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.
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.
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.
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.
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.