In the Intense Now (João Moreira Salles, 2017)

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One of the better documentaries of the year plays this weekend only at the Northwest Film Forum. In the Intense Now is built out of archival images, some shot by director João Moreira Salles’s mother, when she visited China in 1966, but mostly from amateur and independent film footage of France and Czechoslovakia and Brazil in the revolutionary summer of 1968. It’s one of the centerpiece presentations of the Film Forum’s fall series 1968: Expressions of a Flame, which is presenting a wide variety of films, fiction and non-, well-known and obscure, from that year. It would also have been a fine addition to their Home Movies series, which began this spring and continues this weekend with Andy Warhol’s Mrs. Warhol, with its focus on filmmakers documenting and exploring their own families (which we highlighted here when they played Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide II and Chantal Akerman’s News from Home). In the Intense Now is built around this tension, between the personal and the political, as much as it is about the disconnect between the hopes of the past and the failures of the present.

Reminiscent of the films of Chris Marker, the film is entirely composed of archival images, over which the director narrates his thoughts in a soft, unassuming voice. His mother’s trip to China, where she appears not to notice the Cultural Revolution going on around her in favor of the sheer beauty of the country and its landscape, forms the apolitical counterpoint to the footage of the May protests in France two years later, where students march in the streets in support of striking workers (who seem generally bemused by the students, whom the refer to as “their future bosses”). Moreira Salles focuses less on the ideology of the protestors or their opponents, exemplified by young firebrand Daniel Cohn-Bendit on the one side and aged General DeGaulle on the other, than on the small moments captured almost accidentally by the filmmakers: minute gestures; expressions of unself-conscious joy and happiness; the fact that there are hardly any black people in the movement, and that they always are wearing suits; and so on. This fine eye for detail gives us a new way of looking at old footage, and a new angle on well-worn territory.

As does the film’s second half, the aftermath of the events of May, not just in Czechoslovakia, where Soviet tanks bring an end to the flowering Prague Spring, but in France, where the youth movement fizzles out and is co-opted by commercial interests. In fact, those interests were there from the start, fueling some of the most enduring memories of ’68, the slogans, bite-sized sentiments more surreal than Marxist that were not the organic output of youth rebellion they seemed to be at the time. For all the expressions of optimism and joy captured in the early days of the movement, In the Intense Now is ultimately a tragedy, a story of how movements fade away, how people, left and right, become grist for the content mills. In the face of all this inevitability, the film becomes a call to focus instead on experience, the individualized moment, the textures of existence, as a break from systemic thought or dreams of collective action. That it was made by the heir of one of Brazil’s most powerful banking families, a man worth close to 4 billion dollars, is probably important.

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Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont, 2017)

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Of all the world’s great folk heroes, Robin Hood and King Arthur, Wong Fei-hung and Sherlock Holmes, the Monkey King and Superman, none has been so well depicted in the cinema as Joan of Arc. Her brief, unbelievable yet true story (believing she’s been sent by God to relieve the siege of Orléans during the Hundred Years War and then install the Dauphin on the throne of France, uniting it against the English, she leaves home at the age of 17 and actually does it; then she’s captured, put on well-documented trial as a heretic, and burned at the stake) is a natural for motion pictures, full of war and violence  and androgyny and craziness and faith. The latest director to tackle the subject, following Dreyer and Rivettte, Bresson and Besson, is Bruno Dumont, and his approach is that of the stately rock opera.

We join Jeannette as she watches her sheep on the banks of the Meuse. She sings laments to God for the suffering of her people, wondering how He can let war happen and if the suffering will ever end. This she discusses, in song, with a friend, another girl of about 13, and a nun. The nun is weirdly played by twins, but only addressed as a singular being, one of the many off-hand oddities that are the film’s strongest point. The songs lack much in the way of melody or catchiness, and tend towards a bland kind of 80s European arena rock sound, which isn’t particularly pleasant, but does provide excellent material for one of Jeannette’s singular moves: in the throes of a religious ecstasy she bangs her head like a true Metallica fan. This and other dance moves, stiff and formal, derived as much from 60s dance crazes as medieval poses, are much more successful at conveying the primal weirdness of Jeannette’s belief and the visions that motivate her than the songs, which all kind of sound the same. The lyrics don’t offer much in the way of new answers to the problem of evil, but they do frame Jeanne’s quest as an essentially nationalistic one. On multiple occasions Jeanne rejects the idea that it would be OK if the English won the war, because then at least there would be peace and people would stop dying. This is unacceptable to Jeanne: God has promised France for the French, and anything less is an affront to Him. Nor does Dumont question the veracity of her visions: this Jeanne is absolutely the instrument of God, and the choreography of the dances, unnatural movements caused by non-diegetic and therefore literally otherworldly music, reinforce this idea of a humanity not in control of its actions, merely the tools of a higher, inexplicable, holy, and hard-rockin’ power.

The first two-thirds of the film, comprising Jeannette’s conversations and hopes for a warlord to rescue France, her vision of three saints anointing herself as that warlord, and her later coming to terms with the quest she must undertake, all take place in the same location, the sandy riverbank with sheep milling about in the background. After a break of three years, and a change of actresses, Jeannette, now Jeanne, convinces her uncle to accompany her to the local noble, from whence she will begin to fulfill her destiny. At this point we move to Jeanne’s house, and the shift in location is abrupt and jarring, as if Dumont couldn’t commit to the conceit of having the entire film set in a single location. Similarly his camera position seems only half-thought out, with Jeannette at times looking directly at us while importuning her God (which is therefore us, I guess), while at other times she addresses the sky, while we and the camera sink low to the ground, the sun behind her head giving her the expected halo: we move from God to worshipper for no apparent reason. It looks cool though.

I was extremely disappointed in the only other Bruno Dumont film I’ve seen, Camille Claudel 1915, which seemed to me to be deeply cruel and managed the remarkable feat of making a Juliette Binoche movie boring. This is much better than that, but I wonder what it might have been in the hands of a director with a more musical soul.

Daguerrotype (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2016)

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Halloween may have passed but it’s always a good time to watch a creepy movie by a great director, and that exactly what Daguerrotype, by Kiyoshi Kurosawa is. The artiest of the filmmakers to emerge in the J-Horror boom of the late 90s, or at least the one most likely to win awards at Cannes, Kurosawa’s formal precision and methodical rhythms have earned him comparisons to the usual suspects (Kubrick, Tarkovsky), and films like Cure and Pulse are indeed a far cry from the free-wheeling genre hysterics of Takashi Miike and Sion Sono. This isn’t his latest film (that would be Before We Vanish, which premiered this year, at Cannes), but rather the one that premiered last year, at Cannes, around the same time his other 2016 film, Creepy, was playing here at SIFF. It’s not getting a local release here in Seattle, but will be available on-demand starting on November 7.

Daguerrotype finds the director working in France, in French and with an all European cast (the French title, Le secret de la chambre noir gives a much better sense of the film’s eerie vibe). Tahar Rahim plays a young man who gets a job assisting a photographer (Dardennes regular Olivier Gourmet) at his suburban mansion (or “old house with some land”). The photographer uses 19th century equipment and techniques to create life-sized and disturbingly like-like photographs of his daughter (Constance Rousseau), which require dressing her in old dresses and locking her into place using a terrifying brace so that she can remain totally immobilized for the inordinately long exposure times the daguerrotype process requires (they start at an hour and get longer as the film goes along). He previously used the process on his wife, now deceased and possibly haunting the house. The young man falls in love with the daughter, who wants to be a gardener, and so a real estate scam begins. The movie is essentially a film noir, except instead of Lana Turner seducing a working class guy into murdering her husband, it’s a ghost (or two) doing the seducing. Call it “The Ghost-man Always Rings Twice”.

But, like any film noir or horror film, to reduce it to its plot is to highlight its essential absurdity. Daguerrotype is far more mysterious an object than that, a black hole of a movie that sucks you in with the gravity of its deliberate movements, then revels in the terror that is the absence of explanation. Possible interpretations of the facts of the film abound (perhaps too many), but mostly it seems to come down to an act of revenge against the impulse to freeze things in time place, to stop the gradual process of change, both men ultimately driven by an obsolete patriarchal desire to lock women down, as wives, daughters, lovers, subjects. The entropic destruction of the father is inverted in the panicked scheming of the worker, both leading to their inevitable and not especially surprising doom. But perhaps most upsetting is that there’s no satisfaction to be found in this revenge, no cathartic joy at the destruction of an immoral system. The ghosts seem to be just as scared as we are.

120 Beats per Minute (Robin Campillo, 2017)

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120 Beats per Minute, inexplicably changed to Beats per Minute or simply BPM for its English language title, at least so far, we’ll see when it gets a regular theatrical release, is a heist film built around a social problem, a social problem film structured around a series of heists, a film about politics that sees action as not only possible, but necessary for life in the face of inexplicable tragedy. It’s the story of the Paris branch of ACT UP in the early 90s, protesting the Mitterrand government’s silence about the AIDS crisis and pushing drug companies to speed up the release of new drugs that promised to greatly ameliorate the effects of the deadly disease. The film alternates between fascinating group discussions in which the activists argue about and plan various tactics (with shades of Ken Loach’s masterpiece The Wind that Shakes the Barley) with highly suspenseful recreations of their guerrilla demonstrations. One invasion of a drug company office, for example, is as fraught with suspense as any sequence in any film this year. Running through it all is the love story between a young HIV+ activist and a new, negative member (regardless of their status, all ACT UP members would claim to the public to be positive). Each movement is punctuated by a dance party, the youth of the world luxuriating in a space where they’re free to express their sexuality with the kind of joyous release that comes from spending most of your life confronting your own imminent mortality. The film is an effective counterpoint to all of the nihilism of Nocturama, where a later generation of revolutionaries lacks the imagination or will power to carve out a place for themselves outside the system, where their aimless act of resistance is easily swallowed up by the world they stand against. If there’s a more vital piece of popular cinema this year, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

My Journey through French Cinema (Bertrand Tavernier, 2016)

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Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

Director and critic Tavernier amiably narrates, with ample clips and sharp insights, a history of his cinephilia. After a formative encounter with Becker, we circle magically from Renoir through Gabin, Carné and Prévert, Jaubert and Kosma, then outward to find Constantine, Berry, Gréville and more. Each discovery leading to a new object of obsession. The last hour (Melville-Godard-Sautet) is more scattershot, reflecting the happy chaos of a young adulthood spent haunting Paris’s ciné-clubs and journals.

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.

Francofonia (Alexander Sokurov, 2015)

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Playing for the next two weeks at the SIFF Uptown is Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s look at The Louvre, a companion piece to what remains his most well-known film in this country, 2002’s Russian Ark. That film, shot in an elaborate and still impressive single-take, weaved through The Hermitage, the museum in St. Petersburg, crossing seamlessly through Russia’s past and present, a guided tour of the fluidity of culture and the ways art, and our collections of art, keep the past alive into the future. Francofonia is no less thematically ambitious, though the single-take approach is abandoned in favor of more conventional shifts between documentary-style glides through the galleries, dramatic recreations, and meta making-of looks at those recreations. The film is framed with a film director (Sokurov himself) in the editing stage of the movie we’re watching, attempting to talk to a ship’s captain caught in a storm at sea (Captain Dirk, seriously). The ship is apparently transporting precious works of art, an extension of the final image of Russian Ark, with the museum as a ship floating in seas of time. Captain Dirk has a bad Skype connection, so the director ruminates about the museum itself, covering, in somewhat random order, its founding as an anti-Viking fortress, its various expansions and decorations, its transformation into a museum filled with the spoils of imperialism and finally its modern state. Taking up the bulk of the film is the story of how the museum’s director (Jacques Jaujard) and the Nazi in charge of cultural artifacts (Franz Wolff-Metternich) kept the collection safe and out of Hitler’s hands during the Second World War.

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The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet, 2003)

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We at Seattle Screen Scene find ourselves deep in preparation for the Seattle International Film Festival (we’re planning extensive coverage, look for our preview sometime early next week), but before we start rolling that out, here’s our Featured Film of the week, Sylvain Chomet’s 2003 Oscar nominee for Best Animated Film, The Triplets of Belleville. Like that year’s Oscar winner, Finding Nemo, the movie is about a parent searching for their lost child, questing through a strange and wondrous world, having adventures and finding help along the way. But otherwise the two films couldn’t be more different, Bellville abandoning the impressive photo-realism of Pixar’s crisp computer images for a highly stylized reality, bodies and shapes distended and distorted in extreme art nouveau parodies of pale yellows, browns and greens, earthy and bilious, daring you to call it ugly.

It opens, as all great films do, with a cartoon. A black and white parody of the 1930s Warner Bros animated shorts that featured celebrity caricatures, with a Django Reinhardt (who looks weirdly like William Powell), a Josephine Baker (the men in the audience, transformed by the eroticism of her dance, turn into psychotic monkeys who rush the stage and steal all the bananas off her skirt) and Fred Astaire who tap dances right out of his shoes, which then grow mouths and devour him like carnivorous Cronenbergian beasts. Right away you know you’re in for something special.

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The quest plot follows a woman’s search for her grandson. He’s kidnapped while cycling in the Tour de France and she (along with his faithful dog Bruno) follow his abductors to the city of Belleville, a version of New York City. She’s aided in the search by the eponymous trio, elderly jazz musicians (they sang in the opening cartoon, in their youth) who find rhythm in unlikely household objects and have questionable dietary practices. Food is actually pretty disgusting throughout the film, a part of Chomet’s twin critiques of French and American culture: America is fat and disgusting, the source of overcrowded and soulless modernity; France is pretty gross too, but at least has an appreciation for the finer things in life like wine, jazz and bicycling.

Almost entirely lacking in dialogue (what there is it isn’t necessary to translate), the film is nevertheless resolutely aural, every effect a calculated addition to the symphonic whole, following in the tradition of Jacques Tati (even if you didn’t know Chomet would go on to adapt Tati’s The Illusionist, the reference is obvious: Belleville prominently features a M. Hulot’s Holiday poster, a weather vane in the shape of Tati from Jour de fête and even an actual clip from that same film (in which Tati plays a bicycle-riding mailman)). Similarly, while severely distorted, the bodies in the film follow a ruthlessly inviolable logic: giant mobsters with huge upper bodes and tiny legs dwarf the cars they ride in, as they stand through the sun-roofs of those cars in the final chase sequence, the balance of the vehicle is thrown off and sharp turns cause them to flip over, the villains doomed by their own enormity; a maitre’d so literally spineless in his obsequity that he literally leans over backwards, his head flopping back-to-front and side-to-side. What appears to be simple chaotic weirdness is in fact carefully constructed and calculated to achieve a specific effect, which I guess is a reasonably good definition of jazz.

A wickedly funny, strangely poignant and wildly inventive film, The Triplets of Belleville plays Friday through Tuesday this week at the Central Cinema, whose clever programmers have paired it with another classic about bicycling, the 1986 Hal Needham BMX film, Rad, with Lori Laughlin.