Song Without a Name - Melina Leon, 2019
NOTE: The ratings for each film serve little purpose other than to emphasise my enthusiasm for some films and disappointment with others.
Mike Leigh, 2018 (3/10)
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 – and so it was. However, I wasn’t prepared for how risible the film would prove to be. The over-the-top performances are only marginally more tolerable than the rhetoric the actors had to deliver – but deliver it they did, with as much venomous spittle and cornball drawl as could be mustered to ensure that even the most inattentive viewer wouldn’t miss every point Mr Leigh hammers home in all 153 minutes of this needlessly drawn out movie.
One can only assume that Mr Leigh didn’t trust his audience or actors, let alone the historical facts to speak for themselves. The working poor are of course portrayed with salt-of-the-earth nobility, while the ruling-class are the dastardly embodiment of pure evil, akin to moustache-twirling villains. It was enough to embarrass the most fervent propagandist of the Soviet silent era.
The result is artificial and forced, Coronation Street in period garb with every knob turned to eleven. But the mugging - goodness me. Talk about a lack of restraint. The horror … the horror …
Jennifer Kent, 2018 (4/10)
Faring little better, The Nightingale suffers from the same one-dimensional over-emphasis, which undermines the director's intentions and produces a similarly unsatisfying film. The “baddies” – racist white men intoxicated by misogyny and blood-lust – are similarly irredeemable bad-to-the-bone villains, a shorthand one might expect from lazy TV or revenge flicks, but Jennifer Kent expects us to take every punishing scene seriously, to share her protagonist’s outrage and identify with her quest for justice - or is it revenge, respect, catharsis, or maybe just good box-office?
As Mike Leigh did in Peterloo, 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 the noble Aboriginal who guides her through dangerous and difficult terrain – physical as well as spiritual. Through their ordeal they discover fondness for one another and a more humane outlook than either may 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 strained note of hope for an enlightened "new dawn", a resolution that, in light of the preceding two hours, some might rightly find specious.
Part way through it occurred to me how far removed it is from Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, which it sort of resembles – both filmmakers consider the troubled past 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 structures, and both depict journey’s through uncharted territory (not merely physical landscapes) that can only be negotiated by engaging with (and learning to trust!) an unfamiliar ‘otherness’.
I came away wondering what Kent hoped to achieve by damning her country's violent past and (by implication) the perpetuation of systematic racism by employing (with relish, it must be noted) generic tropes that offer rape, murder, victimisation and powerlessness as entertainment.
SONG WITHOUT A NAME
Melina Leon, 2019 (9/10)
In complete contrast to The Nightingale, Peruvian filmmaker Melina Leon’s Song Without a Name is an example of what Jennifer Kent might have done in terms of making aesthetically refined, thematically and politically lucid cinema that deals with powerlessness and victimisation. Like The Nightingale, it's shot in the intimate framing of the Academy ratio, and follows a horrifically wronged woman on a 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. Rather than the cinematic face-punching one must endure from The Nightingale, Leon rightly keeps the dark forces 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, but the resonance of the nameless song lingers long after this very fine film ends. Despite the bleak subject matter, this understated, quietly angry film is no misery-fest, but a compassionate and empathetic work with great aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional depth.
RUBEN BRANDT, COLLECTOR
Milorad Krstic, 2018 (2/10)
Generally, my annual film festival selections favour works by directors I have followed over the years (what one might call ‘art-film’ directors, mostly from Europe, Asia, the Middle East and South America), or those who have followed in their wake. Genre films, documentaries, melodramas and lighter fare (comedies, relationship movies, coming of age films, even old classics) are often over-looked, but the films I rarely go to are animations.
The fact is, most of them bore me, being more often about technique than content. No doubt I’ve missed many gems, but there it is – one of my blind spots. I admit it. However, now and then I’ll give one a punt, as I did this year with Milorad Krstic’s Ruben Brandt, Collector.
All I can say is that I hope I don’t find myself sitting before a more boring film this festival. My boredom is no doubt attributed to my not being the target audience for this movie, which will probably appeal to animation geeks and … well, those who prefer straightforward narratives. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that, but frankly, I need more.
For me, Ruben Brandt is too one-dimension, akin to the numbing kinetic hype of heist flicks, or movies that offer a comforting (but largely specious) worldview. Not that this wee trifle harbours such Machiavellian intentions. No, it merely imitates the easy-to-digest easy-to-sell habits of the mainstream, hoping (I guess) to find an audience big enough to secure opportunities for more of the same.
So, there’s not much to say about this crowded but ironically empty film, 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 railroad track as a train bears down on it, a sequence that contained a nice balance between narrative economy, technical invention, and ... brevity!
Alejandro Landes, 2019 (5/10)
Speaking about numbing kinetic hype and boredom, and continuing in the same potentially inflammatory vein, can someone please tell me what the point of Monos is, other than the questionable pleasure of watching fit young gun-toting bods prance around the jungle in their undies?
I get the basic premise: an update of William Golding’s book about children failing to govern themselves to an unspecified South American country where young-recruits of an unspecified guerrilla force are left to fend for themselves in an unforgiving landscape while looking after an American hostage who has been separated from (and strains to be reunited with) her young child. Naturally, the teenage soldiers are more concerned with inter-personal dynamics than defending political freedoms. Hormones rage and things inevitably go awry, forcing them all to go bush. From this point, the narrative is largely shoehorned into a protracted roller-coaster ride of shifting allegiances and desperate chases through claustrophobic jungle settings 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 sought to serve (apart from being an impressive calling-card for My Landes as a capable action director), and trying to discern what meaning we are expected to glean from the fourth-wall breaking final shot. The metaphor, if there is one, might have something to do with humankind’s propensity for enmity, and mechanisms that destroy empathy and promote indifference and apathy. Actually, that 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. Mr Landes seems to only want you to 'vicariously experience', and perhaps on some level identify with the characters he presents and the situations he plunges them/you into – a bit like one of those reality TV ‘survival’ programmes that offer visceral excitement to eat your chips by.
Well-made films are the least one expects from the festival programme, but a high order of craft isn’t enough. Exercises in style over content are fine, if you’re into that sort of thing, but any meaning one might glean from Monos will be dependent upon what one is willing to read into it, such as the parallels with Apocalypse Now that some reviewers have, er, spotted. Even thematic parallels with Lord of the Flies are skin-deep, and comparisons with Yorgos Lanthimos are just wishful thinking – looking for subtext where there is none.
APOCALYPSE NOW: FINAL CUT
Francis Ford Coppola, 1979/2019 (8/10)
And so, to the real thing, a film that leaves Monos flailing in its wake, 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 perfectly satisfying 202-minute re-edit (Redux) in 2001. Without comparing these with the original 153-minute cut from 1979, 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 the sound of Redux I can’t say, but it was a pleasure to listen to ... cheesy synths notwithstanding. The cinematography and editing are excellent, at times extraordinary, but I’m not sure if they're that much different to the original cut, and frankly, who cares.
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, and arguably to no great purpose. The sequence feels like something from a different film, especially the curiously sentimental/romantic conclusion. Likewise, the rain-washed section where the crew spend time with Playboy Bunnies was interesting in Redux, but it's removal was no great loss. However, I did miss the scene where Kurtz was surrounded by children before Willard takes action against him, but again, one can see why it was removed.
All of that aside – my goodness, what a movie! 40-years on, it continues to tower above all other 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?
Victor Kossakovsky, 2018 (6/10)
I’ve followed the work of Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky since seeing 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 with disarming intimacy and piercing veracity, while also evoking something of the Russian soul: she, an embodiment of salt-of-the-earth labour; he, a drunken would-be philosopher/poet bemoaning the condition of everything and everyone – except himself, of course. At less than an hour long, 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 birth date 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 then contributed a perceptive piece to Less Is More , an omnibus of short films that also featured works by Abbas Kiarostami and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Svyato (2005) captures the moment when a child first discovers their reflection in a mirror, a simple but 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 in which hemispherical opposite corners of the globe are paired with each other, such as a beached whale in Wairarapa with a butterfly in Spain. It’s a impressive work, but I came away concerned 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.
So, I went to Aqualera with some trepidation, fearing that the “ravishing visual feast” promised in the festival programme would confirm my concerns – they were, and they weren't. Yes, it’s gorgeously shot, and much of it feels like a National Geographic essay on the wondrous power of nature. But while it lacks the existential heft of the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) films by Lucien Castaing-Taylor, J. P. Sniadecki, Verena Paravel and others, particularly Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s extraordinary Leviathan (2012), it is, nevertheless, an engaging and thoughtful 90-minute visual and sonic ride that has much to say about the tenuousness of life on planet earth. Whether I’ll seek it out for a second viewing is, for the moment, uncertain.
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, well, at least we have Mr Loznitsa, Nicholas Geyrhalter (who directed, among many fine works, the brilliant Homo Sapiens in 2016 – a film that rewards repeat viewings and one I strongly recommend), and the folk at SEL to look to for solid non-fiction cinema with plenty of meat on its substantial bones. For an overview of SEL output, click this link: https://sel.fas.harvard.edu/
FIRE WILL COME
Oliver Laxe, 2019 (10/10)
The challenge in commenting on films I admire is to find a way to serve my appreciation as well as the stature of the works, at least to an adequate degree. It’s easier to talk about films like Monos or The Nightingale, because to identify why a film doesn’t work (for me, which I admit is subjective) is 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 its subtext – what’s alluded to rather than articulated. How does one define something that’s intuitive or poetic without robbing it to some degree of the very qualities one admires?
Oliver Laxe’s O que arde (Fire Will Come) poses just 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 interesting thing about the direct translation is the inference to 'what remains’ when the burn off ends, which 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, and while these first minutes aren't returned to, their dark poetry informs everything that follows. However, to describe what follows would be to do the film, and your experience of it, a disservice, although I can safely say that the narrative broadly follows an emotionally shut down man, Amador (played by Amador Arias), who returns to his elderly mother’s small farm after a stint in prison. His mother, Benedicta (played by Benedicta Sanchez), doesn’t so much welcome his return as accommodate it, and the response from the locals (who all bear the same name as the non-professionals who play them) is also reserved.
So, it’s largely a film of interior emotional ripples accompanied by some of the most perfectly chosen music one is likely to hear in any film this festival. The director of photography is the excellent Mauro Herce, who has been at the helm of many important works of Spanish language cinema over the last decade, including his own 'slow cinema' masterwork Dead Slow Ahead (2015), Oliver Laxe’s previous (equally strong) Mimosas (2016), and a very good ‘slow’ semi-documentary filmed in a Galician village by Eloy Enciso called Arraianos (2012).
On the evidence of films such as these, as well as those by Mariano Llinas and Melina Leon from this festival, and works by artists such as Albert Serra, Lucrecia Martel, Nicolas Pereda, Carlos Reygadas, Yulene Olaizola, Jose Luis Torres Leiva, Lisandro Alonso, Jamie Rosales, Julio Cordon, Ernesto Contreras, Dominga Castillo, Christophe Farnarier, Niles Atallah, Pablo Giorgelli, Ciro Guerra, Claudio Llosa, Jose Luis Guerin, Nelson Arias, Lois Patino and Federico Veiroj, a solid body of slow, reflexive cinema has been building in Spanish language film-making over the last decade or so, much of which remains largely unseen here. Thankfully, there are now online sites that make such cinematic gems available to cinephiles, along with masterworks (as well as a fair proportion of 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, as is the work of Oliver Laxe and his remarkable Fire Will Come.
Claire Denis, 2018 (9/10)
“You break the laws of nature, you pay for it” says Monte (Robert Pattinson), the central character in this latest elliptical puzzle-piece from French auteur, Claire Denis. The line has personal meaning for Monte, a prisoner on death row (for killing a young woman who killed his dog – information conveyed in a series of brief fragmented images) who, along with a team of similarly condemned men and women, 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 line may also offer a key to unlock the philosophical resonances behind the otherwise simple narrative – albeit one conveyed rather cryptically.
If you like your genre pieces played straight, this may not be for you, for the story (what there is of it) is merely a pretext to give viewers room to ruminate on our individual and collective journeys towards the inevitable black hole. Like Tarkovsky (frequently referenced in High Life), Kubrick, and other philosophically-minded filmmakers who have used the Sci-Fi genre to pose existential questions, Denis takes us to outer space so that we might look within. There’s a moment early in the film when Monte drops a tool that he’s using to make repairs to the outside of the spaceship. It’s a moment that exposes his vulnerability and isolation, but also, by implication, our Earth-bound precariousness. As Monte says, we pay for our mistakes, suggesting that Denis wants her film to be read as a meditation on the choices we make (or, more pointedly, the choices we've already made or acquiesced to) as we collectively hurtle through space and time.
High Life is unlikely to satisfy those who expect narrative clarity, in fact Denis may have deliberately chosen to follow Andrei and Stanley by ending her film on a note of ambiguous 'transition beyond matter'. So it might be counterproductive to be too concerned with perceived plot holes or the occasional clunky moment, such as the “final age of man” scene, where a woman (awkwardly played by Denis’s second unit director, Juliette Picollot) interviews a professor (also not that well played by Victor Banerjee) about the callous political expediency of the black hole mission. Instead, a more constructive approach might be to let the film be what it is and allow it to trigger your own ruminations, to intuit meaning rather than waiting for Denis to provide it.
This may sound like an apology for a failed film, particularly as many viewers came away rather perplexed, but for me, High Life is a beautifully realised cinematic meditation on choice, transformation, and personal as well as collective responsibility. For you it might be something else entirely. That's what makes it great, and like all great films it will improve with every viewing. So, if you came away unconvinced, I would encourage you (if you get the chance) to give it another shot. But don't forget -- it's a genre piece.
Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966 (10/10)
Of course, there was never any doubt that this was going to be one of the standout films of the festival for me. Apart from the fact that it's by one of my cinematic heroes, it's a work that fully deserves its status as one of the great canonical masterpieces. There's little I can (or need to) say about it 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 feature.
While this mesmerising film is an unflinching portrait of human cruelty, selfishness, greed and indifference, it is also a passionate celebration of the value of art and artists, and maybe a not-so-veiled portrait of Tarkovsky the artist and man of serious spiritual conviction – notwithstanding the disturbing moment when a horse, gushing a stream of blood, falls (presumably to its death) down a stairway. It's a challenging moment to contend with.
While it’s best appreciated on a very 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, truly magnificent work of art.
Markus Schleinzer, 2019 (10/10)
I enjoy reading thoughtful negative reviews of films I admire. Enthusiastic reviews can offer additional insights, but critical pieces by writers who are unconvinced by (or vehemently dislike) a film, offer (at their best) a valuable challenge. The reviews for Markus Schleinzer’s sophomore feature have been largely positive, but 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 shamed by my enthusiasm for a film with such a shallow point to make, and wondered if Schleinzer’s formal rigour and use of distanciation (techniques designed to encourage the viewer to approach the work in a more considered, analytical frame of mind rather than being swept along in a passive way) had tricked me into thinking that the film is a greater work of art than it actually is ...
... no, it is great. While the point may be valid, the disgraceful history of white racism is not the only (or primary) point Mr Schleinzer makes – and frankly, even if it was, Angelo would still be a remarkable and important work.
Why? Well, for me, if the aesthetic and thematic aspects of a film are in harmony – functioning in tandem to produce a work of cinematic, intellectual, and emotional quality – I am in cine-heaven, particularly if the thematic implications resonate on various levels. Apart from which, I’m a fan of cinematic distanciation, especially when employed as cleverly, boldly, and amusingly as it is here. So, as one might expect, there are clear parallels with the work of Michael Haneke, Jessica Hausner, Stanley Kubrick, Lucricia Martel, Lisandro Alonso, Pedro Costa, and other aesthetic formalists whose work I unapologetically confess to being seduced by.
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 a blunt contemporary resonance.
The huge yellow-on-black chapter numbers accompanied by unforgiving harpsichord (revealing Schleinzer’s ironic dry wit), and the often abrupt editing style (which cuts away from scenes in mid-sentence or action) are deliberately jarring techniques designed to startle viewers out of a passive viewing attitude, alerting us to the fact that the film isn’t intended as entertainment so much as a vehicle for reflection.
There is also underlying anger in the film, which increasingly makes its presence felt until given full reign in the final shot, a moment of conflagration that shifts the focus to a later time in history, to 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 or years later, or it could be the second world war, or events from a time that has yet to come – or ... take your pick!
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. It’s also implicitly (rather than overtly) 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 reflect on the emphasis on subtext over narrative, elliptical transitions, and scenes that have been cut short, etc. 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 cinema. As such, Angelo is a thought-provoking, deeply satisfying, wholly credible work of contemporary cinematic art.
IT MUST BE HEAVEN
Elia Suleiman, 2019 (8/10)
The films of Elia Suleiman often call to mind Buster Keaton, Peter Sellers, Jacques Tati, and Otar Iosselianni, and while these artists may have influenced Mr Suleiman, he has his own droll, absurdist style and critically acute preoccupations. Whether one applauds the points made in his new film or regards 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 we don’t already know, 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, in fairness, the efficacy of Suleiman’s deadpan mute perplexity wholly relies on the audience knowing exactly what “the gag” is. Sometimes it's political, sometimes it’s straight irony or slapstick, or 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 (obvious and hidden), confirms him as a voice worth hearing and an artist worth celebrating.
Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts, 2019 (8/10)
You will be hard-pressed to find a single negative review or hear a single negative comment from anyone who has seen this powerful documentary. Those who have seen it won’t need any review to confirm or dissuade them from what they already know – that few films come as close to capturing the truth of their subject matter, or are as powerful, genuinely affecting, or essential 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, deeply despairing film, but instead it’s one of the most life-affirming hymns to human resilience and the abiding power of love in the face of blunt evil that you are likely to see.
The are plenty of other detailed reviews on this film if you wish to read more about it, but frankly, if you haven’t seen it, you simply must.
THE GIFT: THE JOURNEY OF JOHNNY CASH
Thom Zimny, 2019 (6/10)
MILES DAVIS: BIRTH OF THE COOL
Stanley Nelson, 2019 (6/10)
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 dysfunctional, early acclaim, stardom and wealth, failed marriages, drug addiction, spousal abuse, absentee fathers, 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 come away unimpressed by these films as works of cinema, but you are sure to enjoy hearing (if only in snippets) some of the best music ever made.
THE WILD GOOSE LAKE
Diao Yinan, 2019 (5/10)
LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT
Bi Gan, 2018 (7/10)
I don’t know why, but I struggle with comic book faux-noir thrillers, action films, and “pop” movies in general. Even impressive set pieces – such as some of the brilliantly staged sequences in Diao’s The Wild Goose Lake, particularly near the end of the film – don't compensate for the generic affectations one must endure, such as hyper-theatrical action sequences and fixed-expression acting reminiscent of graphic novels and puppetry.
Despite minor reservations, I enjoyed all of Mr Diao’s previous features – Uniform (2003), Night Train (2007) and Black Coal Thin Ice (2014). While his new film certainly looks great and offers some nicely observed sociopolitical commentary, I came away from this protracted chase movie feeling indifferent about it, which was disappointing given my expectation that this acclaimed film would deliver on the promise of 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 my expectation that he would go in a direction other than B-movie pastiche.
One might say much the same about Bi Gan and his Long Day’s Journey into Night, which could also 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 greatly 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 turned out, I was right in the mood for this film, and got into it more on this second viewing. I suspect that after seeing The Wild Goose Lake, the understatement of Bi’s noir-tinged pastiche was the more satisfying of the two. However, whether either film adds up to more than the aesthetically interesting but thematically and subtextually modest sum of their parts is up for grabs.
Emir Baigazin, 2018 (9/10)
The River is the third instalment in Emir Baigazin’s loose trilogy of meditations on the coming-of-age of teenage boys called Aslan. But they are not the same character, and each are played by different actors, so apart from depicting transitions from boyhood to manhood, Harmony Lessons (2013) and The Wounded Angel (2016), and The River are largely independent of each other, at least on a narrative level. However, they are strongly linked in terms of the aesthetic and subtextual ‘glue’ that binds them. How one responds to this glue will determine one’s appreciation for the films, especially The River.
Set in the remote and arid Kazakh plains – a landscape devoid of trees, suggesting a place of spiritual severity and emotional austerity – the story concerns the lives of a family of boys (aged roughly between 6 and 16) who live with their strict father and largely unseen mother. We learn early in the film that the father built his home in an isolated area to protect his family from worldly influences and temptations (hence, the strained parallels some reviewers have made with Yorgos Lanthimos's Dogtooth). The boys, all dressed in sackcloth, harbour a growing resentment towards their disciplinarian father, who looks to Aslan as 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, an intoxicating 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 in 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 River may be taxing for some, given its slow pace and cryptic narrative style, 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 they’ve ever seen.
WHO YOU THINK I AM
Safy Nebbou, 2019 (6/10)
Olivier Assayas, 2018 (6/10)
Along with Claire Denis’s excellent High Life, French actor par-excellence Juliette Binoche appeared in two other quality films in this year’s festival. That is to say, good but not great films, despite the layered, deeply resonant portrayals of complex, very human characters that Binoche delivers – as is her often-brilliant stock and trade.
Who You Think I Am makes a fascinating companion-piece to Claire Denis’s Let the Sun Shine In, which it sort of resembles as a portrait of a contemporary Parisian woman (also played by Binoche) trying to come to terms with failed relationships and the steady shift from the natural beauty and winning charms of youth to the unforgiving realities of middle-age and beyond.
Binoche plays a woman who invents an online persona in order to engage in 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, while proposing some interesting questions and observations, results in a work that is too neatly contrived.
Likewise, Non-Fiction is an engaging dip into the self-serving, self-defeating, self-obsessed world of Parisian bourgeois intelligentsia. Set within the milieu of authors and publishers, its partly a meditation of the value and dissemination of art in the digital age, but also a classic (possibly cliched) portrait of infidelity and delusion within the privileged upper middle class. The French title translates in English as Double Lives, which is more fitting given the lies and insecurities that abound among this coterie of so-called friends. It’s a perceptive and thought-provoking film in some respects, but it’s also nothing new, really.
While both films provide an entertaining few hours to ponder one or two nicely presented philosophical, moral, and ethical questions, and to sit in judgement over the sort of "successful" urbanites that our society encourages us to aspire to, neither has any intention of debunking such aspirations or presenting truly challenging questions. They are, in the end, non-critical products of the very society and aspirations they gently rib, and while part of me hates to say it (given my admiration for Juliette Binoche), her presence in these films ensures that the target audience won’t leave the theatre too ruffled.
LE BONHEUR and VAGABOND
Agnes Varda, 1965 (8/10), 1985 (10/10)
While Agnes Varda has made some very strong films, I can’t call myself a fan, although in fairness I haven’t seen all of her output. That said, she more than deserves her place among great directors for making Vagabond, as well as the excellent Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) and Le Bonheur, a feminist film that sets all polemics aside to tell a very simple story that has nevertheless been described as one of the most ambiguous films of the 60s. Beyond that, well, as I say, there are many I haven’t seen, but those I have (mostly documentaries) I could take or leave.
I don’t share the enthusiasm for films such as Faces Places (2017, an embarrassingly mid-brow trifle with no real substance, made momentarily interesting – though possibly not for the reasons Agnes Varda might have preferred – by the last-minute non-appearance of Jean Luc-Godard), The Beaches of Agnes (2008), The Gleaners and I (2008), Jacquot de Nantes (2008) and others. I also gather (according to Varda fans) that Varda by Agnes (2019) wasn’t great.
Nevertheless, she did make Vagabond, one of the great films of the 80s. Featuring 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, and takes to the road. It’s a grim tale of defiance contained within the austere beauty of muted tones and cinematic detachment, a skillful balance of poetry and naturalism. All I can say is, if you haven’t seen it, you really must.
Midi Z, 2019 (3/10)
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, despite the fact that many others have rated it highly.
This depiction of a woman struggling to endure an endless series of humiliations on her self-imposed desperate quest to become a respected actor seems to have been devised in order that the audience experience what she goes through, presumably to make a clear visceral point about the treatment of women in a world dominated by predatory men. All well and good, except that the film appears to condemn its protagonist for submitting to such treatment, which one assumes must be a comment on the trauma of internalised patriarchy. Nevertheless, Nina Wu sails uncomfortably close to being (or appearing to be, to all intent and purposes) the very thing it sets out to criticise.
The problem is that the viewer is given very little to work with, other than to passively watch Nina (and other female characters) suffer. So, in a sense, the film essentially punishes the viewer for being interested in what the film might have to say about the exploitation and abuse of women in the #metoo era. Alas, it only appears to be saying that it happens, that the trauma is deep and damaging, and that it looks and feels a bit like this... wallop, thump, kick.
Or, maybe I missed the point. It wouldn’t surprise me. In any event, Nina Wu was hard and unpleasant work, and I’m not convinced that it was for any good 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 … but only once. (5/10)
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. (6/10)
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 unanimous acclaim. If I get to see the film again I may have to amend my rating, but in the meantime... (4/10)
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 bodice-ripper undertones. But as this tale of seduction moves towards its classy denouement, it seduces the viewer just as surely, like a flower slowly opening to reveal itself. (8/10)