2008 NZIFF No.1

October 5, 2008

IN THE CITY OF SYLVIA | José Luis Guerín, 2007


Given how extensive and well chosen the film festival programme is these days, a ‘good’ festival is dependent upon the choices we make, and with 170 temptations to choose from we essentially program our own festival. The festival was so rich with choice this year (especially with the inclusion of the Edward Yang retrospective), the committed cinephile had a job of work to do scheduling the essentials.


‘My’ festival got off to a great start with IN THE CITY OF SYLVIA, an exquisite film by Spanish director, José Luis Guerín. Going by the synopsis, this is the sort of film I would normally stay clear of – a tale about dreamy magazine-pretty young people chasing love and beauty in a romantic postcard-perfect old-world setting – but with Guerin directing it was worth a punt. Some critics say that In the City of Sylvia lacks intellectual and political depth, that it panders to specious bourgeois stereotypes of a privileged and romanticised Europe, and they could have a point. The fleeting presence of the homeless barely registers on a political level, but this might have been intentional, as everything is seen through the eyes of the protagonist, a young aesthete intent on pursuing his single-minded desires.


Meanwhile, Guerin directs our contemplative attention to the nature of creativity, the manipulative aspects of cinema, the fluctuating uncertainty of perception, the pleasure of the cinematic gaze, and the simple joy of being. I can see how some might view the film as a self-indulgent feel-good art-house diversion, but I was charmed by it’s similarity to Robert Bresson’s little-seen underappreciated masterwork, Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), particularly near the end where the artist channels his encounter with the elusive Sylvia into his work. In the City of Sylvia is a sophisticated work that unashamedly basks in the sensual pleasure of cinema, an ideal film to kick-start two weeks of voyeuristic indulgence.


It fascinates me how people can have entirely opposing opinions about any given film, proof of the fact that the meaning and value one ascribes to any work of art is largely dependent upon what one brings to it. For example, the last thing I would say about Jia Zhang-ke’s very fine USELESS is that it lacks a clear point of view, which is what a number of critics seem to be saying about it. Having seen virtually all of Jia’s films, it seems to me that he is a highly sophisticated visual artist who speaks primarily through images rather than text. As such his work is dependent upon the perceptive creative engagement of viewers to glean meaning from it. Jia says that he makes documentaries to learn and features films to express. Most documentarists set out to make specific points, but Jia uses the form to discover, and invites the viewer to discover with him. Those who expect explanations are likely to walk away empty-handed, but those willing to take Jia’s lead may glean more than they would have had he controlled the focus their attention. Whether it’s a feature or documentary, a Jia Zhang-ke film isn’t going to hold the viewers hand. Active participation is imperative. This is as much a philosophical position for Jia as an artistic and aesthetic one, but of course they’re all intrinsically linked.


It’s telling that for a number of critics the most successful scenes in Useless are those that come closest to the conventional tropes of 'human interest': the tailor and her drunken brother, and the couple with the pink satin dress. These are engaging moments effectively and respectfully employed by Jia, but he doesn’t depend on such scenes. These were enough to indicate where his sympathies lie, sympathies that observant viewers will notice throughout this thoughtful and compassionate film. The irony is that Jia Zhang-ke has made a film that eschews the temptation to do what many critics would have you believe he has done, which is to objectify the people who pass in front of his camera as if they were case studies. Jia’s observational style is unobtrusive and respectful, and the people who appear in his documentaries retain their dignity and privacy. So, when it comes to cinema, one can only say that substance is relative.


LORNA'S SILENCE | Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2008


Le frère Dardenne have referenced the cinema of Robert Bresson in one way or another in virtually all of their work. In LORNA’S SILENCE the influence of L’Argent (1983), Une Femme Douce (1969), and Mouchette (1964) is evident, but another touchstone might be Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962), through which Lorna's Silence reaches all the way back to Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928).


Dardenne heroes all experience their own unique 'passion'. La Passion de Lorna follows a similar trajectory to that of Godard’s Nina: the circumstances are different, but the options for Lorna are disturbingly similar to those of Nina’s some 45 years earlier. However, the Dardenne’s take a different route. Just when you think Lorna and Nina are about to merge in a replay of Vivre sa vie, Mouchette returns to pull us towards Bresson again. Where some critics saw Lorna as the victim of a cruel prankster-God in what they viewed as an unsatisfying foray into delusional spirituality, I saw a very grounded late Bressonian moral struggle. There is nothing in Lorna’s Silence to signal a specifically Christian reading of the film, for Lorna’s crisis and the birth pangs that manifest inside her are primarily moral and philosophic. In this respect the film has an affinity with those by Bruno Dumont, another Bresson-influenced French filmmaker who grounds his philosophical studies solidly in the earth, as is evident at the end of La vie de Jesus (1997), the beginning of Humanite (1999), and throughout Twentynine Palms (2003) and Flandres (2006).


Starting with Mouchette, Bresson’s films dealt with moral and philosophical despair: the impact of the absence of God in the affairs of humankind. For Lorna (like all of Bresson’s sensitive protagonists), pain and guilt are very real and cannot be ignored. Godard’s Nina was an innocent, used by the world then spat out. Like Jeanne d’Arc before her, Nina was martyred. Mouchette is another innocent, used by the world then left to rot, but she took action and martyred herself. Elle in Une Femme Douce was another innocent broken by the indifference and self-interest of the world, and she too took action and martyred herself. Lorna is no innocent, but she longs to be at peace with her conscience and free of the corruption of the world. She also takes action. If God is anywhere in the equation, it might be (as Dumont powerfully suggests) in the silence of conscience. 


I didn’t come away from EAT FOR THIS IS MY BODY with the impression that Michelange Quay intended a specific political reading of his film. The political aspects were universal, typified by the cake-eating scene with its implicit take on ritual, power, greed, etc. Quay takes a defiantly non-narrative, non-character approach, so that at times this highly cinematic film functions more like improvised music. Rather than telling the viewer what to think, Quay plays with various—often deliberately absurd—juxtapositions and stereotypes to create a provocative and occasionally comic meditation on such things as colonialism, imperialism, racism, ritual, poverty, privilege, power, the unknown, and 'the other’, and (by no means least) cinema itself. The film may not ultimately amount to much, but as the filmmaker constantly reminds us, that will depend on the viewer. Quay gives us the latitude to negotiate our own way through this cryptic and sometimes surreal film, and by doing so places a significant amount of responsibility for whatever meaning and enjoyment one might glean firmly in the viewer’s lap.


THE MAN FROM LONDON | Béla Tarr, 2007


Bela Tarr does much the same thing in his idiosyncratic marvel, THE MAN FROM LONDON. While there is a story of sorts, narrative and character are much less important than the gritty—sometimes witty—observations and asides within Tarr’s gorgeous deep-focus mise-en-scene, and his ultimate conclusion about the crushing psychic impact of corruption. Above all there is Tarr’s unique and majestic cinematic expression. As tends to be the case with more interesting and important works of contemporary cinema, The Man From London is primarily concerned with exploring and expanding cinematic form in a manner that not only invites the active participation of the viewer but demands it!


It may sound glib, but it’s worth remembering that Tarr is an artist. The value of his vision is inextricably linked to the formal and aesthetic choices he makes, and an invitation to the viewer to make their own way through his elliptical cinematic canvases. It might not be immediately apparent, but there is a dry absurdist wit just below what many regard as Tarr’s severe, miserabilist surfaces, and The Man From London is no exception. While the characters exist in a bleak between-worlds limbo where meaningless, humourless, and loveless scenarios are repeatedly enacted for all eternity, there is room for a wry joke or two. However, the difficulty of summoning a chuckle—let alone laugh—may be one of the jokes.


While TO EACH HIS OWN CINEMA was patchy, it certainly wasn’t bad. That said, the cringe-o-meter banged into the red too often for my liking. The overarching theme certainly ties the film together, providing context as well as a degree of interest in seeing how each filmmaker will handle the brief. Alas, few came up with anything substantial. Even the genius of Abbas Kiarostami failed to raise the bar enough to elevate the film significantly. One of the key subtexts spoke to the extent to which filmmakers are compelled to court paying punters, so it was a shock to see how many chose to employ the cliché of a blind viewer – a bankrupt and rather patronising idea.


The opening film, Raymond Depardon’s carefully constructed Open-Air Cinema got things off to an understated and promising start, but Takeshi Kitano’s broad One Fine Day signalled a warning of things to come. It took Lars von Trier to deliver something substantial in his angry swipe at the facile aspects of the film industry. Youssef Chahine’s contribution was an appalling self-serving tract, but David Cronenberg mirrored Trier’s energy with his equally confrontational At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World. The closest the film came to formal substance was in the contributions of Wong Kar-wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien, who made restrained and understated films. Wong’s was a very sensual and intimate sequence that conveyed a genuinely personal impression of cinema; while Hou transcended time and space in a superb single take.


Walter Salles also delivered an inspired single take that encapsulated the exuberance and life-affirming passion of cinema. At nearly 100 years of age, Manoel de Oliveira poked witty and irreverent fun at political and religious vanity. Wim Wenders contribution was the only film to tackle the political power of cinema, and while it may not have been wholly successful its heart was in the right place. Atom Egoyan’s intelligent miniature meditation on the nature of looking and the technology (old and new) we use to assist our voyeuristic desires was thoughtful and provocative, fulfilling the brief very well. If Theo Angelopoulos had been true to his signature observational aesthetic and filmed the encounter between the celluloid incarnation of Marcello Mastrioanni and the silent gaze of Jeanne Moreau, his film might have been more poignant, but getting Moreau to verbalise what the images were already expressing was a disappointing misstep.


Amos Gitai’s politically opportunistic (and frankly offensive) piece of brazen nonsense was about as bad as a bad film can be, but the very worst film, the one that scraped the bottom of the barrel, going lower even than Jane Campion’s frivolous, self-pitying dig at Peter Jackson, and lower still than Andrei Konchalovsky’s embarrassing homage to Fellini, the film that left the worst aftertaste was Bille August’s The Last Dating Show, which reduced cinema to an opportunity to get laid. It was left to Ken Loach to bring it all to an end with the thought that going to the soccer might be better than going to the movies, and after sitting through this uneven collection some might agree. In the end one can only imagine what directors such as Dumont, Haneke, Godard, Denis, Weerasethakul, Bartas, Tarr, Akerman, or Breillat might have done ... or maybe we’re better off not knowing.


Christian Petzold was one of the most promising directors of the Berlin School, an exciting new movement of German filmmakers that has the potential to rival, if not eclipse, the New German Cinema of the 70s. His debut feature, The State I Am In (2000), was an auspicious beginning, but nothing he has produced since (including this year’s YELLA) has fulfilled that promise. The most outstanding Berlin School films so far have all been made by women: Nanouk Leopold’s Wolfsbergen, Maria Speth’s The Days Between, and Valeska Grisebach’s exceptional Longing.


Yella was a disappointment, but perhaps my expectations were too high. Despite the nicely rendered atmosphere of vampire-like detachment, at all felt terribly familiar and predictable. I had a nagging sense that I’d been down this road before to more satisfying effect, and when the circle closes at the end, I was disappointed that Petzold settled for such an easy cliché. I like to think that he’s better than this. Still, Nina Hoss took full advantage of the opportunity and made the absolute most of her role. Her performance is very fine, almost single-handedly lifting the film to something deeper and more significant than it ultimately is.


FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON | Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2007


Hou Hsiao-hsien is, without doubt, one of the great masters of contemporary cinema, and his films are some of the most elegant and graceful works of contemporary cinema one is likely to encounter today. The influence of masters such as Naruse, Ophuls, Mizoguchi and Ozu is evident in his sumptuous style, which is indirect, elliptical, at times austere and minimalist, and deeply satisfying on formal, aesthetic, thematic, intellectual, and emotional levels. His new film, FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON, is (to quote Tim Wong from the Lumiere Reader) rapturously airborne, but while it’s arguably his most accessible work to date, some viewers struggled with it.


There’s a scene late in the film where Hou indicates a way to approach his films. A group of children visiting the Musée d'Orsay discuss Félix Vallotton’s painting, ‘Le ballon ou coin de parc avec enfant jouant au ballon’. Just as these children are encouraged to look closely at the work and consider their responses to it, Hou suggests that his work can be viewed in much the same way, as objects to enjoy for their aesthetic beauty and as subtle Zen-like meditations on human society.


There is a moment in Hou’s previous film, Café Lumière (2003), when the two protagonists unknowingly pass each other on different trains. This understated moment recalls a similarly poetic sequence in George Franju’s little known gem La Première nuit (1958), in which two children travelling on different trains silently regard each other from their respective carriages (mere feet apart) until the railway tracks eventually veer off and the two are separated ... perhaps forever. Flight of the Red Balloon is as graceful and poetic as the weightless wonder of the Lamorrise original, one of the most life-affirming (and art-affirming!) masterworks of the year.


Originally published in The Lumiere Reader


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