Adding to the complexity of the piece are interviews done with the stars themselves. About 20 minutes in, Dunye introduces herself by her real name, with other cast and crewmembers to follow. It’s unclear whether these are actual candid interviews with the actors, or if there is another layer of playacting on display, but the thoughts shared about the characters, the process of collaboration, and on sexuality and gender identity are interesting and articulate.
As the film stretches on, the elements begin to blend, and the drama steadily increases until we reach a shocking boiling point. Skye’s presence awakens old passions in Lily and suspicions in Iris, while MJ goes off the deep end as that dark secret begins to manifest heavily in her subconscious, and Carol withdraws into herself and her artier expressions. The characters become like unhinged molecules in a particularly unstable compound – all bouncing off and sticking to one another.
V.S. Brodie with Skyler Cooper
As we go on, the story begins to introduce tones that are downright Shakespearean – there are notes of Macbeth all over the final third of the movie, and the structure of the narrative scenes with five characters basically stuck in a house with the omnipresent threat of violence at hand. It also smacks of a Chekov play. Imagine The L Word through the lens of an obtuse Russian playwright, and you’re getting close.
This is almost certainly deliberate. Dunye is a canny writer, a fan of referencing familiar structures and styles, and no stranger to messing with her audience’s heads a bit. In her 1996 film, The Watermelon Woman, she created an entire fictional universe surrounding a historical figure (infamously footnoting the picture with a rather shocking revelation), and here, she is using the movie as a medium for her own brand of film criticism.
You’ll know by that last paragraph if this film is for you. There’s a whole lot of commentary on queer film, both literal – Dunye and company actually talking about trends in lesbian cinema – and metaphorical. The narrative itself is a twist on lofty literary source material.
As such, it’s a polarizing experience. You’ll either love or hate the jumpy, stylized approach. It may even take more than one viewing to get everything figured out completely.
Those who are down for a bit of challenging film viewing will find an incredibly original, thoughtful, and engaging experience. They’ll also find a tightly crafted piece of filmmaking – while decidedly “indie,” the production values are immaculate, and the film looks glossy and beautiful, as it depicts fading stars and the realities of aging. This is art house cinema for queer women.
Cheryl Dunye has further cemented her reputation as one of the most creative, unique filmmakers in the lesbian oeuvre, and while it’s not for everyone, her most recent work rightly deserves praise and attention.
Watch the trailer (contains some NSFW language) below:
For more information on screenings of The Owls visit the official website.