Critical Roundup #4:
Recommended at NZIFF

FILM, Film Festivals
Concluding our series of “critical roundups” looking at New Zealand International Film Festival highlights our writers have previously covered abroad, we assemble a host of titles reviewed at film festivals in Europe and America: Camille Claudel 1915, Child’s Pose, Gloria, Harmony Lessons, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (Berlin); Dormant Beauty, Gebo and the Shadow, Lines of Wellington, To the Wonder (Venice); Prince Avalanche (Sundance). Plus, NZIFF picks by our editors and contributors.

Berlin

Camille Claudel, 1915 is uncharacteristically restrained for a Bruno Dumont film; its knockout ending arriving courtesy of a minimalist and empathetic approach. The lightness of touch and emotional weight to the narrative is both surprising and impressive. The film looks at Camille Claudel’s (Juliette Binoche) interment in a psychiatric hospital in the South of France. World War One is raging around her, her ex-lover Auguste Rodin (their relationship was the subject of an Isabelle Adjani/Gérard Depardieu film in 1988) is about to marry his on-off other lover, and the dismantling of her artistic output and reputation as a sculptor is beyond her control. Unexpectedly, Dumont rarely films the outside world. Instead, he focuses largely on Binoche’s face, as her ennui and suppressed artistic ambitions take over her existence. To her credit, Binoche to refuses to go down the histrionic route; her restraint a match for Dumont’s channeling of The Passion of Joan of Arc. (Dreyer’s Gertrud is also a thematic relation to this film.)

Dumont also shoots Binoche in amongst the other inhabitants in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative or awkward. In the process, he studies the way in which human individualism, and in particular female expression, was suppressed and controlled. The film is also a powerful account of the labeling of “madness”; the way madness is first catalogued, and then used to justify the suppression of human emotions and ambitions. It shows how religion fails to fill the void between the competing demands of communal solidarity and individualism (shown via the depiction of Claudel’s brother, the politician and poet Paul Claudel). In fact, religious fervour, in Dumont’s eyes, is no different to the artistic fervour that got Claudel committed in the first place. The tragedy, though, as presented by Dumont, is what happens when this artistic fervour is prevented from being realised, and instead, is spent staring at walls. For a film about mental torture and pain, Camille Claudel 1915 doesn’t feel heavy. It’s an assured and powerful piece of filmmaking, and one that suggests a new breakthrough for Dumont.

Unlike other successful exports from Romanian New Wave (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu a notable exception), Calin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose—winner of the Golden Bear for Best Film at this year’s Berlinale—is set in the direct present. But the links to the past are made all too clear. The film is a pointed attack on the insidious nature of Communist-era Romania corruption and class seeping into the ‘free’ and ‘liberated’ EU Romania. Luminita Gheorghiu plays Cornelia Kerenes, a well-to-do mother who finds out that her grown son has hit and killed a poor teenager while driving. Her instant reaction is to bribe and intimidate the policemen and investigators in order to prevent her son from going to jail. Here, Netzer is drawing a clear parallel to the culture of favours for Party members that typified Ceausescu’s Romania. And of course, it’s little wonder where Kerenes’s wealth comes from (i.e. it’s clearly not a post-Cold War thing). Gheorghiu, who was so potent as the moral centre in Lazarescu, plays the scheming and emotionally sterile mother to perfection. Modeled on the cinema vérité style that has typified the Romanian New Wave, the film’s explicit political nature and beady view on social relations will obviously see it marketed alongside the greats.

Hilarious, well acted, and enlivened by a killer soundtrack, Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria stars Paulina García (a deserved Best Actress winner at this year’s Berlinale), a 50-something woman cruising through singles parties in the hope of meeting someone new. She meets Rodolfo, a retired naval officer (and now manager of a fun park), and their on-off romance provides the crux of the narrative. Their relationship is, on the one hand, touching and charming, but on the other full of lies, half-truths, and repressed behaviour. The individualism that underpinned Pinochet’s free market reforms (coupled with his repression of the people) did not correspond with happiness for those living in the era. And as Lelio suggests, the generation who grew up during that time are now full of regret and ennui, and are seen frequently trying to reinvent themselves in banal ways (whether it’s via gastric bypass surgery to look different, or simply finding a new job). To Lelio’s credit, he doesn’t give Gloria an easy-way out, nor does he use her situation for cheap moralism. In the end, he celebrates her resilience and acceptance of herself—in sharp contrast to most romantic comedies in which the characters have to give something up—and provides an approach for moving forward. It’s also a pointed critique of machismo. The result is wonderful.

Kazakh film Harmony Lessons is a remarkably assured debut from 29-year-old director Emir Baigazin. It follows 13-year-old Aslan, a boy who is humiliated and ostracised at a small rural school. The school is essentially run by a bully named Bolat, who forces other students to pay him protection money and is violent towards those who cross him. Aslan’s response to his humiliation and interactions with Bolat form the thrust of the narrative. Baigazin certainly has a wonderful eye, and his visual intelligence adds weight to a small but intriguing narrative. He does tend to overdo the visual symbolism in the first half of the film—water and its notions of purity, fixed vs. unfixed states, and so on—but tones things down thereafter. The acting is striking: Timur Aidarbekov as Aslan, and Aslan Anarbayev as Bolat, are both great finds. The Kazakh steppes also provide a fascinating visual contrast to the school: modernity set amongst a savage wilderness. It’s hard not to view Harmony Lessons as an austere dissection of contemporary Kazakh life, with the school serving as a potent microcosm. Bolat’s violence simply carries up the chain (he is collecting money for older bullies), and a narrative swerve two-thirds through brings wider authoritarian behaviour into naked view. While the narrative shift is a little disorienting, it works in adding resonance and a kind of poetic ambiguity to proceedings. The film presents a society governed by violence, where ‘order’ is maintained via threats, casual masculine violence, and a confused awkward adolescence. As Kazakhstan has only been independent for twenty years, one could perhaps draw a parallel to an adolescent country finding its feet. Considering the dictatorship and corruption that plagues contemporary Kazakh society, it’s surprising that such a film was even made. Nevertheless, it clearly marks Baigazin as a major talent.

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is yet another enjoyable Hong Sang-soo film in a career of consistently enjoyable films. The reception to the film has been lukewarm; it’s as if people keep expecting a complete turnaround from Hong’s usual tales of impotence, soju-drinking, eating, and relationship incompetence. But while Hong makes what appears to be the same film over and over again, his delight in small pleasures and beady depiction of modern life is wonderful to watch on repeat. Centred on a rare-for-Hong (In Another Country excepted) female protagonist, Haewon (Jung Eunchae) is a student carrying out an affair with her lecturer, but has decided to end it. Her mother is leaving for Canada for good. She finds herself lonely and forgotten. In typical Hong fashion, the protagonist finds herself battling between taking the plunge and starting afresh, or returning to what seems comfortable and easy. Of course, the latter option is what most of his characters choose—and it’s never as easy as it seems. Hong’s men are as useless as ever: drunkards, wanting one thing but settling for another, who string the females along. Only this time, Haewon is similarly useless. Feelings are repressed and only come out at inopportune moments (usually aided by soju). Meanwhile, Hong’s view of relationships is as cynical as ever. Through Hong’s typically flat, unobtrusive shooting style, it can appear that his films go nowhere (or at least, that’s one of the big criticisms of his work), but to complain about that here is to miss the point of his entire career. Hong is more interested in repetitions and subtle variations in between the ‘nothingness’. It’s almost as if Hong is simply mocking societal belief (or its excuse) that modern life is constantly changing and fast paced. Hong’s use of repetition appears formally, for instance, in his use of music, locations, and narrative moments. The film is built around a circular and ultimately claustrophobic structure. In fact, it works in concert with the rest of his oeuvre (Beethoven’s 7th, the same streets, the discarded cigarette butts, the same kind of characterisation all reappear, for example). Nobody’s Daughter Haewon simply joins the merry-go-round of contemporary Korea, as depicted throughout Hong’s great career.—Brannavan Gnanalingam

Venice

Given Italy’s Catholic foundations, Marco Bellocchio’s Dormant Beauty, a multi-narrative drama about euthanasia, was guaranteed to cause a stir upon its release, especially in relation to the highly charged court case of Eluana Englaro—a situation that provoked Silvio Berlusconi to try to urgently enact a populist but problematic piece of legislation. Bellocchio structures his film around the family’s fight to allow Englaro to die naturally, as well as Berlusconi’s response, and the attempts to offer a multitude of views in the debate. Overall, his general approach is considered, and yet there is also an undercurrent of satire and social commentary, suggesting that Bellocchio—who made his startling debut with Fists in the Pocket (1965)—hasn’t lost his bite as a filmmaker.

Four main narratives drive the film: the first two involve a politician father (a fine performance from Toni Servillo) attempting to come to terms with his political party’s inclinations and his own views against Berlusconi’s bill; and his daughter, a devout Catholic who prays at masses for Englaro. The third concerns an actor (Isabelle Huppert) throwing herself into Catholicism to deal with her daughter’s coma (at great expense to the rest of her living family). The final, and arguably most thinly drawn strand (almost thrown in for thematic effect), deals with a doctor’s battle with a suicidal patient. It’s ambitiously constructed, and occasionally a little too scattershot. A number of characters are diminished from having their stories rushed, which inhibits the film’s emotional power. Huppert, in particular, suffers from being drawn as the emotionally distant stereotype she’s famous for.

Despite its narrative flaws and TV movie stylings, Dormany Beauty is a rich portrait of contemporary Italy. Catholicism seems to be invoked for self-serving purposes (politicians to artists). Firebrand ideologues have issues with emotions. Politicians sit around imagining themselves as Roman emperors (there’s a great scene involving a Roman bath). Media saturation results in superficiality rather than substance. Politicians who try to do the right thing cannot be tolerated within parties. Doctors simply treat, not cure. Bellocchio’s subtle anger struck the right chord amongst European critics, and there were murmurs of quiet annoyance that, in lieu of The Master taking top honours at Venice, Bellocchio’s film should have taken the prize.

A Portuguese institution, Manoel de Oliveira (still going strong at 103), returns with another wonderful small movie, Gebo and the Shadow. Based on Raul Brandao’s 1923 play, The Hunchback and his Shadow (de Oliveira has been quick to point out its links to the later Waiting for Godot), Gebo and the Shadow is essentially a filmed stageplay. But while that is usually a flaw in film, de Oliveira uses it to elicit great performances from his cast (Leonor Silveira, in particular, stands out as the put upon daughter-in-law), and depict a grinding world of pain. de Oliveira sets it sometime in the 1910s or 1920s, but its rigorous insistence on interiors drag it firmly into the present. It’s not a stretch to compare it to Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse, with its focus on individual suffering, emphasis on the elements, and potential nihilism. Granted, it’s a little more uplifting than The Turin Horse (not a difficult feat to pull off), but remains a powerful and emotional account of duty, death, and pain.

Valeria Sarmiento’s Lines of Wellington is a film that was originally instigated by her husband, the great Raúl Ruiz, before his death in 2011. And like Ruiz’s sublime Mysteries of Lisbon, Sarmiento mines 19th century Portugal to opulent effect. The multi-narrative film (originally a mini-series) follows a cast of characters during the Napoleonic Wars in Portugal, culminating in the catastrophic blunders by the French army that led to their withdrawal. But it’s not really about the battles themselves; it’s more about the chaos and carnage inflicted by the war on everyday people and Portuguese institutions. In a way, it forms a companion piece to Mysteries of Lisbon, in which the decline of the Portuguese nobility and the country’s fortunes of that film can be traced back to the widespread devastation here. It looks gorgeous, and its flowing narratives are superbly drawn together. It will hopefully get wider release on the back of its star cameos, and it’s a lovely collection of intimate stories given the wide-scale historical treatment. Sarmiento adds a great deal of humour to proceedings, including fun turns by Michel Piccoli, Catherine Deneuve, and Isabelle Huppert (along with John Malkovich’s performance as Wellington). In the end though, it’s a dark and brooding film that depicts a Portugal in flux and struggling to identify with itself.

Terrence Malick’s brilliant new film, To the Wonder, conveys everything that The Tree of Life attempted—spiritual discontentment, anomie, a cry about a world that is being destroyed, bittersweet relationships—but in a concise and measured way. Marina (Olga Kuylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) divide their relationship between Paris and small town USA, leading to their inevitable estrangement. Simple enough—but Malick weaves in Neil’s own crises at work (environmental catastrophes), a priest’s (Javier Bardem) questioning of his faith, and an alternate relationship for Neil (with a character played by Rachel McAdams), suggesting the corrosive effect of memory. If The Tree of Life was clunky in its construction—its beautiful moments ruined by its excesses—To the Wonder simply swoons. Seen through its incredibly restless camerawork (almost always from down to up), the film’s narrative offers no easily discernible path, and flows through time and space like a languid dream. Even so, To the Wonder is arguably Malick’s most accessible film (along with The New World) in his “second coming” (i.e. post 1997’s The Thin Red Line). His imagery and use of architecture and movement is frequently breathtaking, and given that this is the most ‘urban’ of Malick’s films (at least since Badlands), it makes you wish that he had shot contemporary landscapes more often. The film also has a profound sense of yearning; drawn in, it was hard to feel cynical about. Malick’s films aren’t particularly deep, they’re more sensory than that—a cinema of feeling, if you will—and To the Wonder is an absolute success on that front.—Brannavan Gnanalingam

Sundance

If you’d been paying attention to one-time indie-darling David Gordon Green through big-budget misses Pineapple Express and Your Highness, you could be excused for taking a wide berth around Prince Avalanche. The movie was one of my biggest surprises of Sundance, as well as one of the festival’s best films. Stowed away in the Texas woods in the late-1980s following a major forest fire, Paul Rudd’s uptight Alvin (one of Rudd’s best performances to date) and Emile Hirsch’s party boy Lance (a slightly fatter Hirsch looks alarmingly like a young Jack Black) draw up new markings on damaged roads. They talk, they bicker, they fight, Rudd gets dumped via letter from his girlfriend, they brood and they get drunk. As the two navigate their own frustrations they hit a truce and an understanding. The film is a bruised take on the human condition. It bathes in the countryside and the cinematography is topnotch. The film leaves space around the beats of the movie to give it all a weird tenderness. It has no huge aim but to study its characters and it is all the more endearing for it.—James Robinson

NZIFF Picks

Tim Wong: 1. Museum Hours, 2. The Crowd, 3. Gebo and the Shadow, 4. Post Tenebras Lux, 5. The Act of Killing (already seen); 1. A Touch of Sin, 2. Norte, the End of History, 3. Like Someone in Love, 4. Lines of Wellington, 5. The Selfish Giant (most looking forward to).

Alexander Bisley: 1. Museum Hours, 2. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, 3. Like Someone in Love, 4. We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, 5. The Crowd/Goblin play Suspira, 6. Norte, the End of History, 7. Like Father, Like Son, 8. The Great Beauty, 9. The Past, 10. The Human Scale; plus, Harmony Lessons (wildcard).

Brannavan Gnanalingam: 1. The Act of Killing, 2. Norte, the End of History, 3. Gloria, 4. The Paradise Trilogy, 5. The Great Beauty (already seen); 1. Leviathan, 2. Stranger by the Lake, 3. The Selfish Giant, 4. Museum Hours, 5. Blancanieves (most looking forward to).

Jacob Powell: 1. Computer Chess, 2. Only Lovers Left Alive, 3. Much Ado About Nothing, 4. Upstream Color, 5. The Great Beauty, 6. Leviathan, 7. Lesson of the Evil, 8. Starlet, 9. The Act of Killing, 10. Maniac; plus, The Selfish Giant (wildcard).

The New Zealand International Film Festival 2013 opens in Auckland on July 18, Wellington on July 26, Christchurch on August 1, Dunedin on August 8, and tours the remainder of the country thereafter. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.
The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.