Heavyweight themes, vanity and pretence, escapes from escapism—just another absorbing year at the New Zealand International Film Festival.
The New Zealand International Film Festival programme boasted an unprecedented assembly of the good and the great, and one of the unpredictable pleasures of such a well-curated festival is the way that the films inform each other. Indeed, many of the films this year shared similar themes: crime and punishment; the vagaries of conscience; examining and facing up to the past; rationalising guilt and culpability; and taking responsibility for personal and collective dysfunction.
Alas, there were clunkers, perhaps none more so than Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, not so much for its thematic or aesthetic properties, but because Malick scuttled them with his infatuation with facile beauty and penchant for coaxing ingratiating performances from actors. Olga Kurylenko’s turn was excruciatingly vain, and Rachel McAdams fared little better, both overplaying the coy, pigeon-toed baby doll: sham fragility and vulnerability, and a creepy childlike sexuality. Ben Affleck spent the movie in male model mode, all brooding and vacuous, while Javier Bardem did what he could with his character’s crisis of faith. It was all Vogue and Marlboro Man, but despite the shameful pandering, To the Wonder has been hailed as a masterful meditation on Love—human love on one hand, Divine Love on the other. We are, of course, expected to accept that this was Malick’s high-minded intention, when in fact he is a mere hop, skip, and jump (something the women do endlessly) away from David Hamilton. Whether or not the film succeeds resides in how readily one is prepared to overlook (or simply not notice) the glaring vanity of the work.
Vanity characterised another disappointing film this year, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. Overreaching, sophomoric, less than the sum of its often corny and contrived parts, it’s hard to understand how such a pretentious undertaking (concept, performances, direction) has had near-unanimous acclaim. It plays like a short film expanded to a feature. Amy Seimetz has a crack at her own version of the pigeon-toed objet-de-désir, proving that she too can be as vain as any Ukrainian. On that level, Carruth gives her a run for her money. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a bad word against Upstream Color, or for that matter the new vampire-themed film from Jim Jarmusch, Only Lovers Left Alive. Typically downbeat, this too-cool-for-school, faux-retro trifle has been touted as a return to form after the ‘misstep’ of The Limits of Control, a film that was in fact a high point for Jarmusch despite failing to connect with his usual audience. If his usual audience want superficial and shallow, they get it in spades from Only Lovers Left Alive, and it seems they couldn’t be happier, with some calling it his most “poetic film since Dead Man.” It might strain credibility to suggest that this is Jarmusch’s Wings of Desire, which, in an oddly inverted way, it kind of resembles. In the end, the only vampire here is Jarmusch, and the real victims are his audience.
Other disappointments this year included Dormant Beauty by Marco Bellocchio (who made the excellent Fist in the Pocket in the mid-60s), a film about euthanasia that someone should have mercifully found a pillow for earlier in the production. Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa featured a cast of otherwise capable actors struggling to find credibility (or rhythm) in what was little more than a TV-movie. Prior to his death, Raul Ruiz planned to make Lines of Wellington. His widow, Valeria Sarmiento, took up the task, and while it was certainly handsome to look at on the big Civic screen (a banquet-table laden with eye-catching morsels), it was not a film by Raul Ruiz.
I had no expectations prior to seeing Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, apart from knowing about its positive Cannes reception and 100% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, neither being any kind of guarantee that it would be a great film. As it turned out, it wasn’t, but I can see why people love it—there is much to enjoy. The difficulty I had with the film is that it borrows way too much from Fellini. For most, this will likely be a good thing, but it was too much the ‘homage’ for me, a relentless (if impressive) riff on La Dolce Vita, with Marcello (now Jep) taking stock at the precipice of old age. Scene after beautiful scene luxuriates in elegance, privilege, decadence, cynicism, selfishness, contempt, vanity, and fear, all managed with wit and graceful aplomb. But for all the style and stature, there’s something hollow and perhaps even forgettable about Sorrentino’s ‘masterwork’. Whether The Great Beauty proves to be more than a spectacularly mounted monument to surfaces and indulgences remains to be seen. Of course, some will claim that therein lies the greatness of the film…
I liked Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son, appreciating its subliminal portrayal of a rigid and unforgiving society, but there’s also a disconcerting reactionary glibness to the work. The overfamiliar plot concerns babies switched at birth: one working class, the other upwardly mobile. It’s a scenario that sails perilously close to patronising sentiment, to say nothing of cliché and easy targets. To a degree, the same could be said of I Wish, Kore-eda’s previous film, where the cute factor and dinky score tested the sensibilities of those who equate him with Still Walking, Nobody Knows, and Maborosi. One wonders if the Ozu mantle might be sitting a little heavily on Kore-eda’s shoulders. One thing Ozu understood was that even a film aimed at the mainstream needn’t pander to facile sentiment.
I never cared much for Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest or Dial M for Murder, but seeing them as intended (on a big screen in a theatre full of enthusiastic punters) helped me appreciate them as entertaining examples of Hitchcock working through many of his favourite themes. They were, I admit, a lot of fun, even if they were at times a little clunky. Still, North By Northwest simply isn’t in the same league as Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window, or (one of my favourites) The Wrong Man, one of Hitchcock’s most underrated films, and also one of his saddest and most restrained. Satyajit Ray’s Charulata was magnificent. Restored to luminous glory, the film was a revelation, and Ray’s direction and sound design were masterful. Everyone agreed that King Vidor’s The Crowd was special, but I struggled with it. There were fine moments certainly, but the film (and score) sailed right by me. However, Buster Keaton’s Cops and The Cameraman were a delight, perfectly accompanied by Timothy Brock’s scores, performed (beautifully) by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra under the deft baton of Marc Taddei. The Civic sound engineers deserve special mention for their excellent audio reproduction.
If I had to pick a single standout, it would be Norte, the End of History. The prospect of seeing a Lav Diaz film screened in a theatre again is unlikely—his films are notoriously long, some up to 11 hours (not exactly distributor-friendly). Taking full advantage of the opportunity, I saw it twice—the second viewing more impressive than the first. One of the reasons for my enthusiasm is that Diaz is committed to cinema as a platform for personal artistic expression and socio-political discussion, and is rigorously wedded to the belief that form follows function. Among other things, Norte explores the tenuous line between idealism and fascism, guilt and innocence, crime and punishment, love and forgiveness, fate and justice. There’s much to absorb and plenty ponder in this meticulous, stimulating, magnificent work. A single viewing simply isn’t enough.
Of course, Norte wasn’t the only big-hitter this year. One of the most affecting was Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, along with its inadvertent companion-piece, Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture. This unclassifiable film focuses on those who were charged with ridding Indonesia of ‘communism’ in the mid-60s, paramilitary death squads made up of gangsters (or ‘free men’ as they like to translate the term) who murdered over a million countrymen, mostly intellectuals, leftists, and ethnic Chinese. Now, as respected elderly men, they’re making a film to celebrate their ‘heroic’ past. The Act of Killing is primarily a portrait of one of the most feared of these men as he gradually confronts his polluted soul. It is a film like no other, a journey to the banal heart of darkness that offers an insight into the elemental nature of humankind.
Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture recounts the atrocities Cambodia suffered under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the mid-70s. Using hundreds, if not thousands of hand-carved figures, Panh reconstructs the events and experiences that he, his family and wider community endured. The Missing Picture handles its subject matter with more poetry (and less visceral intensity) than The Act of Killing, at times recalling the lyricism of Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, but the underlying sorrow is as palpable. Both films are driven by the urge to bare witness to history, to the memory of the victims, and to reflect on the destructive potential of ideologies of all hues. They should be mandatory for everyone of university age and older.
Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux is another film that considers humankind’s propensity for enmity and violence: the vulnerability of the innocent; spiritual corruption; and embedded codes of dysfunction. The opening minutes alone are worth the ticket price, a cinematic tour de force in which Reygadas lays down the thematic substance of his film. While perhaps not overtly influenced by Tarkovsky’s Mirror, Post Tenebras Lux is similar in that it is an attempt (a very successful one) to find a personal cinematic language. The story is a loose pretext on which to explore ideas similar to those in Norte and The Act of Killing, the pressing necessity to acknowledge and take responsibility for personal and/or collective dysfunction. Post Tenebras Lux is an exceptional work that requires more than a single viewing to appreciate.
The same could be said in every respect about Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s terrific Leviathan, a wholly immersive sensory experience that completely took me by surprise. Ostensibly a documentary, the film is shot in such a way that at first glance one might mistake it for an experimental or abstract art film, something made in the tradition of the American Avant-garde. On those terms alone it would be remarkable, but Leviathan is acutely focused on the rhythms, sounds, colours, sensations and experiences of the natural world, specifically that of deep-sea fishing. If you’re wary about sitting through a documentary on such a subject, rest assured that this was one the most visceral and affecting films of the festival, unreservedly and unapologetically committed to an active engagement with cinema, and wholly respectful of the viewer. It needs to be seen on a big screen with a big loud sound system.
Wang Bing’s Three Sisters is more demanding, similar to Leviathan only in that it eschews narration and overt narrative in favour of a contemplative visual language. Wang is regarded as one the most important documentarists of his generation, renowned for his no-frills long-form approach in works such as West of the Tracks, a momentous nine-hour epic that bares witness to the lives of workers in Northwest China, otherwise known as the ‘rust belt’. Three Sisters is a quotidian portrait of rural life in a remote area of Yunnan province, focusing on three motherless children (their mother, we learn, ran off some time ago) who virtually fend for themselves while their father seeks work. Wang’s artless, unadorned images speak eloquently to the deprivation at the heart of China’s unrelenting (some say vicious) social and economic transformation.
In A Touch of Sin, Jia Zhang-ke continues of his career-long examination of the less than glowing flipside of China’s massive upheaval. The film is constructed around four loosely interlinked stories based on real-life incidents of violence, although Jia elects to treat these jarring moments in the comic-book style of Wuxia martial arts movies. By doing so he tones down the violence, but also uses it as a critical signifier of the dysfunction and consequent violence associated with commercial self-interest, corruption, and the contempt visited upon the disenfranchised. Perhaps more than any of his previous films, A Touch of Sin addresses Chinese audiences directly, bluntly laying down a challenge in the final shot where he asks, “Do you understand your sin?” Once again, the theme of acknowledging, if not taking responsibility for embedded dysfunction looms large. A solid work, but not (in my view) top-draw Jia, even with the effective reference to Nietzsche.
Jem Cohen’s very fine Museum Hours was one of the last films I saw in the festival, which might account for my impression that this intelligent, highly original film was at times irritatingly impatient. Given the general consensus that the film is leisurely, it must seem perverse of me to criticise it for not being slower, but in the wake of formally resolute works such as Norte, Leviathan and Three Sisters, it was hurried and chatty. For a film that is at least a partial meditation on the meaning and value of images, it was frustrating that Cohen chose to cut so often and so quickly. It was as if he had so much material that he would rather use it all briefly than leave some of it out, or to risk a more languorous film by letting images breath (especially the exquisitely framed cityscapes). Putting less in (including dialogue, of which there was too much, in my view) and allowing more time for reflection could have produced a more powerful work, and one that might have been even more cinematic.
Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is an intelligently constructed investigation into her own family history, a documentary that seamlessly blends home-movie footage and reconstructions with present day material in which the Polley family attempt to unravel the tangled complexities of familial relationships and the vagaries of memory. Given her intimate involvement with the subject matter, Polley’s film is remarkably even-handed and respectful, a wise, sensitive document that accepts the unknowable and avoids the pitfalls and temptations of creating a personal mythology.
Turning 105 in December, the inspirational and seemingly unstoppable Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira continues to produce a film a year, something he has consistently managed since his early 60s, and all to a very high level. Gebo and the Shadow is a masterful adaptation of an early 1920s play by Portuguese writer, Raul Brandao (purportedly an influence on Beckett’s Waiting for Godot). Set almost entirely in one room, Oliveira considered shooting this chamber-piece in one take, a conceit that lingers in the finished film with its long takes and measured performances. Michael Lonsdale is a treat to watch as the long-suffering Gebo, as are Claudia Cardinale (Gebo’s narcissistic wife) and Jeanne Moreau (an old friend). The three remaining principals are played superbly by Oliveira regulars, Ricardo Trepa (Gebo’s nihilistic son), Leonor Silveira (Gebo’s neglected daughter-in-law) and Luis Miguel Cintra (another of Gebo’s friends). The tone and meaning of the work may be dour and the pace slow, but the film is a pleasure to watch. It also stands alongside other films this year in reflecting the recurring theme of acknowledging and taking responsibility for the consequences of dysfunction. It’s also a not-so-veiled comment on the criminal opportunism that led to the 2008 monetary crisis.
Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love playfully juggles a tongue-in-cheek tale of misunderstandings and mistaken identities in a seemingly light but engaging manner, a perfectly cooked soufflé that recalls the miniature gems of Manoel de Oliveira in terms of its philosophic wisdom and lean cinematic mastery. At first I mistook the film as slight, designed to tease and provoke audience expectations. But as I thought about it, it became evident that there was more to the film than meets the eye—literally! Indeed, what happens out of frame is potentially more important than anything we are shown. Like Someone in Love is a more ambiguous film than it seems. Deftly walking a fine line between reality and illusion, it has much in common with previous Kiarostami works, particularly Certified Copy. The opening scene signals that everything may not be what it seems, and Kiarostami keeps his characters and audience guessing—well after they leave the theatre! Kiarostami aficionados have permission to take a touch of perverse pleasure over the perplexed lobby chatter afterwards. It’ll be our wee secret.
As an ardent follower of Bruno Dumont, the chance to see his new film on the big Civic screen was a no-brainer. Camille Claudel, 1915 is, superficially at least, something of a departure for Dumont, in that it is the first time he has made a film set a film in a historic period, about a real historic person, and played by an international star. With Juliette Binoche in tow and subject matter with potentially wide appeal, the burning question was, will Dumont pull it all together? Will the film be consistent with his preoccupations? We needn’t have worried—the film is a triumph. It is, in every respect, a fitting addition to Dumont’s oeuvre. Binoche delivers a performance of extraordinary depth and restraint, and Jean-Luc Vincent (as Camille’s brother, Paul) is excellent as a devout, serious-minded man whose doctrinal moral certainty provides Dumont with the philosophic complexities for which his films are renowned. Camille Claudel, 1915 is a perfectly judged substantial work from one the most original and uncompromising cinematic artists of our time. You heard it here!
Korean director Hong Sang-soo continues to blur lines between the real and the illusory in Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, an amusing, but also very touching film about an insecure young woman struggling with personal isolation and the albeit distant but nonetheless unsettling certainty of death. While the film isn’t as bleak as that description suggests, a distinct sadness informs many of the scenes, which culminate in a poignant finale. The film rhymes and resonates with much of Hong’s previous work, but for the first time (as far as I recall) the primary perspective belongs to a female character. As Haewon, Jung Eun-chae’s performance is skilful and understated, revealing and concealing with simultaneous ease. The influence of Eric Rohmer is still there, but as always Hong’s distinctive artistic sensibility is dominant throughout. Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is another jewel from Korea’s most consistent auteur.
Ulrich Seidl’s trilogy Paradise: Love, Faith and Hope was one of the major inclusions in this year’s festival. Admittedly, his films are not everyone’s cup of tea: blunt, confrontational, frequently explicit, and always challenging. His detractors will tell you that watching a Seidl film is like having one’s nose rubbed in shit, to which he responds that “some people believe that things that ‘shouldn’t be there’ mustn’t be shown.” Seidl has no interest in maintaining a polite distance from the meaty substance of human society, which he dissects with surgical honesty and compassion. Cameraman Ed Lachman succinctly described Seidl’s films as “moral without being moralistic.” and someone perceptively called them “escapes from escapism.” His films are tough because he refuses to kowtow to the fictions we hide behind. His films strive to strip all pretence away to reveal the elaborate monuments we build to Denial, and he tries to ensure that viewers cannot walk away from one of his films without recognising their own complicity. Consequently, his films are renowned for walkouts.
In the Paradise Trilogy, each film focuses on one of three women from the same family. In Love, Teresa travels to Africa as a first-time sex tourist; in Faith, Teresa’s religious sister Anna Maria struggles to keep a grip on what’s left of reality; and in Hope, Teresa’s daughter Melanie goes to a camp for overweight teens where she develops a crush on a much older man. None of these characters have an easy time of it, and each goes to great lengths to pursue happiness and fulfilment. Their dignity is compromised in the process, but they each come to a point where they eventually face themselves. If you’re not familiar with the work of Ulrich Seidl, do yourself a favour and take the litmus test of Paradise Trilogy. One way or another, these films will tell you something about yourself.
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I started by saying that many films this year shared similarities in terms of themes concerned with personal or social dysfunction (or the roots of it), and various responses to it. In almost all instances, the abiding impression is that crime is largely defined by the powerful, and punishment is largely reserved for the powerless. Notions of justice and morality are abstracted to the realm of personal (rather than collective) consciousness, where guilt is relative, punishment is arbitrary, and moral or philosophic reflection is largely the reserve of the privileged. This, in essence, is the central theme of Norte. As the final shots show, the rain falls and the sun shines on the just and the unjust alike.
The impact of enmity and greed (as guiding principles in human affairs) on our spiritual wellbeing (our sense of self and the health of our psyche, both as individuals and societies) is very much at the heart of Norte. It is also, to varying degrees, at the heart of The Act of Killing, The Missing Picture, Post Tenebras Lux, Gatekeepers, Dirty Wars, A Touch of Sin, Gebo and the Shadow, Gore Vidal: the United States of Amnesia, Three Sisters, We Steal Secrets, Child’s Pose, The Spirit of 45, Omar, Harmony Lessons, Terms and Conditions, Camille Claudel, Silence in the House of God, Paradise: Love, Faith and Hope, and quite possibly a good many others. Whether the filmmakers are aware of it or not, the underlying question in their work is, what does it take before empathy is reduced to zero? There’s a clip on YouTube that shows a toddler being run over by a van. 19 people walk by (some stepping over the child) before someone helps. To make matters worse, a second vehicle blithely runs over the infant. While it’s a challenge to understand the circumstances necessary to induce this degree of detachment, I suspect that a lack of empathy of this order may not be as foreign to each of us we might like to think.
There were other strong films, but I’ve run out of time to talk about them. Some were exceptional, such as The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zürcher), Child’s Pose (Calin Peter Netzer), Harmony Lessons (Emir Baigazin), Everyday Objects (Nicolas Wackerbarth), and The Past (Asghar Farhadi); and others were also worth seeing, such as The Gatekeepers (Dror Moreh), Dirty Wars (Richard Rowley), The Spirit of ’45 (Ken Loach), Omar (Hany Abu-Assad), Terms and Conditions (Cullen Hoback), and Gore Vidal: the United States of Amnesia (Nicholas Wrathall). There were many I couldn’t get to, such as The Dance of Reality, The Perverts Guide to Ideology, Computer Chess, Hannah Arendt, La juala de oro, My Sweet Pepper Land, Gloria, Mood Indigo, Stranger by the Lake, and Ilo Ilo, so I’ll just have to accept that I missed some great films this year.