The Royal Road

Directed by Jenni Olson

Starring Jenni Olson and Tony Kushner

A fascinating and unlikely reinvention story, The Royal Road simultaneously explores cinematic spiritual channeling, the conquest and colonization of Mexico and the American Southwest, fading historical Californian urban landscapes, and the passions found in butch identity to achieve an achingly beautiful and poetic defense of remembering. Probing roads from El Camino Real, to the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, to the road right outside the front door, Olson crafts a deeply intelligent and transcending observation of the human condition that reaches for redemption in the embrace of history, nostalgia, mindfulness, and sheer beauty. If you give yourself over to it, it will crack you wide open.


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  • ★★★★½ review by Sean Gilman on Letterboxd

    SIFF 2015

    Jenni Olson, in a deadpan voiceover equal parts Sarah Vowell and Chris Marker, sets herself the task of tracing the Camino Real, the Royal Road connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles. But almost before she begins she's lost: rambling digressions on history, cinephilia, her romantic failures and bewitching images of urban landscapes (still but always in motion, either cars on the freeway or wind in the trees), follow, pulling her and us into the past, into soul of America's most entrancing city.

    Minus 0.5 stars because of the way she repeatedly says "Madeleine" with a long 'i' sound.

  • ★★★★ review by Filipe Furtado on Letterboxd

    Projecting desire and the longing of history.

  • ★★★½ review by Felix Hubble on Letterboxd

    What if Conor Bateman was a cool, middle-aged lesbian...

  • ★★★½ review by Michael Sicinski on Letterboxd


    [This is an excerpt from my article "Lines and Traces," which appears in Cinema Scope 64.]

    Instigated in part by a troubled long-distance relationship that found Olson based in San Francisco and the object of her affection in L.A., The Royal Road treats the physical landscape of California as a kind of palimpsest of conflicting desires – romantic and sexual, colonial and political. In the film, Olson chooses to emphasize the various disruptions of the historic road that is her subject, El Camino Real, both through her formalist approach and her digressive storytelling. The general format of The Royal Road is one of fixed-frame shots of relative duration, all of them characterized by a tendency to keep human activity at a distance. Instead, Olson asks us to consider spatial relationships: the San Francisco Bay, a statue of Serra on a cliff overlooking a city, a winding bit of road that curls around a house like a private driveway, or a distant fragment of an anonymous freeway noteworthy only because of one of those mission bells.

    As Olson provides these select views, we hear her voiceover providing both concrete historical data about the Spanish settlement of California, and her own narrative as a non-native Californian coming to adopt certain identities and images as part of her personal history. Olson describes the impact that Hollywood films such as Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950) and Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) had on her, particularly while coming to terms with her gender dysphoria and nascent butch identity. In a viewing scenario that very much runs counter to Laura Mulvey’s account of “fetishistic scopophilia” in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (wherein female spectators are always positioned as secondary objects, characterized by their “to-be-looked-at-ness”), Olson describes locating herself alongside the fictional men onscreen. [...]

    The Royal Road does not explicitly connect Olson’s private experience to the shared public histories of California. But as she allows them to drift alongside each other, we begin to sense an affective logic, one hardened into physical argument by Olson’s sharp, exacting montage and geometrical framing. The film is an assemblage of experience at multiple levels of abstraction. [...]

  • ★★★★ review by Conor Bateman on Letterboxd

    Jenni Olson’s latest work is an ode to nostalgia and memory told through the form of a gradually digressive essay film about a road. That’s a reductive way to put it, but The Royal Road springs from the narrative allure of California’s El Camino Real, which then serves as the visual anchor for a multi-faceted monologue in which Olson talks through the history of San Francisco and California, the impact that cinema has had on the formation and confirmation of her sexual identity and, as she puts it, “the quest for unattainable women.” The film, five years in the making and drawn from 16mm film footage shot by Olson as far back as 1997, passes by with a strangely alluring sense of timelessness. At one point Olson reflects on how capturing the landscape on film somehow preserves it, time in amber, but the presentation of The Royal Road eschews temporality; both the film’s content and presentation reflect a rejection of digital cultures and a focus on grappling with the real and fictive past.

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