It’s not an uncommon phenomenon for two movies to come out the same year, with very similar premises. The Prestige and The Illusionist both came out in 2006, Deep Impact and Armageddon were both 1998, and 2013 was the year we got those two “Die Hard in the White House” movies. More often than not, these aren’t instances of direct plagiarism (though that has been known to happen; see the Antz vs Bug’s Life debacle). Rather, what’s going on here is a combination of market research and trend-following which has resulted in parallel thought.
2020 had two such films. January saw the theatrical release – one of the few theatrical releases of the year – of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, and September has the film Unpregnant drop straight into HBOMax. Meanwhile, Portrait of a Lady on Fire counts both as a 2019 and a 2020 film – it got a limited release in December of last year, but a wide release in February of this year (again, one of the few before lockdown was enacted) – and Ammonite came out on VOD just this month.
On the spectrum of weird shit 2020 has given us, this probably ranks way lower on the scale, but it still bears discussing. Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Unpregnant can both be accurately described as “abortion road trip movies”, where two teenage girls are forced to travel across state lines in order to safely undergo the procedure. Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Ammonite, meanwhile, are both period lesbian romances in which one half the central romantic duo basically gets paid by a family member of the other half, basically to hang out with them. In Portrait, it’s because famed French painter Marianne has been commissioned to do a wedding photo of a reluctant bride without her knowledge, and in Ammonite, paleontologist Mary Anning is hired directly to care for a socialite’s depressed wife.
In spite of how much I went into the discrepancies in their plot setups, stylistically, the differences between Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Unpregnant are significantly more pronounced than they are between Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Ammonite. Never is an indie movie through and through; completely lacking in a conventional soundtrack, or VO, the film mostly trades in silence, crafting an environment that feels almost punishingly down-to-earth. Unpregnant, meanwhile, aims squarely for the masses, with pop music, sub-Booksmart dialogue, and several outsized comedy scenes, including an honest-to-god car chase.
With a lot of these “double films”, there usually end up being clear winners. I like both The Prestige and The Illusionist a lot, but if I had to pick one, it’s The Prestige any day of the week (in the wake of Tenet’s release, I’ve been kinda missing early Nolan, the one who didn’t have a budget the size of god, and still needed to reign it in a little bit). Both Antz and A Bug’s Life are technically well made, but Antz can’t help but feel more soulless by comparison (even without knowing about the behind-the-scenes mayhem that went into making that movie, you watch Antz and you can just about feel the studio mandates seeping through the frame).
Such is the case here. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with a movie being labeled “mainstream” – frankly, I’d take a thousand marvel movies over the most up-its-own-ass pretentious art movie any day – but when it comes right down to it, Never Rarely Sometimes Always tells its story in a subtle, layered way, playing scene after scene full of quiet ambiguity; never using silence as a crutch in order to make itself feel more important, but filling those silences with honest feeling. Unpregnant, on the other hand, highlights and underscores every single point it wants to make with bold capital letters and a sharpie. The central friendship in Never feels inherently lived-in; we accept the bond these two have on a deep level. Unpregnant doesn’t have that, so a lot of the time the two friends in that movie are forced to give speeches to each other that were very clearly written by a Hollywood screenwriter.
There are a lot of speeches in Unpregnant; characters are constantly spelling out exactly what they’re thinking and feeling moment to moment. This doesn’t entirely negate the film’s emotional core – there are still a number of lovely little moments scattered throughout, and the ending is pretty great – but it does negate the overall whole significantly. There’s fun to be had – the car chase I mentioned above works entirely because they fully commit to its sheer absurdity – but the fact is, after seeing what Never Rarely Sometimes Always could accomplish by saying nothing, it was a little disheartening to see a movie tackle similar subject matter with such a blunt instrument. Never is a movie made with real emotional honesty, whereas Unpregnant has a “heartfelt climax” that feels lifted right out of a Disney Channel original movie.
But that’s nothing compared to the difference between Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Ammonite. Unpregnant, at the very least, could come down to a matter of taste. Ammonite is just bad. Like I said, Portrait was one of the few cinema releases of the year, and of all the movies I managed to see in the cinema before shutdown, it was far and away the best. Portrait is a movie so good, I’m absolutely counting it for both my 2019 and 2020 Best Of lists. It’s a sumptuous movie, full of genuine passion, and a filmmaking style that seemed to evoke the colors of life.
Ammonite, on the other hand, is a dreadful bore, an airless, passionless slog. Whereas Portrait’s vibrant visuals seemed almost to jump off the big screen, Ammonite snoozed along with its dull muted greys, naturalistic camerawork, and a general lack of spark that’s more or less a death warrant for these kinds of romance movies. And that’s just it; there’s genuine romance in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a real sense of human connection. Ammonite is just cold.
Would either of these movies have worked better if not for their superior (and more widely known) counterparts? There’s an argument to be made for Unpregnant, which I think did suffer from existing entirely within Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ shadow (the common response around the interwebz at around the time of Unpregnant’s release was, “Wait, another one?”) I don’t think Ammonite could’ve benefitted from Portrait never existing, however.