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‘Maudie,’ or the Difference between Great and Good Films

VIFF opener has many strengths, but misses the messiness of reality. Plus, Woodend’s festival picks.

By Dorothy Woodend 1 Oct 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

What is the difference between a good film and a great one? This is the question that sends people spilling forth from a film festival into wild and raging debate. At least I hope it does.

Maudie opened the 35th annual Vancouver International Film Festival on Thursday night. From a programming point of view, it was an ideal choice — postcard pretty with a superb performance at its centre, and a fully Canadian subject guaranteed to satisfy audience and sponsors. It is a perfectly fine film, but not a great one, and as one wag noted whilst leaving the theatre, “I thought it would be way worse.” The opening night film is a tricky beast for any festival, and the conversations afterwards at the party are some of the most hilarious prevarications. Everyone has to have an opinion, even if that opinion is essentially “Meh.”

The story centres around the life and work of Maud Lewis. Lewis is familiar to Canadians from her paintings, made in the latter part of her life, but the film begins with the portrait of the artist as a young woman. In 1937, young Maud is consigned to live with her aunt in Digby, Nova Scotia. Despite existing on the forbearance of others, including her money-loving brother and an elderly aunt, who is something of a prissy cow, Maud is nevertheless determined to have a life.

The opportunity comes one day at the general store, when she overhears a local fisherman named Everett Lewis posting an ad for a live-in woman/cook/maid/serf. With a jaunty tam on her head, and said posting in hand, Maud presents herself at Everett’s door. It doesn’t go too well, but our indomitable heroine doesn’t give up, maybe because she has nowhere else to go: a woman’s place at the time was somewhere below dogs and chickens. Maud moves in with Everett, and the pair, unlovely as unmatched socks, takes up together.

Sally Hawkins plays Maud with a sly wit and core of steeliness, even though her actual spine was crumbling from the effects of junior rheumatoid arthritis. As Everett, Ethan Hawke stomps and frowns through the story, but he is too movie star handsome to really inhabit the role with any real veracity. The self-conscious mannerisms of an actor trying to take on the physicality of distant time and place never really disappear, despite the careful application of costume and dialect. Hawkins fares better: she commits herself bodily to the role, bending and twisting her already spare frame into a torturous resemblance of what arthritis does to bones and flesh. Bending fingers into waves, and turning the spine into a supine curve. (The real Maud Lewis was so physically challenged that the size of her paintings was dictated by how far she could move her arms.)

But even in Hawkins’s skillful portrayal, there is something that doesn’t fully transcend performance with a capital ‘P.’ You never really forget that you’re watching an actress embodying a character. Still, it is almost enough to watch such a bravura display of control and delicacy, with line readings so dry that I was reminded of my wisecracking grandmother, who could deliver a withering aside so razor sharp that you didn’t notice you had been cut even though blood was spilling out on the floor. It is a distinctly 1940’s flavour, rural, Canadian, and wonderfully deadpan, and I was happy to see it. Ethan Hawke is reaching for the same territory, but he never really gets past the pantomime of trousers hiked high and rural gruffness.

As the relationship between Maud and Everett develops, nothing terribly surprising ensues. You know they are bound up together, and that her paintings will eventually bring notice and recognition, which is exactly what happens. There are a few twists and turns along the way, but I won’t spoil them. The film has a narrative intelligence and tact that allows some of the more emotionally fraught scenes to slip in sideways. But when sentiment gets the upper hand, a quality of self-regard, telegraphed through breathy ballads and the occasional voiceover, gets sticky and cloying. It feels forced, like, “Hey look, stirring emotions!” Things are better when the story consigns itself to the study of small gestures and glances that make up the interior language of two peculiar human beings.

Director Aisling Walsh, working from a script from Sherry White, captures Nova Scotia in all its grey, brown painterly beauty. The sky and the sea and the cluster of houses at the shore are presented in carefully composed tableaus, not unlike the images captured in Maud Lewis’s paintings.

But there is something missing, some vibrancy of colour and authenticity, which is a word I hate. It makes me think of hipsters in red hats. So, let’s call it uncanny instead. A selection of Lewis’s work is scattered through the tail credits of the film. It is worth sitting through to the very end to see it, in all its idiosyncratic charm and resonant strangeness. Her painting of a big white kitty with staring eyes reminded me curiously enough of the Japanese cult film House.

But the real problem with the film becomes painfully apparent with a tiny snatch of archival footage of the real Maud Lewis and her husband. In that brief window of time you get a whiff of something far more interesting, far more odd and strange. It is there in the gaze of the artist fixed on some other indeterminate place. It is in her eyes. The divide between the real and the simulacra is like the difference between like and love. After seeing the real thing, the copy is no longer enough.

This is another larger and longer discussion, but I often feel this way about VR, touted as the new wonder drug for the digital world. There is some quality of mournfulness that attends this idea, that the copy is the only thing left. The original has long since left the building, or worse, is not available to ordinary plebs anymore. It is now the purview of the few and the privileged. But you can have its digitally rendered image to remember it by.

Maudie is a film of parts, and I watched and appreciated many of them. The story, the characters, and the place, there is beauty in each one, but they fail to conjoin. I watched the pieces being assembled, like an orderly row of train cars, following one after the other. There is great care and precision and skill at work, but the film never relinquishes control. Emotion is there, but it is measured out in careful dollops of teacups and sweaters. All the bits are assembled for your appraisal. You pick them up, marvel at their craftsmanship and put them back on the shelf. The messiness of reality, dirty and awkward and uncomfortable, gets cleaned up, prettified, and loses something. Some fragility does not survive the cleaning process. It is washed away.

But maybe that is just me. Taste is a capricious thing that can leave you feeling quite alone. A feeling akin to, “It worked for these folk, laughing and weeping away, so what’s the matter with me?” Isn’t it enough to simply let a film be what it is? Why do you want more?

I thought about other times I’d been at VIFF screenings and been completely obliterated. One particular experience endures. It was a very different film from Maudie, and I was somewhat horrified to find that I couldn’t stop weeping like a madwoman through the entire thing. I didn’t want to be such a watery wreck, but there was no controlling it. It was awful and also great at the same time. Like love, such experiences don’t come around all that often. But it made me wonder about that crucial ingredient that lifts something above its many parts and solidifies it into a greater whole. This transmutation, alchemical in its origins, can happen in an instant. Where does that thing lie, when does it come, and why can’t you summon it at will? Why, why, why.

But… this being a film festival, there are many more pieces left to come, a veritable quiver full ready to pierce you from stem to stern. I haven’t seen as many VIFF films as I would like yet, but there are many that come waltzing on the door, trailing accolades like Isadora Duncan’s draperies. The list is very long: Maren Ade’s Toni Erdman, The Red Turtle, Manchester by the Sea, The Ornithologist, American Honey. It is an impressive list this year. Of the films that I have seen thus far, I would recommend Sam Pollard’s Two Trains Runnin’ and Johan Grimonprez’s Shadow World.

There is one particular moment in Two Trains Runnin’ that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and again it is a moment when the real deal steps up to the microphone, opens its mouth, and out comes a world of suffering. You can virtually feel heads snapping around in recognition, like smelling smoke in the air and knowing there is a fire.

It made me think about a film I saw recently about David Lynch. There have been plenty of films made about Lynch, but in this one, the man himself narrates the story — childhood through adolescence and into the early part of his career. The essential mystery of why he is who he is eludes capture, but there is something there, hovering just outside the frame, some wild capering thing, almost pranksterish in its Loki-like upending spirit. Maybe it is this quality of something escaping its maker and running away towards some unknown destination that compels you to follow. Completely out of control.  [Tyee]

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