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Critic's Notebook: Why 'Ginger and Rosa' Is Sally Potter's Best Film

By Andrew Schenker | Indiewire March 16, 2013 at 10:35AM

After a diverse and lengthy early career that encompassed experimental film, dance, theater and music, and following the success of her 1992 arthouse hit "Orlando," Sally Potter settled into a semi-sustained period of more-or-less narrative filmmaking, directing six pictures from "Orlando" through her newly released "Ginger and Rosa." But even as she began working from such conventional materials as 2000’s coming-of-age-in-soon-to-be-overtaken-by-Nazis-Paris offering "The Man Who Cried," the restless experimental impulse that fueled her earliest 8mm efforts was never far from the surface.
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Potter's "Rage" Finds Unique Home
"Rage."

No such problem adheres to her next project, 2009’s undervalued "Rage," in which form and content finally establish a workable truce. Viewing the New York fashion world from the wings, via a series of monologues delivered against a blue(/green/red/black/yellow) screen and filmed via cell phone camera, "Rage" constructs a unique conceptual framework that at once embodies the theatricality of the world of haute couture, mirrors the unreality of that environment (with the individual speakers looking like weird cut-outs pasted against the monochrome backdrops), and builds a creeping sense of dread, as increasingly ominous happenings are heard off-screen but never seen.

Framed as a school project by a young student, the film unfolds over a week at a top Manhattan fashion house, as it debuts a new collection only to beset by accidental death, murder and increasingly violent anti-sweatshop protests. The student interviews models, executives, behind-the-scenes workers, PR flaks, and the police, and through these series of monologues a story emerges, full of intrigue, but mostly centering on the rottenness of the fashion world. While some of the satire is too obvious, Potter gets at some arresting ideas and builds a surprisingly tense narrative out of a seemingly overrestrictive set of formal constraints. As a total vision - in this case, of near apocalypse - it's Potter's strongest work since "Orlando" and, even as it documents a world unraveling, it stands as arguably her most coherent statement to date.

READ MORE: Sally Potter's Coming-of-Age Drama 'Ginger and Rosa' Marks a Turning Point for Elle Fanning

If "Rage" represents something like the peak of Potter's experimental impulses, then "Ginger and Rosa" stands as her finest foray into a more conventional mode of narrative filmmaking. Even here, the plotting remains highly episodic. A coming-of-age tale far more successful than "The Man Who Cried," "Ginger and Rosa" details the teenage life of the titular pair, friends born on the same day in 1945 in the shadow of the detonation of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. Growing up in London in 1962, Ginger (Elle Fanning) becomes obsessed with the question of nuclear disarmament while dealing with family life and eventually becoming estranged from Rosa (Alice Englert) after the latter has an affair with her free-spirit father.

Annette Bening and Elle Fanning in "Ginger and Rosa."
Annette Bening and Elle Fanning in "Ginger and Rosa."

Potter largely lays off her more experimental impulses, but she's no less sly in using the cinematic means at her disposal to concoct a frightening vision of adolescence as one of terror, isolation and betrayal. Employing the frightful whites of Ginger's house as a means to unmoor the characters from their settings (similar to the blue screen of "Rage"), Potter creates a mood of impending fatality. Herself isolated by her protective oval of red hair, Ginger is defined almost entirely by her desperate anti-nuclear feelings, which Potter shrewdly understands as a response to both her less-than-ideal family situation and the geopolitical moment into which she was born.

For once, the director isn't afraid to bring her film to a dramatic conclusion, staging a lengthy penultimate scene in which all the characters converge and all the tensions come to a head. Similarly, the film’s philosophical concerns - what should one do with a life? - are neatly folded into a coming-of-age tale in which such nagging questions occur quite naturally. If "Ginger and Rosa" is the director's most successful film, it's because she's finally found a way to reconcile her restless cinematic and intellectual energies within the restrictions of a narrative film -- albeit a narrative that remains, like the movie itself, utterly, unmistakably Potterian.


This article is related to: Reviews, Critic's Notebook, Sally Potter, Ginger and Rosa, Orlando, Yes, The Tango Lesson