Terence Davies’s A Quiet Passion has an impossible heroine — the poet Emily Dickinson. With his signature concentration, gravity, and beauty, Davies tells her story of spinsterhood and genius in Amherst, Mass., where she lived around the time of the Civil War. The film is not simply a biopic; it’s also an emotional autobiography, as are all Davies’s films, from last year’s Sunset Song on to The Deep Blue Sea, Of Time and the City, The House of Mirth, The Neon Bible, his family chronicles Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, and his debut Trilogy, which depicted his struggle with Catholicism and sexuality.
As those titles indicate, Davies is a cinematic poet who rigorously challenges conventional storytelling with fixed compositions, bold camera moves, and sound design that mixes music and narration with stark, complex imagery: A transition scene of an open window, with curtains blowing, overlaps with the silhouette of a preacher whose sermon deeply moves Dickinson. In this, Dickinson’s longing is palpable, but the scene also expresses an agnosticism so candid and stubborn that it even includes metaphysical awe.
Determined to show how Dickinson’s art was born out of both suffering and inspiration, Davies makes her an exasperating presence at school, at home with her family, and even for her admirers. The opening sequence of her resistance to the era’s Evangelism makes her a “no-hoper.” From this funny but pointed scene, Davies launches a bravura transition, borrowed from Michael Jackson’s revolutionary 1991 music video Black or White, in which Dickinson family portraits morph each character into adulthood.
Davies always undercuts his own mandarin pride with a sense of humor, and A Quiet Passion features his wittiest exchanges yet.
Despite Davies’s dour approach, his artistry prevents him from indulging in self-pity. Like pop singer Morrissey, a fellow British Catholic manqué, Davies always undercuts his own mandarin pride with a sense of humor, and A Quiet Passion features his wittiest exchanges yet. In one scene, Dickinson welcomes her brother’s newborn child by improvising the famous “I’m Nobody / Who are you?” It’s like a moment from a biopic about a Hollywood pop composer, but the “Eureka” moment gives the audience a sense of discovery.
Davies provides a family context for Dickinson’s poetry, and his Civil War montage (a sequence of overlapping flags and battlefield disasters labeled Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, and Antietam) creates a historical background. He is best when he proceeds into suffering and grief as testimony to life’s struggles (“wounds that don’t bleed”). A shot that pans gracefully moving from Dickinson’s self-revulsion to a mirror is masterful, elevating biography and autobiography to an instantaneous existential memorial — something only the movies can do.
A Quiet Passion’s intense re-creation of the literary past is like only two other movies, André Téchiné’s supernal The Brontë Sisters and Alan Rudolph’s dazzling Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (about Dorothy Parker). The resemblance is not so much a matter of feminist empathy as of artistic vision: respect for the struggle involved with personal expression, plus some greater awareness. An overhead view of a funeral procession, then looking down into the freshly dug abyss, recalls the famous “impossible shot” of a 1930s Carl Dreyer film. It is both furious and haunting — Davies’s ultimate tribute to his impossible heroine.
Americans don’t make movies like the Bulgarian Glory (Slava), now showing at Film Forum, because our impatience with bureaucracy is based on a will toward rebellion and independence. East European directing team Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov see humor in the irony that a reclusive railyard employee, Tzanko (Stefan Denolyubov), turns in millions in loose cash that he found on the tracks only to be exploited by the system for his good deed.
In a Hollywood film such as Quiz Show, condescension to the ethnic working class matches envy of the WASP upper class, supposedly exposing the hypocrisy of each. This Bulgarian movie takes the same route but through a long slog of cynicism (billed as “comedy”) that predictably revels in Europe’s bureaucratic heritage. Here, the hypocrisy lies in draining characters of their humanity. Tzanko’s stammer and poverty make him especially pitiable, while Julia (Margita Gosheva), the Transportation Ministry’s public-relations executive who callously exploits Tzanko, is pure villainy.
Americans never make movies that target media-class zombies like Julia, yet, as these Bulgarians close in on the truth about the hideous profession of bosses and lackeys (both seen as technological egotists), the film becomes grim and tedious. Julia misplaces Tzanko’s family heirloom (an engraved Glory-brand watch), and a hotshot pundit, Kiril Kolev (Milko Lazarov), compounds her indifference with his own, in order to bring down the corrupt Ministry.
I’m predisposed to like this exposé, especially given the American media class’s unfeeling arrogance and lack of self-awareness and scruple. But Julia and Kiril’s insensitivity is too familiar. To see her protecting her progeny is nearly unbearable (several skits show her and her sheepish husband freezing their embryos to guarantee their purchase on the future). It’s too soon after the misanthropic self-loathing of the perverse German film Toni Erdmann to enjoy this kind of filmmaking, or to find a lesson in its cynicism. Glory turns moviegoers into no-hopers.
— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.