Toronto Film Festival: Todd Solondz's Dark Horse and What it Says About Contemporary Jewish Angst
Selma Blair and Jordan Gelber in Dark Horse
"We're Jews, and Jews we shall always be."
So a main character warns of the us-vs-them difference that would define the first half of the 20th century, in A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg's period piece triangulating the Oedipal relationship between Sigmund Freud, (Viggo Mortenson), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and the latter's young patient-turned-mistress Sabine (Kiera Knightley). That film screened last week at the Venice Film Festival but has not premiered yet in Toronto, and while embargo prevents me from publishing a full review at this moment, I bring it up because the line could double as an unspoken thesis of another film on the Venice/Toronto circuit, Todd Solondz's Dark Horse.
It seems notable that it's Cronenberg's unsubtle but terrifically entertaining film -- a comedy of sexual and psychological confusion which fractures into a sincerely sad romance shrouded in heavy-handed foreshadowing -- that exploits the audience's knowledge of the fate of Jews at the hands of Aryans for the purpose of narrative weight, while Solondz's strange, almost flippantly psychographic Dark Horse rises to the Jungian challenge of dismantling the Jewish collective unconscious.
Dark Horse stars newcomer Jordan Gelber as Abe, a fat nearly-40-something who lives with his parents and works for his dad (Christopher Walken). Terminally uncool, he wears horrible novelty t-shirts and drives a yellow Hummer; socially inept, he alternates between suspiciously easy-going politeness, and petulant rage. "We're all horrible people," he mopes to mom Mia Farrow, while on the downswing. "Humanity is a horrible cesspool." He invents a romance between himself and a beautiful, over-medicated depressive, Miranda (Selma Blair), and in a scene emblematic of his apparent lack of self-awareness, he proposes marriage. Shockingly, she accepts.
Not that Miranda -- who was initially written as an aged version of her Vi from Solondz's 2001 film Storytelling -- isn't suspicious of Abe's enthusiasm. "You're not being ironic," she asks. "Or doing performance art or something?" It's Solondz's tacit ackowlegement that nearly each of his scripted lines has more than one available read -- his screenplays are gleefully-built houses of cards, in which slippery language contains constantly shifting moral centers and notions of "real."
Puncturing cinema's romantic treatment of "outsiders" is another Solondz specialty, and in its early going, Dark Horse seems to tread familiar ground; in the first scene, "normal" people break into choreographed dance as if spontaneously while "freaks" look on in a combination of disdain and envy. But Solondz's early stylistic flourishes and information drops are re-scrambled by plot convolutions that deliberately confuse fantasy and reality beyond meaningful distinction.
Much like Solondz's last effort, Life During Wartime (the quasi-sequel to his late-90s "hit" Happiness), Dark Horse takes most of its running time to gradually comes into focus as a film about the contemporary Jewish-American experience. As in Wartime, here Israel is represented as a constant but flat specter in its characters' lives via wall art; but where Wartime's characters often speak to and of their distinctly Jewish angst (and particularly, the brand of post 9/11 anxiety special to Americans with ties to Israel), Dark Horse's act it out.
In one sense, they're more free to: while Wartime's Florida setting was intended as a marker of its characters' self-designed alienation from the world around them and particularly America's role in international conflicts (in an interview at the time of that film's release, the director described South Florida as "a mythical place where you can go tabula rasa, recreate a life and erase the past"), Dark Horse take place in a location even further divorced from reality: Abe's mind.
It's a terrain cluttered with demons, in the form of feel-bad consumerism, fear of Muslims, sexual neuroses, hypochondria, paternal expectations, sibling competition (Abe's brother is an attractive doctor -- "marriage material" in every way that Abe is not), and -- most potently -- relationships with mother figures that are both stifling and seductive.
If A Dangerous Method is an elegantly made film that trips over itself only when dealing with the question of what Jewishness has to do with difference, Dark Horse is a comparative mess -- the narrative folds in on itself constantly, its precarious structure hinged on the hoariest of melodramatic cliches -- but the discursiveness of its dismantling of identity and otherness is graceful.
"Graceful" is not a word often associated with Solondz. Times have changed: In Storytelling, Solondz famously placed a geometric shape on screen as a fuck you to the MPAA in lieu of editing a graphic sex scene between Blair and Robert Wisdom; here, in what may be nothing more than an in joke pointing back to that decade-old "scandal," he uses post-effects to obscure the logo on a big box store. Has Solondz lost his edge -- or just seemingly lost the compulsion to funnel his explorations of the human capacity for delusion through an attention-grabbing gimmick? Dark Horse is a film about self-loathing, solipsism and self-sabotage which -- fittingly -- is structurally withholding, circling around itself and burying its own lede, refusing to broadcast its own daring. For Solondz, that's a new frontier.