Many successful independent movies from regional filmmakers these days make a virtue of their lack of production resources and embrace their digital-video esthetic.
Shot on location, these films frequently employ untrained actors in naturalistic, even improvised situations. The appearance of documentary authenticity conveys an artistic integrity and intimacy unbeholden to budgetary concerns.
Brian Pera's economical yet extremely ambitious "Woman's Picture" is different. The Memphis writer-director's second feature — which has taken almost three years to complete — is a three-part anthology film with an expressionistic color palette and an emphasis on design. Dialogue refers to Ingrid Bergman and Elizabeth Taylor, and the influence of such Hollywood masters of stylized, personalized melodrama as Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli is strong.
"Woman's Picture" invites swooning, not mumbling, and it reveals rather than conceals artistic intent. Despite its very low budget, the movie employs professional actors, including movie, TV and theater star Ann Magnuson. The film — which had its world premiere July 11 at Outfest in Los Angeles — even features a fantasy musical number with Memphis' Amy LaVere, whose "Never Been Sadder" could be the theme song for the story's three essentially unconnected yet similarly distressed and somehow glamorous heroines.
In the film, Magnuson plays a home-shopping-network celebrity, but she could be talking about the effect of Pera's movie when she describes the perfume she's hawking as "a classic femme-fatale Old Hollywood fragrance. ... This stuff brings back memories ... ."
"Woman's Picture" screens at 1:15 p.m. Saturday at Playhouse on the Square, 66 S. Cooper. It is one of 36 feature films set to screen today, Saturday and Sunday on the final three days of the 14th annual Indie Memphis Film Festival. In addition to Pera, such notable Memphis filmmakers as Morgan Jon Fox, Kentucker Audley and Ben Siler will be represented.
The festival, which began Thursday, also includes short film programs, filmmaking workshops, panel discussions, live music and more.
The plethora of events attached to Indie Memphis is appropriate, because "Woman's Picture," too, is the center blossom in an expanding bouquet of complementary endeavors. Offshoots of "Woman's Picture" include short films by Pera that further explore the characters in the feature; a novella, written by Pera; and, most intriguingly, an original fragrance, called Miriam, developed by Zurich perfumer Andy Tauer in homage to the woman played by Magnuson. Pera refers to this as "a classic aldehyde fragrance," in the tradition of Chanel No. 5.
Other fragrances inspired by other characters will be developed for what Pera and Tauer call a "Tableau de Parfums." Information about most of these projects can be found on Pera's website, EvelynAvenue.com, named for the Midtown street where the director lives. The perfumes are available at luckyscent.com.
Via e-mail from Switzerland, Tauer said Pera contacted him "out of the blue" to suggest a collaboration, which Tauer said is "rather unique, both in the movie and the perfume industry." (Notwithstanding the example of such intentionally stinky predecessors as John Waters' "Polyester" and the current "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World," which supply moviegoers with scratch-and-sniff cards.) Tauer said he was "thrilled" by Pera's script, and the idea of a "creative dialogue" between scent and images.
"I create fragrant pictures that evoke memories and emotions," Tauer wrote. "My pictures are volatile and not built to last. Brian Pera creates and tells stories using motion pictures."
Perhaps most familiar to audiences for her starring role opposite John Malkovich in the 1987 sci-fi comedy "Making Mr. Right" and her recurring part on the ABC sitcom "Anything But Love," from 1989 to 1992, Magnuson was similarly impressed by Pera's "passion" for his work.
"Brian contacted me through Facebook several months after I decided I wasn't going to go on any more TV or movie auditions because the parts were so pitiful, the competition so ferocious and it was a profound waste of my time, which could be spent on my performance and visual art," said Magnuson, 55.
Despite this wariness, Magnuson agreed to let Pera mail her a copy of his first feature, "The Way I See Things," an oddball commune comedy that debuted at the 2008 Indie Memphis Film Festival.
"I was impressed with his intelligence and his passion to create something outside the usual bounds," she said.
She said the character of Miriam — trapped in a marriage and job with men with no real interest in her happiness or welfare — enabled her to demonstrate how "our culture alternately encourages women to assume positions of power and then punishes them for it. Miriam has given me the opportunity to show more acting range than any Hollywood film ever has — or any other indie film."
The executive producer of "Women's Picture" is Memphis-born filmmaker Ira Sachs ("Forty Shades of Blue"), and the beautiful digital photography — dusted with faded shades of pink — is by Ryan Parker. Inspired in part by the classic "women's pictures" or "weepies" of the 1930s, '40s and '50s that also influenced Sachs, "Woman's Picture" opens with a sequence set in Midtown, as a somewhat mysterious woman named Ingrid (Calpernia Addams) returns home with her rather snobbish New York boyfriend (Pera).
The second segment follows a fragile and almost mute hotel maid, Loretta (LaVere), as she sinks deeper into the fantasy world of her mind. The final section follows Miriam on a particularly awful day that ultimately proves liberating. As in a movie by Robert Altman, the seemingly unconnected women are linked, almost mystically, by shared references and experiences.
Allusions to mothers are everywhere in the movie — as, indeed, are actual mothers. As Miriam says: "The whole world is mothers and daughters and what is going on between them."
"'Woman's Picture' overall has a lot to do with my childhood," said Pera, 43. "Childhood is a felt but unseen presence in the stories. They deal with the effects of childhood."
He said the movie was something of an homage to his grandmothers. "When I was a kid, I would go into both of my grandmothers' bedrooms and secretly smell their perfumes. Because I was a boy, I was not supposed to wear it, and of course I'd get caught if I did. But I can smell a perfume now that I smelled at my grandmother's vanity as a child, and it instantly brings her back."