Friday, December 9, 2016


If you followed me on Twitter (@PINNLAND_EMPIRE) or Facebook this past September then you'd know that The Empty Box was in my top 10 coming out of TIFF (it'll probably be in my top 10 of 2016). But it's one of the only films, along with Prevenge, that I instantly gushed about on social media but didn't actually write about right away like I did with The Untamed, Moonlight, Loving & many more. I needed time to collect my thoughts with this one. It's not that I relate to The Empty Box on any kind of a personal level, but it does deal with certain issues that I'm very passionate about (race, family, the unfair baggage that sometimes comes along with darker skin, etc). This film also reminded me of so many other films & filmmakers that I love without feeling like it stole from or even heavily borrowed...

For those of you that are familiar with Claire Denis' 35 Shots Of Rum, imagine The Empty Box as kind of like the anti-35 Shots Of Rum. Both films do have striking similarities in that they focus on young attractive mixed race female leads (their racial identities do hold some importance in both films which is why I brought it up). Both films are essentially family dramas about the relationship between a father & his daughter (the mother/wife is only mentioned in past tense or shown in flash backs). Both movies are also directed by women. But 35 Shots & Empty Box greatly differ because one (35 Shots) is about the healthy relationship between a father & daughter, while the other film (The Empty Box) is about the unresolved/complicated/contentious relationship between a father & daughter. Our young female protagonist in 35 Shots loves her dad and has no problem trying to take care of him (even though he doesn't need/want anyone to take care of him). The female lead in The Empty Box ("Jazmin") is kind of forced to take care of her father ("Toussaint") because he's in the early stages of dementia and has no other friends or family to look after him.
The most difficult part in all of this for Jazmin is that now that Toussaint has dementia, she'll never be able to convey her past hurts to her father and have them hold the appropriate level of importance given his deteriorating mental state.

But putting the movie comparisons aside, The Empty Box is its own unique viewing experience. It's partially a lucid dream in the vein of Lucrecia Martel or a recent Carlos Reygadas film (oops, there I go with the comparisons again...). The flashback scenes (which make up a nice portion of the movie) are also a little skewed and almost dreamlike. Director/actor Claudia Saint Luce takes us back to Jazmin's childhood (where we see how tough & cold Toussaint was to her), and we also see how her parents met. But given the subtle lucidness of the movie, I'm left wondering if these flashbacks & back stories are 100% true or slightly skewed (dementia, sanity & memory loss are major factors in this movie so it wouldn't surprise me if those things crept in to the structure of the movie). If you happen to be lucky enough to see this, don't feel bad if you don't catch everything or if you feel a little lost. Parts of The Empty Box are meant to be surreal. Going back to Carlos Reygadas for a moment (specifically Post Tenebras Lux) the editing in The Empty Box seamlessly weaves in & out of reality, (possibly skewed) memories and lucid dreams.

It would have been easy to compare lucid surreality to something generic like Tarkovsky, Epstein or even Fellini, but The Empty Box & Post Tenebras Lux really feel like close first cousins in that they're both personal semi-surreal Mexican-based stories that casually touch on issues like race & skin color. I know this is something I say a lot but I feel like both movies exist in the same cinematic universe. However The Empty Box is a little more grounded in reality because it focuses on the specific relationship between a father & daughter and doesn't really veer off in to the deep random corners of the subconscious like Post Tenebras Lux.

The relationship between fathers and daughters can get very muggy & complicated. I know that's common knowledge but still... Even in cases where Fathers want to protect their daughters at any costs (either physically or in terms of instilling important life lessons) there's that invisible barrier that causes friction because they come off as over-protective, overbearing or off-putting (especially to young girls/teens). Even the wisest of men can (try to) instill lessons on their daughters but Fathers still won't experience life as girl and/or women so they'll never fully understand the hormonal/emotional component that comes along with being a woman. And that works both ways. Women will never fully understand how the male brain works no matter how much they sometimes like to think they do just because we may operate on more simplified emotions/cylinders. The protective motherly instinct that kicks in with a lot of women isn't always needed and when their help is turned down, it's taken personally. The Empty Box doesn't touch on all of these things but it does delve in to some of these issues.

This film holds a special place in my heart because Claudia Saint Luce actually acknowledges that Haiti exists. Bottom line - Haiti is misrepresented/damn near non-existent on the big screen. Furthermore, the tension between Haitians & Latinos (specifically Dominicans) is not addressed on any major/semi-major cinematic platform (I saw a short film on it two years ago but it was a kind of amateur-ish). The Latino/Latin American point of view in The Empty Box is Mexican, but a lot of the racial jabs and other hints & implications concerning race & skin color (Jazmin makes a snide remark about her father's dark skin early on in the film) do ring true to the Dominican/Haitian relationship. I've always found it funny when Dominicans act as if they have absolutely nothing in common with Haiti, or just Black people in general, even though they share some of the same DNA right down to the nappy hair, and, in the case of Haiti/Dominican Republic, they share the same land. That isn't to say Dominicans don't have their own separate culture outside of Haiti, Africa or other dark skinned/Black cultures, but their (sometimes) denial of having anything to do with anything Black is both sad & transparent...

The Empty Box - which not only gives Haiti a small voice and quietly addresses issues concerning race - won't get the same kind of release as other major/crossover indie/arthouse films but this is still a start (I don't know what kind of release this movie will get outside of a possible streaming platform and a multi-region DVD release down the line). While this film is based in Mexico, half of the story is told from the perspective of Toussaint who is Haitian. I can't think of too many prominent films with a prominent Haitian protagonist.
It's really a shame that The Empty Box might not get the initial exposure it deserves because it fits in perfectly with the new (somewhat progressive) black film canon made up of movies like Mother Of George, Newlyweeds, Moonlight & Black Venus. If you have the opportunity to see this film I recommend it.


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