Saturday 19 July 2014

Useless Beauty (2013)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Jonathan Medina, Keylor Leigh and Michael Hanelin
It feels to me that Travis Mills chose a story like Useless Beauty very deliberately for his third entry in the 52 Films in 52 Weeks series. It's a bulkier creature, for a start. The original story by French author Guy de Maupassant has a word count half as long again as The Sisters and The Kiss combined and this modern adaptation does likewise; its running time of over fourteen minutes outstrips the ten that The Sisters and The Kiss ran between them. Yet it's also a far more focused story, with a smaller cast of characters than either of its predecessors; only two characters, a well to do couple, dominate the story, with another pair showing up in the third act to wax philosophical about the lady's beauty from a distance; Mills combines the latter into a single neighbour and wisely drops all that pontification. This approach means that the majority of the film belongs to Jonathan Medina and Keylor Leigh, who are given the opportunity to act, something that the casts of The Sisters and The Kiss mostly didn't get.

Useless Beauty was originally published in French in 1890 and, while it's forward looking, it reflects very much on attitudes of the time. The lead couple are the Count and Countess de Mascaret, aristocrats who begin the story by ordering their driver to take them in their horse-drawn carriage from their mansion to ride down the Bois de Boulogne. Their drive, however, takes a sinister turn. The Countess politely rails at her husband for caging her in motherhood, the seven children she bore him in eleven years functioning as his means of control, blocking her from achieving her social ambition. Even as she lets out her anger, he's still in charge, being the man in the relationship, so she finds a way to wrest that control from him, taking him to a church and swearing before God that one of those seven was not his. She won't tell him which and the lack of knowing torments him for years until we reach the final scenes and find the truth. Or maybe not. De Maupassant leaves his ending open for interpretation, as Mills so often does.

In adapting this nineteenth century French morality tale to 21st century Arizona, Mills changes up quite a bit. The Count and Countess become a multi-racial couple, Randy and Judy; Medina is of Hispanic blood and he'd look pretty crazy with 'a big red beard', while Leigh is a young African American lady with frizzy hair and a stud in her nose. Judy has just discovered that she's pregnant with her fourth child, short of the seven the Countess had carried. While I had sympathy for the Count, whose faults may only appear so to our position of hindsight after a century of moral progression, Medina plays Randy as an outspoken male chauvinist pig. Interestingly, Mills shot this one in black and white, with enough contrast that it's difficult to tell where Judy's hair ends and their couch begins, perhaps highlighting how to Randy she's literally become part of the furniture. While the Count uses lines like 'you belong to me' and physical strength to emphasise his position as master, he's not as offensive as Randy, who has all the lines you'd expect.
You know the ones: if she didn't want another kid, she should have used protection; if he gets mad, it'll be her fault; he won't be responsible for his actions. Even talking to his neighbour, Bobby, played by Michael Hanelin with a restrained look of astonishment, he highlights how he will have to suffer through the next nine months, never wondering what she'll be going through. He'd rather not do that. He doesn't want her thinking about being a supermodel, going back to school or getting up on stage and singing. He'd rather she stay at home and look after the kids, not that she's great with them but because, 'She's not good for much else.' He even repeats that slur for emphasis. And thus far, although we do wonder why, she's put up with it. She's let him berate her and turn her chin with his fingers; she's given him the kiss he wanted as the cost of getting out of the car. All this time, she's been only half there; she's been looking inward, perhaps searching her soul, perhaps drumming up the courage to speak, perhaps both.

And indoors she finally does, responding to a stream of misogynistic invective with a strong monologue of her own that seizes the reins of the relationship. Leigh's diction is strong, but she doesn't match it with physicality, which is an interesting approach. This could easily have become a battle of gestures; Medina certainly uses a few. Instead she stays relatively still and relatively calm, still looking inside but starting to let out what she wants to say. Certainly she's past fearing a response and, in fact, may even push for one. In de Maupassant's story, we never know if the Countess is telling the truth or not. Did she cheat on her husband to father another man's son, or was she lying to him? The point, of course, is that it doesn't matter, that her action gives her control over her life for the first time. Mills never mentions the concept of lying in his adaptation, but we do wonder if Judy is telling the truth or not. Given that we're a century on from de Maupassant's Paris, there are easy methods of finding that out.

I feel that in simplifying this part of the story, Mills lost some of the depth of the original. Judy's victory is an important one and it's a good way to end this short film, but it's a weaker and surely a shorter victory than the one that the Countess obtains. 'At least I'd thrown one punch in my life,' Judy explains to Randy, as if she knows that she hasn't taken control, she's just shaken his. The unanswered question is whether she'll pursue more control in the future or just return to the yoke of motherhood. Maybe she'll eventually reach the seven that the Countess had. She does firmly strip away any romance that might still exist in their relationship, backed by a quiet romantic piano that plays in a particularly ironic key. The Countess achieved far more than Judy and, in doing so, raises a question that I'll ask over and over in my reviews of these films. In adapting these stories to a modern setting, does Mills achieve what they did, in part or in full? I feel that he added a level to The Kiss but lost one in Useless Beauty by stopping too short.

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