*This review contains spoilers*
Directed by: Natalia Leite
Written by: Natalia Leite
Stars: Dianna Agron, Paz de la Huerta, Chris Zylka
We focus on a girl, dancing alone in silence at a night-club. Lights flash and we see her face illuminated by a spotlight; she looks almost directly at the camera. The girl desperately snorts coke in the bathroom, our first introduction to the abrasive lighting that carries into the next scene, at the grocery store. It is here we meet our main character, a young woman named Sarah. Even outside of the supermarket, in Sarah’s own home, the screen is drenched in white. Outside, overcast skies follow.
Sarah is quiet, the timid dreamer, in need of direction. Angelic light trails her every move, until she meets Pepper, a drunken, wayward woman without a home. It’s not that Pepper necessarily draws in darkness (both in the technical, cinematic sense and more metaphorically). But she adds a shadowy complication to an already jaded Sarah. I wanted more from Pepper, more spark and intrigue, rather than the frankly boring character we are handed. She’s eccentric by small-town standards, an outcast in the New Mexico town. On one hand, I can understand Sarah’s attraction to Pepper; she’s never met anyone as free. But we as the audience (who have presumably stepped foot outside of our hometowns) have a harder time falling for Pepper and can sense the inevitable disappointment from the get-go.
So instead of enjoying bearing witness to a developing love-affair, I found myself instead waiting for the collapse. And when their romance did disintegrate, it was unsurprising, anti-climactic. That being said, I think the development of Sarah and Pepper’s relationship is realistic in that they move slowly, uncertainly, always with a subtle danger building in the background. (Almost like “Carol,” if Cate Blanchett played a homeless drug dealer.)
“Bare” moves softly, but is full of spaces, empty like lives of its characters. Luckily, the film is (at least, in part) redeemed by three things: interesting lighting, a feminist queer narrative and its discussion of small-town sex workers.
In a frankly half-assed adventure, Pepper takes Sarah to Reno, an electrical cityscape lit by loud neon. The girls escape to casinos, their hedonism fueled by flashing lights, bright sounds and colors. The grey is gone, along with the loneliness and metonymy of their home town. Noticing her bewilderment, Pepper says to Sarah, “You should see Vegas.”
Soft light is brought back in an intimate sex scene, powered by Pepper’s truck headlights. This feels real (or at least more real than the famed nine-minute-long sex scene of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color.) Here is where the perspective of a female director shines through.
Whether intentional or unintentional, I was appreciative of the feminist agenda behind Bare. Sarah’s boyfriend continually tries to “save” her as he notices her changing– she starts stripping and enters a lesbian relationship– but all he knows is that she isn’t the same scared girl he knew before. Her boyfriend tells her she isn’t being herself, that she needs help, thus attempting to define her. Meanwhile, Sarah is more free than she has ever been, which means she is a threat in the eyes of the patriarchy. Sarah is routinely shamed by men; first her boyfriend and much later the cops, who treat her like a dejected animal.
Sarah often watches women, including her mother, smoking alone. To me, this image speaks to the culturally inflicted isolation of American women, who are raised to be lost without a partner (man) and/or children. Of course, these things are changing in our society (!!) but I think the image is still a very powerful, sad one. In one scene, Pepper says to Sarah: “If you don’t make your own choices in life, life makes them for you.” By life, we can presume Pepper means fear, socially constructed expectations and, ultimately, men.
Sarah is afraid, but for good reason. Taking charge of your life is no easy task. Sarah starts her journey by having a smoke with her mom, under the soft light of the sun. (Before running away, of course.)