It’s that time of the year again, when we misplace Christmas by spreading it from August to December 25th, instead of starting it on Christmas Eve, and instead of a rundown of our favorite non-Die Hard Christmas movies (see Christmas Ornaments and Christmas Ornaments 2: The Deckoning) I thought we’d talk about that most Christmas-y of animals, the ass. You see, while you weren’t paying attention, Equus asinus was making its way back into our cinematic hearts: Donkeys, burros, mules and asses—I’ll be honest, I can’t really tell them apart—have figured prominently in four motion pictures released in the US in the past six months.
I think we’re about six months from Francis the Talking Mule getting a three-picture deal at Universal. And isn’t Gus about the only Disney property they haven’t redone with crappy CGI?
The Chinese may say 2023 is the Year of the Rabbit—I’m guessing it will be the Year of the Ass. Let’s read the breadcrumbs.
My Donkey, My Lover and I
My journey to awareness began with this slight, charming (and oh-so-French) film about a “young” schoolteacher who stalks her lover and his family through the French countryside on a walking tour made popular by Robert Louis Stevenson. I have a full review here, but the movie teases the donkey as a metaphor for our heroine’s troubles in life, while never losing sight of the fact that it’s really just a donkey. Recommended light fun, if you can take all the French.
Triangle of Sadness
Ruben Östlund, who directed the subtle, low-key Force Majeure is back with a vengeance with this (English-language) feature about a couple of influencers who win a trip on an exclusive boat full of very rich people. The cruise goes very, very bad, and this movie is the hands-down winner for “most excreta and vomitus in a 2022 movie” and a front-runner for the all-time record. Call it a high-falutin’ “Gilligan’s Island”, but this manages to make commentary on class and society without oversimplifying or delivering the usual bromides.
The “triangle of sadness” in question is what a photographer calls the area between the male influencer’s eyebrows going up his forehead. The movie itself isn’t sad in the emotional sense, though it’s certainly a commentary on the sad state of humanity.
The appearance of a burro, and the complete inability of the largely useless ultra-elite to grasp what that means, is pivotal to tipping the audience to the resolution of the plot. If you like satire and commentary on sexual and class relationships, the two-hours and twenty minutes of this actually roll by quickly.
The Banshees of Inisherin
I have trouble keeping the works of the McDonagh brothers apart, to be sure, and this one by Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, In Bruges) feels a lot like his brother John Michael’s Cavalry. (John Michael also did The Guard, which is closer in tone to what we were hoping for.) It’s 1923 and Pádraic has woken up one morning to find that his old friend Colm no longer wishes to speak to him. He feels so strongly about it, in fact, that he threatens to cut off a finger for every time Páddy talks to him.
Much like his brother’s Calvary, the sheer godlessness of this movie is striking. There is a priest, several scenes in a confessional, and big questions about the meaning of life and companionship, and somehow McDonagh makes it feel like Inisherin is rock hurtling through a cosmic, nihilistic void. Despair is only tempered by not the bleakest possible ending.
Páddy’s best friend (especially after Colm abandons him)? A donkey. A donkey with a taste for human fingers. (Or maybe it was a little pony. I wasn’t paying attention.) It’s a great movie, but it sure as hell ain’t a nice one.
Finally! Leave to Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski (whom I only know from the 1978 horror film The Shout, with Alan Bates) to push the humans to the background and make the donkey the star! Eo is reminiscent of Warhorse, though without the ponderous Spielbergian touch. The Kuleshov effect—where two images are juxtaposed to encourage the audience to project emotion on to the scene—is paramount in movies about animals (y’know, ’cause they can’t really act), and this movie is no exception.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
Surprise! GDT’s well-regarded remake of Pinocchio is completely ass free. Despite donkeys being prominent in the source material and every previous interpretation of it ever, del Toro opted to avoid these particular fantastic elements. Nonetheless, this is a worthwhile effort, and the best Pinocchio in 80 years. The music is not as catchy or memorable as Disney’s, of course, but the visualization manages to be highly and uniquely aesthetic without being the only reason for the film to exist.
There’s a lot of good here, so much so that when it misses, it kind of hurts. In particular, the movie has two major themes which it fails to develop. Early on, Geppetto is shown to be a religious man, building a crucifix for the local church when his son is killed. This gets resolved on Pinocchio’s first day of life and then never re-enters the story. It’s also an anti-fascist polemic—but GDT only seems to be able to view this in the most shallow “Italian fascism bad” (much like his previous movies’ “Spanish fascism bad”).
The traditional version of this story has Pinocchio disobeying his father (and society) by not going to school, and suffering as a result. GDT gives us a school dominated by fascist indoctrination—and then completely punts any sort of question of what it means to be obedient in a corrupt society.
Worst of all, it is completely ass-free.
In Summary: Asses
All four of these movies have been both critically and popularly well regarded, though none have made as much at the box office as The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent which to me makes Hollywood’s next play obvious: Nicolas Cage starring in a remake of Francis Goes To Washington.