There’s a scene in the middle of Hal Hartley’s 1992 indie “Simple Men” where a cryptic brunette played by gamin actress Elina Löwensohn — ice-pale, with blunt black bangs — interrupts the plot with a choreographed dance number to a fuzzy track by Sonic Youth. Hartley wanted to break the fourth wall, and here comes filmmaker Chiara Malta (who co-wrote the script with Sébastien Laudenbach and Marco Pettenello) to smash his rubble into dust with her playful narrative debut.
“Simple Women” spins that musical moment into a dizzying story about ambition and artistic competition in which Löwensohn plays herself as the object of obsession for an aspiring Italian director named Federica (Jasmine Trinca), who’s been fixated on Löwensohn’s “Simple Men” character since the ’90s for making epilepsy look glamorous. That Federica wears owl-eyed glasses that make her the mirror image of Malta is no coincidence in a movie that stacks layers of reality on layers of artifice.
At its core, “Simple Women” feels like a magical trifle — the energy of that Löwensohn scene stretched to full-length, with a light gloss of politics painted on in the film’s first scene, when young Federica has her first seizure in 1989 as her family watches the execution of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu on TV. Decades later, when the misfit spots her dearest Elina Löwensohn on a sidewalk in Rome, where the actress has flown for yet another audition misfire, she pounces on her idol and learns she was born in Romania. Surely their connection is fate, and Federica convinces Elina they should go to Bucharest to film her biography — which, as the would-be auteur sees it, is the poetic saga of a girl who fled Communism with her ballerina mother and was reborn as the best actress of her generation.
The film’s version of Elina sees things differently. After her Hartley debut (which is true), followed by a cameo in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (also true), her career became a bit of a bust. “A mom, a servant or a traitor,” she groans. When Malta shows her working in Hollywood, Elina is hidden under tubing and wires as a patient in a medical thriller, and when her bit part wraps, she’s left alone in the bed, removing her own props to hammer home that her star status has flatlined. (Never fear: In reality, she continues to have a packed slate in France.)
It’s a brave choice for Löwensohn to blur the line between her own career and “Simple Women’s” fictionalized diva. Malta is interested in the flow of need between Elina, who wants a champion, and Federica, who wants to make her film. Their power struggle is painful. Trinca and Löwensohn make weapons out of their wounds. Elina attacks Federica with patronizing kindness; Federica watches Elina sleep. Gradually, they see each other’s weakness through other people’s eyes, like a local chat show host who bungles Löwensohn’s last name as her smile stretches false and tight. Even Elina’s big fur jackets seem like a desperate attempt to take up space. Meanwhile, the audience realizes that Federica isn’t up to being a director. Malta notes all the small ways the crew undermines the helmer’s authority but doesn’t excuse her shadow self for making impulsive filmmaking mistakes just to appear decisive. As the production goes from awkward to cataclysmic, Federica’s left hollering to no one, “Stop the wind! Stop the wind!”
“Simple Women” shies away from external pressures like money and debt to focus on the pair’s relationship. Though Federica’s producer, Ariana, vibrates with anxiety that the production is going too slow, the director and her star concentrate solely on the personal and the portentous — especially after a mirror breaks on the first day of the shoot, inspiring the women to talk separately to Gypsy fortunetellers, who warn both to quit the project or else.
Malta’s confidence makes the film seem more substantial than it ultimately is. She laces the script with disorienting callbacks that echo through the script, like giving Elina and Federica childhood friends with almost the exact same name. Tudor Vladimir Panduru’s camerawork favors jostling tracking shots and long takes that weave around to make sure they don’t miss a thing, all over Olivier Mellano’s woolly, wordless pop-punk score. The music gives “Simple Women” a boot-stomping, riot grrrl energy perfect for hearing Elina scream, “The truth is I gave you my life, and you did nothing with it!” Perhaps Malta was afraid she, too, wasn’t up to the task. The good news is, in a film about phonies, Malta’s no imposter.