War and Peace (Voyna i Mir – 1966-7)

War and Peace

Cinema. Cinema, in all its forms is an unusual thing. Because what can you do with it? Bring images, captured from the real world or made from other sources, to the eyes. Bring sounds, made in studios or recorded on location, into the ears. You can cut the images together, or you can play a singular shot. A “film”, can be a short that is shown to friends or yourself, or it can be a spectacular Hollywood blockbuster with rip-roaring effects. Hell if you’re wild, you can do one of those 4-D experiences, which have 3-D spectacles as well as some activating some of the other senses, the spray of the sea with a mist of water or the smell of something in particular.

Or maybe, with the backing of an entire nation’s government, you use cinema to create an adaptation of what is considered one of the finest artistic and literary achievements in human history. And you do it in four parts. And you spare no expense. And it’s just under seven hours.

Sergei Bondarchuk did that with cinema.


When you have epic literature, and by extension epic cinema, the world becomes a different place. Main characters exist, but they exist in an encompassing world, a world which has multiple levels of orbit. Characters exist in multiple levels of strata, of layers of social status or decorum or class or gender or faith or in fact, all of them. Epic literature is not viewed from the ground, it is viewed from well…everywhere. War and Peace as a story, while it may not literally view the world from God’s eyes, certainly does its best to force you to surrender yourself to such an experience. The shift of the world and all its inhabitants, is one of great moments of voluminous experience, and the gradual unyielding shift of time slowly but surely moving on. War and Peace takes place over the scope of 10 years or so of Russian history in an extremely volatile period, that of the Napoleonic Wars. 7 hours doesn’t seem so big when you consider that amount of time to force into the frame of a film.

What catalyses in the brain of any reader or viewer of any true ‘Epic’, is the sheer scale, the sheer volume of what occurs. An epic may not need 10 years (Homer’s Iliad doesn’t take more than 55 days), but what is needed and what is conveyed, is a true sense of the story beyond any one individual. A story of people, not a person. Because life from the fixed perspective of any one person, can only see so far. So by far, the best and most breathtaking technique employed throughout the film, is scale. And Bondarchuk had an opportunity like no other. Thousands, thousands of extras fill up the space for miles on end, armies moving across the landscape like little blocks, seen from a commanders perspective. But the sheer volume of them is something unseen, something which I can only imagine being matched by the experience of modern-day stadiums of just physically seeing that many people. But those marching blocks soon are involved in the hideous, fascinating art of war. The seemingly endless bloody fields of soldiers, a number in the film so small in comparison to the real battles (At Borodino, 70,000 men died in a single day) is not only unrelenting, but they push you to see the war only as a force, like the wind. The merciless slaughters are only accentuated and revealed by time, never made better.

But the scale of the warfare is only half, albeit an unbelievable, colossal and deeply deeply overwhelming half. The nature of the story can only reach its fullest heights, when war is complemented by its intertwined sibling, peace. And the scale of peace is not something to be brushed aside in favour of the sticky blood spilled across the fields. For the world of this story, is operating under a grand sweep of time across its landscape on all its levels. The rich, vast halls of the aristocracy tower over the parts I & II, an environment for gods and giants to exist in, where every room is a chasm and a theatre simultaneously. Palatial estates are only complemented by the extravagant and unending decorations; the food, the clothes, the ornaments and chandeliers and furniture and more, endless endless arrays of the excesses of the well-to-do of history. The scale of their wealth is staggering, and overwhelms the senses. To really capture extravagance, there is nothing else to do besides show it, and Bondarchuk’s infinite reservoirs of it are a wonder to behold.

A story and a film which runs along the knife-edge of history, especially an aristocratic one, can only do so much for the poor underneath them. For most of history has been written for those above that level, and the voiceless left without a coin to wish upon in history’s fountain. But war, and peace, affect everyone. And the scenes where Pierre spins through Napoleon’s war-torn Moscow, encountering the masses, hold the same spiritual resonance they must do in the original story. For the only thing the poor truly possess in these times is held up as a valuable, dusty and grimed covered object; their spirit. For a story as grand as this, more than blood must be seen, we must look at the chamber that holds it. The heart.

And the film more than many I’ve ever seen, possesses such a wealth of spirit. The story itself is by far the baseline of all that resounding human experience, Pierre and Natasha and Andrei and everyone cascading through your mind and imagination. But also Bondarchuk’s cinematic spirit, is so fantastic to be a witness to. Although often the camera is convinced to play a scene straight, long shots for rooms and close-ups for important conversations, there is some beautiful cinematographic experimentation bursting through the edges of the story. Camera shots which run vertically forward across the battlefield, deep expressionistic smoke-filled backgrounds, completely absorbing you into the gun-powder hell of cannons and mud. A location jump through a transition through a rainy window says so much. One of the most dreamlike and quietly painful executions to ever fall into an image. The camera roves through the landscape, searching among the blown out ruins and palatial spaces picking up whatever it can find, occasionally finding time to ballet around its elements. Covered in blood, it dances.

What more can I ask of War and Peace? What more is there to get from a film? It charts a journey across time, love, war, peace, and everything in between which makes up the rich feast of life. It manages to capture most of the eternal human spirit, it shows us the most significant stories we encounter during a lifetime on Earth. And it does it with such a dizzying, magnificent spectacle of various elements. Of space in its vast expanses of world. Of riches and extravagances, or of poverty and the unyielding mud. The film’s hands pick up the gemstones and the soil alike, and hypnotises and absorbs you into the deeply reverential, deeply mythical, but ultimately deeply human world. And like life’s arching and winding course, it ebbs and flows along a current of events where varying degrees of fate and free will collide and intermingle with each other.

To do this with the mechanics of cinema, to use it to reveal the greatest highs and greatest lows that we can understand, not necessarily through any one particularly overpowering element, but a continual blend and mix, foundations building upon foundations, is cinema on a level that personally I have nothing but the deepest admiration, and reverence for. I could never commit to some of the inevitable brutalities of the film’s arduous and gruelling creation, but Bondarchuk’s sweep is a vast expanse which makes the world feel infinite, overflowing on all sides with the wealth of human lives, ugly or not. Stories and films can exist for infinite reasons, but I find it so brilliant that a film this tectonic, a film which pushes cinema to its absolute limits, really exists at all. It elevates cinema to the highest point of art, to reveal and reflect our understanding of the world, and to take us beyond it.

Truly, what more is there to say with cinema, than to take us on that journey? To make us part of their company, to make us walk through their halls in fine footwear, and walk in soldier’s boots through the mud into the abyss. To climb a mountain, step by step upwards and upwards as life begins to take on a greater and fuller meaning until the story itself ends, regardless of whether any of its characters continue to live and die. For it is cinema. And it is life. And in a rare moment, in this beautiful piece of art, they are the same.

-Alex

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P.S – This post will be updated in the future, once I take the time to watch the new Criterion Release with Janus Films, a 2K restoration of the entire project. It can be pre-ordered here, don’t hesitate to pick up a copy if you can!

 

War and Peace (Voyna i Mir – 1966-7)

Girlhood (2014)

Girlhood.jpg

Céline Sciamma made Girlhood in a recent, but rich tradition of French films concerned with the reality of life in some of France’s sharper corners. It was my experience with La Haine (1995, Dir. Matthieu Kassovitz) in a French class at age 11 which first exposed my mind to the soulful, harsh worlds of French estate or banlieue life. But that style for a long time, has only been fully understood from the world of those angry teen boys, hyper charged and pinballing off the concrete walls of an oppressive, bleak world. Any moments of real joy, you had to look over your shoulder, because it wasn’t going to last.

But life goes on. Céline Sciamma knows that the real journey, is not just in an explosive climax, but in the moments in between as well, the moments where the sun peaks through the grey cloud cover and manages, just for a second, to shine ever so brilliantly.


Cinema has always been able to transport us. To pick us up out of our lives and replant us somewhere else, for a fleeting breath in time.  And so is the story in Girlhood, which plants us in the company of Marieme (Karidja Touré), a 16-year-old girl on the cusp of becoming a woman, with all of the trappings and the preciously rare benefits of that transition. For the world that Marieme and her friends inhabit, is one which is spiky and filled with hard-edged falls. The concrete jungle is not just an environment, it is a maze to be navigated, filled with dead ends and dangerous obstacles to be overcome or at the very least to be sidestepped. Academia is unable to support her. The quietly punishing and grinding cleaning work is a path she does not want to walk, as she watches her mother walk quietly through empty office halls. But a life of crime has its own thorns to stick in her side as well, as she is forced to contend with her identity as a woman and the possibility of her being sexually objectified becomes a disadvantage to possess.

In short, and in long, life is tough. The journey which Marieme charts is one of fiction, but one which holds an uncomfortably close reflection of the atmosphere and choices available in a poorer environment in the city. If the poor have been voiceless throughout most of history, then Girlhood is a swing back at the narrative, as Marieme’s inner identity and external world take center stage, not in a way linked to the highest echelons of power, but in the real world and the real connections around her. She must slip between the hostile societal forces, omnipresent and invisible, and the hostile personal forces in her life, very real and very physical threats to her.

What propels the story forward, gently at first but with increasing urgency later, is her continuing to rise up underneath the weight of the world. Her conditions change like the tides, but she continues to ride the waves under the increasing stresses of life. And she refuses through stubborn persistence and self-respect, to be pushed under those waves and drown. Marieme finds moments of joy, moments of power, moments of love. And when each of those moments is undone by another moment of violence, of inequality, of pain, she absorbs it and continues to step forward. Uneasy, but definitely moving. And what is powerful about it, is that Sciamma’s direction does not engage in showing either of the moments gratuitously. There are no verbose speeches written about the power of friendship, and there are no extended sequences of replicating some of the brutal physical and mental violence Marieme endures at times. These forces are alluded to continually, in the looks friends give each other, the looks family give each other. Because meaning in this world is precious, and furthermore what is the point of intellectualising those feelings, when Marieme and her friends just want to feel them? The subtext churns under the sea of Marieme’s life, and its power to envelop your attention grows with each passing minute.

All of this is captured by Sciamma’s and Crystel Fournier’s camera, one which lets every scene breath for a couple of moments before it starts. The quiet, growing pace of the film can be a little low-key at the beginning, as Marieme segues through the environment we’ll become deeply acquainted with by the end of the film. But each scene, through these moments of silence and personal solitude, speak in a way which dialogue or more obvious/dramatic ways of staging might work. The drama in Marieme’s life comes from the world around her, not from the way she sees the events. There are no virtuoso flourishes of the camera, no distracting effects only there to induce sheer cinematic spectacle. But when the camera decides to synchronise with a moment of true resonance, such as the girls dancing to Rihanna’s “Shine Bright Like a Diamond”, it sinks you under the murky seas of the world to show you the incredible, beautiful and dangerous human circus going on underneath.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a lot of films I’ve seen like Girlhood, and that’s really refreshing for me. Different/original does not always equal good, but it would be foolish of me not to really accept or understand just how striking Girlhood is as a piece of art. To take a journey like Marieme’s, and show it to the world and have faith that it will resonate with people. For Marieme’s life is the life a lot of us would like to ignore, of a life which is slipping through the cracks of our supposed “civilised” societies. But the film is not an attack, it’s not a sharpened spear to cut through the bullshit like La Haine was, a volatile fireball thrown into the cinematic environment. Girlhood is something much more reflective, more soothing, and ultimately more hopeful. It is not a film driven by anger, but by love. Love, despite the sufferings of the world.

And that’s a beautiful message to wrap up in such a beautiful film.

– Alex

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Girlhood (2014)

The Handmaiden: Shifting Exotic Sands

The Handmaiden

WARNING: The following blog post, like the film itself deals with some very frank and explicit mature themes, sexual and non-sexual and please be noted of that before reading on.

There’s a saying about buses. You wait and wait for the bus which never arrives, and then suddenly two or three or all of them come at once. It’s not Shakespeare, but it constantly resurfaces in my mind. While I try to look at every film on its own terms, I find it humourous than in my life, I should have experienced two films concerned with lesbianism, BDSM themes, and the undercutting of audience expectations in such a short space of time, the first being The Duke Of Burgundy (2014, Dir. Peter Strickland) and now The Handmaiden (2017, Dir. Park Chan-Wook). Of course they’re not two sides of the same coin, but I find the parallel too relevant to pass up.

The Handmaiden is lots of things, most of them shrouded in shadows until they’re suddenly brought out into the light. Primarily, it’s an adaptation of the 2002 novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. Taken from its original setting in Victoria era England, it’s replanted in 1930’s colonial Korea under Japanese rule. It gains much from this, allowing the director to fuse his own culture into the film’s DNA, melding quite literally its English heritage and its Asiatic influence into every part of the film. Most prominently in the mansion which the characters inhabit for half of the film, as the English style manor, (which echoes the Manderley estate found in Rebecca (1940, Dir. Alfred Hitchcock)) literally has a Japanese inspired wing attached to its side. This, alongside with far more subtle and delicate introductions, shows how impressively a story can be transported across the artistic and cultural boundaries we might unconsciously draw when placing a work into a particular time, a particular history.

One thing The Handmaiden might be is not necessarily timeless, but certainly in that place where it becomes a lot harder to keep track of. It’s world is isolated, enclosed in itself. You could imagine months, years passing in its languid flow and barely noticing. It’s characters are so interested in each other, that everything else falls away beyond their own commitments and desires to each other, or against each other. It’s world is one of suffocating isolated beauty and cruelty in equal measures, like an alluring but poisonous flower.

Another thing The Handmaiden might be is profoundly intelligent, for better and for worse. I find it wryly amusing that in a blog whose name literally means truth, it should be so concerned with a film which is based on so many levels of intimate deception. But the genuine pleasure of watching (more on that later) the film is mainly involved in its careful intricate layers being revealed to you, as your expectations are constantly conned, the nature of the hustle like playing cards with someone using a stacked deck. You may feel cheated at times, furious you have been taken in so completely, but its a tribute to the film’s quiet entrancing power.

One thing The Handmaiden could be is incredibly sensitive, both in its eroticism and its handling of its themes. It’s world is muted and dreamy, and its’ two main inhabitants, the Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and the Handmaiden Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) find that fragile blooming of love in a nest of vipers, which Park Chan-Wook displays most intensely in moments small and large. In small moments, a delicate tooth filing while the Lady bathes (much weirder in text form than in the imagery) and in large moments, in intense erotically charged sex scenes. The scenes probably will provoke strong analysis’s  from those who love to politicise film and its makers, but I believe you’ll be hard pressed to discover more genuine and more sensitively crafted scenes of intimacy in film that are this uncovered and open. Furthermore while they’re arguably crafted in a voyeuristic way for the camera, this is integral to that key aspect of cinema, of watching without being seen, all of us Peeping Tom’s and voyeuristically taking part in their relationship, just as the men surrounding them try to do.

The thing The Handmaiden could be about is those power dynamics which take place in those hidden secret realms of men and women, those dark corners where perversions and desires grow in our hearts, which can turn them black and twist and distort those around us to places we don’t even let ourselves imagine, much less speak out loud to each other. It’s opulence, its exquisite surroundings, its beautiful landscapes and obsessively fetishised clothing hide such ugliness underneath, an ugliness which lies in the revelry of pain and the inflicting of it, on themselves or others. Those power dynamics of darkness twist round these characters, and its only through outmaneuvering the black hearts, not by appealing to their better nature that our main protagonists can allow themselves the freedom and the ability to allow something light to grow from their darkness. It’s power dynamics feel horribly real because good doesn’t triumph through its own virtue, it triumphs because it’s guarded, kept secret, kept hidden while its murderers are pitted against each other.

I can’t be completely sure about anything in The Handmaiden, it would be missing the point of the film. What I can say is Park Chan-Wook’s work is elaborately and intricately well crafted, it’s subject matter both emotionally and intellectually strong and twisting and at each level its style is unique and entrancing, even if it might not be to everyone’s taste. There’s a lot of truth in that, even if I can’t be 100% sure of it.

-Alex

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The Handmaiden: Shifting Exotic Sands

Lost In Translation – Translation Errors

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The first time I saw Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation (2003), it was after a 34 hour all nighter. Naturally, I fell asleep about 25 minutes in. But what I had seen during those hallucinatory minutes, drifting in and out of consciousness before falling into slumber, had been enough to enchant me, so that when I awoke, like a fairy tale, I immediately watched the film. Spellbound, it became one of my favourite films, a film of intense subtlety and desires.

Re-watching it again recently on a big screen, reminded me just why I loved it.

Lost In Translation, directed by Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides) stars Bill Murray as an ageing middle career actor, Bob Harris, arriving in Japan to shoot an advert for one Suntory Whiskey. Scarlett Johansson plays Charlotte, a recent graduate from Harvard married to a man she’s not sure about (one of my favourites, Giovanni Ribisi), while Bob’s marriage has arrived at a point in time where the functional has taken over completely. Both of them are alone, both of them in a country they find alien, both of them wanting intensely that they had someone who understands.

All of this becomes accentuated by a gorgeously shot Japan. Credit where credit’s due, Lance Accord cinematography presents a world both stunningly beautiful and incredibly jarring in its complexity and stylistic differences to the Western world. The rich vibrant colours of Japan feel tactile here, subtle but luxurious, and the visual presence of scenes is one of deep intensity, constantly pulling you into the world these characters are in.

One of the things that has been raised about the film is about its portrayal of the Japanese culture, how often it seems like it is played for cheap gags at the expense of the Japanese people, how their isolation relies largely on their inability to integrate or understand the Japanese way of life. Which is a deeply frustrating and misguided criticism, because it seems to stem from such a place of malice. Culture shock is a very real phenomena, and very rarely does one have the opportunity and experience and luck to be truly exposed to another culture in a way that someone who has lived it would understand. The Japan they experience is alien to them because it’s a completely different way of life, and the vast chasm of culture is bridged throughout the film, haphazardly and awkwardly, but bridged because they get out and see some of Japan, even if through the eyes of a foreigner.

Anyway, it is not the film’s primary concern to bridge that gap. The location becomes a character in the film because it helps to visually reinforce and explain the inner turmoil of the two lost characters. If that relies on a construction of misunderstanding and misinterpretation, then that’s precisely the aim and driving message behind the film. The translation errors are not just in the language, or the culture, they’re in the ways we lie to ourselves, lie to each other, warp things around us to help avoid some of the more painful burdens we carry. The film seems to carry a warmth for the land they’re in, and presents many facets of the Japanese way of living, from the traditional (Geisha sequence) to the new at the time (Pachinko Parlor, Arcades) to the isolated bubbles built up in every culture to avoid the homeland’s culture (the Hotel itself, which could be anywhere in the world). To suggest that it relies on making fun of the Japanese people is to miss the point entirely, something cruelly ironic in regards to this film.

Bill Murray is nothing short of a modern enigma, one of those actors who simply is employed time and time again over, simply for his persona but also his ability to act. Half of it seems to stem from being Bill Murray, the other half being his genuine astounding ability to fill the impressions of whatever role he’s in. He is Bob Harris in this film, never once are you plagued by that searing doubt mid film where you go “Oh, that’s Bill Murray playing someone”, he is consistent and constantly believable in an achingly painful role. Exactly the same can be said for Scarlett Johansson, at the time still a relative unknown. I’ve already waxed lyrical about its cinematography, but again the way the frame allows the characters room to breathe, to be mellow, to allow for those natural pauses in dialogue which makes it feel more intimate, more well real.

Finally of course, as all great films, its strength lies in its story. The writing is sincere, honest to the point of painful, as we see how relationships might really fall apart, even for those who live up in ivory towers of wealth and fame and fortune. How the dramas of life often unfold in those subdued, quiet longings rather than those great dramatic explosions we’re so used to. How those relationships we build drift slowly downstream, sometimes into a different current, pulling us away from what we were so sure about moments ago. How our inner worlds only barely peek through at the light on the surface, the attraction growing between them through snatched glances, despite everything surrounding them. It’s a dream, played out away from the reality of the consequences that follow it. The story beyond it is probably filled with pain, heartbreak, probably a messy divorce on both sides (who knows?) But in the moment, it’s a beginning, and it helps to keep in mind the beginnings that our main characters had before with their partners who they’re so dissatisfied with at the time of the story, and that while its painful to acknowledge that things aren’t right anymore, at least for Bob Harris and Charlotte, that’s because they’ve found something that is right.

But who knows, maybe that will get lost in translation too.

-Alex

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Lost In Translation – Translation Errors

Julieta – Melodrama, Not Mellow Women

julieta

Julieta is a deep return into a kind of cinema that has been in the shadows in recent years. It’s got such a deep focus on Julieta herself, her experience in the world and how she reacts to the trials of love, family and the pleasures and pain incurred by both, that it functions in a way I find quite resonant, and more importantly, quite antithetical to the current trend of plot driven, beat driven films. I’m also probably reasonably biased towards the film, because the women concerned in this film are such intimate and resonant portrayals of a kind of women I have had experiences of, being the son of a Portuguese woman, that I find it difficult to have anything other than admiration and affection for the characters in this film.

Julieta doesn’t actually have a villain, or an antagonist of any sorts, perhaps beyond the human condition. Perhaps you can argue Julieta’s depression is her demon, but it still feels rather fake to project that point. If anything, the thing I cannot get over is the ability for the film to feel real. It follows a tale of wholly personal stakes about a Spanish women named Julieta who falls in love, has a child, grows estranged from the child over the mourning of her lover who is caught in a storm, who would not have gone out if Julieta and he (Xoan) had not fought. The rest of the film concerns her looking for her daughter, but it all takes place in flashbacks, so the structure is akin to remembrance and memory, often accompanied by visuals of Julieta writing her story to her daughter.

The flashy point of the film, is where Julieta replaces Julieta, or rather, when Adriana Ugarte (Julieta), a limp melancholic depressive being dried off under a red towel by her daughter and her friend, is replaced by Emma Suaréz (Julieta) who transitions into the role. As a mechanic for showing the repitition and passing of time in a singular person, it’s oddly beautiful and muted. However the film takes an intimate perspective, never expanding beyond Julieta’s experience, never giving us that God’s Eye Perspective(TM) that filmmakers rely on so unconsciously, that ability to make the camera separate from the experience of any one individual character, to tell multiple stories concerning multiple people. Julieta, as per its title, is interested in Julieta. It’s a bold stylistic choice, which I’m sure is key to why its response was not overly celebratory, but it’s one that helps to give the film just the right tinge of personal experience.

Almodóvar has a strong reputation for making films about women, and I think the key thing is perhaps because he has such a strong affection and resounding love for  women and their viewpoints, he simply creates worlds where they are at the center, where their struggles might be sidelined or simply ignored in other narratives, become the full encompassing picture in these works. A strand of thematic DNA. I cannot speak more on this, since I have not seen much of his work. But Julieta fills such a breadth of images, mother, daughter, lover, wife, that the only word for really summing her up is Julieta itself.

Julieta just exudes passion. It’s rich and lush colours, its vibrant characters emoting a world, that of rural Spanish villages, of coastal hardships, of suburbanite living in the inner city. The film’s love affair with the world is channeled through Julieta’s relationships. And in fact, the sufferings that occur in her story of one’s of loving too much, of wanting to protect those near us, of the desperation to keep the one’s we love close to us, where we can see them. The emotional wounds are inflicted by people out of love, and its a sentiment that should be witnessed by others.

It’s easier to accept that hate comes from fear, but its harder to accept that love also comes from hope and fear combined, hate capturing a perverted hope which might wish upon those we dislike vicious and unkind things. But in a painfully honest scene where Julieta confronts Xoan over his amorous adventures with a friend of theirs, Ava, the seas churn under the storm. Xoan’s issue is he loves too much, and therefore cannot be faithful, whereas Julieta’s issue is his infidelity leads her to believe he cannot truly love her enough. A curious paradox, deftly handled.

And the development of it is rather poignant, because rather than a melodramatic caustic explosion, Julieta and Ava stay bonded,  even come closer together after Xoan’s passing. Because life doesn’t separate easily, and they are kept close by a bond they both shared, friendship. It’s not easy to accept that part of their lives, and they struggle with it, pushed down to the depths of the inner seas we carry around with us. The silence only brings more pain and heaviness to bear, but like all under the surface, it’s never known to those outside us until we bring it forth.

The acceptance of painful messy truths brings real melodrama to the film, because it is not contrived and more importantly, its earnest.The trials we may experience in our personal lives may not be much in comparison to the greater issues that consume our greater world, but the intimate burdens we carry with us only get heavier as time passes. This is why Julieta works, because the only true antagonist, when you strip away the layers of life, is the pleasures and pains we cause each other. I love Julieta because Julieta loves, and if this work comes across as messy or incoherent, remember its done from a place of passion and love.

-Alex

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Julieta – Melodrama, Not Mellow Women