SIFF 2016 Report #1: Sunset Song, Concerto: A Beethoven Journey, A Scandal in Paris, A Bride for Rip Van Winkle and Love & Friendship

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Here’s a quick run through some of the movies I’ve seen so far at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival.

Sunset Song (Terence Davies, 2015) – Out of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic novel, performed in that book’s hybrid Scots-English dialect (with mostly superfluous subtitles for the Americans), Davies fashions a gorgeous inversion of Hollywood women’s melodrama. Sure, his heroine Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) suffers considerably, but where the Golden Age classics trafficked in schadenfreude at the sufferings of their independent women, Davies finds absolution in Chris’s determined resistance to the patriarchal psychoses that possess first her father (Peter Mullan, a Davies father-monster recalling no less than Pete Posthlewaite in Distant Voices Still Lives) then her husband (Kevin Guthrie). An Old World rebuke to American solipsism: tomorrow is not another day–only the land endures.

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Concerto: A Beethoven Journey (Phil Grabsky, 2015) – A master of an undistinguished genre, the classical arts documentary, Grabsky has made informative and entertaining biographical films about Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn (among others), fusing insightful talking head commentary with intimate, granular images of music being performed. In Concerto he finds a lively tour guide as pianist Leif Ove Andsnes talks and plays us through four years he spent studying and performing Beethoven’s five Piano Concertos. Where most films of this sort are content to play the music in the background and focus instead on the familiar beats of biographical drama (he was lonely and deaf, gasp!), Grabsky and Andsnes put the emphasis on the music itself, its intricacies and oddities, seeking to understand what it is that makes Beethoven the artist so revolutionary, so endlessly compelling. Only out of the work comes the biography, exploring the ways his art evolved as he grew older. But even here we find a fresh approach: liberally quoting from the composer’s correspondence, we learn that Beethoven was not always a brooding forehead. In fact, he was, for a time at least, quite funny.

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A Scandal in Paris (Douglas Sirk, 1946) – Kicking off the archival program at this year’s festival with an obscure black and white comedy from the master of the Technicolor melodrama might seem like an odd choice, but then again, what festival can’t be improved by a star performance from George Sanders? Based on a true story, the life of a petty criminal of the Casanova variety (romance the ladies and steal their jewels) who becomes the head of the police in Napoleonic France, A Scandal in Paris is as effervescent a bit of classical Hollywood storytelling as ever there was. Sirk’s dense sets are packed with mirrors and shadows and grotesqueries, led by Akim Tamiroff at his most slovenly craven, balanced only by Signe Hasso as the gorgeous, innocent redhead for whose love even George Sanders could find a standard of morality beyond the elegance of wit.

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A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (Shunji Iwai, 2016) – If  All About Lily Chou-Chou was the A Brighter Summer Day of the message board era, then A Bride for Rip Van Winkle is the Mahjong (Or Yi yi?) of the age of social media. A sprawling three hour epic of loneliness, Haru Kuroki stars as Nanami, a young woman adrift in a world where the virtuality of identity has spread from the internet to pervade every aspect of life. Not in a sci-fi sense à la the dystopic Her, but in the blithe mutability of everyone she meets. She finds her fiancé online, but never really gets to know him. For her wedding, not only do her divorced parents pretend to still be a couple for the groom’s family, but she hires actors to fill out her side of the aisle (she’s totally disconnected from her extended family). For this task she elicits the help of a mysterious young man who makes his living in fakery: actor, private detective, agent, hustler, creator, he’s a facilitating figure, leading Nanami ever further into a labyrinth of abstraction. But here’s the twist: as Nanami becomes increasingly alienated from everything we understand to be “real” (family, career, personal history), she becomes proportionally more invested emotionally in her phony world. The woman so quiet and reserved her students gave her a microphone so they could hear her speak finds herself the center of a romantic tragedy of operatic proportions. The old relationships based in traditional structures dissolve in the mediated world, which can be isolating and cruel, but within that media lies the potential for new forms of connection, which can perversely be all the more intense for their artificiality. This isn’t an especially revolutionary insight, but the patience with which Iwai accumulates the details of Nanami’s life and perspective, the determination to confound our expectations of what the narrative is and where it is headed, turn what could have been a movie-as-hot-take into a sneakily complex emotional experience. In other words, a first-rate movie melodrama.

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Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman, 2016) – I’ll have more on this in a few days, I want to see it again. But as of right now, it’s easily the best film of 2016. Whit Stillman adapting Jane Austen works better than I imagined, seamlessly merging his comic rhythms into the Regency dialogue and story structure of her epistolary novella Lady Susan. The story is more acerbic than the Austen we know from BBC adaptations, which tend to emphasize the romantic melodrama of the novels over the stinging dialogue, the distance between what people in a highly regimented and ritualized society say and what they feel. The source material is unusual for Austen in this sense, privileging wit and style over romance or basic morality, but it’s perfectly in keeping with the spirit of The Last Days of Disco, the last film to pair Chloë Savigny and Kate Beckinsale. Stillman fleshes out the narrative around the edges (especially the character played by Tom Bennett, who steals the movie), but the sensibility is all Austen. It’s the film that proves that Austen is indeed the English language’s link between Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde, as Stillman is the heir to Ernst Lubistch and Ben Hecht.

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