In the likes of Bluebeard, Wendy and Lucy, Jeanne Dielman and 35 Shots of Rum, women filmmakers provided much of the poetry at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival, writes STEVE GARDEN.


ALAS, Auckland’s hosting of the New Zealand International Film Festival is over, leaving those of us who dined on as many cinematic delights as could fit on our plate sated and in need of a good kip. Among the smorgasbord, there were generous portions of cinematic poetry to savour, much of it directed by women. Jane Campion led from the front with Bright Star, a fittingly artful tale about the love between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne. This graceful film shows Campion at her best, and while some might quibble over the contemporary sophistication of the acting, the fact is the film was made for a modern and arguably youngish audience.

Bright Star is unashamedly romantic, a strength that informs Campion’s consideration of the cost of love in a constrictive patriarchal society. While Keats is the best-known figure in the film, the central character is Brawne. This is her story, and as such, it’s another of Campion’s career-long studies in gender politics and female sexual identity. Parallel to the main narrative is a subtle (near-subliminal) thread concerning the love Samuel Brown may have had for Fanny, outwardly denied by his casual disdain for her. It remains a barely perceptible possibility until after Keats’ death, when we see Brown observe Fanny from a distance with an air of regret – for her or Keats perhaps, or more likely himself.

The filmmaking is of undeniable quality, yet Bright Star is rather conventional. It may be an unfair comparison, but there is little of the reflective poetry found in something like Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh. I’m not saying that Campion’s film has no poetry (far from it), but there is little room for contemplation. It would have been nice to linger on images a while, such as the beautiful shot of wind blowing over Fanny as she lay on her bed. The shot lasts as long as necessary to get the idea across, but not enough to fully appreciate its intrinsic poetry. The film moves at a reasonable (though by no means hurried) clip, favouring character and story over atmosphere or nuance. It’s possible that the tussle between art and commerce may have raised its compromising head, but the fact is, Campion’s filmmaking is geared towards quality big screen productions, movies for intelligent and perceptive viewers, but not necessarily those with an informed or passionate eye for cinematic art.

The same can’t be said about Catherine Breillat or her new film, Bluebeard. A work of art first and foremost, this adaptation of Perrault’s classic fable of the infamous wife-killing nobleman is more accessible than her transgressive/confrontational work, yet it’s unlikely to attract as many punters as Campion’s more mainstream film. Shot with deliberate theatricality (like a storybook come to life), Breillat emphasises Bluebeard’s God-like character in order to scuttle the notion of patriarchal authority. The story mirrors the biblical tale of Eve disobeying God by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. The consequence of Sin is death, so when Bluebeard’s young wife Marie-Catherine enters a room he forbad her to (acquiring forbidden knowledge) he has no option but to kill her.

Breillat juxtaposes the tale with scenes set in the 50s, where two sisters (ostensibly she and her older sister) read the story in the attic of their home. The older girl is more willing to accept the happily-ever-after fiction of romantic love, the consequence of which is revealed in Breillat’s final twist. The film ends with a stunning shot of Marie-Catherine set in a Mannerist pose with Bluebeard’s severed head on a platter, casting her as an icon for a new age where God and His patriarchy are vanquished. Bluebeard is a deceptively simple distillation of Breillat’s themes (the power and fear of female sexuality), and a genuinely charming, formally attractive, intellectually satisfying film.


‘Before Tomorrow’

The power of myth resonates in a more primordial fashion in Marie-Helene Cousineau and Madeline Ivalu’s, Before Tomorrow, the third in a series of films preceded by Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner and The Journals of Knud Rasmussen. This beautiful and precisely focused film, rich in mythic evocation, is a reinterpretation of ancient tales traditionally passed down orally. Made by the Isuma women’s collective, the film observes the centuries-old daily routines of Inuit tribes before morphing into a tale of struggle against a harsh environment, and an even harsher adversary.

The performances are totally convincing, particularly Madeline Ivalu and Paul-Dylan Ivalu in the central roles of grandmother and grandson, and the naturalistic restraint lends the film a doco-like conviction. The measured pace may tax some (particularly when trapped in a stuffy, poorly air-conditioned theatre like the Academy), but a more emphatic approach would have worked against the organic rhythm of the storytelling, the veracity of the world it depicts, and its natural elemental poetry. Before Tomorrow is a film one absorbs rather than understands, although it is by no means overly cryptic or esoteric. It’s a metaphor for the havoc visited upon the Inuit following the arrival of Europeans, when a 12,000-year-old civilisation was decimated within a century. This humane, dignified and inspiring film requires a fully engaged viewing attitude, but will amply reward attentive and perceptive filmgoers.

Mythic forces of a quite different kind abound in Philippe Grandrieux’s Un Lac. With epic imagery of forbidding mountains, dark forests and snow-covered landscapes, this gothic-tinged tale of an isolated woodcutting family and the handsome stranger who wanders into their midst (with an eye for their flush-cheeked daughter), evokes fables of another era. Beautifully shot images rich in earthy romantic primitivism recall the alluring influence of David Casper Friedrich on Alexandr Sokurov. Some have likened the visual style to Bela Tarr and Fred Kelemen, but there is an even stronger likeness to Werner Herzog’s Heart of Glass, or the films of Sharunas Bartas (as I mentioned in an earlier review). The similarities with Bartas can be seen in the choice of faces, the spare use of dialogue, the physical presence of the images, and the awareness of near-mythic forces beyond our control. In a Bartas film, such forces are distinctly socio-political, but in Un Lac they are fundamental and visceral.

I expect that some (perhaps many) will find Un Lac pretentious. The romantic fatalism will irritate some, the mannered acting will annoy others (but oddly, for once, not me), and some will claim that the film lacks the rigour that could have made it a stronger more persuasive work. But the enclosed world of Un Lac has a tactile beauty that few films in this festival could equal, with its attractively expressive style, reduced palette and palpable energy. Its visionary poetry and minimalist abstraction shows, in my view, that Grandrieux is moving in the right direction. His earlier films (Sombre and La vie nouvelle) have an urgency and presence that not only demands our attention, but that we take them seriously. His cinema has little use for narrative or characters in a ‘real world’ sense. Stories are pretexts by which he takes the viewer to places where he hopes they will connect with something fundamental to their nature or experience of the world – fear, desire, the unknown, the contrast between what we think we know and what we feel. Grandrieux is searching for a new cinematic methodology to explore those things we (and cinema) generally ignore, to create cinematic excursions into the unconscious.

When he talks about films, Grandrieux talks in terms of sensations and impressions rather than ideas. His films are more like dreams, nightmares or visions, concerned with perception and ‘being’ rather than politics, social perspectives and so on, except in so far as they inform the experiential quality of his work. In this respect, Grandrieux’s films strive to be pure cinematic poetry, and their faults are evidence of his desire to surprise himself, to work at a frantic speed, and to be ‘completely invested in the body of the moment’, as he describes it. Whatever one makes of Un Lac, there can be little doubt that it is the work of an artist deeply preoccupied with the visceral relevance of cinema.


‘Treeless Mountain’

I regret missing So Yong Kim’s first film, In Between Days, when it screened here a few years ago, but her new film, Treeless Mountain, offers ample proof that she is a seriously talented filmmaker with a taste for intimate images, relaxed pacing, formal understatement, and an unforced approach to narrative. Kim’s camera (deftly helmed by Anne Misawa) gets remarkably close to her two young protagonists, and for once, the heavy cropping of the image at the Academy Theatre might have added to (rather than compromising, as it usually does) the claustrophobic quality of the compositions. The acting is very good, but the performances of 9-year-old Hee Yeon Kim (as Jin) and 5-year-old Song Hee Kim (as Bin) are quite astonishing. Kim pays close attention to the minutiae of life, conveying a palpable sense of how imposing the world is for these young girls as it focuses on their uncomprehending view of the callous, self-absorbed behaviour of adults.

The title literally refers to a mound of dirt near the bus stop where they expect mum to return, but it also evokes the loneliness of abandonment. For all its poignancy, there is nothing cloying about the film. Kim is very adept at realising moments of kindness and affirmation with a minimum of pathos. While the final shot of the children skipping along a country path might seem optimistic and pastoral, the earthmoving equipment portentously chewing up the landscape in the background suggests that the unkind world they recently escaped may soon encroach upon their newfound tranquillity. The future for these kids is not so certain.

The future for Wendy and Lucy at the end of Kelly Reichardt’s sober portrayal of social and economic despair in blue-collar America is equally uncertain. When asked about the political content of her films, Reichardt said that the ideal political film is personal, where the political content is subsumed into the story and its characters, not imposed on them. She acknowledges the influence of Italian neo-realism (Umberto D., Bicycle Thief), Iranian cinema and the New German Cinema of the 70s (the new Berlin School might have also impressed her, especially the films of Valeska Grisebach), but the main influence on Wendy and Lucy is the increasing divide between rich and poor. While the film has a vital political component, its artless quotidian poetry says it all.

Reichardt values her artistic freedom, and when interviewed by Ryan Stewart of Slant Magazine, she took umbrage at the suggestion that she might turn her back on low-budget filmmaking once she has had more ‘success’. This opened a rather hot can-of-worms, the upshot of which was her assertion that ‘big’ films invariably equate to even bigger compromises. Reichardt feels lucky to have ideas that work on an affordable scale, where she can maintain control and avoid being skewered by the need for good box-office. This speaks volumes about political conviction and formal choices. What or who is being served by big budget entertainment? What responsibility do filmmakers have in terms of the impact of such films? “I had this epiphany while standing in a field with friends making an art project,” Reichardt said, “This is the pinnacle.”

Chantal Akerman would probably agree. Her astonishing Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a near-transcendental example of politicised poetic minimalism. The word ‘masterpiece’ is bandied about so freely that her film virtually requires a new word to compliment its stature and value as cinematic art. For a little over three hours we watch Jeanne go about her daily rituals as homemaker, mother and prostitute: peeling potatoes, polishing shoes and servicing gentlemen in her spotless, well-kept apartment. As things unravel, we realise that this efficient woman is not only defined by her routines (her place within patriarchal capitalism), but that there is nothing more to her. When Jeanne finally realises this troubling fact, she reacts.

In Jeanne Dielman, Akerman shows everything but explains nothing. She invites us to observe, consider, and draw our own conclusions. Dialogue is minimal, shots are long and always at a distance (the mid-shot is as close as we get to Jeanne), and the camera rarely moves. Lengthy sequences of banal activity outline the precision with which she carefully maintains her prison, filtering out unwelcome intrusions or demands. The film can also be seen as a thesis on cinema: the voyeuristic pleasure of looking without being seen; viewer identification/expectation; the cinematic narrative and the function of catharsis; the effect of duration; the cinematic gaze and gender politics, and so on. Opinion is divided as to whether the film actually is the feminist polemic it is generally taken to be (even Akerman isn’t sure), but there is no doubting its importance as one of the most critically influential works of cinema. Jeanne Dielman is a formally precise, thematically ambiguous, monumental work of art. No other film in this festival had such a rigorous singularity of vision – although Albert Serra’s Birdsong came close.


‘Birdsong’

After flicking through the festival booklet, Mr Serra openly claimed that his film was ‘the’ masterpiece of the festival. And why not – poetic above all, Birdsong is an exacting and gloriously cinematic work of art. Apart from Jeanne Dielman, no other film had the same audacious experiential quality. Like Pasolini’s Gospel According to Matthew, Serra’s account of the journey of the Magi is approached with reverence and humility, without subscribing to (or, for that matter, refuting) the religious aspects of the story. The characters are unremarkably human – simple people with unshakable faith – but it’s the profound mystery of their humanity that interests Serra, who sees cinema as a place where the sacred and the profane combine to reveal something resembling truth. Striving to glimpse the elevated (perhaps even the transcendental or Eternal) within the mundane, Birdsong is a defiantly minimalist ode to the poetic potential of cinema. Whether it’s a masterpiece or not is irrelevant, and in any event it’s too soon to say, but all self-respecting film-buffs should make an effort to see this uncompromising film, at least once!

While not quite in the same league as Serra’s highly cinematic abstract expressionism, Nina Hedenius takes a quietly meditative approach to her subject matter in Way of Nature, aiming for a simple visual poetry to balance her humble political intentions. She almost succeeds. Way of Nature is a gentle elegiac study of the cycles of life on a Swedish dairy farm run by Karl-Gustav Hedling, a man renowned for his efforts to ensure the genetic survival of native breeds of animals. Shot over the course of a year (from one winter to the next), this ‘made for TV’ film is pro-life in an elemental sense, a celebration of the seasonal rhythms of farm life that reveals the symbiotic relationship between humankind and the natural world. Karl-Gustav is an inspiring fellow, and his work is worthy of our attention, but while Way of Nature may be great television, as cinema I’m not so sure.

On paper, this is my kind of documentary: primarily visual, reflective, no dialogue, no narration, pertinent subject matter, etc., but the viewing experience was disappointing. The film raised unintended questions about when to use music and when not to, and when is a shot too long or too short. The music of Charles Ives is lovely, but as with all the music in this film, it lent a degree of emotional gravity that felt intrusive, slightly pandering, and curiously fictionalising. More effective was Karl’s kitchen radio, with news-reports providing an effective contrast between an organic rural philosophy and the destructive short-term gains of consumption and greed.

But the main issue for me was shot length. There must have been a huge amount of footage to choose from (it was a year’s shoot, after all), which I guess accounts for the insistent cutting – not that it was hurried, but neither was it leisurely. After a while, the yearlong structure felt like a liability, as if there was too much to see and not enough time to show it. The steady cutting to something new and worthwhile (another birth here, another tree there) undermined the contemplative poetry that one assumes Way of Nature was striving for, making it feel slightly out of sync with the rhythms of the world it depicts. It began to feel like an education unit film for schools, or like flicking through a book on rural life. By not allowing room for what Raymond Depardon calls ‘reading time’ (the chance to consider what we are shown), Hedenius essentially holds the viewer captive, which ironically works against the advocacy of the ‘slow’ approach to life depicted by the film. The first birth we see (of a cow having twins) had an almost Depardon-like eloquence, but by the time the third foal struggled to get to its feet (with other animals looking on in silent awe before this everyday miracle), I was hanging out for winter to arrive so I could get out of the theatre. At 108 minutes, Way of Nature is hardly a long film, but it certainly felt that way in the fresh-air-starved Academy. Still, as a reminder of our interconnectedness with all things and as a gentle warning against squandering what is fundamentally precious, the film has undeniable value.


‘Still Walking’

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking is another film that examines the very human capacity for squandering what is fundamentally precious – in this case, familial love. The Yokoyama clan have gathered to observe the 15th anniversary of the accidental drowning of eldest son Junpei, a keenly felt raw-wound that continues to infect the lives of everyone in this damaged family. The central character (if indeed there is one) is Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), an unemployed art-restorer still living under the shadow of his favoured older brother. His defensive resentment is an early indication of unresolved tensions within a family accustomed to venting disappointment and pain by subtly swiping at each other. Ryota’s proud father, Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), fears a loss of respect and stature now he is retired as a doctor, pretending to busy himself in his office rather than engage with the family. The standards he set for himself and his family were obviously high, and he has never forgiven Ryota for failing to be the equal of Junpei. Ryota’s mother, Toshiko (Kirin Kiki, who incidentally delivers a note-perfect performance), cradles her loss and pain, and uses it to inflict discomfort on others. We see this at first hand when the boy Junpei saved from drowning (the action that cost him his life), now an overweight man with little prospects, is subtly made to suffer for being alive. Like everyone in this film, he is still walking but barely living.

The themes and emotional dynamics in Still Walking may be sober, but the film is far from cheerless, in fact, it’s a tender, warm, sometimes amusing, but always humane study of everyday regret and loss. In other hands, this could have been an intolerable angst-fest, but Kore-eda’s masterful exposition is free of undue emphasis or emotional grandstanding. He reveals characters and events with a light, almost wistful touch, encapsulated beautifully in a sequence with a yellow butterfly. While there are parallels with Ozu, they aren’t as deep as one might at first suppose, in fact the film has more in common with Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien in terms of its elegant rhythms and gently oblique narrative style. Still Walking is a great example of what cinema does well – conveying the ‘time of being’. Just before the coda, the parents climb the stone steps that have featured throughout the film as a subtle metaphor for the journey of life. As they climb out of the frame (and out of the movie), they also climb out of life. Beautifully written, performed and directed, Still Walking is Kore-eda’s most resonant and perceptive film to date, a finely crafted, mature addition to an impressive oeuvre.

Claire Denis’ latest gem, 35 Shots of Rum, is the most rare of jewels, not least for its convincing portrayal of a ‘functional’ family – something we don’t see too much of in contemporary cinema. This tender homage to Ozu honours the Japanese master as no other film has managed to date (including Hou Hsiao-hsien’s flawless Café Lumiere), by perfectly capturing the profound bond of love between a father and daughter, and the painful necessity of separation. I was reminded of Hou’s films a few of times during 35 Rums, the similarities and the differences, but particularly in the graceful, sensual, exhilarating cinematography of Agnès Godard (with a name like that, she was surely born for cinema). Then there are the trains and railway tracks, with their mesmerising, vortex-like captivation, (recalling Goodbye South, Goodbye and Café Lumiere), and a very welcome lack of explanatory dialogue or unnecessary chatter. There is a relaxed and effortless economy to the filmmaking, nothing is forced or emphasised, but gently conveyed through looks, gestures, and simply being. As in Jeanne Dielman (though of course, very differently), everything is shown, but little is explained. There is no overt political agenda here, apart from the profound politics of human love.

The idea of an homage to Ozu has been with Denis for years. After taking her mother to see Late Spring, she half-promised to ‘make a film like that’ for her one day. Initially daunted by the prospect, after seeing Hou’s Café Lumière she realised simplicity was the key. The spirit of Ozu hovers over the film in the same way that Bresson subtly informs Denis’s earlier Friday Night, a film similar to 35 Shots in terms of its grace, economy, sensuality and visually rich style. There are none of the complex, elliptical narrative threads seen in the equally good (though very different) The Intruder, and yet 35 Shots is every bit as sophisticated, perhaps more so. As the last film of the 2009 festival (well, except for Antichrist, but that will keep until later), 35 Shots is cinematic poetry at its most inconspicuous – easily missed, but completely elating for those who connect with its exquisite introspective subtlety. With 35 Shots of Rum, Claire Denis has created a quietly breathtaking work of art.

There are other films to talk about, such as Alexei German’s Paper Soldier (possibly my favourite film of the festival), Manoel de Oliveira’s gem, Eccentricities of Blond Hair Girl, and the latest chapter in Jia Zhang-ke’s ongoing examination of China’s massive social and economic upheaval, 24 City. Sadly, I have to toddle off and earn a living...

See also:
» Mid-Festival Report: Politics and other Predicaments




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