Eight More Films from VIFF 2014

Part of my coverage of the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival.

After a fantastic eight days in Vancouver, I’m back home in Tacoma now. My cinematic viewing has abruptly shifted from Godard, Alonso and Ceylan to Growing Up with Hello Kitty 2 (at the point where Hello Kitty and her friend decide to build a “Cinderella Castle”, my 3-year-old daughter gets the same expression of pure joy on her face that I had throughout the running time of Hill of Freedom). Before I leave the festival behind completely, however, I want to take another look back at some of the highlights. This one will focus on some of the big name directors who had films at the festival. I’ll have another about some lesser-known filmmakers and short films when naptimes allow.

Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After was my favorite film from the Seattle Film Festival earlier this year, and it remains a favorite after seeing it again in Vancouver. It’s no less mysterious than it was on that initial viewing. Its dizzying series of inexplicablities seem more than ever to me an attempt at creating something more unsettling than the goriest horror movie: a film about the inability to comprehend the world as it is now, played out in a series of confrontations: generational, romantic, judicial, political, spiritual. The audience in Vancouver was much different than in Seattle. Bigger (the large auditorium was sold out, the pre-show lineup snaking through the mall further than I could track) and largely Chinese and Chinese-Canadian, the crowd was much more in tune with its daft chaos, laughing at all the right moments (the 40 or so people I saw it with in Seattle seemed more baffled than entertained). And seeing it at the end of a remarkable week in Hong Kong, with the instability and unknowability and fear of what will come when and if Hong Kongers get to vote for their own rulers in the coming years sparking massive protests throughout the former colony, only added to the film’s sense of urgency. One of the biggest and uneasiest laughs of the night came when the lost passengers, learning that they are now six years in the future, wonder if this strange world they’ve found themselves in is the result of the 2016 elections.

Another favorite was Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja, wherein Viggo Mortensen (who also produced) plays a Danish captain in the Argentine military out on campaign against the local population. His 14-year-old daughter runs of with one of his soldiers, into the wild, despite the presence somewhere out there of a mad former soldier, gone murderously native. Mortensen sets off alone to track her down, one part Ethan Edwards, one part Aguirre. Like Alonso’s previous film, Liverpool, the only other one of his films I’ve yet seen, Jauja is composed of long, deliberate takes, but this is slow cinema that burns with purpose, always grasping into the unknown. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a film as obsessed with what is not on the screen: every shot seemingly involves someone looking at or talking to someone or something off-camera, or heading out into space we can’t see. The unusually square aspect ratio (with rounded corners that make the film look like a slide projection) only heightens this effect, magnifying the blackness and blankness that surround our searcher. In contrast to the industrial whites of Liverpool, Jauja is gorgeously colored, the blues and reds of Mortensen’s uniform popping unnaturally against the greens and browns and grays of the desert, with an impossibly starry sky imparting a feel of fairy tale whimsy to what might have been a dour and bloody saga of futility. And then things get weird: our minimalist film becomes something extraordinary, equal parts Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Alain Resnais (specifically the coda of Wild Grass) and the Insanity Pepper episode of The Simpsons.

Speaking of talking dogs, Roxy Miéville is the star of Jean-Luc Godard’s latest, Adieu au langage (the title is translated into English for its release here, which I don’t really understand. It isn’t like the French title is opaque to English-only speakers, even for the most Francophobic of viewers, and puns on the French title are one of the primary structuring elements of the film. I’m sticking with the original.) A compendium of riffs and jokes and experiments, ruminations on the modern world (and Hitler, of course), I certainly would need to see the film several more times to feel like I have a firm grasp on it. Godard’s films, especially the later ones I’ve seen, are so densely packed with information (images, multiple images, epigrammatic narration, text on-screen) that it’s impossible to parse in a single viewing. I just kind of latch on to a few things and enjoy the ride. And what stuck here (aside from the brain-bending experiments in 3D technology) was the dog, running around the woods, playing in the snow, basically doing dog stuff. And the trees. Godard shoots with a variety of technologies, but whatever camera he’s using, I don’t think I’ve ever seen trees look as beautiful as they do in Adieu au langage, shades of orange and green I don’t recognize against the bright blue sky, the 3D giving them a kind of depth and motion that’s never before existed in the cinema and probably doesn’t in nature. These wondrous natural images, combined with Godard’s gnomic narrational musings made me realize for the first time just how much he has in common with Terrence Malick.

A slightly different approach to nature comes in Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh’s biopic of JMW Turner, 19th Century British painter of landscapes, seascapes and boats. As played by Timothy Spall, Turner is a giant ball of grunt, thick accents, and lower-class taste disguising an erudite and romantic soul. In other words, the film very capably filled the role of “tasteful British picture about class and/or costumes” in my festival schedule (joining such memorable company as Made in Dagenham, The Young Victoria, The Angels’ Share, and Good Vibrations). It’s a perfectly fine, very likable movie, but I’d rather have just watched National Gallery again.

Also perfectly fine and perfectly without surprise is the latest from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Two Days, One Night (a correctly translated title that is nonetheless also odd because the film very clearly takes place over four days, though there is only one night scene). Major Actress Marion Cotillard plays a factory worker (solar panels) who has been laid off because her boss made her co-workers vote on whether they’d rather she continue to work or they get their annual bonus. It’s an absurdly blunt premise that the Dardennes, whatever its worth, remain firmly committed to. After earning a revote, the bulk of the film follows Cotillard’s Sandra (barely recovered from a suicidal depression) visiting each of her coworkers in turn to beg them to vote for her to keep her job when, after the weekend, a second vote will take place. She’s aided in her quest by her husband, played by Fabrizio Rongione, who also played the architect in La Sapienza (This makes Rongione the only actor two star in two different films I saw at the festival, as far as I can tell). Anyway, the fact that the Dardennes manage to make such a didactic and schematic premise watchable at all is a credit to their skill, but there’s only a few places this story could go, and when it ends up at its most obvious destination, the result is not transcendence but a pleasant shrug.

What is resolutely not what I expected it to be is Welcome to New York, Abel Ferrara’s adaptation of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn story, with Gerard Depardieu the massive presence in the center (it’s unclear who would win the award for Gruntiest Performance of VIFF 2014 between him and Mr. Turner‘s Timothy Spall). He’s M. Deveraux, head of an international banking organization and potential future president of France with a prodigious appetite for sex. After an evening of debauchery, which Ferrara shows us in clinical, resolutely unsexy detail for the first 20 minutes or so of the film, Deveraux sexually assaults a hotel maid. He’s caught at the airport and, mirroring the opening, we follow in exacting detail the process of his arrest, booking and arraignment. The rest of the film is almost lyrical, as Deveraux and his wife (Jacqueline Bisset) argue over the fallout of what he’s done and what it means for their past and their future. Deveraux, a leftist economist, despite devoting his life to helping the less fortunate, is exposed as no less a Randian egotist than the worst right-wing cartoon: his utterly unshakeable belief in the inviolability of his own self-interest the only guiding principle of his existence. I had expected the film, when I first heard about it, to concern itself with the mystery of the crime itself. A did-he or didn’t-he exploration of the legal system and our attitudes toward powerful men who commit crimes against women. Ferrara, though, ditches all of that. We know he’s guilty right from the beginning, and the film becomes even more darkly political as a result. There’s no balance, no epistemology, no other side of the story: there’s the insular, protected, heedlessly destructive world of the super-rich and powerful (right and left) and everything else is the margin.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Plame d’Or-winner Winter Sleep also concerns itself with the selfishness of a powerful man, but rather on the misdemeanor side of the ledger. Taking place almost entirely at a remote hotel in the Turkish hinterland, built, like the nearby village, out of the undulating cliffs and hills of the landscape, like something out of Tolkein. The hotel is run by Aydin (a masterful performance from Haluk Bilginer), a former actor who inherited a bunch of land and likes to write essays in the local paper (he’s also nearly finished researching his book: a history of Turkish Theater. Gonna start writing it any day now.). He lives with his sister, a divorcee, and his much younger wife, and their servants. One of the servants also works as a debt collector for the lands Aydin rents out. A rental dispute sets the film in motion: a family that can’t pay its debt feels humiliated by the man on the hill, who stubbornly refuses to understand why (he doesn’t get involved, he hires people to deal with such things). This thread is duplicated in Aydin’s interaction with the women in his life, the sister who attempts to puncture his pomposity and the wife who desperately tries to carve out a little world for herself without having him criticize or condescend to her. As viscous a satire of the culture of male intellectual pretension as Listen Up Philip, albeit at much greater length thanks to Ceylan’s icy rhythms and patient exploration of the alien and timeless Anatolian landscape. Alex Ross Perry’s film feels resolutely of the 21st Century as does Abel Ferrara’s, whereas Ceylan’s could have taken place at any point in the last 3,000 years or so, give or take a millennia.

Finally, Pedro Costa’s Horse Money, possibly the richest and most-baffling film of the entire festival. A trip through the underworld, or purgatory at least, as one man, Ventura, relieves his past through the black and brown industrial landscapes of Lisbon’s Fontainhas district. A haunted, ghostly presence, Ventura slips in and out of memories and hospitals, wandering through impossible black spaces, both above and below the industrial ruins that pass as living spaces for much of the world’s forgotten classes and talking to acquaintances and friends, obliquely recounting crimes committed, mistakes made and losses witnessed. Dominated by shadow, splitting the screen, creating ancient irises, forming a primal void from which yellow apartment lights float like islands of life in a universe of emptiness, vertical lines relentlessly drawing our eye upwards, out of the archaic 1.33 frame. It’s an astonishing film, unique and yet deeply cinephilic, forging connections across a century of cinema, not just The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Here is a partial list of the movies I thought of while watching Horse Money: The Phantom Carriage, Goodbye Dragon Inn, It’s a Wonderful Life, Pedicab Driver, The Thin Man, A Matter of Life and Death, Apocalypse Now, Ikiru, The Phantom of the Opera, Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and well, just DW Griffith in general. After watching it, I was overwhelmed, but sure that this would be a one-time experience, so draining and difficult was it to watch at times. After a couple of days though, all I really wanted to do was see Horse Money again.

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