Slow Machine June 17, 2021
1 Hr., 12 Mins.
oe DeNardo and Paul Felte’s feature debut, Slow Machine, is stubbornly mysterious. But it doesn’t alienate you — it keeps you wanting to know more even as questions continue zooming by unacknowledged. The film is about an actress named Stephanie (Stephanie Hayes), who, as the film opens, is hastily leaving her New York apartment. We at first figure this is entirely because she has terrible roommates: one is
aggravatingly passive; the other is so dominating as to be the queen of the space. (Played by comedian Catherine Cohen in what amounts to a cameo, this brassier roommate talks loudly on the phone in the living room as she lazes lavishly on the couch so no one else can sit; the speed at which she transitions from noisy laughing to a fit of tears to her listening companion suggests someone who is always amped up.)
Stephanie retreats upstate to a sort of music commune headed by a woman named Eleanor (real-life musician Eleanor Friedberger, who appears to be playing a variation on herself). Days into her stay, though, the sense is that she isn’t particularly good friends with anyone here — just a crashing acquaintance. Stephanie, whose accent oscillates from Swedish- to American South-inflected, seems to be running away from something the better we get to know her. This assumption is one of the few things to be pretty unambiguously addressed in the course of this perennially ambiguous movie. After we spend some time at Eleanor’s bohemian-esque estate, we jump back in time a few weeks earlier, to the start of a relationship Stephanie had with a man named Gerard (Scott Shepherd) who claimed to be an NYPD counterterrorism agent. This crescendos into an accident that explains Stephanie’s frantic departure at the beginning of the movie.
This particular narrative thread in Slow Machine feels, most of all, like an entry point — something sturdy to grab — into the movie’s forever-aslant world, where nothing else is ever so direct, where we’re consistently skeptical of whether something is really happening and if something a character says has truth to it. The movie, above all else, collects a series of interactions Stephanie has where either she or the party opposite her monologues at length about something that feels generally disjointed from the dramatic action. The best of these quasi-vignettes involves the most famous person in the cast, Chloë Sevigny (who, like Friedberger, presumably plays a pricklier version of herself), telling Stephanie about a life-changingly momentous but also very sinister audition she recently had. (The casting agents wore black, secret society-like masks, and burned the script unceremoniously in front of Chloë’s wide eyes before she could take one last look.) We never can be too sure how straight Stephanie or any of the people around her are being.
Shot across four years, the Jacques Rivette-inspired Slow Machine at times feels like a large and winking performance piece where we’re not in on the joke but want desperately to be. In others, it feels like an ominous reflection of how acting itself has consumed Stephanie’s life (the shifting accents, the tendency to talk at length but never reveal anything meaningful of herself) or how alcoholism, from which Stephanie is alluded to be suffering, saps vitality from life so that everything is funneled into a half-reality. Slow Machine’s haziness is bolstered by misty 16mm photography and the ultra-sparseness of its sets. It feels removed from our everyday world, the characters confined mostly to claustrophobic, sorrowfully lit spaces hospitable to unease. At only 72 minutes, Slow Machine fortunately doesn’t run so long that its circuitousness devolves into outright tedium. It offers enough to provoke us without needing to overexplain itself. Its delicate balance of mystery and provocation makes it stay with you. A-