By Karina Longworth
"Finally, Lillian and Dan" comes to CineVegas almost a full year after its first and only significant public screening, as part of the M-word heavy Summer 2007 Independents Week series at Harvard Film Archives. It’s a find, a definite cousin of the work being made in the Bronstein household––as with "Frownland," the mumbling here is so stylized and disturbed that it’s like a precision bomb against the twee subtelties explored by other contemporary filmmakers––it’s more like Tourettescore. But there’s also a tenderness here, and lofty aesthetic ambitions underpinned with authentic melancholy. It’s a heartbreaker.
Lillian, a twenty-something whose lovely face is weighted down with permanent post-crying jag bags, lives with her grandmother and answers phone for some kind of businessman. When her apparently married boss asks her out via lengthy dissertation on the possibilities of urban social life (”There are restaurants, and bars, that people go to…”), she trembles and stares, trying to hide her humiliation behind a cup of tea. When he continues the courtship by leaving flowers and a novelty balloon at her desk, she quits. Meanwhile, the scruffy, borderline mean-looking Dan fills his days chain smoking, wandering, driving around in his old Volvo. These two lonely, prickly fuck-ups end up in line next to each other at Whole Foods, and each takes notice of the other. Peripheral glances, head jerks, a panoply of figits: they look like they’re dancing. They don’t speak.
Soon, Dan is putting on a suit every day and returning to the Whole Foods, coming up with excuses to comb aisles and haunt the cafe, in hopes that his checkout line dance partner will return. Lillian needs something to do, so she throws a “lil’ block party,” which she advertises by stapling flyers to telephone poles and to the community board at Whole Foods. Dan, arriving with rotisserie chicken in hand, is the only person who shows up. Seeing him, recognizing him, Lillian reflexively puts her fingers to her mouth to block her glowing, uncontrollable grin. Then the courtship gets weird.
"Lillian" shares some production tropes with thematic cousins like "Kissing on the Mouth" and "Yeast"––namely shaky handheld low gauge lensing and improvised performances––but director Mike Gibisser so perfectly and versatilely weds form to content that his use of such stylistic touchpoints seems less like the result of a low budget and micro crew than deliberate, and often brave, aesthetic choices. Shot on Super 16, "Lillian" has a grainy, soft-contrast look at times reminiscent of Harmony Korine’s MiniDV-blow up "julien donkey-boy". The director fixes the camera when he needs to, but also takes brilliant advantage of the handheld bounce sparingly and purposefully. The image is shaky when the people are shaky; when they’re stuck, it’s static. To see such simple logic put to practice in a first feature maybe shouldn’t feel exciting, but it is.
Most impressively, Gibisser uses light as a vehicle for emotional exposition. External shots of Lillian and Dan isolated in urban spaces seem slightly underexposed, tinted grey-blue to match these kids’ mundane blues. There are two night scenes which seem to be shot using only available street lamps; in the first, a first sweet and then abortive makeout, Lillian’s amber-limned silhouette cuts through blackness as she moves towards Dan and away from him. In the second scene, there is no such glittered lining. It’s the darkest scene of the film emotionally, and it’s definitely the darkest––nearly completely black––visually.
Gibisser is also doing some really interesting things with sound, and the ambient blip-bloop score heard in the above trailer is the least of it. In the Q & A after Saturday’s screening, he explained that whenever a character wasn’t speaking, they shot without recording sound and re-created the soundtrack later. That had to make for a lot of post work, because for long stretches, "Lillian" is dialogue free. It ends up playing almost as a silent film, and when someone is speaking, the clear focus of the scene is not on what they’re actually saying, but on what they other person is thinking, feeling, interpreting from the words and the tone. Everything actually said is said on faces, with figits and dance steps, through the flailing of limbs. There’s a scene in this film where one character attempts to bring another back from a gut hollowing sadness by silently dancing and encouraging the other to join them. It’s such a beautifully done depiction of an intimate ritual that it had me in tears.
So where can you see it? Dunno. Distribution is certainly nowhere near on the horizon, and wouldn’t be until/unless it started winning festival awards and/or the notice of major critics. And based on his comments after the film, it seems like Gibisser hasn’t put much effort into submitting Lillian to festivals. If you’re an interested programmer, you can email him through his website or the film’s MySpace.