“The Killer Inside Me recalls the novel and film of American Psycho, in which a handsome killer unleashes three-dimensional violence on an otherwise banal society.”
Puzzling, singular, and downright whacked, Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro was the absolute highlight of this year’s festival. Like Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Tetro operates on the premise that there is a key to all knowledge – a blinding flash of revelation – and makes it work as a powerful conceit. Shot in glassy, depthless black and white, Coppola’s film is disquieting from the start. It has the look of Europudding made strange: even though it is a film about high culture set in an exotic locale, it is extremely sparse, with the number of actors and sets reduced to a minimum.
This has the effect of making everything seem starkly present: the story of a writer and his brother comes across as oddly placeless and timeless – we’re surprised to hear the mention of a President Bush. In the sunny city of Buenos Aires, the film assures us that there are only three compelling people to look at: Vincent Gallo, a young man who plays his brother (Alden Ehrenreich), and the Spanish actress Maribel Verdú, who has the haunted face of Geraldine Chaplin. These three are shot as if they were the faces of a mythic triangle: the camera elevates their tiny, specific story to epic proportions.
As a further instance of singularity, the writer Tetro is played by the one-man show that is Gallo: an imperious actor/character who makes us wait on every mood change, by turns insolent and humble, tender and explosive. Gallo, who can come across as either the genius he often plays or a scenester with a few fabulous moves, is the ideal actor for this role. His sense of entitlement works to persuade us that his legendary brilliance really does exist: we go along with the notion that there is a greatness and mystery behind his everyday diva behavior. Tetro is hugely invested in the Gallo persona: even all of the film’s memories belong to him.
Flashbacks have a strange texture here, different from how films usually envision the past. Scenes from Tetro’s early life seem too florid and over-acted to be recollections; his stint in an asylum looks staged, like a read-through of a play. Everything is unreal and overblown. Just as another festival film, Jacques Rivette’s Around a Small Mountain, was an epic scaled to a miniature story, Coppola turns an intimate tale of brothers and fathers into an archetype. Tetro’s history is launched onto a world stage, as the film runs through the gamut of every theatrical genre you can think of: the operetta, the masque, shadow puppetry, a mini-carnival at world’s end.
The characters come across as individual, nuanced figures who happen to cast long mythic shadows: each of them can be perceived as The Poet, The Father, The Caretaker. In the context of this deliberately overstated symbolism – a dog named Problema, a film critic named Alone and a man named Tetro – Coppola can play out any number of conceits. He pulls them off, one by one: a magic mirror, a Fellini-like awards show, a crucial third-act revelation, and yes, even the crystal glacier that delivers the flash of enlightenment at the end.
Certified Copy also plays on the idea of writers finding their way into fiction. It is Abbas Kiarostami’s second comedy in a row after the dryly humorous Shirin (2008), in which we were asked to gauge the rhythms of an entire film from the faces of its audience. Certified Copy goes further in tweaking our understanding of the Kiarostami sensibility – it even segues into a Wilde-esque comedy at the end, led by an incorrigible and wildly silly actress, Juliette Binoche. But at first, the film adheres closely to its title, bringing up themes of textual originality and appropriation. Like Polanski’s stunning The Ghost Writer – in which a man stammers over the term “irreplaceable,” thus making a copy of the word – this film purports to be about the search for a precious text, a lost modernist original.
In Tuscany, an unnamed woman of dual nationality (Binoche) wants to fall in love with a famous writer. That self-consciousness does not render her impure: Kiarostami uses this woman of interestingly mixed origins to blur the boundaries between improvisation and fiction. The woman embarks on a romance with stilted beginnings, as she arranges for the author James Miller (William Shimell) to become intrigued by her. Spending the day together, they are an ill-matched pair, the prickly celebrity and the nervous fan. She seems antsy, while he, as a renowned writer, is smoothly articulate and addicted to phrase-making. She has several theories about art she wants confirmed. Can he certify?
The film moves on from these rather heavily stated themes, largely thanks to its star. At this stage, watching Binoche do almost anything is amazing. She is an actress of outstanding looseness – as tickled by sudden fancies as Katharine Hepburn, or Andy Lau, or the cat that appears in the film. She can be coarse or refined, subtle or mannered, at will; occasionally she flashes a movie-star smile, as if conscious of its wattage. More importantly, Binoche is extremely silly these days. In the midst of a delicate scene, she is often seized by an attack of the crazies. As in most of her films, she is given to little feints of improvisation – scanning the sky for her next line, pretending to translate a phrase on the spot. Here, she gets her kicks by acting nuts and being Italian. The film has its leads start off as vaguely defined individuals, before mimicking the relationship of the couple in Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1954). Shimell takes up the role of the irritated and inflexible George Sanders, but Binoche does not become a suffering Bergman type. She dips into the mood of Italian neo-realism, but doesn’t stay there for long. When the couple gaze at an image of doomed lovers, we do recall Rossellini, but this “alienation” is only a play-act: they are simply toying with the idea of a contrived conversation. The film goes through several pastiches of neo-realist tropes, with Binoche having an Antonioni-like breakdown before getting distracted.
We get a clue to what happens next when Binoche’s character slams Miller’s ideas, saying that they are good “only for books.” But the two will go deeper into fiction as they drift through an existentialist landscape before falling into a Wilde comedy. The scene in which Binoche outlines an elaborate daydream for herself and Miller is very like one in The Importance of Being Earnest, where Cecily Cardew introduces Algernon to her long-held fantasy life, which he then proceeds to inhabit. Cecily reproaches Algernon for imagined mistakes and forces him to accept credit for things he never did, effectively shaping him from a brittle dandy into a romantic hero. In a similar way, Binoche begins regaling the author with her self-scripted fancies. She claims the rights to his imaginative life as a reader of his books, and coerces him into gestures that match her ideal. Her energy goes up and down: she is alternately excited over some smashing idea, and crumpled and dejected when he fails to live up to the dream.
This kind of scene often appears in Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby, 1938, and Man’s Favorite Sport?, 1964) and even in Housesitter (1992), where one partner invents a stream of different identities that the other is expected to keep up and play along with. However, rarely has the segue into comedy been so gentle and gradual. It appears that this glorious energy and wit is something that only pops up in translation. From the start, Kiarostami has been playing with the idea of textual copying and translation, but in this case a language switch creates entirely different personalities. Miller, who has an insufferable persona when speaking English – where he focuses largely on his diction – turns out to have a fun and cajoling manner in French. In turn, Binoche, who is a little sulky in French and English, is never more animated and delightful than when “being Italian” – or her version of it, complete with shouting and bravura gestures. The more she cries and waves her arms, the more this soulful, Italian expression of her feelings becomes the true, irreplaceable version.
If Tetro, Certified Copy and The Ghost Writer chase somewhat ironically after the prize of revelation, then Film Socialisme strips the game right down. Godard sucks the rhythm and content out of speech, so that words do not even have an implied level of communication. Subtitles function as brushstrokes across an abstract canvas; spoken words are used to puncture and dent the image. Godard’s is a “socialism” of style: a system of equivalence whereby all nouns come across as equally weighted (or weightless) objects. Text is carefully spaced across the screen, printed in the same, impersonal font; the opaque words flash like colour plates.
For Godard, culture is an endless series of references and inventories. Ethnicities, nationalities, and proper nouns are de-capitalized and presented as interchangeable terms; they are like counters that can be moved around with little at stake. Nevertheless, even words have more visual impact than the impassively observed nature and crowd scenes, filmed by a camera that rarely gets aroused, not even by nubile girls. The one image that gives off a dynamic, unpredictable energy is the footage of the raging sea – like the Imagist poets and the director Harun Farocki, Godard seems to regard the sea as having an immense, unmediated power, beyond the control of language. The sea – unlike any other image in Godard – can’t be marked off into a grid; it is outside the structures and hierarchies of speech.
In the style of an Imagist poet, Godard tries to refresh language by forging new combinations of words, with the English subtitles printed as “goldout” and “digdeep.” These blocks of letters drop weightlessly on the screen; they are communal words, which could be uttered by anyone. From time to time, images are punctuated with the phrase “Comme ça.” The effect of this is much like the repetition of “And so it goes” in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, or the chorus of a Run-DMC classic: “It’s like that, and that’s the way it is.” All three uses suggest a kind of faux-fatalism that stamps every image as an equivalent form of currency.
Speaking of ubiquitous and weightless images, I can’t get enough of documentaries that attempt to take down Italian Prime Minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. Perhaps it’s because if we could learn how to arouse a nation from a tabloid coma, we might find the tools for dismantling our own media culture. Like Draquila: Italy Trembles (2010) and Il Caimano (2006), Erik Gandini’s Videocracy realizes that there is not much point in a direct attack on Berlusconi, since his regime has already anticipated and ironized such arguments as “elitist.” The disruption must take place on formal terms and engage with Berlusconi’s mastery of pop culture, what Gandini refers to as the “television of the president.”
Nevertheless, what Videocracy does isn’t quite enough: it presents TV clips accompanied by a malign soundtrack to show the fascist march of homogenous images, but this is less chilling than the final scene of Il Caimano. Despite the fact that Berlusconi dismisses criticism of his regime as out of touch with ordinary Italians, Gandini needs to come up with just such an analysis and make it stick. We get some good observations during a dissection of the Berlusconi smile, but there has to be more investigation of how such massive power has been sustained without opposition.
In the U.S., Donald Trump is a similarly wax-faced tycoon with a background in real estate and an interest in beauty pageants. But Trump is a kitsch object rather than the dominant cultural force he aspires to be – Italy would clearly be his natural home. Gandini shows us excerpts from Italian trash culture and game shows that are easy to laugh at – but aren’t the subtle Milanese elite just as responsible for keeping the PM in power? What is it about Italy that allows a Berlusconi to take root? I wanted more.
The title of Andrew Bujalski’s Beeswax might allude to staying out of others’ affairs, as in “None of your . . . ,” but it could also be a description of a society where two queens rule over sexless underlings. Bujalski’s characters tend be 20-somethings, yet they are definitively Gen-X in their androgynous mood and feel. Set in a shabby-chic vintage store – which allows Bujalski to give everything the smeared look of a ‘90s music video – the film’s circle is one of prolonged youth. Even the appearance of a guy with body hair who could potentially be a dad is somewhat alarming.
As in Funny Ha Ha (2002), everyone is carefully ditzy and anxious not to offend, with endless variations on face-scrunching, lip-chewing and wavy hand gestures. The store’s owner, Jeannie (Tilly Hatcher), is a master of blurring a situation through ambiguous eye contact. If all else fails, one can defuse a tense mood with dorky talk, by coining distracting new words like “neatnik,” or coasting smoothly over awkwardness (pointing out that someone was institutionalized “for, like, a second”). Characters discuss how they feel post-sex with bright inscrutability: that they feel “great about it” or “fine with it.” The emphasis is on appearing chirpy and uncomplicated at first glance, although doubts can be added in later: a smiling assurance is tempered down to a likelihood with “Definitely . . . or probably.”
But on closer examination, the two queens have the option of breaking these rules. The twins Jeannie and Lauren (Maggie Hatcher) are unusually direct for Bujalski characters, gaining strength from their sameness. Although politely self-deprecating, they decline to reveal facts they don’t want to discuss, and when they do want something, they go after it. Jeannie is a self-possessed blonde in a wheelchair, while Lauren looks like an ‘80s fashion model, and is very assured in her looks and poses. Everyone else shuffles around these two.
Perhaps the sisters are starting to realize the perils of inhabiting a world long past its use-by date (this is a group that seems to have missed the styles of an entire decade, the 2000s.) The store was set up at a time when relations between friends were democratic and fuzzy, and a legal agreement was signed in haste. Now Jeannie’s business partner has the feeling of being “edged out” (and we know how subtle that can be in Bujalski); she takes steps toward legal action. This might be the first instance of someone definitively committing to an act in Bujalski. In a world of prevarication, a signed statement testifying that actual events have occurred is met with incredulity, and none of the characters can get past it. The film ends without resolution – the fact that vague comments and procrastination have resulted in real actions leaves everyone in shock. At a certain point, being artfully gawky has its limits – especially when “finding middle ground” seems to be a euphemism for making the other person compromise.
If Beeswax represents the “funny peculiar” side of interaction, the humour of Hong Sang-soo’s Hahaha is much more scathing. I’m guessing the laughs of the title are more of a “nyah-nyah” than a chuckle – the kind of hollow and dry laugh heard in Beckett. As with Bujalski, Hong’s films are set in a society of uncannily similar speakers. These two writer-directors are the current masters of group dialogue: brilliant at creating conversations that seem loose and unstructured but gradually reveal consistent patterns of neurosis. Hahaha moves back and forth in time, but the narration that propels these shifts is a strange, wan thing: it consists of men relating unexceptional events in flat voices. Yet inevitably, one of their comments will give us something to pore over.
At one point, a man says reflectively, but in a tone of complaint: “Women’s bodies have so much power.” Now, what does that mean? It does not allude to a power that can be wielded consciously, since the women seem to be most appealing when they are inattentive, in leg and rear shots. To an extent, the women can control the gaze through the way they dress – these girls are all lightly tossed hair, flyaway tops and diaphanous wisps of skirts. What their bodies have is the ability to dominate the viewer’s awareness to the exclusion of almost all else – but then again, so does food.
If there’s anything the “power” of women’s bodies can be compared to, it’s food, since this is the only other object that overpowers the senses and blocks the perception of events. In Hong’s films, sushi, kimchi, bean soup and noodles are all intensely described and salivated over. Meals are the one thing the characters can agree to fixate on – people drop all their concerns and devour with a blind eagerness. Hahaha features some hijinks with a watermelon (an hommage to Tsai Ming-liang?), as characters compulsively marvel over the size of the fruit. If eating, like lusting, provides a clue to personality, it’s no surprise that the film is interested in how people appear at mealtimes. When a man is forced to eat pig’s intestines, the camera comes in for a closer look, watching to see how he will react to this morsel. This sudden zoom gives us an on-the-spot feeling; the man’s face is being interrogated, as if to ask: What is this creature? Who are you really?
The emotion Hong is most fascinated by is shocked pride. Pride can take a fall in two ways: the first is when a person’s self-image is mortified by a stranger who tells them how they come across and what “anyone can see” about them. For instance, one character says confidently to another, “You weren’t loved” – each person’s faltering self-esteem is matched only by their enormous assurance when it comes to defining others. The other kind of shock occurs when our conceptions of other people are overturned. Women blithely recite their romantic histories while the camera studies the crestfallen man, who attempts a weak smile while having his ideals shattered.
In either case, Hong’s characters are easy to deflate. Sunk in a torpor of depression, there’s only one way back. As a way to recover from wounded pride, Hong’s men embark on a resolution to be newly spiritual, to “see beyond surfaces” and perceive “only the good in life.” This decision to reset one’s morality often results in a number of pseudo-poetic visions – for instance, mythical figures who rise from the grave to provide counsel. There is no compromise between neglect and obsession: characters are either callously inattentive to each other’s needs or else vainly trying to extract every kernel of advice from a stranger. Moon-kyeong (Kim Sang-kyung) is ready to fall at the feet of anyone with an impassive mien; people who speak slowly and seem wise are instantly sought as mentors to deliver life’s epiphanies.
However, there’s a fine line between being pure and dull. Saying that someone is “a good person” seems to be the favored way of describing a partner one is ready to dump. Like husbands in Woody Allen, Hong’s men maintain a devoted image of the woman they’re bored with – even though they want to leave, they can’t part with the ideal. Across the board, these ideals are remarkably consistent. The characters’ personalities all overlap, but is this because of a huge number of coincidences, or is it more likely that people zero in on certain traits in others? If, as one character says, “you only see what you know,” this seems to be a vision that renders everyone indistinguishable – other than in terms of looks, cooking ability, and the potential wisdom they have to offer. Each person is perceived only within a narrow band of knowledge and expectation; an older woman is given the generic title of Mom, a “mother to all” – once this label is found, her identity is never re-examined.
That the characters might move beyond this level of perception is unlikely. The narration takes place in a scene at a restaurant that resembles the out-takes from a commercial (it might as well be called “Café Reflections.”) Here, the men regale each other with various events from the past – failed romances, successes, misunderstandings. However, no matter how ambiguous the event was, each man regards it as a closed anecdote: he presents it as an episode in which he pursued a clear line of intent. According to the storyteller, the confusion and duplicity of the past is gone for good.
Koji Wakamatsu’s Caterpillar reopens a closed case. The film presents a history filled with stark images that feel unbearably near to us. Opening with “nostalgic” footage of Japanese soldiers in World War II, Caterpillar quickly shoves us into an unmythologized present, where a lieutenant (Keigo Kasuya) returns to his wife (Shinobu Terajima) in a village, highly decorated but limbless. Films and novels have often dealt with the prospect of a woman with a changed husband (The Return of Martin Guerre, 1982, and Dave, 1993), turning a story of trauma into one of eroticized unfamiliarity. But in this case, the change is somewhat more sinister: the formerly domineering and abusive husband – who also raped and killed women in China – is now forced to be a meek man. A new set of relations is possible, which cannot help but benefit the wife.
Rather than pining, the wife takes on the look of a Lars Von Trier woman – a sufferer turned sadist. She’s somewhat excited by the contradictions in her husband’s image. Even though the man is now lauded as a deity, he resembles a little white worm, gnawing and dribbling. He is a god at his knees, with a rueful, bitter face – still trying to issue commands and indignation. The downtrodden wife grows radiant, happy to take the full weight of honor and riches for being a war hero’s caregiver. At home she laughs at her husband’s little bouts of anger, amused at being able to tote out the war criminal in a wheelbarrow. It’s a black humour the film dares us to share.
In an odd way, The Killer Inside Me also deals with a “logical” and macabre use of violence. Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of the Jim Thompson novel is set in 1950s Texas, a too-flat world that demands to be aroused via murder. This story (which might have attracted Chabrol) recalls the novel and film of American Psycho (2000), in which a handsome killer unleashes three-dimensional violence on an otherwise banal society. Like Patrick Bateman, Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) cultivates a style perfectly emblematic of the period: he is a clean-cut, photogenic guy, who also happens to have the desire to slash. In a marvelous performance, Affleck has the bright, flat eyes and drawling voice of a ‘50s idol. He is scrupulously soft and polite – indeed, his voice is so muffled that it seems to slow down other people’s perceptions. Women are attracted by the boyish façade, with the promise of something darker to come.
Winterbottom’s film is meaningfully voyeuristic, especially in the choice of Jessica Alba as Lou’s abused lover, Joyce. Alba has a look of infantile and submissive sexuality, and is generally cast by films and magazines as a “sweet sexpot” – i.e., innocently arousing. Most movies keep this innocence intact by having her exposed body spied upon, as in Into the Blue (2005) and Sin City (2005). Winterbottom makes overt the masochistic streak in her image, stretching it to the point of implausibility, as Joyce remains ever-loving and pliant while being beaten. In another sly bit of casting – which Fritz Lang might like – the investigator trailing Lou is played by the bland Simon Baker. Baker’s detective comes across as tiresome and predictable in his outrage, whereas the killer is always fascinating, with varying degrees of flatness and depth.
The film pretends not to acknowledge Lou’s crimes on a stylistic level – after a murder takes place, it rolls on with its soundtrack and ‘50s design elements. The world might be on fire, but the swing tunes keep coming, oblivious to the real, raw acts taking place. Similarly, the killer remains impassive even as he causes breakdown and implosion in others, who can’t reconcile his appearance with his actions. Lou is not even that cunning a schemer – it seems that being boyish and Southern, with an air of down-home familiarity, is enough to deflect suspicion. The funny thing about Lou is that he looks wholesome even though he falls just short of the archetype – his jaw is a little weak, the face slightly bloated, and there is something weird going on with his voice, which is robotically disconnected from his expression. He has the strangely muted face of a sadist, and remains inscrutable to the end, even though the film’s title implies a confession, a nakedness.
This is Casey Affleck’s first shock experiment of the year, the second being his mockumentary on Joaquin Phoenix, I’m Still Here (2010). The latter’s title could be seen as the flipside of Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (2007). Haynes’ film uses multiple actors to create a composite portrait of an individual; Affleck divides Phoenix’s image into a series of masks, each of which might be a bluff or a gesture of sincerity. “I’m still here!” is the cry of an identity that claims to be present, even when the owner is long gone. I hope that Affleck has more ingenious plans for culture-jamming up his sleeve – his only rival as a media provocateur is James Franco, with his “performance art” stunt on the soap General Hospital. These two actors have tactics that opponents of Berlusconi might want to learn from.