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Joshua Marston’s Complete Unknown: Or, When Critics Respond To A Woman Who Lives Like A Man

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February 8, 2017



We live in an intensely surveillant world where our every move is tracked, a world that seems to move ever closer to to life as seen in the film Minority Report.  There, retinal scanning is an everyday fact of life, allowing stores to greet us by name as we enter, and all our data, from biomedical information to the possibility of us committing crimes in the future, is continually processed and revealed. Today, we inch closer to that reality and identity seems immutable in the sense that we cannot create new lives for ourselves. Gone, we imagine, are the times when travelers like Isabelle Eberhardt could wander around the globe in disguise, in quest of other selves to be.

Complete Unknown, Joshua Marston’s 2016 film about a woman who creates at least nine separate lives on several continents, considers the possibility that such erasures can still happen. This was Marston’s English language debut; his previous and well regarded films were Maria Full of Grace and The Forgiveness of Blood, in Spanish and Albanian respectively. With a cast of well-known actors — Rachel Weisz plays the lead role, with Michael Shannon alongside her, and Danny Glover and Kathy Bates appear in brief but riveting spots — the film was expected to garner at least critical if not commercial success. Instead, it was greeted with a degree of displeasure, if not outright fury, in most parts.  The reception of a film about a woman who leaves entire lives behind with no regrets reveals much about contemporary anxieties about gender and the still stereotypically conceived nature of relationships between men and women.


Weisz plays Alice who claims to be a scientist who has come to New York after years of studying frogs in Tasmania. As she tells anyone who’s interested, her return to the States was brought about by the discovery of the first new frog species in North America, and she obligingly plays a recording of its song at a Brooklyn dinner party. The gathering is an intimate birthday celebration for Tom (Michael Shannon), who is married to Ramina (Azita Ghanizada), and a friend and co-worker of Clyde (Michael Chernus), who has brought Alice along as his date.


The opening sequence of the film gives us snippets of  Alice’s previous lives, from New-Agey Portland resident to an assistant to a magician in China to a nurse. So it’s not much of a surprise that when Tom sees Alice for the first time, he recognises her as Jenny, a woman he’d known in college and with whom he’d been briefly involved. He manages to take her aside and confront her, and we learn that Jenny left college and her family abruptly fifteen years ago, disappearing completely; Tom had assumed she died. They return to the party, and neither reveals that they know each other. As the conversation flows around the dinner table, Alice tells everyone that she had, in her youth, dispensed with her identity as “Jennifer” while on a trip to Mexico and spent eighteen months living as “Consuelo.” As she tells it, she never got back in touch with her family.


The other dinner guests have mixed reactions to her story, ranging from Clyde being impressed to Sharon (Condola Rashad), the lone black person in the room, raising her eyebrows at the ease with which “Alice” was able to create and live as an entirely new character in a new country. As the party proceeds to a dance club, Alice wows everyone with a magic trick involving three tumblers and three olives, which she rapidly transforms into a single lime. But it’s here that she trips, or seems to, when she lets it slip that she learnt the sleight of hand while working with the magician in China. Instantly, even the slightly besotted Clyde grasps the discrepancy in dates — she’d previously stated that she had been in Tasmania since the age of 24 — and everyone except Tom turns upon Alice, with one of them calling her a “pathological liar,” doubting even that she is the scientist she claims to be. Alice decides to leave and walks out, with Tom in close pursuit.

What starts as a belligerent conversation between the two of them becomes the crux of the film as it unfolds, and we discover that when Jenny first met Tom, she had been a piano prodigy who spent hours perfecting her music. Their romance ended when Tom eventually took her aside and gave her what she still dryly refers to as “the speech,” telling her that they could not continue as romantically.


As she begins to tell him about her lives, they encounter Nina (Kathy Bates), a friendly and chatty woman out walking her dog Jimbo. The frisky Golden Retriever’s antics cause her to slip and sprain her ankle, and Tom and Alice help get Nina back to her apartment where her husband Roger (Danny Glover) is waiting for her. Even in the short trip to Nina’s apartment, Alice begins to weave yet another character for herself, as a pediatric heart surgeon.  Once in Nina and Roger’s apartment, to Tom’s surprise, she proceeds to invent a story about him as well, calling him Tony and claiming he’s an osteopath.

Tom finds himself going along, saying he specialises in neck injuries, agreeing with her tidbit that he’s treated Andre Agassi and drawing upon a layman’s knowledge of rheumatoid arthritis, from which Nina suffers, to give her advice about how to treat herself. Just as he finds himself veering dangerously close to having to actually look at and diagnose Nina’s troubling back problem (and possibly and inadvertently causing physical harm), Alice rescues him with an excuse about a patient and they leave.


As they proceed walking through the city’s nighttime streets, Tom talks about his work and it seems that it’s not all he’d hoped for. He reveals that he was both entranced by and turned away by Alice’s drive to perfection. In turn, she says that she was lured to his college by the fact that he and his classmates could take any subject they liked whereas she, along with her fellow prodigies, literally had to be shut out of their studios so that they would go home. It’s not so much that she hated piano  — a brief flashback of her emotionally confronting an instrument indicates she’s still enraptured by music — but that she needed to find another self, another way to be. She tells him about realising that she had a gift for creating new lives, and that she has no regrets about leaving them behind:

I could start over. It was like I had this skill, this power.  I could be anyone I wanted and I could do it again and again. I could live a thousand lives. And every time it was like she always existed. She had her own history, and I keep filling her in, until she felt finished. Ready to move on. I feel free to let go. There’s this moment when you’re a blank slate. It’s like a high. And you’re deciding what next….Keeping track isn’t the hard part. It’s when everyone around you thinks they know who you are and they try to lay claim to you. Then you’re trapped. That’s the hard part.


As he talks to her, Tom begins to understand the seduction of taking on other lives, having just briefly indulged in it at Nina and Roger’s place. He understands the process of repetition by which Alice forges new characters; it reminds him of watching her practice a piece by Brahms, playing it over and over until she got it absolutely right.


Eventually, they part. In the last shot, we see Alice re-emerging with a completely different hairstyle and look, her new persona perfectly in place.


Complete Unknown was a much-anticipated film, given the reputation Marston had built with his previous two feature films. But when it finally opened, reviewers seemed puzzled and, at times, furious and angry. In many cases, they were even incorrect about the most basic elements of the story.


Sundance’s review writes that Alice refuses to acknowledge their past history, when the film’s entire premise is that she deliberately sought him out, deliberately working her way into Clyde’s ambit  so she could talk to Tom. The New York Times writes in its summary, “Now, as she reawakens Tom’s old longings, he wonders if he can trust this seemingly pathological liar or if his marriage, already threatened, can survive this temptation.” In fact, there’s no evidence of Alice being a threat to his marriage at all, and their body language makes it clear neither is interested in a physical relationship; their exploration of each other is a conceptual and analytical one. AV Club makes even bigger leaps into fantasy when it declares, in a fit of fictionalising, “Marston and his co-writer, Julian Sheppard, can’t think of much for Alice and Tom to do once they’re alone together; the last act of the movie consists largely of Alice explaining her philosophy of life in tedious detail and Tom insisting—with logic that’s hard to fault, frankly—that said philosophy is selfish and deranged.” But Tom does no such thing and the latter part of the film is a quiet and nuanced back and forth between the two as they ruminate on the choices they made, without establishing hierarchies over who made the better ones.

In fact a lot happens when the two are “alone together,” and we and they learn about what has happened to them over the last fifteen years. But, clearly, for the reviewer here, it was imperative that there be, perhaps, a raunchy sex scene, that Alice and Tom go to her apartment and, falling upon each other as she fumbles with her locks, dive head-first inside as their supposed sexual tension explodes. Both Variety and the Times describe Weisz’s character as a “femme fatale,” even though there’s no hint that she enters her various lives by feminine wiles.

The Times locates its reviews squarely in clichés about marriage: Old longings are reawakened! Can a marriage survive temptation?

For the reviewers, the anger is that there is no moral to be derived, no inevitable sexual bond that could nurture and nourish their longing for a familiar arc. It’s as if cinema, even in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, cannot bear the burden of two people who might be “together” without sex.


Complete Unknown provokes several questions about the logistics of its central tale: How was Alice able to move through several continents and characters, with the evidence of them all pasted into a small scrapbook she takes everywhere with her? Rather than pedantic explanations, we are given a brief yet meaningful shot of the deep cynicism in Sharon’s eyes and her slightly pursed lips, both of which speak volumes. The film demonstrates the elasticity and plasticity of whiteness, without which Jennifer could never turn into Consuelo then into Connie and then into all the other characters. How someone could, in a post 9/11 society, dispense so easily with multiple identities and re-emerge literally on the other side of the world is a befuddling matter and for that we might look again at the vast possibilities afforded by whiteness as well as the necessity of suspending disbelief.


For the Hollywood Reporter, John DeFore wrote, “The viewer might have a hard time imagining an ending that will be both satisfying and truthful; it seems the filmmakers shared that dilemma. Sometimes, perhaps, walking off without goodbyes is the best solution.” This assumes that films owe us truth and satisfaction, odd concepts to invoke about a text that is fundamentally about the possibility of lies and untruths being the opposite.  As it turns out, though she was never a surgeon, Jennifer did become a nurse, and while she was not a scientist, she was part of a team that worked on the frogs, in an ancillary capacity as a researcher.


It’s not that Complete Unknown is a brilliant masterpiece that has been wrongly savaged by critics, although it is a small but deeply sophisticated and richly layered jewel of a film that certainly deserved much closer attention than these reviewers bothered to give it. The critical responses reveal the problems with contemporary film reviews, which are churned out with little care and thought in an age where the purpose is simply to get eyeballs to websites and which increasingly rely on familiar tropes and narratives to make their texts quickly legible to readers. They also reveal larger and persistent cultural approaches to relationships between men and women that can’t be digested and vomited back as more conventional — and sexual —  relationships between men and women. Collectively, the reviews create an entirely different narrative that simply does not exist and in the process expose cultural anxieties about a woman who dares to reinvent herself without apology — it’s highly unlikely that the AV Club would have described Alice’s words as “tedious” if she had been a white man musing on his travels. I suspect a man at the centre of the film would have invoked gushing clichés like, “a contemporary Lawrence of Arabia” and “a master shape-shifter.”  


Alice’s whiteness gets her to every place in the world but in the eyes of reviewers she commits the sin of being a woman who acts like a man, brazenly daring to philosophise about her lives and choices. Her sex ensures that she can never get past the border of gender crossing.


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