Sundance 2023: Eileen, You Hurt My Feelings, Landscape with Invisible Hand
At this point, it’s a running joke that any indie film worth its salt will have an extended scene featuring a woman pissing. Not just a woman sitting on the toilet, underwear around her ankles—the trickle of her stream must be fully perceptible to the viewer’s ear, subversive in its unvarnished or gritty exploration of the female experience (even with my sparser-than-usual Sundance viewing schedule this year, I’ve still clocked one extended instance of this). If a filmmaker is really being edgy, a blood-soaked tampon may appear on screen, or perhaps sparse droplets of menses slowly descending down a thigh.
This is where the depiction of women’s natural bodily functions typically tap out—but if any film were to tackle excrement or ejecta from a female-presenting form, it would likely be an adaptation of an Ottessa Moshfegh novel. Her 2015 effort Eileen, with its gnarly descriptions of laxative-induced diarrhea, discharge-slicked smelly fingers and a penchant for popping pus-y whiteheads, has plenty of such feminine (namely, human) grotesqueries to mine from. Yet in director William Oldroyd’s hands, the abject nature of the eponymous protagonist, and women in general, feels disappointingly absent (save for one scene that involves slimy, martini-tinged puke). Moshfegh penned the film’s screenplay herself (along with husband and fellow author Luke Goebel), yet the distinct nastiness of her prose is neutered in service of setting up an errant Carol-esque atmosphere. Sisterhood and feminine allegiance aren’t typical among Moshfegh’s oeuvre, which instead generally opts for petty rivalries. (Take, for example, My Year of Rest and Relaxation‘s bulimia versus pill-induced quests for thinness, which make for a comical contrast between two women who loathe but can’t quite stay away from each other. One experiences intense self-hatred for being a size four, while the protagonist relishes in her apparent superiority for being a size two, and superficially more intelligent.)
The general premise of the film and book are the same: Eileen (an atrociously miscast Thomasin McKenzie) lives in a coastal Massachusetts town circa 1964 with her verbally abusive alcoholic father (Shea Wigham). She works as a secretary in a boy’s juvenile correctional facility, where she slowly passes the time by daydreaming that she’s being sexually ravaged by handsome correctional officer Randy (Owen Teague). Her existence’s depressing tedium begs to be dispelled with the arrival of the new prison psychologist, charming and elegant Rebecca (Anne Hathway). Lonely and desperate to be the object of someone’s affection, Eileen is eventually manipulated by Rebecca to becoming her accomplice in a shocking act of vigilantism which eventually breaks the shackles of her small town confinement.
Parallels to Carol all but announce themselves—Rebecca is portrayed as a blond instead of a novel-accurate redhead, the film takes place in a far-flung decade, sexual tensions arise—but the film ignores how envy and arousal often cohabitate in burgeoning female friendships. In the novel, Eileen initially detests Rebecca for her beauty and becomes instantly jealous that she might capture Randy’s attention; Rebecca is no fool, however, and disarms Eileen’s predictable resentment in order to establish a calculated allyship. There isn’t an inkling of romance there—only the selfish exploitation of a naive person’s palpable despondence and low self-esteem. It is not queer in nature, though Eileen admits in the novel that her feelings toward Rebecca do resemble a “crush,” the heart-pounding desire to get someone you find beautiful to simply like you. The film mischaracterizes Eileen altogether, as a witless loser who nonetheless has her heart in the right place. In the novel, she narrates the events that lead to her exile from “X-ville” as an elderly woman with a devastating mean streak 50 years after the fact. She often contextualizes her sexual experiences (or lack-thereof) as a 24-year-old in the ‘60s through the lens of boyfriends she would shack up with in the years that followed. The intensity of these heterosexual unions—including her obsessive love for Randy that drove her to literally stalk him on the weekends—almost make her relationship with Rebecca seem like one of the most measured and healthy of her entire life.
Of course, the elderly Eileen’s narration and perspective as a long-gone fugitive of a Boston suburb would prove too convoluted to include in a cinematic adaptation. What I don’t excuse, however, is the film outright holding back from thornier aspects of the novel’s brilliance. When Eileen drives her drunken, injured father to the hospital after a nasty spill down the stairs, he leans over and puts his hand on her leg. It’s clear that he’s imagining that Eileen is actually Joanie, her beautiful (and big-chested) older sister. He praises her and showers her with compliments, gently squeezing her thigh in his delirium. In the book, he gropes Eileen’s breast outright, leading to a much more immediate and sickening revelation. Similarly to Rebecca (at least during their first meeting), Eileen has long hated Joanie for hoarding all of her father’s love, an advantage of her so-called feminine good looks. In contrast, Eileen has been stuck caring for the declining patriarch and former chief of police ever since her mother’s death, receiving his constant insults regarding her appearance and trajectory in life. As a woman, what leads to less suffering: being berated for your ugliness, or violated due to your beauty? As Eileen’s shocking twist suggests, sometimes women even envy those whose pain and suffering trumps our own—especially if they manage to secure the affections of a man in the painful process.
Nowhere near as bleak or frustrating as Eileen, Nicole Holofcener’s You Hurt My Feelings still probes at a similar inquiry. Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Beth, a writer and instructor at The New School (scab or striker, I wonder?) who has recently finished her latest novel. Her ego is still bruised after her memoir under-performed in sales. “Maybe if dad wasn’t just verbally abusive…” she alludes to her horrified mother (Jeannie Berlin, wonderful). Again, a woman’s trauma easily translates to quantifiable currency—or at least it should, if you have the right agent.
The real crux of the film’s story involves Beth overhearing her therapist husband Don (Tobias Menzies) voicing his honest opinion regarding her manuscript. Though she’s given him countless drafts to mark up with suggestions, he’s always insisted that her prose is nothing short of perfect as it appears on the page. Yet while conversing with brother-in-law Mark (Arian Moayed) in front of a comically huge wall of socks at Paragon, the Union Square-located sporting goods store, he lets his thoughts about the novel’s mediocrity slip freely from his lips. What he wasn’t banking on, however, was for Beth and her sister Sara (Michaela Watkins) to drop by and surprise their husbands. She hears every word, lip quivering with dismayed realization and rushes out of the store, comically dry-heaving before professing that she can’t, in fact, muster up the requisite sleaziness to puke on the busy street in broad daylight.
Much of the film—including its dialogue, sanitized New York City setting and playful prodding of the neurotic sensibilities of the city’s wealthier inhabitants—evokes the funniest (though far less raunchy) sensibilities of Girls, or perhaps more aptly Sex and the City (Holofcener directed a handful of the latter’s episodes). There isn’t quite enough bite here to really say anything salient—about the co-dependent nature of “healthy” or “successful” relationships, the humiliation (and undeniable likelihood) of being sub-par in a competitive creative field (especially if you came up through industry connections), the tedious, exhausting “problems” of the rich—but it is heartfelt and entertaining nonetheless, with Louis-Dreyfus shining in a well-crafted role that rivals that of her character in Holofcener’s Enough Said.
You Hurt My Feelings lays the charm on heavy, which might annoy some, but generally manages to feel more endearing than cloying. It’s like hanging out with a friend’s (in this case, Owen Teague’s) affably cool parents, who are miraculously well-adjusted, open-minded and deeply in love. It’s fun to drop in and observe for a while, but dangerous to get too comfortable—lest they start nagging you about your unfinished play that they just know will be amazing. It’s almost too easy to be well-off, mediocre and terribly confident, ego stoked by members of the equally sheltered creative class. I guess this is probably the point.
Lanscape with Invisible Hand, in contrast, deals with a young working class artist whose brilliance is stifled—and then exploited—by the merciless machine of American capitalism, now severely compounded by the arrival of peculiar extraterrestrial forces. The latest from playwright and filmmaker Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds, Bad Education) is an adaptation of M.T. Anderson’s 2017 novel of the same name (as I haven’t read it, I can’t be too critical of the film’s creative liberties in relation to the source material). The narrative takes place in 2036, shortly after “first contact” with pink, fleshy aliens that have already colonized much of the galaxy. Their motives are less overtly insidious than is usual in sci-fi fare—they don’t want to feast on our flesh or decimate our planet—but they did manage to be taken to “our leader,” as the cliche alien adage goes. Instead of conquering our planet by means of military prowess, they team up with the world’s eminent corporate conglomerates, who immediately see the profit-making potential of the aliens’ space-age technologies. Globalization’s intense chokehold tightens into galaxization, leaving most denizens of Earth destined to plummet into a perpetual state of vagrancy. Meanwhile, select elites relocate to floating spacecrafts that contain entire cities and economic ecosystems—where the all-powerful “Vuvv” aliens also reside.
Our protagonist is Adam Campbell (Asante Blackk), a teenager trying his best to adapt to a world in decline. As bad as things are for him—eating cubic synthetic food rations, learning Vuvv propaganda in school and having a long-absent father—Adam realizes things could be much worse, like they are for new classmate Chloe Marsh (Kylie Rogers), who sleeps rough with her dad (Josh Hamilton, a high point) and brother (Michael Gandolfini) ever since they lost their house in an alien land grab. Feeling bad for his cute classmate, he invites the entire Marsh family to live (not-so-rent-free) in his family’s basement. Even with the financial incentive, the idea initially irks his mom (Tiffany Haddish) and sister (Brooklynn MacKinzie), who understand that their own relative good-standing is predicated on pure luck. Predictably, animosity brews between the two families—the Campbell landlords the “haves,” the basement-dwelling Marshes the “have-nots.” It’s all very on-the-nose.
When Adam and Chloe inevitably couple up, she convinces him to livestream their budding romance for Vuvv viewers. As it turns out, love is a foreign concept to these aliens (“heartless” capitalist species, yawn), so they consume content that sheds light on the exotic emotion. The couple end up making a tidy profit, but they’re slapped with a lawsuit when their forehead-plastered Vuvvian streaming devices pick up on an indisputable truth: in a biological sense, as it pertains to escalating heart rates and sweaty palms, Chloe no longer loves Adam. As punishment for their “love fraud,” they’re instructed to pay back each cent they’ve made or they’ll be taken to court. From here, many other plotlines ensure: A Vuvv comes to live at the Campbell house, the Marshes become a “traditional” nuclear family, Adam makes a defiant artwork that captures Vuvv attention.
What does the film actually say about capitalism breeding economic strife, the myth of the American family, the true worth of art? Not much. This film isn’t very smart—not stupid, per se, but totally unrefined while attempting to address too much. It also fosters a dreadful, uneasy tone throughout, though it very clearly doesn’t mean to. It’s shocking how tepid the film’s thesis actually is (capitalism is bad; the class divide in America is preposterously wide) in comparison to its alarming atmosphere. The creature design for the aliens is creepy—stout, pink, fleshy, creatures that communicate by scraping coarse, pumice stone-like pads on their tentacles—and their extended interactions with human characters evoke discomfort. In emphasizing the bureaucratic mundanity of this apocalyptic takeover—humans sitting in their dull offices, being sued by them and eventually living with them—Finley also creates a tension that fails to burst. Perhaps if the jokes landed better (Haddish is surprisingly weak here), the viewer would be effectively disarmed—but when the film’s meet-cute entails a recently laid-off teacher shooting himself in the head, you’re at the very least suggesting that there are a few other equally dark images lurking in the film. They’re not, and that’s kind of a shame.