Reviews

November 2014

Review:  Not That Kind of Girl (A young woman tells you what she’s “learned”) by Lena Dunham

not that kind of girl

Some books you’re just not ready to read.

If, like me, you had a hulking crush on your primary school librarian, you probably read too many books that you weren’t quite ready for in a desperate bid to impress. At nine years old, it seemed like Wuthering Heights was just a lot of standing around in the rain and glowering and I had no idea why Heathcliff couldn’t just get over it and go out for ice-cream or something (to be fair, I still kind of feel that way).

Then, there are books you wish you could go back in time and hand deliver to yourself. Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl (A young woman tells you what she’s “learned”) would have served me well at nine, twelve, fourteen. I could have used this book as I staggered across the cruel savannah that is puberty, all knobbly knees and chin rolls, like a chubby giraffe struggling to keep ahead of the rabid hyenas of self-doubt and peer pressure.

Illustration by Joana Avillez
Illustration by Joana Avillez

The sections are broken into chapters taken directly from the kind of self help books that littered the bookshelves in my house growing up . Indeed, Dunham cites a particular example as the inspiration for the book – Helen Gurley Brown’s Having It All (“most of her advice, it should be noted, is absolutely bananas”). Broken into sections like Love & Sex, Friendship and Big Picture, the book is series of autobiographical essays. It’s not a truly chronological journey by any means, but as Dunham jumps back and forth we get an overview of her life and what makes her tick. We also get to make a few revelatory connections between characters from her life that make an appearance in the divisive but much-loved (by me) HBO series Girls.

Illustration by Joana Avillez
Illustration by Joana Avillez

On the very first page of her introduction, Dunham writes about “aggressive self-acceptance”, and I think that tells you a lot about the book, and indeed, Dunham. Even as she’s bludgeoning you with the truth (such as: “not minding” that her sister is gay, as it gives her the kind of special status she was seeking when she begged her parents to adopt a child from a “third world background”), Dunham is somehow likeable. The humour shines through in lists like: “18 Unlikely Things I Have Said Flirtatiously” (“does this look like shingles, scabies, both, or neither?”), or throwaway lines like “[w]hen I was born I was very fat for a baby — 11 pounds (which sounds thin to me now)”

Girlhood is a theme that Dunham keeps returning to. If you didn’t like Girls, and Lena Dunham has not yet proved herself to be Your Particular Cup of Tea, then by all means flee from this book. As in previous offerings, Dunham wears not just her heart in her sleeve, but sometimes her bowels and often her sexy bits as well (if you’ll excuse that slightly disturbing image). But it’s in the spirit of Gurley Brown and other Self-Helpers that Dunham shares her girlhood so graphically with us; “I’m already predicting my future shame at thinking I had anything to offer you, but also my future glory in having stopped you from trying an expensive juice cleanse or thinking that it was your fault when the person you are dating suddenly backs away, intimidated by the clarity of your personal mission here on Earth.”

For me, what set this book apart for me is amidst Dunham’s revealing every self-indulgent thought and an un-ironic litany of awful things she has done and had done to her, it’s an unashamedly girly book. And I don’t mean girly in the sense of ribbons and fairy floss and Taylor Swift (although Dunham is apparently a fan and she gets a thank you at the end of the book). Many comparisons have been made between Woody Allen and Dunham, and it’s fair to say they share a certain neurotic New York-ness as well as willingness to rake themselves over the coals for a laugh. The difference is that Dunham gives the space and respect to girl-crushes and her relationship with her father and overeating we have always allowed Allen for his neuroses. And she expects us to enjoy reading them in the same way.

Illustration by Joana Avillez
Illustration by Joana Avillez

Importantly, I think, the book reads like someone who thinks a young woman’s life is interesting enough to share with the reader, all warts (genital or otherwise), veins and phobias intact. Dunham a self-professed “unreliable narrator”, is unconcerned with telling anyone’s story but her own. I for one think a lot of the criticism of Lena Dunham comes from a place of refusing to accept that Dunham isn’t trying to speak for anyone but herself. What matters is that she tells us stories from a girl’s life like they are worth telling. Which they are (duh!).

By Hayley Scrivenor

August 2014

Review: Two Days, One Night

by Hayley Scrivenor

Some films are like boxes you open knowing full well what lies within. Others are treasure chests whose plain outsides belie the gold that awaits. Two Days, One Night is like a Pandora’s box that you open knowing full well that the experience is likely to be a stressful one. The latest offering from the Dardenne Brothers(Deux Jours, Une Nuit for the Francophiles out there) featured last night at the first night of the weekend-long Wollongong leg of the Travelling Film festival. The Travelling Film Festival visits regional and rural areas in Australia, bringing arthouse and indie film to a range of non-city-slicker audiences. Once I got over my initial surge of jingoistic pique that Wollongong should be considered alongside Wagga Wagga and Charters Towers (we’re only an hour and half from Sydney people!), I resolved to go along.

My normal francophone film-buddy being out of action, I decided to go by myself. I nabbed a seat, front and centre (like almost no one I know, I like to sit really close). I had staked my own little spot and the prognosis for my solo outing was good. Until at the last minute when a man—sour-smelling and with what could only have been an invisible balloon winched in between his legs—decided he wanted to sit nice and close to the screen as well. Of the three empty seats to my left, he chose the one right alongside me. He proceeded to eat loudly, make small smacking sounds with his gums, throw his legs out wide and just generally smell like he’d used old white wine as cologne for the rest of the film.

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Finding yourself dealing with people doing things that you don’t like that affect you is almost the perfect lead in to viewing this film. The basic premise: Sandra (Marion Cotillard)—in a charmingly French industrial relations quirk—has had the question of whether she should be rehired for her job at a solar panel company put to popular ballot. Her sixteen co-workers will have to choose between taking her back after she returns from depression-related sick leave or keeping their annual bonus, which for most of them is worth a thousand euro. By Friday afternoon, her colleagues have elected not to re-hire her. After revelations some of the co-workers have been deceived into thinking that they will lose their jobs if Sandra doesn’t, she and a friend manage to convince the patron to retake the vote on Monday morning. Sandra now has one weekend to either slump into joblessness or try to rally her fellow workers to her cause. It sets the scene for some stressful viewing.

At the urging of her indefatigable husband Manu, father of their two small children (played by Fabrizio Rongione) and co-worker Juliette, Sandra goes into battle. From then on we see a series of conversation in doorways. Tired looking husbands and wives call for their partners in a variety of languages to come to the door to hear Sandra’s pleas to keep her job. It is these insights into her co-workers situations that keep the film moving along and which the inner snoop in me enjoyed most.

Screen Shot 2014-08-30 at 10.22.16 AM

The film, set in a world where harsh sunlight forces you to squint along with Cotillard as she hoofs it around to a wide range of depressing apartment buildings, is purposefully sparse and uncomfortable. Shots linger for a little too long, and cut out when you want to know more. Of course, this film obviously hasn’t set out to be comfortable viewing. The film forces you with each confrontation with a co-worker to ask yourself what you would do in the same situation. I was surprised how many times my own mind was changed through the course of the film. Indeed, my own thoughts and feelings on the matter seemed to change with each conversation, so that I talked myself in and out of allowing Sandra to keep her job at least half a dozen times.

The angry young worker who take a swipe at Sandra before tearing off in a flashy car, contrasted with the tearful co-worker who says he hopes she get to keep her job, even if he doesn’t know how he would get by without his bonus, highlight that her co-workers all want to keep their bonuses for different reasons. For most, the extra money is something they can ill-afford to lose. It’s hard to fully buy into Sandra’s poverty in the moments that Sandra and Manu tool around town in their immaculate little Renault. For Australian audiences, true poverty is accompanied by a rusty old Holden, or perhaps more accurately, no car at all. One gets the feeling that the issue is not only money (although I felt increasingly uneasy clutching my overpriced and oversized film snacks) but also Sandra’s evidently fragile grasp on her new-found health. Shots of her breaking down in car parks are contrasted with her assuring he colleagues that she is now en forme and ready to return to work.

The film is equally about work as an inseparable part of our identities and lives, something that shapes perceptions of ourselves and those around us, as well as the way me make choices that we know will affect others. As Sandra is confronted by all the different possible reactions to her request that she be allowed to keep her job: tearful promises, pragmatic refusals, anger and despair (spoiler alert: there’s a fair wack of despair), we share with Sandra a desire to simply give up, to give in, to stop trying. But like the any Pandora’s box worth its salt, there’s hope in there too, saved till last. A particularly great moment in the film, when Cotillard’s character takes the better part of a box of Xanax just before one of her co-workers comes to the door to tell her she has decided to vote for her to stay. The look of happiness on Sandra’s face, and the moment she remembers what she has just done are only seconds apart. Cotillard’s transition from joy to regret to rapid confession to her co-worker and husband were one of my favourite moments of the film.

Screen Shot 2014-08-30 at 10.22.28 AM

Aside from one uncharitable moment, where Sandra sticks her head out the window in an effort get her breath back after an apparent panic attack, and my brain for the briefest of moments actively entertained a hope that she would be knocked unconscious by a stray letterbox and the whole uncomfortable trial could come to a quick end, this film held my interest. It lifts up the petty squabbles and mundanity of life to sit alongside grander, more literary tragedies. You come away with a resolve to think about the impact your choices have on others and to try and be a little kinder. The ending was satisfying and the experience a worthwhile one.

When the film was over, the good folks at ABC Illawarra had put on refreshments. I have to admit I simply couldn’t stomach the thought of wine, free or otherwise. In the spirit of thinking about the choices we make, I for one hope a certain gentleman will reconsider getting totally soused and sitting uncomfortably close to his fellow cinema-goers in future. If he’s not careful he might find me knocking at his door sometime soon.

 

For more information on their events in Wollongong and other locations, check out the Travelling Film Festival website: http://www.sff.org.au/public/travelling-film-festival/tff-locations/

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