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It’s been three days since MIFF…

Post by Conall Cash

I hope to write a more essayistic piece on my experience of the festival in the coming weeks, but for now, a general roundup of what struck me as the most significant things about this year’s MIFF. The best new films I saw, listed in the order in which I saw them, were

  • À L’Aventure (Jean-Claude Brisseau)
  • Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
  • Paper Soldier (Alexei German Jr.)
  • Love Exposure (Sion Sono)
  • A Lake (Philippe Grandrieux)
  • Nymph (Pen-ek Ratanaruang)
  • Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl (Manoel de Oliveira)
  • Blue Beard (Catherine Breillat)

Two other films that screened at MIFF – Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum and Agnès Varda’s The Beaches of Agnès – I saw a couple of months ago at the Sydney Film Festival, so I haven’t included them in the above list. Both are wonderful films, and the former is certainly among the very best things that screened this year.

anna karina

Of the three retrospective showcases that ran, the Anna Karina season was by far the most interesting, I thought. Some quite rare films, such as Pierre Koralnik’s Anna and Michel Deville’s Tonight or Never, turned out to be far more than curious (which was about all I was expecting them to be) but seriously interesting films in their own right. I only went to one of the Godard sessions, because during MIFF there’s just too much stuff to see to be trying to catch up with old favourites at the same time, but I’m glad I went to that one – it was great to see A Woman Is A Woman on a gorgeous cinemascope print at the Forum, a big improvement on the old video tape from the library I watched it on some years ago.

eros_massacre

The season of Japanese new wave films (under the title “Eros + Massacre”) was worth getting to a few sessions of (I was a particular fan of the short Emperor Tomato Ketchup, and not only because it gives me something cool to mention the next time I talk to someone about Stereolab), but overall, a little disappointing.

The same thematic concerns (sexuality as simultaneously an expression of liberty and as a retreat into convention; the social and political immaturity of post-war Japan), the same aesthetic concerns (how to adopt the cinema of Godard, Antonioni, Resnais, Bergman, etc. to a Japanese setting; questioning what this process of appropriation-as-expression means for the individual film and for Japanese culture more broadly) again and again, much of the time seeming to be purely gestural rather than at all seriously considered. Seen alongside some of the rather tiresome films that screened as part of the Melbourne Cinematheque’s “Japanese Noir” season earlier this year, one gets the impression that, aside from the great films of Imamura and Oshima, there isn’t as much depth to the Japanese new wave as one might have hoped. These movies are cool, but a lot of the time they’re more Russ Meyer or Quentin Tarantino-cool than they are John Cassavetes or Jim Jarmusch-cool.

Of the Australian Post-Punk showcase, I only got to one session – the 1982 film Going Down, directed by Haydn Keenan, which I went to largely on the strength of this nice piece John this nice piece John Flaus wrote about it recentlyFlaus wrote about it recently. I liked the film (with certain reservations I guess), but I can’t comment further on this season. Overall the best old films I saw were Jacques Rivette’s The Nun (part of the Anna Karina season – a great film, a small masterpiece early in that filmmaker’s long and fascinating career) and Paul Grimault’s lovely animated film The King and the Bird (written by Jacques Prévert), which was not a part of any showcase but screened this year because it has recently been restored, I believe.

I saw several films by new directors: Peter Strickland’s debut film, Katalin Varga, was very impressive – one particular scene, which takes place on a small boat, was among the most memorable moments of the festival for me. I was also a fan of another film by a new British director, James Watkins’ terrific throwback horror movie Eden Lake. Another young English director, Andrea Arnold, had a sort of interesting film with Fish Tank, though ultimately the film is a bit of an artistic failure, a tired genre movie masquerading as a piece of social realism. Tony Manero is the second film directed by Pablo Larrain, but as far as I know the first to get much international attention, and I thought it was very interesting. The Exploding Girl, which I think is the second or third feature by young American indie filmmaker Bradley Rust Gray, was absolutely adorable. The Bulgarian film noir Zift, by another debutant, Javor Gardev, was not especially good but pretty entertaining. Home, by the new French director Ursula Meier, was an interesting film, beautiful to look at – credit to cinematographer Agnès Godard, known largely for her work with Claire Denis over the past fifteen-odd years – though I don’t know how memorable it will be in retrospect. The Arab-American director Cherien Dabis made her first feature with Amreeka, a very worthwhile film about the hardships of a Palestinian family who move to the United States, which unfortunately becomes a rather staid, predictable mainstream comedy-drama by the time it’s over. Overall, though, definitely a good festival for new filmmakers, based on what I saw.

Lars von Trier

There were also the pleasures of reconnecting with filmmakers one knows and loves, as well as opportunities to make a first acquaintance with name auteurs one has never properly encountered before. Catherine Breillat, Hong Sang-soo, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Lars von Trier, Manoel de Oliveira, Claire Denis, Agnès Varda, Philippe Grandrieux and Jean-Claude Brisseau all made new films that I either liked or loved, which in different ways worked to maintain and also to complicate or disturb or add to my understanding of them as artists. I had my first encounters with Luc Moullet (the terrific documentary/diary film Land of Madness), Benoît Jacquot (Villa Amalia, a very good film that demands to be seen by a viewer in a less hectic mindset than I was in during MIFF, and which I hope to explore more seriously if I find it on DVD some day), Eric Khoo (My Magic, a film I was incensed by for the first half hour and then slowly grew to love a little bit by the time it finished) and Bong Joon-ho (Mother, an immensely entertaining movie, and surely a better Psycho homage than Gus Van Sant’s).

Inevitably, there are always a few films that achieve an identifiable buzz; sometimes this is as a result of positive word-of-mouth from festivalgoers, but far more often it simply gets attached to whatever film was loved at Cannes, or whatever film is already getting advertising hype in advance of its upcoming release. I went to some, though not all, of the films that had that feel about them this year. Of these, I was a fan of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, and despite all the inescapable problems with him I still think von Trier is both one of the funniest and one of the most sincere of contemporary filmmakers. I was not a fan of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon or Giorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth. Both presented what I found to be quite disgusting, quite infantile visions of the terrible state of human society, offering the audience nothing but to assent, to give credence to the poverty of their makers’ creative vision, to say “Yes – people really are like that, aren’t they?” Both films are about as psychologically and politically insightful as M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, and far less entertaining. There is of course one significant difference between the two films: The White Ribbon was made by an extremely talented director, while Dogtooth was not. It’s hard to tell which is more loathsome as a result, though: watching Haneke show the world he can make a film in a classical style if he wants to – the pretty, black and white photography and artfully orchestrated scenes mirroring the emptiness of his characters and their social world; or being subjected to the inane, sub-Haneke/sub-Tsai Ming-Liang/sub-Larry Clark style with which Lanthimos brings his daring dystopian vision to life.

Michael_Haneke

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with misanthropy as a central concern, even a primary motivation, for an artist, and indeed von Trier is a great misanthropic artist in the tradition of D.H. Lawrence. But, like Lawrence, von Trier possesses something very important – a restless creativity, a genuine, unquenchable curiosity about the world outside his mind, which constantly goes alongside all the loathing and self-obsession; and this is why, again like Lawrence, he is so obsessed with the (human and animal) body, that place where the disgusting Other and the knowing Self collide in the most horrifying, fascinating ways. Haneke and Lanthimos possess none of this, replacing curiosity with smug, tragic certainty; the disgusting body and terrifyingly uncontainable mind with a microscopic, knowing view of these amusing little specks called human beings. Nothing is left to the viewer but to agree, to come out of the cinema believing we now know the world and its inhabitants better than when we entered it, which seems to me one of the worst sins a filmmaker can commit.

Of the other most-talked-about films (based on my own, obviously subjective, impressions of the festival and the various discourses surrounding it), I did not see Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Armando Iannucci’s In The Loop or Jeff Daniels’ 10 Conditions of Love, though I’m curious to see them (or at least the first two) at some point.

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MIFF09 review: ANTICHRIST (dir. Lars Von Trier)

antichrist-picture1

Review by Brad Nguyen

Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist is a shock to the system even when you know beforehand that the film involves cliterectomies and bloody ejaculations and graphic sex involving Willem Dafoe. But, like his previous films, Antichrist is intellectually stimulating even as it repels you, shifting from cute Lynchian surrealism in the first half to Bataillesque perversions in the second.

The film opens with Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a couple having wild animalistic sex while their child climbs out of his cot onto a window sill and falls to his death. The woman is distraught, crippled by grief and guilt. The man, a therapist, is more controlled in his emotions and undertakes to treat his wife as his patient. Her treatment leads the couple to their holiday home in the woods where evil supernatural forces conspire against the man and the woman’s grief transforms into crazed malevolence.

antichrist-5

Once again Lars Von Trier has sustained attacks from critics calling him a misogynist, but this point is not really sustained by the film, even if Lars Von Trier is admittedly walking a fine line. (Walking a fine line is probably not the right phrase. A woman is credited for being the film’s “misogyny expert” so it’s more like Lars Von Trier taking that fine line and beating it to a pulp.) The main concern of Von Trier in Antichrist is the stupidity of psychology as it attempts to tame the mysteriousness of the human psyche. Hence the dedication to Andrei Tarkovsky in the credits, meant as a knowingly ironic provocation and at the same time with absolute sincerity. As in Solaris, a rational man enters a physical space where the subconscious reigns with a mission to restore order. Willem Dafoe’s character doesn’t understand the grief that consumes his wife but determines to impose on her scientific explanations for her grief, complexes that he prepared earlier.

antichrist-2

The weirdness that follows is not so much inspired by Tarkovsky as by Bunuel and Dali – the cliterectomy that is performed by Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character on herself, seen in full view, recalls the slicing open of an eye in Un chien andolou only it’s much, much more shocking (Much). I suspect the Surrealists would approve of Antichrist.

But how to position the “misogyny” of Antichrist? We learn that the woman has been writing a thesis on “gynocide” in the woods but becomes convinced in the film that the witch hunts and the whole of history is proof of the evil of woman. She subsequently smashes Willem Dafoe’s penis in with a log. The least convincing argument is that Lars Von Trier actually believes women to be evil which leaves two explanations: The first explanation is that the “evil” of the woman is a projection of the man’s anxieties. The second explanation (which I like) is that the woman is audaciously appropriating misogyny. Her proclamations on the evils of women are not so much coherent arguments on the subject so much as a big fuck you to the man attempting to structure the psyche.

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MIFF09 review: ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLOND-HAIR GIRL (dir. Manoel de Oliveira)

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Review by Conall Cash (catabloguing.wordpress.com)

This short (64-minute), rather slight film, directed by the 100-year old Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira, is one of the best things I’ve seen at MIFF this year. One particularly lovely scene actually brought some tears to my eyes – an increasingly rare kind of emotional response to be had in the environment of this festival where quick, authoritative judgements are the name of the game. My tears were inexplicable – brought on not by any tragic occurrence in the narrative but by the simple juxtaposition of a slowly tracking camera through the rooms of a house with a man’s voice reading from an old Portuguese text – and indeed so is the overall impact of the film. Continue reading

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MIFF09 review: A LAKE (dir. Philippe Grandrieux)

2009_Un_lac

Review by Conall Cash (catabloguing.wordpress.com)

The third feature directed by Philippe Grandrieux, A Lake is an astonishing, almost unbearably passionate film; it is unlike anything I have ever seen. The film alienated most of the audience that ventured into the small cinema at ACMI last night – roughly a quarter walked out during the screening, and afterwards I heard at least three groups of viewers express anger, confusion, resentment and dismissal. Such responses are understandable, particularly from the uninitiated, for Grandrieux’s film offers nothing at the level of what commonly goes for ‘cinematic appreciation’: utterly unapproachable in terms of characterization, narrative development or ‘good directing’ (well-constructed scenes made up of a sequence of artfully designed shots, with the elements of the scene and their relation to the positioning of the camera reflecting or emphasizing the nature of the narrative situation or the psychology of the characters), A Lake strives for an elementality not heard of in the cinema since F.W. Murnau’s 1927 masterpiece, Sunrise. Continue reading

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MIFF09 review: STILL WALKING (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)

still walking

Review by Conall Cash (catabloguing.wordpress.com)

Lately it seems like every year a new film shows up that either proclaims itself or is proclaimed by the most audible voices in criticism as an hommage to the films of Yasujiro Ozu. The latest is Still Walking, by Hirokazu Kore-eda, but already in that act of naming its director we notice something that immediately distinguishes this film from the crowd. Ozu adoration takes on many forms, produces very different effects – sublimity in Hou Hsaio-hsien; devastating pathos in Aki Kaurismaki; mysticist mediocrity in Wim Wenders; inert banality in Vincent Gallo – but it is almost never, interestingly, to be seen in the work of a Japanese filmmaker. Ozu’s body of work is so fundamental to the history of Japanese cinema that inevitably it has been ‘internalized’; just as no Hollywood director can entirely evade the influence of John Ford or Howard Hawks, no Japanese filmmaker can make a film that is not ‘after Ozu,’ inflected by his influence upon how cinema is made in Japan. What this typically means is that, unlike foreign directors who respond to particular, individual attributes of Ozu’s cinema – his unmoving, low-to-the-floor camera setups; his expression of the passing of time and of the generations through the visual motif of the changing seasons; or his achievement of meaning through indirection, with complex and painful emotions and ideas conveyed through mundane everyday conversation – a Japanese filmmaker is unlikely to consider these as isolatable, individually definable elements, but rather as constitutive of the very cinematic air he or she naturally breathes. Great Japanese cinema has been made by positively vomiting up this influence, performing a kind of self-asphyxiation rather than permitting this air to enter the lungs, eviscerating its every molecule in the pursuit of new forms – see the films of Shohei Imamura. Kore-eda’s achievement with Still Walking, on the other hand, is effectively to have found a way to breathe the air of Ozu afresh, to reconcile the foundational, inalienably Japanese Ozu with the versions of him found in his foreign disciples; to make a film that is simultaneously a conscious hommage and that takes itself seriously as living, breathing cinema, with responsibilities towards its own identity and those of its characters. Continue reading

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MIFF09 review: KATALIN VARGA (dir. Peter Strickland)

katalinvarga

Review by Conall Cash (catabloguing.wordpress.com)

Katalin Varga marks the feature film debut of British director Peter Strickland. At 35, Strickland is not particularly young for a newcomer, and so perhaps it is no surprise to learn, as one does from just watching the first few minutes of the film, that he has already learnt his craft extremely well. What is surprising, and which only becomes apparent gradually through watching the film, is that Strickland is not just extremely competent for a new filmmaker, but that he possesses an astonishingly assured, distinctive visual style and a sophisticated, occasionally devastating capacity with sound. Continue reading

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