© Steve Garden 2017 

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2009 NZIFF No.1

August 30, 2009

BRIGHT STAR | Jane Campion, 2009

 

The opening night of this year’s festival featured a new film from our own Jane Campion. BRIGHT STAR is an artfully produced tale about the love between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne. This graceful film shows Campion at her best, and while some might quibble over the contemporary sophistication of the acting and some of the production values, the film was made for a modern and (presumably) young audience.

 

Bright Star is unashamedly romantic, a strength that informs Campion’s examination of the cost of love in a relatively narrow patriarchal society. While Keats is the best-known figure in the film, the central character is Brawne. This is her story, and as such it’s another of Campion’s career-long studies in gender politics and female identity. Parallel to the main narrative is a subtle (near-subliminal) thread concerning the love Samuel Brown may have had for Fanny, which he outwardly refutes by showing casual disdain for her. His veiled affection for her remains hidden until after Keats’ death, when we see Brown observe Fanny from a distance with an air of regret – for her or Keats perhaps, but more likely himself.

 

While the film-making is of undeniable quality, it has to be said that Bright Star is rather conventional. It may be unfair to compare it to the reflective poetry found in something like Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh, but it gives a clear indication of the film’s commercial character. I’m not saying that Campion’s film has no poetry (far from it), but there is little room for contemplation. It would have been nice to linger on images more, such as the shot of wind blowing over Fanny as she lay on her bed. The shot lasts as long as necessary to get the idea across, but not enough to fully appreciate or engage with its intrinsic poetry. The film moves at a reasonable (but by no means hurried) clip, favouring character and story over atmosphere and nuance. It’s possible that during the production of the film the tussle between art and commerce may have raised its compromising head, but Campion has always veered towards big screen productions, movies for intelligent and perceptive viewers, but (at the risk of betraying my snobbery) not necessarily those with an active and informed interest in cinematic art. That said, Bright Star is what it is, and on its own terms it’s very good.

 

BLUEBEARD | Catherine Breillat, 2009

 

The same can't be said about Catherine Breillat or her powerful body of work, including her new provocation, BLUEBEARD. A work of art first and foremost, this adaptation of Perrault’s classic fable of the infamous wife-killing nobleman might be more accessible than her more transgressive and confrontational work, but it's unlikely to attract as many punters as Jane Campion’s much more mainstream effort. Directed with deliberate theatricality (like a storybook come to life), Breillat emphasises Bluebeard’s God-like character to draw attention to patriarchal authority. The story mirrors the biblical tale of Eve disobeying God by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, in that Bluebeard’s young wife, Marie-Catherine, enters a room he forbad her not to (acquiring forbidden knowledge). As all good Christians know, the Consequence of Sin is death, so naturally his only option is to kill her!

 

Breillat juxtaposes the tale with scenes set in the 50s, where two sisters (presumably Breillat herself and her older sister) read the Bluebeard fable in the attic of their home. The older sister embraces the happy-ever-after fiction of romantic love, the consequence of which is revealed in Breillat’s final twist. The film ends with a stunning shot of Marie-Catherine set in a Mannerist pose with Bluebeard’s severed head on a platter, casting her as the icon of a new age where God and His patriarchal system are vanquished. In this sense, Bluebeard is a deceptively simple distillation of Breillat’s career-long examination of the patriarchal fear of female sexuality, but presented here in a genuinely charming, formally attractive, intellectually satisfying film.

 

The power of myth resonates in a more primordial fashion in Marie-Helene Cousineau and Madeline Ivalu’s, BEFORE TOMORROW, the third in a series preceded by Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner and The Journals of Knud Rasmussen. This beautiful and precisely focused film, rich in mythic evocation, is a reinterpretation of ancient tales traditionally passed down orally. Made by the Isuma women’s collective, the film observes the centuries-old daily routines of Inuit tribes before morphing into a tale of struggle against a harsh environment, and an even harsher adversary.

 

The performances are entirely convincing, especially Madeline Ivalu and Paul-Dylan Ivalu as grandmother and grandson, and the naturalistic restraint lends the film a certain verite conviction. The measured pace may tax some, but a more emphatic approach would have worked against the organic rhythm of the storytelling, the veracity of the world it depicts, and the natural elemental poetry of the film. Before Tomorrow is a film one absorbs rather than understands, although it is by no means cryptic or esoteric. It’s a metaphor for the havoc visited upon the Inuit following the arrival of Europeans, when a 12,000-year-old civilisation was decimated within a century. This humane, dignified, and inspiring film requires a fully engaged viewing attitude, but will amply reward attentive and perceptive filmgoers.

 

TREELESS MOUNTAIN | So Yong Kim, 2008

 

I regret missing So Yong Kim’s first film, In Between Days, when it screened here a few years ago, but her new film, TREELESS MOUNTAIN, offers ample proof that she is a very talented filmmaker with a taste for intimate images, relaxed pacing, formal understatement, and an unforced approach to narrative. Kim’s camera (deftly helmed by Anne Misawa) gets remarkably close to her two young protagonists, and the heavy cropping of the image added to the claustrophobic quality of the compositions. The acting is very good, but the performances of 9-year-old Hee Yeon Kim and 5-year-old Song Hee Kim are astonishing. Kim pays close attention to the minutiae of life, conveying a palpable sense of how imposing the world is for these young girls as it focuses on their uncomprehending view of the callous, self-absorbed behaviour of adults.

 

The title literally refers to a mound of dirt near the bus stop where they expect mum to return, but it also evokes the loneliness of abandonment. For all its poignancy, there is nothing cloying about the film. Kim is very adept at realising moments of kindness and affirmation with a minimum of pathos. While the final shot of the children skipping along through the countryside might seem optimistic, the earthmoving equipment portentously chewing up the landscape in the background suggests that the unkind world they escaped may soon encroach upon their newfound tranquillity. The future for these kids is not so certain.


The word ‘escapist’ is often used when describing movies, but to really engage with cinema is to actively engage with the world. One filmmaker who vividly expresses this is Agnès Varda. All of her films are responses to the times in which they were made. As such, they invite the viewer to enter a discussion about the sort of world we want on the one hand, and the aesthetics and responsibility of cinema on the other. THE BEACHES OF AGNES (Les plages d'Agnès) is no different, except that this time the subject is Varda herself – well, sort of. She uses her life as a pretext to playfully ruminate on all manner of things, and indeed her canvas is considerable.

 

Ostensibly autobiographic, The Beaches of Agnes is a highly aestheticised cine-collage (composed with relatively broad-brushstrokes) in which everything is essentially Varda-ised! She re-imagines her life as a colourful, at times surreal (almost fantastic) cinematic journey where memory and fiction are indistinguishable. In one scene, she dresses her family in identical pale fabric while she floats around them in deep earth tones. It’s a romantic, slightly portentous tableau, but it sits comfortably with the eclectic tone of the work. Varda has said that Beaches will be her last film, and one senses that this is how she would like to be remembered. Why not? It’s a gorgeous piece of work, and it expresses genuine, vital affection for people, art, and above all, cinema.

 

JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES | Chantal Akerman, 1975

 

Chantal Akerman’s JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES is one of the seminal films of post-war world cinema, in fact it may be one of the key works in the cinematic canon. It’s a near-transcendental example of politicised poetic minimalism, and perhaps because of this it’s one of the least seen – a film everyone knows about but few have seen. So its inclusion in this festival makes it a contender for the cinematic event of the year.

 

The word ‘masterpiece’ is bandied about so freely that this film virtually requires a new word to compliment its stature and value as cinematic art. Intelligent and challenging, Akerman brings an uncompromising rigour to Jeanne Dielman, so that the more one works with the film the more rewarding the experience will be. The plot revolves around the daily rhythms and routines of a single mother (Delphine Seyrig) who runs a business from home for gentleman callers. For three hours we watch Jeanne go about her daily rituals as homemaker, mother, and prostitute: peeling potatoes, polishing shoes, and servicing gentlemen in her spotless apartment. As things unravel the orderly rhythm of the film gives way to increasing and provocative asymmetry, and we realise that this efficient woman is not only defined by her routines (her place within patriarchy), but that there is nothing more to her. When Jeanne realises this troubling fact, she takes action.

 

Akerman shows everything but explains nothing. Stripping the film of formal and narrative expectations, she concentrates our focus on the minutiae of Jeanne’s domestic activities. We are invited to observe, consider, and draw our own conclusions. Dialogue is minimal, shots are long and always at a distance (the mid-shot is as close as we get to Jeanne), and the camera rarely moves. Lengthy sequences of banal activity outline the precision with which she carefully maintains her prison, filtering out unwelcome intrusions or demands. The film can also be seen as a thesis on cinema: the voyeuristic pleasure of looking without being seen; viewer identification and expectation; the cinematic narrative and the function of catharsis; the effect of duration; the cinematic gaze and gender politics, and so on.

 

Opinion is divided as to whether the film actually is the feminist polemic it is generally taken to be (even Akerman isn’t sure), but there is no doubting its stature as one of the key works of cinema. Jeanne Dielman is a formally precise, thematically ambiguous, monumental work of art, and no other film in this festival could be said to have such a rigorous singularity of vision.

 

WENDY AND LUCY | Kelly Reichardt, 2008

 

Made almost exclusively by women, the film has lost none of its subtextual relevance or power. It doesn’t take much to see parallels between Akerman’s masterpiece and Kelly Reichardt’s WENDY AND LUCY. Reichardt’s film may not be as pointedly feminist, but both directors share strong concerns about societal inequality, and both are masters at utilising the formal properties of cinema to engage viewers on deeper than usual subtextual levels.

 

American independent filmmaking has been a rich source of cinematic substance for cinephiles in recent years – Lance Hammer’s Ballast, Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble, and Kelly Reichardt’s own Old Joy. Reichardt’s new film, Wendy and Lucy is every bit as perceptive as its predecessor, only darker. This time the political implications are more to the fore, but without a hint of didacticism or finger pointing. Reichardt leaves all of the interpretive possibilities to the viewer. While her intention may have been to consider what it feels like at the bottom of the social order in present-day America, the film’s depiction of the consequences of economic rationalism has an implicit global reach.

 

That said, Wendy and Lucy is no dry political tract. It may be sober and reflective, but it’s also intimate and deeply humane, no small credit for which must go to Michelle Williams’ sensitive and convincing central performance. Reichardt’s dog, Lucy (one of the three characters who go in search of the hot-springs in Old Joy) is given a more pivotal role here, but don’t assume for a second that this is a sentimental tearjerker. One of Reichardt’s strengths is her refusal to pander or condescend to the viewer.

 

The future for Wendy and Lucy at the end of Kelly Reichardt’s sober portrayal of social and economic despair in blue-collar America is equally uncertain. When asked about the political content of her films, Reichardt said that the ideal political film is personal, where the political content is subsumed into the story and its characters, not imposed on them. She acknowledges the influence of Italian neo-realism (Umberto D., Bicycle Thief), Iranian cinema and the New German Cinema of the 70s (the new Berlin School might also impress her, especially the films of Valeska Grisebach), but the main influence on Wendy and Lucy is the increasing divide between rich and poor. While the film has a vital political component, its artless quotidian poetry says it all.

 

Reichardt values her artistic freedom, and when she was interviewed by Ryan Stewart of Slant Magazine, she took umbrage at the suggestion that she might turn her back on low-budget filmmaking once she has had more ‘success’. The upshot was her assertion that ‘big’ films invariably equate to even bigger compromises. Reichardt feels lucky to have ideas that work on a small and affordable scale, where she can maintain control and avoid being skewered by "good box-office". This speaks volumes about political conviction and formal choices. What or who is being served by big budget entertainment? What responsibility do filmmakers have in terms of the impact of such films? “I had this epiphany while standing in a field with friends making an art project,” Reichardt said, “This is the pinnacle.”

 

With influences ranging from Barbara Loden, Monte Hellman, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul to New German Cinema, Reichardt’s thematic and formal restraint positions her work alongside the very best of contemporary American, European and Asian cinema. Wendy and Lucy is understated, intelligent and compassionate, and is sure to be one of the highlights of 2009.

 

Astra Taylor’s EXAMINED LIFE is a buoyant, life affirming 90-minutes in the company of a handful of today’s most renowned thinkers. With barely ten minutes to articulate the barely articulable, they wander around various internal and external environments (the locations give an additional subtly ironic emphasis to the ruminations) attempting to clarify the value of philosophic thought. Whether they succeed or not depends on one’s point-of-view, but Taylor deserves credit for never allowing the talk to slip into esoteric irrelevance. All of the participants acknowledge the correlation between philosophic thought and social responsibility, particularly when nihilistic self-regard can easily be seen as the subtextual norm in today’s world.

 

The title is of course derived from Socrates’ famous quote that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, but Cornel West reminds us of the courage required to look within. In fact, all of the thinkers in this very fine film testify to the cost of that courage, but in a manner that is affecting and inspirational. The insights come at a ferocious clip, but they never overwhelm the viewer or leave them floundering. Taylor keeps the premise of the film firmly to the fore, that a life examined is one fully lived. One might joke that a film on philosophical thought might have been more appropriately placed in one of the fiction sections of the programme, but if an edifying hour or so listening to the thoughtful and often entertaining contemplations of contemporary philosophers sounds like it could be you, Examined Life will certainly do the trick.

 

35 SHOTS OF RUM | Claire Denis, 2008

 

35 SHOTS OF RUM is the most rare of jewels, not least for its convincing portrayal of a ‘functional’ family, an uncommon thing in contemporary cinema. This tender homage to Ozu honours the Japanese master as no film has since Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Café Lumiere (2003), by capturing the profound bond of love between a father and daughter, and the painful necessity of separation. I was reminded of Hou’s films a few of times during 35 Shots of Rum, the similarities and the differences, but particularly in the sensual and exhilarating cinematography of Agnès Godard. Then there are the trains and railway tracks, with their mesmerising, vortex-like captivation, and a welcome lack of explanatory dialogue or unnecessary chatter. There is a relaxed and effortless economy to the filmmaking, nothing is forced or emphasised but gently conveyed through looks, gestures, and simply being. As in Jeanne Dielman, everything is shown, but little is explained. There is no overt political agenda here, apart from the profound politics of human love.

 

The idea of an homage to Ozu has been with Denis for years. After taking her mother to see Late Spring, she half-promised to make such a film for her one day. Initially daunted by the prospect, after seeing Hou’s Café Lumière she realised simplicity was the key. The spirit of Ozu hovers over the film in the same way that Bresson subtly informs Denis’s Friday Night (2002), a film similar to this one in terms of its grace, economy, sensuality, and rich visual style. There are no elliptical narrative threads as seen in the equally good (and very different) The Intruder, and yet 35 Shots of Rum is every bit as sophisticated. This is cinematic poetry at its most inconspicuous – easily missed, but completely elating for those who connect with its exquisite introspective subtlety. 35 Shots of Rum is a quietly breathtaking work of art.

 

Originally published in The Lumiere Reader

 

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