly judged and stigmatised? Where a person of a certain age is expected to get married and have children, where most people don’t even think of choosing a different life path? Where people, in a hurry to start a family of their own, consider it to be by their own free will, rarely realising they may be simply following social norms they have internalised while growing up? Single people seem to be constantly dating, swiping right and left on Tinder, trying to meet THE person, because they think they have reached an age where being single is no longer acceptable. And when they fail to connect, when they fail to build a lasting relationship, they feel as if they failed. “There is probably something wrong with me,” is the sentence I hear all too often. But there is actually something wrong with a society that is wrongfully letting us believe that not having a partner is somehow a result of our personal shortcomings. Our society may not turn us into an animal, but it is doing something that can be interpreted equally damaging: instead of turning us into a lobster, it lets us punish ourselves. By letting us believe that our life is not yet complete, not fully lived, because we need “our better half” to be considered a normal, fully functioning member of our society. By letting us know that it is time to stop kidding around and start living a normal life. Tick tock. The clock is ticking.

The clock is ticking for David, too, as he checks into the Hotel – some kind of a singles resort that could easily be called a Prison, since the only way of getting out in your human form is by starting a relationship and finding your “soul-mate”. And just as in real life, he has a limited time to find “his person”. Which is why most Hotel guests, desperate to get out while still being human, start to fake their habits, their (dis)abilities, even their personalities, in order to become interesting to other single visitors. The Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) starts to fake his nosebleeds in order to get closer with the Nosebleed Woman, and it is not long before David, who is already running out of time, tries to change his whole personality in order to start dating the cold and unapproachable Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia). Things do not go as planned, though, since she chooses to put his psychopathic tendencies to a test by killing his dog/brother. Blinded by anger and grief, he chooses to revenge his brother’s death by turning her into an animal and escaping from the Hotel – only to run into a forest full of other dissidents, as he is not the first person who chose to run from the tyranny of social conformity.

While the Loners live away from social restrictions of the house, in an endless forest that symbolises their (spatial) freedom, they are far from actually being free. They may have abandoned social rules of the majority, but their merciless leader Léa Seydoux came up with a whole set of different rules. Trying to build a society as the exact opposite of the life they lived before, everything that is required to do in couples now becomes strictly forbidden – which leads to them being no less rigid or intolerant than the society they chose to escape from. The way they function is reminiscent to a religious cult, but I would go even further than that: if the world outside of the forest represents a totalitarian regime in an alternate reality, the forest represents freedom that most of the former communist countries imagined when they thought of the word democracy. However, things did not turned out all that great as one might expect, once the era of communism ended and an era of democracy (and with that, capitalism) began. What Lanthimos therefore tries to say is that we can change the system, but the ideological package that surrounds us does not really matter as long as the people, at their core, remain the same. Of course there are different methods for achieving social (and political) power, as one system will kill your human form and the other will blind you while pretending to help, but the end result will essentially be the same: entrapped by the system, we will be playing by someone else’s rules instead of making decisions for ourselves.

There is a story about forbidden love hidden in there also, a modern Romeo and Juliet of sorts, even though none of the lovers dies at the end. Instead of death we get a very typical Lanthimos ending, not much different from the self-mutilating bathroom scene in Dogtooth. And while the scene certainly serves as a reprise to his previous feature film, I believe the real power of it lies somewhere else. What the message here seems to be is that we need to embark into the future blind (figuratively, although the film shows it quite literally); free of all the rules, preconceptions, norms and beliefs that up to this point limited our existence. That we need to distance ourselves from everything we knew as our reality, because only then can we can realize how absurd and socially constructed (and therefore, changeable) most of the things we consider normal and “right” actually are.

Lanthimos, always ready to perform an artistic surgery on social stigmas and taboos, chose to address the stigmatization of single people in the way he knows best: in a satirical love story, full of mechanical dialogue, dark humour and absurd situations. His style sure is not for everyone’s taste – but if you are willing to put up with absurd situations that reflect our everyday life, this is going to be one of the best film experiences of the year.

The Basics:
Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by: Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou
Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Angeliki Papoulia
Running Time: 118 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 9

Experimenter (2015): the banality of evil and our willingness to obey authority

Imagine you find yourself at Yale laboratory room with another participator and a man in a lab coat who is giving you the instructions about the study you’re about to participate in (a study that you believe is about memory and learning). You get to choose between two pieces of paper – and of course you’re relieved when you find out that you drew a paper that assigns you to the role of the teacher. The other poor bastard gets to be the learner, strapped to the seat in a separate room from you, and has to answer a series of questions. And whenever he gives you a wrong answer, you are to deliver an electric shock that gets increasingly higher with each wrong answer. Your only instruction is to go through all the questions, to finish the study you agreed to participate in. Even when the other participant starts to scream in insufferable pain and demands to be set free, your instructor tells you to continue. Then, suddenly, the screaming stops – did he die? He stops answering your questions. Which counts as the wrong answer – it requires another shock. You’re still told to proceed. Do you proceed?

Most of us would like to think that we would not. That we would stand up in protest, that we would disobey the orders we were given by an authority figure – that we would choose a well-being of another human being over blindly following the orders. Most of us would like to think that – but that’s not what most people did when such an experiment took place in Yale laboratories in 1961.  Around 65% of all subjects went all the way and continued to administer shocks up to the highest levels – levels that would without any doubt kill the learner if he would actually be receiving these shocks.

Milgram, a son of Jewish immigrants who fled from Eastern Europe during WWII, tried to understood how such a horrendous crime, a genocide could ever happened. How did all those people just went along with it? Are we really just plain evil – or are we just unable (or unwilling) to disobey authority or (God-forbid!) think and make decisions on our own? What he found out with this thought-provoking and controversial experiment (that brought him both fame and devastating criticism, particularly about his experiment being unethical), was that “the essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer sees himself as responsible for his action. ” So what we’re essentially left with is the banality of evil – a concept introduced to the world by political theorist Hannah Arendt who reported on Eichmann’s trial in the early 60’s. But what did Arendt meant when she described Eichmann as being evil in the most banal way and what did his banality of evil had in common with most of Milgram’s test subjects? And what (if I may be so bold) do all of them have in common with the Europeans (yes, Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia, I am looking at you) who are currently spreading anger, hatred and intolerance among people, and would probably, without a second thought, kill all (already completely dehumanized by our politicians and the media) Syrian refugees? If I borrow the quote about Arendt’s scandalous work from Judith Butler herself:

She did not think he acted without conscious activity, but she insisted that the term “thinking” had to be reserved for a more reflective mode of rationality. To have “intentions” in her view was to think reflectively about one’s own action as a political being, whose own life and thinking is bound up with the life and thinking of others. What had therefore become banal – and astonishingly so – was the failure to think. Indeed, at one point the failure to think is precisely the name of the crime that Eichmann commits. We might think at first that this is a scandalous way to describe his horrendous crime, but for Arendt the consequence of non-thinking is genocidal, or certainly can be.

One part biopic about social psychologist Stanley Milgram, and one part exploration of the mechanisms behind our behaviour (especially our conformity, our willingness to obey authority), Experimenter really couldn’t get released at a better time; at a time that a lot of us are asking ourselves the same question as Milgram did: “How can the people just go along with it?”

As far as the film itself is considered, it would work much better if it would remain more focused on the experiment and the controversy that followed it, and left Milgram’s personal and academic life alone (however smartly it manages to avoid all the clichés that are usually present in biopics). But because the film tries to be both a biopic and an insightful study of human conformity, it ends up being somewhat messy – the whole idea behind the experiment (and the criticism (as well as accolades) that followed after Milgram finally managed to publish his study) is complex enough, and when you throw in his other (not nearly as important) experiments and a few other personal details, the strongest and most important message gets lost in midst of all these different informations and ideas. And because of that the film ends up being not as effective as it could be (although it’s still fascinating, educating, provocative and relevant enough that it manages to stick with the viewer) and probably a little hard to follow for anyone who isn’t familiar with his (or Arendt’s, whose banality of evil is referenced at least twice) work.

Experimenter is thus less about the story and more about ideas. You will be horrified by how easily everyday people can be led into torturing another human being and confused by their answers to why they didn’t stop and went all the way. “I was told to.” The film raises many questions, about our will, morality and the choices we make (because, you know, you can always say “I don’t want to.”), but doesn’t (or rather, can’t) answer many of them.

Film’s cinematography is cold and it’s mise-en-scene minimalistic (the scenes sometimes look almost completely empty), as if it tries to look like a real-life experiment in a controlled environment, with as little outside variables as possible. There are also quite a few interesting (although not always equally good) directing choices – one of them being Dr. Milgram’s speaking into the camera, as if he is delivering us a lecture (as if he is the teacher, and we are his learners): something that Peter Sargaard, whose whole performance is praise-worthy, manages to do brilliantly.  But one of my favourite scenes has to be the one with a live elephant walking behind Milgram while he’s in the middle of his monologue – a clear metaphor to “an elephant in the room”, which in my opinion symbolizes how the majority of us don’t want to acknowledge that evil is, in fact, all around us. The real (however banal) evil is in all of us who blindly follow others and who so rarely stop to think: “Is this really the right thing to do? The moral thing to do?”.

The Basics:
Directed by: Michael Almereyda
Written by: Michael Almereyda
Starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Jim Gaffigan, John Palladino
Running Time: 90 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 6