Opening Shots at NZIFF 2013

FILM, Film Festivals
Goblin play Suspiria, North by Northwest on the big screen, Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise Trilogy, and other brief observations from the opening weekend of the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Never mind the canapés and candelabras served up at the gala opening of the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival last Thursday night: the main course was undoubtedly Goblin’s live performance of their iconic soundtrack to Suspiria the very next evening. An astute opening night film choice nonetheless, Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra played exactly to type: entertaining in its self-conscious camp, it’s a well-heeled biopic that sticks to the script and exists largely as a performance vehicle for its handpicked cast (of the supporting actors, Rob Lowe is the oft-cited standout, however Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s Polish-German mother deserves special mention). It’s certainly streets ahead of another recent bell-bottomed show business biopic, Lovelace, which in straining for authenticity landed much closer to parody. (Behind the Candelabra immerses us so aggressively in a fake world one might argue that it transcends caricature.)

Then again, in terms of creative artifice, Soderbergh’s film has nothing on Argento’s 1977 masterpiece, a kitsch fever dream that only gets more lurid and intensely beautiful with age. (Less said the better about the dated dramatic elements and occasional dumb horror moments, which when witnessed in an arena atmosphere, encouraged off-putting chortling from various sections of the crowd.) Effortlessly hyped by promoter Ant Timpson, the one-off event seemed to attract a wildly diverse audience: serious Goblin/prog-rock followers; dedicated film festival goers; curious onlookers; and longtime fanatics of Suspiria (such as myself). Fears that Goblin’s sound had diminished were quickly allayed within the first few minutes, precipitating a stark realisation: that this would be the last time I would ever watch the film. Needless to say, without Goblin’s thunderous live score to accompany Argento’s dazzling imagery under the glittering Civic night sky (stars that would turn into maggots under the influence of LSD, whooped Timpson in his intro), how could it possibly be the same again?

Earlier in the day, the resplendent Civic played host to an eye-watering restoration of North by Northwest. Hitchcock’s accidental spy adventure delivers an irresistible blend of style, danger, sex, and wit, and as big screen entertainment, it’s nigh on unbeatable. Naturally, any self-respecting film fan needs to have a favourite Hitchcock, and although it ranks high among the fraternity here, I have to say it’s still my least favourite Hitchcock of all (which, let’s be honest, is like having a least favourite flavour of ice cream). If the master of suspense had ever directed a Bond movie, it would probably look something like North by Northwest—great set pieces, breathtaking locations, cheeky sexual innuendo, and dashing good looks, but not much else under the hood. Perhaps the most interesting takeaway from the film’s thrilling 136 minutes is Hitchcock’s reshuffling of gender roles in an era whose blatant sexism has been boldly highlighted by Mad Men in recent times. While Eva Marie Saint certainly fits the part of untrustworthy Bond girl/Hitchcock platinum blonde like a glove, she’s sexually in charge and very much a participant in the objectification of Cary Grant. Tall, handsome, and impossibly dapper (even in a beat-up suit), Grant’s attractiveness is a running joke in the film, and I’m sure he was on-board with it—he was, after all, a consummate performer completely secure with his screen image, whether it involved being ogled by women in North by Northwest, or having to cross dress for Howard Hawks in Bringing up Baby and I Married a Male War Bride.

Anthony Chen’s Camera d’Or winning Ilo Ilo is as assured as debut feature films get: authentic and naturalistic, it does almost everything right without overreaching in the dramatic department or underselling the world and the characters it portrays. The key to its success is its equal focus on four members of a middle class Singaporean family: a husband and wife (with baby on the way) trying to make ends meet during the height of the 1997 Asian financial crisis; their naïve yet strong willed Filipina nanny; and the young boy in her care, a brat who nonetheless is painfully aware of the struggles around him, and who in most other circumstances, would be shoehorned into the main role of yet another childhood coming-of-age story. Moving yet unsentimental, the film’s final scenes are at once devastating and illuminating in their matter-of-fact brevity. Bruno Dumont’s new film, meanwhile, is remarkable for its visual brevity with a particular emphasis on close-ups. Filmed largely within the asylum that its titular ‘persecuted’ artist was committed to for the better part of her adult life, Camille Claudel, 1915 is an extraordinary study of faces. Juliette Binoche, never more naked than in this performance, asks us to stare directly into her soul; the exchange between actress and audience recalls the acute physical stasis at work in Marina Abramovic’s ‘The Artist is Present’. Clearly influenced by Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dumont’s clean, steadfast framing forces us to see the ripples of despair, anguish, and desperation—with occasional waves of inner peace and crippling emotion—move across the surface of Binoche’s face, itself a kind of living sculpture.

Dumont casts non-actors with mental disabilities as Binoche’s fellow interned patients. One critic called this strategy “disturbing,” a notion I find absurd when recruiting real actors to play these parts would surely have been more problematic or offensive. (The non-actors aren’t simply there to fill in the background, either; they are photographed with the same intense empathy and focus as Binoche’s protagonist is.) Similarly, Ulrich Seidl’s opening film in the Paradise Trilogy, Paradise: Love, begins with a group of Down Syndrome adults riding bumper cars at a fair; his trademark wide-angle lens mounted on the front of the cars so that we’re literally nose-to-nose with these people. The group is being supervised by the main character, Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel), who spends the remainder of the film as a sex tourist at a beach resort in Kenya. Some might question the purpose of this scene—it has no function, plot wise—however for me, it speaks entirely of Seidl’s underrated humanist ethos. Seidl’s films are confronting and sometimes mean-spirited in the way they treat their characters, but I would take issue with them being labelled transgressive or exploitational. On the contrary, in facing the margins of society head-on, what is all too apparent is how for some of us it is easier to turn a blind eye to the abnormal, grotesque, or upsetting. In the context of a film festival with more than enough eye candy and prestige to go around, Seidl’s Paradise films, not in spite but because of their difficulty, don’t deserve to be ignored.

In Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, there’s a memorable (if, somewhat didactic) scene in which an art historian lectures on a series of Bruegel paintings, her observations irritating a smug American with a narrow view of what constitutes art. “I’m sure, unlike most of your modern artists, he wasn’t trying to rub our noses in the dirt,” he asserts when presented with Bruegel’s tapestry of freaks, commoners, and beggars. “In the dirt, no, but in the humanity, yes,” replies the lecturer. “They’re hardly one and the same,” the man responds. “No, they are not the same, but they are perhaps more connected than some would care to notice.” Seidl indeed rubs our noses in both the dirt and the humanity. His may not be a comfortable view of the world, and those who believe that art should be only noble and inspiring need not apply. In the three Paradise films, his characters are old, overweight, and handicapped. They struggle and they suffer. And they perhaps lose their dignity in the elusive pursuit of happiness. But, as any human being deserves, they are treated with unfailing compassion, even if it’s possible to lose sight of that during the trilogy’s ugliest moments. If Paradise: Love tries a little tenderness, Paradise: Faith is at once humorous and heartbreaking despite also being heavy-handed and farfetched (when addressing religion, that comes with the territory), while the promise of Paradise: Hope’s title is upheld by evoking a desire to protect and revere the experience of its teenage protagonist. (Seidl’s trio of protagonists are introduced in the first film, and it helps to view their individual stories—although quite watchable in isolation—as chapters in an overarching narrative.)

There is no easy way to market these screenings, other than to say that Seidl is as vital a filmmaker as his Austrian contemporary, Michael Haneke—maybe even more so, given that the bourgeoisie Haneke once relentlessly attacked have now arguably become his core audience. Seidl’s up-close-and-personal films—his breakthrough, Dog Days, will be familiar to NZIFF regulars circa 2002, while his best film, 2007’s Import/Export, remains unreleased in New Zealand—covet no particular audience. Therein lies their true value as art: instead of reaching out to us, they provoke us to come forward.

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.

Filed under: FILM, Film Festivals

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Tim Wong is the founding editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic invited to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012. He is also a freelance web and graphic designer. In 2015 he wrote and directed Out of the Mist.