VIFF 2019: Atlantics, The Laundromat, Jeanne, I Was at Home, But…, Beanpole, Pain and Glory

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Atlantics (Mati Diop)

The presence (or absence) of Netflix continues to be a major point of contention at various film festivals—particularly at Cannes, where the stakes are highest, and which the streaming giant skipped for the second year in a row. There’s some irony, then, to the fact that high-profile Cannes titles frequently get picked up by Netflix, as was the case with Grand Prix-winner Atlantics, the debut feature of French actor-director Mati Diop. Although still best known for her role in Claire Denis’s 35 Rhums (2008), Diop has directed a number of short- and medium-length films, so this feature is a culmination, as well as an expansion of her 2009 short Atlantiques. Set in the port city of Dakar in Senegal, where Ada (Mama Sané) is to marry a wealthy businessman named Omar (Babacar Sylla), the film is supernatural sea shanty cinema—though before such associations arise, we are first introduced to the hardy existence of Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), one of many disgruntled construction workers toiling away in the port city. He is in love with Ada, and the affection is mutual. But when the pair plan to meet up for a moonlit tryst, Ada learns that Souleiman has set sail for Europe. Not long after, she learns that the ship he was on sank.

Much of this is intriguing from the jump, and Diop manages to create both an enveloping soundscape (with an electronic score from electronic musician Fatima Al Qadiri) and a potent mood of languor and loss. The story’s supernatural bent suggests a kind of lovers-on-the-run scenario—an image of a burning bed following a wedding celebration briefly brought Badlands (1973) to mind—where the presence of one of the lovers is uncertain, though it eventually transforms into something more I Walked With a Zombie–adjacent. A triumph of Tourneur-esque texture, then, though there’s also a nebulous aspect to the structure that eventually delimits its power: Diop trusts that a viewer will take its arbitrary script details and narrative developments on faith, relying on the admittedly heady mix of moods to do the heavy lifting. But despite some occasional first film issues—the noncommittal closing, ill-considered voiceover—Atlantics nonetheless confirms Diop as a talent to watch. That the film’s most commendable elements will undoubtedly play less well when viewed at home on Netflix is, however, somewhat unfortunate.

The other notable Netflix title at VIFF this year, apart from Noah Baumbach’s commendable East coast–West coast divorce tale Marriage Story, is The Laundromat, director Steven Soderbergh’s second production this year, following High Flying Bird. It is also his worst film since at least Full Frontal (2002), perhaps ever. The film concerns the 2015 Panama Papers leak, which exposed the widespread manipulation of off-shore shell companies, a subject that’s very much in keeping with Soderbergh’s multifaceted, career-long fascination with the ground-level implications of economic policy. Unfortunately, the container he’s chosen this time around is misguided in the extreme. The stylistic comparison that’s come up most frequently is to Adam McKay circa The Big Short (2015), though even that seems rather generous given the script’s shrill condescension and a visual style that merely plays up the artificiality of the entire production, right down to the concluding call-to-arms that sees Meryl Streep removing her brownface getup in front of a studio warehouse, reciting a statement from the Panama Papers whistleblower, and finally using a hairbrush to strike a closing-shot pose as the Statue of Liberty. 

The idea, it seems, is that given the urgency of its topic, only a baldly didactic approach will do. (Along similar lines, Soderbergh’s admission that he himself owns a number of offshore shell accounts, seems meant to disarm by virtue of his candor.) That’s all well and good, in theory, but the intelligence that usually fuels even Soderbergh’s most inelegantly scripted projects seems all but missing here. Only a brief jaunt to China, which uses a foreign businessman (a very suave, tightly suited Matthias Schoenaerts) to relay the events of the Bo Xilai scandal, really looks and moves like a proper Soderbergh movie.

Jeanne, on the other hand, Bruno Dumont’s sequel to 2017’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, is a Bruno Dumont movie through and through. That feature, which confined its “action” to a series of head-banging performances in sandy, windswept exteriors of the French countryside, was a repetitive, grating affair that nonetheless elicited a kind of grudging respect from me for its boundless energy and sheer audacity. Apart from a lyrical honor guard ceremony with sundry drone shots of appealingly choreographed dressage formations, however, Jeanne offers far less to appreciate, distending its director’s interest in cinematic bodies with little variation or discernible purpose. Lise Leplat Prudhomme again stars as Joan of Arc, though here she plays a role far older than her years and as such, has a guilelessness that meshes well with Dumont’s predilection for casting non-actors. But an early shot that observes Prudhomme in full costume, holding a pose for minutes on end—thus capturing every twitch of her face, every gust of wind that throws her off balance—conveys all that there is to the feature, at which point there’s little else to do but count down the remaining 120 or so minutes.

For his direction of actors and interest in certain manifestations of spirituality, Dumont has often been compared to Bresson—a comparison that likewise follows German director Angela Schanelec, not without reason. Although she has often been corralled under the Berlin School designation with fellow Germans Maren Ade, Ulrich Köhler, and Christian Petzold, she has resisted both easy classification and wider recognition—after three decades of work, her tenth feature The Dreamed Path (2016) had the backhanded distinction of being selected for New Directors/New Films. That is, until this year, when her latest feature I Was at Home, But… won the Silver Bear for Best Director at Berlin and was subsequently put into the New York Film Festival’s Main Slate. 

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I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec)

Schanelec’s relative obscurity is no mystery. She assembles her films in a way that tend to make audiences rather angry, if the copious walkouts at the VIFF screening of Home, not to mention reports from various festival Q&As, are any indication. Although her films initially seem to operate along clear narrative lines, they resist the payoff and satisfaction that viewers conditioned by both Hollywood and art cinema conventions might come to expect. Films like Marseille (2004) and The Dreamed Path have ellipses that open their ostensible stories up in truly discombobulating ways; the lingering emotional vapors of any given passage or section are eventually sucked into yawning voids. In that regard, I Was at Home, But… is something of a lateral shift—it’s recognizably Schanelec’s work, but whereas previous films were frustratingly/thrillingly irresolvable and somewhat cold/clinical, this is more easily assembled into a coherent narrative and also more emotionally direct. Her découpage here is less Bressonian than in previous films, though her images have an astonishingly limpid, expressive quality that serves the story’s emotional clarity. Two scenes in particular demonstrate contrasting aspects of her method: The first is a lilting sequence set to an M. Ward cover of Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” which moves from a cemetery at twilight to the blinding white of a hospital room; the second is a lengthy one-take scene of the lead character monologuing to (and then eventually berating) a film director, which plays both as a structural and stylistic break from the rest of the film (not to mention an amusing variation of what we usually see in Hong), and as a gesture of goodwill to the audience, offering explicit discussion on ideas that Schanelec herself has engages with.

No self-reflexive touches can be found in Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole, an unfortunate blend of preposterous narrative contrivance, stringently opaque characterizations, and aggressively portentous staging. A multiple prize-winner in the Cannes Un Certain Regard sidebar, the film is Balagov’s sophomore feature, and while it represents an undoubted leap in visual control, the meticulously art-directed polish—color-coded costuming, burnished cinematography, and exactingly decrepit recreation of 1945 Leningrad—it also clarifies the unfortunate sensationalist aspects of his debut feature Closeness (2017). It is yet too soon to write off the 28-year-old director, who may yet deliver a film to match his ample technical facility. The breathless encomiums that essentially conflate “virtuosic direction” with “well-photographed images, held long,” however, are long past their sell-by date.

Also rather tired: the polished art-cinema genre outing, here exemplified by Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s Cannes competition entrant Little Joe. The elevator-pitch concept is Little Shop of Horrors by way of Body Snatchers—which is a pretty compelling premise. But Hausner’s handling obviates the potential ambiguities that arise. The unusual, atonal score and mannered camera movements hold interest initially, but once the canine subplot emerges, it’s clear exactly where this film is going, both narratively and thematically: the subplot with the son, plus a number of therapist scenes, are used to draw out the mother-child anxieties; the absent father becomes a synecdoche for the natural world (he lives outside the city in a kind of symbiotic take-only-what-you-need manner with his surroundings), whereas the mother works with genetically modified plants, and only orders take-out because she can’t cook. Even the interactions with all the co-workers are bizarrely conventional, bordering on outright inept. Hausner’s mannered direction in Amour Fou (2014) had a coherence and integrity about it; here the actors seem rather left to their own devices. It’s the kind of film that’s so meticulously put together that everything—formal strategy, performance style, thematic coherence—clicks into place immediately, after which it just becomes a matter of waiting for it to crumble to pieces. A shame, given that the pleasures of its sci-fi antecedents lie at least in part in their malleability.

Finally, there’s Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, which centers on an aging, ailing director named Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), who’s in an extended state of creative paralysis. In some sense, the film requires that a viewer already be somewhat invested in the Spanish director’s career, and know at least something of his extended artistic collaboration with Banderas, which dates to the 1980s, when he starred in such films as Labyrinth of Passion (1982) and the superb Law of Desire (1987). But even without that knowledge, three scenes stand out: an early, near-abstract montage of bodily illustrations and medical diagrams; a nighttime visit from an old lover, which deploys its sense of longing like a depth charge; and the erotic memory-cum-restaging of the artist’s first stirrings of carnal desire. It’s certainly Almodóvar’s prerogative to make a film about his creative paralysis instead of the inspiration that finally emerged out of it, but the interspersed material from the latter is just far more appealing than any of the present-day material, which is comprised of three not-quite-Christmas Carol-esque visitations from past figures from his life. (An episode with a bathing bricklayer suggests that Almodóvar could do well with a full-blown memory piece à la Terence Davies’s The Long Day Closes.) There’s more than a touch of complacency here, with Almodóvar trusting that personality and/or familiarity will supply the much-needed gestalt to a fairly lackadaisical film. Still, intermittent pleasure is better than no pleasure at all.