S.F. Indiefest — “Gabi On the Roof in July,” “Special Treatment,” “Corpusse: Surrender to the Passion”

by Peter Wong on February 1, 2011

Writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine’s film “Gabi on the Roof in July” may not deal with the big question of “What Is Art?” But this affable character study is an engaging portrait of life, love, and art in summertime New York City.

The titular Gabi (Sophia Takal) is a 20-year-old who’s paying a summertime visit to her aspiring artist brother Sam (Levine). Her need for emotional support in the wake of their parents’ divorce clashes with Sam’s continual hustles to advance his art career and to juggle his relationships with current girlfriend Madeleine (Brooke Bloom) and ex-girlfriend/art dealer Chelsea (Amy Seimetz). The Oberlin undergrad responds by indulging in Naked Twister and other provocations. Needless to say, an emotional trainwreck is in the offing.

Kevin Barker’s catchy theme music transforms innocence into irony. Its allusion to a lazy hazy summer contrasts with the betrayal and hypocrisy that one sees onscreen.

That dramatic betrayal and hypocrisy is the product of Levine’s months of collaborative and improvisational pre-filming work with his actors. Savvy filmgoers will recognize the process as that employed by John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh to spectacular effect in their films. Levine’s efforts, by contrast, yields mixed results. Bloom and Seimetz manage to make their characters’ emotional vulnerabilities feel lived-in and organic. Takal makes Gabi’s epatier les bourgeois stunts ironic but not completely linked dramatically to her emotional injuries. While Levine ably captures Sam’s hustler juggle, he leaves the question of Sam’s actual artistic talent ambiguous. Is the brief glimpse the viewer has of Sam’s artwork truly representative or just a lesser work?

The pre-film improvisational work also yields some nice character moments in the finished product. Of particular note is Madeleine’s emotional meltdown as she rightly suspects Sam of cheating on her with Chelsea. Following close behind is Sam’s confronting his sister over rent-sharing.

Levine’s world of emotionally dented artistic bohemians leaves the viewer at the end amused by their foibles. Yet wanting to actually be part of that world is not one of the film’s viewer takeaways.

The similarity between a prostitute and a psychotherapist provides the inspiration for Jeanne Labrune’s drolly intellectual drama “Special Treatment.” Antiques-loving Alice Bergerac (a wonderfully game Isabelle Huppert) is a solo prostitute who specializes in fantasy sex-play. Xavier Demestre (Bouli Lanners) is a psychotherapist who finds his practice tiresome and his marriage endangered. These two oddly similar souls will eventually meet. Whether they can help each other is another matter entirely.

Labrune’s central idea is not as outlandish as one may think. The director notes the similarities between the two professions include “given session length giving rise to payment” and emotional limit set by that selfsame payment.

The film expresses this idea with the expected dramatic juxtapositions of Alice and Xavier plying their trades. Admittedly, one cannot get much immediate visual variety out of seeing a psychotherapist listening to a patient’s problems. Yet the film’s shots of Lanners’ face don’t quite turn it into an object worthy of viewer study. More visual fun comes from seeing the various disguises Huppert adopts for her clients. The best of these costumes involves leather gear, a corpse outline, a ball gag, and a piece of raw meat in a dog food bowl.

However, the film’s depictions of Alice actually performing sex with a client tend to be abortive attempts. Labrune is not being prurient. Xavier’s visit to a sex club doesn’t skimp on the sexual acts on display. But to see Alice naked and having sex would distract from the points Labrune wanted to raise with her film. Having a director who avoids the usual cinematic cliché of using prostitute characters as excuses for gratuitous visual leering is still praiseworthy.

Casual viewers who prefer characters’ motivations delivered in a Twitter feed format will find themselves frustrated with Labrune’s film. Clues are provided indirectly, and the viewer must often sift through what is actually shown onscreen to find the key to characters’ behavior. If the viewer is willing to imagine the sexual uses of the aforementioned corpse outline and a piece of raw meat, they should be willing to puzzle out the reasons for a character’s action. That said, more clues would be appreciated by those trying to guess why Xavier is dissatisfied with his work.

Labrune’s views on the effectiveness of psychotherapy will probably enrage viewers who swear by its benefits. But one suspects the director welcomes viewers willing to intelligently engage with her film.

There’s something to be said for a man who’s stayed loyal for 20 years to his individual artistic vision. Malcolm Fraser’s “Corpusse: Surrender to the Passion” provides a non-critical documentary portrait of Montreal-based gothic shock opera musician Corpusse. Imagine avant-garde composer John Adams jamming with punks and spoken word artists among others, and you’ve imagined Corpusse’s music. KISS without the money-whoring best describes Corpusse’s look.

Fraser, to his credit, treats Corpusse and his unique artistic vision with respect. He distinguishes the outrageous stage persona from the quietly funny person who loves professional wrestling. Snippets of several Corpusse performances including different versions of the “pretty flowers” number allow a viewer to judge his talent.

Props definitely go to Corpusse for arising out of the 1990s Montreal music scene. However, Fraser’s film fails to match its subject’s originality. Its structure doesn’t stretch much beyond the standard talking heads laced with concert footage. But viewers get surprised by the anecdote about Corpusse’s mom seeing her son publicly hump a chicken carcass.

(“Gabi On The Roof In July” screens February 5, 2011 at 9:15 PM and February 10, 2011 at 9:15 PM; “Special Treatment” screens February 5, 2011 at 7 PM and February 9, 2011 at 7 PM; “Corpusse: Surrender To The Passion” screens February 12, 2011 at 4:45 PM and February 15, 2011 at 9:15 PM. All screenings take place at the Roxie Theatre (3117-16th Street (nr. Valencia), SF). For tickets and further information, go to www.sfindie.com .)

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