FNC 2019: Festival Report
Montréal, the city of festivals, has an event for pretty much every occasion. For a certain type of cinephile, however, one stands above all, taking 10 days of gloomy October and filling them with the best of world cinema. Festival du nouveau cinéma (FNC) is the place to catch up on the best of Cannes, return to the worlds of beloved masters and discover new and daring voices from all over the world. The year 2019 has been no exception, showing why August to November is the best time to be a cinema-lover in Montréal. To try to make sense of what is often in perspective a rather punishing gauntlet of cinema, this text will structure itself around three themes; the questioning of surfaces, both visual and psychological; the idea of genre and the ways it serves or is served by politics and aesthetics; and the poetics of speed. This is done less as a way to force meanings on a series of movie-mad ramblings and more to naturally tease out echoes and resonances within a selection of titles, a span of days spent indoors, turned towards a rectangle of light and the stories it shared.
Family Romance LLC
Werner Herzog, always in search of the ‘ecstatic truth’ ushers us in with a strange new confection, bringing his career-long love of documentary and fiction to bear on the subject of rental families in Japan with Family Romance LLC. Following Yuichi Ishii, an entrepreneur specialized in playing fake family members, on a new contract where he has to play the returning father to a sullen teenage girl, Herzog builds a surprisingly fluid object of shiny digital textures and hazy role-play. Everyone here is playing a role whether they are supposed to or not, recreating their life or someone else’s. But Herzog is not chastising, but probing, seeing if under the gleam of too-real 4K cinematography, rigid social structures and even someone else’s identity, real human emotions do not survive. It’s a short, deceptively simple little film where surfaces hide surprising, unplumbed depth.
Surfaces and social restraint were also at the heart of another Cannes transplant, Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe, a health brand twist on the Body Snatchers formula. Hausner, whose last film Amour Fou effectively took the piss out of German romanticism, here sets her sight on the teal and lavender aesthetic of the modern wellness craze in her story of a botanist who creates a plant with a strange will of her own. The film progresses along expected genre lines, but draws its strength from its deliberate, almost etherized pace and atmosphere, lending a bleak sense of inevitability to its soothing world of pastels and user-friendly technology.
Repressed emotions were also at the center of another film, A White Day, the portrait of a widower, Ingimundur, and the lengths he will go to not feel his emotions. The film succeeds on this basis alone, there is suspense and drama in seeing the ways this man twists himself to avoid truly reckoning with his feelings and Hlynur Palmason’s precise direction, which sometimes devolves into easy symbolism, renders this interior dilemma cleanly and effectively. But even if the film does take a violent turn, one can’t help but wish for things to explode, for the film’s tight balance to snap and reveal something deeper. But perhaps this would be a betrayal for a character who attaches such importance to guarding his emotions.
To The Ends of The Earth
Elsewhere, Japanese master Kiyoshi Kurosawa continued his strange unofficial series of films about Idol and actress Atsuko Maeda walking in ex-soviet countries with To The Ends of The Earth, a sensitive and slow-moving portrait of a travel show host (Maeda) coming to a quarter life crisis while filming a show in Uzbekistan. Kurosawa’s cinema is one of large spaces, ironic considering the generally cramped landscapes of his native Japan. The strange alchemy of his films lie in his ability to fill those spaces, he usually films his characters in long shot in industrial landscapes, with whatever feeling is at the center of the film, whether it be the dread of his early J-horror masterpieces, the existential malaise of Tokyo Sonata or the romantic longing of Journey to The Shore. Through the simplest means of mise-en-scene, an empty room, a change of light, a shot held for a few seconds too long, he is able to communicate ineffable feelings with B-movie magic. To The Ends of The Earth is not his best film, but it still manages to cast its spell, to effectively draw us into its timid main character’s halting quest for self-fulfilment. That it does so with care and real empathy for the small triumphs of life and not one note of irony is all the more reason to seek out this film.
The fest was also home to a few barn-burning melodramas which proved that the genre is far from dead and just as effective a vehicle as it was 70 years ago at diagnosing the ills of this world. From Brazil, came the sensuous and decade-spanning feminist epic The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao, about two sisters in 50s Rio de Janeiro separated by fate, one a free-spirited single mother, the other a middle-class housewife. The film’s true genius, beyond its amazing performances, tactile, tropical cinematography and tragic story, is in its recasting of many conventions of the melodrama (long-lost lovers, near misses, letters never read, etc.) around its core concept of two sisters separated by the forces of a patriarchal society. This is truly a women’s picture, where men are ineffectual afterthoughts that still manage to destroy the life of the heroines. However, Karim Ainouz makes sure to fill the film with enough colour, beauty and moments of grace making it all the more bittersweet, an invisible life but one worth living.
Ken Loach, the master of kitchen-sink melodrama, was also back with his follow-up to the Palme d’or winner I, Daniel Blake, with perhaps his strongest film in years, the soul-searing Sorry We Missed You. Loach, always on the side of the little guy, does not stray far from his social realist roots with this story of father of two trying his hands at the gig economy as a deliveryman in hopes of offering a better life to his family. The film, as always with Loach, is attentive to its characters, all impeccably brought to life by a quartet of actors of startling authenticity, shedding light on the human face behind the deregulating policies of the gig economy. The film, however, gains much of its strength from its defeated, somber tone. Usually with Loach, there is always a spark of hope, the sense that there is a possibility to fight back, and whilst the film never compromises on the basic human dignity of its characters, there is a sense that the schemes of late-capitalism, the progressive, inexorable walking back of all the victories of the labour movement over the last century have finally gotten to Loach, leaving us a film of deep, humane sensitivity surveying an abyss of uncertain futures.
Lav Diaz master of the gargantuan movie and grand poet of Filipino history is also no stranger to genre and social commentary, having brought us a politico-musical a few years ago with Season of the Devil. He is back at the fest with The Halt his first incursion into (light) Sci-fi with a film taking place in 2030 Philippines where an authoritarian dictator rules the streets with drones and a perpetual darkness envelops the sky. Diaz’s target is pretty obvious and in many ways the director does not break from what we have come to expect from him. If the film is more somber, less surprising or probing than some of his past work, it remains an engaged, angry piece of work, necessary in a country that continues to violently supress human rights and historical truth. Diaz imagines the future, but as always it is nourished of the past and the present.
Bacurau, another Cannes import, also found ingenious ways of mixing politics and aesthetics, here transplanting the conventions of a Carpenterian actioner to the Brazilian sertao and redirecting these violent codes towards the story of a marginalized community angrily fighting back against a group of rich Americans come to hunt them for sport. All the best genre cinema is political, but Kleber Mendonca Filho and first-time director Juliano Dornelles impress by how well they serve their two masters. The film works perfectly as an action-thriller with gory kill shots and escalating tension, but never lets the audience forget the currents of power guiding the action and the buried anger of a proud people sent to the slaughter. Moments of folk poetry where the soul of the place comes alive before our eyes anchor the genre mechanics in real stakes, making for a revenge movie one can really cheer for, the small people no longer faceless in the background but reclaiming popular forms of entertainment for their own revolutionary aims.
Genre as metaphor, as catalyst for a political discussion was also very present in another Cannes favourite Mati Diop’s modern fable Atlantique. Here the French-Senegalese director invokes the spirit of horror cinema to give voice to those forgotten in the migrant crisis, the woman left behind, haunted by the memories of the men gone looking for work. Diop does not so much use the language of horror as its resonances, taking the idea of the vengeful returning spirit and finding the sadness, but also the power in it. The film is more eery than scary with Diop focusing more on character and milieu than jump scares, her camera attuned to the rhythms of life in Dakar. Here horror is not a jolt, but a way of reframing the narrative, of giving power to the marginalized, of harnessing the power of stories to show that the real monster is not always the one skulking in the night. It can live in big houses and drive fancy cars. Both Bacurau and Atlantique effectively appropriate forms of popular fiction to redress social ills and put the power back in the hands of the people, handily disproving the cliché that genre cinema is nothing but guilty pleasures and mindless entertainment.
Politics and aesthetics were at the center of two vastly different films Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela, a movie which seems built for the term painterly. Telling the story of a Cape Verdean woman coming to Lisbon following the death of her husband who had exiled himself to the Portuguese capital in search of kinder economic prospects, the film vibrates with the sorrow and anger of its formidable main character, Vitalina. Costa, who has been making movies about the now-destroyed slum of Fountainhas, surpasses himself in terms of empathy and visual beauty, finding ways of honouring Vitalina’s righteous anger and despair with visuals that at once take our breaths away and allow us to encounter the character/actress at eye level, a meeting not a detached look. The film, a marvel of chiaroscuro which sometimes rivals Caravaggio is an object of rare and delicate beauty. Each ray of light on dark skin, each crack on the wall, each look of defiant anger another brushstroke in the portrait of a woman hurt but not defeated. This is cinema as political empathy where aestheticization is an act of devotion, not a reduction but a magnification.
Quite different is Liberté from auteur provocateur Albert Serra, which continues his exploration of utopias and schools of thought, especially those that shaped Europe over the last few centuries. Serra’s cinema is interesting in this intuition he has to embody those often abstract philosophies, to make physical this clash of ideas. Liberté perhaps pushes this to its paroxysm with a tale of a sexual utopia in the woods of France where lecherous aristocrats and high personages, most of them older men with libidinous physiques, carouse with effete beauties of both sexes. The timeframe of the film, set some time before the French revolution, and focusing on a group of libertin, can perhaps help us understand Serra’s thinking, which, like the twilight hours he films, can be quite obscure. Serra seems somewhat melancholic for this lost moment of liberty and grace soon to be swept away by various ages of reason, but he is no dupe. He understands that such an idea of beauty can only exist for a select few and on the backs of the many. And so his images, at once exquisite and grotesque, meant as much to repulse as enchant, bathed in the uncertainness of night and allowed to splay themselves over languid long-takes, express this conflicting, bitter feeling; a nostalgy for something that perhaps never should be.
Moving from the decadent to the frenzied, a trio of film explored the frenetic possibilities of cinema to varying degrees of success. Bird Talk from Xawery Zulawski, son of Andrzej, and adapted from a screenplay of the late master, attempts to recreate the magic of the polish madman’s cinema; its unstoppable forward momentum, roving camerawork and torrent of poetic dialog, focusing here on the ills of modern Poland and its rising far-right movements. And while the attempt is laudable, the magic fails to appear. Where the best of Zulawski’s movies bulldoze you with their magnetic rhythm, Bird Talk merely confuses. A late film homage to fathers, lets one hope that perhaps Xawery will find his own way out of his father’s shadow. For now, it’s better to let sleeping corpses lie.
More successful was the political scream, Synonyms, from Nadav Lapid, a lacerating deconstruction of the Israeli body away from its homeland. The film is so full of ideas about identity, language and the body that the fact its picaresque structure manages to hold them all is a small miracle in itself. Lapid finds a perfect avatar for the contradictory flurry of forces agitating modern man in the character of Yoav (perfectly embodied by Tom Mercier), a young Israeli freshly arrived in Paris and ready to forget everything about Israel, even its language, but whose adventures almost force his old identity on him, sometimes violently. Yoav is something of a human wrecking-ball, a tall, lean body that screams out its existence, breaking windows and doors like a clumsy prophet, and one of the joys of the film is seeing how Lapid can put this body in even more elaborate allegorical and tragi-comic situations, building out his critique of modern France and identity like so many hammer strikes in a breaking wall. This is one of those films that lingers long after the lights have come back on in the theatre, its electric energy, violent critiques and frenetic, in-your face direction elevating both heart-rates and post-screening discussions.
Another body that threatens to destroy the established order could be found in the German film System Crasher, here taking the form of a 9 year-old girl prone to apocalyptic bouts of anger. The film follows Benni as she gets moved around from foster home to group facilities, her ill-tempered ways always pushing the welfare system to its absolute limit. In this sense, the film hovers between a social realist portrait of the child welfare system in Germany with its well-meaning workers trying to do the best for this uber problem child, and something at once more anarchic, less expected. Benni is a terrifying force of nature, losing all control as only a child with the foggiest understanding of consequences can. Helena Zengel, the young actress who plays Benni, throws everything into the performance, her small body throwing itself about as if animated by an outside force, her voice breaking sonic registers. Those scenes of tantrums show what someone who flaunts absolutely every rules of society can do, a terrifying little revolution in pink pants, and are reason enough to watch the film. A scene with Benni holding a baby had me silently pleading with the screen, but outside of those pulse-raising moments, the film fails to fully explore the possibilities such scenarios create, sometimes even threatening to lapse into easy resolutions and happy endings. It remains an intriguing character study that fails to follow its character to the absolute limits.
Jallikkettu for its part is a grotesque tsunami of bodies, an unrelenting dance of chaos centered around an entire village’s chase of an escaped buffalo. Pelissery’s film is an unrelenting experience full of sound of fury in grave danger of signifying nothing. No doubt the film will exhaust more than a few, but there is a strange power in its escalating visions of writhing piles of bodies all vying for the same meaningless prize. We are left with a hellish, pessimistic vision of human life devouring its own tail.
And as every good festival must, FNC has movies that surprise and delight by not fitting in, by breaking the flow and going in their own direction. Diner, by photographer turned filmmaker Nina Nakagawa, also in its own way questions a set of aesthetics, here towards decidedly more generic aims, leaving with a fun if slight little film. The story of a withdrawn girl kidnapped and forced to work at a diner for killers is on its face a ridiculous play of aesthetics and conventions, each image immaculately lit and composed to evoke a gothic detournement of shojo manga clichés. The film is a confection of disparate pleasures that will appeal to the people already on its wavelength, but underneath all its visual pleasures and narrative conventions lies a surprisingly effective little action movie and character drama. It might not be a full meal, but it will no doubt sate those willing to take a bite.
La Virgen de Agosto
A festival is also a question of small pleasures and none were more sweet than La Virgen de Agosto, a sensitive and delicate portrait of a young Madrilena and her lost summer in the city in the best tradition of Rohmerian summer reveries. Jonas Trueba allows us to simply bask in the small comforts of a lazy summer in a beautiful city, his perceptive camera and limpid cinematography never coming between us and the character. The film is small, built out of little moments, chance encounters, tender gestures; it’s no surprise that it contains so much truth.
For another year, FNC proved a welcome refuge for cinema-lovers, spreading itself over downtown and a line-up that included welcome discoveries and anticipated titles alike. It’s tough to proclaim whether this was a banner or an off year since a festival experience is shaped as much by your choices, your omissions, the films you couldn’t get in, as by the program itself. My festival is different from yours is different from the programmers. I can say it was worthwhile, because it allowed me to see films I would not have been able to see otherwise, to encounter voices I might not have been able to hear and to lose myself in the caffeinated magic of film fests. In the strange haze of a film festival, movies necessarily start to communicate, to exchange ideas. A grander narrative starts to emerge about the state of cinema that’s shaped as much by your scheduling, the films themselves and your relative lack of sleep. This text has tried to honour that feeling in its humble way.