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The Letterboxd Show 2.05: Isabel Sandoval
[clip of Punch-Drunk Love plays]
BARRY I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.
[clip of Punch-Drunk Love ends]
[The Letterboxd Show theme music Vampiros Dancoteque by Moniker fades in, plays alone, fades down]
SLIM Welcome to The Letterboxd Show, a podcast about movies from Letterboxed: the social network for film lovers. Each episode has Slim—that’s me—and Gemma are joined by a Letterboxd friend for a chat about their top four on Letterboxd. That’s the four movies they choose as their favorite films on their Letterboxd profile. We have links in the episode notes to the movies, lists and people we talk about. So you can follow along, adding those movies to your watchlists. And today, just back from Cannes, is writer, director, editor, actress and Letterboxd member, is Isabel Sandoval.
GEMMA Now, Isabel has just written a very thirsty essay for us about sensual cinema, which features a super horny script excerpt from her feature film Lingua Franca, which premiered at Venice Days, part of the Venice Film Festival in the before times, otherwise known as 2019. Isabel’s films also include Apparition and from earlier this year, the Miu Miu Women’s Tales #21, Shangri-La. Isabel four Letterboxd favorites are Hiroshima Mon Amour, Jeanne Dielman, In the Mood for Love and Punch-Drunk Love. Isabel has not reviewed any of these films on her Letterboxd profile. So she is here, with us, right now, on The Letterboxd Show to explain her choices.
SLIM I feel like I opened several episodes this season with admitting something very brave. So I’m going to do it again right now. I’m gonna admit something. I had to Google French New Wave after seeing Hiroshima Mon Amour. [Gemma laughs]
SLIM So thank you, Isabel. Listen, there’s gonna be people just like me that are listening, that are having their world opened up. What was your introduction to this style of filmmaking growing up? Like, how did you discover movies like this?
ISABEL It’s funny because I grew up, you know, I was born and raised in Philippines. And it’s not really, you know, like access to World Cinema and foreign films, is not easy, to put it mildly. And growing up, I remember one of my earliest childhood memories, was my mom took me to a movie palace. That’s what we called those movie theaters that were built before the war. And they were, you know, massive and enormous and quite ornate in the interior. Although I was born well after that. [Isabel chuckles] She took me to watch—when I was four—this comedy movie starring the Filipino Charlie Chaplin and his young kid. I don’t remember much about the movie itself. But I was just enthralled by, you know, this massive image being projected onto the screen. And that got me started with my love affair with cinema. And at that time, you know, I really only had access to like Filipino melodramas and the genre movies, like slapstick, slapstick movies and horror, and the few Hollywood, you know, blockbusters that would get shown there. So it wasn’t until college when, you know, interestingly enough that’s when piracy became rampant in the Philippines and in a lot of, you know, Asian countries that I remember the very first art house pirated DVD I saw being sold in the stalls, you know, in the streets in Cebu was Beware of the Holy Whore by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. [Isabel laughs]
GEMMA Whaaat? What an introduction!
ISABEL So after that, yeah, I saw, you know, pirated DVDs of films by Kurosawa, you know, Hitchcock. I remember seeing M by Fritz Lang. And that’s, you know, how I got introduced to the work of the masters and our international auteurs. And there was also you know, around that time, when Wong Kar-wai rose to prominence. You know, that was in the early nineties. He had Chungking Express. That was shortly followed by Happy Together, and of course in 2000 he had, what is considered his masterpiece, In the Mood for Love.
GEMMA Which we will get to.
GEMMA Got something stuck in my head now about sensual slapstick as a genre? [Gemma & Isabel laugh]
SLIM Did we just create that right now? [Slim & Gemma laugh]
GEMMA Back to Hiroshima Mon Amour. What film. This is my first Alain Resnais. I’m also going to be brave, Slim, and admit that.
SLIM Go ahead, please.
GEMMA It’s been on my watchlist for a long time. And it’s now ticked off the list thanks to you. What an extraordinary film. [music from Hiroshima Mon Amour plays]
ISABEL Yeah. And it’s interesting because, you know, when we think of French New Wave, you know, the names that come to mind are Truffaut, for instance, you know, The 400 Blows, and Godard with Breathless and, you know, the ’60s was a very prolific decade for him. And Alain Resnais is actually part of the left bank the French New Wave, in other words are characterized by maybe what we call a more austere, philosophical, informal approach, that’s a start opposite to kind of the freewheeling, very energetic, you know, frantic filmmaking of Godard, for instance. And what, you know, really impressed me about Hiroshima Mon Amour was how, you know, formally daring it was. And for a film that was made in 1959, you know, just how modern it felt in its approach to time and memory. And the one thing that I love most about this film is how the past, you know, seemingly blurs into the present. And that, you know, it doesn’t make any clear distinction of something that happens in the present time, versus a memory, and how when he achieves this through both visual and sound editing techniques. You know, of course, when the film opens, it is the storyline the film happens in Hiroshima. But over the course of the narrative, we are brought back to the events that happen in the small town that Emmanuelle Riva, you know, lived in when she was a teenager, and she has this affair with a German soldier and because of that, she becomes a pariah in her community, and she becomes ostracized. The death of her lover, and her ostracism, are traumatic events in her life. And how this film isn’t bearing in the sense that—and it might be considered inelegant and gauche in our current moment the how it juxtaposes her personal trauma. You know, losing her lover, which is so devastating and traumatic for her, versus the more collective historical trauma, the trauma of what happened in Hiroshima during the Second World War.
SLIM As I said, to start off the show, you know, I had to do some intense Googling after this, because my eyes were open to, you know, a different kind of filmmaking. I had seen In the Mood for Love this year, for the first time for my other podcast, 70mm. But this is kind of, everyone was saying, see In the Mood for Love, you know, blow your mind. So I don’t think I was ready to experience In the Mood for Love yet when I first saw it. So after I saw this movie, I wrote in my Letterboxd review, like this is my In the Mood for Love. I guess I was more prepared to experience this, you know, these two lovers, having this dialogue at the bar, and over the course of a day just talking about their previous life experiences and how painful it was with the backdrop of Hiroshima. I was blown away by this movie, like the photography is out of sight in this film. The relationship between the two leads were so real. You know, you feel that kind of draw between the architect of like, I don’t want to leave you, I want to spend more time with you. And it also touched upon the kind of free love nature that I feel like was more prevalent in this era. You know, they talked about how, you know, “I have a husband, I have a wife”, but that nature in this film just felt kind of normal, almost, where it was just kind of a thing that just happens.
ISABEL I admired it’s kind of moral restraint and avoidance of melodrama, in that sense. And these are, you know, two adults—two consenting adults—engaging. And because I also like films that, yeah, essentially just the void, dramatic cliches. And you know, there are many ways to tell this kind of story where essentially becomes a melodrama about adultery or infidelity. But Alain Resnais priorities thematically are very different. You know, it is a meditation, the passage of time and memory more than a comment on the public opinion and the morality of these characters.
GEMMA It is a massively beloved film across Letterboxd. And so Criterion Channel recently joined Letterboxd, which is very exciting for us. They are curating incredible lists on the daily which, I mean, that’s a brilliant HQ to follow today, in order to open up your filmmaking watchlists. They have a list called Questioning Love, and Hiroshima Mon Amour is on that. It’s on lots and lots of 90 minute or less lists. But you know, what’s interesting about that is, you know, people are looking for a sort of short hit, as opposed to Jeanne Dielman, which we’ll get to. It’s in Directors Visit Japan, it’s an Conversations on Film, Memory and Yearning, Socialism and leftism, as you pointed out, and a list of Atomic Weapons, and of course, it turns up on a bunch of Horny lists. So yeah, it is definitely a Letterboxd fave. I guess I want to ask about how it links to Lingua Franca. And, you know, going back to those beautiful, entwined limbs scenes that we get in the opening of the film. It feels really like a companion piece to your film.
ISABEL I think, you know, having also just rewatched Hiroshima Mon Amour recently and realizing now that besides, you know, the the shots of the intertwined limbs and the sensuousness of the imagery, it’s, you know, it opens with this French woman, essentially ruminating, you know, and the voice over in French, against a geography of Japan. In the same way, Lingua Franca opens with my character, Olivia, you know, speaking in San Juan against you know, juxtapose with images set in Coney Island. So typical, you know, typically American landscape, and it’s about kind of the foreigners perspective of this strange new country that she finds herself in. And it’s so interesting, because I also got that inspiration from a Chantal Akerman film, which is News From Home, but I’m realizing now that Renais also, you know, influenced me in that sense. And it’s fascinating how certain with films that have, you know, kind of been influential and north stars for an emerging and a budding filmmaker like myself, who is learning the language and the vocabulary of cinema like these formative films. For me, you know, the influence, unconsciously emerge, you know, in the work that I do eventually. And this is apparent in, yeah, even the opening passage of Hiroshima Mon Amour and Lingua Franca.
GEMMA Just as an aside, if you want to find out—and this is what this podcast is all about. If you want to find out how many fans of film here, you jump on Letterboxd. If you’re on the web, you look at the histogram, you know where the ratings graph. If you’re on the app, you tick the Watched By section and select the Fans tab. And this is a neat way to find out what other like minded film lovers on Letterboxd might also be watching. So it’s sort of a way to find other friends. So at this moment in time, Lingua Franca has a solid seventeen fans. So these are the people not who have rated it five stars, of which there are many, but who have added it to their four favorites. Of one of those people have a particularly love her review, she writes, “seeing a trans woman on screen make love is so, so, so important to me. Oh my god. I’m obsessed with Isabel Sandoval.’’
GEMMA And what’s interesting about that is their—it is very similar to other Letterboxd reviews of your film, which is that people are literally obsessed with you. How does that feel? [Slim & Isabel laugh]
ISABEL It’s so funny because like some of the Letterboxd members that comment on Lingua Franca treat it like a DM, like a direct message to me. [Gemma laughs] Like they’re talking to me through their Letterboxd reviews.
SLIM We should also call out that people that want to check out Lingua Franca can do so on Netflix, at least in the US. That’s how I watched it. You mentioned reviews for the movie as being a sort of a DM. But I always love to hear from filmmakers how they use Letterboxd for their own works. You know, how do you use Letterboxd to hear what people are saying about your movie, how do you treat it?
ISABEL I’m very grateful that a platform like Letterboxd exists, because you really get the sense of how cinephilia is still alive, you know, and very much thriving. And it’s not just limited to like, literature about cinema, it’s not just limited to the ones published by magazines, like Sight and Sound and Film Comment. And there are a lot of, you know, genuine, and, you know, hardcore film lovers that really take the time and really think through the films that they watch and experience and document. You know, that experience, that cinematic experience in their Letterboxd reviews, there are a handful of reviews about Lingua Franca that are, you know, quite lengthy and truly, you know, thoughtful and elegantly written that I feel it’s just as worthy of publication as the actual publisher views and for that, you know, it’s always a thrill and a joy to read Letterboxd reviews of not just my work, but other films, even though maybe they don’t like the film. Because you can see their thought process of how they engage with films, and how it’s both an intellectual and emotional experience for them.
GEMMA I also just want to say I’m a fan girl of the way you fan girl Letterboxd reviews. [Gemma & Slim laugh] It’s beautiful. The way you pick out the ones that are sort of like either horny hot takes or when you discover through a Letterboxd review that your genre is apparently sensual Neo-realism. Yeah, it’s hugely, it’s massively appreciated.
ISABEL Yeah, I feel like in this past six months, my Twitter account has become kind of like an indirect Criterion and Letterboxd stan account. [Gemma & Slim laugh]
GEMMA It’s time to move on to the second of your four favorites. There’s still sex in in. But I guess we’re moving away from the horny and sensual towards the transactional. This is Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles. Or, in English, Jeanne Dielman, 23, Commerce Quay 1080 Brussels. This is Chantal Akerman’s 1975 three-and-a-half-hour-long opus about a lonely widowed housewife played by Delphine Seyrig, who does her daily chores, takes care of her apartment where she lives with her teenage son and turns the occasional trick to make ends meet slowly. And there is no fast way to watch this film. Her ritualized daily routines begin to fall apart. Now this is sitting at a 4.2 out of five star average. Scott 708 fans, it is the sixth-highest-rated film by a female director on Letterboxd and it is on our All Time 250. And it is Akerman’s highest-rated and most popular movie. So why is it in your top four?
ISABEL Surely an all timer. You know, I love films that are a paradox, you know, that are a film of opposites. Like you see, on the surface, it seems quite quiet and observational, and, you know, leisurely and quite naturalistic, but underneath the surface, it’s a film about you know, that’s increasingly brutal, and suffocating and oppressive. And it’s about different kinds of tyrannies. The tyranny of domesticity. And it’s such a powerful feminist film without being preachy or didactic. And it makes its point simply by observing Jeanne Dielman, you know, over the course of three days, going about her daily rituals and her routine, and because it observes her within this, you know, habitat and within this space, you know, with such kind of detail, almost microscopic detail, we are forced to pay attention to the tiniest and seemingly most mundane gesture so that as you know, these moments and these rituals accumulate, you know, over the course of the three days, any minor disruption or deviation carries such monumental, dramatic weight.
GEMMA There was a brilliant review, Adam Kempenaar of Filmspotting wrote on Letterboxd, where he figures out that the second trick, she turns the second visitor, the second encounter with one of your clients is the inciting key to the ending. And I guess I must have, I don’t know, I was actually doing my laundry while I was watching it, because I thought that that would be—[Gemma & Slim laugh] immersive cinema, right? So I went back and remember that, yeah, he’s basically to blame for the potatoes being overcooked. And anyone who’s seen the film will understand what a monumental fuckup that was. [Gemma laughs] But it’s very, very hard to describe why committing to Jeanne Dielman fully is so important, isn’t it? When the basic synopsis is a woman just goes about her daily routine.
ISABEL And I think, you know, what’s even astounding about Akerman’s achievement here is that she made this when she was 25.
GEMMA Oh my god.
SLIM I couldn’t believe that when I saw that. I found that on Wiki, and then I watched an interview. She looked like she could be nineteen in the interview, I couldn’t believe she was so young when she made this movie. I was like blown away, just the status you have. I’m gonna make a three and a half hour movie about the suffocation of domesticity and she did. I was like, okay. [Gemma laughs]
ISABEL And you know, it’s made with kind of this seeming emotional distance of a documentarian, but also very impressive about this. And what’s truly radical about this is that, you know, she essentially made a film that just is about a woman going through her daily rituals. And to consider that worthy of cinematic document.
GEMMA I have to say, and for pandemic reasons, I am solo parenting for long stretches of time. And I felt so completely seen in so many of these scenes. I have, you know, I have to do this job, I have to get a five year old to school. So I have—and I and my coffee of choice is pour-over. So you know, there are many, many similarities. But honestly, if the coffee goes wrong in the morning, and is not quite enough time to make the lunchbox, something will get broken. There was a week two weeks ago where I smashed three different, you know, items of crockery and glassware. And it just, I watching these scenes, I felt—and this is, what, 1975, it feels like nothing has changed in so many ways about women’s daily existence. And as Akerman describes, the importance of ritual to bring peace and to lessen anxiety.
SLIM Obviously, I’ve never seen a movie like this before. And if anyone is—also I think all the movies we’re talking about, with the exception of Punch-Drunk Love—is on the Criterion Channel right now. And I’d never experienced a movie like this before. And some of the scenes that jumped out at me, were her conversations with her son, as he was going to bed. About, you know, walking in on his parents making love and then her reaction to some of the conversation where she said “making love as you call it is merely a detail.” [clip of Jeanne Dielman plays]
SLIM I thought some of those conversations were so crazy deep just from an insight into her thinking. And I think this is Mitchell, from Letterboxd’s, number-one movie of all time.
GEMMA Yes, it is. It is.
SLIM So I tweeted that like, you know, we’re talking about these movies. I got a few replies, people are like “Oh my god, you’re talking about this movie. I can’t wait.” There’s a ton of people that feel the same way. So it was an amazing experience watching this. So by all means.
GEMMA Let’s move from a film with incredibly sensual sex scenes to a film with extremely transactional sex scenes to a film with none whatsoever.
GEMMA But one of the sexiest films of all time. In the Mood for Love. This is number 36 of all time on Letterboxd. Wong Kar-wai’s most popular and highest-rated film, the number one film from the whole Hong Kong, China region on Letterboxd. Sits on a bunch of lists called Fills the Void, Soft & Slow, Loneliness in Neon Cities and many, many more. Anyway, it is it is hugely beloved and including by you. Tell us about In the Mood for Love and your love for it. [music from In the Mood for Love fades in]
ISABEL It’s funny because when you think about it on, you know, their very basic premise In the Mood for Love and Hiroshima Mon Amour, which is about elicit love affairs, you know, set in Asia in a period setting, could have ended up being the same movie. But because, again, the auteur behind the camera making the film they end up as you know, wildly different films. And what I love about In the Mood for Love, it’s similar, again, in a very, very rudimentary level, it’s similar to Jeanne Dielman in that it’s a movie of paradoxes. It’s a movie of opposites. It is about romantic repression, and a style that you would consider visually and musically extravagant, and maximalist. And it’s similar also to the style of [inaudible] in that sense, because, you know, his characters are also very emotionally repressed. But he, you know, he is very exuberant with the art direction, the saturated colors, the music, and I consider In the Mood for Love to be the pinnacle of sensuous cinema, I think in the 21st century. I think that is, that might be a bold statement to make.
SLIM Very bold. [Gemma laughs]
ISABEL But for me, you know, sensuousness is not necessarily about sex, or you know, or showing, you know, characters in a sexual encounter. It’s about kind of the—the energy, the sexual and erotic, sensuous energy, which is, at its highest and most powerful—let’s say just before orgasm. [Isabel & Gemma laugh] So the most sensuous films I would say are those that are, that engage in some kind of cinematic edging. [Slim & Gemma laugh]
GEMMA Now we’re getting somewhere!
ISABEL You know, usher the audience to the precipice of that, you know, sensual satisfaction, and just frustrated at the right moment to leave a lingering and haunting impression and impact, that will make this film unforgettable.
GEMMA I mean, without spoilers for anyone who still hasn’t seen In the Mood for Love that those last few scenes back in the building. Oh, my god! That’s like, yeah, that’s edging if I ever saw it.
SLIM When I first saw this movie, I think this past year. Also easily one of the most gorgeous movies I’ve ever seen.
SLIM The colors, everything pops. I think you can see anyone who talks about In the Mood for Love, they’ll post screenshots, you know, of the most gorgeous scenes in this movie. And I was about to reference a Tom Cruise movie because—[Slim laughs]
GEMMA Don’t do it!
SLIM I’m doing it anyway! I think he calls himself a ‘pleasure delayer’ in Vanilla Sky, but really visually, that’s what this movie does. It doesn’t incorporate any of that stuff. Even their spouses, their partners, are not shown at all in this movie. You know, obviously a very conscious decision. And you had said, I think on a piece that you had done for the Criterion—this is a spoiler, so if anyone has not seen this movie, maybe quick, fast forward. But “’if the lovers in these movies stayed together in the end, they would not be the classics that they are remembered for being now.” And I think that the delaying, the edging, right until the end, it pulls it back. And it just leaves you with that lasting memory of what was and what never could been.
ISABEL I think the best, you know, the most powerful sensuous films leave the audience with—the blue balls, so to speak. [Slim & Gemma & Isabel laugh] The sensual-cinema canon, is a canon of the one that got away.
SLIM Can we get that on the cover of the next Criterion release? Can we get that quote from you on like a little circle sticker on the bottom? [Gemma & Isabel laugh]
GEMMA Before we dive into your last film, which is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, I have a question about edging and touching. And that is—[Gemma chuckles]—you’ve just been in Cannes. Like a real life, real in-person film festival. And on Twitter, you posted a photo of you touching Tilda Swinton! Oh my god! Tell us everything. Have you showered yet?
ISABEL Oh my god. [Isabel laughs] Yes, Queen Tilda, who had three movies in Cannes, actually.
ISABEL Yeah, I’ve seen two of three films and I’d loved, you know, the two that I saw. I loved—
GEMMA That was not my question. That’s not my question. [Slim & Gemma & Isabel laugh]
ISABEL Unfortunately, I’ve washed—
GEMMA Oh, you have washed. Ahhh, man.
ISABEL I mean, I didn’t for three days, though. But, you know.
GEMMA It’s wonderful to hear that two of her three films have your stamp of approval. And can we also talk about, because you are also a provocateur of nun cinema. Benedetta. Let’s talk about our sweet boy Paul Verhoeven.
ISABEL Oh yes.
GEMMA Slim is praying right now.
SLIM I’m a huge Paul fan. I’ve only recently come into his later works. I just recently saw Elle. So what was the experience like seeing his new, his latest at Cannes?
ISABEL It was a hoot, you know, really. Benedetta. And especially coming from, you know, growing up in a country that’s terribly and neurotically Catholic. [Gemma laughs] You know, we’re used to a lot of films about religion, especially about Catholicism, that are very self serious and, you know, self important and somber. To Verhoeven, essentially, vandalized Catholicism, and, you know, gave it a campy treatment. And I thought that was also truly quite subversive, especially when it’s taking this story that’s based on actual historical events in Italy, and giving it a lighter campier spin and that, you know, Catholicism should not be taking itself seriously because if this was, you know, that story told with a straight face, it would really be about the abuses of the Catholic Church against, you know, women, and would be a lot more cruel and punishing.
SLIM I grew up also in the Catholic Church.
GEMMA Oh snap. [Slim laughs]
SLIM So I’m well aware of everything that goes on there. [Gemma laughs]
GEMMA How many Hail Marys are we saying after this?
SLIM Gotta go to confession after this episode. But one of your quotes, which I think will get a lot of people interested also in seeing this movie, I think was from a tweet, “why shouldn’t Catholicism get its own Showgirls?” [Gemma laughs] And that’s a great plug to see that movie.
SLIM Okay, yes, I need to see this movie right now.
ISABEL Yeah, yeah, IFC Films. [Slim laughs] Yeah. You can use that, just pay me. [Isabel laughs]
GEMMA I love that. I love it so much. And it’s a chance for me to just fangirl you once again and say that actually, in your sensual cinema essay for us, you’ve very generously given us the script for the gorgeous lovemaking scene. My personal favorite Lingua Franca scene was when Olivia and Trixie are sitting in church discussing what kind of husband they’re gonna find for Olivia next. It’s like, you’re gonna make sure it’s a handsome one. And I just had this—like, all of that, there’s just so much tied up in that one scene. First of all, you’re in church. So like, good, Filipina girls, you are, you know, continuing to recognize your faith in a foreign country. But you’re trans girls, you’re talking about, you know, illegal marriages to get to secure your green cards, and you’re talking about the fact that they need to be hot. You know, there’s a whole lot of brilliant sort of layers there that Paul Verhoeven would appreciate.
ISABEL Watching Benedetta inspired me to make a, you know, sequel to Lingua Franca where Trixie and I actually get ourselves to a nunnery. [Slim & Gemma laugh] Because we talk about it in that scene, remember?
GEMMA Yes, you do! You do! That’s genius. Oh my god. I love that. Alright, it is time. It is time for your fourth.
SLIM The big one.
GEMMA The big one. Your most favorite film. A film amongst the four films where—spoilers—the lovers actually get together. So you know, bringing it all back home. We’re beyond edging, we’re into the full romance of the thing. But not without some volatility, violence, social awkwardness. This is the Adam Sandler starring Punch-Drunk Love by Paul Thomas Anderson from 2002. It has a four out of five star average and it has a whopping 3,500 fans on Letterboxd, of which you are one.
ISABEL Wow. Punch-Drunk Love is truly just a testament to Paul Thomas Anderson’s virtuosity as an auteur. [music from Punch-Drunk Love fades in] And it’s, I think, a masterpiece in juggling a lot of tones and emotional registers. And because, in the hands of less talented filmmakers, a film like this would just seem disjointed, you know, and totally inconsistent, and schizophrenic, which is it kinda is. But Anderson is able to combine all these elements and still have one, you can say coherent, you know, emotionally coherent film. And this kind of juggling of different tones and moods, he does it in a number of elements, both within music by Jon Brion, You know, there are musical cues that are more kind of Golden Age of Hollywood, you know, romantic music, and there is something that sounds more electronic, you know, and more modern. And it’s also a testament to Adam Sandler’s work, that he also has to juggle that shifting emotional registers in the film. Where something that’s more kind of low key romantic to something that’s more kind of frazzled, and anxious, you know, which the Safdie brothers uses to great effect in Uncut Gems.
GEMMA Yes, yeah.
ISABEL This actually reminds me—and I might have said that in my Criterion Top Ten as well—this reminds me of The Apartment by Billy Wilder, and how very adroitly Billy Wilder also juggles between those discordant you know, tones in the film. There’s a passage halfway through the film, Shirley MacLaine, you know, tries to commit suicide, and it’s a very devastating, you know, moment. But, Billy Wilder, seamlessly introduces this kind of slapstick in a farcical energy into that scene. And so the end result is that the very seemingly incongruous, you know, playing off of these different emotional registers, ultimately makes the scene and the whole movie come off as melancholic. And that’s the same, I think, emotional destination that Paul Thomas Anderson takes us to.
SLIM I was talking to Isabel right before we started. And this is also one of my favorite movies, this is an instant five bagger, as I call it. But I have the Blu-ray of this from Criterion. And I also had, I think I bought The Apartment Blu-ray in the same purchase for both of these.
SLIM And I was working at a video store when I first saw this when this came out, I think in 2002. And I think this might be my first introduction to a kind of auteur experience watching this. This might have been my first PTA movie. And if you haven’t kind of been exposed to all of his movies, this could be like a really eye opening film. You talked about in your in your Criterion about how it’s intoxicating and very experimental. And this could have failed so largely with anyone else. But when you get a person with such skill, you just end up with something just completely magical and so rare, in my opinion, that you can get something like this, and it’s so fun to go back and celebrate.
GEMMA I have reservations. [Gemma laughs]
SLIM Excuse me? Excuse me, Gemma?
ISABEL Let’s hear them!
GEMMA How many Hail Marys—[Slim laughs]
SLIM Gemma’s also going to be in the confessional after this episode.
GEMMA I want to say this is a 2002 movie. If this was a 2021 movie, I think that there will be other people with reservations as well. Because I think that we’ve learned a lot about toxic masculinity and what it looks like. And I struggle with—I mean, everyone, everyone deserves love—I struggle with such a violent man being a romantic lead. I really, really struggle with it. And I recognize at the same time that this is a film from 2002. I recognize that he’s a character with a lot of sisters who are straight up abusive towards him, you know, they use slurs that undermine his masculinity at every point. But I accept that PTA pulls it off, ultimately, in that scene with Philip Seymour Hoffman. Where all of that toxic masculinity is dialed back at the pivotal moment.
SLIM It’s almost like it kind of has that, you know, when you put two magnets together. You know, they kind of like push each other apart, like that scene towards the end.
GEMMA Yeah—oh my god!
SLIM Where they’re both trying to use that masculinity against each other and it’s just, it doesn’t compute what’s happening in front of them and they both just go into their opposite directions.
GEMMA Yeah, yeah, sort of cancels out. And there’s also an element with Emily Watson’s character, and like, I adore her, I’ll watch her in anything including this. But there is an element of—and I know it’s a term we’re not supposed to use anymore—but an element of manic pixieness. In that, we don’t learn a lot about her. You know? We just learned that she really likes Adam Sandler’s character. And that’s apparently all we need to know. And again, you know, I forgive it for 2002. But I would say that for me, Paul Thomas Anderson peaked with the—Phantom Thread. [Slim laughs] I was about to say—[Gemma laughs]
GEMMA Slim, how many Hail Marys do I have to say based on my Punch-Drunk Love reservations?
SLIM Ten Our Fathers, 30 Hail Marys I think before the next episode. [Gemma laughs] We were you know, crunching the numbers. I think Gemma also has another stat, but your most popular review is for A New Leaf.
SLIM ‘Elaine May has a very particular—and very wry—comic sensibility. Hollywood doesn’t deserve her.’ So what is your elevator pitch for people that haven’t checked out this film yet off the top of your head?
ISABEL A New Leaf, you know, I think the most talented auteurs are the ones that create a very particular world, you know, and milieu in terms of its like tone, and sensibility and have the audacity and that command to kind of just draw us and pull us into their world. And pay attention to them as they tell the story the way that they want to tell it. That’s what I got from A New Leaf. It has a very, very distinct comic sensibility. And that’s true about, you know, all the directors that we consider auteurs. In that when you’re watching their film, you know you’re watching a film by this director. And it could be through a combination of, you know, visual cues on the surface. And of course, it’s not just that. But for example, with Wes Anderson, for instance. One frame, you know it’s a Wes Anderson film. And it’s the same way for instance, with Roy Andersson, who is also very visually oriented. And Aki Kaurismäki, who is a Scandinavian filmmaker as well. And, you know, like with Scorsese, for most of his films at least, there is kind of a thematic through line. That’s also something that I experienced. It’s like being drawn into the strange, idiosyncratic, comically virtuous world of Elaine May in A New Leaf.
GEMMA Let’s talk briefly about Filipino cinema, because I don’t know if you’ve caught up with the news that on our Halfway 2021 25 Highest-Rated Films of this year so far. The number-one and number-two films are both Filipino films.
ISABEL Okay, number one is Cleaners. Yes!
GEMMA Yes! By Glenn Barit. And number two is Ode to Nothing by Dwein Baltazar.
ISABEL Dwein Baltazar, yes.
GEMMA Yeah! So what have you got to say about that as a fellow Filipino filmmaker?
GEMMA You talked earlier about Philippines culture of being very Catholic and often quite morally repressed culture. What do you think that modern Filipino cinema is doing to bring about a new way of looking at Filipino life?
ISABEL What’s very exciting about these two films, you know, rating as high as they have this year so far is that both these films kind of stray from the typical aesthetic of arthouse Philippine cinema, in that—and I hate to use this term, like poverty porn, for instance. But, you know, Cleaners, from what I’ve seen and read, I’ve read is that it’s just, you know, formally very playful and quite dazzling. It’s truly experimental in terms, I think it’s just picking the color. And Ode to Nothing is also quite different. It’s very restrained and austere, but there’s also a comic sensibility running through it underneath and I would love to have, you know, more Filipino films that truly go against the grain of the established aesthetic of Philippine cinema, to get more audiences and to get seen more widely and recognized for that achievement that they have.
SLIM I think maybe to close out there’s one last topic that I had to ask, which is something that might be coming down the line from you soon. Tropical Gothic, which is described as having surreal elements that riffs on Hitchcock’s Vertigo, can you leave us with anything to whet our appetite for a future release?
ISABEL Yes, so Tropical Gothic is my fourth and most ambitious feature. I consider a Lingua Franca kind of a transitional film for me, in that it’s still rooted in some kind of social realism. But it’s also the film where I’m truly starting to find my voice and incorporating lyricism and poetry and sensuousness into my work. And with Tropical Gothic, I just take that to the extreme. [Gemma laughs] It’s about a—it’s set in the sixteenth century in the Philippines very early on during the Spanish colonial regime. It is an allegory about colonialism and imperialism. And so when the Spaniards arrived, they seize the property and the farmland from the natives. And so, Tropical Gothic is about this native Filipina priestess who pretends to be possessed by the spirit of her Spanish master’s then bride in order to psychologically manipulate him into giving back her farmland.
SLIM My god.
GEMMA Woah! [Slim laughs]
GEMMA I feel a Palme d’Or coming on. [Slim & Isabel laugh]
ISABEL And you know, kind of my logline for it is that it’s a vampire film without vampires.
SLIM Oh my god.
GEMMA Oh my god.
SLIM It’s already in my watchlist. So I’m sure it’s in most people’s watchlists on Letterboxd after listening.
GEMMA Is it—sensual slapstick adjacent? [Slim & Isabel laugh]
ISABEL Oh my god. It’s—surreal sensuousness. [Slim laughs]
[The Letterboxd Show theme music Vampiros Dancoteque by Moniker plays alone, fades out]
GEMMA Thanks so much for listening to The Letterboxd Show. And thanks to our guest this episode, Isabel Sandoval, for sharing her love of her favorite movies. Please read Isabel’s essay for us on sensual cinema. It features the whole horny section of script from her latest feature Lingua Franca. The link for the essay is in the show notes.
SLIM Don’t forget you can follow Gemma, Slim—that’s me—and our Letterboxd HQ page on Letterboxd using the links in our episode notes. Thanks to composing dynamos, Moniker for the theme music ‘Vampiros Dancoteque’. If you are enjoying the show and have guest ideas, be sure to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. The Letterbox Show is a TAPEDECK Production.
GEMMA And that’s it! We’ve edged right up to the end of the episode. [Slim laughs] We’ll leave you to sort yourselves out.
SLIM Oh my.
[The Letterboxd Show theme music Vampiros Dancoteque by Moniker plays alone, fades out]
[clip of Punch-Drunk Love plays]
BARRY [whispering] Healthy Choice and American Airlines got together for this promotion. If you buy any ten of Healthy Choice products, they will reward you 500 frequent-flyer miles with a special coupon. Up to 1,000 miles. So I think they’re trying to push their Teriyaki Chicken which is $1.79, but I went to the supermarket and I looked around and I saw that they had pudding, 25 cents a cup, comes in packages of four. But insanely, the barcodes are on the individual cups. So—a quarter a cup. Say you bought $2.50 worth. That’s worth 500 miles with a coupon, that’s 1,000 miles. It’s a marketing mistake but I’m taking advantage of it. If you were to spend $3,000, that would get you a million frequent-flyer miles. You would never have to pay for a ticket the rest of your life.
LENA So you bought all that pudding so that you can get frequent-flyer miles?
BARRY I know, yes.
LENA That’s insane.
[clip of Punch-Drunk Love ends]
[TAPEDECK bumper plays] This is a TAPEDECK podcast.