“An alternative agenda for the festival might be: what can we make of modernism?”
For the past two years, the Melbourne International Film Festival seems to have taken on the task of digesting the legacy of the French New Wave. That might be the work of senior programmer and Francophile Michelle Carey: in its selection of films, the festival appears to be in love with a past creative era, while trying to work out whether its stylistic traits are inescapable for today’s directors. An alternative agenda for the festival might be: what can we make of modernism?
Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea’s documentary Henri-George Clouzot’s Inferno speculates about a Nouvelle Vague film still to be realised. In Inferno, his unfinished film of 1964, Clouzot wanted to perform a radical study of sexual jealousy; a man with a flirtatious wife (Romy Schneider) is consumed by a psychological state in which everything is deformed by desire. The snippets we see — a naked Schneider gift-wrapped in plastic, licking glittery sweat off herself, or rolling a Slinky down her body — are a little shocking, in that the normally strict Clouzot seems to have veered into Italian sex horror, mixing graphic abstractions, nudity and psychedelia with abandon. What kind of window has been opened here? Bromberg and Medrea manage to position Inferno — or Clouzot’s conception of it — as some kind of ultimate film that takes in every genre, blurring the line between experimental and narrative film, romance and pornography. We’re persuaded that the director lost himself during the shoot, with the result that every fantastic and excessive effect was poured into filming. Clouzot found ways of making his actress frighteningly sexual: he had her painted grey-green and blue so that he could create a macabre play of light on her body. It appears that he became hooked on his own footage in editing, repeatedly watching scenes as if the teasing and beckoning Schneider were communicating with him. According to his collaborators, Clouzot became obsessed with shooting more and more visions and nightmares, creating not only an ambitious work but a compulsive and unending one.
By comparison, in 1994, Claude Chabrol filmed his own version of Clouzot’s script, but Torment (not screened at MIFF) is a much cooler affair than Clouzot intended. Despite winning a best-ever performance from Emmanuelle Béart as the impossibly lush wife, Chabrol is a director in no danger of losing himself. His Torment is a comedy of the cuckold, with Chabrol typically inviting us to side with the maddening femme fatale rather than the husband. As in Eyes Wide Shut (1999), the protagonist’s fantasies spin out of control when he imagines his wife with a handsome sailor. (Can I ask why movie cuckolds always have this paranoia about sailors? It seems a little literal.)
A retrospective of festival guest Anna Karina showed several rarities, including Karina’s two films as director, and Anna (1967), a made-for-TV musical with songs by Serge Gainsbourg. While the program was clearly put together with a lot of affection, it also gave us time to consider and question Karina’s status as an icon. I find her ravishingly pretty — eye candy in the best sense — but very passive and baby-like, with the sulky or good-girl expressions of a child. She is sensitive, but not a nuanced actress whose every response and change is of interest — unlike, say, Jean Simmons or Thandie Newton.
Nevertheless, Anna was much more of a broken-down musical than I expected, given the premise of a romance set in the world of advertising. This is a mod opera full of cacophony and dissonance; director Pierre Koralnik captures something melancholy and grey in the pop world, similar to the underlying malign feeling we get in William Klein’s films. Anna is a musical that doesn’t elide emptiness; transitions between songs aren’t seamless, and the sets have a grimy feel despite pops of colour. Karina does have a star presence here — she’s looser and more raucous than for Godard, with a bawdier laugh than he would have permitted. In Fassbinder’s Chinese Roulette (1976), Karina is again slightly altered — her voice is unrecognizably thick — but just as meek. She plays a woman so placid that the wife of her lover is not threatened, but treats her as a docile sweet creature.
As an antidote to all this rhapsodising, Philippe Grandrieux’s Un Lac was the best shock to the system. What there is of a plot concerns an epileptic boy (Dmitry Kubasov) overly attached to his sister, but the point is that this film is shot in the most extraordinary style. Grandrieux keeps the camera so unstable that every move tosses out a wild scramble of black and abstract shots. When the boy chops down a tree, the frame shifts into black with each blow before coming back into focus; our vision is beat back by the stroke of the axe.
Just as the boy’s eyes keep flickering to white during a fit, every shot dashes out a number of tableaux, to the extent that the camera threatens to throw its subjects — and us — out of the film altogether. There is so much black around that each image can be seen as a slow release from darkness; when a shot opens, it may be minutes before the outline of a body is finally visible. Flesh is textured like fondant, meltingly soft and inviting. But like everything else that momentarily holds the centre of the frame, the body is subject to immediate dislocation and displacement.
In Tony Manero, directed by the Chilean Pablo Larrain, it’s not just the semi-incest scenes that are grubby. Whenever the protagonist sees a John Travolta film, he watches the actor with a covert and excited pleasure, as if he were at a porn parlour rather than a matinee. Raúl (Alfredo Castro) is a Travolta impersonator, hooded and oppressed-looking, but with something of the star’s sinuosity. He’s also a serial killer who commits blunt acts of murder that seem to have no consequences. This is not the first film in which disco intensity has been linked to a loss of identity. In several movies, an obsession with dance plagues a community already weakened by decadence: Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), Summer of Sam (1999), and especially Bilbao (1978), where the playing of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” during a sex killing is close to ecstatic paralysis. However, by setting the film in ’70s Santiago, under the rule of Pinochet, Larrain depicts a hollowed city, whose inhabitants can only be aroused (or convulsed) by pop.
Bland and alarming is probably the hardest combination for a director to pull off, but it’s the one to go for if you want an image that’s arresting, straight off. (As the writer Henry Alford once pointed out, the idea of Austria is compelling because it’s both “boring” and “scary.”) Other than David Fincher, no one matches the two moods better than 101-year-old Manoel de Oliveira. Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl begins with an aura of pseudo-calm, as of being lulled into an inviting story. On a train journey, a young man (Ricardo Trêpa) offers to tell the tale of his encounter with the blonde of the title. A woman immediately accepts his offer — indeed, she appears to have been expecting it. She seems oddly blind, or dream-struck: in short, the ideal listener, the kind who appears in a fable or a pilgrimage. As the tale is narrated, we can occasionally still hear the sounds of the train pulling away. So we can sense a furious, rushing movement beneath the apparently calm surface of the story: as in Thomas de Quincey, time accelerates even as characters and settings appear to stay still.
Into the story: the blonde is a lustrous young woman who is always suspended to meet our gaze, and has a habit of spinning a Chinese fan as if it were a mirror, or a riddle. Although the setting looks modern, the man embarks on an old-fashioned, courtly pursuit of the blonde, acting out a story too classical (and generic) for its time. From here, things seem easy and familiar — Oliveira likes to pepper a film with benefactors and obstacles, figures who dispense fortune and consequence — but the rug is about to be pulled from underneath us, as the story races off onto another set of tracks. The ease with which Oliveira pulls off sudden truncations and ellipses in this impeccable, quiet narrative comes very close to the devices of literature. The film is, in a way, nothing but a series of openings — glimpses of fictional possibilities — but the transitions between moods are achieved more softly than is possible in writing. It’s the best argument yet that Calvino should have been a filmmaker.
In Like You Know It All, Hong Sang-soo continues his relentless study of ego, through the character of a film director, Ku (Kim Tae-woo). The plot is almost incidentally attached to the politics of film festivals, since Hong uses Ku’s relations with mentors, rivals and sycophants to explore contradictions in personality. A particular trait of Hong’s characters is that they claim to reflect disinterestedly on situations where they have something at stake: Ku believes he objectively likes people who happen to offer him compliments. When asked a pointed question, he tends to feign innocence (“I jump into a process with no pre-conceived ideas.”). At the same time, this prickly but fairly harmless man becomes an unwitting antagonist in the relationships of others. Ku meets a couple who fly into a rage when he fails to acknowledge the wife’s perfection. Characters have serenely maintained world-views that crumble on contact with a single troubling opinion. There is an inability to assimilate even one comment, one point of difference from another person.
“Like” appears to be the operative word in the film’s title, in terms of the confident summarising of other people (“Why are you like that?” “I know what you’re like”), but also the construction of similes and similarities. Why is one person like another? The film sets up a pattern of partially mirroring relationships between students and teachers, husbands and wives. Each character is deceptively like someone else, and is thus shocked when total identification is not possible.
An abundance of life-changing comments is made in this film, but this is largely because people tend to pore over each other’s comments — down to the precise wording — to work out whether they have been insulted, praised, or elucidated. When it comes to ingénues wanting to be enlightened about life, or professors with stubbornly held philosophies, all convictions turn on a dime.
An increasing trend in the festival is the number of specialty films on art, style and architecture. Some of these, such as Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julian Schulman, a documentary on the photographer, were strictly “boutique” films that glossed over their subjects, yet two works had some stunning moments. Forward Motion: Artists’ Choice was a compilation of British dance shorts programmed by choreographers. In an extract from artist Douglas Gordon’s Feature Film, a pair of disembodied hands appear to conduct Bernard Herrmann’s magnificent orchestral theme from Vertigo (1958). Is the owner of the hands engaging in a spot of “air conducting”: presuming to direct and control a masterpiece, guiding and bringing it to its peak? In fact, the hands belong to Paris Opera conductor James Conlon, so the involvement they express is not ironic; however, the footage is still amusing for its enormous surges in intensity generated by very fine, faint nuances of movement. Lloyd Newson’s The Cost of Living, featuring the London dance ensemble DV8, also had wonderful scenes of cine-dance: a row of figures appearing to slide off the screen, characters who announce themselves by means of a signature movement (a woman who balances a hula hoop as contentedly as a seal), and a last glimpse of the late, hugely talented choreographer Tania Liedtke.
I can’t ignore The September Issue. I find the world of US Vogue and Anna Wintour absorbing in terms of its imperious style hierarchy, the ever finer ways of expressing distinction and superiority, but imaginatively, there’s really only one person who grabs me: Grace Coddington. This brilliant stylist has a thought process that reminds me of Matisse: I know that’s a big call, but just take a look at the work of the past decade. Coddington has a taste for the balletic and arresting in movement; one of her favorite looks is a highly kinetic image in front of radical flatness. Exuberant bodies and huge opaque shapes appear alongside meticulously painted and textured panels. Props can be wittily oversize, or out of context; tonally different fragments are pieced together. What’s conceived of as “background” might be a painstakingly mounted trompe l’oeil, a bolt of fabric caught in the air at the right moment, or just a section of blur (Coddington loves it when unexpected movement creates blur, rejecting the sharp clinical images preferred by Wintour).
Coddington has an amazing breadth and subtlety of reference when it comes to evoking ideas and periods tangentially: for instance, trying to introduce the concept of the ’50s in a way that hasn’t been done before. A recent shoot in Paris, “Handmade’s Tale,” is like a cross between Funny Face (1957) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Flight of the Red Balloon (2007), combining posed and spontaneous movement, objects in living color and ones that look etched in with crayon. Its final frame is even more moving than the one in Hou’s exquisite film. Perhaps Coddington’s greatest gift is her ability to draw on the cultural present as a fashion “reference”: her conviction that even the most recent, topical or far-flung subjects — a presidential parade, a superhero convention, a subplot in Alice in Wonderland — can be inhabited as a form of play and make-believe. That’s what makes fashion photography so witty, particularly at a time when our idea of the “present” is imaginatively hard to engage.
The September Issue is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Coddington, but it was a pleasant surprise that director R. J. Cutler chose to focus on her instead of the rather snooty atmosphere that comes off the pages of Vogue. Does any film director edit like Coddington, pairing fine detail with live gesture, combining a static set with a dance movement that jumps out of the frame? Wouldn’t it be great if they did?