You can read my thoughts on Sion Sono's calculatedly unhinged Cold Fish as few as two Little Lies Down ago. My getting around to his other MIFF 2011 film, Guilty of Romance, will have to wait for its Madman DVD release.
I had very much looked forward to the second feature of Jerzy Skolimowski's comeback, and notwithstanding the interference run by some very inconsiderate, wouldn't-shut-the-fuck-up dingbats I had the misfortune to find myself sitting beside at the Forum, I enjoyed it very much.
Vincent Gallo, as Mohammed, a desperate Taliban fighter on the run in a palpably very alien environment – a wintry Eastern European hinterland rather than the desert rabbit warrens and plains of his flashbacks – puts his body on the line every bit as much as Skolimowski himself was wont to do, on either side of the camera, in the production of his earlier films. And hence: a First Blood for the 2010s, one where shades of grey in the morality-viewer identification nexus could scarcely be any shadier or greyer.
Highly accomplished sound design considerably elevates Essential Killing. In an incident early on in the film, Mohammed is subjected to an appreciably eardrum-pulverising attack which gives him about as awful a case of tinnitus as I'd care to imagine. The profundity of its effect upon him is very well conveyed and serves as an elegant aural metaphor for his inability to make sense of his plight, post-capture, in which he is at first taken to an Abu Ghraib-esque prison to be interrogated by thuggish American military – the piercing ringing in his head completely drowns out every word barked at him by his interlocutors, which he might very well not have been able to understand anyway – only to then be rendered to what we, but not he, can tell to be an Eastern European backwater, where, no matter how much of his hearing might return, he even more certainly wouldn't be able to understand anybody he should meet anyway. Whereupon he sets forth to make good an unlikely escape which will push his adherence to a halal diet to the very limit...
Fruit of Paradise
You can read my largely ecstatic response to the double-billing of Věra Chytilová's Fruit of Paradise and Jan Švankmajer's Surviving Life as few as three Little Lies Down ago, though were you to do so, I'd ask that you please bear in mind that I feel I need yet to qualify an ill articulated assertion or two I made back then, and about Surviving Life in particular. This is something I will do asap, in Part III of my MIFF 2011 A-Z.
The chief problem had with it seems to have been the ostensible idiocy of the conduct of the film's lead, Valerij (Anton Shagin), who fails to skip town with a pretty young thing by the narrowest of margins – a broken heel robs them of a ticket the hell outta there on evidently the only passenger train leaving Prypiat, a town an atom's split away from the smouldering reactor – and then foregoes any further wholehearted attempts to leave town, instead falling intractably back in with a bunch of knockabout good-time locals, including some erstwhile bandmates he'd previously fallen very heavily out with. (Matter of fact, he'd denounced some of them!)
Instead of fleeing, knowing that every second he and his friends remain in town further imperils, or at least, compromises, their very lives – as well as those, it is understood, of successive generations – they instead all throw themselves headlong into the bacchanalia surrounding a party for a triple wedding, as evidently do too the films' cameraman (Oleg “4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days” Mutu) and editors Dasha Danilova and Ivan Lebedev – the screen is seldom still for more than a few frames at a time!
But here's the thing: Valerij's mannered, seemingly self-destructive conduct is not in fact so very odd; there's tonnes of this sort of gallows saturnalia in cinema produced and/or set in the states of yesteryear's Soviet Bloc. In, for example, the 1960s cinema of Slovakian auteur Juraj Jakubisko, or in the more recent cinema of the more celebrated Emir Kusturica, as well as in the films of many others, there is reflected clearly (and, from my own experiences in that neck of the woods, most assuredly!) something of the fatalistic character of the peoples in those parts of the world. For these are people who, if go down they must, they'll go down swinging...
(An aside: Anton Shagin is saddled in Innocent Saturday with a haircut-moustache combo so ghastly (but appreciably historically accurate) that I completely failed to recognise him as the actor who was so terrific as Mels in Valeriy Todorovskiy's absolutely fantastic musical of a couple of years ago, Hipsters. Oh won't some kindly soul release that around these parts on DVD? Must I do everything myself?
International Shorts – Misfits
There was a clear stand-out in this fairly strong thematic compilation of shorts, and that was Swedish animator Johannes “Puppetboy” Nyholm's ingenious and utterly hilarious Las Palmas, in which several marionettes staffing a holiday resort, patronised by several other marionettes, have to contend with the havoc wrought by one most unruly tourist, played by a (live, human) baby!
Johannes Nyholm has uploaded an excerpt from the wonderful Las Palmas to Vimeo – this you have to see!
Two other strong works also came from Sweden, both giving the impression of being calling cards from directors keen to make features. Adam Berg's In makes for a very atmospheric and suspenseful several minutes mostly spent watching two men fumble about in the dark in a railway tunnel which seems to have more than the stock standard number of mysteries deep within it, while Hugo Lilja's gripping, half hour-long The Unliving riffs on the idea of zombies becoming a new proletariat, and is only just beginning to get to the meatiest of issues surrounding the difficult logistics and ethics of this scenario when it ends, too soon by half.
Still, The Unliving is so assured a production that I wouldn't be at all surprised if it reappears in its entirety within a feature-length extrapolation upon itself, so confidently are its themes, narrative directions and aesthetics handled.
The last of this package worth mentioning is Jonathan Caouette's All Flowers in Time, a happy little mindfuck of a short in which Chloë Sevigny clearly enjoys herself no end and a certain amount of wry social commentary gets utterly swamped by a relentless ADHD cavalcade of video art silly buggerising about. Still, boring it isn't.
International Shorts – O Canada!
I probably should have read more from the get-go into the “Scenes” of the title – it hints at an excerptedness, an incompleteness, to match what the film ultimately feels like it delivers. It's most unsatisfying; Scenes from the Suburbs feels like it's just scraped the surface of a story that needs another hour for its telling.
The premise is well set – it concerns a few teens' coming of age in the thick of inter-suburban warfare, with the action unfolding at a measured pace and with songs from Arcade Fire's “The Suburbs” album intermittently underscoring the narrative. Time and care has been taken to ensure that the milieu and antagonisms are well established; the characters well fleshed out, the songs well used...
But unfortunately, half an hour in, Scenes from the Suburbs just ends, utterly anticlimactically, apropos of nothing in particular, just as its narrative was starting to take matters into interesting directions. It's most frustrating, and suggestive that the entire enterprise was really not as well conceived as it might have been.
Of the other shorts in “O Canada!”, Nadia Litz's How to Rid Your Lover of a Negative Emotion Caused by You! is a well performed, blackly funny two-hander, pleasingly following through to a satisfying conclusion a gross-out literalisation of new age notions concerning the benefits of the expulsion of negative emotions from one's, and, in a couple, one another's, bodies. And two short shorts involving trips to medical professionals, Anne Émond's single-shot Sophie Lavoie and Martin Thibaudeau's Cold Blood, both successfully subvert expectations to generate genuine pathos.
I've already written as much as I care to on Into Eternity as few as two Little Lies Down ago.
Jeonju Digital Project 2011
Jean-Marie Straub's An Heir is unmistakeably a Straub film, for better and for worse. It certainly won't win anyone over who's seen anything previously from the Straubs and found it too austere and mealy-mouthed for their liking. Still: there's a tracking shot through beautiful Alsatian countryside to enliven An Heir's ponderous literary proceedings, which are in all likelihood allusively apropos of matters I'm ill-equipped to grasp or comment upon at the time of writing.
In To the Devil, Claire Denis has pre-emptively produced a documentary DVD extra for an as yet unfilmed feature of hers set around the alluvial borders of French Guyana and Surinam and focusing on the exploits of a gold miner of singular renown in the area, one whom you might say is something of “a character”. At least, he certainly will be once Denis and actor Jean-Christophe Folly, accompanying her on this shoot, are through with him. Interesting, but only to a point, and that point's one a few minutes shy of To the Devil's 45 minute runtime.
José Luis Guerín's Memories of a Morning is far and away the most engaging of the three films in the Jeonju Digital Project 2011, a veritable Rashomon ad absurdum, if you will, in which the factual death by suicidal plummet of a testifiably mediocre violinist in Barcelona is borne posthumous documentary witness through the recollections of a great number of neighbouring apartment-dwellers and shopkeepers.
While Memories is concerned with a tragic incident, and umpteen different takes upon it, it's very charming and funny and paints a delightful picture of modern-day suburban Barcelonan life. It comes highly recommended, though I'm not sure how easy it'll be to track down, not least for a fair while, anyhow.
Lars von Trier's latest film is a strident rejoinder to anybody who might ever think it wise to tell you when you're depressed that you should simply get over it – that, whatever it is, “it's not the end of the world”. Because, in fact, it fucking well is.
Just as with his notorious Antichrist (2009), von Trier opens proceedings with a sequence of supremely beautifully composed, ultra-slo-mo images, though here in exquisite full colour rather than in Antichrist's equally beauteous black-and-white. And while the film asserts that it's in two parts – "Part One" principally concerning a wedding which goes comically, then simply, very sadly, wrong, and "Part Two" the imminent apocalypse, beginning just a few days after the wedding – it really must be considered a film of parts in number three. For the introductory sequence features imagery synthesising elements of both the other two parts, with that imagery indigenous, as it will turn out, to neither of them, such that one can't help but suspect that the introduction must be a prognostication on the part of the film's melancholic protagonist, the bride Justine (oh, The Misfortunes of Virtue indeed!), of the apocalyptic events to come – in fact, she even explicitly big-notes her powers of clairvoyance at one point in the narrative proper – and hence: her debilitating, wedding-sabotaging despair, on what should have been the happiest day of her life. Because, when you know Melancholia to be bearing down upon you – for that is the name of the planet destined to collide with, and destroy, the Earth – what can you do other than play into its hands and fall irretrievably into despond?
Kirsten Dunst is, as everybody has said, very good indeed as Justine; a fine supporting cast has everyone from Charlotte Gainsbourg, Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt through to Kiefer Sutherland and Udo Kier (as a dismayed wedding planner) really enjoying themselves as well.
A Melancholia and Innocent Saturday double-bill would make for an interesting inter-film conversation. But while I can only mildly enthuse over Innocent Saturday; I won't equivocate one little bit on my feelings for Melancholia – I think it's grand. One of the best at this year's fest, fer sure.
I wish I'd also seen Hong's The Day He Arrives at this year's MIFF, but, for now, all I have to say about the cinema of Hong Sang-soo can be found in a blog post, featuring a couple of paragraphs on Oki's Movie, had two Little Lies Down ago.