How to Talk to Girls at Parties? John Cameron Mitchell’s Punk-Alien Love Story

I have very seldom used the word “strange” (sounds better in French—bizarre) in my essays or reviews, but such is the first label that comes to mind after watching How to Talk to Girls at Parties, from John Cameron Mitchell, which was an official selection (out of competition) at the 2017 Cannes Film Fest.

It’s easily one of the most disappointing films I saw last year at Cannes, which was not particularly strong in the first place

This romantic tale, which tries to mix the subcultures of punk and aliens in a sci-fi milieu, was one of the toughest press screening to get into (It took place at a small venue, Salle Bazin).

Before the screening the expectations were high, after all this is the Mitchell who gave use the innovative musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch (first on stage and then as an indie musical movie with a growing cult following).

Two hours later, the movie became a divisive event, with equal pros and cons.  Some critics went as far as claiming that, in its current shape, the picture is “unreleasable.”  There were more walk-outs during the press screening than in any other I had attended.

Mitchell, a talented director, will–and should–survive this misfire, considering his young age and track record, thus far.

Some context is in order: Mitchell’s follow-up to Hedwig, Shortbus was also shown in Cannes Fest in 2006.  Then, in 2010, Nicole Kidman hired him to direct a tragic family melodrama, Rabbit Hole, and under his guidance she gave a strong performance that garnered her a third Best Actress Oscar nomination.

I have not read the source material, a 2006 short story by the graphic artist Neil Caiman of the same title, which Mitchell adapted to the big screen with the help of Philippa Goslett.

One on level, How to Talk is a sci-fi period piece: It is set in 1977, in Croydon, a suburb of London, during Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee celebration.

The first scene is rather promising in introducing a likable fella, Enn (well played by Alex Sharp, who looks typically Brit), a good-hearted, rather naïve punk, searching for meaning—and love—but perhaps in the wrong place?

Disregarding the mysterious milieu of an alien cult, which bewilders him upon initial encounters, he falls hard for one of its youngest members, the fresh and beautiful Zan (Elle Fanning, well cast).

By now you justly expect a director like Mitchell to be daring—after all, Shorbus included many hardcore sex scenes–but you also want him to be dynamic and energetic filmmaker, capable of telling an engaging story with well-rounded characters.

Unfortunately, at least one third of the tale is set in a dive-bar, which is not that interesting.  The site features the Dyschords, a local band managed by Queen Boadicea (Nicole Kidman, in deliberately heavy makeup, gross behavioral mode, and foul lingo, all looking and sounding unconvincing).

Later on, Alex and his mate, the blond Vic (A.J Lewis) burst into a mansion, populated by odd youngsters who flaunt their flamboyant costumes–skin-tight black and red latex–as both a fashion and political statement.  The members seem to engage in some rituals, which look more like group gym exercises than real dancing.

We never find out who they really are? Where they come from? What their philosophy or lifestyle are?  Only that they are humanoids from another planet.

Midway, the movie switches to the outdoors with some quieter, more pleasant moments.  Zan gets a break from the group, during which she and Enn develop their bond—and discuss their love, their own future, and even that of their would-be children.

The changes from one setting to another, and from one scene to another are erratic and will be perceived as incoherent by many viewers.

For example, Enn’s mother–a crass chubby femme–emerges out of the blue and turns out to be a very different person from the typical mom.  Then, in a later scene, one of the leaders speaks through the voice and character of the mother.  But why? And to what effect?

While the title may be misleading, How to Talk to Girls is not mindless.  I think Mitchel intended to contrast two rebellious subcultures of the 1970s: the punks, who favor individualism, liberty, and free speech, and the aliens, here conceived as propagating conformity (in what may be an inside-joke?).

Elle Fanning continues to show that she is not only exquisitely photogenic, but also a dramatically versatile actress.  She can currently be seen in the gender-transformation drama, 3 Generations, co-starring Naomi Watts as her single mother and Susan Sarandon as her lesbian grandmother.

On the plus side, there is good chemistry between Fanning and Alex Sharp, a likable actor with an open face, but both of their parts are vastly underwritten.

I have to admit that, though lacking coherent plot, the movie is seldom boring, due to the restless camera that captures the colorful settings, eccentric costumes, loud punk music, S&M erotic gestures, and dialogue that is both ordinary and stylized.

 

 

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