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Sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the founders of Los Angeles-based haute-couture outfit Rodarte, not only wrote and directed their debut feature, Woodshock, but also designed the costumes, natch. But while the duo might be able to come up with a mean silhouette, cut and pattern — they also designed some of the arresting outfits in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan — their handle on mise-en-scene and narrative is less steady, with the film opting for a sensorial, New Age-y style that often looks and sounds fabulous but is frequently devoid of any kind of clear meaning.
Indeed, Woodshock’s images would look great in a commercial or a music video, but as part of either the real world or the subconscious of a woman trying to deal with the strange intersection of grief, death and medical marijuana, they don’t add up to any greater insight at any kind of intellectual or emotional level. It is clear the protagonist is both lost and on cannabinoid drugs, but this state of depression needs either more nuance or some kind of development that is sorely lacking here.
The presence of executive producer Kirsten Dunst in the lead could help distributor A24 score some press and audience attention, but this is the kind of evanescent arty fare that slips in and out of theaters with barely a soul noticing. Following its Venice bow in the Cinema nel giardino section, Woodshock will be released stateside Sept. 22.
In an early scene, Theresa (Dunst) prepares a spliff for her bedridden mother (Susan Traylor) that’s laced with a couple of drops of a mysterious substance that will put her out of her misery. It takes a while for the film to establish that Theresa has access to medical marijuana because she works for Keith (Games of Thrones‘ Pilou Asbaek), who cultivates and sells cannabis. Together with him, she seems to be moonlighting as an angel of death who can help terminal patients drift off for good in a cloud of doobie smoke.
Theresa’s rapport with Keith, at least initially, seems healthier than with her live-in boyfriend, Nick (Brit actor Joe Cole, who also stars in the Venice title Eye on Juliet). He doesn’t seem to understand that Theresa might need some looking after, especially after she actually helped her mother cross over to the other side. When, later in the film, the understandably gloomy blonde has made a mess in the garden during one of her sleepless nights, Nick bluntly tells her: “Look what you’ve done! I’m not cleaning up your mess!” This is not the kind of boyfriend anyone needs, much less someone who is in emotional distress after struggling to process her mother’s death and who, because of her distraught state, might have been responsible for a fatal mix-up. But the story fails to convey why Theresa stays with him or why they ever got together in the first place.
The main problem is that the directors often struggle to assign meaning to their images that helps advance either the narrative or illuminate the emotional state of their main character. Right after Theresa’s mom has died, there’s a wide shot of Theresa sitting upright on the bed, facing away from her dead mother. Editors Julia Bloch and Dino Jonsater, who both cut their teeth editing in Scandinavia, then splice in a shot of several redwoods that have been chopped down, leaving only their gigantic stumps in an ashen-colored field at what feels like dusk or dawn. The initial message seems clear enough: Theresa’s mom’s life was cut short, just like the trees. But what are the tree stumps meant to illustrate beyond that? Does the image condemn the act of euthanasia that just happened? Should the trees never have been chopped down? Or is the fact their timber will be used meant to be comforting? Is it significant that it’s dusk or dawn? Which one is it, anyway? It is not clear what the juxtaposition of the shots is really meant to evoke or whether it is this confusion that is meant to suggest Theresa’s mental state.
A similar vagueness pervades many of the shots and cuts here as Theresa is occasionally seen floating through the air or sleeping on redwood stumps. There are moments she’s playing with light refracting through a crystal vase or sitting in a bathtub full of flowers. But what exactly they are meant to convey about how Theresa is doing or coping is up for discussion. The images are certainly beautifully captured by Finnish cinematographer Peter Flinckenberg (Concrete Night), whose woozy and occasionally honey-dipped or hazy camerawork is always atmospheric. The sets and props of production designer K.K. Barrett help to create a somewhat timeless feel, with not a modern car or cellphone in sight and with an ambient touch that’s clearly reminiscent of his earlier work with Spike Jonze and Sofia Coppola. But these contributions, combined with the Mulleavys‘ costumes, don’t really move the story forward or inward so much as just dress it up all pretty-like.
The overall effect — enhanced by Peter Raeburn’s score, a long list of hipster-loved rock songs and countless edits — is dreamlike but also, finally, rather empty. Dunst is frequently a mesmerizing presence, but her performance can’t hold a candle to her own work in one of her most challenging roles, as a depressed woman facing the end of days in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. That film also dealt with depression and death and featured exquisite symbolic images, too. But Von Trier knew how to create meaning out of all his disparate elements. Here, it mostly feels like Dunst has graduated from playing Manic Pixie Dream Girls — her turn in Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown coined the term — to a Manic-Depressive Pixie Dream Woman.
Production companies: Cota Entertainment, Waypoint Entertainment
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Joe Cole, Pilou Asbaek, Stephan DuVall, Jack Kilmer, Susan Traylor, Joel McCoy, Michael Pavlicek
Writer-directors: Kate Mulleavy, Laura Mulleavy
Producers: Ben LeClair, K.K. Barrett, Ken Kao, Michael Costigan
Executive producer: Kirsten Dunst
Director of photography: Peter Flinckenberg
Production designer: K.K. Barrett
Costume designers: Kate Mulleavy, Laura Mulleavy, Christie Wittenhorn
Editors: Julia Bloch, Dino Jonsater
Music: Peter Raeburn
Casting: Avy Kauffman
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Cinema nel giardino)
Rated R, 101 minutes
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