Moving Pictures
Apr 24, 2024, 06:29AM

Snakes and Apes

Two new foreign films out now in Baltimore, La Chimera and The Beast.

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In Baltimore, there aren’t often two new foreign films worth checking out. Nothing to do with the pandemic: in the 22 years I’ve lived here, Baltimore has always gotten passed over, pushed back, and delayed, whether it’s belated movie openings or bands that rarely (if ever) perform here. “Baltimore band” Animal Collective has played here maybe half a dozen times in the last 15 years, but who’s counting? Xiu Xiu and Deerhoof are our West Coast cheerleaders. They play the Metro Gallery and/or the Ottobar every year, never giving Washington DC clearance over us. But there are no endearing examples in film, where distribution is more complicated than mapping out a van tour of the United States. New York and Los Angeles still get everything first, with Chicago, DC, Boston, and a Texas town or two coming second; we never know what “the year in film” looks like until the following summer.

Across the street from the Metro Gallery, the Charles Theater is currently showing La Chimera by Alice Rohrwacher, and The Beast by Bertrand Bonello—the former premiered at Cannes 2023, and the latter at Venice a few months later. Josh O’Connor stars as Arthur in La Chimera, a sun-kissed 1980s period piece set in Tuscany. Arthur’s a visiting Englishman, grumpy from the start: in the midst of silently flirting with a pair of female seat mates on the train, he loses his temper with a vendor, nearly getting kicked off. The girls leave, scared and unimpressed.

Arthur’s an archaeologist involved in a syndicate of thieves and grave robbers—Isabella Rossellini is their matron—and in the end, he and his buddies retrieve one of these Etruscan artifacts from an auction in progress. He takes the head of a statue and throws it into the ocean, whispering to it what a mystic warned him: “You are not meant for human eyes.” It’s a beautiful scene, and O’Connor gives a fantastic performance, one recalling trans-Europe stars like Jean Louis Trintignant, Alain Delon, and Jean Claude Brialy. It’s a far cry from the half dozen trailers for Challengers that have been playing for eight months, where he’s paired against another craggy-faced young actor named Mike Faist. They look like Australopithecus next to Zendaya, and sound lame as Americans.

Who knew he was English? O’Connor’s performance in La Chimera is a breakthrough in my mind for the millennial actor; his English peer George MacKay got his big break a few years ago in Sam Mendes’ 1917, and now he’s co-starring alongside Léa Seydoux in The Beast. Despite convincing French, English, and American accents, MacKay has a fish’s face, suspicious, distrustful, and weak; his lookalike Harris Dickinson (Triangle of Sadness, The Iron Claw) has the face of a leading man, different but similar enough to MacKay to illustrate the difference between a lead and a type, a character actor. MacKay doesn’t entirely work in The Beast, especially when he turns out to be a robot at the end. It’s really not so shocking—this is the kind of guy you cast in concentration camps, in jails.

Bonello’s film is colder and much scarier than Rohrwacher’s earthy cautionary tale; in The Beast, Seydoux and MacKay travel between their past lives while cleansing their DNA in the year 2044. Two other periods are visited: 1910 and 2014. References to “the catastrophic events of 2025” are made, but The Beast never gets into its dystopian specifics besides some exposition at the beginning; for the most part, we’re watching Seydoux search for MacKay and occasionally vice-versa, but their visits in these particular time periods are bloated and intentionally repetitive, with scenes “backing up” using coverage and different camera angles, and eventually repeating shots, just to make a home invasion all the more tense.

Both of these films are reckoning with some kind of God. Rohrwacher’s La Chimera is a gem, a film that’s only grown brighter since I saw it last Tuesday. The Beast may be more relevant, looking forward over spelunking, but ultimately it doesn’t have much to say about artificial intelligence, cyborgs, the internet, mass media, or conglomerations that isn’t old news. Whatever it is, it’s frozen shut; La Chimera may just be a cinematic quarry.

—Follow Nicky Otis Smith on Twitter and Instagram: @nickyotissmith


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