James + Semaj is a column where James Franco talks to his reverse self, Semaj, about new films. Rather than a conventional review, it is place where James and Semaj can muse about ideas that the films provoke. James loves going to the movies and talking about them. But a one-sided take on a movie, in print, might be misconstrued as a review. As someone in the industry it could be detrimental to James’s career if he were to review his peers, because unlike the book industry—where writers review other writer’s books—the film industry is highly collaborative, and a bad review of a peer could create problems. So, assume that James (and Semaj) love all these films. What they’re interested in talking about is all the ways the films inspire them, and make them think. James is me, and Semaj is the other side of me. This week’s column focuses on "In the Shadow of Women," which opens in limited release on Friday.
James: Wow, I love this.
Semaj: You do?
James: Yeah, don’t you?
Semaj: Yes, I love it because it’s so simple.
James: That’s why I love it.
Semaj: I mean, it’s not just the story that is cut down to the essence — it’s the way it’s shot, the dialogue, the acting style, everything is minimalist.
James: Exactly. Every aspiring filmmaker should watch this film to see how much bang they get out of an economic approach. You don’t need tons of coverage, explosions, guns, or even complicated backstory to make a compelling movie.
Semaj: Okay, so what’s the story?
James: Basically, it follows a couple in Paris. They’re in love. The man makes documentaries — he’s working on one about the French Resistance during WWII, and the woman helps him. The woman’s mother warns her not to gear her whole life around the man, the woman protests that she loves him. Then the man starts an affair.
Semaj: That all happens pretty early.
James: Right, so we’re not really spoiling anything.
Semaj: So why should we care about another story of infidelity? We see that all the time, in life, and on soap operas, in every contemporary novel, and in tons of movies.
James: Right, but, as with most movies that strike us nowadays, often they stand out not because of what story they’re telling, but because of how they tell it.
Semaj: What do you mean?
James: Well, tell me the plot of "The Revenant"?
Semaj: A dude gets left for dead in the woods and he wakes up and vows revenge.
James: What about "Joy"?
Semaj: A woman with a fucked-up family invents the self-wring mop.
James: "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"?
Semaj: The Rebels have to protect a thumb drive because it has a map to old man Luke Skywalker.
James: Right. They’re all super simple. But you throw in an amazing bear attack, sleeping naked in a horse carcass, awesome comedic performances by Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro, and recreate in retro style of the galaxy far, far away that everyone remembers and loves…and those stories become amazing films.
Semaj: Very true, very true. So, the style in "In the Shadow of Women"? I guess it makes everything feel very natural.
James: Yeah, but it’s more than that. It’s shot in black and white, and with a limited number of fixed shots, rather than handheld, so it doesn’t feel quite as naturalistic as a Dardenne brothers movie. It’s got a bit of cinematic framing.
Semaj: Right. They’re not going for a documentary style. By "cinematic framing" you mean they’re using some conventions to remind us that this is a movie, a work of art; we’re not just observing people go through situations as if it were real life; that, as simple as it is, it is still elevated to something a little more heightened than realism.
James: There is even a narrator in this thing. He comes in every so often to tell us about the interior life of the characters.
Semaj: In that way it feels novelistic, or like a Lars Von Trier film, such as "Dogville" or "Nymphomaniac."
James: Yeah, except that this movie isn’t as cruel to its characters as Von Trier.
Semaj: No, it deals with some uncomfortable situations, but nobody is killed, or raped, or has their dick smashed.
James: The black and white, and the fun the filmmakers have with their approach to shooting, and the voiceover, makes me think of the French New Wave.
Semaj: That’s interesting. But the French New Wave used a ton of handheld, and jump cuts, and freeze frames, and everything else in the book. This movie shoots every scene from a minimal amount of fixed angles; sometimes whole scenes are shot from a single angle and the actors move within the frame.
James: You’re right. Maybe I’m thinking more of the Neo-New Wavers like Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson.
Semaj: Maybe, but a simplified version of what those guys do. Baumbach often uses quick cuts to make everything move, and Anderson obviously puts tons of work into production design. "In the Shadow of Women" doesn’t move quickly. It’s very measured.
James: Okay, okay, we get it — this movie is done in a minimalist fashion.
Semaj: Although sometimes the transitions between scenes have great energy because they make large time jumps, or unexpected shifts in scene.
James: Still, it’s very restrained.
Semaj: I know I keep talking about it, but I really think it gets so much of its power from its simplicity. And it’s one of the reasons that a simple relationship story suddenly becomes compelling.
James: Okay, explain that last part.
Semaj: Because there are so few cuts in the movie, the actors set the pace in each scene. The film isn’t cutting back and forth between them on every line, which would allow the filmmakers to set the pace and rhythm. Instead, because there aren’t many edits, the actors are called upon to pace the scenes, as in a play.
James: The director is pretty old.
Semaj: Not that old. It’s Philippe Garrel. He’s 67.
James: Okay, it’s not that old, but he’s making a movie about young people in a style that young people should be embracing.
Semaj: Damn right they should. I’m going to recommend this movie to all my graduate film students. They should all aspire to making a first feature as concise and as powerful as this one.