The Curse of the Cat People
There are countless cases of Hollywood producers meddling with directors' artistic vision, as the crude demands of commercialism ruin ambitious creative endeavors. But it must be admitted that, sometimes, the push-and-pull between bottom-line moneymen and iconoclastic artists results in fascinatingly rich cinematic texts. Case in point: The Curse of the Cat People, which was marketed by RKO Studios as a sequel to the 1942 chiller Cat People, though the filmmakers—among them producer Val Lewton, directors Robert Wise and Gunther von Fritsch, and screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen—instead created a fantastic world ruled by childlike imagination, as well as a bewitching ode to the power of storytelling.
Most American movies about motherhood seem obligated to portray it as a blissful, transcendent experience: your life as a woman doesn't truly begin, these movies seem to imply, until you've had a child. While that may ring true for some mothers, it ignores the vast number of women for whom parenthood is an ambivalent, anxiety-ridden, life-defining ordeal, or who felt pressured (by their partners, by society) to have children in the first place. Mainstream comedies like Knocked Up and Waitress, ostensibly about unwanted pregnancy and the pressures facing first-time mothers, inevitably end with the realization that parenthood is what these characters wanted all along, the ultimate vocation that will give their life meaning. Even something like Bad Moms (not surprisingly) avoids commenting seriously on the trials of motherhood in favor of a generic, "let loose and live a little" vibe, in which the stresses of nine-to-five jobs, indifferent husbands, and upper-crust PTA boards can always be solved by finding a sitter and indulging in a night of debauchery.
Pickpocket, the first film that Robert Bresson directed from an original script not based on a previous literary work, is a radically internalized film. Not unlike Bresson's previous film, A Man Escaped (but more audaciously), Pickpocket has a general plot outline and even a few scenes that suggest an action-thriller: an aimless young man in Paris decides to become a pickpocket, evades the police, and collaborates with two other thieves to wreak havoc on unsuspecting Parisians' pocketbooks. (Rumor has it that Bresson was even inspired by Samuel Fuller's pulpy 1953 film Pickup on South Street.) But Bresson uses this concept as a springboard to confront existential despair, to philosophize about the (perhaps fruitless) search for meaning, to expose a character's soul onscreen. This was the first true elaboration of Bresson's austere, "transcendental" style (to use Paul Schrader's description), and it still feels jarringly uncompromising.
Provocation without a point, Piercing represents the worst tendencies of wannabe shock auteurs whose main reference point is earlier, better movies. Writer-director Nicolas Pesce (whose previous feature was 2016's Eyes of My Mother, a formally different but thematically similar wallow in the motivations of murder) turns Ryū Murakami's 1994 novel into a sleazy tribute to giallo movies (and by extension Brian De Palma movies), slathering the screen with splitscreen effects, bold yellow titles, and a brazenly artificial setting populated with miniature sets. Meanwhile, the soundtrack blares with music lifted from earlier giallo movies like Deep Red and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, the groovy off-kilter melodies of Bruno Nicolai and Goblin accompanying the sadism. It all makes for an eye-catching diversion, but after a while the emptiness and pomposity of Pesce's approach become more irritating than involving.