Scene at Chi Film Fest: ‘The Power of the Dog,’ ‘Petite Maman’

And so it begins.

If you missed the prequel to this post, you’ll want to read this. The SparkNotes are that the 57th Chicago International Film Festival is running from Oct. 13 to Oct. 24, and yours truly is representing the fourth estate therein. Needless to say, I am incredibly excited to do so, and I plan to gloat about it profusely on every conceivable form of social media.

The press are limited to “capsule reviews” for the duration of the fest, which means my criticism will have to take on an abbreviated form. This is by all accounts a good thing, because if someone isn’t there to reel me in, I’d probably review these movies in like, stream of consciousness or something, “Ulysses”-style.

See, I’m already doing it. Let’s get to what I saw.

“The Power of the Dog”

Dually presented in the Masters and Women in Cinema programs was “The Power of the Dog,” Jane Campion’s first feature film since 2009. For the uninitiated, Campion is a major figure in the history of female filmmakers; she became the first woman to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for “The Piano” in 1993, for which she also later became the second woman to ever be nominated for the Best Director Oscar. “The Power of the Dog” is sure to be a heavy hitter at the Oscars itself, after it scooped the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival last month.

Adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name, “The Power of the Dog” tells the tale of two brothers, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons). It’s 1925, and they’ve inherited a sprawling cattle ranch in the mountains of Montana. However, they’re polar opposites: where George is slow but sensitive, Phil is intelligent and ruthless. He’s the kind of guy who castrates cows with no gloves — the kind of guy who bathes in the river by first rubbing himself all over with mud. Calculated and cruel, Phil possesses what we in the 21st century might describe as “toxic masculinity.” But in 1925, he seems like the embodiment of biblical evil.

It only gets worse when George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a lonely widow from the town over. By marrying Rose, George inherits Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Rose’s child from her previous marriage. And by marrying into George’s family, Rose and Peter, in turn, inherit the rage of Phil. The macho man can smell weakness from twelve miles away, and Rose and Peter’s helplessness sends him into a feeding frenzy. He decides to make their lives a living hell. 

There’s not much more to be said about “The Power of the Dog” without spoiling it — believe it or not, this movie has plot twists. But needless to say, Jane Campion is back. A psychodrama in Western clothing, “The Power of the Dog” tightens its grip so cool and deliberately, you don’t realize the traps Campion’s laid until she’s sprung them. The performances are uniformly excellent, with particular praise owed to Cumberbatch’s career-best work, sculpting Phil into a shockingly sympathetic villain. Kudos to Dunst for stealing multiple scenes — and to Kodi Smit-McPhee, who slyly steals the whole movie. What’s more, the cinematography by Ari Wegner frames the Montana landscape as both alluring and foreboding, while the score by Johnny Greenwood (yes, Johnny Greenwood from Radiohead) cannot be done justice by my hyperboles. And at the heart of it all is Campion, poking at how masculinity can function as both a weapon and a shield like she’s tending to a fire. 

Having lavished it with praise, I must admit that “The Power of the Dog” is still the slowest of slow burns. It’s two hours and you feel it, and until the first twist nearly halfway through, I found myself slipping in and out of boredom. But now, when I reflect on the film’s early moments, I’m left wondering what clues Campion left for us to find. Truthfully, I want to watch it again. 8/10

“Petite Maman”

Also screening as part of the Women in Cinema program is “Petite Maman,” French filmmaker Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” The film is available at the AMC River East and online; it’s also playing in the International Competition, the second time for Sciamma after “Portrait” won the Gold Hugo in 2019.

It is no longer a secret that Sciamma is one of the most gifted directors currently working in cinema. After “Portrait,” how could it be? Sciamma’s films are slow, but classical — her form is unparalleled, calling to mind one of her cinematic influences, Chantal Akerman. She is fascinated by young people, young women in particular, and her movies often interrogate issues of gender and sexuality. Most of all, Sciamma works in astounding subtleties. For example, I’ll never forget my first viewing of “Portrait” — during the ending, I could literally feel my heart sink into my stomach. I didn’t notice the dominoes Sciamma put in place until she’d already knocked them over.

After a movie as monumental as “Portrait,” it feels only right for Sciamma to go back to basics, so to speak, with “Petite Maman.” The film is about a little girl named Nelly, whose grandmother just passed away. Nelly’s mother, Marion, was already distant, but the death of Grandma makes them drift further apart. As they’re cleaning out Marion’s childhood home, the precocious eight-year-old wanders into the woods and discovers another little girl building a treehouse. By some unexplained magic, this girl is the eight-year-old version of Marion. 

A delicate portrait of mothers and daughters, “Petite Maman” is cute (and I don’t mean that as a pejorative). At only 72 minutes in length, the film is almost ephemeral — it feels like a daydream, or a lost childhood memory. The cinematography by Claire Mathon perfectly captures the colors of autumn, while the editing by Julien Lacheray makes the lean running time feel just right. It’s pleasant and well-made, but the nature of the story and Sciamma’s manner of telling it don’t lend themselves to lingering thoughts. The film is there, and then it’s gone. Still, I recommend “Petite Maman” for a sleepy Sunday afternoon, snugly wrapped in a blanket as you watch the leaves fall outside your window. 8/10

That’s all, folks! Check in again tomorrow for some more CIFF reviews, like Mike Mills’ “C’mon C’mon” starring Joaquin Phoenix.

I’ll see you at the movies!

This article was originally published on October 19, 2021 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.

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