Post-Festival Report 2011, Part 2:
Life, Love and Death

Features, FILM, Film Festivals
At the New Zealand International Film Festival, reflections on the beginning and end of things.

I very nearly overlooked writer-director Katell Quillévéré’s debut feature, Love Like Poison (Un Poison Violent) given that there was little in the festival booklet to indicate that the film would be more than an engaging coming-of-age movie with erotic overtones (“It seems that sex is in the air … ”), and certainly nothing to alert cinephiles to the film’s pedigree, namely its thematic and formal connections to the work of Maurice Pialat (and less overtly to films by Catherine Breillat, Robert Bresson, Agnes Varda and others).

That said, the film is by no means formally or thematically austere. There’s a palpable physicality to Love Like Poison, a robust, though by no means overstated earthiness in the performances and settings. In her acting debut, Clara Augarde is very good in the central role of 14-year old Anna, perfectly balancing innocent vulnerability and perceptive resolve as her character negotiates the unfamiliar terroir of adulthood. While the film offers much scope for philosophical contemplation (by way of the seemingly inexhaustible conflict between faith and flesh), the characters are more than mere signifiers serving a dry central thesis. These are wholly recognisable, flesh and blood human beings, and Quillévéré handles their various complexities and tensions with insight and sensitivity.

Drawn from her early experience as a devout young Catholic, Quillévéré’s film surely has more than a hint of autobiography in it. However, she handles her characters and subject matter with a resolutely non-judgmental even hand. Whether Anna’s future will be as self-determining as it seems, or a temporary illusion that will at some point need to be revisited (perhaps in another film?) is left for the viewer to ponder. In any event, it’s clear that questions concerning female self-determination in a world still dominated by male power are key subtexts in this deceptively intelligent film.

The central character in Aita (Father) is the dilapidated 13th Century Basque mansion inherited by Spanish director José Maria de Orbe. In a recent interview, he said that he made the film to create art where decadence and destruction once ruled. While neither a documentary nor a work of fiction, Aita is most assuredly a work of art, a mesmerising, poetic contemplation on light, texture, space, the past, the present, decay and rebirth. In the first shot we see overgrowth being cleared away, and in the second, two workmen discuss the outer shell of the house while another fossicks among bones in the basement. These shots prime us for a contemplative film that will require our active participation.

With the measured opening of doors and windows, de Orbe uses natural light to not only paint beautifully composed frames of textured surfaces and shifting perspectives, but to suggest a broader (perhaps political) metaphor for the need to reveal, examine, and restore. In this respect, the mansion could be read as more than just a building. While the film largely explores textures and spaces, it frequently pauses to focus on sound: the resonance of rooms, dripping water, wind, rain, birds, and the distant sounds of other life. We get the sense that everything we hear and see is as the house might perceive it. As a silent witness to centuries of war and injustice, this is indeed a haunted house, and Aita could be an attempt to exorcise some of the ghosts.

In a scene where school children visit the house, two girls whisper to each other in the attic. When one tells the other they should leave because she’s scared, I was reminded of Victor Erice’s masterful Spirit of the Beehive (1973), another subtle Spanish film about a nation haunted by its past. It’s also worth noting that Aita is another name for Hades: lord of death, ruler of the underworld, the invisible or unseen one. I wouldn’t know if this had anything to do with choosing the name of the film, but it is an interesting aside.

Throughout the film, a number of (mostly playful) conversations between the mansion’s elderly caretaker and a younger priest allude to various themes and ideas, such as whether the past should be unearthed and examined or simply left in peace. All the while, the film patiently waits on the house to reveal itself. Shown but never fully revealed, the house remains something of an enigma, but as night falls it does indeed start to speak, as images from the past flicker upon walls. Silhouettes (of former occupants perhaps) and numerous other ghosts silently re-enact their eternal rituals in a captivating display of light and texture, a purely cinematic sequence reminiscent of Bill Morrison’s equally extraordinary Decasia (2002). Of the many films I saw at this year’s festival, Aita was probably the most original. While the pacing may test some, those with an eye and an ear for such rarefied delicacies will be well rewarded.

As the titular centre of Pia Marais’s At Ellen’s Age, Jeanne Balibar delivers a skilfully restrained performance of a woman suffering a crisis of identity that sets her on an aimless journey of self-discovery. As the still point of Marais’s appropriately meandering film (a risky formal identification with the main character that caused the film to teeter a few times), Balibar’s deliberately dislocated performance anchors a supporting cast who skate perilously close to caricature, particularly Julia Hummer (who did very good work in early Christian Petzold films), as a prescriptively humourless idealist. The prolonged central section, wherein Ellen falls in with a group of animal rights activists, wears out its welcome well before Marais shifts focus again, but just when it seems that Ellen will never reconnect with a world that no longer holds meaning for her, Marais slips into the kind of territory we associate with Claire Denis. The mysteriously elusive quality of the final section introduces a layer of cinematic depth that previously had only been hinted at. By turns intriguing and slightly irritating, At Ellen’s Age asks a lot from the audience, and it’s questionable if that patience is adequately rewarded. While fitfully reminiscent of the Berlin School, the film doesn’t quite have the rigour associated with the best of the movement, but Marais’s coolly controlled style and preparedness to take formal risks suggests that she could be worth keeping an eye on.

It’s tempting to surmise that the casting of Brad Pitt may have coaxed a larger audience to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life than might otherwise have been the case, given the scoffing incredulity from many in the packed Civic theatre. Even the mercifully brief inclusion of CGI dinosaurs did nothing to temper the tittering. There’s a chance that even Malick fans may come away from the film lukewarm, although the critical reception has been very glowing indeed. Even with a Palme d’Or in train, it’s possible that word-of-mouth may not be enthusiastic enough to ensure solid numbers when the film gets a theatrical release, which would be a shame given that Malick’s new film is his most personal.

With a narrative structure that isn’t exactly conventional, and with sections that could be described as experimental, The Tree of Life could be formally challenging for mainstream audiences, even though it’s not especially complex or difficult. Indeed, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror and Solaris are possible touchstones, as might the metaphysical and/or philosophic ruminations of Stanley Kubrick, Gaspar Noe and Lars von Trier (hyperbole notwithstanding). The final section recalls the end of Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s Siberiade, stylistically very different of course, but similar as a depiction of afterlife reconciliation, forgiveness, redemption and ultimate peace.

As the title suggests, The Tree of Life is a poetic contemplation on God, the Universe, and everything in it, but regardless of the universality of its themes, it’s an undeniably American work of art. While Malick’s philosophical point of reference is Christian, it seems to me that the film is a sincere attempt to evaluate what it means to be American at this particular point in history, a timely notion given the present state of that country (and the world). The opening quote from the Book of Job (where God asks, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth”) is a likely admonishment aimed at those who assume repressive and/or destructive power over others (and the planet). But the question challenges all of us to consider who we are—or who we think we are.

In terms of plot, the film is essentially a visualisation of the fragmented memories, thoughts and imaginings of Jack O’Brien (played almost wordlessly by Sean Penn), as he tries to come to terms with troubling questions concerning his sense of worthlessness (located in feelings of guilt) and the apparent meaninglessness of existence. The relationship with his well-meaning but stern father (well played by Brad Pitt as the embodiment of law, order, survival of the fittest, of doing it hard, and doing it alone) and his idealised mother (Jessica Chastain, the embodiment of chastity, love, forgiveness, and grace) is central to Jack’s existential crisis and quest for reconciliation.

While The Tree of Life is a boldly conceived and quite remarkable piece of cinema, I’m not sure that I’m likely to revisit it any time soon. I have respect and admiration for it, and will defend it against those inclined to mock it, but that fact is Malick’s film has rekindled a hankering for Tarkovsky—to go back to the source, as it were. This may be because it is, above all, a very American vision. The metaphysical threads are woven into a view of the world that doesn’t connect with me (and possibly other New Zealanders too) as much as it’s likely to for Americans. Tarkovsky, on the other hand, resonates more deeply. Even if I don’t always grasp the subtleties of his work (the uniquely Russian aspects), they nevertheless flow through me. With Malick, I converse with him (quite happily) from an adjacent chair.

Despite Lars von Trier’s purported reverence for Tarkovsky, even the most successful of the wayward Dane’s films jump on the furniture in the next room, none more so than his latest concoction, Melancholia. Aside from the magnificent opening, much of the film (especially the first half, which plays like an over-cooked adolescent homage to Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen [The Celebration, 1998], a good, but by no means great film) is characterised by the self-congratulatory (if not masturbatory) mannerisms of Dogme 95: frenetic cameras, specious jump-cuts, and the unrestrained scenery-chewing of ill-disciplined ac-tors. Even the weight and majesty of the opening was repeatedly undermined each time von Trier returned to Wagner’s enthralling prelude from Tristan und Isolde. Having shot his bolt in the first few minutes, each new attempt to coax an erection felt increasingly desperate. He essentially conveyed in the opening ten minutes what he proceeded to spend the next two hours labouring over. If it had a little more meat on its bones, I might have been tempted to make a case for it as a development in Von Trier’s ongoing examination of his personal (and our global) narcissistic dysfunctionality, but the film is too thematically and formally slight to justify that degree of effort, and frankly, dignifying von Trier’s misanthropy for a second time would be twice too many. I will admit, I enjoyed a quiet titter when Justine (Kirsten Dunst) said, “What do I think about it? I think it’s a piece of shit!”

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.