ENTER THE VOID | Gasper Noé, 2015
Now that the 2010 New Zealand International Film Festival has ended, I find myself once again trying to make sense out of 17 days of cinematic indulgence. So, where to begin? Why not at the end: which, as it turned out, was all about new beginnings.
The late inclusion of Gaspar Noé’s ENTER THE VOID meant that the single screening of this new film by one of the most wannabe would-be l’enfants terrible du cinéma promised to end the festival on a polarising note. I’m not sure that it did. Most people I spoke to afterwards thought it was silly at best, puerile at worst. Frankly, it’s hard to disagree, but while it probably won’t be included among my top picks this year, Enter the Void wasn’t bad. The Kubrickesque touches were fun, and despite taking an exceedingly long time to come (no pun intended), the final transcendent moments closed the festival on a note that spoke not only of the inevitable end of all things, but an optimistic, perhaps even naïve anticipation of renewal.
If one can get passed the near-sophomoric excess of Noé’s films, one might find ideas and (dare I say, necessary) provocations worthy of one’s attention. In my view (and I could be wrong), at the heart of Noé’s work (even this thumpingly overemphatic ‘ultimate-trip’) lies the bruised soul of a disillusioned idealist. There's anger at the core of his films, tempered (only just) by a yearning for purity, honesty, and hope. It seems to me that Noé aspires to create thought-provoking, genuinely challenging, truthful cinema, even at his most excessive and inflammatory. He may not be in the same league as Pasolini, but the spirit is there.
Throughout his extraordinary career Frederick Wiseman has been at the centre of countless debates about cine-veracity and manipulation. Wiseman would be one of the first to admit that cinema is indeed a manipulative medium, and that filmmaking is essentially a succession of subjective choices that colour and shape the eventual meaning of the final work. He regards his films as ‘elaborations of personal experience’ rather than ‘ideologically objective portraits’, and takes his ethical obligation to the people and events he films seriously. Like most of his work, LA DANSE: THE PARIS OPERA BALLET is resolutely unsentimental. Wiseman carefully retains a necessary and respectful detachment from his subject. His rejection of self-reflexivity in preference for distanciation and ‘narrative without story’ has attracted hefty criticism at times, but cinematic trends have caught up with his long-take, anti-interventionist, commentary-free aesthetic. By sticking to his craftsman-like convictions, Wiseman has emerged as key figure in contemporary cinema.
La Danse is not typical of Wiseman’s cinema in that his subject matter usually takes the form of sociological struggles within dysfunctional bureaucracies and institutions, where failure and wasted effort invariably prevail. And yet, La Danse sits perfectly within his oeuvre, except that here the struggle is scaled down to an individual level. The daily struggle between the will and the body can be read as a metaphor that goes beyond the confines of the Paris Ballet and every dancer’s battle against their own physical, emotional, spiritual, and practical limitations. The implication is that every dancer, you and I included, will eventually be betrayed by their body.
Although La Danse is dominated by rehearsals and occasional performances, Wiseman’s camera pokes around various nooks and crannies in and around the Paris Opera building. He visits the costume department, pans across the rooftops of Paris, follows artistic director Brigitte Lefèvre into meetings, observes cleaners, spends time with a beekeeper on the roof, and wanders through the silent bowels of the building where small fish swim about with perfect natural grace. The stint with the beekeeper is more than a snippet of information about other activities in the building. Lefèvre and the beekeeper and have much in common, in that the activity in the hive mirrors the effort and industry that goes into creating the cultural honey below. These brief side-glances may not seem to carry much metaphoric value at first, but over the course of the film, they offer a subtle commentary on the interconnectedness of all things.
There’s nothing accidental about the inclusion early in the film of the Jean Cocteau quote, “It’s up to the audience to figure it out”. Wiseman’s visual language has always presupposed the perceptive involvement of the viewer, encouraging reflection, discussion, and the possibility (at least) of action. La Danse effectively questions how arts communities manage to stay afloat in the current climate. When Lehman Brothers were referred to in a scene about corporate sponsorship, a collective scoff sounded throughout the theatre. The irony that arts institutions are obliged to court white-collar gangsters in order to survive, offering privileges in return for relative crumbs (from money stolen from people like themselves or their families) while these bastards pursue activities that may in the long run threaten the Ballet’s existence, was too potent to shrug off. What ought to have been a wry passing detail haunted the entire film … and nearly every other film in this year’s festival.
With each new film, Claire Denis confirms her place among the great cinematic artists of our time. Her films are simultaneously (and seemingly effortlessly) intimate and epic, in which small and large themes have equal weight, and where beauty and grace balance a clear-eyed recognition of the darkness within the human heart. Above all, Denis is a poet, even in her most narrative driven films.
Where the sublime 35 Shots of Rum referenced Ozu’s Late Spring, WHITE MATERIAL is a less overt tip-of-the-hat in the direction of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. However, so as not to give the wrong impression, I must stress that parallels with Coppola’s magnum opus lie, for the most part, under the skin – in the soul of the film, in its themes, and only fleetingly on the surface. Set in an unspecified African country undergoing violent political upheaval, White Material focuses on Maria Vial (superbly played by Isabelle Huppert), a coffee plantation matriarch who refuses to abandon her land while everything around her descends into chaos. Where other filmmakers might be tempted to elicit audience identification with such a protagonist, particularly one in such a dangerous situation, Denis denies the viewer any certainty about this fiercely determined, at times near-delusional woman – and for good reason. This is a film about (among other things) the demise of colonial privilege, wherein metaphoric parallels with other equally untenable forms of imperialist advantage can be discerned. Christopher Lambert, Michel Subor, Nicolas Duvauchelle and Isaach de Bankolé deliver very fine understated performances as Maria’s ex-husband, his father, her cosseted son, and a wounded rebel leader respectively.
In some respects, White Material is a more conventional film than we might expect from Denis, and it has been criticised for lacking the lyrical and textural qualities of her other work, but there is no doubt in my mind that this is the work of a filmmaker fully in command of their art. It is a fine example of strong and rigorous filmmaking, and there is plenty to savour in this sophisticated, intelligent, extremely classy piece of work.
As the title suggests, words play a key role in Corneliu Porumboiu’s critically acclaimed Cannes winner, POLICE, ADJECTIVE. Cristi (Dragos Bucur) is a young plain-clothes detective with growing doubts about the ethics of his current job – the painstaking surveillance (and expected prosecution) of a few dope-smoking teenagers. Cristi’s conscience places him squarely at odds with the overriding ethos of Romanian law enforcement, which holds a very different position when it comes to notions of moral responsibility.
Porumboiu, whose equally fine 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), takes a gently dialectical approach as he evenly considers the influential power of language from the mundane to the poetic (as is realised in an amusing and intellectually sharp scene where Cristi and his partner discuss the lyrics of a Euro-pop song), to the insidiously corrosive. The residue of Romania’s totalitarian past quietly crouches in the corners of this engagingly low-key film about oppressive bureaucratic authority. The use of ‘adjective’ in the title is particularly pertinent considering the films’ emphasis on procedure and practice in law enforcement, and the implicit theme of the subversive potential of independent thought. The absurdist quality of Porumboiu’s bone-dry wit balances the sober intent of the film, confirming him as one of the most significant talents of the Romanian New Wave. In a festival graced with more than a few potentially great films (by directors such as Rivette, de Oliveira, Kiarostami, Hong, Jia, Denis, Costa [finally!] and Jayasundara), Police, Adjective is sure to emerge as one of the festival highlights. A must see, at least once.
It’s rumoured that when the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair asked in all seriousness why Iran disliked Britain, he was told that it had to do with the 1953 Anglo-American coup to overthrow Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically elected Iranian leader who nationalised Iran’s oil in 1951 (thereby taking it out of British control). Blair purportedly replied, “Who?” Such a response might not be that uncommon these days, although not for Shirin Neshat, the director of the impressive feature debut, WOMEN WITHOUT MEN.
That CIA-backed coup d’état provides the backdrop to the story, but the impact of the event is firmly, at times viscerally located within the four central female characters, especially Zarin (played with great commitment by Hungarian actress, Orsi Toth), a prostitute so spiritually and emotionally poisoned that she is on the verge of irreconcilable despair. However, she and the other women stumble (in turn) upon a near-magical place of solace that provides respite from the encroaching turmoil.
Shirin Neshat is a widely renowned photographer and visual artist – Aucklanders may recall her 2004 Art Gallery exhibition, ‘Through The Eyes Of Shirin Neshat’. Women Without Men is an adaptation of a novel by exiled Iranian writer, Shahrnush Parsipur (who has a small role in the film as the madam in Zarin’s brothel), a book that has provided inspiration for a number of Neshat’s video and photographic works. While the narrative aspects of the film are at times a little clunky, the visual and conceptual qualities are striking. The beautiful tracking shots and evocative, often poetic imagery are reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky, and there are moments that recall the work of Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen and (more evidently) Samira Makhmalbaf. But these are passing and by no means imitative references. The dominant voice firmly belongs to Shirin Neshat, and as she navigates the political, religious and social complexities of Iranian society, the notion that the personal and the political are patently inseparable is powerfully affirmed.
Those who have seen Alexei Popogrebsky’s Koktebel (2003) will have some idea of what to expect from his new film, HOW I ENDED THIS SUMMER. Exquisitely framed images of the natural world (an Arctic coastline in Northern Russia), not only provides a dramatic backdrop to the tale, but also mirrors the internal complexities of the two protagonists. Popogrebsky is a skilful visual storyteller, and he trusts his audience to negotiate their way through the film with a minimum of explanation. This extends to what may strike some viewers as rather strangely motivated behaviour, especially from the younger man, Pasha (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who lets the disapproving irascibility of Gulybin (Sergei Puskepalis) intimidate him to the point where a series of relatively small errors leads him to unwittingly conceal important news from the older man. Pasha’s dilemma compounds, tension escalates, and Popogrebsky treats us to a highly cinematic game of cat and mouse, with Pasha thrown into a real-life version of the shoot-em-up computer games he loves to play.
Central to the narrative development (and ultimate meaning of the film) is the theme of miscommunication. The poor radio link between the isolated men and the mainland mirrors the communicative dysfunction between the two. The toxic relationship of the men and the radioactive pollution of their environment are implicitly linked, a metaphor that speaks to our treatment of the planet – and, of course, each other. There is little doubt that if it comes to a face-off between man and nature, our planet has a significant advantage. We may ruin our chances of survival, but the Earth will endure. In this light, the title (which comes from a mocking and deliberately ungrammatical comment from Gulybin) could suggest a quite different meaning.
How I Ended This Summer has a very deliberate pace. It requires patience to begin with, but Popogrebsky’s sure hand builds intensity with impressive expertise. The outstanding digital cinematography (by Pavel Kostomarov) has a remarkable film-stock feel to it, giving the images a beautiful, almost tactile textural quality. Great to look at, very well acted, intelligently constructed with thoughtful philosophical overtones, Popogrebsky’s psychological thriller is a superior thinking-boys-own adventure.
Apart from the optimistic comparison with Jean-Luc Godard, the description in the festival booklet for Xavier Dolan’s I KILLED MY MOTHER was bang on. This is indeed a remarkably assured piece of filmmaking, with fire and wit aplenty, and excellent performances across the board – especially from Anne Dorval as the titular mum. Dolan is quite a talent, but while his film is perceptive and involving, it has to be said that despite its obvious qualities, it sits well within the confines of traditional narrative cinema. I haven’t read any of the endless hype the film has apparently attracted, but it seems to me that what there is to savour is accessible in a single viewing, and even the final affirmation of forgiveness and acceptance wasn’t profound or affecting enough to resonate much beyond the next movie.
I’M GLAD MY MOTHER IS ALIVE is a well-crafted film directed by veteran French filmmaker Claude Miller and his son Nathan. Skipping across the troubled waters of Maurice Pialat, the Dardenne’s, Michael Haneke, Christian Petzold, and a goodly touch of Francois Truffaut, this study of familial alienation is an impressive depiction of repressed rage. Apparently based on real events, the film takes an admirably low-key approach. It may not be the equal of the best films of the aforementioned giants, but the directors carefully maintain an even-handed point of view so that viewers don’t lose sight of the fact that, as the great Jean Renoir famously put it, ‘everyone has their reasons’.
The imposing presence of Yugoslav director Emir Kusturica dominates Christian Carion’s ultra-conventional cold-war thriller FAREWELL with a solid and attractive performance, but it wasn’t enough to elevate the film above merely diverting. There are worse ways to spend a couple of hours on a wet winter’s afternoon, especially when there are as many unintentional laughs to be had in this piece of nonsense. The scene where François Mitterrand stands up to Ronald Reagan is priceless – like something out of In The Loop. CYRUS had more going for it, but just as it seemed to be shifting into something genuinely interesting, directors Mark and Jay Duplass called it quits. John C. Reilly and Johan Hill had fun, but that’s virtually all the film has to offer. It was enjoyable to a point, but frankly, I couldn’t help wondering what Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant might have done with it.
Jacques Audiard’s A PROPHET is as ‘good’ as the reviews say. As criminal-underworld-prison dramas go, it’s a class act. The portrayal of a young man forced to adopt the law of the jungle (bending and adapting to a criminal subculture then rising through the ranks) is convincing, and Audiard hits all the marks with style and precision. The craft is skilful and sure-footed, confidently nudging the film through every one of its 155 finely acted, tautly directed minutes. I expect that most viewers will be impressed and satisfied, but frankly, I found it excruciatingly boring. I’m tempted to claim that I’ve seen it all before, but there is something undeniably fresh about A Prophet, but, there’s nothing particularly inspired about it either. If the filmmakers had any socio-political aspirations, they were completely trumped by generic conventions. As such, the film conforms to a long history of glorifications of crime and murder couched behind a patina of social commentary but primarily designed to do well at the box-office. Given the considerable approval for the film, Audiard and his team clearly made the ‘right’ choices. The lack of any moral dimension is obviously of no real concern. The filmmaker’s might argue that when it comes to brute survival there is no room for the luxury of moral naval-gazing. They would of course be talking about surviving the film industry, not prison.
I shouldn’t be surprised that A Prophet has garnered such unquestioning praise. Just look at the astonishing acclaim for City of God, as good an example of a hugely popular but patently amoral and exploitative pseudo-socio-political bourgeois-placating travesty as you are likely to see. But frankly, I'm taken-aback by the lack of real criticism of the film.
Olivier Assayas works his butt off to ensure that CARLOS is anything but boring. Divided into three movie-length segments, this epic TV mini-series takes the best part of an afternoon to get through, but Assayas kicks it along at a steady clip, never hurried, never lagging, always lucid, concise, and engaging. Direction, camerawork, editing, and acting are all expertly assured, and charismatic Édgar Ramírez confidently anchors the film in the central role. But is it any good? Well, that will depend on your tolerance for mainstream entertainment. As a sexed-up political thriller, Carlos is streets ahead of last year’s woeful audience-pleaser, The Baader-Meinhof Complex, but it’s simply not in the same class as Steven Soderbergh’s masterwork, Che. Am I comparing apples with oranges? Perhaps. Carlos is, after all, a TV production aimed primarily at men, where action sequences invariably precede soft titillation, most of which are terribly cliché, such as when one of Carlos’ overexcited sex-bombs toys with the pin of a grenade between her tongue and teeth. It’s not exactly Pussy Galore, but really …
The film settles down in the second half to concentrate on the storming of the 1975 OPEC conference, and Carlos’ subsequent dismissal from the ‘Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’. Carlos bides his time before setting up his own organisation with Syrian support. The stage is set for more danger and double-cross in part three, but not before Assayas rewards our patient attention with another steamy diversion (all based in fact, of course). The infamous Marianne Kopp willingly submits to Carlos’ singular brand of revolutionary commitment for women, the kind of female submission any red-blooded heterosexual male would expect from a semi-naked self-confessed feminist. Carlos temporarily relinquishes his dominance and contemplates the potentially explosive events to come. Ahem. If the pace slackens in the part three, it’s entirely in keeping with Carlos’ decline. As impressive as Carlos is, there’s no getting around the fact that it is a TV movie, and not likely to be ranked among the greatest achievements of the medium. Still, it's a good excuse to swan off to the movies on a wet mid-winter afternoon, but don’t be suckered by the hype, Assayas has done better.
Another lengthy film with the feel of a TV series was Mariano Llinás’ EXTRAORDINARY STORIES, a film I liked and disliked in equal measure. The film is essentially a series of shaggy-dog diversions that culminate into one big shaggy-dog diversion that could easily have ambled on for another couple of shaggy and diverting hours. It’s divided into three main sections, like three volumes of novel, each with a series of chapters within which smaller diversions occasionally materialise (some returned to, others not). As if to emphasise his literary aspirations, Llinás keeps the three central protagonists at a distance from the viewer by mediating them (and the events that overtake them) through near-constant narration. Everything we learn (or think we learn) about these people (and virtually everyone else in the film) is conveyed this way, including motivations, attitudes, and feelings. It’s akin to a tour bus driver constantly telling you about the passing landscape, and how you should feel about it. Except that the landscape and the commentary don’t always connect, in fact at times they are deliberately subverted.
It pains me to admit to this, but the necessity of reading endless subtitles was a hindrance to appreciating the visual qualities of the film, a rare instance where a good dubbed translation would have freed the viewer (and the film!) from the constant demands of the text. There were instances when I completely abandoned the subtitles to engage more fully with the often captivating, ambiguous, beautifully evocative poetic images. Overall, the various journeys and diversions offered perceptive ruminations on the often-surreal incomprehensibility of humankind. In the end, this long and winding road movie culminated in a reflective 20-minutes where something resembling philosophical acceptance quietly and satisfyingly came to the fore. As a movie, it made a fascinating book.
As others have noted, there is a passing resemblance between Abbas Kiarostami’s CERTIFIED COPY and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), in that they are structured around buoyant and witty conversations between two would-be lovers sauntering through postcard-perfect European locales. The free-flowing philosophical ruminations and coy banter (underpinned by gentle and chaste sexuality) keeps the hearts and minds of those willing to give in to these ‘thinking-persons romances’ happily engaged until the teasing, unresolved (sort of) finale. Of course, Kiarostami’s film isn’t as cut and dried as Linklater’s. The intellectual and philosophic strands in Certified Copy extend beyond the characters and their story (and their relative privilege) to encompass the film itself as it quietly ponders the nature of cinema, art and culture in general, and notions of ‘value’ and ‘meaning’ in particular.
As Brannavan Gnanalingam pointed out in his very good overview of the film, the thought of Kiarostami making a romantic comedy with Juliette Binoche sent shivers down the spine of every self-respecting cinephile at the very thought of an artist of Kiarostami’s stature making a rom-com, which would surely constituted a cultural crime. But while the tone of the film was lighter than previous Kiarostami films, there is much more to it than Tuscan charm. Certified Copy suggests that the filter through which we perceive something determines its value and meaning. Through the theme of copies, originals, and the value subscribed to them, Kiarostami poses questions about what we assume to be ‘real’, and his playful narrative implies that perceptions and assumptions are entirely subjective. I’m sure Kiarostami would have appreciated the chatter in the auditorium afterwards: were the couple actually married, or were they just pretending? Of course, he has no interest in that sort of narrative detail for its own sake. His interests lie elsewhere, and I assume he wants the same for his audience.
When all the chatter stops, Certified Copy closes on a pensive shot from a hotel window where we hear two clanging church bells slowly coming to a halt, a potentially sombre metaphor that recalls the famous wedding perennial, 1st Corinthians 13, wherein ‘without love, our words are little more than (in this case) clanging church bells’. The two bells might be the two central characters, or they might be a momento mori in that they gradually, very simply, fall silent.
Originally published in The Lumiere Reader