The cold climes of a Scottish January means a retreat to the cinema is in short order – and, luckily, the cinema is only too happy to oblige with a range of interesting titles. The big release of the moment is Glass, M. Night Shyamalan’s conclusion to the surprise trilogy begun in his 2000 contemplative superhero deconstruction Unbreakable and continued in 2017’s horror-thriller Split – which was revealed to inhabit the same universe as the earlier film in its closing scene via a cameo by Bruce Willis’s protagonist David Dunn. Glass is a different beast to either film, a hard-to-pin-down oddity that has a wildly ambitious thematic destination in mind but takes a clumsy, circuitous route to get there. Its core ideas are often interesting, and there are moments of excellence in the acting and filmmaking, but Glass is, unfortunately and aptly, prone to falling apart.
The film opens shortly after the events of Split, with James McAvoy’s Kevin Wendell Crumb – a man whose Dissociative Identity Disorder has left him with twenty-four distinct personalities, one of which, known as ‘the Beast’, brings about a physical transformation which gives him enhanced durability and agility – still at large in Philadelphia. Willis’s Dunn, who has spent the last twenty years operating as a cloaked vigilante who has become a figure of urban legend and earned the nickname ‘the Overseer’, has taken it upon himself to track Crumb down and save his latest victims, a quartet of cheerleaders (an interjection of Split’s exploitation-movie undercurrents that feels out of place with this film’s more high-minded tone). He succeeds in doing so, but no sooner is he face to face with the man the public have dubbed ‘the Horde’ than they are both captured by police and imprisoned in a secure psychiatric facility, alongside Samuel L Jackson’s Elijah Price, aka ‘Mr Glass’, the osteogenesis imperfecta-suffering comic-book obsessive who served as Dunn’s mentor and the surprise villain in Unbreakable. All three men are placed under the care of Dr Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist who specialises in patients suffering from the delusion that they have superpowers, and who tries to persuade her charges that their apparent extraordinary abilities and deeds are the result of such delusions.
For much of the film, the central conflict is the push-pull between Staple and her patients as she tries to persuade them that everything ‘super’ about them can be rationalised away. However, as the audience has already seen evidence in the earlier films that these characters are exactly what they say they are, there is little tension or drama to be derived from this – leaving much of the middle act as an exercise in frustration. Despite theoretically being our protagonist, Dunn is barely in the film, and his feelings on his relationship with his now-adult son (Spencer Treat Clark), the off-screen death of his wife and the fact he has spent a good portion of his middle age as a superhero go almost completely unexplored. In fact, the film displays markedly little interest in the inner lives of any of its characters, reducing many of them – particularly Charlayne Woodard as Jackson’s mother, and Anya Taylor-Joy’s Split protagonist Casey Cooke – to vessels for ideas or plot points, often at the expense of coherent characterisation.
It feels as though, in his eagerness to get into his big ideas, Shyamalan was rather careless with the micro-details of character and story. Admittedly, said big ideas are genuinely interesting and, when the film finds ways to express them clearly, provide a glimpse of the fascinating film that could have been: in the film’s most thoughtful moments it zeroes in on the way people with great potential are stifled by a status quo fearful of change, and of the loneliness and self-doubt that so often afflict the gifted. There is also an underlying exploration, through several sub-plots, of the challenges of caring for someone isolated, in Byronic fashion, by what makes them exceptional (although this thread ends up taking one character’s arc to some rather misjudged places).
Nowhere is the frustrating disconnect between Glass’s engaging ideas and their clunky narrative expression more apparent than during the gonzo third act, which delivers a narrative left-turn for the ages the thematic substance behind which is intriguing, but which is dramatized in a dreary barrage of exposition that at once makes Shyamalan’s grand narrative more conventional and pointlessly confusing.
Shyamalan is never short on unique ideas in form and dialogue, and here is no exception as he cleverly manipulates space and colour inside the asylum, and writes engagingly quirky exchanges whenever characters are allowed to talk about something other than the plot. As in Split, McAvoy’s dazzling high-wire act performance can be relied on to spark proceedings to life, and once the titular villain takes centre stage, Jackson’s charisma dominates the screen – but none of it can quite lift the film out of the quagmire of its own convolution. Overall, Glass stands as the very definition of a noble failure.
Colette is a very different film to Glass – more grounded, obviously, but also less claustrophobic, more character-driven. It is also certainly a better one – more emotionally attuned to its characters, better structured, and with a clearer sense of the purpose of individual scenes. However, curiously, it left me with the same sense that what the film was about might be more interesting than how it was about it. The film is based on the true story of the titular Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, an iconic French novelist and performer of the early twentieth century. Played here by Keira Knightley, we first meet Colette living with her parents in Burgundy and engaged in a clandestine affair with bohemian family friend Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), a charismatic fixture of the decadent Parisian art scene and a literary institution under the name Willy. Colette and Willy wed and abscond to Paris, where Willy has a ‘factory’ of writers turning out lurid stories to be published under his name – and a litany of women he philanders with. Increasingly desperate for material and money, Willy suggests that Colette write a novel of the stories of her time at boarding school to be released under his name: the result is Claudine at School, which sparks a cultural phenomenon and a demand for more in the same vein. Embracing her creative impulse, Colette becomes more artistically, personally, and sexually liberated, and eventually demands to have her own name put to her work – which Willy is unwilling to grant.
Helmed by Still Alice co-director Wash Westmoreland (the film is dedicated to his late partner and co-director Richard Glatzer, who co-wrote the screenplay with Westmoreland and Rebecca Lenkiewicz), Colette succeeds best at giving a sense of the impact of its titular heroine’s rise on herself and the culture around her, and the cultural context in which she became a phenomenon. The film has fun with its montages showing the fashion trends and merchandising sprung up from the success of Claudine, and is smart on the hypocrisy of its male artistes, showing how Willy can set himself against the establishment in one breath and sneer that ‘feminine’ literature doesn’t sell in the next. Most refreshingly, Colette is casual and lacking in self-importance in addressing its title character’s bisexuality and her eventual close friend Mathilde de Morny’s (Denise Gough) gender non-conformity (The Danish Girl this ain’t), and many of the film’s best moments eschew the milieu’s expected stuffiness in favour of a distinctly European deadpan sexual frankness: it may not seem like much in the wake of The Favourite’s gleefully subversive queering of the period drama, but it’s still a pleasing break from tradition. Colette’s growing self-assurance is palpable, most clearly in Andrea Flesch’s increasingly androgynous costumes, and the film has a keen sense for the intensely personal, symbiotic relationship between author and creation, how Colette’s life both impacts and is impacted upon by the act of writing. In almost every frame, Knightley shines in a film carrying performance, one that sees her wring every ounce of hurt and fury out of a devastating third act monologue but who’s best moments are in little touches of physicality, like her increasingly swaggering gait as she goes from naïve muse to trail-blazing icon, striding through spaces with assurance. Dominic West makes Willy a decidedly human cad, exuding a verbose gregariousness that’s obviously an act, and playing his moments of exasperation as Colette’s justified anger with complete sincerity: he portrays a man convinced of his total understanding of everyone and yet completely blinkered to the reality of himself and his actions. As good as Colette is as a meditation on sexual politics and creativity and as a performance piece, however, it feels a little lacking as cinema. Westmoreland’s direction is just not quite there enough, never really taking advantage of framing or editing to express characterisation or theme – having actors in shot saying lines seems to be the main priority. The inexpressiveness of the filmmaking leaves the script with an unfortunate tendency to have characters state their emotional states out loud, telling what better direction could have more effectively shown. None of Westmoreland’s creative choices actively hurt the film, but it’s still hard not to wish that a film which celebrates its heroines boundary-pushing and lust for life had shown a little of such in its form – imagine this material in the hands of, say, Todd Haynes (who explored the nuances of non-conformity with such gorgeous attention to period and detail in Carol) or Lynne Ramsay (whose Morvern Callar explores the emancipation of a woman’s voice with transcendent grace and mordant wit) and Colette comes up a little short. Nonetheless, as a telling of its story and an exploration of the timely themes it raises, not to mention as a showcase for Knightley, Colette satisfies.