Women laced into tightly wrought corsets; femme fatales shrouded in shadow; a precocious detective with a sharp wit. Each image evokes something particular, connects to a collective association with a specific genre. This association comes with preexisting knowledge, an awareness about what symmetries define that genre and what it means or represents as a category. This recognizability can be both helpful and detrimental, the latter happening when something gets too bogged down in tropes and conventions rather than its own narrative. It can be effective, however, when one uses genre innovatively, reforging and revitalizing it rather than relying on stagnancy and previous iterations. The following three films at the festival this year use their genres to enhance and brighten their narratives: Corsage (dir Marie Kreutzer), a period drama; Decision to Leave (dir Park Chan-wook), a neo-noir; and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (dir Rian Johnson), a whodunit mystery.
A glinting and spiteful drama, Corsage portrays the Austrian Empress, Elisabeth (Vicky Krieps) or Sissi, who has, in her later reign, become possessed by myriad frustrations, resentments, and impulses. She has an obsessive energy, fixated so exceptionally on her physical measurements and just how relentlessly tight she can lace her bodices. Corsage shows a Sissi who has retreated behind her dissatisfaction, having become ensnared by her position and approaching 40th birthday. She is ostentatious and electric and completely melancholic. This glimpse into her life is intentionally anachronistic when it comes to period-accurate details, merging biography and imagined moments, much like a less brazen sibling to Marie Antoinette (dir Sofia Coppola).
Aside from anachronisms, Corsage diverges the period drama in its specific and atypical concern with the unglamorous and unromantic details, the minute things about Sissi. It does not make the film feel any less epic, but it is a unique direction in a genre built upon the lavish and grand. Corsage is still very much those things when it comes to production design and costume direction, soaked in the stunning even when poking at trivialities. It is both a period spectacle and an intimately focused love letter to the Empress.
Decision to Leave is a magnetic, Hitchcockian narrative about an ace detective, Hae-joon (Park Hae-il), who becomes entangled with his investigative subject, a newly widowed though hardly-distraught-by-it woman, Seo-rae (Tang-wei). Hae-joon has recently discovered her husband murdered, yet she is mostly apathetic. She proves to be dangerously alluring and Hae-joon falls swiftly into her orbit.
Conventionally, neo-noirs involve morally questionable detectives, a sensuality often found in a femme fatale character, dramatic lighting and camera angles, and a narrative focused on a crime or conspiracy, typically related to a murder. Decision to Leave does indeed possess these qualities, but it contains multitudes more. The film is scopic, both a gritty, procedural neo-noir and a piercing look into love and madness. While characters Hae-joon and Seo-rae reflect their archetypes, the corrupted and corruptive, their story feels much more complex, more romantic somehow. Visually, the film diverts somewhat from the noir, being far more expansive in color and landscape, with obscenely stunning backdrops from ocean to forest. In lighting, the film is no less dramatic than a conventional noir, but there is more to it than creeping shadows and harsh portraits, there is the sun romantically bathing the screen and an expansive light.
Glass Onion is the energetic sequel to Knives Out, in which beloved detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) plunges into a new, eccentrically complex murder mystery. Glass Onion, with the same Agatha Christie-air, takes place within a Greecian mansion belonging to tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton), where he has invited quite a few guests. Among them are Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Cassandra Brand (Janelle Monae). There is, naturally, a riddle within a riddle for everyone to unravel.
Whodunit mysteries generally include major plot twists, viewers being provided with clues throughout the narrative, and hypothesizing by the detective. The most essential piece is the double narrative, in which one open narrative unravels in the present, while a secondary concealed narrative is progressively revealed. Glass Onion follows these conventions, but avoids becoming a tiresome or repetitive iteration. It brings the whodunit to the very present, set in early Covid-19 filled with Zoom calls and quarantines and masked characters. It is a shrewd mystery for the current age, hinging on the present rather than relying on an older air.
Corsage, Decision to Leave, and Glass Onion are each fantastic representations and renovations of their genres. All three are oh so lovely, truly wonderful films. We are absolutely thrilled to be screening them at the 58th Chicago International Film Festival this year. You can find more info about these films, their screenings, and the festival on the whole here.