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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9 Comments

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9 responses to “It’s been three days since MIFF…

  1. Jake Wilson

    Nice to see the Blingee back.

    Seriously, this is a terrific report! I look forward to further discussion of your favorites, particularly Love Exposure, a film I missed and heard nothing about.

  2. Yeah the Richard Moore pic is great, thanks Brad. Also the Haneke picture is pretty awesome.

    Thanks for the comment, Jake – your great little piece on The White Ribbon in the paper was a big help to me in articulating my thoughts about it, given the inescapably reverent tone it’s been discussed in everywhere else.

    Love Exposure was great, I thought, and yeah part of the inspiration for trying to write a longer piece is to give myself a chance to discuss both it and the Brisseau film, which I’ve found to be the two most difficult to write about – largely because they’re both likely to be written off as ridiculously over-the-top, disturbingly phallocentric, and other such bad things. So if that piece manages to get written there’s sure to be some discussion of those films in there.

    • Brad

      The Haneke picture is terrifying.

      Apparently he said this: “Pornography, it seems to me, is no different from war films or propaganda films in that it tries to make the visceral, horrific, or transgressive elements of life consumable.”

      I wonder if that’s what he would tell his partner after sex: “Darling, I gotta tell you, that was…The. Most. Visceral, horrific and transgressive experience ever.”

  3. That’s a pretty interesting quote really – but perhaps it does point to a limitation in Haneke’s work and his worldview that I’ve sort of tried to articulate above: he’s so up in arms about the capitalistic processes that turn “the visceral, horrific or transgressive elements of life” into commercial products, and his solution to this is to present those things as coldly as possible, removed from this taint of ‘consumability’ but also removed from the urgency and even the enjoyment with which they are lived.

    Compare this with the way Tsai films sex, where it is certainly desperate, lonely and ’emotionally unfulfilling,’ but also frantic, vital, /living/, the bodies sweating and coughing and clumsily falling over each other.

    • James Douglas

      If Haneke was just pompous, professorial jerk it wouldn’t be so bad. The fact that he’s an obscenely formally talented and disciplined pompous, professorial jerk is what really irks me.

      Also, I almost couldn’t get over the weird print of The Nun they screened. Was the one you saw really…pink? And I wasn’t that impressed by Rivette’s staid pacing and staging. Admittedly it was my first film of his, but it hardly seemed in keeping with the dynamism of his new wave contemporaries. But it did help solidify my affection for Karina. She’s just so endlessly watchable.

      • I’m fairly sure there was only one screening of The Nun, no doubt we were at the same one. Certainly the print was quite worn and, yeah, rather pink – it is quite a rare film (perhaps owing to the fact it was banned for some time), there may not be many prints available.

        I think it would be a mistake to judge the film against the more famous works of the nouvelle vague. From the beginning Rivette, like Rohmer – and far more than Chabrol, Truffaut or even Godard – had an incredibly assured sense of his own identity as a filmmaker, his time as a critic and cinephile in the late 50s allowing him to internalize (in a good way) his cinematic influences (who I guess primarily would be Hawks, Rossellini, Dreyer I suppose, Preminger), to allow that influence a central, organic role in his development. It doesn’t have the brashness or the restlessness of the major early films of the movement, but Rivette is about something entirely different. Certainly the film is ‘stagey’ in an obvious sense, and indeed Rivette had originally done this adaptation of Diderot’s novel as a stage play, with Karina; we don’t get a great deal of establishing shots of the world outside the various prisons Suzanne is forced into, and most of it takes place through these indoor conversation scenes that are blocked very much like in the theatre, and the ways the actors speak and gesticulate too have quite a stagey quality.

        But this film version of Rivette’s theatrical piece is deeply cinematic, I think, particularly interested in investigating how time functions in cinema as against theatre, what happens when you keep the camera running on an actor or group of actors. This – like the use of interior spaces (typically houses) as locations of mystery, secretive spaces – is certainly a concern throughout Rivette’s career, although as far as I know this film wasn’t developed so much through improvisation and very drawn-out rehearsals, as many of the others are; certainly it seems like a fairly rigid text was written beforehand. He limits his filmmaking palate rigorously, but because of this, a simple, elegant move like the camera traveling in an upward diagonal line, from one actor’s face to another’s – a move straight out of classical Hollywood cinema – or positioning two actors in a symbolically potent relationship to each other and to the camera (Suzanne and the lawyer talking on either side of the grate; Suzanne and her apparent saviour the young priest walking outside, separated by an unbearable space from one side of the frame to the other), can achieve incredible power.

        Through all this very deliberate use of the camera and mise-en-scène, the relative sparsity of the editing which allows us to really see the characters inhabiting their physical and social space, and through Rivette and Gruault’s brilliant text, I think the film does a really amazing job of capturing the rhythms of 18th century literature; the only other thing I’ve ever seen that is at all comparable is Rohmer’s Die Marquise von O, which came much later.

        Remember this was 1966, long after the nouvelle vague had ceased to be any kind of unified, collective movement, and long after the heady days of those exciting early films. Truffaut and Chabrol were well on their way to merrily selling out, Godard was about to make La Chinoise (which actually makes mention of The Nun briefly) and Weekend, the films that would really announce his turn away from that world and all it had once seemed to mean… Demy and Varda were about to move to Hollywood. Meanwhile here’s Rivette, making only his second feature film; he’s lived amongst all this but has also been apart from it, working on projects very slowly and methodically, not necessarily interested in any immediately identifiable ‘dynamism’ or in following what have come to be recognised as the obvious signifiers of nouvelle vague-ism, but staying true to his early critical texts and to what a /politique des auteurs/ should really mean; developing his filmmaking identity with intensity, conscious of his influences but also knowing them so well that they are internalized in a sense, thinking with everything he does about what this means as cinema, how this functions as cinema.

  4. Jake Wilson

    Good defense of The Nun, though hearing people complain about the print consoles me for the disappointment of missing the screening. I had to go see Coraline, which is Rivette-for-kids in a way.

  5. helfe

    On Haneke’s ‘coldness’, it seems to reduce more to a Brechtian posture than postmodern one, which might be the strength in this potential flaw as discussed above.

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