VIFF 2016: Hermia & Helena (Matías Piñeiro, 2016)

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Like his previous features Viola and The Princess of France, Matías Piñeiro’s latest takes a Shakespeare play as its jumping off point, in this case A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But it’s seemingly less invested in the play at its heart than those others (at least at first glance, more research may reveal structural similarities I didn’t pick up this time, it’s been awhile since I read the play), instead it’s a kind of a coming of age film, but jumbled such that it feels like a wholly fresh take on that well-worn genre. Agustina Muñoz plays a young theatre student who moves from Buenos Aires to New York on fellowship to translate the Shakespeare play (her notebooks, with page after page of the play pasted into them, are one of the film’s many small pleasures). While there she visits her father, a man she’d never met, played by critic and filmmaker Dan Sallitt, is visited by a friend of a friend (actress and director Mati Diop, from Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum), and carries on a tentative romance or two, but not in that order. Piñeiro also mixes in scenes in Argentina before her departure, and in New York before her arrival, when one of her friends (María Villar, who played Viola in Viola) lived in the same apartment as part of the same program and dated the same man. The tone throughout is light and playful, even the meeting with the father, though painful and awkward, is suffused with good-humor and warmth. Aside from the jumbled timeline, there’s little of the formal daring of Viola, with its oblique narrative and repeated lines of Shakespeare, or of the brilliantly goofy opening shot of Princess of France. As such, it’s Piñeiro’s most accessible, most easily digestible film.

Taken in quick succession, as I saw them at VIFF, these films Hermia & HelenaThings to Come and After the Storm come to encompass an entire lifespan: the boy from the Koreeda growing into the students of Hermia and Things to Come, who in turn grow into the adult parents of Storm and Things, leading inevitably to the loneliness of late middle age, as marriages dissolve and the younger generation moves away, finally resting on the weary good humor of the elderly Kirin Kiki. These are three filmmakers of different ages from three disparate corners of the world, yet the spirit of these movies is the same: warm and bittersweet and a little bit absurd. Of course, then Paul Verhoeven came along to shatter this globalized humanist dream with Elle, which isn’t exactly a satire and isn’t exactly a nightmare, but creates a world in which the happy existentialism of wistful contentment has no home, where life isn’t about abstraction but the brutal physicality of emotion and the hideous, desperate struggle to achieve and maintain power and control.

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VIFF 2016: After the Storm (Kore-eda Hirokazu, 2016)

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Beginning with a shot out of the canon, a small Japanese kitchen, mother and daughter at work, receding into the distance on the left side of the screen are a series of rectangular spaces, the right angles of doorways leading to doorways, director Kore-eda Hirozaku states his intention to work in the mines first exploited by Yasujiro Ozu in a series of domestic comedies and dramas from the 1930s through the 1960s. This seems to be Kore-eda’s increasingly preferred mode of work, it’s been a long time since the minimalist fantasy of Afterlife, or even the bizarre Doona Bae vehicle Air Doll (in which the one of the great actresses working today plays a sentient sex doll who learns what it means to be human, and to kill). Since that film, Kore-eda has been following the vein of his 2008 masterpiece Still Walking, with a handful of films about families told in a patient, superficially Ozuvian style (no director has ever made a film completely in Ozu’s style: his editing and framing system is simply too idiosyncratic, most, like Kore-eda, recall the shapes of his sets and seek to recreate the pace of his movies with longer shot lengths). If this period of his work is as strong as After the Storm, I for one am content to let Kore-eda keep churning out these movies indefinitely.

Hiroshi Abe plays an acclaimed writer who, blocked in the creation of his second novel and succumbing to his gambling addiction, is working as a shady private investigator. He’s recently divorced and trying to keep the affection of his young son and win his wife back as she moves on to another man. The old woman in the opening scene is his mother, played by Kirin Kiki, who was exceptional as the matriarch in Still Walking and just as good here, the woman was his sister, like him a mooch and a bit of a failure. Hanging over everything is their recently deceased father, a compulsive gambler, an unliterary man who nonetheless took great pride in his penmanship. The various threads weave together during the eponymous storm, the latest in an unusually large number of typhoons (I write in the midst of a typhoon here in Tacoma) to hit Japan that year. After the storm, things aren’t resolved, as they can’t ever be in movies like this, where the recognition of irresolvability is always the resolution, but the air is a little cleaner.

VIFF 2016: Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2016)

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The first of two remarkable performances from Isabelle Huppert this year comes as a teacher of philosophy who in late middle-age finds herself with a remarkable amount of freedom and not much idea of what to do with it. Saddled at the beginning of the film with a husband, adult children, friendly former students, an overbearing mother, and a book contract, she loses each one in turn. The husband admits he’s having an affair (“why tell me?” is her gloriously French deadpan response), the kids are off to school, the maddening publicity representatives of her publisher pelt her with inane ideas and finally cut her loose, the mother even dies, leaving her a cat. She takes the cat (Pandora, naturally) to the mountains, a remote writer’s commune, at the invitation of one of her former students. She hangs out with the idealistic twenty-somethings and listens to their deeply-felt internecine lefty squabbles and feels no connection to any of it: these passions are her past. Where Hansen-Løve’s last film, Eden (which played here at SIFF last year) was the life story of a man whose life never really got going, trapped in a perpetual loop of the early 20s, always on the verge but never quite becoming anything, until one day he’s middle-aged and never made it, Things to Come tackles what accomplishment means in life from the other end of the age spectrum. By any conventional standard, Huppert had it all: friends, family, fulfilling employment, but strip all that away and she finds she’s not much different from Eden‘s hero. We are, in most ways, defined by what we do and who we interact with on a daily basis, our role in life is too often conflated with our life itself. Hansen-Løve is after something else though, searching for an irreducible core to our humanity. If anyone can find it, Isabelle Huppert can.