NYFF Daily Reviews: Sally Potter's Ginger & Rosa

Categories: NYFF

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Here's Nick Pinkerton on Sally Potter's Ginger & Rosa.

Ginger & Rosa
Written and directed by Sally Potter
Screens Tuesday, October 9th at 6:15 p.m. and Wednesday, October 10th at 9:00 p.m.

Blame it on Boomers reaching the age of nostalgia if you will, but this installment of the NYFF is well-stocked with reminiscences of life before, during, and after the cultural revolution. Last week brought the superlative '71-set Something in the Air, the eerily Dorian Gray-ish 57-year-old Olivier Assayas's recollection of his career as a lycée revolutionary, and 67-year-old David Chase's Not Fade Away, set in the '60s suburban New Jersey of his youth, where every garage came with its own band. To this list we can now add Sally Potter's Ginger & Rosa.

Potter was born in 1949, and was therefore a couple of years younger in 1962 than the eponymous teenaged heroines of her new film, which has the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis tuned in on the BBC radio. Friends since meeting in the hospital maternity ward while still in their respective mother's wombs--one moment which appears in an opening montage of telescoped biography, nimbly handled by editor Anders Refn--Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) have made their symbiotic relationship a bulwark against an adult world which is quite often confusing and frightful.

On the macro scale, they are helpless before the imminent threat of nuclear war, which the girls protest in Aldermaston-type marches; on the micro level, they are non-voting members in households that don't offer any sense of safe haven. After her father left some years back, Rosa has struggled to find solace through a combination of church-going and snogging strange boys, while Ginger tiptoes around the uneasy truce between her long-suffering mother (Christina Hendricks, like Fanning, adopting an English accent) and her father, Roland (Alessandro Nivolli), a radical writer/academic with a history of civil disobedience and philandering, both of which he justifies as a kind of taking up arms against the bourgeoisie status quo.

Potter has downplayed the directly autobiographical element of the film though, like Ginger, she was raised in an atmosphere that might be described as freethinking, bohemian, and progressive, and her film belongs to a growing body of works dedicated to making sense of the mixed-bag legacy of an upbringing where the voices of authority demand that one question all authority--like Blame it on Fidel by Julie Gavras, daughter of the leftist filmmaker Costa-Gavras.

Ginger and Rosa have a great deal of leeway to grow up for themselves, and Potter begins with stanzas of widescreen poetry showing their playing-hooky freedom in doing exactly that: Ginger taking a clothes iron to her friend's curly hair; Rosa slipping behind a bus stop to fool around with a guy, their merged silhouettes visible through the frosted glass behind Ginger, settled in to wait until her girlfriend wraps up; the pair sitting in the tub to shrink their blue-jeans, a moment that crackles with giggly same-sex curiosity. Potter is working for the first time here with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who most recently shot Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights, and this culled-from-memory flutter of images have a dreamy lull, fragments of a lost harmony.

Disgusted with her mother's jealousy-wracked conventionality, Ginger will leave with Roland when he moves out on his own, preceding a personal crisis--timed up with that in the Kennedy White House--as dad takes his sexual iconoclasm still further. Not only does Roland insist his own daughter call him "Roland," but he observes no boundaries between himself and her peers, and begins sleeping with Rosa. Though it's 13-year-old Fanning's urgent, tear-streaked performance here which has received most of the attention, Nivolli, in the character of Ginger's father, is the gritty force that produces the film's few pearls. ("I'd like to slap his face" muttered the middle-aged lady sitting next to me, perhaps having heard some of Roland's lines before.) Along with Ginger, it's left to the viewer to decipher to what degree Roland's philosophy is a justification for self-serving sexual irresponsibility, to what degree it springs from actual conviction--and as to if one can ever be cleanly separated from the other.

1992's Orlando was the nearest Potter came to capturing a wider audience--this success belonged to a brief moment when sizable audiences were willing to experiment, and female-directed movies punched through into the mainstream, including The Piano by actress Alice Englert's mother, Jane Campion. With its recognizable coming-of-age narrative and a (miscast) big name like Hendricks, Ginger & Rosa seems like Potter's bid to return to the fugitive wider audience, but the outlook doesn't look good--and not only because of the public's taken-for-granted ignorance.

While picturesque and well-enough acted, Ginger's too diffuse to deliver the concentrated impact of a major work, and by the last reel the title begins to seem a misnomer, as the relationship that's the backbone of the film, once sundered, never returns to focus. In part, this is thanks to the distracting addition of an extra-familial support group for Ginger, which includes not only Timothy Spall as an endlessly sympathetic gay godfather, but also Oliver Platt and Annette Bening as redundant sympathetic Yanks.

Perhaps it's a parody of the leftist passion for committee meetings, but the climactic confrontation feels less like a personal showdown than a roundtable, and the feeling is that everyone's had their say and not much has gotten done. (Nick Pinkerton)

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