Pink Wall – London Film Festival 2019 – Film Review
It was possibly mentioned by the playwright Patrick Marber, regarding his compelling play Closer, which subsequently became a film, that the aspects that most people remember of relationships are the beginnings and the endings. Pink Wall certainly subscribes to this theory with non-linear scenes over six years depicting the highs and lows in the relationship of Leon and Jenna, an American couple living in the UK.
Pink Wall is actor Tom Cullen’s directorial debut and its creativity and ambition are striking. The film’s non-linear structure allows Cullen to demonstrate his technical skills, which are impressive, and the camera work mainly delivers. It is within the intimate scenes of the couple in year 1, with mise-en-abymes, which the film intercuts with their most destructive moments, where we are reminded of the innocent hopes of a fledgling relationship and this is where Pink Wall truly captivates. I am still to discover the intriguing genesis of the title, perhaps it was one of the many songs played by Leon in his DJ stage, when he was initially drawn to Jenna at the peak of his career. Alternatively, the Pink Wall could be a reference to the delicate hues in the cinematography on display from time to time or indeed a reference to one of the non-humorous jokes that Leon insisted on telling to Jenna’s chagrin.
Even though break ups and make ups are the focus of Pink Wall, given this intoxicating directorial style, the first scene introducing Leon and Jenna is uncomfortable for the audience to witness, as voyeurs, as an argument commences but this is already year 4 into their relationship. Cullen’s direction remains unbiased and so the audience is able to takes sides if it chooses. However, from the outset, they seem like a mis-matched couple as Jenna is driven and ambitious and Leon seems happy to maintain the status quo with a relaxed, interpret that as ‘lazy’, lifestyle. At one stage Jenna is disparagingly given the nickname ‘the Enforcer’ by Leon indicating a level of resentment and so that question arises as to whether a relationship can survive where a power struggle is evident. What is even more enthralling in addition to Tatiana Maslany’s spellbinding tour de force performance, as the passionate Jenna, is the knowledge that she is Cullen’s long-term partner and so Pink Wall is very much a personal project.
Cullen’s direction is clever in providing that voyeuristic discomfort and I recall a particularly awkward Fleabagesque dinner party scene; why do so many of these revealing moments in films and TV programmes seem to gravitate towards dinner with friends? However, in this instance, the concepts explored within that dinner scene, ranging from sexual politics to workplace dynamics, merely serve as a plot device with no other use for that set of friends. As a result, that dinner party scene felt too theatrical and contrived to me. However, Cullen had indicated that a John Cassavetes film, A Woman Under the Influence, was a significant reference for such dinner scene.
Naturally over the course of a relationship, each individual inevitably progresses becoming different versions of themselves which may result in irritation and as the viewers, immersed in Jenna and Leon’s world, we are vicariously re-living such aspects; it all seems so raw and the actors were given space to allow the messiness, and the accompanying pain, to unfold to dramatic effect with semi-improvised scenes. The improvisation works well to showcase the actors’ talents, providing more empathy with their characters, but Pink Wall is essentially a character study with no tangible plot to provide that necessary cohesion for the film. Without that cohesion Pink Wall solely operates as a series of vignettes which are still thrilling to watch but suffer from those limitations.
Moments within Pink Wall cover already trodden paths, and may therefore seem familiar, but the fresh take is in having honest performances with a strong, central female character in Maslany’s Jenna striving for career success and unwilling to settle for average, even within a relationship, admitting that she does not ‘know how to stop’. The rapport between Maslany and Jay Duplass, as the two leads, is realistic in this exploration, with an easy chemistry between them, despite some of the dialogue veering towards the theatrical and being stilted as a result.
Some of the hazy, tenderly idyllic moments of year 1 are replayed, in 4:3 aspect ratio, but are these merely a reminder to ourselves, as the audience, of the development of the characters with a hint of a modicum of love buried somewhere? Pink Wall may resonate with many who simply find that they may have outgrown a relationship but still appreciate the support received. Here, Jenna was provided with that career direction by Leon from that first night spent together, which he still clings to, whilst she wants to ‘do stuff’ and have a career.
I certainly admired Cullen’s directional choice to explore the difficult, uncompromising, negotiations within relationships. There is a level of sensitivity and empathy deployed towards the characters with those slow, lingering shots on their initial meeting evoking sensations of the heady emotions encountered, we can probably all remember the excitement of meeting someone new.
Some of the filming style is reminiscent of a music video and so the different uses of aspect ratio in Pink Wall emphasise the innovative direction. Grainy documentary style footage is the format employed to demonstrate those close-up dreamy memories of year 1 contrasted with later stages in the relationship where there are some beautiful long angle panoramic shots of landscape, in the Welsh countryside, allow yourself to be hypnotised by the captivating cinematography; again, this highlights Cullen’s accomplished direction.
At such stages, the coastal views comprise their own role overshadowing the relationship of the protagonists which depicts the gulf in their relationship as the couple is minuscule compared to the landscape scenery. Cullen addressed this shift in direction mentioning that he was interested in the transience of relationships compared to the monolithic mountains observed in such scenes.
Pink Wall, surprisingly, was shot with a very low budget in Wales over a period of nine days. Some of the scenes were shot in areas where Cullen grew up and some scenes even featured his family members. Cullen, during the Q&A, also hinted that his own personal experience with a break up may have provided the background to the genesis of Pink Wall, which would follow that adage of writing about what you know.
Pink Wall is certainly a brave, exploration of relationships and is an admirable debut. Overall, Pink Wall’s structure is possibly better suited to a play, similar to Closer, but with such directorial promise I will look forward to watching more of Cullen’s work.