Post-Festival Report 2010, Part 3: Certified Copies

FILM, Film Festivals
Further dispatches from the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Apart from the optimistic comparison with Jean-Luc Godard, the description in the festival booklet for Xavier Dolan’s I Killed My Mother was bang on. This is indeed a remarkably assured piece of filmmaking, with fire and wit aplenty, and excellent performances across the board—especially from Anne Dorval as the titular mum. Dolan is quite a talent, but while his film is perceptive and involving, it has to be said that despite its obvious qualities, it sits well within the confines of traditional narrative cinema. I haven’t read any of the endless hype the film has apparently attracted, but it seems to me that what there is to savour is accessible in a single viewing, and even the final affirmation of forgiveness and acceptance wasn’t profound or affecting enough to resonate much beyond the next movie. Still, it is a very good piece of work, and well worth a couple of hours of your time.

I’m Glad My Mother is Alive is a well-crafted film directed by veteran French filmmaker Claude Miller and his son Nathan. Skipping across the troubled waters of Maurice Pialat, the Dardennes, Michael Haneke, Christian Petzold, and a goodly touch of Francois Truffaut, this study of familial alienation is an impressive depiction of repressed rage. Apparently based on real events, the film takes an admirably low-key approach. It may not be the equal of the best films of the aforementioned giants, but the directors carefully maintain an even-handed point of view so that viewers don’t lose sight of the fact that, as the great Jean Renoir famously put it, “everyone has their reasons”. Pialat would surely approve.

The imposing presence of Yugoslav director Emir Kusturica dominates Christian Carion’s ultra-conventional cold-war thriller Farewell with a solid and attractive performance, but it isn’t enough to elevate the film above the diverting. There are worse ways to spend a couple of hours on a wet winter’s afternoon, especially when there are as many unintentional laughs to be had as there are in Carion’s trifle. The scene where François Mitterrand stands up to Ronald Reagan is priceless—like something out of In The Loop. Cyrus had more going for it, but just as it seemed to be shifting into something genuinely interesting, directors Mark and Jay Duplass called it quits. John C. Reilly and Johan Hill had fun, but that’s virtually all the film has to offer. It was enjoyable to a point, but frankly, I couldn’t help wondering what Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant might have done with it.

Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet is as ‘good’ as the reviews say. As criminal/underworld/prison dramas go, it’s a class act. The portrayal of a young man forced to adopt the law of the jungle (bending and adapting to a criminal subculture then rising through the ranks) is convincing, and Audiard hits all the marks with style and precision. The craft is skilful and sure-footed, confidently nudging the film through every one of its 155 finely acted, tautly directed minutes. I expect that most viewers will be rightly impressed and satisfied, but frankly, I was bored. I’m tempted to claim that I’ve seen it all before, but there is something undeniably fresh about A Prophet. That said, there’s nothing revisionist about it either. If the filmmakers had any socio-political aspirations, they were completely trumped by generic convention. As such, the film conforms to a long history of cinematic glorifications of crime and murder, couched behind a patina of social commentary, but essentially designed to do well at the box-office. Given the considerable approval for the film, Audiard and his team clearly made the ‘right’ choices. The lack of any moral dimension was obviously of no concern. The filmmakers might argue that when it comes to brute survival there is no room for the luxury of moral naval-gazing. They would of course be talking about surviving the film industry, not prison.

I shouldn’t be surprised that A Prophet has garnered such unquestioning praise (just look at the astonishing acclaim for City of God, as good an example of a hugely popular but patently amoral and exploitative pseudo-socio-political bourgeois-placating travesty as you are likely to see), but the truth is I am taken-aback by the lack of real criticism of the film. Expect to see more of the same in years to come.

Olivier Assayas works his butt off to ensure that Carlos is anything but boring. Divided into three movie-length segments, this epic TV mini-series takes the best part of an afternoon to get through, but Assayas kicks it along at a steady clip, never hurried, never lagging, always lucid, concise, and consistently engaging. Direction, camerawork, editing, and acting are all expertly assured, and Édgar Ramírez anchors the film with confidence and commitment in the central role. But for all of that, is it any good? Well, that will depend on how tolerant you are of mainstream entertainment. As a sexed-up political thriller, Carlos is streets ahead of last year’s woeful audience-pleaser, The Baader-Meinhof Complex, but it’s simply not in the same class as Steven Soderbergh’s superior cinematic masterwork, Che. Am I comparing apples with oranges? Perhaps. Carlos is, after all, a television production aimed primarily at men (or so it seemed to me). Throughout the film, action sequences invariably precede scenes of soft titillation, most of which are terribly cliché, such as when one of Carlos’s overexcited sex-bombs toys with the pin of a grenade between her tongue and teeth. Deary me.

The film settles down in the second part to concentrate on the storming of the 1975 OPEC conference, and Carlos’s subsequent dismissal from the ‘Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’. Carlos bides his time before setting up his own organisation with Syrian support. The stage is set for more danger and double-cross in part three, but not before Assayas rewards our patient attention with another steamy diversion (all based in fact, of course). The infamous Marianne Kopp willingly submits to Carlos’s particular brand of revolutionary commitment for women, the kind of female submission any red-blooded heterosexual male would presumably expect from a semi-naked, vampish, self-confessed feminist. Carlos temporarily relinquishes his dominance and contemplates the potentially explosive events to come. If the pace slackens slightly in part three, it’s entirely in keeping with Carlos’s decline. As impressive as Carlos is, there’s no getting around the fact that it is essentially a TV movie, and not one likely to be ranked among the greatest achievements of the medium. Still, it was a good excuse to swan off to the movies on an otherwise empty mid-winter’s Sunday afternoon, but don’t be suckered by the hype, Assayas has done better.

Another lengthy digitally projected film that had the feel of a TV series was Mariano Llinás’s Extraordinary Stories, a film I liked and disliked in equal measure. Extraordinary Stories is a series of shaggy-dog diversions that culminate into one big shaggy-dog diversion that could easily have ambled on for another couple of shaggy and diverting hours. The film is divided into three main sections, like three volumes of one large novel, each with a series of chapters within which smaller diversions occasionally materialise (some returned to, others not). To emphasise his novelesque inclinations, Llinás keeps the three central protagonists at a distance from the viewer by mediating them (and the events that overtake them) through near-constant narration. Everything we learn (or think we learn) about these people (and virtually everyone else in the film) is conveyed this way, including motivations, attitudes and feelings. It’s akin to a tour bus driver constantly telling you about the passing landscape, and how you should feel about it, except that the landscape and the commentary don’t always connect, and at times are purposefully subverted.

I must admit, the need to read endless subtitles was a hindrance to engaging with the visual qualities of the film, a rare instance where a good dubbed translation would have freed the viewer (and the film!) from the demands of text. There were moments when I ignored the subtitles to engage more fully with the often captivating, ambiguous, at times evocative and poetic images. Overall, the various journeys and diversions offered perceptive ruminations on the often-surreal incomprehensibility of humankind. In the end, this long and winding road movie culminated in a reflective final 20-minutes where something resembling philosophical acceptance quietly and satisfyingly came to the fore. As a movie, it made a fascinating book. One day I hope to read it again.

As others have noted, there is more than a passing resemblance between Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), in that all three films are structured around buoyant conversations between two would-be lovers ambling through European locales. The free-flow of philosophical ruminations and coy banter between the attractive couples (underpinned by gentle and chaste sexuality) keeps the hearts and minds of those willing to give in to these ‘thinking-persons romances’ happily engaged until the teasing, unresolved (sort of) final shot. Of course, Kiarostami’s film isn’t as cut and dried as Linklater’s. The intellectual and philosophic strands in Certified Copy extend beyond the characters and their story (and their relative privilege), to encompass the film itself; the nature of cinema, art and culture in general; and notions of ‘value’ and ‘meaning’ in particular.

As Brannavan Gnanalingam pointed out in his very good overview of the film, the thought of Kiarostami making a romantic comedy with Juliette Binoche was enough to send shivers down the spine of most self-respecting cinephiles, as if such a move by one of the most penetrating of cinematic thinkers constituted a cultural crime. While the tone of the film may be lighter than previous Kiarostami films, behind the Tuscan charm and relative linearity there is more to the film than meets the eye, which is exactly what Certified Copy is about: the filter through which we perceive a thing determines its value and meaning. Through the notion of copies, originals, and the value subscribed to them, Kiarostami poses questions concerning the fixity of what we take to be reality. The playful narrative trickery suggests that perceptions and assumptions are entirely subjective. Kiarostami might have enjoyed the chatter in the auditorium afterwards: were the couple actually married, or were they just pretending? Of course, Kiarostami has no interest in providing that kind of narrative closure. His interests lie elsewhere, and I rather suspect he hopes ours will too.

After all the chatter and ideas, Certified Copy ends on a pensive shot of two clanging church bells slowly coming to a halt, a potentially sombre closing metaphor that recalls that famous wedding perennial, 1st Corinthians 13, wherein “without love, our words are little more than (in this case) clanging church bells”. The two bells are also something of a momento mori in that they gradually, very simply, fall silent.

The New Zealand International Film Festival 2010 continues throughout the country until November. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.