Philadelphia Film Festival: Red Rooms, Saltburn, and Fingernails

Philadelphia Film Festival: Red Rooms, Saltburn, and Fingernails

Red Rooms – dir. Pascal Plante

The scariest movie of the fest has to go to Red Rooms. No, it’s not a horror movie per se, but rather the type of soft-spoken thriller that works its way under your skin and takes up residence for a long time. The film tells of a young woman (Juliette Gariépy) and her obsession with a serial killer who is currently on trial. It’s a high-profile case, one which our protagonist, who moonlights as a model and online poker player, must camp outside the courthouse daily in order to get a seat. She strikes up a taut friendship with a fellow enthusiast (Laurie Babin), and as the days pass, the line between interest and obsession begins to blur, and it becomes clear that one or both women may have ulterior motives.

The film smartly uses the current true crime boom as the foundation of its thematic structure, making a strong comment on the ethical considerations of tragedy fueling entertainment. Plante employs a series of exceptional long takes within the courtroom, and gives the outside world a chilly atmosphere that mirrors what seems to be our protagonist’s loss of humanity. One particular moment, in which a slight head turn is coupled with a piece of bombastic score, is powerfully unsettling, rivaling the legendary “jump scare that isn’t a jump scare” from The Exorcist III.

Gariépy’s performance is one of quiet intensity and profound mystery, yet we never feel at such a distance from her that she becomes a cypher. Even so, as her character develops and we learn more of what motivates her obsession, a quietly shocking transformation occurs.

Saltburn – dir. Emerald Fennell

I still don’t know how to pronounce Barry Keoghan’s last name, but now that I’ve seen Saltburn, I could probably draw you his penis from memory. Emerald Fennell’s sophomore feature is about as horny as movies come, telling a tale of greed, jealousy, and class amidst the high-society of Oxford University. Keoghan plays Oliver Quick, a scholarship student whose station in life is well below that of Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). Nonetheless, a fast friendship is formed when the former does a small favor for the latter. Felix reciprocates by inviting Oliver to spend the holiday at his family’s gigantic estate — a place where, despite reeking of money, old and new, facilitates mistrust and performative kindnesses.

After taking home well-deserved Oscar gold for the script of Promising Young Woman, Fennell has capitalized on the opportunity in a big way. Her debut was a solid thriller with a lot on its mind, but her follow up feels unrestrained — mischevious in the best of ways. It’s a gnarlier, meatier movie, with grander thematic aspirations . So often a sophomore film from any auteur falls victim to excess. Such is not the case with Saltburn. This is a sharpening of Fennell’s storytelling skills in every way. The script is tighter, more focused; the direction delivers high art amidst the hedonistic delights; the performances are keyed to demented, but never inhuman heights.

And the lighting! My GOD. 

Supporting performances from Richard E. Grant (who delivers a signature “how DARE you”), Rosamund Pike, and Carey Mulligan elevate what could’ve been a simple two-hander into an effective ensemble piece. 

With films like this one, it’s easy to get so lost in the craft or in the novelty of seeing something so excessive and adult on screen that the story elements get a pass, but I’m confident that even as my rose-colored film festival goggles begin to fade, the entire package of Saltburn will hold strong. It’s worth noting that there’s one scene, you’ll know it when you see it, that made the entire theater squeal with perverted delight.

Fingernails – dir. Christos Nikou

In the near future it becomes possible through medical technology to quantify love. A delightfully retro-futuristic machine is developed which can test the fingernails of any couple and determine if they are indeed in love. Not “compatible,” mind you, but factually in love. What does that mean? Well, in a world where such a vague notion becomes scientific fact, it means a lot of things: couple who are seemingly in love but whi fail the test might go sour on one another. Or perhaps a couple that passes the test becomes so complacent in knowing their status that the magic of their love fades. Or maybe curious new couples can save a lot of time by cutting and running from a relationship that simply won’t work, or conversely, a happy couple, bolstered by a positive result, will fall even further in love.

It’s an interesting sci-fi concept, and it’s one that Fingernails milks for about 75% of its worth. In it we follow Anna (Jessie Buckley), a young woman who has tested positive alongside her long-time boyfriend (Jeremy Allen White). She takes a job at the love-testing facility where she begins training under the charming and mysterious Amir (Riz Ahmed). The two form a fast friendship, but perhaps there’s more between them than just platonic fondness. Perhaps it’s worth popping their fingernails into the machine. Buckley and Ahmed are exceptional together, with White’s understated nice guy serving as a sturdy and pitiable third side to this strange love triangle.

This unexpectedly romantic movie is obviously poking fun at online dating, compatibility tests, and the institution of marriage itself. Often funny, often touching, and occasionally emotionally complicated, Fingernails is clever in the ways it serves its many masters. Even so, it does feel a bit incomplete at times — the concept is so imaginative, but it feels like the filmmakers haven’t mined it to its fullest potential. But far be it from me to judge this movie against one that I made up in my mind. Its storytelling goals are indeed accomplished, but I do wish it aimed a touch higher. Fingernails ultimately lands in a boldly murky place, and that’s definitely by design. We are supposed to feel conflicted. We are supposed to feel as if things are not fully resolved. That’s life, so much of which cannot be quantified.

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