Not much is new, in terms of film vocabulary or the standards of her previous experimental work, in Yvonne Rainer’s new film. “Murder and Murder” tries to be at once a feminist soap opera, a black comedy, a sensitive love story and a political meditation on lesbian sexuality, ageism and menopause. Dealing with similar issues addressed by Rainer’s far superior 1990 “Privilege,” this Zeitgeist release should appeal to the director’s small following of cerebral viewers interested in non-narrative cinema, with stronger results for the video version in academic and feminist circles.
A personal film, in which Rainer acknowledges her lesbianism more overtly than in other works, “Murder and Murder” explores the pleasures, uncertainties and ambiguities of late-life lesbian identity in American culture.
Mildred (Kathleen Chalfant), who is in her mid-50s, comes from upper-middle-class origins, whereas her partner, Doris (Joanna Merlin), now into her 60s, is a product of a poor family who raised her daughter single-handedly. Mildred is a tenured women’s studies professor at a large East Coast university, while Doris lacks formal education and has never held a steady job.
The class contrasts become sharper when it’s established that Mildred shops at Barneys and Doris at thrift shops. Even more important than the socioeconomic differences are the women’s sexual politics: Mildred has been a lesbian all her life; Doris experiences a lesbian romance for the first time.
Dealing with such concerns as female aging and breast cancer, Rainer first presents, then contests, often in a sharply humorous manner, mainstream misconceptions about these issues, and biases that prevail even within the medical profession. Jenny (Isa Thomas), Doris’ mother, and young Mildred (Catherine Kellner), Mildred’s 18-year-old self, are ghosts from the past, invisible to the protagonists but very much present for the film’s audiences. As usual, Rainer periodically appears in the film – as the “director” – to punctuate the narrative with darkly humorous tales about her own mastectomy and the politics of breast cancer.
Like Rainer’s former texts, “Murder and Murder” is a vivid collage of reality and fiction, an intermittently thought-provoking blend of visuals and sounds that shuns the conventions of narrative cinema, inviting viewers to participate in academic and stylistic exercises in response to sociopolitical issues. Through irony, slapstick, visual metaphors, literary quotations and running commentary, Rainer’s characteristic montage of formal devices deconstructs some challenging ideas.
Rainer’s method of unexpected images, snippets of sound and statements that are at once profound and silly is entertaining for a while, though the long picture overstays its welcome by at least 20 minutes.