LEVIATHAN | Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel, 2012
The 2013 NZ International Film Festival boasted an unprecedented assembly of the good and the great, and one of the pleasures of a well-curated festival is to recognise and enjoy the way the films inform each other. Indeed, many films this year shared a range of themes: crime and punishment; the vagaries of conscience; examining and facing up to the past; rationalising guilt and culpability; and taking responsibility for personal and collective dysfunction.
Alas, there were clunkers, perhaps none more so than Terence Malick’s TO THE WONDER, not so much for its thematic or aesthetic properties, but because Malick scuttled them with his infatuation with facile beauty and penchant for coaxing ingratiating performances from actors. Olga Kurylenko’s turn was excruciatingly vain, and Rachel McAdams fared little better, both overplaying the coy, pigeon-toed baby doll, fragile and vulnerable, but with a creepy childlike sexuality. Ben Affleck spent the movie in brooding and vacuous male model mode, while Javier Bardem did what he could with his character’s crisis of faith. It was all Vogue and Marlboro Man, but it has been hailed as a masterful meditation on human love on one hand, Divine Love on the other. We are, of course, expected to accept that this was Malick’s high-minded intention, when in fact he is a mere hop, skip and jump (something the women do endlessly in this film) away from David Hamilton. Whether one warms to the film or not will depend upon how readily one can overlook (or simply not notice) the glaring vanity of the work.
Vanity characterised another disappointing film this year, Shane Carruth’s UPSTREAM COLOR. Overreaching, sophomoric, less than the sum of its often corny and contrived parts, it’s hard to fathom how such an overblown undertaking (concept, performances, direction) has had near-unanimous acclaim. It plays like a short expanded to feature length. Amy Seimetz has a crack at her own version of the pouting pigeon-toed objet-de-désir, proving that she too can be as vain as any Ukrainian. On that level, Mr Carruth gives her a run for her money. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a bad word against Upstream Color, or for that matter the new vampire-themed film from Jim Jarmusch, ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE. Typically downbeat, this too-cool-for-school, faux-retro trifle has been touted as a return to form after the ‘misstep’ of The Limits of Control, a film that was in fact a high point for Jarmusch despite failing to connect with his usual audience. If his usual audience want superficial and shallow, they get it in spades from Only Lovers Left Alive, and it seems they couldn’t be happier, with some calling it his "most poetic film since Dead Man”. It might strain credibility to suggest that this is Jarmusch’s Wings of Desire, but in an oddly inverted way it kind of resembles the Wenders film. But the real vampire here is Jarmusch, and the real victims are his audience.
Other disappointments this year included DORMANT BEAUTY by Marco Bellocchio (who made the excellent Fist in the Pocket in the mid-60s), a film about euthanasia that someone should have found a pillow for earlier in the production. Sally Potter’s GINGER AND ROSA featured a cast of otherwise capable actors struggling to find credibility (or rhythm) in what was little more than a TV-movie. Prior to his death, Raul Ruiz planned to make LINES OF WELLINGTON. His widow, Valeria Sarmiento, took up the task, and while it was certainly handsome to look at on the big screen (a banquet-table laden with eye-catching morsels), it was not a film by Raul Ruiz.
I had no expectations prior to seeing Paolo Sorrentino’s THE GREAT BEAUTY, apart from being aware of its positive Cannes reception and 100% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, neither of which can be taken as any guarantee that it would be a great film. As it turned out, it wasn’t, but I can see why people love it – there is much to enjoy. The difficulty I had with the film is that it borrows way too much from Fellini. For most, this will likely be a good thing, but it was too much 'the homage’ for me. It's an impressive but relentless riff on La Dolce Vita, with Marcello (now Jep) taking stock at the precipice of old age. Scene after beautiful scene luxuriates in elegance, privilege, decadence, cynicism, selfishness, contempt, vanity, and fear, all managed with stylish aplomb. But for all the skill and provocation, there’s something hollow and perhaps forgettable about Sorrentino’s ‘masterwork’. Whether The Great Beauty proves to be more than a spectacular monument to surfaces remains to be seen, but of course some will claim that therein lies the greatness of the film …
I appreciated Kore-eda Hirokazu’s portrait of a rigid and unforgiving society in LIKE FATHER LIKE SON, but there was a disconcerting reactionary glibness to the work. The overfamiliar plot concerns babies switched at birth: one working class, the other upwardly mobile. It’s a scenario that sails perilously close to patronising sentiment, to say nothing of cliché and easy targets. To a degree, the same could be said of I Wish, Kore-eda’s previous film, where the cute factor and dinky score tested the sensibilities of those who equate him with Still Walking, Nobody Knows, and Maborosi. One wonders if the Ozu mantle might be sitting a little heavily on Kore-eda’s shoulders. One thing Ozu understood was that even a film aimed at the mainstream needn’t pander to facile sentiment.
I never been a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST or DIAL M FOR MURDER, but seeing them as intended (on a big screen in a theatre full of enthusiastic punters) helped me appreciate them as entertaining examples of Hitchcock working through many of his favourite themes. They films were, I admit, a lot of fun, even if they were clunky at times. Still, North By Northwest simply isn’t in the same league as Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho, or (one of my personal favourites) The Wrong Man, one of Hitchcock’s most underrated films, but also one of his saddest, most restrained, and probably most personal.
Satyajit Ray’s CHARULATA was magnificent. Restored to luminous glory, the film was a revelation, and Ray’s direction and sound design were masterful. Everyone agreed that King Vidor’s THE CROWD was special, but I struggled with it. There were fine moments certainly, but the film (and score) sailed right by me. However, Buster Keaton’s COPS and THE CAMERAMAN were a delight, perfectly accompanied by Timothy Brock’s scores, which were beautifully performed by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra under the baton of Marc Taddei. Special mention must also go to the Civic sound engineers for their excellent audio mix.
If I had to pick a single standout, it would be NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY. The prospect of seeing a Lav Diaz film screened in a theatre again is slim. His films are notoriously long, some up to 11 hours (not exactly distributor-friendly). Taking full advantage of the opportunity, I saw it twice. The second viewing was even more impressive than the first. One of the reasons for my enthusiasm for Diaz is his committment to cinema as a platform for socio-political discussion and belief in 'form following function'. Norte, the End of History explores (among other things) the tenuous lines between idealism and fascism, guilt and innocence, crime and punishment, love and forgiveness, fate and justice. There’s much to absorb and plenty to ponder in this meticulous and magnificent film. A single viewing simply isn’t enough.
Of course, Norte wasn’t the only big-hitter this year. Two of the most affecting was Joshua Oppenheimer’s THE ACT OF KILLING and its inadvertent companion-piece, Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture. Oppenheimer’s film focuses on a handful of the men who were tasked with ridding Indonesia of ‘communism’ in the mid-60s, death squads made up of gangsters (or ‘free men’ as they prefer to translate the term) who murdered more than a million Indonesians, mostly intellectuals, leftists, and ethnic Chinese. Now, as respected elderly men, they’re making a film to celebrate their ‘heroic’ past. The Act of Killing is mainly a portrait of one of the most feared of these men as he gradually confronts his polluted soul. It's a film like no other, a journey to the banal heart of darkness that offers an insight into the elemental nature of humankind. It is one of the most disturbing films one is ever likely to see, less for what one sees (Oppenheimer maintains restrained and unsensational control of the film throughout) than for the matter-of-fact indifference it depicts.
Rithy Panh’s THE MISSING PICTURE recounts the atrocities Cambodia suffered under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the mid-70s. Using hundreds, if not thousands of hand-carved figures, Panh reconstructs the events and experiences that he, his family and their wider community endured. The Missing Picture handles its subject matter with more poetry (and less visceral intensity) than The Act of Killing, at times recalling the lyricism of Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, but the underlying sorrow is as palpable. Both films are driven by the urge to bare witness to history, to the memory of the victims, and to reflect on the destructive potential of ideologies of all hues. These films should be mandatory for everyone of university age and older.
Carlos Reygadas’ POST TENABRAS LUX is another film that considers humankind’s propensity for enmity and violence: the vulnerability of the innocent; spiritual corruption; and embedded codes of dysfunction. The opening minutes alone are worth the ticket price, a cinematic tour de force in which Reygadas establishes the thematic substance of his film. While perhaps not overtly influenced by Tarkovsky’s Mirror, Post Tenabras Lux is similar in that it is an attempt (a very successful one) to find a personal cinematic language. What narrative there is serves as a loose pretext to explore ideas similar to those in Norte, the End of History and The Act of Killing, the pressing need to acknowledge and take responsibility for personal and collective dysfunction. Post Tenebras Lux is an exceptional film that requires more than a single viewing to appreciate.
The same can be said in every respect about Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s terrific LEVIATHAN, a wholly immersive sensory experience that completely took me by surprise. Ostensibly a documentary, the film is shot in such a way that at first glance one might mistake it for a work of experimental abstract art, something made in the spirit and tradition of the American avant-garde. On those terms alone it would be remarkable, but Leviathan is acutely focused on the rhythms, sounds, colours, sensations and experiences of the natural world, specifically that of deep-sea fishing. If you’re wary about sitting through a documentary on such a subject, rest assured that this is one the most viscerally affecting films you will ever see, unreservedly and unapologetically committed to an active engagement with cinema, and wholly respectful of the viewer. It needs to be seen on a big screen and through a BIG and LOUD sound system.
Wang Bing’s more demanding THREE SISTERS also eschews narration in favour of visual depiction. Regarded as one the most important documentarists of his generation, Wang is renowned for his no-frills long-form approach in works such as his monumental 9-hour masterwork, West of the Tracks, an epic that bares witness to the lives of workers in the 'rust belt' of Northwest China. Three Sisters is a quotidian study of rural life in a remote area of Yunnan province that focuses on three motherless children (their mother, we learn, ran off some time ago) who pretty much fend for themselves while their father seeks work. Wang’s unadorned images eloquently speak to the deprivation at the heart of China’s unrelenting social and economic transformation, and display a cinematic rigour that is perfectly in synch with the content of the film as well as its director's artistic intentions.
In A TOUCH OF SIN, Jia Zhang-ke continues his career-long examination of the less than glowing flipside of China’s massive upheaval. The film is constructed around four loosely interlinked stories based on real-life incidents of violence, although Jia elects to treat these jarring moments in the comic-book style of Wuxia martial arts movies. By doing so he tones down the violence, but also uses it as a critical signifier of the dysfunction and consequent violence associated with commercial self-interest, corruption, and the contempt visited upon the powerless. Perhaps more than any of his previous films, A Touch of Sin addresses Chinese audiences directly, bluntly laying down a challenge in the final shot where he asks, “Do you understand your sin?” Once again, the theme of acknowledging, if not taking responsibility for embedded dysfunction looms large. A solid work, but not (in my view) top-draw Jia – even with an effective reference to Nietzsche.
Jem Cohen’s very fine MUSEUM HOURS was one of the last films I saw in the festival, which might account for my impression that this intelligent, highly original film was at times irritatingly impatient. Given the general consensus that the film is leisurely, it must seem perverse of me to criticise it for not being slower, but along side the formally resolute works of Diaz and Wang, it seemed hurried and chatty. For a film that is at least a partial meditation on the meaning and value of images, it was a shame that Cohen chose to cut so often and so quickly. It was as if he had so much material that he would rather use it all briefly than leave some out, or risk a more languorous film by letting the images breath (especially the exquisitely framed cityscapes). Allowing more time for reflection could have produced a more powerful work, and one that might have been even more cinematic.
Sarah Polley’s STORIES WE TELL is an intelligently constructed investigation into her own family history, a documentary that seamlessly blends home-movie footage and reconstructions with present day material in which the Polley family attempt to unravel the tangled complexities of familial relationships and the vagaries of memory. Given her intimate involvement with the subject matter, Polley’s film is remarkably even-handed and respectful, a wise, sensitive document that accepts the unknowable and avoids the pitfalls and temptations of creating a personal mythology.
Turning 105 in December, the inspirational and seemingly unstoppable Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira continues to produce a film a year, something he has consistently managed since his early 60s, and all to a very high level. GEBO AND THE SHADOW is a masterful adaptation of an early 1920s play by Portuguese writer, Raul Brandao (purportedly an influence on Beckett’s 'Waiting for Godot'). Set almost entirely in one room, Oliveira considered shooting this chamber-piece in one take, a conceit that lingers in the finished film with its long takes and measured performances. Michael Lonsdale is a treat to watch as the long-suffering Gebo, as are Claudia Cardinale (Gebo’s narcissistic wife) and Jeanne Moreau (an old friend). The three remaining principals are played superbly by Oliveira regulars, Ricardo Trepa (Gebo’s nihilistic son), Leonor Silveira (Gebo’s neglected daughter-in-law) and Luis Miguel Cintra (another of Gebo’s friends). The tone and meaning of the work may be dour and the pace slow, but the film is a pleasure to watch. It also shares with other films in this year's festival the recurring theme of acknowledging and taking responsibility for the consequences of dysfunction. It’s also a not-so-veiled comment on the criminal opportunism that led to the 2008 global financial crisis. A work of mature cinematic genius by one of the world's most mature cinematic geniuses, see it at all costs, but be prepared for the slow pace.
Abbas Kiarostami’s LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE playfully juggles a tongue-in-cheek tale of misunderstandings and mistaken identities may seem slight but is ultimately highly satisfying, a perfectly baked soufflé that recalls the miniature gems of Manoel de Oliveira in terms of its philosophic wisdom and lean cinematic mastery. At first I mistook the film as a teasing provocation of audience expectations, but there is more to the film than meets the eye – literally! Indeed, what happens out of frame is as important as what we are shown. Like Someone in Love is also more ambiguous than it seems. Walking a fine line between reality and illusion, it has much in common with previous Kiarostami works, particularly Certified Copy. The opening scene signals that everything may not be what it seems, and Kiarostami keeps his characters and audience guessing, well after they leave the theatre!
As an ardent follower of Bruno Dumont, the chance to see his new film on the big Civic screen was a no-brainer. CAMILLE CLAUDEL 1915 is, superficially at least, something of a departure for Dumont, in that it is the first time he has made a film set a film in a historic period, about a real historic person, and played by an international star. With Juliette Binoche in tow and subject matter with potentially wide appeal, the burning question was, will the film be consistent with Dumont's preoccupations? We needn’t have worried – the film is a triumph. It is, in every respect, a fitting addition to Dumont’s oeuvre. Binoche delivers a performance of extraordinary depth and restraint, and Jean-Luc Vincent (as Camille’s brother, Paul) is excellent as a devout, serious-minded man whose doctrinal moral certainty provides Dumont with a platform to mount the philosophic complexities for which his films are renowned. Camille Claudel, 1915 is a perfectly judged and substantial work from one the most original and uncompromising cinematic artists of our time.
The masterful Korean director Hong Sang-soo continues to blur lines between reality and illusion in NOBODY'S DAUGHTER HAEWON, an amusing but also very touching film about an insecure young woman struggling with personal isolation and the albeit distant but nonetheless unsettling certainty of death. The film isn’t as bleak as I make it sound, but it is informed by a distinct sadness that culminates in a poignant finale. The film rhymes with Hong's previous work, but for the first time (as I recall) the central character is female. Jung Eun-chae delivers a skilful and understated performance as Haewon, revealing and concealing with consummate ease. The influence of Eric Rohmer is still there, but as always Hong’s distinctive artistic sensibility is dominant throughout. Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is another strong work from Korea’s greatest auteur.
Ulrich Seidl’s trilogy PARADISE: LOVE, FAITH, HOPE was one of the major events of the festival. Seidl's films are not for everyone: blunt; confrontational; frequently explicit; always challenging. Detractors say that to watch a Seidl film is to have one’s nose rubbed in shit, but Seidl has no interest in maintaining a polite distance from the meaty facts of life, which he dissects with honesty and empathy. Cameraman Ed Lachman perfectly described his films as ‘moral without being moralistic’, and someone perceptively called them ‘escapes from escapism’. Seidl's films are tough because he refuses to kowtow to the fictions we often hide behind, so he strips away the pretence to reveal the elaborate monuments we build to Denial, ensuring that viewers can't walk away from one of his films without recognising something of their own nature. Could this be why people walk out of his films?
In Paradise Trilogy, each film focuses on one of three women from the same family. In Love, Teresa travels to Africa as a first-time sex tourist; in Faith, Teresa’s religious sister Anna Maria struggles to keep a grip on what’s left of reality; and in Hope, Teresa’s daughter Melanie goes to a camp for overweight teens where she develops a crush on a much older man. None of these characters have an easy time of it, and each goes to great lengths to find fulfilment, compromising their dignity in the process. Each eventually come to a point where they can face themselves.
If you’re not familiar with the work of Ulrich Seidl, do yourself a favour and take the litmus test of The Paradise Trilogy. One way or another, these films tell you something about yourself.
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I started by saying that many of the films in this year's festival examined personal or social dysfunction (or the roots of it) and various responses to it. In almost all instances, the abiding impression is that crime is largely defined by the powerful, and punishment is largely reserved for the powerless. Notions of justice and morality are abstracted to the degree where guilt is relative, punishment is arbitrary, and moral or philosophic reflection is the reserve of the privileged. This is the central theme of Norte, the End of History, where, as the final shots show, the rain falls and the sun shines on just and unjust alike.
The impact of enmity and greed (the dominant principles in human affairs) on our wellbeing (our sense of self and our psychic health as individuals and societies) was at the heart of many films this year. The question they all implicitly pose is, what does it take for empathy to completely erode? There’s a clip on YouTube that shows a toddler being run over by a van. 19 people pass by (some stepping over the child) before someone helps. To make matters worse, a second vehicle blithely runs over the child. While it’s challenging to fathom the conditions that lead to this degree of detachment, I wouldn't be surprised if a lack of empathy of this order may not be as foreign to us as we might prefer to imagine.
Originally published in The Lumiere Reader