Bright Lights Film Journal

Nothing Is Moving: Resnais and Slow Cinema at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Czech Republic, 2012

“Finally, the actors sit before a screen which plays a minimalist version of Eurydice: what will be on the other side of this already unreal scenario?” (on Resnais’ You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet)

Many of this year’s films indulged in the pleasures of feeling bleak and bad. In the main competition alone, our FIPRESCI jury watched half a dozen variations on the feel-bad film. In Nos Vemos, Papa, a Mexican woman is resigned to a sterile life peppered with sexual fantasies about her dead father; both the Greek drama Boy Eating the Bird’s Food and Pere Vilà i Barceló’s The Stoning of Saint Stephen view their characters’ dismal lives in terms of an anorexic purity. Rafaël Ouellet’s Camion is similarly grim, but at least contains a moment of self-reflexive humor. One of its characters (who resembles the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl) loves nothing more than to wallow in a depressing song as escapism. In the car, he rocks out to a song that runs through the list of various teenage afflictions: the evils of low self-esteem, alcoholism, body dysmorphia, and general loser status. Unfortunately, the rest of Camion is much more conventional: after a car accident involving an unknown woman, a man starts to feel vaguely guilty and empty. This is territory that has been covered much more convincingly by Antonioni (the subject of a documentary retrospective this year), as well as in Lucretia Martel’s The Headless Woman (2008).

All these films seemed like preparation for Kenneth Lonergan’s amazing Margaret, the ultimate essay on middle-class angst. Lonergan carefully dissects knee-jerk emotions like sympathy: when we try to make our compassion known and felt, what’s in it for us? The teenage heroine, Lisa (Anna Paquin), becomes overwhelmed with guilt after she distracts a bus driver who subsequently runs over a woman. Lisa is traumatized to some extent — but is she merely playing at feeling bad? Is this just a phase for her? The desire to perform compassion by getting involved in other people’s affairs should invite contempt, but the film is fascinated by Lisa. There is an absolute conviction behind her do-gooder mindset: she confidently retains the moral high ground even as her own motives are questioned. Any alternative point of view meets with shock: how could anyone with a brain think differently? In Margaret, people who are anxious to do the right thing also tend to be quite careless; they force their good will onto strangers, with often alarming results.

Yet the powerful and wilful Lisa is, in a sense, celebrated by the film. It is her desire to be righteous that generates constant subplots and the uncontrollable spread of narrative. Her concern for her own image affects, but does not totally cancel out, her passion for justice. Like her actress mother, Lisa is as compelling as she is unbelievable: the ending compares their relationship to the dueling of two virtuosos, star performers you can’t take your eyes off. Margaret is about a well-meaning stranger who will stop at nothing to make an event meaningful and cathartic for herself. However, this ability to reconstruct lives is viewed as a kind of art. Under Lonergan’s eye, self-conscious virtue becomes one of the most fascinating impulses.

Conspicuous compassion is a great subject for art cinema, particularly in the context of festivals, where feel-bad films tend be lauded as brave and uncompromising. Thank God, then, for Marlon Rivera’s The Woman in the Septic Tank, a Filipino comedy about the making of miserabilism. I knew this film would be hilarious the moment its wise-cracking star Eugene Domingo stepped onstage: this is a woman who knows how to create a persona in a few lines. In Rivera’s mockumentary, two slick filmmakers decide to make a film about the slums of Manila, in hopes of attracting international awards. Using a blend of actors and documentary footage, they turn the poverty of their city into a human interest story, complete with “heartbreaking” moments. In doing so, they give their subjects new reasons for feeling sad, coaxing them into looking dejected for the camera. The slum-dwellers are given advice on how to express their plight; we see what it takes to make an image moving, as the director supplies contrived motivations for real events. The image of the slums is like a tunnel to be invaded at different angles, with the tension ramped up each time.

This is about getting people to perform what they “are” in real life: non-actors must play out the gritty nature of their lives. The film responds to the fantasy that suffering is all authentic with the fantasy that it is all staged: both notions are equally reassuring, since they do not require us to question our sources of knowledge. We watch educated professionals tie themselves in knots to get a sordid scene on camera; they delight in showing poverty as filmic “texture.” The film plays on this concept of sampling with its witty use of Taglish, or Filipino English: a playful magpie language that easily picks up Spanish, L.A. slang, and even the jargon of film theory. An expression like “indie direk” (independent director) or “no-acting acting” (minimalist performances in arthouse films) is dangled like a flashy bit of bling: as a result, even specialized film terms come across as clichés.

It’s a shame that Polish cinema is not currently “hot” in the manner of films from the Philippines, Greece, Turkey, and Romania, which means that the current generation of directors do not receive the international distribution they deserve. There seems to be a consensus that Polish films are too classical, not raw enough, and that the country already has its fair measure of masters. The films have to promote themselves, rather than coasting on the back of some new wave — I suspect that Filip Marczewski’s intriguing Shameless only got so much attention because it was publicized as “that incest film you’ve all heard about.”

Several of the festival’s revelations were Polish films (not to mention the fact that one of the extraordinary French films of the year, Elles, was written and directed by Cracow native Malgorzata Szumowska). One of my favorite films in competition was To Kill a Beaver, a crazed thriller-comedy by Jan Jakub Kolski. Despite its chic misogyny, this film thwarts sexual expectations at every turn. Men stare at centerfolds only to extract secret codes embedded in the models’ eyes; Kolski references his background in “magical realism” when a girl on an inflatable raft floats around asking to be spanked. The film feels wild; it swerves and lurches in a way that Chuck Palahniuk can only dream of. Kolski is a fresh talent, whose humor comes from genuine idiosyncrasy rather than forced quirkiness.

Like the laughable Nos Vemos, Papa, Tomasz Wasilewski’s In a Bedroom tries to shock us with the cold sexual behavior of its heroine. However, unlike the former, which strained to be appalling, this is an accomplished debut that benefits from the elegant lead actress Katarzyna Herman. Herman looks like Sophie Marceau but acts like Isabelle Huppert; she plays the rigid Edyta as Huppert might portray a prostitute, with the same tightly wound sensuality. In this film, a cool woman is thawed out by a sexy young artist (Tomek Tyndyk), showing us the way in which feel-bad films are fundamentally escapist romances. What makes In a Bedroom unusual is that Edyta is seen as a muse whose unhappy life can be mined for art: an actress tries to mime her world-weary gestures, while a handsome photographer has her sleep in his studio. Through these encounters, the film comments on its own sampling of misery.

To conclude on an unrelated note, I love it when the name of a director’s new film seems to offer an explanation or repentance for his past work: as if to say, this is what I’ve been doing all along. The 1999 Cannes Film Festival was a banner event for this kind of film, featuring Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother (self-explanatory), David Lynch’s The Straight Story (this is the real me, no tricks), and Peter Greenaway’s 8½ Women (Fellini’s excess grafted onto the female subject.) This year, it’s Alain Resnais’ turn, with You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet: a title that could be the summary of his last three films. Resnais has performed one of the most astonishing turnarounds of any director: the creator of arch nouveaux romans in the ’60s has made a series of brilliant and bonkers comedies in the last decade. There is no director whose new work I look forward to more: who could have guessed that the director of Last Year at Marienbad (1961) would take on the cinema of surprise and delight?

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet makes good on its title: it’s about the excitement of coming attractions, scenes you haven’t and will never see. The opening jolts us: we are informed, via a series of kitschy headlines, that a blockbuster Eurydice is headed our way. Resnais’ version of a cast list involves each of his star actors being summoned to take part in the production. The actors travel to an out-of-the-way mansion — complete with windswept leaves at the door — for the reading of a will. Resnais layers cliché upon cliché (did I mention that the mansion is haunted?) until he creates something bizarre and new, generating anticipation for events that never occur. Goofy musical cues announce nothing in particular; intertitles describe perfectly plain facts, even though their font implies a majestic sweep. Finally, the actors sit before a screen which plays a minimalist version of Eurydice: what will be on the other side of this already unreal scenario?

This is a film in which grand gestures are played hesitatingly, while mundane acts are elevated with fanfare: there are constantly changing and surprising levels of significance attached to what we see. Nothing is as we know it: every move is either under- or over-scaled, so that familiar acts take on weird connotations. During a somber moment, an actor appears with an outlandish haircut that receives no comment, so that we watch the entire scene with incredulity. Resnais creates the most startling compositions this side of Johnnie To: he frames each of his stars watching the Eurydice film from a strange, skewed angle. The film within the film becomes a kind of eternal text to which the actors respond, rousing themselves to emotion on cue. As in Ulysses (there are multiple references to Joyce), a classic text is played at different speeds, incorporating live action, myth, and pre-recorded scenes. The TV screen begins to seem like an oracle, commanding each actor to speak, yet there is a constant tension between real and mythical space. One might suppose that the events of Eurydice are set in stone, but even within the epic there is wiggle room for improvisation.

Everything happens multiple times, and with variations. Eurydice is supposed to be an irreplaceable woman, the only one for Orpheus, but Resnais creates three versions of the heroine, two of which are played by Sabine Azéma and Anne Consigny. The same lines are spoken by several performers; at one stage, an actor’s body is literally split between two scenarios. There is always more, more, more: as in Resnais’ last film, Wild Grass (2009), he tacks on all kinds of codas, epilogues, and alternative histories. Characters are transported to play scenes in a new location such as a train station, where they can be more convincingly affecting; it’s like a game where one can teleport into the future by reciting the right words.The mansion is a space that contains all possible dramatic scenarios, as long as they are overwrought: this is a house of melodrama, best suited to farewells, betrayals and declarations of love. But even in this context, Resnais shows us how easily we respond to basic dramatic effects. As such, his film is a kind of modernist project where hokey techniques find surprising new uses. Musical phrases that would normally signal “Watch out!” or “Listen closely” or “Here we go again . . .” are dangled with no follow-up. Just as we work up to an emotional climax — a feeling of hard-won maturity, or the dawning of an idea — the cue will be dropped. The film presses our tenderness and nostalgia buttons, and at this point no one can make us jump like Resnais.