Cannes Review: Michelle Williams In Kelly Reichardt’s ‘Showing Up’

Kelly Reichardt has been making minimal Americana since the early 1990s, mostly around the state of Oregon where she lives and mostly about her favored awkward squad: quiet square pegs who don’t quite fit the round holes society provides. In this ongoing quest she has found many collaborators, but none more attuned to her recessive brand of naturalism than Michelle Williams.

As a homeless woman trying to find her stolen dog in Wendy and Lucy; as part of a wagon train heading west in the counter-western Meek’s Cutoff; and as half of a married couple trying to build their dubious “dream home” in Certain Women, Williams lets her performances ripple almost imperceptibly towards us, which is very much the Reichardt way. Each character’s drama, if you could call it that, lies under the surface.

In Reichardt’s latest, Showing Up, running in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, Williams plays Lizzy, a middle-aged ceramic artist who makes rent by working in the office at an arts and crafts school. Her daily life is a tangle of uneasily blurred boundaries. Her father is a potter, now retired, whose reputation precedes her; her mother manages the office where she works, which can make staff relations prickly; her brother is a conspiracy theorist her mother expects her to concede is the genius in the family, but who is more or less under her care. She keeps her housing costs down by renting a flat in a duplex owned by another artist, Joelle, who lives next door and is both landlady, colleague and ostensible pal.

It’s another thorny combination, especially since Lizzy’s hot-water service has packed up and Joelle is signally failing to get it fixed. “I told you: you can shower at my place!” says extroverted Joelle, but Lizzy would probably rather wash in a bowl for the rest of her life than waltz into Joelle’s bathroom in a towel. She puts up with it, of course, because making art is her priority.

She has an exhibition within the week that could be noticed – could change her life – and a squadron of pottery figurines to get glazed and fired. The job gives her time to get her real work done, while Joelle’s garage provides space. It is easy to spot a parallel with Reichardt’s own career, making the shoestring films that have established her as a major American filmmaker while earning her living teaching college students. It’s all about showing up, on all fronts.

It is possible to watch Williams as Lizzy clomping round her apartment in her socks and frumpy skirts and think she is doing next to nothing, at least in terms of performance. Reichardt’s characters register emotional shifts almost barometrically, as changes in air pressure. Lizzy is not a talker. When someone else at the arts center tries to draw her out at lunch, she doesn’t quite tell her to back off, but she curls her body around the sandwich she’s eating as if to ward her away.

When she leaves Joelle a shouty message about how furious she is about her continued lack of hot water, her anger feels staged; Joelle certainly doesn’t take it seriously. It is in her stony insistence on using the shower in unlikely places – at the gallery where her work is being shown, for example – that you really feel her accumulated resentment.

That and the business of the pigeon, a perfectly ordinary bird that Joelle finds after it has been mauled half to death by Lizzy’s errant cat. Joelle puts the pigeon in a box, declaring that she will nurse it back to health, then parks it with Lizzy who is too embarrassed by her cat’s bad behavior to refuse. The pigeon ends up going everywhere with one or other of them; it lives in the studio, goes to galleries, to the vet – much to the vet’s surprise – and back and forth between their apartments, a living monument to the muddle of roles, responsibilities and resentments common to everyone’s lives, but especially to the lives of women trying to carve out the space to make creative work.

There is a good deal of tedium to all this, underlined by a maddeningly repetitive score. Where Meek’s Cut-off and First Cow, Reichardt’s last film, were counterpoints to the western genre that embraced epic themes, shootings and a wagon falling off a cliff, Showing Up is about endless, tiny acts of persistence. Very little happens.

Lizzy establishes her working space by closing herself off from others, including us. She doesn’t want our company. It is only at the end of the film, as her exhibition opens and she is worrying over whether there is too much cheese on the snack plate, there may be a chink opening up in her armor. It’s not much, but for fans of Reichardt’s internalized cinema, it’s enough.

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