Bright Lights Film Journal

Who Blinks First? Isabelle Huppert and the Pope at Busan International Film Festival 2011

“Moretti’s aim in We Have a Pope is to unleash as many dissenting voices on the airwaves as possible — to create space within the tightness and enclosure of historical memories.”

This year’s BIFF featured a huge panorama of Asian cinema in the form of documentaries, shorts, features, and multiple retrospectives. Our FIPRESCI jury focused on the New Currents section, introducing the work of emerging Asian directors. One of the standouts was Loy Arcenas’ extremely eccentric Niño, which centers on a group of neurotic geniuses. In this Filipino family, almost everyone is some kind of classical virtuoso: a singer or pianist on the verge of breakdown. Celia (Fides Cuyugan-Asensio), a former opera star, serenades her brother and plays her own records; the house echoes with phrases and arias, the collective family opus. Memories are inevitably linked to lyrics and signature renditions of a piece. Even a small boy knows that the way to get attention is to don a theatrical cape; only when he wears this costume is he embraced as a character in his own right.

Living with these high-strung performers induces claustrophobia. But even though Celia can be grating, her musical persona is delightful: she has an exquisite voice and a nostalgic tenderness to her singing. As in Nobuteru Uchida’s recent Love Addiction (Fuyu no kemono, 2010), Arcenas focuses on his strong-willed characters to the exclusion of almost everything else. In the world of Niño, the only concern is classical music and the demands it makes on its followers. The faces of Celia and her family fill the screen — we can barely see around their heads to observe their environment. Every sound, musical or otherwise, is amplified: a phone ring, the angry bark of an old man.

This film reminded me of Nocturnes, Kazuo Ishiguro’s brilliant anthology of tales based on musical genres. In Nocturnes, we come to realise that an organic and “realistic” story is guided by the principles of tempo, pitch, and timbre. Niño has a plausible plot, but its timing and bravura displays of emotion (for instance, the breakdown of a villain in the third act) are all determined by the structures of classical opera. The enchanting, “happy” ending only exists because the form demands a finale in a major key. Each gesture — a shot of women glancing at each other, or a mother holding a child — is blown up to the point where it becomes operatic. It’s an exceptional melodrama, placing us center stage in a company of divas.

In a much-fêted appearance, Isabelle Huppert visited the GoEun Museum of Photography accompanied by Hong Sang-soo, the director of her upcoming film. The exhibition, Woman of Many Faces, featured shots of Huppert by an astonishing range of photographers including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Huppert has always been able to control her own image, even under the direction of major artists. Somehow she positions her face so that we perceive it as a series of clean, well-lit planes; whatever isn’t bright or clear just melts away.

I find that my gaze lingers on her image without resolution: more so than with, say, Isabelle Adjani or Catherine Deneuve. Looking at Deneuve we admire the heroic bone structure, while with Adjani we zero in on the features — but in each case, the eye quickly tires. Huppert’s face is not as immediately striking; instead it contains small, delicate recesses that reward infinite exploration. Her shallow-set eyes are opaque, but their power is far-reaching; they size you up, while she remains beyond scrutiny. In an amusing 1985 portrait by Edouard Boubat, Huppert manages to out-stare a cat. If this is a competition for the strongest gaze, it’s the cat that blinks; this feline seems tame and approachable in comparison with Huppert.

Even Juergen Teller can’t break down her mystique. Teller is notorious for subjecting older models to a sterile white light that shows up frightened eyes, loose skin, and ghoulish bones. But in his photos of Huppert, she stares right down the lens: the indifference of her gaze renders her slouched body irrelevant.

In the past, David Thomson has criticized the actress as pale and numb, while Pauline Kael detested her work with Godard. Huppert has certainly grown as a performer since the ’80s, but the pallor and reticence are still there. What has changed is that her face is now always on the verge of movement: the mouth may be sullen, but it is ready to twist and say “Bof!” in a second. Her looks suggest blankness, but it is this complex “neutral” expression that has made her so attractive to photographers and filmmakers.

It has been said that Huppert is too guarded to be a great actress — that she is less likely to expose herself to vulnerability and risk than Juliette Binoche. However, while Huppert remains emotionally armored, it appears to be some kind of flexible armor that bends to the gaze. She maintains her visual personality under any condition: in snapshots and long takes, from above or below, through blur or stark light, and even when her eyes are hidden. A silly smile doesn’t ruin the spell — as it almost certainly would for Deneuve — since Huppert is able to give a sheepish look without breaking character.

A video by Gary Hill shows Huppert projecting her characteristic, knowing look from two screens; she unnaturally tilts her head and purses her lips, but doesn’t falter – it’s another staring game that she wins. For a Robert Wilson installation, she pulls back her hair and looks dour, apparently impersonating Garbo. This is Huppert doing mystique in quotation marks, but surpassing Garbo in that her presence can stand up to humor and self-awareness. Garbo, like Deneuve and Emmanuelle Béart, holds her face stiffly to the camera, as if afraid of exposing a flaw. One quick zoom would shatter the goddess image. But in Wilson’s video, Huppert seems to be saying, “Here I am, showing you all my tricks — and you still can’t read me.” If this actress is wearing a mask, it must be sutured to her face: it holds up at any angle, for any director.

Hong Sang-soo’s own contribution to the festival, The Day He Arrives, was perhaps his most anti-humanist work to date. The wily filmmaker Seongjun (Yu Junsang) takes a trip to Seoul; he says he is looking to meet a male colleague, but is otherwise wandering without a purpose. In Hong, men who claim to be aimless tend to have a specific, seedy objective: in Seongjun’s case, it’s the desire to hook up with his old flame, a vulnerable girl named Kyungjin (Kim Bokyung). This is only one of the many loaded, unequal relationships in the film. Seongjun is a well-known director who purports to befriend film students on equal terms, without acknowledging the deference they offer him. Other relationships are based on an implicit agreement that each person will make flattering comments about the other. Women ask for honest appraisals of their personalities, when in reality they are fishing for compliments.

A red flag appears when Seongjun declares to Kyungjin that “there’s no one like you.” We know by now that nothing is singular in Hong; if a character is deemed to be irreplaceable, it’s only a matter of time before we meet her doppelganger. Characters are always echoes of each other, to the extent of mimicking the same comments and postures, and even being played by the same actors (Kim plays both Kyungjin and her lookalike Yejeon). Time and again, women adopt the same stance to receive a kiss: they go through the motions of being reluctant, throwing out faltering arms. Men trot out familiar lines to get laid and upon leave-taking: everyone has a part to play.

It is an anti-human vision of society: people do no more than exchange fixed positions, taking up the role of aggressor or reactor, lover or cast-off. Conversational patterns flow through people with little resistance; characters mouth arguments stated by others with barely a change in wording. Upon hearing Seongjun’s description of his ideal woman, Boram (Song Sunmi) begins to replicate the exact traits he admires: an outward coolness and an inner sadness. We don’t know if this is a strategy on Boram’s part, or whether Seongjun’s attraction to melancholy girls has given her permission to confess her loneliness.

There’s a lot of talk about what people are essentially like — how they seem, as opposed to how they really are “on the inside” — but for all that, breathtakingly little insight is achieved. A person with a problem is more likely to ask “What’s wrong with you?” than identify their own weakness. These characters are happy to relive the same scenes over and over without variation. Seongjun quickly displaces the impulses he reserved for Kyungjin onto Yejeon. Affairs with both women are brief; as is typical in Hong, minutes pass between a declaration of “I want to make you happy” and the decisive “Let’s never meet again.” Pre-sex, Seongjun adopts a fetal position of helplessness; afterwards, he’s upright and assertive, wanting to get his boots on. In the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, this kind of squeamishness is presented as a major failing of male identity, an indictment of hubris. But in Hong, it’s just another set of rhythms that men and women are willing to play out, a game that dismays neither partner.

Naomi Kawase’s melodrama Hanezu is impossibly earnest in setting individual relationships against a larger natural world, the “fleeting” life against the eternal. Its small-scaled human figures are contained within an enveloping landscape. We can tell that its central love triangle is a primal affair because the wife’s boyfriend (Tohta Komizu) is a sensual woodcarver out of D. H. Lawrence, who prepares exquisite farm-to-table meals. Everyone in the film embraces an eco-organic lifestyle; the wife (Hako Oshima) wears gauzy hand-dyed fabrics and looks like an ad for Muji homewares. She and her lover are as still as woodland creatures — they silently, gracefully make their wishes known. These two are in communion with nature, but the husband is not; he is talkative and restless, and hence excluded from their spiritual bond. This is a distinctive film, but it’s hard to not to make the characters’ impeccable standards — a model of nose-to-tail, locavore eating — seem like an ideal of refined living.

I had high hopes for Daniel Nettheim’s The Hunter, an adaptation of the novel by Julia Leigh. Australian director and novelist Leigh was responsible for the magnificent Sleeping Beauty (2011) — a wondrous erotic fable that deserves to be compared with The Story of O and Traumnovelle in its depiction of a world of sexual codes touched by magic. The Hunter begins promisingly: there is a quick plunge into story as Martin David (Willem Dafoe) travels to Tasmania to pursue a supposedly extinct tiger. Excitingly, the film moves us through an airport, a lab, and a house of stranded children before we have time to process what’s going on; it shifts between fantasy, eco-thriller, and gothic tale. This is always a riveting phase in a film, when a narrative keeps changing shape and form before our eyes. We ask ourselves: is the story a pretext for another subject altogether? Is this film really just about one man stalking a creature?

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it’s about. The film loses fictional tension with the appearance of Sam Neill as a local guide. At that point, all of our questions dwindle down to the level of plot: what happened to the missing man, and is that tiger still around? Dafoe is always compelling — he has the ability to appear meek within his wolfish features — but the rest of the film is a wash.

The theme of modern-day savagery is much more successfully treated in the outstanding thriller The Woman, which screened in BIFF’s midnight series of pulp movies. Lucky McKee’s film plays off a number of fruitful and surprising contrasts. In particular, there’s a key juxtaposition between the grunge soundtrack and the personality of Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers), the arrogant father who kidnaps the protagonist. These tracks are actually recent works by Sean Spillane but with their thick, sludgy chords, they reek of the ’90s Sub Pop scene. Seattle grunge, traditionally the voice of introspection and empathy for outsiders, is turned on its head; McKee plays these songs as if they were cock-rock. The film takes a sound more commonly associated with the Riot Grrrl movement and uses it to power the misogyny of Chris’ actions.

The first time Chris encounters the Woman (Pollyanna McIntosh), a cannibalistic human raised by wolves, the camera regards her as a contemporary of Kim Deal or Courtney Love: soaring guitar riffs accompany close-ups of her snarling mouth and torn dress. This woman may be unsocialized, but she is eminently marketable: her fierceness is made for the camera. Chris perceives her as an indie queen, a more extreme version of his own goth daughter (Lauren Ashley Carter). He’s instantly entranced: he wants to tie her down, if only to watch her explode.

The film is bold in showing us the Woman’s backstory: in just a few hazy glimpses, we see an infant nurtured by wolves, its awareness stimulated by warmth and texture. This pre-verbal, mythic vision contrasts with the clean suburban lifestyle of the Cleeks. Chris is a chipper and earnest husband, like Jim Carrey in the The Truman Show (1998); McKee combines this all-American feel with unexpected elements such as a beautiful, ghost-like wife (Angela Bettis), a subplot about teen education, and the Seattle sound that might represent a moment from Chris’ past. Just as the film unites grunge and oppression — natural enemies until now — it presents a sitcom life that coincides with a myth of native America.

Skepticism and conviction come together in Nanni Moretti’s We Have a Pope. As in Il Caimano (2006), where the Berlusconi mansion turns into a funhouse ransacked by children, Moretti seems determined to upset conventional representations of Italian history. Yet he will not perform a direct attack on organized religion or politics. Instead he tries to intervene in historical images: to loosen them from solemnity and subject them to question. His aim is to unleash as many dissenting voices on the airwaves as possible — to create space within the tightness and enclosure of historical memories. To this end, the opening scene at the Vatican is dominated by a chatty journalist who talks over the papal procession, generating an informal buzz over seriousness. As far as Moretti is concerned, the more voices the better — hence his delight at the number of African, Middle Eastern, and South American contenders for the role of pope. These papal candidates are a harried bunch: distracted, cranky, fussy about food. During the conference the Vatican turns into a retreat for senior men, who demand to have activities organized for them.

From Moretti’s perspective, the historical event we are witnessing — the appointment of a new pope — is itself unreal. As in Marco Bellocchio’s films, an “event” is something that involves a tiny human being trapped inside a vast institution. Melville (Michel Piccoli), the frail man selected as pope, peeks out of a window at the crowd and has a panic attack; he nearly chokes under his heavy robes.

The Catholic organization is an enormous, slow-moving apparatus that can only communicate via a series of token signals: a wave from the balcony, a smoke sign, and the chiming of the bell. It takes a huge amount of work to engineer the papal persona; the Vatican has its own publicity machine geared to tourists. When the chosen pope fails to materialize, his minders project a cinematic shadow from his room to appease the crowds. But as we see, any fool can perform the signs of papal grace: when a buffoon is installed in Melville’s quarters, his slightest move sends onlookers into awe — they believe they are receiving a moral message.

Moretti gives himself the role of a psychiatrist hired to coax Melville into the spotlight. It’s a character similar to the one played by Geoffrey Rush in the vastly inferior The Kings Speech (2010): an outsider who must build up the mainstream voice of the nation. But while The Kings Speech never questioned the entitlement of George VI, in this film the pope’s role is limited to an Oz-like voice within an edifice. Melville is attended to by doctors and guards, with officials milling around as if awaiting the news of a royal birth. However, when he needs a counselor to help decide his future, most areas of his life cannot be broached, for fear of contradicting Catholic principles. Dreams, sex, fear, and uncertainty are all off-limits, and the new pope is left inconsolable. But although We Have a Pope is superficially irreverent, it is not explicitly anti-Catholic. Instead the film remains respectful of a kind of Christian anguish — in fact, Melville’s relentless questioning of his own motives reveals him as the man the Church needs: a selfless guard against vanity. Perhaps it is this wilderness period — which resembles Audrey Hepburn’s adventure in Roman Holiday (1953) — that fortifies him as an ethical leader. The splendid final scene is anything but cynical: it’s one of Moretti’s “over to you” endings, leaving us in a mood of passionate doubt.