There’s an old saying that goes, “Nobody comes from Los Angeles.” Rather, the city is made up of millions of displaced souls who’ve found their way to Los Angeles from someplace else, which goes a long way to explain why no two filmmakers seem to view the city in the same way — because everyone, in some way, is an outsider there. A few years back, indie director Aaron Katz moved to Los Angeles from Portland, Ore., synthesizing his impressions into the gleaming blue sapphire that is “Gemini,” a subtle, sophisticated neo-noir focused on the odd co-dependent relationship between a starlet and her personal assistant — and how that dynamic is tested when one of them drops dead.
Although Katz unveiled “Gemini” at South by Southwest (the same film festival that effectively “discovered” him 11 years earlier with “Dance Party, USA”), this sleek and playful identity puzzler would have been right at home at Sundance (which screened his last, the Iceland-set “Land Ho!”) — or Cannes, for that matter. Despite having been made on modest means (and produced by Adele Romanski, the patron saint of “Moonlight,” among others), “Gemini” is every bit as elegant and stylish as French director Olivier Assayas’ last two movies, “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Personal Shopper” — and could conceivably do similar business.
The film’s sly refinement isn’t so immediately apparent, as “Gemini” begins quite casually in the suburbs of L.A., idling in the car with Lola Kirke, an actress who — like “Mistress America” co-star Greta Gerwig — doesn’t seem like an actress at all. She has an uncanny way of just being on screen, which is the perfect state for her character, Jill LeBeau, unseen shadow to a young movie star named Heather Anderson (Zoë Kravitz). Compared to Kirke, Kravitz (appropriately) comes across more aloof and ethereal, and slightly fragile to boot.
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Faced with the prospect of telling a director (Nelson Franklin) that she’s bailing on his project, Heather asks Jill to do her dirty work. Like a bodyguard, surrogate sister, and personal servant in one, Jill does her job without complaint. When an intense young fan with an uncanny resemblance to Heather approaches them at the diner, it’s Jill’s job to shield her boss. Ditto when an overzealous paparazzo starts asking personal questions about the celeb’s recent breakup, insinuating that the relationship between star and assistant runs far deeper than fans realize (as it actually does for so many stars).
Still, protective as she is, Jill can’t necessarily be there to shoulder all of Heather’s troubles. And besides, how could she possibly have anticipated the worst-case scenario awaiting her when she returns from a particularly noxious early-morning errand? There, lying in a pool of blood in Heather’s hallways, is the star’s body, shot through five times with a gun that, suspiciously enough, belongs to Jill.
And so the tone shifts ever so gracefully from a “Mulholland Drive”-style study of these two Tinseltown doubles to a more “Night Moves”-like genre-movie homage. Absorbing much of its production value from a series of stunning architectural locations — a mix of old Hollywood and newer, more modern structures — and carefully art directed in cool blues and golds, “Gemini” defies the sunny, almost tropical feel of so many Los Angeles movies. From its opening palm-tree-lined drive, Katz succeeds in turning the iconic city upside-down and inside-out.
Playing with mirrors and sleek geometric patterns, DP Andrew Reed’s style has an almost European feel, alternating between meticulously choreographed Steadicam shots and chilly arm’s-length compositions (including a motorcycle chase framed from an impossibly far remove). Meanwhile, channeling the vibe of movies he discovered on VHS, complete with their neon-lit “Miami Vice”-like visuals and synthesizer-driven jazz scores, Katz shadows Jill as she pursues her own investigation, both to clear her name and to uncover the killer.
At certain moments, she proves instinctually capable of evading cops (most notably a detective played by John Cho, whose faux-chummy attitude masks deeper suspicions), while at others, endearingly clumsy trying to mimic tricks seen in Hitchcockian thrillers (as when she blows her cover by not waiting until after confronting the other key suspects to assume her newly-blonde disguise). But the case is more complex than “Gemini’s” deceptively simple setup might suggest, and the title refers to more than just the zodiac tattoo on the back of Heather’s neck: Just how separate is the starlet’s true identity from the one the public adores? Just how close are Jill and Heather? And if the star actually met her soul mate, would the world allow her to indulge a lesbian relationship?
This last question is by far the most fascinating, so subtly implied that audiences may miss it entirely. But anyone who’s spent time in Los Angeles, either covering celebrities or covering up for them, knows the rules: Same-sex relationships can be a career-ending risk for movie stars. “Gemini” explores this phenomenon in an entirely new way, as Heather struggles to separate herself from the persona the public adores — at an extremely high price. It’s an incredibly perceptive observation for someone as new to Los Angeles as Katz to make, and he does so with nuance and style, excepting a few amateurish missteps along the way. For a director who emerged from indie film’s so-called “mumblecore” movement, “Gemini” feels like a grown-up achievement, and the sign of a director with so much more to give in the future.
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