The image – plastered on the front windows of the various participating cinemas, on the cover of the ubiquitous program guides clutched by patrons as they stand in line, posted at spots around town – calls out as a provocation, as a kind of cinephilic incitement: Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, their arms locked together in an erotic and murderous embrace, in the famous final scene of The Lady From Shanghai (1947). Their image is redoubled over and over again on this poster, forming a symmetrical, circular shape with inner and outer circles made out of further abstractions of this repeated image. This mirror effect reminds us of the context in which the image exists in the original film – in a scene that takes place in a hall of mirrors, where every image is repeated and refracted, the difference between reality and its mirrored repetition impossible to determine. When we see this picture we are called upon to recognise not only the two actors, not only the name of the film referred to, but also the context of this particular scene, a scene that reminds us of all our collective cinephilic notions of the fascination, mystery and intangibility of the cinematic image.

The picture in question is the main advertising poster for the 27th Torino Film Festival, which took place in November. The Lady From Shanghai reference seems quite deliberately pitched at the audience and the particular film-going attitudes this festival wishes to cultivate – a cooler and somewhat obscurer reference than Citizen Kane or even Touch of Evil, it asks for a certain level of knowledge and sophistication in order to recognise it, but not too much. Most importantly, this picture belongs to an image-repertoire of beloved cinematic moments (perverse, almost, that a reproduced still image can act as an index for a cinematic experience – but of course this happens all the time), and so when we recognise it we recognise ourselves not simply as sophisticates but specifically as connoisseurs of the cinema, comfortable with images like this one, able to recognise them, but also to remain fascinated by them, subject to them, like all good cinephiles. But the most significant – and, for me, unforgivable – thing the Torino poster does with Welles’ image is to replace its horrifying refractions, half-repetitions and uncertainties with a perfectly composed symmetry, the image repeated so as to create two identical, “mirrored” halves. “Everything beautiful is symmetrical,” said one filmmaker at a Q&A session during the festival – and one can see the same tiresome sentiment at work in the fabrication of this poster, and at times even in certain attitudes taken at Torino towards programming, towards film history and the festival’s role in narrating it. The complex, fractured brilliance of Welles’ film is alluded to, but swiftly replaced with a world and a cinema where beauty is instantly recognisable by way of its symmetry, and where the greatest achievement of the cinema and of art itself is oneness, perfection, the absolute permanence of the closed system.

At Torino this year, that tension between the fractured, asymmetric, messy wonder of the cinema and the institutional compulsion to package and define it as a series of great, identifiable and isolatable works, came to structure the entire festival experience, for me at least. In the (as always) least interesting part of the program, the competition section, it was hard not to feel the overbearing presence of tasteful, middlebrow institutional manipulation with every film chosen. Countries were represented with films that confirmed every cliché we complacently hold about each nation and national cinema: Medalia de Onoare (Medal of Honor, Calin Netzer), a Romanian film about post-communist bureaucratic hell); Le Roi de L’évasion (The King of Escape, Alain Guiraudie), a quirky, lightly subversive French comedy; Zha lai nuo er (Jalainur, Ye Zhao), an artfully shot Chinese film concerning the dehumanising march to modernisation. Some were better than others – Jalainur being by far the best that I saw – but overall the competition section was far too unthreatening, far too controlled, far too, shall we say, symmetrical in the world-view it offered.

By far the most interesting section of the program was to be found in the retrospectives. The full retrospectives on the work of Nicholas Ray and Ôshima Nagisa were undoubtedly the major highlights for me, and indeed it is hard to imagine any film festival where they would not be. The Ôshima showcase offered the most excitement for devotees, with screenings of some of the director’s documentary work that has scarcely been screened outside Japan. In comparison, a focus on a Hollywood director like Ray – who, after all, had a similarly large retrospective dedicated to him at New York’s Film Forum only a few months prior – might not seem so impressive. But Torino’s Ray program was more conclusive than any other you’re likely to find, featuring not only relatively obscure features like Hot Blood (1956), but rarities such as the astounding 1954 TV piece, High Green Wall, starring Joseph Cotten and adapted from an Evelyn Waugh story (seeing this film, one discovers that Ray was interested in a kind of loosely defined ethnographic cinema focused on social rituals in non-Western cultures some years before he made Hot Blood or The Savage Innocents [1960]); The Janitor, part of the 1974 portmanteau film Wet Dreams; and finally Ray’s exhilarating, constantly surprising, never completed final film, We Can’t Go Home Again (1976), made in collaboration with his students at SUNY Binghamton.

The truth is, though, that the promise of rarities, rediscoveries and local premieres – rhetoric so beloved by film festival programmers – is rendered rather meaningless as soon as one is confronted by the astounding work these two directors produced at the height of their powers. One doesn’t need such cheap promises of privileged access and elite exclusivity, because the work – whether the canonical Rebel Without a Cause (1954) and Gishiki (The Ceremony, 1971) or little-acknowledged masterpieces like The Lusty Men (1952) and Nihon no yoru to kiri (Night and Fog in Japan, 1960) – is so immediately and lastingly impressive in its conviction, its diversity and its sheer filmmaking intelligence, that it is these qualities of the work itself that are the reward, time and again as one sits down to a session; whether the particular film being shown is a “rarity” or a “classic” quickly ceases to matter, because what one finds in the work of both Ray and Ôshima is consistency, a remarkable consistency of intellect and artistic sensibility, even as the individual films diverge widely in genre and narrative content. The great value of these two full retrospectives was that they allowed this consistency to be enunciated as completely as possible, across the major and the minor work (to borrow the title of a “minor” film by a “major” auteur, Billy Wilder), from the desperate, driving, romantic fatalism of They Live By Night (1948) to the belated, fleeting arrival of the possibility for recognition, negotiation and solidarity in Wind Across the Everglades (1958), from the horrific, engulfing misanthropy of The Catch (1961) (a film that anticipates the work of Michael Haneke, particularly Das weisse Band [The White Ribbon, 2009]) to the sly, deftly devastating social critique of Dear Summer Sister (1972).

No other section of the program was as electrifying as these two retrospectives, but, once you got away from the competition section, there was plenty of great new cinema to encounter. Two festival circuit auteurs of note, Pedro Costa and Raya Martin, had particular triumphs with their new films, Ne Change Rien and Independencia, respectively. Costa’s film, concerning actress/singer Jeanne Balibar’s collaboration with two different musical groups in the studio, in concert and in rehearsal, continues his interest in the processes of work and the reflexive problem or question of how to film people at work, how to represent work in its temporality. Independencia, a beautifully realised period film set in the early twentieth century, is clearly part of a broader project of Martin’s concerned with the colonial history of the Philippines and the politics of representation. The film walks a delicate balance between the sheer beauty of its recreation of early cinematic (primarily Hollywood) forms, and the clearly intended political critique of this representational form and the ideology it supports; for me, though, this tension was not a problem but one of the major appeals of the film.

The great Ken Jacobs was a guest of the festival, bringing with him one feature-length film, Anaglyph Tom (Tom with Puffy Cheeks), and a two-hour program of recent shorts. The program of shorts was particularly impressive: several films, such as Hot Dogs at the Met, featured the digital manipulation of photographs through strobe effects, movement across and cuts between parts of the photographed image, to create what were a series of endlessly fascinating mini-essays on the ontology of the image. The feature, Anaglyph Tom (Tom with Puffy Cheeks), as well as one of the shorts, What Happened on 23rd Street in 1901, used the familiar Jacobs device of taking an existing film of early cinema and subjecting it to an endless number of stresses and manipulations (Tom is, indeed, the third film Jacobs has made from the 1905 Biograph picture Tom Tom The Piper’s Son); the effect was exhausting (only about three of us were left in the cinema by the time Tom finished) but fantastically illuminating nonetheless. At the age of 76, Jacobs remains as provocative a filmmaker as ever.

François Ozon’s Le Refuge, one of two films he released in 2009, feels like a minor affair in comparison with the fantastical Ricky. But ultimately it is this “minor” feel that saves the film from the tedious excesses of some of Ozon’s work, producing a modest but affecting story of the brief passion between a pregnant woman (Isabelle Carré) and the gay brother (Louis-Ronan Choisy) of her dead husband (OK, so, “modest” is a relative term when discussing Ozon) and its attenuations. The film’s finest moments come in the brief digressions from the central narrative, which include a hilarious cameo from Marie Rivière, the great star of the late Eric Rohmer’s films, as a stranger who quickly becomes excessively, unsettlingly fascinated by the protagonist’s pregnant belly.

Indeed, one lesson to take from this year’s festival was to reconsider the value of such minor, marginal qualities, whether they be found in the hilarious, interminable conversation pieces of Corneliu Porumbiou’s Politist, adjective (Police, Adjective), the startlingly immediate documentary footage in Sylvain Georges’ L’Impossible – Pages arrachées, or the dogged pursuit of the impossible truth of the image in Jacobs’ remarkable work. To allow oneself to think something other than symmetry, beauty, perfection, and the political and intellectual complacency lurking behind such judgements of quality – despite much of the surrounding rhetoric, there were opportunities to cultivate such alternative modes of viewing and thinking about films at Torino this year, reminders that the genuine thrill and emancipatory power of the cinema exist far removed from any such rhetoric; reminders to approach the cinema not merely as connoisseurs, but like Nick Ray’s Cottenmouth in Wind Across the Everglades, with his recurrent cry, “Ah, the sweet-tasting joys of this world!”

Torino Film Festival
13-21 November, 2009
Festival website: http://www.torinofilmfest.org/