Monday, May 12, 2014

I Used to Be Darker: A Beautiful and Sad Song

There is a scene in Oliver Assayas’s debut film L'eau froide where its main character Gilles, a teenager in France during the Seventies, in a moment of rage starts slashing the interior of a bus. There is a similar scene at the beginning of Matt Porterfield’s I Used to Be Darker where in an Ocean City beach house, a young woman Taryn (Deragh Campbell), after being rejected by her boyfriend, grabs a knife and starts cutting a couple of nautical paintings, before running off with her friend (Adèle Exarchopoulos). This gesture can be seen as a metaphor - that of cutting into something and penetrating through surfaces - for a major thread throughout I Used to Be Darker as from start to finish it gets to the emotional core of the situations as it subtly captures its characters experiencing crises. 

Porterfield’s cinema, from Hamilton to I Used to Be Darker, seems closer to the intimacy and finesse of certain French films, like Maurice Pialat's À nos amours and Abdellatif Kechiche's La vie d'Adèle (two other coming of age stories about young women), more than it does to contemporary American ones. The people aren't treated like caricatures, the filmmaking isn't sensational, and the revelations aren't self-satisfying. For example in Putty Hill when Jenny (Sky Ferreira) returns to Baltimore for the funeral of a friend who died of a drug overdose it is her simple every day wandering that is the source for its mood of reflection and mourning, and the film's interspersed interviews feel less like a clever break of the fourth wall than it does an attempt to further get the characters to discuss their feelings. The script of I Used to Be Darker (which gets its title from an already resonant Bill Callahan song Jim Cain) by Porterfield and author Amy Belk, allows its characters in a naturalistic way to breathe everyday life into their performances while not seeming forced or predetermined. The cinematography by Jeremy Saulnier (who directed Blue Ruin) frames the scenes in long shots, which gives the actors a certain privacy, and there is a painterly attention to space, colors, light and shadows. 

I Used to Be Darker has a Faulkner-like atmosphere of the acceptance of things and of melancholy. Taryn, a Northern Irish runaway who is now pregnant, catches a bus to Baltimore to stay with her aunt Kim (Kim Taylor) who, as it turns out, is breaking up with her husband Bill (Ned Oldham). The couple are musicians (like the actors are in real life) but Bill had to sacrifice that career for an office job to support his family. Taryn at first stays with Bill, who has a more luxurious house, and she catches up and starts a routine with her cousin Abby (Hannah Gross). The two of them have a great chemistry and dynamic between each other.

The characters express depth and their history through intimate moments. Kim is weary from being estranged from her daughter and this sadness comes out in her music. Bill carries the weight of a divorcé as he tries to manage everything else in his life. Taryn is trying to figure out what she should do about her baby and how to get back together with her parents. While Hannah is an emerging actress whose grace and naturalness is best illustrated in a scene where she recites a soliloquy from Hamlet.

Porterfield is breath of fresh air in the American independent fiction film landscape, perhaps along with Kelly Reichardt and the Ross brothers, in that their films are deeply rooted in a classic Americana that recalls in spirit the literature of Mark Twain, the philosophy of Henry David Thoreau, and the illustrations of Norman Rockwell. The films of Porterfield are set in Baltimore and the specificity of the city is fully explored from its streets, different communities, bars, and so on. There is an old-fashion quality to the city and this comes across through its social texture and the lifestyle of its residents. In these films the quotidian becomes poetic. In I Used to Be Darker the characters also reflect on their experiences through their artistic practices – songwriting for Kim and Bill, acting for Abby – and by what they do. 

In a great scene, on a pit stop during a drive back home after a rock concert, Taryn and Kim's younger boyfriend sneak off into an abandoned tramway. The shot is dark with some streetlight coming through. The two, who are a little drunk and who have been flirting, gently kiss. Kim then calls them back from the van. The two of them return and after that nothing else happens between them. Taryn is pregnant and needs to reunite with her parents. This momentary burst of a naive joy, where inner passions can be pursued in a mysterious little place, doesn’t last. I Used to Be Darker is a beautiful and sad song.

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