From Akerman to Zhu
Rimmed in kohl as befits the screen’s first vamp, Theda Bara’s eyes — the logo devised by founding father Michael Kutza back in 1964 for the Chicago International Film Festival — presided once more over the proceedings, gazing out at the crowds from every poster and broadsheet and welcoming trailer (perhaps wondering where all the silent films went). Meanwhile, audiences sat with eyes glued open to judge yea or nay on the new Godard and Angelopoulos (plus a slew of hot documentaries). Dedicated cinephiles knitted their brows to suss out subtext, while casual moviehounds munched popcorn and juries of critics screened more films than seems strictly healthy.
The festival also serves to inaugurate the autumn season of grownup film fare, marking a close to the summertime tyranny of teen-centric product in local megaplexes. During this pause before the arctic winds test moviegoers’ resolve, visitors could still tour the city’s multimillion-dollar futuristic Millennium Park, the mayor’s much-delayed pet project that was still under construction in the target year 2000 and only opened a few months ago (996 years early, quipped local wags).
To mark its fortieth anniversary, Chicago’s festival celebrated with extensive retrospective looks at past triumphs — it was the first to introduce Scorsese, Fassbinder, Kieslowski, and Tavernier to the public — by importing eminent directors to present their significant past works. Hence, Chicagoans saw Patrice Chéreau with Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, Albert Maysles with Grey Gardens, Volker Schlondörff with Circle of Deceit, and István Szabó recapping his still underrated Father. With less luck, Dariush Mehrjui apparently could not surmount America’s draconian passport control to bring The Cow, one of modern Iranian cinema‘s foundational works.
Only eight features played at 1965’s Chicago International Film Festival (although that year’s gala managed to mount honors for both King Vidor and Bette Davis), but the 2004 fest accessed work from 44 countries to screen 109 features and 54 shorts, many shown two or three times. By one estimate, only 500 screens in North America (out of some 33,000) take the trouble to battle Hollywood’s multimillion-dollar marketing blitzes in order to attract patrons to view independent and foreign productions. With foreign-language films having declined to only 1% (or less!) of the U.S. market, festivals are playing a crucial role in keeping an international film culture alive in this country.
Pitched halfway between the promiscuous cornucopia of the Toronto Festival (with 253 features this year) and the pared down exclusivity of the concurrent New York event (25 features), Chicago’s selections make a very sensible compromise. Showcasing directors from Chantal Akerman to Zhu Wen, the festival committee also brought the winners of the Golden Bear at the Berlinale (Head On/Gegen die Wand, above) and the Jury Prize at Cannes (Tropical Malady), though not the winners at Cannes (Old Boy) and Venice (3-Iron).
Also missing were new works by Olivier Assayas (Clean) and Ingmar Bergman (Saraband), although the latter had played briefly at Chicago’s invaluable Gene Siskel Film Center. The absence of some notably controversial titles was remarked upon, whether for sexual content (like Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs, Catherine Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell, and Lukas Moodysson’s A Hole in My Heart) or political polemics (Wim Wenders’ Land of Plenty, Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s Gunner Palace, and Antonia Bird’s The Hamburg Cell), although it seemed unlikely that this festival that sneaked Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses past customs inspectors back in 1975 would balk at controversy at this late date. Carnal transgressions were still in evidence, led (some say misled) by Isabelle Huppert as the incestuous mama of Christophe Honoré’s Ma Mère.
Though it is the country’s oldest competitive festival, Chicago’s placement on the calendar frees the event from the intensive marketing that uses up the oxygen at other festivals, though still providing a showcase to preview Hollywood product, as with this year’s standing-room-only showings of Kinsey, Sideways, Finding Neverland, and The Polar Express.
With films usually starting on time and spaced at realistic intervals, and scheduled at two well-run multiplex venues, audiences have responded with their dollars, selling out showings of even such low-flying titles as Oxygen, The Syrian Bride, After Midnight, Adam and Eve (Still), The Taste of Tea, Whisky, Lost Embrace, and Outing Riley. This may reflect support from the city’s populous ethnic enclaves, but more likely it’s testimony to the city’s hunger for cinematic adventure, as Chicago simply hasn’t enough Danes to sell out Rule No. 1 or Hungarians to fill up Kontroll.
Ticket sales not only indicate local interest but supply 98% of the festival’s budget, which gets supplemented by only a tiny subsidy from local government (unlike most festivals of comparable size and stature). Of course, memorabilia brings in additional revenue (notably from Theda Bara’s unblinking gaze plastered onto t-shirts and sweat shirts), not forgetting those naughty festival posters that feature an array of memorably unclothed hunks and hunkettes, photographed by Chicago glamour-meister Victor Skrebneski.
Stars supply their own glamour, in this case appearances by Christopher Walken, Annette Bening, and Tom Hanks. Even Holly Woodlawn showed up (for a retrospective look at Paul Morrissey‘s Trash), while directors like Ousmane Sembene, Robert Zemeckis, Liv Ullmann, Bill Condon, Marc Forster, Robert Townsend, David Gordon Green, Jonathan Caouette, and Shane Carruth beat the drums for their offerings.
Local critics again presented retrospective selections, with The Chicago Reader‘s Jonathan Rosenbaum hosting the hotly awaited (and still controversial) reconstruction of Samuel Fuller‘s crowning project, The Big Red One from 1980, presented by Richard Schickel, who reinstated some fifty minutes of footage.
The Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Wilmington chose Efem Klimov’s searing indictment of war in Russia’s Come and See from 1985, while The Chicago Sun-Times‘s Roger Ebert revived Martin Scorsese‘s Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (which had its world premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1967).
What follows here are this critic’s choice of seven highlights, culled from the International Competition (Tomorrow We Move, Moolaadé, and Tropical Malady), the New Directors Competition (Bitter Dream), the out of competition World Cinema (Kings and Queen) and Focus USA (Tarnation) sections, plus a Special Presentation retrospective (Battles Without Honor and Humanity).
A grand piano hangs perilously suspended from a wire, twisting and turning against a blue sky of Magritte clarity in the opening shot of Chantal Akerman’s joyously silly Tomorrow We Move (Demain on démenage). It’s moving day and a crowd has gathered to watch the progress of the dangling instrument; the piano survives but the very next scene features a sneezing fit that sends a crystal chandelier crashing to the parquet. Such zany juxtapositions abound here, from connecting typing and piano-playing to pondering the difficulty of telling goats from sheep.
The Belgian director, famed for portraying Jeanne Dielman‘s shining shoes with minimalist concentration, here creates a chaotic household where Aurore Clément as the sunny-minded mother and Sylvie Testud as the maladroit daughter (both veterans of Akerman’s powerful Proust adaptation, La Captive) adapt themselves to living in smoke-filled disorder as food incinerates in the microwave and the vacuum cleaner spews out clouds of dirt. No sooner have they filled their woefully unfinished flat with clutter (and flowers) than they decide they really should relocate, so between hosting roundelays of prospective tenants, they also set out to inspect others’ apartments.
Existence is conceived as a non-stop stream of strangers wandering into your life out of the blue, looking for connections just as they examine the woodwork, weighing the advantages of each site (“fewer suicides with gas!”), but no one seems ready to commit to a decision. Each encounter presents the possibility for a new relationship, but beneath all their dithering about where to live throbs the greater dilemma of how to live, with the narrative revolving around the loves — unrequited, forsaken, and unexpected — of various characters, like the daffy pregnant woman who feels so happy in the strangers’ apartment that she returns to have her baby there (delivered in record time), then deposits the infant with her husband and moves in.
Too vaporous for success with Joe Multiplex, what with its Ionesco-like repetition (“What calm! What intimacy!”), this delicately goofy comedy depicts a world we know, yet its frivolity is serious. The farce has a comic purity and feathery tone that recalls Jacques Demy’s musicals with all their circular chance encounters, and indeed this film moves from Brahms to a delightful rendition of “Tea For Two,” finally ending with an original song. It’s droll yet profound that when the daughter disconsolately seeks inspiration for the porn novel she is commissioned to write, her mother airily advises, “Look around you. Everything’s erotic!”
“Africa is a bitch” says one man in Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaadé, but it’s the women with cause to complain since the majority of the continent still practices female genital mutilation (and even where bans are enforced, the custom has moved underground). The Senegalese director traveled deep into the sub-Saharan interior to a village in Burkina Faso for this colorful and surprisingly sunny tale of one determined woman who defies the “purification” ceremony by protecting three little girls who escape the knife.
Collé, the second wife of a village elder, strings some colored yarn across her threshold, creating a state of sanctuary called “Moolaadé.” (Those who defied it in the past were attacked, summarily dispatched and then buried in a giant anthill, though the longtime socialist Sembene keeps showing innocent animals and children fearlessly stepping over the line, reminding us how only social tradition gives it power).
The pipe-smoking Collé makes resistance joyous, dancing to celebrate the safety of the children and the women’s sense of self-worth, yet she must buck pressure from the males guarding the privileges of patriarchy but also from the matriarchs who perform the ritual (“Here come the child killers,” she says of the red-clad women whose power is embodied in a cobra-headed staff). Still, she must accept the authority of her husband, the abuser who orders her to end the Moolaadé and subjects her to public flogging (by implication, we see the limits of her power in reality).
Under cloudless blue skies, the director allows a generous widescreen frame with room for the whole community to pass in their brilliantly colored finery. The strutting and posturing men blame outside influences coming from the radios popular among the women and assert their paternalistic power by confiscating all the radios, throwing them into a pile beside the mosque (though the point is not lost on the women, who say, “Our men want to lock up our minds!”). Sembene carefully deflects blame from Islam, however, indicting custom rather than dogma.
An itinerant peddler named Mercenaire, a veteran of the French colonial army like Sembene himself, brings the outside world to the village with all its commodities, not only condoms and bright fabrics but also the radio and all the values it broadcasts. New ideas also come with the triumphal return of a young man from his lucrative years in France (“where money is printed!”), but it’s the principled merchant, opposed to corruption anywhere, who pays. Calling the village men pedophiles, he finds himself escorted out of town by torch-wielding locals painted in whiteface.
A few discreet scenes of whimpering children recovering from the ceremony illustrate what drives Collé to resist. So as does a frank depiction of sexual relations with her husband (itself a first in African cinema), followed by a scene of the submissive wife bathing while wincing in pain, a stark reminder of the price this tradition demands from women. However, when pushed far enough, Colléprovides a stirring model for successful resistance, crying, “If you put a hand on me, I will set the village on fire and drown it in blood!”
Sembene’s leisurely story-telling addresses a pre-urban (and sometimes pre-literate) African audience, and may prove too easygoing and unstressed for westerners used to feeding on pre-chewed mainstream material. By withholding the emotional underlining of opposing close-ups and by denying decisive closure, Sembene deliberately leaves room for spectators to continue debating the issues after the movie ends on its hopeful note that “the era of little tyrants is over.” But is it?
Midway through the startlingly original Tropical Malady, Thailand’s narrative provocateur Weerasethakul (a former Chicago resident) sabotages expectations as boldly as he did in Mysterious Object at Noon and Blissfully Yours by literally stopping the show to resolve his story in a heightened realm of animist myth. This change of register serves to sort out the passionate cinephiles from the casual moviegoers, with not everyone in the audience willing to follow the director to this poetic level.
Before this can happen, the story follows the flirtatious but unconsummated relationship between two young men at loose ends. Keng, a soldier who has brought a mysterious corpse out of the jungle, and Tong, a simple laborer not literate enough to fill out a form, lie in each other’s laps and playfully attempt some groping in a movie theatre, but their intimacy seems blocked. Fortune tellers, memories of past lives, and a wooden phallus blessed with holy water all hint that the urban jungle of Bangkok has roots that reach back into the spirit world of the forest. When a woman guides them into a magical cave, leading them down toward a hole that opens to the sea, Keng balks and refuses to go through.
Time begins to slow down as the director steps on the brake, with minutes passing like long, deep respirations that intensify the men’s impasse. Folk drawings appear, warning of a shape-shifting monster in the jungle, a shaman who hunts travelers. Magnificent night vistas make the jungle throb with possibility as Keng alone enters this enchanted space that promises completion. The night feels alive as the luminous ghost of a water buffalo rises, and fireflies speak as they light up a tree from within. When a tiger ghost tries to enter his dream, a baboon warns: “The tiger trails you like a shadow. He is lonesome. Kill him to free him from his world, or let him devour you to enter his world.”
In extraordinary nocturnal photography, he now pursues a primal Tong, naked and covered in primitive tattoos. Keng slathers himself in mud until only silver trickles of sweat make his face visible in the darkness, but when animal bellowing drowns out the crickets, death and orgasm edge closer together to the moment when the ego empties and time falls away, what the French call la petite mort. Keng swears, “I give you my spirit, my flesh, my memories. Every drop of my blood sings our song of happiness. Do you hear it?” Is he consumed? Or consummated? Or is that the same thing? What the men hesitated to do in the everyday world, the primeval forest makes right and even transcends in a heartstopping equation of salvation and destruction.
How often do you see a film with a credit for “embalmer”? The mordantly funny Bitter Dream has one, though, and makes him earn his salary. An unexpected Iranian contribution to the mockumentary genre, the opening shows a TV reporter interviewing the ragtag employees of an 800 year-old cemetery: there’s the opium-smoking gravedigger, the hamfisted upstart who burns the clothes, the wary widow who washes females’ bodies, and above them all, the imperious Esfandiar, the chief corpse washer. Bicycling through the town market, he expounds like any proud professional on procedures, explaining that each body must be bathed in a solution of camphor, a heavenly mineral available on earth only because disguised angels supply it to peddlers. Running through an instructive mini-history of sarcophagi and new-fangled appurtenances like cremation urns, the scraggly-bearded expert admits admiration for certain western innovations, such as the tasteful arrangement of skulls in catacombs.
During his daily social visit to a bathhouse, the formidably craggy Esfandiar suddenly, sitting neck deep in the pool, senses the presence of Azrael, angel of death. Realizing that his own number is coming up, the crafty Esfandiar tries to bargain, appealing to him as a colleague: “Uncle Azrael, you kill them, I’ll wash them.”
With no answer, he sets about getting his house in order, grudgingly asking forgiveness from others, but mostly attempting to micromanage his own impending demise and funeral. Naturally, the Dumbo-eared Esfandiar cannot help being paternalistic (“All women are malicious”), so he cannot resist the temptation to interfere in a budding graveside courtship.
Using Iran’s blank affectless performance style for outright comedy, director Amiryoussefi dares to tease the hilariously pessimistic, authoritarian and argumentative aspects of his fellow citizens in the Iranian theocracy. There’s devilish visual wit from his gift for letting an oddball detail unexpectedly intrude into a shot, but he is blessedly unafraid of stillness as well.
As we hear the characteristic Middle-Eastern crunching of seeds on the soundtrack, the image alternates between black-and-white and color, joining TV reality to film reality. Seeing himself on the TV screen, both “live” and in personalized flashbacks, the sepulchral Esfandiar addresses his media center as he would a person. Finally, in yet another conceptual coup of Iranian cinema, a third reality arises as the TV image rushes up behind him and we realize we are watching through the eyes of Azrael.
“Life is full of surprises. I’ve loved four men and killed two.” So muses Emmanuelle Devos in yet another exhilarating adventure in story-telling, this one from innovator Arnaud Desplechin (witness his quirky and fascinating Esther Kahn), who follows two parallel tales, like the twin masks of tragedy and comedy. One is a romantic drama where “Moon River” plays while Nora (Devos) sorts through her relationships with two husbands, a new lover, a dying father, and a neglected son.
In the comic thread, frizzy-haired musician Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric), given to spontaneous outbursts of breakdancing, keeps a noose hanging in his living room and gets taken away by the men in white coats literally. (His answering machine sets the tone, his voice barking, “This machine doesn’t take messages! I’ll never call you back!”)
Where Nora luxuriates in martyrdom (“I’m all alone”), the antic Ismaël chafes in his straitjacket, ranting to psychiatrist Catherine Deneuve that “Women have no souls. Maybe you have something else, but women live in bubbles, men live on straight lines.” His zany lawyer, called upon to win his release, instead argues that being declared officially mad will protect him from fast-encroaching tax hounds. Then, together they stage a midnight raid on the clinic pharmacy, the sequence shot with super-nervous handheld shakes, to liberate some choice meds.
Desplechin not only toggles between his paragon of bourgeois sensibility and his fringe-dwelling madman, but also loops forward and backward in time, with flashbacks — including some where Devos apparently really was pregnant, judging from scenes in the doctor’s office and in the bathtub — as well as a visit from one deceased spouse.
Working in a succession of tightly edited short segments, Desplechin covers many scenes from half a dozen angles. When Ridley Scott does this to move Russell Crowe across the street in Gladiator, it looks pretentious. Here, it’s used for visual complexity in much simpler and more intimate shots, and is further fragmented by barely perceptible microcuts, for an effect that looks both sophisticated and personal. It helps that the cinematographer is Eric Gautier (The Motorcycle Diaries), whose flat colors and extraordinary plasticity make a style as distinctive as Gauguin’s or Matisse’s.
Smack in the center of the movie, following a mirror scene to music suspiciously like Bernard Herrmann‘s insinuating Vertigo score, the characters’ trajectories reverse, with Nora breaking down in hysteria and then receiving a surprise from beyond the grave. After her father’s funeral, she finds a hair-raising manuscript full of bitter accusations about her aggression and monstrous egotism: “I fear you. I hate you, my little girl. It is unfair that I die when you live. If only you were the one with the cancer. I die with rage in my heart.” Is this true? In any case, she makes sure to burn the pages.
The happy-go-lucky Ismaël, by contrast, keeps improving and maturing (even his father remarks sympathetically, “We’ve all taken refuge in drugs from time to time”). In a lengthy epilogue set amongst the dioramas of human civilization at the Musée de l’homme in Paris, Ismaël demonstrates his wisdom when he must explain to a boy he truly likes why he cannot adopt him.
Devos (remarkable as the sullen deaf woman in Read My Lips) gets a striking range of emotions to play, while Amalric (so sober in Late August, Early September) seems unleashed and ready for anything. The movie clocks in at a full two-and-a-half hours, but with its transparent layers of meaning and seductive editing rhythms, it never drags, down to its dubious final words: “The cycle of woes is over.”
Pulp goes wild in Battles Without Honor and Humanity, the opener and anchor of Kinji Fukasaku’s five-film series about the yakuza wars that broke out in Hiroshima the year after the A-bomb. Based on the diary of a mob insider, this blisteringly paced truckload of testosterone features assassination attempts, druglord double-crosses, and gangland showdowns of operatic intensity. Fists pound on tables and threatening bodies crowd the widescreen, with Fukasaku’s freewheeling camera edging right up to the bulging veins on their foreheads.
If revenge is a dish best served cold, these guys don’t have the patience to be even one-minute managers; they’ve swarmed out of the gutter like so many insects to scramble for their crumbs of the post-war cake, and they’re apt to strike wherever the opportunity arises, wreaking havoc in barber shops, railroad stations, and toy stores.
While the ceaseless conflict, aggression and noise initially seem off-putting — after one character enters prison, not ten seconds pass before Fukasaku stages a full-scale riot with lurid music to match — but it’s a violence of spontaneity, not calculation. In fact, the director soon lets on that he is fashioning a rich satire of macho attitudinizing, with the comedy growing exponentially as one gangster after another enacts arias of cowardice, not least the hilariously venal mob boss and his dragon lady wife. Any doubt that this film intends to skewer hypocrisy vanishes in a funeral shootout where one renegade splinters into toothpicks all the official symbols and accoutrements of mourning.
At first, it’s a dizzying stream of characters that get wiped out before we even learn to recognize their faces, with each one memorialized in a freeze-frame with accompanying epitaph, like a cinematic gravestone. Still, Japan keeps making more gangsters, and out of the crowd of growly-voiced Marlboro men one hero eventually emerges (named Hiro, as it happens), with the chiseled features of star Bunta Sugawara and sporting cool shades, not to mention the elaborate blue carp tattoo that adorns him from shoulder to butt. Here was a new figure, a rogue whose shifting loyalties embodied how social controls had slipped.
If you don’t like the clubbings or the arm-choppings, there are bellies ripped open and swords planted in craniums, as Fukasaku strongly believed that violence expresses fundamental emotions that must be faced. Unlike priggish ideologues, he argued that the artist’s duty is to depict such behavior and the audience’s to watch it. It’s not surprising that he devises an original take on the classical yakuza sacrifice: after suitable consultation on ritual etiquette, one protagonist demonstrates his loyalty to the mob pecking order by cutting off his little finger, but all his care goes for naught as the amputated pinkie gets flung among hungry chickens feeding in a henhouse.
As part of this year’s extensive retrospective showings, the Chicago International Film Festival hosted the 1973 film’s first modern showing outside Japan (Home Vision Entertainment is releasing all five features on DVD as “The Yakuza Papers,” and have sprung for pungent new subtitles: “You fuckwit!” cries one gangster). In this kinetic feast of cumulative macho, profane death comes in gritty browns, steel blues and, of course, blood reds, usually at violently canted angles and often in shallow focus, when not actually shot by a telephoto lens.
Fukasaku — best known for the notorious Battle Royale (2000), a record-breaker in Japan but still unreleased in the United States, ostensibly due to its plot of rebel teens forced into suicidal games — is also represented on DVD by Home Vision Entertainment’s releases of the directors earlier efforts, 1968’s Blackmail Is My Life and 1972’s Street Mobster, the latter also starring the charismatic Sugawara.
* * *
When all the votes were counted, the feature film jury, led by Mexican auteur Arturo Ripstein (Deep Crimson) and Nouvelle Vague star Alexandra Stewart (she narrates Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil) awarded the Golden Hugo to Nimród Antal’s Kontroll (Hungary) “for the vitality and flair with which it expresses the feelings of a disillusioned generation.”
In addition, Silver Hugos went to Bahman Ghobadi’s Turtles Can Fly (Iraq/Iran), Simon Staho’s Day and Night (Denmark), and Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll’s Whisky (Uruguay), and a Lifetime Achievement Award was given to Ousmane Sembene.
The New Directors Jury, including Variety‘s Paris-based correspondent Lisa Nesselson and Chicago critic Hank Sartin, gave the Best Director prize to Minh Nguyen-Vô for Buffalo Boy (Vietnam, right).
The journalist of the FIPRESCI jury, including Grégory Valens of Positif magazine and Argentina’s Diego Lerer, awarded its prize to Joseph Cedar’s Campfire (Israel).
The Documentary jury, presided over by Glenn Myrent, biographer of Henri Langlois and prolific film journalist, gave the Gold Hugo for Best Documentary Feature to Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman’s Born into Brothels (USA).
Read the complete list of awards here.