At the New Zealand International Film Festival: death, calamity, and comic fatalism by way of Iran and Iceland.
As a title, Fish & Cat doesn’t even begin to describe Shahram Mokri’s strange and audacious sophomore feature, a waking nightmare for both the characters and the audience stuck in its hypnotic loop. Perhaps for that reason, most of the press around the film has focused on the logistical feat of its camera work, and fair enough, too—its single uninterrupted tracking shot, courtesy of the prolific Mahmoud Kalari, outdoes Russian Ark’s one take wonder by more than 30 minutes. As a cinematographic statement, it’s enthralling, but as a visual concept, what’s truly striking is that it works at all. In lieu of the split screen format (à la Mike Figgis’s Timecode), a non-linear narrative photographed in real-time is the equivalent of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole—a gambit I can’t say I’ve ever seen attempted before, much less pulled off. It’s just one of the surprises Mokri has in store for us in a film whose initial cabin-in-the-woods vibe suggests the unlikeliest of things: an Iranian horror movie about cannibal cooks. Based on a news story concerning a restaurant owner who served human flesh to his unsuspecting patrons, what slowly but surely transpires is not the expected bloodbath or boil-over, but an eerie existential dance between people either living or camped out near a lake on the outskirts of Tehran.
Mokri generates tension and unease through surrealist gestures and a sense of disorientation—quite the opposite of the manufactured suspense of the genre his film is nominally located in. He goes on to explore the personal and petty concerns of a group of friends gathered for an annual kite festival, and circles them, along with the backwoods butchers hunting for their next kill, with a roving camera that never averts its gaze. Then it gets really interesting. Amid grey wilderness landscapes and processional tracking shots, Fish & Cat begins to resemble a Béla Tarr film: the camera stalks one character, detours to follow another, then mysteriously doubles back, where the same scene is repeated verbatim only from a different perspective. It’s a ploy reminiscent of Sátántangó, except there are no cues or cuts to indicate the point of view has changed, only a long continuous stare from which there is no escape. Through this, Fish & Cat captures the anxiety of a reoccurring dream, or perhaps the latency of human memory, but it’s more than that: a bold deconstruction of film continuity, specifically the kind that contrives through editing technique an awareness of coincidence and déjà vu. Mokri’s first outing as a director, Ashkan, the Charmed Ring and Other Stories, was by all accounts a lively yet conventional ensemble drama of neatly intersecting storylines, making this new film and its daring experimentation a giant leap, indeed.
Also couched in a rural surrealism, Icelandic black comedy Of Horses and Men regales us with stories of death, calamity, and animal amour through a hard-to-define sense of humour. Beyond that, I’m at a loss as to how to describe the film other than to say that at various moments it reminded me of The Quiet Man (as a pastoral romance set against vistas that could easily pass for Ireland’s rolling countryside), La Quattro Volte (as an observation of the secret lives of animals against the folly of mankind), Japón (spontaneous equine sex), Bruno Dumont (sex outdoors), and The Empire Strikes Back (‘dead tauntaun’). Benedikt Erlingsson’s film deals in neatly rounded vignettes—moral tales insofar as they ask us to love, respect, and fear horses—while the startling imagery derives much of its power from cruel juxtapositions in the co-existence of man and beast. Staring into the soul of his thoroughbreds through extreme close-ups of their eyeballs, Erlingsson has one of his hapless human players lose his eyesight in an accident involving barbed wire, one of several grisly yet hysterical catastrophes to befall the titular men of this film. The choreography of these scenes is sublime, and at the risk of disrespecting the singular Roy Andersson—a true individual filmmaker for whom there really is no substitute—Of Horses and Men also deals in a particular kind Scandinavian sadness and fatalism. Until Andersson’s next incomparable venture, this will do nicely.