Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 07, 2021 7:14 pm 
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Agony of deception

For her directorial debut Rebecca Hall, whose opera singer mother, Maria Ewing, is a mixed-race person who passed as white, takes on the best known short novel about the complexities of such a life, by Nella Larsen, published in 1929 and set during the Harlem Renaissance. This is a fresh and powerful subject, and there is a black-and-white, academy ratio treatment with a trio of Ruth Negga, Tessa Thompson, and André Holland as impressive leads. The images in soft 1.7K resolution by dp Eduard Grau are stunning, the sense of period and milieu haunting, and the action starts out by setting you on the edge of your seat. But there is a vagueness, a repetitiousness, and a loss of tension over the course of the film that severely weakens the final effect. The book's dramatic but ambiguous climax is in itself problematic. The paradox results that this is one of the most distinctive films of the year, and yet it remains a little disappointing. For some reason I was reminded at once of Patrice Chéreau's strange, operatic film Gabrielle (NYFF 2005) based on Conrad's short story "The Return", which to some people seems an utterly wrong and a ludicrous but elegant flop, while to others, including me, it feels unique and is emotionally devastating. I described it as "a film of frigid grandeur." This is a film of frigid intimacy.

Passing, alas, isn't as assured or as devastating, or as high-dress a production as Gabrielle. It does make great use of its stylized, impressionistic black and white, of period cars, 'twenties women's hats and dresses, Harlem block facades and palatial interiors. The opening scene and sequence are grabbers. Irene (Tessa Thompson), a beautiful pale-skinned African American woman, elegantly dressed, hides under a broad-brimmed hat as she completes a hot day of shopping for fancy stuff in white Manhattan. She runs into old Chicago schoolmate Clare (Ruth Negga), pale and elegant, petite, stylishly platinum blonde and also passing for white, also cooling off in the dining room of the Drayton (Drake) hotel.

Savor this moment because it is the best in the film. Two women passing as white meeting and recognizing each other in a stylish, all-white hotel. Understandably Irene doesn't want to recognize Claie. It emerges that while Irene lives with Brian (Holland), an upperclass black Harlem doctor, she tries to shield their two young sons from the realities of lynching news and the use of the"N" word while hiding her own lowlier origins; he tries to politicize and prepare them and wants to move to another country. Clare passes full time for white and is married to a "N" hating rich white man, John (Alexander Skarsgård). He declares his hatred of black people in front of Irene and Clare in the couple's hotel room in an electric scene. Northing is this good or this provocative hereafter.

The story continues as Clare, moved with John to New York, attaches herself to Irene's family against Irene's wishes. Missing the life she has escaped and longing for negritude, but not willing to lose her rich white husband or her assumed white identity, Clare begins visiting and seduces them all, even the maid, Zulena (Ashley Ware Jenkins]), whom Hall cast against the book as young and pretty, but dark; the boys; and the husband, whom Irene begins to suspect is involved with Clare. The movie becomes more a portrait, though, of Irene's neurotic nerves and suspicions and collapse.

Many of the complex issues are brought to light: identity, posing, facades, white racism, black inequalities. You have to fill in a lot for yourself, though, despite the scenes of the Negro Welfare League Irene runs, the parties, and their sophisticated, grand, spoiled white intellectual froend Hugh (Bill Camp). Clare's constant reappearances at Irene's Harlem mansion and interference in events are so repetitious that you begin to wonder: how could Clare's racist husband not notice she's spending all her time in Harlem?

As it progresses, the film is at best struggling to maintain the excitement and sense of shock and impending danger it creates in the opening scenes. But any movie that can strongly remind me of Chéreau's Gabrielle must have something going for it, and the beautiful images and fascinating actors help carry the opening tension much of the way in a film that is, after all, quite compact, almost as much so as Chéreau's.

Passing, 138 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2021, followed by the NYFF Main Slate Oct. 3, and showing in other international festivals including Busan, the Hamptons, London, Lyon, Rome, Chicago, and Montclair, among others. US theatrical release Oct. 27; internet Nov. 10 (Netflix, many countries). Metacritic rating: 83%. [Later 85%.]


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