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  •   27. August 2016  





Aktuelle Print-Ausgabe:
CARGO Film/Medien/Kultur 30
vom 24. Juni 2016

CARGO 30 Cover, CARGO 29 Cover,

Toronto 2011

Von Michael Sicinski  

(3) The Home and the World

Slight Return: In this, my final report on the Toronto International Film Festival, I take a moment to wrap up from a distance, perhaps a slightly greater distance than I’d originally hoped. The frenzy of a film festival, which is a unique and exhausting form of labor, will always be described by critics (to our readers, to our families back home) with a rather self-serving tone that inevitably rankles, albeit unintentionally so. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that this is a result of the double-bind of cultural work, particularly those forms that are not obviously “productive.” If we acknowledge our good fortune and relatively extreme pleasure at having the opportunity to immerse ourselves in days’ worth of films, even very bad ones, for the purposes of evaluation, we’re opening ourselves to charges of privilege. If we emphasize the grinding facticity of the job aspect – sleepless nights on deadline, multiple missed meals, the eventual breakdown of immune systems and goodwill back home – we’re whiners with (as the popular Internet phrase has it) “first world problems.”

So on a practical level, the only possible way to save face is to keep our mouths shut, complaining amongst ourselves. Our partners just know that we’ll be assholes for a few days upon re-entry. (How do these people do it? Praises be!) When someone breaks the code of external stoicism, the way Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells did a few years back by publicly bitching about the bad wi-fi at some rinky dink festival somewhere, he’s pilloried. (Really not so fair, in retrospect. We’ve all been there. We all get just too tired.) But in the end, we all walk a line, knowing that we’re extremely fortunate to still even have film festivals to attend, and to be able to attend them. And we’re always worried that by acknowledging that good fortune, someone somewhere will strip us of it in short order, like the “luxury” of checked baggage or actual legroom on an airline flight. After all, that’s what late capitalism’s all about. Snuff out vestigial remnants of the good life, and reconfigure them as premiums for the lucky few.

Utopias in Transit: In a sense a terrible oversight, but actually rather a propos, that I filed my previous Toronto column focusing on 2011 films about European immigration prior to seeing Aki Kaurismäki’s glorious Cannes entry Le Havre. While it certainly needs to be considered within that framework, mostly as a wryly stern corrective to the center-right (or worse) defeatism characteristic of so many other films on the topic, Le Havre is much more than an issue film about unauthorized border crossings. It’s a parable about the meanings of home and family, a dialectical reminder that if those two fundamental categories – “home” and “family” – are not radically open, subject to revision and expansion, then they actually have no meaning whatsoever. A guarded boundary is a death sentence, the barricade of a self that is destined to wither.

Le Havre focuses on the strategically named Marcel Marx, an elderly shoeshine man played by veteran character actor André Wilms. He and his wife Arletty (Aki regular Kati Outinen) live a modest life in the French port town, until she becomes ill and enters hospital. At the same time, on the docks, a noise is heard in a cargo container coming off a freighter. Inside is discovered a large group of Africans being smuggled into France. All are detained, but one young boy, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) makes a break for it. He ends up in Marcel’s care, and eventually everyone on Marcel’s block – neighbors, barmaids, shopkeepers, some of whom have never had much use for the perpetually destitute boot polisher – pitches in to conceal Idrissa from the authorities. The boy is trying to make it to London, where his mother has already secured employment. What is truly remarkable about Le Havre is Kaurismäki’s clear, unfussy depiction of a bedrock of humanist decency within French society, wherein people don’t think twice about helping the immigrant, just as the best of them would have hidden a Jew 75 years ago. Formally, Kaurismäki’s films have always been about bodies and space, both their movements and their immobility. In purely constructivist terms, he owes much to Fassbinder, although their worldviews and sensibilities are miles apart. With its frankly artificial happy ending, and a secondary resolution so miraculously engineered as to border on Sirkian self-parody, Le Havre is aggressively frank in its counterfactual utopianism. Kaurismäki uses cinema to envision a world in which the love of humanity overcomes borders, and even death – things to aspire to, rather than the same bad news.

Swamp Things: Almayer’s Folly, the long-awaited return to fiction filmmaking by Chantal Akerman, is a film whose mastery and cumulative power equals that of Kaurismäki’s, which is not something to take lightly in what, on the whole, has proven to be a weak year for TIFF. However, Akerman’s film exhibits a considerably more pessimistic view regarding the possibilities of overcoming the legacies of European colonialism and, perhaps just as significantly, rewriting the laws of kinship. From Sophocles through Freud and Lévi-Strauss, family and blood ties have been understood as the foundation of the social contract, but in recent years some philosophers, Judith Butler in particular, have tried to reconceive kinship from alternate premises. Following Alain Badiou, we could see the expanded family as being one of workers’ solidarity, the sort on display in Le Havre. But there is something deeper, more primal and psychoanalytic churning at the center of Almayer’s Folly – not surprising, given that it is an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad text. And for Conrad, of course, racial and national identity is a constitutive wound, a variant of the Lacanian “Real.”

In the stunning opening scene, we see Nina (Aurora Marion), the mixed-race woman of Dutch and Southeast Asian descent (Akerman filmed in Cambodia, but the locale is never specified), on stage performing a poppy song and dance number with several other girls. Her role is unclear, except that she is somehow working for or with her boyfriend, political rebel Daïn (Zac Andrianasolo). An assailant lumbers up on stage and stabs Daïn to death, sending the other dancers into a panic. But Nina, almost hypnotized, stares straight ahead and sings on, defiantly. This is her moment to claim subjecthood for herself, and against both Daïn and her father, the domineering Almayer (Stanislas Merhar). Almayer, a Dutch trader who married a “native” (Sakhna Oum) who he holds in contempt, tries in vain to rear Nina as a Westerner, as “civilized,” even though his hatred of their tropical outpost borders on mania and virtually insures a boomerang-effect. Through langour, halted movement, drunken paralysis, and the sheer physical effort of wading through the dense jungle foliage or negotiating the steep banks of the river, the characters in Almayer’s Folly are stranded in a sort of colonist’s nightmare projection of “the dangerous Orient,” the Dutch East India Company as Samuel Beckett bug-box. Akerman shows the stresses within the family unit as always having been those present among unequal political powers, and gradually allows those power relations to inscribe themselves across raced and gendered bodies. Almayer’s Folly, which inexplicably received a mixed reaction at TIFF, is without a doubt one of the best films of 2011.

Throw Back the Little Ones: There were a regrettable surfeit of films this year that were forgettable in every way, although it’s very likely I just made some poor choices. I try my best to take the pulse of contemporary Filipino cinema when I can, since it’s clearly one of a number of national industries that has been flourishing of late. (What’s more, we all know that film festivals are notoriously fickle when it comes to their designated hot spots. This year, there was not a single Romanian film in TIFF. Yesterday’s news!) I’d have loved to devote a whole screening day to Lav Diaz’s Century of Birthing, but I say that every year about Diaz’s films, and I never do. One day I will lock myself in a hotel room and stage my own private Lav-a-Thon. Apart from Raya Martin’s wonderful one-minute short Ars Colonia, showing in the Wavelengths section, I explored Filipino film by seeing Adolfo Alix, Jr.’s Fable of the Fish, which was an ill-advised choice. A shoddy exercise in digital widescreen, it was in fact about middle-class couple Miguel and Lina (Bembol Roco, Cherry Pie Pichache) forced to move next to a dumpsite in Catmon where, for reasons unknown but no doubt allegorical, the heretofore-barren Lina gives birth to a large fish. Much uninspired magic realism ensues, with the main questions being whether skeptic (and audience stand-in) Miguel will ever accept his, um, spawn. All in all, I think most of us would have rather been watching Martin’s curiously AWOL new feature, Buenos Noches, España.

Passes and Misses: Other tepid entries included the diverting but shallow Dirch, helpfully retitled A Funny Man for non-Danish audiences. A fairly straightforward biopic chronicling the key career years of pivotal Euro comedian Dirch Passer, the film is fairly nondescript apart from serving as a solid star vehicle for veteran character actor Nicolaj Lie Kaas. He captures Passer (whose work, admittedly, I did not know beforehand) as fully as Jim Carrey embodied Andy Kaufman in The Man in the Moon, and in point of fact it’s exactly the same kind of movie – a series of meticulously recreated YouTube clips and infamous highlights, with standard creative-struggle narrative cartilage. Even less worthwhile was the Czech animated effort Alois Nebel, an adaptation of a graphic novel detailing the daily life and psychological travails of the title character, a train dispatcher working in a rural backwater. His meticulous timekeeping and repetitive schedule helps him to keep at bay his traumatic childhood memories of World War II. Nebel means “mist” in German; backwards, leben, “life.” This pretty much exemplifies the film’s literal-mindedness. In the same vein, director Tomáš Luňák exploits none of the fantastical potential of adult animation. I sat drumming my fingers, recalling visionary masterworks (A Scanner Darkly), problematic yet undeniably original films (Persepolis, Waltz With Bashir), and even putrid, hateful films that at least had the courage of their convictions (Sin City).

Wherever You Go, There You Are: In a quite different category altogether is i am a good person / i am a bad person, the latest from Canadian indie auteur Ingrid Veninger. Although Veninger’s film is undoubtedly far more personal than Dirch or Nebel, it shares with them a troublesome approach. Good person / bad person represents a definite “type” of film, one that slots into the broad swath of film festival offerings quite easily (as easily as the “Danish biopic” or the “Czech animation”), but does not distinguish itself particularly well within its given set of procedures. Veninger plays Ruby White, an autobiographical filmmaker making the festival rounds with her latest low-budget opus. (As in Lisandro Alonso’s Fantasma, the turnout is lousy.) We see her at Q&As, after-parties, and with her family, in various (quite deliberate) states of solipsism and cluelessness, tempered with a good-hearted openness to the world around her. The chief “conflict” in this relatively open-form film is Ruby’s failure to put her film promotion on hold to adequately parent her 18-year-old daughter Sara (Hallie Switzer). So thematically, what Veninger is after is rather evident – the artist as the parent who is more like the child; the diaristic filmmaker whose attention is so channeled through the viewfinder that she cannot she her own life as it surrounds her. In other words, good person / bad person flirts with certain David Holzman level existential crises, but Veninger tends to sidestep their more daunting implications with a Miranda July-type cutesiness, which is in turn “problematized” by her Caveh Zahedi-esque, “I am a courageous artist playing a navel-gazing cad, or courageously displaying myself as same” ouroboros stylistics.  In the end, there’s a coyness here that just feels like a filmmaker hedging her bets, and making sure that her creation fits neatly within available art-film models.

The Lightning Round: I’m having a difficult time choosing which film to focus on by way of conclusion. With the so-called luxury of hindsight (as opposed to the delirium of four or five films a day, rushing past one’s sensorium and fighting for some kind of sustained attention), so few of them seem worthy of further engagement. In due time, in another venue, I will no doubt set my jaw and expound at some length about why Steve McQueen’s Shame is such a risible disappointment, this from a filmmaker and artist whose previous film Hunger combined palpable engagement with the filmed body with a tactile, sculptural facility with the plastic body of film. Now, he’s using agonized music stings to tell us that porno is bad, mmm-kay? Or what of Yorgos Lanthimos’s ALPS, a thuddingly literal-minded follow-up to the chilling exactitude of Dogtooth? The previous film succeeded because it traced the progress of a perverse axiom through a closed system. ALPS, by contrast, follows a cult-like squad of psycho do-gooders as they infect the larger world with their psychopathology. Lanthimos never creates a compelling reason (or even just a functional pretext) as to why anyone would ever let them in. I can only note in brief that I actually found quite a lot to not hate in Dark Horse, the latest from Todd Solondz, an auteur with whom I have an extremely checkered past. While not as fully realized as Life During Wartime from two years ago, the new film is an admirably stripped-down self-indictment, with very little snark or smugness blocking the view of the bile. (This is probably why Solondz’s fans tend to consider it a failure.) Rather than his usual kicked-dog victimology, Solondz offers a portrait of a sociopath (Justin Bartha) who, although offered every chance and kindness by his parents (Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken, both excellent), just struts like a passive-aggressive anger bomb because the world won’t wake up, acknowledge his fundamental awesomeness, and roll out the red carpet. What else? The Kid With a Bike is solid, but finds the Dardennes doing what they do with little or no growth. Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea is Rachel Weisz’s Gertrud, consistently moving and frequently stunning, although Davies has some difficulty forging a successful union between his narrative gestures (as in The House of Mirth) and his classic avant-garde style, centered as it is on held moments and the supreme power of memory.

That Sinking Feeling: But in order to conclude on a somewhat positive note, and to return somewhat to my original (attempted) theme of home and the global, it perhaps makes sense to address one of the more surprising films I saw at TIFF ’11, Jon Shenk’s documentary The Island President. To say, however, that concluding with this film is to end on a “positive note” is to reveal something of my own mordant sense of things, given that The Island President could only, at best, be considered a cautionary tale, and so leaving Toronto behind (as I did – it was my next-to-last film) with its images and frustrated Cassandra bulletins echoing through one’s mind is surely to return home with the sense that all is not, has not been, and will not be well for quite some time. Shenk’s film is a profile of Mohamad Nasheed, the president of the Maldives. The Southeast Asian nation, comprised of over 1,200 individual islands, only achieved democracy in 2008 following an election that was the direct result of massive popular uprising against the regime of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled through violent autocracy since 1978. Nasheed, the frequently-imprisoned opposition leader, beat Gayoom to become the first elected president of the Sunni Muslim nation.

Upon his election, in addition to working overtime to locate the missing funds that Gayoom and his cronies has squirrelled away as graft, Nasheed and his cabinet began seriously listening to local and international scientists, as well as coastal farmers, and had to face the inevitable. Global climate change was raising sea level; the Maldives were rapidly being claimed by the ocean. From this point on, Nasheed became a leading voice in the international community in the fight against climate change. Much of The Island President centers on Nasheed’s preparations for and eventual presence at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, where he was a key player in the major negotiations. This is a tricky decision on Shenk’s part. Nasheed’s finest hour though it may be, the final results were sufficiently ambivalent that one can’t help but wish that the documentary afforded equal time to, say, Nasheed’s early pro-democracy activism, or the specific challenges of being a (seemingly) liberal Muslim, leading an (apparently) center-left Muslim nation, in an historical moment when the Islamic states are in flux, some in the throes of revolution, and the future face of their democracies is uncertain. But Nasheed, who afforded Shenk incredible access throughout the making of The Island President, is a politician who understands media. (His “underwater cabinet meeting,” in which he and his ministers donned scuba gear and sat at a submerged conference table, certainly made a, um, splash.) He knows the value of a well-chosen image, and clearly wanted this film to have a particular focus. And as these things go, “My country is beautiful and vibrant, and it is getting swallowed up by the ocean” is a perfectly reasonable take-away message. And it works. It’s formally conventional, obviously leaves many key questions unasked, and has an agenda from which it rarely strays. (Not unlike TIFF itself, actually.) But I haven’t stopped thinking about The Island President.

 

(2) Ich Bin Ein Auslander

Stranger Here Myself: Festivals often display odd confluences of themes, ideas and anxieties that seem to be exerting pressure on the Zeitgeist. But one never knows just how far to push this without it sounding forced, or like the insular ravings of someone who is (let’s face it) taking in far too many movies while functionally detached from the outside world. But making generalizations that are supportable only upon the flimsy scaffolding on the Venice / Toronto fall festival season is virtually a professional obligation. So here goes. Even more so than usual, international directors – and European directors in particular – are in a deep funk about African immigration. Many of them are scared shitless. Some of them are, if I might purloin a phrase from Tropic Thunder, going full-retard, if not full-fascist. At least that’s what has been said by several reliable sources regarding Belgian installation artist Nicolas Provost’s The Invader, which I have not yet seen myself. I’ll have that pleasure in a few days. (Frankly I can’t wait. It’s been described as a Fatal Attraction-meets-Mandingo miscegenation "thriller.")

Play 

Play For Today: But Ruben Östlund’s Play certainly fits the bill as a meticulously constructed right-wing fantasy, even as it takes real events as its basis. Exurban Sweden, it appears, is being overrun by wild hordes of black kids, all too happy to intimidate, isolate, and outnumber their white European counterparts. Thing is, all those "native" Swedes, according to Play, are bringing this horrid situation on themselves. Generations of liberal democracy and political correctness have produced a polite, docile populace whose good manners make them complicit in their own oppression. Play centers on five black boys tormenting three white ones, and quite pointedly, every time there’s a chance to ask for help, the boys are too conditioned against racism to explain to a grown-up that they’re embroiled in a racial conflict, a reticence the African-Swedes exploit. Play is the perfect tonic for anyone who has ever decried a Haneke or von Trier film as reactionary claptrap. It’s the real deal.

Moors the Pity: From the immediate present to the 19th century, or is it? That’s the trouble with Andrea Arnold’s allegedly radical rethinking of Emily Brontë’s classic Wuthering Heights, which tends to strip away poetic language in favor of close-up, texture, and the windswept heather along those infamous moors. Opening with a jarring curved font that resembles the logos from 1970s disco albums, Wuthering Heights appears fairly desperate to announce its stark difference from stodgy British period dramas. Its boldest stroke, or so it would seem, is recasting Heathcliff (Kaya Scodelario) as an Afro-Carribean rather than a Roma ("gypsy") boy. But this begs several questions. Why revisit Heights now? Arnold’s strategy allows Brontë’s story to make a more contemporary form of sense – Catherine’s fascination with Heathcliff and Hindley‘s hatred of him are both far more legible when read across a black body. But Heights 2011 also provides a kind of spectatorial surrogacy that is deeply troubling, even as it thinks it is progressive. The first half of the film not only provides the constant spectacle of a young black male being mercilessly beaten (with loving visual attention to his bloody wounds). Arnold offers this pleasure with impunity, since we know that Heathcliff with have his revenge in the second act. So Wuthering Heights, apart from being a stifling attempt to replace language and logic with the unmediated stuff of the senses (i.e., implicitly aligning Heathcliff with the Noble Savage, or even the "untutored vision" of infants described by Stan Brakhage), is a cinematic fort / da game, a means to manage the anxiety of real black bodies currently populating British culture and demanding their place at the table, as opposed to "in the barn, with the animals."

Charitable Contributions: One of this year’s very best films, and one that directly addresses Europe’s fraught relationship with its colonial and post-colonial relationship with Africa, was notably absent from TIFF 2011. Ulrich Köhler’s Sleeping Sickness not only focuses on two socio-politically entangled physicians – a German "gone native" and an Congolese-Frenchman with no direct ties to the continent – involved in an African aid mission. It deals quite directly with the multiple levels of corruption and bureaucratic failure built into European NGOs and their African governance, a system of mutual exploitation and double-dealing. TIFF’s programmers have never really supported the "Berlin School" filmmakers in a significant way. (True, they did screen Dreileben. But without the dedicated efforts of Andréa Picard, who programmed the "Wavelengths" experimental film program for the last time this year, the Petzold / Graf / Hochhäusler triptych would not have shown. Entirely her doing.)

Cardboard Village 

On the other hand, TIFF did screen a film from Venice (where it was Out of Competition, naturally) that exhibited a stark humanist response to so-called illegal immigration, and a Christian one at that. Leave it to an old master to strip a complex question down to its basics, leave aside all the anxiety and handwringing, and discover compassion as a basic reflex, a core value of a Europe few seem to recall. Ermanno Olmi’s The Cardboard Village stars Michael Lonsdale (fresh from his turn in Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men) as an elderly Italian priest in the final days before his retirement, watching as his church is deconsecrated, the pews pushed into a corner by a forklift, Christ deposed from the cross by a crane. In the night, the priest takes to the pulpit and addresses the absent congregation. "Where have you all gone?" he asks? Unbeknownst to him, the town’s North African immigrants, hunted by the carabinieri, take up in the back storeroom. Eventually they build a tent city in the empty nave. The younger priest (Rutger Hauer) tries to convince the old man that it is too dangerous to harbor the refugees. "When charity is a risk," he says, "is precisely when it is necessary to offer charity." Olmi stages arguments among the immigrants as well, with some advocating violent revolt, others peaceful resistance. It’s clear, however, that the empty church of Londale’s clergyman is Western humanism itself, a faith that men like Olmi have seen replaced by nihilism and xenophobia.

Epilogue --The Day The Festival Director Cried: It’s become a bit of a bloodsport among festivalgoers to mercilessly make fun of the official trailers that TIFF puts in front of the screenings. This is partly just a function of the fact that they repeat them, with the slightest of variations, before every single screening, press or public, so that by day four or five (to say nothing of seven, nine, twelve…) you’ve had about enough. They used to be easier to hate. Now they’re mostly just bland. (A commercial for a useless looking exhibition of Grace Kelly ephemera resembles an old Elizabeth Taylor “White Diamonds” perfume ad, minus the modicum of irony.) But all of the trailers stopped (at least for the public screenings) on 9/11/2011, so we could pause, and reflect. TIFF gave us the quite unnecessary and rather shockingly parochial short subject, Solace in the Dark. See it here:

With its irked commentary from Christine Vachon (how will I get home?) and TIFF director Piers Handling speaking tearfully about the hardest day of his professional career (until Monsoon Wedding brought us all together again…), here was yet another example of why Toronto so often misses the mark, despite its best (or at least benign) intentions. No one expected the festival to commemorate 9/11. But when it did, it did so like a corporate entity. How did this affect our moment, our management, our brand? A great deal of the irrational fear evident from the films this year (to say nothing of the geopolitics reflected in those films) stems from this one key historical event. Did it merit a Special Section in the festival? Maybe; maybe not. But surely not a half-assed comment about how hard it was to sail the Ship of TIFF through such uncharted waters. 9/11 was a global event, and a uniquely American one, but this short, on its face, would seem to indicate that there’s something about it that certain Canadians just didn’t get, that they’re too close and yet too removed from the U.S. to grasp its full significance. I don’t think that’s true, exactly. But that’s what Solace in the Dark indicates. I doubt that was the intent.

 

(1) Damnation and Decadence

Let the Tiffs Fall Where They May: Last year, as I began my blog dispatches for CARGO from the Toronto International Film Festival, I was starting to observe some significant shifts in the festival’s priorities, not all of them positive. These centered on new leadership in the festival’s programming team, as well as the rather ostentatious unveiling of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the festival’s expensive new glass house. (Stone-throwing optional.) Now that the Lightbox Era is fully upon us, we can make some firm generalizations. TIFF is concerned with branding itself, and being at the center of big money deals, and is not primarily a festival about cinematic art. Nevertheless, cinematic art slips in here and there, and if nothing else, TIFF is almost comically sensitive to public criticism. In his bang-on festival wrap-up last year for Film Comment, Gavin Smith observed TIFF’s corporate programming style, the air of anonymity underlying its selection process. Cue the reaction-formation. Not only have the programming staff signed off on individual films and sections; full-color free-standing posters of the curators now grace each and every TIFF venue, as though they were George Clooney or Angelina Jolie. (“I’ll trade you the Piers Handling if you’ve got Jane Schoettle and her dogs!”)  Once again, TIFF can only “solve” a perceived problem with the business logic of a Hollywood studio, and a sad approximation of that logic at that. But I don’t want to dwell on this. Let’s talk movies.

Sokur-Punch: How can an art film be idiosyncratic to the point of impenetrability, and at the same time seem utterly without a human perspective, a kind of pseudo-classicist slog that issues from some dusty corner of an antiquarian bookshop? We can begin with this year’s freshly-minted, rather unexpected winner from Venice, Alexander Sokurov’s Faust, yet another in an increasing line of Cannes rejects that have gone on to become Golden Lion awardees. In some respects Sokurov’s straightest, most linear effort, its touches of the fantastic and the grotesque all directly occasioned by Goethe’s text, there is a urine-colored ugliness saturating the very texture of the celluloid – call it Piss Faust – that speaks quite directly to the film’s base, bodily orientation. (Sokurov opens his film with Dr. Faust [Johannes Zeiler] ripping entrails out of a cadaver.) There’s a weird buddy-film vibe between Faust and Satan (Anton Adasinskiy), whose hypnotic hoodoo is frequently accompanied by Sokurov’s trademark anamorphic warping. Nevertheless, there’s a grueling, attenuated pre-modernity right down to the marrow of Faust, as though narrativity itself were being etched in acid before you rather than simply performed and recorded. Since seeing Faust and adamantly disliking it, it is growing in my memory, but this could well be because its glorious moments stick with me in ways its agonizing ones do not. I cannot dismiss Sokurov’s film by any means, but it absolutely feels like a damnation of the eyes and ears.

 

Squatters’ Rights: When faced with a film that refutes our understanding of how cinema works, how narratives gel or scenes are articulated with other scenes, we either fight it or ride it out. Like Faust, Nicolas Klotz and Elizabeth Perceval’s Low Life is a tough sit, but one I ultimately found much more rewarding. It’s a film that writhes in its own form of timeless decadence, seemingly recreating the fin de siècle of La Bohème until at last several characters open up cellphones and the present-day setting is confirmed. On its most basic level a film about squatters in Lyon, Low Life is also a philosophical film about the urgency and dangers of youth and insularity, both chosen and enforced. The situation of squatting brings together, in essence, two “types” of people, although (as an early scene makes explicit) to make such a statement – what are types of people? What is an artist? What is a war? Etc. – is to already pose a specific view of the world. We have bourgeois dropouts, like the passionate Carmen (Camille Rutherford) and the foppish Charles (Luc Chessel); and members of the illegal immigrant communities, including Afghan refugee Hussain (Arash Naiman), who meets Carmen following a clash with police during a raid on one such immigrant enclave. Low Life opens with Sophie (Mathilde Bisson-Fabre) racing through the streets at night declaiming theatrical lines about blood and suicide – a rather Rivettian introduction to a film whose dominant spirits will, in fact, be the post-Nouvelle Vague poetic decadents, especially Garrel and Carax. However, Klotz’s direction, with deep, saturated night shots and painterly illumination, frequently recalls Pedro Costa, and with good reason. Low Life is largely an “incoherent” film about social incoherency, how overly articulated ideals of love and the state become circular babble when forbidden participation in the larger conversation of so-called legitimacy. Being declared “illegal” is incoherence. It is to be locked away as unintelligible.

 

Hey, Big Splendor: From a demimonde that bears trappings of 19th century France to a deliberate representation of the fin de siècle, Bertrand Bonello’s L’Apollonide (or House of Tolerance) has proven quite divisive since its debut at Cannes this past May, although I’m hard-pressed to understand why. There are plenty of films currently on the scene that exploit the female form, even purporting to care about the plight of women, while essentially using them as agency-free punching bags. (Miss Bala, anyone?) True, the sort of decadence Bonello marshals with such absolute conviction here – the flesh, yes, but also the mahogany interiors, the gold inlays, the amber light caressing every crease in a cotton slip before it falls to the floor – has been largely verboten onscreen outside of Asian cinema for decades. (Bonello has repeatedly cited Hou Hsiao-hsien’s masterpiece Flowers of Shanghai as his chief inspiration, and he nearly equals that film in formal control and romantic anguish.) During the course of time spent within the brothel L’Apollonide, we, like the patrons who visit the ladies, but also like “La Petite,” the new girl, get to know each of them quite personally. They are not an anonymous gaggle. Bonello insures that our identification remains with the women always, even as they are forced to make choices within the narrowest pathways of social freedom. Although L’Apollonide is not a Marxist film per se, the women’s indentured servitude to the madam (Noémie Lvovsky) is never forgotten. And though it is not a feminist film per se, their sexual fantasies and their desires for normal lives are respected, even as they represent a degree of delusion. They never compete, they never backbite, and they remain sisters until the very end. In our century, with far greater freedom, they might be the real live ladies of Mattieu Amalric’s On Tour, from last year.

Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em: On the one hand, it would appear that formalist rigor is the exact opposite of luxuriant decadence, since rigor usually connotes a kind of parsimony and rectitude, a good behavior and a “waste not, want not” mentality in keeping with the enforced frugality of a global economic meltdown. (And why shouldn’t economic attitudes find their way into aesthetic expression? They almost always do.) But on the other hand (sorry, couldn’t find a one-handed economist….), some will always claim that formalist experimentation of any sort entails a degree of libidinal expenditure (as opposed to proper harnessing of the pleasure principle), and certain kinds of long-take formalism (the post-Warhol school) is as profligate as it comes – the shooting-ratio equivalent of spilling your seed. In light of this, Twenty Cigarettes, the latest feature by James Benning, could hardly be more oriented toward waste, even though it makes extremely careful use of your time. Benning’s titles are “Snakes on a Plane” direct, and this one consists, as you’d expect, of 20 shots of individuals smoking a single cigarette. The shot lasts however long it takes the given participant to mow down that cancer stick. As Benning explained (although the piece makes it fairly obvious), the ciggie is but an excuse for sustained time-based portraiture; each shot is a close-up, and the action, much more so than the smoking, is the subject forgetting his or her self-consciousness and existing as a face. Some are more engaging than others. The next to the last participant, an older, upper-class woman in her well-appointed home, is exquisitely framed against gallery-white walls. Filmmaker Thom Andersen, one of the slowest smokers, relaxes almost to the point of repose. But comparison is pretty much the point. Well, that, and watching Benning’s film induce nic fits in certain members of the audience.