Aaron Katz’s Gemini opens with a vertiginous upside-down shot of palm trees against a saturated indigo sky—a postcard-perfect Los Angeles, inverted. The camera lingers for a few minutes and then tilts slowly back to earth, as if emerging from a psychedelic stupor. It’s an excellent introduction to Katz’s beguiling neo-noir. Although rife with wry nods to familiar tropes and meta-commentary on the making of mysteries, Gemini is not so much an ironic perversion of the genre as a woozy, Instagram-y evocation. It resurrects the ghosts of L.A. noirs past and filters them through a neon-slicked lens, constructing a sleek thriller around distinctly millennial themes of celebrity and identity.
Katz is known primarily for being one of the originators of the mumblecore movement—a verbose, low-key brand of cinema whose predilection for non-events and naturalistic banter seems almost antithetical to the demands of genre filmmaking. That’s partly what makes Cold Weather (2010), Katz’s Portland-set mumblecore detective-thriller, so ingeniously playful. The film’s central mystery is hilariously out of place in the otherwise banal, everyday world of its hipster-slacker characters. It becomes a MacGuffin around which they momentarily organize their directionless lives, invigorated almost to a comic extent by the possibility it provides for meaning and self-invention—at one point, a character smokes a pipe to try and get into the headspace of Sherlock Holmes.
Gemini, at first glance, is a more straightforward plunge into genre. The lives of its protagonists, Hollywood starlet Heather Anderson (Zoe Kravitz) and her personal assistant Jill LeBleau (Lola Kirke), are far from banal. In just the opening twenty minutes of the film, the two women field a call from Heather’s scorned ex Devin (who drops the first of the film’s many casual “I am going to kill her”s), inform a beleaguered screenwriter of Heather’s decision to back out of his long-gestating project (cue another homicidal threat), tell off a stalker-y fan who approaches them with highly invasive questions, and deal with a sleazy paparazzo hungry for details about Heather’s romantic life. They live in a rarefied, ominous world abounding in mysteries and threats. And yet, something of the existential languor of Katz’s mumblecore permeates this film as well, although here it’s not endearing but deeply melancholic. The lead characters speak in a somnambulistic drawl thick with ennui (“I don’t want to do anything for a while,” says Heather) and drive aimlessly through Katz’s ghostly, blue-violet L.A. nightscape. When tragedy strikes, it seems almost willed into place by their desire—not unlike that of the characters of Cold Water—to re-energize their lives with purpose.
The film’s first act explores the weird, homoerotic lopsidedness of the personal assistant-celebrity relationship, which is slowly becoming a genre unto itself, thanks to Oliver Assayas’ last two outings. Sharp, sensible Jill is introduced to us as a textbook image of millennial isolation, sitting alone in a dim car with her face lit up by the glow of her phone. She lives a somewhat spectral, vicarious existence, managing Heather’s schedule, cleaning her messes, and third-wheeling on her secret date with K-pop star Tracy (Greta Lee). Heather, although flighty and indecisive, seems to care genuinely about Jill— “I love you,” she whispers to her assistant in bed after affirming their plans to start their own independent film company. But any illusions of equity in their relationship are shattered when Heather is found dead in her palatial house, and Jill is the prime suspect. “Did you always want to be a personal assistant when you grew up?,” asks Detective Edward Ahn (John Cho), suspicious that someone as smart and educated as Jill would volunteer to be someone’s thankless second shadow without an ulterior motive. (He’s clearly unfamiliar with the soul-crushing ways of Hollywood).
It’s telling how swiftly Jill springs into amateur-gumshoe mode. Her quest to exonerate herself from Heather’s murder becomes, in many ways, an opportunity to author a fresh identity: she dyes her hair blonde and puts on a trench coat, fashioning herself into the protagonist of her own thriller. Kirke navigates this switch absorbingly, transforming a somewhat plain and unformed character into an alluring noir cipher. The film plays along with her arc of reinvention; as she traverses the city in search of answers, Katz reframes classic genre elements with stylized set pieces—a motorcycle chase along a U-turn becomes an expressionistic swirl of light and color, filmed with the cool remove of a crane shot, while Keegan DeWitt’s jazzy, bluesy score riffs nostalgically on 80s neo-noirs.
However, it’s Heather’s desire for reinvention that forms the film’s most powerful and haunting subtext. Although on screen for only a limited amount of time, Zoe Kravitz leaves an indelible impression as a vulnerable young woman in thrall to her own celebrity. Early in the film, Heather and Jill are approached at a restaurant by a fan with an eerie resemblance to the star, right down to the gemini (get it?) tattoo at the nape of her neck. She joins their table despite Jill’s insistence otherwise and asks an incredibly inappropriate question, embodying Instagram-era entitlement to the private lives of public figures. A shocked Heather asks her to leave, but feels compelled to check how she looks in the photo the girl posts on social media. Later, Heather kisses Tracy goodbye after a date, and then worries that someone might have snapped a picture. She cuts a tragically powerless figure, struggling to control her public image and salvage a personal identity while being constantly surveilled and scrutinized. The means she uses to achieve these ends might be selfish—even downright manipulative, as the film’s final reveal indicates—but it’s hard not to sympathize with the young star’s desperate attempt to find some quiet amidst the dehumanizing din of fame.