Earlier this year, I wrote a short piece comparing two of the best auteurs working; Steven Soderbergh and Greta Gerwig. With the year at a close and both having completed their latest works, I’m taking another look at them next to each other and seeing how far they’ve come, or just how far one of them’s come and how far the other has stepped back.
If we were to just compare The Laundromat and Little Women, this article would be fairly cut-and-dry; Laundromat is the Soderbergh style at its worst and Little Women is the Gerwig style being refined and further developed. I said in the last piece that Soderbergh builds his movies from the outside in, starting from grander themes and finding the characters from there. But usually he hires strong enough writers and actors to make sure that those characters aren’t just signposts, but fully fledged people who you follow because they’re interesting rather than because of their function in the grander scope. Laundromat is the first Soderbergh to feel designed like John Mulaney’s bit about happy-birthday signs; the theme of “FUCK THE RICH” is the big-ass “H” and “A”, and the characters are left to basically be doodled in the margins. By the time Matthias Schoenaerts shows up as the personification of information you should know about the Chinese government, you almost wonder if the common complaints about Soderbergh being a misanthrope bored by humanity are true, and he only sees us as vessels for his rantings about capitalism. Obviously, Little Women is not constructed as an advocacy piece like Laundromat, so the March sisters needn’t worry about having to be mouthpieces for tax reform. But more than just that, Little Women is a love letter to humanity at both its most beautiful and its most flawed, the knotty character dynamics steering the ship rather than just being on-board. Some of this is baked into the cake by coming from the original novel, but Gerwig also does a lot of her own work to bring it to the forefront, elevating previously minor characters to the forefront and giving them to actors who can be given a little and and turn it into a lot. Aunt March could easily be a one-dimensional obstacle without Meryl Streep in the part, adding slight nuances that only start to fully add up once her screentime is done (she does the same in her main part in Laundromat, but unfortunately there’s also the matter of what she does in the other part). The return of Mr. March goes from slightly obligatory to triumphant when Mr. March is goddamn Bob Odenkirk, and goofy Bob Odenkirk at that. And Mr. Laurence is the biggest revelation of this version, Gerwig understanding that just letting the camera rest on Chris Cooper gives you more pathos than a big monologue ever could. This kind of intelligent casting all the way to the tiniest parts is usually what Soderbergh excels at (he casts all those comedians because he knows they can’t help but put interesting spins on their material), but most of the actors in The Laundromat are left either with nothing to do or to act with all the thought and subtlety of a bad SNL sketch, because they matter less than the message. Everybody with more than a few seconds of screentime in Little Women matters, and Gerwig gives them the room to matter.
What I find most interesting about Little Women, however, is how it points to a more Soderberghian future for Gerwig. Lady Bird lines up rather neatly with sex, lies, and videotape (even down to the minor footnote of it not actually being Gerwig’s debut; I’d maybe put Nights and Weekends above the Yes concert film, though). If you watch both films closely, you can be awestruck by a newcomer having such a strong sense of where the camera needs to be at any moment. But if you don’t, you can be just as awestruck by the complexities of the script, naturally revealing character through dialogue that’s both tangy and not too heightened as to jar you out of the film’s reality. Soderbergh’s first instinct after sex, lies‘s success was to run as far away from it as possible, sometimes by doing obviously brilliant directorial work in service of weak scripts. Gerwig, meanwhile, has seemingly skipped ahead to the part of Soderbergh’s career where he could more effectively cover both the visual and the verbal parts of his job. Lady Bird is, for the most part, a very literal movie, a no-fuss journey from point A to point B. Little Women most obviously diverges from that with boldly achronological structuring, shuffling together the past and present in a way that could be deemed Soderberghian if you just take that idea to mean “his movies are all mixed-up.” But more than that, Little Women borrows from later Soderbergh projects a sensuality with how it approaches its world. Despite his rep as an objective observer, Soderbergh loves to stop time and just revel in the world he’s created, most obviously in how his camera freely navigates 1900 New York in The Knick but also in how he shoots objects, in love with the idea that this tiny thing means so much more than its accepted purpose. Gerwig really seems to want to drink in her mid-19th century settings, employing slo-mo to spend a little more time in it and lingering on details of both reassuring nostalgia (like the Marches’ cozy winter clothes) and hard-edged practicality (the most Soderberghian images in both Gerwig films are how lovingly she films the various processes involved in an old-fashioned printing press). And it plays into the structure as well, leaps back and forth in time driven not by plot but by sensations caused by everyday objects, locations, and even just the way somebody carries themselves in a space. More than just that it’s all out of order, this is what connects Little Women to something like The Limey, the idea that both the director and the characters are exploring these spaces by feeling rather than the dictations of narrative cinema.
Lady Bird feels completely Gerwig in every respect. Sure, there are movies with its plot points, but its approach, especially coupled with the two Baumbachs she wrote beforehand, feels wholly hers and without precedent. Little Women is still obviously hers throughout, with the same neo-screwball dialogue and focus on young women coming of age. But it feels like a necessary mutation of the Gerwig style, with other influences seeping in and making themselves notable. Gerwig has been happy to point out many of these influences to the press, many from that favorite period of Soderbergh, the French New Wave (though her reference points mostly being Truffaut’s 70s period films suggests that this and the last article could’ve been chucked out in favor of the simpler explanation that Soderbergh is Godard and Gerwig is Truffaut). Soderbergh has been doing that for 30 years, barely even having time to put the Palme d’Or on the shelf before he admitted that he stole sex, lies from Carnal Knowledge. But if somebody like Tarantino can be so slavish to his inspirations as to be called a rip-off artist (and hey, he makes great rip-offs), Soderbergh and Gerwig feel more like synthesis artists, starting from a place of their own and seeing how the addition of new elements can blend with that starting place. In Soderbergh’s most recent case, the addition of Adam McKay to the formula proved too fatal to withstand. But with Gerwig, the blend of her and the stylistic playfulness of late-20th century French cinema gives us something new and wonderful, the classical and the irreverent lifting each other up. And using this new combination of the straightforward and the arty to then make a Barbie movie? If Soderbergh hadn’t gotten the Ocean’s Eleven script first, I bet he would’ve done that.