Post-Festival Report 2011, Part 1:
Meat, or Poison?

Features, FILM, Film Festivals
At the New Zealand International Film Festival, pleasure can be a polarising force.

The 43rd Auckland International Film Festival couldn’t have got off to a better start than with a local lad triumphantly presenting his new film before an enthusiastic home crowd. In his opening night introduction, festival director Bill Gosden said that the time had come to turn the Civic Theatre over to Florian Habicht, but I doubt that anyone could have predicted the extent to which Florian would so completely seize that opportunity.

The audience were so won-over by Love Story, a deceptively skilful semi self-reflexive rom-com, that they were held in its spell well after the lights came up and Florian took to the stage. Presumably unscripted (?!), he rang his lead actress (Masha Yakovenko) in New York, waking her at 4am to share the success of the premiere. Florian had everyone clapping and cheering down the phone-line, then one chap—so taken by it all—called from the balcony, “Tell her you love her.” Touché. What better endorsement could there be for a filmmaker than to be given such unequivocal proof of how successfully he suspended disbelief.

While perhaps not working on quite the same level as Abbas Kiarostami, Habicht’s deft blurring of fiction and reality (wonderfully extended to include the capacity opening night crowd) evinces a sophisticated understanding of film grammar (and audience expectation). The real love story, beyond the facts, the fiction, the affection for New York in general and people in particular, is Habicht’s infectious obsession with cinema—to which his heart seems well and truly taken. Charmingly escapist, but with ample post-modern musings for those so inclined, Love Story confirms once and for all (as if there was doubt) that Florian Habicht is one of New Zealand cinema’s brightest stars.

Across the ditch, award-winning Australian writer Julia Leigh has managed to drop the cat among the pigeons with her debut feature, Sleeping Beauty, a film that polarises critics and audiences alike wherever it plays. Once viewed, reading the various ‘for’ and ‘against’ commentaries could be a good way of measuring where you sit along the line between ‘entertainment’ and ‘art’. If glacial or highly stylised European art cinema (Bunuel, Haneke, Breillat, Seidl) or the likes of David Cronenberg’s Crash, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and Steven Soderbergh’s little seen but superb The Girlfriend Experience leave you cold, Sleeping Beauty may not be for you.

While the support of Jane Campion has no doubt been considerably helpful, Leigh’s film is a far cry from anything Campion has done in terms of formal and thematic daring. Aptly titled in more ways than one, Sleeping Beauty is a very impressive debut indeed, and regardless of touchstones and influences, Leigh’s is a unique and assured voice. There’s a vampiric chill at the heart of the film, perfectly mirrored by Leigh’s cool palette. Her stylised depiction of privilege and decadence is rigorous and exacting, predominantly ‘one scene one shot’ long takes with little camera movement. Elegantly composed and beautifully balanced, this study of emotional and spiritual dislocation (set in a world where even a simple touch requires contractual consent) is a high-risk high-wire act, where one false step could have brought the enterprise crashing to the ground. Naysayers of course claim that crash it certainly does, but it doesn’t take much to discern within such criticism the expectation of a quite different film to the one they encountered. One such expectation might stem from the use of the term ‘erotic fable’ in promotional material, a misleading (if not patently false) notion at best. The prospect that any viewer would find any aspect of the film erotically stimulating given the patently darkly and unsettling context is an even darker and more unsettling one.

Emily Browning is fearless in the central role, conveying her character’s self-loathing and barely contained anger with economy and subtlety. In an early scene, she (Lucy) willingly participates in medical research for money, submitting to tubes being fed through her nose and down her gullet. The penetrative nature of this sequence parallels her later role as a ‘sleeping beauty’, where she is paid to be drugged unconscious so that clients of a high-class brothel can have their anonymous (though strictly non-penetrative) way with her. Browning handles the complexity of the role with great skill, and both she and Leigh use her nudity (or more to the point, her nakedness) to great confrontational effect, making it clear that the film’s concerns are a million miles away from mere titillation.

If Browning’s performance fails to win the recognition it deserves, it will only serve to highlight the widespread misunderstanding Leigh’s fiercely original film is being subjected to. In this respect, Sleeping Beauty inadvertently exposes the somewhat dire state of affairs in contemporary film criticism and appreciation. If anyone doubts the negative impact of corporate movies on film culture, check out the critical response to this film. Sleeping Beauty asks many questions, but the final, most pertinent question is left for the audience to ponder. It would have been great to see Leigh’s film alongside Catherine Breillat’s similarly titled film. The comparison would have been fascinating. It’ll have to wait.

In terms of offering a measure of one’s cinematic temperament (one’s capacity to deal with films that resolutely eschew the expectations of those looking for engaging characters and clearly defined narrative arcs), one other film scattered the birds this year. In my view, this one film blew everything else out of the water. Inspired by the anecdote in which Friedrich Nietzsche fell into permanent despair after trying to protect a horse from being brutally whipped by its owner, Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse ostensibly imagines the life of the horse, its owner and the owner’s daughter in the wake of that event. Those familiar with Tarr will need no persuading that the inclusion of his new film in this year’s festival could well be the cinematic event of the decade. Many of us who saw the film in Auckland (some of us twice) have no hesitation in saying that cinema is rarely this good. However, not everyone agrees. There were some (cinephiles among them) who struggled to connect with the film, finding it unrelentingly grim, overly repetitive, arduous, and ultimately meaningless—the epitome of the old cliché of the ‘pretentious European art-film’.

So, why do some films provoke such polarised responses—boredom or incomprehension on the one hand, rapt exhilaration on the other? It may have something to do with a viewer’s cine-literacy, their ability to ‘read’ a film. There are those (critics among them) who judge a film according to how effectively it presents well-drawn, recognisable characters whose stories are told in coherent narrative arcs that end with unambiguous resolutions. As for subtext, forget it. Any film dependant on subtext is likely to be regarded as pretentious or wilfully perverse—and probably not any good. Perhaps some filmgoers dislike so-called pretentious films because to not understand them could be demoralising. But all skills take time to develop, including cine-literacy, and perhaps the time and effort required to watch, think about, then re-watch films is simply out of the question for most people, or those for whom movies are just not that important, or that serious.

Fair enough, but maybe there’s another reason why films like The Turin Horse have the power to so deeply engage certain viewers. Something to do with one’s nature, the way one sees and responds to the world, or with one’s aesthetic intuition, the capacity to recognise the implicit poetry in things, especially those things that lie beyond subject, narrative, subtext and ideas. The long take favoured by Tarr and his cinematographer, the great Fred Kelemen, is first and foremost an expression of pure cinema—pure poetry. In the hands of artists with an instinct for it, the moving camera is mesmerising and seductive, something Ophuls and Mizoguchi deeply understood and built their art around. That said, static locked-off compositions have the same poetic power when composed by filmmakers with a strong aesthetic intuition. The great Taiwanese filmmaker, Tsai Ming-liang, is an example of a filmmaker who creates extraordinarily poetic, but wholly static images. For some viewers, these may simply be great looking shots that ultimately serve the story, whereas for others they can be a universe in themselves, or an as yet unconnected rhyme with images to come, the meaning or value of which accumulates as the film progresses—if one is receptive to it.

I hope this is making sense. It’s difficult to articulate something that is virtually ineffable. And anyway, what of the film itself? What about the stunning choreography of those hypnotic long takes, the alternating viewpoints, perspectives, implications and perceptions, of painting with light, the breathtaking chiaroscuro, richly detailed, textural, evocative, lovely combinations of grey and black, perfectly suited to the depiction of the protagonist’s lives and Tarr’s starkly philosophic themes, the crucial use of repetition, the incessant score, empathetic but detached, expressing pity and regret but also consequence, coarse violins, violas, cellos and organ, the musical structure of the film (movements, thematic variations, a bridge and a coda), the music of the wind, the punishment of the wind, the heaviness of existence, the sense of impending apocalypse, the paintings of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, particularly the latter’s The Potato Eaters, the near-feral aspects of human nature, the paired down aesthetic, the conviction to eschew mainstream demands for easy to digest, easy to dismiss, comforting, pacifying, diverting, fundamentally dishonest crowd-pleasers, and what about compassion and empathy, the near-confessional admission of shared culpability, the responsibility of creating politically and philosophically vital works of art, the neighbour’s rant about centuries of unabated plunder, the perpetual subjugation of the disenfranchised by the powerful, the gypsies and the well, the rich who never pay, the poor who bear the burden, the anti-bible, the withdrawal of God, of packing up and leaving only to realise that despair is everywhere, of preferring to die at home, the well running dry, the global economic collapse, the failure of the lamp, the failure of systems and technology, peak oil, losing the motivation to eat and to speak and to look each other in the eye, a silent scream of immutable despair, an urgent plea, the dimming of the light, and fading to black? What of the film indeed.

If, as he has announced, this is his last film, then Béla Tarr has ended his career on a very high note indeed. The Turin Horse is his most personal, and certainly his most unequivocal work. It is also one of his most beautiful, an absolute pleasure to watch, marred only by the failure of the Rialto theatre to project the film in its correct aspect ratio. Those of us hoping that the technical failings would be resolved for the second screening had to accept that the theatre was unable (or unwilling?!) to cope with the 1.66:1 ratio. Auckland audiences had to be content with a heavily cropped, composition distorting 1.85:1.

With one of the projectors in need of repair at the Civic, the Sky City Theatre seems to be the only Auckland theatre currently available to the festival capable of screening films as they ought to be seen, a would-be perfect venue but for the torturous seating. And don’t get me started on the Academy. I felt for Park Kiyong during the Q&A following the first screening of Moving where he was compelled to apologise to the audience for the poor sound and image. “Something must be wrong.” he said, “The film should look and sound much better than this.” Tell me about it! On a purely technical level, the 35mm screening of Love Like Poison was visually adequate (not as good as the larger cinemas), but the audio reproduction was appalling. An earthing hum and buzz could be heard throughout the screening, the sound was thin, and there was frequent (mostly low end) distortion. Such problems have characterised Academy screenings for some time, but it would be great if something could be done over the next 12 months so that the 44th Auckland International Film Festival can really be a celebration of cinema.

The New Zealand International Film Festival 2011 continues throughout the country until November. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.