VIFF 2017: Maison du bonheur (Sofia Bohdanowicz, 2017)


Maison du bonheur celebrates a very French epicureanism—that old Gallic fondness for fromage, pastries, and Aperol spritzes—that seems to animate the daydreams of drab North Americans more than it does to the soul of La République in the era of Macronisme. But as with any ancient philosophy there are holdout practitioners who keep the flame alive. Canadian filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz’s second feature zeroes in on one such philosopher, Juliane, a sixtyish astrologer and casual gourmand who lives in the Hausmannian maison of the title. Maison du bonheur’s offhand genesis (Bohdanowicz was asked by a friend if she might consider documenting her mother, a woman that the director had never met and knew nothing about) profoundly informs its approach. Rather than cross-examining Juliane about the details of her personal history, which would be très gauche, Bohdanowicz simply observes the objects, from astrological ephemera to a well-loved KitchenAid, and the routines, largely centered on food, that comprise her everyday life. Conceived as a series of grainy 16mm insert shots, Maison du bonheur glows with Juliane’s anachronistic spirit and shares with her a deeply considered approach to things.

Luxe generosity, on the part of both filmmaker and subject, defines the project; a mid-film toast to the offscreen filmmaker by Juliane and friends typifies the constant magnanimity on display. But as one mysterious detour to Deauville suggests, Bohdanowicz’s prior stay in France was significantly more troubled. Bohdanowicz’s role in the film mostly goes unspoken, save this detour and an amusing anecdote about Paris’s worst eclair, though the way that her camera watches Juliane’s hands—which are omnipresent—mold a Shabbat challah or caress an astrological chart reveal a subtle master/student relationship. During the post-film Q&A Bohdanowicz revealed that she shot the film without sync sound and crafted the film’s lush foley track entirely on her own by following Juliane’s design for living at home: recreating the challah recipe or recording a friend savoring a pastry at Juliane’s deliberate pace. Image and sound thus become a teacher’s instruction and the student’s recital, so that Maison du bonheur begins as a mere document of Juliane’s way of life and ends up as true, delectable praxis. Bohdanowicz need not say more about herself to communicate what this gourmandine education means to her, though she does make one final gesture of gratitude at the conclusion: she returns Juliane’s toast, dedicating Maison du bonheur to all those who live in this house of happiness. And with her film, she kindly opens the door for the rest of us.

VIFF 2017: Forest Movie (Matthew Taylor Blais, 2017) and Prototype (Blake Williams, 2017)


Two tricks of the eye:

Matthew Taylor Blais’s Forest Movie focuses attention on the center knowing that you’ll likely miss what’s happening at the margins. The pivotal shot that comprises nearly half the film’s runtime works explicitly on this principal. After tracking a young woman on a half hour stroll through the forest, Blais sits her and his camera down to stare at a patch of woods for thirty straight minutes in a fixed, Academy ratio long take, a la James Benning. Anyone who’s had a brush with the work of that august American avant-gardist will know that the pleasures offered by an image like this lie in the shifting textures of light and the peripatetic impulse of the human mind to drift elsewhere when confronted with something this still; he will also know that Benning got there first and has fruitfully mined similar landscapes for nearly a half century. But keep watching and Blais’s distinctive spin on the set-up reveals itself around the edges of the frame: the aspect ratio is slowly expanding over the duration of the shot, widening from 4:3 to 1.85 widescreen. Blais hides the change by framing a circular stump dead center, which naturally draws the eye away from the edges and obscures the movement happening on the periphery, where our vision is less sensitive. The moment of realization will arise differently for each viewer, though Blais wakes up even the most hypnotized (or bored) viewer with a hard cut back to Academy ratio. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this wonderfully deployed trompe l’oeil in context of the rest of the film, which for better or worse melted from my thoughts the longer I gazed at the screen, but there’s no denying the primal (and very physical) awe inspired by Forest Movie’s slow-cinema sleight of hand.

PrototypePrototype, which also showed as part of VIFF’s Future//Present series, plays even more directly with the anatomy of human vision. Blake Williams, like gran-père Godard before him, explodes the possibilities of modern 3D—and early twentieth century American history for good measure—with his science fiction rendering of the 1900 Galveston hurricane. Archival stereoscopic images of the disaster open the film before a tidal wave of light bends towards the audience and seemingly merges past with present (or is it Future//Present?). Five TV screens then materialize against the void and flicker with found footage both directly and indirectly connected to the subject historical event. The result is a virtual gallery space where up to five images exist simultaneously within the frame, each image itself split in two, across the left and right eye. The densest moments offer no less than ten possible images, which are only accessible individually by closing one eye and then the other. With both eyes open, more information hits the retina than the mind can process. Williams clearly delights in the pleasure/pain dichotomy that arises from such a deluge of visual data, which partly explains Prototype’s final plunge into complete abstraction. The found footage breaks into pulsating white swatches which swirl around an unseen center, and the images Williams previously layered on top of one another (and across the eyes) decouple feverishly. Matter, time, and history have come apart at the seams.

24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami, 2017)


Abbas Kiarostami’s final film is a compendium of 24 four and a half minutes sequences, inspired, an opening title card notes, by the late director’s wonderings about still images, paintings and photographs, imagining what might have happened before or after the single instant captured by the artist. He says that the project was originally going to be based around recreations of several of his favorite paintings, but in the process he decided to just mostly use photos he had taken instead.

The first frame though is a painting, Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s “Hunters in the Snow”. After resting onscreen for a bit, the scene slowly becomes animated with images (smoke rises from chimneys, snow falls) and sounds (a howling wind, a squawking crow). Soon the painting comes to life, motion everywhere except the people, the only humans we’ll see in any of the frames, do not move. Most of the frames to follow will feature some or all of these elements – birds, snow, wind, sometimes music (Kiarostami has room for both Ave Maria and, shockingly, Andrew Lloyd Webber), the hypnotic white noises of winter otherwise broken only by the occasional (unseen) hunter’s gunshot, a bolt in inexplicable terror rupturing the natural world.

Not that Kiraostami’s nature is one of peaceful harmony. The birds are constantly fighting amongst themselves – over food or a newly dug nest in the snow or a choice spot on a railing. A wolf stalks a flock of sheep as they huddle together against the wind. A cat prowls in the distance, suddenly appearing with silent playfulness in the foreground. Even the lions are afraid of thunder. Notable as well is that most of the animals we see aren’t even real, but rather this “natural” world is the manufactured product of a more or less realistic CGI.

The project is a relaxed meditation on what must have been a lifelong interest for Kiarostami, a master of both the frame within the frame (think of the car windows in Certified Copy) and the interaction of the world outside the frame with the one within it (the cobbled together conversations of Taste of Cherry, the courtroom scenes of Close-Up, or the simultaneously terrifying and liberating shatter at the end of Like Someone in Love). Most of the frames in 24 Frames contain internal frames, window panes or railings or fences or trees organizing the image. And the things Kiarostami adds to them as well function as frames, turning the potentialities of a still image into a part of a single sequence of events. A moment could be a part of anything, but in assigning a narrative function to it, Kiarostami defines it as a single thing, at least for four and a half minutes (what happens after is again a matter of infinite possibility). Framing is an imposition of order onto chaos. And despite the fact that images we see are ones of nature, the temptation to anthropomorphize them into little dramas motivated by human psychology is inescapable. I liked to imagine that the same crows were recurring in frame after frame, only to be tormented by one obnoxious bird (Kiarostami’s Angry Bird) who kept messing with them, trying to eat their food, trying to take over their perch. A little dog sets himself at war with a flag on a beach, barking at it relentlessly until it falls, he skips away exultant in his victory. I see myself in the frames about traveling herds, not so much the deer moving along at his own pace, against the crowd, rather in the cow sleeping on the beach, too lazy to get up and move along before the tide rolls in. This too is an act of framing: we obviously don’t know what animates a cow (well, except for animated cows, who are motivated by the whims of the auteur), their causation is in our choosing. Even the inanimate objects are susceptible to this framing by identification, the helical strand of saplings, centered in the snow, surrounded by the squares an rectangles of window panes, with larger, more impressive trees in the background, recalls, for me, Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, a brave little tree standing alone against the rush of modernity. In this case the association of memory does the work of defining the still object more or less unconsciously. We intrude on boundless nature with our thoughts, our intentionality, our memories, transforming everything we see, and not always with the rip of a chainsaw or the murderous intent of a rifle.

Columbus (Kogonada, 2017)

columbus 4

A man and a woman find meaning amidst the ruins of another age: the schematic proffered by Roberto Rossellini in his 1954 masterpiece, Voyage to Italy, remains as vital as ever, constantly spawning successors in that undefinable but all too recognizable strain of modern narrative cinema which makes tourists of disaffected men and women in settings richly endowed with history and forgotten culture. In these films, the setting and its adornments are given the weight of characters themselves, speaking silent truths to those gazing upon them, offering wisdom and comfort to those caught between the contented past and the uncertain future.

It’s a scenario that audiences (mostly festival ones) are by now used to seeing played out in European settings, among mostly European people – Certified Copy, La Sapienza, Museum Hours, and the Before trilogy, to name a few. Tension is often derived from the presence of an interloper from Britain or the U.S. – to say the least, a character containing, unknown to them, a multitude of historical baggage ranging anywhere from the English Reformation and its iconoclasm, to puritanism, capitalism and attendant barbarisms. By coming into contact and meditating upon long-rejected pagan and Catholic architecture, painting, sculpture, and ornamentation, a certain refreshment and cleansing takes place. At its most basic level, as introduced by Rossellini, a spiritual and emotional clarity is ushered in by contact with pre-modern art, and consequently, the sublime, and the cogs of the narrative rumble back into motion, taking our now reborn characters into a new future – a revitalized marriage, the starting of a family, a return to the boring old New World with fresh eyes. It has long been observed that Voyage set into motion a truly modern cinema – that is to say, a cinema of lost people unmoored from tradition, beauty, and community, searching for themselves while traveling – rarely living – amongst its jewels.

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