Style de malade: The 44th Toronto International Film Festival
Memories of Over-Stimulation
My one abiding gripe about the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is that every year there is only one public screening of each Wavelengths programme of experimental shorts and no press screenings whatsoever, meaning not only that it is extremely difficult to get tickets, but also that, when I do, I do not have an opportunity to take a second look at films that make unusual demands on the spectator’s attention and are unlikely to receive any sort of commercial distribution. How much can I really say about a film like Joshua Gen Solondz’s (tourism studies) when I have only seen it once, given how much perceptual information it throws at us over the course of its eight minutes? Accompanied by a soundtrack of unintelligible whispering and rhythmic beeps, screeches, and skids, this twitchy abstract film juxtaposes a wide variety of visual materials, including nonrepresentational hand-painted imagery, geometric patterns of white lines on circular black backgrounds that rapidly skitter across the screen, and still images of a go-kart track, a scenic tourist spot in Israel, and close-ups of a dowdy woman wearing thick glasses. Furthermore, Solondz creates a disturbing flicker effect by alternating reversed frames so that a man and a woman standing on opposite sides of a sign written in Hebrew seem to switch places twenty-four times per second. One of the most perceptually bountiful films I saw at this year’s festival, it is also one of the hardest to remember in detail (and therefore to write about) as so much of what we see and hear in the film eludes the sort of top-down mental processing that enables us to make sense of moving images and the world more generally (Branigan 1992: 37-38).
Only slightly less daunting is Luke Fowler’s six-minute abstract film Cézanne, in which a sparse soundtrack of ambient nature sounds counterpoints the brisk procession of spastic 16mm images of the French countryside: trees, bushes, geological formations including Mont Sainte-Victoire, quaint-looking old men, postcards of Paul Cézanne’s paintings on a rack outside a shop. The film assaults us with a battery of double exposures, jerky handheld camera movements, and graphically discontinuous edits, but in contrast with the visual and aural heterogeneity of Solondz’s film, here Cézanne’s work provides a loose conceptual framework that enables us to mentally organize the wealth of perceptual data we are confronted with, even if this framework does not come close to fully exhausting it.
Another film I suspect would benefit from a second sitting is Maureen Fazendeiro’s found footage film Soleil noir, which brings together archival images from the early twentieth century of erupting volcanoes and more recent shots of people looking at a solar eclipse through an optical device and special glasses. To be perfectly honest, I was too preoccupied with these images to pay sufficient attention to the film’s voice-over narration, in which the French-Lebanese actress Delphine Seyrig (and not Jeanne Moreau, as I thought until I saw Seyrig’s name in the closing credits) reads a poem by Henri Micheaux that, as Fazendeiro noted in the Q&A after the screening, deals with themes of cultural dislocation—much less did I have time to ponder the relationship of this poem to the images.
An even more perplexing marriage of sound, text, and imagery, Miryam Charles’ Second Generation consists principally of a series of terse, inscrutable messages signed by three different characters (F., J., and M., respectively) that emphatically do not add up to a coherent narrative. These messages, printed in black text on plain white backgrounds, alternate with brief, equally puzzling shots whose relationship to the messages and to the title (itself highly ambiguous) are far from self-evident: a pair of hands cracking an egg, the face of an unidentified black woman in close-up, feet walking backwards into the sea. Indeed, I suspect that no number of viewings would enable me to fully understand this film.
The same could be said for Gastón Solnicki’s Circumplector, a dense, enigmatic three-minute montage composed of a series of serenely beautiful images: a bronze statue being hoisted from a pulley in front of a church (identified in the festival programme guide as a pre-fire Notre Dame), the interior of an old building that appears to be undergoing renovations, a man playing the guitar and singing softly in unsubtitled Spanish, a still life of a bowl of fruit, a woman typing on a laptop and, in a separate shot, taking a pill for a headache. I have not the foggiest idea how these sounds and images relate to one another or to the title (a Latin word meaning “that which is all-encompassing” [Sicinski 2019]), and I am not sure that Solnicki does either, or that he has to, or if he does, that he could articulate it in words. The filmmaker was not at the screening to answer questions, but when he came to Toronto three years ago to present his singular feature Kékszakállú (2016), his answer to every question was basically that he and his collaborators tried a lot of different things until they found something that felt right. The abstract meanings of Circumplector are even more elusive than those of Kékszakállú, which at least gave us the Bluebeard story to work with, but as in that film, every stylistic choice Solnicki makes here feels intuitively right, even if I cannot say why.
Reflections on Black
It is too early for me to say, after just one viewing, whether Albert Serra’s Liberté is a great film, or even a particularly good one, but it is doubtlessly a singular—and single-minded—one, pursuing its premises to their logical conclusions with a seeming indifference to the pleasure of the audience. Set in the eighteenth century, during the reign of either Louis XV or Louis XVI, the plot (insofar as the film can be said to have one) unfolds over a single night as a loose assemblage of aristocratic libertines and their servants engage in a variety of sadomasochistic activities, possibly in preparation for some revolutionary project obscurely hinted at in the dialogue. Among other attractions, a group of men suspends a voluptuous, completely naked woman from a tree by her wrists, and at her behest, pour buckets of semen on her head; an aged nobleman is lashed within an inch of his life and then begs for more (“Donnez! Soyez généreux!”); a woman urinates on a male burn victim while a nobleman pierces the stub of his amputated arm with a two-pronged spear; and a deranged black prostitute is enlisted to stab to death a visiting German aristocrat played by Helmut Burger. (Yes, Helmut Burger.) At last, the sun comes up and the film ends.
As may already be apparent from the preceding description, this is an extremely dark film—and I mean that literally as well as figuratively—consisting largely of long, elliptical conversations in palanquins we only half understand and unappetizing sex acts we can only dimly make out. Both the conversations and the sex acts are witnessed by various onlookers who stand around eavesdropping, often while idly caressing their groins, yet despite the emphasis the film places on voyeurism, there are virtually no eye line matches and the few POV shots through a pocket telescope—likely an homage to Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975)—only underscore the rarity of shot-reverse shot cutting in the film. In other words, we are more often looking at the characters than with them. Moreover, the film does not differentiate the characters in terms of their personalities or goals, and the murkiness of the cinematography and the film’s manner of cutting from one sexual performance to another without connecting them spatially or temporally make it difficult for us to tell how many people are participating in this sordid bacchanal and to keep straight who is doing what to whom. (According to the credits, one of the characters is played by Ingrid Caven but I was not able to recognize her.) As in his previous film, La Mort de Louis XIV (2016), in which the aged Sun King (Jean-Pierre Léaud) dies a slow, agonizing death of gangrene while his doctors try anything and everything to cure him except amputating the infected leg, here Serra presents the people on the screen to us as physiological specimens rather than as characters we can care about. Liberté is not exactly a fun film to watch but its audacity and obsessive intensity command a certain grudging respect. After about an hour, the man sitting next to me at the film’s press and industry screening was in such a hurry to get out of the theatre that he dropped his phone under his seat and had to get on his hands and knees in the dark to retrieve it.
I could not tell how many walkouts there were during the press screening of Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela that I attended the following evening as I had to sit way up front in the second row, meaning the exit was behind me. In general, this is not my preferred place to sit, but in this case, it turned out to be the ideal position from which to take in Costa’s monumental low-angle compositions that owe as much to John Ford in their majestic grandeur as they do to Jacques Tourneur in their unrelieved nocturnal darkness. When the title character, a middle-aged Cape Verdean woman who has the same name as the actress who plays her, arrives in Lisbon on a redeye flight, barefoot and dripping (tears, I think), following the death of her estranged husband, she is greeted on the tarmac by an assembly of cleaning women who walk towards the camera in a composition reminiscent of the image of the Apollo astronauts approaching the rocket in The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman, 1983). And later, after Vitalina moves into the crumbling, bunker-like structure her husband lived and died in, there is an indelible, Géricault-like image of her standing on the roof under an indigo sky while a tarp flaps violently in the wind.
In the second edition of his book Transcendental Style in Film (first published in 1972), Paul Schrader describes Costa as a practitioner of “slow cinema” (2018: 16), but this is not a particularly apt label for his work. Slowness, after all, implies a progression from one place or state to another, and once she arrives in Lisbon, Vitalina is adamant about not wanting to go anywhere, despite the fact she evidently has no close friends or relatives in Europe and no prospects for employment. (The film never explains how she survives, or for that matter, where she got the money to buy a plane ticket in the first place.) Indeed, in her unwavering attachment to the husband who effectively abandoned her thirty years before, Vitalina calls to mind the similarly static heroine of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964). The other major character in Costa’s film is a gaunt old man (Ventura) whom we see wandering aimlessly through the slums and superstitiously placing his hand on any wooden pole he happens to pass by in his rambles. It is not until midway through the film that we learn he is the priest who performed the funeral rites for Vitalina’s husband, and the film never explains why his left hand is always shaking—not, I think, because Costa wants to generate a sense of mystery about the characters, but because he is less concerned with such prosaic details than he is with the unchanging corporeal presences of the people he puts on the screen.
Seven Years in May
Programmed on a double bill with Affonso Uchôa’s Seven Years in May, a tryptic of thematically related vignettes on the subject of police violence that was filmed entirely at night, Nicolás Pereda and Gabino Rodríguez’s My Skin, Luminous has a more varied visual scheme than that film, Liberté, or Vitalina Varela, beginning with bright, flat institutional lighting and then switching over to a painterly chiaroscuro. The film purports to be a documentary commissioned by the Mexican government to find out how a rural elementary school is allocating the federal funding it receives, and its first half consists of a series of self-contained observational vignettes of such everyday activities as schoolchildren giving in-class presentations and playing in the rain. However, it soon becomes apparent that the film is not in fact a documentary as its shallow, planimetric compositions are just a little too precise and orderly to have been shot on the fly and the non-diegetic narrator is genuinely omniscient in his knowledge of the children’s subjective states. Indeed, by the end of its forty minutes, the film has abandoned any pretense to realism, moving fully into the realm of the fantastic. In one particularly enigmatic sequence, which may or may not represent a dream and is accompanied by an ear-splitting chirping sound, two figures in white hazmat suits walk through a forest so dark that in some shots it almost looks as if they are floating in space, and the film’s closing scenes take place in a shadowy monastery where a one-armed monk swims in circles in a small fountain that has miraculous healing powers. Containing more ideas per minute than there are in some entire features, this shapeshifting oddity is one of the few films I saw at TIFF this year that I actually wish were longer.
Under the Influence
As the films by Serra, Costa, Uchôa, and Pereda and Rodríguez attest, a long take style remains the default approach for artistically ambitious filmmakers in the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, a number of shorts in this year’s festival demonstrated the vitality of an alternative tradition rooted in montage. Han Ok-hee’s 2minutes40seconds (1975) draws upon a wide range of archival images of South Koreans in the early 1960s—inserts of hands carving traditional sculptures and illustrations of devils from a religious textbook, a Buddhist monk pealing a bell in slow motion, Catholic church services, a runner at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, agricultural and infrastructure projects—that collectively do not give us a total picture of the state of the nation at this time (which was then under a brutal military dictatorship and was one of the poorest countries in the region) so much as they indicate how the regime wished to portray it. Taking a more overt political stance, Marwa Arsanios’ Who’s Afraid of Ideology? Part II documents the construction and day-to-day operation of a woman’s commune on a fertile plane in a Kurdish-controlled area of northeastern Syria through a combination of onscreen and offscreen interviews and carefully composed vistas and daily vignettes: an old woman working the land with a cigarette dangling from her lips; a teacher instructing her pupils in an old-fashioned schoolhouse; a seamstress sitting at her sewing machine in front of a clay house and chatting with a group of women and girls that are hovering around her. Agitprop of a very high order, the film offers us a series of precise, partial representations of its subject that we combine in our imaginations to produce a total impression of life in this commune (Eisenstein 1957: 30-31).
Montage is also central to the experience of Eloy Enciso’s Endless Night, both at the level of individual sequences and more broadly in its assimilation of pre-existing texts by more than half a dozen authors. Inviting comparison with the films of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, especially the second half of From the Clouds to the Resistance (1979), the film’s first two parts are comprised of a series of theatrical dialogues between two or more characters whom we typically never see together in the same frame, meaning we have to rely on the direction of their gazes to infer where the characters are located in relation to one another. The first section is set in an unspecified Galician city during the Franco era and features, among others, a pair of improbably well-groomed hobos (one of whom resembles Charlotte Gainsbourg) sitting on the steps of a church and kvetching about how terrible people have become; a salesman who strikes up a conversation with a political dissident on the bus and advises him to go to America; and a smug political candidate whose friend is depressed by the monotony of his life. In the film’s second part, the dissident journeys into the countryside and his conversations with the people there turn to the memory of the Spanish Civil War. In a long monologue, a former political prisoner describes the moments leading up to the execution of one of her comrades, while in another scene, a veteran claims the overwhelming majority of the Falangist soldiers in the trenches were not true believers in the cause. In the film’s final segment, the dissident wanders through a dark forest, subsisting on berries and placing his hand on rocks the same way that Ventura touches wooden poles, while a non-diegetic narrator reads a series of actual letters written by Republican POWs. I suspect the film is more meaningful to spectators who are familiar with Spain’s recent history and can connect its portrait of the fascist period to the present day than it is to a general international audience, and despite the film’s evident beauty and density, I have to admit that in the second half my attention started to wander.
Watching Angela Schanalec’s The Dreamed Path (2016) at the festival three years ago, I was annoyed by what I took to be the film’s slavish applications of the stylistic procedures devised by Robert Bresson—emotionally neutral line readings, shallow compositions with flat lighting and muted colour schemes, constructive editing, and contrapuntal offscreen sounds—which seemed to preclude Schanalec from making any fresh discoveries of her own. (Some of the blame here may be attributed to Bresson himself, who in his book Notes sur le cinématographe  offers his methods as a model for other filmmakers to emulate.) Therefore, the opening sequence of Schanalec’s latest film, I Was at Home, But…, in which a donkey comes upon a dog eating an unfortunate rabbit in a farmhouse, alluding simultaneously to both Au hasard Balthazar (1966) and Mouchette (1967), did not fill me with optimism. However, it gradually becomes apparent that Schanalec is no longer content merely to ape the master’s technique but instead uses the idiosyncratic performance style of Bresson’s models as a foil for conventionally emotive acting so that the latter registers all the more forcefully in contrast.
The film’s protagonist, Astrid (Maren Eggert), is a single mother in Berlin who is gradually disintegrating for reasons that, in classic Bressonian fashion, we feel more than understand. Early in the film, she buys a secondhand bike she sees advertised online, and when it breaks down a few hours later, the seller refuses to take it back, insisting he can repair it for her. Her son may be expelled from school for reasons that are unclear, and one day, Astrid shows up in the staff room to tell the teachers, who barely acknowledge her presence, how much it bothers her to know that other people are discussing her child when she is not in the room. Later, she runs into a filmmaker friend outside a grocery store, and in an extended tracking shot, launches into an impassioned monologue about how she could not finish watching his film because she was too irritated by the casting of genuinely ill performers as hospital patients, which betrayed the falseness of the other actors. Scenes like these alternate with extended wordless passages in which the lack of exposition and the film’s uncommunicative découpage make it difficult to follow what is going on. (In one scene, we see Astrid and her children dancing in a hospital room but the film never shows us the person they are dancing for.) The film is not entirely successful: The drama peaks about midway through with Astrid’s breakdown, and the scenes of schoolchildren robotically reciting translated passages from Hamlet à la Straub-Huillet (which further relativize verisimilar acting as just one option among many [see Pearson 1992: chapter 2]) are not integrated into the main narrative. Nevertheless, this represents a significant improvement on Schanalec’s previous film.
In 1968, Jacques Rivette argued that Jean Rouch, rather than Jean-Luc Godard, was the most important French filmmaker of the preceding decade because he opened up avenues for other directors to explore, whereas Godard, for all of his innovations, did not (quoted in Rosenbaum 1990). At this year’s festival, Rouch’s method of collaborating with his subjects—who, in such films as Moi, un noir (1958) and La Pyramide humaine (1961), play fictionalized versions of themselves—could be felt in films as different as Seven Years in May and Vitalina Varela, but only Éric Baudelaire’s beguiling Un film dramatique took the additional step of letting its subjects operate the equipment themselves. Teaming with a group of unexceptional middle school students from a nondescript suburb north of Paris, all of them the children of immigrants, Baudelaire armed the kids with lightweight video cameras and microphones and had them record their lives over the course of three years. But while we never see the children’s parents or teachers, the film never gives the impression of eavesdropping on spontaneous, unselfconscious behaviour as both we and the children are acutely aware of the presence of the cameras. In one sequence, a small boy stops in the middle of practicing the piano to tell his sister it is stressing him out to have her taping him, and later on, a female student attempts multiple takes of an intimate video diary, experimenting with different background music for each take. At nearly two hours, this begins to overstay its welcome, and by their final year of middle school, the kids are not really cute anymore. Nevertheless, the film represents a kind of freewheeling, minor-key cinema that TIFF could use more of.
As much as I admired Liberté, My Skin, Luminous, Seven Years in May, Vitalina Varela, and to a lesser extent, Endless Night, one side effect of watching a lot of difficult films over a short period of time is that it makes me unusually appreciative of narrative features that enable the spectator to mentally construct continuous agents (i.e., characters) and a sequence of events linked by cause and effect, as they are comparatively easy to engage—which is not to say, however, that such films are necessarily easy to understand. Introducing his new film, A Girl Missing (Yokogao), at a public screening, Fukada Koji explained that the movie’s Japanese title roughly translates as “a profile view,” yet the director’s compositions are, for the most part, classically frontal and brightly-lit, giving the appearance of a highly communicative narration so as to better mislead the spectator, who has to continually revise their hypotheses about the characters as the story unfolds.
At first, the film seems to relate two linked stories about different women played by the same actress, Tsutsui Mariko, that are occurring at the same time. In one, Tsutsui plays a meek home care nurse, Ichiko, whose life begins to unravel when her beloved nephew is accused of kidnapping the teenage granddaughter of the elderly woman Ichiko is taking care of, while in the other, she plays a fashionable widow, Risa, who aggressively pursues the affections of a younger hairdresser, Kazumichi (Ikematsu Sosuke), who is engaged to the elderly woman’s other grandchild, Mokoto (Ichikawa Mikako). It is only when Kazumichi mentions to Risa that the elderly woman died several months earlier that the spectator realizes the plot has been jumping back and forth in time. Likewise, the true nature of Ichiko’s relationship with a middle-aged doctor, Kenji (Fukikoshi Mitsuru), only gradually becomes apparent over the course of several scenes. When we first see them together walking to the elderly woman’s home, where Kenji is going to make a check-up, they appear to have only a professional relationship, but the next time we see them together, they are eating dinner in a warmly lit apartment with a chubby boy, suggesting they are married couple. However, we have to revise our notions about their relationship once more when Kenji proposes to tell his son that Ichiko will become his new mother. Fukada’s previous film, Harmonium (2016), was one of the best movies I saw at TIFF in 2016, and A Girl Missing confirms his status as one of the most intriguing directors now working in Japan, although here I found that his strategy of underplaying melodramatic plot developments worked against the film, which is too sedate by half. Perhaps the movie had to be this way, lulling the audience into a false sense of security and then pulling the rug out from under us, not once but several times.
Arguably even more elusive is Ben Rivers and Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Krabi 2562, which sets up a number of binary oppositions—narrative and non-narrative, fiction and documentary, objective reality and subjective perception—and then systematically blurs the distinctions between them. Although there is the semblance a plot centering on a mystery woman from central Thailand who travels by ship to the titular southern province for reasons the film leaves ambiguous (she gives a different explanation to everyone she meets), this story fails to fully unify the film, which contains a great many contemplative landscape shots that flaunt their aleatory excess and unreasonable duration even when they are nominally motivated by the narrative (e.g., a sequence filmed from a moving vehicle on the highway representing the mystery woman’s journey to a remote village). Furthermore, the plot is repeatedly interrupted by documentary (or pseudo-documentary) interview scenes that initially seem to have no relation to the narrative. Gradually, however, the interview subjects start appearing as characters in the fictional scenes and it is ultimately revealed that the offscreen interviewer we hear is a female police officer investigating the mystery woman’s disappearance, casting doubt on the veracity of the interviews. Meanwhile, in a separate narrative thread, an actor playing a caveman in a cheesy commercial goes to take a piss in the jungle where he sees, or thinks he sees, an actual caveman. A later sequence, in which the film cuts from the actor lying on his bed and closing his eyes to a shot of the caveman clearly represents a subjective vision, but the freestanding scenes of the caveman and his mate leave open the possibility of their having an independent existence. At once more varied than Rivers’ The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (2015) and more coherent than Suwichakornpong’s By the Time it Gets Dark (2016), the film is a good example of collaboration bringing out the best in people.
Filmed in appropriately claustrophobic closeups and medium shots, and featuring a dense ambient soundtrack in which the offscreen sound of bombs exploding in the distance is nearly constant, Oualid Mouaness’ 1982 is a gripping and occasionally powerful melodrama set against the backdrop of the 1982 Lebanon War, although I would not want to watch a film about these characters if they were not living near a war zone. The story takes place in an elementary school in Christian East Beirut where the students and teachers are trying to go on with their daily lives as though the war did not affect them, even as the bombing steadily moves closer to the capital. The central character is an adorable fifth grader, Wissam (Mohamad Dalli), who has a crush on a girl in his class who lives on the other side of a military checkpoint in Muslim West Beirut, although the film pointedly does not reveal which religion her family belongs to. Meanwhile, the kids’ mega-babe teacher, Ms. Yasmine (Nadine Labaki), is having romantic problems of her own as her moustachioed fiancé is constantly quarrelling with her impetuous younger brother over politics, but here the film’s refusal to clarify the precise nature of their disagreement simply feels evasive. (In an early scene, the brother tells Ms. Yasmine he is going to the south to join a Phalangist militia; presumably the fiancé is some kind of leftist.) On their own, the characters’ personal problems would not be compelling enough to sustain a feature-length film, and to an extent, Mouaness appears to recognize this. Nevertheless, there are times when he seems to want to have it both ways, criticizing the characters’ myopia while also indulging in sub-Truffaut cuteness, and the film concludes with an animated fantasy sequence that feels like it was intended in part to take the edge off the movie’s heavy subject matter. On the other hand, the film is more interesting, not less, for its disquieting political stance, wherein the implicit call for the Lebanese people to put aside sectarian and political differences and unite as a nation presupposes they are uniting in order to defeat the Jews. In other words, the film suggests that Arab nationalism could not exist without anti-Zionism, and it is precisely this sinister implication that makes possible the film’s sentimentality.
1982, Nadine Labaki
Our Contemporary Ancestors
In a scene about midway through Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come, the film’s taciturn protagonist is sitting in the passenger seat of a truck belonging to an agreeable lady vet, who fills a gap in the conversation by putting on a Leonard Cohen album. I cannot be certain on account of the tight framing but it sounded to me like she pushes a cassette into the car stereo, giving the audience its first real hint (notwithstanding the conspicuous absence of cell phones and computers from the film’s mise en scène) that the story takes place sometime in the 1990s. There is no urgent reason for the plot to be set in this period, but it nonetheless seems fitting for a film that plays like a solemn compendium of festival movie tropes from twenty years ago. Filmed in an uncommunicative long take style and punctuated by infrequent bursts of baroque music, the narrative centers on the daily routines of inscrutable rustics played by nonprofessional actors using their own names. Laxe, who was born in 1982, probably would have seen the early films of Lisandro Alonso, Bruno Dumont, Carlos Reygadas, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, as I did, in his late teens and early twenties, and the Vivaldi piece we hear in this film is the same one Lars von Trier used in Dogville (2003).
The movie opens with Amador (Amador Arias), a gaunt, middle-aged loner with a weathered face and long hair tied in a ponytail, getting out of prison after a two-year stint for arson and going to live with his ancient mother, Benedicta (Benedicta Sánchez), in a crumbling farmhouse on a damp Galician hillside where he spends his days herding animals. It is only a matter of time before the whole area goes up in flames, and when it does, a local hothead predictably jumps to the conclusion that Amador is the one responsible, although the hothead’s buddies manage to pull them apart before things get out of hand. Indeed, the film does not end so much as it abruptly stops before we get any real sense of what the fire means for the characters’ lives. That said, Laxe demonstrates a genuine talent for composing sounds and images that is especially apparent in the film’s ominous opening sequence, in which a series of trees in a dark forest suddenly topple over one after another while being illuminated from above by an unexplained light source. Images like this suggest that Laxe may one day become a very fine filmmaker.
Of course, it would be facile merely to criticize Fire Will Come for its lack of originality. The more interesting question is why such films have become so common on the festival circuit. Introducing a screening of Sharipa Urazbayeva’s Mariam, a less polished but more involving example of the long take ethnographic narrative, programmer Dorota Lech put particular emphasis on the fact that its star, Mereurt Sabbusinova, is not a professional actor and is playing a fictionalized version of herself. Sabbusinova’s character, Mariam, is a stout, fortyish Kazakh woman whose creased features betray a hard life in an arid climate and who lives in a dilapidated cabin on a snow-covered plane. As the film opens, her herder husband has been missing for several days, but without a body, Mariam cannot collect the government benefits she needs to help her feed her three young children.
Given its glitchy, amateurish sound mix, one would not expect this film to have gotten into a festival as prestigious as TIFF. That it did suggests there is something about the experience of urban modernity that compels filmmakers, programmers, and audiences to seek out, or to invent, the anachronistic remnants of pre-capitalist societies as a means of understanding the present moment. Films like Mariam posit such remnants as the traces of an authentic, living memory—in contrast with our own alienated relationship with the past, which we do not experience directly in the form of traditions handed down from one generation to the next but through the medium of history, which merely reconstructs what has already passed (Nora 1989: 7-9). In this context, we can understand Sharipa’s handheld long takes as preserving the organic experience of time and space characteristic of pre-industrial societies, which the film implicitly contrasts with the fragmentation of urban modernity. (On the other hand, Soviet montage films such as Old and New [Grigori Aleksandrov and Sergei Eisenstein, 1929] and Earth [Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1930] depict an agrarian socialist society that is putatively post-capitalist.) Our extra-textual knowledge of the performers’ consonance with the characters they represent onscreen, and the apparently unsimulated slaughter of a lamb on camera, confer upon the film an aura of authenticity, as if the audience needed to be reassured that such people really do exist. It therefore comes as a genuine shock when, about halfway through the film, Mariam suddenly pulls out a smart phone we did not know she had and makes a call. However, far from overturning our sense of Mariam as a Nanook-like anachronism, the incongruousness of modern communications technology in the film only underscores the distance between Mariam’s life and our own.
This is not to suggest, however, that what I have been calling the long take ethnographic narrative is unredeemable. Pema Tseden’s Balloon strikes me as a superior example of the genre in part because its nuanced characterizations complicate the binary opposition of traditional and modern upon which the genre is founded. Set in the 1990s against the backdrop of China’s family planning laws, the film centers on the moral dilemma faced by a conservative Tibetan woman, Drolkar (Sonam Wangmo), who already has three children and does not want to have a fourth as her husband, Dargye (Jinpa), barely earns enough money herding rams to pay for their children’s schooling as it is, to say nothing of the hefty fine the family would incur for exceeding the legally allotted number of children. But when Drolkar does become pregnant, Dargye opposes her decision to have an abortion, not because he is against the procedure per se, but because a lama predicted she would give birth to the reincarnation of his late father. (And you thought your in-laws were troublesome.) Meanwhile, in a parallel subplot, Drolkar’s more worldly younger sister, Shangchu Drolma (Yangshik Tso), has left her intellectual boyfriend to become a Buddhist monk for reasons that remain obscure, and in an attempt to win her back, the boyfriend writes a novel about their relationship. Later, when Drolkar sees her sister reading it, she throws the book in the furnace and Shangchu Drolma burns herself pulling it out.
Rather than taking an overt stand on any of the ethical issues it raises, the film allows us to sympathize with the feelings of all of the characters, at least to an extent (ultimately, we do not know enough about Shangchu Drolma to evaluate her decision to leave her boyfriend and enter a monastery), and Tseden’s purposeful handheld camera style—which eschews the more aggressively eccentric découpage of his previous film, Jinpa (2018)—oscillates between identification and detachment, sometimes within the same shot. The film’s opening sequence begins with a clouded view of Dargye and his father that we retroactively understand to represent the POV of one of Dargye’s sons looking through an inflated condom when two of them subsequently enter the frame, each one holding a string attached to a blown-up prophylactic. Jinpa was one of my favourite films from last year’s festival, and while Balloon is not quite as good as that movie (a slow motion montage of rams having sex struck me as heavy-handed and crude), it nonetheless confirms that Tseden is a major talent.
At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I have to say that TIFF is really too long. Watching three or four films a day for eleven days, it is impossible to sustain one’s energy, and by the second weekend, a palpable sense of exhaustion hangs in the air. Press and industry screenings end on the second Friday, after which most journalists flee the city as if it were a crime scene, and at public screenings, the programmers apologetically explain that the film’s director could not be there for another Q&A because they had to fly back to Astana, Berlin, Rio de Janeiro, etc. (which is to say that TIFF would not pay for them to stay in a hotel for the entire duration of the festival). For my own part, I tend to front-load most of my must-see films in the first half of the festival so that, if I am unable to get into a particular screening, I can try again later (as I had to do this year with Hassen Ferhani’s charming 143 rue du désert). Accordingly, the last weekend of the festival is typically when I find myself gambling on films I do not have especially high expectations for and which are as often pleasant surprises (e.g., Justine Triet’s Sybil, an entertaining and sexy comedy-melodrama centering on a trio of hysterical women played by Virginie Efira, Adèle Exarchopoulos, and Sandra Hüller) as they are complete disasters (Kristina Grozeva and Peter Valchanov’s insipid Bulgarian sitcom The Father).
Having seen and admired Quentin Dupieux’s first feature, Rubber (2010), about a sentient tire with telekinetic powers that goes on a killing spree in the American southwest, I cannot say that I was very surprised by how much I enjoyed his latest film, Le Daim, although seeing it on the final day of the festival immediately after Thomas Heise’s unrelentingly solemn three and a half hour documentary Heimat Is a Space in Time, it seemed to arrive at a particularly opportune moment. The film is less audaciously nonsensical than Rubber, which had a diegetic audience that could somehow see everything that was happening while remaining fixed in one spot the whole time, but it has a similar tone. As the film’s deranged protagonist, Georges, whom we first see trying (unsuccessfully) to flush his corduroy jacket down the toilet of a highway rest stop, Jean Dujardin gives a fully committed performance, saying and doing ridiculous things with the utter conviction of a man who is in thrall to his obsessions and cannot recognize how absurd they are. It is a very funny performance.
After breaking up with corduroy, Georges drives into the mountains where he acquires a vintage deerskin jacket from Julie Delpy’s dad that symbolizes his desire to make a clean break with the past and forge a new identity. (We never find out anything about Georges’ life before the film starts except that he has a wife in Paris who freezes his bank account after he withdraws seven thousand five hundred euros to buy the jacket.) Later in his hotel room, Georges conducts conversations with the jacket reminiscent of Danny talking to his imaginary friend in The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980), and together they hatch a plan to become, respectively, the only jacket and the only man with a jacket in the world. To this end, Georges poses as a filmmaker, paying various people to put their coats in the trunk of his car while he records them on a late 1990s Sony Handicam (the film is set in the present) and then driving off without returning them. This transparently preposterous charade attracts the attention of a local bartender, Denise (Adèle Haenel), who taught herself to edit film by recutting Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) so that its plot unfolds in chronological order (“It sucked”), and before long, she is not only financing Georges’ “film” by giving him money to buy mini-DV cassettes but also demanding he give her more coverage to work with. At the screening I attended, I was one of two men in the audience who seemed to be laughing louder and more frequently than everyone else, so this may not be to all tastes. It will probably appeal most to spectators with a highly developed sense of the absurd who can appreciate the humour of a high-pitched flute theme associated with a deerskin jacket, the incantatory repetitions of the phrase “style de malade” (translated as “killer style” in the English subtitles), and a scene where Georges whacks a pile of purloined jackets with a shovel, as if to make sure they are really dead before he buries them.
Although auteurism remains the default framework through which films are interpreted at festivals (“Have you seen the Costa? What did you think of the Bellocchio?”), Roy Andersson may be the only contemporary director politically incorrect enough to make films portraying a personal vision of the human condition. In lieu of any sustained narrative, his short World and Glory (1991) and the features Songs from the Second Floor (2000), You, the Living (2007), and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014) consist of a series of tragicomic vignettes suffused with cruelty, guilt, shame, regret, and despair. However, the seeming absurdity of the characters’ lives is counterpointed at every moment by the overwhelming deliberateness of Andersson’s distinctively pallid mise en scène, which intimates an underlying universal order that eludes the characters’ awareness. Andersson typically films each scene in an unbroken take from a fixed camera position and in extreme long shot, and the rigid stillness of the performers makes the spectator keenly aware of even the slightest movement on the screen. In his latest film, About Endlessness, a woman steps off a train and sits on a bench on the deserted platform, facing away from the camera and keeping perfectly still so that we are able to perceive a distant figure running around on the opposite platform. It goes without saying that Andersson’s films need to be seen on a big screen to achieve their full impact.
The problem with Andersson’s films is that they are all basically the same. After all, a vision of the human condition is not supposed to change, even though the world is in constant flux. Indeed, given how little Andersson’s style has developed since the early 1990s, it seems weirdly incongruous in About Endlessness when, for instance, a character taps his card as he gets on the bus (which characteristically does not move) rather than paying with coins. One intriguing new wrinkle here is the female offscreen narrator who often describes what we are looking at (“I saw a man who…,” “I saw a woman who…,” etc.). Sometimes the voice-over comes at the beginning of the scene, playfully raising expectations Andersson has no intention of following through on. (A shot of a woman in a business suit standing in front of a large window is accompanied by the description, “I saw a woman who had no shame,” but the film cuts away before she does anything, leaving it to the spectator to work out for themselves the implications of a life without shame.) At other times, however, the voice-over comes near the end of the scene, changing our understanding of what we are looking at. In one of the film’s most memorable shots, a man sits on the floor of his apartment, weeping uncontrollably while cradling the body of a murdered woman and holding a long blade. The punchline: “I saw a man who wanted to protect the honour of his family. And then changed his mind.” About Endlessness is a singular and often brilliant film by one of our greatest living filmmakers, so I feel a little guilty about not liking it more.
Like About Endlessness, Elia Suleiman’s It Must Be Heaven is the work of a contemporary master who has reached something of an impasse in his art, but while it is a less successful film overall than Andersson’s, its director at least appears to be more cognizant of the fact of being at an impasse. In his earlier features Divine Interpretation (2002) and The Time That Remains (2009), Suleiman played a sort of Palestinian everyman who responded to the indignities of life under Israeli occupation with the stoic befuddlement of a Buster Keaton, but his status as a world-famous filmmaker means he can no longer identify himself unproblematically with the struggles of ordinary Palestinians. Accordingly, here he plays a celebrated director who, in the film’s middle sections, travels first to Paris and then to New York (actually Montreal, as you can tell from the brand of hummus on sale in the supermarket) in order to drum up financing for a film project called It Must Be Heaven. As a result, however, Suleiman’s attempts to be self-deprecating in the film mostly fall flat. In one scene, Gael García Bernal (playing himself) blows Suleiman off when they run into each other at a producer’s office in New York, but the fact remains that Suleiman is enough of a celebrity to get Bernal to appear in this film.
Moreover, the film’s satirical jabs often feel tired and obvious, as when Suleiman walks into a grocery store in New York where all of the customers and the cashier are carrying automatic rifles, which is the sort of gag one would expect from a filmmaker whose experience of American society was confined to what they could see on television rather than someone who actually lived in New York for over a decade. The film is at its best in a surreal Bastille Day sequence, in which Suleiman walks around an eerily deserted Paris where the only signs of life he encounters are the incredibly noisy tanks and fighter jets that pass by, and in what may be the ne plus ultra of planimetric compositions: While Suleiman sits at a table outside a café in the dead center of the ‘Scope frame, symmetrical pairs of cops appear on his right and his left and take out measuring tapes to check the area of the patio. As in Suleiman’s better earlier films, the humour in these scenes arises out of his careful observation and estrangement of what is commonly taken for granted. But on the whole, there is a sense in the film that Suleiman’s celebrity has isolated him from precisely the sort of daily lived experience which nourished the movies that made him famous in the first place.
While It Must Be Heaven ends on a note of tentative optimism with Suleiman returning to Nazareth, where he sits in a bar looking wistfully at a group of young people on the dance floor, Nadav Lapid’s Synonymes —a bleaker and, to my mind, even funnier film—ends with its protagonist, Yoav (Tom Mercier), hurling his body repeatedly against a locked door, an image that provides a concrete representation of his inability to escape the condition of being an Israeli. As the film opens, Yoav has just arrived in Paris where he intends to reinvent himself as a Frenchman, not only refusing to speak Hebrew but also trying not to look at the Seine or a then-intact Notre Dame, as he thinks these landmarks are lies intended to keep tourists from the mythical heart of Paris. On his first night in the city, a thief helpfully relieves Yoav of the few articles he brought with him from Tel Aviv, and the next morning he is discovered in his bathtub, naked and nearly frozen to death, by his neighbour, Emile (Quentin Dolmaire)—an effete rich boy who is writing a pretentious-sounding novel called Night of Inertia and who says things like, “Boredom structures me“—and his improbably beautiful oboe-playing girlfriend, Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), who provide him with clothes and seed money. Emile in particular is immediately enamoured with Yoav, who has the one thing he most desires—namely, a story—and Yoav is happy to give it to him.
With the possible exception of Liberté (another film about France made by an outsider), this was the most intensely physical film I saw during the entire festival, eliciting a bodily response from the spectator. In one of the film’s most hysterical scenes, Yoav introduces an Israeli buddy, Yaron (Uria Hayik)—whose response to a recent uptick in anti-Semitic violence in France is to be aggressively Jewish, walking up to strangers on the subway and angrily humming the Israeli national anthem in their faces—to his supervisor at the Israeli consulate, who organizes regular brawls with neo-Nazi groups. When Yaron offers him his hand, the supervisor suddenly throws him on the desk and starts wrasslin’ with him as a test of Yaron’s suitability. Stylistically, Lapid oscillates between distant, conspicuously unbalanced compositions shot with a locked down or smoothly tracking camera and haptic, handheld sequences in which Yoav walks arounds Paris memorizing French vocabulary that move from subjective perception to objective reality in the same shot, at one point identifying with Yoav’s POV as he looks down at the sidewalk (so as to avoid seeing any famous landmarks) and then swinging around to reveal his face in closeup, creating a dialectic between separation and immersion (Marks 2000: 176-182). The film is not perfect—Yoav’s ultimate disenchantment with secular French society seemed to me insufficiently motivated—but no other film I saw at TIFF this year was as enjoyable to watch.
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Marks, Laura. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.
Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.” Translated by Marc Roudebush. Representations no. 26 (1989): 7-24.
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