Show Me What You Got Explores the Polyamorous Relationships of Millennials
Svetlana Cvetko enjoys films where nothing happens. The award-winning immigrant director and cinematographer likes sitting through cinéma vérité and slice of life feature films, which explains a lot about Show Me What You Got, her monochromatic exploration of polyamory with a charismatic trio of actors. Cristina Lippolis plays Christine, an artist working as a part-time waitress who becomes the center of a ménage à trois with Nassim (Neyssan Falahi), a struggling actor, and Marcello (Mattia Minasi), a famous actor’s son living off his parents’ wealth.
The first question one asks when the film opens is why it’s in black and white, the first disconnect between the film and an audience that might be more accustomed to color. “Part of the story,” Cvetko answers, “has been kind of told from this narrator whom we find out, by the end, is basically a character in the film. But we wanted the film to be something that felt like a memory that’s set in the contemporary world.”
The chiaroscuro makes for gorgeous cinema, which seems to be the point. Cvetko overindulges in some form of Steadicam voyeurism that at times makes you feel uncomfortable, as though you’re invisibly watching something you’re not supposed to be watching. The discomfort, as well as the disconnect from the situation and the subject matter, is a hurdle in the viewing experience.
The characters might be difficult to relate to for many people, as Cvetko hews close to her own immigrant experiences and filmmaking background. Nassim as a struggling actor in a foreign land, Marcello as a trust fund baby aimlessly going through life, and Christine as an up-and-coming installation artist are three characters for whom most audiences will find little in common not only in lifestyle and temperament, but most critically in their polyamorous relationship.
This is what makes Show Me What You Got both interesting and difficult to engage with at the same time. Polyamory defies convention but Cvetko reminds us that it’s far more common than most people think. She explains that three members of her modest crew “have been either previously and or are actually right now in that kind of relationship. Also, a very close friend also shared that she has been in a long-term polyamorous relationship.”
That she’d been friends with someone for so long and yet never knew about their uncommon relationship got her thinking about how, despite the fact that there are now so many things we can discuss in today’s world, polyamory is something people still don’t talk about. “And I just felt a need to tell that kind of story.”
And the story is that there really isn’t one. Not in the traditional storytelling sense, and certainly not in any romantic movie sort of way. There’s no conflict, no big moment or climax, and no big romantic gesture. Cvetko deliberately curates every frame to reflect life as it is and not life as the movies show it. Cinéma vérité and French New Wave and all that.
Producer and co-writer David Scott Smith explains, “You know, we've all seen it in films, where somewhere in the end of the second act, all the characters hate each other, and they just yell at each other. And that felt very boring.”
“We didn't want this film to just be like, you know, it's going to be ‘Oh, yeah, they fall in love, they break up by the end, and then somehow they get back together,’” Smith says. “That's the typical plot of the love story. And we just didn't want to follow that kind of predictability.”
Show Me What You Got eschews predictability to the point where one main character’s fate is so jarring and completely out of left field that it breaks the flow of the film narratively and stylistically. Yet, in a way, that moment of the film was the most genuine because it was the product of what was happening in the world at the time.
Cvetko was in France during the Paris attacks in 2015 and as a filmmaker, she felt some responsibility to depict the tragedy in some way and do it justice. It was a challenge to bring that kind of reality, not necessarily rooted in a specific event, but as a commentary on the violence being inflicted upon the world. The treatment, done purely through narration over black, is powerful and surprising.
That said, Cvetko and Smith get caught up in their love for Amelie and Et Tu Mama Tambien, cited as their inspirations, as they loosen the reins on their narrator, an omniscient voice over that all too often tells rather than shows. It’s the weakest part of the film, which is a shame because Cvetko is a powerful visual storyteller who could certainly have done away with narration altogether.
But the narrator is a storytelling conceit that Cvetko stands by purely because it delivers the film’s final surprise. In a film where nothing truly exciting really happens, realizing that it’s all narrated as a memory feels something of a letdown. The director’s intent to depict polyamory as commonplace and ordinary worked a little too well such that there’s nothing scintillating about the ménage à trois.
To their credit, the actors are beautiful and have compelling performances. Christina Rimbaldi is enchanting and earnest, Neyssan Falahi exudes a quiet melancholy, and Mattia Minasi exemplifies the aimlessness of youth. The three make do with what little is given to them, and they make it work. There’s a tenderness to their sensual encounters and it gives enough of a glimpse into their world as a thrupple to almost make it worth it.
Show Me What You Got is only as rewarding a film as you make it. There’s a lot to be appreciated, as Cvetko’s cinematography is a treat in itself, and the actors' natural ease with each other makes the viewing experience intimate and almost intrusive. But you will need to endure the oppressive, almost unnecessary narration and the fact that—polyamory aside—as far as story arcs go, your life is probably more exciting.
Few films are courageous enough to attempt so many things at once, and even little things, such as Cvetko using color for only one scene, are reminiscent of Spielberg’s girl in red in Schindler’s List or Nischetti’s colored ads in The Icicle Thief. When Cvetko injects sociopolitical commentary through the fate of a major character, it’s out of place but also earnest. The film works in as many ways as it doesn’t and essentially the celluloid equivalent of the proverbial glass, it can be as full or as empty as you want it to be.