TIFF 2018: Body of Evidence
Toronto International Film Festival
Of the 342 films screening at the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), I just see nineteen features (19.434 if I include the first 215 minutes of Wang Bing’s 495-minute Dead Souls) and nine shorts, or approximately 8.314% of the total slate. Obviously this pool of films does not represent an unbiased sample as I do not make my selections arbitrarily by picking titles out of a hat (an option I will seriously consider if I attend the festival next year) but follow my personal inclinations, which tend toward avant-garde films and narrative features from East Asia that are unlikely to return for a commercial run in Toronto and new films by directors I particularly admire, such as Jean-Luc Godard and Carlos Reygadas, on the off chance I do not have an opportunity to see them later. Of the 28.434 films I see, 17.434 (including all nine shorts) are from the festival’s Wavelengths section, with the remainder coming from Masters (four features), Contemporary World Cinema, TIFF Docs (two each), Discovery, Midnight Madness, and Platform (one a piece). By the end of the third day of the festival, certain overarching themes start to crystallize in my mind—the human body (or its absence) and historical evidence (or the lack thereof)—although someone else looking at the same sample of films may find other connections between them.
Continuing a sort of semi-annual tradition, I am shut out of the first Wavelengths program of experimental shorts (only two people in the rush line ultimately make it inside), and on the following day, rather than try my luck a second time, I decide instead to take a chance on Radu Jude’s “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians”. And despite its significant shortcomings (which I address below), I am relieved just to see a film that has a protagonist I can sympathize with, as everything else I have seen so far either objectifies the people on the screen or banishes human presence from the frame altogether.
Björn Kämmerer’s Arena is a case in point. Watching the film—which consists of a single five-minute shot of empty stadium seats filmed in 70mm—I assume the impression of creeping, arcing camera movement is caused by the filmmakers physically moving the camera on tracks or some sort of dolly. But in the post-screening Q&A, like a magician revealing his secrets, Kämmerer explains that what we are seeing is actually a rotating auditorium in the Czech Republic shot at 100 frames per second. By not showing us the edges of the auditorium, Kämmerer creates a sense of endlessness, as if the shot could go on indefinitely revealing more identical seats, as well as encouraging us to see the chairs and the railings as an abstract geometric composition. In this context, the appearance of a chair with a purple bottom in the midst of a sea of blue is a huge deal. Do I enjoy the film? Somehow the question seems irrelevant in this context. Perhaps it should be considered simply as an object that exists whether we like it or not.
Björn Kämmerer’s Arena
Included on the same program as Arena is James Benning’s 45-minute L. Cohen, and before the screening, the more senior artist gives a rather terse introduction to his film, saying words to the effect of: At first it seems like nothing is happening but actually a lot is, although it is hard to see it, and then there is a surprise followed by another surprise you might expect. In retrospect, it is easy to sympathize with Benning’s reluctance to say too much about the film, at least before people have a chance to see it for themselves (like Kämmerer, he is more forthcoming in the Q&A), since it is virtually impossible to describe the film at any length without spoilers. What I can say is that the film opens on an apparently static landscape in rural Oregon with a placid green stream cutting across the middle-ground, and in the distance, telephone poles, low buildings, and mountains that are partially obscured by clouds. (After the screening, Benning explains that the clouds were caused by forest fires in western California.) In the foreground to the right is a disused wheat thresher, and on the left are some rusted out barrels, tires, and a scene-stealing yellow gas can. Offscreen, we hear a persistent unexplained rumbling and occasionally the sound of cows mooing. After a few minutes, I think I see, on the far-right side of the screen next to the low buildings, two minute figures in the distance walking incrementally toward the camera without ever seeming to get any closer, adding an element of narrative suspense. But when I talk to people after the screening, no one else has noticed this (possibly because they could stop looking at the yellow gas can), and Benning himself leaves it off the inventory of moving figures he provides in the Q&A. Is there more going on in this shot than even Benning is aware of, or is my desire to impose an anthropocentric narrative on the landscape so deep-seated that I am compelled to invent one where none exists?
Jodie Mack’s The Grand Bizarre
If Arena and L. Cohen are a little sparse, Jodie Mack’s The Grand Bizarre inundates us with more stimuli than we can possibly process in just sixty minutes. Set to a pulsing electronic score that at one point samples the “incoming call” tune from Skype and whose varied rhythms are a counterpoint to the images, this globetrotting animated epic alternates rapid juxtapositions of textile patterns and language textbooks in extreme close-up with stop-motion sequences in which the spastic dance of shape-shifting textiles plays out in front of unstaged actuality (waves, farm chickens, traffic in India), simultaneously inviting us to see the textiles, characters, and binary digits on the screen as abstract patterns of line and colour and hinting at larger themes of the analog and the digital, cultural specificity and globalized homogeneity. A work of restless, jittery creativity, this is both highly innovative and a bit exasperating as it never gives us a moment to catch our breath. I walk out of the screening feeling dazed and exhausted.
As luck would have it, the next film I see is Igor Drljača’s The Stone Speakers, which manages to be contemplative without feeling minimal and to cover a lot of ground without seeming rushed. Ostensibly a straightforward travelogue in four chapters, each set in a different tourist spot in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the film uses the towns’ various attractions as an entry point into the country’s contested history, with each site presenting a distinct interpretation of the past. The town of Međugorje in West Herzegovina is famous for a miracle that occurred there in the early 1980s, when two children reported hearing the voice of the Virgin Mary, and now holds a massive outdoor festival each year that attracts pilgrims from as far away as China and Canada. But while residents of Međugorje (whose voices we hear on the soundtrack) describe communism as a great evil and credit the Virgin Mary with toppling Tito’s regime a few years later, in Tuzla, a local politician boasts during a public ceremony that it is the only city in Bosnia-Herzegovina to officially commemorate the start of the communist resistance against German occupation during World War II. Meanwhile, in Visoko, the local tourist industry centres on a buried “pyramid” purportedly built by an ancient civilization and which scientists say does not exist (Bohannon 2006), and in Višegrad, “professor Emir Kusturica“—yes, that Emir Kusturica—has constructed a kitsch cultural district in order to provide ethnic Serbs with the European Renaissance history they never really had. In contrast with Arena, L. Cohen, and The Grand Bizarre, where human figures appear only peripherally if at all, Djrlača’s Where’s Waldo? –like extreme long shots are often swarming with human activity, although the people never overwhelm the landscapes they inhabit, and we do not get close enough to them to form any emotional attachments. Nevertheless, the film is so sensually and intellectually stimulating that it makes me want to pick up a book and learn about Bosnian history.
The Stoner Speakers
Moderately anthropocentric, Frederick Wiseman’s Monrovia, Indiana intersperses observational vignettes of public life in the titular Midwestern town with meditative shots of farmland, downtown streets, and graveyards that constitute seemingly a third of the film’s two and a half hours in order to paint a portrait of a white, Christian, conservative America that is seemingly in its death throes. While the city council stubbornly resists any initiative that might alter the town’s demographics (i.e., bring in more brown and black people), a handful of old-timers sit around a table at the local diner and discuss their medical ailments, a high school teacher proudly extolls the accomplishments of the town’s all-white basketball team in the 1920s, and the Masons honour a local member for fifty years of service to the lodge in a ceremony that looks both silly and a little pathetic. (What man in his sixties or seventies looks good wearing an apron?) Naturally, the film ends at a funeral. And although no one ever mentions Donald Trump, he—and the politics of white nationalism he represents—are never far from my thoughts. (The closest anyone comes to alluding Trump directly is during a city council meeting when one man inquires about the possibility of “collusion” between local government and a land developer, and a more conservative counsellor, who talks exactly like Andy Rooney, testily tells him the correct word is “cooperation.”) As usual with Wiseman, there is no principle protagonist or overarching narrative thread to unify the film’s vignettes, and there are no scenes of people or families in their private lives. Alas, none of the interactions here are as dramatically charged or as morally ambiguous as those in Law and Order (1969) or Welfare (1975), and while the film is never less than watchable, it strikes me as just a little dry.
That Ulrich Köhler’s In My Room proves to be one of the most classical—and therefore anthropocentric—films in this year’s Wavelengths section is a little ironic given that its subject is the extinction of human life on earth. Upending virtually all of the conventions of the End of the World movie except for the one about viewing humanity’s last days from the perspective of a small number of highly individuated characters, the film centres on a comically inept TV cameraman, Armin (Hans Löw), whose fastidiousness about oral hygiene outstrips his desire to nail teenyboppers and who wakes up one morning to find that everyone in the world but him has inexplicably vanished. In response, Armin transforms himself, seemingly overnight, into a kind of post-apocalyptic Robinson Crusoe, tending animals, growing vegetables, and even setting up his own off-the-grid hydroelectric system so he can watch The Bridges of Madison County (Clint Eastwood, 1995) on his laptop—a metamorphosis that is not entirely persuasive as nothing in the first half hour of the film prepares us for it. The blurb in the festival’s program guide links Köhler to the Berlin School of filmmakers (Maren Ade is one of the movie’s producers), and like other contemporary German directors whose work I am familiar with (Valeska Griesbach, Christian Petzold, Angela Schanelec), Köhler favours shallow, uncluttered medium shots and close-ups of human bodies and faces. In an early scene, after refusing to let a teenybopper (Emma Bading) use his toothbrush, the camera pans with Armin as he closes the blinds in preparation for intercourse to reveal, reflected in the window, the teenybopper putting her coat back on. This is not the sort of film one typically expects to see programmed in the Wavelengths section but I am happy to see it all the same.
The human body is very much front and centre in the digital restoration of Maria Lassnig’s Alice (1974) included in the third program of Wavelengths shorts, but this does not mean that we form a strong emotional attachment to the body on the screen. Part of Lassnig’s “Soul Sisters” series, the film superimposes fireworks and neon lights over shots of a voluptuous redhead spraying an unidentified red liquid over her body while reclining in front of a black backdrop, and of her playing a game in which she attempts to match the names of her many male lovers with their special attributes while blindfolded, as an offscreen narrator (Lassnig) recounts fragments of the redhead’s brief, meteoric career in the New York art scene over a piece of baroque music. But while this superficially resembles classic films by Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, and Werner Schroeter, its tone is deadpan, encouraging us to contemplate the redhead’s body as an exceptionally lovely object rather than responding to her affectively.
In the final sequence of Los que desean (Those Who Desire), Elena López Riera’s 24-minute documentary about competitive pigeon mating in southern Spain, we hear the director in voice-over wistfully recite the names of the male trainers who appear in the film, echoing an earlier scene in which a man’s voice excitedly calls out the names of the competing pigeons (which include Clockwork Orange and Ford Fiesta) over a walkie-talkie. The implication, which Riera underscores in the post-screening Q&A, is that she feels the same sort of affection for her subjects that they feel for their pigeons, but this sentiment is unlikely to be shared by many people in the audience, not only because their hobby could be considered a form of animal cruelty, but also because we never come to know them well enough to attach the names we hear to particular faces. Accordingly, we tend to see the film’s subjects less as individuals than as bodies precisely arranged in the ‘Scope frame.
Indeed, knowing nothing about the film prior to the screening, I am not sure at first whether it is fiction or documentary. The first shot shows a teenage boy sitting in a café with a cup of coffee and a beer on the table in front of him; the dialogue is partially inaudible and the framing is conspicuously unbalanced with lots of empty space on the right side of the screen. After a few seconds, an old man sitting just off camera thrusts his hands into the gap and the camera jerkily pans to reveal the man’s face, but I still do not know if this is actually a documentary or if it is a fiction film trying to look like one. In the next shot, we see the same old man sitting in a car, his face and upper body framed by the driver’s side window, as the teenager and another young man give him directions, although they are too far away for us to hear what they are saying. As the youngsters move to obstruct our view of the old man, and then move back and turn away from us to emphasize his reactions, all while using their hands to perform a highly legible pantomime for the camera, I think, “This must be staged, even if these people are not actors.” And later on, Riera creates some striking multi-planar compositions in which either the foreground or the background is out of focus. Did Riera tell her subjects where to stand? I cannot be sure (and feeling overwhelmed after The Grand Bizarre, I do not have the presence of mind to ask her during the Q&A), but however she arrived at these images, the fact remains this is a lovely piece of work.
The filmmaker’s emotional involvement in his or her material is even more central to the meaning of Carlos Reygadas’ Our Time, in which the director and his wife, Natalia López, play the lead roles—a fact emphasized in the program guide, which describes the film as Reygadas’ “most personal and courageous to date.” Its protagonist, Juan (Reygadas), is a poet living on a remote ranch who discovers that his wife, Ester (López), has been sending incriminating text messages to a gringo horse breaker, Phil (Phil Burgers). What upsets Juan, however, is not that Ester is in love with another man but that she kept it a secret from him, and following a period of resentment, he begins to stage manage Ester’s affairs (without telling her), at one point hiding in the bathroom while she has sex with a friend of his in the next room. Are Juan’s motives as pure as he represents them to be in a lengthy e-mail he writes Phil giving him his blessing or is he secretly turned on by the idea of Ester with another man? Or is this an insidious stratagem to control her completely? And perhaps more to the point, why did Reygadas not only decide to make this film but also to cast himself and his wife as the principle characters? Are we to take this story as thinly veiled autobiography or is Reygadas just having us on? Whatever the truth may be, this is considerably more straightforward as filmmaking than Reygadas’ previous feature, Post Tenebras Lux (2012), as if the audacity of the film’s subject matter dictated a more linear approach. Instead of looking for a unifying formal principle that will tie everything together, here we want to understand why the characters—and Reygadas—are doing the things they do.
Likewise dispensing with the sort of narrational games he played in such films as Yourself and Yours (2016) and The Day After (2017), in Hotel by the River, Hong Sangsoo arouses our curiosity about the characters by withholding information about them. The film begins with a sixtyish poet, Younghwan (Ki Joobong), looking out the window of his hotel room in a small town by the Han River and catching a glimpse of a young woman, Sanghee (Kim Minhee), who is staying in a room down the hall and has a bandage on one hand, raising the question not only of how Sanghee injured herself but also how these characters’ paths will intersect. The remainder of the plot unfolds over the course of a single day as Younghwan receives a visit from his adult sons, Kyungsoo (Kwon Haehyo) and Byungsoo (Yu Junsang), and Sanghee takes frequent naps with a female friend, Yeonju (Song Seonmi), who may be more than just a friend or would perhaps like to be. One of the film’s themes, and a major source of its humour, is obtuseness—an inability, or refusal, to understand another person’s feelings, which in one scene becomes a literal incapacity to see someone else when Younghwan and his sons do not see each other sitting at different tables in the hotel restaurant—and a complimentary desire not to be seen, as when Younghwan refuses to let his sons come into his messy hotel room. Stylistically, this represents a departure from Hong’s other recent films I have seen in that the majority of shots are handheld, giving the film a seemingly offhand quality, but in fact Hong’s staging and framing are as precise as ever. When Younghwan sees the two women standing by the river and runs out to tell them how beautiful they look, the scene plays out in an unbroken long shot with Younghwan and Sanghee in profile on the far sides of the screen, while Yeonju stands between them with her body turned toward the camera so as to highlight her discomfort (which Younghwan is oblivious to). Only near the end of the scene does Sanghee momentarily lean forward to block her friend’s face, thereby emphasizing her handshake with Younghwan. Like all of Hong’s best work, this only feels effortless.
No less deliberate, Pema Tseden’s Jinpa opens with a long take of a truck driving down a desolate stretch of highway in the Kekexili region of Tibet (an area that a title informs us has an average elevation of over 5,000 metres above sea level), although in contrast with L. Cohen and The Stone Speakers, the film’s style subordinates the landscape to the human drama. Based on two short stories by different authors, Tseden’s “I Ran Over a Sheep” and “The Slayer” by Tsering Norbu, the plot centres on a trucker, Jinpa (Jinpa), who hits a goat and then drives to the nearest temple to find guidance for its soul lest the goat’s death negatively impact his karma. (This leads to a very funny scene in which the lama, after performing the necessary rites, tells the trucker he can dispose of the carcass, and he has to decide whether it is better for his karma to give it to a beggar, who will probably eat it alone, or leave it on a hillside where it can feed an entire flock of vultures.) Earlier, on his way to the temple, the trucker picks up a hitchhiker, also named Jinpa (Genden Phuntsok), who is searching for the man that killed his father, and after disposing of the goat, the trucker goes in pursuit of the hitchhiker, whom he left at a symbolic fork in the road. Unlike the trucker, who represents the outside world (he wears sunglasses and a leather jacket, listens to Italian opera on cassette, and drinks Budweiser’s), the hitchhiker is younger and less worldly; tellingly, when the proprietress of a tea house asks him what kind of beer he wants, the hitchhiker responds incredulously, “What other kind is there? The kind to drink!” Part of what makes this film so thrilling is that, while Tseden’s stylistic choices are always in the service of the narrative, his camera set-ups are almost never predictable. In an early scene in the truck, he cuts between a master shot of the two men staring straight ahead that crops off one half of each Jinpa’s face and frontal close-ups along the same horizontal axis so as to underscore the doppelgänger theme. When strangers ask me if I have seen anything good at the festival while waiting in a rush line, this is one of the few films I do not hesitate to recommend.
On the last day of a festival dominated by ascetic minimalism, demographic decline, and auteurist oversharing on the one hand (see above), and Holocaust denial, Stalinist show trials, and Maoist labour camps on the other (see below), I walk into Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt’s Diamantino knowing virtually nothing about it and find exactly what I need (but do not know that I need until I see it): A delightfully irreverent comedy about a singularly talented but not very bright Portuguese soccer player (Carloto Cotta) who enters into a trance-like state on the field where he imagines himself running on fluffy pink clouds while surrounded by giant puppy dogs. After his belated discovery of the plight of African migrants, Diamantino adopts a child refugee, “Rahim“—who is in fact a lesbian tax investigator named Aisha (Cleo Tavares) looking into possible money laundering—and becomes the unwitting pawn of a sinister rightwing cabal that, as part of their plan to stir up xenophobic nationalism through soccer, subjects Diamantino to genetic experiments which cause him to grow a perfectly formed pair of breasts. Yet, the film is not merely a loose assemblage of topical gags and zany plot twists but has a moral vision that makes it something greater than the sum of its parts, positing Diamantino as a sort of holy fool whose childlike innocence offsets the cruelty and selfishness of the other characters, while at the same time, still getting a lot of comic mileage out of his naïvety and self-absorption. (In the bedroom he prepares for “Rahim,” the duvet and the pillow cases all have Diamantino’s face on them, and when Aisha hacks into his computer to access his “secret files,” she only finds pictures of puppies and one of Diamantino’s face in the Milky Way.) After ten days of unrelentingly dour festival films, to see a movie like this feels incredibly liberating.
How can filmmakers represent histories that are contested or have been deliberately buried? The simplest option is to make a straightforward docudrama that portrays the events as “they really happened” (e.g., Bloody Sunday [Paul Greengrass, 2002]). Alternatively, “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians“ takes a more self-reflexive approach, making its protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Jacob), a contemporary theatre director who is determined to stage a public performance representing the 1941 Odessa massacre, in which the Romanian army murdered tens of thousands of Jewish civilians. Her main antagonist is the government official (Alexandru Dabija) who originally approved the project but now wants Mariana to soften her vision so as to make it more palatable to his superiors. By keeping the story firmly in the present, Jude is able to denounce simultaneously both the massacre itself and the historical amnesia of contemporary Romanians who refuse to confront the country’s complicity in the Holocaust. Indeed, although the government official argues that Mariana cannot be sure what really happened, at one point paraphrasing a famous line from Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour (1959) (“Tu n’as rien vu à Odessa”), there is simply no good reason for not believing the massacre occurred. This is problematic from a dramatic standpoint, as the film quickly descends into a monotonous series of scenes in which the government official or another character denies historical fact and Mariana cites the work of professional historians to prove it is true, or someone says the communists were even worse, as if the Romanian military could have killed more Jews but decided to restrain themselves. In short, the film implies the past is something we can know with a reasonable degree of certainty and anyone who claims otherwise is simply in denial.
The notion that our access to history is always mediated is expressed more forcefully, if less artfully, in Sergei Loznitsa’s The Trial, which is composed almost entirely of archival footage of a Stalinist show trial from the early 1930s. The accused are a handful of high-ranking engineers who confess at length to being members of a secret group known as “The Industrial Party,” which conspired with white Russian émigrés and foreigners to commit acts of industrial sabotage, although they are somewhat vague about what those acts consisted of for reasons that only become clear at the end of the film. All the footage we see was shot for a propaganda film that, unusually for the period, employs direct sound, although this does not seem to have posed much of a technical challenge for the original filmmakers as the judges and the accused invariably sit or stand in place and speak directly into visible microphones. The main problem they faced seems to have been getting an exposure inside the courtroom, and whenever Loznitsa cuts away to the audience (which is often), we can see people shielding their eyes from the blinding lights. Loznitsa’s repurposing of archival materials invites comparison with Esther Shub’s The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), and as in that film, the footage we see here is simply not that compelling. Since the engineers immediately confess, there is no suspense regarding the verdict, nor do their statements elicit our curiosity by raising dramatic questions about the events leading up to the trial à la Rashomon (Kurosawa Akira, 1950). Loznitsa could have augmented this footage—with voice-over, interviews, other archival images, etc.—in the manner of a straightforward expositional documentary; that he chose not to suggests he has some moral scruple about manipulating his audience’s emotions that prevents him from doing any of the things that would have made this film engaging to a spectator.
By way of contrast, Dead Souls uses no archival materials whatsoever so as to underscore the Chinese government’s suppression of the facts regarding Mao Zedong’s Anti-Rightist Campaign in the late 1950s. Like Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), to which it has been widely compared (see Gleiberman 2018), the film consists primarily of the personal testimonies of the survivors, who relate the stories of how they were branded “rightists” and sent to labour camps in the countryside, ostensibly for “re-education.” In fact, most of the people Wang interviews were (and perhaps still are) committed Maoists: One interviewee says he was labelled a rightist because he disagreed with the idea of sending a fixed percentage of people for re-education regardless of the facts, not the punishment itself, while another was a philosophy teacher who taught his guards about Marxism and Leninism. But while Lanzmann interviewed a wide swath of people connected in various ways to the Holocaust, from concentration camp survivors and train engineers to camp commandants and the historian Raul Hilberg, Wang only interviews the victims (perhaps because they were the only ones willing to speak to him), who all tell minor variations on essentially the same story. Consequently, the film lacks variety and a sense of progression, and Wang does not always have a clear sense of what material is relevant to his subject. Following an interview with one survivor on his deathbed, Wang inserts footage of the man’s funeral and subsequent burial, which is compelling in its own right (and a welcome respite from all the talking heads) but adds nothing to our understanding of the horrors of the Maoist era. What am I missing here? Wang is one of the most revered documentarians now working, yet three of his most recent films— Ta’ang (2016), Mrs. Fang (2017), and now Dead Souls —all strike me as scandalously undisciplined, as if the director’s closeness to his subjects were clouding his aesthetic judgement.
A more compelling example of a film that refracts capital-H History through personal memory, Richard Billingham’s Ray & Liz takes place in the 1980s against the backdrop of Britain’s industrial decline, although none of the characters ever seem to be cognizant of the macro-economic forces shaping their lives. A fictionalized account of Billingham’s own childhood in the Midlands, the film opens in the present with the director’s father, Ray (played as an old man by Patrick Romer), living in a one-room apartment he never leaves and subsisting entirely on “home brew” brought to him by the good Samaritan who cashes his social security checks. In the first of the film’s two long flashbacks, Ray (played as a young man by Justin Salinger) has just been laid off from his job and is living in a derelict house with his wife, Liz (Ella Smith), their two young sons, and a lodger, William (Sam Gittins). But when the second flashback picks up the story a few years later, the family is living in an even more squalid council flat and receiving welfare as Ray is still out of work. (In one scene, the power suddenly goes out and it takes me a minute to realize that it is because they have not paid the electricity bill.) By keeping its focus on concrete behaviour and events in and around the home, the film manages to sidestep the Ken Loachian pitfall of portraying Ray and Liz as helpless victims pounded into the earth by neoliberalism; indeed, much of its story is flat-out hilarious, as when Ray and Liz lure the former’s pudgy, nervous brother, Lol (Tony Way), over to the house with the promise of a pork dinner and then head out to the pub, leaving Lol to babysit their two year-old-son, Jason. With the sole exception of The Stone Speakers, no other film I see in this year’s Wavelengths section gives me as much pleasure.
Finally, although it is plainly the most exciting film I see at this year’s festival, my first viewing of Godard’s Le Livre d’image does not entirely convince me it is a masterpiece. Whereas Godard’s previous feature, Adieu au langage (2014), is the work of an artist confronting new problems and coming up with some fresh creative solutions, here he is mainly refining techniques he employed in his earlier films and videos. Godard even seems to tacitly acknowledge as much in the first of the film’s five movements, “Remakes,” which consists largely of clips from his earlier features and his video series, Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98). The only really new thing he does here is to toggle between different aspect ratios so that the image abruptly expands and contracts.
The film’s second segment, “Les Soirées de St. Pétersbourg,” is the most mysterious as it is not always clear how the clips we see relate to the subject of Russian history, as when Godard gives us a suite of images on the theme of violence against women, including the rape of the protagonist’s wife in Mizoguchi Kenji’s Ugetsu monogatari (1953) and a shot of a battered hitchhiker standing by a highway in a film I do not recognize. On the other hand, the film’s third movement (whose title I do not catch) is unified by the recurrent images of trains from such films as Berlin Express (Jacques Tourneur, 1948) (a lateral tracking shot establishing the main characters in their compartments), Bhowani Junction (George Cukor, 1956) (Ava Gardener wearing a sari), Landscape in the Mist (Theo Angelopoulos, 1988) (two children standing on a platform), and Sicilia! (Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, 1998) (a two-man dialogue on a moving train). The segment builds inevitably to documentary images of the Holocaust, which serve as a segue into the fourth section, “L’Esprit de la loi,” which meditates on democratic ideals and the violence of the state using a similarly diverse pool of clips, ranging from Henry Fonda reading a law book in Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939) to a group of peasants embracing French soldiers in La Commune (Paris 1871) (Peter Watkins, 2000). Lastly, the film’s fifth and longest section, “La Région centrale,” takes as its subject Western perceptions and representations of the Arab world, using among other sources several clips from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Il fiore delle mille e una notte (1974), as well as oversaturated documentary images of contemporary street life and waves crashing on a shore in an unspecified Middle-Eastern country that I believe constitute the only original footage in the entire film.
Given the absence here of any continuous narrative whatsoever, however fragmentary or elusive, this more closely resembles Godard’s videos than his recent features (“recent” in this context meaning since Sauve qui peut (la vie) in 1980—he has been making “late Godard” films for almost forty years now). Indeed, according to the filmmaker’s main collaborator and all-around righthand man, Fabrice Aragno (who was at TIFF to present the film on his behalf), Godard originally intended to show Le Livre d’image in art galleries, cafés, churches, and other unorthodox screening venues. One good reason to see it in a theatre, however, is the film’s characteristically transgressive 7.1 sound mix, in which the epigrammatic voice-overs (most of them spoken by Godard himself) come typically from the front-left and left-side speakers and the music (sparser than usual in Godard’s videos) comes from the front-right and right-side speakers—an intrinsic norm the film establishes only to periodically violate it to jarring effect. If Adieu au langage needed to be seen at least twice in theatres to view its 3D images from different vantage points (once from the front rows and once from the back), this needs to be heard twice, first from the left side of the theatre and then from the right, or vice-versa.
Feature image from L. Cohen
Bohannon, John. “Mad About Pyramids.” Science 313 (2006): 1718-1720.
Gleiberman, Owen. “Cannes Film Review: ‘Dead Souls’.” Variety, 8 May 2018. https://variety.com/2018/film/reviews/dead-souls-review-wang-bing-1202804340 (Accessed 23 September 2018).