Every element of Once exemplifies a pared-down philosophy. Director John Carney shoots it in a steady, consistent, simple way: handhelds, often with long lenses from afar. It’s the way you’d record a street performer who’s impressed you – with a bit of distance, not wanting to be a distraction. The acting is similarly low-key. It’s not quite mumblecore (which was gaining steam as a movement when this originally came out), for its dialog often favors straightforwardness over purer realism, but the performers tackle their material with few overt flourishes. Since most of them were in fact non-actors, it’s a tremendous showcase in harnessing amateur talent for nuanced effect. Most of the characters don’t even have names – Glen Hansard’s Irish singer-songwriter is just “Guy” and Markéta Irglová’s Czech immigrant is just “Girl.”
The documentary is aesthetically ambitious, coming in at an unusual two-hour length and packed with “stylistic” flourishes. An interviewee can’t describe something as simple as a building layout without the camera zooming through a CGI recreation. The score surely pauses in places, but I couldn’t tell you where, so relentless is it, draping additional drama over the proceedings. It wants to be a spy thriller, its blockbuster status bolstered by Netflix’s obscene $5 million buy at Sundance. But most of Icarus is needless muddling around in a story that doesn’t really seem that complicated.
Of course, all cultural standards of “proper” or “manly” behavior are in fact socially enforced posturing, and Vija’s public overcompensation is just one aspect of this that The Wound explores. (This holds true no matter what the culture in question, and Western viewers would be wise to question their own beliefs on the subject before condemning Xhosa practices as “backwards” or whatever.) The story drives around Xolani’s attempts to shepherd Kwanda (Niza Jay), a big-city boy whose father has insisted on him joining in, telling Xolani to “toughen him up.” The other boys, anonymized as a collective (the credits only refer to each as “initiate”), give Kwanda nothing but grief over his perceived effeminacy and unsuitability to roughing it. Custom is built and perpetuated by small actions that pile up, and their bullying demonstrates this in a subtle but potent manner. Xolani senses that Kwanda may also be gay, and Kwanda suspects the same in turn, but this does not act as a bonding element. It’s every man for himself, and vulnerability is a liability.
Nearly all of After Love takes place within the confines of the ex-couple’s flat, and the story is built around the ebbing and rising in hostilities between them. At times, Bejo, Kahn and cinematographer Jean-François Hensgens’ camera work in tandem to produce a harrowing sense of domestic claustrophobia, as if they’re they’re trapped in a Gallic Albee hell. Marie is frequently the one forced to take initiative as a grownup, while Boris flails before the dire prospects facing him. They’re raw nerves fraying further open as they rub against one another.
It feels as though Leap! (originally titled Ballerina, renamed for American audiences presumably out of fear of alienating boys, in a Disney-esque Rapunzel / Tangled or The Snow Queen / Frozen move) was conceived by picking a subject out of a hat and slotting it into a kid film template. “What dream haven’t we seen an animated movie protagonist follow yet?” Still, the filmmakers behind Leap! seemingly can’t picture a children’s movie without a cavalcade of unnecessary action scenes and fart jokes—and not good fart jokes at that. The result is a movie allegedly about ballet with weirdly few scenes featuring actual dancing.