Even more than in The River, with The Deserted we are sensually implicated in the small gestures of rest and relief, saving graces in this abandoned world. When Lee later has sex with a smooth pale girl, we can’t help but wonder: is this the fish made woman? It wouldn’t be the strangest transformation in a Tsai film, where bleakness is offset by comic surprises.
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Like the pairing of Godard and surround sound, the idea of combining Tsai Ming-liang with virtual reality is instantly attractive: matching the most austere and demanding of artists to the bells and whistles of high tech. However, what’s remarkable about Tsai’s first VR film, The Deserted, is how much it explains and condenses his other work. VR only enhances that curious sensation of bodilessness we get from watching a Tsai film.
As in Godard’s The Image Book, any expectation of razzle-dazzle is met by an unrelenting blankness. The Deserted traps you in a small, decaying house that feels both cavernous and claustrophobic. Panoramic vision is not of much help here: a 360-degree spin only exposes you to more of the house’s empty space and peeling walls. Wearing the VR headset, you get the feeling of having misplaced your physical self, as most of Tsai’s protagonists do. Despite the tactile images on offer (the crushed white velvet of a woman’s dress), we are handless and powerless to touch them. We are only aware of our bodies when it comes to the strain of wearing the headset (VR equipment is bulky at this stage), although this creates an effect similar to the neck crick suffered by Lee Kang-sheng’s character in The River (1997). The heavy apparatus makes you feel sunk and oppressed, so that time ticks slowly and you are restricted, despite VR’s promise of limitless scope. Like Tsai’s characters, we are stuck playing the waiting game, with the mute hope that something might change.
Miraculously, change does come, in the form of a coup! In what might be the ultimate summary of the director’s work, we find ourselves in a bath with two of Tsai’s most frequent actors: Lee Kang-sheng and a fish. Lee cradles the white fish, nuzzling and stroking it like a cat. There is a meditative aspect to this scene; Lee exhales as the fish’s gills flutter, and we have the illusion of being lapped with warm water on all sides. Even more than in The River, we are sensually implicated in the small gestures of rest and relief, saving graces in this abandoned world. When Lee later has sex with a smooth pale girl, we can’t help but wonder: is this the fish made woman? It wouldn’t be the strangest transformation in a Tsai film, where bleakness is offset by comic surprises.
However, the dominant emotion in this film is of barrenness and desertion, which intensifies as the images become more immersive. As with Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016), the access to extreme close-up, high-resolution shots paradoxically creates a blinding and blocking of meaning. The all-too-real becomes the “only” real: images are uselessly comprehensive, flooding us with data that our bodies struggle to absorb. This sense of visual overrun is something we experience in both Tsai and Godard – in Tsai’s case, the image is too stiflingly close to process, while for Godard, cinema’s power to index the real has become almost meaningless, a matter for sport.
As grandly titled as his previous film, Goodbye to Language (2014), Godard’s The Image Book hails itself as a reliquary of the visual, a bible stuffed with moving images. On any given page/scene, bits of footage are pinned, live and squirming, with little of their context attached. Golden moments of movie history (Nicholas Ray, Jean Vigo) share space with an ISIS instruction video, the difference be damned. Familiar film sequences are interrupted by a message from your sponsor – if not ISIS, then some other mysterious disruptor, as if the frequency has been hacked. Sometimes a little patch of live action plays over a still image, so that our eyes must stretch to accommodate the tension between two formats: the great big photo with the tiny video buzzing inside it.
These constant re-framings are a way of discarding historical context. Godard superimposes one image on another, then bounces the light between them like an on/off switch, flipping foreground to background in an instant. Written signs are held up to the camera at weird angles: similar to the Captcha test the computer uses to find out if you’re a robot, and in a sense, performing the same function here – these signs urge us to extract their literal meaning, regardless of placement. The world of historical footage is cut and pasted to seem like a ransom note, with audio and video snippets pegged to drive the point home. More Godard-images, more grist to the mill.
Godard’s attitude to the past becomes apparent when cinema’s revered moments are torn into with sudden brutality. One of his key references is a clip from Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), in which Joan Crawford frustrates a suitor by repeatedly refusing to say “I love you.” Just as she is on the verge of saying it, he cuts away, delighting in the moment of denial. You can be sure that Godard has no love for you as a viewer: he is all about the opaque fragment, the ungiving snippet. He shows footage of a bull rushing into a cape, but omits the satisfying follow-through; his editing sucks the juice out of your favorite movie scenes. As overstuffed as The Image Book is, it delivers on the radical emptiness of its preface: “nothing but silence … a story in five chapters like the five fingers of a hand.” An index finger appears regularly, pointing outside the frame, toward what you can’t see as the locus of meaning.
Yet the hand – grasping, gesturing, daubing paint – is a strangely humanist emblem for Godard: it gives the hint of signature in a world of decontextualized imagery. Color is one area in which the author definitively makes his mark: bleaching scenes into extreme whiteness, punching up reds and blues so that the pigment leaks all over the frame, obscuring the body. The faces in newsreels are often whited out, leaving only the black box of their eye sockets, set in grim determination: history is a parade of masked figures. The effect is of wading through the archives – casting a searchlight here and there, alighting on the odd gem.
Sometimes parallels are found between opposing texts: a contemporary fire is set to burn over a ’40s scene of Ingrid Bergman as Joan of Arc. Godard plays very freely with cinematic quotes, as opposed to the mute images of Islam, which he is content to leave impenetrable – they serve as an impersonal counterpoint to his beloved movie sequences. A shot of corpses on the ground is sampled largely for the blazing blue costumes worn by the dead. Our eyes make quick aesthetic work of these frames, since the film desensitizes us to almost everything except bursts of sound and primary color.
Godard is as proudly experimental in his use of sound as he was with 3D in Goodbye to Language. Chords of suspense are used to tickle the nerves – we are immersed in atmospheric noise, only to have it shut off and the spell broken. He tosses effects from side to side, as if directing the sound to bounce off an image at a precise angle. Sometimes he focuses attention on a single speaker, like a jet projected to spray from one corner of the screen.
The director has always been fond of breaking down language into its component parts (or puns); here, he pulls apart a soundtrack with the dexterous use of speakers, dividing the cinema into quadrants. In place of a coherent argument are multi-channels of talk: dubbed, overheard, broadcast, replayed. All risk being reduced to echoes in the archives, like the eroded words and bleached-out frames the film flashes to. An elderly male voice provides the occasional voice-over: irreverent when it comes to the safe ground of classic films, less so in the changing world of geopolitics.
Impassively, Godard shows us footage of those who would tear down the Western world and its canon – but he also seeks to anticipate them, in his own way. The result is The Image Book: a film that tunes in and out of the masterpiece channel, cutting to the white noise and dead time of the merely real.
Traveling in the spirit of Godard – though more concerned with the lack of continuity – is Cocote, the debut feature from Dominican director Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias. This is a film that continually changes form and possibility: it’s wildly ambitious and often beautiful, twisting with variations on style and texture. Alberto (Vicento Santos) works as a gardener for a white family in Santo Domingo. Taking leave after his father’s death, he travels from the capital to his home town in the far south, where the world of master/servant relations shifts to something more unpredictable. The town and his family are in thrall to customs that Alberto no longer understands: he feels utterly distant from the culture of ritual and revenge killing, but the story is no longer his to command.
From the beginning, Alberto’s status as the protagonist is unstable – he keeps getting pushed out of the frame by other characters or by the formal intrusions of editing. His statements are often delivered offscreen, forced out of earshot by more riveting conversations. His shy, loping body risks being eclipsed by a walk-on from a dog, and even by a hand whose owner can’t be seen. The failure of Alberto to dramatize himself and occupy the film’s center will be crucial to the erasure of his identity, along with the frequent changes in film stock. Cocote moves between 16mm and digital, color and monochrome – all these switches obliterate the continuity of the human figure. The black-and-white shots starkly isolate awareness, while color seems to indicate a break into documentary, “ethnographic” footage. Can it really be the same man who makes it, materially, from one scene to the next?
Transitions between scenes are never porous; some kind of filter is necessary to pass between the commercial sphere of the capital to a society in which deviltry is alive and well. In any case, the camera seems to prefer the charismatic calls of prayer – whether the fiery version of Christianity being preached or the cries of revenge for the father’s death – to Alberto’s ambivalent self. He is unpossessed by the many spirits on offer, his body listless before the vigor of ritual. It is a struggle to pick out his face in a crowd scene: we tend to get slices of his profile, catch him at oblique angles, or face the hulk of his back. He seems ineffectual, stumbling through a haze of signs without taking in their significance.
The film is Godardian in its “irrelevant” moments of intensification – the sudden thrusts of its lurid soundtrack, and its all-white frames that are the equivalent of dunking the head in ice water. Whiteness gives Alberto access to the space and quiet he can never get on camera, but it also reflects his stunned surprise at each new encounter. The white frames seem to extinguish prior realities, suggesting the cold shock of systems knocking up against one another. If the changes in form express Alberto’s awareness being refracted through different mediums, then the emphasis is on what doesn’t pass through from shot to shot.
Although Alberto is eventually subject to all the demands made on his body – by his family, Christianity, and his white employers – his sensibility represents an estrangement from tradition, from narrative. If every frame of this film invites us to look with new eyes, then scenes can never be stacked together to make a story: certainly nothing so pat as an “ethnography.”
Raúl Ruiz’s The Wandering Soap Opera (2017), shot in 1990 but completed and released posthumously by the director’s wife, editor Valeria Sarmiento, also depicts a history of alienation, contrasting engagement with opportunistic distraction. Ruiz applies the conventions of the telenovela to art cinema: the cliffhangers, constant rehashing of plots, shock reveals, and key overheard conversations. A seductive fantasy is offered to Chilean viewers: life is a personal saga to be endured, with little intrusion from the outside world. But in this film, odd subjects find their way into the script: a furious study of grammar, the discussion of semiotics, even a tract on leftist politics! Is the sealed world of soap operas about to be broken?
In fact, Ruiz shows us how well the genre lends itself to an analysis of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Soaps can bend almost every rule to accommodate the flow of narrative: they can suddenly scrap characters and recast roles without comment. Their apparent seriousness in regard to multiple realities allows unlikely events to take place: how is it that four people have been killed with only two shots fired? It is common for unsolved mysteries to be given a revisionist spin, particularly in order to accommodate a star. Soap operas are natural fodder for surrealism, with their dreamy close-ups, reliance on the supernatural, and the collective amnesia that descends when a new sequence needs to be filmed.
If you find the analogy between soaps and Chilean history a bit of a stretch, so does Ruiz: in likening his sleepwalking actors to a country waking up from terror, he highlights every incongruity. How strange it sounds to hear these people talking about social inequality – but under Pinochet, such talk in real life would be equally strange, an act of misplaced intensity.
Soaps prolong stories by constantly revisiting the past, with missing memories attributed to lapses in attention. For seventeen years, Pinochet was able to put on an improbably riveting show – not unlike this film – and viewers could not tear their eyes away.
Although he plays a game of decidedly lower stakes, the dynamic of Hong Sang-soo’s films strangely mirrors that of Ruiz, with stabs of murderous fury interspersed with light banter. In the opening scenes of Hong’s Grass, gender relations have already reached an impasse. Women only drink from cups, but all the men have tall glasses with straws. The women nurse their hot drinks, while the men sip from long cool containers. A stranger breakdown along gender lines has yet to be seen.
Within this café culture, the writer A-reum (Kim Min-hee) observes – and perhaps scripts – the interactions of various couples around her. A-reum claims that several of the men she studies are well-known professional actors, although they may only be “actors” as far as her dramatic purposes are concerned. As she weighs up the qualities of these men and women, we notice some distinctive patterns. Physical compliments are exchanged as if swapping pawns, going through the preliminaries before swooping in with a bold move. Within seconds, the conversation turns to another person’s suicide, and a convincing case is made that one of the speakers is to blame. With that accusation out of the way, there is a retreat into decorous pleasantries, and compliments are again exchanged before the conversation takes on an edge. When a woman tells her male companion “You look good,” the camera scrutinizes his face rather than hers. Is she being serious or kind? Does he really measure up?
All of these face-offs take place in genteel society, an upper-middle-class lifestyle of endless drinks, travel plans, and shiny tech (those glowing white apples look great on the silver screen). Some conversations may be invented or elaborated by the writer, and there are a few in which she takes part as a protagonist, attracting the attention of the male characters. Most of the men are wily, feigning anthropological curiosity in order to ask personal questions. But it is the women who shatter the air with their sharp comments and snaps of anger. Korean films seem to show a higher tolerance for outsize female voices than Western cinema, purely in terms of decibels: a woman can speak up harshly and strongly without threatening her status as a romantic lead.
This is particularly the case with A-reum, whose soft, feathery beauty is a foil for her aggression. Kim Min-hee does not meet the camera with obvious wiles; instead, she has a highly textural presence, with light tendrils of hair, delicate fingers, and a mellifluous voice. Therefore it is a shock when this woman lashes out with sudden rage, taking a stranger’s life choices as a personal affront. Her outbursts are simply accepted by everyone else, making the scene seem even more unreal.
Over time, we realise that these characters do not obey the laws of nature – this is one film in which suicide is indeed painless, since a man casually refers to his death as a past phase. As an author, A-reum seems to be trying out different conceits with her couples, giving them reams of flat expository talk before jolting them into action. People are listless until they are animated by the author’s will, which flags from time to time.
In a sequence reminiscent of contemporary dance, one of the female characters simply walks up and down the stairs repeatedly – at first in frustration, then building up to a skip. This woman is like a counter that the author hasn’t worked out what to do with: a pawn limited to stepping back and forth, in holding pattern, until A-reum can decide where to place her. In Hong’s films, relationships follow the step-and-repeat of constricted dance moves, while the conversational machine reduces to a stutter. It’s as if Hong is playing a kind of anti-chess, where the goal is to remove momentum from all pieces.
The films of the current Greek New Wave are insistently plain – I would say, almost forlorn – in execution, with their long takes, dispirited energy, and lack of dramatic advancement. Yet several of these works are delicious, because of their diabolical directness in addressing matters of image and taste (Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier, 2015, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Alps, 2011). Like Hong Sang-soo’s films, they are bone-dry dissections of ego that give short shrift to personal growth. They portray society as an emotional hierarchy, in which the best feelings are played out and flaunted as a measure of worth.
Babis Makridis’ Pity looks at the title emotion as a form of social capital, exploring its uses, variations, and expiry date. It is a welcome antidote to the kind of ostentatious suffering seen in dramas such as Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea (2016): a surprisingly glib film, especially since Lonergan did such a fine job of taking down “monsters of empathy” in Margaret (2011). Co-scripted by Efthymis Filippou, one of the writers of Alps and Chevalier, Pity is admirably low-key, opting for a declarative minimalism when it comes to presenting unusual behavior.
A lawyer (Yannis Drakopoulos) with a comatose wife becomes addicted to the perks of pity – the sweet smiles it brings, the gifts and services, and the way it gives pathos and dimension to his life. When his wife recovers, he wonders how he can keep the consolations coming. In looking for ways to stimulate pity, this man tends to think of “other people” as a monolithic block, observing their reactions closely and gleaning useful information about their values.
This is a comedy that isn’t quite black enough. Its central character is a heartless outlier, rather than the kind of everyday sociopath who scores points through “virtue signaling.” Surely it’s not uncommon to act in order to trigger certain facial expressions in others. And doesn’t the pitier get something out of it too: the chance to give the old empathy glands a workout?
Makridis would also have done well to explore the politics of pity. When it comes to bereavement, do men wear it better? The lawyer is fully aware of the classicism of his emotion, weeping while overlooking the crystal blue seas from his apartment. Who has the privilege of evoking pity, and who gets to enjoy its ennobling effects? If pity is a currency, what are the laws of supply and demand?
The film’s final scene is not so shocking when you consider that Munchausen’s by proxy is already a well-known phenomenon, even a major plot point behind a best-selling thriller and recent HBO series. This is one of those occasions where a script overreaches to make the ending not feel like a cop-out.
A thriller that wears its decadence lightly, Yann Gonzalez’s Knife + Heart is a leather-and-latex film done right. Vanessa Paradis stars as Anne, a producer of gay male porn who has trained her eye to accommodate the desires of others (à la Isabelle Huppert’s character in Elle, 2016). While set in the ’70s, the movie is inspired by the ’80s cinéma du look: a genre long discredited in film studies, though ever-present in the pages of French Vogue. Images are saturated with color – particularly dark green and lipstick red – but Gonzalez injects the glossy style with fun, looseness, and full-frontal sexuality. This is a joyous, pre-AIDS crowd: a demi-monde like the set of a Prince clip, brimming with high spirits and lechery.
In her daily uniform of mesh tops, Anne tries to solve a murder and win back a lost love, all in the midst of producing porn. For these underground fashionistas, latex trenches and neon-soaked nights are merely aspects of working life – the director treats traditional fetish objects with an everyday lightness. Compare this film with Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzati’s The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013, also shown at MIFF), with its endless “racy” shots of zips and leather, and you get an idea of Gonzalez’s approach: sensual but relaxed, comically cool. The film is styled to the hilt yet seems effortless.
Unlike so many recent attempts at giallo, Gonzalez’s film is infused with both mystery and humor. Deconstruction can be a mood-killer when it comes to thrillers, but Knife + Heart is romantic and haunting as well as camp. It is torrid yet hilarious in its windswept and rain-drenched images – the porn scenes are as likely to end in laughter as orgasm.
You Were Never Really Here: Lynne Ramsay’s film evokes both intensity and absence in its brilliant, despairing title sequence, where the camera tears through the night. With its close percolating notes, Johnny Greenwood’s score creates an overlay of dread, alluding to the film’s subject: the abduction of children for sex and pornography. The enveloping sound conveys a thick sense of night and the city, but without glamor: instead, the darkness hints at a world of trafficked children, who have no hope of seeing the light of day. The camera constantly whips ahead, giving us no coherent sense of the real; the barest glimpse of a streetlamp is quickly blotted out.
Ramsay set her first two films, Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002), in close, fetid surroundings, before moving on to the neater arthouse style of We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). In You Were Never Really Here, she returns to the feel of her early work, but with a greater bleakness. The atmosphere is heated and grimy; the stucco walls seem to creep in. There is no air or space in this environment – and next to no chance of a finding a child in this densely peopled world.
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a hitman assigned to rescue children from the sex trade. His work involves recreating the thoughts of a pedophile, and this places constant filters on his awareness. His eye is alert to predation: he scans the world in terms of sexual opportunism, places where a child might be stashed. Joe’s head is crammed with the kind of images you can’t unsee, pictures of kids cowering or battered.
Ramsay’s camera plunges us headlong into Joe’s sensibility, in a way that allows for no orientation – as in Morvern Callar, we have that lolling sense of inhabiting someone else’s body. His gaze is locked, despite the occasional merry, diverting thought. We are prey to every sudden fascination that grips the protagonist, from the white wisps of his mother’s hair to a jellybean being pulverized – a cloying reminder of the treats used to entice kids. There is no gap between us and this clammily sexual environment, of which each human being is only an outgrowth. The camera absorbs us with its strange attention to physical detail, mimicking the mindset of not only Joe and the predators, but the abducted girl who counts to dull her sensations and block out thinking. If you try hard enough, maybe you were never really there.
With this film, Ramsay has regained the full force of her talent. We Need to Talk About Kevin was more clearly a bravura work, with a virtuoso performance from Tilda Swinton, but it didn’t have this heady, full immersion in place and psychology: the sense of an ineradicable sickness behind the eyes. You Were Never Really Here has a slow drain of horror and the Greenwood score that drives us deeper into the night.
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Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the films’ trailers.