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The Filmmaker Who Knows What’s Wrong With Your Relationships



If the writer-director Nicole Holofcener could predict the future, she’d guess that no matter what happens to the planet, no matter how much human society evolves and devolves, our descendants will still get emotionally distressed over something small, petty, and entirely irrelevant to anyone else. People hurting each other’s feelings, she told me over Zoom last week, is “going to happen until the end of the world.”

Injured feelings can easily become personal doomsdays, as her latest film makes clear. In the appropriately titled You Hurt My Feelings, a couple’s marriage fractures when an unexceptional writer named Beth (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) overhears her husband, an unexceptional therapist named Don (Tobias Menzies), criticizing her latest novel—which he secretly thought was just so-so when he read her numerous in-progress drafts, but never told her out loud. That withheld opinion is minor to him, but major to her, sending her into an anguish whirlwind that fuels the movie—a witty and barbed story that reveals the inherent absurdity of caring about a loved one’s opinion. “This whole world is falling apart,” an exasperated Don says to Beth after she reveals that she knows what he really thinks. “And this is what’s consuming you?”

Perhaps Don should watch a Holofcener film or two. The writer-director’s original movies, beginning with 1996’s Walking and Talking, have tended to be about conflicts that seem trivial. Her protagonists, usually middle-class women going about their everyday lives, wrestle not with substantial life changes, but with selfish problems. They’re learning to accept that their best friend is getting married, for instance, or overcoming their jealousy of their closest girlfriends’ substantial incomes.

After a decade away from writing and directing her own screenplays—she adapted books, did uncredited work punching up Black Widow, and co-wrote The Last Duel with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck—Holofcener returned to writing about the “continuous conundrum” of relationships because, as she put it, they’re all about figuring out “when to speak up and when to shut up.” Yet as insignificant as the central struggle of You Hurt My Feelings may seem, that slightness is the point. Beth and Don’s turmoil changes them, but not by much; the film implies that the pair are bound to repeat their mistakes, a fate that’s true to life. “I like a more subtle story and a smaller arc for characters,” Holofcener explained. “I feel that we change in small increments. Our lives are informed by those small changes, and not the big, loud stuff.”

Not that the big, loud stuff doesn’t ever happen. In one of the more dramatic scenes in You Hurt My Feelings, Beth and her son, Eliot (Owen Teague), get robbed at the weed store Eliot manages. As Eliot struggles to reach the cash register, Beth clambers onto his back, pinning him down to protect him from the burglars. Afterward, they just stand up, hug each other, and brush themselves off. It’s the kind of rare goofy moment that shows how little people might change after a startling ordeal—Beth and Eliot are grateful that they’re okay, rather than profoundly affected. Originally, the scene included a punch line from Beth to drive this idea home: “Now I know I’d take a bullet for my kid.” “I was like, ‘No offense, that’s such a stupid line,’” Holofcener recalled. “Any mother would already know that! So we dropped it.”


Holofcener was following a rule for her work that sounds counterintuitive: If a line of dialogue feels like it belongs in a movie, then she takes it out of her movie. The standard has served her well, especially in scenes where characters confront each other. Instead of devolving into histrionics, fights are usually low-key, and her characters express themselves like actual people. They go on tangents. They get distracted. They stall. Beth and Don could have broken up, begun living apart, or screamed at each other for the rest of the film about every other problem they’ve had with each other—all possibilities Holofcener considered, until she realized that the next step for the couple would be … talking. And so they do.

That’s the trick to Holofcener’s work. She sets up situations that seem poised for showdowns, only to yield scenes that feel deliberately uncinematic. In doing so, however, she gets to devote screen time to the nuances of her characters—not necessarily their backstories, but their emotional growth (or lack thereof), arguing that such nearly flat arcs deserve the spotlight too. Her characters contradict themselves in ways they’re unaware of: Beth, so viscerally pained by Don’s dishonesty, has no trouble encouraging a student in her writing class to pursue a poorly conceived story. Even after Beth’s loved ones see her go into a tailspin, they keep telling one another white lies in order to be supportive. Beth’s sister assures her husband that he’s a good actor after he’s fired from a play. Don regularly ends his therapy sessions on a positive note, despite how unsatisfied his patients continue to be in their life.

For some viewers watching Holofcener’s work, the persistent low stakes and lack of life-changing epiphanies might be disorienting. But big revelations simply don’t seem to excite Holofcener as a filmmaker. Unlike some of her more autobiographical films, such as 2001’s Lovely & Amazing, You Hurt My Feelings came from Holofcener wondering how she might react if someone close to her didn’t like her work. Most of her stories have become her way of answering such hypothetical questions—“my nightmare, imagined,” as she put it. In 2013’s Enough Said, Holofcener’s first collaboration with Louis-Dreyfus, the protagonist says goodbye to her daughter as she leaves for college; Holofcener, who had not yet sent her children to college at the time, wept as she watched the actors perform. But although she’s tried to process her own fears through her films, she told me, the result is not usually enlightening. “I’ve not found catharsis in my work,” she explained. “I find it really moving when I can create something that comes from my life, but I can’t say it solves my problems. It might inform. Maybe it might, you know, educate me more about myself or how I feel about things.” She paused. “No, I don’t think so.”

When we spoke before the film’s nationwide debut last weekend, Holofcener sounded a little bit like Beth. Though she knows there are people who want to see emotionally modest movies like hers, she still struggles to finance her films, and is skeptical that the people she shares her scripts with—her producers, mostly, rather than a dedicated panel of trusted readers—are telling her their truthful opinion. (“I think they tend to love me too much,” she quipped.) But she’s learned to take the hurt feelings as they come—to keep closing the wounds, knowing they’ll open again. “I just want to keep writing about this,” she said. “It’s too fun to pass up.” Good thing she has endless material to mine.

Source: The Atlantic


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