Film Review: Cruella (2021); Directed by Craig Gillespie

Cruella (2021); directed by Craig Gillespie

Warning: This review contains plot spoilers. If you have not already seen Cruella and don’t like spoilers, please don’t read any further (but feel free to bookmark this page to read later).

It’s not an easy feat to take a character as iconic as Cruella de Vil and breathe new life into her, but Emma Stone does so with vim and vigor. It also takes a not-insignificant amount of chutzpah to fill shoes (quite stylish shoes, I might add) once worn by Glenn Close. While Emma Stone’s Cruella is sly and sardonic like her celluloid predecessor, she also has this controlled sort of manic energy that just simmers on the screen. Also, I can’t remember the last time I saw someone have so much fun in a role and that alone is probably the highest compliment anyone could pay any actor in any role ever. In my opinion, Emma Stone was born to play Cruella de Vil, and if you disagree with me…well, let’s just say you should make sure I don’t have access to a cliffside balcony and a trio of Dalmatian attack dogs.

While Emma Stone’s Cruella is sly and sardonic like her celluloid predecessor, she also has this controlled sort of manic energy that just simmers on the screen.

When the film begins, we see young Estella Miller struggling to fit in. Her half-white, half-black hair makes her a favorite target of the schoolyard bullies who are always ready to pounce on anyone who deviates from the norm in any way whatsoever. To her credit, she fights back with the same level of passion and fortitude that she will later bring to her work in fashion design. Not everyone appreciates her fighting spirit, though, least of all her school’s headmaster. Once Estella racks up several demerits, her mother Catherine is called in for a conference. The headmaster intends on telling Catherine that Estella is being expelled, but she withdraws her before that can happen (let’s just say it was a horse race).

On their way to London and a fresh start for them both, Catherine stops at a sprawling manse to ask someone (The Baroness, we later learn) for money. Catherine implores Estella to stay inside the car (read: out of trouble), but all of us know what it’s like to be young and boisterous, chomping at the bit to explore. Estella leaves the car and sneaks into the party where she is quickly made the target of The Baroness’s three large Dalmatians. They chase Estella outside and across the grounds, ending by pushing Catherine over the edge of the cliffside balcony to her death.

Alone, motherless, and wracked with guilt over her role (or what she thinks was her role) in her mother’s gruesome death, Estella finishes making her way to London and inadvertently makes friends with two other street kids, Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry). The three youngsters, bound together by their mutual hard luck, poverty, and orphan status, become a chosen family for one another. They also become world-class pickpockets. If grifting were a professional sport, Estella, Horace, and Jasper would win Olympic gold.

The three youngsters, bound together by their mutual hard luck, poverty, and orphan status, become a chosen family for one another.

Years later, all grown up, the three lovable vagrants are still making a living together thieving and scheming. Estella, more stylish than ever, hones her craft by designing the group’s disguises. For her birthday, Horace and Jasper secure Estella a job at Liberty’s, an upper crust department store that caters exclusively to wealthy clientele. Their motto may as well be, “If you have to ask the price, darling, you can’t afford it.” Estella is simply bursting with creative energy, but her talents go unseen and she is relegated to doing janitorial work. It’s honest work and someone has to do it, but Estella was born to be a designer. Some might say it’s in her blood.

Estella is simply bursting with creative energy, but her talents go unseen and she is relegated to doing janitorial work. It’s honest work and someone has to do it, but Estella was born to be a designer.

Fed up and surly, Estella stays in Liberty’s overnight after her shift and drunkenly redecorates a window display in punk rock couture. It is avant-garde, edgy, and completely offensive to her manager, who fires her on the spot. However, in a bit of luck for Estella, The Baroness (Emma Thompson) makes a visit to the department store just as she is quite literally being given the boot.

The Baroness informs the manager that she loves the window display and that it’s the first truly innovative bit of merchandising she’s seen from them in some time. Those aren’t her exact words but you get the picture. She finds out that Estella is responsible for the display and offers her a job. The dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.

Estella excels in her new position and manages to impress The Baroness, who is notorious for having impeccable taste and impossibly high standards. If this were a different sort of film and not an origin story for one of Disney’s most iconic villains, Estella might continue impressing The Baroness and making waves in the fashion world. She’d completely disavow a life of crime and vice and move on up the ladder to become one of the most highly-regarded figures in fashion. Perhaps she may even venture over into fashion journalism and enjoy a life and career similar to that of Anna Wintour. Who knows? But things don’t work out quite that way.

If this were a different sort of film and not an origin story for one of Disney’s most iconic villains, Estella might continue impressing The Baroness and making waves in the fashion world. She’d completely disavow a life of crime and vice and move on up the ladder to become one of the most highly-regarded figures in fashion…But things don’t work out quite that way.

One day while Estella is acting in the capacity of The Baroness’s gopher, she notices her wearing a necklace that she distinctly remembers as having belonged to her mother, Catherine. When Estella inquires about it, The Baroness claims that a former employee had previously stolen it. Knowing better and incensed at The Baroness, Estella enlists Horace and Jasper to help her steal it back, for in all honesty it does rightfully belong to her. Estella makes plans to steal it back at The Baroness’s Black and White Ball. To conceal her true identity from The Baroness, Estella creates an alter-ego: Cruella. And thus a star is born.

To conceal her true identity from The Baroness, Estella creates an alter-ego: Cruella. And thus a star is born.

She wears a vintage design (in red, so subversive!) of The Baroness’s that she purchases from a vintage clothing store and upstages The Baroness at her own event. While she’s wowing the crowd and intimidating The Baroness, Horace and Jasper are playing their parts to retrieve Catherine’s necklace from the vault. What they didn’t plan for, but the audience should have guessed, is that The Baroness is wearing the necklace at the Ball.

[A brief aside: Artie (John McCrea), the proprietor of the vintage clothing store where Estella buys her outfit for the Black and White Ball, is gayer than a picnic basket and I am holding my breath for Disney to make it canon.]

Jasper, thinking quickly on his feet, sets free a mischief of rats which throw the crowd into a state of pandemonium. Amidst the confusion, Estella/Cruella swipes the necklace from The Baroness’s throat. When The Baroness notices her necklace is gone, she summons her Dalmatians with a dog whistle. This triggers a memory for Estella, and the revelation that follows changes everything she thought she knew about her life, her deceased mother, and The Baroness. This is the part of the movie where the lines between Estella and Cruella really begin to blur. Originally, Cruella was just a costume, an assumed identity. Estella never meant for Cruella to become all that she became. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

When The Baroness notices her necklace is gone, she summons her Dalmatians with a dog whistle. This triggers a memory for Estella, and the revelation that follows changes everything she thought she knew about her life, her deceased mother, and The Baroness.

Needless to say, The Baroness is upset by Cruella’s stunt at her Ball and even more upset that some nubile neophyte would be audacious enough to try to claim her throne. No industry veteran likes to have their position threatened by a talented young upstart, and in this regard The Baroness is no exception. She is vicious, conniving, and glamorous, and she will do anything to maintain her place at the top. As I was watching Cruella, Emma Thompson’s Baroness kept giving me Miranda Priestly in Devil Wears Prada vibes. Not for nothing, since I later did some research and saw that Aline Brosh McKenna, who wrote the screenplay for The Devil Wears Prada, also wrote the original screenplay for Cruella. Cruella’s script went through a couple rounds of revisions and the final screenplay is credited to Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, but at least some of that Prada energy infused by McKenna made it into the shooting script because Emma Thompson is like Meryl Streep’s equally ruthless and disdainful cousin.

No industry veteran likes to have their position threatened by a talented young upstart, and in this regard The Baroness is no exception. She is vicious, conniving, and glamorous, and she will do anything to maintain her place at the top.

It’s really fun to watch the power play between Estella and The Baroness unfold. The more Estella-as-Cruella is able to get away with without being detected, the more emboldened and powerful she feels. This power manifests itself in her stunning creations, and with each new piece she gets better and better. There’s something about losing your fears and shedding your inhibitions that makes your wildest dreams possible. When you aren’t afraid, nothing can really hurt you. The deeper in she gets, though, the more Estella starts to figure out. And there’s one revelation in particular that will break her open, and may even cost her life.

There’s something about losing your fears and shedding your inhibitions that makes your wildest dreams possible. When you aren’t afraid, nothing can really hurt you.

Cruella was released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures on May 28th, 2021 and is available to own, stream, or rent from various platforms and retailers.

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please like, comment, follow, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at fred.slusher@thevoraciousbibliophile.com or catch me on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.

Favorite Films 🎥: La Strada (1954)

One of these days, I’ll take a match and set fire to everything.

La Strada

Year: 1954

Director: Federico Fellini

Country: Italy

Cast: Giulietta Masina, Anthony Quinn, and Richard Basehart

Score: Nino Rota

Cinematography: Otello Martelli and Carlo Carlini

Streaming: Criterion Channel and HBO Max

Why I Love It: Giulietta Masina, who stars as the simple-minded and tender-hearted Gelsomina, was one of those rare performers who make you forget that the worlds they create are fiction. At the beginning of the film, Gelsomina learns that her sister Rosa has died while traveling with Zampanò (Anthony Quinn), a coarse and somewhat thuggish sideshow performer. Because her mother has other young children to feed and they all appear to be on the brink of starvation, she sells Gelsomina to Zampanò for 10,000 lire, and so begins her journey on the road.

Giulietta Masina, who stars as the simple-minded and tender-hearted Gelsomina, was one of those rare performers who make you forget that the worlds they create are fiction.

La Strada is not your typical Bildungsroman. Gelsomina’s narrative arc is not centered around some destination or goal that she spends the film pursuing. Instead, we see her find tenderness and beauty everywhere, no matter how cruelly Zampanò treats her or how desolate the landscape becomes.

I won’t spoil anything by telling you how the film ends, but I will warn you to make sure you have plenty of tissues handy. La Strada is indeed a journey, and it reveals much about the human condition to those patient enough to sit with it.

La Strada is indeed a journey, and it reveals much about the human condition to those patient enough to sit with it.

Also noteworthy is the gorgeous score by Nino Rita. Usually, cinematography is something I like to discuss more so than scores, but I have a deep and abiding passion for Nino Rota. In addition to La Strada, Rota collaborated with Federico Fellini on several other films, as well as with Fellini’s rival, Luchino Visconti. Other works of his include scores for Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1967) and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), the latter of which garnered him an Academy Award for Best Original Dramatic Score (shared with Carmine Coppola).

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please follow, like, comment, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at thevoraciousbibliophile@yahoo.com or catch me on Twitter @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.

Favorite Films 🎥: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Year: 1928

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Country: France

Cast: Renée Jeanne Falconetti, Eugène Silvain, André Berley, and Maurice Schutz

Cinematography: Rudolph Maté

Streaming: HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video, and Apple TV

Why I Love It: Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s performance as Joan of Arc is one of the most moving in cinematic history. This silent masterpiece is full of startlingly intimate close-ups in which Falconetti’s face is the only thing in your field of vision. Because there’s no audible dialogue, she has to convey everything in her performance through movement, through her facial expressions—everything is an exercise in the theater of the body.

Because there’s no audible dialogue, she has to convey everything in her performance through movement, through her facial expressions—everything is an exercise in the theater of the body.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is the first silent film I can remember bringing me to tears. At times it is painful to watch, but films like this one are the reason cinema is its own art form. For the true cinephile, the Criterion Collection edition is a must. Along with numerous other extras which add depth and context to the viewing experience, Criterion’s home release comes with two different presentations of the film: the traditional 24 frames per second and another at 20 frames per second.

Also noteworthy is the expressionistic lighting used by cinematographer Rudolph Maté, who later immigrated to the United States and became a director and producer as well. His cinematography credits during his career in Hollywood include such films as Dodsworth (1936), Stella Dallas (1937), Love Affair (1939), and Foreign Correspondent (1940), among many others. You can clearly see the influence of his earlier work in European Expressionism in his later work in American film noir.

You can clearly see the influence of his [Maté] earlier work in European Expressionism in his later work in American film noir.

How does one begin the process of classifying superlatives in art? Once you start drawing lines of demarcation and establishing hierarchies, it is inevitable that some works just as worthy as those classified as “The Greatest” will be pushed to the margins, relegated to the corners—all but forgotten. But then again, if everything is great then nothing is great.

Once you start drawing lines of demarcation and establishing hierarchies, it is inevitable that some works just as worthy as those classified as “The Greatest” will be pushed to the margins, relegated to the corners—all but forgotten.

So we have experts. We have aestheticians. We have people who spend their entire lives studying one particular subject so we can go to them when we need a professional’s opinion. As in science, so in art. We look to the learned, the credentialed, and the eloquent. We look outside our own limited experiences and perceptions for something that rings true.

We look to the learned, the credentialed, and the eloquent. We look outside our own limited experiences and perceptions for something that rings true.

Why did I say all that? So I could then say this: The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the greatest films of all time. So say the film scholars, the cineastes, the commentators, and the iconoclasts. And so say I. Don’t trust me. See it for yourself.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the first post in my new series. Check back soon for more of my Favorite Films.

Further Reading

Out of Darkness: The Influence of German Expressionism by Matt Millikan

Suffering the Inscrutable: The Ethics of the Face in Dreyer’s ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ by Chadwick Jenkins

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please follow, like, comment, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at thevoraciousbibliophile@yahoo.com or catch me on Twitter @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.

Film Review: J’ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother) (2009)

Xavier Dolan is, in my opinion, one of the greatest practitioners of film craft of our time. At only 32 years of age, the Québécois auteur has already directed eight feature films, all the while snatching up awards and garnering critical acclaim. While he has been branded an enfant terrible by some, I would not hesitate to call him an iconoclast. It takes a lot of chutzpah to rip out your heart on screen and offer it to your audience, still beating.

It takes a lot of chutzpah to rip out your heart on screen and offer it to your audience, still beating.

In I Killed My Mother, Dolan has provided us with a semi-autobiographical, near-perfect evocation of the vagaries of queer adolescence. It’s all there: angst, rage, confusion, and the tentative eroticism that always accompanies waking up to yourself for the first time.

It’s all there: angst, rage, confusion, and the tentative eroticism that always accompanies waking up to yourself for the first time.

Dolan’s Hubert and Anne Dorval’s Chantale (Hubert’s mother) are at war. Hubert is figuring out who he is (and wants to be) at the same time that Chantale has settled, confused by the man her son is becoming and nostalgic for the easy relationship they once shared.

In one of the several interspersed black-and-white confessionals appearing throughout the film, Hubert laments the state of his relationship with his mother, saying, “We should be able to kill ourselves. In our heads. And then be reborn. To be able to talk, look at each other, be together. As if we never met before.” For him, it’s impossible to move forward, to begin anew, with all the bad blood that exists between him and his mother. To him, she’s gauche, tawdry, and overbearing—more a magpie than a mother. To her, he’s selfish, immature, and pugnacious—an unruly child screaming in the night.

We should be able to kill ourselves. In our heads. And then be reborn. To be able to talk, look at each other, be together. As if we never met before.

Hubert

We find out that Hubert has been in a relationship with Antonin, a friend of his from school, for a couple of months. Antonin’s mother is aware of their relationship and has no qualms about it, making Antonin’s home a place of refuge for Hubert and further alienating him from his mother.

It is not insignificant to any observant viewer that in Antonin’s bedroom hangs a poster of James Dean, from the iconic Torn Sweater series photographed by Roy Schatt for LIFE magazine; in Hubert’s bedroom hangs a poster of River Phoenix, whom every gay male teenager has been in love with since they first watched Stand by Me and (later, of course) My Own Private Idaho. It’s the perfect mise en scène: disaffected queer youth playing out their own dramas onscreen while the (gone too soon) queer youth of years past look on.

It’s the perfect mise en scène: disaffected queer youth playing out their own dramas onscreen while the (gone too soon) queer youth of years past look on.

It’s frenetic and tender all at once: a supernova. There comes a point in the film where you fear Hubert may actually kill his mother, the vitriol between them is so strong. When Chantale goes to a tanning salon with a friend partway through the film, she runs into Antonin’s mother there. Antonin’s mother, either not knowing Hubert’s closeted or not understanding the need for a “closet” in the first place, casually mentions that Antonin and Hubert are celebrating two months together. That word, together, shatters whatever illusions Chantale may have still been harboring.

While Chantale is obviously not virulently homophobic, she is still altogether unequipped to provide the kind of support Hubert needs at this point in his life. One hopes that this revelation will cause Chantale to change course, be the first one to offer the olive branch, beginning the catharsis that will ultimately lead to healing and reunification. Instead, she digs in. She involves Hubert’s heretofore absent father in plotting to send him to boarding school.

Hubert becomes completely unhinged after learning of his parents’ plot to shuffle him away to boarding school. When Chantale drops him off at the bus that will take him there, he asks his mother, “What would you do if I died today?” He’s already walking away when she replies, “I’d die tomorrow”. Anne Dorval utters this line barely above a whisper, but it is arguably the most emotionally resonant moment in the entire film.

Dolan’s artistic thumbprint is the ache that accompanies everything we can’t unsay, even though we become more of ourselves in the saying. “The only thing to kill in this lifetime is the enemy within, the hard core double. Dominating him is an art. How good an artist are we?” How good indeed.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please follow, like, comment, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at thevoraciousbibliophile@yahoo.com or catch me on Twitter @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.

Film Review: French Exit (2020)

I didn’t know I needed a film starring both Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges. That pairing alone was worth quadruple the amount I paid to watch it. I’ve loved Michelle Pfeiffer ever since I first saw her as Selina Kyle / Catwoman in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) and I’ve been *in love* with Lucas Hedges since his breakthrough performance in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea (2016). That love was further cemented by seeing him in films like Lady Bird (2017), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), and Boy Erased (2018). In this house, we love boys who can pull off pathos.

In this house, we love boys who can pull off pathos.

French Exit (2020) is based on the novel of the same name written by Patrick deWitt and published in 2018. Let me just say that for everything this film lacks in narrative clarity and overall believability, it more than makes up for with its impeccable acting, effervescent cinematography, and stylistic panache.

Let me just say that for everything this film lacks in narrative clarity and overall believability, it more than makes up for with its impeccable acting, effervescent cinematography, and stylistic panache.

Michelle Pfeiffer stars as Frances Price, a Manhattan socialite who learns that her well of money has run dry. When asked by her financial advisor what she had planned to do once the money ran out (we learn that this had been coming for quite some time), she replies, “My plan was to die before the money ran out.”

A childhood friend of Frances’s offers her and her adult son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) the use of her unoccupied Paris apartment for however long they may need it, ostensibly with no strings attached. Ah, to be a member of the haute bourgeoisie, where even in the midst of financial ruin one can scrounge up a chic Paris apartment to exile in.

Ah, to be a member of the haute bourgeoisie, where even in the midst of financial ruin one can scrounge up a chic Paris apartment to exile in.

Watching this film, one gets the feeling that Malcolm thinks he’s his mother’s antithesis, but they are alike in so many ways. For one, they are both codependent to an almost Hitchcockian degree and totally inept at navigating life outside their relationship with each other. Malcolm is adrift in a way only an over-educated trust fund kid can be. Commitment-shy and solipsistic, he frustrates his girlfriend, who unlike him has had to live in the real world while he spent his formative years glancing down on commoners from the ivory tower he shared with his mother. When he informs her that he is moving to Paris, most likely indefinitely, she breaks things off and their relationship ends (here, at least) on a sour note.

For one, they are both codependent to an almost Hitchcockian degree and totally inept at navigating life outside their relationship with each other.

Frances illegally sells what she can of her possessions “under the table”, creating a small nest egg that can sustain them until such time as they gain their bearings. Michelle Pfeiffer was made for this role. She carries herself in a way only someone accustomed to both money and high-class behavior can.

Their time on the boat to Paris and in the City of Love itself is spent collecting a coterie of companions just as neurotic and maladjusted as themselves, which muddles the narrative just as much as it imbues it with charm.

My overall take? I loved it. It’s not going to win any Oscars, not by a long shot, but for indie-loving arthouse-blowhards like yours truly, it hits the spot.

P.S. The family cat is also Malcolm’s dad. 😮👻🐱

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please follow, like, comment, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at thevoraciousbibliophile@yahoo.com or catch me on Twitter @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.