Bulking up with an additional day of screenings and a brand-new theater—a comfy 650-seat converted ice rink named after longtime festival favorite Werner Herzog—the 40th installment of the annual Telluride Film Festival managed to live up to its benchmark anniversary’s “XL” status. Securely nestled in a dramatic canyon amid the San Juan Mountains, Telluride’s isolated location has historically kept it all but under the radar of mainstream press, but this year the fest seemed to be bursting at its small-town seams. The unprecedented number of sneak peaks (including Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, and Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises) may have rubbed Toronto and Venice the wrong way, but the weighty program had patrons uttering “Next year in Telluride” with spiritual reverence as they reluctantly began the exodus back down to sea level.
No film was more befitting of the “XL” label than Alfonso Cuarón’s 3-D outer-space spectacle, Gravity. Sprung from the same survivalist matrix as more than a handful of this year’s headliners, the film stars George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as two astronauts—an overly chatty vet and nervous neophyte, respectively—who find themselves reeling weightlessly through the infinite galaxy when they become untethered from their space station.
Impressively rendered in CGI, the interstellar landscape is indeed stunning—a boundless void that is as mesmerizing as it is terrifying. But after the opening shot (which comes in at about 13 minutes), the film doesn’t quite have the momentum to sustain itself. Losing sight of Clooney early on, much of the remaining time is spent following Bullock’s arduous, action-packed journey to safety. The experience is more akin to playing a video game than watching a movie as each brief respite is dramatically disrupted by further disaster—a tether snapping, a fire alighting, another tether snapping—and the pattern is tedious and predictable rather than exhilarating.
All is Lost
Though the film frequently showcases Bullock’s sculpted body with balletic grace, her performance is decidedly less toned than her rock-hard stems, offering little humanism and a lot of heavy breathing. It’s difficult to avoid comparison here with J.C. Chandor’s Robert Redford one-man show All Is Lost, which has been criticized by some for its extreme minimalism. But with practically zero words spoken during the nearly two-hour struggle to keep his punctured sailboat afloat, Redford manages to convey much more in silence than Gravity does in all of its contrived monologues put together.
Loosely based on Michael Farber’s novel of the same name, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin brings outer space down to earth—Scotland, to be specific. His first feature since 2004’s Birth, Under the Skin is a sci-fi thriller that frequently dips into formal abstraction. Donning a short black wig, her famous pout tinted deep red, Scarlett Johansson stars as a predatory extraterrestrial that uses her sexual prowess to lure a series of bumbling Scotsman back to her lair. All helpless in front of her milky white hourglass figure, none of them can strip fast enough, believing it to be their lucky day until they’re sucked into a primordial ooze that flushes away their innards and preserves their skin.
Under the Skin
Aside from these ultra-stylized seduction scenes, Under the Skin was shot primarily using hidden cameras that imbue the visuals with the strange eeriness of a surveillance video. While not particularly pleasing to the eye, Glazer’s bold filming technique allies the viewer with the alien’s perspective, supplanting the narrative necessity to explicate the otherworldliness of its central subject. Though she touches many men, the alienne doesn’t make first contact until she finds herself empathizing with one of her victims—a grossly disfigured man whose marginal existence has relegated him to a creature of the night. It’s when she begins to explore what it means to be human—to taste food, to inhabit a body, to interact with others—that the film fully achieves its oddly detached poignancy.
Johansson delivers what is perhaps her best performance since Lost in Translation; not only does Glazer make use of her ability to fill out the pair of apple-bottom jeans she pilfers from a deceased doppelgänger but he is acutely attuned to the actress’ capacity to subtly convey great depths while appearing to be no more than a blank surface.
Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida similarly centers on a somewhat unearthly young woman with striking features. The director’s first film in his native Polish, Ida tells the story of a nun (Agata Trzebuchowska) who finds out that she’s Jewish just before taking her final vows. It’s Wanda (Agata Kulesza), Ida’s uninhibited aunt, who bluntly delivers the news when the wide-eyed novice interrupts Wanda’s midday rendezvous with a gentleman caller. The two women initially clash over their worldviews, but they begin to bond as they set out to find Wanda’s former neighbor who murdered their family.
Despite its heavy historical themes, Ida is more a character study than an ideological statement. Both the women are strongly written, and undergo arcs that are layered rather than engulfed by their political backstories. And the script, though sparse, is as comic as it is naturalistic. “Do you have carnal thoughts?” Wanda asks Ida. “You should try, otherwise what sort of sacrifice are these vows for you?” Ida’s only response is a half-amused, half-embarrassed smirk, but the seemingly ridiculous conceit that a soon-to-be nun should indulge her sexuality becomes a temptation within arms reach when Ida meets a handsome jazz musician on the road.
The director discovered Trzebuchowska completely by chance, with her nose buried in a book at a small café in Poland. Her immaculate cheekbones, sternly dimpled chin, and expressive brown doe eyes make her a striking screen presence, and the first-time actress brings a genuine aura of innocence to the ingénue she plays. Shooting in austere black and white, first-time DP Lukasz Zal opted for an overall aesthetic of carefully framed stillness that does justice to the script’s impressive range, from its most endearing highlights to its darkest shadows.
The Invisible Woman
Adapted by Abi Morgan from Claire Tomalin’s novel, Ralph Fiennes’s second directorial effort, The Invisible Woman, recounts the secret affair between Charles Dickens (Fiennes) and the 18-year-old Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones). At the height of his literary career, the egotistical Dickens thrives on the adoration of his fans and isn’t particularly tactful when it comes to his affections, favoring Nelly over his plump wife (an excellent Joanna Scanlan), who has borne him a veritable army of children over the years. Both complicating and facilitating the illicit liaison is Nelly’s mother (played by the always delightful Kristin Scott Thomas), who recognizes the match as her daughter’s best—and perhaps only—option for a prosperous future (as it turns out, Nelly didn’t inherit the acting talent of her sisters), while simultaneously attempting to preserve her daughter’s dignity in the public sphere.
In the typical Victorian fashion, the ever-increasing eroticism between the couple must be sublimated into non-carnal outlets—double entendres, knowing glances, the subtlest touch. While the film’s sense of restraint is for the most part an asset, particularly with regards to Fiennes’s masterfully sober incarnation of Dickens, the overarching stiff upper lip stifles the chemistry between the two leads.
The film seamlessly alternates between two time periods, with the Nelly of the present—clad only in black—now married to another man. Eyes baggy as if from crying endless tears, she exudes a broken sense of strength that seems beyond her young years. Likening the unattainable relationship to the original ending Dickens penned for Pip and Estella in Great Expectations, Nelly’s curtailed catharsis amounts to a single tear and a delicately quivering chin. It’s in this moment, as Nelly’s obligatory sense of control cracks to reveal a glimpse of irrepressible emotion that the film is at its best.