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Boho Parisians Face the End of a Lifestyle in Jealousy

Vital and vigorous even when its characters feel scraped of vigor/vitality, Philippe Garrel’s latest finds boho Parisians facing the ends of marriages, affairs, and the feasibility of bohemian existence itself. “I can handle being broke but not being poor,” sighs unemployed actress Claudia (Anna Mouglalis) not all that long after Louis (Louis Garrel, the director’s son) leaves his family to shack up with her in a hovel that seems charming when love is fresh but grim when it’s staling.

There’s terrific power in scenes of the lovers — and occasionally Louis’s daughter Charlotte (Olga Milshtein) from the busted marriage — reveling in their romantic newness. Both generations of Garrel also offer extraordinary work in the breakup that opens the film: Louis’s wife, Clothilde (Rebecca Covenant), pleads with him not to leave, while Charlotte observes through a keyhole. Clothilde, we learn, has already given up on her own artistic dreams, opting now to work in an office to provide for herself and her daughter.

Louis, himself a struggling actor, seems to be fleeing that fate as much as that relationship. Director Garrel also holds to impractical ideals but beautifully so: We hear and feel his characters breathe and are given ample time to study their raw and gorgeous faces and also the masks these lost souls hide behind. In the final reels, when that new romance begins to go the way of the old one, the film’s urgent drive seems to leak away — intentionally.

This daring choice will feel right to those who appreciate verisimilitude in fiction, but it runs contrary to what the last decades of movies have trained us to enjoy.

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Balls Deep: Casa Valentina and Hedwig and the Angry Inch Make Quite the Pair

Midway through Casa Valentina, Harvey Fierstein’s new play about a 1960s Catskills haven for straight cross-dressing men, Charlotte (Reed Birney) rails against gays for tainting a transvestites’ paradise. “Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society,” she contends, “cross-dressing will be as everyday as cigarette-smoking.” The line gets a big laugh in Joe Mantello’s old-fashioned production at Manhattan Theatre Club; from our plush seats planted in that golden future, Charlotte’s venomous prophecy looks relegated to the ashtray of history on several counts.

Her remark is typical of the many instructive moments in Fierstein’s drama, which ultimately teeters under the weight of its didacticism. Casa Valentina does open a window onto historical questions about sexuality: Why do certain desires remain outlawed or shunned while others become accepted? When do individuals like Charlotte take a cue from society and when does society reflect the people who comprise it? For the most part, Fierstein gives us a history lesson in makeup and heels, dressed up as a drama. But his narrative, centered on men fueled by paranoia and shame, may stir thoughts for the Broadway intelligentsia who can observe how far we’ve come from the tortured mid-century psyches of the closet, even while other gender values have endured.

Over at the Belasco Theatre, a bedazzling new revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch indexes another kind of change. Neil Patrick Harris gives a soaring performance as Hedwig, the transgender East German émigrée who fronts a band with punk-inflected ballads of trailer parks, wigs, and cleft souls.

As a young man, Hansel paid a high price to escape to America; Hansel became Hedwig through botched surgery, only to see the Wall tumble. Now she dwells in a stage world where all binaries have fallen away: east and west, male and female — and things only get blurrier as the night goes on.

In Michael Mayer’s bright, playful staging, this glitter-covered blonde is far more luminous than tragic, even making a triumphant flying entrance to rival Tony Kushner’s angel of history. As she descends from the sky and the crowd roars and whoops, it’s clear that this once-marginal character has been embraced by the mainstream; in 2014, Hedwig is nothing short of a popular icon. (The show’s arrival on Broadway caps a long journey from a 1990s drag act to a cult musical downtown to film, album, and commercial success.)

The Angry Inch has come for a one-night-only gig but has to contend with a vulgar set left in place from Hurt Locker: The Musical, and the scenery invites gag commentary throughout. (“I do love a good scrim job,” she confides.) As the songs delve further and further into her story, Hedwig leaves these earthly constraints and reaches for the heavens.

True to the event, Harris gives us genuine magic from start to end; he commands star charisma as a woman, as a man, and as everything beyond and in between. Whether channeling Heidi, Joan Rivers, or “The Lion Queen,” Harris brings virtuosic timing and style. Does it matter that the final scenes, where the embittered singer eclipses her past and her body, don’t entirely make dramatic sense? Not really, when the music and wigs are this great and the lights surge this high. Hedwig arrives as an icon and departs, into a wall of klieg lights, as a meteor.

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A Charismatic Preacher in Religious Thriller Holy Ghost People

Of all the sins a cinematic flock can forgive its preacher, vanity tops the list.

While the backwoods congregation of the Church of One Accord dresses in worn overalls and faded dresses, snake-handling Brother Billy (Joe Egender, who co-wrote the screenplay) testifies in front, pomaded and bursting with rockabilly charisma, a lone primary color in a washed-out sea of pastel.

Into that sea wade Charlotte and Wayne (Emma Greenwell and Brendan McCarthy), a guilt-ridden bartender and the alcoholic ex-Marine she’s enlisted to help her look for her sister, an addict last heard from as part of Brother Billy’s flock.

McCarthy, shaky as Wayne tries to kick the bottle, draws us in, but Egender has the plum role. His Brother Billy constantly surprises, whether it’s a viper-quick grab of a cigarette or a quiet confession of a love of Neil Young music. Charlotte, unfortunately, remains something of a cipher, despite a series of explicating voiceovers.

Director Mitchell Altieri helms the thriller with a sure hand, although his experience as one of horror’s “Butcher Brothers” peeks out with the use of the Lost Boys anthem “Cry Little Sister” on the soundtrack.

It feels like a cheat, a garish jab at an emotional button that sacrifices authenticity for a higher high.

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Brightest Star: Finding Your Place in the Universe After Being Dumped

As indie films about self-absorbed young white men making bad romantic choices accompanied by a mixtape soundtrack go, Maggie Kiley’s Brightest Star is a vast improvement over 2013’s lethally quirky Somebody Up There Likes Me.

Brightest Star‘s unnamed male protagonist (Chris Lowell) bounces around life after getting dumped by his pert blonde girlfriend, Charlotte (Rose McIver), trying to woo her back while figuring out what he wants to do with himself, flitting between lifestyles and jobs in the consequence-free manner that only the truly privileged can get away with, and of course disregarding the brunettes he’s clearly meant to be with.

Space and relativity and other science-y things also factor in the story, in a metaphoric, non-scientific way, with Alison Janney getting an extended cameo as an astronomer who lays out the themes. (Cougar Town fans may also bristle at the characterization of that show being about older women chasing younger men, which it hasn’t been since the first season.)

Set in a world in which the professional baseball franchise you support is a measure of character, Brightest Star feels like a poem from Kiley’s notebook without actually being poetic, and it’s either much smarter and more profound than it’s letting on, or it doesn’t add up to anything at all. Or maybe both — it’s all relative.

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Generation War: Germany Asks Why Everyday Folks Signed On for the War

Created for German television, where it debuted last spring, the World War II epic Our Mothers, Our Fathers has since aired on Polish, Irish, and Swedish networks, and now finds its way to a theatrical release, retitled Generation War for American audiences. Conceived and undertaken, in the words of producer Nico Hofmann, as “a sensitive, critical homage to the generation of my parents” — those “everyday Germans,” according to writer Stefan Kolditz, caught out by history as adult life began — the four-hour production was also designed as a conversation piece.

The conversation Hofmann and Kolditz had in mind is itself much talked about in Germany, where Generation War attracted record viewers. An outsider might get the impression that the decades-long discussion of the need for a national conversation about what happened during the war has replaced whatever actual conversation it might have produced. This is not the case, of course, though Generation War claims to represent a German experience as yet ignored by popular storytelling. The relative rarity of German perspectives on the war is owed in part to the idea that, especially at the movies, history is recounted by the winners, and in Hollywood, those winners tend to be American. The winners of World War II have the narrative advantage of having fought a war of absolute ideologies and triumphed over genocidal fascism, which is part of what makes the subject so popular with freedom-loving filmmakers and their audiences.

At a relative disadvantage, then, Generation War presents a war of individuals whose actions are guided not by evil or ideology but by common ignorance, self-interest, obligation, and compromise. Five young friends — two women and three men, one of whom is Jewish — part ways on a raucous 1941 evening, filled with romantic ideas of the war and where it might take them, certain of their return to Berlin by Christmas. All except Viktor (Ludwig Trepte), who is deported and joins the Polish Resistance after escaping from a concentration camp, will take on shades of the archetypal “good German” over four years of war; in the beginning they are less black-and-white than green. In voiceover, Wilhelm (Volker Bruch) reflects on his little group’s naïveté: “We were five, five friends. The whole world lay before us. All we had to do was take it.”

Questions of who is taking what (and how and why) are gently blurred and only occasionally drawn into the foreground, where they prove more obtrusive for having been held at a remove. Wilhelm and his more skeptical little brother, Friedhelm (Tom Schilling), enlist as Wehrmacht soldiers and head to the eastern front, where they find SS officers who ignore the rules of combat and murder Jewish civilians at will. The brothers are shaken, but soon adapt (or maladapt) to war on Nazi terms. Friedhelm, who predicted that the war would bring out the worst in his countrymen, resorts to moral nihilism in order to cope, and ultimately proves even better at following orders than his older brother.

Pining for Wilhelm is Charlotte (Miriam Stein), who enlists as a nurse to stay closer to the brothers. Early on, she informs on a fellow nurse who she discovers is Jewish, a decision rendered with a typically crippling lack of contextual and psychological detail. Portrayed with little sense of what she’s awakening from, Charlotte’s moral education feels schematic. More clearly motivated and purely narcissistic is Greta (Katharina Schüttler), a would-be Dietrich who sleeps with a Nazi both to secure her boyfriend Viktor’s escape and to further her chances as a singer. Though she harms no one, Greta’s heedless vanity — she’ll come to complain while standing over a mortally wounded German soldier — receives one of the film’s harshest punishments.

Finding a dramatic balance between history and the individual is the problem of any historical epic — each must live in and enliven the other. Generation War seeks the epic, creating multiple, lavishly realized worlds and moving with confidence between them. What it finds of both history and its individuals is less complete (and according to those Poles who object to the depiction of an anti-Semitic Polish Resistance, less credible).

Non-Germans might sense in this enactment of the wartime failings and sufferings of five Berliners a faintly therapeutic quality, a sense of tentative initiation, and imagine the value it might have at home. Those same viewers require more from the plight of these characters, however, than the film is equipped to give. Neither allies nor enemies, Charlotte, Wilhelm, Friedhelm, Viktor, and Greta are avatars of history all the same, their psychologies hazy, subject to the diffusions of cliché and hedged inference. They remain “everyday Germans,” only slightly less generic than the film’s title suggests, valuable chiefly as new and perhaps necessary signifiers of Germany’s evolving relationship with its past.

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Hysteria

The origin story of a beloved bedroom gadget, Hysteria, set in London in the 1880s, proceeds as a tedious, clumsy diddle, constantly reminding viewers how much progress has been made since the Victorian era. “You may be unaware, but there is a social revolution underfoot!” suffragette and East End settlement-house volunteer Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) clamors in a typical harangue to her father, Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), a specialist in women’s medicine. To cure respectable ladies of the ailment of the title, the physician, as was the actual procedure at the time, deploys “vulvar massage” until the patient reaches “satisfactory paroxysm.” The irony, underscored repeatedly in this history-lesson-as-comedy is that these learned men of science believed the relief they provided was only physical, never sexual. To assist him in his extremely popular practice, Dalrymple hires Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), an idealistic doctor—and real person, on whom this film is loosely based—who opens the film lecturing a leech-using supervisor on what germs are, and who is roused by Gyllenhaal’s firebrand. But so much repetitive motion gives Mortimer severe hand cramps, leading to the creation, with his Wildean, gadget-loving friend Edmund (Rupert Everett), of the vibrator. This device, known as “Granville’s hammer,” aptly suggests the bluntness of Hysteria.

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Elles

As she prepares for a dinner party, and fields rude dismissals from her two spoiled sons, journalist Anne (Juliette Binoche) thinks back on her probing interviews for a just-filed French Elle profile of two student-prostitutes who cater to a rich “bored husband” clientele. In scenes from the article’s research phase, Binoche nails the reporter’s watchfulness. That entering this line of work was a conscious decision for the two cash-poor young women, both dead-set on upward mobility, couldn’t be more explicit: At one point, freckled Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) says she fears you can smell it on her—not her last liaison, she clarifies, but the housing projects where she has just visited her parents; when asked about her classes, Polish immigrant Alicja (Joanna Kulig) replies that she has been studying neoliberal economist Greg Mankiw. On-the-job interludes bear witness also to the sexual give-and-take between the young women and their refined johns, as Elles tracks Anne’s evolving feelings about her subjects’ line of work: shock at their casual attitude toward it, titillation at their descriptions of it, disgust at the depravity of the class she belongs to, and total revulsion at the realization that the indignities inherent in her haute housewifery are perhaps not so different from the ones Charlotte and Alicja face. It’s entirely too much for co-writer/director Malgoska Szumowska to coherently flesh out in an hour and a half, especially with so much time dedicated just to the state of arousal. Getting hot and bothered by her flashbacks, Anne smells her hand after deshelling a scallop, and later vigorously masturbates while lying on the bathroom floor, trying to keep quiet so her home-from-school teenager doesn’t hear.

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Lena Dunham’s Favorite Girls on Film

Humble narcissist, chronic oversharer, and compulsive exhibitionist, Lena Dunham is today’s unparalleled quarter-life chronicler. Her work, beginning with YouTube sensations like The Fountain (2007), in which she strips down to a bikini and washes herself in the titular structure, might be centered almost exclusively on herself, but the 25-year-old writer-director-actor is also sharply attuned to the complex dynamics among women: the fraught dyads of daughter and mother, sister and sister in 2010’s Tiny Furniture; the support, envy, occasional sabotage (and fleeting erotic charge) among four female friends in her new HBO series, Girls. The show’s premiere on April 15 occasions the Dunham-curated “Hey, Girlfriend!,” a smart, idiosyncratic week-long series at BAM showcasing nine films about female relationships that inspired the young talent.

“Part of being an artist is using things that come from your life,” sullen teenager Erica (Samantha Mathis) explains to her kid sister, Opal (Gaby Hoffmann), as they wait for their stand-up comic mom, Dottie (Julie Kavner), to take the stage in Nora Ephron’s directorial debut, This Is My Life (1992). The words could be Dunham’s own; her highly autobiographical Tiny Furniture, starring her real mother and younger sister as fictionalized versions of themselves, mirrors the all-distaff family trio in Ephron’s film (which she adapted with her sister, Delia, from Meg Wolitzer’s novel). Although Dottie’s inexplicably popular—and wearying—Borscht Belt routine sets the tone for much of This Is My Life, Ephron, whom Dunham has cited as a major influence, movingly focuses on the shifting allegiances in the triangle, particularly the combustible dynamic between Erica and the ambitious mother she feels both proud of and abandoned by. Tiny Furniture touches on a similar theme, as Dunham’s Aura, a recent film-theory grad who’s “trying to figure it out,” feels she has to eclipse—or at least equal—her photographer mom’s artistic fame.

The motherless pubescent girls in Allan Moyle’s Times Square (1980)—T.S. Eliot–quoting Dalton student Pamela (Trini Alvarado) and butch outer-borough throwaway Nicky (Robin Johnson)—become pals when they’re both assigned to the same hospital room for treatment of neurological disorders. Breaking out of their ward, the class-discordant duo sets up house in an abandoned warehouse along the Hudson River and take a series of age-inappropriate jobs along the Deuce. They destroy televisions, form a band, and incite otherwise good girls to join their insurrection; their devotion to each other is tested when Pamela wishes to return to her comfortable, vanilla life after realizing that only her rage-filled, snaggletoothed chum has what it takes to be a cult star. Moyle’s film is as much a sociohistorical record of squalid, teeming Koch-era 42nd Street as Tiny Furniture is of privileged 21st-century Tribecan twentysomethings.

In its pilot, Girls explicitly acknowledges the influence of Sex and the City; another tight-knit femme foursome drives Andrew Fleming’s The Craft (1996), about Catholic high schoolers in Los Angeles heavy into black magic. The junior Wiccans, led by spooky Nancy (Fairuza Balk), who keeps a noose in her locker, welcome newcomer Sarah (Robin Tunney) into their coven. This ostracized quartet has fun—and grows ever closer—while exacting revenge on their tormentors, but when Nancy starts creating fireballs and making dead sharks wash up onshore by accessing her wrath, Sarah wants out. Her fate is that of any girl-clique defector: the brutal sulfurous punishment meted out to all apostates.

If Fleming’s fantasy-genre noodling exposes the dark side of female friendships via the dark arts, Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco (1998) sets it to Chic 45s. Recent Hampshire College grads and publishing-house co-workers Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) and Alice (Chloë Sevigny) are incorrigible, inseparable frenemies. “I’m not so sure we really even like other,” docile Alice says to pathological underminer Charlotte when the latter suggests they room together. Soon they’re sharing a railroad apartment on the Upper East Side—and continuing their sadomasochistic dynamic. After Charlotte announces to everyone at their dance-club hangout that Alice must have the clap, she is quickly forgiven by her humiliated “pal” when she pleads, “If you give me another chance, I’ll be the best friend you ever had.”

Clueless (1995), Amy Heckerling’s sunny girl-power update of Jane Austen’s Emma, also waggishly acknowledges backstabbing among besties. “Would you call me selfish?” Alicia Silverstone’s Cher asks Stacey Dash’s Dionne. Her response: “No, not to your face.” Dunham herself has a great ear for verbal sabotage among women, particularly the put-down masquerading as praise. “I saw that your dyslexic-stripper video got, like, 400 hits!” the hostess of a party—an aspiring “monologist”—exuberantly/mockingly notes to Aura in Tiny Furniture.

The boy-crazy roomies in Girls played by Allison Williams and Dunham are so close that they spoon in bed and share the tub—behavior that hints at the richest subject, whether treated implicitly or explicitly, in “Hey, Girlfriend!”: the often permeable boundary that divides platonic relationships from non- among women. That ambiguity is in the series’ title itself, “girlfriend,” a term with vastly different connotations. Straight women use it for those they get mani-pedis with; queer women for those they’re sleeping with. In Claudia Weill’s second-wave rarity Girlfriends (1978), Susan (Melanie Mayron) and Anne (Anita Skinner) are both presented as unequivocally straight: Anne moves out of the apartment the two women share to marry Martin (Bob Balaban); Susan, hoping to get her photography career off the ground, does some bed-hopping with guys she meets at Soho parties and considers an affair with a married rabbi twice her age. But when confronting Anne about their eroded relationship near the film’s end, Susan erupts like a scorned lover no longer able to hide the hurt: “You’re the one who left me!”

A deeper kind of blurring defines David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001), and “this love story in the City of Dreams” remains unquestionably one of the greatest ever made about a relationship between two women. “It’ll be just like in the movies: We’ll pretend to be someone else,” cheery actress hopeful Betty (Naomi Watts) tells amnesiac Rita (Laura Elena Harring) as they set out to uncover the latter’s true identity. It’s an invitation to an adventure, leading to a corpse, a key, a wad of cash—and the pleasure of each other’s bodies. “Go with me somewhere,” Rita exhorts Betty in an odd postcoital trance. The request, whether the girlfriend you ask is in your bed or not, is timeless.

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Jane Birkin

She loved him, but he couldn’t care less as long as the sex was good—at least so went the sentiment, en Français, of “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus,” the London-born actress’s controversial 1969 duet with French music icon Serge Gainsbourg. Tonight, Birkin will be revisiting the songs she recorded with her former lover (and the father of their daughter, Charlotte) to celebrate the legacy of one of music’s most respected innovators, a man who influenced everyone from Beck to will.i.am, 20 years after his passing. To boot, she will be performing alongside the Japanese musicians with whom she played an earthquake relief concert earlier this year. With Joey Arias.

Sun., Dec. 11, 7:30 p.m., 2011

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Red Cloud Rising: The Theater of Text Messages

You receive an email for a “recruitment session,” someone hoping to discover if you’re “a good fit for the Bydder family!” You agree to attend a meeting in a glitzy Wall Street conference room. This is all part of Red Cloud Rising, a presentation of the Brick Theater’s Game Play Festival, with roots in videogaming, not theater; it’s less scripted than programmed.

At the meeting, an exec named Charlotte takes your cell number, gives you a name badge, then sends you and a small group of associates outside on a scavenger hunt for information about a company called Bydder Financial. Clues about your next moves arrive via text message.

Predictably, Bydder’s involved in an evil profiteering scam—filching natural resources in Latin America. Disgruntled former Bydder employees accost you in the street; they have joined a shadowy anti-corporate group. You hardly notice Red Cloud’s flimsy plot except that it gives you an excuse to visit landmarks New Yorkers usually neglect, like Trinity Church. The format and the dynamic of your “team” prove more intriguing than the tossed-off performances. You get a drink ticket at Fraunces Tavern. Later, Bydder rejects you by e-mail. Like the show, the ding letter is inconsequential but oddly pleasant.