What better way to spend Thanksgiving weekend than with a six+ hour Hungarian slow cinema epic about the decay of society in the wake of the collapse of the Iron Curtain? I saw Sátántangó at the Film Forum 15 years ago or so, and it remains one of my favorite movie-going days. It’s a singular experience, and one that doesn’t come around often. Elsewhere around town, the Beacon has Umbrellas of Cherbourg (another of my favorite theatrical experiences), SAM wraps their noir series with David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., and the Crest has two Netflix movies that are two of the best American movies of 2019, with Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story.
Usually, short film coverage for a festival is about recommendations: see this, it’s the only time it’ll play in a theatre, probably. (The only holdover from last year’s VIFF I’m aware of was Norm Li’s Under the Viaduct, which screened in front of Sébastien Pilote’s La disparition des lucioles at The Cinematheque way back in January.) But this comes too late for that. So, where does this all go? VIFF’s programming has come to Seattle before, and, I suppose, there’s always Vimeo, but this is the flipside to festival going: there’s this idea in film writing that a work is good if it does something “memorable,” but it’s very often the once-and-never-again live aspect of a film screening, or the act of searching and waiting and writing about a film that creates and allows us to retain our film-memories. A handful of these, I know for certain, will go online for viewing within the next year. For the rest, an uncertain fate to be, as Souvankham Thammavongsa puts it, stories “wide and lost and ever changing.” Before they change any further in memory then, a survey of what things looked like this year.
VIFF doesn’t do curation for its short films — it provides a roof. When the festival boasts of 300+ films each year, over 100 of those are shorts. It can look like equal footing then, except that there are disparities all over the place. I want to say that this was a good year for the shorts selection, as far as anything can be summarized about a selection so broad and unpredictable, but it’s more fair to say that anything qualitative has to do with the grouped filmmaking traditions that are represented each year.
Like in the Canadian features landscape, short films from Quebec arrive with larger budgets, lengthier runtimes, and distribution deals already set up. In general, the longer films are the ones that garner awards and drive interest in their makers — one can see this kind of angling from the intense 20-minute familial disruptions of Chubby (from Ontario) or The Cut. The same goes for last year’s Academy Award-nominated Fauve. Perhaps the most interesting case in this year’s lineup is Theodore Ushev’s The Physics of Sorrow.
If Ushev’s film wasn’t narrated by Rossif Sutherland, its images would seem to lend itself to a polyphonic consciousness. “I have always been born,” its train and time-traversing opening declares, before tracing a mythology of existence, from before the dinosaurs to after the apocalypse. Without exaggeration, this comes across as a masterpiece of animation (and it seems to know it, too), a work of deep interiority and a reminder that while short films are often structured like twist-ending short stories, there are other traditions to pull from.
In this case, Ushev, the only filmmaker with ties to Bulgaria to be nominated for an Academy Award, is drawing from one of the country’s foremost literary talents — the film is titled after Georgi Gospodinov’s novel, published earlier this decade. So there’s a lot of weight here, but Ushev tries to keep the pace of things light, in a modernist stream-of-consciousness kind of way. The NFB is marketing this as the first film entirely animated via encaustic painting (an impasto method involving beeswax) — one imagines, as the narrator strains to cover the experience of migration across eons (or minutes), the labour of the single animator, the cost of all that time, the dedication of building up a practice for a relatively obscure tradition, to the point of being able to reach toward the sublime. This isn’t really experimenting — Ushev is full-force applying himself, layering beauty upon beauty. Someone I know called it “undeniable.” Even as its memory monologue unspools, this is a film that charges forward, with no interest in looking back.
It isn’t a surprise that there’s a film like Ushev’s in the short film competition (it earned a runner-up Special Mention): there’s a Canadian entry in the Academy nominees every other year or so. If you’re looking for change, the main one this year had to do with VIFF’s first visible attempt to address its shorts programming’s lack of diversity. Amanda Strong, a Vancouver-based Michif filmmaker, was brought on as a programmer, and two programs of shorts from indigenous filmmakers were added to the usual five. This add-on approach is often, deservedly, criticized as a way for institutions to avoid real, lasting change; it keeps the films in question separate from the established programs.
Without knowing what this first effort will lead to, for now it’s worth saying that the films that benefited from this expansion were consistent with what a lot of indigenous communities are trying to do in the broader art world. They’re carving out space, restoring the visibility of ceremonial practices, and passing on knowledge to the next generation. While this educational context means these films are rarely of interest to cinephiles, there was variety within the programs: a couple of the fiction highlights were Kelly Roulette’s Sometimes She Smiles, a haunted spirit story with a structure not dissimilar to a Méliès short, and Madeline Terbasket’s Q’sapi Times.
Film, with its institutional gatekeeping, high cost of entry, and need for technical training, tends to lag behind writing when it comes to who is telling the story. Terbasket’s film in particular seems to be accessing the sense of narrative play and wit characteristic of many indigenous writers who have gained prominence in the publishing world over the past two decades. This is a coyote story, with Terbasket playing two trickster roles and using every formal and theatrical disruption they can get their hands on. Terbasket, who has previously collaborated with David Diamond, isn’t above low-brow jokes and narrative impatience; like any good oral storyteller, they keep things close to their audience: not the targeted imaginary one of buyers and “movie-lovers,” but the real, physical one they’re connected to by the communities in which they’re known.
The closer one ties a festival to a community, the more it can bring up the question of what is meant by the filmmaking spotlights at major festivals, which tend to organize along national, rather than regional concerns. And, sure, that’s how the funding is split up. But when it comes to what is meant by local, the insistence of borders looks pretty arbitrary. As a speaker in When the Tide Goes Out puts it, “What society teaches us is to be disconnected.” Directed by Eliot Galán, this mid-length documentary shows a group from the Tsleil-Watuth nation re-enacting a clam harvest in Burrard Inlet, where pollution and municipal bylaws have made the actual practice impossible. “We’re up against over a century of industrial development,” says one interviewee — this isn’t a film of conflict, however; it’s about capturing the small increments of possible action in a community not far outside the doors of the theatre where the film would’ve screened. Taking place in the Salish Sea, Galán drew on records from around the whole region, including ones from Tacoma’s public library — it’s easy to imagine a similar portrait for Commencement Bay, or Elliott Bay, that would have just as much to dig into.
Sandra Ignagni’s Highway to Heaven doesn’t go investigative, but it’s notable among the entire class of shorts this year for a couple reasons. With the distinction between screens collapsing, filmmakers are, much like they did at the dawn of television, going for extremes in aspect ratio: you’re seeing more squares and snake-ready rectangles than usual. Ignagni’s film, an observational cross-section of Richmond’s No. 5 Road, is possibly the only short in the program that justifies its ‘scope framing (Andrew Coppin is the cinematographer). There’s a close dialogue between what Ignagni is doing here and Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights — with less access (all of the spots Ignagni visits have a religious affiliation) the focus has less to do with Wiseman’s insistence on public speech, more with images that put the lie to the idea of both the easy myths of cultural homogeneity and simple multiculturalism. In either case charting, without presumption, the sparks and complements of difference is still the aim. (And the name-director relations aren’t just theoretical: J.P. Sniadecki and Brett Story are credited as development mentors.)
That’s the thing about films, even the ones with incredibly small crews: the closer you zoom in, the more people there are; if it were possible to truly document every moment of a film’s production — the uncredited names, the undocumented set dynamics, the long hidden hours of editing and promotion and submission processes and travel after production wraps — you might never run out of material. This is true even of the handmade film, which made something of a comeback at VIFF this year.
At the Bottom of the Sea, Caroline So Jung Lee’s abstract reckoning with the ripple effect of the Korean Women’s Movement social protests of 2018 (audio extracts from Gwanghwamun Square’s “Courage to Be Uncomfortable” gathering echo under the images), won the biggest short program prize of the festival. Its solarized film sections and bromide-streaked midnight photography came about from a close relation with Cineworks, the foremost film-maker collective in Vancouver. Other examples included Yen-Chao Lin’s The Spirit Keepers of Makuta’ay, Cameron Mackenzie and Suzanne Friesen’s Venusian, and Sheridan Tamayo-Henderson’s In Which Life Continues Without Time. It’s one year, and it’s a tiny fraction of the films here, but you wouldn’t be wrong for finding VIFF averse to the practice in recent history (these are the first I’ve seen in four years of covering the program) — it’s a small enough shift to be possibly unintentional, but if it were to stick, it’d be a welcome one. Of course, this hasn’t yet extended much to the digital side of things — I spoke to a critic who argued the two most significant Canadian shorts of the year weren’t anywhere to be found at the festival (Michael Snow’s Cityscape and Blake Williams’s 2008).
Family histories are never far from a young filmmaker’s reservoir of material — they’re often the ellipsis that demands explication, or the blind spot that dooms a sense of drama. “Dramatists,” Hilton Als writes, “it seems, are always cursed and blessed with a family member who is a hysteric, and who cannot not make drama.” The methods of the filmmaker often take a different tact: the camera tends to be more concerned with a generationally distant family member’s lack of presence, the mystery they leave behind, the filmable objects and relatives and, of course, the shadows and ghosts and ceremonies that cover up all that mystery. You can see this in the forced on-camera confessions of Carol Nguyen’s No Crying at the Dinner Table, and the forthright concision of Sophy Romvari’s Grandma’s House.
But perhaps the single most moving and demystifying work of the lot was Aaron Zeghers’s Memoirs. It didn’t win an award (and neither did Zeghers’s Danny, a mid-length that screened elsewhere in the festival lineup, though it deserves some kind of recognition). But find me a work that more intelligently mixes together the aphorisms of elders, the footnotes of fiction, and brilliant, awe-inspiring special effects. Zeghers is pushing the oral history interview past its realistic limit, and finds something more artful and weightier on the other side. You can also tell he has a skill for listening, and for knowing when he has a good quote. “People who plot their lives are just horrible people,” says one voice, in a film that slips out of plot any chance it gets, voices washing over one another, formats switching from Super-8 to digital to 16mm. To offer an alternative, another quotes from Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, a truly great generational work of another kind, one that describes in a similar key how the stuff that accumulates into a life rapidly does so outside of intention, and is far harder to reckon with and more beautiful, in a hard-to-approach way, for it.
The world isn’t lacking for documentation — or documentaries, which increasingly organize around single figures; there’s a CELEBRITY: WHAT THEY’RE KNOWN FOR profile coming to a cinema near you, right now — nor is it lacking people who say they can sift through all those documents. What sticks out, in Memoirs, say, is a mix of liveliness and gentleness, a generosity of intelligence that has no interest in didacticism or overblown appraisement. Two more to single out in this vein: Jessica Johnson and Ryan Ermacora’s Labour/Leisure and Christopher Auchter’s Now Is the Time(full disclosure: Ermacora also works as a projectionist at the same theatre where I work). Johnson and Ermacora, having earned in the past year retrospectives and a sizable grant to shoot their first feature (titled Anyox, after the northern BC ghost town), are only growing in stature, career-wise.
Their latest, set in the Okanagan, is a portrait of workers, in the fields and processing facilities of Kelowna’s cherry orchards. The bookending shots, of precipitous divisions (a golf course, a mansion), make their political point clear, but what comes through most in their images is their directness: they establish a personal point of contact (the credits start their roll with, presumably, everyone they came to know over the shoot, a list of scores of names), then step back, and let the cycle tell its story. As the critic Jaclyn Bruneau has written of their work, “They don’t educate, but instead provide a reflexive space for information already possessed.” We already know BC’s agricultural industries are more unfair, complex, and fundamentally different from the version that rests on the edge of the usual message about buying local and “growing the province’s wealth.” So Johnson and Ermacora give us a brief but generative look that resembles none of our assumptions, and doesn’t make sport of our emotions. You could say that what their film really provides is a space to see a world where we meet people, rather than consume their stories.
Auchter’s film, on the other hand, could be called inspirational. A re-framing of the early work of artist Robert Davidson, Auchter’s work responds to an earlier profile of Davidson (Eugene Boyko’s This Was the Time) in the manner of a lively, animated essay film. Not only does Auchter return to Davidson in the present to contextualize his work in the first person, he dislocates the quasi-propagandist tone (“This boy may be one of the last…”) of Boyko’s “well-intentioned” film. This is a rare encounter of two artists meeting as equals, each illuminating the others’ work, as in Claire Denis’s Vers Mathilde or Bruce Conner’s The White Rose. Auchter had the original footage restored, and so we see Davidson’s work returned to its contemporary prime: the autumnal reds and oranges and wallpaper as melodramatically brilliant as the communal environs of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows.
Out of this, Davidson emerges in quite a different way from the other profile of his work at this year’s VIFF — Charles Wilkinson’s Haida Modern. That film got all the press, but seeks mostly to explain and make easily understandable an artist’s completed works; Auchter creates a work of art in and of itself. Just as the totem pole Davidson makes (he says it was the first work of his on that large a scale) eventually called on the efforts of an entire community to see realized, Auchter collaborated with names seen elsewhere in this year’s shorts lineup: Asia Youngman (This Ink Runs Deep) is the director of photography, Alicia Eisen (Deady Freddy) contributed stop-motion animation. Wilkinson, operating from a settler perspective, can’t approach Davidson’s work as Auchter does: rather than an encapsulation, this is a true, overflowing encounter — he finds life in the past; he, in a warm, explosive, way, connects with it. Which is sometimes all that art needs to do to make a single encounter life-giving.
There was absolutely no need for another movie version of Little Women. Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version (with Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis) was already pretty much perfect, and George Cukor’s 1933 version (with Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Francis Dee and Jean Parker) was pretty good too. I haven’t seen the 1949 Mervyn LeRoy version, but its cast (Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh June Allyson and Margaret O’Brien) sounds amazing. Greta Gerwig assembled an equally great cast for her adaptation (Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen), but rather than simply play the familiar story straight, she’s jumbled up the narrative and shifted emphasis away from its family melodrama elements to something more in line with her interests as evidenced by her previous work, both as a director (Lady Bird) and in her collaborations with Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha and Mistress America)–that is, the story of how a young woman becomes an artist. It’s now a story as much about its own creation (both the film and Louisa May Alcott’s novel) as it is about the emotional highs and lows of its ostensible subjects. As such, it bears as much relation to Whisper of the Heart or Paterson as it does to previous Alcott adaptations.
It begins with Jo March, aspiring writer, living in New York and selling short genre fiction pieces for quick cash. A handsome critic tells her she’s wasting her time writing trash, which annoys her and not just because it’s true. But she gets a message from home: her youngest sister Beth is sick, possibly dying, and so she returns to Concord, Massachusetts. Flashbacks fill in the episodes that come first in the book and previous movies: a Christmas visit to poor neighbors, Jo and her older sister Meg’s trip to a dance, third sister Amy falling in ice, Jo and the girls’ friendship with neighbor boy Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), etc. These are interspersed with present day events: Amy in Europe with her aunt and Laurie (after Jo has rejected his marriage proposal), Meg and her husband barely eking out a living, Jo depressed about her work. The back and forth between past and present builds a seductive rhythm, as events mirror and comment on each other with ever greater frequency, culminating in Beth’s two serious illnesses, which Gerwig freely cuts between, doubling the usual melodramatic effect.
The film reaches its height though not with death, or with love and marriage, but with work, as Jo finally realizes what she should write about and Gerwig shows the process in detail: spreading papers on the floor to organize ideas, switching from one hand to another as the apparently ambidextrous author cannot stop to rest her cramping, ink-stained fingers, finally the physical process of printing and binding the book itself. There’s even a neat meta-fictional twist as Jo and her editor debate the Jo character’s ending, opening up the possibility that all the flashbacks we’ve seen are scenes from the book Jo is writing, that the real Jo and her family are not exactly the same as the Marches we’ve always known. Just as, of course, the Marches are not the Alcotts, and Lady Bird and Frances are not Greta. Tracey Fishko turned her friends and family into literature in Mistress America, and they all hated her for it. Jo’s story ends much more happily. At least, that’s the way she wrote it.
The Wachowskis’ debut feature, wherein Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly scheme to steal a bunch of Joe Pantoliano’s money, immediately marked them as filmmakers to watch in coming years, and the Beacon is bringing it back this weekend as part of their on-going Sex Work is Work series, which this week also includes one of Max Ophuls’s masterpieces, his final film, Lola Montès, about the notorious woman whose romances covered a large swath of mid-19th century European history. The Beacon’s also got The Last Waltz this week, which is just about as perfect a Thanksgiving film as you’re likely to find.
Another Day of Life (Raúl De La Fuente & Damian Nenow) Fri-Weds Lost Angelas (William Wayne) Fri-Weds Director in Attendance Fri & Sat The Age of Insects (Eric Marciano, 1990) Sat Only VHS Blood Rage (John Grissmer, 1987) Thurs Only
Everybody’s Everything(Ramez Silyan & Sebastian Jones) Fri-Tues Unlikely(Adam Fenderson & Jaye Fenderson) Fri & Sat Sundance Indigenous ShortsSun-Weds Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice(Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman) Sun & Weds Only The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open(Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers & Kathleen Hepburn) Weds Only
Martin Scorsese’s new superhero movie about an Irish guy who fights crime opens this week at the Cinerama and the Crest (and also a theatre in Redmond). At least, I assume that’s what the movie is about, I haven’t been able to see it yet and I haven’t really been following the news. Elsewhere around town the Beacon has a killer line-up of The Secret of NIMH, Angel’s Egg and Klute, while the Grand brings back my favorite movie of the year so far, Takashi Miike’s First Love, SAM has the Lee Marvin classic Point Blank, the Uptown has a Romanian Film Festival, which includes The Whistlers, a movie we discuss and recommend on our VIFF podcast, and the Egyptian has a live accompaniment to Yasujiro Ozu’s Dragnet Girl.
Romanian Film FestivalFri-SunFull Program Fantastic Fungi(Louie Schwartzberg) Fri-Thurs Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements (Irene Taylor Brodsky) Mon Only A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller) Thurs Only Depeche Mode: SPIRITS in the Forest (Anton Corbijn) Thurs Only
It seems there’s a Miyazaki movie playing every other week here in Seattle (there are two next week: Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke), and it’s been the case for going on 20 years now that he and, to a lesser extent, the other Studio Ghibli filmmakers are about all we regularly get from Japanese animated film in regular theatrical release. That’s starting to change though, with great releases like Naoko Yamada’s Liz and the Blue Bird, Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name., and Mamoru Hosada’s Wolf Children in recent years. But in the late 90s and into the 2000s, the one director who could break Miyazaki’s stranglehold on the American market was Satoshi Kon. This week the Northwest Film Forum and the Grand Illusion begin a retrospective of his work with his 1997 Hitchcockian classic Perfect Blue. Next week, they’ll be playing Millennium Actress, and the Grand Illusion will have Paprika (on 35mm!). Elsewhere around town, SAM has one of Samuel Fuller’s greatest films, the nasty noir The Naked Kiss, while the Beacon has Joe vs. the Volcano, another one of those movies (like Ishtar) that for years I was convinced that only people in my immediate family loved, but it turns out that there are much more of us out there and the number is (happily) growing all the time. Oh and the Cinerama has a whole bunch of war movies for Veteran’s Day.
Downtown 81 (Edo Bertoglio, 1981) Fri-Thurs The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966) Fri, Sun, Mon & Weds Kamikaze Hearts + The Prostitutes of Lyons Speak (Juliet Bashore, 1986/Carole Roussopoulos, 1975) Fri Only Night and the City (Jules Dassin, 1950) Sat & Thurs Only Street Fight Radio Presents Undercover Business TyrantsSat Only Urusei Yatsura 2 – Beautiful Dreamer (Mamoru Oshii, 1984) Sun Only Joe vs. the Volcano (John Patrick Shanley, 1990) Sun-Tues Only Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975) Mon Only
Fall festival movies are creeping onto Seattle Screens this week, with Parasite joining The Lighthouse in wide release, plus limited runs of Synonyms (which is very good) and Jojo Rabbit (which I haven’t seen). And there’s yet another 70mm film series at the Cinerama (you can see Vertigo or Lawrence of Arabia again, or a couple of Christopher Nolan movies!). But the Beacon is kicking off a miniseries of films by director Jules Dassin with Thieves’ Highway, one of the great underseen films noirs and arguably the best movie ever made about driving a truck. A film so good, Mike included it on his Top 100 films of all-time entry last year.
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.
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.
The year’s buzziest art house movie opens this week at the Egyptian and the Lincoln Square, but we saw Bong Joonho’s Parasite a few weeks ago at VIFF and have already covered it in detail in both audio and written forms. Instead, let’s highlight the Northwest Film Forum’s presentation of Canadian weirdo Guy Maddin’s art installation Seances, which sounds pretty cool, alongside a mini-retrospective of his work, including his acclaimed documentary My Winnipeg and my personal favorite of his films, 1990’s Archangel. But also, don’t miss Godzilla at the Grand Illusion and Hong Kong Horror classic The Boxer’s Omen at the Beacon.
Within a film festival circuit increasingly torn between the poles of bombastic monumentality and tasteful subtlety, Mikhaël Hers’s Amanda might present something of a odd proposition. Evincing hushed directorial observation and bearing sundry half-toned developments, the film would seem to fall squarely in the latter category. But just when a viewer might think they have it pegged down, it shifts unexpectedly towards the lines of a straightforward tearjerker. And yet Hers still demonstrates a commitment to deflecting emotional cliché, the film’s moment-to-moment movements (not to mention its overall shape) frequently recalling Mia Hansen-Løve’s Father of My Children (2009), a Parisian drama that likewise serves up a whirl of frenetic activity, before arresting that motion with an abrupt traumatic turn. It’s a testament to Hers’s film that such assessments feel incomplete.
Amanda’s central figure is David (Vincent Lacoste), a sweet, if unremarkable twenty-something who holds a number of odd jobs—though mainly, he manages an apartment complex for a Parisian property magnate. When first introduced, he’s already missed an appointment to pick up his seven-year-old niece Amanda (Isaure Multrier) from school, which he’s later berated for by his elder sister Sandrine (Ophélia Kolb), the girl’s loving, harried single mom. The two are the only family he sees regularly, his father having passed away, and his mother having left for her native London when he was a child. Indeed, apart from Lena (Stacy Martin), a young pianist newly arrived in Paris, with whom he starts a budding romance, the mother-daughter pair seem to be the only people he has any steady attachment to. But it’s not until about thirty minutes in that his feckless behavior has any sort of implications. Up to this point, the film is so languid, so bewilderingly normal that one might wonder what, precisely, it is meant to be. We soon find out.
Characteristically late for a mid-afternoon picnic with his sister and some friends, David arrives to the bloody aftermath of a terrorist attack conveyed in a quick succession of startling cuts, and then a static wide shot that slowly fades to black. A halting interaction with two survivors outside a hospital soon follows, but when we next see David, he’s pacing his sister’s apartment as Amanda slumbers in the back room. When she wakes, he will have to tell her that she no longer has a mother. As to what will happen after, he does not yet know.
In retrospect, it’s clear that Hers has laid the groundwork for this decisive pivot. We learn early on that Sandrine has bought tickets for the three to go to Wimbledon, with the ancillary goal of reconnecting with her and David’s estranged mother, establishing the film’s concerns with parental absence and filial grief. But it’s a mark of Hers’s deceptively casual direction that the involving specifics of the first half-hour don’t at all feel predictive. We might wonder, for a time, why the film is even titled Amanda, but the chaos of the present—its occasional pleasures and near-constant frustrations—pushes such questions from the mind. Only in retrospect do we think of the November 2015 Paris attacks. Only in retrospect are we able to perceive what we have been watching as a mere prologue.
As David’s newfound parental responsibilities become enfolded into a study of coping, Hers observes all manner of intriguing details: the vacation rules of the institution that he considers sending Amanda to; his disposal of Sandrine’s toothbrush, quickly undone when his niece protests; and even his abortive meeting with a journalist looking to write a story on the victims, a scene that’s more astute for being all but detached from the overall story. And though Hers’s camera isn’t quite as nimble as Hansen-Løve’s, he shares her talent for disarming elisions. (A particularly sharp cut takes us from a hesitant kiss between David and Lena at nighttime, to the bleary-eyed morning after, with the latter nowhere in sight, and Amanda now curled up next to her uncle, having evidently been plagued by nightmares that we’ve seen him deal with before.) Much more so than Hansen-Løve, though, Hers demonstrates a willingness to amplify his story’s sentimentality, which means that Amanda might leave a viewer somewhat suspicious at times. But it also manages to locate moments that are all the more potent and astonishing for being so emotionally direct. In that respect, the final scene, set at the Wimbledon game so long in coming, is both instructive and emblematic. As Amanda watches a player being beaten, she becomes distraught out of all proportion to the events on-screen; but then he rallies, and her pure delight is something to behold. A too-simple structural equation of grief and resilience, perhaps—but in the case of a child, does it not cut to the heart of the matter? It takes a certain confidence to tether the emotional crescendo of one’s film to the outcome of a tennis match—and Hers pulls it off beautifully.