In INTIMATE SEMAPHORES, three women fight to see past themselves

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Rating: ★★★

A short film anthology psychodrama, Intimate Semaphores opens each of its three character studies with the camera scanning the textured canvas of an Alexandra Levasseur painting. Too close to ever see the whole of the image, this is appropriate given the fraught and fractured nature of the artist’s impressionistic portraits of women in crisis. Surreal swirls of murky sea green colours call to mind the watery surfaces of 3 Women, and the calypso blues track playing over these montages speaks of a persistent melancholy, the animating force of Robert Altman’s film.

Similarly, writer-director T.J. Misny’s three women are lonely, isolated pariahs, running towards and away from meaningful human connections which cause them to come to hurtful realisations about themselves.

In ‘Helberger in Paradise’, Nora (Kate Lyn Sheil) is late to her old friend Rosaline’s funeral, anxious about making it on time and making good on a childhood promise. Waifish Sheil looks great with dark make-up, leather wrist cuffs, tattoos and ragged denim, inappropriately dressed for the service and inappropriately talking to her cab driver as she takes a hit from a silver flask. One minute she’s urging him to drive faster and offering him more money to do so, the next, chastising him for not being like the New York City cabs that take card as well as cash. This remark is a stab not just at the driver, Rally (Musto Pelinkovicci) but the bumblefuck town from which she hails, which Nora clearly thinks she’s outgrown now that she’s a big city girl.

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Turns out Nora still has a lot of growing up to do, putting stock in the naive bonds of adolescent friendship so easily broken by time, distance growth and death. Set on pulling a disrespectful stunt in church that expresses Rosaline’s true self to the formal assemblage of strictly religious family members who never understood their daughter, Nora’s true self remains a mystery, even to her. A tattoo of a rocking chair on her arm means absolutely nothing, while Rally’s back tattoos are the very reason he drives a cab, saving money for their removal to erase a darker chapter of his life. The significance of such things is completely lost on Nora, and when she lets slip to Rally that she used to fool around with Rosaline on her father’s boat, she’s quick to brush off her lesbian relationship as something that doesn’t matter, even though in all likelihood, its entirely the point of why she dared venturing back to the last place on Earth she’d ever choose to be.

The prankish and peculiar patter between Nora and Rally is unexpectedly spikey, an argumentative tussle between two people of different generations, nationalities and backgrounds that hits on moral truths with uncommonly sharp clarity.

Musto Pelinkovicci puts the weight of his hefty frame behind every utterance; vocally conveying how immovable Rally is in his beliefs and the high price he paid for them. As Nora, Sheil is exceptionally charismatic, crude but sensitive and gradually emboldend, always sitting forward in her seat and commanding Rally’s attention if not his respect. It’s Sheil’s most verbally forceful turn since her memorable mental meltdown in Sun Don’t Shine.

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In ‘High and Dry’, Ariane Labed (the Greek star of Attenberg and Alps, who also appeared in Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight) plays tunnel-visioned photographer Laurel, who starts to see the world and the people in it differently. One day she’s photographing a drunkenly distressed businessman from across the street with no intention of helping him. As if to compound the point that she needs to look at life through a different lens, a guy on his bike bumps into her when she doesn’t move out the way and lets her know how inconsiderate she his. The biker’s crash and his harsh words seem to have some effect, as every picture she takes from then on is out of focus, though her doctor assures her that her corneas are a-okay.

Laurel picks the wrong day to confide in her boyfriend Clark (Keith Poulson), a singer dropped from his label who’ve pulled the plug on his album launch. The couple go on a double date dinner and for the first time, Laurel sees how rancidly narcissistic her partner is. When their friend Su (Jennifer Kim) tells them her brother is in the hospital, all Clark seems concerned with is his failed music career. Su isn’t much better though, not even trying to hide how relieved she is that work has called her back from her brother’s bedside. Her eyes may be failing her, but the awful childishness and self-absorption in these people Laurel has chosen to surround herself with is suddenly in sharp focus.

Like the best short stories, Misny’s vignettes use their limited time wisely, discreetly divulged details opening up the characters and their lives infinitely beyond what we see through a brief, barely hour-long window. As with the offhand revelation about the nature of Nora’s relationship with Rosaline, casual conversation is anything but, and key to deciphering these people’s secrets. When Su admits her guilt over not reading her brother’s manuscript, Laurel supposes that he might’ve known she didn’t want to read it and never did. We don’t know why the brother is in hospital, but Laurel’s tone is accusatory, insinuating Su is to blame for something tragic that has occurred (a suicide attempt perhaps?). Nora has no interest in self-analysis, let alone other people, whereas Laurel recognises this is exactly who she must have a dialogue if she’s to see things – and herself – clearly again.

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Most obnoxious of them all is May (Jocelin Donahue) who on the opening night of her boyfriend’s restaurant steals his thunder by abruptly announcing she’s been signed to an agency before playing it down like it’s no big thing. In ‘The Crumb of it’ May is moving on with her life and worries about finding the time to be a “spectacular companion” for Cyril (Chioke Nassor). She keeps him behind after closing, concerned about being the ultimate version of herself, but spouts self-help dribble so agitatedly it’s obvious she doesn’t have the first clue who that person might be. Cyril makes her a celebratory cake but May has an intense psychological reaction to the texture, and so follows a ridiculous scene in which she instructs Cyril to do her favourite thing of stroking her arm in just the right way so that she might successfully swallow a mouthful of her least favourite dessert.

May finds it far easier to swallow her own bullshit, believing their passions ought to be shared and that eating this cake is essential to saving her relationship, the same way she expects Cyril to take an interest every time she practises her ‘craft’. May talks more directly than either Nora or Laurel, signalling wildly without ever really communicating the closeness she’s after.

The interim shots of paintings do a nice job of teasing out the problems facing all three women. The camera dwells unnecessarily on the texture of the canvas, like May with the cake, not seeing the big picture, and the shifting focus imitates Laurel’s efforts to see things as they really are. Each of these montages ends with a pull back shot, the camera beating a hasty retreat, the image fading out, like Nora, so keen to flee the funeral minutes after she’s arrived.

First published by Vérité Film Magazine on June 6, 2014

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