Sunday, October 21, 2007

43rd Chicago International Film Festival - Part 2

The Festival has announced its awards, and I'm happy about having seen the Gold (Silent Light) and Silver (You, The Living) winners, though I obviously don't approve of the two awards for Control. I also learned that it was, indeed, Udo Kier (serving as juror) sitting just a couple rows in front of me at the Hallam Foe screening. I'd recognize that enjoyably odd German anywhere (esp. because of his role in My Own Private Idaho). Overall, I had pretty good luck this year picking worthwhile films to watch.

I did my homework for You, The Living (Du Levande), renting Roy Andersson's previous film, Songs from the Second Floor a week before the fest, and while 7 years passed between their makings, the new film seemed to pick up exactly where the previous film left off. Not that you need to see the Songs in order to appreciate the new film, just that they're very much cut from the same cloth. Of the first film, J. Hoberman quipped, "It's slapstick Ingmar Bergman." "Yes," added Roger Ebert, "and tragic Groucho Marx." Tati comes to mind, and to some degree the film Delicatessen. Filmed all in long shots, both of Andersson's films portray a bleakly surreal cityscape and hop from character to character, sketch-like, with the grimmest sense of humor. There is very little in the way of a narrative thread connecting them except that they are all residents of this comic dystopia. Almost all of them are middle-aged or old, rather unattractive, sadsack in dozens of unique ways. I think there is one child in all of Songs but there are some major characters in You, the Living in their twenties. Songs struck me as a meditation on a graying Europe and the ills of modern society, whereas You, the Living had me thinking more globally, but that might be an effect of my catching up to Andersson's vision. I felt that some of the scenes in You reach higher comic heights, but there are several scenes of questionable purpose which fizzle. It sags at times, but I'd still strongly recommend it overall. Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.

There's no way I was going to miss The Witnesses (Les Témoins), the new film by André Téchiné, and I was a bit disappointed in the lack of coverage the film received during the festival. Téchiné is a major filmmaker who's beginning, it appears, to be taken for granted, which is too bad because this AIDS drama set just before and during the initial outbreak in France is clearly one of his very strongest works, along with Strayed, Les Voleurs, Wild Reeds and My Favorite Season. In fact, it was one of the strongest films I caught at the festival. Téchiné is a subtle filmmaker who can sometimes be too refined and unsentimental for his own good, as in Changing Times and Far Away--he can leave you feeling nothing. But, as with the backdrop of WWII in Strayed, here the emergence of AIDS provides him with some strongly charged material to resist, creating a more effective tension. It also provides him some nearly readymade narrative material with which to explore his perrenial theme of the challenges we face in trying to achieve stable identities and monogamous love lives. The story moves from a scene in which young Manu goes cruising in Paris to the story of his affair with the older (unconventionally) married Mehdi, a cop who rescues him from drowning. Their scenes proved genuinely passionate and sexy, and an eleventh hour revelation keeps the relationship interesting from beginning to end. The cast is excellent: Emmanuelle Béart rarely better, young Johan Libéreau is entirely believable as a smart young man from the provinces who manages to fascinate two older rival lovers. Julie Depardieu (yes, daughter of) is excellent as the sister preoccupied with her opera training. A scene in which she performs an aria and the lights go out is a rare emotional indulgence on Téchiné's part, and it works beautifully, suggesting the blindness that a character experiences as his disease develops but also a society struggling to adapt to dangerous circumstances. Sami Bouajila has had quite a year, first with Days of Glory and now this turn as a bisexual cop. I was also pleased to see Xavier Beauvois and Jacques Nolot (two notable French directors) turn up in small supporting roles, and I should also note that Téchiné is one of the few French directors who has shown a committed interest in his nation's relationship with Algeria. My only real quibble is that a minor American character who turns up late in the story has a ridiculous accent. Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars.

Bad girl Catherine Breillat's latest picture The Last Mistress (Une Vieille Maîtresse) is a deliciously dark erotic costume drama in the vein of Dangerous Liaisons. Not coincidentally, Laclos is mentioned more than once by the characters in this film. The film has garnered positive reviews so far on the fest circuit but star Asia Argento has gotten raves for her turn as a scandalous Spanish countess who struggles to hang on to her young French lover as he jilts her for a respectable marriage to an almost sickeningly pure young maiden. Breillat's trademark sexual provocations are on full display. The pretzel positions she films the lovers in are designed to shock, and I thoroughly enjoyed the gasps and squeamishness of some of the older women in my row. (The lady next to me nervously rustled her plastic bag every time Argento appeared nude.) Argento's countess at one point takes a blade to her lover's face and in another, vampire-like, licks blood from a bullet wound he received in a duel over her. (Hilariously, the attending doctor replies to her query of concern by pointing out that her ministrations have just added a risk of infection.) Fu'ad Ait Aattou as the lover Ryno is a typically indulgent casting choice on Breillat's part (she who has been known to cast porn stars as leading actors). He looks like a high-fashion magazine model, and I initially pegged him as a substandard Louis Garrel type, but he turned out to have somewhat more in the way of chops than I expected. I was most charmed during the first two-thirds of the film when Ryno spends an entire night relating the story of this affair to his proper young fiancee's grandmother, played wonderfully by Claude Sarraute. As the Marquise, she insists that she comes from the more liberal generation of Laclos and is unshockable, yet she urges him on in his storytelling, clearly finding it more interesting that any novel and rightly so--the story has some unexpected twists. But the last third of the film, taking place after Ryno's marriage, seems less urgent, as if Breillat loses interest once the tragic ending comes into view and the fun must come to an end. Characters' deaths are related off-handedly and before I was quite ready for it, the show was over. Still, I feel this is a major rebound for Breillat, whose films had begun to feel played out and unenticing in their post-feminist games. It's certainly her best since Fat Girl, and I hope it's a huge arthouse hit here in the U.S. Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars.

I'm still trying to sort out what I think of this boom in ultra slow-paced films on the international scene. Kiarostami, Zhang Ke Jia, Ming-liang Tsai, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Sokurov, Angelopolous, Bela Tarr, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and many more celebrated filmmakers of various origins, styles and concerns have all embraced a slower than average pace. Meanwhile, classic filmmakers who pioneered this "contemplative cinema" such as Dreyer, Antonioni and Tarkovsky are being praised for precedent. Obviously, few critics celebrate all of these directors equally, but in general I get the sense that highbrow taste favors them over all. I try to make a point of mixing some of this work into my filmgoing because I find it challenging, and I've taken a policy of seeing no more than one or two at film festivals because when they fail they can be very enervating. Worse than merely sleep-inducing at their worst, they can put you off wanting to see any cinema. I've seen Carlos Reygadas emerge during this decade as yet another name to add to this, championed for his Japón, generally excoriated for his Battle in Heaven, and now getting the best reviews yet for Silent Light (Stellet Licht), and as the trailer intrigued me (and since what I read about the new Tarr film didn't encourage me), I decided this would be my token slow film of the festival. I'm glad I saw it, but in the end I'm not quite sure how to evaluate it. It's one of those challenging films you want to argue about even with yourself, a perfect example of why such films are worth seeing.

The film opens with an incredible sequence, near darkness until you realize it's a starry sky. You begin to realize the camera is panning through the night, you sense shadows, the outline of trees, and so gradually as the screen brightens, you realize you're seeing a sunrise. Somehow the film seems to capture the moment in real time yet I suspect it must somehow be compressed. Silent Light is the story of a Mennonite farmer in Mexico (they speak Dutch, I believe) and his wife and rather large, handsome family but more to the point, it's about his struggle to deal with his feelings when he falls in love with another Mennonite woman. And here's my first problem with the film: the women seem very much alike to me, and I never got a clear sense of what he preferred about the new woman. The film is acted with non-actors, actual Mennonite farmers who do a very good job as non-actors, but then, the stiff style of the filmmaking lowers the bar a bit, I think. The lead actor Cornelio Wall cries a few times on screen, and to see such a stoic man crying can't help but win some of our sympathy (not to mention admiration--it must be tricky to cough up tears on command), and he's really quite up to the task of holding our attention most of the time, at least at this pace. During one serious moment I caught Peter Wall, who plays (and, surely, is) his father winking at the camera, and I wondered if it was a mistake - if the actor had thought the shot long over only to discover Reygadas keeping the camera going. Did Reygadas keep this shot in knowing it might call attention to the style? Why? There's some business with a clock being stopped and started again that subtly lends an air almost of science fiction or fantasy or fairy tale to the film. Silent Light is generally always beautiful to look at, and I was content enough to go along for the ride, but then came the ending. Suffice to say that something miraculous happens but (rather pointedly) because of an action that's human and not divine. I'd read the ending was compared to a bit of deus ex machina at the end of Dreyer's Ordet (a film I haven't yet managed to see), and I was both surprised and pleased that I still hadn't guessed this ending. The film ends with a sunset to match the wonderful opening, and I felt reasonably satisfied as I left. But when I thought about the film some more, I began to feel this ending is a cheat. (Actually, a cheat compounded, because there's a death in the film that feels very, very unlikely and unrealistic to me.) Here's one way in which the slow pace really works to a director's benefit: it can hypnotize the audience into a dreamlike frame of mind in which we're less likely to balk at such an unlikely leap of logic. (Just as a frenetically-paced film can exhaust us into acceptance.) I often feel that slow, languorous shots should be used for emphasis. Rare is the stylist like Sokurov of Wong Kar Wai who can build an entire dreamlike movie out of them. Usually when they're used for an entire film, it's like highlighting an entire novel's text--useless. During such films, I find that rather than doing more "contemplation" my mind simply slows down. I don't mind a provocative ending or a stylistic departure, but here I didn't see the purpose (at least not a good one). Still, the ending aside, I enjoyed the sumptuous photography and the sense of getting to experience the lives of character who live very differently from me. And perhaps I'm overthinking the whole thing in this case. Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.

Update: so far I've found two other bloggers who blogged from the fest, Nick and Prince of Cairo. Nice work, guys.

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