2011 NZIFF

August 7, 2011

LOVE STORY | Florian Habitch, 2011  


The 43rd Auckland International Film Festival couldn’t have got off to a better start than with a local lad triumphantly presenting his new film before an enthusiastic home crowd. In his opening night introduction, festival director Bill Gosden said that the time had come to turn the Civic Theatre over to Florian Habicht, but I doubt that anyone could have predicted the extent to which Florian would so completely seize that opportunity.


The audience were so won-over by LOVE STORY, a deceptively skilful semi self-reflexive rom-com, that they were held in its spell well after the lights came up and Florian took to the stage. Presumably unscripted (?!), he rang his lead actress (Masha Yakovenko) in New York, waking her at 4am to share the success of the premier. Florian had everyone clapping and cheering down the phone-line, then one chap - so taken by it all - called from the balcony, “Tell her you love her.” Touché. What better endorsement could there be for a filmmaker than to be given such unequivocal proof of how successfully he suspended disbelief. While perhaps not working on quite the same level as Abbas Kiarostami, Habicht’s deft blurring of fiction and reality (extended to include the capacity opening night crowd) evinces a sophisticated understanding of film grammar (and audience expectation). The real love story, beyond the facts, the fiction, and the romantic affection for New York, is Habicht’s infectious obsession with cinema - to which his heart seems well and truly taken. Charmingly escapist, but with ample post-modern musings for those so inclined, Love Story confirms once and for all (as if there was doubt) that Florian Habicht is one of New Zealand cinema’s brightest stars.


I nearly overlooked writer-director Katell Quillévéré’s debut feature, LOVE LIKE POISON (Un Poison Violent) given that there was little in the festival booklet to indicate that the film would be more than an engaging coming-of-age movie with erotic overtones, and certainly nothing to alert cinephiles to the quality of the film, namely its thematic and formal connections to the films of Maurice Pialat (and less overtly Robert Bresson, Agnes Varda, Catherine Breillat, and others). That said, the film is by no means formally or thematically austere. There’s a palpable physicality to Love Like Poison, a robust, but by no means overstated earthiness in the performances and settings. In her acting debut, Clara Augarde is very good in the central role of 14-year old Anna, perfectly balancing innocent vulnerability and perceptive resolve as her character negotiates the unfamiliar terroir of adulthood. While the film offers scope for philosophical contemplation (by way of the seemingly inexhaustible conflict between faith and flesh), the characters are more than mere signifiers serving a dry central thesis. These are wholly recognisable, flesh and blood human beings, and Quillévéré handles their various complexities and tensions with insight and sensitivity. Drawn from her early experience as a devout young Catholic, Quillévéré’s film surely has more than a hint of autobiography in it. However, she handles her characters and subject matter with a resolutely non-judgmental even hand. Whether Anna’s future will be as self-determining as it seems, or a temporary illusion that will at some point need to be revisited (perhaps in another film?) is left for the viewer to ponder. In any event, it’s clear that questions concerning female self-determination in a world still dominated by male power are key subtexts in this deceptively intelligent film.


As the titular centre of Pia Marais’ AT ELLEN’S AGE, Jeanne Balibar delivers a skilfully restrained performance of a woman suffering a crisis of identity that sets her on an aimless journey of self-discovery. As the still point of Marais’ appropriately meandering film (a risky formal identification with the main character that caused the film to teeter a few times), Balibar’s deliberately dislocated performance anchors a supporting cast who skate perilously close to caricature, particularly Julia Hummer (who did very good work in early Christian Petzold films), as a prescriptively humourless idealist. The prolonged central section, wherein Ellen falls in with a group of animal rights activists, wears out its welcome well before Marais shifts focus again, but just when it seems that Ellen will never reconnect with a world that no longer holds meaning for her, Marais slips into the kind of territory we associate with Claire Denis. The mysteriously elusive quality of the final section introduces a layer of cinematic depth that previously had only been hinted at. By turns intriguing and slightly irritating, At Ellen’s Age asks a lot from its audience, and it’s debatable whether that patience is adequately rewarded. Fitfully reminiscent of the Berlin School, the film doesn’t quite have the rigour associated with the best of the movement, but Marais’ controlled style and preparedness to take formal risks suggests that she could be worth keeping an eye on.


Despite Lars von Trier’s purported reverence for Tarkovsky, even the most successful of the wayward Dane’s films can't resist jumping on the furniture, and none more so than his latest concoction, MELANCHOLIA. Aside from the magnificent opening, much of the film (especially the first half, which plays like an adolescent homage to early Thomas Vinterberg), is characterised by the self-congratulatory mannerisms of Dogme 95: frenetic cameras, specious jump-cuts, and the unrestrained scenery-chewing of ill-disciplined 'ac-tors'. Even the weight and majesty of the opening was undermined each time Trier returned to Wagner’s enthralling prelude from 'Tristan und Isolde'. Having shot his bolt in the first few minutes, each new attempt to coax an erection felt increasingly desperate. In the opening ten minutes he conveyed what he spend the next two hours labouring to better. If the film had a little more meat on its bones, I might have been tempted to make a case for it as a development in Trier’s ongoing examination of his personal (and our global) narcissistic dysfunction, but the film is too thematically and formally slight to justify that degree of effort, and frankly, dignifying Trier’s misanthropy for a second time (read ANTICHRIST) would be twice too many. However, I will admit to a quiet titter when Justine (Kisten Dunst) said, “What do I think about it? I think it’s a piece of shit!”


I might have expected a bit much from Austrian filmmaker Karl Markovics’ BREATHING, particularly in light of Michael and the work of Haneke, Seidl, et al, and while it doesn’t exactly stand shoulder to shoulder with such heavy-weights, it definitely has its moments. Thomas Schubert is particularly impressive in the lead role, a performance that could easily slot into a more rigorous (Haneke-like) film. Breathing may be Austrian, but when the musical score matches the footsteps of the characters, you know you’re not in Seidl country. Still, the film is better than my comments imply. Perceptively observed and shot in a visually sophisticated but undemonstrable style, this empathetic study of an isolated and damaged individual striving to make the best of the cards dealt him is a fine debut, even if it is a tad safe.


I expected more from Tran Anh Hung that the contrived (though undeniably artful) piece of adolescent romantic masochism that was NORWEGIAN WOOD. I guess I’m in the wrong demographic for this film, but I would have thought that Tran was too. Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000) came out quite some years ago, and, on reflection, one has to admit that Tran has tended towards attractive, perhaps even superficial surfaces. While his new film is (by all accounts) faithful to Haruki Murakami’s widely-praised novel, I found it frustratingly hollow, far too concerned with beautiful images of beautiful people in beautifully designed settings suffering the sweet melancholia of self-absorbed existential crises. Yawn. However, I got an unexpected (and surely unintentional) laugh when the death of one character is revealed in a slow pan that comes to rest on a pair of legs dangling from a tree. Now, that was a hoot!


If Tran had followed the structure of the novel by setting the film within the retrospective recollections of the now older central character (Toru), and giving the Japanese student protests of the 60s more thematic attention, then perhaps Norwegian Wood would have had a little more meat on its bones. Admittedly, the protests were used to suggest that Toru is oblivious to matters of political conscience, but Tran could have taken this further to explore ideas relating to notions of choice – choosing or not choosing, being chosen, or having no choice at all. Instead, the film was a rather vacuous 130-minute slog in the company of perpetually vain characters, to say nothing of the rather dated sexual dynamics. Some might argue that on this level the film reflects the times in which it is set, but Norwegian Wood seems to purport the notion that the female characters (irresistibly attracted to Toru) are defined by (and must suffer as a consequence of) their relationship to the central male protagonist. Grr. Still, I'm sure that many viewers will see the film as a gorgeous, sensuous, poignant meditation on love and loss. Who knows, perhaps this is the perfect movie to watch with a special friend on a winter’s evening curled up in front of the fire, as comfy and beguiling as an angora pullover. Mmm ... angora pullover ... mmm ...


My decision to go to Oliver Hermanus’ BEAUTY was a last minute impulse. I was wary of the film given the intimations in the festival booklet of a ‘ferocious ... human cannonball ripping through walls’, which primed me to expect that the wood-processing plant owned by the central protagonist, Francois (a concentrated and very controlled performance by Charlie Keegan) might take the film to Fargo-style extremes. I was relieved to find that Hermanus and co-writer Didier Costet had much more serious fish to fry. This cinematically sophisticated film examines the inner turmoil of an emotionally isolated, conflicted man, unaware that he is on a journey of devastating self-discovery (revealed with wordless perfection in the penultimate scene). A broad political reading could be extrapolated in which Francois could be seen as a signifier for entrenched prejudice and intransigence, but the implications of Beauty are more broadly universal. While he is portrayed with restraint and understanding (perhaps even compassion), the final image of Francois driving down a spiral parking building exit (descending steadily into darkness) brought the film to an implicitly ominous conclusion. Impressively controlled, intelligent and perceptive, Beauty is well worth checking out.


Les frères Dardenne certainly know how to cast their films. THE KID WITH A BIKE features the debut of another superb young actor. Thomas Doret plays Cyril (the troubled, fiercely resilient kid with a bike) with impressive energy and veracity. While connections with Robert Bresson are still apparent, they are less overt. This is not the riff on Mouchette I thought it was going to be at one point, in the way that Rosetta was, or as Pickpocket was an influence on L’Enfant. The Kid with a Bike has more in common with the Dardenne’s first feature, La Promesse (1996), an equally unblinking and compassionate study of a young boy (interestingly, the film debut of Dardenne regular, Jérémie Renier, who here plays Cyril’s father) caught up in a people-smuggling ring. Some will also notice parallels with the neo-realism of Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, and early Ken Loach (notably Kes). While I don’t wish to imply that this is one of the Dardenne’s lesser works, it seemed to be an attempt to reach a broader audience. This is partly evinced by the subject matter and the extent to which the viewer is encouraged to identify with the central characters, but also in the use of music, which one doesn’t usually equate with the Dardenne’s. The critical consensus seems to be that this is a return to form after the supposedly less successful Lorna’s Silence, but I’m not sure if I agree that their previous film was a lesser effort, or that this (good that it is) is an improvement. But one thing is certain – when it comes to handling potentially sensational subject-matter, the Dardenne’s are masters at eschewing sentimentality and emotional pleading, and keeping their characters (and the viewer) wholly grounded.


While a casual likeness to the Berlin School may be discernable in Andrei Zvyagintsev’s stylish ELENA, there are also Hitchcock overtones in this sombre, economical, noir-tinged study of moral compromise and socio-political discontent. The film is a riff on classic 'The Postman Always Rings Twice' machinations, and is considerably more successful than Christian Petzold’s disappointing Jericow (2008). Even the music by Philip Glass is effective. I don’t wish to be dismissive, but his scores often feel imposed on a film to me, rarely as expertly integrated as the score for Elena is. Concise visual storytelling, beautifully designed and shot, excellent performances (notably from Nadezhda Markina in the title role), this is a class act from one of Russia’s finest directors. However, I can't shake the sense that there is something unsettlingly right-wing about it. Ostensibly a tale about a late middle-aged woman forced to choose between her second husband (a wealthy older businessman) and her wastrel son (and his dead-loss family), the film can be read as a commentary on present-day Russia. But its depiction of lower working class despair has an uncomfortably condemnatory tone to it, as if the film's primary purpose was to serve as a 'timely warning' for the bourgeoisie. Hmm? I will need to see this film again at some point, and it will be very interested to see where Zvyagintsev goes from here. 


I can’t add much to either of the fine appraisals by Tim Wong and Brannavan Gnanalingam of Andrei Ujica’s THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF NICOLAE CEAUSESCU, except to say that it is a hypnotic piece of cinema. The film can’t accurately be described as a documentary, not just because nearly all of the footage was originally used to support a fiction (subtly implied by the film’s title), but because Ujica had no intention of explaining or overtly critiquing his subject. One doesn’t come away with a head full of facts or information beyond that which one’s perceptive facility discerns. As Tim points out, there is no voice-over, no dates, places, names, on-screen text or other contextualising information. You bring to the film what you know, and what you don’t know will largely remain so. Instead, the film operates on the level of giving someone the latitude to hang themselves with their own words (or more pertinently, their own images), but the implications go well beyond Ceausescu himself. As Brannavan suggests, the way that assembled images are read and understood is largely dependent on context. This particular film stands apart from most documentaries in that the appreciation of the images (their essential aesthetic quality) is central to Ujica’s intentions. Whatever you know or don’t know about Ceausescu, or whatever could be overtly imparted through narration or text isn’t the point. ‘Not knowing’ is a statement in itself. It’s also a comment on the persuasive nature of documentary, which Ujica refuses to engage in. Instead, he emphasises (and over three hours luxuriates in) the aesthetic pleasure of cinema, something that every film discussed here had to offer in glorious abundance, or struggled to achieve. What more could a cinephile want?


Originally published in The Lumiere Reader


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