Luce (Julius Onah, 2019)

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domino harvey
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Re: The Films of 2019

#1 Post by domino harvey » Thu Jan 31, 2019 7:34 pm

Neon bought Luce, which generated a lot of interesting reactions at Sundance to its ambiguous answers regarding the race-related questions it addresses

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Never Cursed
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Luce (Julius Onah, 2019)

#2 Post by Never Cursed » Sat Aug 10, 2019 11:58 pm

Luce is a total mess of a movie, one that squanders a million interesting ideas and loaded bits of imagery on a central narrative so nebulous and imprecise that anything could be read into it. The movie's answers to its central race-related questions aren't "ambiguous" so much as nonexistent - the movie never defines any of its terms or makes any sort of a statement regarding the numerous questions it raises. Oftentimes the movie doesn't even accurately represent these issues.
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For instance, the early namedrop of Frantz Fanon in the writing of the titular character is a heady and potentially interesting one, given Luce's origins (he was plucked from a war-torn African state at the age of 7 and subjected to many years of therapy in an attempt to heal the traumas he endured as a child soldier) and some of the film's later, more America-critical statements, but the film never meaningfully connects any of these things, and Fanon is quite bewilderingly written off (by a character presented as an authoritative intellectual, no less) as a violent and simplistic radical. Speaking of Luce, he is hardly afforded any character in a film ostensibly about him and his views - he is a perfect cipher whose opinions on these issues we never hear, subtracting any trace of motivation from a series of character actions that already don't make sense given what we are presented. For those that have seen the movie, what did he intend to do with the fireworks (the one prop that the film's drama revolves around) before Octavia Spencer's character found them? Why did he break up with his girlfriend, only to reconcile (off-camera) with her at the end? What do any one of his manipulative actions have to do with any of the others? This movie does not function on the level of something like To Sleep With Anger, where the central character's motivations are deliberately withheld as part of the movie's structure and message; Luce (and by extension Luce) is just opaque and unreadable and ultimately empty.
It is all too telling that the two top-billed actors in this are publicly promoting the idea that the perceived message of the film will vary wildly from watcher to watcher (spoilers in that link), because I genuinely think that Luce is saying nothing in trying to reach for that ambiguity.

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Re: Luce (Julius Onah, 2019)

#3 Post by mfunk9786 » Sun Sep 15, 2019 2:15 am

I went into this completely blind today and walked away stunned by it. Onah, who I had no familiarity with, though I suppose he was able to make this after taking the Hollywood blood oath of making an awful Cloverfield film, is operating on what I can only describe as close to Haneke levels of power here. I was really quite amazed to walk away and find out that there was a 35 (at the time) year old co-writer/director behind it, as there was a steady confidence in craft and tone that carried throughout, despite offering no easy answers or tidy plot reveals. Luce himself is deliberately a reflection of all of the other characters in the film - of their desires and disappointments and the way they want to see themselves. We are provided no confirmation of or explanation for his behavior, just questions, and worries about his future that bear no similarity to the worries of his parents or educators about said future.

I will have more to say in time, as I really don't want to say too much about what I read into some of the finer points of the narrative until I can see it a second time, but this is my favorite film this year so far outside of the Tarantino, and though I respect Never Cursed's thoughts above, it all worked like gangbusters for me. I was on the edge of my seat, and sort of still am.

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Re: Luce (Julius Onah, 2019)

#4 Post by DarkImbecile » Sun Sep 15, 2019 10:07 am

I don’t think anything entices me to see a movie more than seeing two diametrically opposing opinions on it from posters I respect on this site.

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Re: Luce (Julius Onah, 2019)

#5 Post by mfunk9786 » Sun Sep 15, 2019 10:52 am

He's the Dark and I'm the Imbecile

(thanks!)

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Re: Luce (Julius Onah, 2019)

#6 Post by mfunk9786 » Sun Sep 15, 2019 12:07 pm

Never Cursed wrote:
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For those that have seen the movie, what did he intend to do with the fireworks (the one prop that the film's drama revolves around) before Octavia Spencer's character found them?
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I don't think they were his fireworks. That's the entire catalyst for Luce's frustration - he wrote a paper that followed along with the assignment, and that like you said, is far from a black and white choice of subject. Then he had fireworks in a locker that is shared by teammates so they aren't late for class, and vice versa. Teenagers can have fireworks for any number of dumb reasons, and the teacher read nefarious intent into them just like she did the paper despite them not being a weapon in any traditional sense. Luce is being held to an unacceptable standard, just like his teammate before him, and he reaches a breaking point that kicks off his behavior for the rest of the film. That being said, I could be wrong about this reading. As a character I find Luce compelling mostly because we spend two hours with him and walk away having no idea what he's capable of, or whether he's a good person at heart. We only know how he's interpreted by the rest of the characters in the film.

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Re: Luce (Julius Onah, 2019)

#7 Post by mfunk9786 » Tue Sep 17, 2019 11:20 am

Have had some more time to mull this one over, and saw it a second time. A big takeaway upon reflection is how little of my admiration for it is wrapped up in the script.
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If I had to guess, especially in its original stage iteration, Ms. Wilson was written as "correct" when she delivers her final speech to Luce. I can see it, imagining a stage play of this, and perhaps I'm way off on it. But I picture a play by a non-black writer, a play about race ending in a big thunderous lecture about blackness in America, delivered to a kid who has rejected the philosophy of his neoliberal teacher, who he has just gone out of his way to antagonize as revenge for her outlook and mistreatment of his classmates. And I can imagine it being written to have put Luce in his place, to give a kid who doesn't have the necessary perspective some knowledge about what blackness in America is all about. But what's so brilliant to me about Onah's direction of this film is that he manages, in Ms. Wilson, to have a character be completely piled upon for most of the duration of the film, though her needlessly invasive initial actions are to blame for the desire to retaliate. And still, when the chips are down and she has the ability to proselytize, she is still completely delusional and totally out of bounds. She should not have the power she wields to make or break students' futures, either during their high school education or beyond it. She is allowing her own path, which likely involved a whole lot of calculation, to be an example for the sorts of things she's doing as an educator. And even with the graffiti on her door in view behind her, we still see that Luce is right and Ms. Wilson is wrong during this conversation. That's an extremely powerful thing, and my supposition is that the gravity and nuance and things left unsaid are largely Onah's influence, considering so many of the wise choices he makes as a director throughout the film.
I don't know if I'd even like Luce as a stage play, but as a film it is just wonderful. There are so many examples of material that would have come out very poorly in the wrong hands in recent years, and I suspect that this film is one of them. The whole thing is a real testament to Onah's filmmaking instincts.
mfunk9786 wrote:
Sun Sep 15, 2019 12:07 pm
Never Cursed wrote:
SpoilerShow
For those that have seen the movie, what did he intend to do with the fireworks (the one prop that the film's drama revolves around) before Octavia Spencer's character found them?
SpoilerShow
I don't think they were his fireworks. That's the entire catalyst for Luce's frustration - he wrote a paper that followed along with the assignment, and that like you said, is far from a black and white choice of subject. Then he had fireworks in a locker that is shared by teammates so they aren't late for class, and vice versa. Teenagers can have fireworks for any number of dumb reasons, and the teacher read nefarious intent into them just like she did the paper despite them not being a weapon in any traditional sense. Luce is being held to an unacceptable standard, just like his teammate before him, and he reaches a breaking point that kicks off his behavior for the rest of the film. That being said, I could be wrong about this reading. As a character I find Luce compelling mostly because we spend two hours with him and walk away having no idea what he's capable of, or whether he's a good person at heart. We only know how he's interpreted by the rest of the characters in the film.
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Also observed on re-watch: We do not see the hand of the person who opens the locker and drops in the bag of fireworks. I suppose it can be read as a deus ex machina, or as one of his teammates (my guess), but I have great difficulty imagining that Luce put them there.

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Re: Luce (Julius Onah, 2019)

#8 Post by Foam » Tue Oct 08, 2019 4:16 pm

This is my favorite film of the year so far. I can't claim to have fully understood it, but I also don't remember the last time I was so emotionally and intellectually stimulated at the same time in theaters. In fact, I want to say it's the most provocative and probing film on race I've seen since I first saw Do the Right Thing back in the day. All throughout my viewing I was asking myself "What is going on?" and "What's going to happen next?" with an intensity and purity I didn't know I was even still capable of as a viewer. In a sense I agree with the comparison to Haneke, because this is a furiously political and sharp film, but I also felt there was a level of painful generosity to every character's struggle here in a way that reminded me of the intensity and focus in the best of Bergman's chamber dramas.

As to the discussion above, I'm not sure that Luce is truly a cipher so much as he is a kind of mirror for all the different facets of post-Obama liberalism's racial anxieties. The film's refusal to grant us satisfying access to his psychological depth is not in any way evasive but the fundamental tool of its exploration. It is its own way of dramatizing its respect for Luce's privacy--a respect that the parents and Wilson are not just unwilling to give, but feel duty bound to violate. That violation is felt as necessary given that Luce serves for them as a kind of reflecting surface for their own ideals, given what their relation to him discloses about their own investment in him.

Really impressive. A film I hope to revisit many times.

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