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Mari Cohen (associate editor): In the introduction to Getting Lost, a collection of diaries documenting a love affair she had in 1989, the French novelist Annie Ernaux writes that she chose to publish her journals when she returned to the diaries years later and found that they captured “something raw and dark, without salvation, a kind of oblation.” The resulting book, translated into English for the first time last year by Allison L. Strayer, records the writer’s single-minded obsession with a mysterious Russian diplomat named S. That S., as the diaries describe him, is not particularly compelling, nor deep, nor charming is unimportant; what matters is the effect he has on Ernaux: that she longs for him at every moment of every day, lives only for the ring of the phone, her mood dictated only by his presence or absence.

It’s not always easy to stare this total monomania directly in the face. Ernaux reproduces the text of her diaries without any annotation, the desire unadulterated by hindsight, and the force of this passion is almost illegible to anyone not in its grasp. Even Ernaux herself eventually loses the ability to inhabit the diaries’ state in mind, as she notes in the introduction: Visiting Russia a decade later, she “no longer cared whether [S.] was alive or dead.” In the diaries, she’s aware this will eventually happen, and that it will both restore her sanity and result in a loss of feeling and perspective. That’s why it’s so important to record an emotional experience as it comes to pass. To “see things with more distance,” as she writes in the diary, will be to “become incapable of writing what I’m writing here, of being attentive to these shifts of feeling inside people . . . provoked by passion, desire, and jealousy.” Indeed, for Ernaux, the affair was its own artistic pursuit. Though she writes that her absorption in it drained her interest in the writerly achievements and publishing industry gossip that preoccupy her colleagues, the experience seems to bring her closer to the act of writing; “I have lived out this passion in the same way I write, with the same commitment.”

It becomes clear over the course of the diaries that their intensity represents Ernaux’s desire not just for an unnamed man but for an organizing principle of life itself. To wait by the phone may be excruciating, but it’s still something to do and to live for. “How am I going to live without hope, without waiting?” she wonders as she anticipates S.’s departure. His imminent absence is described as death, emptiness, the abyss. Which means that his presence is a simple opportunity to “live for the sake of living,” to experience “pure life.”

Dahlia Krutkovich (JC fellow): Last week, I dutifully schlepped up to Lincoln Center and white-knuckled it through Blue Jean, British director Georgia Oakley’s debut feature about the consumptive paranoia of Jean Newman, a lesbian gym teacher in Thatcher-era Newcastle. Maggie sets the stage in the film’s opening scenes, intoning on the radio about Section 28, a new prohibition on the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools. Jean, freshly divorced from her ex-husband and a new fixture of the one-bar-town’s queer scene, finds herself overwhelmed and isolated by the prospect of losing her job if the thick layer of hairspray coating her boyish bob and her punk girlfriend draw too much attention.

I’m putting it a little facetiously. I was, truthfully, blown away by Blue Jean’s narrative delicacy, which treats plot points that could have landed as eye-rollingly familiar beats of a lesbian period drama with new emotional resonance. Much of that is a credit to Rosy McEwen’s performance as Jean, which, while stony-faced, is full of depth and intention. The film’s exploration of how ambient political stress damages people—and leads them to bad personal choices—lifts it out of the category of low-calorie representational fare.

Oakley, who also wrote the film, has mentioned that her research for the script included interviewing a handful of lesbian gym teachers who worked while Section 28 was in effect. This commitment to documenting the world these women created for themselves deserves credit for breathing new life into some tired genre tropes. (Lovers of the indie lesbian limited-release will recognize these: the more comfortably out partner who feels boxed in by her lover’s discomfort; the well-meaning co-workers who want to know why their closeted colleague just won’t come for the after-hours drink; the tacitly disapproving biological family who wish their daughter/sister/aunt would grow her hair back out; and a cameo for The Well of Loneliness, which made me groan).

But it is Jean’s distant, strained relationship with Lois, a student who is herself suspected of being queer, that represents the film’s real departure from a certain genre peer group. Jean, in effect, refuses to mentor Lois, and a climactic moment of betrayal between the two characters turns what could have been flat, easy fan service into the film’s raison d’être. Without revealing too much, Jean simply cannot meet the political and personal demands placed on her, and in operating from a place of self-preservation and gnawing anxiety, she fails to protect Lois. The scene precipitates a synthesis for Jean: in a short redemption arc that plays out less simply than it sounds, she attempts to make amends with her former student and the community members she’s alienated over the course of the film.

I was refreshed, though run emotionally ragged, by how Blue Jean refuses to be a canned coming out story or coming-of-age affair. As the film’s plodding, careful political aspirations came into view, I realized just how worth the schlep it was.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Mark Cousins’s The March on Rome is an impressive, detailed, and necessary analysis of the original fascism. Movies about Germany’s imitation and ultimate surpassing of Mussolini’s regime are many; films that look closely at Italian fascism’s rise and its legacy are far fewer. Cousins approaches the subject through a dissection of a 44-minute propaganda film from 1922, titled A Noi! (To Us!). This film, full of fakery and deception, is a depiction of the March on Rome of October 1922, in which the National Fascist Party took power. It’s of next to no interest cinematically, but Cousins sees its content and technique as perfect representations of the fascist ideology. Examining key scenes moment by moment, he demonstrates how shots portraying the supposedly huge masses of marching Neopolitan fascists were framed to make the crowds look larger. Cousins also reveals how shots that seem to show the Blackshirts’ entry into Rome are actually reenactments; their real arrival, which occurred under a downpour, would have been insufficiently heroic. Fascism was a fraud from its first moments.

The March on Rome covers much ground beyond the march itself: the backroom deals that allowed Mussolini to become head of the government, the ways he manipulated crowds, Italy’s wars and imperialist crimes in Africa, and the people’s eventual disgust with the regime they had so faithfully supported for over 20 years. But Cousins doesn’t only consider fascism in the past. Throughout the film we see buildings, statues, and plazas in Rome that still bear fascist symbols or slogans; it’s a tremendously effective way to show the ideology’s tenacious hold. Far less successful are the film’s final ten minutes, in which Cousins explores contemporary instances of what he considers fascism, from Hungary to Brazil to France to the United States. While this coda is totally superfluous, the rest of the film is required viewing.