VIFF 2015: Domestic Intimacies: Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante, 2015) and 45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015)

Maria and MotherGeoff sitting with Kate

Human, and faced with a sea of things, images, stories, characters, all bobbing this way and that, slipping and sliding away from me, I seek some rope to grasp, a line that might form for me a connection between the things. And if I can only pull that line taut, I might be able to stay above the waves and see a pattern in the flotsam.

It isn’t really flotsam, of course, that wave of films I found my fest-inexperienced self submerged beneath at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.  Each film in itself is a unique, individual thing, only forced, by necessity into a mass. And we should be used, in any case, to consuming art in the mass, collective form – in a museum, in an anthology – curated and then presented to us as somehow related objects.  Even if we pick our way through an anthology or skip rather guiltily past the 13th century wing of the museum and make straight for the Impressionists, we are still aware of all of these disparate things gathered together under an umbrella of a particular Thing, and, invited to do so, the pattern seeking mind all the more eagerly links themes, ideas, modes, shapes, colors.

Artists, of course, do not live in a vacuum, and their works may be, certainly, drawing from other works, even without conscious intent. Still, it would be difficult to say 8th century Chinese landscapes were drawing any influence from Byzantine frescoes. And yet, place such a set of landscapes next to a few frescoes, I’d surely spot a pattern. I can’t help it; I put them together, and the one will converse with the other.

And so, while yet understanding the potential folly of such conjunctions and conversations, I can’t help but make them and hope that such a convergence will illuminate the individual objects themselves.

Jayro Bustamante’s Guatemalan film, Ixcanul, has very little in common with Andrew Haigh’s thoroughly British film, 45 Years, and yet, as the VIFF programming gods would have it, I saw them back to back on a Saturday afternoon early this October, and they nestle comfortably together in my mind, chapter 1 and chapter 2 in a little anthology of Domestic Intimacies.  


Chapter 1:
opens on a young woman’s passive form and impassive face. Her name is Maria (María Mercedes Coroy), and her mother (María Telón) dresses her and then smooths, parts, and plaits her hair, securing a crown-like garland upon her head. The two Mayan women, alone together in their home, near a volcano, an ixcanul, in a remote region of Guatemala, both absorbed and silent in the exclusive intimacy of their shared activity, indicate that they inhabit a world with which they are familiar, and I am not. I guess, as I first look at them, that Maria is not quite happy to be so taken in hand by her mother – or perhaps she is not quite happy with the event, unknown as yet to me, for which she is being prepared.

The film could be described as a coming of age tale: Maria has arrived at a marriageable age, and while her parents, hard-working but poor villagers, eagerly seek the best match for her, she herself, in the mini-rebellion many coming of age tales feature, looks, instead, at the young man she prefers and grapples with newly awakened sexual feelings that she’d prefer to explore on her own, rather than within her parents’ control. Maria’s story explores the boundaries of her individual desires, of her parents’ control. Maria grows up over the course of the film, and she is a new person as it closes. And all the pains of her growing up make little fissures in my heart.

But the film could also be described as a socio-political tale: the residents of Maria’s village live under the shadow of a coffee plantation, the white owner, never seen, except perhaps in iconic form, haunts the workers; distinct classes form within the plantation system, those closest to the master with most power, those farthest from him with least. The comparatively wealthy plantation manager alone owns a vehicle, and he holds all the power of livelihood for each family in the village.

Squirming under the class system, many in the village dream of America and spin tales of the strange place, big with promise, that they have not seen, but warn one another of how terribly they will be treated by the “white people,” should they go there.  And in the course of the film, two from the village are, we might say, swallowed whole by that incomprehensible larger, more powerful world, and are never seen again.  The little village, speaking only the Mayan language, cannot engage, even when pressed by desperate circumstances, in the tactics and language of those with more wealth and power. They agree to what they do not comprehend and are shattered. And I choke and seethe at the injustice played out before me.

And yet, powerful as the coming of age story or the political tale might be, the heart of the film is with Maria and her mother, and the little domestic space they occupy, the close – if sometimes fraught – relationship they share. Maria’s maturation, the politics of the world take on resonance only because we are so thoroughly invested in the connection between these two women. We live with them through their daily chores, in the activities of farm life, of cooking and of baking, of devotion to their volcano god.   In one scene, Maria and her mother set up a mating between their pigs. “Come on; let’s get her pregnant,” says the mother to her daughter, and the women, working quietly with the squealing pigs, expertly ply the rum to the pigs’ eager mouths, and the job is done. In another scene, the women visit a steaming volcanic spot of earth, and the prayers of the mother for her daughter, “Earth, wind, fire, volcano,” she recites, are evidence of another intimate routine.  And then, in the night, the firelight of an open fire flickers over the faces of Maria and her mother, as they stir and stir a boiling vat. “Don’t stop; it will burn,” the mother chides, and Maria obediently moves more quickly.  Daytime, and the women walk together, bundles of sticks casually balanced on their heads, moving easily through the landscape, gray volcanic rock, blond grass. Through all these tasks, so obviously familiar to them both, the two work in easy intimacy. Maria, we understand, is under the pressures of individual desires and shy quests for freedom, but always returns to her mother’s side, her mother’s protection. Cooking, bearing wood, bathing, butchering – all these things the women do together – and when Maria’s life reaches a crisis point, it is to her mother she turns, and it is the mother whose strong arms competently, passionately cradle her.

The film ends with the same shot, the same moment with which it began, Maria and her mother and the plaiting and crowning of the hair, but the scene has expanded and deepened.  They reside within a relationship of long-standing patterns and behaviors, knowing one another and being known, a small circle of closeness into which I can now see.  I understand the activity of the women, I understand something of what is on Maria’s face. I understand what she is to her mother and what her mother is to her, and when the pulling fingers catch for a moment on a snag of hair and then slide free, my own breath catches in a snarl of emotion.

It is the small gestures that cinema, perhaps like no other art, has the power to fill with meaning, and the gestures here, embedded in the small and domestic, ripple outward in waves of resonance.

Geoff and Kate book

Chapter 2:
Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years similarly, traces the gestures of the domestic life in such a way that in his story, too, they reverberate, growing only stronger the smaller they are. The film’s first shot is the shot of a house, downsized by the frame of the landscape but centered, a clear, if gentle, demand on the attention. It is a classic sort of house you might find in an English village, modest, but firm; it knows who and what it is without drawing undue attention to itself. It is, though, essentially a blank. It could be anyone’s home. But, like the first mysterious image in Ixcanul, 45 Years makes the meaning of its first image over the course of the film in such a way that, when the image of the house – in the same framing – is repeated near the end, that meaning is, almost unbearably, full.

At the center of the house is a relationship, a thing representing an accumulation of days and of small interactions, and the house and the relationship reside at the center of the film, building significance from the inside out: an offered cup of tea, the antiphonal low humming of two voices, two bodies moving easily around one another in a cramped bathroom, quiet chats in bed that begin simply, without preface. This is what the space of 45 years of married life together looks like, feels like, for Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and for Geoff (Tom Courtenay).

Even before the house image though, the film begins in blackness, with a sound that, though I don’t know it in that beginning moment, threatens the house and the relationship; it comes from something in the darkness of time before house became what it is. The sound is a repeating one, and it catches at my own memory bank of sounds, towards something that stretches back to childhood. So familiar, though I cannot initially place it. I realize, of a sudden, what it is, and have to laugh a bit to myself; does anyone under 40 know that sound? Whirr, click, pause, whirr, click, pause. A slide projector.  It is a sound that reaches me out of the past from within the circle of a home, my home, my grandmother’s home.

I suppose slide projectors must have been used in more formal presentations in years past, perhaps in large conference rooms, where marketers, confident in their clicking images, urged a product on a group of suited men. But for me, a slide projector is a thing at the center of a family affair, a machine to cast images of ourselves and the impossibly youthful images of aging relatives upon a sheet, wobbily tacked up on a wall, while we gather around, parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, Uncle Jack, and Aunt Louise, jostling together to enjoy the story of ourselves, flicking scene by scene on the rumpled white surface. It’s a story that would bore an outsider. Sometimes, even my younger self would grow impatient at too many images of the old auntie I never met, while the adults traded stories about the last time they saw her. But even through impatience and boredom, it’s the sort of moment that made, for me, the security called “family,” a thing that happened only in our home, against the background of worn furniture and that green shag carpet I loved to hate.

The sound, then, is a domestic sound, should be a domestic sound. So its utter strangeness to this home, Kate and Geoff’s home – when that strangeness is revealed as such – particularly, pointedly unsettles the accumulation of domestic gestures, those gestures that belong so intimately to one couple. Within the realm of their closeness, an intruder is revealed, someone from Geoff’s past, a past that did not include Kate, whose “perfume,” Kate begins to say, with startled realization, “has tainted everything.”

Kate and Geoff’s daily routine, examined over the film’s week – a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and a Saturday – struggles to maintain itself under the pressure of this stranger, and the strain of the pressure plays out within the small interactions between the couple. They are interactions that, from a distance, seem a part of a daily routine, but situated as we are, inside the circle of the home, so intently watching Geoff’s face or Kate’s face, small differences are earthquakes. Geoff smoking a cigarette. Geoff’s note, “I’ve taken the bus to town. Sorry.” Kate’s choice to stay in bed rather than go for her morning walk. Geoff’s choice to go with Kate on her morning walk, rather than stay home. Kate smoking a cigarette. These things, potentially, shatter. Small in themselves, they deviate ever so slightly from the quotidian norm, and a whole world shifts. Who Geoff is, who Kate is, and who they are to each other becomes a fragile thing. It may break in a puff of air.

A 45-year anniversary celebration for the couple closes out the film. It is a grand gesture, and for Kate and Geoff, from within their realm of small intimacies, it feels very grand indeed. They are not sure they should participate in such a thing at all.  But they do, and its grandness brings all of its weight to bear on a newly brittle center.  A week is a short time, but it is a long time to live with a home intruder, and the question of what of the marriage is after this long week, is the question to which the film inexorably leads.

The answer is the answer we might expect from the world Haigh has given us with Geoff and Kate: intimate, delicate, and complex. Were we outsiders to this world, we would miss it. Insiders though, we see: a tiny thing of dense, compacted import. Taking it in, I am, myself, in danger of breaking.