VIFF 2015 Preview Part Three: The Mirror and Weekend

Every year before heading over to the festival, I try to familiarize myself with some of the directors whose films are playing there that I haven’t yet seen. Last year I watched films by Pedro Costa, Lisandro Alonso, Imtiaz Ali and Heiward Mak, all of which I liked a lot and all of whom had films at VIFF I ended up enjoying a great deal. This year I haven’t been able to see as much as I would have liked. There was the discussion of Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective on The George Sanders Show I linked to a couple of days ago, but other than that there’s just these two movies, Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend.

Panahi is mostly famous these days for continuing to smuggle films out of Iran despite having been officially banned from doing so in 2010. His This is Not a Film won wide-spread acclaim the following year, and his Closed Curtain was a film I was hoping to see at VIFF 2013 but for scheduling reasons didn’t make it. (I have hard luck with Iranian films in general at the festival, a number of interesting ones have played there over the years, but other than the two Abbas Kiarostami films Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love, I haven’t managed to get to a single one.) His new film is called Taxi (well, it’s called been retitled Jafar Panahi’s Taxi for North American release, apparently so people don’t confuse it with the 2004 Jimmy Fallon-Queen Latifah movie). My experience with Iranian cinema in general is woefully inadequate, I only caught up with Asghar Farhadi and A Separation earlier this year, for example, so rather than simply go with Panahi’s recent work, I decided to watch one of his earliest films, the 1997 feature The Mirror, which won the Locarno Film Festival that year.

It’s an idea for a film so simple in its provocation that I’d be surprised if it’d never been done before. There’s something elemental about it, like an idea that’s always been there in cinema but never quite been expressed so well or so effectively before (John Cage’s 4’33” came to mind). A young girl, six or seven years old, has to make her way home from school after her mom fails to pick her up on time. She doesn’t quite know the way, and maneuvers in and out of buses, cabs and crosswalks with the mostly ineffectual help of strangers. Along the way we see a cross-section of the city in its particular time and place (Teheran in the mid-90s), a kind of neo-realist city-symphony. But then, after 40 minutes, the girl looks at the camera and decides she doesn’t want to be in the movie anymore and storms off. The film stock abruptly shifts and we see Panahi and his crew debating what to do next, a pseudo-documentary of a film production in a panicked moment. They let her go, while leaving her microphone on and follow her home, surreptitiously filming the girl’s journey now in reverse as she in “real” life must accomplish the same tasks her character did in fiction.

It’s a nifty gimmick and anchored beautifully by the performance of Mina Mohammad Khani as the girl. But that’s just a MacGuffin for the film’s true interest, which is the portrait of Teheran in all its cacophony and chaos. A dozen little stories spin around the girl (the young couple separated by the enforced gender divide on the public bus; the man who just wants his poor relations to dress nicely at his daughter’s wedding) but mostly in the first half, the constructed narrative section. The people in the second half are more incoherent, their plotlines less clear, their characters not so cleanly delineated with cinematic shorthand. Some characters recur, including an old woman that throws a monkey wrench into even that distinction. We heard her talking in the narrative section, complaining about the lack of respect she gets from her children. When the girl meets her again in the second, she explains that she wasn’t acting in the earlier scenes, they just paid her to show up and she made up her lines out of her own life. Fiction, reality: it’s all the same. The important thing is to invest in traffic lights and make your kids memorize their home addresses.

From an inauspicious beginning as an assistant editor on Gladiator, British director Andrew Haigh burst on the scene with his 2011 romantic drama Weekend, about a brief but intense relationship between two men in Nottingham. Played by Tom Cullen and Chris New, the two bond over long naturalistic conversations about life, family, friends, sexual histories and the difficulties of being gay in a predominantly straight world. It’s firmly in the tradition of the romantic drama, with shades of Brief Encounter, Before Sunrise, Waterloo Bridge, Morocco and Lost in Translation (among others), a talky film about two people trying to figure out their place in the world and if that place has room for anyone else. As such it’s expertly done, but Haigh brings to it something special with a unique contrast of styles. The interiors, the dialogue and party scenes, are shot intimately, with a fuzzy off-handedness that is the signal for realism in contemporary cinema. We skip forward in time catching only glimpses of much longer conversations, many of which are mumbled or lost in a cacophony background (this is entirely realistic: I loved how in the party and bar scenes I couldn’t understand any of what anyone was saying, just like I can’t in such real-life situations).

This isn’t in itself remarkable, but what separates those scenes is. All the exterior shots are carefully framed, with long straight lines forming sharp corners and diagonals. These usually (but not always) function as pillow shots, popularized by Yasujiro Ozu as the institial spaces for contemplation between scenes of plot. As in Ozu, Haigh’s are precisely framed, but where in Ozu’s films they are brightly scored with jaunty music that often belies the serious dramatics at work in his characters lives, in Weekend the shots are oppressive and constricting, a constructed world of boundaries imposing public limits on the expression of the relationship possibilities that thrive behind apartment tower windows. My favorite are the three shots with the setup pictured above. In each shot, Cullen watches New walk away from his apartment. In each shot New is wearing a different colored jacket (yellow, black, red: the three colors are unified in the outfit New wears in his final scene). Each time, New hesitates a bit as he walks away, his motion, and Cullen’s shadow, depicting the emotional course of their relationship in minute gestures. If the film depicted of just these three shots, that would be enough to make it something special. Like with The Mirror, Weekend is at its heart a fairly simple cinematic and thematic idea, but one that is likewise all the more powerful for the purity of its expression. Haigh’s new film 45 Years won wide acclaim at the just-concluded Toronto Film Festival, I can’t wait to see it at VIFF.

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