“Once you have a hammer, doesn’t everything look like a nail? In Hong Sang-soo’s films, everyone’s a nail.”
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The most anticipated films on the festival circuit this year failed to disconcert. Ruben Östlund’s The Square, Sally Potter’s The Party, Michael Haneke’s Happy End, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, and even Yorgos Lanthimos’ very effective thriller The Killing of a Sacred Deer were all variations on the well-made play: putting affluent people in obvious moral quandaries, with everyone’s hypocrisies up on show. The first three films made cynicism delicious by taking on, respectively, the art world, the political sphere and the bourgeois family unit: easy targets with their pretensions and cliques. There was a comfortable comedy in these films, as we watched people strive to keep up appearances while plastering over roadkill, valuing etiquette but placing no limits on action.
Humor this civilized poses no threat to the audience, especially one accustomed to the clichés of modern satire, such as skewering middle-class mores or holding a mirror up to society. Instead, all five films came across as predictably unforgiving, in the style of British TV plays of the ’70s and ’80s, but without the daring of a Dennis Potter, whose Brimstone and Treacle (1976) really did smash convention.
Östlund actually reached this level of achievement in 2011 with Play, his provocative take on identity politics: a far riskier work than either The Square or Force Majeure (2014). Unlike his more recent films, Play does not outline its ethical dilemmas: instead, it offers a series of disturbingly toneless shots, as we watch boys of different ethnicities interacting in what looks like surveillance footage. We see the malign forces at play within the “objective” stare of the camera, which dangles a case for racial profiling under the guise of neutrality. Each new scene is troubling, presenting loaded images without comment, yet inviting us to make assumptions and connections between seemingly unrelated groups of people. The viewer can never relax, since every shot prompts the question: where are you going with this? Why are we seeing it?
Austerlitz is another film that unnerves with its fixed camera. Sergei Loznitsa’s documentary looks at the phenomenon of Holocaust tourism, filming crowds who visit former death camps in East Germany. We watch as people shuffle past: couples holding hands, teens taking selfies, families on a day out. On their faces are the signs of boredom, heat and thirst: a discomfort resolved by rest stops and pre-emptive snacking. You can see the same look at any art museum around the world: the weary tread past important sites, dutifully playing one’s audioguide while finding the whole thing a bit of a slog. The camera is coolly unmoving, but seems to have a knack for picking out American sportswear: branded gear, flirty sundresses and T-shirts with slogans, made inane by the context. Then again, what does one wear for a day at Dachau?
It is hard to appear thoughtful in front of Loznitsa’s camera, but do you always wear your intelligence on your face? Presumably one can be profoundly moved without telegraphing that fact visually: it is possible to be mentally engrossed while seeming pettily distracted, and vice versa. And what would “acceptable” behavior look like onscreen? A token look of gravitas, some evidence of thinking: would that be enough to appease the camera? Surely having a tanned body in beachwear does not preclude genuine curiosity or engagement with the world. But Loznitsa has chosen to film on one of the hottest days of the year (in winter, people might seem more huddled and somber), and our attention is unquestionably drawn to those T-shirts, as to every irreverent gesture: a yawn, a shrug. The artfully bland framing captures each impulse in forensic detail.
At its crudest, the message might be: these guys don’t know what real suffering is. But Loznitsa is too sly and subtle a filmmaker to leave it at that. On one level, his film depicts unthinking hordes who commodify a tragedy, yet it also plays on the way everyday emotions are rendered incongruous by the Holocaust. One might see Austerlitz as a “chilling” formal exercise to set beside László Nemes’ Son of Saul (2015), which depicts a man so inured to death that he sees genocide as incidental to his personal goals. Both films draw on an exciting flirtation with bad taste.
A few years ago I was at a media screening of a film that opened with endless, monotonous footage of train tracks. Most of us failed to see the point, but one critic drily remarked, “We’ll probably find out it’s Auschwitz or something.” “Or something” is right: we are all familiar with the Holocaust as a generic marker of edge in pop culture. Remember the episode of Girls discussing a makeout in Nuremberg, or the time Seinfeld kissed a girl during Schindler’s List (1993)? In TV, flip references to the Holocaust now seem dated, but cinema continues to mine that extreme contrast, pitting unimaginable horror against the mundane.
Artist Yuri Ancanari’s The Challenge expands the definition of documentary, with its wild, shoot-for-the-skies take on realism. Following the lives of rich Qatari sheiks – whose pastimes include racing, falconry and taking one’s pet cheetah for a spin – the camera is committed to pursuing the highest highs. These men have an astonishing ability to mold materiality: they can will extraordinary sights and sounds into being, such as flying a plane of prize birds into the desert and shooting aerial footage of them.
One sheikh has a particularly luxe pet: a languid, domesticated cheetah for whom high speeds are now a novelty. This beautiful big cat now wants nothing more than to lie on velvet and be stroked. It springs eagerly into its master’s car – there are shades of Bringing Up Baby (1938) here, and the film does present screwball dreams as a new mode of reality. There is no acknowledgment by the camera that this is a rarefied experience: the intrinsically spectacular is the norm.
This is documentary on a Wagnerian scale, using the “real” to express symphonic movement: the soaring power of jets and birds that represents the apex of extreme sports and luxury. There is no “human interest” in this film – The Challenge is not really about privilege or curious hobbies, but rather the kinds of sights that can be yoked together under the label of documentary. It is just that this casual, everyday reality happens to consist of unbelievable images, which Ancanari puts at the service of film technique. Toward the end he cuts in footage taken from cameras attached to the birds, and this is when the film really goes berserk. The birds’ movements result in shots such as even Godard never dreamed of: startling whip pans and cuts, an image that whirls and then suddenly snaps to attention. These fantastical, scattershot frames are like the expression of a hair-trigger attention span, a new level of avant-garde form.
The Challenge engages with the 1920s romance of the cool white sheikh, long forgotten in today’s geopolitical climate. What these men do is effortlessly mythological, reigniting classical archetypes – particularly with their version of falconry, historically the sport of kings. While our eyes may be glazed by social media these days, there are still people who go out of their way to enact the marvelous – the director of this film included.
The comic possibilities of editing were explored in MIFF’s program of experimental shorts this year, featuring work from two brilliant young artists (full disclosure: I have been on the advisory panel for this section since 2012). Fern Silva, the Portuguese-American director, made a film full of surprising transitions, presenting each improbable new image as a consequence of the last. In Ride Like Lightning, Crash Like Thunder, a shot of rubber gloves being soaked in dark liquid results in the next scene being drenched in red. A single finger on a blue bowling ball makes for a clean strike, clearing the path for the next image. Silva’s work is impossible to predict, yet its pairings are “logical” in retrospect, and often inspired. The ghost of a houseplant hovers over an autumnal landscape, while a rectangle of molten green rests above a man’s dreamy eyes. The film leaves you gasping, incredulous.
Perlenmeere (Seas of Pearls) is a film that reaches out wordlessly to the viewer, pricking our skins and senses. Katrina Daschner creates layer upon layer of exquisitely fine pillow shots: soap bubbles, pink-tipped polyps, stubble resting on soft hair. They are all images of acute sensitivity without sound; however, the implication of touch is so strong that even discs of light seem to become material objects, clacking together like blue sequins.
The sequencing is unpredictable, but somehow all of these shots are on the same wavelength: a jellyfish and an orb of flesh rolling back and forth (Daschner creates “cleavage” from unidentified body parts) seem to exhale the same breath. Given the camera’s attention to tiny gradations of movement, a web of sensual associations transfers from one scene to the next. I was reminded of Eric Maschwitz’s great lyric for “These Foolish Things,” written after his breakup with Anna May Wong: “Oh, how the ghost of you clings.” The adhesive images in this film – the tender coral, the bubbles – have the cling of reluctantly separating flesh, an aesthetic that Daschner and Silva share. In the transition between scenes, a layer of sensation gently peels off – like one of Proust’s envelopes – and transposes itself onto the next frame.
Disparate objects are connected in Hong Sang-soo’s Yourself and Yours, in which a group of men encounter what appear to be multiple female doppelgangers in their city: dating, drinking, sometimes flirting. Are these women really the same, or is it a matter of mood distorting perspective, as in Joyce’s Ulysses, where “when you feel like that you often meet what you feel”? Or, to put it more bluntly: once you have a hammer, doesn’t everything look like a nail? In Hong’s films, everyone’s a nail: his male characters go by the law of the instrument when it comes to desire, with the result that every new face is subject to the same scrutiny, becoming indistinguishable in the process.
This concept, of women seeming identical because of a man’s unstinting approach to them, has been explored in That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), Spider (2002), Anomalisa (2015), and David Hare’s play The Blue Room. As in those works, the men of Yourself and Yours pursue every woman with the same question in mind: Does she give me the feeling I want? If she was a nail, would I hit it? If each person is judged on their ability to produce or satisfy one impulse, then appearances become interchangeable.
Conversation also takes on familiar patterns – as in all of Hong’s films, white-knuckle tension stems from differences of opinion over arbitrary ideals, while the sudden lash of interrogation is never far away. Once again – and this never grows old – people score points by “innocently” repeating rumor, telling you what everyone thinks of you to your face. A group exchange leaves everyone smarting, with poisoned darts needing to be plucked out.
Hong’s women remain a puzzle, as ever: these slim, light girls move too fast for the heavily brooding men. They are cutesy yet self-possessed: capable of uttering bald statements in a flirtatious murmur (“I think I’m going to stop seeing you”) so that the listener doubts his own sanity. Ultimately, the female characters merge into one many-faced goddess: the same body holding infinite narrative possibilities.
Why does the legend of the sleeping beauty make for such peculiar films? From Julia Leigh’s masterpiece Sleeping Beauty (2011) to James B. Harris’ cult Some Call It Loving (1973), films about a sleeping woman have an unnatural passivity, as if the drowsiness extended from character to viewer, enabling an erotic yet chaste fantasy. Somnambulism seems to be a pretext for making an “unknowing” work: a film that mirrors its heroine’s state of being bewitched and going through the motions.
Ado Arrietta’s Belle Dormant is a film in this tradition: an oddly muted telling of a familiar story, with that oneiric feeling that is so rare for directors to achieve (Marco Bellocchio, Raúl Ruiz, Manoel de Oliveira – anyone else?). Almost everyone in the film struggles to stay awake, from the slacker prince to the entire kingdom of Kentz, blanketed in sleep along with its princess. The fairy-tale land of Kentz coexists with the modern nation of Letonia, whose prince is in need of a bride. There is an easy mix of periods and styles: a sense of denaturalized, “bare” time, without any wealth of historical detail.
The strange tone is indicated from the opening credits, with anticlimactic drum rolls that turn out to be part of the prince’s jam sessions (there is plenty of room for riffing and digression in this tale). From here, everything is cloaked in unreality: the sleepwalking performances, the ditzy enchantment of the characters, and the instability of the mise-en-scène, complete with bad costumes and an air of tawdry glamor.
In its sleepy stupor, the plot threatens to go off the rails. There are any number of distractions the film might follow: for instance, the glimpses of a dark, handsome stranger (Vladimir Consigny), who appears smoldering for reasons we will never know. The woman of most interest to the camera is not the princess but the mysteriously knowing Maggie (Agathe Bonitzer), who attracts with her strong profile and direct gaze, and risks diverting us from the central romance. These are potential invaders who might be taken up as story subjects; nevertheless, the film casts off this redundant chemistry and persists with its original arc.
Belle Dormant is a fabulation, as in a work that highlights the elements common to all stories, rather than focusing on any one story. One might have thought that, with the deaths of Ruiz and Oliveira, the art of fabulation in film had disappeared. But Belle Dormant comes with its own admirably thin take on the fairy tale. Everything about this film is less than substantial: the awkwardness and hesitance of the soundtrack, the labored presentation of miracles, the prolonged close-ups out of The Bold and the Beautiful. The characters act in dreamy obedience to unknown laws, ignoring the presence of new love interests. Like the work of Oliveira, Arrietta’s film feels both age-old and freshly minted: an unpredictable journey with a foregone conclusion. The removal of suspense leaves serenity.