Chiara Malta’s feature film debut is defined by two key approaches: a meta-theatrical look at a film lover’s greatest dream and worst nightmare as well as a study of female friendship, idolatry, and collaboration. Federica (Jasmine Trinca) has always been obsessed with cinema, notably with Hal Hartley’s 1992 film Simple Men and the opposing dynamism of its central pairing. More notably it is the film that sparked her obsession with Romanian actress Elina Lowensohn. One day, she runs into Elina (playing herself) on the street. After a leisurely ice cream and chat, Elina offers the opportunity for Frederica to make a film about Elina’s life and career – with her lifelong idol essentially playing herself. It is an opportunity too good to pass up, but of course not all goes to plan.
If Trinca’s Federica is a portrait of an artist as a young woman, this artistry is impassioned without grace and ambitious without focus. Trinca’s performance captures Federica’s rich dualities as her overwhelming love of the movies – and Elina – collide with the eventual self-doubt of creation and realisation that her idol is only human. Lowensohn, on the other hand, relishes playing a fabulous yet unflattering version of herself
Federica’s epilepsy, which begins in the childhood opening section, reoccurs as narrative shorthand for the blurred boundaries between art and reality. Using illness as a shorthand for genius is an unfortunately tired trope – in one moment, Federica’s doctor lists out other famous artists who suffered seizures – and the film does not interrogate the link between illness and genius so common in the public imagination. That said, Simple Women has enough awareness around the multifaceted psychological and social sides of creativity – from the early dreams to the slogs of shoots – to explore the blurred identities and shifting sense of self when faced with putting an intensely personal project to film. Part of this sense comes from a wry, self-aware tone, and part comes from genuine empathy for Federica and Elina.
The mundane conversations between Federica and Elina provide the film’s most exciting moments and allow Malta to subtly highlight the power balance shifts in their relationship. This subtlety raises the stakes without veering into melodrama. Simple Women is inherently meta-theatrical – right up to its delightful final shot. If the conceit of the film were not so explicitly signposted, it might have run tiresome; as it is, it is just the right side of indulgent. It centres itself in a European film tradition with vaguely French New Wave aesthetics and an energetic, eclectic score that enhances this sense of creative drive and wonder. However, a few key comedic lines place the film firmly in the twenty-first century’s Marvel-dominated landscape – and when ‘you can’t say no to a Marvel film’, the absurdity of the business is just on the right side of cynical.
This is a film made about, by, and for those who love cinema. It does not always provide commentary behind the artistic process, but those who seek it out will be rewarded. ‘All directors are a little confused on set’ Elina tells Federica during a very stressed pre-shoot. Simple Women makes it clear that Malta’s style and vision were not confused – at least no more than the normal director. This promising debut – by turns cheeky, sincere, and self-aware enough to know where art and artist end – is a notable addition to Glasgow Film Festival’s Femspectives Strand. Malta’s next film should be eagerly awaited.
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie