“Faust’s obsession is his lust for a pale girl who looks underage, referred to as a ‘little doll,’ the only pure thing in a foul society. The desire to corrupt that girl is his version of mastering the world.”
We’ve All Seen That Face Before
MIFF is one of the few major festivals with a commitment to experimental cinema: represented this year by a focus on Jean Epstein, Isabelle Prim’s superbly confounding The Red and the Black, and a program of shorts featuring Sophie Michael and Henry Hills. Other films with an experimental structure included back-and-forth videos between Jonas Mekas and José Luis Guerín, and a testy new film from Abbas Kiarostami, Like Someone in Love, which is as elusive as its title suggests.
The Epstein program was a delight, particularly in its inclusion of shorts and rarities alongside the director’s more renowned works. The 22-minute Le Tempestaire (1947) combines documentary and myth; scenes of a Breton fishing village are interspersed with shots of women weaving at the loom. The women inevitably evoke the Fates with their spinning wheel, but they also allude to fortune-telling in a different way: their slow, hypnotic moves have the quality of film sliding through the projector. When Epstein cuts between shots of the weavers and the sea, we feel as if the waves are being controlled by human hands. The tempestaire (storm-tamer) is a Prospero-like magician who can reverse the cycles of nature: everything in this film turns, with dials spinning back and forth, the swirling wind and air, and the projector-like loom.
In another short, La Mer des Corbeaux (1931), Epstein refers to the sea as having eyes and a voice: in these films, the ocean speaks a specifically cinematic language. The sea spray mists like a dissolve; a wave folds over like a wipe. A shot of the calm sea resembles an ellipsis, marking space and duration between episodes. In Le Tempestaire, Epstein creates shock cuts between the ocean and the village, so that the rhythm of one scene is used to charge up the next; even relatively placid sequences are scored by the sea’s undulations. Similarly, we often see narrowed eyes or a fevered face before looking at shots of the Breton coastline. The purpose of this is to make sure we can’t see straight: every “objective” sight is fogged up by fear or desire.
If the goal (as in so many experimental films) is hypnosis, then the switch-point of Le Tempestaire is the moment at which the lighthouse flashes. The lighthouse — that quintessential emblem of modernism — serves as a kind of objective correlative. A lighthouse is as direct a symbol as you can get: Epstein might as well be saying, “I am showing you the sign” or “The sign is looking at you.” The turning light is a hypnotic trigger — a signal that we’re being put under. For Epstein, as for David Lynch and Francis Ford Coppola, this kind of self-conscious symbolism is extraordinarily effective. Something mysterious happens when a flash of light, or as we shall see, a white door labelled 237 marks the transition into a new reality. For instance, in Lynch, whenever we see a hotel room or a hidden speaker at a microphone, we know that we are passing through to a dream-state.
Although it’s not strictly an experimental film, Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 is another work that aims to mesmerize us. Again and again, we are shown the opening images of The Shining (1980): the ’70s Warners logo, followed by the narrowing path through the mountains as the credits come up. This sequence is an induction phase; each time it plays, we get a sense of “We’re going in.” As part of our initiation into the film’s world, we must view the same images over and over: the W, the path, the blue lettering, and then the Overlook Hotel. This is one of many uncanny repetitions in Ascher’s film: we keep retracing our steps across looming hallways, a tessellated carpet, and the route up to the door of room 237, where Jack Nicholson encounters the ghost of a dead woman.
Room 237 is narrated by several Kubrick aficionados: all obsessive speakers who trip over themselves with excitement, complete with skipped words and nerdy laughs. Each narrator offers his or her version of what the film is really about, from subliminal advertising to the slaughter of Native Americans. Their idiosyncratic readings are fused together to make this documentary; I particularly liked the link between the twin girl ghosts and Doctor Dolittle‘s Pushmi-pullyu, as an illustration of the film’s forwards/backwards motif.
Part of the immersive effect of Room 237 is that there seems to be nothing outside The Shining; once you follow the path into the hotel, there is no way of thinking about say, Nazi symbolism or the moon landing, except in terms of images from Kubrick’s film. According to the narrators, all kinds of powerful truths can be expressed solely through the film’s scenes. The Shining is staggered, reversed and stilled until it gives up its secrets; each speaker hurries us through “insignificant” events to get through to the film’s true meaning. In this infinite parsing and scanning of a text, the rule is: never look lightly. There is no gap between what we see and what we can see if we are prepared to open our minds.
An intriguing theory is offered by artist and writer Juli Kearns, who suggests that The Shining is about spatial contradictions: the feeling that everything is in the wrong place. In Kubrick’s film, places pop up where they shouldn’t; a room where “you just have the impression that it’s towards the middle of the house” turns out to be on the periphery. Therefore even the film’s early scenes are troubling: the equivalent of a discordant note or an italicized passage in a thriller. Several speakers also discuss Kubrick’s penchant for scary eyes: the malevolent gaze seen in The Shining, A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), as the camera closes in on the frightening symmetry of a face.
I was blown away by Isabelle Prim’s The Red and the Black, in the sense of finding it stunning and impenetrable. The opening credits promise a film that might be about anything, with its parade of silhouettes and angular forms ready to be filled in with detail. The film is narrated by mother-and-daughter thieves, whose reality changes throughout. Sometimes the women have a physical presence that others respond to; their gloved hands are awkwardly dangled into the frame, like sock puppets. At other times, they seem to be parts of the camera, with no more reality than the red and black of the darkroom. There are no rules as to what this shape-shifting duo can do.
This unaccountable film puts all kinds of realities on the same plane: clumsy surveillance footage, the films of past masters, images that are in the process of being developed, layers of manipulated soundtracks. The naïve voices of the women are contrasted with the assurance of the imagery; the camera has the ability to override conventional notions of time, and to show us marvels as if they were commonplace. For instance, the figure of a “dinocat” (a cat-dinosaur hybrid) is introduced just once and is immediately referred to as a cliché thereafter: the film requires a quick processing of its own eccentricity, as a one-off turns into a trope. It’s wonderful to come across a film that makes you feel like a dunce. The Red and the Black is even more opaque than late Godard; it makes the rhythms of Film Socialisme (2010) seem predictable.
On the accessible side of experimental cinema is Correspondence: Jonas Mekas – JL Guerín, a warm exchange of video essays between the two artists. As much as these directors admire each other, I was struck by the contrasts rather than the correspondences between them. Guerín’s entries have a classical, beautiful shape; as the narrator races through cities, we see grabs of shadows and bodies, all caught on the fly. The director is able to energize clichéd images — autumn leaves, faces in a revolving door — with the intensity of his looking.
Mekas’ films are much more rooted in the present, rather than assembled on the run; time seems heavy in his works, as minutes go by between moments of “interest.” The camera suggests a gaze which is far from intense or desirous; in fact, it seems absent-minded. He describes his work as “taping, not filming,” and the result is the illusion of unmediated footage. We have a fumbling awareness of what’s going on: there is lots of rustling and fidgeting, a struggle to get the image in focus. Mekas’ approach is more spontaneous, but it can also risk being mundane! Dead time in Mekas is not romantic — it can seem blank.
Guerín’s method excludes the possibility of boredom — even his moments of silence have a searching affect. His eye naturally orders and shapes what he sees; each frame has a rigor, an attraction, at first glance. A film by Guerín is part of a long philosophical tradition; he invokes the ghosts of other artists as he travels. The works are full of authorial traces: his thinking effortlessly picks up Murnau and Thoreau along the way. (Where is the author in Mekas — distracted? Rambling? Having a sandwich?) In his final entry, Guerín has a go at Mekas-style filmmaking; he watches and waits, resists cutting to a striking image. But his version of blankness can’t help but reference Ozu; wobbliness in Guerín is a lovely, hesitating feeling. So we are left with a contrast between Guerín’s instinctive elegance and the looser style of a Mekas.
One of the highlights of the experimental shorts program (full disclosure: I was on the advisory panel for this section) was Henry Hills’ super-energetic Arcana, a film full of zany cuts, each one more excited than the last. You need to see this film to experience Hills’ level of enthusiasm over a twitching finger and a piece of fruit. I have never seen a camera get so hopped up on an orange, not even in Věra Chytilová’s Fruit of Paradise (1969). One can imagine Hills exclaiming, “Slice it! Look at the rind! Here’s the juice!” A masterpiece at the other end of the spectrum was British artist Sophie Michael’s semi-abstract 99 Clerkenwell Road. This gorgeous film is all sweet spot: limpid discs of color with a Matisse-like intensity.
Another Country, Another Counterfeit
The key word in Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love is “like”: the title expresses a self-conscious rapture, a person on the verge of feeling something, even if they’re not sure what it is. Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010) could have been called Like Someone in Love, with Juliette Binoche acting out a hundred variations of a love story in different languages, mediums and genres. In the Lerner/Loewe song “Almost Like Being in Love,” the singer claims he “could swear” he was falling in love, since the emotion has been replicated so closely. But has he fallen just short?
The characters of Like Someone in Love play their parts convincingly: possessive boyfriend, gentle girl, courtly admirer. But something is off: from the start, we don’t know how people are connected and who they are speaking to, if anyone. The spatial arrangement of the first scene prevents us from seeing whether people are talking to themselves or each other: they appear to be speaking into glass panels. Are their comments being registered, or do they just dangle in the air? Why do some people seem subservient to others — which smiles are performed out of duty, and which are given freely? From a distance, it’s unclear whether the motions of love are being faked.
Certainly, the face of the blankly pretty Akiko (Rin Takahashi) tells us nothing. Akiko seems too focused on being doe-eyed to express emotion; however, her commonplace looks are very much in demand. She is constantly mistaken for other people: daughters, lovers, women in portraits. Everybody’s seen that face before: this is a girl who could be anyone and looks like everyone. Yet Akiko inspires strong (if somewhat generic) reactions in others, including her jealous boyfriend and a protective older man, Takashi (Tadashi Okuno). She is prepared to cave in to her boyfriend’s demands simply because it is her instinct to do so, without affection. The characters behave as others expect them to, no more or less. When Takashi is asked why he finds a story funny, he replies, “You said it was a joke, so I’m laughing.” It could equally be said of the characters’ affairs: “You said I was in love, so I’m loving.”
There is a huge gap between feeling and affect: people who are overwhelmed by emotion sound nonchalant on the phone. Akiko’s driver speaks to her with rote politeness, although his eyes follow her every move. As in Alain Resnais’ Coeurs (2006), people circle around images of each other, divided by glassy facades. My initial reaction to this film was: why Japan? So many foreign directors have used Japan as a metaphor for impersonality; I feared an ending along the lines of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006). But Kiarostami manages to make a film with a distinctly Japanese sensibility, from the phrasing of a local version of “Que Sera, Sera” to the appearance of a terrifying woman in the window, who repeats the phrase chotto, chotto (teensy-weensy) in a piping voice.
In a film full of misunderstandings and “lost in translation” exercises, the greatest struggle is not between languages but the disparity between word and image. The characters are constantly describing photos, paintings and faces, so we put our imaginative efforts into picturing these objects. We never know if we will see them, but even when we do, the image seems irrelevant compared with the intensity of the description. In any case, these people are reluctant to adjust their initial impressions of each other. At first sight, an old man is assumed to be a grandfather rather than a sexual threat; a girl who resembles a classical painting is treated as a naïve ingénue, despite the fact that she works as a callgirl. But can the elderly Takashi really be so chaste and disinterested, wanting only to be of service to Akiko? Is he the clichéd Volvo owner he appears to be, or is he just playing a role? (We later see that he is a reckless driver who almost smashes into children). Akiko seems meek and uncomprehending, but as a sociology student and prostitute, surely she knows more about human nature than she’s letting on. Therefore every exchange in this film has a strange hollowness to it: as if one face, voice or storyline could be swapped for another. With his last three films, Kiarostami is becoming an increasingly challenging director: compared with, say, Ten (2002), his recent works are much more mysterious, less admiring of their own structure.
The notion of Isabelle Huppert starring in a film by Hong Sang-soo is delicious. A Hong film is a delicate ecosystem based on tiny nuances of dialogue and gesture: now imagine that micro-world with the Eiffel Tower stuck onto it. The idea of using an international actress to capsize a culturally specific film has worked brilliantly for Juliette Binoche; in her work with Kiarostami and Amos Gitai, experimental cinema has been forced to stand up to her star presence. At the same time, one fears for the integrity of Hong’s unique tone and humor. What will Huppert’s severe gaze do to his characters?
Surprisingly, In Another Country doesn’t go there. One might imagine that Huppert would make a big splash in Hong’s minimalist society, and that we could learn something about his society from these reactions. But from the start, Huppert is just another object in Hong’s world — she is treated as a variation of the Rohmer ingénue we often seen in his films. Huppert is the property of another author within the text; Won-ju (Jung Yumi) is writing a script with three French characters in mind. Playing all three, Huppert can be shifted from place to place as needed.
In the past, Huppert has never let playing a prostitute (Slow Motion, 1980) or a 50-year-old dressed as jailbait (Special Treatment, 2010) disturb her composure. But in this film, she doesn’t try to keep her veneer; she does not flag her detachment when her character shuffles obediently behind her macho lover. This is not the actress we’ve seen in the last two decades — there is none of the froideur we associate with her work for Jacquot or Chabrol. This is a soft, relaxed, unguarded Huppert — a star on vacation, prepared to go along with anything. The lack of chemistry with her Korean male co-stars doesn’t faze her. Speaking English, her second language, Huppert is less armored than usual (it might have been interesting to see her perform in different languages, just as in Certified Copy, a man who is obnoxious in English can be charming in French.) However, the fact that nothing changes may be part of the point. Hong’s people inhabit a world so fixed that not even a major star can unsettle its rhythms. His characters walk from story to story chanting the same lines, making the same moves, and even taking on new identities, without missing a step. There is no way out of the film’s maze.
Ruben Östlund’s Involuntary is another film that plays on the idea of conversation being generic and useless. Almost every character is on autopilot, responding to others with forced chuckles and eye-crinkling smiles. As in Like Someone in Love, the camera takes up strange positions, sometimes cutting off heads so that we get our information from bodies and voices rather than faces. But we rarely know what people are doing in the first place — we cannot always tell if someone is sleeping, unconscious, or merely lost in thought. This leaves us to judge a situation on the basis of very little — we can try and read intent into people’s foot positions, or the bored slouch of a ponytail. Everyone is subject to “profiling”: becoming a composite of hand gestures, postures and voice tones. When questionable acts are committed, there are only unseen perpetrators and witnesses.
Involuntary tracks five case studies, examining whether people are willing to deviate from consensus (one is literally a perceptive test, in which a student refutes plain evidence in order to conform with the rest of the class). In each case, people either refuse to acknowledge an impending disaster, or manically insist on agreement over the smallest details. In one story, a man at a party is willing to die out of politeness — he is too embarrassed to attend to a blinding or fatal injury.
Another episode shows two blonde girls risking their lives on a trashy night out. The blondes are objects of a disdainful curiosity. They are all scraggly hair, tank tops and faux-gangsta talk, and the camera often regards them at cleavage level, as if to say, “Look at that lot.” When people’s identities consist of torsos and vapid voices, it is tempting to view their bodies as so much human mass. The aimless talkers at parties, the fleshy males with their drunken antics — what good are they? Is it just the camera that depersonalizes the characters, or are these people themselves hollow?
Östlund makes a good case for people as automatons; as we watch characters betray themselves via insincere reaction shots, the camera implies a Chabrolian “judgment in stone”. Under pressure, people make sympathetic, clucking noises, but their bodies don’t budge; they excuse intentional acts with the phrase “It just happened.” They do this so often that we don’t necessarily recognize who is speaking. The film’s style reflects this combination of anonymity and contempt. Initially the case studies are clearly separated, but this orderly system of check-in becomes confused, as each case separates into strands. When the film alights on a new plotline, we have to ask: what are we looking at? Is this “objective” surveillance footage or subjective looking? The stories are divided by long black pauses; we enter each scene as if set to wake by an alarm or a sensor. Thus the film’s structure is seen as automatic rather than thoughtful: more proof that what our eyes do is mainly stupid.
Faust is the final work in Sokurov’s series on men whose imaginations are both limited and out of control. The fact that its subject is a fictional character unsettles the whole series: have all the films been patterned on a mythical structure from the beginning? What does that say about biography? If we regard the tetralogy as a collection of parallel lives, how does Faust rank as a dictator — and how can Hitler, Lenin and Hirohito be regarded as sell-outs?
What Faust has in common with these historical tyrants is that he is frustrated with the limits of knowledge. He is bored with his own cleverness, and rates his life as low — the world feels too narrow for his ingenuity. He wants to see and feel everything, to go beyond the limits of what is reasonable and conventionally moral. In Thomas Mann’s version of the legend, Faust’s decline is equated with the rise of Nazism, the desire to dominate bodies through the will of one mind. Sokurov’s Faust believes the world to be failed and unreal; he is a kind of unleashed magician who believes he can gain satisfaction by transcending ethical norms. He has lost track of the movements of his own body; like Hirohito in The Sun (2005), he has a voice-over that seems to be one step behind his physical consciousness. The adult women in his sphere are powdered and unclean; they seem greedy and overripe (the film has a Nabokovian sensibility). Faust’s obsession is his lust for a pale girl who looks underage, referred to as a “little doll,” the only pure thing in a foul society. The desire to corrupt that girl is his version of mastering the world.
Philippe Garrel’s That Scorching Summer (Un Eté Brûlant) holds off on the promised heat; like the Kiarostami film, it is self-conscious about the nature of love, investigating whether people covet it as a trophy, or merely as a way to stave off that tired afternoon feeling — which in Garrel is close to depression and suicide. We know the film will have an unusual attitude to beauty and celebrity from the opening credits, with its stars’ names indifferently clustered together. Instead of naturalizing the beauty of his women, Garrel tends to cast them as models and actresses. His characters have showbizzy, somewhat unreal jobs (movie extra, performer, dancer) but also tragic inner lives: lots of freedom and emptiness between their scripted lines.
Garrel’s films are about people with full, starry lives who are also living in ashes — there is nothing lonelier than an actor with a blank face, waiting to be called on set. Anything is possible in the spaces between the big actions of love and suicide (a kiss or a death always comes across as rather sudden and unbelievable). The silences between these acts are sculpted by John Cale’s minimal score. In Garrel we get the sense of long days, sometimes peaceful, but with a wasted, desolate feeling that comes on by twilight.
There is plenty of time to watch the two leading women, and to consider the effect of their bodies on their lovers. Playing the actress Angèle, Monica Bellucci carries herself like Cleopatra; she resembles Ursula Andress in the composed, professional way she holds her beauty. She has a practiced, silky smile and is often framed to maximum effect, face-on with center-parted hair. Everyone seems to fall for this Madonna: Angèle is watched by all the other characters, including the women. We are very aware of her body, large and full by Hollywood standards, being poured and cinched into dresses.
Angèle is contrasted with Elisabeth (Celine Sallette), who looks like a vixen but may be the most vulnerable of them all. Elisabeth has a leonine face and a wide, bony figure; on features alone, she should be Charlotte Rampling. But she doesn’t live up to her hard glamour; she always seems to be breaking down, and her frank face is covered with tears. The two women are insecure, wanting to safeguard their power over men. In turn, the men want lots of maternal comfort to pad out their depressive days. Money, glamour and neediness are not incompatible with the spiritual loves of this film.
Now is the time to talk about the curious acting renaissance of Matthew McConaughey. It’s always exciting when a player who has been coasting for years comes back into the game. How often does a journeyman suddenly acquire interest and talent, even passion, for the job? With Bernie (2011), The Lincoln Lawyer (2011), Magic Mike (2012), and at MIFF, Killer Joe (2011), McConaughey is the most exciting leading man of the moment. He goes further and risks himself more than, say, Pitt, Depp or Downey. Unlike the very guarded Depp, McConaughey doesn’t muck up his handsomeness to make a point; he prefers to work with rather than against his looks. As a stripper in Magic Mike1, he goes full-bore at playing beefcake — he is prepared to seem artless. Imagine the smirk Depp would give off in such a role!
Hollywood’s leading men are increasingly uncomfortable with playing to their romantic appeal — Depp has neutered himself for Tim Burton, while Di Caprio has erased his eerie childlike allure, and muscled up into an unconvincing man of action. Michael Fassbender and Christian Bale, once wonderfully warm actors, have both turned glacial, and reshaped their bodies to prove their total commitment. By contrast, McConaughey is prepared to play a hunk — or a lunk, for that matter — with no wink behind the silliness, and not a hint of Method tension.
In William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, McConaughey plays the contradictions of his role smoothly and perfectly, never once distancing himself from the character’s coarseness. The film is a cheerfully stark, full-sun thriller, a kind of demystified noir. Rather than create atmosphere and shadows, Friedkin opts for bright paint colors and a look of baldness. The film never mythologizes Gina Gershon’s schemer, Juno Temple’s torn baby doll, or the title character, all of whom are too specific to be archetypes. So it’s appropriate that McConaughey’s Joe is thoughtful and horny, courtly and ditzy, and a philosophizing scumbucket to boot: I can’t think of another actor who could play those combinations. For those of us who dislike obvious intelligence and subtlety, McConaughey is the actor for these times.
- Steven Soderbergh’s final films are a gift to viewers who love to see fresh takes on sexuality at the multiplex. Magic Mike was that rare, noble gesture: a straight male director prepared to make male nudity sexy. Haywire (2011) featured a “real” woman (professional fighter Gina Carano) chomping through A-list actors like so much rubble. Here’s hoping that the upcoming Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, will be short on easy laughs, high on eros. [↩]