From one perspective, there's not a lot of action in Naama Kates' new film, Sorceress (she wrote, directed, and stars in it). Nina, an American young woman, is living with her aunt and uncle in Russia; we learn she's reckoning a family trauma — her mother's suicide. She works in a library where there seem to be no patrons except one young woman who becomes her lover. They talk of some things (in some very sweet scenes; what a treat to see two smart, engaged women just talking and, perhaps, falling in love!). Nina gives a concert — but that's the ending and you'll have to wait for that.
And yet that is the point. For it is here in the everyday drab, in the human hum of it all, that other forces are always lurking, making their presence felt. Our history, our memories, the stars, the cosmos: they all come to bear upon us — if we're receptive — threatening to undo our very identities, at once a liberation and a horror. What could be more dramatic?
This drama is played out in the very fabric of the film. There are very few locations — a claustrophobic apartment, like something out of Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love; a library with no patrons and one co-worker who loves Harry Potter; a friend-turned-lover's apartment; some empty, snow draped streets. In all the locales, there is a persistently muted tone, all these very quiet pinks, browns, and greys, which make the film almost seem black and white.
But then, as if from nowhere, the scene will suddenly shift to the night sky — a locale of a fundamentally different sort. Only it's not darkness we see. No, it's a night sky teeming with color, the screen suddenly ablaze with it — greens and blues and purples and millions of stars, some shooting. These shots are ecstatic, wondrous, abundant (every time these scenes happened, my heart started pounding). And we come to see the muted hues not as an absence of color but as a presence, the cosmic making itself felt in the everyday, the spectacular spectral vitality of life bleeding into a drab human world obsessed with Harry Potter.
And we see it in Kates' face. She has one of those great cinematic faces, somehow able to hold so many different feelings at once, like a millennial Gena Rowlands (I see Asia Argento, too, in Kates' face). And we are captivated (see her star in another great film, The 10 Commandments of Chloe, which I wrote about here). Throughout the film, the camera lingers on her face as she teeters between and among melancholy, introspection, desire, ecstasy, doubt, empowerment.
These are what the philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls affect shots. The hero close-ups of today's movie stars are not affective at all. They're too busy conveying the plot: we see Leo feeling happy or sad or determined. With Kates, we get something else entirely: we get the great complexity of life itself played across her face. Her face is cinema — multiple, engaging, exquisite, and always moving. It doesn't explain the plot to us; it confronts us with the world happening. If the color of the film plays out the presence of the past and the cosmos on the present, her face does the same thing: we see it move between this world and that, between the human and the cosmic — and occupy every space in between. It's extraordinary to witness.
Meanwhile, we hear her voiceover. But like Godard before her, the voiceover doesn't explain — not the plot or what she's feeling. If voiceover is a short cut directors use to say rather than show, Kates uses it to add layers of complexity. Rather than internal monologue, we hear her quote different passages from a book she's reading by the 16th century friar, poet, philosopher, mathematician, astrologer Giordano Bruno who, as the voiceover tells us, "was a master. A mystic...They killed him for speaking the truth, Momma says."
Throughout the movie, Nina has the TV on. We never see the TV but we hear it. The manufactured, controlled sound of the TV — itself a kind of specter — grounds her in this world, shuts down the ghosts of the past and the seething of the stars.
But then comes the astounding end of the film in which Nina gives a concert. And, as with the shots of the night sky, the screen suddenly goes rich with colors, with reds, with visual intensity. It's a kind of possession from somewhere else as we hear the words she sings: “What are you afraid of losing? Just myself." If the sound of TV is a false possession — all manufactured dreams, dreams without delirium, the maudlin crap of capitalism — her music delivers the delirium of the infinite. And so we witness Nina losing herself in the starry haunting beauty of it all — leaving her lover who is human-all-too-human with nothing left to do but look on with concern and horror, assuming Nina is insane. "It's important to learn all these infinite things," she tells us as at one point as the film cuts to her face, at once doubled and obscured, color haunting the frame.
This is one of those rare films that actually respects its audience. Perhaps Nina is insane. Or perhaps she really is frolicking with the stars. What's the difference? Sorceress never spoon feeds us the plot; characters never feel just one thing. Sorceress performs its subject matter as the film itself plays in this space between the human and the inhuman, between past and present, between the drab and the ecstatic. It's never just one or the other; it's always both/and. This is not a film that explains this movement. As the title declares, this film is itself sorceress, summoning the glorious, delirious, and infinite powers of a world that's always present whether we realize it or not. And isn't that the promise of cinema?