Mea Culpa III: Re-evaluations of The Lovers and Columbus

Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Everyone enjoys taking shortcuts. But that’s especially true for people who write about movies. As the very phrase “film criticism” implies, it’s much easier to write a review tearing a film apart than it is to write a review that explains why a film is good. Similarly, it’s easy to pan a film that doesn’t meet your initial expectations – and comparatively difficult to appraise a film that exposes you to a novel way of thinking.

For my third annual “Mea Culpa” piece (see the first two here and here), I found myself turning to two of my reviews that exemplify these bad practices. When I first saw Azazel Jacobs’ The Lovers, I assumed that Jacobs intended to make a traditional, feel-good romantic comedy – and thereby failed to appreciate how the film actually ironizes conventional notions of romance. With Kogonada’s Columbus, meanwhile, my subconscious hope was that the film would have enough flaws to warrant a negative review instead of a harder-to-write positive one, and I consequently found myself discovering problems that didn’t actually exist.

In theory, being a film critic sounds pretty cool: like an emperor in a gladiator arena, you help determine whether a film “lives” or “dies” in the realm of public opinion. But with that power comes the responsibility to check your ego and give filmmakers the benefit of the doubt, even if they do things that are difficult, confusing, or apparently nonsensical. If nothing else, then, my original reviews of The Lovers and Columbus are a reminder that good criticism always approaches art with a healthy dose of humility and self-awareness.

Image courtesy of A24.

The Lovers

I remember seeing the trailer for The Lovers several times in the first part of 2017. The clips were funny, particularly the one in which the two protagonists, a married couple named Mary and Michael, frantically get out of bed after they find themselves inadvertently cuddling. Partially as a result of this, I went into the film expecting a comedy about “rediscovered love.”

Needless to say, I came away deeply disappointed. Since rom-coms are normally energetic, I couldn’t stand “the tedium that comes to define…the movie’s latter half.” The romantic part of me, moreover, was offended by the fact that “Michael and Mary’s sudden restart…[never] entail[s] anything beyond lots and lots of passionate sex, as though emotional connections matter less than a good turn-on.” And I also criticized the film’s portrayal of Joel, Mary and Michael’s son, and his girlfriend Erin, claiming that Jacobs’ “admiring conception of youthful love as a condition of quasi-Platonic purity will leave anyone under 30 completely confused.”

In making such criticisms, I overlooked that The Lovers isn’t meant to be a conventional rom-com about finding love. In fact, it’s clearly about people’s inability to find love, especially in middle age. As I mentioned in my original review, the first few scenes in the film show that Mary and Michael don’t get much out of their respective affairs – to say nothing about how little they get out of each other. With such an opening, the film immediately presents us with a dark worldview, suggesting that its middle-aged protagonists are incapable of emotionally connecting with others.

Image courtesy of A24.

The film’s pessimistic attitude towards love also manifests itself in its style. As though to convey an inescapable sense of ennui, the cinematography usually features long takes and languid camera movements. Despite the film’s depressing narrative material, moreover, many scenes feature romantic background music (e.g. Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty), as though Jacobs wanted to mock how love, marriage, and relationships are normally idealized in literature and the media.

With its satirically negative view of marriage, in other words, The Lovers is best understood as a kind of “anti-romance” instead of a conventional romance. And if you view it in this light, the many “problems” that my original review pointed out turn out to be nonissues. The film’s tedium and focus on sex, for instance, merely reinforce its overarching theme – that middle-age “love” is less about emotional connection than ennui and hormones.

Jacobs’ depiction of Joel and Erin, meanwhile, also turns out to make perfect sense. In a way, Joel and Erin’s “purity” simply testifies to their youthful naïveté – since, unlike Mary and Michael, the two of them haven’t lived long enough to know that romance doesn’t last. Far from being a sign of Jacobs’ ignorance about young people, then, Joel and Erin’s idealism is actually meant to serve as a foil to their elders’ emotional woes.

I’m almost tempted to blame my total misinterpretation of The Lovers on A24, which (for admittedly understandable reasons) chose to market the film as a rom-com instead of the sarcastic, satirical, and fairly depressing depiction of middle age it actually is. But the reality is that A24’s marketing efforts wouldn’t have had any effect if I hadn’t already held preconceived notions about what romance movies should and shouldn’t do. As someone who grew up on a diet of uplifting rom-coms (Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, Adam’s Rib, etc.), I was mentally unprepared for a film that knowingly refuses to put a positive spin on love – and it was therefore unsurprising, if quite unfortunate, that I couldn’t appreciate The Lovers’ ironic intentions.

Original Rating: ** 

New Rating: *** ½

Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Columbus

Columbus was one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2017, and it also received several nominations at the 33rd Independent Spirit Awards. When I first watched it, however, I couldn’t see why it deserved all that recognition. “If you only focused on its acting, plot, and score,” I noted, “Columbus is….a Lost [in Translation]-esque tale about two people discovering companionship.” Yet “if you instead went by Columbus’ cinematography – which regularly features stills of elegant yet icy buildings that dwarf the human characters – you’d think you were watching a L’avventura-esque tale about the emptiness of modern society.”

This thematic inconsistency aside, I also saw inconsistencies in Columbus’ understanding of architecture. Citing a scene in which the female protagonist, Casey, discusses how a building helped her cope with her mother’s drug addiction, I claimed that “Kogonada sometimes suggests that architecture…stands for immutability and certainty.” In other scenes, however, I detected an apparently contradictory message – that “architecture, far from supplying fixity or permanence…has meaning only insofar as it…reflects varying personal and emotional dispositions.”

In retrospect, neither of these contradictions is actually a contradiction. The film’s portrayal of modern society as empty, for one, doesn’t preclude the possibility that Casey and Jin, the male protagonist, can find companionship – if anything, such a bleak backdrop makes the discovery of companionship all the more notable and touching. Similarly, Casey’s suggestion about architecture’s immutability doesn’t necessarily undercut assertions about architecture’s subjectivity, since that immutability is in itself a subjective perception on Casey’s part.

The larger problem with my original review of Columbus was that it misrepresented the film’s use of space and architecture. Although the film features a lot of shots of buildings, these buildings – and the spaces they create – aren’t all framed in the same way, and they consequently end up serving quite different functions. In scenes where Casey and Jin seem lost or emotionally distant, on the one hand, the frame is usually more packed, as though such “clutteredness” were meant to illustrate their stress and emotional baggage. Conversely, in scenes where Casey and Jin open up to one another, the frame is usually emptier, as though to give the two of them space for reaching catharsis.

Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

On a somewhat tangential side note, my original review also misrepresented the nature of Casey and Jin’s relationship. While the two of them certainly do discover a kind of companionship, I made the process sound a lot easier than it is in the actual film. It takes a while before Casey and Jin come to fully trust one another – and even at the end, there still seems to be some distance between them, as though each had struggles that the other couldn’t help with.

It’s also worth noting that although Kogonada foregrounds Columbus’ modernist architecture, his depiction of it isn’t unquestioningly adoring. In one scene, for instance, Casey talks on the phone with her mom’s friend as they stand on opposite sides of a clear glass wall – and we eventually learn that said friend is covering up that Casey’s mom has a new boyfriend. In such moments, Kogonada skewers modern architects’ love of glass, suggesting that glass’ physical and aesthetic transparency doesn’t necessarily translate into emotional transparency.

As I mentioned back in the opening, it’s much easier to write a negative review than a positive review, especially if you’re a beginner. When I watched Columbus for the first time, unfortunately, I took the easy way out, encouraging myself to “discover” flaws that could provide good fodder for a negative review. In so doing, I not only completely missed all of the creative and thoughtful things that Kogonada does in the film, but I also missed out on an opportunity to become a more intellectually mature critic.

Original Rating: ** ½

New Rating: ****