AN OVERVIEW OF THE 2019 NZ FILM FESTIVAL
PETERLOO (2018) Mike Leigh
THE NIGHTINGALE (2018) Jennifer Kent
SONG WITHOUT A NAME (2019) Melina Leon
I only have myself to blame, but in a weak moment I bought a ticket to what I figured would be a mainstream account of Manchester’s infamous St Peter’s Field massacre, but I didn't expect it to be quite so risible. The over-the-top performances were only marginally more tolerable than the rhetoric the actors were asked to deliver. But deliver they did, with as much venomous spittle and cornball drawl as could be mustered to ensure that no one would miss every point hammered home in this needlessly drawn-out movie.
One senses that Mike Leigh didn’t trust his audience, or his actors, let alone the historical facts to speak for themselves. Cliche's abound as the working poor are portrayed with salt-of-the-earth nobility and the ruling-class as moustache-twirling villains. It's Coronation Street in period garb, with every knob turned to eleven.
Faring little better, The Nightingale suffers from the same one-dimensional over-emphasis. The baddies—racist white men intoxicated by blood-lust and misogyny—are similarly irredeemable bad-to-the-bone villains, a shorthand one might expect from lazy revenge flicks. But Jennifer Kent expects us to take every punishing scene seriously, sharing her protagonist’s outrage and identifying with her quest for justice - or is it revenge, catharsis, or just good box-office?
Like Leigh, Kent encourages us to boo and hiss at the baddies and root for the maltreated, in this case a young Irish woman driven to despair by unspeakable horrors, and a noble Aboriginal who guides her through dangerous and challenging terrain, physical as well as spiritual. Through their ordeal they discover a fondness for one another and a more humane outlook than either might have thought possible. Kent also invites us to share the catharsis offered in various scenes of comeuppance, all signposted from the get-go, but never seriously examined. The film ends on a note of hope for an enlightened "new dawn", a resolution that, in light of the preceding two hours, seems a tad spurious.
Watching The Nightingale, I was reminded of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, which it sort of resembles. Both films consider the troubled pasts of their respective countries through the experiences and sensibilities of female characters whose lives are largely determined by the self-serving indifference (if not stupidity) of male power and arrogance. Both depict journey’s through uncharted territory that can only be negotiated by engaging with (and learning to trust!) an unfamiliar ‘otherness’. However, the two films are chalk and cheese in terms of quality, one being a considerable work of cinematic art, while the other (at best) resembles a television period drama.
One wonders what Kent hoped to achieve by damning her country's violent and racist past (and, by implication, the perpetuation of systematic racism) by employing (with relish, it must be noted) generic tropes that offer victimisation as entertainment.
In complete contrast to The Nightingale, Peruvian filmmaker Melina Leon’s Song Without a Name offers an excellent example of what can be done in terms of making an aesthetically refined, thematically and politically lucid film about powerlessness and victimisation. Also shot in the intimate framing of the Academy ratio, it follows a wronged-woman's quest for justice, in this case within a society structured by mechanisms of power that she has no means of addressing. The initial wrong is only the beginning of the abuse she suffers.
Beautifully and intelligently made, Leon’s film presents real evil (rather than Kent’s guilty-thrill variety) as the banal consequence of systematic indifference towards (if not active collusion with) corruption and exploitation. Instead of the face-punching one endures from films like The Nightingale, Leon presents dark forces as largely faceless and invisible, shielded by the impenetrable smokescreen of bureaucracy.
And, like The Nightingale, Leon's film begins and ends with her female protagonist singing, only the resonance of the nameless song lingers long after this outstanding film ends. Despite the bleak subject matter, this understated, quietly angry film is no misery-fest, but a compassionate and empathetic work with impressive aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional depth.
RUBEN BRANDT, COLLECTOR (2018) Milorad Krstic
MONOS (2019) Alejandro Landes
APOCALYPSE NOW: FINAL CUT (1979/2019) Francis Ford Coppola
Usually, my festival selections favour directors I have followed over the years, mostly from Europe, Asia, the Middle East and South America, or films made by artists who follow in their wake. Genre films, documentaries, melodramas and lighter fare (comedies, relationship movies, coming of age films, and some older classics) can be overlooked, but I rarely, if ever, go to animations.
The fact is, they often bore me, being seemingly more about technique than content. I've no doubt missed many gems, but I admit it's one of my blind spots. However, now and then I’ll give one a shot, as I did this year with Ruben Brandt, Collector.
All I can say is that I hope I won’t have to endure a more boring film this festival. I guess I'm just not the target audience, which I presume must be animation geeks or genre fans, or those who simply like escapist fun. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. Still, for me, Ruben Brandt is too one-dimension, a film that imitates the easy-to-digest easy-to-sell habits of the mainstream, hoping perhaps to find an audience big enough to secure opportunities to produce more of the same.
There’s little else to say about this hollow wee trifle, other than it may have benefitted from a script that's more than a sketchy pretext to draw lots of pretty (ordinary) pictures. The best part was the opening, where a snail slowly inches its way off a railway track as a train bears down on it, a sequence that contained a delicate balance between narrative economy, technical invention, and ... brevity! Nuff said.
Speaking about boredom, and continuing in the same potentially inflammatory vein, can someone please tell me what the point of Monos is, other than the dubious pleasure of watching fit young gun-toting bods prance about in their undies?
I get the basic premise—an update of William Golding’s book about children failing to govern themselves to an unspecified country where young recruits of a vague guerrilla force are left to fend for themselves in an unforgiving landscape. To complicate things, they have an American hostage in tow, separated from (and desperate to be reunited with) her child. The teen-soldiers are more concerned with interpersonal dynamics than defending political freedoms, so hormones rage and things inevitably go awry, forcing them all to go bush. From this point, the narrative is shoehorned into a protracted roller-coaster ride of shifting allegiances and furious chases across claustrophobic jungle and treacherous rivers, until one would-be soldier is airlifted out—the end.
So, Monos is a visceral ride with lots of excellent camerawork, intensely physical acting, and—well, other stuff I’m sure—I don’t remember much, other than wondering what purpose it served beyond being an impressive calling-card for Mr Landes as a capable action director, and trying to determine what to make of the fourth-wall-breaking final shot. The metaphor, if there is one, might be saying something about humankind’s propensity for mechanisms that destroy empathy and promote indifference and apathy—which sort of describes Monos to a tee: a mechanism designed for purposes of consumption and profit that destroyed my empathy and induced apathy!
One thing Monos doesn't seem to be is a mechanism for thought or reflection. It invites you to vicariously experience and identify (on some level) with the characters and situations Landes plunges them/you into, like reality TV that offers visceral excitement to have with your chips.
Exercises in style over content are fine, but any meaning one might glean from Monos will depend upon what one is willing to read into its—such as the parallels with Apocalypse Now that some reviewers have, er, "spotted". Even similarities with Lord of the Flies are skin-deep, and comparisons with Yorgos Lanthimos are just wishful thinking—looking for subtext where there is none.
And so to the real thing, Coppola's Apocalypse Now: Final Cut, a resonant and compelling journey to the heart of darkness that has enough absurdist wit, piercing perceptions, and surreal commentary to serve an entire festival of films. It’s hard to say whether this 183-minute "final" cut was necessary in light of the satisfying 202-minute Redux in 2001. Without comparing these with the original 153-minute cut, I could only make generalisations based on my untrustworthy memory, but what I can say is that Final Cut looks and sounds great. The quality of the sound design is particularly impressive. Whether it’s an improvement on Redux I can’t say, but it was a pleasure to listen to—cheesy synths notwithstanding.
As much as the French section may be justifiable in terms of the broader context of America's involvement in Vietnam, a dream-like diversion into a world of ghosts that has obvious thematic value, it does slow the film down, arguably to no great purpose. The sequence feels like something from a different film, especially the curiously romantic conclusion. Likewise, the sequence where the crew spend time with Playboy Bunnies in Redux was interesting, but it's removal was no great loss. However, I did miss the scene with Kurtz surrounded by children just before Willard takes action against him, but one can see why it was taken out.
All of that aside—my goodness, what a movie! 40-years on, it continues to tower above all Vietnam movies, most war films, and many films of the period, deserving its status as a great work of cinema. That said, how will it measure up to Andrei Rublev?
AQUALERA (2018) Victor Kossakovsky
I’ve followed the work of Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky since I first saw his excellent The Belov’s (Belovy, 1992), a portrait of familial dysfunction in rural Russia that depicts the volatile relationship between an ageing brother and sister. Disarmingly intimate and piercing in its veracity, the film evokes something of the Russian soul: she, an embodiment of salt-of-the-earth labour; he, a drunken would-be philosopher-poet lamenting the condition of everything and everyone—except himself, of course. At less than an hour, this concise work would be the envy of Frederick Wiseman.
This was followed by Wednesday, July 19, 1961 (Sreda, 1997), in which Kossakovsky attempts to connect with people whose birthdate he shares; I Loved You (2002), three couples of different ages and experience; then the brilliant Tishe! (Hush!, 2002), rightly described as 80-minutes of pure poetry, in which (to quote Sandra Reid) “life’s small, banal incidents transform into abstract poetry.” He contributed a perceptive piece to Less Is More, an omnibus film featuring works by Abbas Kiarostami and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and in Svyato (2005) he captures the moment when a child first discovers their reflection in a mirror—an affecting film that reflects Kossakovsky’s gentle humanism.
In 2011 he had a major international breakthrough with ¡Vivan las Antipodas!, a dazzling cinematographic tour de force that pairs hemispherical opposite corners of the globe, such as a beached whale in Wairarapa with a butterfly in Spain. It’s an impressive work, but I felt that Kossakovsky was in danger of slipping into National Geographic pictorialism if not Baraka-esque new-ageism. In 2014 he made a film with students called Demonstration, a document of the 2012 anti-austerity demonstration in Barcelona that suffered in comparison to Sergei Loznitsa’s extraordinary Maidan released the same year.
I went to Aqualera with some trepidation, fearing that the “ravishing visual feast” promised in the programme notes would confirm my concerns about pictorialism. Well, they were, and they weren't. Yes, it’s gorgeously shot, and much of it has the look of a National Geographic essay on the extraordinary power of nature. While it lacks the existential heft of the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) films—particularly Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s Leviathan (2012)—it is, nevertheless, an engaging and thoughtful 90-minute visual and sonic ride that says much about the tenuousness of life on planet earth.
As much as I will continue to follow Kossakovsky’s output, I sense that his enthusiasm for the development of cinematographic technologies and their capacity to create spectacular digital imagery are at risk of overtaking his innate poetic instincts. I hope not. But if they do, we at least have Sergei Loznitsa, Nicholas Geyrhalter—who directed the brilliant Homo Sapiens in 2016, a film that rewards repeat viewings and is highly recommend—and the folk at SEL to look to for non-fiction cinema with plenty of heft.
For an overview of SEL output, click this link: https://sel.fas.harvard.edu/
FIRE WILL COME (2019) Oliver Laxe
It can be tough writing about films one admires. It’s easier to be critical, because identifying why a film doesn’t work can be more straightforward than teasing out the often-elusive power and subtlety of great works of art. It’s especially difficult when the strength of a work resides in subtext—what’s alluded to rather than articulated. How does one define something intuitive or poetic without doing a disservice to the very qualities one admires?
Oliver Laxe’s O que arde (Fire Will Come) poses such a dilemma. Interestingly, a direct translation of the title is ‘What Burns’, and I’ve also seen it called ‘A Sun That Never Sets’. All three are effective titles for this film, but the inference to 'what remains' in the direct translation is very fitting given the film's conclusion.
The stunning opening in a eucalyptus forest at night signalled from the outset that this was going to be a unique experience. While these first minutes aren't returned to, their dark poetry informs everything that follows. All I'm willing to say about what follows is that the narrative broadly follows an emotionally shut down man, Amador (played by Amador Arias), who returns to his elderly mother’s rural home (on an imposing hillside) after a stint in prison. His mother, Benedicta (played by Benedicta Sanchez), doesn’t welcome his return so much as resign to it, and responses from the locals (who all bear the same name as the non-professionals who play them) are equally reserved.
So, it’s mostly a film of interior emotional ripples accompanied by some of the most perfectly chosen music one is likely to hear in this festival. The director of photography, the excellent Mauro Herce, has been at the helm of many notable Spanish films over the last decade, including his own 'slow cinema' masterwork Dead Slow Ahead (2015), Oliver Laxe's previous Mimosas (2016), and Eloy Enciso's Arraianos (2012), a 'slow' non-fiction work shot in a Galician village.
On the evidence of films such as these, as well as those by Mariano Llinas and Melina Leon (from this festival), Albert Serra, Lucrecia Martel, Nicolas Pereda, Carlos Reygadas, Yulene Olaizola, Jose Luis Torres Leiva, Lisandro Alonso, Julio Cordon, Ernesto Contreras, Dominga Castillo, Christophe Farnarier, Niles Atallah, Pablo Giorgelli, Ciro Guerra, Claudio Llosa, Jose Luis Guerin, Jamie Rosales, Lois Patino, Federico Veiroj, and many more, a substantial body of reflexive films has been building in Spanish cinema over the last decade or so, much of which has never screened here. Thankfully, there are now online sites that make such gems available, along with masterworks (and trivia) dating back to the earliest days of film production. Catching up with this enormous amount of material is near-impossible, but the fact of its availability is something to celebrate.
HIGH LIFE (2018) Claire Denis
“If you break the laws of nature, you pay,” says Monte (Robert Pattinson), the central character in this fascinating new work from French auteur, Claire Denis. The line has personal meaning for Monte, a prisoner on death row for killing someone who killed his dog, information conveyed in a series of brief fragmented images, as is much of the information in this elliptical puzzle-piece. Along with a team of similarly condemned men and women, Monte agreed to go on what is effectively a suicide mission to the nearest black hole, ostensibly to harness energy for the good of planet Earth. But the mine about breaking the laws of nature may also offer a key to unlocking the philosophical resonances behind the cryptic narrative.
So, if you prefer your genre movies played straight, this may not be for you. The story (what there is of it) is mostly a pretext to allow viewers to ruminate on the individual and collective journey towards the black hole we must all face. Like Tarkovsky, Kubrick, and other philosophically-minded filmmakers who used Sci-Fi to pose existential questions, Denis takes us to outer space so we can look within. Early in the film, Monte drops a tool while repairing the outside of the spaceship, an event that exposes his vulnerability, but also, by implication, our shared Earthbound precariousness. As Monte says, we pay for our mistakes, which suggests that Denis wants her film to be read as a meditation on choice, or more pointedly what we consent to as we hurtle towards our destiny.
High Life is unlikely to satisfy those who need narrative clarity, in fact Denis may have deliberately followed Andrei and Stanley by ending her film on an ambiguous note of 'transition beyond matter'. So it might be counterproductive to be too concerned with plot holes or the occasional clunky moment. A more constructive approach might be to let the film trigger one's own ruminations, to intuit meaning rather than expecting Denis to provide it.
This may sound like an apology for a failed film, particularly as many viewers came away from it perplexed, but for me, High Life is a beautifully realised meditation on choice, transformation, and responsibility (personal and collective). For you, it might be something else, but that's what makes it great, and like all great films it will improve with every viewing. So, if you weren't convinced, try giving it another shot.
ANDREI RUBLEV (1966) Andrei Tarkovsky
There was never any doubt that this was going to be one of the festival standouts for me. Apart from being directed by one of my filmic heroes, Andrei Rublov fully deserves its status as a canonical masterpiece. There's little I can (or need to) say that hasn't been said more eloquently and with greater insight, other than to marvel at the sheer scale and ambition of Tarkovsky’s second film.
While this mesmerising film is an unflinching portrait of human cruelty, selfishness, greed and indifference, it is also a passionate celebration of the value and purpose of art and artists, and maybe a not-so-veiled portrait of Tarkovsky the artist and man of intense spiritual conviction.
While it’s best appreciated on a large screen, it’s also a must to own on Blu-ray. I could happily watch any one of the clearly defined (and largely self-contained) chapters whenever the mood takes me, to bask in the visceral appeal of Tarkovsky’s elemental, Bruegel inspired panoramas. All I can say is that no cinephile can be truly worthy of the name without at some point exploring this powerful, genuinely magnificent work of art.
ANGELO (2019) Markus Schleinzer
While the reviews for Markus Schleinzer’s sophomore feature have been largely positive, one or two have taken issue with the banality of the point the film makes about the undeniable disgrace of the long history of white racism. For a brief moment, I felt a tad ashamed of my enthusiasm for a film with such a shallow point to make, wondered if the formal rigour and distanciation techniques (designed to encourage the viewer to be actively analytical rather than passively swept along) had tricked me into thinking it's great.
But no, it is great. While the point may be valid, the 'disgraceful history of white racism' isn't the only (or primary) point Mr Schleinzer makes, and even if it were Angelo would still be remarkable.
Why? Well, if the aesthetic and thematic aspects of a film are in harmony—functioning together to produce a work of cinematic, intellectual, and emotional quality—then I'm in cine-heaven. Apart from which, I’m a fan of cinematic distanciation when employed as cleverly, boldly, and amusingly as it is in Angelo. So, as one might expect, there are parallels with Haneke, Hausner, Kubrick, Costa, Martel, Alonso, and other aesthetic formalists who use distanciation to meaningful effect.
Indeed, the sheer beauty of Schleinzer’s precisely composed images are an absolute pleasure—richly detailed, perfectly balanced, and utilising an exquisite colour palette. Nothing is forced, excessive or gratuitous, not in the design or performances. While the film maintains a firm grip on visual veracity, there are two scenes—one near the beginning, the other near the end—where Schleinzer deliberately breaks that contract by setting the scenes in a room with steel girders and fluorescent lighting! If the lights and girders appear incongruous early on, their reappearance near the end implies that ‘The Passion of Angelo’ has an intentional contemporary resonance.
The huge yellow-on-black chapter numbers accompanied by unforgiving harpsichord and the abrupt editing that cuts away from scenes in mid-sentence or action are deliberately jarring techniques designed to startle viewers out of their passivity, devices that indicate that Angelo is a vehicle for reflection rather than entertainment.
There is also underlying anger in the film, which increasingly makes its presence felt until given full reign in the final shot. The last shot depicts a moment of conflagration from a later time in history, a time of war, when the barely-concealed fascism implicit in the arrogant privilege of 18th-century aristocratic Viennese society comes powerfully to the fore. On a temporal level, this shot could be depicting events occurring months, years, or centuries later, or possibly events from a time yet to come!
So yes, a condemnation of biblically justified racism is part of the mix, but Mr Schleinzer goes further. He also exposes the brutality of privilege—and acquiescence to it! And it's also implicitly about our world now—Brexit, Trump, and the rise of new fascism. But it’s also about itself—how it does what it does and why. Mr Schleinzer wants you to notice and consider the subtext, elliptical transitions, scenes cut short, etc. I suggest that he wants us to regard his film as not just another movie, but an argument in favour of a specific approach to making and viewing, which all goes to make Angelo a wholly credible work of art.
IT MUST BE HEAVEN (2019) Elia Suleiman
The films of Elia Suleiman often call to mind Buster Keaton, Peter Sellers, Jacques Tati, and Otar Iosselianni. While these artists may have been influences for Mr Suleiman, he has his own distinctively absurdist style and critically acute preoccupations. Whether one applauds the points made in his new film or sees them as amusing but not especially profound asides designed to appeal to the political biases of liberal Western audiences, will depend on how seriously one takes the film.
Suleiman may not be saying anything new, but it would be churlish to criticise him for saying it, especially at a time when global politics is arguably more absurd than ever. In fact, the efficacy of Suleiman’s deadpan mute perplexity wholly relies on the audience knowing what “the gag” is. Sometimes it's political, sometimes it’s straight irony or slapstick, and at other times it’s in Suleiman's use of repetition, such as the persistent joke of an impossibly empty Paris or heavily armed New Yorkers doing their shopping.
For me, Mr Suleiman’s brand of rhetorical satire, which, through silent ridicule, bears mute witness to the lunacy of draconian systems of control and oppression (visible and hidden), confirms him as a voice worth hearing and a filmmaker worth watching.
FOR SAMA (2019) Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts
You will be hard-pressed to come across a single negative review or comment about this powerful documentary. Those who have seen it won’t need any review to persuqde them of what they already know—that few films come as close to capturing the truth of their subject matter or are as genuinely affecting as For Sama.
What it may lack in terms of technical or aesthetic qualities is more than compensated for by the unflinching honesty and beauty of life captured as it’s lived and lost. Filmed during the callous destruction of Aleppo in Syria, this could have been an angry, dark, despairing film. Instead, it’s one of the most life-affirming hymns to human resilience and the enduring power of love in the face of blunt evil that you are likely to see. There are plenty of other detailed reviews on this film, but frankly, if you haven’t seen it, you simply must.
THE GIFT: THE JOURNEY OF JOHNNY CASH (2019) Thom Zimny
MILES DAVIS: BIRTH OF THE COOL (2019) Stanley Nelson
As clearly stated on their respective tins, both of these docos fulfil their brief to a tee, portraying the rise and fall and rise again of two giants of American music. Apart from the racism Miles Davis endured, the broad trajectory of their lives was remarkably similar. Familial dysfunction, early acclaim, stardom, wealth, failed marriages, addiction, spousal abuse, parental failings, egomania, mid-career slumps, late-career triumphs, and finally iconic status.
While neither film glosses over the dark side of their subject’s lives, nor do they disturb their iconic legacy. Which is fine as far as I’m concerned, given that both we’re unique artists who transcended their respective disciplines to influence the future of music in ways that neither could have imagined.
You may not learn anything new about either man, or be more or less convinced by their music or artistry, and you might be unimpressed by these films as works of cinema, but you are sure to enjoy hearing (if only in snippets) some of the best music made in the 20th-century.
THE WILD GOOSE LAKE (2019) Diao Yinan
LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (2018) Bi Gan
I struggle with comic book faux-noir thrillers, action films, and pop movies in general. Even impressive set pieces such as the brilliantly staged sequences in Diao’s The Wild Goose Lake don't compensate for hyper-theatrical action sequences and fixed-expression acting reminiscent of graphic novels and puppetry. They're just not for me.
Despite minor reservations, I enjoyed all of Mr Diao’s previous features, Uniform (2003), Night Train (2007) and Black Coal Thin Ice (2014), and while his new film looks great and offers some nicely observed sociopolitical commentary, I was indifferent. Which was disappointing given my expectation that this acclaimed film would be an advance on Diao’s previous work. But given the positive reviews for the film, maybe Mr Diao did deliver on that promise. Perhaps my disappointment stems from an expectation that he would go in a direction other than B-movie pastiche.
The same could be said about Bi Gan and his Long Day’s Journey into Night, which could be seen as a step towards mainstream generic entertainment when compared to his 2015 feature debut, Kalii Blues. I saw his new film on video a week or two before the festival and wasn’t much taken by it. Still, I bought a ticket figuring that, if nothing else, the final hour-long 3D single take would be fun to experience on a big screen.
As it happened, I was right in the mood for the film, and got into it more seeing it on the big screen. Compared to The Wild Goose Lake, the understatement of Bi’s noir-tinged pastiche proved to far more satisfying than expected.
THE RIVER (2019) Emir Baigazin
The River is the third instalment in Mr Baigazin’s loose trilogy of meditations on the coming-of-age of teenage boys called Aslan. But they are not the same character and are played by different actors, so apart from depicting transitions from boyhood to manhood, Harmony Lessons (2013), The Wounded Angel (2016), and The River are more or less independent of each other. However, there are striking links in terms of the aesthetic and subtextual ‘glue’ that binds them. How one responds to that glue will determine one’s appreciation of the films, especially The River.
Set in the remote and arid Kazakh plains—a landscape devoid of trees, suggesting spiritual severity and emotional austerity – the story concerns a family of boys (aged between 6 and 16) who live with their strict father and mostly unseen mother. We learn early in the film that the father built his home in an isolated area to protect his children from worldly influences (hence the strained parallels some reviewers have made with Yorgos Lanthimos's Dogtooth). The boys, all dressed in sackcloth, harbour resentment towards their disciplinarian father, who expects Aslan to be his authoritarian proxy.
The Biblical overtones within this barren Garden of Eden are emphasised by the arrival of a worldly city cousin, an androgynous teenager decked out in silver and yellow attire who brings with him a ‘message from on high’ by way of a digital tablet (ha ha), an intoxicatingly divisive influence that feeds discord and nudges the boys towards rebellion, putting Aslan’s tenuous control under increasing pressure.
One could argue that this subtle meditation on power and control is a more effective recasting of Lord of the Flies than Monos, although such a parallel could be misleading given that the film is more about trying to find a humane response (and effective alternative) to systematic oppression.
The influence of Ozu and Bresson on Baigazin’s work has been evident from the start, and one can easily spot similarities with a host of cinematographic stylists and visual poets, but his formally precise compositions and carefully controlled colour palette stem from his own highly attuned and very personal artistic aesthetic.
As such, the measured pace and cryptic narrative style may be taxing for some, but it’s a film that will reward those willing to return to it for a second, third, or even forth viewing. If that’s not you, then this may not be your cup-o-java, but those with the patience to explore the layered qualities of this gorgeous tone poem may find that The River is one of the best films of the festival.
WHO YOU THINK I AM (2019) Safy Nebbou
NON-FICTION (2018) Olivier Assayas
Along with Claire Denis’s excellent High Life, French actor par-excellence, Juliette Binoche, appeared in two other quality films in this festival. That is to say, good but not great.
Who You Think I Am makes a fascinating companion-piece to Denis’s Let the Sun Shine In (2016) as another portrait of a Parisian woman coming to terms with failed relationships and the steady shift from youthful beauty to the unforgiving reality of middle-age and beyond.
Binoche plays a woman who invents an online persona to pursue a virtual relationship with a younger man. Things inevitably go awry, after which the film takes us through a series of narrative twists and turns that, despite raising thought-provoking questions and observations, result in a work that is arguably a tad too neatly contrived.
Likewise, Non-Fiction is an engaging dip into the self-serving, self-defeating, self-obsessed world of the Parisian intelligentsia. Set within the milieu of authors and publishers, its partly a meditation on the value and dissemination of art in the digital age, and a classic (possibly cliched) portrait of infidelity and delusion within the privileged upper-middle class. The title translates in English as Double Lives, which is more fitting given the lies and insecurities that abound within this coterie of so-called friends. It’s a perceptive and thought-provoking film in some respects, but it’s also nothing new.
While both films offer an entertaining few hours to ponder one or two philosophical and ethical asides, and to get a chuckle or two at the expense of the sort of successful urbanites our society encourages us to aspire to, neither film has any intention of seriously debunking or challenging. They are, in the end, non-critical products of the society they gently rib, ensuring that the target audience won’t leave the theatre ruffled.
LE BONHEUR (1965), VAGABOND (1985) Agnes Varda
While Agnes Varda has made some very impressive films, I don’t considerl myself a fan. In fairness, I haven’t seen all of her output, but she more than deserves her place in the cinematic canon for making Vagabond, Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) and Le Bonheur.
The latter is a feminist film that sets all polemics aside to tell a very simple tale that has nevertheless been described as one of the most ambiguous films of the 60s. On the surface it's typical of many films of its time, but on seeing it for the first time no one would be able to predict where Varda takes it. It's very good.
I don’t share the enthusiasm for Faces Places (2017, a mid-brow trifle made momentarily more interesting—though possibly not for the reasons Varda might have wanted—by the last-minute non-appearance of Jean Luc-Godard. Neither do I care for other much-admired films, such as The Beaches of Agnes (2008) and The Gleaners and I (2008). These films are OK, but it's difficult to reconcile them with the creative genius that gave us Vagabond, one of the great films of the 80s and fully deserving of its masterpiece status.
The film features a fantastic performance from Sandrine Bonnaire as a young woman who rejects the limited (and limiting) options available to her as a female within Western society. Framed by the austere beauty of muted tones and cinematic detachment, the film tells a grim tale of defiance balanced by naturalistic poetry. All I can say is that if you haven't seen it, you must.
NINA WU (2019) Midi Z
I doubt that I will ever see Nina Wu again. I tried to give it the benefit of the doubt for a good deal of its running time, hoping that Midi Z would steer this shipwreck of full-faced grimacing and full-blooded excess into a much-longed-for port of thematic payoff. Alas, in my view, the director didn't pull it off, and yet this film is widely highly-regarded—go figure.
The film is about a woman struggling to endure an endless series of humiliations as she desperately pursues a career as an actor. The directorial choices ensure that viewers experience everything Nina goes through, presumably to make a visceral point about the treatment of women in a world dominated by male arseholes. All well and good, except that the film appears to condemn its protagonist for submitting to such treatment, which one desperately hopes is a comment on the trauma of internalised patriarchy. Nevertheless, Nina Wu sails uncomfortably close to being (or appearing to be) the very thing it purports to criticise.
The problem is that the viewer is given very little to work with, other than being asked to passively watch Nina (and other female characters) suffer. The film effectively punishes the viewer for being interested in what a #MeToo film has to say about exploitation and abuse. Alas, Midi Z only appears to be saying that it happens, the trauma is deep and damaging, and it looks and feels a bit like this... wallop, thump, kick.
Maybe I missed the point. It wouldn’t surprise me. In any event, Nina Wu was unpleasant, and I’m not convinced that it was for any valid reason.
Nicely done, good fun, very straightforward, not at all deep, a few good laughs, no surprises, and with an ending one sees coming from the first minutes, Vivarium (Lorcan Finnegan, 2019) is an easy-going way to spend an undemanding hour or two in the dark.
After watching the “documentary” Cold Case Hammarskjold (Mads Bruuger, 2019) all the way to the end, I have no idea whether to take anything it presents as truth, partial truth, or complete fiction. A film for the current age!
I admit to being tired, so I really shouldn’t comment on Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov, 2019) until I've given it a second viewing. In the meantime, and on the basis of that first (less than convincing) viewing, I can’t fathom why this seemingly middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser has garnered such wide acclaim.
March 2020: After a second viewing my opinion hasn't changed. Beanpole is still a middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser, and many of the things that annoyed me the first time still annoyed me, but seeing it outside of the expectations of the film festival, I confess that the film was a little less irritating. Still, never again.
Watching Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Celine Sciamma, 2019), I found myself thinking (and feeling) that I shouldn’t be liking the film as much as I was, given its unapologetic romanticism and Lesbian bodice-ripper undertones. But as this film about seduction steadily moves towards its classy denouement, it seduces the viewer just as surely.
March 2020: Yep, this classy piece of work still stands up.