Dispatches from the first week of the New Zealand International Film Festival, including The Lobster, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and Tangerine.
Usually the domain of rousing or comedic sponsor-friendly fare, this year’s opening night film is perhaps the most challenging selection since Michael Haneke’s Caché (Hidden) opened the festival ten years ago. Despite being his English language debut, there was every reason to expect that Yorgos ‘Dogtooth’ Lanthimos’s The Lobster would defy its Colin Farrell/Rachel Weisz rom-com possibilities. Yet the film does turn out to be a rom-com, of sorts, filtered through Lanthimos’s distinctive brand of fucked-up deadpan satire. If the Greek auteur’s allegory of culturally enforced coupledom is a mite blunt, then its visceral absurdist trappings and intentionally stilted delivery serve to soften the blow, making for a perfectly blackened tragicomic big screen affair.
Another film filling out the Civic screen in style with its stunning vistas of the depths of the Colombian Amazon is Ciro Guerra’s history-cum-folktale Embrace of the Serpent. Jumping off from the actual travel diaries of two explorers (30 years apart), the film subverts colonising viewpoints by taking an indigenous tribal perspective via the real life protagonist who straddled the two timelines. Far from being a dry polemic against the evils of cultural repression, Embrace of the Serpent tells a ripping tale of one man’s journey to rediscover himself and save his endangered tribe full of humour and fantastical happenings.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night straddles the line of being too self-consciously cool its entire run-time, but it wasn’t long before I found its intoxicating rhythm. The way the film’s soundscape constantly transitions between upfront underground music, to insect-and-wind inflected diegetic stillness, to multifaceted ominous rumblings—thunder, trains, oil drills etc.—creates an undulating structure to this surprisingly patient film. Sheila Vand kills in the lead role of the girl, a complex mesh of emotional states radiating from her face and posture. She’s lonely yet self-contained, threatening yet inquisitive, sensual yet aloof. Arash Marandi as co-lead Arash holds up his end of the bargain as wannabe cool cat (with a very cool actual cat) trying to make the best of a bum situation. Lyle Vincent’s black and white cinematography is as fucking gorgeous as it needs to be, making superb use of shade and silhouette. The narrative may be thin but Amirpour’s characterisation has depth and the relationship dynamics and gender politics at work are fascinating, turning out a film as considered as it is cool.
Yann Demange’s debut feature ’71 doesn’t give its protagonist or the audience much chance for consideration as we careen through the stricken streets of Belfast over the period of a single night. Not so much about the troubled recent history of Northern Ireland as firmly situated in it, ’71 proves an exemplar of high tension. Disdaining audience comfort, the film bounces us around an unfamiliar and justifiably hostile city alongside Jack O’Connell’s desperate Pt. Gary Hook; his laboured breathing loud in our ears and his mounting wounds thrust in our faces. O’Connell shows his chops once again as a young soldier in all ways out of his depth. Sean Harris proves a convincing heartless bastard: mean, hard, and lean, reminding of John Hawkes at his least friendly. If the story begins to feel overly Machiavellian, the believability of the characters keeps the film grounded. And though the thriller elements remain first and foremost, Gregory Burke’s screenplay paints the narrative context, in broad strokes at least, as a complex mesh of political manoeuvring and mixed motivations.
Transgender working girls tearing up inner city Los Angeles out for some payback and a stressed out Armenian taxi driver attempting find some relief from the pressures of work and family life? Tangerine doesn’t shy away from the messy realities of life on the streets, but the filmmakers choose to major on the manic joie de vivre of its feisty fast-talking protagonist Sin-Dee and her friend-with-artistic-dreams Alexandra. Perhaps a little light, but Baker and Bergoch’s script is whip smart and funny. The film portrays the imperfect loyalty and scratchy comradeship common to our collective experience, given full life by the immediacy of the performances and the kinetic movement of the camera and the characters. Any currency the film gains by the gimmicky virtue of being shot entirely on the iPhone 5S holds water only because of the filmmaking skill evident in both production and story. Is Tangerine my new favourite Christmas film? Bitch, you know it is!