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DIRECTED BY: Ana Lily Amirpour
FEATURING: Jeon Jong-seo, Kate Hudson, , Evan Whitten, Ed Skrein
PLOT: A young woman with telepathic powers escapes from a mental hospital to New Orleans and is befriended by a down-on-her-luck exotic dancer.
COMMENTS: Society’s fringes probably have no storyteller more sympathetic than Ana Lily Amirpour. From her shadow-filled debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, through the sun-soaked dystopian Bad Batch, and now with the perpetual street-light glow in Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, Amirpour has maintained a fascination with folks on the periphery of civilization. While the likes of Harmony Korine dwell in tragedy, staging his tales amidst the horrific grind of poverty, Amirpour regards tragedy as nearly an afterthought—it’s present, certainly, in all its violence and sadness, but overcome through the by-the-nails vibrancy that courses through every character. The misunderstood get a fair shake; the downtrodden have their small pleasures; and, just as importantly, the inexplicable remains that way.
It is possible that Amirpour arranges her films around the music. Every scene glides along to a rhythm, with every character slotting perfectly into their dancing role. Mona Lisa makes this focus explicit with the second of its primary characters, Bonnie Hunt (a delightfully trashy Kate Hudson). As a middle-aged stripper, she’s showing signs of wear, but still has the moves, and always holds her head up high. The titular Mona Lisa (Jeon Jong-seo) possesses a feral artistry, first when slinking around her cell at the mental hospital, then when wandering the side streets of New Orleans. Even awkward neophyte Evan Whitten fits with the choreography as Bonnie’s pissed-off-and-confused son: a boy who escapes his daily troubles and unwieldy self through “hashing,” or, as he explains, “dancing aggressively. To metal!” It’s appropriate, then, that the one “hero” here—and my favorite character—is the hyper-chill DJ by the name of “Fuzz”; explaining his sobriquet, he glides Mona Lisa’s hand over his facial hair and scalp, “See? It’s soft.” It’s a rough life out there, so you gotta take it easy.
After the harsh glow of the opening asylum, the remainder of the movie is washed in the ambient late-night-light of the one town where everyone is welcome. Whereas Las Vegas’ inclusivity is tainted (it wants your money), New Orleans is the city for all-comers, a bacchanal which demands only that you let others revel alongside. The camera work is smooth, gliding unobtrusively—staying chill—as Mona Lisa’s meandering journey unfolds. Most everyone is bottom of the barrel: strippers, drug dealers, loiterers, townsfolk, and even the cops coming across as workaday stiffs who aren’t seeking a hassle. Like a mellow Jell-O, everyone moves along with the underlying thump of the background house music.
Mona Lisa starts with no explanation of its protagonist; a policeman’s background research into the mysterious young woman brings up zilch, a slight foray into supernatural refuses to elucidate matters (a Voodooienne consulted by the cop leaves it at, “You don’t pick Voodoo, son. Voodoo picks you”), and things wrap up with an escape from the authorities toward… Well, the geographic destination is Detroit, but otherwise no hints are given and no promises are made. Amirpour’s interests aren’t in pointlessly digging for root cause behind life’s sturm und drang. All you can hope to do is dance to life’s wave and, as a fortune cookie advises the cop at the start, “Forget Everything You Know.”
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Par for the course with writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and The Bad Batch), Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon lives and dies off a hypnotic wavelength that’s increasingly bizarre… The blunt themes are worthy conversation starters, and the film is still strange enough to recommend, but by the end, all the best elements might as well be sacrificed to the blood moon itself.”–Robert Kojder, Flickering Myth (contemporaneous)