In France, we have so many female directors that it’s almost illogical to wonder about sexism in the cinema industry – I said almost, but it’s not the main subject right now. Across the Atlantic, it’s another story. Sofia Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow, Catherine Hardwicke, Nora Ephron, Mira Nair, Nancy Meyers, Amy Heckerling, Julie Taymor and the Australian Jane Campion are quite alone, and yet, powerful. But Hollywood is more than ruled by male power, it’s mainly made by and for male audiences. A wide and bittersweet field of experimentations, American independent cinema is logically where things are happening. This year’s Academy Awards noticed Lisa Cholodenko’s The kids are all right and Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone in many categories. Both were absent from Best Director, one year after Kathryn Bigelow’s historic win. In any case, they were there to defend women’s place in independent cinema.
Despite her systematic collaboration with Catherine Keener – four movies together – and some other famous actresses such as Jennifer Aniston in Friends With Money, Nicole Holofcener is quite unknown. Just like Lisa Cholodenko, her breakthrough in the independent landscape was during the 90s – Walking and Talking, about two girl friends who struggle between married and single life in New York - and ever since, she has been slowly drawing her path. Lovely and Amazing, about two neurotic sisters, was quite a success, but it’s really Friends With Money, with Jennifer Aniston in one of her best performances –with The Good Girl, another indie movie – alongside Frances McDormand, Joan Cusack and of course, Catherine Keener, that made her well-established. It’s therefore even more surprising to see that her last film, Please Give, is directly released on DVD after being screened at the Berlin International Film Festival last year.
Taking place in New York city, Please Give follows a pleased couple – Catherine Kenner and Oliver Platt – who make good money by buying recently deceased people’s furniture and selling it in a trendy downtown store. In the same reasoning, they’re quietly and kindly waiting for their old neighbour to die in order to buy her apartment and enlarge their own. This cantankerous old woman is regularly visited by her two grand-daughters, a cynical cosmetologist (Amanda Peet) and a dutiful radiologist (Rebecca Hall). As soon as you’re talking about smart people in New York city, it seems inevitable to be compared to Woody Allen. Especially when Nicole Holofcener’s father produced some of his movies – she even worked as assistant on Hannah and her sisters – and directs Amanda Peet and Rebecca Hall, who both worked with Allen. Yet it would be too simplistic to be content with this obvious yet thin link.
If Woody Allen often explores bourgeoisie’s hysteria and neuroses, Nicole Holofcener is more interested in the lack of morality and landmark of people struggling with what seems to be some kind of modern happiness. It’s maybe less talkative, but surely as clever as Allen’s best stories. In the best case, Please Give’s characters are living for and by money – take more, gain more, live more – and in the worst, they’re just waiting for something to happen – one sister is stalking her ex’s girlfriend, the other looks lifeless, and their grandma is waiting for death in her living room. Everyone is capitalism’s victim, but no one seems to care about it, except Catherine Keener’s character who begins to feel guilty and paranoid when thinking of her job. This idealist woman – an echo of Keener’s characters in Lovely & Amazing and Friends With Money – achieves some moral crisis but eventually ends up like everyone else, forgetting about others in order to focus on her little family problems. It almost looks easier to resign for these people who seem to struggle with themselves, too busy to wonder about their entourage while their own life is a mess. Since Walking and Talking, money has been a constant theme, a social success index more problematic than fulfilling. Like an acid, gnawing at people’s lives, money has become an endless goal, just like perfect tanned skin or well-fitted clothes. Holofcener’s vision of relationships is once again subtly dark in portraying this ever more conformist society ; Friends With Money was a little bit rougher, but Please Give is another proof of her bittersweet writing.
Please Give, by Nicole Holofcener, with Catherine Kenner, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet, Sarah Steele, Thomas Ian Nicholas & Ann Guilbert, is now available on DVD in France, as La beauté du geste.