SXSW Review: 'Pink Wall'
In his screenwriting and directorial debut, actor Tom Cullen (Knightfall, Downton Abbey) creates an intimate and heartbreaking examination of a decaying relationship over the course of six years. Pink Wall is an insightful depiction of the complexities of dating and partnerships, the reversal of gender roles and how couples manage the precarious balance of life’s ambitions versus actual life choices.
Jenna (Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black) and Leon (Jay Duplass, Transparent) are charming, charismatic Americans living abroad. Jenna is ambitious, brooding, but funny. Leon is equally creative but seemingly unmotivated – using his energy to boost others at the expense of his own dreams. On the surface, they’re the definition of opposites attracting, but also complementary to each others’ gaps á la Rocky and Adrienne. Their lives are fueled by their artistic aspirations and the belief that anything is possible with love. When the novelty and shine of the relationship wear off and reality sets in, ‘Pink Wall’ becomes a character study of contrasting relationship dynamics that crescendos to a precipice of compromise and heartbreak.
We’re present for the highs and lows of their six-year courtship. The highs are courtesy of their playful and jubilant chemistry. The lows result in ugly fights fueled by pent-up insecurities. There’s a distance created by the conversations they actively choose to avoid versus the ones they tackle. They unwittingly succumb to the insipid outside parties that shape many relationships: avoidance and accountability. It is the most subtle, yet powerful thing that shifts the trajectory of their relationship. According to Maslany at a post-screening Q&A:
“Jenna and Leon skirt around accountability throughout most of the relationship. When they start to actually call each other out or begin to discuss the heavy stuff, they use humor to deflect and pop out of that moment to avoid going into the depths of what’s not working. Unfortunately, they get to a point where they’re not growing together, but rather growing apart.”
Shot in just nine days, Cullen takes his directorial cues from “cacophonous” 1970’s cinema and directors like John Cassavetes. He uses a combination of a script, “scriptment” (a script minus the dialogue) and long takes to allow the actors the freedom to move the narrative from point A to B organically. Without the distraction of cuts and multiple camera angles, it creates an intimate viewing experience and gives the film an almost documentary-like quality. When asked about his choice of a non-linear narrative structure, Cullen says it was his desire “to make this film reflect life as much as possible. As we reflect on relationships, our memories aren’t linear. As such, Jenna and Leon’s story shouldn’t be linear. It’s jarring and disorienting, just like their relationship.”
It’s a labor of love about love that included his native Wales as the setting and on-camera roles for his family and the film’s crew. Casting Maslany – his real-life long-term partner – as the leading lady was a rather curious, but effective choice and leads to a bit of voyeuristic curiosity as to how much is fiction and how much of it is pulled from real-life. Clocking in at just under ninety minutes, Pink Wall packs a mighty emotional heft and makes great use of story economy by focusing on the key, defining moments of the relationship. It’s the (lack of) length and depth that make it difficult to dive deep into the film without possibly spoiling the ride for others.
I’ll say this: Pink Wall is ripe with extraordinary performances, stunning direction and cinematography displaying the three sides of Jenna and Leon’s (and every) relationship: his, hers and the complicated truth somewhere in between. When the ballad of Jenna and Leon comes to an end, there’s no pretty bow to tie it up. There are no concrete answers. Even as things seemingly fall apart, they’re still in love and falling in love with each other. Cullen ended the Q&A with:
“We don’t know if they actually break up at the end of the film. We don’t know what their future holds. I wanted to create a discussion about culpability in relationships and cause some reflection. I hope I did that.”