Film Festivals

New York Film Festival (2009)

herbes_follesLes Herbes folles, 2009. Revisiting the shifting perspective, stream of consciousness narrative of Providence, Alain Resnais’s Les Herbes folles is a more whimsical variation on the themes of subjective reality and causality. An early image of wild grass poking through cracks in the concrete provides a paradigm for the film’s seemingly organic tale of subverted expectation: a middle-aged man with time on his hands, Georges Palet (André Dussollier) recovers a wallet from a parking garage and immediately begins to devise scenarios on how he should approach the owner, a dentist named Marguerite Muir (Sabine Azéma) to return it. However, when his initial contact proves to be a terse, anticlimactic “thank you” telephone call in the middle of a family gathering – precipitated in part by his wife’s (Anne Consigny) suggestion that he bring the wallet to the local police station to arrange the actual return instead of handling it personally – Georges decides to re-initiate contact with the indifferent Marguerite, intrigued by her more adventurous hobby as an aviatrix of restored World War II planes that, in some small way, rekindles childhood memories of his late father. Resnais’ playful re-arrangement of Hollywood genres – romance, mystery, adventure (most notably, in reference to Paramount Studio’s The Bridges of Toko-Ri) – results in a remarkably fluid, wry, and idiosyncratic exploration of chance, connection, and noble pursuit.

sweetgrassSweetgrass, 2009. During the Q&A for Sweetgrass, Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor indicated that they had spent three years filming sheepherding through the Beartooth Mountains on what had initially been conceived as a family activity for the summer because of a desire to capture the last time that a pair of ranchers – hailing from the one remaining sheep farm within three adjacent counties in rural Montana – would drive their flock to public lands to graze: a cultural capstone that would end up being deferred for another two summer pastures before the owners finally sold the farm and resettle to a larger, more remote farm near the Canadian border. In hindsight, this sense of romanticism towards capturing a dying way of life shapes the rigorous, painstakingly observed, panoramic form of the film as well. Initially, the film suggests kinship with Nikolaus Geyhalter’s Our Daily Bread in its wordless images of farming as mass production, as sheep are herded into the barn at the end of the day, lambs are re-distributed among a group of nursing ewes to maximize nutrition, and ranchers shear rows of sheep with lulling efficiency. However, the film eventually breaks away from the economy of the paradigm as ranch hands, Pat and John set off into the mountains with their flock of sheep for the summer, capturing instead the vastness of the difficult terrain, constant threat of wildlife, physical toll, and boredom that define their everyday lives. Ironically, in the filmmakers’ objective to shoot the landscape, sheep, and people with equal parity, what is lost is the sense of diurnal rhythm intrinsic in their ritual, where the passage of time is obscured by an editing strategy that heavily favors daylight over night time shots – the three year excursion unfolding in three days (a blurring of time that contributes to confusing sequences over John’s apparent meltdown during a call to his mother and subsequently, while rounding sheep, after having seemingly spent only a day in the wilderness) – revealed only through the growth of new wool on sheep making their way down the mountain at the end of summer.

eccentricitiesEccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl, 2009. Inasmuch as Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl returns to Manoel de Oliveira’s recurring theme of doomed love, the film also embodies Oliveira’s preoccupation with subjectivity and modes of representation. On one level is the adaptation of Eça de Queiroz’s literary work into a screenplay, retaining a degree of formalism and dramatic structure associated with classical text. On another level is narrative subjectivity, where the story is told as a first-hand (and therefore, implicitly “true”) account by Macário (Ricardo Trêpa) to a fellow traveler (Leonor Silveira), but, as a retelling of a past – and traumatic – event, has been shaped by the filters of personal memory. Another is the disjunction between image and reality, as embodied by the elusive object of Macário’s desire, Luísa (Catarina Wallenstein), a charming, enigmatic young woman who captures his attention one day from a neighboring window in his office. Facing disinheritance from his uncle and benefactor, Tio Francisco (Diogo Dória) after announcing his plans to marry Luísa, Macário decides to forge his own path and agrees to take on an extended assignment in Cape Verde in the hopes of raising enough money to start a new life with his beloved. However, when Macário becomes unwittingly implicated in his business acquaintance’s messy private affairs, his destiny seems once again determined by honor and obligation. With a slender running time of 64 minutes, the film is a compact, richly textured illustration of Oliveira’s multivalent approach to storytelling – distilling human desire into its unexpected, essential incarnations to create not only a timeless story of longing and unrequited love, but also a relevant, modern day cautionary tale on materialism and excess.

kanikosenKanikosen, 2009. In its incarnation as a 21st century, recession-era satire on worker exploitation and the intersection between globalism and geopolitics, Sabu’s Kanikosen is an atmospheric, if diluted adaptation of Takiji Kobayashi’s Shōwa-era leftist novel. Set aboard an Imperial Navy-escorted (and implicitly, sanctioned), crab canning ship operating near (and often, over) the Russian-controlled Sea of Okhotsk, the film paints a grotesque and wryly comical portrait of inhumane working conditions, classism, and poverty that would sow the seeds of revolution. At the core of the film’s particular melding of polemic and gallows humor is the inclusion of recurring, outdated references that underscore the sense of fiction and staging beneath the film’s stylized construction and cultural anachronism: oversized gears reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (a 1936 film that would have chronologically succeeded the film’s interwar, 1920s setting) that reflect the role of the worker as interchangeable cogs in the machinery of industrial production; the specter of Soviet socialism that threatens the fabric of the Japanese free market economy collides with the modern day reality of a post-communist, capitalist Russia; the ubiquitous presence of the Imperial Navy – dissolved since the end of the Pacific War – that reinforces the cycle of exploitation between workers and businesses (through their representative management). Polarized to the point of caricature but without the impassioned execution of agitprop, and evading correlation between the economic expansion of an Industrial Revolution created in the midst of increasing totalitarianism with the realities of an Asian tiger-fueled new global economy, Kanikosen ultimately struggles to offer more than well crafted imagery, paradoxically creating an estranged and complacent call to arms.

vincereVincere, 2009. Less a biography on the early life of Fascist leader Benito Mussolini than a dissection into creating (and sustaining) a cult of personality, Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere is a textured, operatic, and incisive historical fiction based on the fate of Mussolini’s secret first wife, Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) who, along with their son, Benito Albino, were erased from Mussolini’s official record as he sought to consolidate power and build a totalitarian state. From the early sequence of a flashback within a flashback as Ida watches a defiant Mussolini (Filippo Timi) challenge Socialist party officials by invoking God’s wrath, triggering a memory of their first encounter, Bellocchio introduces the idea of altered chronology that also foreshadows her struggle for legitimacy and validation as the true wife of Mussolini in the face of systematic whitewashing. Having once sold all of her belongings in order to fund Mussolini’s ambition to create a rival political newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia after his split with the Socialist periodical, Avanti!, Ida’s symbolic gesture of surrendering her fate to the hands of her lover would soon take on an even more ominous dimension when he marries his mistress, Rachele – the mother of his illegitimate daughter – in order to sanitize his public image as a traditional family man (and consequently win the support of the Catholic church). Interweaving archival footage with historical re-enactment and fictional adaptation, Bellocchio insightfully structures the film to reflect a pattern of reconstituted history that enabled the usurpation of power and political suppression, not through a display of force, but through the control of information.

police_adjectivePolice, Adjective, 2009. The disjunction between moral and bureaucratic law, meaning and intent shapes the discourse of Corneliu Porumboiu’s meticulously observed, if clinical and muted procedural film, Police, Adjective. Assigned to conduct surveillance on a typical, middle-class teenager named Alex (Alexandru Sabadac) who is suspected of dealing drugs, junior detective and newlywed, Cristi (Dragos Bucur) spends his days trailing his young suspect through his daily routine – going to school, meeting friends, walking home, receiving visitors – before returning to the precinct each evening to write detailed reports on the suspect’s (in)activities for the day, often wrapping up his observations by expressing his skepticism over the necessity to continue the suspect’s pursuit. But his supervisor, Angelache (Vlad Ivanov) believes that he has found probable cause among Cristi’s daily reports, citing an occasion when Alex was spotted smoking hashish with friends near a playground. For Angelache, the simple act of passing around the hashish to his friends constitutes “distribution” and becomes more determined to make an arrest, pitting him against a reluctant Cristi on the role of law enforcement in society. Porumboiu reflects this sense of moral rupture through the film’s overarching structure, contrasting Cristi’s near-wordless, real-time surveillance sequences with his nightly composition of one-page reports that underscore the impreciseness of language (an ambiguity that also surfaces during a conversation with his wife, Anca [Irina Saulescu] over the lyrics to a song that she repeatedly listens to over dinner). Framed against Cristi’s didactic, extended meeting with Angelache near the end of the film, Cristi’s crisis of conscience serves as a provocative, modern day reflection of innate humanity that is being systematically erased in the soulless pursuit of civilized society.

ghosttownGhost Town, 2009. Composed of three chapters – Voices, Recollections, and Innocence – Zhao Dayong’s Ghost Town is a textured, graceful, and indelible panorama of the “other” China, a sobering account of threadbare lives lived in the shadows cast by China’s modern day economic miracle and its founding architect, Chairman Mao Zedong, whose imposing statue graces Zhiziluo village’s deserted and overgrown town square. Isolated in the mountains of Yunnan Province near the Burmese border, abandoned by Western missionaries after a government purge during the Cultural Revolution, and repeatedly passed over for state-financed development projects since the 1980s, Zhiziluo’s few remaining villagers have become figurative ghosts wandering through a rarefied, uncertain landscape in a state of perpetual limbo, searching for transcendence.

In Voices, the ethnic minority Christian community of Lisu and Nu villagers struggle to preserve their faith in the face of emigration, an aging congregation, and cultural despiritualization. But far from a dying culture on the cusp of erasure, what emerges in Voices is a vibrant and devout extended community, reaffirming their faith by returning to their beloved church in an annual pilgrimage to Zhiziluo for a midnight mass to celebrate Christmas with other parishioners.

In Recollections, the face of emigration is embodied by a young couple: one, contemplating moving to the city in search of a better life, the other, increasingly pressured into entering a financially beneficial, arranged marriage (and whose fate is mirrored in the parallel story of a returning Christian pilgrim who has brought her new baby for her first visit to her hometown since being sold into marriage). The dissolution of love is also reflected in the wistful observations of a divorced, alcoholic drifter who pines for his estranged family, even as he continues to alienate himself from their lives with his chronic drinking.

On the other side of village depopulation is the fate on those left behind, the subject of the film’s third chapter, Innocence. Abandoned by his family (who, like most working-aged men and women, moved to the city to seek out job opportunities), a twelve year-old boy named Ah Long scavenges for food in the wilderness and tries to retain some semblance of a normal adolescence with his matinee idol pinups, loud music, and wrestling with his playmates. Biding his empty hours participating in a traditional Lisu exorcism ritual, then subsequently attending mass, Ah Long’s seemingly incongruous pastime intrinsically reveals what modern China has abandoned in the pursuit of modernization and economic growth: community, family, cultural heritage, and spirituality.

independenciaIndependencia, 2009. The idea that history is written by the conquerors and not the vanquished shapes the consciousness of Raya Martin’s distilled and meticulously crafted film, Independencia, a highly formalized reconstruction (and reclamation) of a lost, unwritten history: one communicated in the language of an indigenous people but framed in the conventional, accepted syntax of “official” (and implicitly, Western) history. The second installment of an envisioned trilogy on the history of a dominated Philippines, Independencia succinctly bridges the end of Spanish colonization at the turn of the nineteenth century with the advent of American occupation in the opening shot of Filipinos in an already subjugated state (dressed in traditional Spanish attire in lieu of native clothing) at an unidentified village who are thrown into chaos by the sound of distant bombing. A mother (Tetchie Agbayani) and her dutiful son (Sid Lucero) flee to the forest, holing up in an abandoned hut in an attempt to outlast the advancing invaders, subsequently joined by a young woman (Alessandra de Rossi) who had been raped by American soldiers and left to die in the wilderness. However, as time wears on and the invaders continue to encroach ever deeper into the heart of the forest (ingeniously reflected through the overtly artificial, painted backdrop of trees that become progressively deforested during the course of the film), the displaced natives – which now includes a young boy (Mika Aguilos) – retreat further and further towards the mountains, finally reaching the edge of the shore. Martin incisively explores the intersection between national history and cinema history to illustrate the idea of a mediated gaze that defines the other through distanced, imprecise, subjective codes that ingrain a sense of hierarchy. Visually, Martin reflects this process of cultural imperialism in the images of supplanted native identity that bookend the film: from the opening shot of Filipinos in figuratively handed down Spanish clothing (that also alludes to the reinforcing of dominant cultures implicit in the act of international charity), to the ominous tincture of color suffusing the horizon against a Mount Fuji-esque scenic landscape (reminiscent of scroll work) that augurs the arrival of the Japanese.

sweetrushSweet Rush, 2009. Part coming of age story set in the aftermath of the Warsaw Uprising, and part personal testament by lead actress Krystyna Janda on her husband, Edward Klosinski’s battle with cancer during filming, Andrzej Wajda’s poignant, if disarticulated Sweet Rush, on the surface, suggests kinship with the metacinema of Abbas Kiarostami in exploring the interpenetration between art and life. This ambiguity is suggested in the film’s opening sequence, as Janda awakens gasping for breath in a sparely furnished room before expressing her recounting her husband’s diagnosis, reluctance to embark on a new project, and disbelief that he would succumb to his illness. However, inasmuch as the scene suggests a shift from dream to reality, it also underscores its construction – Janda’s acting in the staged awakening and delivery of the subsequent monologue. The juncture between reality and fiction is also reflected in the image of a film crew setting up a scene that transitions to the sequence of a country doctor (Jan Englert) diagnosing his wife Marta’s (Janda) terminal illness. Still mourning the loss of her sons and distanced from her overworked husband, Marta begins to turn her attention to a handsome young man, Bogus (Pawel Szajda), briefly finding a renewed sense of purpose in her life in the midst of disillusionment and uncertainty. At the core of Wajda’s interweaving stories of grief and loss is the nature of performance. Juxtaposing Janda’s real-life ordeal with the tragic denouement of the fiction film, Wajda transforms a seemingly conventional, period romance into an intimate and contemporary tale of enduring love and, in the process, elevates the grace of everyday struggle into the realm of art.

infernoHenri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, 2009. A reconstruction of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s aborted film project, Inferno assembled from found (or more accurately, negotiated) footage, interviews with film crew and on-set observers, and script reading by actors Jacques Gamblin and Bérénice Bejo in the roles of Odette and Marcel, Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea’s Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno loosely recalls José Luis Guerín’s cinema in exploring the intersection between fiction and non-fiction, reality and memory. Re-contextualizing the reality of the captured footage with first-hand accounts of the film shoot, Bromberg and Medrea similarly illustrate the amorphous bounds between the real image and its projection. In one sequence, a shot of lead actor Serge Reggiani running across a bridge, appearing visibly distressed after witnessing his wife, Odette (Romy Schneider) water skiing with lothario Martineau (Jean-Claude Bercq) is framed against interviews revealing his escalating animosity with the ever-demanding Clouzot that led to the filmmaker’s perverse attempts to reassert his authority by imposing multiple takes of the physically grueling scene on an already ailing Reggiani. In another scene, comments on Clouzot’s anxiety and insomnia that contributed to Clouzot’s heart attack that would ultimately derail the project is juxtaposed against found footage of the director taking extended close-up shots of sexy, twenty-something actresses Schneider and Dany Carrel in bathing suits for a provocative dream sequence, wryly suggesting a more visceral reason for fifty-something Clouzot’s distress. By incorporating Clouzot’s shot technical experiments featuring Schneider that were to be used as a basis for dream sequences – but were not intended to be seen in their entirety in the final cut – Bromberg and Medrea cleverly introduce another dimension of “truth” between film image and memory that, like the deconstructed found film in Guerín’s Tren de sombras, reflect on the role of cinema as conjurer of images, revealing lost phantoms that exist only in the frames between the visible.

NeChangeRienNe Change Rien, 2009. Like his earlier documentary, Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? on seminal filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet at work on Sicilia!, Pedro Costa’s Ne Change Rien plays on the idea of répétition as the act of rehearsal and iteration to capture the ephemeral nature of the creative process. Shot in black and white, Costa’s chiaroscuro and neutral framing compositions create distinctive textures from a monochromatic palette that illustrate the spectrum of Jeanne Balibar’s diverse performances. For the prelude song, Torture, a down-directional spotlight illuminates Balibar on a dark stage, framing her slight figure in a cone of light that echoes the song’s sentiment of emotional captivity. In a studio rehearsal for Cinéma, Balibar and guitarist Rodolphe Burger are framed in an extended, stationary medium shot as they explore variations on the refrain, “peine perdue” before deciding to slow down the delivery of the second instance as a way to “emphasize the silence”, reinforcing the nuances achieved in the seeming sameness of the repeating line. Another side of Balibar emerges in the rehearsals for the opéra bouffe La Périchole by Jacques Offenbach – appropriately framing her in profile to reflect her multi-faceted artistry – as an off-screen voice coach emphasizes the precision intrinsic in the pronunciation and intonation of the piece. For These Days, Costa shoots the live performance with a shallow depth of field, resulting in a sharply focused Balibar against a blurred, almost ghostly cast of musicians that take on a metaphysical dimension in its stark contrast between the tactile and the ethereal. Concluding with the isolated spotlighting of Balibar and Berger during the studio recording of Ton Diable, the image becomes a metaphor for the deconstruction of the creative process, the synthesis of distinctive, individual voices into crescendoed, sublimated polyphony.

HadewijchHadewijch, 2009. Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch departs from his familiar aesthetic of landscapes as abstract manifestations of internal states to create a spare and intimate, yet equally provocative exploration of absolute faith, martyrdom, and God’s silence. From the opening shot of an ascetic postulant, Céline (Julie Sokolowski) making her way across the woods to visit a Pietà at a nearby church, Dumont channels Robert Bresson’s cinema, suggesting an updated version of the frail country priest in Diary of a Country Priest walking to his new parish. Sent back to live in the “real world” after disobeying the Mother Superior’s entreaties that she end her self-imposed mortification, Céline’s reality proves to be far from the terrestrial grounding that the nuns had in mind, returning to a comfortable, if aimless bourgeois life as the daughter of a cabinet minister. Befriending a young man from the banlieue, Yassine (Yassine Salim), Céline becomes increasingly drawn to his older brother, an imam named Nassir (Karl Sarafdis) whose theological discussions on the Koran mirror her own unrequited quest – a connection that would lead her further into spiritual darkness. In its portrait of disaffected youth in the aftermath of traumatic history, Hadewijch converges towards The Devil, Probably, where revolution is borne of uncertainty and displaced passion. However, inasmuch as Dumont invokes the spirit of Bresson throughout the film, the concluding shot of Céline by the river proves to be a subversion of the iconic sequence from Mouchette, achieving transcendence, not from immolation, but from salvation.

MinYeMin Yè, 2009. During the Q&A for the film, Souleymane Cissé and lead actress Sokona Gakou remarked that with only one remaining movie theater in the country, just being able to make a film in Mali is something of a small miracle. It is a responsibility to Malian and African culture that is not lost in Min Yè, a vivid panorama of contemporary middle-class life in Mali that eschews all too familiar images of stagnation, illiteracy, and poverty that often serve as scapegoats for enabling archaic customs. In Min Yè, the polygamist is not an uneducated villager but a Westernized filmmaker, Issa (Assane Kouyaté), whose third wife, Mimi (Gakou) is a doctor and high-profile health minister. Accustomed to a certain degree of empowerment and independence from her husband (deciding to stay in her own house instead of moving into his household), Mimi carries on a not-too-subtle affair with the married Abba (Alou Sissoko), a fishmonger who sends her a tell-tale case of fish after each encounter as a token of his affection. Confronted by Issa with his suspicions of infidelity after he finds Abba in the courtyard, Mimi decides to file for divorce, a move that soon brings on a new set of complications, as relatives plead for reconciliation to avoid the shame, Issa’s second wife increasingly resents the attention paid to Mimi, and Abba’s wife begins to grow suspicious of Mimi’s role in her husband’s life. Cissé subtly, but incisively explores the question of polygamy through its corrosive repercussions – from abrogated custodial rights of women to their children, to the hypocrisy of adultery laws that enforce a one-sided marriage fidelity, to societal pressures that foster a status quo, even among the powerful, educated leaders and professionals who are in a position to enable social change.

everyone_elseEveryone Else, 2009. The title of Maren Ade’s quietly observed film is subtly conveyed in passing, a desire expressed by uninhibited rock publicist, Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr) to her architect boyfriend, Chris (Lars Eidinger) that their relationship will not be reduced to the banal paradigm of being like “everyone else”. But romanticism soon collides with reality for the couple during a holiday to Sardinia. This rupture crystallizes in an episode in which Chris (Lars Eidinger) gives a tour of his mother’s sitting room to dinner guests, Hans (Hans-Jochen Wagner) and his wife Sana (Nicole Marischka) despite Gitti’s reluctance – an eclectically furnished room with a painted tree branch, personal mementos, whimsical curios, and a passé record collection that prompts Sana to remark that the room is filed with longing. It is a comment that would also embody the nature of Chris and Gitti’s relationship and its gradual unraveling. Increasingly insecure over professional setbacks, the reserved Chris is reluctant to involve Gitti in his affairs, avoiding disclosure that he had lost a prestigious design contest by claiming that the selection had still not been announced. Reuniting with old friend and fellow architect (and implicit rival) Hans, Chris and Gitti begin to reevaluate their relationship within the paradigm of Hans and Sana’s seemingly parsed, well-defined roles within their own relationship and, in the process, begin to lose their own identities. Ade insightfully uses flat compositions and medium shots to de-dramatize the action, creating a neutral framing that reflects the fluid dynamics intrinsic in the formation and dissolution of all relationships. Framed in the context of the mother’s sitting room, their struggle is also an unarticulated longing expressed through ridiculous, imperfect displays of personality and validation.

white_ribbonThe White Ribbon, 2009. Set in an unidentified Protestant village in northern Germany during the early part of the twentieth century, Michael Haneke’s luminous and atmospheric The White Ribbon is a crystallization of his recurring preoccupations with the ambiguity of truth, class division, surveillance, and the violence of repression. Prefacing the story with the acknowledgment that his memory of the past may be flawed, the narrator – the village schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) – recounts the strange events that happened to their community in the preceding years before the war, tracing the initial occurrence to a widowed doctor (Rainer Bock) who sustained serious injuries after falling from his horse near his home. A more ominous, unrelated tragedy would soon overshadow the mysterious circumstances behind the doctor’s fall: the death of a peasant woman who fell through the rotted floor of a mill owned by the baron (Ulrich Tukur) and his wife (Ursina Lardi). Wary of public opinion over his own culpability for the accident, the baron begins to distance himself further from the community, briefly emerging to host a harvest festival for his tenant farmers that only serves to reinforce their mutual disdain when a drunken guest exacts revenge by uprooting the baroness’s vegetable garden. Distracted by his own romantic pursuit of the baron’s governess, Eva (Leonie Benesch), the schoolmaster initially remains indifferent to the mysteries surrounding the village, until another incident derails his own prospects for happiness. Part deconstructed mystery and part clinical observation, Haneke’s combination of crisp black and white and neutral framing insightfully reflects the spectrum of social division – wealth, age, gender, education, spirituality, moral conscience – that equally serve as historical précis for prewar Germany and contemporary allegory for religious extremism (an analogy that is implied in the image of parishioners in church as the schoolmaster conveys the news of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination).

life_wartimeLife During Wartime, 2009. During the Q&A, cinematographer Edward Lachman commented that the more aesthetic look to Life During Wartime with respect to Todd Solondz’s earlier work was a result of Solondz’s direction that the film convey a degree of unnaturalness and plasticity. On the surface, this image of conscious construction seems inconsistent with the sense of organic continuity achieved by revisiting characters (albeit transfigured) from Solondz’s earlier film, Happiness: a narrative progression existing outside the frame that is suggested in the in medias res opening sequence with neurotic couple, Allen (Michael K. Williams) and Joy (Shirley Henderson) celebrating their anniversary at a restaurant before having their romantic dinner scuttled when the waitress recognizes Allen’s voice as that of her obscene phone caller. As in Happiness, Life During Wartime is also interconnected by the three sisters’ unrequited search for happiness: Trish (Allison Janney) the divorced mother just returning to the dating scene after her ex-husband, Bill (Ciarán Hinds) was imprisoned for pedophilia; writer Helen (Ally Sheedy) whose persona ever teeters between mercurial artist and narcissistic celebrity; and fragile Joy who, still haunted by her jilted lover, Andy’s (Paul Reubens) suicide, decides to run away to Miami to re-evaluate her marriage. At the core of Solondz’s perversely wry satire is the nature – and limits – of forgiveness in its various incarnations, from crime and punishment, to moral transgression, to weakness and despair. Framed against the image of pervasive artificiality, Solondz creates an eccentric metaphor for longing as a manifestation of impossible construction, where only the prospect of redemption, not happiness, lies within our grasp.

around_mountainAround a Small Mountain (36 Views of Saint-Loup Peak), 2009. In a scene that occurs midway through Jacques Rivette’s 36 Views of Saint-Loup Peak, former circus performer turned textile designer, Kate (Jane Birkin) returns to Paris with a batch of fabrics that she has dyed during a visit to her family’s provincial circus and tries to match the color of the swatches to a Pantone chart, discovering that the hues had turned out differently from how they appeared when she had inspected them under the circus lights. The idea of the circus as facilitating a different way of seeing is a theme that surfaces throughout the film, creating a broader analogy for the stage as an intersection between real life and performance. It is this sense of novelty that would also draw globe-trotting Italian businessman, Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto) into the world of a dying circus, prompted by Kate’s invitation to see the show as a token of gratitude for fixing her stranded car. Returning after years of forced separation in order to mourn the loss of her father (who, in turn, was responsible for her exile) with her sister, Barbara (Vimala Pons) and niece, Clémence (Julie-Marie Parmentier), Kate is reluctant to step into the ring again, having once been involved in a tragic accident that would claim the life of her lover. But as Vittorio becomes as increasingly seduced by the elusive Kate as he is by resident clown, Marlo’s (Jacques Bonnaffé) infinite variations on the opening skit for each show, he begins to immerse himself further into the everyday chaos of the circus in the belief that the ring represents the key to finding closure. Composed of self-contained episodes that underscore the construction and artifice implicit in a performance, the film is a whimsical and bittersweet allegory for the stage as a place of adventure, mystery, and wonder. Alternating sequences between the performers and their performances that allude to their interchangeability, Rivette creates a poignant metaphor for life as human comedy and ever-changing spectacle.

motherMother, 2009. Inasmuch as Life During Wartime explores the limits of forgiveness, Bong Joon-ho’s Mother poses a sinister corollary in its tale of a parent’s unwavering devotion to her child. The price exacted is prefigured in the opening shot of the impassive, titular mother (Kim Hye-Ja) wandering through the countryside with arms flailing to the rhythm of an imaginary dance. The sole provider and caretaker of Do-joon (Bin Won), her dimwitted, accident-prone adult son, she anxiously watches over him from across the window of her herb shop as he invariably gets himself into precarious situations. Sideswiped by a speeding car one day when he leans out into the street, Do-joon is goaded into chasing the occupants into a golf course to retaliate, even as he seems to have forgotten the reason for the pursuit. A trip to the police station leads to more confusion when the driver decides to file a complaint for vandalizing his car, and Do-joon is forced to pay for repairs when he is unable to remember who had caused the damage. Soon, Do-joon’s pattern of short-term memory loss strikes a more somber tone when a schoolgirl is found murdered on the roof of a hillside building, and all clues seem to lead back to him. Suggesting a loose reconstitution of Bong’s earlier film Memories of Murder in the pursuit of a handicapped suspect, Mother similarly subverts the crime fiction genre in its implication of national history in aberrant psychology. It is also in this context of repressed memories that Mother transcends the genre in its potent social commentary on the illusion of cultural amnesia as a way forward from traumatic, unreconciled history.

whitematerialWhite Material, 2009. A textured panorama of modern day Africa’s dynamic and volatile cross-cultural landscape, Claire Denis’s White Material is an abstract and elemental, if oddly sterile rumination on colonial legacy and socioeconomic stagnation. Unfolding in episodic flashbacks as second-generation coffee plantation owner, Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) scrambles to make her way back home after a forced evacuation of European settlers in light of an escalating civil war, the film structurally interweaves the parallel lives of the Vial family, a band of roving child soldiers scouring the countryside for “white material” trophies from fleeing settlers, and a charismatic military officer turned rebel leader known as the Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé) who has gone into hiding to recover from injuries sustained during a recent skirmish. With the family patriarch, Henri (Michel Subor) removed from day to day operations, her estranged husband, André (Christopher Lambert) seeking protection from the corrupt, warlord-like mayor (William Nadylam) by secretly agreeing to sign over the deed to the plantation, and her immature son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) unwilling to take on responsibility for the family business, Maria is left alone to manage the upcoming harvest, negotiating with former employees and impoverished villagers in an attempt to bring the coffee to market. But as agents of the civil war circle ever closer towards the near deserted plantation, Maria’s illusive quest soon becomes a journey into the heart of darkness. By decentralizing the conflict to an indeterminate country even as she incorporates real-life elements from contemporary African history (most notably, in the Boxer character who is based on assassinated Burkina Faso president, Thomas Sankara, and the induction of child soldiers in the civil wars of Angola and Sierra Leone), Denis incisively dissociates the issue of African stagnation from reductive presumptions of long-standing tribal (and implicitly localized) conflict, reframing it instead within the broader context of racial, economic, educational, and class division. It is perhaps this sense of universality that ultimately defines the form of Denis’s uncharacteristically raw and unfocused film, reflecting, like the unprocessed coffee beans, an immediacy that transcends simple economic reality and instead converges towards murkier implications of globalism and cultural survival.

bluebeardBluebeard, 2009. Ostensibly an adaptation of Charles Perrault’s baroque fairytale, Bluebeard is also a distilled and densely layered exposition on Catherine Breillat’s recurring preoccupation with socioeconomic and sexual politics. Structured as a tale within a tale, the film alternates between past and present, childhood and adolescence, fiction and reality. On one level is bright, cherubic Catherine (Marilou Lopes-Benites) who sneaks away into the attic with her older, more gullible sister, Marie-Anne (Lola Giovannetti) to read Perrault’s fairytale. On another level is the realization of the fairytale itself: the plight of dowry-less, virginal Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton) who is compelled to marry the reclusive nobleman, Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas) in order to lift her mother (Isabelle Lapouge) and older sister, Anne (Daphne Baïwir) from a life of poverty following the accidental death of her father. By interchanging Catherine and Marie-Catherine during a pivotal staircase shot, Breillat draws an implicit parallel between the real and fictional younger sisters. At the core of the intersected stories is the idea of role reversal: Catherine, who relishes her ability to terrify her older sister with her all-too-animated readings of Bluebeard; and Marie-Catherine, who not only brings financial security to her family, but also asserts influence over her world-weary, murderous husband with her disarming innocence. Combined with elements of reflexive construction – specifically, the mismatched cuts of Marie-Catherine ascending the tower staircase that emphasize a looped editing used to achieve the illusion of verticality – Breillat creates a droll and incisive metaphor for the nature of empowerment.

broken_embracesBroken Embraces, 2009. Ingeniously constructed as parallel metafilms – one, Ray X’s (Rubén Ochandiano) behind the scenes documentary that illustrates the intersection (and disjunction) between reality and fiction; the other, Mateo’s (Lluís Homar) reconstruction of a doomed film project made 14 years earlier that reflects the role of the filmmaker as archaeologist and conjurer – Pedro Almodóvar’s wry, multivalent, and voluptuous Broken Embraces is also a poignant rumination on grief, guilt, and loss. The theme of duality is prefigured in Mateo’s adoption of the name Harry Caine, his screenwriter alterego, after a tragic accident that left him blind, as well as office secretary, Lena’s adoption of the pseudonym Severine (in a playful nod to Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour) when she moonlights as a call girl to help pay for the mounting expenses incurred by her father’s terminal illness.

This assumption of persona is also implied in an early episode of Lena trying out assorted costumes that emulate iconic images of Hollywood actresses as part of her screen test for Mateo’s film project, Girls and Suitcases (a reflexive reworking of Almodóvar’s earlier film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), simultaneously evoking Blake Edwards’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s in Lena’s literal and figurative prostitution to her employer turned lover, Ernesto (José Luis Gómez) that is as motivated by financial necessity as it is by gratitude, as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in Mateo’s attempt to conform Lena to the image of his creative vision and desire. It is interesting to note that the idea of projected desire is also revisited in the episodes of Ernesto spying on Lena through his son’s unsynced documentary footage with the help of a neutral lip reader – an image that not only finds affinity with Chantal Akerman’s recurring theme of “who speaks for the woman”, but also converges into a sublime double projection when Lena enters the room and repeats her on-camera declaration in person, in essence, supplanting the image with the real. It is this transformation that perhaps best captures the haunting closing image of a reinvigorated Mateo against a magnified, recovered footage from the accident – revealing, not only a longing to suspend time and reconfigure the past, but also, in casting his own shadow against the projected image, an invocation.

Acquarello, 2009 [reprinted]

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