Bright Lights Film Journal

Like You Know It All: The Power of Godard and Breillat at the 63rd Melbourne International Film Festival (July 31-August 17, 2014)

Godard's Goodbye to Language

“As directors such as Godard, Herzog, and Wenders take on 3D, we sense that for this generation of the avant-garde, the goal is no longer to test the audience’s reliance on narrative. If anything, these artists want us to be even more immersed in a film’s effects – to push us headlong into a film, with as much garish stimulation as possible.”

Just as fashion and music have embraced (and moved on from) a period of ’90s nostalgia, so the time has come for the ’90s period comedy, a film that reflects on the mores and manners of that decade. A surprising number of films at MIFF drew on a fondness for recent times: David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows parodies slacker stereotypes in the service of genre horror, the comedy L for Leisure is explicitly set in early ’90s California, while Nathan Silver’s Soft in the Head is a tale of daffy New Yorkers shot on 16mm that claims to be based on Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. The dominant mood in these films is a chill yet academic vibe, mixing stoner talk with theoretical jargon, literary classics with sitcom lines. Mitchell’s film (which also quotes The Idiot) doesn’t quite live up to the exciting concept of a mumblecore thriller, but it is a deft matching of high references and lowbrow style. Soft in the Head is less successful in that its protagonist, Natalia (Sheila Etxeberría), is not a very interesting camera subject, falling far short of Dostoyevsky’s great Nastasya Filippovna – a fascinating hot mess if there ever was one.

Like the work of Harmony Korine and Andrew Bujalski, these films seem aimed at that niche (and very ’90s) combination of a postgrad audience sick to death of high culture. It is a milieu perfectly depicted in Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s L for Leisure, a comedy set in a world of hyper-educated surfers. In this film, it’s taken for granted that everyone comes from privilege and has esoteric interests, but the key is to wear one’s learning lightly. If you’re going to ponder the fact that “race is a social construct,” you’d better pad it out with phrases like “It’s whatever” or risk being laughably pompous. Pepper your talk with “like” and “totally” and you’ll show you have intelligence to burn.

L for Leisure

Just as the characters are obsessed with redundant knowledge, the film’s look is also uselessly fine. Kalman and Horn go for a kind of fatuous lyricism, with torrid beach images washed into pastels. They make strikingly chic compositions out of tanned bodies and sunsets: it’s kitsch taken to the level of art installation. After all, this is a place where women show off their thighs while talking about research majors – and then receive compliments on being “very interdisciplinary.” In this setting, it’s polite for brainy people to act like airheads. Dorky expressions also go down as a treat – for instance, referring to a “strong makeout sesh” is excruciating in the best way. As in Bujalski’s films, the secret to social success lies in being a calculated ditz: an articulate person who chooses to say “like” because they can.

“Like” is an extremely versatile word that should be used even more than it is. It is conversational putty that dries and hardens on contact with other words, instantly covering the segue between subjects. You can use it to cement a way-out analogy, comparing a mild argument to “like, World War III”; conversely, a year-long event can be dismissed as something that happened for “like, three seconds.” All this is done without technically lying, or going on the record with any verifiable facts. It would seem pedantic to try and pin down a person who says “like”: it would deflate the tone of camp exaggeration.

At MIFF, L for Leisure was presented by the composer of its soundtrack, John Atkinson, who set an ideal tone for the screening. This man delivered a master-class in spacey charm, coining some great phrases along the way. When asked how he felt about the film, he admitted that he was disconcerted by his first viewing, not seeing what patterns were emerging or where it was going. But on reflection, he decided to compare the movie’s style to “like, a super-chill Lovecraft,” finally describing it as a triumph of “low-stakes filmmaking.” With his sunny, distracted chatter – cut in with brilliant non-sequiturs – Atkinson could have been the model for every character in L for Leisure. However, it is up to us to work out how much slyness and tactical vagueness play a part in this way of speaking. Like Bujalski, Kalman and Horn seem interested in finding out what underlies the current passion for ’90s retro. It’s a good time to re-examine these sweet hipster mannerisms, since they remain in vogue, as much as ever.

I was very much looking forward to Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language – how could you not, with that thrilling title that promises a clean sweep of the old? It is a smashingly exciting film that literally comes at you from all angles, hurling out swatches of pattern and color through the medium of 3D. As directors such as Godard, Herzog, and Wenders take on 3D, we sense that for this generation of the avant-garde, the goal is no longer to test the audience’s reliance on narrative. If anything, these artists want us to be even more immersed in a film’s effects – to push us headlong into a film, with as much garish stimulation as possible. Godard is clearly energized by the potential of a new dimension, and the ability to send multiple overlapping images soaring into the air. In Hélas pour Moi (1993) and Film Socialisme (2010), he already combined several layers of text, image, and voiceover; now 3D gives him yet another canvas to play with.

For viewers who no longer get jolted by a jump cut, Godard re-sensitizes the eye to fiery color. 3D enables the cubist jut of a fragment to really pierce our awareness; with his slanting, hovering images, Godard treats every angle between the audience and the screen as a possible plane to work with. Despite constant proclamations about the end of language and meaning, this film opens up more formal possibilities than possibly any Godard work. In the way that David Hockney has been inspired by the iPad to come up with works that are bigger than life, Godard seems exhilarated over the new technology, keen to show that pixelation can be made to dance in 3D and textures can be put right in your face. Even two dimensions come off better in three: when books are exposed to the 3D lens, we have the prospect of flat text assaulting us from the screen. Here, one can imagine Godard’s amusement at the expense of audiences who go to 3D in search of genre thrills. Instead of using 3D to pick out striking elements, he often highlights a commonplace object such as a piece of paper or a chair (the equivalent of underlining all the ands and ifs in a paragraph).

I’ll add one note: Godard hasn’t lost his taste for pretty girls who don’t object to being manhandled. These girls don’t resist interminable monologues or even physical shoving by the men, who are older, thuggish, and overweight. Part of this can be written off as sophisticated feminist-baiting (for instance, one of the girls only talks about sexual equality after removing her top), but the great critic Judith Williamson got it right when she wrote, very bluntly, that she didn’t see why Godard’s women had to be so much better-looking than the men. In cinema studies, this subject is seldom tackled, and I would welcome more discussion of how a disparity in physical beauty weights a film, especially when a massive gap goes unacknowledged. (Godard and Woody Allen are the obvious examples, but what about Bergman, Claude Sautet, Jiří Menzel, and so many others?)

Charlotte Gainsbourg in Jacky in the Kingdom of Women

Even when a satire of gender relations fails, it can be instructive to see what the author finds funny or quaint. In Riad Sattouf’s Jacky in the Kingdom of Women, what’s considered hilarious is the idea of men being turned on by women in power. Again and again, this concept is played for laughs: in the film’s fantasy regime, militant women with cruel sneers are desired by hordes of young men. The fact that this is regarded as totally incongruous helps us to understand how Sattouf perceives the world today. Luckily, the leader of the matriarchy is played by a woman who can’t be pigeonholed: Charlotte Gainsbourg. Handsome to a fault, Gainsbourg certainly makes power sexy: in uniform, she has the classic matinee-idol appeal of a John Gilbert, but she also finds new ways of making a female silhouette seem urgent, stoic, and attractive. Toward men, her character is noble and protective rather than heartless, so that we become drawn into her situation rather than mocking it. Where the film falls down is in its depiction of the male Cinderella who is destined for Gainsbourg. As cast and played, Jacky (Vincent Lacoste) is a limp, clumsy ingénue, whose fetishized virginity carries no heat. I think that if the director really wanted to, he could have made the image of a veiled male haunting and erotic rather than ridiculous. Evidently, that wasn’t the intention.

Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition is a rarity – a film that is daring, experimental, and defiantly bourgeois. In London, an unnamed couple live in an exquisite modernist house designed by James Melvin. The actors carry some interest, but the house is indisputably the star – as the couple go through their routines, our eyes skim over the walls and windows rather than focusing on the bodies. Conversations can be sharp or mundane, but we take them in as part of the house’s soundtrack, mere surface noise.

If this house is the catalyst of the couple’s actions, the “drama” consists of witnessing the postural and behavioral consequences of architecture. How do bodies stretch in response to different colors, proportions, contours? Does an oddly shaped room lend itself to playing out certain scenes? And would the marriage arrange itself differently in another home? Sex tends to be ritualized and choreographed in a way that is specific to this spatial environment, and we find ourselves wondering how the couple would fare elsewhere.

What is unexpected, as far as the world of art film goes, is that a creative couple who live in a dream home are not ridiculed. The house is not a glittering façade for their empty inner lives, and there is none of the sumptuous blankness that fills Antonioni’s modernist houses. The woman is even allowed to enjoy velvet sofas and fur throws. In most independent cinema, people with cozy lives are being set up for a fall – as exemplified by the recent Turkish film Lifelong (2013), in which we had only to see a couple’s black chairs to know that their marriage was cold and sterile.

Instead, Hogg gives us a certain kind of honesty about lifestyle. How does boredom feel in a beautiful spartan house, as opposed to a cramped flat? Let’s face it – it feels rich and luscious, not at all shabby. There are simply spaces in the house that invite different impulses: introspection, voyeurism, community. Some rooms aid furtive glances and suspicions; others feel coolly insulated. At the same time, living in the work of a major architect means that people sign up for an element of designed or “exhibited” living. The man and woman often seem conscious of feeling out their movements, shaping themselves in relation to the floor plan. Their moves serve as a temporary dance within the permanent stage of the house – and when the house is finally sold, we get to see the next lot of performers waltzing in.

The Algerian film Bloody Beans, directed by Narimane Mari, is one of those tricky works that often gets mislabeled as a documentary at festivals. In 2008, when the Colombian filmmaker Luis Ospina referred to his film Paper Tiger as a straight biographical documentary, many publications simply reprinted his statement, not realizing the complex beast they had on their hands. For Ospina, this was not merely a prank, but a way of showing how easy it is to satisfy an international audience hungry for narrative, exoticism, and authenticity all at once. Self-description tends to be taken for truth, which is why, as a genre, the quasi-documentary is much more challenging than the mockumentary.

Bloody Beans

Bloody Beans is a fiction film with a documentary feel and an experimental approach. At a beach in Algiers, a group of Arab children are fed up with living on red beans (sludge and stodge) and want to experience the tastes of the French elite. As their anger mounts, they dance around, paint their faces, and cruise the town. Eventually they kidnap a French soldier, and must decide who the real enemy is. Their words are partly improvised, partly guided, a mixture of quotes and spontaneous giddiness. Meanwhile, a hypnotic soundtrack by Zombie Zombie confuses our perceptions. The throbbing electro score blurs our awareness and drugs us into going along with each child’s impulses, whether excited or vengeful. When dissonant chords play over shadowy images of the children, we feel that their bodies are endangered, but then the music lifts, and it all looks like fun and hijinks. At the same time, Mari’s swirling camera suggests an impressionable mind that is carried along by the dominant mood and the will of the child who happens to be leader at the time.

It’s never clear what we’re actually seeing, or whether real violence is threatened. Comparisons might be made with William Kentridge or Claire Denis in terms of the poetic treatment of a colonial system, but I find Bloody Beans a more mysterious work – harder to get a handle on. The soundtrack alternately lulls us and fires us up, so that by the time we catch on to its effects, we’re already in the groove of the action.

Catherine Breillat’s Abuse of Weakness begins with a deep shudder, the convulsions of a body during a stroke. After the opening scene, Maud Shainberg (Isabelle Huppert, playing a film director modeled on Breillat) begins her recovery, although the feelings of tremor and danger never really disappear. Maud emerges from her stroke with a twisted hand and an unsteady gait, but as she (and Breillat) wills it, the condition of her body becomes a force, a power.

I think that one of the major problems associated with disability must be the look of dependence, of wearing one’s vulnerability in a way that everyone can perceive. It’s galling to be seen as easy to read, and therefore a goal might be to reclaim some mystery, some sense of obliqueness. Therefore, when Maud tells the hospital staff that “handicapped people need S&M,” it makes perfect sense. When she requests studded black leather boots from orthopedics (naturally, the costumes were co-designed by Breillat), she produces her “weakness” as a choice for all to see. What could be more stylish than a Helmut Newton-esque woman, supported by male attendants, dressed in fetish gear? S&M allows Maud to regain her inscrutability, so that she can be disabled not only with dignity, but with supreme arrogance. This is a playbook on how a formidable 60-year-old keeps her power and sensuality alive.

Another way to stay on top is to have one’s alter ego played by Isabelle Huppert. A character played by Huppert can never be an object of pity: Maud’s eyes are unmistakably cool above her trembling body. After a moment of identity crisis, this woman turns her crutch into a high-fashion accessory and a weapon. But Maud also spurs her recovery in a more reckless manner: after seeing the con man Vilko Piran (Kool Shen) on TV, she decides to cast him as the lead in her next film. Piran is summoned to her house, and he turns out to be an elegant hoodlum dressed by Dior; nevertheless, he is intimidated by her presence and she remains mistress of their conversations.

Maud begins a semi-calculated surrender to this man. She gradually relinquishes control of her money to him, signing checks on demand. She appears to be trying out some sort of existential experiment, letting go in financial terms while ensuring that Vilko is always a little cowed by her. Maud purposely selects the one man who can sabotage all her defenses, and cedes influence to him. Her body seems revitalized by the adrenalin of playing with fear and distrust. However, this is a game of S&M in which there are no safe-words: she is soon in danger of losing her house and entire fortune.

This is Breillat’s great film, surpassing the rest of her oeuvre in black humor. The central relationship is based on her own encounters with con artist Christophe Rocancourt, whom she cast opposite Naomi Campbell in a long-planned film, Bad Love. The plot of that film concerns a glamorous star (Campbell) who has consensual relations with a thug, and then ends up dying at his hands: in extreme pain, yet somehow insolent, triumphant, like an S&M version of Bizet’s Carmen. I’ve wanted to see Bad Love for years, since the volatile Campbell offers the prospect of great outsize casting – a bigger wild card than even Asia Argento or Béatrice Dalle. Breillat has been vocal about writing the role specifically for Campbell, because of her “pure” acting style.

I asked Breillat about progress on Bad Love, which has been hard to schedule due to Breillat’s illness and the unique match of concept and star. But to my surprise, she replied that no performer is indispensable, since “actors are not the film”: they are more like a bit of color or clay to be molded into the final product. Then she repeated, with a very direct look: “Actors are not the film.”

Although Bad Love has been shelved for now, it’s no surprise that Breillat would play strategic power games with her actors. Her leading man in Abuse of Weakness, Kool Shen, is an impressive performer; like most rappers, he has a poised power and a very controlled body. But Breillat mitigated the difference in physical strength by keeping him guessing at all times. She continually rearranged the props and furniture to unsettle him, so that he was like a cat who didn’t know where to jump next.

During the film’s final scene, Breillat began to mount the MIFF stage, walking authoritatively with her cane past the closing credits. As she spoke to the audience, her English faltered and her posture was a little shaky, but she made no concessions: she would often switch to rapid French, and when she dropped her cane, she coolly waited for someone to scramble and pick it up. One gets a sense of Breillat’s great willfulness: the burning force that makes the weakness of the body irrelevant, since she has the ability to stare down pain, bravado, ridicule, and the threat of physical annihilation. That figure on the stage, bent but intent, is a sight to treasure and fear.